Category Archives: Wine

Wine From the Barrel

I lived and worked at a real Chateau in the French Bordeaux region during a four month internship at the end of my studies. The Bordeaux wine region produces world famous red wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc grapes. Their best wines are always aged in barrels. However, using oak barrels is expensive, time-consuming and hard work. There are machines nowadays to add a helping a hand, however the winery where I worked was too small for such equipment. Some weeks I did nothing more than empty, clean and fill barrels. Between each step I had to role the barrel from the one end of the cellar to the other, a very heavy job I may say, when an empty oak barrel weighs 50-60kg (110-132lbs).

Why do we age wine in barrels?

Wine Ages in Oak Barrels Underground in a Rioja Bodega

We have used wooden barrels for aging and storing of wine for ages. Before glass bottles, barrels were used to transport and store all wine. Nowadays, we use barrels for different reasons. Barrels are used for aging wines and to give it specific ‘oaky’ flavors. Wine, which has been aged in a barrel, can be easily recognized, by the smell of vanilla or a hint of coffee. Not all wines are fit to put in a barrel, only the wine with sufficient quality and concentration will improve by barrel aging. Besides the ‘oaky’ flavors, the wine gets more structure, or body.  The big disadvantage of barrel aging is that you will lose some of the fruitiness of the wine. Very fruity wines like Beaujolais primeur or any other young and fruity wine have never been aged in a barrel.

People have tried to make barrels out of many different woods, however it never gives as good results as with oak. I’ve heard of reasonably good results with cherry and chestnut wood, however I have yet to taste one of these wines. Oak is a very strong wood, and the aromas it gives to the wine are still regarded well. The flavors given by the oak are very important. Flavors like: vanilla and sweet spices such as nutmeg and cinnamon, chocolate and coffee, and a well-practiced nose can even smell caramel and freshly cut wood. However oak does not release its aroma’s before the wood has been “toasted”. This process is like the process of roasting coffee. In the case of a barrel, it is toasted by making a fire within the lidless barrel. The flames don’t touch the wood but just gently toast it. The oak will turn darker, and during this process sugars in the wood are transformed into aroma components.

As with coffee there are big differences in toast. In general three different varieties are distinguished: light, medium and high; however professional coopers (barrel makers) distinguish over a twenty. The most common toast is medium, giving sweet aromas of vanilla, chocolate and hints of fresh ground coffee. The light-toast gives less aromas but gives more structure to the wine. When I say structure I mean components who tend to give the wine more body. A highly-toasted barrel gives smoky-aromas similar to burned-toast and a match after lighting it. A wine barrel can be used for a many years, however it will lose most of its delicious aromas within three years. Therefore many wineries sell their barrels after 3-5 years of use to the brandy industry.

There are different species within the genus Quercus (oak), all with their own characteristics. The most commonly used are French and American oak. French oak is often preferred and happens to be the most expensive one. A barrel of 59 gallons (equivalent to 300 bottles of 750 ml) will cost 700-800 USD. Barrels made of American oak cost about half. American oak has the problem that its aromas quickly overpower a wine. These wines will smell only like vanilla and coffee. However it’s all about good management. American oak can make a wine as good or as bad as French oak.

Oaky Wine

Checking Oak Barrels

The second reason for aging wine in a barrel is to make the wine develop. Wine is a product that will change taste with aging, just like cheese changes taste with age. Microscopic pores within the oak let small amounts of oxygen through. This oxygen is needed to make the wine develop and soften. Furthermore, the oak barrels provide tannins which give the wine more body and increases its aging potential.

The final function of barrel aging is to clean the wine from its sediment. Wine always contains particles of the skin, the seeds or bits of sand. These particles float in the wine, and with time slowly sink to the bottom. To remove the sediment from the wine a wine is racked.  This means siphoning the sediment off of the wine and putting it into a new clean barrel. The sediment has a bitter taste, and is therefore unwanted. One can filter the wine to get impurities out, however natural sedimentation is much softer, and according to me, is better than forcing the wine through a filter.

In the wine world, barrel-aged wines are marked as high quality. This is true in most cases however, it is all about your taste.  If a cheap supermarket wine fits best with your taste, don’t let yourself be convinced that changing to a more expensive barrel-aged wine is necessary. Taste is something very personal, and only you can decide what tastes best to you. I will give you some widely available barrel-aged wines that are very good in my opinion.

