South Africa: New Land of Vines

MeerlustOn a continent that typically brings to mind dry, hot deserts and rainforest jungles, it’s easy to forget that there is also wine. But on the very southern tip of South Africa, vineyards thrive and produce a wide variety of grapes. Though the wines were slow to market due to the embargo on South Africa during apartheid,  the country has managed to solidify its presence as a quality wine producer over the past few decades. As a huge fan of South African wines, I wanted to share a few tips on what to try!

Reds are smokey-meaty:
This is a good thing — fire up the grill! Something about the land in South Africa brings out a gamey character in red wines, like bacon fat or smoked meat, especially in Syrah. Of course, this has nothing to do with the wild game that runs about in the country, but it is a happy coincidence — South African red wines are some of our favorites for roasted meats, stews, dishes from the grill, or anything wrapped in bacon (and what is not amazing wrapped in bacon?!?!?).

Sauvignon Blanc rivals that of New Zealand:
Crisp, grassy, tropical, zingy — all words that perfectly describe this alternate Southern Hemisphere thirst quencher.

But Chenin Blanc should be your new go-to wine for summer:
Chenin Blanc (until recently, the most abundantly planted grape in South Africa) is made in a dry style here, and is quite different from its Loire Valley counterparts. It has crisp acidity, a mineral component, and a wonderful texture — in a blind tasting, someone once took one of these for a Macon-Villages (which is Burgundian Chardonnay).  So if you love refreshing whites with character at great values, stock up!

At least try Pinotage:
If you’ve heard of Pinotage, congratulations. If you love Pinotage, well… you’re in the minority! The “flagship” crossing of Pinot Noir and Cinsault that was concocted in a laboratory in 1925 hardly made the wine world swoon when it was first introduced. But wait! There is plenty of high-quality, GOOD Pinotage, despite the general public opinion.  It’s certainly worth a try, especially the excellent example from Southern Right.

First Ladies of Wine

ladies drinking wine

Although the world of wine has historically been a bit of a boys’ club — or perhaps, a mustachioed, bespectacled, older gentlemen’s club — many women are increasingly finding a way in and dramatically impacting the industry for the better. Women, who, according to recent scientific research, may actually be in general more sensitive tasters than men, have broken through the (wine) glass ceiling to succeed as winemakers, winery owners, sommeliers, wine scientists, wine writers, and more.

In honor of National Women’s History Month, we want to take a moment to acknowledge some of the amazing female pioneers in their respective fields and recognize their indispensable contributions, from the vineyard to the lab to the glass, and beyond:

The first female to…

Run a Champagne House: Barbe-Nicole Ponsardin

The oft-repeated tale of the Widow Clicquot is one of the oldest known examples of successful women in wine. When her husband passed away in 1805, 27-year-old Barbe-Nicole, a newly single mother, was left to salvage her husband’s struggling wine company on her own. With her shrewd knowledge of both business and winemaking, she managed to turn the business into the now-infamous Champagne house Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. In addition to pioneering a vastly improved method for the production of sparkling wine, she also created the iconic yellow label now inextricably linked to the luxury brand.

Graduate from the enology program at UC Davis: MaryAnn Graf

These days, there is a great deal of talk about encouraging young girls to enter STEM fields, but when MaryAnn Graf was attending UC Davis in the early 1960s, it was rare that she even encountered a female classmate. Ms. Graf has always believed in working hard and paying your dues, regardless of gender, and her philosophy has clearly paid off. After graduating in 1965, she went on to become the first female winemaker of the modern era in California, as well as the first woman to join the board of directors of the American Society for Enology and Viticulture.

Be hired as a faculty member in the UC Davis Viticulture Department: Ann C. Noble

Anyone who wants to become a more skilled taster should immediately familiarize themselves with Ms. Noble’s body of work. Her research as a sensory scientist on aroma and flavor led to the development of the Aroma Wheel, which is a great tool for writing tasting notes when you want to be a little bit more specific than “notes of red fruit.”

Pass the Master Sommelier Exam in America: Madeline Triffon

If you have seen the movie SOMM, then you’re familiar with the incredibly intense preparation that goes into this prestigious exam. Only 147 people have succeeded in America since the program’s inception, and of the 23 of those who have been women, Madeline Triffon was the very first, in 1987. Since then, she has been putting her discerning palate to great use creating wine lists and guiding guests’ selections at top restaurants.

Pass the Master of Wine Exam:  Sarah Morphew Stephen

Although no one has made a movie yet about the Master of Wine exam, it is every bit as challenging as the Master Somm curriculum. The major difference is a focus on academic aspects of wine rather than restaurant service. Sarah Morphew Stephen, a Brit, became the first female to successfully complete the rigorous examination in 1970, despite having been told by a prestigious producer in Portugal that the wine industry was not “a place for women” after inquiring about employment.


Bringing back an old friend: The Wines of Chile have reached a new level

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Way back in the dark ages of wine retailing (circa: 1970s), fine wine shops had Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. Chile was nowhere to be found and even California was an afterthought. As the years went by and California gained prominence with the Judgement of Paris, Chile got into the marketplace with its cheap Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlots. Often found in sale bins, these became the drinking wines of budget conscious wine imbibers. I drank so much of these bargain basement wines that I ended up throwing the whole class into the “good value” category. As an active retailer in San Francisco in those days, the wines of Chile gave me something “to stack high and let them fly.”

This is no longer the case. While Chile took a back seat to Australian Shiraz and Argentine Malbec, producers started to find the right fit with varieties and vineyards, including Chile’s flagship variety, Carmenere. This wise move is still working its way into the hearts and minds of international wine consumers. More exciting is the work being done with cool climate Sauvignon Blanc from Casablanca and mineral-like Chardonnays from Limarí, not to mention major statements being made with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and blends. While the country is still known for value wines, production over the past decade proves it shall be known for quality as well.

