Articles in Drinking

Watermelon Surprise, watermelon ice cubes in a vodka cocktail. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

You love summer but not when it is uncomfortably hot. For relief, you could jump into the pool. Or, you could cut a thick slice of watermelon and let the sweet juices cool you down. Even better, you could fill a tall glass with a watermelon cocktail made with watermelon ice cubes and straight-from-the-freezer vodka and settle into the chaise lounge. You stir the ice cubes. Bits of watermelon juice break free. The crystal clear vodka turns pink. You sip, stir and eat a watermelon ice cube and suddenly you are not overheated any longer.  Now, you are cool and happy.

Summertime and the livin’ is easy

August is a good month for watermelon. They grow quickly in the heat of the sun, producing fat, heavy fruit loaded with sweetness.

At the farmers market I was always told to use a hand to thump on the melon. When the sound was deep and resonant, the melon was ripe, ready to eat. If there is a farmer you frequent at your neighborhood market, ask for advice about a good melon that’s ready to eat.

Prices for watermelon vary greatly. At Asian and Latin markets, watermelon can sell for as little as 10 cents a pound. At upscale supermarkets and farmers markets, the prices can be significantly higher.

A melon is delicious at room temperature or ice cold. I like to chill the melon overnight in the refrigerator. Of course, the easiest way to eat watermelon is to use a sharp knife to cut out a thick slice.

But when I was in Zurich recently I met Olivier Rais, a talented chef who runs the bistro Rive Gauche in the iconic hotel Baur au Lac across the street from Lake Geneva. He had just returned from working with Tal Ronnen, the celebrated chef who created Crossroads Kitchen, an upscale Los Angeles restaurant devoted to vegan cuisine.

Rais made several vegan dishes for me to taste, one of which was a watermelon-gazpacho served in a glass.

I love watermelon but had never thought of extracting the juice. When I replicated his gazpacho at home, I had watermelon juice left over. Deciding to experiment, I reduced the juice in a sauce pan over a low flame. Once the juice cooled, I poured it into a mini-ice cube tray.

Watermelon ice cubes in an ice cube tray. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Watermelon ice cubes in an ice cube tray. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

That night I added the ice cubes to vodka that we keep in the freezer. I dropped in an espresso spoon, settled into a chair and stirred my drink. After a few sips, I realized that I had stumbled onto an easy-to-make, deliciously refreshing cocktail. Summer’s perfect drink.

Serve the cocktail with an espresso or small spoon. One of the pleasures of the drink is stirring the ice cubes. As the ice cubes melt, the watermelon juice infuses the vodka. The mellow sweetness takes the edge off the vodka.

As you stir, the ice cubes crater and reduce by half. Use the spoon to scoop up the icy bits. In an effervescent moment, the softened ice cubes dissolve like pop rocks in your mouth.

Watermelon Surprise

Watermelon slices. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Watermelon slices. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

Use any size plastic ice cube tray. The mini-trays that make 1” square ice cubes work well because the ice cubes melt easily. Use only unflavored premium vodka, and for non-alcoholic drinks, add the ice cubes to glasses of carbonated water or lemonade.

Prep time: 30 minutes

Freezer time: 1 hour or overnight depending on the temperature of the freezer

Total time: 1 hour 30 minutes or overnight and 30 minutes

Yield: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 (3-pound) watermelon, washed

8 ounces unflavored premium vodka

Directions

1. Place the vodka bottle in the freezer the night before serving.

2. Using a sharp knife, remove the rind from the watermelon. Discard.

3. Cut the melon into chunks, removing any seeds.

4. Place a food mill or a fine mesh strainer over a non-reactive bowl.

5. Press the watermelon chunks through the food mill or strainer, capturing all the juice in the bowl. Discard any pulp and seeds.

6. Pour the juice into a sauce pan over low heat. Reduce volume by 30%. Remove from stove. Allow to cool.

7. Pour the reduced juice into the ice cube tray.

8. Place into freezer.

9. Just before serving, pour 1½ ounces ice cold vodka into each glass. Place 5 to 6 ice cubes into each glass.

10. Serve with an espresso or small spoon.

Main photo: Watermelon Surprise, watermelon ice cubes in a vodka cocktail. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Latt

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Soju makers in South Korea are targeting women with fruit-flavored drinks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

A wave of new, summery drinks is taking over Korea. Marketed almost exclusively toward women, the fruit-flavored sojus and alcopops are low in alcohol, high in sugar and raise some interesting questions about how women are perceived and marketed to in a country that still has some of the worst gender-equality outcomes in the world.

