Friday, December 24, 2010

If you like Rioja, you should try Navarra

Not long ago, I received a set of wine samples from Navarra that was sent by Balzac Communications as an introduction to the Navarra Wine Region.

Navarra lies north of the Rioja region and south of the area's main city, Pamplona. The region used to belong to the kingdom of Navarre in late 10th century-early 11th century, a kingdom powerful enough to have halted the southward expansion of the Franks and the northward expansion of the Muslims.

To the north, near the French border, the terrain is very mountainous, but south of Pamplona is Navarre's agricultural area. The land is flatter with a continental Mediterranean influence (long, dry summers and cold winters).

The Navarra appellation includes five sub-regions: Baja Montaña in Eastern Navarre bordering Aragon, Tierra Estella in Western Navarre bordering the Basque Coutry and La Rioja, Valdizarbe in Central Navarre, Ribera Alta south of Valdizarbe, and Ribera Baja in Southern Navarre bordering La Rioja.

Navarra Wine Map

The region used to be famous for its rosado (rosé) wines from Garnacha, a grape overwhelmingly dominant in the 1980' (90% of the plantings at the time). But recently, many Navarra winemakers have modernized their equipment as well as their planting, harvesting and production methods. Grenache is now less than 40% of plantings, with Tempranillo close behind and there is an increase use of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.

The first sample was the 2009 Inurrieta Orchídea. Bodega Inurrieta owns 230 hectares of vineyards in the Ribera Alta sub-region, 57 km (35 miles) south of Pamplona. Although it's a new estate founded in 1999, the area's winemaking traditions date back to the 1st century BC during the Roman rule. Plantings include Garnacha, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Graciano, and Sauvignon Blanc.

The wine is 100% Sauvignon Blanc and this is the only white produced at the winery. It exhibits a light yellow color and an aromatic nose of citrus, peach and white flower. On the palate, it is crip, more fruity than grassy, with a light finish. Try it with Trucha a la Navarra, a Navarra Style Trout.

We also tasted the 2006 Otazu Crianza, a blend of 35% Tempranillo, 35% Merlot, and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon. Located between the Sierra del Perdón mountain range and the Sierra de Echauri, just 8 km from Pamplona, the Señorío de Otazu winery is Spain's northernmost vineyard for red wines. The microclimate is predominantly Atlantic with rainy winters and sunny summers. The estate grows four grape varieties: Tempranillo, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon for red wines and Chardonnay for whites.

The wine has a dark color and a nose of spices and herbs. The palate is round, medium-bodied and quite tasty. Try it with Pochas with Paprika, an other specialty from Navarra with fresh local white beans.

Our last sample was the 2007 Chivite Expresión Varietal Tempranillo. Founded in 1647, Bodegas Julián Chivite is one of the oldest wine producing dynasties in Spain. Currently the bodega owns almost 500 hectares of vineyards and is run by the eleventh generation. In Navarra, the Chivite estate vineyards are located at Cintruénigo in Navarra Ribera Baja, at nearby Corella not far from the border with Rioja Baja, and at Marcilla in Navarra Ribera Alta. Plantings are predominantly Tempranillo and Garnacha with some amount of Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Muscat à Petit Grains.

The Chivite Tempranillo has a dark purple/violet color and an aromatic nose of moka and black cherry. On the palate, the wine is still young with mineral notes and a nutty finish. Try it with an another dish from Navarra: Pollo Chilindron, a chicken stew that uses red bell peppers, a common ingredient in that part of the country.

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Thursday, December 16, 2010

Should we trust wine experts?

Listen to the latest Freakonomics Radio podcast called Do More Expensive Wines Taste Better? and learn how easily wine experts can be tricked.

I think my favorite part is when wine writer Robin Goldstein explains how he created a fake restaurant in Milan and a fake wine list full of very expensive wines and nonetheless won an Award of Excellence from the Wine Spectator.

Have fun and enjoy the news that you don't need to break your piggy bank to appreciate a good wine as more and more studies show that the most expensive wines are not always the ones that taste better.

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Saturday, December 11, 2010

Comparative wine and Riedel wine glass tasting

I recently had the chance to be invited to a comparative wine and Riedel glass tastings and I was really glad I came: the tasting, conducted by Maximilian Riedel himself, was much more informative than I thought.

Maximilian Riedel is currently the CEO of the US branch of Riedel Glas, the Austrian glassmaker company that introduced the concept of varietal specific wine glasses. He also regularly hosts tasting events to demonstrate how the shape of the glass can influence the way we perceive wine. According to Riedel, a wine can display different characteristics — good or bad — when served in glasses of different sizes and shapes.

Riedel wine glass tasting with Maximilian Riedel

In order to illustrate that concept, four wines were paired with four varietal glasses from the Riedel Vinum XL series, one of Riedel's most recent lines specifically designed for young new world wines.

Riedel tasting setup

We started with a 2009 Giesen Sauvignon Blanc Marlborough that we tasted in a Vinum XL Riesling Grand Cru glass. The wine had a light yellow color with green reflections and a fresh and fruity nose of grapefruit and gooseberry. On the palate, it was crisp and mineral with a good finish. After having enjoyed the wine in the Riesling glass, we were asked to pour some of it into a small plastic cup. The difference was remarkable. In the plastic cup, the wine had no nose at all and tasted mostly acidic. It is actually easy to understand why: in a small V-shaped cup, there is no room to swirl the wine and bring out the aromas. Moreover, the V-shape is the wrong shape to concentrate the aromas towards the nose (much of what we taste really comes through our nose).

Then we moved to our second wine, a 2008 Talbott Chardonnay Sleepy Hollow Vineyard that we tasted in a Vinum XL Montrachet glass. The wine was deep golden with a nose of apple, pear, and nut. On the palate, it was rich and creamy with notes of caramel. The glass bowl was large and round, which helped temper the alcohol in the wine. It also directed the flow of wine to cover a large area in the mouth, thus enhancing the richness and acidy of the wine. Then we tried the Chardonnay in the Riesling glass. The wine seemed more unbalanced, drier, and not as crisp. The reason is that the Riesling glass, designed for unoaked acidic wines like dry Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, is much too narrow to allow the creamy aromas to expand towards the nose and in the mouth.