Jake Pippin, USA Market Manager for Wines of Chile, recently presented an array of a dozen top Chilean wines that would measure up with top wines from anywhere in the world. So while I cut my teeth on cheap Chilean Merlot in the 1970s, I know have been introduced to some of the world’s very top wines and they are Chilean. It is time for Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne and yes, the Napa Valley to share the spotlight; the Chileans are making a huge statement. Isn’t great to revisit an old friend and see how they have evolved into something greater? Here is a trio of super fine Chilean wines that will bring you up to speed on where Chilean wines are today.

The 2014 Errazuriz Wild Ferment Chardonnay, – rich and creamy, but with a zippy layer of minerality to keep it fresh
The 2012 Calcu Cabernet Franc  – yes, Cabernet Franc can shine here, with earthy, peppery spice and dried fruit character
The 2012 Los Vascos Grande Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon – classic producer with a classic, quality Cabernet – it says Chile and Cabernet in a concise, easy-drinking way.

Somm Things I Think About: Easy wine sauces for easy wine pairings

“I cook with wine, sometimes I even add it to the food.” The Famous W.C. Fields quote has a lot of truth to it  – if you want an easy way to make a wine pairing, it’s certainly easier if it’s added to the dish. The rule of thumb is whatever wine you use in the recipe, drink with the recipe! I am however, not asking you to use the 20 year old Grand Cru Burgundy, but a cheap(er) Pinot Noir in the sauce and a nice Pinot Noir at the table and you will make magic happen! The following recipe is more of a guideline that I’ve learned working in the restaurant industry and will make the perfect wine pairing really easy! Feel free to expand the recipe for a larger amount and you can certainly use a cheaper wine for the cooking process and a nicer bottle to drink.

The wine:

One of my favorite things to do is use the same wine in the dish and the pairing. You only use a few ounces of the bottle so there is plenty left to have with dinner. I love this because it is a perfect scenario for a couple on a weeknight when you don’t want to make it a big deal but want it to be nice!  Here are a few of my favorites to use, just make sure it’s not too oaky, it will come off as bitter in the sauce.

For pork, chicken and salmon I love the Schug Pinot Noir. It’s under $20 so you won’t  mind using a few ounces for a sauce while still having enough to enjoy with dinner.

For chicken, turkey, and meaty fish I love Robert Oatley Signature Chardonnay. Also under $20 and really crisp yet rich so it’s perfect to drink with and make a sauce.

For white fish, chicken breast, and generally lighter dishes I love Sauvignon Blanc. It’s high acid and citrus flavors are amazing in a wine sauce. My favorite is Silverado Miller Ranch Sauvignon Blanc.

For steak or chops, this is a little harder, but I look to Australia and there great range of quality wines that score consistently high while being very reasonably priced. d’Arenberg High Trellis Cabernet Sauvignon.

Restaurant style dinner for 2:

Ingredient list

  • 2 pieces of protein 6-8oz like chicken, pork chop, skirt steak, or a meaty fish. Portobello Mushroom caps are brilliant too!
  • 1 large shallot or a ¼ onion
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, depending on how much you love it.
  • dried ground spices like paprika, turmeric, or mustard seeds (optional)
  • 8 ounces mushrooms sliced (optional)
  • 4 ounces (½ cup) of wine, red or white depending on the protein
  • a tablespoon of butter
  • a tablespoon of high temperature cooking oil, like grapeseed or canola

Prep ahead of time:

  • on a plate or shallow dish, place a cup of flour, whole wheat, almond, cornmeal or all purpose is fine. season with a teaspoon each of salt and pepper and any dry ground up spices you like.
  • Dice one ¼ of a large onion or use 1 large shallot and 2-3 cloves of garlic and set aside. If you wanted to make it a mushroom sauce, make sure to have those sliced and ready too.
  • Feel free to brine or marinate the protein ahead of time, just make sure to dry with paper towels before dredging in the flour.

Ready to cook!

Over high heat pour the tablespoon of cooking oil and heat it up until it shimmers.  I prefer a medium sized metal non-teflon pan, if you have only non-stick pans it will still do the job, but you actually want a little sticking, it encourages a deeper caramelization, and offers more fond for deglazing.

Cook the protein over a high heat to get a good sear and crust, 1-3 minutes per side depending on what you use, and the amount of doneness desired. cook it a little less than you like, because it will be finished in the sauce and set aside.

Remove most of the oil leaving a teaspoon left in the pan. Lower the heat to medium or med-low. Add the aromatics and mushrooms, and any dried spices you would like, a tablespoon of paprika, Turmeric or cracked peppercorns are a few ideas. Continuously stir things around to caramelize the garlic and shallots for 4 minutes or so. Be careful, garlic can burn easily and will contribute a bitter flavor.

After the vegetables have softened and turned a little golden brown add a ½ cup of wine and deglaze the pan. This means taking a spatula or wooden spoon and scraping the brown bits off the bottom of the pan  and incorporating it into the liquid. If you are using fresh herbs, add them now, or add a few sprigs of thyme or rosemary if you would like, and let it reduce by half. At this time place the protein on top of the sauce, do not turn over, the side facing up is your presentation side, and let sit to finish the cooking process. This will take about 5 minutes.

The sauce is almost ready, stir in a tablespoon of butter to give it a smooth and creamy texture, remove the sprigs if needed, salt & pepper as desired and serve!

For the best presentation cut the protein into thin slices against the grain, strain the sauce to remove any solids, and serve over the protein with a sprinkle of  fresh chopped herbs like italian parsley, chives, marjoram or chervil.