Vines & Vittles

Summer foods: A sparkling idea!

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Summer is a time to kick back and relax. Picnics, barbecues, back porch lounging and casual dining rule the day and that’s a very good thing. So the beverages we choose to match the lighter, fresher and more casual foods we consume this time of year should not only be delicious, but also refreshing too.

But nothing should require us to eliminate whatever style or type of wine we wish to drink. So if you prefer full-bodied reds with your barbecued chicken, go ahead and uncork one – just know that popping that bottle in the refrigerator for a half hour before you drink it will make the experience a whole lot more enjoyable.

But me? I prefer summer-style wines such as rose’, lighter whites like pinot grigio, sauvignon blanc or albarino and less intense reds such as Beaujolais, pinot noir or Dolcetto. But there is one particular type of wine that is my overall warm weather favorite and that’s because of its versatility with just about any food, and its overall refreshing nature.

This is a wine that goes equally well with fish, meat, veggies or fruit. You can match it with spicy foods like jalapeno pepper -infused dishes as well as delicate seafood entrees such as Dover sole. This wine is really good with popcorn, anchovies and pizza, and it punks any type of beer as the go-to beverage for chili, baby back ribs or even fried hot banana peppers.

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I’m talking about Champagne and sparkling wine! Yes, the wine that most of us only open on celebratory occasions is probably the most flexible beverage to use with just about any food – even a green salad with vinaigrette dressing. I am not a food chemist (though I have stayed at a Holiday Inn Express), but the refreshing fruity flavor and mouth cleansing bubbles seem to marry well with just about any dish.

We seem to forget how good sparklers are with everyday meals, especially those that are spicy, rich or salty. And you really do have a wide variety of reasonably priced domestic and international wines from which to choose such as Cava from Spain, Prosecco from Italy and Champagne-like wines from just about every wine-producing country including the US.

Here’s a little refresher on sparkling wine.  While many sparklers are made in the Champagne method, none can be called by that famous moniker unless they are produced from grapes grown in the region of Champagne in northern France.

If you recall, the Champagne method (or methode champenoise) is a process where still wines (traditionally pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot meunier) are blended and then put in a bottle to which yeast and a small amount of sugar are added. This causes the wine to go through a secondary fermentation and the result is a bubbly wine like Champagne. While Champagne is regarded as the gold standard, many other countries produce excellent sparkling wine using this method.

And while true Champagne (which is the most expensive of all sparkling wine) certainly deserves to be paired with decadent foods like foie gras or caviar, it and other sparklers are equally copasetic with just about any dish on the planet. Hey, if food could talk, don’t you think a spicy dish like chili would prefer to be paired with Champagne rather than that hoppy,foamy yellow stuff?

Champagne is priced from the mid thirties to upwards of hundreds of dollars a bottle. Here a few of my favorites priced under $60: Charles Heidsieck Brut Reserve; Nicolas Feuillatte Brut; Mumm Cordon Rouge Brut; Moet & Chandon Imperial; Veuve Cliquot (Yellow Label); and Perrier Jouet Grand Brut.

Sparkling wines (those made outside France, but using the Champagne method) priced under $30: Gloria Ferrer Brut; Schramsburg Brut; Domaine Carneros; Mumm Cuvee Napa; Domaine Chandon Reserve; Piper Sonoma Brut; Ste. Michelle Brut; Castillo Perelada Cava Brut Rosado; Dibon Cava; and Gustave Lorentz Cremant d’Alsace Brut Rosé.

Prosecco (these don’t use the Champagne method) priced from $10 – $20 a bottle: Santa Margherita; Ruffino; Zardetto; Lamarca; and Mionetto.

Chop House gourmet dinner for Thomas Health

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It’s always fun and gratifying to be a part of an organization that provides essential services that are beneficial to the community in which we live. For the past decade, it has been my privilege to serve on the boards of the Thomas Health System and also the Foundation for Thomas Health.

One of the benefits of my association with Thomas is that I get to (occasionally) use my knowledge and love of food and wine for some purpose other than gratifying my own hedonistic tendencies. In this instance, I will be a part of an effort to celebrate and shine a light on the good works of the folks at Thomas.

It will be my pleasure to once again select and then present the wines at the second annual five-course gourmet dinner sponsored by the Foundation for Thomas Health. The event will be held again at the Chop House – this year on July 28, beginning at 6:30 p.m.

At the inaugural event last July, the dinner highlighted Italian food and wine. This year, attendees will be treated to a celebration of traditional American cuisine with wines paired for each course by yours truly. The Chop House has been a very generous partner in this event and, as usual, you can expect the quality of the food to be exceptional.

