Are All Grapes Equal?

I guess that depends on who you ask.

The most common grape types come from the genus of vitis vinifera. These are the grapes that are native to Europe, Southwestern Asia and North Africa. These grapes have spread throughout the world beginning in the 2nd century BC when their cultivation was introduced into China (although local wild grapes were used before that).

Because of their close association with wine making over the last, oh, 7,000 years or so, many believe they are the only grapes that should be used when making wine. Initially, cultivation of the vinifera varieties occurred only on the west coast beginning in New Mexico and then migrating up the coast. However, hybrids of the vinifera and local vitis species have been producing wine as well.

Can good wine be produced from these native species? Well, we are beginning to find out now.

The vitis labrusca, or fox grape, more commonly known as the Catawba, Concord, Niagara and Delaware and used in wines in the Niagara Escarpment and elsewhere. Generally known for producing sweet wines, some vinters are beginning to experiment with producing drier wines from these grapes. Freedom Run has specifically produced a dry Niagara wine that is aged in oak (Manor Manning Reserve).

Vitis riparia or the Frost grape has been used to make many of the hybrids of vinifera species that are common throughout most of the nation. The Baco Noir, Marchel Foch and Frontenac are all varietals that have mixed with v. raparia.

Vitis rotundifloria…. the Muscadine grape. This grape was different than the other vitis forms in that its fruit grows in clusters instead of clumps. These grapes were the first native grapes to be used to produce wine. Their earliest know cultivation for this purpose was in St. Augustine, Florida during the 16th century. These wines are typically seen as sweet, dessert wines but this is due to added sugar during the winemaking process. Additionally, these grapes are noted for their resistence to many of the worst grape pests. Lastly, the muscadine grape is noted for having more than eight times the anti-oxidants of other grape varieties. The wines from these grapes are produced throughout the Southern United States.

Do these grapes rate compared to the vitis vinifera? Well those grapes have been in cultivation and in production for wine a long time. But these grapes are being used more intensively now. Will they catch up to their old world cousins? Time will tell?

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Mining the Wine List

Our favorite neighborhood place here in Chicago is Sabatino’s. It is an old school Italian Restaurant with great food, great service and reasonable prices.

You know what our problem is? We have been in a rut. We always order the same wines.

Yes, all these great Italian, French and American wine choices on their list, we stick with Santa Margarita Pinot Grigio and Pio Cesare Amarone way too many times…

And that is a damn shame.

So last night as we at dinner with our 12 year old, trying to impress her with the need to look at highschools with more than her social life on her agenda, we changed around the wine that we drank….

The Ceretto Arneis Blange 2005… It was light and crisp with the taste of pears and apples and had a pleasant effervescence. The majority of the wines that I have drank from the Piedmont region were Barberas… which I like. It turns out that I was missing out… I will be looking for more Arneis wines…

The other new wine we tried was the Pio Cesare L’Altro Chardonnay… It was fuller bodied than the earlier wine with a light oak taste… it was perfect with our entrees… the fantastic veal chop and the dover sole…


Aren’t we glad to be out of the rut? Yes, we are!

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My Dinner With Roman 10/01/07

If you are lucky enough to be invited to a dinner at NoMi showcasing the wines of Clarendon Hills, the iconic winery of South Australia’s McClaren Vale region, be prepared to drink world class wine. And if Clarendon Hills Owner/Winemaker Roman Bratasiuk is hosting the dinner, be prepared to witness world class chutzpah (Yiddish for arrogance). Roman might have you believe that he is the only winemaker to conquer brettanomyces, that there is no other Australian wine worth drinking, and that his palate is the best in the world. And yet, somehow, Roman Bratasiuk remains likable. Roman clearly likes to hear the sound of his own voice, which is generally tooting his proverbial horn, and diplomacy or polite consideration doesn’t figure into his character. Producing great wine however, does.

Roman Bratasiuk produced his first vintage in 1990 from the old vines (planted circa 1845) around the town of Clarendon Hills, about 25 miles south of Adelaide. A passion for high quality old world wines and the recognition of specific vineyard sites allowed Roman to craft the style for which he is now known. Twelve vineyards contribute to the sixteen single varietal wines made from Syrah, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Merlot. The vines are dry farmed, hand pruned and picked, and produce very small quantities of intense fruit. The wines spend an average of 18 months on the lees in tight grained French Oak barrels that are selected by Roman himself. There is no filtering or fining. The resulting wines combine the purity and finesse of classic Old World wines, particularly those of the Northern Rhone, with the focus and intensity of the New World.

