Sunday, March 28, 2010

mexico drinks wine

Mexico, a land of verdant mountains and sandy beaches is home to some of the largest, bustling cities in the world, and to many a peaceful village where one can pass halcyon days with a book and a beverage. The earth here has been shaped by one of the oldest and most advanced civilizations in history. It is the birthplace of corn, which has gone on to play in the hit parade of menu items across the world. It was here that someone figured out how to modify the grass that was ancient corn in order to become a viable and sustaining crop, and to release the all important protiens in the grain by cooking it in an alkaline substance. Salsa, Mariachi, tortillas, bullfights, caramel flan, peppers both dried and fresh: to the visitor, Mexico is indeed a diverse country filled with life, and bursting at the seams.

When thinking of Mexico though, one doesn't necessarily think of wine. Tequila and beer along with non-alcoholic drinks such as jamaica and horchata dominate the beverage scene, but for the oenophile, there is wine to be found in them there hills. This is the oldest wine making country in the Americas. In 1542 Cortes ordered all Spanish settlers to plant vines and make wine, but even before the Spanish, the indigenous peoples of Mexico were making a form of wine by combining fermented grape juice with honey and sometimes other fruit. This would not be unlike early forms of wine on the European Continent which was often blended with honey, lead, spices, and various other sundry items to enhance flavour. The oldest winery in the Americas is also in Mexico. What is now the Casa Madero Winery was founded as the Mission of Santa Maria de las Parras in 1596.

Protectionist measures of the Spanish Government, the Mexican Civil War, steep tarrifs, and free trade agreements have all played a role in hindering the wine industry in Mexico, but it has been undergoing a renaissance since the late 1980s. In past, grapes have been grown primarily for use in brandy and altar wine, but as tastes change wine consumption is on the rise, and so is the quality of wines being made.

There are five grape growing regions in Mexico: Querétaro; Aguascalientes; Zacatecas; Coahuila, and Baja. Baja is the largest region with a flourishing tourism industry that is sometimes compared to Napa. Grapes are grown in regions where winemakers can take advantage of ocean mists and breezes, or cooler weather at higher altitudes.

We tried a Chardonnay, and a Cabernet Sauvignon from Casa Madero, a Cabernet Sauvignon from Calixa in the Baja region, a Merlot from Santo Tomas, also in the Baja region, and a Ruby Cabernet from Cacholá, Zacatecas.

The wines ranged from a little flaccid (the one from Zacatecas), to fruity (the Cabernet Sauvignon from Calixa), to earthy (the Merlot) and nicely structured (the Cabernet Sauvignon from Casa Madero). Both wines from Casa Madero were particularly good.

Here are some recommendations for wine pairing with Mexican fare:
  • Tempranillo, Syrah, or Australian Shiraz for their fruit forward profiles to balance the hot chile flavours.
  • Pinot Noir and Chianti to match the earthiness of ingredients like huitlacoche and some chiles such as poblano and achiote.
  • Malbec for its smokiness, and Torrontés for its floral notes.
  • Savignon Blanc for its clean finish and to compliment herbs such as epazote and cilantro.
  • Sangiovese and Barbera to match tomato flavours.
  • Off dry Riesling or Vouvray to balance heat, and compliment the sweetness of some roasted peppers.
  • Dry Riesling to compliment citrus fruits.
  • And of course, a Mexican wine if you can find it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

weekend wine buy: eclipse

If I had to be stranded in a country with an empty wine glass, I would hope it would be Italy. There is so much to choose from, and I would venture to guess there is a wine for every person, mood, season, food. There are over 350 native grape varieties identified to date. That's a lot of grapes! The Montepulciano grape is indigenous to Tuscany, but flourishes in Abruzzo. Don't get Montepulciano d'Abruzzo (which is from Abruzzo) confused with Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (which is from a village of the same name in Tuscany, and made with another grape altogether).

Because I didn't get the whole label into the photograph this time: Bosco Montepulciano d'Abruzzo Eclipse ($7.80).

In the glass: this is a medium to full-bodied red wine, not quite so big and full as the last couple of weekend wine buy choices. Aromas of plum, blackberry, and red cherry are complimented with hints of thyme, oregano, and violet. The mild tannins, soft acidity, and touch of sourness make this a nice food wine.