Soju is similar to vodka, but with about half the alcohol content of most spirits. It is extremely popular in hard-drinking South Korea — especially among men. Keen to tap into the female market, soju makers have for years been lowering the alcohol content and experimenting with different, sweeter varieties to attract women.

Capturing the market

Grapefruit, apple, pomegranate, blueberry and citron are just some of the choices available in the new sojus and alcopops. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Grapefruit, apple, pomegranate, blueberry and citron are just some of the choices available in the new sojus and alcopops. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

But it hasn’t really worked until last year, when soju maker Chum-churum started a revolution with Soonhari, a citron-flavored soju. Now, the country’s major soju producers, Chum-churum and Jinro, are falling over themselves putting out new versions of fruit-flavored drinks to capture the market. Grapefruit, apple, pomegranate, blueberry and citron are just some of the choices available. Most of them have between 11 and 14 percent alcohol, as opposed to the 17 to 21 percent in regular soju.

“I like the fruity soju,” says Kim Hyeon-seo, a clerk at a 7-Eleven in Ilsan, a city just north of Seoul. “It has more flavor than pure soju, and the alcohol level is lower than regular soju.” She says they sell a lot of flavored sojus, mostly to young women.

A sweeter flavor

Soju makers have rolled out a line of lighter, fruit-flavored drinks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Soju makers have rolled out a line of lighter, fruit-flavored drinks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Lee Young-jin, the manager of Hanshin Pocha bar in Ilsan, says they sell plenty of the fruit sojus. “Before flavored soju, people just drank the regular soju,” Lee says. “We’d sell six cases of it a day. But with the new soju, we sell eight or nine cases.”

He says a table with three women will often put away eight or nine bottles of flavored soju, as opposed to only two or three of the regular kind.

Along with these fruity sojus are new alcoholic sodas like Brother Soda and Iseul Tok Tok. Both are 3 percent alcohol by volume, thanks to a white wine base, but you would never know from tasting them. Brother Soda tastes exactly like cream soda. Iseul Tok Tok tastes like “2%,” a popular peach-flavored soda in Korea. You can’t taste a hint of alcohol in either.

Lim Jongwoo, a waiter at Yaki Hwaro Galbe, says the sodas are almost entirely consumed by women. Lim says he doesn’t drink them, because “the alcohol level is very low.”

At a nearby table, Kang Yujin, 27, says, “I like the taste, its sweet flavor. Sometimes I drink regular soju, but mostly the flavored one.” She says that she’ll usually drink two bottles in one night.

Targeting the trendsetters

Soju, always popular in South Korea, is now making inroads among women, too. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Soju, always popular among men in South Korea, is now making inroads among women, too. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

Daniel Gray, who runs food tours of Korea and the food blog “Seoul Eats,” says the companies are marketing toward women because they “have most of the buying power in Korean society, and tend to make the trends and influence the market on what to buy.”

Gray notes this isn’t the first time flavored sojus have been introduced — previous attempts over the last 10 years, including cucumber and green tea-flavored sojus, died quickly. He predicts that once the trend recedes, Korea will be left with only two fruit-flavored sojus, probably grapefruit and citron.

James Turnbull, an expat Briton who has written extensively about gender in Korea, thinks the advertising campaigns for the new sojus are overly “cutesy” and reinforce a trend in Korea called “aegyo,” where women try to be attractive to men by acting like young children. This contrasts with mainstream soju ads, which in the past decade, Turnbull says, have been emphasizing an extreme sexuality.

Park Solmin is a 23-year-old professional woman and is the exact target the soju makers have in mind. But she has a problem with how the ads reinforce a traditionally Korean view of gender. “They’re going to try to appear a very pure and weak image of a woman,” she says. “They’re trying to show it’s OK for those women who are trying to be very girlish, very typically weak.”

Park admits, though, that the flavored drinks do taste much better than traditional ones.

As a middle-aged man, Turnbull admits he’s hardly the target for these new drinks. But he also admits he likes them, and wonders why they only market to women. “I think a lot of guys like them, because (regular) soju tastes like crap,” he says.

Main photo: Soju makers in South Korea are targeting women with fruit-flavored drinks. Credit: Copyright 2016 Jo Turner

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Main photo: Benvenuti winery is located in the quiet Istrian village of Kaldir, where the Benvenuti family grows three grape varieties, including Malvasia. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery

In northern Croatia, a younger generation of wine growers is pushing the boundaries with innovative interpretations of their indigenous variety of Malvasia, a versatile and diverse wine.

