Thursday, November 26, 2009

Monterey stars shine brightly in the wine fermament

by Dwight Casimere

The eve of the 13th Annual Monterey Great Wine Escape Weekend began with a rather auspicious sign, the most incredible star-filled clear night of the fall season. The stars shone in all their glory. They shimmered in stark relief against the nighttime sky over Monterey Bay. Orion was visible with his belt and sword on full display--a rare astrological experience. The abundance of stars was a prelude to the multiplicity of wine ‘stars’ that would reveal themselves over the next few days.

A behind the scenes look reveals that Monterey is the heart and soul of America’s wine industry, with an ideal grape growing climate and a stellar array or award-winning wines.

Over the course of the next three days, the Monterey County Vintners & Growers Association created a series of experiences that allowed the wines to show themselves in all their glory against the panoramic backdrop of Monterey Bay and the Carmel and Salinas Valleys. The total wine experience was akin to that of watching the stars shimmer in the nighttime sky.

A tour of Salinas Valley, conducted by D’Arrigo Brothers Andy Boy vegetable producers, led by Owners Margaret D’Arrigo-Martin and her father, John D’Arrigo meandered through the lush Salinas Valley, the literal market basket of the entire nation. Expansive fields of Broccoli, Broccoli Rabe, Cauliflower, Fennel, Romaine Hearts, Strawberries and a relative newcomer, Cactus, a staple on most Mexican American tables that is quickly gaining grown as a new gourmet discovery in specialty markets and kitchens around the country. “We’re starting to produce wine grapes on the slopes alongside our vegetables and we plan to release a vintage within the next year or two,” D’Arrigo-Martin told our group. “It will be interesting to see the reaction to our expansion into the wine making area. It just seems to us to be a logical extension to what we do here.”

The following day’s tour of Carmel Valley brought the entire experience into full perspective. Salina is the vegetable basket of the entire country. The valley and its surrounding hills are among the most picturesque locals in the world, rivaling the south of France and the rolling hills of Tuscany. It is home to a number of venerable Hollywood celebrities like Doris Day and Clint Eastwood. It is also home to many of the wine world’s biggest stars as well. Driving through the Carmel Valley, the names on the signposts roll off the tongue, Mondavi, Chalone, Morgan, Hahn, Estancia, Talbott. A visit to the tasting rooms nestled along the quaint streets of Carmel Village was a highlight of the weekend and a life-changing experience that will live long in memory, even as the taste of the superior wines lingers on my mental palette.

A fabulous luncheon hosted by owners Bob and Patti Brower at the Petite Chateau, Château Julien Estate, showcased their wines along with those of Jack Galante and Dawn White of Galante Vineyards and Cima Collina wines. “We created Chateau Julien 28 years ago when we moved from the East Coast to the Carmel Valley to follow our dream,” Brower told me, over a glass of his spectacular Private Reserve Chardonnay, while standing on the terrace with its expansive view of the vineyards and surrounding foothills. There were only 10 wineries here at the time, but now its grown to become one of the largest grape growing areas in California. More than 40 thousand acres of wine grapes are now grown here.

“Our winemaker, Bill Anderson, has been with us from day one. We enjoy what we do here and plan to stay for a very long time.”

The winery is very visible off Carmel Road and is marked by its distinctive buildings, which are right out of a picture book of the French countryside.

“’Chateau’ is what we’re all about,” Brower said emphatically. “Julien is the name that we liked for a son, at the time. So the idea is that this is our ‘baby’, our project.”

The Reserve Chardonnay is the most outstanding and award-winning wine to come out of Chateau Julien. “Our Reserve Chardonnay is stirred ‘sur lies’’ (A French wine term which means, literally, on the lees—wine that is allowed to ferment and age in contact with the dead yeast cells that remain after initial fermentation along with contact with the leaves and stems. It adds additional character and a toasty quality to the wine and is similar to the effect steeping tea).

“We started it as a project in ’89 or stirring the wine in the barrels. It gives a creaminess to the wine and yet, we are not letting the wine undergo malelactic fermentation. The result is that it gives a really lovely, light elegant character to the wine. Then we moved on to our ‘la conviviance’ program, which is the hallmark of what we do at Chateau Julien. La Conviviance in French means ‘enjoying the good life.’There is nothing more that we do in the wine business than enjoy the good life; good wine, good food, good people. That’s exactly what we’re all about here at Chateau Julien and this wine celebrates that.”

