Saturday, September 29, 2012

Wisconsin Brick Cheese

I've been threatening to write this one for a while.  Having grown up in the midwest at a time when cheese factories (local jargon) were commonplace, Wisconsin Brick cheese seemed about as ordinary as Velveeta.  Now after being in the cheese business in Georgia for most of the last thirty years and selling some of the great cheeses of the world, I find myself fondly looking back at that simpler time.  Widmer's is the brand that we have sold so successfully over the years here and if one reads their website story, you are struck by the melancholy mood inherent in being a survivor of consolidation in modern America.

By way of history, John Jossi, a twelve year old Swiss immigrant of 1857, is credited with developing Brick cheese.  Jossi spent his early American experience between New York and Wisconsin working in Limburger cheese plants in both states.  1877 is the year he is credited with developing a milder bacterial "smear" that washed rind cheeses receive to develop their flavor.  To keep it in perspective, if we are contrasting Brick with Limburger, that Brick smear can still be plenty strong but yet pale by comparison to Limburger and, make no mistake, Brick cheese is made distinctive by that bacterial wash.

Following the turning and pressing of the fresh curds into the brick molds, which historically have been molds for making actual bricks, the cheese is dipped in the brine "wash" which is a culture of salt and bacterium linens which commences the action of imparting the pungent heady aromas to the young cheese.  The cheese is next placed in a 70 degree room for aging and may receive further washings if desired.  Joe Widmer, head of Widmer's Cheese Cellars and a son of Swiss immigrants himself, prefers his cheese aged 10-12 weeks with a proprietary blend wash before releasing to the public.

Wisconsin Brick cheese varies from a little-aged mild style to a well-aged stronger cheese.  Widmer also makes a Jalapeno Brick and markets his Brick Curds.  Other well known washed rind cheeses include St. Nectaire, Livarot, Reblochon, Port Salut, Limburger of course, and what many consider to be Brick's European antecedent, Tilsit.

I began by lamenting the consolidation of the cheese industry in modern America.  As you read this, know that Widmer may very well be the last small independent Brick cheesemaker left standing.  This is a loss for more than sentimental reasons.  The Krafts and Bordens of America don't make the cheese described above...not by a long shot.  What they market as Brick is made in mere days and coated with orange food coloring to approximate the color of the wash.  By comparison the mega-wine companies make a much better approximation of the historical product even if they do lack the regional distinction.

This Thursday from 5 to 7pm, Gail Avera returns with more new wines from Lafayette Selections.  Many of these will be California wines from the Lodi region.  Please join us.

Monday, September 24, 2012


Methoxyprazines (MP) are a subset of the larger chemical group, Pyrazine, and have been identified by scientists as the chemicals that cause the vegetative qualities in wines.  We have been talking about this subject in recent blogs including the Flash Detente blog that is about new technology which eliminates much of it via a steam treatment prior to vinification.  Untreated MP results in bellpepper and green bean aromas along with astringency and bitterness in red wines and grassiness in whites.  The red types most often affected are the Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Carmenere, and Malbec; white wines affected are largely Sauvignon Blanc.

In the last blog we discussed a vegetal Malbec from Argentina that was the most popular wine at our last tasting.  This conflicts with the prevailing wisdom that vegetal characteristics are a flaw, until we accept that some grape varieties either have MP as part of their varietal flavor or we have developed an acceptance of it as part of, say, the complex Cabernet experience.  Also MP has only recently been explored in grapes because at its densest grape concentration, it constitutes just 10-15 parts per trillion.

What seems to happen with grapes in the vineyard is that MP is triggered between fruit set and about two or three weeks before veraison (Blog March 17,2012).  Veraison is the onset of grape ripening or the transition from grape growth (cell division) to grape ripening and the change in color from green (chlorophyll) to red or something else (phenollic compounds).  Prior to this stage, MP is concentrated in the stem and leaves of the vine but at the point it appears in the berries, it seems to act as a biological deterrent to predators for the survival of the vine before gradually diminishing until harvest time.