Here’s the menu with wines:

Passed Canapés: Warmed mushrooms stuffed with fresh herb roasted chicken and pecans; Smoked salmon topped on bruschetta with tomato caper relish

2014 Emmolo Sauvignon Blanc

Appetizer: 4 oz. Crab and lobster cake topped with homemade red pepper coulis with basil and crispy onion stack

2014 Clos Pegase Carneros Chardonnay

Salad: Seasonal greens with Michigan dried cherries, spiced pecans and dressed
with Maytag blue cheese

2016 Belle Glos Pinot Noir Blanc

Entrée: Grilled 6 oz. filet mignon on whipped garlic mashed potatoes with glazed baby carrots and broccoli and finished with a cabernet demi sauce

2014 Mullan Road Cellars Red Blend

Dessert: Chocolate Decadence cake with fresh summer berries

Santa Margherita Prosecco

The price is $125 per person and seating is limited. If you’re interested in attending, please call the Foundation at 304-766-4340 and make your reservation today. You can also bring your friends as tables of four, six, eight and ten are available.

Hope to raise a glass with you to Thomas Health on Friday, July 28th.

Taste, balance, finesse: The other Washington

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What words come to mind when I say Washington?

I bet dysfunction, quagmire, loggerhead and unyielding are among the most defining words you might use to describe that place. But when I think of Washington, words such as balance, nuance, depth and finesse immediately come to mind.

Obviously, we’re describing two different places. In fact, I often use the products produced in the kinder, gentler Washington to soothe and anesthetize me from the vitriol and vinegar of that other place with the same name.

Of course, I’m referring to Washington State. That bastion of good taste in the Pacific Northwest is often overlooked by wine lovers who seem to gravitate more to California and Oregon when looking for some of the best wines produced in the U.S.

quilceda

If you’re one of those folks, you should really give Washington State another look. In a region of the country perhaps better known for producing cherries, hops, apples, apricots and RAIN, thousands of acres of grapes have been planted. And the wines produced from these grapes are truly exceptional.

In the past 40 years, the wine industry in Washington has exploded. In 1981, there were only 19 wineries in the state and today there are more than 900 scattered over 14 American Viticultural Areas (AVA’s).

Most of us who live east of the Rocky Mountains think of Seattle when we think of Washington State. But Seattle sits smack dab between the Cascade Mountains to the east and the Olympic range to the west, and has rain forest-like weather. And while there are a few vineyards in the Seattle/Puget Sound area, the overwhelming majority of wine is being produced from vines grown across the mountains in Eastern Washington.

So what makes this northwest corner of the U.S. so special? It’s the superb terroir
(pronounced tare-wah). Terroir is defined as the combination of soil, climate and geographic location that determine the quality of a wine appellation. Washington’s terroir is superior and suited for growing some of the world’s greatest wine grapes including, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, chardonnay, riesling, gewürztraminer and semillon.

Washington white wines are the equal to anything produced in California or Oregon, particularly the riesling, chardonnay and gewürztraminer. And the cabernets, merlots and syrahs are truly exceptional and can compete with wines produced from similar vines anywhere else.

In fact, Washington State produces one of my all-time favorite cabernet sauvignons – Quilceda Creek. It’s a very small production winery and has gained cult status from several 100-point scores regularly awarded to it by critics such as Robert Parker. I was fortunate enough to get on their mailing list 20 years ago. But there other equally good, red wines produced in Washington that are readily available and don’t take a back seat to any other region in the world.

That’s a pretty bold statement, but in addition to intensity, richness, elegance and power, Washington State red wines have the potential to achieve a qualitative attribute uncommon in many wine regions: balance.

Here are a few of my favorite labels from Washington State that you should find in wine shops around the state: Mercer Canyons; Kiona; Saviah Cellars; L’Ecole No. 41; Columbia Crest; Canoe Ridge; Hedges; Leonetti; Waterbrook; Quilceda Creek; Woodward Canyon; Covey Run; Milbrandt; Walla Walla; Chateau Ste. Michelle; Columbia Winery; DeLille Cellars; and Barnard Griffin Winery.

Warm weather wines and a Poblano Stack

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Memorial Day weekend is in the rear view mirror which means that summertime is about to arrive. This time of year, some people’s thoughts turn to gardening or even golf, but not mine. My thoughts turn to grilling various meats and vegetables and accompanying these culinary delights with cool bottles of lighter-textured wines that refresh the body and the recharge the spirit.

I am referring to approachable whites and reds that transform your grilled foods into even more delicious morsels, and raise the overall gustatory experience to sublime levels. And most of the wines listed below retail for less than $30 a bottle.

