Monday, October 23, 2017

Rant: Two Rules Of Choosing Holiday Wines

As the holidays approach, it's time for wine blogs, magazines, newspapers, and more to present their recommendations for holiday wines, from Thanksgiving selections to Christmas dinner choices. The majority of these articles seem repetitive, presenting similar choices to what they presented in the years before. Originality is too often lacking in those articles yet they still garner plenty of attention from consumers, who are seeking advice and recommendations.

I am hoping to offer something different, to alter consumer's thinking rather than provide specific wines they should drink on the holidays. Let me provide two rules for choosing holiday wines, two rules which are intended to change your perceptions in selecting those wines.

First, stop being a cheapskate!

During the holidays, many people stock up on wine to serve their guests at various parties and celebrations. Often, because they are buying bottles in bulk, their primary concern is price. They generally want to purchase wine that costs $10 per bottle or less and usually end up buying the large, commercial "value" wines, such as the Barefoot or Yellow Tail. It takes almost no thought to buy such wines. Though such wines might be drinkable, they aren't going to impress anyone. You've chosen to take the cheapest route possible, in both price and time.

If you're hosting a holiday party, don't you want to impress your guests? Don't you want them to leave the party talking about the great time they had? It only takes a little extra work, and maybe price, to elevate your wine selections. Or would you rather be known as a wine cheapskate by your guests, who know you bought cheap wine with no real thought? They might not say anything to your face, but behind your back they will be talking about your poor choices.

I certainly understand the need to control your wine costs when you are providing for a number of guests. You certainly don't need to buy $50 wines to impress your guests. You don't even have to spend $20. I've brought a number of $10-$15 wines to parties that the other guests loved and wanted to know where they could buy them. There are good and interesting wines around this price point, if you know where to seek them out. If you want your holiday celebration to be even more popular, then you need to serve those type of wines. The extra effort will elevate your party and please your family, friends, and other guests.

What should you do?

To start, seek out one of the better discount wine stores. These places often carry a good selection of wines costing $15 or under, much more than you will find at a regular wine store. You can find plenty of variety in these inexpensive wines, whites and reds, domestic and imported. You will find wines comparable in price to those large commercial "value" wines but which offer much more character, taste and value. My top recommendations for discount wines stores, places I shop regularly, include Bin Ends in Braintree & Needham, and Rapid Liquors in Stoneham. Make the effort and drive to one of these great shops and find better value wines. The investment of time will pay off, creating many happy guests at your next party.

If you some reason you can't make it to one of these discount wine shops, you still have options. At whatever wine shop you visit, it might be best to ask the wine store staff for recommendations of value wines. They should be able to direct you toward those wines inexpensive wines which will be more interesting and delicious. You should also remember that most wine stores offer a discount for bulk purchases, sometimes as few as 6 wines, which is another way to save money on your purchases.

But if for some reason you can't ask a store employee for some recommendations, then my best advice for selecting a good wine that is $15 or under, and sometimes even $10 and under, is to buy a Portuguese wine. At this time, I think some of the greatest value wines are coming out of Portugal, especially at the price point. Chances are that if you purchase a Portuguese wine costing $15 or less, you will find a delicious and interesting wine. And there are plenty of Portuguese wines available in that price range. There is probably no other wine region where you can find as many good wines at that price point.

You also should know that paying a few dollars more for your wine can make a big difference. When you start considering wines priced from $10-$15, your options increase drastically. You can find some interesting wines from all over the world in that price range, though they still offer value. And if you are buying in bulk where the wine store offers a discount for larger purchases, you can save enough money so that the wines end up priced closer to $10 per bottle.

So this holiday season, don't buy the same old cheap wines. It won't take much effort to select some better choices, and still very inexpensively. In the end, you'll impress your guests, make your holiday party more memorable, and drink better wines.

Second, stop buying that same old fruitcake!

Most of the wine articles you'll read right now offer very similar advice, recommending the same types of wines again and again. For example, you'll see many suggestions for Pinot Noir and Riesling for Thanksgiving, the same wines that have been recommended by these articles year after year. You might have served them at Thanksgiving last year (and previous years) but can any of your dinner guests actually remember which wine was served? Doubtful.

Because they are so ordinary, they usually become very forgettable. They are the "same old fruitcakes" the same old traditional wines that everyone serves and think little about. Wouldn't you rather ditch those trite old fruitcakes and serve wines that are more memorable? There is nothing wrong with these fruitcake wines, They can be tasty and fitting for your meal, but why just stick to such wines? You can do more and make your dinner or party even more exciting.

A Thanksgiving meal is diverse, with many different flavors, from savory to sweet, and many different textures. No single wine is a perfect pairing with all these different dishes. And you can serve whatever wines you want. There are no rules. As such, you have an opportunity to serve a diverse selection of wines, to serve wines that will surprise and please your guests. For example, I've recommended serving Sherry or Sake for Thanksgiving.

