Monday, May 29, 2006

Nice, the Flower Market, and a Bandol rosé

I just got back from a short visit to my family near Nice. When I am at my parents' house, one of my favorite activities is a stroll in the old town of Nice and through the famous Flower Market on the Cours Saleya. This popular place, which is lined with cafés, seafood restaurants and souvenir shops, is filled every morning with flowers, fruits, and vegetable stalls.

So last Wednesday, we drove to Nice and parked near the old town. After a leisurely walk through the stalls, we had lunch at one of the many seafood restaurants facing the market. For me, it was an opportunity to enjoy some of the classic Mediterranean specialties that are sometimes hard to find in California.

Mediterranean Fish Soup with rouille

Grilled Sardines

With our food, we ordered a bottle of Bandol Rosé that coincidently happened to be another Bandol from La Bastide Blanche. The wine had a lovely salmon color with light and fresh aromas on the nose. On the palate, it was dry, crisp and balanced with a touch of honey and stone fruit flavors.

In the south of France, people rarely drink white wine with seafood. They prefer rosé, which, when you think about it, is not a bad idea at all.

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Friday, May 19, 2006

WBW #21 & IMBB #26: Summer Daube and Bandol

You may think that Daube Provençale, a hearty beef stew cooked in red wine, is not the right food to eat when it is warm and summery outside. But in fact, a lighter version of the dish exists that is delicious even in summer. It uses white wine instead of red wine and is equally good served hot, warm or cold. So, it happens that the other day, I felt like making a summer daube.

Any full-bodied red wine, although not overly tannic, would work well with the dish. So that day, while making the daube, I felt like having a Bandol.

Was the first bottle of Bandol sold in this country imported by Berkeley's Wine Merchant Kermit Lynch? Hard to know but Kermit Lynch was certainly influential in introducing this unique Provençal wine to Americans. Who has not been inspired by the vivid accounts of his friendship with the Peyraud family of Domaine Tempier and by the mouthwatering descriptions of Lucien Peyraud's wines and Lulu Peyraud's recipes?

The Bandol appellation lies between Marseilles and Toulon on the hillside of a natural amphitheater facing the Mediterranean sea. Its unique terroir is characterized by arid and well-drained limestone soils, the dryness of the soil being fortunately balanced by the humidity of the air coming from the sea and by some occasional rainfalls. It is the only region where the use of Mourvèdre is required in red wines: by law, the red wine of Bandol must contain at least 50% Mourvèdre, although many quality-oriented producers use more than this.

Maison des Vins de Bandol

The origin of Mourvèdre must be Spanish and the varietal is better known as Monastrell in Spain. It is believed that the grape moved to France some 400 years ago and was then planted in Languedoc, Roussillon and Provence. It is a late ripening and demanding grape but it thrives in sandy, rocky soils and in sunny and hot sites tempered by sea breezes. Mourvèdre is recognized for adding backbone and aromatic complexity to blended wines.

To accompany the daube, I chose a 2001 Bandol Domaine de la Bastide Blanche, a blend of Mourvèdre, Grenache and Cincault. The wine had a dark purple color and a gamey, spicy nose with notes of black fruits. On the palate, it was full-bodied and opulent with a mouthfilling texture and a long finish. What a wonderful wine, elegant and wild at the same time! And without boasting too much, the daube was delicious too!

Summer daube, serves 4

2 pounds cubed stew beef or short ribs
1 large onion, chopped
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 carrots, sliced
2 stalks celery, sliced
6 potatoes, quartered
1 cup dry white wine
1 strip of orange peel
1/2 cup black olives
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup vegetable broth
1 tablespoon flour
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon herbs of Provence
salt, pepper
fresh flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Preheat oven to 300.
In a heavy dutch oven, heat olive oil over medium heat.
Add beef and saute. Season beef with salt, pepper, and herbs.
Dust beef with flour. When nicely brown on all sides, transfer meat to plate.
Add onion and garlic. Cook until softened.
Deglaze with wine, scraping pan to loosen browned bits.
Add tomato paste, bay leaf, carrots, celery, orange peel, and beef.
Add broth to cover the meat.
Cover and bake at 300° for 3 hours.
An hour before the end, add the potatoes and black olives.
Serve topped with chopped parsley and with a good red wine.