Let’s start with my go-to spring and summer white.

This is a great time of year to sip crisp, herbaceous sauvignon blanc with herbal suffused foods such as salmon with dill, grilled asparagus, or even a basil pesto  over linguine. Or how about these sauvignon blanc friendly options: creamy chicken salad with tarragon or sautéed brocolini and shitake mushrooms.

You’ll want to search for richer, more fruit forward styles of sauvignon blanc that bring out the best in these types of dishes, like : St. Supery, Ferrari-Carano, Nobilo, Chateau St. Jean, Duckhorn Sonoma County, Kenwod, St. Michelle and Sterling.

My absolute favorite picnic and warm weather wine is rose’. Nothing beats the freshness and suitability of rose to pair with foods like grilled Brats, Italian sausage, or baby back ribs. Give these babies a try: Domaine Fontsainte Gris de Gris, Banfi Centine Rose, Mulderbosch Cabernet Sauvignon Rose, Elizabeth Spencer Rose of Grenache and Ferraton Tavel Rose.

poblano-stack

Sangovese and pinot noir are my seasonal choices for red wines in the springtime, particularly when matched with grilled dishes. And spring lamb is just about as good as it gets. Whether you choose a boned and butterflied leg, lamb chops or rack of lamb, these wines do not over-power the food, but rather compliment and enhance the flavors.

Here are some sangiovese choices for the grilled lamb dishes mentioned above: Ruffino Chianti Classico Riserva Ducale, Carpineto Vino Nobile Di Montepulciano, Falcor Sangiovese, Monsanto Chianti Classico, Fossi Chianti and Monte Antico.

Pinot noir may be the world’s most versatile wine with a multitude of dishes. From grilled salmom to chicken, to spicy barbecue and even beef, pinot noir shows its adaptability to a host of foods with different tastes and textures. And a slightly chilled pinot noir is the perfect accompaniment to outdoor dining.

Try these favorites of mine: Erath(Williamette Valley), Cloudy Bay (New Zealand), Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyards Sonoma Coast, Chehalem Winery, King Estate, Twomey Russian River, La Crema and Melville.

Okay, so here’s a recipe for a simple warm weather dish that could be used as an appetizer or an accompaniment to other picnic type foods. It also pairs up well with just about any of the wines mentioned above. It’s actually a bit spicy, but if you like a little heat with your meal, this is one you’ve got to try.

Poblano Stack

Ingredients:

– Eight medium poblano peppers

– One red and one yellow bell pepper

– One-half pound of sharp, grated white cheddar cheese

– Two ounces extra virgin olive oil

– One –half teaspoon each of salt and pepper

– One large paper bag and several sections of paper towels

Preparation:

Scorch each poblano and bell pepper on a very hot grill until peppers are fairly black

Wrap and cover each pepper in a paper towel and place in the closed paper bag

Allow peppers to steam for about one-half hour

Remove from bag and use a small knife to scrape off burnt pepper skin

Discard seeds and stems from peppers and cut each into two or three pieces

Place a layer of poblano pieces in a small square or rectangular baking dish

Add small amounts of olive oil, salt and pepper and cheese to poblanos

Alternate and stack poblanos with yellow and red peppers

Bake in the oven for 25minutes at 325 F.

Slice into small squares and serve

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The warmer weather usually means it’s time to switch from the fuller-bodied wines of winter to the lighter wines of spring time. Take a look at what I’m sipping and how there’s even a wine for ramps!

Acrimony + Sous Vide + Wine = Harmony

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My brother and his wife visited us last week. It was great to get together with them, but I must admit things always get a bit testy between my brother and I, but only when it comes to a few topics like: food, wine, politics, movies, the weather, religion, sports, the universe, medicine, creation, clothes, art, fishing, capital punishment….

You get the picture. Sibling rivalry does not even begin to describe our relationship. And cooking together can devolve into a contact sport. Well, that may be an exaggeration, but we do get into some heated discussions. Then we kiss and make up.

We can’t help ourselves. It’s genetic and comes from the Italian side of our family where no opinion ever went unchallenged. Our aunts, uncles and cousins would argue about everything, and ignorance of a subject did not inhibit us from passionately defending a less than plausible position. Those who prevailed usually did so, not through knowledge or eloquence, but because they were louder or had more stamina. Eventually, though, they (and we) settle down and do what we do best: cook, eat and drink!

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Among the memorable meals we prepared last week was one that was a pretty complex undertaking. It involved using a Christmas present from my brother – the Anova (a manufacturer) sous vide device – to prepare a confit of duck legs. Sous vide is a method of cooking in which food is vacuum-sealed in a plastic pouch (or baggie as we used) and then placed in a container filled with water. The Anova heating device is used to circulate the food for long, slow cooking in the water bath. The duck confit took 10 hours to cook.

