Tuesday, June 30, 2009

East Coast Food & Wine Festival Offers Relaxing Taste of NJ

Some wine festivals are mob scenes—hundreds of people crammed under a giant tent, all pushing their way with glass extended to the overwhelmed winery staff. But the East Coast Food & Wine Festival in Pennington, NJ, offered a bucolic alternative to those over-crowded fests.
As soon as my car bumped over the lumpy clover field to the parking, I knew I had reached the heart of New Jersey farmland, a heritage forgotten by out-of-staters who have heard too many “What Exit?” jokes.
But this is, after all, the Garden State. Pints of New Jersey blueberries were stacked high, their purple-blue hue peeking through their clear plastic containers. In the produce tent, vendors sold lettuce harvested just two hours before, as well as fresh beets, peas, and more. There I met Mikey Azzara, a friendly pioneer of the Jersey locavore scene who runs Zone 7. He drives to farms to collect just-picked produce and then delivers it to local restaurants.
But what about New Jersey wine? All in all, it was a mixed bag, and some wineries showed much better than others. Unionville Winery offered the best reds I tasted. I particularly liked their more expensive (still only $22-$26) reds, including a medium weight, fruit-forward 07 Montage, which blended 50% Chambourcin and 50% Pinot Noir. I also enjoyed The Big O, another 07 that was a big, tannic wine with lots of fruit. This is another 50/50 blend, mixing Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. I’m guessing the Cabernet Sauvignon doesn’t ripen sufficiently to make a varietal wine, but it blended nicely with the earthy Cab Franc.
Unionville is able to grow their own Merlot, while another winery I won’t name sources grapes out of state for theirs. This is one of my pet peeves. If I’m visiting a local winery, I want to taste the local wines, not ones from the West Coast or New York. I suppose it’s a money-maker for them to offer Washington State Pinot Noir, but I question how NJ can establish itself as a quality wine-producing state if its wineries sell out-of-state products? I believe that more NJ wineries need to embrace lesser-known varieties that grow well in their soil and climate, rather than trying to offer the standard Pinot Noir & Cabernet Sauvignon.
For example, Hopewell Valley Vineyard, the festival host, offers a flavorful Chambourcin. Originating in the 1950s in the Loire Valley, Chambourcin grows very well in NJ and I'd feel safe buying it at most NJ wineries. It produces a medium weight red wine with rich ruby color, good fruit, and light tannins, and it pairs well with lots of dishes.
One thing that a lot of wineries got dead wrong was their Chardonnay. I tasted more than a couple that were over-oaked. One of my tasting notes said, “I feel like I’m sucking on a 2 x 4.” I asked Gary Pavlis, a festival speaker who judges NJ wine competitions, “Why do so many NJ wineries over-oak their wine?” His answer was that they didn’t get enough flavor from their fruit. I thought about the European wineries that wouldn’t produce any wine during a bad harvest in order to preserve the quality of their brand, and wished the NJ wineries would make the necessary changes in what they grow or how they grow it to eliminate the need for such masking techniques.
I found one quality Chardonnay that was not available for the general tasting. This buttery Chard from Unionville retails for $45…which made me question how many people would pay that much money for a NJ wine, even if it is quite good. My choice for the best priced, high quality white wine was at Cape May Winery’s booth: Victorian White. This blend of white grapes produces a pleasing, medium-weight wine, light gold in color with a punched-up, fruit flavor.
When I asked several winemakers and local experts, the consensus was that New Jersey wine is improving, but it has a long way to go.
But as far as wine festivals go, the East Coast Food & Wine Festival got it right: multiple tents that were leisurely spaced-out, a great-sounding country band, food vendors offering delicious gourmet fare, and terrific speakers including TV Chef Michael Colameco, Judgment of Paris author and journalist George Taber, and the charming chef and wine expert Maureen Petrosky. On a sunny, blue-sky weekend, the East Coast Food & Wine Festival was the place to be.