Our third wine was a 2008 Kali-Hart Vineyard Pinot Noir that we tasted in a Vinum XL Pinot Noir glass, a glass with a large tulip-shaped bowl that flares out slightly at the top. The wine had a deep ruby color and a nose of raspberry, dried fruits and raisins. On the palate, it was full-bodied and jammy. When we were asked to try the wine in the Chardonnay glass, we noticed that the wine seemed less fruity and more tannic. In fact, the wine flow reaching the tongue was less focused and much less of these fruity aromas were reaching our tongue.

Our last wine was the 2007 Educated Guess Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley that we tasted in the oversized Vinum Xl Cabernet glass. The wine was dark with a nose of sweet blackberry, cocoa, and vanilla. On the palate, it was full-bodied, young, and oaky. When we switched to the Pinot Noir glass, the wine appeared more tannic, maybe because of the flared top, and in the Chardonnay glass, the opening was too wide and the wine aromas were partly lost.

At the end of the event, we each received a Vinum Xl wine tasting glass set so that we can continue to play at home. There are so many combinations that we haven't tried yet. What about a Sauvignon Blanc in the Chardonnay glass or a Pinot Noir in the Cabernet glass? I'm also suspecting that the Vinum Xl Cabernet glass might be too big for a Bordeaux.

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Thursday, December 02, 2010

What we drank for Thanksgiving

In November, it's funny how so many newspapers publish the requisite Thanksgiving wine column, in order to help us find the ideal wine that can work with turkey, stuffing, gravy, casseroles, cranberry sauce, and pies, thanks to a list of smart pairing tips.

What should we drink with this turkey?

For my part, I think it's quite easy to decide what to drink for Thanksgiving: just open a good bottle and enjoy it with your family and friends.

We started the evening with a bottle of 2008 Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve Riesling that our friend Christophe had brought. Kendall-Jackson Vineyard Estates was founded by San Francisco based attorney Jess Jackson in 1982. It is one of the few remaining family wine businesses of this size in the country. Since 1982, the winery has acquired many vineyards and it is now totally estate-based, maintaining 11,000 acres of vines. It also owns 17 additional brands, including La Crema, Pepi, Camelot, Cardinale and Cambria. As of 2010 Kendall-Jackson was the top-selling U.S. brand for wines over $15 a bottle.

The wines under the Kendall-Jackson Vintner's Reserve label come from cool vineyards in coastal regions including Monterey County, Lake County, Mendocino County, Santa Barbara County, and Sonoma County. They are all managed by the Kendall-Jackson viticultural team. The Riesling is a blend of 83% Riesling, 12% Gewürztraminer, 2% Muscat Canelli, 2% Chardonnay, and 1% Viognier. According to the winemaking notes, “87% of the Riesling comes from Monterey County where the growing season is long and cool adding apricot, almond and honeysuckle flavors. The Gewürztraminer adds orange blossom and spice. Muscat Canelli brings tangerine and mango tones. Chardonnay adds tropical lushness to the palate. Viognier for hints of floral on the nose”.

The wine had a fragrant nose of pear, apple and stone fruit and was moderately sweet on the palate with enough acidity to keep it clean and fresh. It was good with the smoked salmon and a natural accompaniment to our Sweet Potato Casserole (that we made with yams).

After the Riesling we opened a 1999 Château Ducru-Beaucaillou. This was a gift from Christophe and his wife Virginie and I was waiting for a good occasion to share the bottle with them. Château Ducru-Beaucaillou is a second growth Bordeaux in the Saint-Julien appellation. The estate sits between the village of Beychevelle and the Gironde estuary, farming 50 hectares of vineyard. The soil is characterized by well drained gravel and large stones up to 2.5 inches in diameter, which gave the estate its name (Beaucaillou means beautiful stones). The vines are 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot. Grapes are harvested and sorted manually. The Grand Vin is aged 18 and 20 months in 50-80% new oak.

The wine had a distinctive nose of spices, blackcurrants, and berries. On the palate, it was medium-bodied, well-balanced with smooth tannins and more elegance in the finish than power. I enjoyed it a lot and thought it worked perfectly well with the turkey, the stuffing, the gravy, the casseroles, the cranberry sauce, the pies, and my friends and family.

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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Tasting the wines of Oregon

At the end of the summer, I had a call from our friend Jean-Frédéric. His brother and his wife — both wine lovers — were coming from France and he was wondering whether we could organize a wine tasting at his place sometime during their visit. We agreed that we should taste some wines from Oregon since I had visited a few Oregon wineries earlier in July. Moreover, his brother and his wife were not very familiar with Oregon wines.

While wine grapes have been grown in Oregon for nearly two centuries, it is only since the 1960s that wine production has become a significant industry in the state. Oregon is now the 4th largest wine producing state in the US, after California (89% of the wine production), New York, and Washington. In 2006, it had more than 370 wineries, up from 70 in 1990, and only 5 in 1970. In 2007, four grape varieties made up more than 80% of the state's wine production: Pinot Noir (55%), Pinot Gris (17%), Chardonnay (5.6%), and Riesling (4.2%). Additionaly, Oregon has recently become a leader in green viticulture and winemaking with more than 140 vineyards and 20 wineries certified by LIVE: Low Input Viticulture & Enology, Inc.

Oregon Wine Regions

Oregon's largest wine producing region is the Willamette Valley, which runs from the Columbia River in Portland to the Calapooya Mountains outside Eugene. The valley has a relatively mild climate with cool wet winters and warm dry summers. The long growing season enjoys warm days and cool nights, allowing the grapes to develop their flavors while still retaining their acidity. The Willamette Valley AVA includes six sub-appellations: Dundee Hills, Eola-Amity Hills, McMinnville, Ribbon Ridge, Yamhill-Carlton District, and Chehalem Mountains.