This was Wine Blogging Wednesday #21 and Is My Blog Burning #26, co-hosted this month by Lenn over at Lenndevours and Alberto at Il Forno. The theme was Fabulous Favorites Festival, a wine and food pairing exercise where cooks become sommeliers and wine lovers become cooks: cook your favorite dish and pick a wine that goes with it or pick your favorite wine and cook a dish that goes with it. Maybe more work than usual but a lot more fun!

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Monday, May 15, 2006

Chardonnay Blind Tasting

I have to confess that I am usually an ABC (Anything But Chardonnay) kind of person. I like crisp and refreshing whites with distinctive fruity and floral aromas and I am often disappointed with Chardonnay. Nevertheless, Nothing But Chardonnay, or NBC, was the theme of our last blind tasting, which ended up being very instructive. Four out of the six wines that we tasted that evening originated from Sonoma County. The remaining two were from Italy and New Zealand. All came from cool climate wine regions and had a similar light straw color. None showed excessive oakiness.

This was the first time that we were blind-tasting white wines and we discovered that our tasting ritual was not well adapted to whites. We usually pour a little bit of each wine in different glasses in order to compare the wines side by side. But while red wines generally evolve nicely in the glass and reveal their personality with time, white wines become quickly too warm, dull and flat, and are thus harder to judge. So next time, we'll go back to tasting red wines!

Our first wine was the 2003 Belvedere Healdsburg Ranches Chardonnay Sonoma County, a gold medal winner at the San Francisco Chronicle Wine Competition — Chardonnay $14.00 to $19.99. A blend of fruits from the cool Russian River Valley and from the warmer Alexander Valley, the wine had a nose of ripe pear with a hint of oak. On the palate, it was round with aromas of cooked apple. Overall, the group liked this well balanced wine and ranked it #3.

Our second wine was the 2002 Waugh Cellars Chardonnay Indindoli Vineyard Russian River Valley. Waugh Cellars is a small Napa winery that has one main purpose: to bring a taste of passion to our life. 2002 was the winery's first vintage of Indindoli Vineyard Chardonnay. The wine was barrel-fermented but no new oak was used. The wine had a sweet nose with notes of butterscotch. On the palate, it was smooth with strong apple cider flavors that some of us found overpowering. The wine was ranked #5.

Our third Chardonnay was the 2002 Jordan Chardonnay Russian River Valley. Established in Alexander Valley since the early 1970's, Jordan Vineyard & Winery is a renowned winery producing a popular Cabernet Sauvignon from Alexander Valley and a Chardonnay from Russian River Valley. The Chardonnay is cool fermented in stainless steel tanks and then aged in French oak barrels (35% new). Malolactic fermentation is only partial to retain the natural crisp acidity of the fruit. The wine had a fresh nose of citrus and peach. On the palate, it was light, crisp, and not oaky at all, although some guests found it too acidic. It was ranked #4.

With our fourth Chardonnay, the 2003 Vie di Romans Chardonnay Ciampagnis Vieris, we left California and moved to Italy. The Vie di Romans winery produces wines from Friuli Isonzo, an appellation located in the northeast corner of Italy, not far from the Slovenia border. The Ciampagnis Vieris Chardonnay is an unoaked wine that undergoes a complete malolactic fermentation. It had a floral nose with notes of white peach and citrus. On the palate, it was smooth with sweet pineapple flavors and a long, aromatic finish. For most of us, this was our favorite wine and the group ranked it #1.

