Articles in Drinking

Benoit Bilodeau's line of ciders includes ice cider (third from left). Credit: Sue Style

My heart goes out to anyone living in the northern United States and Canada this winter, as the 2014 North American cold snap refuses to release its vise-like grip. But I have to admit to a slightly sneaky delight that these same terrifyingly low temperatures may be helping ensure this year’s harvest of one of Quebec’s finest products: ice cider.

Apples and cider have been part of Canada’s history since the first French explorers arrived in the 16th century. Many of the settlers came from Normandy and Brittany, regions of France with rich apple-growing and cider-making traditions of their own. It’s tempting to suppose that cultivars of the fruit from back home were among the products stowed in the holds of their sailing ships. Some of the resulting apples certainly ended up as rough ciders meant for home consumption.

When Quebec first framed its alcohol laws in the 1920s, cider somehow got left off the list, with the result that it could continue to be made only on a domestic scale and not for resale. Only in the 1970s was this corrected, and cider was once again produced commercially.

C’était pas fameux! [It was pretty horrible],” grimaces Benoit Bilodeau, an artisan cider producer on the Ile d’Orleans, a small island in the middle of the St. Lawrence River and just a short ferry ride from Quebec City. Badly made from unripe fruit, full of chemicals and high in alcohol, these early ciders carried the guarantee of a sore head the next morning. “It was an uphill job recovering from that image,” Bilodeau acknowledges.

Ice cider depends on long, cold winter

Nowadays, several different types of cider are produced in La Belle Province (as Quebec is known locally), both still and sparkling and with varying degrees of alcohol content and residual sweetness. But the most prized drop, introduced in the early 1990s, is ice cider, a deep golden elixir with a tight balance of sweetness and acidity and intensely concentrated fruit.

More ice cider information:

Cidrerie Verger Bilodeau, 2200 Chemin Royal, St-Pierre, Ile d’Orleans, Quebec, Canada, www.cidreriebilodeau.qc.ca

You can find ice cider available for purchase online at www.wine-searcher.com


More from Zester Daily:

» Ice wine: Risky business

» Terroir and the colonial roots of craft apple cider

» The fight to save Sonoma’s Gravenstein apple

» Apple cider gets dressed up for holiday parties

If you know a little about Eiswein, the naturally sweet wine made from late-harvested, frozen grapes that was originally pioneered in Germany, you’ll have a handle on how ice cider is arrived at. In the same way that grapes destined for ice wine are left hanging on the vine till the temperature drops well below zero, so also are perfectly ripe apples with high sugar content left to freeze on the tree (or picked and stored in wooden crates), awaiting just the correct conditions of intense, prolonged cold. It’s not something that happens every year, hence my furtive rejoicing at this year’s extreme temperatures.

In this process, known as cryoextraction, the still-frozen fruit is pressed to extract a super-concentrated juice, which then ferments gently for several months in stainless steel vats in a cool cellar or outhouse.

Ice cider is generally a blend of juice from several different apple varieties, each chosen for their distinctive qualities — aroma, sweetness and high juice content. Bilodeau grows more than a dozen varieties of apple from which he selects three for his ice cider, which he has christened Nectar de Glace. McIntosh (Canada’s favorite indigenous sweet-sour dessert apple, discovered in Ontario in 1811), Cortland (“wonderfully sweet and juicy”) and Spartan (“great aroma”) all flavor his ice cider.

Yields for this highly concentrated product are a fraction of those for regular cider: From 20 kilograms of apples, Bilodeau gets about 12 liters of ordinary cider, compared with a mere 3 liters of the precious cidre de glace, or ice cider. This fact, together with the inherently risky nature of the exercise — a sudden rise in temperatures, say, or hungry birds in search of sweet apples — as well as the skill required to make such nectar, is reflected in its elevated price: A 375-milliter bottle will set you back about $20 Canadian.

Benoit Bilodeau's ice cider. Credit: Sue Style

Benoit Bilodeau’s ice cider. Credit: Sue Style

The Association des Cidriculteurs Artisans du Québec has framed strict standards for this premium product, which prides itself on its quality and authenticity. These include minimum sugar levels in the juice as well as in the finished product and no added sugar or alcohol or synthetic colorings. Most important, the apples must be frozen naturally outdoors — not in an industrial freezer — and at temperatures between 8 degrees below zero and 15 degrees below zero Celsius. No juice concentrates may be used, all apples must be grown on the property and every stage of the process must be executed in-house. The finished ice cider must have a minimum alcohol level of 7 percent and a maximum of 13% and be tasted and judged by a professional tasting panel.