Here are the wines that we tasted:

• 2009 Evesham Wood Blanc du Puits Sec: founded in 1986, Evesham Wood Vineyard makes Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Gewurztraminer in the Willamette Valley near the town of Salem. The estate vineyard is located on a low terrace (300-420 ft. elevation) on the eastern side of the Eola-Amity Hills ridge. It was named Le Puits Sec, which means the dry well in French, because there is one in the vineyard. The winery and Le Puits Sec vineyard are certified organic. The wine is a blend of 80% Pinot Gris and 20% Gewurztraminer with minute quantities of Rieslaner and Kerner, two German varieties. My notes: very pale color, a bit shy on the nose, more mineral than fruity. The guests didn't find it very exciting.

• 2008 Chehalem Reserve Dry Riesling Willamette Valley: Chehalem is a small winery established since 1990 in Newberg in the Northern Willamette Valley. It produces wines from Pinot Noir, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, Riesling, Pinot Blanc, Grüner Veltliner, and Gamay Noir. The Reserve Dry Riesling is produced in very limited quantities and is sourced from the Corral Creek vineyard that surrounds the winery and Stoller Vineyard, a 175-acre vineyard on the southern slopes of the Dundee Hills in Yamhill County. My notes: light color, mineral nose with aromas of honey and tart apple, medium-bodied, crisp on the palate with stone fruit flavors, lively finish, tasty.

• 2009 Evening Land Celebration Les Gamines: Evening Land Vineyards is based in both Oregon and California. It owns two vineyards in California, Occidental Vineyard in the Sonoma Coast and Odyssey Vineyard in the Santa Rita Hills. In Oregon, it leases Seven Springs Vineyard, a 65-acre Pinot Noir vineyard in the Eola-Amity Hills appellation. The Oregon wines are made by winemaker Isabelle Meunier with the help of consulting winemaker Dominique Lafon of Domaine des Comtes-Lafon in Burgundy. Inspired by the Bourgogne Passe-Tout-Grains, Les Gamines is made from a small block of Seven Springs Vineyard old vine Gamay Noir (60%) and Pinot Noir (40%). My notes: medium purple-pink color, bright strawberry nose, fresh aromas of plums and berries on the palate, quite pleasant.

• 2007 Argyle Pinot Noir Willamette Valley: owned by Petaluma Winery of Australia, Argyle Winery was founded in 1987 by Australian vintner Brian Croser and winemaker Rolin Soles. Housed in a former hazelnut processing plant in Dundee, the winery is well known for its still and methode champenoise sparkling wines. The Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is sourced from the Knudsen Vineyard in the heart of the Red Hills of Dundee, Argyle's primary vineyard source since 1987. My notes: medium color, fresh fruity nose, soft texture, mid palate on the light side, easygoing and not really popular among the guests.

• 2007 Ponzi Pinot Noir Willamette Valley: founded in 1970, Ponzi Vineyards is one of Oregon's oldest wineries. It is located just 30 minutes from downtown Portland in the city of Beaverton. The Willamette Valley Pinot Noir is a blend of several 100% Certified Sustainable vineyards. The fruit is hand sorted and destemmed and then fermented in small lots with five days of cold soak to increase aroma and color. The wine is aged in French oak barrels (30% new) for 11 months. My notes: medium garnet color, attractive nose of red and black cherry, medium-bodied, well balanced acidity, quite tasty, more complex than the Argyle.

• 2008 Shea Wine Cellars Pinot Noir Estate Willamette Valley: Shea Wine Cellars was founded by grape growers Dick and Deirdre Shea in 1996. The winery produces wines from the Shea Vineyard, a 200-acre vineyard property located in the Yamhill-Carlton District that also supplies fruit to several of Oregon's and California's premium wineries. Roughly 25% of the vineyard production is used by Shea Wine Cellars for its releases. My notes: dark color, sweet nose of blackberry and spicy cherry, full-bodied, more power than finesse, somewhat too bold for a Pinot Noir.

• 2006 Francis Tannahill Syrah Mason Dixon: Sam Tannahill was winemaker at Archery Summit before founding Francis Tannahill Wine Co in 2001 with his wife Cheryl Francis, who was co-winemaker at Chehalem. They are also co-owners of A to Z Wineworks. The Mason Dixon Syrah is a blend of several vineyards including Deux Vert, a small vineyard planted on a low elevation southern slope outside the town of Yamhill and the only producing Syrah vineyard in the northern Willamette Valley. My notes: dark color, pepper, plum and violet aromas on the nose, dry, complex, well-balanced palate with some good acidity, spicy finish without being very fruity, a northern Rhone style of Syrah and one of the best wines of the evening.

Related posts:
•  Touring the wineries in Oregon's Willamette Valley
•  Our Oregon trip: wine tasting at the Ponzi Wine Bar
•  Our Oregon trip: The Beaux Frères Vineyard
•  Oregon Trip: Dinner at the Painted Lady Restaurant
•  Oregon Trip: J.K. Carriere Wines
•  Last but not least from our Oregon trip: Brick House Vineyards and The Eyrie Vineyards

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Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Today is sandwich day: A Grand Prize sandwich and a glass of refreshing Pinot Grigio

Do you know that you can win a trip to New York thanks to a sandwich recipe? That's what happened to my friend Catherine. She was the Grand Prize winner of the Build a Better Sandwich contest organized by Southwest Airline. She won a trip to New York City, a three-night stay in Times Square, a dinner for two at Riverpark, and a tour of New York City's food markets.

Today is sandwich day and I'd like to share with you the winning recipe of her Easter Monday Sandwich. She usually makes that sandwich in order to use the leftover meat of her Easter Sunday leg of lamb.

It's quite easy to make once you have all the ingredients. First, toast 2 slices of New York rye bread. Rub garlic clove lightly on inside sides, then spread mayo (homemade if you can) on same sides. Layer lamb meat, roasted red pepper strips and feta cheese. Sprinkle with fresh oregano, cover with the other bread slice and cut sandwich in two.

Now, I don't think you need to wait until spring to make that sandwich. Moreover, the recipe could be easily adapted to use other kinds of leftover meat. Try it with leftover turkey after Thanksgiving for instance.

What to drink with the sandwich? I propose a glass of Pinot Grigio, a light and fresh wine, especially if you had a heavy meal the day before.

We tasted the 2009 Caposaldo Pinot Grigio that I had received from Suzie Kukic at Kobrand Corporation. There is a horse on the label because the brand name Caposaldo refers to the Roman Empire's most famous racing horse of the Circus Maximus.