Bosco is a family vineyard that has been in operation since 1897. Their vines are planted on the 'lover's hills' of Pescara, so maybe there are some good vibes in that bottle.

I say in honour of Spring, a salad with any of the following in it would be nice with this red wine: tomatoes, roasted red peppers, goat cheese, proscuitto, black olives; or light the barbecue and have burgers with a tomato relish.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

two whites and a chicken

Last October we drove to Debbie's farm in Winchester and brought home some organic chickens to throw in our freezer. It's always a nice Sunday drive thing to do, when all the leaves are changing, and I always love the opportunity to visit the farm. We have to dodge the chickens running about in the driveway. "Every year someone runs over a few chickens" Debbie tells us, and then throws her head back and laughs out loud. Farmers have such a unique perspective on life. Farmers are great. And, she lets us pet the donkey. Today, I roasted one of Debbie's chickens. It seemed fitting to pair the fruits of her labours with some local, Ontario wine. These two whites are both from the Niagara Peninsula.

Konzelman, 2008, Pinot Blanc, VQA. $10.75

I tried this at a tasting of Ontario wines and promptly went out and bought a few bottles. I am a fan of Pinot Blanc as I tend to like wines that have an earthy, herbaceous, or pungent side (I also really like Sauvignon Blanc) to them. The Konzelmans are fourth generation winemakers with a history dating back to a family vineyard in Germany in the 19th century. The Estate in Niagara was planted in 1984 and chosen for the minerals in the soil, and the similarity in climate to Alsace. These Pinot Blanc grapes come from 25 year old vines.

In the glass: you'll find some citrus, especially pink grapefruit, quince, pear, hay, minerals and an underlying tone of earthiness. On the palate this is a light to medium-bodied wine with some good acid to balance out a mild impression of residual sugar on the finish.

Peninsula Ridge, 2008, Inox Chardonnay, VQA. $12.75

Peninsula Ridge is an 80 acre property with 42 acres that have been planted since the year 2000.

In the glass: this is an interesting wine. There are aromas of lemon, and peach that give way to richer aromas of apricot, and pineapple, but after banging my head on the kitchen counter until I could place it, I found that there is also a honey and almond, or marzipan aroma to this wine. It is medium-bodied with enough acid to hold the almond/peach finish for a long time.

Both of these wines went well with the chicken. The mushrooms, and sage in the gravy brought out the earthy aromas in the Pinot Blanc; the buttery baste on the chicken, and the mashed potatoes brought out the creaminess of the Chardonnay. I guess it just depends upon whether you like earthiness, or creaminess, or both, as I drank a glass of each, at the same time, with my meal.

Word: Weissburgunder is the German name for Pinot Blanc. Inox is from the French Inoxydable meaning stainless steel, like the barrels in which the Chardonnay was fermented and aged.

Saturday, March 20, 2010


I officially graduated from the Sommelier Progam at Algonquin College last week, and our celebration was held at the Restaurant International on campus. Until I started attending classes, I had no idea the restaurant existed; I think it must be Ottawa's best kept secret. Over the past two years I've had many opportunities to eat the food that comes out of that kitchen, and I have always left feeling very happy. As part of our graduation dinner we had an appetizer of "buttery sage and acorn squash tart with a side of pear and pomegranate guacamole and crispy pita chips". The tart melted in my mouth. For dessert we had "Szechuan pepper chocolate terrine with strawberry sorbet". In between there was a warm goat cheese salad, and a very generous serving of black pepper spice rubbed beef tenderloin. I couldn't eat it all.