If you are currently shivering your way through one of the coldest winters in living memory, console yourself with the thought of Bilodeau up on a ladder in his snowy orchard, plucking burnished red apples from bare branches at 15 degrees below zero, and all for the sake of those tiny bottles of golden nectar.

Top photo: Benoit Bilodeau’s line of ciders includes ice cider (third from left). Credit: Sue Style

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The ingredients for kahwah and a prepared cup. Credit: Sandeep Patwal

The driver who took me from Punjab to Kashmir, India, estimated the ride to be around eight hours, 10 if we ran into traffic, which he assured me was inevitable. After spending the past few days wandering through India’s Golden Temple of Amritsar, I was ready to hit the road and didn’t blink at the double-digit journey to Srinagar.

At first I enjoyed the quick stops we made at the dhabas, roadside stands serving hot, homemade meals that are a ubiquitous feature on any road trip in India. As we gained momentum, our speed slowed to a steady but painful crawl up the Himalayan two-lane highways we shared with what seemed like every truck in the nation. The air thinned, and the dhaba stops became more frequent in an effort to break up the monotony. By the fourth egg omelet — a fried egg wrapped around a piece of toast and grilled — my mouth dried up at the sight of them and I declined to get out of the car. We were 14 hours in, and I wanted nothing else but to get there.

It was early November and our anemic car heater didn’t stand a chance against the clutch of an early winter. Then we stopped altogether in a massive traffic jam in the middle of the night on top of a mountain.

The driver, who had not said a word to me in 17 hours, explained that an avalanche had blocked off the road miles ahead and we would need to wait for it to be cleared. Hours passed in the cold, black night with nothing to think about but how much I wished I had not passed up my last opportunity for an egg omelet.

At last we were on our way, climbing and climbing until we finally arrived at my hotel on the edge of Dal Lake, famous for its elaborate houseboats and shikaras, the Kashmiri version of a gondola.

The entrance gate was locked, and no one answered when I rang the bell over and over in what I feared might be a futile attempt to find a bed that night. At last the hotel owner wiped his sleepy eyes as he walked to the gate, then showed me to my room, where I wanted to sleep for days.

Kahwah tea an ancient tradition

A knock on my door late the next morning woke me.

“I am sorry to bother you ma’am, but would you like some tea?” asked the man who stood before me, wearing a black linen suit buttoned up to his neck.

“I would love some tea. Thank you so much. No sugar, please,” I said to avoid the sugar-bomb chai served everywhere in India.

“Ma’am, if I may invite you to tea at our restaurant? We have a special tea here in Kashmir that will warm and restore you after your long journey.”

I wanted nothing more than to return to my bed, but I couldn’t turn down someone so polite and I reluctantly followed him to the dining room. This was my first opportunity to see Kashmir in the daylight, and even from the vantage point of my hotel, it was glorious. Soaring, snowcapped mountains and the freshest air my lungs had inhaled for ages were already doing a number on my exhaustion; I was now looking forward to the restorative elixir he promised.

“Would you like to join us in the kitchen, ma’am, to learn how this tea is prepared? We read a little about you after you made your booking, curious as to why someone would venture to Kashmir so late in the season. When we saw your interest in food, we suspected you were coming for the saffron harvest. I believe you would enjoy learning about our special kahwah tea. We are very proud of it in Kashmir.”

I was, indeed, there for the saffron festival, and I could not resist his offer. “I would be honored,” I told the man, who later told me his name was Ashish.

Inside the kitchen, several cooks gathered round as the head chef, Kiran, gathered the ingredients he needed. He crushed up cinnamon and cardamom pods, adding them to boiling water that he sprinkled with cloves and threads of saffron. He let it boil for a few moments before spooning green tea into it, the aroma of hospitality filling my nose.

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The kahwah team. Credit: Sandeep Patwal

The Kashmiri tradition of kahwah tea is so ancient, its origin was lost long before the conflicts between Kashmir and Pakistan began. Pakistanis drink it too, as do the Afghanis. Some say the Chinese were the first to drink kahwah, but it’s likely that most Kashmiris, whose spirits are infused with the tradition of their beloved tea, would disagree. They greet their mornings and conclude their days with it; finding in it solace from the hardships they have endured.

