Organic Wines Were For The Birds

Last month, Audubon Greenwich hosted a farm-to-table wine dinner that was a celebration of organic, biodynamic and sustainably produced food and wine. Chef Marc Alvarez of Bedford Hills, NY created a dizzying array of delectable appetizers, followed by a 3-course gourmet meal. The reception appetizers and three courses were paired with wine by Wine Institute of New England. For those guests who are curious to know a little more about what they drank that night, and for all others who seek to learn about organic, biodynamic and sustainably farmed wines, I have decided to write up my notes from the evening. Cheers!

For the reception, Chef Alvarez treated guests to a delightful selection of canapés that included cheese, vegetables and beef. What to pair with such a broad array of foods? Cava, of course! Sparkling wine creates a festive mood and, being high in acid, helps to cleanse the palate between bites, allowing the taster to fully enjoy the various and distinct flavors.

Albet I Noya Cava NV

I chose Albet I Noya Cava NV Brut Reserva. Cava, Spain’s sparkling answer to Champagne, was first produced in the 1870’s after winemaker Jose Raventos visited France and tried champagne for the first time. Cava is traditionally produced from three native grapes, parellada, xarel-lo and macabeo (also known as viura), although in the ‘80s, other grapes were authorized for cava production, including pinot noir and chardonnay. Although the denominacion de origen for cava is based on method, not location, 95% of cava is produced in Cataluna with San Sadurni de Noya considered cava’s spiritual home. The traditional methode champenoise is followed, although somewhat less rigorous procedures are implemented than those for champagne.

In 1978, Josep Maria Albet I Noya, who was known to be a strict vegetarian, was approached by a Danish company in search of an organic wine producer for the region. After a successful initial wine was produced, Josep Maria embraced organics and converted to a completely organic vineyard. He was the first in Spain to do so. The vines are treated with green compost rather than chemicals, copper hydroxide is used instead of copper sulphate, the vines are managed to produce lower yields and the amount of sulphur dioxide used in the cellar is approximately half that used in conventional winemaking. All of the yeasts used for fermentation are indigenous to the Penedès region. Since 2004, the winery has been slowly increasing its biodynamic treatments.

The degorjat for this cava (the process of removing the lees from the neck of the bottle) is done manually and the date of degorjat is printed on the bottle labels. This is important because ideally cava should be drunk within one year of degorjat. This sparkler showed great acidity with citrus notes, crisp minerality and an overall clean and well-balanced presentation. And as a tribute to Josep Maria, it is vegan.

Roast Pumpkin Soup with Wilted Sage

For the appetizer, a pumpkin soup seasoned with sage, I chose Bonterra Viognier from Mendocino, California. Viognier, native to the Rhone in France, is a heady, succulent, sexy grape. In France it is typically drunk as vins de pays and is often blended with Syrah. In California, this hefty grape is allowed to ripen more fully which results in a dark yellow wine with high alcohol and seductive aromas of apricots, peaches, blossoms, honey and tropical fruit.

Bonterra produces certified organically grown grapes on its 378 acres. Organic since 1987, the vineyard is sustainably maintained incorporating beehives, free range chickens, sheep and bird boxes. This luscious viognier is blended with two other Rhone grapes, rousanne and marsanne, as well as muscat. The result is a rainbow of aromas including peach, honeysuckle, jasmine, apricot and vanilla. This intoxicating wine, which displayed just a hint of oak, was elegantly balanced between crispness and creaminess.

A choice of entrees provided WINE with an opportunity to showcase some additional wines. For the lamb dish, I decided to brave uncharted territory and pair it with a grape that is not well known, but is certainly worthy of great attention – tannat. Tannat, indigenous to Southwest France and one of the oldest varieties in all of France, is one of the four most tannic grapes in the world. This grape is so high in tannins that the procedure of micro-oxygenation was actually invented specifically to tame this grape. It is often blended with varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc and merlot to soften its tannins. Tannat was taken to Uruguay in the nineteenth century where it is now flourishing. The difference in climate and terroir produce a grape that, while still in high in tannins, creates wines of superb quality when produced in low yields.