Malvasia is a highly original grape variety, but also a very confusing one, as it is also the synonym for numerous other quite unrelated grape varieties. In the index of that authorative tome, “Wine Grapes,” by Jancis Robinson, Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz, there are no less than 77 entries for Malvasia, and that is not including Malvasije, or Malvoisie! But true Malvasia, Malvazija Itarksa or Malvasia Istriana, depending on whether you are speaking Croat or Italian, really comes into its own in Istria, in northern Croatia.

Contrasting wines

Although they have been grape growers for three generations, the Benvenuti family only started making and bottling their own wine in 2003. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery

Although they have been grape growers for three generations, the Benvenuti family only started making and bottling their own wine in 2003. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery

My first introduction to Malvasia Istriana was over lunch in the attractive hilltop town of Motovun, fresh off the plane from London, and accompanying a plate of wild asparagus risotto with Istrian ham. It was a delicious combination and the wine demanded further investigation, so a few days later we tracked down Albert Benvenuti in the nearby village of Kaldir. He asserted firmly that their Malvasia is not related to any other Malvasia. His simplest wine is fermented in a stainless steel vat, with selected yeast, and given a little lees stirring, but no skin contact. It was fresh and fragrant with herbal notes, and a touch of minerality on the finish.

In contrast, Anno Domini comes from 70-year-old vines, and is only made in the best vintages, most recently 2013. The juice is given 15 days of skin contact and is fermented and then aged in large Slavonic oak barrels for two years. It was much more intense, with body and structure and an underlying richness with some dry honey, combined with some firm saline notes. The grapes are picked slightly later for this wine, with a lower yield, and fermented with indigenous yeast. The contrast was palpable, and both were delicious. Benvenuti’s family, although they have been grape growers for three generations, really only started making and bottling their own wine in 2003. Albert observed that bottling wine in Istria is a relatively recent development, only in the last 25 years.

A perfect climate

The wines made by Kabola Winery spend 12 to 18 months in Slavonic oak barrels, for a textured wine. Credit: Courtesy of Kabola Winery

The wines made by Kabola Winery spend 12 to 18 months in Slavonic oak barrels, for a textured wine. Credit: Courtesy of Kabola Winery

More insights into Malvasia Istriana were provided by Marino Markežič and Marko Bartovič at Kabola outside the village of Momjan. Marino talked about the climate; the sea is close by and they feel the sea breezes during the day and the mountain air at night, so the diurnal difference can be as much as 18 degrees. Annual rainfall can also vary considerably. He makes a sparkling wine that is a blend of Malvasia with 10 percent Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, so that it is  fresh and lightly herbal.

Markežič talked about the versatility of Malvasia with food. Malvasia is considered to be a semi-aromatic grape variety, and Markežič’s simplest Malvasia is fresh and floral, with a refreshing sapidity on the finish. Malvasia l’Unico is more serious. It is given two to three days’ skin contact before pressing and a fermentation in wood, and then spends a minimum of 12 months on the lees in Slavonic oak barrels. The oak is well integrated, and the wine is rich, textured and characterful. Finally, there is Malvasia Amfora. The grapes, with skins but no stalks, spend six months in amphora before pressing and then a further 12 to 18 months in large barrels. The color is orange amber and the flavors rich and honeyed, balanced with some tannin, and texture and considerable length. They were three highly individual wines.

Aged in acacia

At Koslovic, with its stylish cellar and tasting area, wines are aged in acacia barrels. Credit: Courtesy of Kozlovic winery

At Koslovic, with its stylish cellar and tasting area, wines are aged in acacia barrels. Credit: Courtesy of Kozlovic winery

At nearby Koslovic, with its stylish cellar and tasting area, Antonella Koslovic added further insights. Some of their wines are given skin contact and lees stirring, depending on the vintage, and maybe aging in large wood, but they do not want their wines to be too heavy. Their oldest vines, from the Santa Lucia vineyard, were planted in 1962 and they make a special selection in the best years, with some oak aging, after five days of skin contact. The Akacia cuvée is just that, Malvasia aged in acacia for eight months, for acacia barrels are produced in Croatia. There is a long maceration, which makes for an intense amber color, and the palate is rich and buttery with dry honeyed notes, balanced with acidity.

Antonella added that her husband, Gianfranco had written his university thesis on acacia barrels. Other nuances can be achieved by blending both later and earlier picked grapes, or indeed a wholly late harvest at the end of September rather than late August. Antonella proved conclusively that Malvasia will age in bottle by showing us 2006 Santa Lucia. The wine had spent six months in wood, both 300 hectolitre barrels and 225 litres barriques. It was amber gold, with a dry honeyed nose, while the palate was an intriguing combination of herbal fruit and firm acidity, with notes of maturity and a wonderful intensity. It made a perfect finale to the discovery of Malvasia.

