Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Ansonaco from Giglio

Wine tasting to me is like meeting new friends and I am thrilled when I get to meet someone I've never met before (= grape variety I've never tasted) from somewhere I've never heard of. Such was the case with Ansonaco from Giglio.

Ansonaco is a white grape variety grown in Tuscany's coastline, and it is also known as Inzolia in Sicily (which I have tasted in the past). What surprised me was how they can be so different in their personality. Ansonaco I tasted came from Giglio, a secluded island off of Tuscan coast. Once an important naval and trading base for Romans, the island of Giglio flourished with wine growing and mineral mining in the 19th century. As it became known for a vacation getaway for Romans and Florentines, Ansonaco grape became on the verge of extinction.

The vines here are planted on steep terraces, which makes vineyard work extremely difficult and many peasants just gave up of tending vines. Then former Math teacher turned into winegrower, restaurateur, and cook, Francesco Carfagna along with a handful of like-minded came to rescue the tradition of Ansonaco in Giglio. And the result was in my glass.

The wine was little hazy and golden-straw in color. Unique combination of fruit (apricot, canned yellow peach, baked pear, cantaloupe melon, tangerine peel) was seamlessly integrated with mineral rich sea breeze and crushed oyster shells, along with hints of fragrant herbs such as thyme, marjoram, and rosemary. On the palate, it expressed quite texture, which reminded me of chewing apple with interesting sweet nutty notes of hazelnut with moderate acidity and alcohol. Its concentration of fruit and mineral quality made me think of wines of Carso from Friuli as well as the brininess of this wine reminisced fine Fino/Manzanilla Sherry.

My new Italian friend, Ansonaco from Giglio is bit wild but with full of charm and personality. And thank you Francesco and others for your determination and hard-work, without you, I probably never get to meet Ansonaco.

P.S. I would also like to thank Jeannie from Adonna Imports for letting me taste this delightful wine.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Wine Xperience 2011: Confession of a Wine Student

The more I learn the more I realize there is to learn and that is how I see wine study. Once I learn 10 things, 100 more things appear in front of me and once I learn these 100 things, there will be 1,000 more things to learn and this continues infinitely. The study of wine is more than just learning viticulture (growing grapes) and vinification (wine making) but also history, geography, climate, biology, chemistry, culture, legal structure/system, economy, agriculture, sales/marketing/promotion ... the list just goes on. Being an extreme case of Gemini, I am always looking for something new and exciting, and it is the nature of wine study that motivates me to get up in the morning, hoping to discover something I did not know yesterday.

On the other hand, I sometimes feel like I am swimming in the ocean filled with wine books and study materials, not knowing where I am heading, but continue to swim so that I do not drown. Then there is weakness, which makes this swimming process more difficult. Yes, we are all human beings - we all have strength and weakness. In my case, it is the wine of Germany since the day one. Germany is the last section I tackle in any wine books, and even worse I sometimes skip the entire category. I really do not know why this is, since I love the taste of German wines but when it comes to learning, I get nervous and scared. Maybe because I've never been there, I cannot connect myself or maybe because I do not know the language and have hard time remembering the names and the regions, or maybe because of its classification system, which I do not quite comprehend.

However, Germany is one of the most important wine countries in the world and I know I cannot continue to avoid if I want to go any further with my study. Then, one day I saw this Wine Xperience opportunity on the Internet. At first, I tried not to pay attention to it but I did.  I decided to send my resume and application because "the best way to conquer fear is to confront it". To my surprise, I got a position.

Since then, I started to notice something different: the first section I hit in the wine books became Germany, the section I used to avoid until the very end. Now I want to learn as much as possible about the country and its wines so that I can benefit from this opportunity. As Wine Xperience web site says, "no book, no tasting, no seminar can replace first-hand experience in a wine-growing region", I am a true believer of hands on experience. It is possible to learn all the facts from the books and seminars but in order to learn how hard people work with nature to create a glass of wine and to really appreciate it, I think only the way is to be there and learn by soaked in rain, covered in mud, sweat, freeze, fall down, get cut, suffer from aches and pains, and also share meals and wine with the people to cerebrate each day's hard work.

