Saturday, February 27, 2016

Masi Modello Delle Venezie

Masi is perhaps the finest of the large Italian wine producers.  Modello translates into "mode" so Modello Delle Venezie could be translated as "in the style of Veneto".  Veneto, by the way, is not Venice but "Tre Venezie" or three Venices which are old administrative regions in northeast Italy dating from the early twentieth century.

This wine is an IGT (Indicazione Geographica Typica) red "delle Venezie" which means it is typical of the region of production.  In today's wine map of northeast Italy, delle Venzie overlays Veneto, Friuli-Venezie Giulia, and Trentino-Alto Adige, basically covering the whole northeast corner of the country.

The IGT category was created in 1992 to provide cover for the state when the success of Super Tuscan wine producers called into question the basis for the existing Italian wine law.  At the time, Super Tuscans were commanding prices significantly higher than the DOCG Tuscan reds.  Because they used grapes disallowed in Tuscany, those Super Tuscans had to be labelled as table wine, the lowest quality level at the time.  The IGT creation allows the inclusion of grapes in blends that favor a uniformity of style under the natural conditions of a region.

In the case of our Masi wine, the grapes are Rabosa, Refosco, and other indigenous types so the IGT may be gratuitous in favor of Masi's prestigious bearing or considering that the international varieties are allowable up to 10% in IGT Delle Venezie red blends, Masi may be getting state leeway to alter the blend if need be.  The list of state sanctioned grapes here is long.  To keep things in perspective 70% of wine production in this region is Pinot Grigio so a red blend like this might require some flexibility.

Masi possesses 170 hectares in seventeen hillside vineyards in Veneto.  They have had the same ownership since the eighteenth century and because of that longevity, Masi has historic relationships with neighboring grape growers.  Because this is Valpolicella country, they favor the "appassimento" method to concentrate wine flavors and that seems to be in evidence here in this medium bodied, ruby colored red.

The flavors here include ripe cherry with plum and delicate spice.  Like all Italians the flavors are long and the finish is dry.  The Masi winery is thoroughly modern so this wine is made in temperature controlled stainless steel tanks using a malolactic fermentation.  This is a "drink now" pizza and burger wine but being what it is, it may complement soup, sausage, pork, and pasta.

Saturday, February 20, 2016


Sometimes I like to listen for voice inflections as wine salespeople offer their wares here at the store.  Honesty tends to win out over hyperbole in a sales pitch when the pitch of the voice is in play.  This time our vendor seemed to want to rush past the 2011 Cousino-Macul Finis Terrae Red Bordeaux Blend as if to get to something else that was good from Cousino-Macul but her voice betrayed her.  My follow-up question for her was, "What did you like about Finis Terrae?", to which she said, "layers (of flavors)" which, of course, frees up all kinds of images of Cabernet depth and complexity.  In short, I was sold.

That wine is in the store right now, just in case I may have piqued any curiosity out there.  According to just a couple wine writers I checked, those layers include aromas and/or flavors of black currant, blackberries, raspberries, violets, cigar box, cedar, tobacco, mushrooms, and spice.  Sounds just like a premium fruit-driven Maipo Valley Chilean Cabernet should taste.  Here are some more descriptors: full-bodied, unfiltered, dark red color; and those layers of fruit, by the way, are velvety in texture and display finesse in their subtlety.  Fine wine, I'd say.

So having sold Cousino-Macul for as long as I have, I thought it was about time I learned something about the company.  Established in 1856, Cousino-Macul is the oldest continuously family-owned winery in Chile.  They, along with a handful of others, parlayed their mineral mining wealth into travels through Europe and one thing led to another and grapevines ended up following them back home to Chile.  And these grapevines weren't just any grapevines.  For Cousino-Macul, the Cabernet and Merlot came from Pauillac in the Haut-Medoc of Bordeaux, home to the finest Cabernet in the world.

The Chilean wine country is a belt across the waist of that long thin nation.  Using that metaphor, the Maipo Valley is in the middle of the wine country so I guess it's the belt buckle and that's where the industry started in the 1850's.  Most early vineyards were further south than Cousino-Macul and I never found out how they happened to locate where they did.  It's fortuitous though because that area is now referred to as the Alto Maipo (Upper Maipo) and it is the most desirable region for making fine Bordeaux blends in Chile.

Cousino-Macul is in the northwestern corner of the Alto Maipo, literally abutting Santiago, the nation's capitol.  It is at the top of the Central Valley which has a ridge to the west that admits the cool breezes from the Pacific Ocean Humbolt Current while limiting harsher winds off the ocean.  The real treasure in an Alto Maipo venue though lies immediately to the east where the mighty Andes tower upward. Vineyards in Alto are already at a desirable altitude but what the Andes do for them is icing on the cake.

The diurnal effect of temperature changes as applied to grape growing is a subject we have discussed here many times.  In short, grapes ripen better when a cool evening accompanies considerable daytime sunlight.  What the Andes do for Alto is to block the morning sunrise intensifying the cold morning temperatures before giving way to the rest of the day's extended sunshine from the west.

Finis Terrae is a brand launched by Cousino-Macul in 1996.  The name means "end of the earth" and the red bordeaux blend is only made in the best years.  Food pairings include steaks and other stronger red meat dishes and aged cheeses.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Sulphites in Wine, Part 1

Tempest in a teapot...apparently, unless you actually have the sulphite allergy or are one of the 5-10% of asthmatic people who are sulphite sensitive.  Sulphites, by the way, are most often ingested through breathing during a meal. The red wine headaches so commonly reported also seem to be unrelated to the sulphite controversy since white wines have more sulphites.  Red wines do contain histamines which may be the problem and let's not forget that alcohol, itself, can cause a headache.

