Mar 26 2014

The Wondrous Versatility of Riesling

Riesling is one of those white wines that drinks well on its own and yet pairs easily with a wide range of food.   It can be served in the winter, spring, summer or fall.  It finds its way around cheeses, vegetables, seafood, poultry, Asian dishes, Mexican cuisine and even some Thai and Indian cuisine.  It is a wine that does not need to be rushed and offers a lovely minerality, racy acidity and bevy of fruit flavors to reflect where it is grown.  The varietal’s grape vine consists of a uniquely hard wood for white wine grapes and as such, it can be grown in cooler climates and admittedly shows its best attributes when grown in the right climate.

In Napa Valley there are only a couple of Rieslings which I will purchase and have featured them on this site.  Generally I prefer fruit coming from farther north and in Washington State but admittedly there is a lovely Riesling that hails from farther south down Highway 101 in Central Coastal California from the beloved Edna Valley of San Luis Obispo County.  This article will serve as a reminder to check from time to time this web site’s “SLO Vine tab” for a few favorite picks from San Luis Obispo County.   These wines hold equal enjoyment to Napa Valley wines and merit equal attention and review.

Located just south of the town San Luis Obispo is the beautiful Edna Valley which is home to the Niven Family Wine Estate which makes a number of labels under one house with the same winemaker, Christian Roguenaut.   Tangent is one of the winery’s labels and it tends to focus on wonderfully delicious white wines.  The Paragon Vineyard (owned by the Niven Family) is the home of the winery’s Riesling grapes and when made into a wine it is clear that this is a product of the cool Central Coast.   As with most Rieslings, it has a racy acidity that is kept into check with a vibrant minerality and lovely flavors of peach, melon and a bit of citrus.   There is no exposure to oak so the wine is able to show of the true attributes of the vineyard, the soil, the climate and the ability of the winemaker.  White wines which are made with such a true expression of the fruit are, in my opinion, the most enjoyable and give the consumer a true sense of place.

Whether you are highly-skilled in the kitchen or a budding home chef, one easy rule to remember with Riesling is that because it is an acidic white wine, it matches well with other acidic dishes.  Tomatoes are such an easy match for acidic wines:  whether the wine is white or red.  Just because a tomato is red does not mean that it has to pair with a red wine.  To show off Tangent’s Riesling’s pairing ability, I decided to put together a dish involving steamed mussels and juicy garden harvested tomatoes.

The mussels are steamed in some white wine with garlic, shallots, lemon thyme and other herbs from the garden.  As the mussels open, they are removed and set aside.  Large chunks of juicy tomato are added to the pot along with some butter to make a light stew consistency without obliterating the tomatoes.   The mussels are added toward the end to reheat slightly and then served with the tomatoes and broth with warm home-made artisan toasts.

With the wine, the acidity in the Riesling cancels out the acidity in the tomatoes.  All of the fruit flavors of the wine tumble forward and the tomato becomes sweet and robust.   The mussels have a wonderful flavor of their own which pair perfectly with the minerality of the Riesling.   The toasts served alongside sop up any of the remaining broth and are not too heavy with the wine.

This is such a simple and straight-forward way to enjoy Tangent’s Riesling at home and to serve to guests out on the deck on a warm spring evening.   It is the very basic essentials to cuisine and wine pairing at play and will satisfy everyone at your table.   Cheers!

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Mar 12 2014

A Season for Everything: Proprietary White Wine Blends

Published by under Blends,Fish,Food,Salad,White Wine

What exactly is a “proprietary blend” wine?   It certainly sounds fancy and depending on the marketing, it could be intimidating.  The wine means simply what the word implies:  this is a winemaker’s own special blend of either red or white grapes to make a wine that he or she believes unique enough to have marketable legs with the general public.   Depending on the grapes used and depending on from which vineyards they hail, a proprietary blended wine could be quite expensive.  A savvy vintner however will realize that when making a blended wine that there is the unique opportunity to hedge the cost of the higher quality fruit by incorporating more affordable blending grapes and make the wine accessible to the average consumer.   If the winemaker is truly talented, the wine will not only be affordable but will instill the consumer with a feeling of empowerment in that he or she will feel that they have acquired something very special for a price within his or her budget.