The dinner was a showcase of the 2004 vintage and the pairing menu was superb. Spice Braised Pork Belly accompanied Kangarilla Grenache and the Blewitt Springs Grenache. I am a self declared ‘Grenache Freak’ and Roman’s expressions of the Southern Rhone varietal is a benchmark for his region. Both wines displayed a youthful reluctance to show themselves, though there was an apparent difference; Kangarilla exhibited softer floral aromatics while Blewitt had a smoked meat, and overall more aggressive character. The food and wine pairing can be explained by one comment from another guest, “bacon fat with bacon fat”.

The next course included Brookman Merlot, Roman’s only wine of that variety, and the Sandown Cabernet accompanied by Pan Roasted Duck Breast with Marcona Almonds, Pickled “Alisa Craig” Onions, and Dried Apricots. The Brookman Merlot was remarkable in that it was the most developed wine of the night, balancing red fruit flavors with exotic spice and harmony between the ripeness and acidity. I like to think of developing wines like teenagers struggling to feel comfortable in their own skin. Brookman Merlot was way more comfortable than its counterparts that night.

Duo of Jamison Farms Lamb; Roasted lamb Loin and Pave of Lamb Shoulder, Ratatouille Nicoise, Thyme and Red Pepper Infused Jus, was the course that for a moment made forget that I was there for the wine. Liandra Syrah and Hickinbotham Syrah paired with that spectacular dish, elegant decadence paired with elegant decadence, and it was an experience that I am not soon to forget. Roman declared one of the bottles of Liandra as flawed, but once corrected the wines were similarly tight in their expression, though still suitable for drinking right now.

The ultimate of Roman Bratsiuk’s arsenal of great wines comes form Syrah from the Astralis vineyard, and on that night was served with a trio of cheeses. Astralis has a special character, no doubt about that. What differentiated Astralis from the pack to me was that, while its expression of fruit and intensity matched or surpasses the other wines present, its freshness and acidity was more pronounced. I made a comment regarding acidity in the Astralis to Roman, but like he had done to everyone all night, he shot me down.

The wines that night were fantastic, though I would like to have a repeat of that lineup in five years and see where the 2004 Clarendon Hills wines are after a little more time in bottle. I have recently tasted 1998 Astralis, and some of the other Clarendon wines that were closer to ten years from the vintage, and the wines were more complete, integrated, harmonious, expressive.

There are many characters in our beloved world of wine and Roman Bratasiuk is certainly one of them. The wines he makes are impeccable, some of the best I have ever tasted. Roman the man is interesting, funny, boorish, pompous, loud, honest, passionate, blunt, unforgiving, and stubborn. Recently I met another great Australian winemaker, David Powell of Torbreck, who was similarly direct. Is it an Aussie thing, I wonder? Though he can be difficult, Roman is a great wine personality, and I appreciate that. I liked the wines before meeting him and I still do. Roman Bratasiuk makes wines that I cherish, and highly recommend for cellaring for 5 to 10 years, maybe more.

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Grapevine News

That is Billion with a “B”

According to the Canadian Press, wine sales are up almost 6 percent in Canada… our neighbors to the north consumed 387.7 million litres of wine. A third of that consumption came from Quebec and red wine was preferred overall, unless you live in the Maritime Provinces of Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. Maybe because of their access to fresh seafood? Oh, and don’t worry about your association with Canada and beer… They still drink 2.2 BILLION liters.

Cocktails Anyone?

The Canadians are not the only people drinking beer. According to the consulting firm, Technomic, Inc., when out on the town, most of us are more likely to drink beer or cocktails. Unless we are out for business, romance or dining that is…

Wines of Mencia

The LA Times reports that the wines of Bierzo, Spain made with Mencia grapes are fast becoming the new darlings of the wine world. The wines tend to be high quality and affordable. The vines themselves were abandoned years ago after being originally brought to Spain in the 10th century by French monks. Notable winemakers include: La Fararona Mencía, El Dorado, Descendientes de J. Palacios Corullón, Dominio de Tares, Paixar, Pago de Valdoneje, Cuatro Pasos and Luna Beberide.

