Thursday, June 30, 2011

Iconic Wine in the Making

Thomas Jefferson, America's first wine connoisseur and gourmet, dreamed Virginia would one day make wines comparable to his most beloved French imports. I witnessed his dream come true this past weekend in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. In observance of our nation's birthday, I wish to share a tale of wine, legendary in the making.
Portraits Courtesy of Emily Plimpton EmFlash Tumblr

Six am the alarm clock, better known as my daughter, started chattering away. The day peaked through the windows, crystal blue skies and no rain clouds on the horizon. Anticipation and intellectual curiosity stirred within. I threw off the sheets--and the dog--to prepare for an excursion into the Virginia countryside in search of an iconic wine in the making.
Portraits Courtesy of Emily Plimpton EmFlash Tumblr

Fast-forwarding through set-up and group assembly, the shuttle bus rolled down the highway. While passing gently rolling hills coated in wildflowers and meadow grass, I couldn't help to wonder how RdV vineyards would be situated on any slope of significance, where grapes could receive maximum exposure to light. The landscape appeared too flat. Soon enough, though, the bus wheeled on a narrow, curving road and slowly motored its way through a perfect, rural setting.  Driving underneath a lush canopy of green forestry, trees blocked our view for the most part, until suddenly, a clearing in the trees revealed a gate on the left. A quick glance led to an unexpected sight. A steep, south-facing slope loomed ahead of us, marked by emerald green vertical stripes. These parallel rows of vines lined the hillside, forming nature's own rendition of solar panels. Nestled at the bottom of the hill, wedged against a more easterly facing slope sat the winery itself, divided in half by an impressive silo with two stark white wings extending outward.

Upon entering the facility, the group immediately felt the raw force of architectural impact. Structured lines bounding open spaces without exact symmetry proved truly fascinating in scope. A centered stairwell descended to a lower level leading to the tank room, cellar, and underground cave. Natural, welcoming light illuminated the center of the foyer and penetrated the wings, highlighting a skylight silo grounded in a concrete base left unpolished by paint or surfacing. The dualism of natural, raw elements intertwined with man-made elegance took center stage for the remainder of the day.

The man himself, Rutger de Vink, approached the group in towering confidence. His aura quickly overtook the gathering and his energy seethed with sheer focus and determination. I could envision the silent dialogues within his mind, an invisible stream of ideas and philosophical curiosities, defining a man of great depth and drive. He reviewed the agenda for the day and quickly set forth to take the first group up the "mountain" while the second group departed for the wine cave with de Vink's winemaker, Joshua Grainer.

I promptly set off to the kitchen and missed the wine cave tour while my brother and I prepped for the afternoon's luncheon. Luckily, my roommate was all eyes and ears for the tour led by Joshua. She happened to glimpse minute aspects of the winery that added to its captivating tranquility. I have included her photographs below and a link to her Tumblr feed. She felt the magic and gentle peace that pulses from the very walls of a wine cave. She captured a couple's mumblings to each other and felt compelled to share them with me. An older lady whispered to her husband, "Honey, if we weren't already married, I would marry you in this room." How else can I describe the overwhelming power of standing in the depths of Mother Earth? Joshua Grainer simply states, "For me, wine is perhaps life's greatest intellectual and sensual pursuit. The environment at RdV allows me to take this quest to the pinnacle."
Portraits Courtesy of Emily Plimpton EmFlash Tumblr

Portraits Courtesy of Emily Plimpton EmFlash Tumblr

After lunch preparations were well underway, I joined the second group for the winery tour. We set out for an authentic hay ride. While we slowly inched up the hill, Rutger shared his wine beginnings and his vision for RdV. He explained his search for soil and viticultural experts worldwide who visited his land and provided consulting expertise. They all said he has the soil and site to produce magnificent wines, but they were too inexperienced with the Virginia climate to guarantee his success. He dared to forge ahead with his dreams, and now eleven years after his first plantings, we stood at the pinnacle of his vineyards and absorbed the fruits of his labor.
Portraits Courtesy of Emily Plimpton EmFlash Tumblr

Portraits Courtesy of Emily Plimpton EmFlash Tumblr
Portraits Courtesy of Emily Plimpton EmFlash Tumblr