The wine is 100% Pinot Grigio, a clone of Pinot Gris that grows in Italy, mainly in the northeastern regions of Veneto, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and Trentino-Alto Adige. Wines made from the Pinot Gris grape variety vary greatly in style depending on the region they come from. In Alsace or Germany, they can be full-bodied and spicy. However in Italy, the Pinot Grigio style is usually light-bodied, crisp, and fruity.

Rather low in alcohol (12.5%), the wine had a pale yellow color and a fresh nose of grapefruit and lime. The palate was clean, crisp, and tanguy, leaving a slightly quinine-like bitter finish. The perfect wine for a winning sandwich.

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Friday, October 29, 2010

Vino Argentino: learning more about the wines and food of Argentina

A few weeks ago, Michael Lamp from Hunter Public Relations sent me a couple of wine samples from the Alamos brand. There was also a copy of Laura Catena's new book, Vino Argentino that she describes as an insider guide to the wines and wine regions of Argentina.

Laura Catena's life is absolutely fascinating. She is simultaneously a practicing emergency room physician, a winery owner, an active ambassador of Argentine Wine, and a book writer. She is also the daughter of Nicolás Catena, the pioneer of Argentina's high-altitude viticulture and the first wine producer to plant a Malbec vineyard at almost 5,000 feet (1,524 m) elevation in the high plains of Mendoza.

The Mendoza province is Argentina's main wine region. It is a high desert that receives an average annual rainfall of less than 8 inches (20 cm). The climate is continental with very cold nights and intense sunlight during the day thanks to the elevation. The soils are very poor in organic material and filled with alluvial rocks and gravels, which means excellent drainage. Grapevines growing in this environment suffer and have low yields. To protect their seeds from the sun, they build thick grape skins that are rich in tannins and polyphenols, therefore producing wines that are concentrated and flavorful.

The Alamos brand was introduced in 1993 by the Catena family as a second label to the higher priced Catena wines. The name Alamos means poplar in Spanish and is derived from the poplar trees lining the vineyards to protect them from the strong dry winds coming from the Andes.

We tasted our first wine sample, the 2009 Alamos Torrontés, with appetizers. A crossing of Criolla Chica (a local cousin of the Mission grape) and Muscat of Alexandria, Torrontés is Argentina's signature white variety. The grape, which thrives in cold and dry conditions, produces the best wines in the Salta Province in the north west of the country, a region of high altitude and low humidity, with dramatic diurnal temperature variation.

The Alamos Torrontés is sourced from vineyards located near the city of Cafayate, in the Salta province. It is cold fermented and aged in stainless steel tanks. The wine showed a light golden color and an aromatic nose of peach, apricot, and white flower blossom. On the palate, it was crisp and fresh with notes of honey and orange peel on the finish.

With our dinner, we opened the other Alamos bottle, a 2009 Alamos Malbec. Malbec is the signature wine of the Mendoza region. Originally from France, it is one of the six grapes allowed in the blend of red Bordeaux wine. It is also the primary grape used in the Cahors appellation in the South-West of France. But then in the 1860s, a French agricultural engineer called Michel Pouget brought the grape to Argentina. Malbec being a thin-skinned grape that needs more sun and heat than either Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot to mature, it quickly thrived in Argentina's high-altitude vineyards and is now widely planted in the country.

The Alamos Malbec is sourced from high-altitude vineyards in the Mendoza wine region. It is aged 9 months in oak barrels, 50% French, 50% American, 25% new. The wine had a dark purple color and aromas of black cherries and blackberries on the nose. On the palate, it was full-bodied with a good balance of acidity and tannins and notes of pepper and pomegranate on the finish.

For dinner, I made a Carbonada, using a recipe that I found in Laura Catena's book. The stew was heartwarming with some sweet and fruity flavors that went perfectly well with the Malbec.

There are several other recipes in the book that look as delicious. And many other things too that make you wish you could visit the country.


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Saturday, October 23, 2010

The 2000 Château Sociando-Mallet is ready to drink and wonderfully seductive

The other day, our friend Marcus invited us for dinner. He asked me to come early because I had to choose the wine and then we needed some time for the wine to breathe. The thing is that Marcus had built quite a large room underneath his house to store his wines, and I was quite excited to have a look at his collection. I wanted to choose a bottle that would work best with the meal. There were thick fillet steaks waiting to be grilled on the barbecue and a swiss chard gratin baking in the oven.

Down in the cellar, as I concentrated my attention mostly on the Bordeaux and California Cabernets area, I found a bottle of 2000 Château Sociando-Mallet. With little hesitation, that's the one I brought back to the kitchen.

The 2000 vintage is considered one of the finest in Bordeaux, although the year didn't start very well. Winter was warm and spring was wet. July was cool and overcast. But then suddenly, the weather changed. August was unusually dry and above all, the weather was warm and dry during the entire harvest, allowing Cabernet Sauvignon, the primary grape variety of the Médoc, to ripen beautifully.

The Sociando-Mallet estate is located to the north of the Saint-Estèphe appellation, on a gravel outcrop, right on the Gironde river. The vineyard is planted to 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Merlot, with the remaining 5% divided between Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

Sociando-Mallet was classified as a Cru Bourgeois in 1932 but nowadays, it is considered as good as most Médoc Cru Classés Châteaux. The harvest is done manualy and fermentation occurs in both concrete and stainless-steel vats. After fermentation, the wine is aged in oak (100% for the grand vin) and then bottled without fining or filtration.

The wine didn't disappoint at all. The color was deep garnet and the nose really attractive with fragrant aromas of blackcurrant and eucalyptus. While the palate was rich in flavors, it displayed classy finesse and elegance. The wine had aged well and was succulent, like the tenter and juicy meat, and the creamy gratin.

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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Can technology help make better wines?

I recently received an email announcing the launch of UC Davis' new high-tech winery. It is a $15 million teaching-and-research facility and is expected to be the first winery to earn a LEED Platinum certification.

