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Carpe Vinum Flies Under the Radar

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Fair Warning:  This ended up being a rather long post, probably my longest.
So long, you might be tempted to TLDR (too long; didn’t read) it. Understandable. But now I’ve gone and added a picture of a cute cat, and we all know the Internet can never have enough cute cats.
Cute cats are irresistible.  So keep reading.

Back on point.

A couple of months ago, I read an article by Alexis Korman in The Week Magazine called 10 Under the Radar Wine Regions.  Everyone has their own ideas about what is or isn’t under the radar.  Korman includes Virginia wines on her list, but I live in Virginia, so Virginia wine is decidedly on my radar.  Korman’s list is really interesting, and I thought it would make a great theme for Carpe Vinum (the wine club I’m part of).  So, we all chose a wine region from the list (excluding Virginia) and foods to match.  I selected the Finger Lakes region of New York for my research and pairing . . .

The Finger Lakes, New York

Other than a couple of random bottles of Finger Lakes Riesling, I have very limited experience with the region, so this was a great learning experience for me.  The Finger Lakes wine region in New York is often compared with the Rhine region of Germany.  Both regions benefit from the moderating influence of water — the Rhine River in Germany, and the Cayuga, Seneca, Keuka and Canandaigua Lakes in New York.  And, in both regions, Riesling Rules.  

The Finger Lakes are below sea-level, so they trap and store heat, which moderates temperatures (both winter and summer) in the region.  The moderate temperatures provide a longer growing season, allowing the grapes to ripen more fully.  The deep water lakes also cool the summers, allowing for air-flow which prevents pesky things like rot and mildew on the grapevines.

Prior to the 1960s, almost all of the grapes grown in the Finger Lakes region were Vitis lambrusca (native grapes like Niagara and Concord) or hybrids – not the European vinifera grapes needed to produce fine wines.  Vitis vinifera grapes had been nearly impossible to grow in the eastern United States because they couldn’t survive the harsh winters and brutal summers — and they had little resistance to vineyard pests & diseases found in the US.

Enter Ukrainian viticulturist, Dr. Frank Konstantin.  Konstantin is responsible for introducing vinifera grapes to the Finger Lakes region in the 1960s.  Konstantin had experience growing vinifera grapes in the brutal cold of the Soviet Union, so he was convinced he could do it here, too.  He found success by grafting traditional vinifera varieties onto hardy native American rootstock.

The Finger Lakes wine region was just starting to take off in the early 20th century . . . and then Prohibition happened.  Prohibition wiped out most of the wineries in the Finger Lakes.  As Finger Lakes wineries slowly recovered from Prohibition, Riesling became the most successful vinifera grape variety.

Thanks to the Finger Lakes Wine Alliance for hooking me up with this great PowerPoint on Finger Lakes Cold Climate.  If you click on the link, it will download the ppt, but here’s the gist: There are over 9,000 acres of grapes planted in the Finger Lakes.  Of those, around 80% are still planted to native or hybrid grapes.  That leaves roughly 20% planted to vinifera varieties. And of the vinifera varieties planted, Riesling accounts for 46(ish)%.

Riesling Rules.

Before we get to the wines and food pairings, I’m  playing around with a new graphic ratings system this month.  We’ll see how I like it . . .

⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐ = An EXTRAORDINARY, mind-blowing, toe-curling wine.
⭐⭐⭐⭐ = An EXCELLENT, Holy Cow wine.
⭐⭐⭐ = A VERY GOOD, Mmmm-aaaah wine.
⭐⭐= A GOOD wine . . . not a great wine.
⭐= An AVERAGE, meh wine.
😝 = FAIL.  Palate-violating wine.

And for the wine & food pairings, I’m using this very complicated system:

👍👍  = Mind-blowing pairing
👍 =  Happy pairing
👎 = Horrible, toothpaste & orange juice, pairing

As always, the recipe titles are links to the recipes.

Chicken & Wild Rice Soup paired with Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling Magdalena Vineyard 2012
It’s hard to believe how tasty this soup is, considering it might be the EASIEST soup on the planet to make!   I made a few easy, peasy changes to the recipe:  I added a mirepoix sautéed in olive oil at the beginning of the recipe, I used Costco ready-roasted and sliced chicken, and I tossed in a package of fresh spinach just before serving.

Hermann J. Wiemer Dry Riesling Magdalena Vineyard 2012 ⭐⭐⭐⭐
I ordered a couple of bottles of Finger Lakes Riesling ahead of this month’s Carpe Vinum, and I am beyond impressed.  I’ve been searching for a US Riesling that can keep pace with a dry German Riesling, and I think I’m finally on the right track.  This one is light and delicate with a mouth-watering, well-balanced acidity.  Layers of petrol, putty and mineral throughout the palate.  I loved it!