American Zinfandel can be very good when aged in a barrel. I lately tasted some Ridge Vineyards Zinfandels and they were all superb. A cheaper alternative is the range produced by Rancho Zabaco (try there Dry Creek Valley and Monte Rosso Vineyards range) from Sonoma.

I started story with my experiences in the wine region of Bordeaux. Almost all medium to upper range Bordeaux reds are aged in barrels. Most of you will know the famous Bordeaux sub-regions of Medoc region and St-Emilion, however I challenge you to try something new. Try to find a wine from Fronsac or Côtes de Castillon, it may be difficult to get hold of a bottle however it’s all worth it in the end.

I am very fond of the grape variety Shiraz, it’s such a powerful and aromatic red. A bit ordinary, however an excellent barrel aged shiraz is the Yellow Tail Reserve Shiraz. This is a full bodied wine full with blackberries and cherries, a nice spice note of freshly ground pepper and a hint of vanilla, I love it!

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Spicy Food and Wine Pairing

Fermented Bean Curd

What can I pair with fermented bean curd, star of anise and fresno chilis?

French, Spanish and Italian food are easily matched with wine. But wine has been a part of their culture and cuisine for centuries. On the contrary, pairing wine with the Chinese, Mexican and Indian kitchens proves to be a little more difficult. In this post I will give you some tips on pairings for Peking duck, tacos or an Indian curry.

Many wines just don’t pair well with spicy dishes from Asia, the Middle East or Central America. Spiciness and high alcohol content found in wine don’t seem to go well together, especially when the high alcohol content leads to an increased burning sensation! Beer or cider usually pair much better; however I doubt if there is a dish we cannot combine with wine.

1. The best combination is made with wines which are fresh and crisp. The German and Alsatian varieties pair nicely with spicy food. Good choices include Gewurztraminer, Riesling, and Silvaner. Other whites you can try are Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Grigio and Albariño or Verdejo from the region Rueda in northern Spain.

Sparkling and fizzy wine like champagne, cava or prosecco from Italy are also able to match the spiciness. I have a friend who reasons that you can drink champagne with everything. It’s the high acidity and the bubbles that are able to pair bubbly with almost all dishes.

Fresh and crisp wine are not merely the domain of the whites; there are some reds who can match the acidity of a good white. For example: Spanish Riojas, Italian Chiantis and old world style of Pinot Noirs from Burgundy, New Zealand or Oregon.

2. Another group of wine includes full wines with a lot of fruity flavours, but little tannins. American Zinfandels or Australian Shiraz, with a level of fruitiness match highly seasoned dishes. If you’re not so fond of this bold, powerful wine, try a Beaujolais Nouveaux or, if you can find it, a Joven wine from Rioja. They are refreshing and served best chilled like a rosé.

3. Avoid oaky Chardonnays, and tannic wines. Most chardonnays from the states are,  in my opinion, overly oaked: they taste oaky and are very fat and bold. These toasty flavours match poorly with the spiciness of a dish and the pairing will make the wine seem coarse and bitter. Cabernet Sauvignon and American Merlots aren’t any better. Their tannins set your mouth on fire when you combine it with chili-spiced dishes!

4. The spicier the food, the sweeter the wine.Here is my favorite companion for a spicy dish: a sweet wine, light in alcohol. The residual sugar in the wine will help to tame the burning sensation. Keep in mind: the spicier the food the sweeter the wine must be. However, Ice wine and noble late harvest wines are often so sweet that you can’t drink more than a glass or so; therefore I would save them for dessert.

As spicy asks for sweet, dry wine drinkers may feel a bit lost. There are, however, many wines to chose from. Try a medium-sweet Chardonnay with Peking duck, and a (medium) sweet Riesling from Washington or Oregon is delicious with Chinese or Thai food. My personal favorite however is a medium-sweet gewürztraminer with Indian lamb curry. And when I really have something to celebrate, I choose a sweet sparkling wine (demi-sec or doux/sweet). Give it a try, you will love it!

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Bubbles and Champagne

We are in the finals of the soccer world cup and Holland is playing Spain. I’m the only person dressed in our national colour, orange, surrounded by 60 Spanish Red Devils in a bar in San Sebastian, Spain. I am convinced our national team will win and take the bet on a Dutch victory. Two hours later… I walk disillusioned out the door into streets surrounding myself with a jumping, singing, Spanish crowd. The next day I pay off my lost bet by taking my Spanish girlfriend to a chic restaurant. The good thing is at least I am still in charge of choosing the wine. ‘Champagne por favour’, but its not because I had to celebrate something. It’s like Napoleon once said: “I drink Champagne when I win, to celebrate…and I drink Champagne when I lose, to console myself.” That night in Spain… I needed a glass of Champagne.