The Wagner Family (yes, those same Wagners behind Caymus) sell a fun white proprietary blend wine made by Jon Bolta called “Conundrum”.    Each vintage involves a different blend of white wine grapes grown in various vineyards and AVAs in California and sometimes they are exposed to oak, sometimes American, sometimes new French and sometimes no oak at all.   Even though the blend varies each year and is kept under tight secretive key, there is a consistency to this wine so that no matter the vintage you can pull it from the shelf of your local distributor and find very close similarities and the equally fun game of trying to pinpoint and guess year after year exactly what is it that you are tasting.  In a simple glass you can taste a range of fruit from tropical to apricot, green apple, pear, peach, melon and a hint of citrus.  You will find a dash of minerality, a round mouth feel often accompanying Roussane or Chardonnay, a spritz sometimes associated with Muscat.   The blend is simply fun and due to its varying varietal combinations, it keeps the palate guessing but similarly becomes a siren for food or cheese pairings.   For depending on what you put with the Conundrum White Proprietary Blend you will coax out various white wine grapes that just might give you a closer hint as to what is in the wine.

As you can already imagine, with such ability to pair with a wide variety or cuisine, it can similarly pair across the seasons of the year and become such a different wine depending on the climate and the season in which it finds itself served.   During spring (or during the warm weeks leading up to the official arrival of the season as we are having in California), the home garden is welcomed daily by various vegetables that have waited all winter to jump forth from the soil.  It seemed like only a week ago that I was privately lamenting that I did not have any asparagus yet in the garden and then over the weekend not only did I suddenly have asparagus but it was growing at an astronomical rate … as if like the rest of the U.S., it could no longer wait for the official arrival of spring.

From a culinary perspective, asparagus is its freshest in the spring.  It is extremely tender and very sweet.  It is so sweet that it can be eaten raw.  If you are able to purchase it at your farmer’s market or even better, harvest it from your own garden, you will have the opportunity to experience this vegetable not only at its freshest but at its sweetest.  It is during this early window of seasonality that the home chef has the opportunity to experience this deliciously sweet delicate vegetable as a flavorful raw salad that your guests will not texturally anticipate.

Seafood is a natural easy pairing with most white wines and adding shrimp to a raw asparagus shaved salad makes an easy pairing with Conundrum Proprietary White Wine.   To dress the salad, a seasonal Meyer lemon vinaigrette is created to whisk away any residual briny flavor from the shrimp and immediately invokes thoughts of ceviche.  The vinaigrette involves lemon zest, Meyer lemon juice, shallot, minced bits of asparagus, lemon thyme and white wine vinegar.  Adding minced fresh cantaloupe (which also begins to come into season in the spring) enlivens and adds an additional component of sweetness balanced by some chopped chives from the garden.

With this salad, there is no bitterness in it at all. It refreshes and gives one a feeling of seasonal sustainability.   If you have been craving seasonal vegetables all winter long, this simple salad is your easy tribute to spring.

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Mar 06 2014

Luxury in a Bottle

Sparkling wine is the United States’ local sustainable answer to French Champagne.  Naturally, no one is allowed to call a fun bottle of bubbles “champagne” unless the vintage actually hails from the Champagne region of France.  Traditionally, the notion of “champagne” exudes messages of elegance, luxury and celebration.  Friends who have traveled or lived in France may at times turn their noses slightly upwards when presented with American sparkling wine as if somehow this cousin from the West is not quite as good.  Such attitudes are for the ill-informed as quite elegant bottles exist in the United States that could rival bottles from France.  And perhaps due to the labeling as “sparkling wine” in the United States, these bottles of bubbles are afforded a bit of latitude as they can be served a bit more casually whether celebration is truly merited or not.  Then again, who is to critique one’s personal celebration of “Wednesday” should they elect it?

In Napa Valley just north of St. Helena, Schramsberg Vineyards (“Schramsberg”) has been producing quality and internationally recognizable bottles of fine sparkling wine.  It is well remembered that one of the bottles was served by President Richard Nixon in China during the famous “Toast to Peace” in 1972 and a young excited Barbara Walters was filmed on the airport tarmac holding up a bottle of Schramsberg’s Blanc de Blancs for the world to learn about.  With that, California wine was off in a race to the White House to begin a legacy of being served at many administration’s finest meals.