As part of our graduation program, Jeff Hundertmark from Marynissen Estates in Niagara spoke about his journey to a career in wine, and shared one of his wines with us. I don't think I could tell you about it any better than they do at the Estate except to add that the wine was paired with the pepper rubbed beef and it worked very well. The wine has a little bit of pepperiness on the palate and some soft tannins that worked with the beef nicely. This wine is sold for $21.80, off the vineyard, I suggest you check out their website for details. I could easily indulge in too much of it.
And it was pretty satisfying to be graduating, after two years of study, with such an esteemed group of people. Thank you to the program and all the instructors at Algonquin. What started as an interest in learning how to make my dinner parties better has turned into a growing obsession thanks to you all.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

weekend wine buy: argento

This is another full-bodied wine, and it's very soft, meaning there isn't much of a tannic, or acidic mouthfeel to the wine. It is actually a bit on the sweet side, and all this full, soft, sweet profile makes this a good red wine for some weekend quaffing.

Argento is a bodegas, or estate in the Mendoza region of Argentina: a prolific vine-growing region of the country. This area lies at the foothills of the Andes Mountains with vast agricultural plains that give way to the snow covered monoliths. In this arrid, semi-desert climate the mountains provide precious water as the run-off from snow and glaciers is funnelled through canals and boreholes which is then used to irrigate the vines. The region rarely sees more than 250mm of rain a year.

The wine industry in Argentina has been changing dramatically in recent years as desires to export wine have seen investment going into improving facilities and winemaking practices. This has resulted in great, bargain wines like this one ($9.60).

In the glass: this Cabernet Sauvignon is a deep purple colour with some big fruit aromas of black cherry, black current, and plum with a hint of bell pepper. I also found some liquorice, vanilla, and floral notes of violet in my glass. The sweetness comes out in the deep fruit finish. There's not a lot of acid, but the alcohol helps hold up the wine.

Argentina is the fifth largest wine producer in the world, and boasts some of the highest altitude vineyards.

Word: Argento means silver in latin and is used colloquially in Argentina to mean something, or someone that is quintessentially Argentine.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

drink more & gain less

I read this article in The New York Times last week that cited a recent study about the effects of alcohol on gaining weight. Women who drink alcohol tend to gain less weight than women who don't. The research doesn't show the same for men. Apparently women substitute alcohol for food, whereas men simply add alcohol to their food intake (men take note, have that third glass of wine and pass on the beef for supper). The article also states that alcohol has a tendency to speed up metabolism in women, and that red wine inhibits the formation of fat cells. I'm thinking that women may also drink differently than men and count calories; they may have soda instead of pop, or drink less beer. I find that having a drink - or more usually, a glass of wine - can feel like an indulgence. I'll have that glass of champagne over that slice of cake any day. There are about 75 calories in a one ounce serving of chocolate cake, and about 150 calories in a six ounce glass of wine. Wine might be fattening, but not so much as chocolate cake. And maybe it's because we are more apt to censor our drinking than our eating. If you have that extra scoop of ice cream, you're just hungry, but that last glass of wine might mean you have a social disease. Whatever the reasons, this is my kind of newspaper article: one that touts proof that there are benefits to drinking (wine).

Women who drank: MFK Fisher (maybe not like Janis, but Sherry for breakfast wasn't unusual); Dorothy Parker; The Yellow Rose of Texas; The Maenads; Cleopatra; Calamity Jane; Janis Joplin; Zelda Fitzgerald.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

sunday roast pork

When I was growing up, once a week my brother and I were allowed to alternate choosing what we would eat for dinner. My brother would want fish sticks, or pancakes; I always chose the same thing: roast pork. As an adult, I still love everything that is pork, and since warmer weather is on its way, and our days of leaving the oven on all day are numbered, this past weekend found me rummaging through our freezer for a shoulder of pork (see links for local, organic farmers). Slow roasting the pork with the last of Winter's chill just outside, left the house warm and smelling like those Sundays of my youth.

Traditional wine pairings for pork are lighter reds like Beaujolais and Pinot Noir, and fuller whites like Gewürztraminer and Chardonnay, but Food Pairing Tidbit #2: you can pair your wine to the sauces, or herbs that accompany whatever you are serving. Because my roast was a take on home-made porchetta, injected with, and covered in thyme, rosemary, and oregano, I tried a Sauvignon Blanc to see if it would compliment the herbs (Sauvignon Blanc typically has a grassy, herbaceousness to it), and it worked out fairly well. I made a relish with cranberries and goat's cheese (goat's cheese is a typical pairing with Sauvignon Blanc) to have as a side which probably helped the whole affair.