Main photo: Benvenuti winery is located in the quiet Istrian village of Kaldir, where the Benvenuti family grows three grape varieties, including Malvasia. Credit: Courtesy of Benvenuti winery

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Burgundian Caroline Parent-Gros, whose family has spent 14 generations in the wine business, believes the family's best wines are ahead of her. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

They say you can never step into the same river twice, and I recognized the truth in this statement on a recent return to Burgundy, France.

It’s been 20 years since I first stumbled across this glorious culinary corner of the world, which sparked an enthusiasm for wine. But the current is always rushing, the banks shifting, the river changing course.

Some things seem eternal: Pommard and Volnay are still sleepy little stone walled villages, Beaune is the vibrant wine capital, and the wines and the congregation of tiny producers who make them continue to be unparalleled.

But change is afoot. On April 27 of this year, the region was hammered by a spring frost, the latest in a string of devastating weather events. Year after year, it seems that Burgundy’s notoriously capricious weather grows more volatile, and the littlest producers are hit the hardest by the changing climate. One wonders how they will survive.

The vineyards around the Château du clos de Vougeot are among the most prized in the world, but in recent years the weather has driven smaller yields. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

The vineyards around the Château du clos de Vougeot are among the most prized in the world, but in recent years the weather has driven smaller yields. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Scrappy farmers, prized wines

Burgundy is a tiny sliver of a wine region, crammed into the east-facing slope of a low-slung ridgeline running south from the city of Dijon. Burgundian wines are the world’s most prized and expensive. Yet the people who make the best of them are the smallest producers, scrappy farmers rich in precious parcels of vineyard land but poor in cash flow. These small vignerons could sell their plots for a fortune — and some of them do — and live out the rest of their lives in luxury. But thankfully most choose to work the land and farm grapes, bottling their own small allotments in the tradition of their parents and grandparents.

I explored a corner of this life in my novel “Vintage” and the last time I walked the stone walled vineyards and cobbled streets of Pommard and Volnay was in my imagination. Now I’m back in the real Burgundy, reevaluating what I imagined while interviewing winemakers for a documentary about this current difficult year.

Some of the producers have lost 90 percent of their 2016 crop. Other recent harvests have borne less fruit due to hail, storms and violent swings in weather. If you study the records, you can see a dramatic shift in harvest dates. In the past it was normal for harvest to begin in October or November. 2003 saw the first ever August harvest. More have followed.

Wine producers look into the future

In the vast network of cellars of Francois Parent beneath the street of Beaune, two years’ worth of wine fit into a space that used to hold only one.

Thierry Violot-Guillemard manages his family's estate with his son; he wonders if small producers can survive in the new normal of Burgundy's changing weather. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Thierry Violot-Guillemard manages his family’s estate with his son; he wonders if small producers can survive in the new normal of Burgundy’s changing weather. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Caroline Parent-Gros manages sales and marketing for the family estates. Her forefather, Étienne Parent, supplied wine to Thomas Jefferson; America is still their biggest export market. But now with less wine to sell, that legacy may be in jeopardy. When asked about this year’s slim harvest, she says, “I think that we can face another year … but maybe not one more.” Still, she remains optimistic. “You always expect to make the vintage. Even if you have some great and exceptional wine, you always expect something like the jackpot.” She believes her family’s best wines will still be made in the future.

Thierry Violot-Guillemard is a scrappy farmer who oozes Burgundian character, from his gnomish ruggedness to his broom of a mustache. He’s survived years of bad harvests and a crushing motorcycle accident that has required dozens of surgeries. But even that didn’t slow him down. He produces sought-after wines from his home and facility from the tiny town of Pommard. Though he expresses doubt that small producers will be able to survive another 40 years, he’s grooming his son Joannes to take the reigns of the family business. The legacy will continue.

Thiebault Hubert is a Volnay vigneron with a sunny disposition and a deep commitment to the terroir of his family’s vineyards. To preserve it, he’s turned to soft-touch biodynamic practices, eschewing chemicals and tilling the rows with horse and plow. He believes that to survive, small producers must adapt. “We know that we will actually, maybe never produce the quantities that we produced 15 years ago,” he told us. But he sees a silver lining, as the scarcity of fruit will drive a greater focus on quality.

Thiebault Hubert believes smaller yields are here to stay, but he also feels this will drive even better quality. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Thiebault Hubert believes smaller yields are here to stay, but he also feels this will drive even better quality. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

Burgundy’s survival

Burgundy is not the same place I visited 20 years ago. And some day hail cannons may sound from the hillsides, disrupting a pleasant stroll through leafy vineyards. But Burgundians will survive. That’s something I learned from the Burgundian characters I wrote about in “Vintage.” And from the real people on whom they are based.