Duo of Lamb with Wild Hive Polenta & Spigarello

I was thrilled to treat the guests to Bodegas Carrau Ysern Tannat from Uruguay, having just met the winemaker, Dr. Francisco Carrau, the week before the event. With roots in Catalonia, Spain dating back to 1752, the Carrau’s moved to Uruguary where they have been at the forefront of innovative winemaking since 1930. Bodegas Carrau was the first to export wines from Uruguay, they introduced the idea of using tannat for top reds in 1973, and in 1997, they built one of the most innovative wineries into the side of a hill to capitalize on low-input winemaking. Bodegas Carrau employs organic and sustainable methods, uses indigenous yeasts and makes some of their wine without the addition of sulfur. Their Ysern Tannat spends 20 months aging in French and American oak and was reminiscent of dried fruit, dark chocolate and oranges. For those of you familiar with Barcelona Restaurant, they have recently added Bodegas Carrau wine to their award-winning wine menu.

Guests who chose the Farro Risotto for their entrée had a choice of red or white wine. For the red, I selected the biodynamic Nuova Cappelleta Barbera del Monferrato Minola. Barbera is the third most planted red grape in Italy after montepulciano and sangiovese. This high acid and richly pigmented grape is native to Piedmont. Sadly, in 1984 there was a methanol scandal that caused people to shy away from this delightful grape for some time. I am glad to see this late-ripening, grape making a well-deserved comeback.

Nuova Cappelleta Barbera del Monferrato Minola

The color alone is a treat and, in fact, the barbera grape is often used to “correct” the color of nebbiolo, the grape used for Barolo. Founded in 1965, the 520-acre estate at Nuova Cappelleta was certified as a biodynamic farm in 1984. The daughter and grandson of the founder hand harvest the grapes and use indigenous yeast for these vegan wines. This reserve wine, which was aged in French oak for twelve months and then in the bottle for another six, was a rich ruby red. 100% barbera, the wine had distinct aromas of vanilla and cinnamon, an excellent structure and was well balanced. I have had the pleasure of tasting their entry-level barbera and highly recommend it, as well.

For those risotto eaters desiring a white wine with their main course, I offered another biodynamic selection, a Domaine de Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris from Alsace. Pinot gris is a mutation of pinot noir. Although native to Burgundy, France, pinot gris is most familiar and revered in Alsace. The grape is known as pinot grigio in Italy, and there is actually more planted in Italy and in Germany than there is in France. In the United States, it is the number one planted white in Oregon, where they produce a style similar to that made in Alsace – high acid, medium to full body, neutral aromas of apple and pear. These wines are generally quite rich, dry and gently perfumed. In 1997, Olivier Humbrecht began his first organic and biodynamic vine trials, receiving biodynamic certification in 2002. M. Humbrecht has stated that his conversion to biodynamic farming was inspired by the effects he perceived from the high quality compost used in this method. The pinot gris had a deep golden color which evinced extra ripeness. The aromatics included cocoa, peach, pear, and some nutty scents. Very complex, the wine was big, bold and firmly acidic with honey, exotic spice and bergamot notes.

To complement the apple tart dessert, I treated guests to a very special dessert wine produced from chenin blanc. Another highly acidic grape, chenin blanc, a native of the Loire, can be long-lived and is used to make wines from dry to sparkling to sweet. This grape is also popular in South Africa where it is often referred to as steen and, in fact, twice as much chenin blanc is planted there than in France. Terroir plays a critical role in the production of wines made from chenin blanc. The dessert wines typically have a concentrated honey flavor with strong dairy tastes, such as clotted cream or sour cream. I was fortunate to obtain an excellent example of this dessert wine from Anjou-Saumur in the Loire, Domaine de Mihoudy. Produced by Cochard et Fils, a sixth generation sustainable winemaking estate, this floral and elegant wine with hints of honey and orange blossoms was the perfect mate to the evening’s final course.

List of Wines with Prices:

Albet I Noya Cava NV, Spain     $20

Bonterra Viognier 2007, California     $13

Bodegas Carrau Ysern Tannat 2005, Uruguay     $16

Nuova Cappelleta Barbera del Monferrato Minola 2006, Italy     $16

Domaine de Zind Humbrecht Pinot Gris 2009, Alsace     $22

Domaine de Mihoudy Chenin Blanc, Anjou-Saumur     $30

Wowed by the West Street Grill

I recently spent a lovely weekend with friends enjoying Connecticut wine and food in Litchfield County, the culmination of which was a multi-course lunch at West Street Grill. Following are our impressions of the food and wine.

By Analiese Paik and Elizabeth Keyser

Wine Review by Renée B. Allen

New restaurants get all the buzz, but on day two of the Litchfield road trip it was easy to pass up the darling of the moment for the real thing: a long-established restaurant that puts care into the entire experience of its guests.