Schramsberg produces an array of wonderful special sparkling wines and each is handled with care until such wine’s release.  While all of the grapes used in Schramsberg’s winemaking are of quality, there are certain wines that receive a bit more focus, more attention and high selection in their winemaking process.  Of these is the sparkling wine, J. Schram, which is dedicated to Jacob Schram who founded the winery in 1862.  In the J. Schram, the very best lots of grapes are used to create a sparkling wine that shows off unparalleled elegance in which the winery claims, “ . . . in which no effort has been spared and no care has been omitted.”  To sip at a glass of any vintage of J. Schram will prove this assertion year after year.

The 2002 vintage of Schramsberg’s J. Schram upon arriving in the champagne flute shows off its rich opulence readily.   Yielding deep aromas of buttered toast, the wine is almost like vanilla cream slipping down the throat with apricot kisses.  It is in short, painfully and breathtakingly delicious.   The bubbles that effervesce in the wine are soft and delicate but notably present and it gives the wine a distinct luxurious texture.  It has had 12 years to age since its release and could easily continue aging for at least another decade or two.  The 2002 J. Schram melts the palate and pampers with traditional elements of the “good life”.   The wine is perfect to sip opulently alone or to accompany something special:  whether that be a meal or an event or both.  This is a wine that when sipped clearly marks something:  a moment in time, a place, a stage in life or perhaps that simple moment of pause before life transitions into something remarkably else.

To pair, dinner was planned and served outdoors which at times in Napa Valley can feel like a celebration in and of itself given the valley’s utopia-like nature. As jazz floated through the air and the back deck basked in warm early evening light, there was little reason to not relax, sip and indulge.

First course consisted of a salad:   Dungeness Crab-Avocado Salad with a Thyme-Meyer Lemon Vinaigrette.

Simplicity in food pairing goes a very long way with the 2002 J. Schram.  Serving ice cold sweet Dungeness crab with the wine is outstanding.  However, add a few additional ingredients and the wine begins to set forth its attributes like a well-merited braggart.  Big bold flavors of rich buttered toast leap forward with the pairing of avocado.  Lemon thyme and chive add a touch of delicate herbal balance that allows the wine to settle nicely and set forth bits of fruit from apricot to pineapple.

A cheese plate was a welcomed second course:   Brillat-savarin from France with fresh raspberries.

The Brillat-savarin from France is insanely creamy due to its high fat content and texturally is not as dense as other cheeses such that it is a natural pairing companion for sparkling wine.  Given its fat content, it naturally succumbs to the creamy density of the wine.  Add a raspberry while sitting in a warm ray of sun and feel like you have died and gone to heaven as the acidity from the raspberry renders with the acidity of the sparkling wine.  For sensory overload and a “bite done right”, I purposefully picked up a French baguette from Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery.   With Yountville right up the road, nothing could feel or taste more at home.  The perfect crust of the baguette has a naturally buttery, toasty taste to it and as you well imagine, it pairs interwovenly with the toast notes found in the wine.

Clams were chosen for a third course.

Of all the shellfish, if crab pairs opulently, why move to clams?  Clams are naturally sweeter in flavor and are utterly delicious paired with sparkling and certain white wines.   Combined with fresh tomatoes, lemon thyme, butter and garlic, these steamers make a sweet companion to the J. Schram.  The sweetness of the clams syncs perfectly with the sweetness of the fruit found in the sparkling wine.  The butter, thyme and warm garlic cozies instinctively to the buttery toast notes in the wine.  And the tomatoes, much like raspberries, bring a simple brush of acidity to make the flavors in the wine rounder and fuller and to simultaneously cleanse the palate a bit.   Each bite with the shift of the soft early evening bay breeze transitions the meal to another place and another point in time.

For a main and fourth course, the theme of seafood continues as a gorgeous piece of lingcod is slowly grilled over charcoal with butter, Meyer lemon and thyme.  Served alongside are garlicky kale and lemon thyme zucchini chips.

While the J. Schram continues to flow into the meal’s new course, the smoky flavors of the charcoal grill are welcomed as dark, cool evening breezes lazily drift by.   With the lingcod, the J. Schram suddenly becomes alive and introduces you to bouncy, flirty fruit flavors.  The wine is brighter, perhaps due to the Meyer Lemon or perhaps due to the flavor of the slowly grilled lingcod.  The side of garlicky kale introduces seasonings of garlic, red pepper flakes and raspberry vinegar and the Zucchini Chips are lightly battered and fried using a bit of Riesling wine from the refrigerator and are simply seasoned with sea salt.   The zucchini offers a slightly nutty flavor and the sea salt is a natural pair to the wine as well.