One factor that seems to definitely adversely affect grape quality is rain.  If it happens during that window before veraison when MP becomes activated in the berries, those grapes will be harvested with a higher MP level.  MP, by the way, does not diminish by way of dilution in the growing grapes as you might think but rather it breaks down chemically and sunlight may be a factor here.  Thinning the leafy vine canopy and managing vegetative growth in general seems to help.

Two easy methods of reducing MP in grapes are to pick only well-ripened grapes and to let them sit idly for twenty-four hours prior to crushing.  No winemaking technique of any kind affects MP because it is entirely due to conditions in the vineyard.

Two recent developments in viticulture deserve mentioning here.  Extreme pruning of Cabernet Sauvignon vines to produce highly extracted intense wines may actually have more MP than others unless the vegetation is thinned as stated above to ensure good sunlight.  Zinfandel viticulture, by contrast, is now going in the opposite direction with a revival of bush vines which were the norm a hundred years ago.  These unpruned vines offer fruit with fresh red and black (jammy) berry aromas  and little in vegetal characteristics.

This Friday Tommy Basham of Continental Beverage rejoins us with three from Spain including: Fagus of Coto de Hayas featuring fruit from hundred year old vines, California Zinfandel and Cabernet, and an Italian sweet red.  Join us here Friday between 5 and 7pm.  For this tasting we are requesting a donation for the Susan G. Komen 3 day-60 miles hike next month in Atlanta.  My participant daughters need to raise close to $5,000 for this thing.  Any free will donation is appreciated.


Saturday, September 22, 2012

Wine Tasting Report - September 21, 2012

V-e-r-r-r-y In-ter-est-ing, as Henry Gibson used to say on Laugh-In.  Last night at the regular Friday tasting we did three whites and four reds and as may have been predicted, the whites weren't popular at all.  The seasons have changed and the temperature has dropped, so Voila!

The reds included our bargain Spanish Tempranillo, Protocolo, and three Argentine Malbecs.  Here's the interesting part: The Malbecs ranged in price from $8 to $16 with the high and low end examples being very good efforts in their own right while the $12 sleeper bottle in the middle was more than a little earthy and vegetal.  Would you like to guess which was the tasting winner last night? 

That middle bottle, of course, would be little Dante Robino Malbec, a semi-regular inhabitant of these parts, but this 2009 version was definitely stinkier than I had remembered from the past and I never thought it would outshine the other two.  So, what gives?  Well, the wine had a breadth and complexity (including its vegetality) that was superior to the others and the tasters, who all come from good homes to my knowledge, may have represented an atypical segment of our population.  Three of us were raised in immigrant or first generation American homes.  We were weaned on European foods that may have included sauces and stews that a wine like Dante may compliment.  Just a theory.  The other theory would be that we all have superior palates...nah!

Protocolo was a hit as always and it sold well at the case price bottle cost of $7.19.  One week ago we tasted it here with one participant claiming then that it was comparable to the $16 Spanish red on the table.  So if you need a red house wine for the fall, stop in and pick up a case of Protocolo, which may go away at the end of the month as new holiday offerings emerge.

Alamos Malbec was the $8 bottle in our tasting and it was light and a little disappointing, especially compared to Protocolo.  The Alamos Chardonnay was also on the table last night but we didn't open it when little interest was shown in it.   It is actually one of the most popular wines in the store and shares that same $7.19 case bottle cost which, again, I am not sure we can keep going forward.

Next Friday (September 28th 5-7pm) Tommy Basham of Continental Beverage returns to our parts for a tasting that will include Sextant California Zinfandel and a real hit from the past, Coto de Hayas Fagus, a Spanish red blend utilizing hundred year old vine fruit.  Next week's tasting will be a fund raiser for the Susan G. Komen, Atlanta 3-day, 60 mile hike for a cure for breast cancer.  I have two daughters involved and they have to raise close to $5000 for the cause.  Please come and taste and support this effort.    

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Flash Detente

Flash Detente or "instant relaxation" is new technology that provides a thermal "flash" of 185 degrees for grapes kept in a compartment adjacent to its thermocooler vacuum tank where the grapes are then gradually reduced in heat to about 80 degrees.  Bet you thought this was about some super hero having to do with the SALT Treaties.  Actually this is a brilliant step forward in winemaking.

