An Omelette and a Glass of Clinton

Eggs are not a food I pair with wine. This may have to do with the time of day I usually eat them: breakfast or lunch. Hubrecht Duijker, Mr. Wine in Holland now retired, recommends a dry sparkling wine to go with them. His are the ones you get at a traditional New Year’s Eve party, where the eggs are devilled and sparkling wine is abundant. More often than not, however, eggs are an ingredient, be it in a Spanish tortilla or a sauce Hollandaise – and who wouldn’t like a glass of wine with those?
But a plain omelette?
‘Let’s just have an omelette and a glass of wine’ may indicate ‘the almost primitive and elemental meal’ (Elizabeth David, ‘An Omelette and a Glass of Wine’ in the anthology of the same title). The kind of meal one longs for after a hard day’s work. It’s late, you’re tired and hungry but you don’t feel like cooking, so you drag yourself to the fridge: eggs, a rind of Parmesan, drooping lettuce, half a lemon, and on your way back you grab a bottle of whichever wine you come across first. When Elizabeth David drags herself to the fridge she naturally returns with eggs, a piece of home-made pâté, olives, a fresh salad, ripe, creamy cheese and fresh fruit. The omelette she turns the eggs into contains Parmesan and Gruyère. This indeed primitive and elemental meal is then washed down with a local (she admits sometimes dreadful) wine.
perfecteggArchitect, script writer and travel and gastronomy author Aldo Buzzi (1910-2009) also likes to pair eggs and wine. And a local, in fact very local wine at that. So I read in his little book about all things foodie: The Perfect Egg and Other Secrets (it’s the kind of thing one gets published only after one has made a name for oneself with several more substantial works).
In ‘Eggs on Leeks’ he gives a recipe of – you guessed right – fried eggs on boiled and chopped leeks. ‘The [frothy] butter mingles with the remaining waters from the leeks to make a delectable little sauce. Should be accompanied by a good glass of Clinto (…).’
There he is again (see my posting Foreign Affairs): Clinto, Crinto or Clinton. This American hybrid produces a dark red wine, low in alcohol, famous for its stains, not for its taste: a bit foxy, they say, or ‘peculiar’. I wouldn’t really know as this outlaw grape is hard to come by. It is still grown in some places, including France and, where Buzzi must have gotten his bottle from, Veneto. Every now and then voices are heard who plead to lift the ban on American hybrids, as they need much less chemical treatment. For this plot of Clinton, however, there is no hope left. Or so I think. I must confess I don’t understand a word they say.


A Taste of Pennsylvania

Now that I have managed the art of visiting European vineyards I thought it time to take it up a step and try my luck across the ocean. In the New World, I was told by a Californian friend, wine tastings are about wine drinking – and drinking a lot. Having a European taste himself but feeling obliged to give Californian wine a fair chance, he once embarked on a tasting trip. He started off fine, talking to the vintners, being genuinely interested, asking questions, tasting, spitting, commenting, in short ‘the works’. But the wines were not to his liking, nor was he encouraged in his professional style by the bus loads of wine tourists who inundated the tasting rooms. In the end, having spit less and less, somehow trying to wash off the taste by drinking more, he found himself crawling AbFab style out of his wife’s car to join a flock of sheep.

Pennsylvania isn’t California in many ways. Wine making started early but had to deal with major setbacks of which it is still recovering. William Penn himself was one of the first who gave it a try (around 1682), but as he concentrated on vinifera vines he had little success and was forced to furnish the cellar of his Philadelphia house with European wines instead (A History of Wine in America, p. 33). Still, he stood at the cradle of American wine making: it was near his very premises, almost a century later, that a spontaneous hybrid between a vinifera and a labrusco was found: the Alexander grape (named after the gardener of Penn’s son), with which the first commercial wines were made (p. 85).
But even the combined forces of statesmen like William Penn and Benjamin Franklin and the many inquisitive Rhinelanders and Moravians who missed their homeland drink couldn’t hold out against the backdrops history (Revolution, Civil War, Prohibition) and nature (phylloxera, mildew, black rot) was providing them with. As a result Pennsylvania became famous for its unfermented grape juice, made from grapes unsuitable for wine making. Only as late as 1968 Pennsylvania’s Farm Winery Act allowed grape growers to make, and sell, wine.