Yes, we’re talking about the West Street Grill in Litchfield. For over 20 years restaurateurs James O’Shea and Charles Kafferman have been serving excellent New American food with a French/Mediterranean influence. A day or weekend trip to Litchfield is not complete without a meal at this iconic restaurant, which is known for being a haunt of many well-known actors and writers. O’Shea was once asked why so many celebrities eat there. “We leave them alone,” he replied. Actually, he takes very good care of his guests and is known for telling a funny story — or two or three.

The black and white photos in the front dining room are from a 1950’s photo collection that are rotated regularly. The old-world feel immediately gives you the impression that they take food and hospitality very seriously.

In the back dining room where renovations are well underway, the Mediterranean style plates decorated with fruited lemon and olive sprigs appeared as the tables were turned for dinner service. The original rattan French bistro chairs are caned in a dark green and ivory open weave, true to the original style, and a perfect match for the restaurant’s awning colors.

The French bistro-inspired atmosphere is inviting, the service is on a professional level rarely seen, but West Street Grill is really about the food. It was one of the earliest proponents of farm-to-table (“before the term was coined,” says O’Shea), and at a recent lunch, the fresh ingredients were the stars in the room. Executive Chef Jimmy Cosgriff is the star in the kitchen.

The West Street Grill picks up fresh tomatoes, basil, blueberries, peaches, lettuces and arugula from local farms. Dean’s Farm Stand in Fall’s Village provides beets, basil, potatoes and some tomatoes. Waldingfield Farm in Washington, a certified organic vegetable farm that grows a variety of heirloom tomatoes, is another source. Milk from local farms is used to make the house ricotta. O’Shea grows some of his own tomatoes, organically of course, as well as rhubarb, lettuces, and large amounts of herbs like lovage, chives, Russian and pineapple sage, lemon balm, tarragon, horseradish, opal shiso and purple basil. “We are heavy chive and basil users,” he said. He buys all his vegetable seedlings from USDA organic grower Gilbertie’s Herb Gardens. Honey, maple syrup and some other products come from the farmers’ market. West Street Grill also uses Baldor, which sources from local farms from a 300 mile radius.

Lunch was superb.

W.S.G. Locally Grown Tomato Salad with native basil, fleur de sel and 12 year aged balsamic vinegar

These perfectly ripe tomatoes were a natural starter for a hot day. They were rich in fresh, tomato flavor.

Parmesan Aioli Peasant Bread

Intensely flavorful with a satisfying crunch from the gratin and toasted house-made bread, this has been a house classic since 1990.

Sauteed Spinach

Baby spinach, picked up that morning from a local farm, was wilted and served simply to let the natural flavors shine. It melted like butter in the mouth.

Soup de Poisson, aioli and garden chives

Rich with roasted fish and vegetables, the soup was hearty and was flavored with fennel. It was topped with an understated aioli; a more forceful aioli would have overwhelmed the soup.

Shrimp Tempura

Gulf shrimp were skewered straight and perfectly cooked so they were meltingly tender on the inside, crisp and slightly golden on the outside. They were served with a refreshing salad of Napa cabbage, mango, cilantro, peanuts, Bermuda onion, carrot and pickled ginger along with sweet chili dipping sauce.

Pan Seared Silken Tofu

Triangles of fresh tofu lightly seared and served with wok-seared vegetables seasoned with scallion, cilantro, pickled ginger. The dish was topped with crispy rice noodles with sweet chili sauce.

Fresh, Wild, Day-Boat, Connecticut Fluke with potato puree, braised leeks, lemon caper coulis

The pan-seared fluke (summer flounder) was golden and crisp, yet so tender it was hard to believe it wasn’t breaded. “Nothing comes between a fish and my chef’s pan,” O’Shea told us. Hidden beneath the fish were ribbons of leek. The herbed potato puree was light and delicate, and was accented by the lemon caper coulis. This dishes hit the mark on both flavor and execution.

Moules Frites

The mussels were steamed in a gorgeous broth of garlic, lemon, white wine and tomato. The broth was clean, delicate and well-balanced. The fries were crunchy and delicious, especially when dipped into the saffon-scented aioli.

“Jimmy’s Ravioli” — Homemade Spinach and Gorgonzola Ravioli with garlic, grape tomatoes, basil, grana padano

Two plump pillows of light-as-air ravioli offered the perfect filling-to-dough ratio so the focus was on the filling, rather than the pasta that enrobed it. The filling’s silky smooth texture came from house-made ricotta from local milk, blended with spinach, gorgonzola and Parmesan cheese. A brothy, delicate sauce of fresh tomatoes, garlic, basil and grana padano created a very refined ravioli.


