An Iron-ic Pairing

Any true Anthony Hopkins fan can recite the immortal line spoken by one of his most iconic and monstrous characters, Hannibal Lecter, in the 1991 film Silence of the Lambs:

“I ate his liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti.”

I recall thinking at the time: “Chianti’s not what I would have chosen,” and it turns out that in the book, author Thomas Harris (who must be an oenophile) actually had Lecter enjoy an Amarone—incidentally, a much better pairing with liver. The film’s producers felt that movie audiences wouldn’t know what amarone was and changed the referenced wine to one they believed everyone would be more familiar with.


Environmental Pioneers

After decades spent witnessing harvests starting earlier and earlier, Champagne became the first wine-growing region in the world to carry out a carbon footprint assessment of their industry in 2003. (Harvests now begin on average 18 days sooner than 30 years ago). At that time, the region initiated an ambitious climate plan aimed at cutting emissions by 75% by 2050. Among the most significant initiatives: reducing bottle weight (packaging accounts for 1/3 of Champagne production’s carbon emissions), waste recycling (100% of winemaking byproducts such as grape pomace and lees, are now used by the cosmetics, healthcare, and agro-food sectors), and biomass conversion (80% of the 120k tons of annually-generated vine shoots, branches, and other prunings are now ground into the soil as natural fertilizer). From its efforts to date, Champagne has been able to cut C02 emissions generated by each bottle of wine by 20% over the last 15 years.


Research—The Highest Calling

Oakville is the only wine growing region in the United States to have a dedicated research vineyard and facility in the heart of the AVA. For over 50 years the University of California, Davis Research Station in Oakville has conducted studies including trials of clones, rootstocks, vine spacing, pruning levels, and irrigation. The original budwood for Martha’s Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon came from the Oakville Station, and many of the modern trellising techniques utilized in Napa Valley were devised there as well. The Station, on some of the most expensive wine real estate in the world, is comprised of two vineyard parcels equaling a total of 40 acres. From 1868 to 1879, pioneer viticulturalist Hiram Crabb, purchased the acreage he would eventually plant with vineyards and christen To Kalon, Greek for “highest beauty.” On a 20-acre section (ultimately known as the Old Federal Vineyard) at the heart of the vineyard, Crabb experimented with rootstock and almost 400 different grape varieties. After Crabb’s death in 1899, much of To Kalon was sold to the Churchill family, who set aside the Old Federal Vineyard for use by first the U.S. Department of Viticulture and then the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In 1947, wanting to secure a research vineyard for the UC Davis Department of Viticulture and Enology, a group of Napa vintners purchased and donated a parcel now called the South Station, located south of Crabb’s original experimental plot. By 1955, closing out its own grape research, the USDA did the same and ceded the Old Federal Vineyard to the University.


Viva Les Veuves!

The history of Champagne is liberally sprinkled with the success of larger-than-life women, many of them widows. Unlike many women in the early 19th century, widows (veuve, in French) enjoyed the independence necessary to run a business. While unmarried women were dependent on their fathers or brothers and married women were forced to rely on their husband’s money, widows were allowed to own property and businesses and control their own finances. In fact, the Champagne Widows were so successful that some champagne houses without their own widow added “Veuve” to their labels anyway! Some of the most famous widows and their iconic Champagne houses include:

Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin Clicquot – Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin

Louise Pommery – Pommery

Mathilde Emilie Laurent-Perrier – Laurent-Perrier

Elisabeth “Lily” Law de Lauriston-Boubers Bollinger – Bollinger


Fermenting Inside Out

In honor of Beaujolais Nouveau being released next Thursday, November 21st, here are a few words of explanation about carbonic maceration. Carbonic maceration is a type of fermentation in which bunches of uncrushed grapes are placed whole inside a closed tank. The weight of the bunches on top crushes those on the bottom, releasing juice that ferments in the standard manner. For the intact bunches on top, however, fermentation takes place inside each grape, also known as intracellular fermentation, leading to an extremely juicy style of wine. Carbonic maceration is used extensively in Beaujolais, where it heightens the wine’s already grapey flavor.


Typhoid Victims?

It looks innocent enough right? It’s just a small glass of clear liquid. But hold on—grappa is a turbocharged experience. Grappa is the clear brandy that results when the pulpy mash of stems, seeds, and skins left over from winemaking is refermented and then distilled.

In most parts of the world, this leftover stuff is thrown away or spread on the ground as fertilizer. But in Italy, nothing gastronomical is wasted—even if it sometimes tastes like a grenade has just exploded in your throat. Historically, grappa, was a specialty of the cold, northern part of the country, where people put a small shot of it into their morning coffee. The best grappas today are usually made from the skins and stems of a single aromatic white grape variety, such as riesling, moscato, or gewürztraminer. Because of their feverish allegiance, grappa fans are fondly called tifosi di grappa—which more or less translates as typhoid victims of grappa.