Ashish led me to an outdoor table that Kiran carefully arranged with a tea cup, saucer, kettle and small bowls of honey and crushed almonds. The kitchen staff gathered around, and I felt foolish drinking on my own. There was enough kahwah to go around, and I asked if everyone could join me.

Additional saucers and cups were collected from the kitchen as Ashish sprinkled almonds into my cup and drizzled them with honey. He poured the tea from high above, a golden line of kindness making its way from his kettle to my cup. The air smelled like cinnamon and the tea warmed my spirit, vanquishing fatigue and filling me with gratitude.

Kahwah Tea

Makes 2 cups

Ingredients 

1 cinnamon stick, crushed

2 cardamom pods, crushed

3-inch knob of ginger, crushed

2 cups water

4 cloves

4 threads of saffron

1 tablespoon green tea

1 tablespoon honey

1 tablespoon crushed almonds or walnuts

Directions

1. Combine the cinnamon, cardamom, ginger and water and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium and simmer for 2 minutes before adding the cloves, saffron and tea.

2. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 5 minutes more.

3. Remove from the heat and cover to infuse for 10 more minutes. Strain through a sieve.

4. Drizzle honey into cups, sprinkle it with almonds and pour the tea.

Top photo: The ingredients for kahwah and a prepared cup. Credit: Sandeep Patwal

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The makings of the Sangrita Cóctel. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

This crazy weather demands a two-fisted cocktail. I’m a huge fan of the Mexican bar classic, the Sangrita cocktail, even though the drink has stiff competition from its fancier tequila cousin, the margarita. I can’t figure out why the Sangrita isn’t more popular, especially for those who don’t care for sweetened drinks and prefer a cocktail to a shot.

It’s time to warm up to Sangrita’s seduction because, simply, it’s a blast to drink.

In Mexico, always ask the bartender for a Sangrita Cóctel separado (separated) and then say which tequila you prefer. He or she pours your tequila of choice into one glass and a spicy juice blend into another, rather than mixing them in the same glass. You sip from each separately, hence the two-fisted cocktail.

Good tequila the key to making a Sangrita

To make your own, start with good tequila. Then you mix into the second glass tomato and orange juices, hot sauce and a squeeze of lime. No kidding. Just try it.

Of course, I can easily get obsessive. Grab your favorite tequila reposado (100% agave, lightly aged in oak barrels for a smooth drink) and accept no substitute. Orange juice must be freshly squeezed, no discussion here. Tomato juice is from freshly squeezed summer-red-ripe beauties or as a last (winter) resort use bottled, organic, low-sodium juice. Hot sauce has to be made from red Mexican chilies and will be a Mexican import such as Cholula, Búfalo or Tapátio brand. Fresh Mexican (aka Key) lime is a must, and a variation is not open for discussion. Taste, and sprinkle in a pinch of sea salt if needed.

Put on ranchera music and bring out copitas, the tall pony shot glasses from your last trip south of the border. Now, where are those souvenir sombreros?

Sangrita Cóctel

Makes 2 drinks. You will need 4 tall pony shot glasses, small snifters or similar glasses.

Ingredients

2 shots tequila

¼ cup orange juice

¼ cup tomato juice

Bottled Mexican hot sauce

1 Mexican lime (aka Key)

Sea salt to taste

Directions

1. Pour a generous shot of tequila into each of two glasses.

2. Measure the orange and tomato juices in a clear measuring cup with a pour spout. Shake in a few squirts of hot sauce. Squeeze in the lime juice. Stir. Taste. Need salt? It should be brightly sweet, acidic and definitely spicy!

3. Pour the juice mixture into the two empty glasses. ¡Salud! Sip from the juice glass and the tequila one.

Top photo: The makings of the Sangrita Cóctel. Credit: Nancy Zaslavsky

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Winemaker Rosemary Cakebread in her vineyard. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Sometimes, when you taste a wine, it’s so sublime it’s evocative of liquid poetry in a bottle. I came across such an experience on my recent visit to California’s Napa Valley when I discovered Gallica’s lyrical wines.