Fact and fiction may not always meet up. The Burgundy I wrote about is different from the one I see now. But somewhere in a vineyard, or in a dark, damp cellar, fact and fiction come together as they always must. Burgundy, and the spirit that drives it, is forever.

Main photo: Burgundian Caroline Parent-Gros, whose family has spent 14 generations in the wine business, believes the family’s best wines are ahead of her. Credit: Copyright 2016 David Baker

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Samantha O’Keefe went from being a newcomer to winemaking to now having highly touted wine. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

Back in 2000, Los Angeles native Samantha O’Keefe took a major chance on a winemaking career and an untested wine region when she purchased a farm in South Africa’s Overberg. Today, her Lismore Estate Vineyards wines consistently achieve 90+ ratings from Robert Parker and other industry heavyweights, and she’s considered a pioneer of a region that is making world-class wine. “It’s been an overnight success after 14 years of slogging away,” she says with dry humor.

It all started 16 years ago, when O’Keefe, whose career was in TV development, and her then-husband decided to travel in South Africa. They ended up planting roots in Cape Town, where they looked for a business they could develop. One rainy Sunday with their 5-month-old baby, they drove out to a farm on the outskirts of Greyton, a small town at the base of the Riviersonderend mountain range. As they stood at the bottom of the property and looked up at its dramatic slopes, her husband said: “We could make wine here.”

Pioneers in the region

Lismore Estate Vineyards sits on the outskirts of Greyton, at the base of the Riviersonderend mountain range. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

Lismore Estate Vineyards sits on the outskirts of Greyton, at the base of the Riviersonderend mountain range. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

Neither had made wine before and there were no vineyards on the farm, or within 40 miles of Greyton. Four days later, they made an offer on Lismore farm.

Crazy? “It was a vision,” says O’Keefe. The deal was contingent on the results of an extensive viticulturist report, which came back showing favorable cool climate terroir with shale soils. “The research showed that the terroir was similar to that of the Northern Rhone. At the time, everybody was pushing cool climate planting, but Greyton was overlooked, maybe because there was nothing out here.”

The couple spoke to a few local winemakers, including Peter Finlayson, the highly respected first winemaker in nearby Hemel-En-Aarde Valley. “Peter said that if we succeeded, we’d be pioneers. If we failed, no one would care. When all was said and done, we made an educated guess that it could be very special.” By 2004, they had planted 36,000 vines: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Northern Rhone varietals Syrah and Viognier, the two that are Lismore’s most critically acclaimed today and “taste like nothing else coming out of South Africa,” she says.

They then set about building their dream house, “a cross between Cape vernacular and California ranch,” high up on the 740-acre property, and they had a second child. There were many initial shocks, including a house that was way over budget, but this was nothing compared to what happened on the eve of Lismore’s first harvest in 2008, when O’Keefe’s husband unexpectedly left. “It was a shock, but the next day I had to get up and start making wine.” A few months later, the global financial crisis hit, and things got even tougher.

“I had borrowed millions of rands that I needed to pay back, when suddenly the world ground to a complete standstill. I was desperate and tried to sell the farm but couldn’t. Finally I was able to sell 20 percent of the property, which enabled me to pay off my debt.”

Gaining notice

A worker at Lismore Estates, which consistently achieves 90+ ratings from Robert Parker and other industry heavyweights. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

A worker at Lismore Estates, which consistently achieves 90+ ratings from Robert Parker and other industry heavyweights. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

In 2012, friends pooled funds to buy O’Keefe a ticket to London, so that she could participate in the Beautiful South, a show featuring wines from South Africa, Argentina and Chile. At the show, she stood across from Neal Martin, who she didn’t know was a Robert Parker reviewer. After tasting her wine, Martin said: “I hope you have distribution, because when people read my report they’ll be banging down your door.” He gave her Chardonnay and Viognier 92 points. That’s when things started to change, for the better.

Today, she is most proud of her Barrel Fermented Sauvignon Blanc, “a wine that is outside of the box by South African standards, more winemaker-driven than my others, and more style than terroir.” The list of Lismore accolades is long, with her 2014 Syrah on the Robert Parker Wine Advocate Best 50 List of 2015 and the 2013 Lismore Viognier named one of Tim Atkin’s Wines of the Year. More than half her wines are exported to the United States and Europe.

The fact that a virgin winemaker could make such a success is as captivating as her wines. O’Keefe is proud, but also grounded. “Winemaking is not rocket science. It’s chemistry, which I’ve always loved, as well as schlep. I also had the best minds in the area on speed dial.”

