On the Wine Trail

  • Champagne in White

    Champagne in White

    I guess I'm lucky. The context of my daily life happens to be good wine. Sometimes even...great wine. It ends up influencing nearly every aspect of my life and generally in the best of ways. I had the pleasure of sampling my first bottle of Lanson White Label at the recent Diner en Blanc DC pop-up picnic. I became completely obsessed with the idea of this mad yet elegant evening in white last year when the event made its first apperance in Washington, DC. I had learned of the Paris event via a tangential, time-wasting googling getaway during a particulary boring study session last year. I was smitten. I spent a long year on the loser's waiting list and received an email three weeks ago annoucing my invitation to show up online at 10:00am on a subsequent Thursday morning to see if I could grab one of the last remaining tables at the local Diner. Without really thinking, I hammered away at the keys with my heart racing until I had scored a spot for my table and a bottle of Lanson's White. 

    Lanson's itself is a brand that I know but the White Label was new to me. I tend to shy away from bubbles with any sweetness and this bottling's "off dry" style wouldn't be my top choice. But, none of the other wine selections seemed to fit "me" and bubbles are....well, my calling card. But then, my attendance at this event wasn't really "me" either. I tend to shy away from highly curated events. Add a crowd of 3,000+ and my usual answer would be "count me out". So the White Label, in this context, seemed the perfect choice.

    Champagne Lanson is one of the oldest houses in Champagne. While remaining family-owned until 1980, the house, like many in the region, has been bought up by a multi-brand conglomerate. Fortunately, the conglomerate is populated by well-heeled, quality-minded producers of champagne. In addition, the conglomerate is run by Bruno Paillard, himself the owner of the still-independent Champagne Bruno Paillard. Good cred.

    The champagne did not disappoint and neither did the evening under the stars. I planned a potable meal of local baby cantaloupe & chipped ricotta salata, Chicken Salad Niçoise and Poached wild shrimp with Mediterranean Couscous. The White Label featured a touch of sweetness that was neither cloying nor distracting but made the bubbles dance on my tongue. They seemed as happy and lively as the band playing on the steps of the Carnegie Library behind me throughout dinner. And why plates were pushed to the side and sparklers illuminated as a sign of the dancing heating up to the mixing thumping of the DJ, the bubbles still held their own. Providing refreshment from non-stop dancing and a tickle to keep a smile on my face.

    All in all, a good night and a good pairing.

  • There's More to this place than Pineapple

    There's More to this place than Pineapple

    This side trip to Maui was fueled by a desire to really explore a place far from home to which I had journeyed for work. It was also driven by curiosity. Why would a winery producing fruity pineapple wine take the time and make the financial investment to use traditional method to produce their sparkling pineapple elixir? I was also wondering if what I poured at the Luau several nights earlier represented the true character of the "wine". After chatting with retailers on Hawai'i', I learned many distributors used the big island as a final resting place for old, tired vintages. Or perhaps bottles that had been poorly handled. I, myself, had found three bottles that I had to retire and use for cooking rather than toasting during my tenure as the Wahine of Wine. 

    Thus the big, long drive all around Maui, over the slow, bumpy road that car rental houses refused to insure (not entirely true but definitely the urban myth they choose to perpetuate), and through a side of the volcano that revealed long, wide expanses of waving arid land grasses and crooked trees that were reminiscent of Japanaese woodblock prints. It was, simply, breathtaking. I tend to prefer marginal lands--the land of wine. The rough and tumble beauty and comes in areas with not quite enough rain, with soil that lacks in depth and fertility and maybe has more than its fair share of boulders, rocks and craggy ranges. I was at home here, and I didn't want to leave. But a pedal to the metal was needed in order to make it to the town of Ulupalakua, the home of Tedeschi Vineyards/Maui Wine Company. We pulled up to a quaint white, clapboard house with large deep wood-colored totem-like poles scattered throughout the front yard. Large trees and green grasses also signaled that we had rounded the coast to an area sees a bit more rain. Not quite the tropical rainforest of the east coast portion of the adventure this morning, but certainly less arid that the south coast we just left behind. Ulupalakula lies in a cut through north between the western (Mauna Kahalawai) and eastern (Haleakala) volcanoes which together make up the island of Maui. As I walked up, I saw a sign advertising a free tasting of up to three wines. I wasn't really sure I wanted to taste three version of pineapple but I definitely wanted to taste the current release of this methode champenoise pineapple sparkling (I kinda still can't believe this is a real thing). What I found on the "Wine Menu" before me was a bit of a shock. There were two estate wines that I could taste. Wait. Estate? Are you using that term in the same way? Indeed they were. So it seems that actual and real grapes are grown on the island of Maui -- in Kihei just down the road, in fact -- and are vinified for bottling right here. Chenin blanc, viognier and syrah to be precise. I was confused. I know we were at about 2,000 feet but I didn't think it ever became cold enough at that altitude for the grapes to become dormant. So apparently they force the vines into dormancy. Hmm....something new to research. The white was a blend of chenin and viognier and surprisingly, not of the high alcohol, flabby variety found in some west coast locations. Honestly, it wasn't bad. The floral aromas definitely dominated the aroma profile for me--smelled like the lei that decorated my neck my first night on the island. But the distinctly ashy quality in the mid-palate kind of obscured the fruit for me. Very sense of place though and I wouldn't turn it down. The syrah, on the other hand, was downright impressive. Filled with rich ripe berries, a hint of camphor and fresh ground white pepper this wine was fruity and savory all at the same time, balanced with minerality from the basalt dominated soils (hello Mt. Etna!). The woman in charge of the bottles in the tasting room was extremely generous when she sense my enthusiasm and poured me one extra wine in my flight--the Lokelani Hawaiian Sparkling Rosé. This wine was a blend but used some grape juice from off the island so couldn't be estate. It was delicate with a lovely floral aroma and fruity palate with citrus and black cherry, hints of almonds and really nice perlage and mouthfeel. Even at $28 per bottle, I'd definitely drink that one again. And again. My little Hula o'Maui Pineapple Sparkling? Well, in fact, I had indeed sampled and served an older vintage. The label was completely different on the bottle before me. But despite a change of winemaker since my bottle was produced and extended time on the lees (eight months), it didn't make too much difference. It was still as I described it before. A great pour for a Luau or Hawaiian-themed evening--not sweet and such a curiosity with its traditional method. But for $24.00 bottle, I think I'd opt for a bottle of Prosecco DOCG instead. Sorry little Hula girl...but thanks just the same! You inspired me to get here and explore the island in 360. And who knew.....wine-worthy grapes growing in Maui?! I wonder how much land here costs?