Cork Image (photo-credit Jean-Paul)

We associate these magical bubbles with celebrations, romance and luxury, but have you ever questioned where the bubbles come from and why they taste so damn good?  It actually all happened by accident. The famous bubbles in Champagne were all but wanted and winemakers actually tried to find ways to get rid of them. Champagne is one of the coldest and most Northern wine regions in France. Initially, they tried to produce wine like the famous wine region of Burgundy. However, because of the low temperatures in wintertime the fermentation would stop, without having finished completely. When it was time to bottle the wine in spring, it would still contain sugar and dormant yeast and when the temperatures would rise again, the wine in the bottle would spontaneously start to ferment… again. The result was a ‘vin pétillant’ as the French call it. England was at that time the biggest market for French wine. The 17th century British nobility enjoyed this ‘default’ bubble wine so much that the French started to focus on making bubbles instead of trying to get rid of them.

Champagne Bottles

Champagne (photo credit: Jean-Paul)

You probably know that a Champagne bottle is much heavier and stronger than a normal wine bottle. This is necessary to resist the enormous pressure formed in the bottle by the second fermentation. In a champagne bottle the pressure can be as high as twice the pressure of a car tire. In the 17th century the quality of glass was not as high as it is nowadays and it was very common to lose 20-90% of the harvest due to exploding bottles. Cellar workers at that time would wear iron masks, and often would be missing a couple of fingers due to previous explosions. However, with the industrial evolution came a solution; the glass produced by charcoal fired glass factories was of much better quality than those by wood fire. Furthermore, the technique of the second fermentation was improved.  Instead of leaving faith to nature, the sugar required for the second fermentation was precisely dosed.

Nowadays, grapes are pressed and the juice is fermented in large stainless steel tanks. When all the sugar is converted into alcohol, a precise dose of sugar and yeast is then added. This mixture of wine, sugar and yeast is put into bottles and sealed with a crown cap (the ones used on beer bottles). A second fermentation occurs in the bottle; happily, exploding bottles have become an exception. The yeast will die off when all sugar is converted into alcohol. The bottles with yeast deposit are aged for a minimum of 1.5 years. The aging on the yeast deposit is very important for the quality of the bubbles (size and persistence) and the aromas of the wine (butter, toast and cream). After the aging we get to the ´remuage´ in which the bottles are turned steadily into a horizontal top down position, all yeast deposits will now be near the crown cap.  The neck of the bottle is frozen after which the bottle is opened. The frozen yeast deposit flies out because of the high pressure in the bottle. The last step is to add the ‘liqueur d’expédition’ which contains wine, cane sugar syrup and some secret ingredients depending on the champagne house. This secret ingredient can be brandy or port, and I know of some adding an extract of tea. The bottle is filled up and the famous champagne cork is placed on top.

Champagne (photo-credit Jean-Paul)

There are bubbles and bubbles… Champagne is probably the most famous sparkling wine in the world, and also the most expensive. However, there are many alternatives. In Europe almost every country has its own bubbly: there is Spumante from Italy, Spain has its Cava, the Germans have their Sekt. In the US the production of Champagne style wines increased rapidly in the last decade. Even the famous Champagne houses like Roeder, Moet & Chandon and Taittinger opened wineries in the US. I think there are still many opportunities left in the US for the production of great bubbles. There are sufficient areas to grow good grapes and the US has a big group of enthusiastic sparkling wine fans to be supplied with some more bubbles.

I find it a pity that most Champagne is bought and consumed in the last two weeks of the year. I like bubbles too much to wait all year. I was infected by the bubble-bug thanks to a winemaker-friend that was producing the best bubbles in South Africa. We once drank 7 bottles of Champagne in a weeks time. Nowadays, I drink less champagne, although, you don’t have to give me much of a reason to open a bottle. As Madame Bollinger of the homonymous Champagne house once told a journalist. “I only drink Champagne when I’m happy and when I’m sad. Sometimes I drink it when I’m alone. When I have company, I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I am not hungry and drink it when I am. Otherwise I never touch it – unless I’m thirsty.” I can live with this description, cheers!