This same idea applies to when you are buying wine as gifts for family, friends, and others. Don't you want to give something memorable to the recipient? It is easy to give someone a bottle of Chardonnay or Cabernet Sauvignon. They are probably the same type of wines the recipient might buy on their own. Instead, why not splurge and buy something different, something the recipient might not buy on their own but which they would enjoy. Stop sending "fruitcakes" and go for something more exciting.

You have plenty of options for more exciting gift wines. Pick something local, such as a Massachusetts wine, or something from another New England state, or even from nearby New York. Or find wines from less commonly known regions such as Georgia, Moldova, Lebanon, Israel and more. Find wines with less common grapes such as Mencia, Assyrtiko, Petit Verdot, Grillo, Zweigelt, and Touriga Franca. Choose some different sparkling wines such as Franciacorta or Cremant d'Alsace. There are so many options available that it is easy to opt for something besides the same old fruitcakes.

All I want is for people to be more open in their holiday wine choices. Don't be lazy and choose the same old wines when there is an abundance of excellent choices out there. There are so many thousands of different wines available so why limit yourself to a mere handful? The holidays are a time many people splurge so splurge on diversity.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Thursday Sips & Nibbles

I am back again with a new edition of Thursday Sips & Nibbles, my regular column where I highlight some interesting, upcoming food & drink events.
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1) On Thursday, November 2, from 6:30pm-9:30pm, Executive Chef Tyler Kinnett and the team at Harvest welcome Yankee Magazine Lifestyle Editor and cookbook author Amy Traverso of The Apple Lover’s Cookbook for a special “The Book and the Cook” dinner, using recipes from Amy's cookbook. The Apple Lover's Cookbook celebrates the beauty of apples in all their delicious variety, taking you from the orchard to the kitchen with 100 recipes, both sweet and savory.

The dinner will feature a quintessential fall menu that celebrates New England apples, expertly prepared by Executive Chef Tyler Kinnett. Guests will have the opportunity to meet the author while enjoying the freshest flavors of the season. The dinner will include a four-course menu complete with a reception and beverage pairings.

Cost: Price is $65 per person (inclusive of tax and gratuity), and includes a signed copy of The Apple Lover’s Cookbook.
Space is limited and reservations are required. Call 617-868-2255 directly to book seats. Or buy tickets through Eventbrite: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/the-book-the-cook-dinner-the-apple-lovers-cookbook-by-amy-traverso-tickets-38818961559

2) On Wednesday, November 8th at 6:30 p.m., Puritan & Co. will host a special natural wine dinner with Donkey & Goat Owner/Winemaker Jared Brandt. 

Alongside a multi-course meal prepared by Chef Will Gilson and conversation with Brandt, guests will be treated to pours of a selection of Donkey and Goat’s natural wines made from sustainably (or more) farmed vineyards in the Sierra Nevada, Mendocino and Napa.

Tickets are $95 plus tax and gratuity and can be purchased here: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/dinner-with-donkey-goat-winemaker-jared-brandt-tickets-38522158814.

3) Babbo Pizzeria e Enoteca Chef Mario LaPosta and his team invite guests to join them on Wednesday, October 25, at 6:30pm, to explore the flavors of Valle d’Aosta. The evening will include a tasting of four different courses, along with wine pairings from the region that is renowned for its ski resorts and medieval castles, Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, and Monte Rosa. Although much less is known about its wines than other regions, Valle d’Aosta vineyards produce some of Italy’s finest.

The menu includes:
1st course:
Poached Pear and Fontina D.O.P. Focaccia
Ermes Pavese 'Blanc de Morgex' Prie Blanc 2015
2nd course:
Veal Cutlet (Cabbage and Oregon Huckleberries)
Bouquetin Gamay 2015
3rd course:
Carbonade "Valdostana" (Braised Heritage Goat, Sweet Onions, Polenta)
Danilo Thomain 'Enfer d'Arvier' Petit Rouge 2013
4th course:
Apple Sotto Sopra (Vanilla Gelato)
Maley 'Pommerbe' NV

Tickets are $95 and can be purchased by logging onto https://valledaostawinedinner.splashthat.com

4) Chris Schlesinger and Dave Cagle, co-owners of The Automatic, announce HELL NIGHT, OCTOBER 30th, as the best (and only) way they know how to celebrate Halloween. “Let’s keep it hotter than hell” is the motto, with “super spicy food and drink specials” on the menu the night before Halloween.

VIP guest for the evening will be Dr. Pepper, (aka George Greenidge) – Hell Night’s Legend himself. Schlesinger and Cagle have special honors planned for Dr. Pepper….could it be a Hotter Than Hell Sausage for all those sausages Greenidge serves outside Fenway Park? Or could it be new red plastic peppers for his Hell Night outfit? Perhaps a lifetime supply of Inner Beauty Sauce? Only the Devil knows.