The Pairing 👍
I was a little worried about the creaminess of the soup fighting with the Riesling.  I almost caved and brought a Hermann J. Wiemer Chardonnay.  But I went back to one of my favorite wine mantras:  When in doubt, reach for Riesling!  The acidity in the wine cut through the creaminess of the soup without taking away any of the texture.  And the soup pulled some of the sweetness (only .09% residual sugar, but it’s there) out of the wine — nice!

Texas Hill Country, Texas

Texas has some of the oldest grapevines in the United States — some plantings are a hundred years older than those in California.  According to Texas Hill Country Wineries, there are 37 wineries in the Hill Country of Texas, and the Texas Hill Country AVA is the second largest AVA in the United States.  Prohibition nearly killed wine production in Texas (hmmm . . . where have I heard that before?).  But by the 1970s, Texas wine country was experiencing a revival that’s continuing today.  And let’s not forget — Texas is home to Dr. Thomas Munson, savior of the European wine industry, with his brilliant let’s-graft-Euro-vines-onto-American-rootstock idea.

Cajun Chicken Alfredo paired with Becker Vineyards Viognier 2012
This dish reminded me of one of my favorite pasta dishes at Macaroni Grill — Pasta Milano. There’s a nice undercurrent of spice, balanced with cream and fresh cherry tomatoes.  Yum!

Becker Vineyards Viognier 2012 ⭐⭐⭐
We drink a lot of Viognier here in Virginia — IMO, it’s what VA wineries do best.  This Texas Viognier is dramatically different — I suspect it’s because Texas has a longer growing season, so the grapes are allowed to ripen longer.  The ABV is 14.5%, which is pretty huge for a white wine.  Score another one for my ripe grapes theory.  An intense gold color.  Very floral, almost perfume-esque.  The texture is almost unctuous.  Very enjoyable, and a bargain at $15.

The Pairing 👍
The Cajun Chicken has a really yummy Cajun blackening spice on it.  It’s not an uncomfortable level of spice on its own, but with this Viognier at 14.5% ABV, it definitely magnifies the spice issue.  Luckily, the pasta and the cream help to neutralize that effect, and keep all the flavors playing nicely together.

Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada

French-Catholic missions in the Okanagan Valley have been making wine since the early 1860s. The Okanagan Valley is Canada’s second largest wine region (the largest is the Niagara Peninsula).  Once again, prohibition reared its ugly, grape-destroying head, and nearly destroyed wine production in the valley.  Prohibition was really a drag, wasn’t it?  After Prohibition, most of the wines made in the region were fruit wines made with berries, apples or cherries.

In 1976, a German researcher named Helmut Becker pointed out the Okanagan Valley is “three minutes and 19 seconds north of latitude 50, which also runs through Germany’s Rhine Valley”. He believed Vitis vinifera grape varieties could be grown in the Okanagan Valley, as well.  And he was right!  In 1988, the Canadian government started paying vineyard owners to pull out their stashes of Lambrusca and hybrid grapes and plant vinifera.  Fine wine was reborn in the valley!

Smoked Salmon Crisps paired with Quail’s Gate Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2008
:  I don’t care for smoked-flavored food.  I won’t even buy smoked turkey at the deli — it’s just not my thing.  But I’ll try anything once (anything within reason – Balut isn’t reasonable).  This is a Thomas Keller recipe, so right off the bat, you know it won’t suck. It’s super attractive on the plate, and all my smoke-loving friends adored it.  The lemon zested crème fraîche was a beautiful contrast to the smoked salmon.  An intriguing mix of flavors.

Quail’s Gate Stewart Family Reserve Pinot Noir 2008 ⭐⭐⭐
I’m fascinated by the correlation between latitude and successful viticulture.  The Okanagan Valley is at roughly the same latitude as Champagne in France, and the Rhine Valley in Germany.  Pinot Noir can be a bit of a crap-shoot, and I’m so pleasantly surprised with this wine.  An absolutely gorgeous nose — like a vanilla cherry pie.  I want to jump into this glass.  Light and smooth, flavors are fresh cherries and baking spices.  Very little funk.  14% ABV.  $25.

The Pairing  👍
There’s a reason Pinot Noir and salmon are one of the “classic” pairings.  The Pinot worked really its magic with the smoked salmon . . . and especially the lemon zest crème fraîche. There’s a Yin and Yang thing happening here that just works.  And the smokiness of the salmon added some funk back into the wine.

