Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Chianti Classico: Events & Wine Recommendations

So much Chianti Classico wine! And that is far from a complaint.

During our stay in Tuscany, we attended a number of events of the Chianti Classico è, a ten day festival celebrating the wines and foods of this beautiful and fascinating region. At each of those events, the wines flowed freely and I tasted many different wines from this region, from Chianti Classico to IGT wines. I want to provide a brief summary of some of these events, to give you an overview of the festival, as well as to provide a number of wine recommendations. The festival is an annual event, and it is an excellent way to experience the region.

But first I want to start with something that was not on our itinerary, but worthy of mention. On my first day in Tuscany, I had some free time to wander the historical city of Florence. I walked to the San Lorenzo Central Mercado, a large food market, as I had heard good things about it and I desired lunch. After haggling a bit, and buying two coats, at one of the myriad leather shops surrounding the market, I ventured inside and wandering down the rows of food stalls.

One of the most famous stalls in this market is Nerbone, a restaurant counter where you can order sandwiches and other meals. One of their specialties is the panino con bollito, a boiled beef sandwich that sells for only 3.50 Euros. The meat is topped with both a spicy red sauce as well as a green pesto sauce while the roll is fresh, though hearty and dense. The sandwich was quite tasty, with plenty of tender meat, very little fat, and with a strong spicy kick on the finish. A great bargain sandwich and well worth checking it out. Just get there early before the long lines start forming.

Our initial dinner in the Chianti Classico region was the inaugural event of the festival, the Pentecost in Castellina dinner. This event was held under the vaulted loggias, essentially a lengthy tunnel, which was a fascinating setting for this event. With all the stonework, it added an air of the medieval to the dinner, as well as protected us from the rain. It was a festive occasion and we were all made to feel very welcome. The Ristorante Albergaccio in Castellina catered the tasty dinner, with traditional items such as polenta, ravioli and risotto. In addition, we had plenty of Chianti Classico wines to taste, a mix of both traditional and modern styles. For the most part, I preferred the more traditional ones.

One of my favorite events was the Gallo Nero & Street Food Festival, which showcased street foods from all over Italy with a multitude of Chianti Classico wines. Food came from regions such as Abruzzo, Liguria, Sicilia, Romagna, Marche, and Toscana. In addition, the special guest country was Argentina, which offered a variety of grilled meats, a gift for your inner carnivore. We traveled from booth to booth, sampling the diversity of available cuisine, finding much to enjoy, from porchetta sandwiches to cannolis.

My clear favorite of the evening though was from the Sicilia booth, their Arancini. These are basically rice croquettes filled with a meat and pea filling. I have eaten many different Arancinis, but this was one of the best that I have ever tasted. About the size of my fist, the arancini was cooked perfectly, with a crisp coating, and contained plenty of a moist meat filling, which helped to prevent it from being dry. Too many arancini skimp on the meat filling so they sometimes can be too dry and chewy. This arancini was bursting with flavor, and I had to enjoy a second one too.

In the historic town of Greve, we dined for lunch one day at the Ristorante Da Verrazzano, participating in the semifinals of the Homemakers’ Trophy, a cooking contest that pits various cities and towns in Chianti Classico against each other. You can see some of the cooks above, local homemakers who prepared territorial dishes. At this seminfinal, Castellina and Radda competed, each preparing a three course lunch and we got to taste both of the dishes from each course. We then voted for which of the two dishes we enjoyed the most.

My overall favorite dish was the Galletto all Toscana, which is rooster. Rooster seems to be common in this region as we had it a couple other times during our time in Tuscany. It was moist, tender and flavorful and it is a dish that probably should be more prominent in the U.S. too. After the voting was tallied, the winner was Castellina, taking two of the three courses and my votes coincided with all three of the winning dishes. Radda won the Primi course for their pasta dish and then Castellina won for their Galletto and Torta. We were not in Tuscany during the Finals, but Castellina faced Greve, and it was Greve who ultimately won the competition.

One of the most unusual wine pairing events I have ever attended was at the Goals di-vini event. Chianti Classico and European football? The Italians are certainly passionate about both, so with days before the start of the  European Football Championship, they decided to pair these two interests. We watched films of some historic football goals, and Daniele Cernilli, formerly of the renowned Gambero Rosso, paired a wine with each of those goals. Overall, we tasted 14 different wines, and though I am not a huge football fan, it was exciting to watch these amazing goals, to see the incredible skills of the players. We enjoyed some excellent wines as well. Mmmm..which wines should we pair with hockey?

Now onto to some wine recommendations.

The Fattoria di Rodano winery is located in the Castellina region and was located on an ancient pilgrimage route. There was even once a Benedictine house on the property which was a rest stop for these pilgrims. In 1958, Carlos Pozzesi, a medical officer, bought the estate and planted vineyards. Currently, the estate constitutes about 100 hecatres, with one-third possessing vines. They produce traditional style Chianti Classico and I was impressed with their wines.

I tasted both their 2006 and 2007 Chianti Classicos, which are a blend of 90% Sangiovese and 10% Canaiolo & Colorino. The wine is aged for about 18 months, 80% in Slavonian oak barrel and 20% in barrique. They are elegant and rustic wines, with a nice depth of flavor and are excellent food wines. The 2004 Viacosta Chianti Classico Riserva is 100% Sangiovese from the Viacosta vineyard. It was aged for about 24 months, 60% in French oak and 20% of that is new. It had an alluring aroma and on the palate it was superb! Complex, elegant, rustic, spicy, and with a lengthy and pleasing finish. One of my favorite wines of the entire trip and an excellent example of the potential of Sangiovese.

The Bibbiano winery, owned by Tommaso and Frederico Marrocchesi Marzi, possesses about 25 hectares of vineyards and they still use many old agricultural methods. The 2009 Montornello Chianti Classico is more of a traditional style, with prominent fruit flavors, but also some nice spice and hints of earthiness. Elegant and delicious. The 2007 Vigna del Capannino Chianti Classico Riserva is made from 100% Sangiovese from the del Capannino vineyard. It too is elegant and delicious, with more spice notes, greater complexity, restrained ripe fruit, violet notes and a lengthy, satisfying finish. A winery you should notice.

The 2004 Vegi Silvio Chiostri Chianti Classico Riserva is made from 100% Sangiovese and has a light red color with nice, restrained cherry flavors and hints of earthiness and spice. Very good acidity made this an excellent food wine. Another traditional style wine which appealed to me.

The 2007 San Fabiano Calcinaia Cellole Chianti Classico Riserva is mostly Sangiovese with a touch of Merlot. As such, it seems a bit more modern in style, but still is restrained. Ripe cherries, silky tannins, vanilla and spice. It would be good with a hearty dish, such as pasta Bolognese or a nice steak.

Poggio al Sole (which means "the sunny hillock) once belonged to the Passignano Abbey but was purchased by a Florentine goldsmith during the 1960s. In May 1990, he sold the estate to a Swiss couple, Johannes and Kathrin Davaz. Johannes learned about wine from working at his parents' vineyard, and his brother took over that vineyard. When they purchased Poggio, there were only 8 hectares of vineyards and they have increased that to 18 hectares, now producing about 80,000 bottles annually. They grow all of their own grapes, and the vineyards are primarily planted with Sangiovese.

