Wednesday, October 29, 2014

A Tasting of Ferrari with Matteo Lunelli

I was pleased to attend the Ferrari-Trento sparkling wine lunch at Tony’s for wine trade and media with Ferrari President, Matteo Lunelli; it was undoubtedly the wine highlight of my month. In addition to the fabulous food that one can always expect from Houston’s favorite upscale Italian eatery, each course was also being paired with some of Italy’s most award-winning sparkling wine. 

I learned many interesting things during the course of our meal. The history of the company began with the dream of one man, Giulio Ferrari.  He began his study of wine in the late 1800’s in Italy. He later moved to France to continue his studies and ended up traveling to Champagne to learn to make bottle- fermented sparkling wine. He would also study in Germany before bringing his knowledge and ideas back to Trentino at the end of the 19th century. Well-traveled and well educated, he believed his home was ideal for making a bottle-fermented sparkling wine like he had seen in other parts of Europe. In 1902, he started production.

His goal was to make the best sparkling Italian wine that he could, in the tradition of the great wines of Champagne with the same grapes but from his terroir. He bought Chardonnay plants back and spread them around Italy. He was interested to see it respond in different environments. As he had expected, Trentino’s limestone gravel slopes had the perfect conditions for growing Chardonnay grapes for sparkling wine. The area would help balance the acidity with aromatic complexity due to its elevation which is sitting at an even higher level than the vineyards of Champagne.

A childless Giulio Ferrari would pass the torch of his dream to his friend, a wine merchant named Bruno Lunelli in 1952, and thus begin another family’s wine making dynasty. Bruno would gradually increase production and his sons and their children would follow him into the business; this is how third generation Lunelli family member, Matteo, finds himself in Houston.

He talked a lot about the mountain and how it affects everything –the climate, the terroir, the culture of the people; it dictates how its vineyards should be tended. He spoke of the high altitude vineyards sitting at 300-600 meters, the “kissed by sun” grapes and those warm temperatures by day with those chilly nights.  He talked of their decision to ban herbicides and pesticides in favor of more natural growing techniques in the vineyard. The family feels a move towards organic is actually a return to the older ways.

Interestingly, Matteo doesn’t think this move will help him sell more wine. He doesn’t believe that organics is important to most sparkling wine consumers but he believes it is important for the people within the community, that the local people are the reason for making the change. He believes it is an ethical one. His concern is for the worker that applies the chemical treatment and for others that live nearby whose health may be affected. He said it was difficult to get some farmers to change to more sustainable methods when they had always done things one way.

Stainless steel became more important in their Blanc de blancs wines though wood barrels were always used. The Riserva wines are aged in oak to gain richness; wood can rob the younger wines of elegance. They have experimented with different types of wood and different sized barrels but they have returned to the older ways of their grandfather in the winery as well with some large Austrian oak barrels for some of the wines.

Matteo Lunelli believes the prestige of the brand rides on the Ferrari Brut Non-Vintage. Excellence must be achieved and the classic house style maintained. He says that doing this is far more difficult than getting a beautiful expression from a special vineyard or from a better year. Stylistically, the Perlés are expected to be lighter and fresher while the Riservas should be more complex.

He is proud to see his wine served in places like Tony’s though he would rather that they not serve it in flutes as he feels that some of the complexity of flavor is lost in favor of the visual experience. This comes up often from sparkling wine-makers; it may be time for American restaurants to start listening.

Despite the stemware, the wine still shone along with the fabulous meal and service. Thank you to Matteo Lunelli for sharing both your stories and the wine.