The project is impressive. The winery's eco-friendly features include onsite solar power generation and a system for capturing, storing, and recycling rainwater. The ultimate goal is to operate the facility independent of the main campus water line and be self-sustainable in both water and energy. Moreover, an innovative system of plastic tubes running up to the ceiling from the fermenters is designed to capture the carbon dioxide produced during fermentation. There are also plans to sequester that CO2 in order to work in a carbon zero environment.

The winery has also a new high-tech fermentation system that was donated by T.J. Rodgers, chief executive officer of Cypress Semiconductor and a winemaker himself. 152 stainless-steel fermentation tanks automatically control temperature during fermentation. In each tank, a brix sensor measures sugar levels and transmits the data across a wireless network. With this high-tech system, UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology plans to conduct data-intensive studies, hoping to understand how different variables such as grape-growing practices, vineyard location and choice of yeast strains impact the character and quality of wines.

“No other viticulture and enology research organization has a facility with these capabilities,” explains David Block, vice chair of the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology. “And when it is fully implemented, it will contain one of the largest wireless networks in any fermentation facility in the world.”

To me, it is not clear how all this data analysis will really help winemakers. “A lot of information is great,” acknowledges PlumpJack Winery General Manager John Conover, “but the great thing about wine is that there is no recipe.”

By contrast, I remember my recent visits to Oregon wineries and the discussions I had with the local winemakers. Their main focus is to grow the best fruit in the vineyard. Viticulture science helps them select the best soils, microclimates clones, crop size, and grow more healthy grapevines. However in the cellar, most of them believe in minimal intervention and to just let the grape shine.

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Monday, October 04, 2010

Will an unusually cool California summer result in more balanced, lower-alcohol wines?

“If conditions continue, we'll be harvesting into November”, recently declared David Beckstoffer, president of the Napa Valley Grapegrowers.

While many parts of the U.S. experienced a scorching summer season this year, Napa and Sonoma had the second coldest July in 50 years. Wine growers like to use degree days, measuring accumulated degrees above 50 degrees during the summer season, and so Oakville, at the heart of Napa Valley, has typically 2,700 degree days. But this year, until the recent heat wave, it was at 2,300. In Paso Robles, it's at 2,200, compared to a typical value of 3,000.

Harvesting so late is going to be risky for winegrowers because any rain in October may worsen the threat of mildew that already exists due to persistent caostal fog and cool temperatures. However, more time on the vine can result in better fruit quality.

“The fruit flavors are very strong,” says Larry Hyde of Hyde Vineyards in the Carneros region. “The stuff that makes fruit taste fruity, compounds like esters and ketones, are sensitive to hot weather and tend to be vaporized in the heat of a warm season. But we're finding great fruit flavors in all varieties, and high acidity.”

“2005 was an odd year like this with a late harvest,” explains Andy Peay, winemaker at Peay Vineyards in this article, “It was kind of a lesson to winemakers. People who were used to making these big, bold, high-alcohol wines ended up producing some of the most elegant, balanced, beautiful wines they'd ever made. You just have to take care. Some of our best vintages came out of years like this.”

Grapes should be less ripe this year, which means that less sugar will be converted into alcohol. I think this is good news: we should see more wines with lower alcohol levels as well as higher acidity. I am also looking forward to finding those that are going to show additional balance and elegance.

More on the 2010 California harvest:
•  California's late grape harvest of 2010: What it could mean
•  Grapegrowers anticipate a late - but great - 2010 harvest
•  Three California Winemakers Discuss the Difficult, Possibly Disastrous 2010 Vintage

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Friday, September 24, 2010

Blind Tasting of Nebbiolo and Barbera wines from Piedmont

Piedmont is one of the great winegrowing regions of Italy. The name means at the foot of the mountains in the local dialect as the region is surrounded on three sides by the Alps. The climate is continental with long and hot summers, misty autumns, and cold, foggy winters. Rainfall is low due to the rain shadow effect caused by the Alps.

Piedmont is home to many indigenous grape varieties including Barbera, Nebbiolo, Dolcetto, Freisa, Grignolino and Brachetto. While Barbera is the most widely-planted grape in the region, producing plummy dark wines naturally high in food-friendly acidity, Nebbiolo is considered one of the most noble Italian varietals. It is quite difficult to master but it can produce ageworthy wines known for their elegance and power. Vineyards are usually found on the hills at altitudes between 490-1150 feet, with the warmer south-facing slopes planted to Nebbiolo and Barbera, and the colder areas dedicated to Dolcetto and white varietals.

Big wine estates are rare in Piedmont. The vast majority of producers are small-to-medium wineries, often owned by the same family for generations.

We tasted our wines blind accompanied by a chicken liver terrine, braised short ribs cooked in wine, and cheese.

Chicken Liver Terrine

Braised Short Ribs

Here are the wines that we tasted:

• 2006 Luciano Sandrone Nebbiolo d'Alba Valmaggiore: founded in 1978, the Luciano Sandrone estate farms a total of 27 hectares (67 acres), 75% of which is owned, and produces about 8,000 cases per year. The winery follows organic farming rules although it has not chosen to seek certification. It uses organic fertilization and pest treatments and no chemicals or enzymes are added to the wine. The wine is produced with Nebbiolo grapes from Valmaggiore, one of the historical cru vineyards in the Roero district around the commune of Vezza d'Alba. The vineyard is on a hill characterised by an extreme slope and very sandy soil. The average vine age is 25 years. Sandrone purchased this parcel in 1994 and replanted the vines in 2001 at a density of 9,000 per hectare. Our notes: medium red color with orange tints, dairy nose with notes of red berries, cherries, and caramel, tannic with a solid mid-palate, good finish. Was ranked third in our tasting.

• 2003 Aurelio Settimo Barolo Rocche: founded in 1979, Aurelio Settimo is a 5.67 hectares (14 acres) property producing mostly Nebbiolo and a small amount of Dolcetto. The property used to do mixed farming and animal breeding and until 1974, 50% of the grapes were sold to the larger local wineries. But since the 1974 vintage, all the production has been vinified on site. The wine comes from the Rocche dell'Annunziata cru, a 3.42 hectare vineyard facing south-southwest and one of the four historic vineyards in La Morra. Our notes: orange hues, nose of sweet berries and prunes, good fruit flavor and acidity on the palate with some herbal notes. Food friendly, great with the braised ribs. Finished in 2nd position.

