Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Marnie Old

Marnie Old is a sommelier, author and educator who has a weekly column in the Philadelphia Daily News.  She also hosts something called "Wine Simplified" on YouTube.  What she brings to the table is a crisp and engaging style that "uses the power of images to explain complex wine concepts."  That is a gift.

One consequence of getting older is we tend to get stuck in our routines and fail to remain open to new information and those who bring it.  With as much history in this industry as we have, Marnie Old was new to us until we recently saw her name in a Lettie Teague WSJ wine article.  To restate what we said above, what she does is she simplifies things to the point where even if you aren't paying 100% attention you can still get it.  Wine Folly is similarly good at this approach.  It's sort of a "wine for dummies" approach.

While we weren't familiar with Marnie Old by name, we have been using something she wrote years ago as a teaching tool here in the store.  It was published in an infinitely forgettable trade magazine and it was so good we tore it out and kept it on the counter.  It would become our text for conducting the wine and cheese "experiment."

The article was a mere three paragraphs long with the other half page being graphics, observations, and a four step technique for conducting the experiment.  The article was entitled "Salt is Wine's Best Friend" and we used it to show how dry red wine has a natural affinity with cheese (since cheese is salty). 

These are her exact words: "Salt blocks the taste buds that detect acidity and sensitizes those that detect sweetness.  So saltiness makes wine taste less acidic, fruitier and less sweet.  In summary, this effect is usually pleasant."  She then goes on to say why sugar doesn't work with dry red wine.  We always stopped our experiment at this point since we always thought sugar was a non-starter.

Marnie Old was a restaurant sommelier for her first five years in the industry before moving on to consultant work with restaurants, consumers and corporations.  She was formerly the director of Manhattan's French Culinary Institute.  She even educated the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board (since that state runs the liquor industry).  Currently she is affiliated with the Boisset Collection of Napa-Sonoma wines.


Please join us this Thursday the 12th at 5pm when Bob Reynolds leads us in a tasting of Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir from Willamette Valley Vineyards along with a couple reds from Argentina and Spain.  One week later on the 19th David Hobbs returns with a tasting from his fine wine portfolio.  Then on Saturday the 21st  from 1-3pm we will host a charity tasting to benefit the Gateway Domestic Violence Center.  Please join us for the tastings. 

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Champagne Palmer & Co.

We just got in a couple cases of Palmer & Co. Champagne.  Since I have never sold this one before, I thought some homework might help with my sales pitch, hence, this post.

Montagne de Reims is one of the five wine districts in the Champagne region.  It is located in Champagne's northwestern quadrant.  Seven grape growers in that region united to form Palmer in 1947.  While Montagne de Reims is known for its Pinot Noir, these growers owned Grand Cru and Premier Cru Chardonnay vineyards, which is wonderful in itself, if a little peculiar considering where they were.

Pinot Noir is recognized as the great grape of Champagne.  It is what gives Champagne its character.  Montagne de Reims Champagne is especially well known for its heady bouquet, structure and acidity.

The Champagne district is situated ninety miles northeast of Paris.  That latitude is the highest of vineyard holdings in the world except for Argentina.  Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier, the third grape of Champagne, are among the few types capable of producing quality fruit at that latitude.

In a way what the founders of Palmer accomplished in 1947 parallels what is happening today in Champagne - growers are making their own instead of selling their harvest to the maisons, the huge international companies.  Estate-bottled wines are always better than what the big guys can do and the Grower Champagne movement is a microcosm of that larger truth.

The reputation of a Champagne house, however, is built by its non-vintage bottlings where the house cuvee establishes the public's perception of the company.  Most Champagne lovers are introduced to a a new sparkler by trying the non-vintage version first if for no other reason than the price.  Palmer, being a seventy year old company, long ago outgrew its estate wine bonafides.  Those Grand Cru and Premier Cru Chardonnay Vineyards now supply higher tier Palmer labels while the non-vintage product is made largely from purchased juice.  The great brands of Champagne consistently purchase ninety percent of their non-vintage Champagne juice.

While almost all big Champagne houses reside in the cities of Reims or Epernay, one large company calls the town of Ay in Montagne de Reims home.  That would be Bollinger whose big, yeasty, masculine style is indelibly etched into every Champagne lover's memory.  Palmer, by contrast, self-describes as "a moment of celebration associated with elegance."  They claim they get minerality from the chalky soil and salinity from the ocean breezes.  Moreover their wine style displays citrus and tropical fruit, floral notes, nuttiness and a silky mousse.

The best Champagnes show some combination of freshness, richness and delicacy, breed and raciness, and a stimulating strength.  Let's hope Palmer displays all of that.  And more!


Please join us this Thursday at the weekly tasting.  We start at 5 and go till 7pm.