Before I even tasted the wine, I could tell from winemaker Rosemary Cakebread’s email that I was going to meet an artist. The directions to her house were a graphic, hand-drawn map with winding roads, trees, farmhouses and vineyards.

Winemaker includes an artist’s touch in her work

Under Cakebread’s Gallica label, a minuscule production of 600 cases annually, she handcrafts Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache wines that are elegant and poetic, wines that show restraint and finesse.

“Wine should be seamless,” says the winemaker. “I want the wood to be integrated with wine.” Therefore, these wines can best be described as lyrical and beautifully knit. The artistry in her winemaking is also reflected in the name Gallica, a botanical term for a type of rose used in perfumes.

Cakebread is not new to the valley. She has been crafting wine in Napa for 33 years. However, she claims she got introduced to viticulture by accident. “Stars were in alignment,” she says with a laugh.

During the summer between high school and college, she got a job on the bottling line at Sebastiani Vineyards. “It piqued my interest. I didn’t know what I was getting into, but I was curious,” she remembers.

Rosemary Cakebread with a Cabernet Sauvignon and a wine from her Suzuri Series. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

Rosemary Cakebread with a Cabernet Sauvignon and a wine from her Suzuri Series. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

She enrolled at the University of California, Davis, and received a degree in oenology. Her first job was in the laboratory at Inglenook Winery. From there she went to Cakebread Cellars for a short period and met Bruce Cakebread. The two have been married for more than 25 years.

Soon she moved on to Mumm Napa Valley. “I’ve always separated my career from marriage,” says the veteran winemaker.

Cakebread entered the world of sparkling wine and worked at Mumm when it was first established in Napa, operating out of Sterling Winery. In 1997, she took over as winemaker at Spottswoode Winery, a position she held till 2007. She maintained a consulting winemaker position at Spottswoode till 2012.

We met at Cakebread’s farmhouse in St. Helena (just off the Highway 29), which serves as her office. The recently purchased house just happens to be next door to her residence. The house/office comes with a patch of old Petite Sirah vine, which she plans to pull out and replant.

“Cabernet is what I know and love making,” she acknowledges. It’s this passion that led her to create the Gallica label with a 2007 vintage of Cabernet Sauvignon.

Yet the winemaker is also drawn to Rhône varietals, so she added Grenache to her portfolio in 2010. Napa Valley is not known for growing Rhône varietals, but Cakebread found a good source in the Shake Ridge Ranch vineyard in Amador County, Calif., in the Sierra Foothills.

We taste the 2011 Grenache, which is blended with Syrah, Mourvèdre and a touch of Viognier. This is an exceptionally elegant, well-rounded wine with balanced fruit and soft tannins.

The Rhône red wine production falls under the Suzuri Series, a collection that will feature different blends each vintage. Cakebread chose the name “Suzuri,” which is a stone plate used for calligraphy, because of her love for Japanese art.

Gallica’s Cabernet Sauvignon bottling generally consists of 80% to 85% of this varietal blended with Cabernet Franc — to add an herbaceous quality — and Petit Verdot, which lends notes of fruits and violets. The 2010 Cabernet is superbly balanced and elegant.

There’s no overabundance of fruit here. “That’s what I like to drink,” Cakebread says.

“I tend to pick my fruit earlier. Some people say I pick under-ripe, but late picking adds too much alcohol to the wine,” she explains.

Besides the fruit that comes from the 1-acre vineyard behind the Cakebread residence, she purchases grapes from Oakville Ranch for her Cabernet Sauvignon wines.

“I’ll always make Cabernet — that’s the engine that drives everything.” However, the winemaker will soon be releasing her 2012 and 2013 Syrahs from Pisoni Vineyards in Monterey’s Santa Lucia Highlands.

How about white wine? I ask.

“Not that I don’t like whites, but it’s a big ocean to swim in,” she muses. She doesn’t want to produce yet another Chardonnay or Sauvignon Blanc.

“I am looking for other whites like Chenin Blanc. It’s hard to find old-vine Chenin Blancs, but I’ll keep looking. I’d like to make a Vouvray style,” says the creative winemaker ever in search of a new artistic achievement.

Top photo: Winemaker Rosemary Cakebread in her vineyard. Credit: Mira Honeycutt

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Screen grabs of the Wine with Friends app.

Drinking wine is a social activity, so it’s no surprise that social media-focused wine tasting apps have cropped up to connect wine lovers with one another and their latest discoveries. After all, any time you open a bottle, there is probably someone out there trying the same wine and wanting to talk about it too!