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Food and Wine Pairing… Continued

Food and Wine from Chicago Gourmet

Wines have become rounder, sweeter in the last couple of decades. I call it the soft drink-effect: we are so used to sweet and easy-to-drink drinks that anything with high acidity and a bit of roughness is rejected by the ‘sweet’ consumers. Last week I did a small experiment with a couple of friends. I served them two glasses of the same red wine, in one of them however I added a tiny bit of sugar solution. You can guess the result: 4 out of 5 preferred the sweetened one (I was the one not liking it). I personally don’t like too sweet of wine, as I feel it becomes rounder and softer, but loses its complexity and its flavours often get masked.

The reason for this change toward easier to drink wine is that in many countries it is no longer a food product, but an alcoholic drink and luxury good. In the past wine was consumed over dinner or lunch. However, when you drink a wine on its own it seems to be much more acidic than when combined with food; and the tannins in red wine seems to be more astringent and dry.

The same dry Riesling can be too sour on its own, but refreshing with a dish. This is because the salt in the food diminishes the perception of acidity. This explains why food orientated wines are more acid than non-food wines. So we should select one bottle when drinking wine on its own and choose another when drinking wine with our food.

In my last post I spoke about food and wine pairing by intensity and the heaviness. This was all relatively easy, now we are really going to get into food and wine pairing; we are going to select the wine on flavour. We can do this by combining similar flavours or contrasting flavours.

Combining similar flavours is the easiest. For example we can combine a rich, fat, oaky chardonnay with a buttery sauced dish, and we can serve a sweet wine with our ice cream. Two similar tastes seem to harmonize with each other, instead of increasing the sensation.

  • A dry acidic Riesling with a sweet and sour dish
  • A smokey oaky wine with smoked fish or smoked beef
  • A sweet Sauterne or Tokaji with a chocolate cake
  • Match asparagus with a herbal Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand
  • An earthy Pinot Noir with Mushrooms

Combining opposite flavours is a bit trickier. We have to be more careful not to exaggerate. The best way to prevent failure is to choose a wine that is a bit lighter than the food.

  • Foie gras with a dry sparkling wine like Champagne, cava or American sparkling wine
  • Popcorn, yes, you read it well, with any sparkling wine
  • A fresh tart wine like Chenin Blanc, Verdejo or Txakoli with oily fish like mackerel, trout or sardines

Pairing wine and food is a game, you just have to follow a couple of rules to make it a success; furthermore you just have to try it to find out what your personal preferences are.

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A Day at Chicago Gourmet

Chicago Gourmet at Millennium Park

Chicago Gourmet at Millennium Park

Last Sunday I spent five hours at the third annual Chicago Gourmet.  Yes, I spent five hours wining and dining under the beautiful blue sky at Millennium Park.  The event is a veritable culmination of the absolute best the city has to offer and further exemplifies Chicago as a true culinary destination.  Chefs, sommeliers, wineries, foodies and beyond venture into the city for this grand three-day event that allows you to try a little of everything!

A friend and I met up outside the large white registration tent a half an hour early and positioned ourselves in the already growing line.  I really wasn’t sure what to expect, but past the registration tent I began to realize this was no small operation.  As we walked past the most recent winner of Top Chef Masters, I couldn’t help but realize that Chicago Gourmet is kind of a big deal.  We selected a glass of wine, and then made our way to one of the five different tasting pavilions where we lined up to sample each presenter’s dish.  There was a pavilion for every palate each with different themes(i.e. meat, seafood, mediterranean/gastropub, latin & asian, and dessert). Some of our sampling included octopus from Avli, a black cod salad from C-House, and a roasted sea bream from The Gage/Henri.  After an array of tastings we weren’t ready for dessert so we ventured into Specialty Food Pavilion and satisfied our curiosity for a few new products.  Upon our exit we found that the pavilion presenters had changed and the number of people in line had expanded since our earlier tasting experience.  Since we were still quite full, we opted for some beer and wine tasting to complete our afternoon.

The Gage’s Sea Bream atop a seared slice of pumpkin

I had a great time at my first Chicago Gourmet.  However, I wish I had properly prepared myself the night before by printing out the schedule and highlighting my main interests.  Looking back, I realized I missed out on the cooking demonstrations and food and wine seminars in my desire to try as many dishes as possible. But its okay because next year I’ll be back with a different game plan!