How Do I Get That Kind of Job?

The McClatchy Newspapers report that the Wine Institute received $4.5 million from the Department of Agriculture’s Market Access Program to subsidize or outright pay for foreign journalists to travel to and enjoy California (mainly) wineries…

And She is Left-Handed Too!

For those of you that like skin… and not just the grape type, The National Post’s Shinan Govani, writes about his interview with Savanna Samson. Samson, a two time winner of Adult Video News Award for best actress is also a winemaker. Her wine, Songo Uno, received ratings of 90-91 from Robert Parker.

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Well there is a pairing I wouldn’t have considered

I would have considered them a good match but they went admirably well together… perhaps because my chili isn’t over laden with meat and the vegetables included rich oven roasted tomatoes…

My need for hot sauce might have over-powered the wine a bit, but I wouldn’t have enjoyed the meal so much without it.

I guess, I will keep experimenting with flavors to see what goes the best. Too bad every time I cook even the most basic of dishes, I vary the recipe…

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Getting Naked for Jesus!

I know, I know… you are wondering how that phrase relates to wine…. But it does, really.

See, back in 2003, Kevin and I, along with our friends Richard and Charles and Maggie made a trip to Napa to celebrate Richard’s 40th Birthday. We hired a driver, Grant, who made wine in his garage and he drove us around to the lesser known vineyards that he enjoyed. Around lunchtime, we stopped at a local market picked up some food and then headed up Howell Mountain.

When we got to our destination, we were at the Summit Lake Winery. There we were met by Sue Brakesman one of the owners of this vineyard. Sue sat us down at her dining room table and while we ate she talked to us about her wine, her winery and her family… because really all three were tied together.

See, the deed to the vineyard was given to Sue in her birthday card… from her husband Bob. So the next available weekend they went up look at their new vineyard. The plan was that it would be a romantic getaway and Sue dressed for it… The problem was that it snowed, and the house had no heat and Sue’s heels were deep in the mud. That was the beginning of the great adventure that only ended with Sue’s sudden death a couple of years ago.

Over the years, Bob and Sue cleared the weeds and poison oak from the abandoned (during prohibition) zinfandel vines and started producing wine… and a family. One day while trying to get her grand daughters bathed, one questioned why they needed to take a bath… Sue tried to explain that cleanliness was next to godliness… to which her grand daughter exclaimed, “We’re getting naked for Jesus!” According to Sue, this was a phrase that inspired her to liven up the talks that she increasingly gave to potential buyers of her wine. While off-putting, it was a way to shake up the way to think about wine.

Family was important to Sue and she loved being a grandmother. In fact their best vintages were named for her grand daughters… Emily Kestrel… a very tasty wine and then every one’s favorite. Clair Riley… Maybe it is just the story. But then that was the thing with Sue, she saw the humour in everything… When asking Sue whether she would have a wine named after her, Clair Riley, misinterpreted the answer… instead of being Clair Riley Private Reserve, she squealed in delight and shrieked in that toddler screech, “PIRATE RESERVE?!”

Well, what is a grandma to do? Naturally, the label was changed to Pirate Reserve. That wine is several years old now… and we are still waiting for an event exciting enough to enjoy it.

But that is the thing with wine. It makes us remember the time and place where we first enjoyed it. Making us wish to return to the past but still enjoying the future.

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October’s Children

Sommeliers and wine buyers from top restaurants in Chicago are hard to assemble. The restaurant business, an unforgiving mother, likes to keep its children occupied. Yet certain trade events are a guaranteed draw to the dedicated wine professionals that toil because of an undying work ethic, limitless passion, and an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. To that extent, October has been a very good month.

It started for me on October 1st, when I had the good fortune to attend a dinner with Roman Bratasuik, owner/winemaker for Clarendon Hills at NoMi. The private dining room at NoMi, by the way, is the premier venue for intimate wine dinners/lunches and I have attended at least four spectacular events there.

October 8th was the highly anticipated walk-around tasting of the year as Chicago Wine Merchants presented Bordeaux, Burgundy, and Champagne.

On October 10th Master Sommelier Richard Betts was in Chicago and hosted a trade lunch at Le Lan to feature his Betts and Scholl wines.