Delectable wine app. Credit: Courtesy of Delectable

Screen shot from Delectable. Credit: Courtesy of Delectable

Delectable has fast become my go-to wine app. Admittedly, it took a few updates for me to come around, but Delectable version 3.3 is quite a useful tool. On the surface, this is a photo sharing app specifically for wine (although the odd beer does show up). What makes this so useful is the label recognition software within the app — it recognizes everything, from an obscure Santa Barbara winery with tiny production of Syrah to a crazy Chilean wine that’s not even imported in the U.S. It recognizes all pertinent information from the label: place of origin, producer, vintage, name of wine and grape variety. So you will never forget that killer wine, wherever you are. You don’t even have to write a tasting note (although you can), as there is a little slide rule with different degrees of happy faces for grading your wine. You can follow sommeliers and winemakers from across the country, like San Francisco-based Raj Parr or the guy who made talking about wine online cool, Gary Vaynerchuk, and see what they’re drinking. Also, if you see a wine you like, you can buy it within the app! There are an impressive 300,000+ members already, so join up and start snapping those pics. Free for iPhone and soon for Android.

Wine with Friends isn’t the most original of names, but the app itself takes an innovative approach to tasting notes. Again, this is a photo sharing app, and once you’ve taken a pic of your latest wine discovery, you’re led to a tasting note page. This is the brilliant bit: Rather than a notepad, you have a wheel on your screen with different flavors you’ll find in wine. It’s divided into general subcategories, like berry and floral. Once you’ve clicked on that you can choose more specific flavors, like raspberry and rose. The next time you find a vino you like, simply whip out your phone, snap a photo and wheel through your tasting notes. There are more than 50 Western flavors and even more Asian flavors that are referenced (a little wine insight — wine experts in Asian countries tend to refer to fruits, spices and teas found in the East, like jasmine, lemongrass and star fruit) and it’s easy enough to switch between the two. You can also forgo the whole tasting note and just rate the wine with stars. Logistically speaking, this app could be a godsend — you can swirl with one hand while spinning through the wheel with the other. The idea behind the app is that you can share these notes with friends (who also have the app, of course), and try the wines your friends suggest. However, for me it’s all about the tasting wheel. Free for iPhone and soon for Android — with in-app $3.99 purchase of 150+ flavors.

These apps are perfect to use when you’re in a restaurant trying something you like, in a shop wanting to remember a recommended wine, or even at home opening a bottle from your own rack. I find it’s good practice to always take a picture with either app and do a quick rating with the happy face or stars. That way, you’ll have some sort of record. Happy tasting and snapping!

Top picture: Screen shots from Wine with Friends. Credit: Courtesy of Wine with Friends

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Égalité sparkling wine. Credit: Kellie Pecoraro Photography

Why save all of your good deeds for the holiday season? Giving back is all about love, so this Valentine’s Day, put together a meal that helps benefit some great causes.

Set the mood with a pretty table: When you purchase these beautiful block-printed placemats by Dolma Fair Trade made in Dharamsala, India, Given Goods Company gives 15% of profits to help support education for women and children in the area. Dolma’s efforts assist women and school-aged girls by funding education and providing steady work opportunities.

Dolma Fair Trade Placemats, $12.

Start the love flowing with a splash of bubbly:  Égalité, is a new sparkling wine that donates a portion of its proceeds to LGBT nonprofit organizations across the country.  Égalité is a smart blend of 45% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay, 20% Gamay and 5% Aligote, so cheers to all of that.

Égalité, $23.99, is available nationwide at restaurants, fine retail stores and via wine.com.

Comfort food is loving food: Cozy up with a bean soup from the Women’s Bean Project. The organization, which also sells other mixes and spices (as well as handcrafted jewelry), has been dedicated to helping women break the cycle of poverty by giving them transitional jobs in gourmet food preparation and jewelry making. Choose from a selection that includes Toni’s 10 Bean, Sarah’s Spicy Split Pea and Giada De Laurentiis’ Lentil Soup. And let’s not forget, beans are good for the heart.

Women’s Bean Project Soup, $5.75.