A trio of coconut, raspberry and chocolate sorbets was refreshing and bursting with flavor – pieces of coconut, ripe raspberries, dark chocolate with no bitterness. None were overly sweet, which we appreciated.

Wine Review by Renée B. Allen

Casa Julia Sauvignon Blanc, Chile 2010

Our decadent dining experience began with a Chilean Sauvignon Blanc from Casa Julia, a vineyard with a solid, hands-on approach to sustainable agriculture. Chilean Sauvignon Blanc has progressed by leaps and bounds in the past 10 years. Winemakers have been exploring cooler regions in Chile for growing these grapes with phenomenal results. This example from Casa Julia exhibited many of the traits found in these successful plantings. To begin, slightly muted notes of tropical fruits danced on the nose, hinting at the riches to be found within. These tropical notes revealed themselves on the tongue richly, but without the aggression often associated with warmer climate Sauvignon Blancs. The midpalate opened to a wave of citrus which was followed by a crisply acidic and well structured finish. This wine is tailor-made for drinking with seafood and proved a worthy pairing for the Soup de Poisson.

The Vineyard at Strawberry Ridge Ascot Reserve Chardonnay, Western Connecticut Highlands 2008

For our second wine, James O’Shea insisted on what he claimed to be the best wine in Connecticut, the Ascot Reserve Chardonnay from The Vineyard at Strawberry Ridge in Connecticut. The vineyard owners, Robert and Susan Summer, have hired Connecticut vintner Jonathan Edwards to produce this wine. Probably the best traveled wine in Connecticut, from New York to Las Vegas all the way to Macau, the list of venues carrying this limited production wine reads like a celebrity “it” list. The vineyard’s most recent accolade is their production of the wines for the famed Rao’s restaurant in New York. The wine opened with aromas of vanilla, apple and caramel, delicately punctuated with hints of nutmeg. The first fleeting taste to tantalize the tongue was green apple, which quickly yielded to butterscotch on the midpalate from the use of French oak barrels during fermentation. The finish ended with notes of fig and citrus, and tongue-smacking astringency. Although this wine bore little resemblance to the flinty, mineralic, stainless steel fermented Chardonnays most commonly associated with Connecticut, it was an admirable example of the influence the vintner wields over the Chardonnay grape. This wine was a nice complement to the Pan Seared Connecticut Fluke, which might just have been the best fish dish ever to grace this wine taster’s lips.

Geyser Peak Cabernet Sauvignon, Alexander Valley 2007

The powerful, classic Geyser Peak Cabernet Sauvignon proved an excellent companion to the Homemade Spinach & Gorgonzola Ravioli. Everything a cab should be, this wine’s bouquet foretold the fruit and spice that awaited the taster. In a beautiful balance of fruit forwardness and medium tannins, black cherry and chocolate, accentuated by pepper, coated the palate, before succumbing to the lingering finish.

West Street Grill

48 West Street, Litchfield, 06759

Reprinted with permission from

Authentic Mexican Food and Wine ~ a Tijuana-style Summer Night

When people comment on how fun my job must be, I always say, “the research doesn’t stink.” This is never truer than when I get to combine terrific food with whatever wine I am tasting. Such was the case this week when I had the pleasure of tasting two Mexican wines while being treated to authentic Mexican cuisine at Suzette and Arturo Franco-Camacho’s newest food child, Tacuba Taco Bar. Tacuba is the name of a municipality in northwest Mexico City. With this latest restaurant, Chef Franco-Camacho honors his Mexican heritage and his mother’s taqueria in Tijuana where he grew up.

My friend and I arrived, with four kids in tow, after spending the day melting from the heat wave moving through Connecticut. We were tired but looking forward to a relaxing evening out in an air-conditioned restaurant. Upon opening the door to the unassuming entrance, we were struck with another heat wave; the air conditioning was out. Undaunted, I strolled in and gave the host my name. My companions followed reluctantly. It was not long into the meal before everyone agreed that we had made the right decision by staying, and that the heat added a touch more authenticity.