The winery produces a Rosé, two Chianti Classicos and 3 Table wines. To me, their wines are mainly produced in a more modern style so though they are good, they are not my preference. But, I was impressed with the 2009 Casasillia Chianti Classico Riserva. "Casasillia" is the former name of the Poggio al Sole estate. It is made from 100% Sangiovese and aged in barriques, 50% new, for about 16-18 months. It had an intriguing aroma and on the palate was a complex melange of dark fruits, smoke, spice and a hint of earthiness. It was elegant, with a lengthy finish, and nice acidity. Strongly recommended.

The Casina Di Cornia winery, established in 1979, consists of only 24 hectares, 7 which have vineyards. They have been certified organic since 1983 and believe in minimal intervention during the wine making process. The 2010 Chianti Classico is made from 100% Sangiovese and is very traditional, with plenty of cherry flavors, hints of violet and an earthy backbone. The 2007 Chianti Classico Riserva is also in a traditional style, with more spicy notes and tastes of prunes and blackfruits.

The 2010 Villa Cerna Chianti Classico, another traditional wine, presented intriguing smoke and spice elements while their 2007 Chianti Classico Riserva was very elegant and restrained, with dried cherries, violets, earthiness, and great acidity.

A few more Chianti Classico recommendations include the 2008 Casaloste "Don Vincenzo" Chianti Classico Riserva, the 2008 Castello di Fonterotoli Chianti Classico, and the 2008 San Donatino Poggio Chianti Classico Riserva.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Rant: The Solution To Ignorance

Why do some consumers rely on the pronouncements of the Seafood Watch to determine which fish is sustainable? Why do some people rely on wine scores to determine which wines to purchase? Why do some consumers seek out certified organic products? The answer to all three questions is often the same, information asymmetry.

First, let us travel back into the past, a little over 40 years ago. In 1970, George Akerlof, an American economist, published an article, The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism, in the Quarterly Journal of Economics. For this article, Akerlof would win the 2001 Nobel Prize in Economics. In brief, the article discussed the problems that result in markets due to information asymmetry. Though he concentrated his article on used car buying, the principles are applicable in many different fields, from wine buying to seafood purchasing.

Information asymmetry essentially refers to transactions where one party, usually the seller, possesses more significant information about the product than the potential buyer. This leads to an imbalance of power which can cause numerous problems in the market. For example, if a buyer wants sustainable seafood, the seller generally knows much more about the source of the fish than the buyer. The seller could potentially lie to the buyer and the buyer might be unable to easily ascertain the truth. That places the buyer at the mercy of the seller. When a person enters a wine store, and is confronted with hundreds of wines, how does he know which wines will be good? Can he rely upon the word of a wine store employee as to which wines he should buy? Maybe, maybe not.

One potential solution to the problem of information asymmetry is the use of certifications, warranties, guarantees, etc. Essentially, some third party, ostensibly impartial, helps balance out the inequalities in the knowledge level of the products. That third party does the necessary research that the consumer would be hard pressed to do on their own. This can prevent the consumer from being ripped off by the seller because the buyer will now possess better information to make a properly informed decision. It levels the playing field, and creates greater confidence in consumers.

The average person gets overwhelmed at a wine store, not sure what to buy. So, he may rely on a wine score from a critic to help make his decision. To that buyer, a high wine score, from a critic he trusts, is a certification of the quality of that wine. The consumer who relies on the review of a wine blogger is doing the same thing. Now, that same consumer could ask the staff of the wine store for a recommendation, but they also realize there is a potential conflict there. The store is in the business of selling wine, and could try to pawn off a poor selling, low quality wine on an unsuspecting consumer.

In fairness, there is the potential of conflict for wine critics too, though it is often less obvious, and thus overlooked by the average consumer. With wine store staff, the consumer must first develop a level of trust, so that they are comfortable with their recommendations and do not worry about any conflict of interest. But that takes time, though ultimately could be more fulfilling and attentive to the desires of the consumer.

Seafood sustainability is a complex issue and consumers often get overwhelmed with information, often conflicting. They cannot do all of the necessary research on their own, so they must rely on third parties to help them cut through all of the research, as well as help them determine which seafood purveyors they can trust. So, organizations like the Seafood Watch try to make it much easier for consumers in this regard. They provide consumers easy guides, like their wallet guides, to help when trying to purchase sustainable fish.

Again though, sometimes consumers develop a certain level of trust with a purveyor, such as a chef, and are willing to accept their recommendations rather than follow the third party certifications. Locally, I have seen several chefs serving seafood that might be considered an Avoid on the Seafood Watch, yet that seafood may very well be sustainable. The Seafood Watch list is far from perfect, and they do acknowledge some of the shortcomings. But you must learn to trust those chefs, to ensure they are doing the right thing.

Those of us who review food and drink help our readers deal with the problems of information asymmetry. We provide them an impartial (hopefully) review which will allow them to make better informed choices as a consumer. But, consumers must learn to trust our opinions, and if we fail to earn that trust, then we have failed as reviewers. Restaurants, wine stores, and other similar establishments need to realize the issue of information asymmetry, and that to combat it, they need to build trust up with their customers. Trust is the key to battling ignorance.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Sake Lessons at Haru

Kudos to Haru, a Japanese restaurant located beneath the shops of the Prudential Center, for their efforts to  spread Sake knowledge. Besides carrying 8 Sakes by the glass and 14 by the bottle, they also make a number of Sake cocktails, from the One Night in Tokyo to the Ultimate Saketini. In addition, they have been running a series of Sushi & Sake classes, to help educate their customers, and there are plans to make that a monthly series. I have presided over the Sake portion of those classes and recently they held an event for local bloggers.

During these classes, attendees get to taste three Sakes, such as the Kaori Junmai Ginjo, the Wakatake Onikoroshi Junmai Daiginjo and the Tsuki Usagi "Moon Rabbit" Sparkling Junmai. The Sparkling Sake usually ends up as one of the favorites of the night for many people. I give an informal talk on the basics of Sake and field questions from the audience. Plus, the attendees get to learn how to make a few different types of sushi, from basic nigiri to different maki rolls. You also get to eat the fruits of your labor, and there is plenty of food. It is an interactive class and has been extremely popular with the attendees.

Three of the bloggers who attended the recent class have posted their thoughts about it. Check out what they had to say about the event:

Confessions of a Chocoholic by Bianca
Foodista On Pointe by Rachel
Beantown Eats by Lin

I recommend that you check out future Sushi & Sake classes at Haru, and learn about these Japanese treasures in a fun & tasty way.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
1)  The Beehive is well known for its deliciously eclectic menu where dishes from Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean and Latin America rest comfortably next to each other. Now, during the summer months guests of The Beehive can enjoy a new patio menu, which features lighter offerings as well as creative interpretations by resident executive chef and former Food Network “Chopped” Champion Rebecca Newell.