And tomorrow, October 23rd, will be an event organized by esteemed Master of Wine Serena Sutcliffe that is called Young Lions of Winemaking-Legends of the Future. This event will feature 11 of the top young winemakers to discuss the direction of the industry and the challenges to come. I am already fortunate enough to have met two of these Young Lions, Marco Caprai of Arnaldo Caprai, a top Sagrantino producer, and Jean-Baptiste Lecaillon of Champagne Louis Roederer. Young Lions should be a great opportunity to participate in the discussion that revolves around wine with the core of the wine community, the producers.

I like October for a lot of reasons, from World Series baseball to Halloween candy and pumpkin pie. But this October has been special because of the great wine events that I have attended and shared with my colleagues, wine pros from top restaurants and hotels like Gabriel’s, NoMi/Park Hyatt, Avenues/Peninsula, and Charlie Trotter’s. I believe that the people who do what we do, serving the Chicago dining community, can justify all the hard work and long hours because it affords certain rewards. One of those great rewards is access to the winemakers, their wines and the stories behind the wines. There are always tastings and events going on in town for a wine buyer to attend, but rarely are so many great events held in succession as they have been this month. More detail to come regarding the wines and specific events that I mentioned above…

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Screw these Corkscrews

I had the best corkscrew. I did. It was one of those screwpull jobs that was sleek and efficient.

And then when we moved back to Chez Verve, it took a powder…

I don’t know why, but it is gone.

Our emergency backup was from the stone age. The least efficient piece of chrome plated iron I think was never made… Corks broke left and right. My personal wine steward, my 10 year old daughter was in tears. (oh, like I am the only one out there who lets their kids open the bottles for them)

Why not just buy a new screw pull? Well, because part of me thinks that I will find the old one in the midst of the wreckage of the move…. So, in the meantime, I am experimenting with inexpensive versions… A three-in-one from screwpull, a waiters pull and a crappy hide-the-pull in a tube form from a hotel room all in one.

I haven’t tracked down in the two-pronged model that was my favorite prior to the screwpull… I loved it and could pull corks like crazy… Kevin hated it though… so I doubt he will work hard to find one for me.

In the meantime, cross your fingers that my favorite turns up!

What is your favorite way to open a bottle of wine?

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Grapevine News

Will it go With Kung Pao Chicken?

According the Australian Wine and Brandy Corporation (AWBC), wine exports rose nine percent in the last year, but that China has more than doubled its consumption of red wine. AWBC expects to increase their exports to China within five years to 37 million liters. It is believed that the increase comes as a result of the Chinese associations of red wine with health and good luck.

Even More Wineries to Explore!

According to India’s Economic Times, the Indian government has announced plans to promote wine production and consumption by instituting a comprehensive policy. To date, they have established the Indian Wine Board to create standards for production and to promote the domestic wine industry. It is believed that wine production should receive preferential treatment because it leads to diversification in agriculture and employment generation.

The Drink of the Gods

An ancient wine is in danger of extinction on the small island of Pantelleria. The island, located between Sicilly and Tunisia has been producing the sweet, golden wine, Passito di Pantelleria for 2,300 years. The ancient Greeks believed that Tanit, a Carthaginian goddess stole the heart of Apollo by offering him Passito instead of ambrosia. However, the production of the moscat grapes is difficult work on the volcanic island where the winds and steep slopes require that most of the work be performed by hand. If the decline continues, it is expected that the wine will die out by 2017.

Drink Wine and Protect Your Cleavage

In honor of breast cancer awareness month, a new line of wines, Cleavage Creek were launched. The wine was the inspiration of owner, Budge Brown, who lost his wife of 48 years, Arlene to cancer. The wines produced include:

The wines feature the image of a breast cancer survivor. Ten percent of the proceeds will go to breast cancer causes and the winery is taking applications to be a wine bottle model.

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Funky Llama

I knew at some point picking wines by their names or labels would catch up with me…. But I look at it as picking the football poll… it is as good as any other method…

But Funky Llama was unusual… it is a light crisp wine… with an aftertaste of asparagus… or maybe brussell sprouts….. no, really I think it was asparagus.

This being said, I love asparagus. just not in my wine…

Oh well… try, try again…

I did enjoy Pinot Evil…

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