Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Merry Christmas Markets

Touring several Christmas Markets in France and Germany earlier this month was a once-in-a-lifetime experience I hope to repeat! Although my own mother is from Berlin, I never knew about these markets until recently. Christmas markets started in Germany and many cities and towns put up temporary villages of gaily-decorated wooden booths selling Christmas decorations, gifts and delicious treats. But they are not just gift markets. From Cologne, Germany, to Strasbourg, France, I saw people of all ages enjoying themselves in the invigorating winter air glugging down Glühwein (hot, spiced mulled wine, red or white) and generally making merry with friends and family.

I was on a "Rhine Getaway" river boat tour with Viking River Cruises that traveled from Amsterdam to Switzerland so I was able to stop each day to experience a different Christmas market. There was a charming one in Rudesheim am Rhein, a  small wine-producing town that's a huge tourist draw in the  Rheingau area of Germany, where Riesling and some Pinot Noir (known as Spätburgunder) grow on insanely steep slopes overlooking the Rhine river.

I doubt the Christmas markets were ladling out the high-quality wines this region produces and exports around the world, but the warm Glühwein steeped with fruit and spices like cinnamon and cloves tasted great nonetheless.

The highlight of the markets for me since I wasn't looking for any more holiday decorations or gifts -- was the plentiful food options. All kinds and sizes of wurst were being grilled and placed on brochen (hard rolls), or atop sauerkraut,  potatoes or spätzle noodles, and just as food tastes better when you are camping or hiking so did these simple dishes taste especially satisfying in the mid-40s daytime temperatures and perhaps even better in the colder night air.

Another especially interesting visit was to the several Christmas markets in Strasbourg, a city that has passed between France and Germany five times in its political history and therefore has strong influences of both in its cuisines and culture. In the Strasbourg markets, there were cookies, pastries and crepes (as in all the other Christmas markets I visited) but also beignets and these beautiful chocolate-covered fruit kebabs.

The food was such a draw that I even passed up a couple of excellent meals on my boat, the Viking Jarl, just to graze at the Christmas markets. All-in-all, a culinary treat.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Wines from Southwest France

The consumption of wine in France is highly regional; the French tend to drink locally -- the two exceptions they will generally make are wines from the world renowned regions of Bordeaux and Burgundy. I, too, know wines from those two regions and a few others in France, but it was a voyage of discovery for me to visit the South West France (Sud-Ouest) wine region in September, an area that includes appellations inland and south of Bordeaux such as Gascony, Galliac and Cahors. I found some hidden gems in the areas I visited and at a subsequent wine tasting in San Francisco that involved tasty, refreshing white wines at  super values.  Although the wines are not household names (yet) in the U.S., they are available in both retail stores and at restaurants. These are a couple of the most impressive values:                                                                                                                                                                       
2012 Plaimont Colombelle L'Original Blanc. This wine is made from Colombard and Ugni Blanc grapes, usually used in Cognac, in the Gascony region. It is a refreshing white wine with the tart, grapefruity essence of many New Zealand Sauvignon Blancs, but subtler and more delicate. Suggested retail price is $8.99.

In a similiar vein, the 2012  Domaine Duffour, also from Gascony, tickled my palate with its fresh, citrus-like brightness. It is made of Colombard with Ugni Blanc, and an additional local grape called Gros Manseng, which has great potential for winemaking in the area. Moderate alcohol level of 12% and suggested retail price of $9.99

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Napa Valley Wine Train

I used to live in the Napa Valley and the Napa Valley Wine Train was a familiar sight chugging through the vineyards along the valley's main artery, Highway 29.

I had not been on the train for about a dozen years, so I was pleased to revisit late last month for the 3-hour lunch excursion that begins in the city of Napa and travels north to St. Helena before reversing course and returning to Napa.

I rode in the elevated Vista Dome, a 1952 Pullman dining car with gleaming Mahogany paneling and brass accents. A glass of Domaine Chandon sparkling wine was poured as we sat  and menus for a four-course lunch were presented with at least two choices in each category and five choices of entrees (beef, salmon cooked two ways, duck and a vegetable plate). Chef Kelly Macdonald prepared the food for the Vista Dome car in a kitchen located in the car itself. Price per person for lunch or dinner in this car is $144 -- not inexpensive, but there are other cars with their own menus at lower prices.