BuckinghamValleyVineyards-5Pennsylvania’s 140+ wineries are thus all relatively young. That may be the reason that for some of them wine seems to be something on the side, musical events or running a bar being the core business. Not so for Buckingham Valley Vineyards and Winery. This family-owned winery of over 40 acres makes affordable dry and sweet wines from vinifera, native American and hybrid grapes and several sweet fruit wines. In their own words: ‘We consider wine to be a food item, to be enjoyed with meals or without, to be consumed without ceremony or snobbery, to be affordable on an every-day basis.’ That their wines are low in alcohol (11%vol) is a bonus too.
When I asked for a spittoon, I learned that here too tasting means drinking. Did I think I wasn’t going to like their wines? But after a few minutes they came up with something I could use as such.
Though I didn’t like all the wines I tasted (e.g., I thought the Merlot unremarkable, the Niagara to be avoided) I did have a liking for their Seyval Blanc and Chambourcin.
Seyval Blanc (no year, 11%vol., $11): Sweet apples, floral notes. Bit sweet. Easy. Drink well chilled as aperitif or with salad.
Chambourcin (no year, 11%vol., $11): Best of their reds. Dark-red in colour. Full-bodied, oak-barrelled. Herbs, black currant leafs. Benefits from a little chilling.

20141206_185026Stargazers Vineyard & Winery has a little shop and tasting room (with spittoon, though I got the impression the shop manager was a little shocked when I spat into it) in the charming town of Lititz. I didn’t visit their home base, but I was told the wines there are sweeter than in the shop. Having said that, there was only one dry red wine available. Still, this nearly 20 year old winery is a serious one, taking into account terroir and sustainability, and resisting too much filtering.
Cabernet Sauvignon 2008 Reserve (13,5%vol., $18): The scent of black currants really comes out. Dry (without the ubiquitous American sweetness), fruity, some dark tones, smooth.
Arneis 2013 (12,5%vol., $20): This Piedmontese grape is doing a great job here. Pear, melon, juicy, lots of taste. Paired well with pan-fried fluke and grilled asparagus.

bluemountainI came across Blue Mountain Vineyard & Cellars, situated in the Lehigh Valley AVA, in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse Square farmer’s market (see also under Famous Caffs). They started with French hybrid grapes but planted European varieties too as they found out soil and climate are similar to the Loire and Burgundy regions (and who wouldn’t want that?). With 100 acres and serveral selling points in Pennsylvania Blue Mountain is a big player.
Sauvignon Blanc 2013 (12,6%vol., $15,50): Sauvignon Blanc? You could have fooled me. Too sweet to my taste, lacking freshness. Not too bad though if well-chilled accompanying a beetroot salad with goat’s cheese.
Cabernet Franc 2010 (13%vol., $18): ‘For the adventurous wine drinker’, said my vendor who knows how to chat-up his customers. There is some truth in it. Light-bodied, fruity (red berries) with a green touch and an earthy finish. Soft tannines. I would pair it with porc, not with beef and chocolate as the label says.


Foreign Affairs

While visiting the Ardèche, René van Heusden of Perswijn, a Dutch wine journal, is asked if he’d like to taste something special. Wine journalists usually answer that with an eager ‘Well, yes, of course’, hoping for, if not downright expecting a rare vintage or a wine of exceptional quality. His verdict on the Clinton he was then presented with: ‘Wine of a very peculiar taste. Or rather: weird. Interesting, we say,’ thereby crushing some vintners’ hope of finding a supporter of releasing the French government’s prohibition of American hybrids.
An American Grape, from Husmann's book

An American Grape, from Husmann’s book

And that is what the Clinton is: an American hybrid, ‘vigorous, hardy and productive; free from disease (…) juicy; somewhat acid; (…) brisk vinous flavor, but somewhat of the aroma of the frost grape; makes a dark red wine, of good body, and much resembling claret (…). Although safe and reliable, I think it has lately been over praised as a wine grape (…)’, as George Husmann writes in his The Cultivation of the Native Grape, and Manufacture of American Wines of 1866.

Husmann (1847-1902), a pioneer grape-grower and winemaker of Hermann, Missouri, dedicated this standard work ‘To the grape growers of “our country, one and indivisible,” as their friend and fellow-laborer’. In his book he not only went into great (technical) detail on the various grapes, the winemaking process, the costs and benefits, he also shared his missionary vision of America as a true ‘Wineland’ where men and women of all social classes will be able to enjoy a glass of native wine. For the southern states to accomplish that, they would need to free themselves from the demon of slavery.
It was not only Americans he granted a glass of wine. After the destruction of France’s vineyards by the phylloxera, it was Husmann and two fellow Missourians, who shipped American vines to the old continent. A few of them exist until today.