Although I am a tried and true foodie, I will save the majority of my prose for the wine and limit the food commentary to one simple sentence – everything was delicious and reasonably priced. The décor is pleasant and fun, a colorful montage of Mexican accented with contemporary touches, such as corrugated aluminum. A giant picture frame on the wall offers a canvas for silently run black and white Mexican movies, a great distraction for the hot and somewhat restless children. In the open kitchen, one can watch Chef Franco-Camacho creating culinary magic. If you really like to be part of the action, you can sit at the counter area directly in front of the kitchen. On the other side of a partitioning wall is the very adult bar, “Swill.” I had to run my hand over the wood bar and feel the natural undulations. A chandelier composed of wine glasses provided the very low mood lighting.

Back in the dining area, we were given menus with only two wines listed: Mexican sauvignon blanc and Mexican cabernet sauvignon. If you are not a wine drinker, there are mixed drinks, beers and 24, that’s right, 24, tequilas to choose from. But if you do like wine, I highly recommend you try one of the Mexican offerings.  They go well with the food. I am hoping to return soon, minus the children, to conduct further research at Swill.

L.A. Cetto Sauvignon Blanc 2009

The nose was slightly grassy with tropical fruit notes. Herbaceousness and stone fruits were evident in this mineralic, medium oaked, unassuming wine.

L.A. Cetto Cabernet Sauvignon 2008

The cab also had a mineralic and somewhat flinty taste, with dark red berries, cassis and a bit of earthiness. Medium bodied and smooth, this wine ended with a short finish.

Tacuba Taco Bar, 1205 Main Street, Branford, CT

WINE Goes to a Tasting…Without Wine!

So what, exactly, do wine and honey have in common? More than you might think. Many people are familiar with mead, a centuries old honey wine often attributed with being the oldest alcoholic drink in the world. But last weekend, it was not wine that was being tasted. WINE attended a honey tasting laboratory at Red Bee in Weston. It was an eye-opening experience, to say the least.
As guests arrived at the charming red house with a bee painted on the side, nestled amongst the chicken coops, open gardens and colorful beehives, we were treated to a glass of Prosecco adorned with a floating raspberry. Doing the pouring was seasoned beekeeper, Al Avitabile, here to support the main act, honey sommelier, Marina Marchese. The term “honey sommelier,” coined by Ms. Marchese, was the first of many similarities to the wine world I was about to discover here.
Once all of the guests had arrived from Connecticut, Massachusetts and New York, Ms. Marchese began her story of how she accidentally became a beekeeper. Her fascinating tale was periodically accentuated by the crow of a rooster, an unwelcome interruption to Ms. Marchese, but one the audience found to be a delightful touch that lent an even greater note of charm to the experience. Ms. Marchese’s story is serendipitous and entertaining, and best left for Ms. Marchese, herself, to tell. You can hear the story in her own words if you follow this link:
After regaling us with her fairytale-esque story, we were led to a banquet table, complete with white linens, on the other side of the yard. The table was set with water glasses, silverware, baskets of homemade bread from the Fairfield Bread Company, and tasting notes. Once seated, the knowledgeable and amicable staff set white plates with tasting foods in front of each guest. The goat cheese with lemon balm was placed at 12 o’clock so that the pairings would flow clockwise. Just above each plate were seven paper mini-muffin cups numbered 1 through 7, each containing its own type of honey. For the next hour, our personal honey sommelier led us through honey tastings and pairings in a manner similar to a wine professional conducting a wine pairing. Pumpkin honey with sweet potato, linden honey with honeydew melon, buckwheat honey with beets or raw chocolate truffles, and blueberry blossom honey with the goat cheese. It was like taking up a new sport and discovering muscles you never knew you had. Each pairing made me feel like I was tasting food for the first time. And while I definitely preferred some of the pairings to others, each was credible and provocative. [Read more…]

Introducing Connecticut Corkers

Welcome to Wine Institute of New England’s newest blog category, Connecticut Corkers. “Corkers” has a dual meaning: a person who puts corks into bottles; and a remarkable or astounding person or thing. Both of these definitions seem apt for a blog covering wine in Connecticut. Every month, this category will feature a Connecticut winery and its winemaker, or a Connecticut wine event. It is a very exciting time for winemakers in Connecticut right now. With more than 20 active wineries on the Connecticut Wine Trail, and new farm winery-friendly legislation passed or being considered, the wine industry shows no signs of slowing down. From providing farmers with a new source of revenue to aiding our state both in agriculture and tourism, farm wineries are doing their part for the Connecticut economy. There has never been a better time to become a “locabibe.”