And dessert, well that brought out a blueberry pie for anyone who still had the fortitude to press forth with dining.  Regardless of where the meal ended, one thing was certain:  the stars twinkled above in the night’s sky, a good meal was had by all and it was a fine way to celebrate and send off one experience before transitioning to the adventure ahead.  Cheers!

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Feb 20 2014

Spring is in the Air: Chardonnay

While it is a month ahead of schedule, spring feels like it is in the air in Napa Valley.  Thankful for a recent major rain storm where Napa saw over 12 inches of rain in the course of three days, the trees are blossoming, flowers are reaching up from sleepy winter soil, the base of the vineyards are turning green and even glimpses of mustard are finally starting to appear.  The sun is warming so that are daily highs are cruising closer to 70 degrees while our evenings dip down to a chill that welcomes a warm fire in the living room. 

In the garden, winter greens are finishing a long stretch of growth, herbs are in abundance and seemingly overnight sugar snap peas, red lettuces and green oak lettuces jubilantly produce.

While the warm sun is welcome and our days are slowly growing longer by 4:00 p.m. it is evident that the party is over and the chilly breeze from the bay arrives to warn that evening fog will soon follow. 

It is in these conditions that Chardonnay often shines at its best.  Mild temperatures outside accompanied by a hint of damp humidity and chill on the finish poetically mirror the way that Chardonnay crosses the palate.

In this article, I introduce the site’s readership to Conn Creek Winery (“Conn Creek”) located in Napa Valley along the Silverado Trail in the Rutherford AVA.  Conn Creek was originally owned by Bill and Kathy Collins who are the owners today of the same Holystone Vineyard in St. Helena which its neighbor, Benessere Vineyards, sources old vine zinfandel fruit to make one of my favorite zinfandels (and a wine that helped launch the start of this web site nearly six years ago).   Despite the valley’s size and the number of wineries in the valley, Napa Valley is still a small community with a small number of degrees of separation among them.   Today Conn Creek is under different ownership but it remains committed to making wonderful wines which reflect the terroir from which grapes hail.   In future articles I will have the opportunity to focus on the winery’s regarded Cabernet Sauvignon wines but this article will focus on a lovely Chardonnay that hails not far from my own backyard in the Carneros AVA of Napa Valley.

Conn Creek’s 2012 Napa Valley Chardonnay (“2012 Chardonnay”) presents gentle aromas of pear, vanilla and oak in the glass.   As it crosses the palate, the wine is creamy and sleek demonstrating how elegant the Chardonnay grape can be when handled properly.  Its flavors range from notes of banana, pear, fuji apple and a finish with a distinct apple pie spice.  The vintage seems to be in line with the growing year in that 2012 was relatively a textbook year with steady weather allowing the grapes to reach their full ripe potential before harvest.  Most 2012 vintages that I have tasted for white and rosé wines have shown fuller mouth feel and vibrant flavors.  This is a welcome aspect as 2010 and 2011 were both challenging growing seasons for Napa Valley. 

Conn Creek’s 2012 Chardonnay is a Chardonnay which seeks to be paired with food.  It is quite pleasant on its own but upon a simple tasting, it is easy to see that this is a wine that could be easily influenced by a food pairing.  This can make a wine much better or simply, allow a wine to better be able to show off some of its attributes if placed on the proper culinary stage.  For this pairing, I elected to prepare:

1)      Mustard Garlic Lemon Thyme Grilled Chicken; and

2)     Brown Buttered Crimini Mushrooms with French Lentils, Shallot, Garlic, Spinach and Garden Herbs.

Chicken breasts are marinated in white wine and lemon thyme before being introduced to a hot charcoal grill and basted with a mustard garlic aioli.  In the final moments of preparation, crimini mushrooms are sautéed in browned butter with shallots, garlic, lemon thyme, sage, rosemary and marjoram from the garden.   French lentils are added and at the last minute fresh leaves of baby spinach from the garden join the mix.  While seemingly simple, this plate offers a bevy of flavors in line with the first moments of spring.