How to

Are there any parts of life not covered by How-to manuals apart from being born and start breathing, though many of us got a little help with these tasks too? Type ‘How to’ and Google provides one with a few search options: ‘how to tie a tie’, ‘how to delete facebook’ and the slightly worrying ‘how to train your dragon 2′ (something must have gone wrong the first time). Let’s be honest: these are by no means easy tasks. But visiting a vineyard? I could do that without help, couldn’t I? The Huffington Post does not agree and I must say, I have made a faux pas or two myself.

Thinking winemakers are everywhere as welcoming as in Alsace, I once headed out in rural Chianti to one of the star winemakers, via small, sometimes hardly gravelled roads, only to be chased from the premises once I got there. Didn’t I know they had a shop in Montepulciano? That’s where I should go. I didn’t. That was not what I wanted.

Malans, CH

Malans, CH

Last June, visiting the Bündner Herrschaft, a small region of quality wines in Switzerland, I thought I’d do it more carefully. Though I had a few names in mind, I asked the hotel manager if she could recommend a winemaker where I could taste and buy wine. “On such short notice?” she exclaimed. No way. Did I really think winemakers had time to receive me? They have work to do. Maybe in winter, when the vineyard needed less attention. But even then. And of course they would charge me.

When it dawned on her that I was interested in buying wine too, not in huge quantities maybe but surely more than one or two bottles, her entrepreneurship got the better of her. Why not taste the open bottles of their house wine, for sale in the winemaker’s shop just opposite the hotel? In the hotel’s kitchen, right away? Why not indeed, I liked their sparkling wine. And of course she allowed me to leave any boxes for the day in a cool place so I could do some more sightseeing.

A vineyard is not a vineyard is not a vineyard is not a vineyard.


Vivino Non Est Divinum

Kloster Fahr’s Discretio, a Federweiss, is a red wine from Rheinhessen, Germany. So is their Pinot Gris.
Surprised? Well, this is what wine app Vivino tells us. Per chance I happen to know better. Federweiss is a white, so is Pinot Gris, and Kloster Fahr is not to be found in Rheinhessen, nor in Germany.

Let me start by saying that it is not Vivino bashing I am after. I don’t use the app, nor any other wine app for that matter (though that may change). I suppose, as Vivino is community-driven, that mistakes like these will be corrected in time. I’ll correct this one here, as I feel sorry for Kloster Fahr, a community-driven institution itself, but in a less virtual world (or is it?).

KlosterFahrKloster Fahr is situated in a secluded spot in the otherwise crowded valley of the Limmat, a few miles from Zurich, Switzerland. It is a beautiful, sweet place, this monastry for female Benedictines, and of a far more humble nature than the male headquarters in Einsiedeln. Where the male Benedictines proudly present their much pilgrimaged Black Madonna and their famous Vesper service with a (mildly) polyphone Salve Regina, the nuns at Kloster Fahr make do with sacred textiles and bottles of, among others, Discretio, Laudate, Nocturna, and Gaudeamus.
Gaudeamus igitur, as these bottles contain Federweiss, Pinot Gris, Regent, and a sparkling wine respectively, made from their own grapes. The ladies, old and young, do the harvesting (Wümmet), the rest of the job is done in their commission by cellar master Roland Steinmann.

KlosterFahr-vatWine has been serious business here since 1130, the 4,2 hectares of Kloster Fahr (“ir eygen fruchtbar Gut, das man nempt Var mit der Capellen”) now providing more than they need for celebrating mass. Beside common grapes like Riesling x Sylvaner and Pinot Noir they grow Dornfelder, Zweigelt, Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon. Some are elevated on wood, e.g., their flag ship Monacha Pinot Noir Barrique (too much so to my taste, though some customers like it even more oaky, so Steinmann told me). The Discretio, an off-white white of Pinot Noir (Federweiss, a common thing in German-speaking Switzerland, not to be confused with German Federweißer, a young, fermenting wine), is an excellent Apéro and not too sweet. The Laudate is an agreeable, soft-spoken and off-dry Pinot Gris. Their Nocturna Regent, my favourite, is dark purple with notes of plums, black olives and vanilla.

Whatever Vivino makes of these wines, in neutro genere vinum est divinum, especially when made by nuns.