Some of the spicy appetizers that have been announced for HELL NIGHT at THE AUTOMATIC include:
3 Drunk Devils on Horseback (Blue Cheese + Bacon dripping in Cherry Pepper Jam)
Jamaican Jerk Wings (Scotch Bonnet Mango Sauce)
Frito Pie from HELL (Chili, Longhorn Cheese, Inner Beauty Sauce)
Martins Molten Lava Shrimp Ceviche (Rocoto Chiles, Toasted Cancha, Plantain Chips)
Ginger Shrimp + Pork Dumpling Roulette (Soy Sesame, Black Vinaigrette)
More To Come!

RESERVATIONS: Make reservations by emailing reservations@theautomaticbar.com
This event is extremely likely to sell out so make your reservations ASAP.

5) On Monday, November 6, at 6:30pm, Terramia Ristorante, located on Salem Street in the heart of Boston’s North End, is celebrating the long-standing history of Duca Di Salaparutra with a five-course Sicilian wine dinner. With more than 190 years of winemaking, Duca di Salaparutra is the award-winning and leading wine group in Sicily where each wine is made with expression of specific local areas and of a long wine-making tradition.

At this exclusive dinner, guests will as they enjoy a carefully curated Italian menu paired with Duca di Salaparutra vintages. The meal will start with Cozze Piccanti with sautéed mussels and spicy Organic Marzano tomato seafood broth. The second course follows with Capesante with pan seared sea scallops and veal truffle reduction. Indulge in the Bolognese with traditional ground veal, beef, pork meat tomato ragu. As the night continues, guests can enjoy a delicious Bistecca with Prime Filet Mignon, truffle potato mash, and red wine reduction. Finish the evening with Piatto di Formaggi Italiani featuring chef’s selection of Italian cheeses and dry fruits. Ciro Pirone, Director of Italian Wines at Horizon Beverage Company will be on hand to discuss the nuances and history behind each and every wine.

COST: The dinner is $70 per person (+tax and gratuity).
Reservations are required and can be made by calling Terramia at 617-523-3112

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Exploring Moldova Restaurant & Moldovan Wine: Part 2

As I wrote yesterday, I was recently invited by Andrei Birsan, the owner of Vins Distributors, a wholesaler of Moldovan wines, as a media guest to taste some of his portfolio, as well as to experience Moldovan cuisine at the Moldova Restaurant in Newton. At the dinner, we were joined by Artur Andronic, who owns the restaurant with his wife Sandra.

Artur and Sandra are natives of Moldovas and they initially opened an Italian restaurant in Newton but quickly realized it just wasn't for them. They decided instead to open a Moldovan restaurant, celebrating their heritage, which would also be the only such restaurant in Massachusetts. Hiring a Moldovan chef, they also received much input from their families about the cuisine and recipes, and finally opened in April 2016. It turned out to be an excellent decision as this is a restaurant you need to experience, to enjoy Moldovan cuisine and the warm hospitality of Artur and Sandra.

Moldovan cuisine consists of numerous traditional European foods, from beef to pork, potatoes to cabbage. It also draws influences from Romania, Greece, Poland, Ukraine, and Russian, as well as the former Ottoman Empire. Thus, many of the dishes will look familiar to the average person, though the names may look inscrutable.

The restaurant is open for both lunch and dinner, and is a relatively small, but comfortable spot. The bright colors and designs on the walls are aesthetically pleasing, and include a map to give you a better idea of the geography of Moldova. Artur was a gracious host, personable and knowledgeable, and it was a pleasure to dine with him and learn more about Moldovan cuisine. Though I've previously enjoyed Moldovan wines, I'd never before had their cuisine so this was a welcome experience.

I've already mentioned the wine list at Moldova Restaurant, but I'll also note they have a full bar, serving various cocktails, and a small beer list. In the future, they hope to add some Moldovan beers to that list. You'll also find some non-alcoholic choices including Compot, a home-made, traditional Eastern European fruit punch. Next time I dine here, I'll have to try the Compot.

The Dinner Menu has a compact range of diverse choices, including: Appetizers (5 choices, $7.95-$11.45), such as CLĂTITE CU GĂINĂ ȘI CIUPERCI (Chicken and mushrooms crepes) and FASOLIȚĂ (Bean paste with caramelized onions); Soup & Salad ($6.45-$8.95), such as ZEAMĂ (Heart warming chicken soup with homemade noodles) and SALATĂ DE VARZĂ (Fresh cabbage salad with scallions, parsley and olive oil); Placinte La Tiger (5 choices, $7.95-$8.95), a traditional pan-fried pie with various fillings); Entrees (3 choices $16.45-$17.95), such as FRIPTURĂ DE GĂINĂ (Roasted chicken, stewed in broth with onions and garlic, served with pickled vegetables and traditional polenta with feta cheese and sour cream on the side); and Chef's Specials, (3 choices $18.95-$24.95), such as CÂRNĂCIORI DE GĂINĂ (Grilled chicken sausages, served with fresh cabbage salad, baked potato topped with sour cream and scallions, pickles and home made hot sauce on the side); Sides (5 choices at $5.45-$8.95), such as CARTOFI ȚĂRĂNEȘTI (Country style pan fried potatoes with onions and herb); and Desserts (2 choices at $8.95-$9.45).