The Judean Hills, Israel

As you might imagine, grapes have been growing in Israel since Biblical times, probably even before then.  The story of wine in Israel follows the path of invaders and conquest.  If you dust off your history of the middle east, the piece of real estate that is Israel today has changed hands more times than a teenage girl changes clothes.  Wine production either ebbed or flowed, depending on who was in charge.  If Muslims were in charge, wine was prohibited and grapevines were ripped out (which is why there are no native grapes in Israel).  If non-Muslims were in charge, the wine industry flourished.  After Israel picked up the Golan Heights territory in the Six-Day War in 1967, the wine industry really took off.  The Golan Heights has some of the best terroir in Israel.

If you’re interested in reading more about Israeli wines, in particular their connection to Biblical lands, this is a super article from Peter Hellman in the Wall Street Journal:  Young Vineyards, Biblical Pedigrees.

Israeli Beef
 Kabobs paired with Yatir Red Blend 2009
I always thought Kabobs were meats on sticks.  Not true.  Kabobs are simply meat cooked over (or near) a flame.  The Shish is the stick.  I also thought Kabobs had to be chunks of meat, but as it turns out, they can be ground meat, too (usually, but not always, lamb).  This preparation is a simple one (ground beef, parsley, onion, garlic and pepper) but the flavors mesh well.  Had I not known this was ground beef, I would have thought it was lamb!

Yatir Red Blend 2009 ⭐⭐⭐
I have zero experience with Israeli wine.  In my mind, this wine was going to taste like desert and conflict.  To my enormous surprise, this is an impressive wine.  Rich and bone dry, but balanced.   The nose is black pepper and tobacco.  Flavors are cedar and currant.  There’s a slight gaminess to the wine, but it adds character.  $38.  There’s a reserve version of this wine at double the price, but I can’t imagine it would be twice as good.

The Pairing  👍
Enter another one of my favorite wine mantras:  Pair ethnic food with ethnic wines.  It just works. This was a lovely pairing.  The gaminess of the wine played off the spices in the meat, and again, this Kabob could masquerade as lamb and no one would know it.

Istria, Croatia

If you’re interested in reading more about Croatian wine, I wrote a fairly long post about Croatian wine last spring . . . I won’t regurgitate the material here.  I’ve been very favorably impressed with Croatian wines since then . . . the region has so very much to offer.

Stuffed Peppers (Punjene Paprike) paired with Ivo Skaramuca Dingač Plavac Mali 2008
My friend, Diane, is of Slavic heritage, and Stuffed Peppers were a staple on her table growing up.  She was gracious enough to share her family’s recipe with us.  I would never have thought to put stuffed peppers into a crock-pot, but now that I think about it . . . genius!

8-10 medium-sized peppers
2 pounds ground meat (beef & veal mix works great)
1 large onion, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1 egg
1-1/2 teaspoons salt (or more to taste)
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 tablespoon paprika
1 cup cooked barley, rice or farro

Tomato sauce – 4 cups, homemade or store-bought
Tomato soup is also a good substitute . . . and quick!

Carefully cut off the tops of the peppers, scoop out the inside, removing the seeds.  Sauté the onion and garlic for about 8 minutes, or until soft, over medium heat.  Add to the ground meat.  Add parsley, egg, salt, pepper, paprika and barley/rice/farro to the mixture.  Mix all ingredients until well blended.  Stuff the peppers with the meat mixture.  Do not overfill.  Place peppers in a crock pot, pour tomato sauce over, and cook on low for several hours.  Serve and enjoy!

Ivo Skaramuca Dingač Plavac Mali 2008 ⭐⭐
I’ve tried a handful of Plavac Mali wines now.  Some are excellent, others atrocious.  This bottle is a beautiful representation of the Plavac Mali grape.  It’s both rich and complex, with dark flavors of blackberry and plum.  Black pepper undercurrent throughout.  Robust tannins.  I wish the finish was a little longer, though.  $33.

The Pairing  👍
I’ve said it once, I’ll say it again . . . pair ethnic food with ethnic wine.  This is such a complimentary pairing.  A stuffed pepper is both herbal and earthy, flavors that completely flatter a grape like Plavac Mali.

My takeaway from this month’s Carpe Vinum is this:  We all have our wine favorite wines or wine regions, but sometimes it’s both fun and important to step outside of our respective comfort zones and try new things.  Think under the radar . . . and drink outside the box!

I hope you enjoyed this looooong episode of Carpe Vinum.  I had you at cute cat, didn’t I?
Next Month:  It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood . . . of Roma!


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