When paired with the wine, it is readily apparent that Conn Creek’s 2012 Chardonnay loves to be paired with garlic.   With the dishes, the Chardonnay picks up on the garlic in particular and compensates by allowing its fruit notes to become rounder and fuller.   The spice in the wine tames slightly and readily welcomes the garlic in the dish.  The wine itself, whether due to its nose or on the palate, is refreshing and fun much like the season of spring.

Similarly, the wine enlivens with the herbs found in this dish.  Lemon thyme, sage, rosemary and marjoram might as well invite an impromptu trip to Provence from your backyard entertaining deck as you enjoy this meal in the early warm rays of spring.  

While spring may still be a month away, savor those moments that hint of its pending arrival with good friends, good food and good wine.  Cheers!

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Jan 30 2014

Sweet on Mon Chou

“Mon Chou” … my sweetheart … my darling … when used in casual conversation among the French.  When found made as a red wine, Mon Chou will equally enamor you.

Elyse Winery (“Elyse”) located on Hoffman Lane in Napa Valley makes a red wine under its Jacob Franklin label called “Mon Chou” that is a loving tribute to the red wine grapes that often make up some of the very best Bordeaux blends:   Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec and Petit Verdot.   Any of these grapes can stand alone but when combined together, the senses are guaranteed to be romanced.   The 2007 vintage of Mon Chou is identified also by “#50”.   For those who love Cabernet Franc, this number will be of interest to you as it always notes the percentage of Cabernet Franc used in that vintage.   2007 was a particularly big year for red wine grapes in Northern California, so using 50% Cabernet Franc in this vintage of Mon Chou will ensure an incredibly smooth mid-palate experience with this wine.

Pouring into the glass, rich aromas raise forth showing off scents of black cherry, cassis, raspberry with hints of earth and tobacco.  The wine itself is a rich garnet color and you can even see a rich jewel color around the edge of the wine on the glass.  Crossing the palate the wine is soft as silk, tender as a hesitant first kiss.  2007 #50 Mon Chou coasts back with cola, cassis, candied cherry and raspberry showing off a confident structure and yet as smooth as a lover’s lines.  As the wine makes its way to back of the palate, it remains soft, with a gentle wave goodbye on its finish with a lingering taste of red plum, raspberry and succulent berry fruit.   Lingering, lovely and delicious:  much like the discovery of a new love.

Another love for many people is the black truffle and last week wrapped up the end of Napa Valley’s Truffle Festival.   An introduction of Elyse’s Mon Chou to black truffle in a pate with Cowgirl Girl Creamery’s Mt. Tam cheese is not just a match made in heaven but an instant aphrodiasiac.

Truffle lingers on the palate which frequently can be quite heavy, but the sweet (if not nearly candied) fruit of the wine entertwine to lighten the palate enough to create a perfectly balanced, sensory love affair.   Cowgirl Creamery’s Mt. Tam cheese is wonderfully creamy all on its own.  In the black truffle pate, it melts on the tongue and its creaminess allows any tannins in a red wine to be excused.   Elyse’s Mon Chou is not tannic, however, but the cheese does allow the wine’s fruit to nevertheless to show off its exotic juicy attributes.

Rather than reach for a cracker or a simple piece of bread, I elected to create delicate ciabatta toasts with marjoram and lemon thyme. Slicing leftover bread thinly, the bread is quickly sautéed in a mixture of butter, olive oil, sea salt and minced herbs.  Popped into the oven for a bit and the bread emerges as perfect gourmet toasts:  not overly crispy but delightfully buttery, slightly crisp and chewy on the inside.  Choosing to use lemon thyme and marjoram from the garden is the right balance of aromatic perfumey herbs to compliment the wine.  The herbs are soft yet not understated.  They add an element of elegance and simple perfection:  much like everything from Provence.

With the cheese and the black truffle, the toasts transform each bite into sheer romantic perfection.  

Strawberries from the garden are the simple dessert to finish the plate, the last sips of wine and cleansing the palate.  It ties the sensory experience in a sweet bow, satisfied and not longing for anything more.

It is just heaven when one bite can harmoniously bring the collective senses in agreement without overwhelming you.  When this is accomplished, you have achieved perfect balance . . . and perfect balance is bliss:   much like your sweetheart should be.

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