From Bordeaux with Love

The now-popular name for the grape variety côt (CO), malbec (MAL-beck) is native to southwestern France. The offspring of two obscure French grapes—madeleine noire des Charentes and prunelard—malbec is the leading grape variety in Argentina, where it has been planted since the mid-nineteenth century after crossing the Atlantic from Bordeaux. Most Argentine wines labeled as malbecs are 100% that variety. Malbec tends to be lower in acidity and slightly less tannic than cabernet sauvignon. The best are inky rich wines with soft textures.


“Grand Cru” of Proseccos

Want to try the ultimate Prosecco? Look for the word Cartizze. Superiore di Cartizze is, in effect, the “Grand Cru” of Conegliano Valdobbiadene. A tiny high-elevation hilly area of just 108 hectares/267 acres, Cartizze, notable by its pentagon shape, sits entirely within Valdobbiadene. It’s among the most expensive real estate in all of Italy and the sheer beauty of the landscape is breath taking. Soils in Cartizze tend toward sandstone and marl (a type of limestone). Cartizze wines tend to be the most complex and ravishing among all Conegliano Valdobbiadene Proseccos.


Yum or Yuck?

Yesterday was National Caviar Day (although why the organizers didn’t choose New Year’s Eve beats me). Anyway, 87 people responded to our poll about caviar and Champagne. We asked if it’s a good pairing or a bad one. Sixty one of you gave the thumbs up, witth some friends like Thomas Houseman suggesting low (or no) dosage Champagne in particular, and “Wisequark” suggesting oxidative-styled Champagnes like Krug and Selosse. The naysayers were in the minority but they had the most vociferous and detailed reasons. The saltiness of the caviar fights with the acidity of the Champagne, said Dan Michael.  And then there was this gem from our friend the chef David Katz: “People love the idea for the same reason they love chocolate and cabernet—the mistaken assumption that two sexy opulent things should be even sexier together. A “Brangelina” pairing. I’ll enjoy mine separately unless you pick up the tab…”


The True Wine of Kings

Hungary’s Tokaji Aszú has been the wine of the famous, the powerful, the pious, and the noble. Its description as “the king of wines and the wine of kings” comes from the early 18th century, after Francis II Rákóczi, Prince of Transylvania, gave Tokaji Aszú to King Louis XIV of France as a gift, resulting in the wine becoming a regular favorite of the French court at Versailles (sorry, Sauternes). Next, Louis XV made it a special gift for Madame de Pompadour. Later, Emperor Franz Joseph (who was also the king of Hungary) developed a tradition of sending Tokaji Aszú to England’s Queen Victoria as a yearly birthday present—one bottle for every month she had lived. On her 81st birthday on May 24, 1900, she received 972 bottles (a significant present—and something of a shame, since this was her final birthday). Artists, writers, and musicians loved Tokaji Aszú—the wine was a favorite of Beethoven, Goethe, and Voltaire. Needless to say, Tokaji Aszú was a near-religious elixir as far as many popes have been concerned.


Wine with Sushi?

International Sushi Day is next week (June 18), so we asked our Facebook friends—What’s your most and least favorite wine with sushi? Champagne and sparkling wine got the most votes (no surprise there), followed by Austrian and German riesling, Austrian grüner veltliner, and Spanish albariño. California sauvignon blanc and French viognier were also favorites. But several traditionalists were adamant that nothing will ever beat sake. Said our friend the chef David Katz: “Wine is my least favorite option. Do we really need wine choices for cuisines developed, painstakingly, in the complete absence of wine? You kill the food, or you kill the wine, but often, you kill both. Champagne is lovely with everything, granted, but with sushi, it is kind of like a back rub in the middle of a car crash. Not a bad way to go, I suppose.” That chef David! Never one to, ahem, mince words.


Sex in the Vineyards

Right now in the Napa Valley where I live, there’s a lot of sex in the vineyards. Strictly between the vines, of course. Cultivated vines are hermaphroditic (the reproductive organs of both sexes are simultaneously present). Thus, come spring, grapevines pollinate themselves. But only if the moment is right. Grapevines, as it turns out, are rather particular. Too much wind? Forget it. A little chill in the air? The grapevines get a headache. Rain? May as well be a cold shower. Only when it’s calm, peaceful, and perfectly warm will grapevines procreate. The tender process is called flowering and indeed, if all goes well, tiny white flowers will result. With time, these tiny white flowers will become clusters of grapes. But if circumstances go awry and no flowers appear, there will be no grapes. (Sorry, buddy.)