Here's the low down: 1986 is the year sulphites became controversial.  The 1970's and 80's saw a marked rise in sulphite usage in foods.  Sulphites are a preservative and in the case of wines, they prevent browning of color.  In 1987 the USDA banned sulphites from fresh fruits and vegetables (except potatos) and going forward, wines had to be labelled "contains sulphites".

Now here's the disconnect: some frozen foods contain 6,000 parts per million (ppm) in sulphites; dried fruit may have 3,000ppm; french fries, about 2,000.  Ordinary white wines may have up to 350ppm; reds typically have about 50.  While most fruit juices have more sulphites than red wine they are not tarred with the sulphites label like wine is.

So this definitely does not make sense unless you are an old timer in this business like I am.  I remember wines that tasted sulphurous and I remember having breathing issues while drinking wine so maybe wine was more adulterated before 1987.  The Franzia boxed wines were the absolute worst in my recollection and I always thought domestic wines in general were worse than Europeans.

Sulfites in WIne, Part 2

So we're going with sulfites this time around instead of sulphites.

Sulfites have been used in wine making for centuries, probably even before academia could explain what was going on chemically.  The same with food.  Let's not forget that sulfites occur naturally in soil also, so really nothing coming out of the ground is immune to the sulfite charge.

As stated previously, wines typically may contain 350ppm in sulfites.  Per the USDA National Organic Program 100ppm becomes the new cut-off for organic labeling.  (In fact most such wines are in the 40-80ppm range.)  Also no added sulfites are permissible in the USDA organic program.   In order for a "No Sulfites" label to be legit, the wine must have less than 10ppm in naturally occurring sulfites.  These standards are set by the USDA for both domestic and imported wines.

Worldwide the "organic" wine label applies to the farming of grapes only.  Only natural farming methods are allowed which precludes pesticides, herbicides, chemicals, fertilizers, or insecticides.

There is a simple way to remove sulfites from wine according to  Add a few drops pf hydrogen peroxide to your glass of wine and that should do the trick.  Or if that's too gross there are somewhat pricy commercial products on the market that will do the same thing but those products are just made up of hydrogen peroxide and water.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

Morbier & Gruyere, Part 1

Being in the cheese business, I'm often asked what my favorite cheese is and I always defer to the old "Oh, there are so many that I like" or some other dodge like that.  Until now.  Now I can say without hesitation that Gruyere (Groo-YAIR) is my favorite.  One reason for that conclusion is that it marries so well with so many red wines.  It's like a safe go-to cheese for most any wine occasion and it has only been recently that I have come to realize that.

Gruyere is more than one cheese, by the way.  There is French Gruyere, or Comte (Com-TAY), and there is Swiss Gruyere and I suppose there may be more Gruyeres than that.  There are also all of the other "Gruyere-like" cheeses out there, those that are either "Gruyere-lite" or "Gruyere-plus" in flavor.  Switzerland seems to specialize in the latter.

Not surprisingly Comte comes from the Franche-Comte (Free Country) region in far east-central France abutting Switzerland.  That region also contains the Jura wine appellation which probably means I need to try a Jura red with my Comte.  As of this year Franche-Comte is now to be recognized as Bourgogne-Franche-Comte (Free Country of Burgundy) which is an acknowledgment of a fifteenth century relationship with Burgundy proper.

Morbier (MOR-bee-yay) is one of those Gruyere-like cheeses mentioned above.  It wasn't until I did my homework for this post that I learned just how closely related they are.  Morbier is actually the second cheese made by Comte cheese makers.  Comte is made in ninety pound wheels.  If you think about that, it would be a remarkable coincidence if you had just the right amount of curds prepared for those Comte wheels.  More likely, I'm sure those Comte makers always had plenty of leftovers and those leftover curds were then pressed into smaller molds to become Morbier.  And considering the Comte aging requirements because of its size, Morbier production worked just fine for cash flow purposes too.

Morbier & Gruyere, Part 2

Morbier is a 15"-18" diameter/three inch tall, twenty pound wheel of semi-soft cow's milk cheese.  Once a wheel is cut into, it is instantly recognizable by its black ash streak going through its center.  When the leftover Gruyere curds were pressed into the Morbier molds, at the halfway point they were covered with burnt grapevine ash to prevent contamination from insects or anything else and to inhibit the development of a top rind.  Then the next day after the morning milking, by afternoon new curds were put on top of the ash to fill the mold.

Morbier means "small market town" and while there is a village of Morbier in Franche-Comte, the cheese actually comes from the town of Morez in the Jura Mountains.  Today Morbier is made in fruitieres, traditional cheese dairies in Franche-Comte; cooperatives; and industrial dairies.  There are only a couple fermiers that actually still make the cheese in the manner described above.  Today it is made in one step with a vegetable dye used to historically represent the ash streak.

Morbier may be either pasteurized or unpasteurized.  Once the molds are filled with pressed curds, the young cheese is aged for two months.  It is then washed in brine to encourage rind development and aged for two more months.  By law Morbier must be aged forty-five days minimally and must reach a 45% fat content.

The finished product has a creamy brown, somewhat sticky, bulging, leathery natural rind.  The interior color is soft ivory with the obligatory thin black layer.  Morbier is one of those cheeses that smells stronger than it tastes.  The savory and fruity aromas and flavors include grass, citrus fruit, nuts, and barnyard embedded in a rich creamy consistency.  The finish is slightly bitter.  Pinot Noir may be its best red wine match; Gewurztraminer, its white.

Morbier had its birth in the nineteenth century and was originally intended for home consumption only.  The cheese received its AOC certification from the French government in 2001 and its PDO protection from the European Union in 2002.