Those looking for fresh flavors can indulge in one of the many flavorful appetizer offerings such as the Yellow Beet & Cucumber Gazpacho, Yogurt ($9), or the Market Salad with local lettuce, tomatoes, fennel, sunflower seeds, green beans, and Dijon vinaigrette ($10). You will also find items like Spiced Tuna Steak with Squid Ink Risotto, Basil Pesto & Green Bean Salad” ($25) or Seared Duck Breast with plum sauce and served with a side of pan-fried rice and spring onions ($25). The Beehive’s Raw Bar platters include: shrimp, oysters, clams, tuna tartar, mussels and vary in size and can be ordered to accommodate parties of two, four or six.

The Beehive’s patio menu is available for dinner 7 days a week from 5pm-11pm and brunch Saturday and Sunday 10:30am-3:00pm. As always, patio openings and closings are dependent on weather conditions. For more information, visit their website or call 617-423-0069.

2) From August 2-18, Chef Carolyn Johnson of 80 Thoreau will present a special “Corn and Tomato Festival Menu.” The special four course menu will be evolving daily as Johnson prepares dishes celebrating the freshly picked corn and tomatoes grown at some of Concord’s favorite farms.

There’s nothing better than freshly picked corn from Concord’s Verrill Farm and Brigham’s Farm” explains Johnson. “I want to devour it right then and there when it’s delivered- it is just bursting with flavor. I love the tomatoes from Yarrow Stalk Farm and Blue Heron Farm – again, locally sourced and grown with incredible care and respect.” Johnson says when it comes to creating the “Corn & Tomato Festival Menu” the key is to let the produce just shine and get out of the way. “Mother Nature and these dedicated farmers do it right” says Johnson. “We have a lot of fun in the kitchen deciding how to present this incredible product and truly just giving them a place on the plate to shine.”

Johnson shares some of her plans for the upcoming menu, including two dishes in particular: Griddled Jonnycake with lobster, tomatoes, tarragon and Pan Roasted Local Hake with charred cherry tomatoes, clams, & corn puree. For the rest of the dishes, you’ll have to stop by 80 Thoreau in August.

Cost: Four Courses, $39 per person, not including tax & gratuity
Reservations recommended so please call 978-318-0008.

3) Chef Vittorio Ettore of Bistro 5 is honoring the sweetness of peach season by supporting local agriculture though a unique Peach Tasting Menu. This menu highlights diverse items married with peaches, allowing each dish to highlight the beloved summertime fruit. The menu utilizes local items from Wild Rhody, Write Locke Farm in Winchester, the gardens from the kitchen staff’s homes, as well as Bistro 5’s own window box.

Every Tuesday to Saturday, through August 11, from 5pm-10pm, guests can choose to indulge in the three or five course menu, each available with an optional wine pairing. The menu includes:

--Peach Gazpacho (Mint- Cucumber Water and Cilantro Avocado Sorbet)
2010 Félines Jourdan, Picpoulde Pinet, Languedoc
--King Fish “Crudo” (Peach Chips and White Balsamic Pickled Peaches)
2011 Pala, Vermentino, Sardegna
--Peach Risotto (Fourm dam Bert and Prosciutto di Parma)
2010 Domaine de la Solitude, Rosé, Côtes du Rhône
--Lamb (Brandy-Peach Marmalade)
2011 Luccarelle, Primitivo, Puglia
--Baked Peach (Phyllo Crisp, Zabaglione and Vanilla-Lavender Ice Cream)
2011 Elio perrone, “Bigaro,” Brachetto d’Acqui

Cost: Three course menu is $45 per person; $65 with wine pairings plus tax/gratuity. Five course menu is $65 per person; $90 with wine pairings plus tax/gratuity
Reservations are strongly recommended so please call 781-395-7464

4) On August 9, at 6:30pm, Legal Harborside will team up with Jean-Charles Boisset, President of Boisset Family Estates, for an exclusive four-plus-course wine dinner. Founded in 1980, Boisset Family Estates is a family-owned producer and importer of fine wines with its roots in Burgundy, France. Boisset’s collection of more than twenty historical and unique wineries boast leading positions in the world’s pre-eminent terroirs that each have a unique history, identity and style, yet all are united in the pursuit of superior quality.


Hors D'Oeuvres
Scallop Ceviche, lime gelée
Fried Green Tomato, crab salad
Olive Oil-Poached Hiramasa Belly, za’atar spiced cracker, black cyprus sea salt
Paired with JCB, by Jean-Charles Boisset, No. 21 Crémant de Bourgogne, NV
First Course
Sautéed Skate Wing (roasted and puréed corn, vanilla bean, braised leeks)
Paired with JCB, by Jean-Charles Boisset, No. 81 Chardonnay, Sonoma County, 2010 and Bouchard Aîné et Fils Pouilly-Fuissé, Macon, 2009
Second Course
Pan-Seared Arctic Char (grilled calamari, crispy maitake mushroom)
Paired with DeLoach “Block 1950” Pinot Noir, Sonoma Coast, 2011 and Jean-Claude Boisset Bourgogne Pinot Noir, Burgundy, 2010
Main Course
Seared Duck Breast (fresh figs, confit leg and cipollini hash, minus 8 gastrique)
Paired with DeLoach “OFS” Pinot Noir, Russian River Valley, 2008 and Domaine de la Vougeraie “Les Petits Noizons” Pommard, Côte de Beaune, 2009
Dessert Course 
Pot de Crème (cinnamon, vanilla tuile)
Paired with Neige “Première” Apple Ice Wine, Quebec, 2010

COST: $95 per person (excludes tax & gratuity)
Reservations may be made by contacting 617-530-9470

5) From Sunday, August 19 through Sunday, August 26, over 40 North Shore restaurants and wine stores will join together to hold the second annual North Shore Wine Week. Sponsored by Northeast Flavor magazine, in conjunction with NECN’s “TV Diner,” and the Merrimack Valley Chamber of Commerce, North Shore Wine Week will celebrate the North Shore as a premier destination for fine wine and food.

Throughout the week the area’s finest wine stores and restaurants will highlight their wine selections with various complimentary events and great deals including everything from specially crafted wine tastings, wine dinners, wine flights, pairings, special events and more.

North Shore Wine Week will kick-off with a VIP event at the Wine ConneXtion, located in North Andover, on Saturday, August 18 from 12pm-5pm, with an exclusive, free wine tasting event featuring cuisine from several participating North Shore Wine Week chefs.

Buy local, drink global and join the North Shore as a vibrant food and wine community and support local businesses including: 15 Walnut, Alfalfa Farm Winery, Beacon Hill Wine Shop, Bonta Restaurant & Grill, Brasserie 28, Bistro 45, Burtons Grill, Busa Wine & Spirits, Café Escadrille, Ceia Restaurant, China Blossom, Finz Seafood & Grill, Grapevine Restaurant, Ithaki Mediterranean Cuisine, Joe Fish Seafood Restaurant & Bar, Joseph's Trattoria, Keon's, Kappy’s Fine Wine & Spirits, Halibut Pointe Restaurant & Bar, Loretta Restaurant, Masa Restaurant, Nathaniel's at Hawthorne Hotel, Oregano's Pizza, Pamplemousse, Pellana Steakhouse, Porthole Restaurant, Salvatore’s Italian Restaurant, Salem Waterfront Hotel, Samuel's at The Andover Inn, Shube’s, Tuscan Kitchen, Urban Wine Project, Waterside Tap & Grill, Wild Bites and Wine ConneXtion.