Chateau Julien wines are readily available at most stores that sell wine and specialty wine shops. There are several levels of offerings that are available at every price-point, making the wines approachable and a comfortable fit for consumers with an eye toward value. Vintner’s Collection and Private Reserve labels cater more to the discriminating palate of serious collectors and wine connoisseurs while the Estate Vineyard bottlings highlight more single vineyard characteristics that make them the perfect wine for dinner.

Château Julien's Estate Vineyard wines were released in Spring 2001, with the first harvest from the winery's vineyard in Lockwood Valley. Produced from low yield vines within various lots throughout the vineyard, these wines have been overseen by the winemaker since the vines were planted in 1996. Each varietal is aged in the winery's "Chai" (barrel room) in new and one year old French and American oak barrels, and produced in limited quantities to maintain the quality and true varietal character representative of the vineyard. Varietals include: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Syrah.

Barrel Selected wines are produced from grapes grown on the estate and in the Carmel Valley. The wines are carefully managed to give consistency and value. Aged one to three years in French and American oak, they have won numerous accolades over the years for their mild tannins and forward fruit. They are wines that are extremely food friendly and approachable for the budget conscious who still want a great bottle of wine.

The winery also owns the Emerald Bay label, which is an exceptional value-priced wine for everyday consumption. There’s no ‘shame in its game’ with its bright fruit flavor from stainless steel fermentation and a hint of barrel agiing through blending. Available in Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot and White Zinfandel, it’s a terrific ‘go to’ wine for all occasions.

A quick swirl in the glass and a hearty taste confirmed everything that was said by the owners about their wines. Bon Conviviance!

Next week: “Tie-ing’ one on in Carmel Village!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Passport to France-the Holidays are here!

by Dwight Casimere

Francophiles entering the chandeliered Grand Salon of the elegant Union League Club were handed a souvenir glass and a dark brown ‘passport’ document, their official entry to the 25th Annual Passport to France. Each year, the French-American Chamber of Commerce celebrates the arrival of the 2009 harvest of Beaujolais Nouveau.

Sponsored by Deloitte, Veolia Environment, First American Bank, Fragomen and Schneider Electric the event is one of two annual fundraisers for the FACC-Chicago. Its an opportunity to showcase the bounty of the season for wine lovers and for Featured Restaurants to shine.

Wine selections included the star of the evening, 2009 George Duboeuf Beaujolais Nouveau, provided by W.J. Deutsch & Sons, Ltd. This year’s vintage is among the best in recent memory. The wine has a fuller expression of the grape varietal, with top notes of raspberries and a bit of spice on the nose. When paired with a number of the excellent and substantial dishes presented by the chefs, it held up surprisingly well and showed itself to be an excellent accompaniment to flavorful meats such as veal and short ribs of beef. Additional wine selections included a superb 2005 Chateau La Tonnelle provided by H2Vino. The ’05 was a superlative vintage year and this wine captured the essence of its greatness. With just a touch of oak to give it body and structure, it had a smooth, mellow, round feel in the mouth.

Chef Dominique Tougne stole the culinary show with his Blanquette of Veal Cheek and Wild Rice. The dish, flavored with a bit of cognac, melted in your mouth and had that homey, yummy mouth feel that the Japanese call umami. It creates a phenomenon where you keep on eating the dish even though you’re full to the gills. I’ll have to visit Bistro 110 to sample this one up close and personal Chef Dominque just gave a sly grin when asked to divulge the recipe!

Close behind were the Grilled Cheese sandwiches offered by Chef Martial Noguier of Café des Architectes. These were not your school cafeteria’s grilled cheese. Instead they were composed of Brie cheese on freshly made brioche bread with truffle butter and roasted hazelnuts. I had a least a half dozen slices of this sinful concoction and made my own version at home the next day. Hats off to Chef Noguier for an original spin on a timeworn classic.

The Union League Club of Chicago came through with a solid rendition of an old-reliable that has quickly become a holiday staple, Braised Short Ribs of Beef with Mashed Parsnips, Natural Jus and Crisp Onions. I snagged a glass of Bodega Monteviejo Festiva Malbec from Rougefort (Vignobles Pere-Verge
) and Bob Bofman Selections. The hefty Malbec was the perfect partner to tackle the flavorful short ribs. He finished things off with arguably the best hand-made chocolates on earth from Visages Haut-Chocolate. I was delighted to see my old friend Nikolina, who I remembered from the store’s original location on Armitage in Lincoln Park near the DePaul campus. “We‘re still there,” she told me in her lilting voice. There’s also now a location on the Magnificent Mile. As Michael Jackson would have said, “I’ll Be There!”