Sunday, February 23, 2020

Pragal

Pragal is one of those unassuming generic-looking bottles that only gets its due when you dare to get into it.  It doesn't scream, "I'm here! Let me show my stuff!"  Instead it almost willfully holds back its promise by blending into the shelf with more formidable labels overshadowing it.

I first purchased a case of Pragal a year ago along with several Spanish wines and proceeded to stock them all in the Spanish rack.  I guess I thought they all looked Spanish.  It took an especially considerate customer's direction to get the wine where it was supposed to be - with the Italians.

Pragal is a sturdy red wine made by Bertani, one of the giants of Veneto.  Among their landholdings is a large expanse in the heart of the Valpolicella Classico region.  They have another large parcel  16km east of Verona.  Pragal sources Corvina from the Valpolicella region and Merlot and Syrah from their Val d'Illasi vineyard to the east.  The wine is then classified as "Veneto IGT."

All three Pragal grape types are sourced from low yielding, hand pruned vines.  After harvest some grapes are dried appassimento-style which accounts for the wine's richness.  A lengthy maceration and fermentation at low temperatures in large oak barrels is done before a malolactic fermentation in stainless steel tanks. Then there is a six month fining in oak barrels before the final blending is done.  The wine is released only after being held for more aging in the bottle.

Along with having the heft of a big red wine, Pragal has the fruity spiciness and bright acidity one might expect of serious Italian wine.  The tannins are soft.  The finished product is a deep ruby color with garnet and violet tints.  Flavors include red fruit preserves, dried roses, black cherry, spices, tobacco and black pepper.  The rich intensity of this wine is persistent making it perfect as an accompaniment for all red meats including game.  A formidable pasta dish would also work with this wine. 

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Chocapalha

Quinta de Chocapalha (choc-a-POLL-ya) is a Swiss-owned winemaking estate in the Lisboa Vinho Regional Area north and west of the Portuguese capitol, Lisbon.  A quinta is a country estate; "choca"  translates as a warm wind and "palha" sort of means "calm water flowing into a valley."  The estate has the desirable breezes from the ocean and three rivers running into the property.

Within the larger Lisboa legally defined wine production region there are nine DOC's.  Our estate is in the Alenquer DOC.  Estramadura was the name of this Lisboa region before 2008 when it was renamed to acknowledge the capitol.

The most well known wine region of Portugal has to be the Douro Valley where Port is made.  That region encompasses most of the northernmost 20% of the country.  Most of the lower 80% is considered to be ordinary by comparison.  Vinho da Mesa is the name given to inexpensive quaffing wine in Portugal.  Lisboa is the largest producer of wine in the country while not being the largest production area geographically.  That is the definition of ordinary.

Most of the wine made in Lisboa is made in wine cooperatives.  It has only been in recent times that private wine making estates have appeared.  You might say this region was known for its Vinho da Mesa.  Chocapalha was established in 1987.  Of course, in this era where so many mass marketers masquerade as estates, they too could be a cooperative.  While their website is superior to most vacuous winery websites they nonetheless leave many questions unanswered.

One thing they do well at their website is the delineation of the three wine lines they market.  Their estate wines are called Quinta de Chocapalha.  One step down are their Mar de Lisboa line which they say is more international in style.  Then below that they have Mar de Palha which they say is the "most international" in style.  (Damning with faint praise?)  They make a dozen wines at each level.  We have one red each from the Chocapalha and Palha lines and they display fine quality at fair pricing.

We also have the "CH by Chocapalha," the elite red from the company and that is the reason for this post.  Our 2016 vintage is 100% Touriga Nacional grown in their oldest vineyards.  For this wine their website does go into some detail: Pre-fermentation maceration and successive robotic pressings are done for twelve days at 25 degrees centigrade.  Malolactic fermentation and aging are done in French oak barriques for twenty-four months before the wine is bottled.

The wine is here in the store now and it is wonderful.  It has a violet color with a concentrated floral nose of perfumed black fruit.  The palate shows rich dark fruit flavors and integrated structured velvety tannins.  Once again, this wine is wonderful.  It is frankly one of the best wines we have tasted in recent memory.


Please join us for this week's Thursday wine tasting.  We go from 5 to 7pm.

If you have read through this long meandering post and like bargain white wine we have have a reward for you in the store.  We have two imports we'll sell for $7.99/btl!

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Raclette

It doesn't look like much.  It's a brownish-orangish natural rind wheel measuring 3-4" tall and sixteen or so inches across.  It weighs thirteen pounds and never has a label on it.  Like I said, it doesn't look like much.  Just another wheel of cheese.

It does look Swiss though.  Or maybe I've just been selling it so long I've decided that's what Swiss cheese should look like.