For more details on special events and a complete list of featured wines, please visit www.northshorewineweek.com

6) Chef Jay Murray remembers when his mother called Julia Child on her home phone back when he was a boy, to ask questions about Julia's recipe for vegetarian plum pudding. Jay recalls being amazed that Julia Child answered the phone herself, and helped his mom with the recipe. "That was pure Julia" recalls Jay. "She made food approachable for all of us."

In honor of what would have been Julia Child's 100th birthday, and rather than go the vegetarian plum pudding route, Jay is presenting a 100 Day Aged Ribeye in Julia's honor at Boston's Grill 23 & Bar steakhouse. 100 days? That is an incredibly long time to age a steak. I have had a 55 day dry aged steak before, but nothing longer.

--Vichyssoise with Russian vodka, chive puree and caviar
--100 day aged Ribeye Steak with pommes anna, asparagus and foie gras-juniper butter
--Peach Tarte Tatin with sauternes caramel

Cost: $59
Available August 15-18

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Halter Ranch Vineyard: SIP & Sip

Two years ago, I visited the Paso Robles region and was especially impressed with many of their Rhône-style wines, made from a variety of Rhône grapes, including Syrah, Grenache, Carignane, Marsanne, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and more. Interestingly, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot make up about 50% of all plantings in Paso Robles. Part of the reason is that a number of wine makers indicated that Rhône-style wines are a tough sell with many consumers. Those consumers are missing out on some excellent wines and Paso Robles is a region that you should explore, either by visiting the area or tasting their wines.

I recently received three samples from Halter Ranch, a Paso Robles winery, and it included two Rhône-style wines and one Bordeaux-style wine. At a local food event, I previously tasted the 2007 Halter Ranch Cotes de Paso, a Rhône-style red, and was impressed. So I looked forward to tasting some of their other wines.

The history of the Halter estate extends back to 1881, when Edwin Smith purchased a 3600 acre estate, though there would not be vineyards on the property until over a hundred years passed. Edwin was born in New Jersey but eventually moved to San Francisco to become a wholesale butcher. In 1874, he then moved to an area west of Paso Robles. Once he purchased the Halter estate, Edwin became a dealer in produce and livestock, as well as investing in silver mines and owning thoroughbreds. He constructed a large Victorian farmhouse on the estate, which remains a landmark even today.

Eventually, after a number of years of success, his businesses began to fail, and in the early 1900s the estate was broken up and sold. In 1943, the MacGillivray family bought 1200 acres of the estate and they owned it for over fifty years. But it was not until 1996 that they decided to plant some grape vines on the property. It would not be until June 2000 that wine would become much more important to the estate when Hansjörg Wyss, a Swiss businessman, bought 900 acres of the ranch, enlarging the vineyards from 40 to about 250 acres. There are even plans to plant more acreage this year.

The ranch is located in the west side of Paso Robles, about 14 miles from the Pacific Ocean. The vineyards occupy very steep, south-facing slopes and are planted with about 20 grapes, separated into 57 separate blocks, delineated primarily by soil type. About 60% of the grapes are Bordeaux varieties and 40% are Rhône grapes, with a smattering of Zinfandel, Tannat and Tempranillo. Their new production facility, which uses gravity flow in all aspects of production, was recently completed in 2011 and they continue to use many Old World wine making techniques.

Halter Ranch received SIP (Sustainability in Practice) Vineyard Certification in 2008, indicating its commitment to "environmental stewardship, equitable treatment of employees, and economic viability." This commitment goes beyond organic agriculture, extending to many other areas of winery management. Sustainability is very important to Halter Ranch but their concerns extend beyond the vineyard and should be commended for their commitment to the SIP principles.

The 2011 Halter Ranch Rosé ($16) is a blend of 44% Grenache, 28% Syrah, 20% Mourvedre, and 8% Picpoul Blanc. It was fermented in stainless steel, did not undergo malolactic fermentation and was aged for four months in stainless steel. It saw no oak at all and has an alcohol content of 14.1%. It is supposed to be made in a Southern Rhône style and I found it quite appealing, with nice flavors of cherry and raspberry, and an underlying backbone of some minerality. It was dry and seemed to be more in an Old World style than the typical California Rosés. This is perfect for the summer, but would be enjoyable year round, and also is an excellent food wine.

Of the three wines, my clear favorite was the 2011 Halter Ranch Cotes de Paso Blanc ($24), an enticing Southern Rhône blend of 33% Grenache, 26% Roussanne, 20% Picpoul Blanc, 12% Marsanne, and 9% Viognier. It was fermented in French oak, stirred twice a week to mix in the lees, and did not undergo malolactic fermentation. It was then aged Sur Lie for four months in neutral French oak and has an alcohol content of 14.2%. The aroma was spectacular, a complex and harmonious melange of floral, fruit and herb notes, all of which also came out on the palate. Peaches, lemons, melons, white flowers, minerality and so much more. Well balanced, complex, a lengthy and satisfying finish, and excellent acidity. When the bottle was empty, I was craving another. A highly recommended wine.

The 2008 Halter Ranch Ancestor Estate Reserve ($44) is a Bordeaux style blend of 25% Petit Verdot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon, 24% Syrah, 15% Merlot, and 12% Malbec. It was aged for about 18 months in French oak, 50% new, and then bottled two years prior to its release. With an alcohol content of 15.6%, it is on the higher side, though it did not seem overly alcoholic on the palate. It has a taste of ripe black and blue fruits with vanilla and spice accents. Though a powerful wine, it is not overly so, but would benefit from being paired with a hearty dish like a juicy steak.

Check out Paso Robles wines, especially the Rhône-style wines, and Halter Ranch's wines would be a good start.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Vermont Cheesemakers Festival: The Beverages

Smile and say "Cheese." Vermont cheese. 

This past Sunday, I journeyed to Vermont, just south of Burlington, to attend the 4th Annual Vermont Cheesemakers’ Festival at Shelburne Farms. This was my third time attending this event, and I was invited as a member of the media. Presented by the Vermont Cheese Council, the event showcased over 40 Vermont cheesemakers, presenting more than 200 Vermont cheeses for sampling. If all that cheese doesn't excite you, then maybe you need to check your pulse. Rachel Schaal, of the Vermont Cheese Council presented an interesting statistic, "In fact, Vermont has the highest number of cheesemakers per capita." Sorry Wisconsin.

The festival is held in a beautiful setting, in a Coach Barn located on a huge estate and the barn is situated next to the shore of Lake Champlain. In addition to the multitude of cheeses, there were also a number of specialty food vendors, selling items such as candy, croutons, pickled vegetables, hot sauces, and more. Plus, you could find numerous Vermont wineries, breweries and distilleries providing tastings of their products. The only criticism is that this event gets very crowded, so that you will have to wait in line for many of the samples, especially at the alcohol tables. Fortunately, the press gets into the event an hour earlier than the public, so we have the opportunity to speak with the various vendors in a more relaxed setting.

