Friday, August 1, 2008

Northern Exposure: Cool Climate Wines Back in Spotlight

In truth, many incredibly tasty wines come from cooler climes. Case in point: Burgundy and Bordeaux, the famed regions of France, sit astride the so-called magic 45th parallel which puts them at nearly the same latitude as Oregon and Ontario’s wine-producing regions.

While you may have heard of Oregon’s luscious wines, you might not be as familiar with the increasingly sought after ice wines that trickle from the Niagara Peninsula in Canada. Jim Bernau, owner of Oregon’s Willamette* Valley Vineyards, describes his state as one of the great wine regions—and the Niagara Peninsula is viewed similarly. What might have elicited suppressed giggles some years ago is rarely disputed today. In essence, cool climate wines are becoming increasingly, well, cool.

A Tale of Terroir

As Chicagoans continue their march through the world of wine, they’re discovering all the facets of that world, as if peeling an onion. And perhaps at the heart of the onion is terroir, the concept that the land and climate play as great a role in a wine’s taste as the grape itself or the efforts of the winemaker. A French word once the provenance of only sommeliers, ardent oenophiles and vintners, terroir crops up in publications with a frequency which would have been startling even ten years ago.

Nearly every wine expert I spoke with cited terroir as one of the defining characteristics of Oregon wine. In Pops for Champagne’s wine director W. Craig Cooper’s estimation, “The Willamette Valley is really the only New World region that has shown both the necessary dedication and the collective understanding of the varietal to allow this terroir to bloom.”

To the Willamette Valley’s Bernau as well as other local wine experts, the climate and land are ideal to produce three outstanding wines, pinot noir, chardonnay and pinot gris.

“The style we get from these soils and climate is delicate, well-balanced, feminine, food friendly wine,” Bernau explains. “Oregon pinot noir and pinot gris have a particular taste profile and aroma.” To the impassioned, pioneering winemaker, Oregon pinots have structure and balance and are eminently food friendly (which he claims is the reason they’re so popular in Chicago).

Pinot noir, which put the state on the map for wine-making, was first planted in the 1970’s. According to Jane Lopes of Lush Wines, “Pinot noir is a fickle grape and requires a lot out of its growing conditions and its winemaker. It’s a risky grape to grow because it needs to ripen very slowly and a poor vintage—especially in the hands of a less talented or less detail-oriented winemaker—could be disastrous.”

A Warming Trend

Bernau believes that Oregon wines will only grow in popularity. “In Burgundy there’s no more space to plant more vineyards. They’d have to tear down houses. In Oregon, there’s plenty of land.” Moreover, he and more than 50% of Willamette Valley winemakers have certified sustainable operations in order to protect the environment.

“People aren’t just buying on quality and price,” he explains. “How can you possibly enjoy a glass of wine if you knew the environment was damaged in making it?” The Oregon vintners’ stewardship of the environment, as well as their Old World, craftsman’s approach to wines, have produced legions of fans in Chicago.

If you have the opportunity, visiting Oregon wine country has its own rewards. The antithesis of Napa, the Willamette Valley is mellow, laid back and infinitely more approachable. Just south of Portland, the scenic valley is full of low key wineries and impressive vistas.

The Coolest of Them All: The Pinot

At first, pinot noirs were rather rare and could be difficult to find, and then came the movie Sideways. Now it’s one of the most popular wines, and Oregon—along with California—is one of the largest producers.

Bernau contrasts Oregon’s storied pinot noir with California’s as follows: “The California pinot noir is like the flashy girl you wanted to date but couldn’t bring home to mom. She’s voluptuous and wears a deep cut blouse. Oregon pinot noirs are elegant and wear a black evening gown. They’re the ones you want to take home to mom.”

Chris Cavarra, of McCormick & Schmick’s, calls Oregon’s pinot noirs “phenomenal” claiming there’s no better wine to serve with salmon. “People think that you can’t drink wine with seafood,” he explains. “But pinot noir is very versatile and works.” The wine enthusiast also recommends Oregon’s pinot gris wines which he believes are an underappreciated wine and wonderful value.