Gruyere is, of course, my favorite cheese.  It's not only the greatest cheese of Switzerland, in worldwide competitions it wins accolades from experts as "The Best Cheese in the World."  Gruyere wheels are HUGE so Raclette is a far cry from that so I still don't understand why I think Raclette looks Swiss.

Raclette (rock-LET) is a semi-hard, unpasteurized Alpine cow milk cheese.  It's aged 3-6 months so you could say it's like a softer milder Gruyere.  Like Gruyere it has historically been made on both sides of the French-Swiss border and like Gruyere, eighty percent of Raclette originates in Switzerland.

Written references to the cheese go back to convents in the 12th century.  It was considered to be a peasant cheese.  The name Raclette comes from the French word "racier" which means "to scrape."  Peasants would position the cheese next to a fire to soften it before scraping it onto bread.  From those humble beginnings Raclette evolved into a melting cheese over potatoes, which led to gherkins, onions, other vegetables and eventually, dried meats.  For people in the know, using the Raclette scraping apparatus makes all the difference in the finished meal.

Savoie, France is on one side of the border; Valais, Switzerland is on the other.  That area is ground zero for Raclette.  The closest fine wine region is the Rhone Valley and if that place conjures images of big red wines you may be barking up the wrong tree.  The locals pair this one with whites.   

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

KWV/ Western Cape/South Africa

I don't know how this happened but in recent months we have evolved into quite the vendor for South African wines.  Presently we have eight types in the store, four reds and four whites.  Last month we may have sold thirty cases of these which is pretty impressive considering South African wines usually don't do that well.

In the wine business Europe is considered to be the "old world" and everywhere else is considered "new world."  Most new world wine industries are a hundred years old or so.  South Africa has a wine industry that is three hundred fifty years old.  Many of their critically acclaimed wines are second in quality only to Europe.

Most of the South African wine industry is located in the Western Cape, the region surrounding Cape Town in the southwestern corner of the continent.  At thirty-three degrees latitude this wine country mirrors Mendoza, Argentina where the finest Malbec is made.  The prize wine of South Africa is Pinotage, a hybrid of Cinsault and Pinot Noir.  While Pinotage may be the signature wine of South Africa something in its flavor profile doesn't gibe with the international palate.  South African Cabernet Sauvignon and Rhone-style blends are safer bets for most of us.  Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are the winners in white wine.

Our thirty cases sold in December was heavily weighted toward the KWV whites we loaded up on when the price was right.  Considering the quality of the wines, that store purchase proved to be the ultimate no-brainer.  If anything, our $10 retail was too low, scaring off many who might have liked the wines but weren't inclined to buy such low-priced fare.

At the turn of the last century South Africa had a serious wine overproduction problem.  The phyloxera bug had decimated South African vineyards like everywhere else.  When they replanted they overdid it resulting in way too much wine for a nation that was not an exporter at that time.

KWV was a farming cooperative established in 1918.  In 1924 the government passed the KWV Act which made the co-op responsible for administering the wine industry.  By putting KWV in charge the government hoped for a unity of purpose among producers leading to innovation and quality improvement.  The development of export markets would then hopefully follow.

Upon establishment of its authority in 1924 KWV corrected the overproduction imbalance by purchasing excess wine from growers and fermenting it into brandy then marketing it around the world.  The KWV Act made the co-op the sole importer/exporter of all alcoholic beverages.  Initially 70% of vineyard production was distilled with just 30% remaining as table wine.  Today those percentages are reversed.

Twentieth century South Africa is noteworthy for most of us for one primary reason: Apartheid.  Most of the industrialize First World boycotted South Africa because of its legally discriminatory political system.  Once reforms took place in the late 1980's the wine industry itself was reformed.  To be more inclusive KWV was privatized and black ownership in the industry was mandated.


Please join us this Thursday after 5pm for the weekly wine tasting.

Monday, January 20, 2020

Red Wine and Fish

Deceptive title.  What we're really talking about is the great Sicilian red Nero d'Avola as an accompaniment to Mediterranean cuisine.  Our material comes from the Kermit Lynch newsletter.  KL is an exceptional importer of European wines and their newsletter, like all business newsletters, is a sales instrument.  They were pitching their particular Sicilian red by pairing it with a particular meal which they go on to delineate.

The KL newsletter is very professionally done with creative writing that makes our little humble blog appear quite primitive.  What is in the obvious interest of both Kermit Lynch and Vine & Cheese is that we present wines flatteringly to would-be purchasers to advance our business interests.  We want to sell wine.  So when KL says Nero d'Avola retains acidity despite baking in the Mediterranean climate vineyards, that says this wine is food-friendly.  When they say the wine "coats the palate with sumptuous notes of black cherry and blackberry,"  that gets Pavlov's dog salivating.  When they say the "radiant brightness" of the wine contrasts with "the succulence of the dark fruit," I want to call my old English literature teacher and say, "Did you hear that?"