In this post, I am going to highlight some of the beverages, primarily alcoholic, which most interested me. I did not taste all of the alcohols that were available, though I have tasted many of them on prior visits.

One of my best finds at the event was the WhistlePig Straight Rye Whiskey ($70), a small batch rye. By U.S. law, "rye whiskey" must be produced from a mash that is at least 51% rye, be distilled to no more than 160 proof, and aged in charred, new oak barrels. To be "straight" rye whiskey, it must also be aged for at least two years. Prior to Prohibition, rye whiskey was very popular and even George Washington produced some. But its popularity waned though we have begun to see a surge in popularity in recent years. The key to the taste of rye whiskey is its spicy component.

Whistlepig was founded in 2006 by Raj Peter Bhakta and he hired Master Distiller David Pickerell, who spent 14 years at Maker's Mark, to produce a rye whiskey. Raj purchased an old dairy farm in Shoreham, Vermont, and is currently planting rye, with an eventual goal of becoming the only single estate rye distillery in the U.S. Whistlepig is made from 100% Rye, which currently comes from Canada, and it is now aged and bottled at the farm in Shoreham. The rye is 100 proof and has been aged a minimum of 10 years, seven in new, charred oak barrels and three more in used bourbon barrels. It was initially released in 2010 and only 1000 cases were produced, though 2011 production may have doubled that figure.

The aroma of the Whistlepig is a complex melange of appealing spice notes, all which present themselves up front on the palate, including some clove, anise, nutmeg, as well as hints of vanilla and caramel. It is the lengthy finish though that is even more impressive, silky smooth with a rich and compelling taste of butterscotch, vanilla and mint. This is definitely a fine sipping whiskey, something to slow savor with good friends. It will appeal to both newcomers to rye whiskey as well as those who already enjoy such spicy spirits. Highly recommended!

I love vodka, but I am very picky as I prefer my vodka ice cold, maybe on ice, but with nothing else added. I enjoy some vodka cocktails too, but my preference is the vodka on its own. The Barr Hill Vodka ($57), produced by Caledonia Spirits in Hardwick, Vermont, intrigued me. Caledonia is a distillery and winery founded by Todd Hardie, who has been a beekeeper since 1965. In 2006, he started working with a local wine maker to produce mead, a natural fit considering his beekeeping. Caledonia also produces Gin, Elderberry Cordial and Vodka.

The Barr Hill Vodka is produced from 100% organic, raw northern honey and is 80 proof. The honey is cold fermented for several weeks before it is distilled. They state, "The result is a pure spirit that reflects the floral characteristics of a given honey run’s blossoms." The vodka has a honey aroma, and up front, there is a mild sweetness, a nice honey with hints of floral elements, and on the finish it tastes much more like a vodka, with a bit of harshness. Personally, I would not drink this vodka on its own, but I think it would work well in a cocktail, providing some sweetness. This is an expensive vodka, in large part likely due to high production costs, so it receives a qualified recommendation.

Several different apple ice ciders were offered at the festival, some of which I have tasted before. One of the new ones to me was the Newhall Farm Ice Cider ($18 for 187ml), which debuted in 2012.  Linda and Ted Fondulas are Directors of a farm in Reading, Vermont, where they also raise heritage breeds in a natural and sustainable manner. Only organic sprays are used in their orchards and their wine making style tends toward noninterventionist, though they do add yeast. This ice cider uses more traditional dessert apples, has an alcohol content of 12% and about 14% of residual sugar. This was impressive, with a mild sweetness, well balanced with acidity, and it had a rich and compelling nuanced apple flavor. This would be an excellent pairing for cheese.

Another new beverage to me was the Windfall Orchard Ice Cider ($27 for 375ml), produced from a collaboration of Brad Koehler of Windall Orchards in Cornwall, Vermont, and Eden Ice Cider. All of the apples, about 30 different traditional and heirloom varieties, come from a small 80 tree plot. Only apples are used, and there are no colorings, sugar or flavorings added to the ice cider. It takes over 8 pounds of apples to produce one 375ml bottle, and only 100 cases were made. The ice cider has an alcohol content of 9% and about 15% of residual sugar. Compared to the Newhall, this is a little sweeter and richer, though still with good acidity, and with an intriguing and complex apple flavor, with subtle hints of tartness.

Champlain Orchards produces Pruner's Pride Hard Cider, a blend of "ecologically grown" Macintosh and Empire apples that is produced in more of an English style. I liked the taste of this dry and slightly effervescent cider, which had a subtle but pleasant apple taste, with some tartness. They also make a Semi-Dry Hard Cider and an Apple Cranberry Hard Cider. In addition, they produce a couple apple ice ciders.

Not every beverage at the festival was alcoholic. Kimball Brook Farm, in North Ferrisburgh, Vermont, has been certified organic since 2005 and raises about 200 Jersey and Holstein cows. Their organic milks range from whole milk to 1% milk, from chocolate milk to heavy cream.  The White Whole Milk is rich and creamy, with a nice clean taste. The Chocolate Whole Milk, which you must shake before pouring as it does not contain any stabilizers, was excellent with a rich, but milder chocolate flavor. This was well balanced, rather than possessing an over powering chocolate flavor. It also was not too sweet either. The Heavy Cream is decadently lush and creamy. These all taste like milk should taste. 

Monday, July 23, 2012

Rant: Cheap Restaurant Wine?

Buying wine at most restaurants can be expensive, and you might pay as much as three or four times the retail price. As those restaurants are not even paying retail, then the actual markup is even higher. Though there are many rationales to try to explain the huge markup, it is clear not all restaurants find this to be a necessity. There are restaurants that maintain far more reasonably priced lists, and those restaurants should be commended for their efforts in this regard. It is those restaurants which wine lovers should support and patronize. Our support helps keep those restaurants in business, and allows them to continue to offer reasonable prices on their wines.

It is interesting though that many people seem to complain far more about high food prices than wine prices. They might bitch about paying $40 for a steak, yet pay $100 for a bottle of wine without a quibble, despite the fact that same wine could be bought at a wine shop for $30. For some restaurants, the higher food prices enable them to keep their wines at a more reasonable level. Other restaurants keep their food costs low by increasing the prices of their wines, yet you will probably pay more for your entire dinner if the wine prices, rather than the food, is high.

Troquet is one of those restaurants where people sometimes complain about the prices of their food. Their appetizers roughly average about $18 and entrees about $38 so it is not an inexpensive place. But their prices are also lower than a number of other high end restaurants and their wine prices are often very reasonable. So when you add in wine into your dinner cost, you will probably end up paying less at Troquet than you will at many other comparable places. Plus, you can't forget that the quality of the food is very good, which also makes such prices more palatable.

Another compelling aspect of Troquet is their annual Wine Cellar Clear Out Sale. Each night during the summer, they offer a fair-sized collection of vintage wines at killer prices. Many of these older wines would cost a small fortune at other restaurants. Many people also rarely get the opportunity to taste such older wines. It is a grand opportunity for wine lovers and it is the type of event which warrants support of the restaurant.  