I know I still need to manage a ton of information but I feel liberated by facing my long-time fear and I am extremely excited about getting my hands dirty in the 2011 vintage!

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Wine Xperience 2011: Wine & Perfume

Despite wearing fragrance is a big NO NO we learn in Wine Lesson No.1, I accidentally landed on a fragrance job while I was looking for my first wine job and I must say it has been one of the best things ever happened to me. I have been working in the world of wine and fragrance for about 8 years and I see many similarities and make new discoveries everyday.

"This is like wine tasting!" I often hear my clients say when I show them new fragrance and describe scents. Although,

- Fragrance is something you wear to enjoy the scent
- Wine is something you consume to enjoy the taste

The word "taste" as in "wine tasting" can be misleading since our taste buds can only detect primary 4 elements of sweet, sour, salty, and bitter and more than 80% of what we believe "taste" is actually perceived through our nose, or sense of smell. This explains why smelling perfume is similar to wine tasting.  

If you ask me, "what is the most popular fragrance you've seen in the past 8 years?" Without hesitation, my answer will be: Giorgio Armani Aqua di Gio for men's and Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue for women's. Here is the list of notes found in each fragrance:

Aqua di Gio:

Marine Notes
Bergamot (citrus fruit grown in Italy's Calabria)
Neroli (bitter orange blossom)

Light Blue:

Sicilian Citron
Granny Smith Apple
Jasmin Sambac
White Rose

Then the other day, I was looking at the notes found in Riesling and they are:

Citrus (lemon/ lime/ grapefruit)
Apple (red/ green)
Orange Peel
Orange Blossom

Is it just me who is finding similarities in these top selling fragrance and Riesling? 

Next time when you have a glass of Riesling (or any wine), please don't just drink it. Stick your nose in the glass, take a moment to enjoy all the wonderful scents you can find, and let your imagination work. Wine is not just a glass of alcohol; it will tell you a story and that is one of the reasons why I find wine fascinating.

By the way, what makes wine and perfume different? Here is an excerpt from one of my favorite essays "A Nose for Quality" written by Chandler Burr.

"Perfumes are made by humans. They are works of art, and art is communication between humans. These wines are made, ultimately, by nature, and you can't critique nature."

Friday, April 8, 2011

Wine Xperience 2011: Getting Ready for the Harvest

Wine Xperience (I know but this is the correct spelling with "X") is an international internship program launched by the German Wine Institute along with a group of young German wine producers known as Generation Riesling. Its object is to provide young professionals in the trade from around the world the first-hand work experience in wine-growing regions of Germany.

This September, I am off to Staffelter Hof  located in Krov, which lies on the Moselle between the town of Traben-Trarbach and Kinheim and there are 3 things I am doing now to get myself ready for the harvest.

1. Learning about Riesling and wines/regions of Germany
Since the more I learn the more I appreciate a glass of wine, I am gathering all the resources I have including Oxford Companion, World Atlas, Wine Bible, Sotheby's, etc. to learn as much as I can about Riesling and German wine in general. This will also help me with the WSET Diploma study.

2. Learning German
I have never been to Germany or studied German in my life and only the words I know are: Guten Tag and Danke. I know people speak English there but I think it is always important to show respect when visiting a foreign country. I got "Berlitz German in 30 Days" the day I got e-mail from Jan offering me the internship. I downloaded the CD in my I-Pod and listening whenever I have a chance. But I know it will take me a lot more than 30 days... more like "German in 30 Months" in my case. Hopefully learning German language will help me conquer my fear of reading and understanding German wine labels.

3. Exercising on treadmill with incline
After the harvest in Champagne last year, I learned it is a physical labor, which takes a lot of muscles. Especially now I am looking at the pictures of the Mosel vineyards with steep slopes. I better start now or I will slide all the way down to the Mosel River!!