Though the full menu is also available for Lunch, there is a Lunch Special ($10.95) which includes: Soup or Salad, plus a Side & Entree or a Pie, with a nonalcoholic drink.

We began with a traditional Plăcinte la Tigaie, a thin, pan-fried pie with various fillings, and I'll note that the term "plăcinte" derives from the Latin "placenta," which means "cake." They serve five different types, filled with items such as potatoes, cabbage, apples, and cherries. I opted for the PLĂCINTĂ CU BRÎNZĂ ȘI VERDEAȚĂ ($8.95), which is filled with cow cheese and herbs. Traditionally, they use sheep's milk cheese but that is difficult for them to source locally so they chose to go with cow's cheese instead. The filling is made with egg whites, local feta, cottage cheese, dill and parsley, but they don't add any salt. The pie is thin, flaky and crisp, reminding me a little of a scallion pancake (without the scallions), and the cheese filling is creamy and lightly salty. A tasty start to dinner, it is an excellent comfort food and I would love to try it with some of their other fillings. And the PLĂCINTĂ paired very well with the Sparkling Wine!

Artur wants to add a sampler platter to the menu, showcasing several of the different dishes so patrons can experience a range of different items. As such, he had his chef put together a sampler for my visit and I was glad to have the opportunity to try a number of different items rather than just a single dish. In the near future, you'll probably see a similar platter available on the menu.

The first dish was the SARMALE ($16.45), cabbage and grape leaves, stuffed with rice, chicken, tomatoes, carrots, fried onions and herbs, and served with sour cream. Please note that the above Sarmale was only made with grape leaves and not cabbage. The rice plays the prominent role in this dish, and with the chicken it is a very traditional and inexpensive Moldovan dish, especially prepared by the women in the household, and they are always served at Moldovan parties. These were delicious, with a slight crunch to the grape leaves and plenty of flavorful filling, with lots of rice and finely chopped chicken and veggies. They make for a tasty snack and pair well with white wine.

The second sample were the MITITEI MOLDOVENEȘTI ($19.45), grilled minced beef and pork rolls that are normally served with fresh cabbage salad, baked potato topped with sour cream and scallions, pickles and a home made hot sauce on the side. "Mititei" means "little ones." This is not as much a traditional Moldovan dish as it is more of a traditional Romanian one, however it has become one of their most popular items at the restaurant. This is a meaty and well-spiced "sausage," with a nice char, and it was enhanced by the compelling and flavorful hot sauce, though I didn't find it especially hot.

The final sample was the FRIPTURĂ DE MIEL ($24.95), roasted lamb, stewed in special wine and rosemary sauce, and normal served with roasted vegetables. The lamb is cooked for over four hours, braised and then roasted in the oven. All that slow cooking has made the lamb extremely tender, and you certainly don't need to knife to cut it. Your fork will suffice. The lamb also is superb, with a hint of rosemary, and plenty of juicy, tender meat, lacking that gaminess which turns off some people to lamb. As a lamb lover, this dish impressed me immensely and I highly recommend it.

Artur mentioned that Moldovans don't like to let any food go to waste, so they will use bread to sop up any leftover sauce in a dish. At his restaurant, they make their own country-style bread, which has a soft but thick consistency, just right for dipping into sauce.

One of their sides is TĂIEȚEI ($5.45), home made noodles topped with butter and served with feta cheese. These are very traditional, hand-cut noodles, made from scratch, that are commonly used in soups. They are served with feta to add more flavor to them. The noodles had a nice consistency, not too soft or too hard, and with the salty feta, they made for a nice side. I could easily see these noodles used in other dishes too, such as soup or topped by the lamb stew.

Another side was the MĂMĂLIGĂ ($5.45), a very traditional dish of polenta served with feta cheese and sour cream. They use a different type of corn flour which makes it more yellow as well as a bit harder than other polenta. Commonly, you mix the polenta with both feta and sour cream. It certainly had a firmer texture and the feta gave it a nice salty and creamy kick.

Dessert was CUȘMA LUI GUGUȚĂ ($9.45), sour cherries crepes with home-made whipped cream and chocolate. This is an extremely popular item on their menu, and they have even run out some nights when many customers ordered it. It was certainly a hedonistic pleasure, plenty of creaminess, tart sour cherries, and that spongy texture of the crepes, with a chocolate accent. It's easy to understand the popularity of this dessert and it was a great way to end a compelling Moldovan dinner.