The sheer, impressive landscape spread out before us lay testament to his noble intentions. The vines were expertly manicured and standing astute, ready to perform their duty, like Roman legions anxiously awaiting Cesar's next call-to-arms. A gentle breeze glided over the butte and the serenity of nature settled in as if the vines were practicing their vinyasa. I imagined how often I would come here just to sit and reflect. I listened eagerly as de Vink discussed terroir and the importance of water availability to the vines. He spoke to his past failures and immediate corrections and the current status of the grapes and weather. But, I felt transposed. I did not recognize this as my Virginia and homeland. I could have been standing in Napa or Piedmont, but never had I witnessed such undertakings and potential at any other Virginia winery until now. This fact was proven after we descended the hill and indulged in a tasting of RdV's 2008 vintage poured against a 2005 Chateau Montrose, a classified second growth of the Bordeaux 1855 classification, and a 2007 Opus One.
Portraits Courtesy of Emily Plimpton EmFlash Tumblr

My personal tastes ranked Chateau Montrose as the most complex, but the RdV was a close second still not showing all in its youth. A good portion of the group, though, preferred the RdV over the Montrose and Opus. A few enjoyed the Opus the best, but with the RdV ranking second instead of third. The RdV was predominantly a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The juice lapped lusciously over my tongue, revealing powdery tannins, pristine fruit, balanced acidity, refined levels of alcohol, and a finishing touch of finesse. The aromas were a bit closed down at that moment in time, but the wine still rang of purity. No remnants of herbaceous elements lingered on the edges as are usually evident in most Virginia reds. The body and texture of the wine was seemless and somewhere perfectly in between the body and texture of the Montrose and Opus--the Montrose offering loads of minerality behind the fruit, while the Opus was fortified with oak tannins and vanilla tones.

Regardless of how the wine was ranked, the RdV was clearly in its class as an iconic wine. Just as the 1973 Stag's Leap changed the path for Napa wine and placed the region on world class wine maps, RdV scales uncharted territory and redefines the world's perspective on Virginia's capability of producing fine wine. I cannot wait to buy more RdV for my cellar and experiment with its age-ability, and learn more intimately the evolution of its flavor profile.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cheese Whiz on Cheddar

Cheese Whiz on Cheddar

Imagine a world without cheese. Visit Whole Foods without sorting through towers of cheddar looming over wrinkly, ashen pyramids of fermented goat’s milk. Picture empty cases once laden with downy-soft, ivory disks of soft-ripened, creamy bliss. Balk at Farmer’s Markets scarce of cheesemakers, tranquility fractured by haunting echoes of vast silence supplied by cheese dearth.  Envision a world lacking in magic from the absence of wine and cheese pairings; the ultimate sanction suffered from cheese coiffures gone dry. Too heavy a burden the world would bear…Oh Cheese, forever would I lament you, a world of senseless whirling gone awry.
Drastic measures of which I speak, exaggerated with descriptive language I admit. But, truly, cheese industrialization almost put farmhouse cheddars out to pasture. The ravages of the Second World War devastated the British cheese industry and paved the path for tons of mass-produced American Cheddar to fill the bellies of Americans and Brits alike. Few men remained to pass on age-old cheesemaking traditions. A country once blessed with 15,000 cheesemakers crafting “territorial” cheeses was left with 126 farmhouse cheesemakers.  The British were not alone. America experienced the same plight. Flooded by European immigrants in the 1800s, America feared the population’s food demands would outpace the slow, local process of cheese production. In 1877, John Jossi, a Wisconsin cheesemaker of Swiss origin, developed a process to emulate English Cheddar by using two bricks to squeeze fresh curd, resulting in a firm, more rubbery cheese ideal for cutting. The process quickly inspired Britain’s Ministry of Food to rule all excess milk be used to make fast-cultivating “National Cheese.”
By the 1970s, farmhouse cheddar was all but forgotten. Large companies stamped out most small co-operatives as cheese became a commodity to be distributed as cheaply and efficiently as possible to supply the increasing number of supermarkets. Where had all the cheddars gone? Millions only knew cheddar as the orange or white, velveeta-like, manufactured cheese, sterilized and standardized. But, the Vietnam War partnered with the hippie movement sparked the dawn of a new age. A generation of people, who harbored aspirations to shrug off the disillusioned world, decided to lay testimony to the rural, farm life. Cheese was to be revolutionized.
July 17th at Red, White & Bleu, another session of Cheese Boot Camp forges ahead with a close-up view on the history of British farmhouse cheddars and today’s movement to revitalize artisanal and farmstead cheesemaking. This educational tasting session will expose American supermarket shelves as the bearer of ready-to-go shredded or sliced Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Colby and Swiss processed cheese, marketed as “fresh” by the power of preservatives. Pique your senses with the opposite of factory flavors ranging from bland to sharp and venture into farmstead flavor including caramellike, fruity, nutty, tangy, grassy, and spicy.
Cheddar production dates back to the medieval times, and the name itself is no longer associated with a village in southwest England’s Somerset County. Rather, the name refers to a technique and is not a protected designation of origin. Cheddaring is a process by which the curds are pressed and stacked resulting in a characteristically smooth, firm, tight texture of Cheddar. Everything Cheddar will be discussed Sunday, July 17th at Red, White & Bleu Wine Shop at our 1pm and 3pm reservation openings. Seven farmstead cheeses will be tasted from the United Kingdom, United States and Canada. Plus, seven wines that pair classically with Cheddar will be sampled. Call the shop at 703.533.9463 to reserve your spot, and anticipate finishing the course as a true Cheese Whiz on Cheddar.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Cheese Rules