Make your drizzle count: Oliovera Olive Oils come in amazing flavors like Piquant Jalapeno and Sweet Orange. Drizzle a little olive oil on your bean soup. And their vinegars, such as Ripe Peach Balsamic, make any salad happy. Best of all? For each bottle ordered, Oliovera donates five meals to a hungry child through its initiative with Feeding America. Delicious.

Oliovera olive oils and vinegars, $15.50-$34.

Chocolate, of course: By now we know that the antioxidants in chocolate are good for us, but when you buy L.A. chocolatier Compartés Chocolates for Darfur, the deed is extra sweet. Proceeds from sales benefit Relief International’s efforts in the nation to help fund a women’s health center and feed malnourished children. This beautiful gift set comes with a colorful bracelet.

Compartés Chocolates for Darfur, $20.

Finish with a cuppa: Whether you prefer tea or coffee, Laughing Man Tea and Coffee’s offerings are a charitable and delicious choice. All proceeds go to causes focusing on community development and education, and their Home Blend 184 and Dukale’s Dream are fair trade, organic and shade grown. (Actor Hugh Jackman is one of the founders of Laughing Man.)

Laughing Man Teas and Coffees, $10 and up.

Top photo: Égalité sparkling wine. Credit: Kellie Pecoraro Photography

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Winemaker Jo Landron. Credit: Candid Wines

Christmas trees are littering the curb. Bing Crosby’s croon has vanished from the radio. No more chestnuts roasting or sleigh bells ringing. Finally, that gluttonous interval between Thanksgiving and New Year’s that we term “the holidays” has run its merry course. And I have to admit: After having spent the last two-and-a-half months gorging on a range of roast birds diverse enough to rival the contents of John Audubon’s notebooks, not to mention the rivers of gravy, the endless variations of stuffing and pies of all persuasions, all washed down with bottle after bottle of wine (made in every conceivable color and style, from sparkling to dry to sweet, from red, to white, to pink and even the elusive orange) — I’ve had my fill.

At this point, I’d say I’m ready for a juice cleanse. That is, of course, if wine counts as juice. Because no matter how ascetic my mood might be, a glass or two with dinner is a basic, life-affirming pleasure that I’m simply unwilling to go without. Yet, for all the time we spend obsessing over holiday wine recommendations — what to pair with the Christmas ham, the bird and trimmings, etc — no one ever seems to talk about what to drink in the aftermath, once the leftovers have been devoured and life returns to a more measured gastronomic pace.

In fact, I’ve always found it ironic that we tend to reserve sparkling wines for special occasions, when their style so perfectly suits casual, everyday drinking. I’m not talking about the kind of luxurious, unctuous Champagne that deserves to be served alongside appropriately rich fare: poached lobster, say, or a runny slice of Brie. At this time of the year, not only have I exhausted my Champagne budget, but I’m looking for an altogether different breed of sparkler: something clean, bracing and crisp, whose perky effervescence operates as a “hair of the dog” remedy for the post-holiday hangover.

So when I discovered that in recent years, as something of a fun side project, one of my favorite French winemakers has been making a fresh, zesty, low-alcohol sparkler known as Atmosphères, I knew it would be just the kind of curative bubbly I’d been craving.

The man in question is none other than Jo Landron, owner of the esteemed Domaine de la Louvetrie estate in Muscadet — a vigneron whose renown for crafting elegant, mineral-infused whites from the local Melon de Bourgogne grape is eclipsed only by his legendary mustache. I first encountered Landron a few years back, while attending the Salon des Vins de Loire in Angers. Although his whiskers might have been the first thing I noticed about him, from the moment I tasted his range of wines I knew that he was doing something special.

I could easily exhaust my remaining word count describing his entire lineup of superlative Muscadet cuvées, whether the racy Amphibolite, the stony Fief du Breil or the densely packed Hermine d’Or, each of which is farmed organically and represents the expression of its own unique single-vineyard terroir. These are the kind of wines that, along with those of a few like-minded peers, have helped Muscadet shed its image as a simple lubricant for washing down oysters and gain recognition as a truly site-expressive wine worthy of contemplation.

With their invigorating salinity and acidic cut, any one of Landron’s efforts would offer a welcome antidote to the particular form of seasonal lethargy I’ve been suffering from. But it’s his sparkling Atmosphères bottling that best fits the bill.