Menu and Tasting Notes

Tasmanian Salmon Tower with avocado, mango and Granny Smith apple.
  • Ferrari Perlé  2007 – (100% Chardonnay) Elegant, crisp, fresh acidity, aromas of apples, yeast and bread crust. I really enjoyed this, it balanced the fattiness in the salmon tower perfectly. SRP $35
Risotto All’ Astice with lobster mushrooms and Maine lobster roe
  • Ferrari Perlé  Rose 2006 - (80% Pinot Noir, 20% Chardonnay) Color comes from short skin contact. Red berries and orange candy character. Per Matteo, the Chardonnay brings elegance and drink-ability while the mountain Pinot Noir has lower tannins, nice acidity with lighter color and more delicate flavors. It gives the finesse that they look for. He recommends it with pizza or pasta carbonara. SRP $59
Heirloom Beet and Sonoma Foie Gras Soup
  • Ferrari Perlé  Nero 2006 – (100% Pinot Noir) More powerful, more structured with more delicate aromas and flavors. Excellent with the soup. SRP $78
  • Ferrari Riserva Lunelli 2006 - (100% Chardonnay fermented in oak, bottled and aged on the lees for 7 years) This was an intense, rich yeasty wine with lighter aromas and flavors of spiced citrus that can stand up to rich foods. SRP $59
The pinnacle of Italian sparkling wine production. The Maso Pianizza vineyard area creates wines that can last for years. Matteo Lunelli said, “This Chardonnay has the power to win the challenge of time.”
Line caught Halibut with Imperial Ossetra cavier, organic kale and golden rum raisins.
  • Giulio Ferrari 2001 - (100% Chardonnay) Fresh, fruity tropical aromas and flavors of lychee and pineapple with almond pastry. Very drinkable and surprising young tasting, I found it easy to agree with my host’s assessment that “one glass calls for another.” It was excellent with the fish. SRP $100
  • Giulio Ferrari 1995 - (100% Chardonnay) At 19 years old, this wine proves the longevity of the line with its fresh aromas of honeysuckle and apricot with honeyed brioche flavors and a crisp, saline minerality in the long finish. Fresh and complex with persistent bubbles, this wine is no longer available but older vintages are obviously well worth seeking out.
Pineapple White Chocolate Candy Bar for dessert.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Tasting The Wines of San Juan, Argentina

The Wines of San Juan, Argentina Tasting in Houston earlier this month surprised local wine trade and media with their fresh and approachable array of wines. Fifteen wineries were represented with numerous wines being poured. 

The high elevation of the vineyard area in San Juan helps to create wines that maintain natural acidity while still achieving full ripeness. This was the first opportunity for most in attendance to taste wines from the San Juan region; tasters were also treated to wines from some of the area's specific named valleys as well. I was particularly looking forward to trying some crisp Torrontes and some of the award winning Syrah.

I walked in from the heat and was greeted with a cool glass of  El Guardado Chic Rosé  made from 100% Malbec grapes sourced from the Zonda and Pedernal Valleys. This wine was refreshing and fruity, an easy drinking patio sipper. I then circled the room and tasted several Torrontes and a few other whites.

My next stop was at the Bodegas & Viñedos Casa Montes table. I tried several of their offerings, I was most impressed with the 2014 Ampakama Viognier and the 2014 Ampakama Syrah and Tannat blend, all sourced from the Tulum Valley. Sebastian Pizarro explained that he believes the Tulum Valley is the most important as the growing conditions create grapes of the highest quality with thicker skins which contribute both more color and flavor to the wine.  

I next went to speak with Juan Patricio Vilanova, the winemaker and manager at Alta Bonanza de los Andes. The estate grapes are organically grown at one of the highest elevation vineyards in the region and receive only 10 inches of rainfall a year. The wines are labeled San Juan though the estate is located in the Calingasta Valley. All of the wines are very fresh and pure; I thought their 2014 Torrontes Sanjuanino was one of the best on the floor.

During my Torrontes circle, I had spoken with Sebastian Rodriguez at Bodega Merced del Estero. I went back to taste his reds. I enjoyed both his Bonarda and his Malbec from the Tulum Valley.