• 2005 G. D. Vajra Barolo Albe: Founded in 1972, the Azienda Agricola G. D. Vajra is regarded as one of the most reputed Barolo producers in the area. It is situated in Vergne, the highest village in the Commune of Barolo. Its vineyards are planted with Nebbiolo, Dolcetto and Barbera at heights of 350-400 meters. The cuvée Albe is a blend from three different vineyards, Fossati, Le Coste, and La Volta. Albe is the plural of alba, which means dawn. According to the winery website, here is the explanation for the name: when the sun rises in the morning, it takes about 20 minutes for the dawn to reach each vineyard, which results in three different albe (dawns). Our notes: medium red color, shy nose with notes of dried herbs, acidic on the palate and quite green with not much fruit flavors. Quite unbalanced but better with sharp-flavored cheese. Finished in 6th position.

• 2006 Agostino Pavia Barbera d'Asti Superiore La Marescialla: founded in 1979, Agostino Pavia is a small family estate located in the heart of the production area of Barbera d'Asti. The estate has several 50-year-old vineyards covering seven hectares, partly owned and partly rented. La Marescialla is one of the crus of Barbera d'Asti. The wine is produced from careful grape selection from one of the oldest vineyards of the estate and is aged about 11-12 months in barriques. Our notes: darker color, dairy aromas on the nose with notes of citrus, caramel, and vanilla. On the palate, not as tannic, but assertive with fruity flavors, well balanced. Finished in 4th position.

• 2000 Paolo Scavino Barolo Carobric: Azienda Vitivinicola Paolo Scavino was established in 1921 by founder Paolo Scavino in the commune of Castiglione Falletto. Today, the winery is run by Paolo's two granddaughters, Elisa (winemaker) and Enrica (marketing). The Carobric cuvee (Ca-Ro-Bric) is a selection of grapes from Scavino's best crus: Cannubi, Rocche di Castiglione, and Bric dël Fiasc. It is aged in a combination of barrique and cask. Our notes: orange/brown color, shy nose getting richer with more time in the glass, round, tasty, complex, well balanced, with a long finish. The wine was a clear favorite, maybe because it had reached its peak. Finished in first position.

• 2003 Massolino Barolo: located in the commune of Serralunga d'Alba, the Massolino estate has been in the family since 1896 and today has 15 hectares of vineyards around the village. The Barolo is a blend of several estate vineyards. Grapes are hand-picked and the winemaking is traditional. The wine id aged 30 months minimum in large oak barrels with further bottle ageing for at least one year before release. Our notes: bright medium red color, nose of sweet fruit and citrus, some tannins and acidity on the palate that became softer with more time in the glass, not as balanced as the Carobric. Finished in 5th position.

Related posts:
•  Tasting the wines of Piedmont
•  Blind Tasting of Bordeaux Right Bank wines
•  Syrah Blind Tasting

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Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Budweiser, balsamic vinegar and the effect of expectations on our biased view of the world

Would you willingly mix balsamic vinegar with your Budweiser? yes in certain conditions, explains Professor of Behavioral Economics Dan Ariely in his book Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions.

The Muddy Charles is one of MIT's two pubs and the place of Ariely's experiment. Students that dropped by were offered two small free samples of beer, one labeled A and the other labeled B. Beer A was regular Budweiser whereas Beer B was a special mix called “MIT Brew”, two drops of balsamic vinegar for each once of beer. After tasting the samples, participants were offered a free large glass of the beer of their choice.

Most of the participants that knew nothing about the vinegar before tasting the beers chose Beer B, the vinegary beer. But those that were offered more information before the tasting (Beer A was a commercial brew, Beer B had a few drops of balsamic vinegar in it) would wrinkle their nose at the vinegary brew and request Beer A instead. They believed beforehand that Beer B was going to be bad and after tasting it, they actually found it bad.

Now what happens if the presence of vinegar is revealed after tasting the samples instead of before? Can initial sensory perceptions be reshaped with new knowledge or is it too late to change the perceptions once they are established?

It turned out that the participants to this new version of the experiment liked Beer B as much as those that knew nothing about the vinegar. Moveover, when asked whether they would like to make the “MIT Brew” themselves, they were willing to add the right amount of vinegar to their beer. Like the first group, they tasted the vinegary brew blind without any pre-conceived expectations and they actually liked the taste of it so they didn't mind giving it another try.

What happens is that our brain is always refining and distorting sensory information in order to construct a simpler picture of the world. If our brain has tried to represent everything as accurately as possible, we would be completely paralysed by information. Moreover, it cannot start from scratch at every new situation. Instead, it must build on what it has seen before so we can interact with our environment more decisively and make better sense of our complicated surroundings.

So next time you make a decision, be realistic, it's 100% biased.

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Wednesday, September 08, 2010

A tasting of affordable Bordeaux from the Planet Bordeaux Program

Before the summer, I received three samples of Bordeaux wines from Michael Wangbickler of Balzac Communications as part of a new marketing campaign called Planet Bordeaux. The goal of Planet Bordeaux is to promote wines from the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur appellations, incite wine amateurs to look beyond the expensive classified growth and top rated wines and help them discover well-crafted wines at very reasonable prices.

The Bordeaux AOC is the most generic and the largest category within the Bordeaux region. It is used for red, white, and rosé wines produced outside the more specific appellations. Wines under that appellation vary greatly in style, price and quality but the best can be smooth, easy to drink, and affordable.

The Bordeaux Supérieur AOC covers the same geographic area as the Bordeaux AOC but has stricter production norms. The wines must be aged for at least twelve months before they can be sold. So it is usually used for more ambitious wines with a better aging potential, sourced from older vines in selected vineyards.

The first sample was the 2009 Château Ballan Larquette Rosé. Château Ballan Larquette is a 35 hectare property (86 acres) owned by the Chaigne family. It is located in the Entre-Deux-Mers region between the Garonne and the Dordogne rivers. The vines are on average 18 years old. The blend is mostly Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon with a small amount of Cabernet Franc. The Rosé is made by partial saignee (or bleeding off the juice) after a 24 hours contact with the skins to obtain a light cherry color. The wine had a fresh nose of red berries and citrus with some good acidity on the palate and notes of of sour cherry and mineral on the finish. Take the wine along on your next picnic or try it with Grilled Rosemary Lamb Chops.