A final glass of 2007 Helfrich Riesling from Underdog Wine Merchants, one of my old standbys when I was a young club-hopper living at Sandburg Village in the go-go ‘70s and I was out into the night and an evening concert of Brahms at the CSO. A little German wine, a little German night music. Not exactly French, but Wundebar non-the-less!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

La Fete du Bordeaux at the Ritz-Carlton Chicago

by Dwight Casimere

For a single night, Chicago was the heart of Bordeaux, France. The Chicago Wine Company introduced the 2007 Bordeaux Vintage in an exclusive event at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel, Chicago.

An exclusive reception and dinner created by Executive Chef Mark Payne, showcased hand-picked selection of 14 of the best Grand Cru wines of Bordeaux, including 2007, 2000 and 1990 Chateau Lynch Bages, from Pauillac 2007, 2000 Chateau Montrose, from St. Estephe, 2007, 1990 Chateau Leoville Barton, from St. Julien and, a special dessert treat, 1999 Chateau Suduiraut, Sauternes.

Guests of Honor included Anthony Barton, President of Ch. Leoville Barton and Ch. Langoa Barton, Jean-Charles Cazes, Managing Director of Ch. Lynch Bages and Ch. Les Ormes de Pez and Nicolas Glumineau of Ch. Montrose and Ch. Tronquoy Lalande and Devon Warner, President of The Chicago Wine Company.

Over a glass of Champagne Duval-Leroy, Cuvee Paris, the Guests of Honors discussed the importance of this premiere event, which as been held in Chicago for the past 18 years, attracting Bordeaux lovers from throughout the Mid-West area.

“ Wine is Bordeaux. Bordeaux is Wine!” declared Anthony Barton, who at 80 years old describes himself as “theoretically retired, but still very involved with the company in one capacity or another.

“This is an annual event in which we present the most recent vintage that we’ve bottled. We’re encouraging people to not only buy the wine, but to drink it and enjoy it,” Barton continued. “So far its been shown that there’s still a demand for expensive wines. There are a number of people that if they put their money in wines that they love, its better than putting it in the bank. They figure its safer putting their money into wines that it is putting it in the bank. I don’t know another investment where, even if it goes down, you can drink and enjoy it!”

“While our focus is on the 2007, we also use this opportunity to showcase some of our older vintages,” according to Jean-Charles Cazes of Chateau Lynch Bages. “The 2000 vintage is considered one of the best vintages ever. That makes this event a real attraction for wine lovers. Also, we’re presenting the 1990 vintage, which is also considered one of the most outstanding from the Bordeaux. Last year, we were here in October, right at the beginning of the world economic crisis. We had a good turnout then and we have an even better turnout this year. There’s still a lot of interest in fine wine, in spite of the economy.”

Cazes’ assertion was borne out by the capacity crowd of diners who attended the event. The Wine Doctor spoke with one couple that has been coming to the event every year from St. Louis from its inception.

“This has been a long-term relationship for us,” said Devon Warner of The Chicago Wine Company. “The tickets to this event practically sell themselves because these are wines which have names that are known by everyone who is seriously into wines and in many ways, the names are legendary. Even in these economic times, the demand for these wines is still unabated.”

Chef Payne’s menu focused on the unique characteristics of Bordeaux wines, from its bright floral nose to its complex flavors with hints of berries and dried fruit and hints of tobacco and truffle on the finish. Rabbit Cassoulet with Pumpkin and Matsutake Mushrooms and the following course of Herb Marinated Rack of Lamb Chop with Yukon Gold and Black Truffle Shepherd’s Pie showcased the wines and their elegant character beautifully.

A key element that contributes to the unique flavor of Bordeaux wines is their complex character, which is almost unequaled in any other wine. “This unique character comes from the soil, or ‘terroir,’” declared Anthony Barton. “The Bordeaux has a complexity of soil types and minerality that is unlike anywhere else. That’s what makes the wines so distinct and so sought after.” One taste of his 2007 Chateau Montrose, St. Estephe, was all it took to prove the point. It was light and easy to drink with a well-balanced structure. It also had enough backbone that it lingered long on the palette for a long, smooth finish. These wines can be pricey, but for a special occasion, that perfect Holiday meal or a special gift to someone you know who appreciates the finer things of life, there’s nothing quite like the great wines of Bordeaux.