An Even Cooler Cool Climate Wine

When I first heard about ice wine I have to confess that I wasn’t drawn to the stuff. With a moniker that’s not intuitive and two nouns that I’d learned should never go together, I was skeptical. I was celebrating at Charlie Trotter’s with four long-time friends, when for our finishing course the waiter plunked down (well, delicately placed) glasses of a fine ice wine called Inniskillin.

Thankfully, the sommelier explained the almost syrupy, richly colored wine as he filled our petite wine glasses, and after I drained one glass, I wanted more. (But anyone who’s been to Trotter’s knows there no such thing as refills.)

It’s easy to regard the stuff as something for old ladies looking for an accompaniment for a bowl of bon bons, but ice wines—albeit sweet—are far too complex to be so quickly dismissed.

A Chilly Proposition

Given their price tags, ice wines might be identified with another ice—that found on engagement rings. What justifies the high price tags and lofty reputation of these golden nectars and are they worth it?

Creating ice wine is no easy feat. According to Inniskillin’s Bruce Nicholson, a winemaker for 22 years, there’s little predictability. “With other grapes you know when they’re going to be harvested. With ice wine you never know. The temperature has to be at 18 degrees Farenheit or below for a prolonged period. And more often than not, that happens in the middle of the night.”

In other winemaking regions workers might pull long days, laboring to harvest the grapes during mild autumn days. At Inniskillin and with many ice wine producers, harvesting is done in the middle of the night during the dead of winter. And once the frozen grapes have been carefully harvested by bundled-up pickers, the work begins.

“The grapes are pressed right away,” he explains, to preserve the high concentrations of sugar in the fruit and to extract water in the form of ice crystals, leaving only a dribble of pure, concentrated nectar. (Talk about pulling an all-nighter.)

And if the challenge of harvesting the grapes and pressing them in the middle of a cold, dark Canadian night isn’t enough, there are myriad other potential threats. Because the ripe fruit must remain on the vine for three or four months, Mother Nature constantly threatens.

In 1983, Inniskillin’s crop was nearly obliterated by flocks of ravenous starlings, and in other years thaws or other weather extremes reduced harvests. Protective nets now cover vineyards, but freak thaws and high winds can still exact a toll. Nearly seven pounds of grapes are required in order to make one 376-milliliter bottle of ice wine—nearly a tenth of what the grapes would yield in regular wine.

Giving Ice Wines a Warm Embrace

To Nicholson, all the effort and cold weather work are worth it. “Ice wines are something special,” he gushes. “The concentration of flavors is incredible.”

Describing ice wines as sweet is akin to saying the North Pole is chilly. While at first the thought of all that sugary liquid sluicing across your taste buds might foster a frown, the characteristics of the wine run more toward refreshing as opposed to cloying. Medium to full bodied, the wines are known for their long, lingering finish and intense, memorable flavors. The nose is often reminiscent of stone fruits, honey, citrus, figs and caramel, or even tropical fruits such as lychee. Even the color can be illustrative of its rich, nearly viscous lushness. Amber, honey or golden hued, the wines are imbued with seductive colors which are as beguiling as the drink itself.

Lush’s Lopes describes ice wine as “special because it’s such a difficult and risky proposition.” The unique process of allowing the grapes to freeze “concentrates the sugar and flavors, making for a sweet, rich dessert wine that is really unlike other sweet wines in its precision and intensity.”

Some Cold, Hard Facts

Ice wine is thought to have been first produced in 1794 in Germany when monks were surprised by an early frost. Making the most of their plight (and faced with a cold winter sans vin), the enterprising monks salvaged and pressed the grapes, discovering a rich, seductive nectar—the first ice wine.

While a number of countries produce ice wine, including Germany, Austria and the U.S., Canadian ice wines are the most highly regarded and most plentiful thanks to the ideal growing conditions of the Niagara Peninsula. Producers must follow Vintners Quality Alliance (VQA) regulations which stipulate, among other things, the sugar level of the grapes used to make the wine. Most wines are crafted from Riesling, Vidal, and Cabernet Franc, though makers are experimenting with other grapes and have also created sparkling versions. Typically sold in 375 or 200 milliliter bottles, the wines are meant to be sipped and not quaffed.