Friday, June 12, 2009

The Many Moods of Beaujolais

Beaujolais has a reputation as a simple wine, but maybe it’s got more going on than meets the eye.
I never thought of the grape as very age-worthy, but last night at a tasting at Snooth headquarters on Madison Avenue organized by Gregory DalPiaz, I heard tell of 10 year and older Beaujolais showing very well, comparing favorably with younger Burgundies. Well, I haven’t tasted old Beaujolais, and I’m not in a big rush to do so, because, frankly, I like Beaujolais very much for its youthful, fresh taste.
When it comes to Beaujolais, I subscribe to the Kevin Zraly school of thought. In his Windows on the World Wine School, he talks about it as a great choice for a bottle when out to dinner with friends. It’s the red that can work well enough with both fish and red meat. He also likes to drink it at the end of a long day, when he doesn’t want to analyze his wine.
But analyze we did, at least enough to figure out that there are some substantial differences in the Cru Villages. While wine marked Beaujolais Village is a blend of grapes from across the region, Cru Village Beaujolais (it will have the name of the village on the label) comes from one of the ten small towns that have earned this designation.
The wine that stopped me in my tracks was the 2007 Thenevet Grain & Granite from the village of Régnié. This was a darker, fuller bodied Beaujolais with greater tannins than any I had ever tried. I enjoyed the wine, but felt like it wouldn’t be my first choice if I wanted to reach for a typical Beaujolais. The Domaine des Terres Dorrees Jean-Paul Brun Cotes de Brouilly was also a bigger version of the wine.
More in line with my expectations were the wines from Fleurie, Chenas, St. Amour & Julienas. This were lighter in color & flavor and offered the fresh, strawberry goodness that I love in Gamay.
My personal preferences: when I want a typical Beaujolais that still has a bit of character, I’ll go for Fleurie or Julienas, two of my favorites, and serve them chilled, as they do in France. However, I won’t turn down a glass of the bigger Beaujolais if I’m in the mood for a heavier red wine.
No matter what the style, one thing to love about Beaujolais is the price. You can buy the best ones for under $25. Now how many wine regions can you say that about? I think of Beaujolais as a spring wine—when temperatures rise it’s often nice to have a lighter red. I recommend sampling wines from several of the cru villages in order to find the mood of Beaujolais that suits you.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

If music be the food of love, play on -- WBW #58

O.K., so Shakespeare was talking about love, not wine, but if you reach in far enough, there’s an appropriate metaphor about music enhancing one’s experiences, whether they be falling in love or wine-tasting.

For this eye-opening experiment I tasted two wines with each track:

Channing Daughters
Rosata / Cabernet Sauvignon
Mudd Vineyard



1) Artist: Moby CD: Hotel/Ambient Disk Track: 1

For my first tasting, I felt that the pulsing bass line and throbbing synth overwhelmed this gentle pink wine.

With the Barolo, I noticed the smokey nose and meaty flavor distinctly. The Barolo was a better match for Moby’s intellectual reaching on this Phillip Glass-like track. But, the pulsing rhythm outran the mellow appeal of the wine.

Result: Double Fail

2) Artist: Belle and Sebastian CD: Boy with the Arab Strap Track: Sleep the Clock Around

I really like the high energy and light harmonizing on vocals. Belle & Sebastian is a Scottish band that provides bouncy pop music with a twist. The song was a great match to the Rosato’s strawberry punch. This wine is fun and so is this tune.

Drinking the Barolo while listening to the same song, I’m less aware of the high-pitched vocals and more clued into the deeper acoustic guitar strum and bass line that run under the happy sounding voices. I’m compelled to grab the lyric sheet to find the dark words that lie hidden like the Loch Ness in their bubble-gum pop sound…”And could this be the time when somebody will come/To say ‘Look at yourself, you’re not much use to anyone.’” The Barolo was not a natural match, but somehow the music lightened the wine’s serious palate, and the wine brought out the gravity in the song.
Result: Good pairing with Rosato, Qualified success with Barolo

3) Artist: Taking Back Sunday CD: Louder Now Track: Liar, Liar

This is a fast-paced song with drilling bass lines. The young band offers tight musicality, but this close-but-not-quite-headbanging (head nodding?) tune is best played loud. The rollicking guitars on the break overwhelm my poor rosé, although the tart fruit nose is definitely sharper when smelled against the backdrop of this song.

When I replay the song for my Barolo, I notice the length on the wine much more. Its heavy tannic structure is blunting Taking Back Sunday’s best attempt to capture my sensory perception…the finish on the wine coincides with an awesome guitar neck slide, which is a cool moment in the tasting/listening. But this match is too competitive: my ears and mouth are fighting for my brain’s attention. Love these, but separately.