I learned about the thing last week when a wine company executive visiting this store told me about his recent trip to Lodi.  There are now two of these things in the country; one in Monterey County, the other in Lodi.  Neither has been around longer than two years.  Those two units are different versions of the same thing, one from Italy; the other, France, but both are functionally the same, using a process created in France in the early nineties.  The things have actually been around for at least fifteen years and sixty of them have been working in every wine producing market around the world...except here!  It is expensive, by the way, costing $1 million and potentially $2 million with add-ons and changes needed for existing facilities.

The real beauty of this apparatus lies in its simplicity and versatility.  It comes in sizes ranging from five ton crushing capacity per hour to sixty tons.  Smaller batches may be more appropriate for marketing to home wine makers as the crush could be sold as must or juice and, by the way, the process isn't limited to just grapes either.  As for versatility, once the process is complete, the winemaker may make whatever style of wine he would like, he just now has better fruit with which to work.  Here are the advantages:

1.  Thermal flashing sterilizes the fruit eliminating methoxepyrines which cause the annoying vegetal quality in wine.  It similarly removes botrytis and other molds, bitter seed tannin, and polyphenol oxidase.

2.  The process is a steaming which utilizes water from the fruit itself, which is then expelled with all contaminants, reducing the water content of the grapes by 6-7%, increasing the sugars by default and making the wine slightly sweeter as a by-product of the process.

3.  The immediate extraction of color in processing results in a wine that is darker and less likely to brown with age.

4.  The waste water actually has medicinal qualities perhaps useful in an afterlife separate from the grapes.

5.  Flashing shortens the winemaking process, removing a "time bottleneck" when the winemaker would normally be waiting for nature to take its course before moving on to the next step.

6.  Flashing increases anthocyanins, tannins, polyphenols, varietal flavor, and aromas.

7.  The entire process needs no additives and the unit washes itself after work!

Most industry analysts think flashing's greatest application will be reserved for lower quality fruit which will immediately become palatable.  Carignon from the previous blog and all of those cool climate bell peppery Cabernets immediately come to mind.  But interestingly enough, parts of  Bordeaux are using flashing and Banfi of Italy is also in the game.

Join us this Friday when we taste a great selection from Georgia Crown Distributing under the guidance of their representative, Jon Allen.  And get in those Nouveau Beaujolais orders!


Carbonic Maceration and Beaujolais

Carbonic maceration is a fermentation process using a carbon dioxide rich environment to ferment whole grapes on an intracellular level before crushing.  Standard alcoholic fermentation crushes the grapes first to free the juice and pulp from the skins, then introducing yeast to convert the sugars to alcohol.  Louis Pasteur amongst others discovered the difference between the two processes in 1872 when it was observed that grapes that were in sealed containers started fermenting on their own before crushing.  Wine from those grapes was then contrasted with regularly fermented grape wine in an experiment for which I would have gladly volunteered.

Carbonic maceration has actually been around for as long as standard fermentation.  Any time grapes are left in a barrel or other container for any length of time, gravity will crush those on the bottom facilitating the release of juice, freeing those sugars to combine with ambient yeasts on grapeskins and elsewhere.  Carbon dioxide is released as a by-product of this process and being denser than oxygen, CO2 will displace oxygen in the container forcing it out between barrel staves or some other way creating the anaerobic environment for this kind of fermentation.

Why is this relevant here and now?  Being a wine merchant (mercenary?), I sell a lot of Nouveau Beaujolais every November and I placed that order just this week.  Nouveau is the quintessential carbonic maceration wine, period.  It is a fruity, low tannin wine, lacking in structure for ageing, but important as a harbinger for the greater wines of the vintage to follow.  As the Nouveau goes, so goes the quality of the great wines to come.  Using carbonic maceration, the producers can turn out a finished product in six weeks just in time for Thanksgiving and, as I just said, perhaps providing a signal to stock up on the great Burgundies to follow. 

