Monday, February 23, 2015

Mimolette, Annatto, and Cheese Mites

Last Friday we cut into a Mimolette, that intriguing canteloupe-like bowling ball of a cheese from France.  Once cleaved revealing its electric-orange interior, all in attendance chimed in with "Cheddar!" even though I repeatedly said "Mimolette".  Little did I know at the time that Mimolette's distinctive color is shared with English Cheddars that use the same natural additive, Annatto.

Annatto is derived from the tropical/subtropical tree, Achiote, native to Brazil, but because of its utility, is now grown in Central America, Africa, and Asia.  Achiote produces pods filled with inedible oily red seeds, which when the shells have been grated, yield the food coloring, Annatto.   Cheeses using Annatto remain confined to English Cheddars and Mimolette although Velveeta and American cheese, oddly enough, also use it.

Apart from food coloring, Annatto also imparts a sweet, nutty, nutmeg-like flavor to foods and that comes through in Mimolette, which can be marketed when aged between two months and two years.   Like wine, with aging comes complexity.  Salt and pepper are always there in the Mimolette flavor profile along with some semblance of chocolate and/or fudge, and with age comes sweet caramel and hazelnut.  Also with age, the orange color tends to brown a bit.

So this cheese is clearly a complex centerpiece for the dinner table...but it didn't start that way.  Mimolette was created in the 17th century during a time of discord between France and Holland.  Flanders was a location in northern France that had just been been claimed by Holland at the time.  Flanders is also where the great Edam cheeses originated.  The French king at the time forbade Edam-loving Frenchmen from purchasing Edam thereby causing the creation of a new Edam knockoff, Mimolette, in nearby Lille, France.  While Mimolette follows the same recipe as Edam, as we have seen here in the past, the cheese turned out differently in the new locale, and over time changes like the addition of Annatto and cheese mites would alter it further.

(Did he just say the addition of "cheese mites"?)

It's true!  At some point in time cheese makers in northern France decided to allow cheese mites, which ordinarily gnaw at the outside rind of aged cheeses while they ripen, to intentionally do their business on Mimolette rinds.  Ordinarily aging cheeses are washed with brine to keep the varmints off the cheese.  In Mimolette's case, it was learned that the mites' actions were effectively aerating the cheese as it ages resulting in earthier flavors.  Unfortunately the cheese becomes dustier and more pock-marked by this action until the finished product resembles a moonscaped old cannonball, not the most appetizing cheese to behold.

Between 2013 and 2014, our FDA denied the importation of Mimolette into the country over the cheese mite issue.  Even though there was no historical evidence of ill effects in French people from eating Mimolette, it was thought that people with food allergies in this country could be affected.  Mimolette had been imported into America for twenty years prior to the one year ban so one would think something empirical must have caused the ban.  In any event, the French cheese makers now vigorously wash, hand brush, and blast the cheeses with air hoses to remove the critters which apparently is enough to satisfy the FDA.

Please join us this Friday between 5 and 8pm when Taylor Moore of Eagle Rock Distributing presents Chilcas and Valdivieso Chilean wines for our tasting consideration.  Valdivieso is making a return to the Atlanta market with Eagle Rock after a brief absence while Chilcas has become established at least at this store as one of the true gems out of Chile.

On Saturday the 28th starting at 1pm, David Rimmer of Lynda Allison Cellar Selections will present new wines to his portfolio.  David has some of the finest European wines in the Atlanta market so don't miss this roll out!

Then on Friday the 6th of March, David Hobbs of Prime Wine & Spirits joins us with the Central Coast wines of Eberle Winery of Paso Robles.  Eberle is known for their Rhone-style reds but we'll taste the whole line which I thought were great!

Sunday, February 15, 2015


Agiorgitiko (Ah-yor-Yee-ti-ko), the most widely planted red grape of Greece, finds its finest expression in the southern province of Nemea.  There it is the only red grape allowed and the only wine produced there that is allowed to carry the Nemea appellation on its label.  Ampelographers have determined that Agiorgitiko probably originated there and since Nemea was formerly called "Saint George", it's not coincidental that that is how Agiorgitiko translates.

As one of the oldest grapes of the world in one of civilization's oldest environs, Agiorgitiko is embedded in mythology.  Amongst other narratives, Hercules slew a lion in what is present day Nemea and Agiorgitiko is called "Hercules Blood" today because that lion's blood in the soil is what is supposed to give the wine its deep ruby color.  Like other very old old world wine grapes, Agiorgitiko carries several other names depending on which neighborhood it finds its home.

The reason we're writing about Agiorgitiko today is because we purchased seven cases of 2009 Arte Vera red wine recently that we could sell for a $12.50 retail, one half of what we retailed the wine for last year!  Our version however comes from northern Macedonia at the opposite end of the country from Nemea.  Arte Vera also is a blended wine with only two thirds of its constitution being Agiorgitiko.  But it is that two thirds that gives the wine both its character and its soups and stews affinity.

For us Americans Agiorgitiko is most comparable to Merlot.  Its standard profile features plum and spice in a medium body, low acid package but the fruit may be augmented with cherry and red currant and the spice may be accentuated by tannins when planted at higher elevations.

There are actually three wine styles for Agiorgitiko based on the elevation of the vineyard plantings.  At sea level to two hundred meters elevation in southern Greece, the wine may have very low acidity and a jammy sweet soft character.  As always, in dry infertile soils where roots have to struggle, the flavors would be more concentrated with Beaujolais-styled (carbonic maceration) reds being the order of the day.  At 200-500 meters the wine develops a higher alcohol and acidity along with moderate tannins.  Many feel it is at this elevation that Agiorgitiko shows best.  At 500-850 meters the wine would be stronger and spicier yet, but at these altitudes rose is often the style of choice for Grecians.