Last week, I had a superb dinner at Troquet with four good friends and wine lovers, including Adam, Marco, Dale and David. We took advantage of their clear out sale, drinking some excellent older wines. For example, we purchased the 1970 Croft Port for $50. According to Wine Searcher, the retail price roughly ranges from $100-$150, so most other restaurants would probably charge at least $200, and maybe up to $300 or more. Thus Troquet offered a huge bargain on this wine. We also enjoyed a 1966 Chateau Lynch-Bages for $75, when its retail price roughly ranges from $200-$300, and restaurants would usually charge at least $400 for it. So we scored another great deal, and those are only two examples of the wines we drank. (Correction: My friends informed me the Lynch-Bages was only $50, an even greater value.)

Their Wine Cellar Clear Out will continue through August so you really should check it out. We need to support those restaurants which offer reasonable priced wines. Too many restaurants charge far too much for their wine and there seems little incentive for them to change. We need to show them that there is another way, that those huge markups are not necessary for a successful business. If other restaurants can succeed with reasonable wine prices, then they should be able to do so too. If customers keep paying outrageous prices, then the cycle will never stop.

Break the cycle, get restaurants to stop charging outrageous markups on wine.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Sake News: Oysters to the Tipsy Sensei

1) "It irks me. When I visit an oyster bar, the menu will usually have numerous wine options to pair with my raw bivalves, from Sauvignon Blanc to Muscadet, from Champagne to Chablis. But many of these restaurants fail to carry one of the best pairing choices, Japanese Sake."

More restaurants that serve oysters should also have Sake on their beverage lists. But why does Sake pair so well with oysters? There are a number of reasons and you can learn all about them by reading a guest post I wrote, Slurping Oysters & Sipping Sake, over at Jacqueline Church's new site. Jacqueline is currently focusing several articles on oysters, as well as instituting the start of the Oyster Century Club©. Once you try some delicious Sake with your oysters, you might never drink anything else.

2) "Four Seasons Baltimore's beverage manager Tiffany Dawn Soto wants you to know two things – first, that sake is pronounced "sa-keh" and not "sa-kee" and second, that you should never, under any circumstances, do a sake bomb."

Over at Gadling, there is an excellent article about Tiffany Dawn Soto, a sake sommelier, whose sentiments certainly appeal to me. No sake bombs! In the article, you can read a bit about her life, as well as learn a few things about sake. It is amazing to learn that Tiffany is the "..highest seller of sake outside of Japan for several years running, a total that amounts to 25 percent of the United States' overall sake sales." That is an impressive feat and earns her much respect.

3) Why have Sake sales declined so much in the past thirty years? Though Sake shipments increased in 2011 for the first time in 16 years, how can sake breweries continue that positive change? A recent article, Mass-market sake brewers fight bad image, in The Asahi Shimbun provides some suggestions and details some of the latest efforts to increase sake consumption.

One of the problems is alleged to be the difficulty of the new system used to designate sake, which includes terms like Junmai, Ginjo, Kimoto and more. That is an area where education is needed, and one of the reasons I teach sake classes and write about it. Though the terms seem exotic and esoteric, understanding them is not really too difficult. You can learn the basic terms in less than ten minutes. It would also help if the sake industry was more united in their marketing, trying to promote sake consumption in general. Maybe the new government initiative to promote sake will help in that regard too.

4) "Sake zukuri banryu" translates to the “10,000 schools of Sake making” and refers to the fact that there are so many different ways to produce Sake. There is no single correct way to do so and different breweries can approach production in radically different ways. Another recent article, The challenge for local sake, in The Asahi Shimbun presents two different points of view, industrialization and agriculturalization.

Asahi Shuzo, which makes the Dassai brand (which are excellent sakes), exemplifies industrialization. They do not rely on the traditional toji system, but rather run a laboratory, with a heavy reliance on science. In addition, rather than brewing sake during the winter, they brew year round, and make about 400 new brews annually. On the other hand is Shinkame Shuzo which exemplifies agriculturalization, and their primary focus  is on rice varieties and cultivation techniques and practices. This is more of a reliance on terroir.  Both breweries are successful, further showing there is no single way to successfully produce sake.

5) The Tipsy Sensei series is going strong. So far, I have published two sake-related short stories in the Tipsy Sensei series. This series is set in contemporary Boston and each story deals with an ancient Japanese legend. They can be classified as urban fantasy. The first story, Yurine's Pot, has received nine 4 & 5 Star reviews while the second story, The Ghost of a Ninja, which was published only two weeks ago, already has four 5 Star reviews.

I am currently working on the third short story, tentatively titled The Fox's Katana, and it will deal with kitsune, fox spirits. The fourth entry in the Tipsy Sensei, with a working title of Demons, Gods & Sake, will likely end up as a novel as the plot idea is too expansive for a short story. So grab the first two short stories, each for only 99 cents, and enjoy the tales of the Tipsy Sensei.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Zocalo: Celebrating Manila to Acapulco

Where is the Filipino love? I ranted about that question before, curious as to the reasons for the dearth of Filipino restaurants. There appears to be only a single Filipino restaurant close to the Boston area, in Quincy, and there are less than 500 Filipino restaurants in the entire U.S. Compare that to over 43,000 Chinese and over 14,000 Japanese restaurants in our country.

So I was pleased when Chef Erwin Ramos of the Olé Restaurant Group announced they would hold a special event, a dinner comparing and contrasting Mexican and Filipino cuisines. At both Olé Mexican Grill in Cambridge and Zócalo Cocina Mexicana in Boston, they offered a three-course meal, with each plate sharing a dish from each of the two cuisines. As Chef Ramos was born in the Philippines, he has an understanding of Filipino cuisine, and it seems like an intriguing pairing. Yet there is a deeper connection between Filipino and Mexican cuisine of which many people might not know.

Starting in 1565, a trade route was begun between the Philippines and Mexico and it was commonly called the Manila-Acapulco Galleon Trade. Approximately once or twice a year, Spanish trading ships would sail across the Pacific Ocean, which usually took about four months. This led to a variety of Mexican influences in the Philippines, including culinary ones, and vice versa. It was an extremely valuable and important trade route, uniting Asia with the New World. The trade route officially ended in 1815 with the start of the Mexican War of Independence, though trade between the two countries would later continue again. In 2009 in the Philippines, it was declared that each October 8 would become Día del Galeón ("Day of the Galleon"), a holiday to commemorate the Galleon Trade.

The dinner was only $35 per person for a three-course meal, which technically was six courses as you received two items in each course, one Mexico and one Filipino. I was invited, with a guest, for a complimentary dinner and it was my first time dining at Zócalo Cocina Mexicana. It is medium-sized restaurant with a bar down the right side of the room and a funky and cool decor, from statutes of flying pigs to skull candles. You can even watch them making guacamole in the dining room, from slicing the avocados to making the paste with a mortar and pestle. On a Wednesday night, it was busy and the patio probably would have been occupied too if it had not been raining.