The Moldova Restaurant is unique and interesting, with plenty of diverse and delicious food. Much of it is comfort food, sure to please your palate and belly. The welcoming vibe of the spot is also a compelling reason to visit. Plus, the fact they carry Moldovan wine makes a visit more of a total Moldovan experience. Kudos to Artur and Sandra Andronic for opening this restaurant, indicative of their passion for Moldova. I strongly encourage my readers to check out the Moldova Restaurant for lunch or dinner.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Exploring Moldova Restaurant & Moldovan Wine: Part 1

The Republic of Moldova is the least visited country in Europe as well as the poorest country in Europe. However, Moldova has been producing wine for about 5,000 years and currently exports about 67 million bottles annually. I recently wrote an article encouraging people to be wine activists, to buy and drink wines from certain countries, to help their economies thrive. "Financial support of a country’s wines contributes to the well-being of regions, countries, and producers." Considering Moldova's economic situation, then supporting their wine industry is more than warranted, especially considering they are producing some delicious and interesting wines.

Recently, I was contacted by Andrei Birsan, the owner of Vins Distributors, a wholesaler of Moldovan wines, and invited as a media guest to taste some of his portfolio, as well as to experience Moldovan cuisine at the Moldova Restaurant in Newton. I've previously tasted only a handful of Moldovan wines but my experience had been very positive. And I'd never previously enjoyed Moldovan cuisine so I was eager for this meeting.

Andrei grew up in Moldova, leaving the country when he was 21, and came to the U.S. He underwent some training in the law and never thought about a career in the wine industry. However, in 2014, on a trip to Moldova, he tasted an ice wine, falling in love with it. When he returned to the U.S., he wanted to import it but knew he couldn't make a career out of a single wine. So, he decided to import a number of Moldovan wines, to showcase his home country in Massachusetts, and received his first shipment of wine in July 2015. His portfolio currently has about 40 Moldovan wines, which should increase soon by about 10 more.

During the course of our dinner, I tasted eight different wines and found Andrei to be a charming, knowledgeable and interesting person. It was clear that he was passionate about the wines of Moldova and it was infectious. These were wines that would please most any wine lover, and several of them were excellent values as well. They were also excellent food wines, though some could easily be enjoyed on their own too.

As I mentioned earlier, wine originated in the region of what is now Moldova about 5,000 years ago. The area became the Principality of Moldavia in the late 14th century, remaining dominant until 1812 when Russia seized control. Russia later subsidized French colonists to come to the region, and they uprooted most of the indigenous grapes, replanting them with French varieties. Who knows how many indigenous grapes might have been lost due to this uprooting. Once the Soviet Union dissolved, Moldova, which is located between Ukraine and Romania, declared its independence, similar to what occurred in Georgia.

Currently, Moldova has about 150,000 hectares of vineyards, growing over 30 different grapes, about 10% being indigenous varieties, such as Fetească albă, Fetească regală, Fetească neagră, and Rară Neagră. About 70% of their production are white wines and they export about 67 Million bottles of wine annually. One of their biggest trends currently is creating blends with both indigenous and international grapes. Though only about 5% of their vineyards are organic, Moldovan wine law prohibits the addition of any chemicals into wine.

There are four different wine regions in Moldova, including Balti (northern zone), Codru (central zone), Purcari (south-eastern zone) and Cahul (southern zone). According to a new law enacted in 2016, producers must place the regional designation on the label. Some of these regions also have micro-regions. For example, in Cahul there are micro-regions including Taraclia, Ciumai, Comrat, Ceadir-Lunga, Baurci, Cazaiac, Tomai, and Cimislia.

A traditional Moldovan home has a cellar where food and wine is stored, including the wine the homeowner made on their own. The importance of such wine cellars may be part of the reason why Moldova, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, has the world's largest wine collection, over 1.5 million bottles, which is called the Golden Collection. This wine cellar, located in the town of Milestii Mici, has over 34 miles of gothic style shelves, with about 70% red wines.

Let's highlight a few indigenous grapes from Moldova.

Fetească Albă (which translates as "white maiden") is a white grape, the most widely planted indigenous grape in Moldova, occupying about 4,334 hectares. When you consider the country has about 150,000 hectares of vineyards, plantings of the Albă constitute only a tiny percentage, less than 3%. Albă is also found in Romania and Hungary. In Moldova, Albă is commonly used for producing sparkling wine, as well as still wine, which posses medium acidity, as well as citrus and floral flavors.

Fetească Regală (which translates as "royal maiden") is also a white grape and allegedly acquired its name when the grape was dedicated at a birthday celebration for Queen Elena of Romania and thus acquired its "royal" status. The grape is more commonly found in Romania, with some also found in Hungary and Austria. However, in Moldova, the grape is sometimes blended with Fetească Albă and a distinction between the two isn't always made clear. Regală can make aromatic wines with good acidity.

Fetească Neagră (which translates as "black maiden") is a red grape that early vanished during the Soviet era but which has been making a comeback since Moldova gained its independence. The grape can be found in part of Romania too. It is commonly used to make dry, sweet and semi-sweet wines, which typically have a deep red color and a black currant flavor.