While the wine is often paired with dessert, it can just as easily be served with pungent cheeses or as an aperitif.

A Chilling Conclusion

Ultimately, whether it’s a crisp Oregon pinot gris, structured pinot noir or elegant, nectar-like ice wine, cool climate wines are climbing the charts.

Americans love affair with wine continues unabated and Chicagoans seem to create as many trends as they adopt. Maybe its because our climate is perfect for the consumption of all types of wines, or perhaps its stellar restaurants which demand wine that’s of equal variety and caliber. Bracing January evenings beg for a hearty red while scorching August days call for a refreshing pinot gris. So perhaps it only makes sense that cool climate wines have found a home in a cool city.

*While visiting an Oregon vineyard, I spotted a t-shirt on a staff person that read, “It’s Willamette, dammit,” which is a clearer and more expedient pronunciation guide than any I could dream up.

Sunday, June 1, 2008

The good sweet story of the rebirth of the American cheese industry

In the past decade or so our country’s consumption of top specialty cheeses has soared. In 1986 I first ventured to Europe and was perplexed to discover that many restaurants offered a cheese course for dessert. Cheese — for dessert? To sweet-toothed me, dessert always meant something sweet: an apple tart or chocolate fondant. It didn’t matter whether they called it fromage, queso or formaggio. To me, it just wasn’t dessert.

My hesitation was probably born of my experiences with American cheeses pre-1990 when bland and boring seemed to be the bywords for domestic production. These days my outlook has been altered. And based on the blooming abundance of distinctive cheese menus in restaurants around the city, I’m not the only one who's experienced a change of heart.

The great awakening

Twenty years ago or so Americans first discovered the joys of imported French and Italian cheeses such as brie and parmeggiano. At that time, it seemed difficult to find American-made cheeses that rivaled European counterparts. Since those days, a mushrooming bevy of craft cheese producing artisans have sprung up around the country from unlikely spots such as Louisiana and Indiana to more predictable states such as Vermont and Wisconsin. And the cheeses these Old World craftsman are creating are not just good for American cheeses, but have become considered damn good by international standards.

In the past decade or so our country’s consumption of specialty cheeses has soared. If ever there was a day when a Kraft Single ruled the land, those days are decidedly over.

So what brought Americans — and Chicago area residents, in particular — to this point?

Perhaps one explanation has been the popularity of wine. An excellent match for many cheeses, wine is as good a companion to cheese as chicken is to rosemary, pretzels to mustard and vanilla ice cream to hot fudge sauce. And given that the United States is now the second largest consumer of wine (after France), it only makes sense that we would go from nibblers of cheese to gobblers. Locally speaking, our metropolitan area is the second largest market for wine in the country, so perhaps it’s not surprising that premium cheeses are also to be found in great quantity. Finally, as we shun mass produced food oftentimes marked by inferior quality and unhealthful additives and often linked to environmental degradation, it’s only natural that we would seek something tastier and with more integrity when it comes to cheese.

Midwest is best?

Thankfully for Midwesterners, some of the finest cheeses are created right here. As American’s palates have grown more refined and adventurous, sparking a renewed interest in cheeses, producers in the area — as well as other major sources such as California and Vermont — have stepped up to the, er, cheese plate. Chicago stores and restaurants boast a great abundance and variety of premium and limited-production cheeses. Chicago’s Green City Market grows larger every year, and it seems as if there’s a back-to-the-land movement spawned by small-scale producers who prefer to earn a more modest income while producing award winning, high quality cheeses.