This is a good, simple Sauvignon Blanc; a littler fuller-bodied than usual, probably because it comes from Chile (remember the whole more sunshine = more sugar = more alcohol thing), and it comes from a family vineyard - which makes me feel warm and fuzzy - in the Maule Valley of Chile. It's a good deal at $8.85 a bottle.

In the glass: it has mild aromas of cooked green bean (this is not unusual for Sauvignon Blanc, and not unpleasant), hay, gooseberry, and red apple. Hints of minerality and white pepper give way to a tart, lemony finish.

This wine also went well with leftovers and a lemon risotto the next day.

Word: The Sauvignon Blanc grape was probably brought to Chile, via Peru, by the Spanish in the 16th century. However, despite the Spanish influence, in Chile wine making traditions have been influenced more by the French. In search of work, French winemakers travelled to Chile in the 19th century after vineyards in France were devasted by Phylloxera (a nasty little grape root eater) bringing their knowledge and winemaking traditions.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

weekend wine buy: ogio

Primitivo is the Italian relative to a grape we are more familiar with: Zinfandel. But never mind, if you like big, fruity wines such as Zinfandel, then you will like this cheap thrill of a wine. This Primitivo is from Puglia, in the south of Italy, the grape's Italian homeland. It's $8.65 a bottle.

In the glass: there is a bit of mineral and earthiness to this wine, but really it is all about the fruit: plum, black cherry, blackberry, and the oak: vanilla, pepper, milk chocolate. It's fairly low acid, low tannin, but there is enough alcohol, and a tinge of sourness to hold up the flavours.

This is easy enough to drink on its own on a Friday night, but we tried it with a few nibbles of cheese and it went quite well with the stronger, more difficult to pair varieties: blue, cambozola, Roquefort. We were bold enough to try it with this chocolate tart.

It wasn't a match made in heaven, but it was okay. The wine is full and fruity enough to stand up to the chocolate, and the tart wasn't so sweet as to make the wine seem overly strong. Personally, I like Lillet with chocolate. The combination reminds me of those Terry's Chocolate Oranges my mother used to put in my Christmas stocking. Lillet aside, I highly recommend this tart from Clotilde at Chocolate and Zucchini. It's a cinch to make. Don't let the bain marie throw you off, I put parchment paper in one of my round cake pans, and then sit that in one of my big roasting pans with some water. I swear it's faster than going to the store to buy one, and in the words of one of my mother's-in-law (I have two): 'it is the essence of chocolate'. It's also easy to convert to a gluten-free indulgence by substituting the half cup of wheat flour for rice flour.

Word: Primitivo is from the latin primativus meaning first to ripen. The grape is actually Croatian in origin (where it is called Crljenak Kaštelaneski) and was brought to Italy via Croatia in the late 18th century.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

the nose

Apparently our nostrils can alternate degrees of openness, from left to right, at different times of the day. Check out this posting by my Yogini friend Jamine. This has had me concentrating, a lot, over the last few days on my nostrils: standing in grocery store line-ups; sitting on the couch watching TV; riding the bus. This seems to me, as a Sommelier, to be valuable information. When in the day are my nostrils most open? Which of my nostrils are most open and when? Would this affect, or enhance my ability to smell wine? I've found that in the mornings my right nostril seems to be more open, and in the evenings my left nostril is more open. And I actually do smell more from my left nostril when I'm sniffing wine in the evening. I haven't gotten around to any early morning sniffing yet, but I'm sure the occasion will arise at some time, and perhaps then I will find that I smell better from my right nostril. I'm assuming this is all very subjective, so the next time you have your nose in a glass of wine, you might want to think about which nostril is doing the most work and see what you find.

*My apologies to Jamine for bastardizing this information that was originally posted for much loftier reasons than my wino concerns. I can't help it, it just all comes back to the wine for me.

Monday, March 8, 2010

spring is coming

Spring was out in my neighbourhood this past weekend. I saw it on wet sidewalks as snow melted off the lawns across the street. And I heard it dripping from eavestroughing all along my driveway, and in the birds flitting about in the cedar hedge. It was there in a little sprig of grass poking through last year's dead leaves on the front yard. And it was there in the dog's sprightly gait as he bounced in the sunlight on our afternoon walk. We are sure to have more chilly days, and more snow, but for now Spring is having its say, and in response we were drinking a cool, light, white wine on Sunday.