Because of the diverse stylings of Agiorgitiko, the public often doesn't know what kind of red wine they are getting.  Most Agiorgitiko wines are of the common low altitude style since valley vines produce higher yields than hillside vines.  Some see a need for a second appellation designation to differentiate valley from hillside on red wine labels.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Wine Clubs

I have always been skeptical of wine clubs.  I have always thought that wines that are packaged (and sometimes delivered) that way, just can't stand on their own on a standard retail shelf.  They have to be sold by subterfuge in a package deal.  But maybe that's just my suspicious nature.

Wine clubs are big, by the way.  Some are run by large corporations completely unconnected to the industry.  Others are run by wineries, retailers, or affiliated wine license holders.  All offer a "deal" on a couple bottles of wine or more.  Most of these offer an exclusive angle like scarcity or high critics' numerical scores as a hook to draw public interest.

I have also always suspected that wine clubs were for beginners. After all, the assumption is that if someone else picks out the wines, they will somehow be better than if I pick them out myself.  Hopefully if this scenario is accurate, the novice hooks up with the right club and not one that is selling losers or wines that are so generic they have no character or distinction...lest they might offend anyone.

This subject, by the way, comes here today again by way of Lettie Teague who wrote about wine clubs in the January 30th edition of the WSJ.  It is also timely for us because we here at V&C are about to try once again to get a wine club started here.  This time though, ours would be an original.  Ours would be a wine and cheese club.  Two bottles of red wine and a half pound of complementary European cheese and I think it'll work.  Actually it makes me salivate just thinking about it.

If we get the V&C wine and cheese thing going, that would obviously offer a different motivation to join.  After all, the magic in the experience wouldn't be in the wine but rather, the experience of the combination of the two and sometimes that is memorable indeed.

I recently learned of a contract winemaker in California that was trying to start a new project using the "Kickstarter" model.  This contractor is an industry veteran with a resume replete with a history of successful chain store labels.  Some vertically integrated contractors solicit business from people with a catchy wine label idea and take the ball and run with it by mass producing the wine you want, warehousing it, and even marketing it for you if you have deep enough pockets for such a latch key endeavor.  So if the kickstarter contractor mentioned above finds investors who are all of the same mindset wine-wise, that too could be a new wine club model.

Next Friday the 13th of February after 5pm, we will host Allen Rogers of Atlanta Beverage who will pour tastes of Pouilly Fuisse, Oregon Pinot Gris, two from Cahor, France, two from Proemio of Argentina, and Mureda Tempranillo from Spain.  Please join us.

Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Points System

Having just written about the passion we in the trade feel for our new wine discoveries, now we're going to do a 180 and say a few things about objectivity in tasting as reflected in the points systems so ubiquitous in the modern wine culture.  Let's admit though that there is a problem with objectivity with regard to wine.  And that problem stems from my current belief that our objectivity is really pretty subjective.

Robert Parker is credited with starting the 100 point grading system for wines.  His approach was soon copied by the Wine Spectator and others. Parker is now retired from wine journalism having sold his Wine Advocate at the end of 2012.  The current journalist who wears the crown of worldwide wine authority is Jancis Robinson who works with a twenty point system.  Parker actually rated wines between fifty and a hundred points making his system effectively a fifty point system.  Now wine bloggers like myself and I'm sure there are hundreds of us, each regularly profess our own  expertise, self-validating our own wine rating system regularly.

There is another way to look at wine appreciation, by the way.  It is purely utilitarian and has to do with wine's place on the dinner table as a food accompaniment which is a very traditional approach to the subject.  Even here though I am sure there has always been a certain gamesmanship between self-professed experts as to which rich red wine works best with the goulash.

So here goes.  This is the way I rate wines.  Since I am so color deficient I bypass the color evaluation step and go to the nose.  The nose is all important.  Unfortunately my olfactory senses also leave much to be desired.   So I sip the wine, rolling it all around my mouth checking for body, complexity, and harmony in flavors before swallowing and exhaling.  Voila!  Done!

Except there's more.  Aside from the taste buds we always think of, there is another faculty for tasting that we typically overlook and that is thinking, itself.  Our taste buds, of course, inform our brain about what's going on in the mouth.  Then the frontal lobe of the brain processes that information for what is novel or familiar, appropriate or inappropriate.  Since our tasting experience is so individual, ie., subjective, any personal rating system is probably accomplished internally at this point.

But there's more.  Since there is very little that is new under the sun, most of my brain's wine work consists of referencing the wine in my mouth with my thirty-five year history of tasting which began with the European models presented to me by my mentor, Jim Sanders, the "father of the fine wine business in Atlanta".  As unfair to new world wines as it seems, I look for the length and traditional "wininess" of the European model in any wine I taste.

Yesterday during the Super Bowl I tasted four similarly priced wines from three different continents.  One was very good; the others, so-so.  So what were the points?  Patriots 28, Seahawks 24.

On Friday the 6th of February between 5 and 8pm, Dmitry Paladino of Ultimate Wines joins us for a tasting of California and Oregon wines.  Dmitry was born and raised in Brazil but educated in the sciences at UGA.  His wine knowledge is expansive with an emphasis on the current scene in California.