One of the best producers, Roth Käse, is located just across the border in Wisconsin. The company creates award-winning hard cheeses, such as gruyere which is known for its nutty, bold flavor, and many others. As with other small companies like petite Prairie Fruits Farm near Champaign, IL, which creates super-premium goat’s cheese, the products created end up on the tables of some of the finest restaurants in Chicago and elsewhere. And larger, but artisanal producers such as Carr Valley Cheese in LaValle, Wis., distribute their creations at finer grocery stores, specialty food stores, farmers' markets and on-line. Collectively, Wisconsin cheese producers receive the lion’s share of national awards, and for products ranging from traditional cheddar to hard ewes’ milk cheese.

According to Bin 36’s Executive Chef John Caputo, local cheeses "are not only getting better, but also more sophisticated, both in flavor profiles and textures."

"One of my favorite local guys is Tony Hook and the ten-year cheddar he creates. Willi Lehner of Blue Mont Dairy seems to want to experiment with different techniques and methods in his brand new caves. And of course, I love the gruyere style cheese coming from Mike Gingrich at the Uplands Cheese Company."

In the case of Wisconsin’s much-in-demand Pleasant Ridge Reserve, the gruyere-style cheese is produced only in the summer and is featured in four-star restaurants. From one batch to the next, this rare cheese tastes different — but is always considered a masterpiece of culinary art.

Restaurants take a cue

A growing number of restaurants have installed cheese "caves" or refrigerators that store their precious cargo at an optimal temperature and humidity. Spiaggia's cave is one of the largest and probably the first in the city. Eno, at the other end of the Mag Mile, exists for customers to explore the almost magical flavor sensations experienced when pairing cheese and wine. Offering one of the most diverse collections around, the restaurant offers sheep, goat and cow’s cheese with the menu divided into smelly and pungent, triple cream, spicy, blue, hard and Wisconsin award-winners.

Standby Bin 36 offers an astounding 50 cheeses—available individually or as part of themed flights. Cheeses from Dallas, Indiana, Colorado and Louisiana sit inauspiciously beside listings for cheeses from France, Italy and Wisconsin. There are unusual selections here, and a brief but insightful insight into the character of each cheese.

Why all the cheese? According to Caputo, the menu represents "completely unique and totally sophisticated, well-produced cheeses."

Caputo is so devoted to cheese that he’s serving as the ambassador for Wisconsin's Milk Marketing Board for 2008. As if all of the excitement over cheeses in local restaurants were not enough, the American Cheese Society held its 25th anniversary conference in Chicago in July 2008. The fine dairy products juggernaut featured over 1,400 cheeses from around the country vying for coveted awards.

Other restaurants offer extensive cheese menus, including Pops for Champagne, which offers mostly American cheeses, including Cypress Grove and Old Chatham. Sepia, built from an 1890 print shop just west of the Loop, features an unusual, evolving artisan cheese cellar, stocking hard-to-find domestic creations such as Tarentaise from Vermont’s Thistle Hill Farm and Green Hill from Sweet Grass Dairy in Georgia, Berkshire blue from Massachusetts and Feliciana Nevat from Louisiana.

Most restaurants offer pairing suggestions for the cheeses they carry and Ontario-based ice wine producer Inniskillin recommends enjoying its elegant wines with Point Reyes Blue, Capricious goat cheese or Red Hawk from Cowgirl Creamery.

A labor of love

If you balk at the price you might pay for a premium cheese, consider that neither dairy farmers nor cheese producers rank anywhere near the top (or even bottom) of the Forbes richest list. For many, producing flavorful, unique cheeses represents a labor of love. The cheese they create, free of antibiotics, hormones or unnatural feed, tastes different from year to year, dependent upon what flowers and grasses the animals eat.

Artisanal producers, utilizing Old World, craftsman techniques, concentrate on quality over quantity, sometimes raising rarer Jersey cows which yield half the milk of traditional dairy bovines. Milk from Jersey cows produces tastier cheeses, and that, along with the animals’ diet and how they are treated, leads to more flavorful, richer tasting products.

As with the watershed Judgment of Paris in 1976 when American wine first bested French wine in a blind tasting, American cheeses are now winning international tasting competitions. To those who are just discovering the superb flavor and quality of American cheese, a bevy of domestic artisans, farmers and foodies merely ask, "What took you so long?"
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