To be continued...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Man Full of Surprises: David O'Reilly of Owen Roe

One cold fall evening sometime last year, I got a bottle of left over sample from one of wine sales people. Since I was too tired to taste that evening, I put the bottle in a fridge when I got home from work and decided to taste it on the next day. Before the alarm clock hit 5 AM, I woke up and headed to the kitchen, grabbed the bottle, and tasted the wine while I was still trying to open my eyes. I took a sip of this unknown wine and I felt like someone hit me in the head. "What is this?" I looked at the label. A simple front label had a drawing of a castle and a word "Pinot Gris". I looked at the back label and it said,

"Each Owen Roe wine is crafted from exceptional vineyard sites throughout the Pacific Northwest. The vineyards are carefully tended to prove high quality concentrated fruit through low yields and sensible stewardship. Minimal handling in the winery guarantees that vineyard expression shines though every wine."

I was smacked two more times; this amazing wine was Pinot Gris, a variety I had never taken it seriously until this point and it was made in the United States. Since I did not know much about Owen Roe, the producer of this wine, I continued my research on the Internet. Another surprise; the man behind this amazing bottle is an Irish man. "How did an Irish man learn to make such an amazing wine?"

Since then, I have been trying to solve the mysterious connection of "wine" and "Irish man". Then on the St.Patrick's Day this year, I had an opportunity to meet David O'Reilly of Owen Roe. 

Soft spoken and passionate David was born as No. 7 of 12 children in Belfast, Ireland. The family moved to Canada and then to America's Pacific Northwest, when David was 13 years old. After studying in Santa Barbara, California, he realized what he wanted in his life was to make something. The two options came up were: cheese making and winemaking. He chose the later. Instead of heading straight to the famous oenology program at UC Davis, he worked at several wineries to make sure winemaking was what he really wanted. Knocking on the doors of wineries asking for jobs, he's got hands on experience in every aspect of winemaking, including kind of jobs not everyone wanted. "I got my hands dirty. I mean literally." he commented with a smile. If he had gone to UC Davis, I wonder he would be making the types of wine he makes today.

Seven wines I tasted with him were:
2008 O'Reilly's Pinot Gris
2009 Sharecropper's Pinot Noir
2009 Sinister Hand
2008 Ex Umbris Syrah
2008 Sharecropper's Cabernet Sauvignon
2008 Owen Roe Yakima Valley Red
2008 Owen Roe Red Willow Vineyard Block 73

Each wine presented great concentration, pure expression of grape variety/varieties, its terroir, and individual personality. David added, "Each label, each wine has its own story behind it."

This genuine, talented, and passionate Irish man's titles include: founder, wine-maker, and co-owner of the Owen Roe winery, and father of eight children. He also grows cherries and export to Japan, where these first-rate cherries are meticulously put into a small box and sells for around $100.

Meeting and tasting with David, I was finally able to connect the dots of "wine" and "Irish man". I must say David O'Reilly of Owen Roe is a man full of surprises.

P.S. Owen Roe was named for Owen Roe O'Neill, a great Irish Patriot, seen on the left.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Precious Hidden Gem: Rose des Riceys Part-2

"Enthusiasts of the absolutely rare, welcome to Les Riceys!... A legendary wine, rare and precious, calm and with pedigree, whose wildflower, violet and hazelnut bouquet charmed the taste buds of the Sun King. Recognized as one of the best roses in France, it confirms to a draconian producer's charter, limiting the wine making to only the best harvests, and to 70,000 bottles per millesime. A pure concentration of exception!"
- Aube Tourist Route Guide

After working for the harvest in a village of Noe-les-Mallets in the southern part of Champagne, Cote des Bar, I said "au revoir" to my friends and headed to Reims, the capital of Champagne business. My plan was to stay there for 5 days and then 5 days in Epernay, another place not to be missed when visiting the region.