Atmosphères sparkling wine by Jo Landron.<br />Credit: Zachary Sussman

Atmosphères sparkling wine by Jo Landron.
Credit: Zachary Sussman

Just a quick glance at the label (featuring a playful cartoon drawing of a festive drinker, glass in hand, perched atop a giant stack of bottles) sets the tone for what’s in store. Officially designated a Vin Mousseux de Qualité, the wine is produced in the traditional Champagne method, with secondary fermentation in bottle, but once in the glass it’s a much more lighthearted affair. A hand-picked blend of Folle Blanche (one of the area’s more interesting secondary grapes) with a touch of Pinot Noir for body, it’s zippy, lemony and bright, with a slightly chalky grip guaranteed to enliven even the most oversaturated palate. Think of it as liquid Prozac.

Now’s not the time to worry about fastidious wine pairings. So, in that spirit, I’d suggest drinking the Atmosphères with just about anything you like. Best of all, it’s delicious all by itself, while waiting for your appetite to return — which, if you’re anything like me, will surely be soon.

 Top photo: Jo Landron. Credit: Candid Wines

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2012 Tenuta Sant'Antonio Scaia Garganega/Chardonnay label and vineyard. Credit: Courtesy of Tenuta Sant'Antonio

Red wine blends are booming in popularity in the U.S., and I predict that in 2014 white blends will follow suit. The floral and citrus-scented 2012 Tenuta Sant’Antonio Scaia Garganega/Chardonnay is a bargain Italian example: dry, fresh, fruity, tangy and perfect as an apéritif or with steamed mussels. It also happens to be more interesting than you might expect for an under-$15 wine.

Satisfying white blends have a long history in European wine regions, and in the past few years innovative California winemakers have turned to Italy for inspiration.

Elin McCoy's Wine of the Week


2012 Tenuta Sant’Antonio Scaia Garganega/Chardonnay

Price: $13

Region: The Veneto, Italy

Grape: 60% Garganega, 40% Chardonnay

Alcohol: 12.5%

Serve with: Aperitifs, mussels in broth, vegetable risotto


More of Elin's wine picks:

» 2011 Inama Soave Classico

» A rare white from Mount Etna

» A generous red warms up winter

The Veneto region in northeast Italy, where the Tenuta Sant’Antonio Scaia comes from, has a mild climate, thanks to nearby Lake Garda, and a winemaking history that goes back to the ancient Greeks. It’s a region of wine contrasts, home to Amarone, a unique red made by a labor-intensive process of semi-drying grapes, and mass-market commercial companies that pump out millions of boring bottles a year.

The Tenuta Sant’Antonio Scaia blends a familiar international variety with a local Italian grape that’s widely planted throughout the Veneto. Late-ripening, Garganega is the variety that dominates Soave Classico, which must be made in a specified district near the city of Verona. The grape resembles Chardonnay in that both vary widely in taste depending on where they’re grown, when they’re picked, and how the wine is made.

Garganega grown on the Veneto’s flat plains for quantity rather than quality becomes simple, mediocre plonk. At Tenuta Sant’Antonio, grapes are planted on rolling hills, yields are kept low, and bunches are harvested by hand, all in the name of quality.

The four Castagnedi brothers — Massimo, Armando, Tiziano, and Paolo — who founded Tenuta Sant’Antonio worked as viticultural and technical wine consultants before starting the winery in 1989. They bought land in the Valpolicella zone adjacent to their father’s vineyard property, joined the two, then planted grapes and began making wine.

The Castagnedis produce a wide range of classic reds and whites under the Tenuta Sant’Antonio label, and are best known for their more expensive, top-quality Amarones, Valpolicellas, and Soaves. They describe the Scaia wines (the word refers to stone flakes in the chalky soil where the vines grow) as “modern interpretations” of traditional classics.

Happily, this doesn’t include aging in oak, which overwhelms the Garanega grape. The 2012 Sant’Antonio Scaia Garganega/Chardonnay is fermented at cold temperatures and aged in stainless steel, which preserves fruit and crispy acidity. The wine is much better than the ocean of easy-drinking whites from the Veneto. While it doesn’t have the character and style of the very best Soaves, it does have a juicy, mouth-filling personality and an attractive, everyday-drinking kind of price.

Top composite photo: 2012 Tenuta Sant’Antonio Scaia Garganega/Chardonnay label and vineyard. Credit: Courtesy of Tenuta Sant’Antonio

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