Our next wine was the 2001 Kistler Chardonnay Vine Hill Vineyard. Kistler Vineyards is a family-owned winery renowned for its Chardonnay and Pinot Noir from the Russian River Valley. Vine Hill Vineyard is a twenty acre cool site in the Russian River Valley, producing Chardonnays with tremendous concentration and complexity of flavor. Unfortunately, the bottle seemed to be flawed. The nose was musty with some chemical off-flavors. On the palate, it was tart with not much fruit. The wine was ranked #6.

With our last wine, the 2004 Neudorf Chardonnay, we moved to the southern hemisphere. Neudorf Vineyards is a small family-owned winery producing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Gris in Nelson, New Zealand eighth largest wine region. Nelson is situated on the north-western corner of the South Island and is particularly well adapted for growing cool weather varietals. The wine was made from hand picked fruits from Neudorf's own vineyards. It was then fermented with indigenous yeasts and aged in barrels (20% new oak). The nose was attractive with citrus and tropical aromas. On the palate, it was crisp, earthy and well-balanced with a slightly oaky finish. Overall, everybody liked it a lot and ranked it #2.

Other recent blind tastings:
• Pinot Noir Blind Tasting
• 1999 Cabernet Sauvignon Blind Tasting

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Thursday, May 11, 2006

Pairing wine with sushi

The traditional accompaniment to sushi is of course sake, one of the oldest brewed beverage in the world. Beer is also a popular selection in Japanese restaurants. But what about having wine with sushi?

The word sushi means vinegar (su) and cooked rice (meshi, shortened to shi). Then, the rice is usually combined with other ingredients such as raw or cooked fish, other seafood, cooked egg or vegetables, and can be wrapped in dry seaweed called nori. Finding a wine that goes well with sushi can be a challenge because the wine has to stand up to the tartness of the vinegar, the oiliness of the fish, the saltiness of soy sauce, the spicy taste of wasabi, and the exotic flavors of pickled ginger.

I recently attended a sushi class organized by a Japanese friend of mine. She showed us how to make California rolls and Chirashi-zushi, or scattered sushi, which is rice spread in a bowl with fish and vegetables scattered on top.

Making sushi was a lot of fun and not as hard as I had imagined. And last but not least, at the end of the class we organized a little wine pairing exercise. We first try our sushi with sake. The sake had a mild, slightly sweet taste that mirrored well the flavors of the sushi rice. But not being a sake connoisseur, I have to confess that I did not get too excited about it.

Then we tasted a Champagne J Lassalle Brut. I found that the toasty and yeasty flavors of the Champagne added more stylish and distinctive notes to the sushi. The bubbles and acidity of the wine had a lively cleansing effect on the palate, which helped us better appreciate the complex flavors of our food.

Finally, we tried a Corazón Gewürztraminer from Anderson Valley. The wine had a discreet flowery nose and a dry, crisp palate with green apple and typical lychee fruit aromas. The wine had a lot of finess and I really liked the way it enhanced the flavors of the food.

So wine is great with sushi. My personal taste goes toward dry, fruity, and crisp whites. I also heard that light, non tannic red wines such as Pinot Noir or Beaujolais work as well. If in doubt, however, don't forget that a lively bubbly will always be fine.

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Monday, May 08, 2006

How do you tell if a wine is too old?

The truth is, you don't, until you open the bottle. A recent Beaujolais tasting proved again how difficult it is to predict how wine age.

Some time ago, I helped a friend of mine make an inventory of his wine collection and upload it into my Wine Cellar Management website. I noticed that his collection included some aging Beaujolais bottles and urged him to drink them soon. He then explained to me that these were leftover bottles from a Beaujolais Nouveau party that he had organized in 2001 and that he had simply forgotten them.

More recently, I asked him again about his Beaujolais. “You see, I am not really a Beaujolais fan and so I still haven't drunk them.” he replied. And then he added, “Maybe I should just dump them down the drain”

“Let's try them instead.” I told him. “Maybe we'll be surprised!”