Here's the recipe for the meal they're talking about:

Cook down some onions, garlic and tomatoes in olive oil.  Add some capers and pitted olives.  Then some dried herbs like oregano and thyme.  Hot chili flakes, if desired.  Spoon this sauce over grilled swordfish or tuna with pasta.

So after reading the KL sales pitch, what do I think?  I want to taste the wine.  And the meal.  I really want to taste them both.  Together. 

It's enjoyable for me to criticize over-the-top wine writers.  Especially if I think they either don't know what they're talking about or they're transparently on the take.  This time the writer got it right.

I r-e-a-l-l-y want to taste that wine!


Please join us this Thursday at the weekly wine tasting.  We go from 5 to 7pm here at the store.

Tuesday, January 14, 2020

2018 Sand Creek Red Blend

Not only is this a rich and luscious red quaffer, it is also an especially nice looking wine.  Both the bottle and the case have beautiful multicolored waves going across them.  So unlike so many mass marketed chain store wines, this one actually has the quality going on inside of the bottle also.

The Sand Creek red comes from the Peninsula de Setubal which is just south of Lisbon, Portugal.  The wine is made by Casa Ermelinda Freitas in a region historically anchored by Jose Maria da Fonseca, Portugal's oldest table wine company.  Established in 1834, Fonseca is still thriving today albeit in the fortified Muscat category where they have a near monopoly in that kind of wine.

Historically the Setubal peninsula has been dedicated to Muscat grapes. Fonseca started it all.  Muscat of Alexandria is the most prominent type planted there (and elsewhere) but Muscat is one of those types prone to mutation so there is a veritable family of Muscat grapes to sort out.  Most vineyards in the region are planted in white grapes with most of those being related to Alexandria in some way.

Our Sand Creek however, is a red blend and while its appellation on the label says "Setubal" it may more accurately have called "Palmela" which is a red wine carve-out from the Setubal DOC.  Portugal's legal wine appellation system has been in flux since the early 2000's.  Palmela's DOC status elevation from IPR probably happened around 2009.

Palmela features sunny plains with poor fertility but well draining sandy limestone soil.  Red grape vines love such environs.  They yield wines of fully ripe and balanced tannic cherry flavors.

Palmela, like Setubal, is mostly planted in white grapes but there are a handful of red players.  The most prominent type is called Castelao or Periquita.   DOC law for Palmela reds mandates at least 67% Castelao in the blend.  Alfrochiero and Tinta Amarela are two other local varieties which, like Castelao feature dark coloration and rich body and flavors.  Aragonez (Tempranillo) is also part of the blend as are the international varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.

The most telling feature displayed by our Sand Creek red is its floral nose that just won't quit.  That's a dead giveaway that Muscat is in the blend also.


Please join us next Thursday the 16th for a red wine tasting to include the Sand Creek Red.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Le Roule

Every holiday season we sell a ton of Le Roule to breathlessly panting customers dying to know more about the stuff.  It's just that good.  So here's the lowdown:

Le Roule (le roo-lay) is one of those meteors that hits the marketplace and immediately finds its mark.  It's only been around since the nineteen eighties when it was created in central France by the Tablanette Fromagerie.  It is currently produced in Northeastern France in the Les Vosge mountain village of Neufchateau by Laiteries Hubert Triballat SA.

The Le Roule name means "roll" and it's not just a proper noun.  The Le Roule log looks just like so many pasteries that roll up sweet stuff into some kind of cake layer.  And that is what is going on here.  First you spread your added ingredient; be it garlic and herbs, sweet and savory peppers, or cranberries; onto your work table.  Then you spread your fresh curd on top of it.  Trim off your excess and start rolling!  The process is still an artisan effort, done by hand leaving the unmistakable spiral design on the ends to validate the process.

The dumbfounded expressions on the faces of tasters is probably as much due to the freshness of the product as anything.  It has a creamy smooth, melt-in-your-mouth texture.  The sweet or spicy add-ons don't so much dominate the freshness as perfectly balance the flavor of the cheese itself.

Le Roule is great on crackers or as a dip with crostini.  It is spreadable so it may work on toast for breakfast or as dessert on grahams.  Some might butter their steak and potatoes with it!


This Thursday the 9th after 5pm please join us for a wine tasting with industry veteran Dave Klepinger.  That evening Dave will pour tastes of three from Italy and a great Malbec from Argentina.  Specifically we'll have Villa Sparina Gavi, Allegrini Valpolicella, Palazzo de la Torre IGT Super Tuscan and A. R. Guentota Malbec.