Rară Neagră (which translates as "black grandmother"), also known in Romania as Băbească Neagră, is a red grape which typically makes wines with high acidity, a lighter red color, and red fruit flavors, especially sour cherry. There are only about 170 hectares of this grape grown in Moldova, and a little is grown in other places, including Romania, Ukraine and even in the Finger Lakes region of New York (where it is known as Sereksia).

All of the Moldovan wines I tasted from the Vins Distributors portfolio are available at the Moldova Restaurant in Newton, as well as a number of wine stores in the Boston area and elsewhere. At the Moldova Restaurant, all but one of the wines they carry are from Moldova, the outlier being a French Champagne. I'm always supportive of restaurants that choose to stock primarily wines from the country of their cuisine. First, those wines go well with the traditional cuisine of their country. Second, it helps customers expand their palates and try something different. Third, it gives a market to wines that might otherwise have difficulty getting on wine lists elsewhere.

Their wine list has wines available by the glass, carafe and bottle, though not all selections are available by the glass or carafe. There are 4 White wines available by the glass/carafe with an additional white wine available only by the bottle. There is one Rosé wine available by the glass, carafe and bottle. There are 6 Red wines available by the glass/carafe with 2 additional Red wines available only by the bottle. There are 2 Sparkling wines available by the glass/carafe with 2 additional Sparkling wines available by the bottle. Prices per glass range from $6-$13 with prices by the bottle ranging from $23-$90, with most priced $50 and under. You can also order a Wine Sampler of three different wines.

I began my tasting with some Moldovan Sparkling Wine. The Cricova Winery, founded in 1952, is located in the town of the same name and their wine cellars are the second largest in Moldova. About 62% of the wines they produce are Sparkling. The Cricova Crisecco Vin Spumant Alb Brut, a blend of 90% Fetească Albă and 10% Muscat, is produced by the Charmat method (like most Italian Prosecco). At 12.5% ABV, this bubbly is aromatic, with a distinctive Muscat nose enhanced by some citrus notes. On the palate, it is dry, crisp and tasty, with flavors of apple, pear and subtle citrus. A very pleasant and easy-drinking Sparkling Wine, priced under $15, it is also an excellent value. I definitely want to explore more of Cricova's Sparkling Wines.

Chateau Vartely is a newer winery and "Vartley" means "city-fortress." Their 2015 D'Or Fetească Regală is made from 100% Fetească Regală, from vineyards in the Orhei region. The wine, with a 14% ABV, is vinified in stainless steel and then spends up to six months aging in oak barrels. It possesses an intriguing aroma, a combination of fruit and savory notes, both which come out on the palate too. It is a full-bodied white wine, with an intriguing sour apple element, accompanied by notes of lemon, herbs and a hint of fresh mowed grass. A more unique and delicious white wine.

The Purcari Winery, founded in 1827, has a storied history. It was in 1827 that the Emperor of Russia, Nicholas I, issued a special decree which granted Purcari the status of the first specialized winery in Bessarabia. By 1878, the winery was receiving international attention and had been served to kings and queens across Europe. At the turn of the century, the winery replanted about 250 hectares of their vineyards, and installed state-of-the-art technology at the winery. The 2014 Rosé de Purcari is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and 10% Rară Neagră, with a 13% ABV. The wine is dry and crisp, with subdued red fruit flavors, a bit of peach, and a hint of herbal notes.

The 2016 Rară Neagră de Purcari was impressive, luring me in from my first sniff of its compelling aroma. The wine is made from 100% Rară Neagră, was fermented in stainless steel, aged in French oak barriques and has a 14% ABV. The aroma is very savory, with black fruit accents and subtle spicy notes. On the palate, it is medium-bodied, with soft tannins and good acidity. It presents an intriguing melange of bold flavors, ripe black fruit, spicy notes, hints of vanilla, and an almost meaty undertone. A lengthy finish completes this well balanced and delicious wine. At around $22-$23, this is a very good value for such a tasty and interesting wine. I also got to taste the 2014 vintage, and it was not as big and bold as the 2016, though it contained a similar flavor profile, just in a more subtle way.

The 2010 Negru de Purcari ("black of Purcari") is the signature wine of Purcari and it is sometimes called the "Queen's Wine" as it was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth II. The wine is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Saperavi, and 5% Rară Neagră. It has been aged for about 18 months in French oak and has a 14% ABV. With a dark red color, it has an alluring nose of black fruit, spice, and earthiness. On the palate, the ripe plum and black cherry flavors dominate, supported by a rich spiciness, and a mild earthiness. It is full-bodied, with well-integrated tannins, a silky mouthfeel and a lingering and satisfying finish. This is a well-made blend which is sure to impress any wine lover. Highly recommended.