Drinking Local and the Birth of a New Word

I recently became involved in Connecticut’s Farm to Chef Program, a wonderful group whose mission is to connect local culinary professionals with producers and distributors of Connecticut grown products. My involvement began as a result of my work with a few Connecticut chefs committed to producing menus based on locally grown and produced food, and our mutual interest in promoting local wineries. The following is the story of my local journey. It was published in the May CT Farm-to-Chef Newsletter.

On Becoming A Locabibe

I first heard of the Connecticut Farm to Chef program when a mutual acquaintance email-introduced me (the new rage) to Linda Piotrowicz of the Connecticut Department of Agriculture. This acquaintance thought she might be a good connection for me as I navigated the murky waters of beginning my own wine education business in Connecticut. During my course of study for the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW) examination, we had covered “other” regions, including the Northeast, but there was no mention of Connecticut wineries. A native New Yorker, I did not take the slight too personally, but it occupied a little space in the back of my mind. [Read more…]

Wine and Chocolate ~ it’s not just for dessert

A participant at one of my recent wine and dinner pairings was kind enough to send me some photographs from the event. The photos were so evocative of the experience that they made me feel excited about it all over again. So much so, that I decided to share the virtual experience.
In collaboration with the award-winning talents of Chef Daniel Chong Jimenez, the Wine Institute of New England brought together two of life’s greatest pleasures…chocolate and wine. Red, white and fortified wines were paired with delectable chocolate creations, including seared cocoa-dusted Stonington scallops, braised short ribs with chocolate espresso sauce, and an exquisite chicken mole. For the finale, our guests’ tastebuds were tantalized with a warm chocolate truffle seasoned with star anise and hazelnuts, adorned with candied orange peel and candied jalapeno peppers. Heavenly!

The wine pairings were as follows:

[Read more…]

The New York Wine Expo ~ or how much fun can one girl have?

If ever I wished for a day that had more hours in it than 24, yesterday would have been that day. I attended the International Restaurant and Foodservice Show of New York at the Javits Convention Center. I was excited to peruse the aisles of the Japan Pavilion section while sipping sake, and cruise the endless rows of cheese and baked goods. But the real reason I dragged myself out of bed at 6:15 on Sunday morning was just down the hall from the show – the New York Wine Expo. Upon learning that the Expo was showcasing over 640 wines from over 160 winemakers from all over the world, I steeled myself for some serious sipping. With so many wines and so few hours, though, where does one begin?

I started at the row of wineries from the Finger Lakes. I was curious to see how these wines would stack up against the Connecticut wines with which I have become familiar. The similar climates made for a credible comparison. I found several respectable Rieslings, a grape which fares well in the cool weather of New York. Among my favorites were Glenora Wine Cellars 2009 Dry Riesling and Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars 2009 Dry Riesling. Both tasted well-balanced, Dr. Frank’s showing a bit more minerals and slight effervescence, and Glenora showing a little more body than some of the other New York Rieslings sampled. Unoaked chardonnays were well represented. A 2006 Chardonnay from Shaw Vineyard was mineralic, dry, lightly fruited and altogether pleasant. Two stand out wines made from Cabernet Franc, my favorite red grape grown in Connecticut, were a 2007 from Fox Run Vineyards and a 2006 from Shaw Vineyard, which positively exploded with sour cherries and earthiness. But my favorite Cabernet Franc expression was the 2008 Cabernet Franc Ice Wine from Fulkerson Winery. It was silky, luscious, not cloyingly sweet – a surprising treat. Wagner Vineyards made a solid showing in the Ice Wine category with a 2008 Vidal Blanc Ice which began with a burst of pepper that quickly receded and was replaced with big fruit flavors.  I was delighted to try a grape variety with which I was not familiar, called Rkatsiteli. Native to Soviet Georgia and grown in Estonia and the Ukraine, among other places, Rkatsiteli is one of the oldest vinifera grape varieties known. The 2008 from Dr. Frank’s Vinifera Wine Cellars showed crisp acidity with nice fruit, a hint of spice, and a floral nose.