On the very first day in Reims, the very first place I went was not the famous Cathedral of Reims but a local wine shop, of course to pursuit my mission of finding a bottle of Rose des Riceys. Along with bottles after bottles of Champagne I had never seen, I finally found a bottle. "Vous avez mon Rose des Riceys!" I screamed and a French man behind the counter gave me a strange look. I tried to keep my composure and explained to him I had been looking for it for a very long time, about three years to be exact since the day first read about it in my book.

I flipped the bottle to check the price: 32 euro! A bottle of rose for 32 euro! Only the rose wines that can fetch price like that I know are the famous Provencal roses from Domaines Ott and Chateau Esclans as well as those from Bandol producers of Pibarnon and Tempier. Spending 32 euro for a bottle of rose I have no clue seemed to me a bit of gamble. I put the bottle back on the shelf and told the French man that I will be back to get it before I leave the town. "With 32 euro, I can buy two bottles of Champagne I've never tasted but should I get Rose des Riceys instead..." That was what went on my mind while wondering the town of Reims.

On the last day in Reims, I had a "rendez-vous" to visit Champagne Bruno Paillard. Although Champagne Bruno Paillard is not always easy to find here in the US, it is extremely well respected despite the house's relatively new history as a Negociant-Manipulant, which was established in 1981. One of the biggest fans of their Champagne is internationally famous French chef Joel Robuchon. Monsieur Paillard's young and lovely daughter, Alice took me around the property. As she was showing me the map of Champagne region, she asked me, "Have you tasted Rose des Riceys?" I said, "No, not yet. I was going to buy a bottle but it is 32 euro for a rose! I can buy two bottles of Champagne for that price." She looked at me and said, "I know it is not cheap and not many people know about it but it is a specialty of Champagne and you should take an advantage of this opportunity and taste it." Alice really convinced me and after she gave me a ride back to the center of Reims by her stylish silver Peugeot, I headed straight to the wine shop and purchased the bottle.

The bottle I bought was 2006 vintage from Champagne Veuve A. Devaux. Initially established in Epernay, Maison Veuve A. Devaux was purchased by Laurent Gillet, President of Union Auboise in 1987. Founded by a merger of 11 cooperatives, Union Auboise is currently run by 800 members of vine growers in the Cote des Bar, producing a wide range of Champagne.

Only 1,760 bottles of Rose des Riceys were produced by Veuve A. Devaux in the vintage of 2006 and each bottle was numbered by hand. The bottle I got was No. 243. With 11.5% alcohol, it showed salmon pink color with a tint of orange-copper. I was very nervous to put my nose in the glass, hoping it wouldn't disappoint me after all the effort I put into to find it. It had a very distinct nose of cherry, wild strawberry, raspberry, and apricot/yellow peach skin, along with notes of hibiscus and violet. On the palate, it exhibited fruit of cherry and cranberry with not high but balanced acidity and tiny bit of tannins to give it a structure.

There was nothing flashy about the wine but there was something very intriguing. I put my nose in the glass several times to see what exactly they were, though that was not quite easy to pin point. It was a mix of many things. Besides the unusual fruit aromas of wild strawberry and apricot/yellow peach skins, hints of hazelnut, and floral notes, there was something else ... like a smell of breeze I inhaled overlooking beautiful sunny hills of vineyards in the Champagne region.

The past three years I spent looking for a bottle of Rose des Riceys was like following a family tree and when I finally get to taste it made me feel as if I discovered a distant family member I've never met. It is wonderful to taste great Champagne with bubbles when visiting the region but don't forget to grab a bottle of Rose des Riceys. Like Alice from the Champagne Bruno Paillard said, you should take an advantage to taste this precious hidden gem, the other specialty from one of the most special places on the planet.