The 2015 Chateau Vartely Individo is an interesting blend of 42% Rară Neagră, 30% Malbec, and 28% Syrah, which spent about 12 months in French oak barrels. The aroma combined red and flack fruits with a spicy undertone. On the palate, the red and black fruit flavors shone, supported by spicy accents, and hints of vanilla and chocolate. Restrained tannins, a supple mouthfeel and a lengthy, pleasing finish.

Finally, we ended the tasting with the 2009 Cricova Prestige Patriarh, a vin rosu licoros, a red dessert wine that is made from Cabernet Sauvignon and has a 16% ABV. I was expecting a heavy, sweet wine but that was far from the case. Instead, it had a lighter body, with intense ripe plum and fig flavors and only a moderate sweetness, balanced by some nice acidity. It was silky and delicious, an enticing wine which made for an excellent after-dinner drink.

Overall, the Moldovan wines were delicious and interesting, pairing well with the various foods we enjoyed. I strongly encourage all wine lovers to explore the wines of Moldova, especially those with indigenous grapes. The Moldova Restaurant is a great place to sample these wines, especially paired with Moldovan cuisine. Those wines though will work well with many other cuisines too, from simple pizza and burgers, from oysters to pasta, from pork to steak. And by buying & consuming Moldovan wines, you will help the overall well-being of that small country.

Monday, October 16, 2017

Paranubes Rum: An Oaxacan Treasure

"... aguardiente de cana (sugar cane brandy), which tastes not unlike New England rum."
--The National Tribune, February 05, 1903

Rum doesn't receive sufficient appreciation as a spirit, most often ending up in a cocktail rather than enjoyed neat. It isn't as revered as Scotch or as popular as Vodka. It isn't considered as intriguing as Mezcal or as compelling as Bourbon. However, rum possesses a fascinating history, is produced all over the world, and there is plenty of diversity in rum types and styles. Rum deserves far more attention and maybe the new Paranubes Rum can help in that regard.

Let's begin our exploration of rum by journeying back in time about 500 years...

By 1500, Madeira, a Portugeuse archipelago, had become the largest exporter of sugar in the world. Some years earlier, when Christopher Columbus was young, he received training in the Madeira sugar trade and that experience would later provide inspiration when he journeyed to the Caribbean. During his first journey, as he pondered ways to make money in these new lands, Columbus realized that the Caribbean islands would be an excellent spot to grow sugar cane. Thus, on his second voyage, in 1493, he allegedly brought sugarcane with him to plant in the Caribbean. There is some question whether that sugarcane died on route and if later explorers were actually the first to plant sugar cane in the Caribbean.

Whatever the truth, sugar cane soon became a common and popular crop throughout the Caribbean and also quickly spread to the continent, from Brazil to Mexico. During the first-half of the 16th century, the Spanish planted sugar cane in Mexico, and large plantations soon arose across the country. It didn't take long for people to start using sugar cane to produce alcohol and with the advent of distillation, the indigenous people eventually created their own version of sugar cane rum.

"El chinguirito es bebida venenosa, mortal, y destructiva de la salud de los indios, y el permitirla sería causa de la extinción de aquellos útiles vasallos." ("The chinguirito is poisonous, mortal, and destructive drink of the health of the Indians, and the permitting would be cause of the extinction of those useful vassals.")
--Memoria sobre las bebidas de la Nueva España, sus efectos y sus gravámenes excesivos by Francisco Leandro de Viana (1781)

This sugar cane rum, commonly known as aguardiente de caña, is mentioned at least as far back as 1631, in an official government prohibition. This indicates that sugar cane rum had existed for a number of years prior to the prohibition, though it might not have been documented until 1631. It would be around 1714 that this rum would also become known as chinguirito. 

During much of the 17th and 18th centuries, the production of chinguirito was illegal, primarily to prevent it from being competition for Spanish brandies and wines. However, government officials noted that it was extremely difficult to enforce the law as illegal distillation equipment was simple to create and hard for officials to locate. Finally, in 1796, Spanish officials relented and made the production of aguardiente de caña legal.

About a hundred years later, the El Paso Daily Herald, on April 7, 1899, reported on an official report from Mexico, the first to give "an exact and complete account of the amount and value of the agricultural products" of Mexico. The 1897 report provided some intriguing details on the alcoholic beverages being produced in Mexico, noting the following categories:
--Aguardiente de cana: 812,690 Hectoliters with a Value of $3,930,704
--Aguardiente de Pulque: 13,697 Hectoliters with a Value of $123,787
--Mescal or tequila: 399,281 Hectoliters with a Value of $4,135,377
--Pulque: 2,630,028 Hectoliters with a Value of $4,939,673
--Tlachipue 2,422,171 Hectoliters with a Value of $2,940,701

Note that a hectoliter is equivalent to one hundred liters. So, the production of aguardiente de caña was roughly equivalent to 108 Million 750ml bottles. As we can see, about twice as much aguardiente de caña was produced as compared to mescal and tequila, but the value of mezcal and tequila for a hectoliter was twice as much. The report also stated that "... the people of Mexico consumed 50 liters of alcoholic stimulants per capita in the year 1897, and spent per person $1.30 for their drink." It is clear that Mexico has a lengthy history of rum yet you hear very little about it. That needs to change.