My final long stop was with Arturo Arias at Fincas Sierras Azules where I thoroughly enjoyed tasting both his 2013 Syrah and 2013 Tannat sourced from their vineyards in the Zonda Valley. He explained that he was a kidney doctor with a passion for red wine and he started making wine about ten years ago. He believes the joy that wine can bring to a person is the best thing that he can do for anyone's health. His goal is to produce fresh, fruity wines that truly express the land. I was amazed at the smoothness and drink-ability of the year old Tannat in particular. 

I enjoyed the tasting and everyone that I talked to did as well. Many in attendance were surprised at what they felt was a very different taste of Argentina than they may have had in the past. Everyone was pleased at the fresh, fruity style of the wines and the great value to be found. 

Other wines of note included:
2014 Aya Torrontes and the 2013 Martin Fierro Syrah from Bodegas Borbore
2012 Don Baltazar Cabernet Franc from Bodegas & Viñedos Casa Montes
2010 Tracia Honores Bonarda from Finca del Enlace

Related:

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Houston, get your taste of San Juan, Argentina this Friday

After a slight decline in sales in 2012, the wines of Argentina have been experiencing the glow of renewed interest in the U.S. market starting last year with bottled shipments rising up to 6.1 million cases; that's an increase of 5%, according to Impact Databank. While continuing to focus on the country’s signature grape varietal, Malbec, larger companies like Alamos and Trapiche continue to grow while a number of smaller Argentine wineries are also being introduced into the U.S.

The Wines of San Juan, Argentina, a group of 35 boutique wineries, with assistance from the Argentine Federal Investment Council, have decided it is time to present their wines to some of our key markets. They will introduce their wine to the trade in four cities- Dallas, Houston, New Orleans and San Francisco via a delegation of 14 highly regarded wineries with their Taste and Experience the Wines of San Juan, Argentina tour.

The San Juan area has been producing wine for over 150 years and has numerous 100 year old vines. Plantings of grape varieties such as Malbec, Bonarda, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Tannat, Syrah, Torrontes and Sauvignon Blanc can be seen throughout the Tulum, Ullum, and Zonda Valleys.

This will be the first time, the US wine trade will have the opportunity to taste wines from Argentina's Province of San Juan which is the second largest producing region in the country, following only Mendoza. After searching my notes, I realized I had not sampled any wines from this area though it was always discussed during various wine classes. I'm looking forward to seeing what this region has to offer.


Houston’s wine trade and media will have their opportunity to get their taste of San Juan at the Royal Sonesta Hotel from 12:00 – 5:00 PM this Friday.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

2011 Belnero Toscana IGT

Media Sample
My husband made pulled pork sandwiches for a weekend family gathering. I decided to open a bottle of the 2011 Belnero Toscana IGT by Castello Banfi which had been recommended as a barbecue wine. 

This Tuscan blend is mostly Sangiovese with a small amount of Cabernet and Merlot which has been aged for about 14 months in French Oak, of which only 30% new. In the glass, the wine was a deep ruby color with aromas of plum, licorice and milk chocolate. On the palate, a full body with smooth tannins and fresh acidity with flavors to match the nose with a medium+ length finish.
 
It worked well with our sandwiches and everyone enjoyed their taste of the Belnero, recommended. Approximately $27.
  

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Dinner at Ciao Bello - Wining and Dining in Houston

My husband and I had dinner last weekend at Ciao Bello. Jeremy Parzen turned us on to this restaurant back in 2012 and it quickly became a favorite of ours. We had started to get into a rut over the past year always ordering the same things. We did this last month during restaurant week when our favorites like the pastiera di mare, a creamy marscapone souffle with shrimp and crabmeat made the lineup.

On this evening, we did things a bit different than usual. Instead of bubbles and the crisp green tomatoes with crabmeat and/or the above mentioned souffle, we ordered a bottle of the 2012 La Magia Rosso di Montalcino and decided to start with the polpette, a baseball-sized meatball that arrived to the table looking better than as pictured, my husband was swiping bread through it as it hit the table before I could retrieve my camera. He was genuinely that excited to see it arrive.