In California the term "whole berry fermentation" is a synonym for carbonic maceration.  Carignan is the most widely planted grape in the world because of its yield.  To say it is ordinary, is to flatter the grape.  Carbonic maceration is the fermentation technique that makes it palatable and the process is  used everywhere.

Back in the late 1960s, Bill Cosby did a routine about his childhood friend, Fat Albert.  It was actually two stories with the second one building on the first one.  At the midpoint Cosby said, "I just told you that story, so I could tell you this one."  I just told you about carbonic maceration in order to tell you about a new and exciting wine making technique called "flash detente".

This Friday Jon Allen with Georgia Crown Distributing will be here (5-7pm) tasting out Adastra N'Oak Chardonnay, Tour Des Gendres Cuvees Des Conti and Bergerac Rouge, Terrasus Du Larzac La Reserve D'Oc,  and Primus Red Blend.  Please join us.

And get those Beaujolais orders in!

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Puerto Viejo, Requingua, and the Maule Valley

Puerto Viejo is the workhorse line of wines from the Chilean concern, Vina Requingua.  Requingua (corner of the winds) also markets three other labels produced from their 1,000 hectare estate in Curico and ancillary properties in Colchagua and Maule.  On Thursday the 13th of September, Gail Avera of Lafayette Selections will be here to present three wines from the Puerto Viejo line and three from the higher tier Toro de Piedra line.  Since three of the six wines for Thursday are from the Maule (Mow-lay) Valley, that will be our primary subject of discussion here today.

The Chilean wine country is an eight hundred mile strip (32-38 latitude) just north of the middle of the 2,653 mile long strip of a country that Chile is.  The Maule Valley, one of the oldest wine regions of Chile, lies three fourths of the way down the eight hundred mile extent.  Maule is the most rural and least populated wine region of Chile and for that reason along with its relatively large size, it produces 50% of the better wines that Chile exports.  If this is the Languedoc of Chile, its claims to fame are its white wines and Cabernet Sauvignon and ironically, the sparsely populated Maule lies a mere 155 miles from the Chilean capitol, Santiago.

Wine history has been kind to Chile and the Maule Valley.  Spanish colonists are believed to have brought European grapevines to Chile as early as the 1550s.  Written documentation show French grapevines were delivered to Chile in the 1850s and thereafter.  Since the Phylloxera epidemic was about to break in Europe at that time, those exports were fortunate indeed for Chile and the Maule Valley because out of all of the wine regions of the world, Chile (and Argentina) are the only locations never infected by that plague.  Because Europe's wine industry was soon to be ruined by the infamous plant louse, European winemakers galore were soon to follow the vines to the new world jumpstarting the industry in Chile and elsewhere.

The Maule Valley discovered by early wine making pioneers featured the same Mediterranean climate with diurnal temperature shifts that European winemakers love.  Alluvial soils of clay and sand and rivers like the Maule, Colchagua, and Curico, all running westward from the Andes, would be ideal to plan around with that Chilean countryside actually being a 6000 meter elevated plateau as compared to the 800 meters at the coastal plain.

This kind of geology is not without its drawbacks however.  All of Chile is seismically active with Maule being especially so.  Every twenty to thirty years it experiences a major earthquake with the most recent occurring on February 27th of 2010.  That magnitude 8.8 event, the sixth largest ever recorded, centered just off the coast of Maule and killed an estimated 525 people in resort towns on the coast.  Two of the wines we are tasting Thursday night would have been is huge ageing barrels at that time.  Two of those barrels at Requingua did not survive that earthquake.  Please join us for the tasting.

Saturday, September 8, 2012


Once again we find ourselves writing about the popular wine from the tasting of the previous night.  The 2009 Sicoris is an elegant Spanish red composed of 37% Grenache, 28% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Tempranillo, 7% Merlot, and 5% Syrah.  Sicoris is also the name of the River that its Denominacion d'Origen, Costers del Segre (banks of the Segre), gets its name.  Sicoris was the river's name under Greek and Roman rule and if you want to spend the rest of your life studying history you can do just that by reading up on Catalonia.