The next wine was the 2008 Château Fontblanche. Château Fontblanche is owned by Elisabeth & Armand Schuster de Ballwil of Château Montlau. It is located between the hills and the banks of the Dordogne river. The wine is a blend of mostly Merlot with some Cabernet Franc and a dash of Malbec. It showed a medium ruby color and a mellow nose of fresh plum. On the palate, it was easy going with a dry and clean aftertaste. Try it with Pork Tenderloin and Grilled Vegetable Salad

The last sample was the 2007 Château de Bel La Capitane. After spending 10 years as a négociant in the wine business, Olivier Cazenave and his wife Anne bought the property in 2003, realising their dream of making their own wine from their own vines. Olivier's philosophy is to make wines that are immediately pleasurable, without being diluted or overextracted, and as such, works long hours in the vineyard. The Château is located along the bank of the Dordogne across the river from Saint-Emilion. It has 12 acres in production, mostly old vines of Merlot and some Cabernet Franc. The cuvée La Capitane is a Bordeaux Supérieur made from 100% Merlot vines averaging 30 years old. The wine has matured in 100% new American oak for 6 months. It had a deep garnet color and attractive notes of vanilla and fresh cherries on the nose. On the palate, it had a round, juicy mouthfeel with dried herbs and earthy tones on the finish. Try it with Grilled Pork Sausages with Spiced Figs.

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Wednesday, September 01, 2010

If our wine is too bold, too alcoholic, there is hope: just add water

Maybe you knew it already, and like me, have in several occasions surreptitiously dropped an ice cube in your glass of 14%+ alcohol Merlot and found the resulting drink more palatable.

I thought that the wine tasted better because it was a few degrees cooler but according to Harold McGee's latest Curious Cook column, water is actually an ingredient that can enhance flavors.

That may seem counterintuitive: water has no flavor and by adding water, you dilute instead of concentrate flavors. But what McGee found out is that water, by diluting the other ingredients, can change their balance for the better.

This is how it works in high-alcoholic drinks:

“Both alcohol and aroma molecules are volatile,” explains McGee, “meaning they evaporate from foods and drinks and are carried by the air to the odor receptors high up in the nasal cavity. Aroma molecules are also more chemically similar to alcohol molecules than they are to water, so they tend to cling to alcohol, and are quicker to evaporate out of a drink when there's less alcohol to cling to. This means that the more alcoholic a drink is, the more it cloisters its aroma molecules, and the less aroma it releases into the air. Add water and there's less alcohol to irritate and burn, and more aroma release.”

In case of high-alcohol wines, “flavor chemists have found that high alcohol levels accentuate a wine's bitterness, reduce its apparent acidity and diminish the release of most aroma molecules. Alcohol particularly holds down fruity and floral aromas, so the aroma that's left is mainly woody, herbaceous and vegetal.”

So next time your glass is filled with some big, bold Zinfandel, don't worry about what others will think. Add water, the wine will taste more fruity, more balanced, more pleasant, and you will know why.

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Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Last but not least from our Oregon trip: Brick House Vineyards and The Eyrie Vineyards

You usually need an appointment to visit Brick House Vineyards and when we called the winery, it was already late in the afternoon and we were just hoping to have an appointment for the next day. Therefore, we were surprised to be invited to come right away. At the winery, we were warmly welcomed by Alan Foster, an artisanal cider maker who now works at Brick House and casually sat around a farmhouse table to taste the latest estate productions.

Brick House Vineyards

Tasting with Alan Foster

We started with the Chardonnay, made from estate grown fruits. The wine is certified organic, fermented with native yeast, aged in used oak barrels, and bottled without filtration. I particularly liked the 2008 Brick House Estate Chardonnay with its nose of pear and stone fruit, smooth and creamy mouthfeel, and mineral finish.

Then we moved to the 2008 Brick House Boulder Block Pinot Noir. The fruit comes from a volcanic hillside that greatly differs from the nearby sedimentary soils that characterize the Ribbon Ridge appellation. Columbia river basalt rocks can be found between vines throughout the parcel. These volcanic boulders are particularly good at retaining moisture and warmth during the growing season and it is usually the last block to be harvested. The cuvée is all Pommard clones — originally from cuttings imported in the 1940's from Château de Pommard — and sees more new oak than the other reserve Cuvées. The wine had a fragrant, spicy nose, a rich, fruity palate almost liqueurish, leaving a lasting earthy finish.

Basalt rocks from the Boulder Block parcel and the 2008 Brick House Boulder Block Pinot Noir

The next wine was the 2008 Brick House Evelyn's Pinot Noir. For me, it had an even stronger spicy character and a longer finish. The cuvée is named after the mother of winemaker and founder Doug Tunnell. It is a blend from selected barrels and a very limited bottling built for long-term aging.

My husband had heard that the winery was making some gamay and asked about it. The current vintage had been sold out for a while but Alan let us taste a barrel sample of the 2010 vintage. There was no banana, candy, or bubble gum quality in the wine. Instead, it had some good depth and structure with some of these aromas of tobacco and black fruit that could also found in some of the best Crus of Beaujolais.

We were also lucky when we arrived at Eyrie Vineyards' historic winery in downtown Mcminnville. The previous visitors were still in the barrel room when we arrived and we were able to continue the guided visit of the wine facility.

The Eyrie Vineyards

The history of Eyrie is now well known but still fascinating. In 1965, David Lett — locally known as Papa Pinot — came to Oregon from California with 3,000 vine cuttings and planted the first Pinot noir vines in the Willamette Valley. One year later, he founded The Eyrie Vineyards with his wife Diana and produced his first vintage of Eyrie Pinot Noir in 1970. Then in 1979, the winery suddendly caught the attention of the international wine community as the 1975 Eyrie Vineyards Reserve Pinot Noir successfully competed at the Wine Olympics held in Paris that year. This instantly put Oregon on the map as a world class Pinot noir producing region.