Sensible Shoes

Living in one of the ‘Ten Places in Europe You Never Thought You Could Afford’ can be a challenge. Imagine everything in your local supermarket, everything except for the cotton buds, had doubled in price and you get the picture. We are vegetarians now most of the time, and we do everything by foot.
But even expensive cities have things for free. Here it is water, for example. Everywhere in the city are so called Brünneli, water taps in the shape of a urinal with drinking water for humans and animals. Parsley too can be for free, at the Oerlikon market, but for that one needs to buy vegetables up to a considerable amount of money (but then again, one has spent a considerable amount of money before one can say ‘Wiie bitte?’ in Schwyzerdütsch). Other herbs (ramsons, burnet, thyme) can be found along streets and in the surrounding hills.
So when I read about a free wine tasting at the lake, I put on my sensible shoes and walked. It being a beautiful day I imagined a considerable crowd of wine lovers and the tinkle of glasses and happy laughter. The Bürkliplatz seemed deserted though, and the only people I saw were eating a sausage at a Wurstbude. But at the bandstand about five people had gathered, and they were sipping wine alright. Two wines were being presented: Akkurat Rot (red) and Akkurat Weiss (white), Akkurat being the name of this new brand of Staatskellerei Zürich, for sale from half June at around CHF 15. The name stands for an honest wine for daily use. That so few people had bothered to come might have had to do with the ‘spontaneity’ of the event, only advertised on their own website.
It would be a bit of a bore to say that these wines are made accurately. The red is a Pinot Noir of which one third is matured in oak. That results in an almost sweet, juicy wine with red berries and a little vanilla on the palate. Not really to my taste, but if served cool surely an agreeable ‘Apéro’. Its white counterpart is a blend of RieslingxSylvaner (=Müller-Thurgau), Muscat and Pinot Noir. Zippy, citrusy (pink grapefruit) with something exotic. Would not only do well as an aperitif, but could also accompany a meal, e.g.,  of fried white fish or roasted chicken.

If you want an impression of this ‘pretasting’, click here. For some reason no photographs of me have been selected. The sensible shoes, probably.


Circumstantial Indeed

Babylonian beer is not really a theme that I want to explore much more, but I couldn’t let this little finding pass unnoticed. Leafing through the new edition of the Encyclopedia Judaica, I stumbled upon a Talmudic discussion on sickness and health, life and death. The Sages, who lived in Babylon and Palestine, albeit some 2200 years later, considered Babylon a healthy place. Leprosy, for example, is not heard of over there, so R. Johanan (of Tiberias) says,

“because they eat turnips and drink beer and bathe in the Euphrates”
(Babylonian Talmud, tractate Ketubbot 77b).

Circumstantial, as I said.


Merlot Symphony

Paying a short visit to Merlot country last March, we spent two fabulous days among flowering camellia’s at the lake, walking to an almost deserted village in a steep valley surrounded by snow-white mountains. At dinner, in a simple but okay restaurant, we drank a local Merlot – what else? – that did remind us of that other well-known Merlot terroir: Bordeaux. Fruity, smooth, spicy, with a touch of vanilla and a long aftertaste, this Symphonia Barrique is the first wine of Chiericati in Bellinzona, Ticino, Switzerland. And like so much other wine makers in this country, their main business is a different one, although in this case not so very different: they import and sell Swiss, French and Italian wines since 1950. Only in 1986 they have started vinifying their own, from grapes of neighbouring farmers.

Ticino wasn’t always planted with Merlot. In fact, it is just over a century that Alderige Fantuzzi, who was to help the Ticinese to improve their wine production, concluded that Merlot had the best potential. Before that the American (hybrid?) grape Isabella was most popular, though one wonders why. Yes, high yields, good resistance against heat, mildew and phylloxera but poor wines with the foxy flavours that go with Vitis Labrusca types. I have even read it made people sick, but haven’t found how, or how bad. Sick and tired enough to replant almost the entire Canton with Merlot. It paid off. It took some time, of course, but now, one is told, Swiss Merlot can compete with the great wines of the earth. That is a bit much for most Swiss Merlot, maybe, but for this Symphonia Barrique I could agree. Competing is not winning, necessarily.


Wein, Weib und Gesetz?

“The Code of Hammurabi (1800 B.C.) includes a law that punishes fraudulent wine sellers: They were to be drowned in a rive[r]”

This tweet by Bacchus and Beery ( triggered me. Not because of the fraudulent wine-sellers of old. Why should fraud be a modern phenomenon? But wine-sellers? What kind of wine? Selling to whom?
As Bacchus and Beery didn’t share more than their surprise, I consulted Dr Google and found out that we might not be talking about wine at all: one of my first hits was a Dutch website on beer that stated that the Code of Hammurabi includes a law that punishes fraudulent beer sellers: they were to be drowned in a river.
Time to play the amateur historian and consult the text in a more trustworthy translation. According to Robert Francis Harper (Chicago 1904) law no. 108 says:

“If a wine-seller do not receive grain as the price of drink, but if she receive money by the great stone, or make the measure for drink smaller than the measure for corn, they shall call that wine-seller to account, and they shall throw her into the water.”