Catalonia is the triangular "nationality" at the easternmost tip of Spain.  It fronts the Mediterranean Sea with Barcelona being both the primary wine market and an indispensible port for the wine industry.  Catalonia also borders France and the Roussillon wine region of their southwest.  Catalonia is actually a cultural overlay of that French Roussillon region plus the Spanish region.  Because the terrain is very much the same with higher elevations featuring precipitous vineyards, the wine making methods of both are very much the same.

Our Sicoris red actually comes from the western border of Catalonia in the middle of that side of the triangle.  That high elevation region in the province of Lleida features a continental climate (hot summers, cold winters) with the diurnal effect (hot days, cold nights) so valued by winemakers.  Rainfall is sparse and all of this is probably due to the proximity of the Pyrenees Mountains.  The soil is of a dark lime-bearing type with low clay content and poor in organic matter.

Costers del Segre is composed of six vineyard regions that don't appear to make sense on a map but they do if you consider the terrain.  Only two regions are contiguous so it looks like someone just pressed down with the fingertips of one hand on a map.  Castell del Remei, the makers of Sicoris, explains their "recipe for success" like this: By growing select grape types at different elevations (1,000-2,500 feet) using the different soils at those elevations, a "spice rack" effect is accomplished in the wine.  That makes sense.

Last year Sicoris was enshrined in our wine shop (tongue in cheek) Tasting Hall of Fame.  It wasn't until this current research that I understood that the red wavy design on the black background wine label was actually the namesake river of the wine, itself.   That makes sense too.

Next Thursday September 13th between 5 and 7pm Gail Avera rejoins us with new wines from her new company Lafayette Selections.  Please join us for that one.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Ciao Angelo

Ciao Angelo is one of the most popular cheeses in our little market here in Gainesville, Georgia.  It is essentially an Aged Gouda generically speaking since the Netherlands has not restricted the name to the locality of the town of Gouda.  Ciao Angelo is also marketed as "an Italian-style cheese from Holland" which refers to its somewhat winey character.  Some would say it is like a combination of Gouda and Parmesan.  I wouldn't go that far.  It's just good Aged Gouda...with a twist.

Aged Gouda typically features a carmelly and nutty flavor with a hard texture that breaks apart as often as it cuts cleanly with a knife.  The texture, of course, is the result of the aging time.  Regular Gouda is aged up to six months and can easily be worked on a slicer.  Aged Gouda may be aged between nine and eighteen months with the latter version being a truly humbling experience for the novice cheese cutter or the old guy like me.

Ciao Angelo, like most Aged Goudas and some other aged cheeses, has a couple of qualities that endear it to its adherents: its sweetness and its crystals.  The sweetness is easy to explain.  After separating the curd from the whey and sinking the curd into molds, the curd is "washed" with water and that facilitates the sweetening of the cheese.  That step is followed by immersion in brine which really gives the cheese its flavor.  The crystals are a little harder to explain. 

If what we are talking about is "tyrosine" crystals, they result from the coagulation process begun by the addition of rennet to the "casein", the family of related phosphoproteins that make up 80% of the protein in cow's milk. Tyrosine, an amino acid, would be the resultant milk protein crystals in the cheese body.  If the crystal is calcium lactate it would be "a crystalline salt made by the action of lactic acid on calcium carbonate produced later during the ripening process." 

All of the above information, which I hope is true by the way, is from Wikipedia since I was a real loser in Chemistry class.  I do know something about wine and cheese though and I would suggest new world red wine for a change with this one.  Ciao Angelo packs a punch so I suggest Zinfandel, Petite Sirah, or Shiraz/Syrah as a nice accompaniment or even a moderately hefty ale.  Ciao Angelo is also a centerpiece experience.  While it can be a part of a cheese tray, I like the idea of it standing alone with one's beverage of choice.

This Friday, September 7th from 5 to 7pm, Henry Leung, the man who solved the Chinese puzzle according to Wine Spectator magazine, will be here tasting and educating us on why we blend red grapes for superior results.  Henry is always a hit at these things so please join us.