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Alsace—What You Need to Know

The wine region of Alsace looks like it’s right out of a fairytale. There are 119 storybook villages, tucked among over 38,000 acres of vineyards set against the backdrop of the Vosges Mountains. While Alsace is a French wine region today, it has also at various times belonged to Germany. In fact, within a single 75-year period in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, France and Germany exchanged ownership of the region four times. (Alsace is one of Europe’s strategic geopolitical crossroads). Finally, Alsace is one of the rare wine regions in the world devoted almost exclusively to white wines—the most important being riesling, gewürtztraminer, pinot gris, and muscat. There is a single red variety, though—pinot noir—that grows amidst the idyllic villages.

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The Napa Valley: Circa 1971

Our friend Steve Burgess of Burgess Cellars sent us this map of Napa Valley in 1971 when it had only 40 wineries. Today (how things have changed) the valley has approximately 475 wineries.

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Anyone for Vintage Booze?

As just about everyone knows, Prohibition didn’t deter bootleggers. Just the opposite. The production of spirits soared. Prohibition has also had a modern, unintended consequence. The vintage booze market is now booming. Pre-Prohibition whiskey has become one of the most sought-after spirits for collectors. While bottles of century-old wine can turn to vinegar, whiskey’s flavors are more enduring over time. As long as it remains sealed, whiskey will largely taste the same as when it was bottled. That makes it a safe bet for whiskey lovers who are showing up at auction houses to buy whiskies that were bottled between the turn of the century and the 1920s. Some pre-Prohibition American liquor is selling for close to $20,000 a case, according to Christie’s auction house. And recently a single bottle of 1926 Macallan Scotch (hand-painted by Irish artist Michael Dillon) sold at auction in London for $1.5 million. We hope the buyer plans to drink it straight.

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Fermentation—for Foodies: A WineSpeed Book Review

Fermentation; terroir. These two concepts are quite familiar to wine lovers. But René Redzepi and David Zilber, authors of The Noma Guide to Fermentation, aren’t talking about wine: they’re exploring the culinary cornerstone and culture of Noma, a world-famous three Michelin-star restaurant in Copenhagen, Denmark. The Noma Guide to Fermentation is both a cookbook—from vinegar and kombucha to fruits and veggies—and a sort of exposé into the wonderful world of ferments. “Fermentation knows no borders,” Redzepi writes in the introduction. “Without fermentation, there is no kimchi, no fluffy sourdough bread, no Parmigiano, no wine or beer or spirits, no pickles, no soy sauce.” (A world without these things seems drab, indeed!) The Noma Guide to Fermentation is split into essentially two overarching sections: a primer explaining fermentation and what you’ll need to begin fermenting foods in your own home—and the recipes themselves. I know lacto-fermented gooseberries and black garlic ice cream might seem bizarre. However, Noma doesn’t want them to be. This book aims to change how the world views fermentation—not as a Michelin-starred menu item, but as something that happens every day in individual homes and kitchens around the world. (SRM)

The Noma Guide to Fermentation by René Redzepi and David Zilber (2018; Artisan Books) $40 

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Worth the Challenges

Grenache (pronounced gren-AHSH) is well-known both as a white grape (grenache blanc) and a red grape (grenache noir). Grenache is indigenous to Spain, where it is known as garnacha (gar-NA-cha). Like pinot noir, grenache is genetically unstable, making it an extremely difficult grape to grow—and even more challenging to make into wine. From less-than-ideal vineyards, grenache can be heavy-handed, simple, and fairly alcoholic. But, at its best, it has unmistakable purity, richness, and beauty, with the aroma and flavor of cherry preserves. It’s typically blended with other varieties such as carignan, syrah, and mourvèdre to make some truly stunning wines, most notably in France and Spain. The wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape (France) and the Priorat (Spain) are perfect examples. (And perfect right now in cold winter months).

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Cooking Wine: The Golden Rule

A note of advice from the late Julia Child this holiday season: never cook with a wine that you wouldn’t drink. This is still the golden rule. Wine too poor in quality to drink can actually harm great food flavors. So toss out any red or white table wines that have been hanging around in the back of the fridge. There is, however, one type of wine that can get quite old and still be great in cooking: fortified wine. Madeira, Sherry, and Port (the three leading types of fortified wines) do not spoil quickly. For months after the bottles have been opened, each of these wines will still add a delicious richness to soups, stews, sauces, and roasts.

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West of the West—Finally

To anyone who has stood, wrapped in a down vest, on the edge of the cold Sonoma Coast in California, the expression “West of the West” makes sense. The long slice of rugged land bordering the coastline and tracking more or less perfectly with the San Andreas Fault has been (unofficially) referred to as the “true Sonoma Coast” for years. Standing there, you feel almost as though all of California is east of you.  Now the “true Sonoma Coast” may become a reality. The area is on target to become its own AVA in early 2019 when it will officially be known as the West Sonoma Coast. The challenge with the current AVA—Sonoma Coast—is its size: more than 500,000 acres. Critics say that’s simply too large, especially for an AVA where the hyper site-specific grape pinot noir is widely grown. The West Sonoma Coast will be much smaller and the pinot, chardonnay, and syrah grapes grown there will benefit from a climate cooler than Burgundy’s.

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The Myth of Chocolate and Cabernet

I know. I know. National Chocolate Day is coming up (it’s October 28th). But please don’t drink that great cabernet with chocolate. It may sound romantic—even inspired—but as marriages go, chocolate and cabernet are a match made in hell (or in the depths of the marketing department). Chocolate is an extremely powerful, profound, and complex flavor. Its deep bitterness accentuates the tannin in cabernet sauvignon, making the wine taste severe and angular. Chocolate’s rich fruitiness blows away cabernet’s graceful fruity nuances, making the wine taste drab and hollow. In short, chocolate needs a partner more powerful than herself. Which may be one of the reasons that sweet, luscious, opulent Port is a life necessity (and chocolate’s perfect mate).

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Imaginary Foods—If Only They Were Real!

Atlas Obscura recently asked readers to list the best imaginary foods in literature and on film—foods the readers wished were actually real. Here are some.

•    Roast Beast from How the Grinch Stole Christmas by Dr. Seuss
•    Frobscottle from The BFG by Roald Dahl
•    Cauldron Cakes from the Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling
•    Klingon Bloodwine from Star Trek: The Next Generation 
•    Bilbo Baggins’ Seed Cakes from The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien
•    Soy Pop from The Simpsons
•    Doozer Sticks from Fraggle Rock
•    Snozberries from Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
•    Subtraction Stew from The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
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Impressive and Infectious: A WineSpeed Book Review

Columbus Day is next week and that reminded us how much we love Italian wine and Italian wine culture. Native Wine Grapes of Italy, a book by Ian D’Agata, celebrates both. In it, D’Agata takes a deep dive into about 500 native Italian grapes, everything from the big players—like Barbera and Nebbiolo—to little-known ones like Biancone and Peverella. D’Agata’s writing is impressive and infectious. By the end of the book, you’ll crave a trip to Tuscany to taste the varieties that, as D’Agata reminds us, you can only truly experience in their native environment. “Ultimately,” D’Agata writes, “wines from native grapes remind us Italians of who we are and where we have come from: their roots dig deep within our collective memories. There is no future without a past.”

Native Wine Grapes of Italy by Ian D’Agata (2014; University of California Press) $50