Soon after you are seated, they bring chips and salsa to your table, and will refill it later if you so desire. Their drink list is strong on tequilas, mezcals and Mexican beers, and many of their cocktails have a Mexican twist. The Watermelon-Jalapeno Margarita ($10.95) is made with Tanteo Jalapeno Tequila, fresh watermelon puree, Combier Orange, and fresh lime juice and comes as either mild or spicy. I went for the spicy and it came in a large rocks glass and not the usual margarita glass. It was not too sweet and had a nice spicy kick on the finish, though the kick wasn't over the top.

The Los Meurtos Manhattan ($11.95) contains Woodford's Reserve Bourbon, Mexican Coca Cola syrup, Drambuie, and Mole bitters. Again, the cocktail was not too sweet, and there was a nice touch of chocolate complementing the vanilla of the bourbon, along with a mild caramel streak. As I dislike overly sweet cocktails, Zocalo did a great job with the two that I tried.

They also sell a Red (Mango flavored) and White (Peach flavored) Sangria ($6.95/glass, $21.95/pitcher). The Red Sangria was very good, once again not too sweet and the mango flavor was more subdued and did not overwhelm the rest of the flavors. A perfect summer drink.

There were four options available for the Appetizer course and we tried two different ones. The Cactus Salad is joined with Atchara (papaya) & Lechon Kawali (pork dish). The Cactus Salad consists of pickled cactus on a bed of mixed greens and I don't recall having eaten the green pads of the cactus before. But they were good, reminding me of a cross between a green pepper and a pickle. The Atchara, a green papaya salad, came with the Lechon Kawali, roasted pork. The papaya was crisp and refreshing and I liked the seasonings on the pork, though some of the meat was a bit overcooked, which would be a common complaint for the entrees as well. The pork had a crisp outer coating and I liked dipping it into the sweet sauce.

The other appetizer were the Chicken Taquitos and Lumpia. The taquitos were crispy corn stuffed with chicken, potatoes, and cheese and I was very impressed with their creamy texture. One of the sauces was sweeter while the other was a bit smoky, though still with a little sweetness too. Both were very good with these items. The Lumpia, kind of a Filipino spring roll, was a rice tortilla rolled with chicken and shrimp. It had a crunchier texture, though the meats were tender and would be an excellent summery dish. I would easily order either of these items again.

There were two options for Entrees for we ordered both of them. The Mole Amarillo is a pork stew cooked in tomatillos and chiles, and it is the darker meat on the right side of the photo. The spices and flavors of the meat were very good, with an excellent smoky edge, though some pieces were overcooked.  The Kare-Kare is a Filipino stew with oxtail, which was tender, in rice and a peanut sauce. An intriguing and tasty sauce, you also can mix in some of the fish sauce, called patis, seen in the little metal bowl. We were warned that some people didn't like the smell or taste of the fish sauce, and they compared it a bit to anchovies. But I very much enjoyed it, finding it to be savory and umami rich. I would have loved an umami-rich Kimoto Sake to pair with that fish sauce.

The other entree was a comparison of Mexican versus Filipino Adobo. The Mexican version, pictured on the left side, was cooked in achiote and dried chile paste while the Filipino version was cooked in soy sauce, garlic and vinegar. Both dishes were nicely seasoned and spiced, and I would gladly enjoy either version, though I would give a slight edge to the Filipino version. It was intriguing to be able to do such a comparison of the two styles.

For dessert, the Flan de Caramelo, pictured on the left, was superb with rich, sweet flavors and plenty of caramel. It had just the right consistency, and tasted almost as if it had a bit of coconut in it. It is still light enough that even after a large meal you could find a way to enjoy the flan. The Filipino dessert was the Brazo de Mercedes, which seems to be related to the Spanish Brazo Gitano. It is a rolled meringue cake with an egg yolk filling, and certainly had a more unique taste. The cake was a bit spongy with the filling being more like a custard texture, with a rich eggy flavor. In this dish though, I have to give the edge to the flan.

We definitely need more Filipino cuisine in Boston. Consumers would find much that is familiar to them, yet also find some unique elements as well. Zocalo has done several of these dinners before and I hope that they do even more of them in the near future. I recently ranted about restaurants that simply jump on the trendy bandwagon, rather than trying to offer something unique. Well, this is a perfect opportunity for a restaurant to start a trend, to offer Filipino dishes and bring attention to this neglected cuisine.

Zocalo Cocina Mexicana on Urbanspoon

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I briefly highlight some interesting wine and food items that I have encountered recently.
1)  Back again, Smolak Farms presents “Whim” 2012. Located in North Andover, Smolak Farms has partnered with Northeast Flavor, Cambridge Culinary School, Boston Chefs, Yelp and how2heroes.com to present the best outdoor dining experience New England has to offer.

Whim will take place every Wednesday evening starting July 11 and continuing until August 29 at 7:30PM and will feature top chefs from all over New England. Guests will experience a meal under the stars prepared by some of New England’s most respected chefs. Included in the $65 ticket price is a three-course dinner followed by a bonfire to meet and greet your fellow diners. Chefs will be accompanied by culinary students from The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts in order to help them smoothly and successfully execute dinner to an audience of over 100 guests each week. As implied by the event name, Whim, the menu is prepared the day-of at the discretion of the chef.

Upcoming on July 25, at 7:30pm, Whim will feature Chef Vittorio Ettore of Bistro 5 & A Tavola, who is   an extremely talented chef and I greatly enjoy both of his restaurants. So this dinner should please all diners. His charity is "Seed to Plate", which is a hands-on food-education program, which tries to create a lasting connection between children and their food.

INFO: $65 per person (gratuity and tax not included). Included in the ticket price is a 3-course dinner and hayride/farm tour. Dress is casual. Beverages not included. Paired wines, beer and non-alcoholic beverages available for purchase. Only one menu will be presented with no substitutions. Ticket is non-refundable. Tickets can be purchased directly via: http://www.smolakfarms.com/whim

2) Tequila is a part of Mexico’s history and folklore, and the stories, myths and legends surrounding it are as old as the country itself. Named after the small town where it was first produced, tequila gained prominence after Mexico achieved independence in 1821 and was a symbol of national pride during the Mexican Revolution. In the United States tequila has typically been sampled in the form of a margarita, but people are starting to discover that the zesty flavors in good tequila are best enjoyed like a fine wine or spirit, sip-by-sip!

On Tuesday, July 24, from 5pm-11pm, Olé Mexican Grill, located in Cambridge, and Zócalo Cocina Mexicana, located in Boston, will celebrate National Tequila Day by offering guests a special Taco & Tequila Pairing menu. For just $25 per person, guests will sample shrimp, beef and braised pork tacos, along with blanco, resposado and anejo tequilas from Herrardura. This menu will be served in conjunction with the regular menu, and vegetarian options are also available.