Lett's original plan was to build a winery on the hillside overlooking the estate vineyard in the Dundee Hills but he found no bank to loan him any money. So he ended up refurbishing an old poultry plant in McMinnville. Many years later, his son Jason Lett is still making wine in the original building with even a few barrels from the 1970 vintage still in use. The mold that grows on the walls is part of the cellar's natural environment and is thought to play a positive role during the winemaking process.

The barrel room and the mold on the walls

Here are some of the wines we tasted:

2007 The Eyrie Vineyards Estate Pinot Noir: from the four estate vineyards in the Dundee Hills. The youngest vines were planted 19 years ago. Aged in mostly neutral French oak. Fresh nose of griotte cherry, tasty, well balanced, lively finish.

2008 The Eyrie Vineyards BlackCap Pinot Noir: made with organic fruits from the Dundee Hills and Carlton-Yamhill appellations. The vines are 20-year old and own-rooted (non grafted). Dark color, more earth and spices than fruit, concentrated.

2006 The Eyrie Vineyards Pinot Noir Reserve Original Vines: from Eyrie's original planting, 40-year-old vines grown on their own roots. Aged nearly two years in used barrel, bottled without filtration or fining. Sweet nose of wild berry, creme de cassis and spices, great texture, absolutely delicious!

2006 Eyrie Pinot Noir Reserve Original Vines

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Friday, August 13, 2010

Oregon Trip: J.K. Carriere Wines

Founded in 1999 by owner and winemaker Jim Prosser, J.K. Carriere has recently moved to a brand new facility on Parrett Mountain near Newberg in Yamhill County. Before founding J.K. Carriere, Jim Prosser worked for eight producers in four countries including: Erath, Domaine Drouhin, Brick House and Chehalem in Oregon; Villa Maria in New Zealand; Tarra Warra and T'Gallant in Australia; and Domaine Georges Roumier in Burgundy. The name J.K. Carriere corresponds to the combined names of his grandfathers J.K. Prosser and Paul Carriere. Being severely allergic to wasps and nearly killed by them twice, he chose to prominently feature one of these insects on his bottle labels.

The new facility has steel culverts embedded into the ground to create naturally temperature-controlled barrel caves

In the summer, the tasting room is conveniently open Friday and Saturday, 11 am to 4 pm. Otherwise, you need to make a private appointment to visit the winery.

The wines we tasted:

2009 J.K. Carriere Glass White Pinot Noir: whole cluster pressed and barrel fermented to absolute dryness at low-temperature in older French oak barrels. Lees from a Chardonnay fermentation are stirred during aging, following a 100-yeal-old Champagne Rosé technique to strip color and broaden an earthy mid-palate. My notes: beautiful salmon color, citrus aromas, dry and mineral on the palate with some roundness, fresh and crisp on the finish.

2009 J.K. Carriere Glass White Pinot Noir

2007 J.K. Carriere Chardonnay Willamette Valley: a blend of two vineyards: Temperance Hill in the Eola Hills and Maresh Vineyard from the Dundee Hills. Whole cluster pressed and barrel fermented at low-temperature with wild yeast in older French barrel. My notes: deep golden color, crisp and dry, more mineral than fruity.

2008 J.K. Carriere Provocateur Pinot Noir Willamette Valley: Provocateur is French for troublemaker. A blend of seven vineyards: Temperance Hill, Anderson Family, Black Walnut, Shea, Gemini, Momtazi, and Sheppard. Small-lot wild yeast fermentations in open-top stainless steel tanks. Barrel aged for 17 months in French oak, 4% new. My notes: attractive Pinot nose, dusty spice aromas, well-balanced, light on the finish.

2007 J.K. Carriere Pinot Noir Willamette Valley: a Willamette Valley blend that includes 21% Shea Vineyard for ripe dark fruit, Temperance Hill for old-vine complexity, Eola Hills for centrist cherry, Gemini Vineyard for moving red, Momtazi for hi-tone and spice, Black Walnut for earth, and Anderson Family Vineyard for savory and structure. Small-lot wild yeast fermentations, 100% barrel aged for 18 months, 21% new. My notes: richly flavored with notes of mint, eucalyptus, citrus, and licorice, medium-bodied, well-balanced with a nice, long finish.

2007 J.K. Carriere Antoinette Pinot Noir: Antoinette Carriere was Jim Prosser's Canadian grandmother. The wine is made from the five best Temperance Hill vineyard barrels, sourced from 28-year-old vines growing at high elevation. Small-lot wild yeast fermentations, barrel aged for 18 months in French oak barrels (25% new). My notes: denser than the Willamette Valley blend, complex aromas of wild berry and pepper with mineral notes. Needs time to open up, very long finish, age worthy.

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Friday, August 06, 2010

Oregon Trip: Dinner at the Painted Lady Restaurant

The Painted Lady Restaurant is located in a refurbished Victorian house (the painted lady) in downtown Newberg. The chef and co-owner, Allen Routt, cooks seasonal dishes using fresh locally-sourced ingredients including local fish, berries, and hazelnuts. He opened the restaurant with his wine Jessica Bagley in 1995 after working several years in Napa Valley and then Las Vegas.

The Painted Lady Restaurant

The evening of our reservation was warm and breezy so we decided to sit out on the deck, a more relaxed setting than the elegant dining room inside. We chose the four-course meal which ended up being the best food we ever had in Oregon.

Alsatian Onion Tart with Bacon and Veal Sweet Breads

Seared Diver Scallop with Braised Endive and Grapefruit Supremes

Hazelnut Crusted True Cod with Viridian Farm Pea Ragout

Rabbit Roulade with Pancetta, Butted Savoy Cabbage and Medjool Dates

Chocolate Tart with Local Hazelnuts and Milk Chocolate Ice Cream

That night, the restaurant offered wine pairing with the menu but the wine list also included some older Pinot Noir vintages that were very well priced. So, after getting some advice from our extremely friendly and knowledgeable waitress, we ordered the 2001 J.K. Carriere Pinot Noir Willamette Valley with our meal. We were not disappointed: the wine was ready to drink with a complexity of aromas that went fabulously well with the food. And our plans for the following day were made: we had to visit the J.K. Carriere Winery.

2001 J.K. Carriere Pinot Noir Willamette Valley

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