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Food and Wine Pairing

Wine Pairing

How to Pair a Wine with your Meal

I love to have wine with my food; even if it’s a sandwich with ham and cheese. My housemates laugh when they see me at lunchtime with my glass of wine. By American standards I will probably be called an alcoholic, but I don’t care. I love my glass of wine; for me it enhances the whole eating experience. Don’t get me wrong, I still prefer to drink coffee with my breakfast, although sometimes ……. I have some champagne with my toast. To help you enjoy your food and wine as much as I do, I want to teach you some things about food and wine pairing.

Everybody knows the traditional old rules of drinking white wine with fish and white meat, red wine with red meat, champagne as an aperitif, and port or sweet wine with the dessert. Furthermore, young wine should be served before old wine, and dry wine before sweet wine. These rules are still pretty much valuable for most meals. However, even if we follow these basic rules we still have some flexibility. To make your next dinner an even greater success, here are two additional rules that may help you choose a wine for your meal.

First rule: combining food and wine by weight. When combining food and wine we first have to look at the heaviness of the food. A salad, fish, or my ham and cheese sandwich is much lighter than a piece of red meat or a stew. The difference is not one of protein or carbohydrates; the weight or heaviness of a dish is simply related to the amount of fat. Fatty foods give you the sensation of richness and texture.  It makes you feel satisfied and full after dinner. The wine has to match the weight of the food; so heavy food with heavy wine and visa versa. For example foie gras is very rich and will need a wine with a lot of weight and volume like a noble late harvest wine from Sauterne or Tokaji to balance it. However, at lunch with my ham and cheese sandwich I prefer to drink a fresh, young and light white wine.

A heavy wine can be a ripe red wine with higher alcohol and more material (tannins, glycerol, acid) like a ripe Shiraz from Australia, a red from Bordeaux or a Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa. Or it can be a mouth filling white wine, like an oak-aged Chardonnay or a sweet noble-late-harvest wine from Sauterne or Tokaji with residual sugars. The alcohol, oak aging process and the sweetness of the wine give weight and heaviness to the wine.

Fat makes food delicious, but it also has another effect, it reduces the astringent sensation of tannins in red wine. I hear many… mainly woman (my girlfriend is one of them), complain about the astringency of red wine. I love oak aged, red wine with body and structure. So what I tend to do is to serve my ‘astringent’ lovely red with rich and oily food, and then my girlfriend loves it! I believe there is no such thing as a ‘bad’ wine; it’s just a matter of enjoying them at the right moment and combining them with the right food.

Second rule: combine food and wine by intensity. Besides pairing on weight we also have to look at the aroma intensity of the dish and the wine. The rule is simple: the wine has to match the strongest flavour of the dish. The strongest flavour is most often given by the sauce and the spices used in the food. You can serve a turkey in a delicious butter sauce with light Chardonnay (non- oaked) from Chablis or Oregon but if you serve a turkey in a strong pepper sauce you should match the intensity of the pepper with a full bodied Cabernet Sauvignon from Napa or Chile.

Next time more about food and wine pairing…

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Introducing Our Wine Contributor

Hi! My name is Jean-Paul, I am a winemaker and I love it!  When people first meet me, my friends try to warn them not to ask me about wine.  When I start talking about it, I can’t help but share everything I know.  I love what I do, and I love to share my knowledge and experience with others. I had never intended to become a winemaker, but well …. life had different plans for me. During my time at the University of Wageningen in Holland, I got infected by a winebug; so after finishing my degree I headed to France to work in the famous wine region of Burgundy.  Eventually, I completed my Masters Degree in Winemaking and Viticulture in France and Germany.

Wine Cave

Into the Wine Caves of Laguardia

In the last couple of years I visited many wineries, tasted thousands of wines, and worked in four different wine countries. The more I learn about wine, the more passionate I become about this beautiful product. You can read hundreds of books about wine, but it will never be the same as going to a wine region, seeing the vineyard, visiting the cellar where the grapes are transformed into wine, and tasting each wine with the local food. This belief is what made me travel to the vineyards in France, Germany, South Africa, and lately to Spain. Nowadays, I live in Spain, specifically, San Sebastian where I work as a wine tour guide for a small company called San Sebastian Food.

I am excited to share my knowledge and passion with you!  I will post stories about wine and answer any questions you may have.  I really don’t have the intention to turn you into a wine snob. With my stories I want to make wine and the wine making process more understandable and therefore more enjoyable. There are many subjects I can write about, so please let me know if you have any questions, I am keen on answering them!

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