The first Cheese Boot Camp class the other week went extremely well. Everyone love the cheese and enjoyed the wine pairings immensely. So, I thought I would share some tips on how to match a wine with a particular cheese. In a world where you can choose from thousands of cheese and even more wine, the concept of picking the perfect wine for a cheese can proof daunting. First rule, lighten up and go with the flow. The best is to enjoy overall and accept that no definitive rules exist for such a subjective topic. It's hard to find a wine that doesn't work well with cheese. You might come across some clashing pairs, but follow some easy guidelines listed below and you'll be on your way to cheese and wine bliss.

Consider the cheese selection first and then go for the wine pairing. If you have the option for a cheese plate, make sure your wine bridges the various flavors between the different cheeses, even if you have one or two odd balls the accoutrements might ease the pairing. There are seven styles of cheese and usually each category pairs with particular classes of wine. When considering cheeses from France, Spain or Italy, go for a wine from the same region if you want to keep it simple. Like Crottin de Chavignol and Loire Valley whites or reds (Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, or Gamay). Munster with Alsatian or German Rieslings. Manchego with an inexpensive, fruity Spanish Tempranillo or Grenache/Mourvedre blend. Cow's milk semi-firm cheeses from Colorado, Wisconsin, or California with California Chardonnay, California Syrah, or Oregon Pinot Noir.

So how do you determine category or style of cheese by appearance? The rind depicts the style; hence your visual clue.

1. Fresh Cheeses have no rind. Think mozzarella, feta, cream cheese, ricotta (although that's slightly different as it's made from whey and not curd). They also have the most moisture and least complexity. Best to go for light to medium bodied wines or rosés (Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Gris, unoaked Chardonnay, Trebbiano, Dolcetto, Beaujolais, rosés from the Loire or Provence).

2. Soft cheeses with fuzzy, white rinds made from Penicillium candidum form your soft-ripened category of cheese . The rind forms because the cheeses are stored in humid, warm facilities attracting the mold that makes the cheeses we know as Brie, Camembert, Explorateur and Pavé d'Affinois. The rind imparts an earthy, mushroom aroma and flavor but the good gooeyness in the middle ranges in flavor from mild, tangy, salty to rich, buttery and more strongly flavored. Best to consider texture of these cheeses and match to a wine. I love Pinot Noir with Bries or Camemberts. Any wine with smooth texture from high glycerol content gives the sensation of silk, satin sheets. A sheer softness can be found in medium-priced Cabernet Sauvignons ($18-$35), Chiantis with volume, rich Bordeaux mostly from the Right Bank. But, there is nothing better than slicing a warm baguette and slathering it with fresh, creamery butter, topped with Fromager d'Affinois (or any triple-cream, soft-ripened cheese) and guzzling a glass of decadent red like Australian Shiraz that's over-the-top with fruit and jam, delivering a velvety mouthfeel. Sparkling wines not heavy on the sur lees aging pair quite well, or even New Zealand Sauv Blancs and French Sancerre.

3. Natural rind cheeses exhibit blue-grey molds with a wrinkly rind. This style encompasses all your small-sized French goat cheeses, and some American styles like the Wabash Canonball, Crocodile Tears, Crottin de Chavignol, for instance. They are harder to source in the states, but they're phenomenal with Loire Valley reds and whites (Pouilly-Fume, Sancerre, Touraine, Anjou, Saumur, Vouvray, Chinon, Bourgeuil) Chenin Blancs, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir and Gamay. Quintessential pairings would be your tangy Sauvignon Blancs from Sancerre, Quincy, Menetou-Salon, New Zealand or South Africa.