Of course, not every sous vide dish requires ten hours to prepare. Anova provides a cooking guide to assist in setting the circulating device to the appropriate temperature and time for the specific food you’re preparing. Once the food reaches the correct temperature, you can continue to leave it in the water bath until you’re ready to eat. This method of cooking is the absolute best way to insure that the food (particularly meat) will be at its tender best.

I’ve used the Anova to cook rib-eye steaks and total cooking time in the water bath was about 1.5 hours. It’s recommended that you finish the meat on a grill or very hot cast iron skillet for one minute per side to get a good searing caramelization. The rib-eyes were among the best I’ve ever served.

We cooked the seven duck legs at approximately 140 degrees Fahrenheit and, once out of the water, we pan-seared them in a cast iron skillet for about 2 minutes a side. Out of the pan, we served the duck with a blueberry gastrique (which is a fancy name for fresh blueberries sautéed with balsamic vinegar, water and sugar). We accompanied the duck with asparagus and a cheesy ramp polenta.

I have to say that after all the weeping and gnashing of teeth, the meal was delicious. And the wine pairings were excellent too. We opened a 2009 Joseph Phelps Freestone Vineyard Pinot Noir ($45) and 2012 Fabre Montmayou Cabernet Franc Reserva ($22). The pinot noir is from the Sonoma Coast and the cabernet franc was made in the Mendoza region of Argentina.

Both wines excelled as companions to the dish, but the pinot noir came out on top because it was more compatible with the blueberry gastrique. The cabernet franc was made in the medium-bodied style of a Chinon, a wine that is made from the same grape grown in the Loire Valley of France.

If you’re interested in learning more about the sous vide method of cooking, you can simply check it out on the web or Google the Anova website.

A tasty look at food and wine pairings

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Join Chef Paul Smith at Buzz Foods and me as we cook up a few great dishes at Paterno’s at the Park and pair them with some excellent wines.  We’ll show you why breaking some wine and food pairing rules can be fun – and tasty too. Check it out here

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I’ve often said this before, but it bears repeating: don’t be constrained by convention when it comes to matching wine with food. The more you experiment, the more you will realize – like I have – that it’s both fun and instructive to try just about any combination of food and wine that strikes your fancy.

Wine snobs (aka Alt-Wine zealots) would have me dispatched to the grape crusher -if they could -for uttering such vinous heresy. You know the type of person I’m referring to, right? He’s the guy who wears a purple ascot and smoking jacket to the neighborhood barbecue, and wishes his name was Trevor. His mantra? White wine with fish and chicken, red wine with red meat- and absolutely no substitutes!!

Hey Trevor, I have news for you: there are no hard and fast rules when it comes to choosing which wine to serve with a particular meal. Not that I would suggest pairing Chateauneuf Du Pape with pan seared cod, but go ahead and be adventurous. You might be surprised at the tasty combo’s you’ll discover on your gustatory journey.

So here are some tips (not hard and fast rules) on where you may wish to start your wine and food pairing expedition.

Think about the flavor, texture and weight of the food and then consider which wine might be a good fit. You wouldn’t logically pair a full-flavored red wine with delicately broiled seafood. Think about it. The flavor and weight are all out of balance.

Instead, you might complement the dish with a delicate white wine such as Sancerre from the Loire Valley of France (made from sauvignon blanc) or an albarino from Spain. Conversely, a robust red wine such as cabernet sauvignon or merlot would pair seamlessly with a well-marbled rib-eye steak.

Abstract Label

Another element to consider in choosing a complimentary wine pairing is how the dish is seasoned. The addition of sauces or spices can add a flavor dimension that should be considered when picking the appropriate wine.

For example, pinot grigio would be an excellent choice with poached salmon in a dill sauce, while grilled salmon that has been dusted with cumin, black pepper and chili powder would overpower that same wine. Here’s an example where I suggest choosing a red wine to marry with that particular dish. With no apologies to Trevor, spicy, grilled salmon requires a medium-bodied red such as pinot noir or even sangiovese.

The texture of a dish can also play an important role in determining the best wine match. And sometimes that means pairing the dish with a wine that has contrasting notes or nuances. For instance, if you have a rich, fatty piece of beef, lamb or pork, a good wine match might be a young tannic and astringent red like zinfandel or petite sirah. That’s because the mouth feel of the wine will provide a pleasant contrast to the richness of the meat, and also serve to cleanse the palate.