Satisfied that I had achieved a good sampling of wines from New York, I headed for Spain, home to many of my favorite wines. A table with a large “Organic” sign above it caught my attention first. Bodegas Parra Jimenez had many offerings, and all of them were in fact organic. I spotted a Verdejo resting in a tub of ice. Although my Spanish wine preference is for the most part for reds, I recently took a strong liking to Verdejo. Considered one of the best quality whites in Spain and usually associated with the Rueda DO, it is a crisp, floral wine with nice body that pairs spectacularly with oysters. This particular wine had a bouquet of tropical fruits and flowers that foretold the panoply of exotic tropical flavors that lay within. An absolute winner. Unfortunately, I was not as impressed with the representatives of Bodegas Parra Jimenez as I was with their wines. After tasting a Graciano, poured by the young woman behind the table, I commented on the rather decent amount of tannins I was getting from the wine. With a look that conveyed both complete disinterest and a modicum of disdain, she stated that Graciano was thin-skinned and therefore lacking in tannins. Really? Although they develop beautifully during aging, young Graciano wines are quite tannic, even tart. I suggest if a winemaker is looking for positive exposure in the hopes of winning over the American public, next time send someone who at least knows the wines she is pouring and, oh yes, someone who actually gives a damn.

Spain proved to have many other winners, but the two that stood out for me were wines made from the Bobal grape. Llanos del Marques 2009 was rich with berries and strong in tannins. Realce Bobal Reserva 2004 was positively huge and chock full of cherries. If you have never experienced Bobal, I highly recommend you do so.

I was excited to seek out other unusual or less common grapes. I headed for Brazil. There I found a wine from Dom Candido made from the Marselan grape. Marselan, a French grape that is a cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache, arrived in the United States in 2007. The wine was smooth, velvety and rich with berries. In Brazil I also found several wines with Tannat in the blend, including a very good Touriga Nacional/Tannat blend from Lidio Carraro Elos. From the South West of France, and now the prominent grape in Uruguay, Tannat is beginning to be used more by other countries as a blending grape. Tannat grown in France is considered one of the four most tannic grapes in the world. Tannat grown elsewhere tends to be somewhat lower in tannins. The Brazilian blends were tannic, without being unpleasantly so.

The last stop on my wine travels was Greece, where I discovered four more grapes new to my palate, all native to Crete, and all in wine by Lyrarakis. The first, Vilana, although not offensive, was much too light for my taste. However, the second white grape I tried, Dafni, made my heart sing. It smelled and tasted remarkably like bay leaves, with a hint of eucalyptus, and citrus notes. It would pair perfectly with curry and other Indian food. I look forward to finding more examples of this varietal. A red variety, Kotsifali, was warm with red berries and had a very smooth finish. The final grape of the four was Mandilari. Unfortunately, I think I had reached my saturation point and was unable to give it an intelligible review. I will have to try this again another day.

It was at this point that I was treated to something quite special – a “cava” from Lyrarakis called “Symbolo.” Cava means best of the cellar and Symbolo indicated that the wine was symbolic of the wines of the cellar. This made more sense once I heard that there were no fewer than 17 different varietals in Symbolo. I was told that this wine could not be bought. It is a grand cuvee that is only made in certain years. The one sitting before me was a 2005. For the most part, this wine lived up to its rather extensive hype. It was nicely balanced with raspberry and cherry, moderate acids, moderate to somewhat high tannins, had a rustic, chewy texture in the mouth and was rounded out by leather and and a discrete presence of mushrooms on the finish.

Although I was unable to taste all 640 wines, I made a respectable dent in the lineup. It would be nice if the Wine Expo spanned the course of the 3-day food show, rather than being limited just to the first day. I would gladly set my alarm for 6:15 again to spend another day exploring the magnificent offerings there.