So the other day, he brought a 2000 Beaujolais Louis Jadot, a 2001 Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau Domaine Piron, and a 2001 Beaujolais Nouveau Domaine Ruet. To tell you the truth, we were not expecting much from the last two, especially the one simply labeled Beaujolais Nouveau, the lowest appellation in the Beaujolais hierarchy.

A Beaujolais Nouveau is a light, fruity, uncomplicated wine, and is not made for aging. After a short vinification process that takes only two weeks, the wine is traditionally released the third Thursday of November following the harvest. The wine should be drunk right upon release or within the next few months.

On the other hand, the 2000 Beaujolais Louis Jadot looked more promising. A Beaujolais is aged at least a month longer than a Beaujolais Nouveau and is slightly more age worthy. Moreover, 2000 was a great year in Beaujolais.

We started pouring the wines. They all had a bright red color showing no obvious signs of age. But the first one had a corky nose and unfortunately, this was the Louis Jadot. The second one had a sweet nose of strawberry and a fermented fruit juice taste typical of Beaujolais Nouveau. This was the Beaujolais-Villages Nouveau Domaine Piron. The last one was the wine we preferred by far and unexpectedly, this was the Beaujais Nouveau Domaine Ruet. The nose was fruity with banana aromas and the palate had a pleasant structure and earthiness.

The fact that these Beaujolais Nouveaux had not turn into vinegar after all these years really surprised me. The Domaine Ruet was actually very drinkable. We even finished the bottle that evening. There is no doubt that these bottles had been kept in optimal storage conditions, which is great news for the other bottles still slowly maturing in my friend's wine cabinet!

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Thursday, May 04, 2006

An awesome Sunday with Wangari Maathai

Last Sunday, I had the privilege to meet and hear Professor Wangari Maathai, 2004 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and founder of the Green Belt Movement. She had come to Palo Alto to launch the East Palo Alto Tree Initiative organized by the city of East Palo Alto with the assistance of Canopy, a Palo Alto-based environmental organization.

The goal of the East Palo Alto Tree Initiative is to plant 1,000 trees in East Palo Alto by 2010, but Wangari Maathai does not think this number is high enough. As she was planting the first tree — an African olive tree from her country, Kenya — at the new Wangari Maathai Grove, she challenged the local residents to plant not one tree but at least 10 trees each. She herself helped African women plant 30,000 trees on their farms, and in the vicinity of their churches and children's schools.

Professor Wangari Maathai is a beautiful and charismatic woman who knows how to deliver powerful speeches. “Citizens need to be empowered.” she says, “They can't wait for the government or someone else to do it for them; they need to take action themselves.”

To illustrate her point, she likes to tell the tale of the hummingbird, a story that she heard in Japan:

When the forest where the hummingbird lived went up in flames, the other animals ran out to save themselves. But the hummingbird stayed, flying to and from a nearby river with drops of water in its beak to pour on the fire.

From a distance, the other animals laughed and mocked it. "What do you think you are doing?" they shouted. "This fire is overwhelming. You can't do anything."

Finally, the hummingbird turned to them and said, "I'm doing what I can."

After the planting tree ceremony, Canopy had organized a reception and dinner in her honor during which guests and local businesses could contribute to the initiative. The wine that was served at the dinner was generously offered by K&L Wine Merchants, Mumm Napa, Picchetti Winery and Ridge Vineyards. From K&L Wine Merchants, we had an organic wine, Domaine l'Attilon from the unusual Marselan variety, while Mumm Napa donated a refreshing sparkling rosé, Picchetti Winery, their crisp Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay, and Ridge Vineyards, their fruity Zinfandel Three Valleys blend.

Wangari Maathai with my friend Catherine Martineau, Canopy’s Executive Director

As I am writing this, I look out the window and notice that the hummingbirds are back, attracted by the tiny red flowers of the Rosemary Grevillea bushes that grow in my garden. I am thinking about the four R's she talked about during her keynote address: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle ... Repair. And all of a sudden, I am asking myself: how can I also become a hummingbird?

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