Probably the most difficult dish to pair with wine is any type of vinaigrette, particularly those used on salads. Vinegar or acid-based dressings clash with most wines, destroying the flavors of both the salad and the wine. The only possible palatable pairing I’ve found is to match the vinaigrette with a very dry sparkling wine such as a Cava from Spain.

And finally, one of my favorite, but seemingly counter-intuitive pairings, is full-bodied red wine with chocolate desserts. As a matter of fact, one of the most exquisite dessert experiences I’ve had recently is paring the 2015 Orin Swift Abstract ($35) with a large slice of double chocolate cake.

The Abstract (a California blend of grenache, petite sirah, and syrah) is an opaque, purple monster full of rich, mocha and blackberry flavors. It is an absolutely delicious complement to chocolate. And the Abstract bottle has a really one-of-a-kind label with a collage of eclectic images. It’s sure to be a collector’s item.

So go forth and be adventuresome. Try some unconventional (maybe even outrageous) wine and food combinations. (Trevor will never know).

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I was asked the other evening to expound on the qualities of a particular grape grown in a number of different geographic wine regions around the world. How did it differ in taste and quality from one appellation to another? Good question, right?

Things seemed to be going well as I began to describe the qualitative differences in terms of not only the taste and aroma of the wine, but also how climate and soil affected the finished product. So when I mentioned that this particular grape flourished in places like California, France and Australia, my friend asked: “How does the wine made from that same grape in Israel compare to the others?

Huh? To my knowledge, I assured her, that grape is not widely planted in Israel. “No”, she insisted, “I just read how wine produced from that grape in Israel is similar in style and substance to what is made in California.”

The grape we were discussing is syrah (which the Australians call shiraz) and I could tell from her disappointed look that my wine credibility had taken a serious hit. Could they really be growing syrah now in Israel?

I asked my friend to spell the grape in question and she did so correctly without hesitation. However, she also added the word “petite” before spelling syrah. Ah, now I understood. The pronunciation of sirah (seer-ah) is the same as syrah, thus the misunderstanding. And, indeed, petite sirah is produced in Israel’s emerging wine regions. But, of course, petite sirah is a completely different grape than syrah.

Holy obfuscation! There can’t be any other product that is more difficult to understand than wine. Maybe quantum mechanics, but I doubt it. To start with, much of the language – even on American wine labels – is foreign (i.e., “cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah, etc.). And when some of the so-called wine-illuminati use terms like ethereal, orgasmic or unctuous to describe “Uncle Amos’ Purple Mountain Majesty,” normal folks- who would like to learn a little more about wine – are left scratching their heads.

montepulciano

And unless you’re studying to be a sommelier, you probably wouldn’t know that “Vino Nobile di Montepulciano” (which is from Tuscany and comprised of at least 70 percent sangiovese) is a totally different wine from “Montepulciano d’Abruzzo.” This latter wine is from the state of Abruzzo and is produced from the montepulciano grape.

Confused? You should be. And while it can be maddening to someone who just wants to find a good bottle of wine to accompany their meatloaf and mashed potatoes, it can also be fascinating for wine geeks like me who enjoy nothing better than translating that bewildering gibberish for you.

So here are four different and delicious examples of wines representing the confusing language discussed above. I think you’ll like them and I promise to use common words to describe them.

2010 Terre Rouge Cotes de l’Ouest Syrah ($22) – This California wine is full of bright cherry and spicy black pepper flavors. Unlike some new world full-throttle syrah’s, this one is medium -bodied and similar to a northern Rhone wine. This would be lovely with a spicy casserole of Chicken Cacciatore.

2014 Boogle Petite Sirah ($14) – There is nothing subtle about this inky purple monster, but it is still very well balanced with gobs of black and blueberry flavors and just enough acid to make it an excellent food wine. Try it with a hearty, garlicky beef stew dusted with a generous portion of coarsely ground black pepper.

2012 Fattoria dell Cerro Vino Nobile di Montepulciano ($27) –You will need a glass of this delicious wine after trying to pronounce it! A nose of flowers, cola and mint is followed by notes of black cherries, vanilla and spice on the palate. Match this delicious wine with a crown roast of pork that’s been rubbed with olive oil, sage, black pepper and minced garlic.

2014 Cantina Zaccagnini Montepulciano d’Abruzzo ($22) – Another tongue-twister, this wine bursts with sweet and sour cherry flavors along with nuances of cinnamon and tea. Round and rich, but with a good zing of acid, marry this baby with roasted or grilled lamb chops that have been marinated in lemon juice, Dijon mustard, garlic, olive oil and rosemary.

Port: A perfect Winter Wine

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Check out my Vines&Vittles video on Port by clicking below.