There are still no other commercial producers in Greyton, but O’Keefe thinks it’s only a matter of time before she has winemaking neighbors. “South Africa is a really exciting place to be in the wine industry today,” she says. “Small producers have the freedom to experiment and push boundaries, and we are benchmarking wines against the best of the world for the first time.”

The Lismore Estate wines can be bought at timelesswines.com.

Main photo: Samantha O’Keefe went from being a newcomer to winemaking to now having highly touted wine. Credit: Courtesy of Lismore Estate Vineyards

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Combine sparkling water with fruits to make your own natural fruit drinks. Credit: Courtesy of Galvanina

Bottled-at-the-source mineral water is delightfully refreshing, and with no calories or chemicals, is a drink that’s good for you and a base for many make-your-own sparkling beverages. It’s also ideal for cooking, with countless ways to improve basic recipes.

Vegetables

Add some sparkling water to make this cauliflower with orange marmalade glaze. Credit: Courtesy of "Shakespeare's Kitchen"

Add some sparkling water to make this cauliflower with orange marmalade glaze. Credit: Courtesy of “Shakespeare’s Kitchen”

For bright green broccoli and vividly orange carrots, cook them in sparkling mineral water. “Boil vegetables in sparkling water to preserve color and vitamins. Mineral water decreases oxidation and the loss of chlorophyll and carotenoid pigments, and keeps vegetable’s bright colors,” says Rino Mini, CEO of Galvanina natural spring water, renowned since ancient Roman times. “Sparkling mineral water also softens vegetables so you can reduce cooking time, better preserving the vegetable’s vitamins and nutrients. It lets you skip the step of plunging cooked vegetables in ice-cold water to retain their color.”

Tempura and fritters

Use sparkling water for better batter. Simply mix flour with sparkling water, dip your favorite vegetables, seafood or fish in the batter and then lightly fry. The sparkling water will make anything you fry extra crunchy.

Sparkling iced drinks

Instead of buying sodas, make your own. Sparkling water creates festive thirst-quenchers but without the added calories of bottled drinks. Combine sparkling water with lemon or other fruit juice for your own homemade natural fruit drinks.  Add it to your favorite brewed tea or coffee for natural sparkling iced tea or coffee. “Use sparkling water in your coffee-brewing machine. Not only will it make chemical-free espresso or coffee but it has the delightful added advantage of keeping your machine from building unpleasant residue,” says Mini.

Cake, waffles, crepes and pancakes

Add sparkling mineral water instead of water or other liquids in cake recipes or cake mixes. The sparkling water makes it rise nicely and results in a fluffier texture. Great too with waffles: substitute one part of the milk for the water and follow the recipe as you normally would. Try it in your favorite crepe and pancake recipes. Replace half of the milk in the recipe for fizzy spring water for a improved texture. You’ll be thrilled with the delicious light and airy crunch.

Angel Food Cake

Add sparkling water to cake recipes for a fluffier texture. Credit: Courtesy "Opera Lover’s Cookbook"

Add sparkling water to cake recipes for a fluffier texture. Credit: Courtesy of “Opera Lover’s Cookbook “

Recipe courtesy of Opera Lover’s Cookbook (Stewart, Tabori & Chang)

Prep time: 5 minutes

Baking time: 35 minutes

Total time: 40 minutes

Yield: 8 to 10 servings

Ingredients

12 large egg whites, room temperature

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/3 cup sparkling spring water, such as Galvanina

1 teaspoon vanilla or maple extract

2 teaspoons cream of tartar

1 cup cake flour

3/4 cup superfine sugar

Directions

1. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Generously butter and flour a Bundt or tube pan. Reserve.

2. In a large mixing bowl, using an electric mixer set on high, whip the egg whites, salt, water, extract and cream of tartar until the egg whites form soft peaks, about 5 minutes. Reduce the mixer speed to medium and slowly add the cake flour and sugar until just combined.

3. Pour the batter into the prepared Bundt pan and bake until golden, about 35 minutes.

4. Carefully invert the pan onto a wire rack and allow it to cool upside-down for about an hour, which prevents the cake from falling. Run a knife around the edges to remove the cake.

Main photo: Combine sparkling water with fruits to make your own natural fruit drinks. Credit: Courtesy of Galvanina

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Morlanda winemaker and vineyard manager Judit Llop is using probiotics to strengthen the winery’s vines. Credit: Copyright 2016 Vinas del Monstant

A stroll down the yogurt aisle of any grocery store will tell you that probiotics are good for the human digestive system and can promote a healthy gut. But did you know that they can also help make better wine? In Spain’s remote Priorat region, 80 miles southwest of Barcelona, a winery called Morlanda is using probiotics to grow stronger, healthier grape vines.