There are two main types of rum, industrial (which is made from molasses) and agricultural (which is made from sugar cane juice), though over 95% of all rum is made from molasses and you may see a few rums that are a blend of both sources. In general, rums made from sugar cane juice tend to be more earthy and grassy, while molasses rums tend more to be fruity and nutty with baking spices notes. In general, French style rums, commonly referred to as Rhum Agricole, are made from sugar cane juice. As such, it is a terroir driven spirit, which molasses-made rums are not. When the sugarcane is harvested, the cane is crushed the same day, a fresh pressing. Rhum is not permitted to add anything to change the color, though other rums are permitted to add caramel.

Paranubes Rum, produced in Oaxaca, is similar to Rhum Agricole as it is made from sugar cane juice. Within the state of Oaxaca, the Paranubes is more specifically made in the region of the Sierra Mazateca Mountains, inhabited by the indigenous Mazatec (roughly translated as "people of the deer") people. The Mazatec are best known for their use of "magic" mushrooms, psilocybin mushrooms which create psychedelic effects, in a variety of rituals, for healing, and more. People in this region have also been producing aguardiente de caña for centuries.

Jose Luis, who creates Paranubes Rum, is aware that his father and grandfather produced aguardiente de caña, and it is possible additional ancestors may have done so as well. Jose grows four different types of sugar cane, though his rum is primarily made from Caña Criolla, a reddish African sugar cane which is common in the West Indies, with the addition of a small blend of the other types. Once harvested, the sugar cane is brought to the distillery, known as a trapiche, where it is crushed and the pulp is removed, leaving pure cane juice.

You should check out the Paranubes website for more detailed information on the fascinating distillation process, and you'll understand the uniqueness of what Jose does, as well as how much work is involved in the process. For more background on Jose, and how he came to the attention of Judah Kuper of Mezcal Vago, you should also read the intriguing article in Imbibe Magazine.

I've been attempting to locate the official Mexican regulations as to the production of rum and so far have only been able to find an alleged abridged translation. This page claims that Mexican rum "... should undergo a maturation process in oak barrels" and it must be matured for at least eight months.  If that is the case, then the Paranubes Rum would not qualify as a rum in Mexico as it was not matured in oak. However, I suspect the regulations may be different than what I've found and I will update this post once I locate more information.

(Update as of 10/19/2017): I'm providing an update to the above paragraph after receiving additional information from Judah Kuper of Mezcal Vago as well as some additional online research. First, Paranubes Rum is in accordance with the current Mexican regulations, as delineated in Oficial Mexicana NOM-142-SSA1/SCFI-2014. Second, the abridged translation I previously provided is part of PROY-NOM-199-SCFI-2015, which is a controversial proposal which has not yet become law in Mexico. Thus, there is currently no official Mexican regulation that Rum must be aged for six months. NOM-199 is controversial for many reasons, including how it attempts to regulate agave spirits, hurting small producers in favor of large corporate interests. There has been much opposition to NOM-199 and it is insure whether it will ever become law or not.

The Paranubes Rum ($49.99) is not yet available in Massachusetts, but on my recent visit to Chicago, I was able to find some at a wine & spirits shop. It safely survived the trip in my checked luggage and I recently opened a bottle to sample it. Its aroma is very funky and prominent, with a saline character that reminds me of the smell of the ocean or an olive tapenade. It's not a smell you would usually associate with the mountains of Oaxaca and I don't recall another rum with a similar aroma.

The aroma doesn't follow through much on the palate, which instead brings a mild sweetness, a touch of grassiness, and some citrus and tropical fruit flavors. It is more light and elegant, with a lengthy and pleasing finish. Though it is has a 54% ABV, you wouldn't know it from its well balanced taste. It definitely reminds me of a Rhum Agricole, and its distinctive and unique aroma and taste certainly sets it apart and you probably wouldn't confuse it with any other rum. To me, that speaks of the terroir of the Paranubes, that sense of place which gives the rum its uniqueness. The Paranubes can be consumed on its own though it also would work well in a variety of cocktails.

I made a cocktail with the Paranubes Rum and Switchel, as switchel and rum once was a commonly consumed combination. It made for an interesting and tasty drink, with the tartness of the switchel working with the fruit and saline of the rum. I'll be experimenting with the Paranubes in other cocktails in the near future.

I hope more Oaxacan rums come onto the market so that we can experience more of the terroir of this region. Paranubes Rum is exciting and different, delicious and compelling and you need to seek it out. Judah Kuper of Mezcal Vago already sells some incredible Mezcals and with this diversification, he continues in that vein with an incredible Oaxacan rum.