Someone asked me to report back on whether the wine train was too "touristy." It certainly attracts plenty of tourists who were enjoying themselves -- this is not a commuter train used by anyone for reasons other than viewing the valley's vineyards while eating, drinking and soaking in the Napa experience. But is it artificial, gaudy, inauthentic, rowdy or otherwise obnoxious? Hardly. Service is friendly and helpful (kudos to Gerald, our server), the food and wine high quality, the views serene and colorful, and it's a fun ride.

Train, culinary, or wine purists may find fault that it's not a real train, or that the food or wine menus are more limited than you would get in a local restaurant or wine bar, but the whole package adds up to a special experience you can't get anywhere else in California wine country.

Friday, September 27, 2013

St. Emilion's Jurade

A Jurat's uniform is a red robe with a white, pleated jabot, white cuffs
and a red toque.  

On Sept. 15, I stepped into the magical world of the Jurade in the medieval village of St. Emilion in Bordeaux. It was approaching harvest time, so it was the perfect time to visit the world’s most renowned wine region.

St. Emilion’s Jurade is today an official brotherhood of wine lovers, investors and producers, all admitted to promote the Merlot-based wines of the right bank’s picturesque village. It used to be the local government and stretches back to 1199. Twice a year, at harvest time and in the spring, its members hold a formal ceremony -- complete with flowing red robes, banners and a procession through town -- to induct new members. In the fall ceremony, the Bans des Vendanges, or harvest proclamation, the new harvest is officially declared by releasing clusters of black balloons, resembling grape bunches, into the air.

This year, a record group of 21 Asian wine lovers and investors were inducted into St. Emilion's Jurade to take on the role of ambassadors to the rest of the world for the village's wines. Five of them, from Singapore, China and Hong Kong, were inducted Sept. 15 paralleling recent increased investment in St. Emilion in the past few years.

  Amid pomp and pageantry, and against the backdrop of the fairytale village and a gorgeous blue sky, the new members were welcomed into the exclusive group during a day-long event that included a 90-minute mass, an induction ceremony in the Monolithic church and a formal luncheon lasting several hours. For someone from the California suburbs, it was like falling asleep and waking up in another, more charming, era.

The actual 2013 harvest was about two weeks late this year, due to cool weather in the growing season and hail in August, but has just gotten underway.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Summer Wine ... and the Sipping is Easy

Am enjoying some wonderful wines this summer that remind me of how simple and enjoyable wine drinking can be when you strip away all the trappings of so-called "serious" wines (translated: pricey Cabernet Sauvignon and other robust, multi-layered reds).

Among them:

2012 Dry Creek Vineyards Dry Chenin Blanc: from the not-exactly-celebrated appellation of Clarksburg in northern California, this is a favorite wine of mine and of many oyster lovers -- it frequently wins the Pacific Coast Oyster Wine Competition. With its crisp acidity, low alcohol of 12.5% and $12 price tag -- what's not to love?

2012 La Rochelle Pinot Noir Rosé: A subtle stunner from the LaRochelle Winery in the Livermore Valley near San Francisco. The Pinot Noir grapes for this pale salmon-colored rosé wine come from the Santa Lucia Highlands in Monterey, a wonderful environment for Pinot Noir. Bone-dry with a nice high acidity and a moderate 13.4 % alcohol. Winemaker Tom Stutz  has been making this style since the 2007 vintage and models it after a Coteaux Champenoise, a still wine that comes from the Champagne AOC. Production in Champagne of this style of rosé is very small and so it is with the LaRochelle's rosé. It is available through the winery online or at its tasting room in Livermore Valley.  $24.

2012 Maison Joseph Drouhin Laforet Chardonnay. As I am not usually a chardonnay fan, this wine was a pleasant surprise. A delightfully, non-weighty wine made from Chardonnay grapes coming from all over Burgundy, it is a wonderful introduction to the whites of this hallowed region (which can get very weighty) with a crisp acidity, fruitiness and nice body.  $18.

2012 Marchesi Antinori Castello della Sala Bramito del Cervo Chardonnay from Umbria, Italy. Another nice surprise: 100% Chardonnay from Umbria, the neighboring region to Tuscany, this well-balanced wine is fermented for a short time in oak barrels, but the result is ethereal and the wine is a perfect partner for light foods, from salads to raw seafood. $18.

Another delectable wine from Antinori is the 2010 Peppoli Chianti Classico.  A modern take on traditional Chianti Classico, this wine is young, fruity and approachable, with a silky smooth feel in the mouth. It is 90% Sangiovese and 10% Merlot and Syrah. $28.