Now this wine doesn't fall into our usual price range. It is a whopping $17.95 (and I have to admit it was a gift - thank you Jean & Jack), but it's still a good wine to try because:

1. It's good.
2. I like it.
3. It's local (from Prince Edward County).
4. It pairs nicely with braised pork belly.
5. It has a pretty label.
6. It's still a good deal - because it's good.
7. I like it.
8. Sundays are for splurging.

In the glass: this is a pale yellow, light wine. With lots of acid on the palate it's a good food wine, and the aromas of petrol (which is not unappealing, and in fact reminds me of the way my dad would smell when he came home from working in the garage; I know, not exactly the kind of thing that would appeal to everyone, but there you have it), green apple, mineral and pink grapefruit remind me of spring. At 11.8% alcohol, it's a versatile glass of wine that is easy to drink. It has a delicate sweetness to it that doesn't overwhelm.

We had it with an Asian-style braised pork belly. The acid and sugar in the wine was a nice counter balance to the salt in the soy, and the fattiness of the pork.

Soy Braised Pork Belly
-adapted from Susanna Foo

2 lbs of pork belly
1/2 cup light soy sauce
1/8 cup brown sugar
5 star anise
1 cup dry white wine
1 or 2 knobs of ginger (leave them in chunks)
2 cloves of garlic, minced
2 tbsp balsamic vinegar

Put the pork belly in a large roasting pan.
Combine all the remaining ingredients and pour over the meat.
Cover with a snug fitting lid and bake at 250˚ for 5 or 6 hours.
Remove the lid and turn the heat up to approximately 350˚ (for 10 minutes, or so) to allow the meat to crisp a little.
On a cutting board, slice the meat into large chunks.
Serve the pork belly over rice with some of the braising liquid.

Now I'm off to eat barley and lentils for the next week to make up for all this Sunday splurging.

Word: Prince Edward County has a long agricultural history. Wheat was a major crop that gave way to apples, and now grapes are making their mark on the landscape. In 2000 there was one winery; now there are more than a dozen.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

weekend wine buy: colio

This is the beginning of what I'm planning to be a regular affair. Every Thursday evening I'll post a good, inexpensive wine to drink over the weekend. I thought it fitting to start with an Ontario wine. This Cabernet Franc ($10.75) is my favourite new thing. It is a lovely, fruitful glass of wine that I like on its own, but because it retains a bit of acidity would pair well with food as well, so pour a glass and sip a little, then throw a pizza (this would go well with a roasted vegetable pizza) in the oven, and finish it off with dinner; see what you think.

This wine is from the Colio Estate Vineyard in the Lake Erie North Shore region of Ontario. An area that is called the Sun Parlor of Canada because the climate offers longer sun hours than anywhere else in country. The real bonus for the vineyards though, is that they benefit from the warmth that the lake provides; it's shallow and retains heat (and unless you've already noticed, all the major wine growing regions in Ontario are close to large bodies of water for this reason).

I drove through this part of the Province a few years ago. We followed highway three as it meandered back and forth between Lake Erie, and fields of tobacco, grape vines, rows of tall, billowy grasses, and hothouses. This area is also rich in history, and bird watching... but I went there for the booze.

In the glass: this is a medium-bodied wine with a bit of acid. It has aromas of ripe raspberry, cherry, green pepper, a little sweet spice, and a little mushroom.

I like wines like this - the medium-bodied style with a little acid in it - they keep me coming back for a second sip, and they are very versatile. I promise to post a big, full-bodied wine next week. I like those too, I just seem to be drinking them less. Perhaps it's the promise of Spring in the air and I'm tending towards wines that are a little on the refreshing side.

Do you have a favourite Ontario wine? I'd love to know so I can try it.

Word: Cabernet Franc is one of the parents of Cabernet Sauvignon (the other is Sauvignon Blanc). Some of the best Bordeaux is made from Cabernet Franc.