For our next course, we split the primavera salad. This baby arugula salad has roasted grapes, Tomino cheese and Texas pecans. This was the first time I've ordered this and I liked it, it is a nice combination of peppery, creamy and sweet flavors with a little light crunchy texture. The grilled Texas peach salad is my usual choice if I am having it alone (pictured at right) and if we are splitting we always get the burrata caprese salad but it was good to know I've got even more options there.

For my main course, I had the tagliarini al pomodoro since we had started with the meatball appetizer. This is a fresh, light pasta dish with San Marzano tomatoes, basil and olive oil. My husband got a different pasta dish, the tortellini modenese. The perfect size meal to allow room for dessert, usually the carrot cake or lemon pie, which is never missed at our dinners here.

We enjoyed everything that we had and the wine was perfect with all of it as well. Every experience that we have had at Ciao Bello has been exceptional and our pasta night was no exception, if you haven't been yet, it is not to be missed.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Lakeway Resort and Spa

I stayed at Lakeway Resort and Spa during my last trip to the Austin area. The hotel is located on Lake Travis just 20-30 minutes from downtown Austin. The resort has beautiful grounds with panoramic views of the lake. Amenities include both a multi-level adult pool with a swim up bar and a family pool with a water slide. While boating and other lake activities were the main attraction for many guests, my husband and I were there to enjoy the proximity to one of the Hill Country's award winning wineries, Spicewood Vineyards, and enjoy some relaxation time.


We arrived shortly after the 4:00 check-in time; we left our car with the valet and we walked into a quiet lobby for a quick and easy check-in. We were shown to our 5th floor lake view room with a king size bed. We found a cheese tray and water bottles waiting for us upon entry. We ate our snack, freshened up and headed down to the complimentary happy hour. We each got a drink and took a seat out on the patio. It was a beautiful evening with blue skies, sunshine and a light breeze blowing. We stayed out there until it was time to get ready for dinner.

We had 7:00 dinner reservations at Masterson's, the hotel's restaurant. It has an attractive dining room with comfortable seating, a full bar and scenic views of the lake. We opted to start our Hill Country wine weekend with a bottle of Texas Viognier by McPherson's. I started with the baby spinach salad and then had a pan seared shrimp with grapefruit cruda appetizer for my dinner. I felt that the salad had a bit too much dressing while the shrimp dish was fresh and light. My husband had the lobster bisque and the jumbo lump blue crabcakes (not pictured), he said that he would have liked more seafood in each but that is his usual complaint on those menu items everywhere. 

In the morning we slept in a bit and then we went back to the restaurant for the breakfast buffet. We each enjoyed an omelet made to order with a side of breakfast potatoes and fresh fruit. All the usual morning favorites were in the array- french toast, smoked salmon and bagels, sausage, bacon, scrambled eggs, breads with spreads, cereal, juice, etc. It would be easy to eat breakfast there multiple times without having to do the same thing twice unless you chose otherwise.

The hotel provided us with a driver to Spicewood Vineyards at noon. He was an older gentleman named Richard who was born and raised in the area. He shared many stories about his boyhood and discussed how Austin and all the surrounding communities were growing. After getting caught up in one of his tales, we found out that he also does stand-up comedy at night. He dropped us off at the winery, you can read about that here, we planned a time for him to return and he was there promptly as planned.

We spent the rest of our afternoon out by the pool at the resort. We shifted from wine to piña coladas which my husband proclaimed as one of the best he has ever had after his second one.This led to a poolside nap for him. I sunbathed, people watched and took in the lake views. After hydrating with some water, we headed up to the room to clean up. Originally, we had planned on heading into town for a nice dinner but at the last minute decided to stay close, keep it super casual and try Richard's chicken fried steak recommendation, Angel's Ice House. 

We arrived back at the hotel and poured a glass of wine to have out on our balcony when a fireworks display started. We don't know what it was for but we had a nice view of the show off to the side of our patio for our nightcap which was a fun surprise.