An astonished male (?) reader of this translation added in pencil between the lines: “women were winesellers,” and had to conclude after the next law, which again featured a she-wine-seller, that this was more than just a possibility: “apparently the winesellers were women.”
W.L. King, a British Assyriologist who translated the Codex in 1910, has “tavern-keeper (feminine)” instead of wine-seller, but doesn’t specify the “drink” either.

Is it so difficult to make out whether the “drink” is wine or beer, or, for that matter, milk? Yes, says Marvin A. Powel, author of “Wine and the Vine in Ancient Mesopotamia: The Cuneiform Evidence”: it “requires tedious labor and presupposes the work of many specialists to answer when, where, and what the ancient texts are really talking about.” Translations of cuneiform are no more, or less, than attempts to understand the materials. And we should not forget that the old Mesopotamians didn’t carve out the obvious.

I can’t help it, but after some background reading I’d say the circumstantial evidence points to beer. To introduce but a few exhibits:

A. Babylonia, to be situated in Southern Iraq, a flat country with a high water level, is much more suitable for barley.
Barley is easier to crop.
Beer is cheaper and more nutritious and probably tasted much better than wine.
There is an abundance of words for kinds of beer and things related to beer.
Wine was used for offerings to the gods and was imported (so say several experts).
What viticulture there was, was used for grape sugar and raisins.

“In short,” as Marvin Powel writes, “Babylonia like Bavaria was essentially a beer drinking culture. No one with their wits about them would have gone there to drink wine any more than a sensible person would go to the Mediterranean today to drink beer” (p. 106).

Want to do some further reading yourself?

Hans Neumann, “Beer as a Means for Compensation for Work in Mesopotamia during the Ur III Period [2111-2003 BC]”, in Drinking in Ancient Societies: History and Culture of Drinks in the Ancient Near East: Papers of a Symposium Held in Rome, May 17-19, 1990, ed. L. Milano (Padova: Sargon, 1994).

A.Leo Oppenheim, Ancient Mesopotamia: Portrait of a Dead Civilization. Rev. Ed. Completed by Erica Reiner (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).

Marvin A. Powel, “Wine and the Vine in Ancient Mesopotamia: The Cuneiform Evidence,” in The Origins and Ancient History of Wine: Food and Nutrition in History and Anthropology Series, eds. Patrick E. McGovern, Stuart J. Fleming, and Solomon H. Katz (Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach, 1996).


A Taste of 2013

After seeing or reading about the sports(wo)man of the year, the books of 2013, the most embarrassing TV fragments, several news overviews, much lamenteds and where to buy 2013s best deep-fried solid doughnuts (a somewhat longwinded translation of “oliebol”), I feel compelled to share my “outstanding wines of 2013.” That is what they are: standing out. Presented at random. Happy New Year.

Riesling Grand Cru Vorbourg 2008 (Domaine Muré, Alsace), 12,5%
Well-known winery where the kids (12th generation) just took over. This Riesling was made by René père. Golden-yellow colour. In the nose dried apricot, honey, and a whiff of petrol. Good acidity combined with voluptuousness and minerality. Can age for some more years.

Les Cormiers 2011, Vin de France (Christian Venier, Touraine), 12,5%, € 9,95
A Cabernet Franc that brings a smile on one’s face: redcurrant, wild strawberry, juicy. A perfect wine for a summer’s day.
Christian Venier is a natural wine maker who learned the trade from Thierry Puzelat of Clos du Tue Boeuf but is said to be less experimental (according to his distributor). No filtering, no sulphites, indigenous yeasts.

Viña Gravonia Crianza 2004 (Bodegas López de Heredia, Rioja), 12,5%, € 12 (ad loco)
Golden colour, deep honey-like, sweetish smell, in the mouth dry, full-bodied, complex, honey, sourish apricot, mandarin, almond, freshly-cut herbs (the latter to my astonishment), long aftertaste.
See my earlier posting.

Blanco 2012 (Luis Cañas, Rioja), 13,5%, ca. € 7
A barrel fermented blend of 85% Viura and 15% Malvasía from vines of over 50 years old. Well-balanced, medium-bodied, ripe pear, apricot, minerality. Maybe not spectacular but more than enjoyable till the last sip and rather good value for money. My applauded house white.

Château Lestage-Darquier, Moulis Cru Bourgeois Terra Vitis 2010 (Brigitte and Francois Bernard, Bordeaux), 13,5%, ca. € 13
Soft-spoken, fruity, refined Bordeaux that can age for some more years, but I am not sure it will.