Result: Double Fail

4) Artist: Kate Bush CD: The Whole Story Track: Wuthering Heights

Kate’s eerie high voice sings about the moors of England and the ghostly romance of Wuthering Heights. This pairing is a triumph. The berry flavors of the wine put me in mind of the fresh-mown English lawns and gardens in spring bloom, rosebushes which Cathy’s gowns may have swept by. This song is based on my favorite novel, a Gothic romance, and it lends a depth to the Rosato. With its deep salmon color, the wine even appears to be a romantic choice. Its sweet fruit structure is heightened by the ghostly Cathy’s soulful howling at the end of the track. Beautiful.

“Oh it gets dark, it gets lonely,” sings Kate Bush, channeling the ghost of Cathy. The Gothic drama of this dark tale of star-crossed lovers is underscored by this big, complicated Italian wine, which reminds me of the broad-shouldered, heavy browed hero Heathcliff to whom she sings. The finish lingers and Kate plaintively sings while a rich guitar riff extends the melodic vocal line. This pairing is the clear winner of the night.

Result: The Rosato is Cathy, the Barolo is Heathcliff, both pairings enrich each other.

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

The Big and Little Bs of the Piedmont

Italian wine is a vast subject that many of us don’t know a great deal about. But there is much to explore beyond the familiar straw-wrapped Chianti bottles. The country offers many styles of wine from everyday sippers to glorious age-worthy bottles.
One of the most challenging things about Italian wine is all the different varieties. Take Piedmont, for example. This storied wine region is in northwest Italy. On a clear day, you can see the Alps from its sloping vineyards. In Piedmont alone, three significant wines all start with the letter B.
Barolo – The grape of Barolo wine is Nebbiolo. Barolo itself is a charming hilltop town. As you drive up the winding road, you immediately see Barolo Castle, which now houses a stylish enoteca where you can sample fleets of local wine and get an overview of the area’s wines from a multi-lingual guide. During my time in the region, I learned that Barolo is the wine of kings & the king of wines. This red is a big, tannic beast that often requires at least a decade to settle down and become a dry, complex red whose tannins have been tamed. The problem with loving Barolo is its price: I haven’t seen one below $50 this side of the Atlantic. However, in Italy, I found some relative bargains, so I snatched up some 2004s & 2005s, which I plan on aging at least a few years. It’s nice to have some wines to look forward to in the future.
Barbaresco—Here is another wine based on Nebbiolo grapes, but it’s grown in different regions than Barolo. I visited a fine Barbaresco winemaker at Paitin, a family winery that boasts an amazing 15th century wine cellar. Silvano Pasquero-Elia took me out on a balcony and showed me the sweep of tongue-shaped hills that comprise the Langhe mountain range. The white-tinged soil in his town of Bricco de Neive is perfect for cultivating grapes for Barbaresco, which is still a big, age-worthy wine, but with a fresher nose and slightly less firm tannins. Silvano was gracious enough to take me through a tasting of his wonderful Barbarescos, and made a present of an old vines 2004, which I look forward to opening in the future.
Barbera – One resident told me is that Barbera is the heart of Piedmont. Although some may argue that Dolcetto, a jammy, simple red wine, is the daily wine of the area, my guide at Rocche Costamagna, confirmed that Barbera is their everyday wine, while Barolo is the weekend wine. During the months before my trip, I sampled Italian wines of the regions I would visit and developed a real fondness for this wine. Barbera has that dusty, potpourri-scented, dry Italian wine thing going on, and it has high acidity, making it an easy match for lots of foods, including red-sauce meals. Unlike Barbarescos and Barolos, Barbera is delightful when young. In the US, it often is sold in the low 20 dollar range—not the cheapest, but certainly not the most expensive foreign wine and well within my own threshold of wine spending.
Now if you’re thinking “Haven’t I heard of another famous B wine from Italy?” you’re right. That would be Brunello de Montalcino, but this isn’t produced anywhere near Piedmont. Those vineyards are hundreds of kilometers south in Tuscany and made from Sangiovese grapes, which is also the dominant grape of the blend of our old friend, Chianti.
Check out some Italian wine soon. Confusion never tasted so good.