The next morning we woke up early and went to Café Lago, a breakfast recommendation from Richard. We were there when they opened the door which was fortunate as the restaurant filled up within thirty minutes of our arrival. We really enjoyed our breakfast there but it was crowded and a bit noisy. We liked the good service, fresh food and that we were in and out within forty-five minutes. We headed back to the hotel for our morning massages at the San Saba Spa located within Lakeway Resort overlooking the pool area.

Due to our late decision to make spa appointments, we were not able to get a couple's treatment or even appointments at the same time- so be aware and book at the same time that you make your hotel reservations. We were able to get back-to-back massage appointments with a later checkout time to accommodate our schedule. My husband worked out in the gym while I had my massage and I was able to go back to the room and leisurely get ready and pack while he had his massage. We both thoroughly enjoyed our treatments. He showered in the locker room and was ready to go as soon as he got up to the room.  We had a late lunch planned with our daughter in her nearby college town so, although they had given us until 2:00, we left by 1:00.

We enjoyed our stay at Lakeway Resort and we would recommend it as a great place to call home while touring the nearby wineries, enjoying the lake and taking in the Austin nightlife. Check out the Lakeway "Get a room" package that includes transportation to Spicewood Vineyards.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Spicewood Vineyards

I had the pleasure of tasting the wines of Spicewood Vineyards last weekend with the winery’s visionary and president, Ron Yates. Ron grew up in nearby Marble Falls and graduated from the University of Texas. In his attempt to get the most out of his academic quest, he did a study abroad in Spain in 1999 to fulfill his college Spanish requirement; this led him to his love of Tempranillo wines.

Despite his not enjoying his early participation in Texas grape harvests as a kid, he decided to parlay what he called his highly embellished vineyard skills for the opportunity to stay on in Spain for the Ribera del Duero harvest after his Spanish courses ended. While he was in the midst of his adventure, he did think about how the terroir of Ribera del Duero reminded him of some areas back home in the Texas Hill Country. The idea of making the Spanish style wines that he loved back in Texas began forming.

The longer that I talked with Ron, the more I was repeatedly struck by two things:
1)      Ron is a bit of a Renaissance man. His stories tossed into casual conversation between tastings and touring around the winery included not only working harvest but law school, playing guitar, his record label, the Austin music scene, the Austin real estate market, more tales of Spain (of course, he went back) and what I will call “Tex-ifying” some European wine making equipment -you just need to call a guy that welds together barbeque pits. And,
2)      Ron is going to have fun doing whatever it is that he is doing. His stories include many references to friends and family with a good dose of humor aimed primarily at himself but also at several buddies from high school who work with him.

Ron and his family purchased Spicewood Vineyards in 2007. The original seventeen acres were planted with Bordeaux varieties by the previous owners back in 1992. As these vines were producing grapes, they were able to start some experimental wine making immediately. Ron is committed to an estate program and he has increased the vineyard size to thirty-two acres with an additional eight acres planted to the west. He is focusing on planting Tempranillo along with other heat tolerant Spanish varieties like Graciano and Touriga Nacional.

While Ron says he prefers to use his own grapes whenever he can, he will not turn down any good fruit offered up by a trusted friend. He likes to experiment with different varieties and see what they can do. He jokes about some of these experiments having to go straight down the drain. He says the goal at Spicewood is to make wines that don’t need corrections and he feels this starts with carefully selected rootstock and varieties that suit the climate.

I had entered the tasting room at the winery from the 100 degree Farenheit temperatures so I was pleased to see an array of cool whites in the line-up along with a Tempranillo from the Hill Country Estate as well as one from the High Texas Plains. There was also a somewhat questionably labeled wine called Cabernet Claret, a kitchen sink blend of Texas grapes with 2% residual sugar.