1st Pairing: Blanco Tequila with
Baja Tacos: Beer-battered shrimp with pickled cabbage, cilantro pesto, chipotle aioli, toasted black sesame seeds, on hand-made corn tortillas.
or Rajas Tacos (Vegetarian Option) Roasted poblano peppers tacos, with crema and cheese.
2nd Pairing: Reposado Tequila with
Tinga Taco: Cold marinated shredded beef tenders tacos with shiitaki mushrooms, pico de gallo, avocado and pasilla salsa
or Pipián Tacos (Vegetarian option) Grilled squash, zucchini, carrots and corn tacos in Pipián mole
3rd Pairing: Añejo Tequila with
Tacos de Carnitas: Braised pork tacos with guacamole and pickled red onions
or Tacos de Hongos (Vegetarian Option) Variety of seasonal mushrooms cooked to perfection with epazote and garlic mojo

3) A Tavola continues its A Taste of Italy culinary tour with its three-course monthly dinners focused on a distinct region of Italy in which Chef Vittorio Ettore has drawn inspiration from. This month’s menu features the coastal region of Liguria, and Chef will be present to explain the cuisine and techniques he is so fond of. Guests will be given the option to pair wine from Liguria with their dinner. Now, through July 28, Tuesday through Saturday, from 5pm-10pm, this Ligurian dinner will be available.

The Italian Riviera, characterized by its lofty mountains and tucked-away beach towns, is the birthplace of pesto, where pine nuts and basil are abundant. Edging right up to the Ligurian Sea, the cuisine is also dominated by seafood. Escape to Portofino or the five towns of Cinque Terre with this month’s menu, which includes:

Trofie al Pesto (Hand Rolled Pasta with Fresh Basil Pesto)
Buridda (Tomato Broth Seafood with Fluke, Shellfish, and Squid, Fennel and Basil Marmalata)
Budino di Amaretti (Almond Pudding with Candied Almonds and Red Wine Cherry Reduction)

Cost: Three-course menu is $45 per person; $65 with wine pairings. For reservations and information, call A Tavola directly at 781-729-1040

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Felsina: A Rave For Rancia

"As soon as one sets foot in this countryside, one feels a moral responsibility to the land."
--Giuseppe Mazzocolin

History, hunting, wine and olive oil. An intriguing combination that provides character to the Felsina winery located in Chianti Classico. The name "Felsina" derives from the name of an ancient Etruscan city, which is now called Bologna, the capital of the Emilia-Romagna region. Around 1152, Felsina is first mentioned in documents and it was known as a "place of assistance for pilgrims." Many historic buildings still remain on the property, though some have been renovated for different uses. Each step on the estate seems to be a step into the past.

The Felsini estate is located in the southern most part of the Chianti Classico region, about 20 kilometers from Siena. In 1966, Domenico Poggiali of Ravenna purchased the Felsina estate from a group of hunters, who also were from Ravenna. At that time, the estate only contained about 25 acres of vineyards but within a few years, Domenico, who saw the potential of wine making on the estate, had expanded that to 100 acres.

Domenico also purchased the estate's hunting reserve and hunting, for boar, deer and other animals, continues to the present day. We saw some of their young and adorable Irish Setters, which are being trained as hunting dogs.

The current manager of Felsina is Giuseppe Mazzocolin, the son-in-law of Domenico, and he became a part of the winery during the 1970s. Giuseppe has a very classical background, being a former Latin & Greek instructor, who after 30 years decided to enter the wine industry. Now, the Felsina estate covers about 1454 acres and 232 acres are planted with vineyards. The estate is mostly biodynamic, though it is not certified, and they raise a number of animals, including chicken, turkeys, goats and small cows. Their wine maker is Franco Bernabei, a famed Italian enologist.

Felsina produces about 500,000 bottles annually, about half being Chianti Classico. Above, you can see one of their cellars, which once was an old granary and that later became stables. In 1980, Felsina acquired a second property, the Castello di Farnetella, located in Chianti Colli Senesi, which also produces about 500,000 bottles. The primary focus of Felsina is Sangiovese, though they produce a few other wines as well. They believe their Sangiovese wines have high acidity and are elegant, sometimes even austere.

We began our tasting of Felsina wines with the 2010 I Sistri, IGT, made from 100% Chardonnay, a French clone. The grapes were fermented in small oak barrels, matured on the lees, and bottled in the July after harvest. The wine was creamy and rich, with some nice apple and citrus flavors, some minerality and a decent finish.

The 2009 Chianti Classico is made from 100% Sangiovese, a blend of grapes from 11 different vineyards. It was barrel aged for about 12 months in medium-sized Slovenian oak casks and then aged for 3 more months in the bottle. It tends to be more in the traditional style, showing a rustic aspect with bright cherry flavors and some underlying spice notes. Very good acidity, this would be an excellent food wine.

The 2008 Chianti Classico Riserva is also made from 100% Sangiovese, but there is a stricter selection of grapes, aiming for a higher quality. It was barrel aged for 12-16 months in medium-sized oak casks and then aged for 3-6 more months in the bottle. It is also very traditional with a nice rustic element, with deeper fruit flavors, more black cherry, and stronger spice notes. It has a bit more tannins, good acidity and a longer finish. Also an excellent food wine, this is the style I prefer.

The next two wines, the Rancia, a Chianti Classico Riserva, and the Fontalloro, an IGT, were both begun in 1983.

The 2008 Chianti Classico Riserva Rancia is made from 100% Sangiovese, the grapes all from a single vineyard named Rancia. That vineyard derives its name from a historic farm that once was a Benedictine monastery. The wine was barrel aged for 16-18 months in new and one year old 225-liter oak barrels and then spent an additional 6-8 months aging in the bottle. The Rancia had such an alluring smell, a melange of wonderful aromas that beckoned to me like a siren. It too was in a traditional style, with a delightful earthy component, and a compelling taste of black cherry, blueberry, violets, spice, and hints of leather. It was elegant and intriguing, with a lengthy, satisfying finish. The Rancia was my favorite wine from Felsina.

The 2008 Fontalloro IGT is made from 100% Sangiovese but the grapes come from vineyards in the Chianti Classico region as well as the Chianti Colli Senesi region. The wine was barrel aged for 18-22 months in new and one year old 225-liter oak barrels and then spent an additional 8-12 months aging in the bottle. It too had an excellent aroma, with more subdued fruit flavors, some earthiness, and more spice than the Rancia. This is an excellent wine and it is hard to qualify exactly why I preferred the Rancia, though maybe it is because the Rancia, to me, seemed to possess certain depths that the Fontalloro lacked. Your preference over these two wines may vary, but you won't go wrong with choosing either one.

Vin Santo is very important to Felsina, and they consider it their most traditional wine. The 2003 Vin Santo is a blend of Trebbiano, Malvasia, and Sangiovese and was a very pleasing wine, with a nice mix of flavors including citrus, tropical fruits, a bit of dried apricot, mild nutty notes and enough acidity to balance out the sweetness.

Felsina has been producing olive oil for a long time, and in 2002, they identified three specific areas, Felsina, Pagliaresi and Boschi as possessing distinct terroirs. They now make four single varietal olive oils, including Pendolino (very fruity), Leccino (a fruity smell with a little pepper and spice), Maraiolo (fruit, floral and grassy notes), and Raggiolo (thick and savory).