CT Specialty Food Association Wine Competition

The Wine Institute of New England had the special honor of judging the wine category at the Connecticut Specialty Food Association competition last week on February 17th. This year, the categories were expanded to include wine, beer and cheese. The perimeter of the Glass Room at the Aqua Turf in Plantsville was lined with cloth-clad tables adorned with small plates of cheese, lettuce, grains, and pasta sauces, among other things. Judging sheets on clipboards were being handed out at a round table toward the center of the room. I stood on line and mingled with my fellow judges. There was an interesting mix of people – chefs, food bloggers, culinary institute staff, restaurant owners, food writers, and even a celebrity or two, including “Hell’s Kitchen” contestant, Kevin Cottle, and NPR’s Chion Wolf.
A charming popping sound drew my attention to a long table by the door where the rather extensive array of wines to be judged was being set up. All categories had multiple entrants – blush, dessert, fruit, white, rosé and red – and all of the wines entered had to be produced from 100% Connecticut grown fruit. I certainly had my work cut out for me. Armed with clipboard and pen, I approached the table and contemplated the army of specimen-sized plastic cups. The wines were to be judged on four criteria: color, aroma, taste and overall presentation. The white table clothes and natural light from the large windows provided good conditions for assessing color. The little cups, however, made judging the wines’ aromas more challenging. There was definitely more time spent sniffing than tasting. Once I did embark on the tasting portion of my judging journey, I was delighted by the marvelous creations Connecticut wineries were producing. I recognized several of the entries from my own travels on the Connecticut Wine Trail, but there were many new and enticing tastes. And although red wine was the category I enjoyed the most and the one that was most susceptible to being compared to wines from outside of Connecticut, it was enlightening to sample some of the charming libations being created with other locally grown fruit, including strawberries, apples, pears and black currants. I noticed the wine judging continued well after the food entries had been tasted and picked over for lunch. Whether it was the sheer number of samples tasted, the gravity with which wine drinkers approach the job of tasting, or the inordinate amount of sniffing that was required, I am not sure. Perhaps one just likes to linger a bit longer over wine. Whatever the reason, it was time well spent. Kudos to the Connecticut Food Association on providing a vehicle for introducing and appreciating Connecticut grown and produced products. And I understand that arrangements have already been made for stemware to be provided for next year’s wine competition. My nose thanks you.

Results of the wine portion of the competition can be found at:

The Sun, Moon & Stars…and a biodynamic cup of wine

I admit, I have been known to knock on wood to avoid tempting fate, and have even caught myself stepping over a crack in the sidewalk on occasion, but the last time I read my horoscope was in junior high school and it was for a lark. So how could I possibly buy into the philosophy behind biodynamic wines?

I first heard about biodynamics while studying for the Certified Specialist of Wine exam. It was afforded one paragraph right after organics and sustainability. I confess to snickering ever so slightly when I got to the sentence about phases of the moon and alignment of the planets. I was confident that, should a question arise regarding biodynamics, I would have no trouble remembering which theory it was and that I need not know any more about it.

Many weeks later, I happened to see a wine denoted as being biodynamic on a wine menu at my favorite oyster bar. It was a Sauvignon Blanc and I was in the mood for one, so I ordered it. I was very pleasantly surprised. The taste of mangos and melons married on my tongue and flowed through my mouth in perfect harmony, leaving nothing but an echo of their fresh, lively flavor for an aftertaste. I had a similarly pleasing experience with a biodynamic pinot grigio the next week. The floodgates opened. I attended a local “Taste of” and perused the wine tables. One table of Italian wines caught my attention. Upon tasting a couple of the wines there, I was inclined to sample the rest. After knocking back the final wine, I was receptive to hearing more about them. The national sales manager who had been pouring was all too happy to tell me about the biodynamic methods used in growing the grapes and making the wine. I did not hide my skepticism of what I termed these “quasi-religious” practices. He was nonplussed. I was impressed.

I wanted to know more. I knew the original movement was begun in 1924 when a group of farmers sought the help of Austrian philosopher and spiritual scientist, Rudoph Steiner. The farmers wanted to learn how to grow grapes without depleting the earth of its nutrients through the use of agrochemicals. But where did biodynamics stand now, 86 years later? My search brought me to a book on biodynamics by one of today’s leading advocates and an avid practitioner of the method, Nicolas Joly. Mr. Joly’s vineyard, Coulee de Serrant, is held in extremely high regard by wine experts. I was on the precipice of conversion

Knowing I had been on a biodynamic wine kick for weeks, a colleague contacted me with a request for a list of my favorites. He had a friend with a self-diagnosed allergy to the sulfites in wine and suggested he try biodynamic wine. This was turning into quite the miracle wine! I told my friend that, while the “spiritual science” techniques practiced in biodynamic agriculture did not in and of themselves render these wines any safer to drink for one with sulfite allergies, the fact that biodynamics demand organic vinification and vitification processes would indeed produce a lower sulfite wine. Although sulfites are a natural byproduct of the fermentation process and will be found in all wines to some degree, organic winemakers do not add any additional sulfur dioxide to the wine. SO2 is often added to prevent browning from oxidation and to prevent microbial spoilage.

So, was I ready to permanently suspend my disbelief and jump on the biodynamic bandwagon? No, that was not in the stars. But I now have a better understanding of the principles behind biodynamics, and a greater appreciation for the many benefits biodynamic agriculture has to offer. Not least among these benefits is the organic methods employed, which not only serve to maintain a healthier ecology, but have the added bonus of producing wines that are truer representations of their terroir. I am no longer snickering.