4. Semi-soft/Semi-firm cheeses cover all the cheeses in the middle such as Edam, Sonoma Jack, Fontina, Lambchopper, P'tit Basque, Abbaye de Belloc, Tomme de Savoie. They are not hard and they have pinkish brown to dark grey rinds, some or waxed or covered in herbs & spices. They have a somewhat "elastic" feel. The key is they do not have sticky, stinky orange rinds, or the fuzzy, bloomy white rind. They are more distinctly flavoured and can be made from goats milk, sheep or cow. So, they pair well with wines from around the world. Go for bolder flavors found in Rioja, Priorat, Argentina or Cahors Malbecs, Chiantis/Sangiovese, California Zinfandels, Cabs or Syrahs, Oregon Pinots, Burgundy. Truthfully, they are incredibly versatile with a range of medium to full-bodied reds and whites. This category is more experimental. Best to taste the cheese first and determine how aromatic, mild or robust in flavor it is to match a wine with equal complements.

5. When you're brave you explore the washed-rind cheeses which have an orangey-brown sticky rind. They are pungent in smell and flavor and most always have to be enjoyed with wine (in my opinion). Think Chimay, Munster, Epoisses, Grayson, Taleggio. Difficult cheeses to pair only because so many people will buy wine in the lower price-range, a category that fails to deliver in this case. Washed-rind cheeses are so complex aromatically, and in the organoleptic sense, that you must pair with a complex red or white wine, something that stimulates conversation for hours, a wine to truly ponder due to its layers of flavor and complexity. Aged Bordeaux, northern Italian wines such as Nebbiolo, Barolo, Barbaresco, Barbera d'Alba, Super-Tuscans, domestic Meritages, Rhone reds. In the white realm, think aged Chenin Blancs or white Bordeaux, possibly even high-quality Gruner Veltliner from aged vines, or Grand Cru Alsatian Pinot Gris or Gewurztraminer. In other words, the wines can't just be fruity and tangy, they need to be developed with secondary and tertiary aromas coming forth with great viscosity (not in a sweet wine sense but from pysiologically ripe grapes sourced from quality winemaking). Price point does matter in this case I believe.

6. Hard cheeses are fairly simple to identify for obvious reasons, they're hard. Pairing a wine is not so simple though. They range from mild to outrageously tangy or salty, so almost any wine can be a potential match. Rule of thumb is the stronger the cheese the bigger the wine required. Milder flavored cheeses do so well with Chilean reds like Carmenere or American Merlots. Cotes du Rhones, Gigondas and Chateauneuf-du-Pape taste great next to Mahon, Gruyere, Pecorino, Romano, and Roncal. Big, bold Cabernet Sauvignons do nicely with aged Goudas, aged or cloth-bound Cheddars, Mimolette, Beaufort, and Jack.

7. Blues are simple. They are usually wrapped in aluminum foil because the molds constantly release liquid that collects on the outside, the wrapper prevents a rind from forming. This category is the strongest and also the saltiest. Thus, the world of sweet and fortified wines awaits. Classic pairing would be Sauternes with Roquefort, but you can find sweet wine from anywhere. You typically want to go with white sweets that exhibit tropical fruits versus nuttiness or marzipan found in Sherry (there are exceptions of course). Botrytized wines prove to be a great pair. Red dessert wines pair nicely, including Port with Stilton or Shropshire, late harvest Zinfandels.

Below, I have listed the seven cheeses and pairings that we matched in the shop, all of which were fantastic according to the cheesemongers in attendance.

Fresh Cheese: Cypress Grove Purple Haze Arcata, California
Santa Digna Sauvignon Blanc Central Valley, Chile $11.99

Soft-Ripened Fuzzy Rind: Old Chatham Nancy's Camembert Old Chatham, New York
Elizabeth Spencer Chenin Blanc Sonoma, California $22.99

Semi-firm: Istara P'tit Basque Sheep's Milk Pyrenees Mountains, France
Savigny-Les-Beaune Les Taupes Bourgogne Rouge $22.99

Washed-Rind: Chimay Trappiste with beer Mont du Secours, Belgium
La Rivalerie Premieres Cotes de Bordeaux, Entre-deux-Mers, Bordeaux, France $24.99

Flavored Cheese (Semi-firm Category): Red Dragon made with Welsh brown ale, mustard seeds, Wales
Lucien Albrect Gewurztraminer Reserve Alsace, France $17.99

Hard: Beemster XO Gouda, Holland
Baron Philipe de Rothschild Escudo Rojo Cabernet/Carmenere Maipo, Chile $20.99