My favorites from the tasting:
  • 2012 Spicewood Texas Hill Country Estate Semillion – dry, crisp, fresh pear, citrus and a light mineral finish, $19 a bottle.
  • 2012 Spicewood Texas Hill Country Estate Sauvignon Blanc – dry, zingy grapefruit, lime zest and a light mineral finish, $17 a bottle.
  • 2012 Spicewood Texas High Plains Viognier – dry, fresh melon and apricot with a light citrus blossom floral note and a citrus finish, $18 a bottle.
  • 2013 Spicewood Texas High Plains Rousanne –  fuller body, dry with chamomile, sweet citrus and ripe pineapple with a clean citrus finish, $14 a bottle.
  • 2012 Spicewood Texas High Plains Tempranillo - a good summer red; dry, medium body, fruit forward with mixed berries and baking spice; aged 12 months in 70% neutral oak and 30% new French oak barrels, $24 a bottle.
  • 2012 Spicewood Texas Hill Country Estate Tempranillo – dry, fuller body with dried cherries, black pepper and cocoa with a light toasty note; aged 12 months in 60% neutral oak and 40% new French oak barrels, $46 a bottle.

Ron also pulled some Albariño from the tank that I am looking forward to trying again as soon as it is bottled and ready. I also tried the 2012 Cabernet Claret. I say “questionably named” as varietals outside of the traditional Bordeaux grapes are included. Ron said that 2012 was not the best year for the estate Cabernet so Tempranillo and Syrah were also part of the blend for this vintage. Ron had considered changing the name but it is the featured wine at the annual Pair it with the Claret party which the vineyard hosts each February. Ron says that the 2% residual sugar and jammy red berry flavors makes it a fun wine to drink with spicy chili, barbeque and Mexican dishes, $17 a bottle.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Happy Hour at Uchi - Wining and Dining in Houston

While my daughter was in town briefly between her study abroad and school starting, we took the opportunity to wine and dine our way around Houston. She is always a favorite dining companion of mine because she will taste anything and loves to split items, we can always create our own multi-course menu.

Uchi was one of her not-to-miss spots while she was here. Happy hour runs from 5-6:30 daily and there is always a crowd. We arrived at 5:00 pm on Wednesday to find the line already forming but we were able to walk right in and get a table as soon as the doors opened. The restaurant quickly filled up.


This time of day at Uchi provides a great opportunity to try smaller portions of some of the regular menu items. The entire menu is also available as well as a menu of daily specials. We ordered some sparkling Loire Valley rosé, the Bouvet Brut NV off the regular wine list. They serve it for $11 a glass or $43 a bottle. Happy hour or "Sake Social" drink selections include sake for $3, a sake cocktail for $6 and a red and white wine by the glass for $7.

We started with the spicy crunchy tuna roll with big-eye tuna, avocado, jalapeno and cucumber and the shag tempura roll with salmon, sun-dried tomatoes and avocado, both for $6. We followed that course with one Thai oyster with galangai, lemongrass and tomato each for $4 a piece. 

Next up, we opted for the Uchiviche with salmon, striped bass, bell pepper, tomato, garlic and cilantro for $6. There is always more fish than you expect in this little tasting. I think I have had this menu item every time that I have been to Uchi. We also enjoyed the Machi Cure which is not pictured; it is smoked baby yellowtail with yucca crisps, marcona almonds, Asian pear and yuzu for $6. I love this combination of flavors, we attacked it and I did not take a picture. 

For our final savory dish, my daughter picked the yaki niku with wagyu beef, ginger, fish sauce, local greens and ogo nori for
$8. This is a filling little plate and a good way to convince non-raw eaters to come check out Uchi with you.

We did not stop thereSince they do provide a small dessert taste on the Sake Social menu, we ended our meal with it- the okashi, made with pluot, chocolate and beet for $4, this is a very interesting dessert combination and the perfect size.

While it is always a treat to go to Uchi, I think that happy hour is my favorite time to be there. The crowd is lively and the menu variety allows for individual portions or table sharing sizes for groups. You can count on everything on the menu being available as nothing has been 86'd this early. The food is always so fresh and good; if you haven't tried Ushi yet, it may be time.