  • Black Sand vs White Sand

    Black Sand vs White Sand

    The first full day in Kona started with a yoga stretch in the morning and a cup of Kona coffee that I definitely brewed to about three times the stretch of a normal human. Was this an honest mistake or my subconscious plan to ensure that I was actually awake this morning? The group climbed aboard the van and made our way just down the coast to the Black Sand beach of Kahalu'u where the group was dropped off for their swim up the coast to Magics where they would be greeted by a contrasting white sand beach. My mind, of course, was on dinner and my next presentation. I had obsessed a little over this one. My wines choices were limited by the selection of one of two local wine markets recommended by Clare Bobo of Island Thyme. I cheated and had Frog's Leap Sauvignon Blanc and PINK rose shipped directly from the winery several weeks before my arrival. I knew whatever type of culinary curves I might be thrown due to necessary menu changes, these two wines would never let me down. I contemplated my presentation about the wines of Orvieto Classico while I munched on am amazing lunch of Gado Gado Salad with spiced tofu, blackened chicken, curried shrimp topped with a spicy peanut dressing. It was hard to concentrate--lunch was so tasty. We set off in the afternoon for bay in Kailua-Kona where an introductory Iron Man course swim and filming was going to take place, followed by a fun trip on an outrigger canoe. As I watched the swimmers take off for their shortened Iron Man course (the full course is scheduled for tomorrow), I couldn't help but think about the dedication required by a healthy athlete. It's a whole body state really, with attention to food, form and function. It struck me, in that moment, that the same can be said of the very best wine growers who produce the purest expressions of their grape and place. It's not an easy commitment but well worth the results. Thus the context of my evening discussion was born. And the lava...let's never forget the lava.

    Dinner started with Hawaiian pupus of Mushroom Crostini with the most amazing mushrooms I have had a long while and classic tomato bruschetta with those heavenly sweet tomatoes again. One of the SwimVacation bosses took to the bar and mixed up some delicately sweet Blue Hawaiian cocktails and things slowed down a bit. It was a nice change of pace. When the time was right and dinner was prepared, we all sat down with our amazing local lifeguard and two additional SwimVacation guides on island to scout for a new project, joining us for dinner. The salad course featured pomemgranate and molasses glazed cold beets stacked with one of the 200 types of avocadoes which grow on this island alone with lomi tomatoes and a truffle vinaigrette. In my imagination, the Frogs Leap Rose was going to be perfect and it did not disappoint. The beautiful, generous but dark fruit of valdiguie and zinfandel matched beautifully with the flavors and created a whole new experience in the mouth. I was pleased. Plates were cleared and here was the big one...the course I had obsessed over. Back home I found a bottle of the Orvieto sold by Kona Wine Market and enjoyed it at home with my own (though simpler) version of this meal. The Tenuta di Salviano 2012 Orvieto Classico Superiore worked well. But when I popped those green olives in my mouth...the whole thing changed into something else. Something better. So I was more than a little disappointed when the shop owner emailed me that he had sold out of the vintage. Bummer. I made another selection but Clare, sensing my disappointment over the loss of this wine, went out of her way to procure two bottles elsewhere. But the vintage was 2013. No matter...I was sold and appreciated her support. Truth be told, the 2013 didn't hold up quite as well. The body was not as weighty and that oily texture that made it work so well with the green olives was a bit lacking. But its only because I had that zen fusion inner mouth experience. It was solid but was outshined by the Frogs Leap Pink. 

    So I went to the back pocket. I hadn't planned on serving a wine with dessert but we needed a high note upon which to end. Dessert was green tea ice cream topped with Waimea Strawberries. I hesitated and then plunged forward with my gut: cru beaujolais. I was not disappointed. The fresh strawberry nose and dark, concentrated nose with silky tannins and not a touch of stemminess went perfectly with the dessert. Smiles everywhere. Warmth in the cheeks from a third wine choice. My job here is done. Goodnight.