For more information about Les Riceys and Rose des Riceys:

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Sweetening the Meal

‘Tis the season for glutting ourselves on sweets and baked goods of every persuasion. 'Tis also the season for parties, get-togethers, open houses, family meals, and all the stress, awkwardness, and inappropriate alcohol-induced honesty that go along with these social engagements. The winter season forces us to confront our past in a way that is unique to this time of year; so mired in tradition is every aspect of these holidays that we must continually make conscious decisions to either repeat or break with what we have done previously. In this day and age, this leaves us with a variety of different approaches: those trying to carry on or resuscitate old traditions, those trying to forsake everything they’ve done before and forge brand new traditions, and those doing a little of both- finally eschewing the hassle of a real tree only to adorn the plastic stand-in with hideous string-and-glue ornaments made by their now-30-year-old children, for instance. Amidst the distractions of the larger decisions (angel or star? Turkey or roast beef?) and onus of ensuring that each successive year lives up to the last, the smaller, less Yule-centric traditions tend to go unnoticed, but it was just one of these conventions that came to my attention amidst a whirlwind of my own social engagements, and after enjoying two particularly tasty desserts.

When invited to someone’s home for a meal, I was taught, it is only proper for the invitee to offer- nay, insist- on bringing something. If denied, it is then the gracious guest’s duty to ignore the assurance of their host that they don’t need anything, and bring something anyway. Knowing this, or perhaps out of sincere need for help, the host will often concede, allowing friends and family to proffer salads, loaves of bread, or other things complementary yet superfluous to the meal. If this concession is not made by the host, he or she will be punished with a box of chocolates she must then serve, a pine-scented candle she must then light, or a garish houseplant she must then prominently display and keep alive. Often times, the guest either offers or is asked to bring a dessert. At larger gatherings (family thanksgiving, open houses) there might be multiple desserts. This not only takes the pressure off the guest to provide sweets for all, but lets the host rest assured that even if that guest screws up and forgets their task, or brings something inedible (fruitcake, anyone?), it won’t throw a pall over the whole event. In addition to the ‘multiple dessert’ safety net, there is the assumption that even without a dessert, or with a grossly sub-par offering, the meal will not be ruined. A delicious repast with every component a red-blooded American has come to expect (meat, starch, veggie) is still the most vital part of a successful dinner party, while the dessert remains both extraneous to the meal, and separate enough from the main course that if it is a disaster, the host can audibly thank the guest for their contribution, thus rendering themselves unaccountable.

The same principle can be seen in restaurants nationwide, where many a menu offers a clich├ęd selection of sweets, assuming that even a complete throwaway of a dessert can’t sully a stellar meal. But why has this traditional after-dinner course become such a nonessential? Is it simply because Americans sate themselves on food and beverage to such an extent that they are too full and drunk to care what they eat next? Have American palates become so dulled by packaged food, artificial sweeteners, and preservatives that our brain simply needs to register the sensation of sweetness to feel like we’ve had a satisfactory dessert? Whatever the case may be, the state of sugar in our culinary culture represents a significant downgrade from its former glory.

Once a province solely of the wealthy, sweets represented the ultimate in luxury edibles, and were usually reserved for extravagant feasts, banquets, weddings and the like. At nearly fifty bucks a pound in the 1300s, and hard to come by even of you had the cash, it’s easy to see why sugary foods became a status symbol of sorts- but why this sweet course at the end of a big meal? Perhaps by waiting until the guests were replete before trotting out the sweet stuff, hosts ensured that there was enough of the precious commodity to go around? The first desserts were probably just fruit or nuts rolled in honey, but after a few goose legs and a rack of venison, it’d even be hard to tuck into very many of those…ah well. Whatever the logic behind it, after sugar manufacturing began in the middle ages, the variety and creativity of desserts expanded to include the pantheon of treats we enjoy today: cakes, cookies, tarts, pies, etc. Since cooking with sugar was a relatively new concept at the time, it stands to reason that most desserts began simply as a sweet version of a pre-existing recipe. Pies and tarts were traditionally filled with meat and vegetables, pastries with spices and nuts, and puddings and custards were likewise savory, being made with soaked bread and leftover meats. Whether its called dessert, pudding, sweet, or ‘afters’, it’s come to be something we expect at the end of dinner, and while still not as vital as the main course, I would argue that it can indeed elevate or demote the meal as a whole- after all, it’s the last taste we’re left with, and the effects- positive or otherwise- can be lingering.