While Priorat’s gnarly old vines produce some of Spain’s most revered wines — intense and powerful reds made from Garnacha (Grenache) and Cariñena (Carignane) grapes — that wasn’t always the case. The area’s vineyards suffered years of neglect during the reign of Fascist dictator Francisco Franco, until after his death in 1975. Priorat was nearly forgotten as a wine region until the late 1980s, when a visionary band of vintners dedicated themselves to revitalizing it.

The region has made a remarkable turnaround in the last 15 years, but even so, Priorat’s mountainous terrain presents significant challenges to both grape vines and vineyard workers.

“The tortuous geography of this area means that the vineyards have to be cultivated on slopes so steep that it is necessary, in some cases, to build terraces,” said Judit Llop, Morlanda’s winemaker and vineyard manager since 2003. “Some of these terraces are so narrow that two rows of vines barely fit and mechanical access is impossible.”

What’s more, due to the rocky soil and hot, dry climate, “The vines are weak and consequently result in rather poor harvests, with very low grape yields,” she added.

Priorat’s mountainous terrain presents challenges for growers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Priorat’s mountainous terrain presents challenges for growers. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Years of chemical treatments have further weakened the soil, leading Llop to seek out new ways to bring it back to life. “Our vineyard philosophy starts with the health of the soil, and for this reason we started to investigate how we could regenerate it,” she said. “We wanted to increase soil biodiversity and encourage microbial activity.”

Enter probiotics

In 2013, with the resources of Morlanda’s parent company, the Freixenet Group, behind her, Llop began a probiotics trial with the Universitat Rovira i Virgili in nearby Tarragona, designed to improve the soil and boost the plants’ immune systems. Sprayed onto the vineyard floor and plants, the probiotics make it easier for the vines to assimilate micronutrients.

The process is done in four stages.

“Treatment of the soil in the fall is very important and is known as ‘vaccination,'” she said. “The positive microorganisms, resistant to low temperatures, will mineralize the organic waste — leaves, dry grass and branches — and prepare the soil with the micro and macro elements necessary for plant vegetation.”

Probiotics are applied again before flowering, this time to the plants themselves. “This period is the hardest in their development,” Llop said. “Vines make a huge effort to vegetate while they are maximizing exposure to attacks by diseases. Therefore, during this time, positive microflora is given to the plant for protection and to prevent the development of parasitic and harmful microflora.”

The third treatment happens after bloom, when grape clusters are formed, and the fourth is done during the grapes’ ripening phase.

Old, gnarly vines struggle in Priorat’s hot, dry climate and rocky soils. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

Old, gnarly vines struggle in Priorat’s hot, dry climate and rocky soils. Credit: Copyright 2016 Tina Caputo

While the process isn’t cheap, as a huge amount of expensive probiotics must be applied during the first three years of treatment, Llop said the results thus far have been impressive. “After applying probiotics, the vineyard root systems have developed much better,” she explained. “The grapes produce significantly greater amounts of fiber, and that allows more intensive utilization of nutrients. Strengthening the natural immunity of the vines, they become more resistant to low temperatures, pathogens and various kinds of pests.”

Llop said she’s definitely noticed a difference in the vineyards that have not been treated. “They need more soil additions, such as sulfur and copper, in the ones where we are not using probiotics.”

Along with producing traditional wines, such as the Vi de Guarda Morlanda — a powerfully beautiful blend of Garnacha and Cariñena — Llop is experimenting with a natural wine made from probiotic Garnacha grapes and fermented in clay amphorae.

Morlanda’s flagship red is made from Garnacha and Cariñena grapes, some of which are grown with the help of probiotics. Credit: Copyright 2016, courtesy of the Freixenet Group

Morlanda’s flagship red is made from Garnacha and Cariñena grapes, some of which are grown with the help of probiotics. Credit: Copyright 2016, courtesy of the Freixenet Group

If Llop’s vineyard trials prove successful in the long term, and the use of probiotics is adopted by other wineries in the region, Priorat’s already-acclaimed wines stand to reach even greater heights in the years to come.

Main photo: Morlanda winemaker and vineyard manager Judit Llop is using probiotics to strengthen the winery’s vines. Credit: Copyright 2016 Vinas del Monstant

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A vineyard at Plageoles estate. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region. Credit: Copyright 2016 Myriam Plageoles

It is not often that I visit a wine region that has grape varieties I have never heard of. But that happened in Gaillac, a small appellation in southwest France, near the city of Albi, that is best known for its associations with the artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec and its dramatic red brick cathedral that looks more like a fortified castle. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region.

A range of styles

Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property, is planted with Mauzac and Len de l'El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Credit: Copyright 2016 Margaret Reckitt

Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property, is planted with Mauzac and Len de l’El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Credit: Copyright 2016 Margaret Reckitt

The wine styles range from the firmly dry, as well as sparkling, to the intensely rich and sweet, with rosé and lighter or richer reds, according to the blend of grapes. Most red Gaillac is based on Braucol, a grape variety not found elsewhere in the southwest, where it can also be called Fer Servadou or Mansois. It has some wonderfully fragrant fruit, with perfume as well as tannin. Duras is another important variety and is rich and sturdy, and has absolutely nothing to do with the nearby Côtes de Duras. You might also encounter Syrah, Gamay and Cabernet, but completely new to me was Prunelart.

For white wines, Gaillac Mauzac is the most important variety, but there is not just one Mauzac. The Plageoles family have seven different variations in their vineyards. In addition, they have Ondenc, another old traditional variety of the appellation, as well as Len de l’El and Muscadelle. There also is Verdanel, another original variety, which they are working hard to revive.

The charms of Gaillac, for the countryside is stunningly beautifully with gentle undulating hills and little villages, has attracted outsiders. An English couple, Margaret and Jack Reckitt, were looking for a vineyard — they had tried the Languedoc and were en route to Bergerac — when they stopped in Gaillac and found Clos Rocailleux, a 17-acre property planted with Mauzac and Len de l’El for whites and Duras, Syrah and Braucol for reds. Their first vintage was 2012 and they have quickly established a convincing range of wines. Their Mauzac Vieilles Vignes from 65-year-old vines grown on a rocky limestone plateau portrays all the character of Mauzac, with intense saline flavors and a firm sappy note. As Margaret explained, white Gaillac may be a pure varietal, but red Gaillac must always be a blend, so their reserve red comes from Syrah, Braucol and Duras, with firm peppery flavours.

Four generations of Plageoles

Four generations of the Plageoles have worked the vineyards in Gaillac. From left, Florent, Myriam, Bernard and Romain. Credit : Copyright 2016 Isabelle Rosembaum

Four generations of the Plageoles have worked the vineyards in Gaillac. From left, Florent, Myriam, Bernard and Romain. Credit : Copyright 2016 Isabelle Rosembaum

In contrast, the Plageoles have been in Gaillac for at least four generations. We met Florent; his father, Bernard, is approaching retirement and his grandfather, Robert, is generally considered to be the great pioneer of Gaillac, reviving many lost grape varieties and wine styles. The range of the Plageoles’ wines amply illustrates that. Altogether, they have 86 acres of vines in 50 different plots. Our tasting began with the wine that accounts for a quarter of their production, Mauzac Nature, which is lightly sparkling and gently sweet. The initial fermentation is stopped, leaving some residual sugar, and the wine is filtered à manches, an ancient technique. It is almost impossible to describe; Florent demonstrated it, showing us a piece of material that looked like heavy cotton baggy sleeves through which the wine is wrung. The wine is then bottled, but the fermentation starts again in the spring. The wine is not disgorged, so there is always a light sediment. And the taste is soft and honeyed.

Verdanel is an old variety, for which their first vintage was 2001, initially from half an acre, but they will have 2 ½ more acres coming into production this year. The flavors are crisp and fresh, with some herbal notes and firm minerality, wonderfully original and intriguing, and amply justifying a revival. There was also a sappy Mauzac Vert and a sweet late harvest Len de l’El made from passerillé, dried grapes; Muscadelle too was rich and honeyed. They have seven acres of Ondenc, from which they make three different wines, a dry wine, from grapes picked in mid-September; a sweet wine, from grapes that are dried on the vine until the beginning of October and a liquoreux, picked in mid-October

As for red wines, they prefer to label them by variety, despite the requirements of the appellation. We tried a Mauzac Noir, which was fresh and peppery; a perfumed Braucol , a sturdier Duras, which was firm and tannic, and Prunelart, a member of the Malbec family. Robert Plageoles saved it, taking cuttings from a vineyard that was going to be pulled up.

The Plageoles family have also maintained the tradition for Vin de Voile, from Mauzac, mainly Vert and Roux. They make a dry white wine that is put into barrels for seven years. The result is not dissimilar to an intense amontillado sherry, with dry nutty fruit and a long finish. It was a wonderful example of the vinous originality that you might encounter when you go off the beaten track in La France profonde.

Main photo: A vineyard at Plageoles estate. The wines of Gaillac are extraordinarily diverse, with a wealth of grape varieties peculiar to that region. Credit: Copyright 2016 Myriam Plageoles

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