It was with this in mind that I offered to bring a dessert to a recent holiday dinner I was attending. I wanted something that was festive in both flavor and appearance, easy enough so that I wouldn’t have to spend the whole day in the kitchen while still appearing to have put in due effort, and hopefully delicious, but pretty enough to make up for any lack therein. I chose a fruit tart, more specifically, a spiced pear and cranberry tart. After making a simple dough in the food processor, I rolled it out, laid it into my tart pan, and baked it off. The pears and cranberries were poached in a mixture of red wine, sugar, spices, lemon zest, and a splash of apple cider, which was then reduced down to a syrup after the fruit was removed. This simmering concoction filled the house with those familiar, evocative aromas; cinnamon and clove mixed with citrus and apple. In addition, it splattered my stove with a fine mist of sticky, bright red liquid, but I tried not to focus on that.

When my tart shell was cool, I brushed it with some of the syrup, then sprinkled on a layer of pistachio sugar that I had made by using the food processor to pulverize- you guessed it- sugar and pistachios. On top of this, I arranged the pears and some of the cranberries, and brushed it all with plenty of syrup until it took on a lacquered sheen. The rest of the cranberries I coated in syrup and superfine sugar, then let them dry so they had a sparkly, crystallized effect. I decorated the tart with these and some chopped pistachios, and stood back to admire my work. It was quite lovely, but it needed one more component. I had a tub of mascarpone in the fridge, so into this I mixed sugar, brandy, and the seeds from a fresh vanilla bean. Done. I toted my creation proudly- and carefully- to my grateful host, and while the meal would have been delightful if it had ended with the spiral cut ham and wild rice, I couldn’t help but hope that my contribution made it that much more satisfying for all.

A few weeks later, I had the chance to be on the other end of this equation. My family had decided to invite an outsider to our Christmas meal, which we had chosen to keep very small and informal this year. A friend of my sister’s was orphaned for the holidays, not able to return home, and thus an obligatory dinner invitee for our little clan. This being the first Christmas we were spending not only outside of New England, but without our extended family, the four of us were in unchartered territory to begin with, so why not go all out? I should probably also mention that December 25th just happens to be the anniversary of my birth, and as such, the holiday meal has always included a birthday cake. When my sister informed me that her guest would be providing dessert, my first response was ‘does she know it has to have candles in it?’ Perhaps not the most gracious reaction, buy hey, I have to share my special day with Jesus, excuse me for being a little territorial. When said guest arrived at the door, I don’t know quite what she had been expecting, but it was clear that she had thought her contribution would be a player in the aforementioned ‘multiple dessert’ scenario. The fear was evident. When I learned that she had brought ‘egg nog pie’, the fear was shared. After a simple meal of grilled steaks, asparagus, roasted root vegetables, and local sourdough bread, there had been enough food and wine that if dessert had been a disaster, I probably would have seen it as a blessing. But after plucking the candles out of the creamy, nutmeg covered concoction, I had the distinct pleasure of being proven quite wrong; the pie was delicious. Apparently the specialty of the grandmother in our guest’s family, the pie had a simple, flaky crust filled with silky, rich custard. The flavor was unmistakably reminiscent of that infamous yuletide cocktail without being cloying, and the texture was firm but delicate- not having become victim to over gelatinization, one of my dessert pet peeves. I was not the only one who went back for seconds.

Now that the holidays are over, I’ve had a respite from social engagements. When the next one does arise, I will most likely play my role as dutiful guest, and offer to bring a dessert. Not because I want to obviate any possible blame for wreaking havoc on the 'important' part of the meal, but because I feel like I owe it to the institution of sugar. I, too, have been guilty of considering dessert the dispensable component of the meal, but I won't make that mistake again. After all, something's gotta hold up those birthday candles....