Month: March 2014

The Sweet Taste of Spring

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Trick your taste buds into thinking it’s warm outside with these three spring desserts and wine pairings

Forget the forecast for snow and bone-chilling temps this week, the calendar says it’s spring. So while we may be still wrapped up in wool sweaters, there is no reason not to, at least culinarily, embrace the new season while we wait for Mother Nature to catch up. (All recipes are at the end).

Moscato d’Asti with Lemon Friands

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With its blend of orange blossom and peach, this bright, refreshing, medium-sweet sparkler from Oddero is like spring itself in a glass. In recent years, Moscato d’Asti has enjoyed a surge in popularity thanks to certain rap artists who took a liking to it. While celebrity-endorsed wines would normally be something I’d steer clear of, Moscato d’Asti from a good producer, served with the right food in the right setting, can be an absolute pleasure. These are crowd-pleasing, uplifting wines perfect for brunch, with appetizers, or a light dessert like these lemon friands.

As its name implies, this semi-sparkling wine hails from the Asti region in northwestern Italy, home to its more famous cousin Asti Spumante. Both are made from the Muscat Bianco grape and fermented in a stainless steel tank under pressure. But whereas spumante is made into a full sparkling wine with alcohol levels of around 7.5%, Moscato is a slightly less bubbly frizzante with a maximum alcohol level of 5.5%. Oddero is a well-known Piedmont producer of traditional, long-lived Barolos, but a small portion of their vineyard is dedicated to Moscat bianco, from which they make small batches of their Moscato d’Asti. 2012 Oddero Moscato d’Asti, (750 mL), $21.99.

Ruster Ausbruch with Frozen Orange Muscat Mousse and Mangos

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Few areas in the world have the right conditions for the growth of Botrytis cinerea, the magically transformative fungus responsible for making luscious dessert wines, such as Sauternes. One of these regions is along the west coast of the Austrian lake Neusiedl near the town of Rust not far from the Hungarian border. Here the shallow waters moisten the western winds off the Pannonian plain, which almost guarantees a yearly harvest of these nobly rotten grapes. Ausbruch means to “break out” and is thought to refer to the fact that only botrytized grapes are picked (i.e. ones that have broken out from the bunch), but etymologically, it is related to the Hungarian word Azsú, which means dried, and is a term used for the Hungary’s sweet, botrytised Tokaji wines. In fact Rust used to belong to Hungary, and it is likely that Tokaji and Ausbruch wines came about around the same time, in the early 1600s.

Traditionally, these wines were made from Fermint grape, but today many of the wines are blends of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Welschriesling and Traminer.  The grapes are picked individually, which sometimes requires a half a dozen passes through the vineyard. The grapes are then gently pressed and fermented with native yeasts in either stainless steel or oak vat. This can take up to four months. The wine is then aged either in large oak vats (classic) or in small french oak barrels. With such concentrated, complex flavors and a vibrant acidity, these stand among the world’s best and most long-lived wines. You’re unlikely to find any dating from earlier than 1945, however, as the Russians occupied Rust during WWII and drank every last bottle. Feiler-Artinger is one of the region’s top producers. This Pinot Cuvée is made from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Neuburger and Chardonnay. It was aged in small oak barriques for 18 months and tastes of apricot, honey, and orange zest with slight woody notes. At 16 years old, this wine is still in its youth and would easily keep for your great grandchildren to enjoy. But it’s drinking so well right now that I doubt it would last long in anyone’s cellar. 1998 Feiler-Artinger Ruster Ausbruch Pinot Cuvée, 375 mL, $31.99.

Sparkling Demi-Sec Rosé with Panna Cotta and Balsamic Strawberries

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From the appellation of Bugey in far eastern France comes this unusual sparkling rosé from Lingot-Martin. Gamay and Poulsard grapes are used for these wines, which reflect the area’s proximity to Burgundy to the west and the Jura to the north. The Cerdon vineyard, one of only three named vineyards, consists of two south-facing slopes surrounding the village of Cerdon. A particular feature of this area’s sparkling wines is that they are made using the méthode ancestrale. This process differs slightly from the méthode traditionnelle, which is used to make Champagne, in that following primary fermentation in stainless steel tanks, a second dose of yeast and sugar is not added before bottling. Instead, fermentation is halted before all the sugars have been converted to alcohol, and the wine is then bottled with the remaining yeast. Secondary fermentation still occurs in the bottle, but the resulting sparkling wine is medium sweet. This particular wine was made for this dessert. It’s an ideal match in weight, sweetness (the wine is only just slightly sweeter), and flavors, with the acidity and bubbles providing a perfect foil for the panna cotta’s creaminess. NV Lingot-Martin Cerdon Pinot Cuvée, 750 mL, $18.99.


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Lemon Friands
1 3/4 sticks unsalted butter
1 C + 2 TBSP confectioner’s sugar, sifted
1/3 C all-purpose flour
1 C ground almonds
5 egg whites
1 TBSP finely grated lemon or orange zest

Heat oven to 400° F. Melt butter and allow to cool. Brush muffin pan with melted butter. Sift flour and confectioner’s sugar together. Stir in ground almonds. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites gently until light and frothy. Fold them into dry ingredients. Pour in remaining butter and lemon zest and stir well. Put greased muffin pan on cookie sheet and fill 3/4 full with mixture. Put sheet and muffin pan in center of oven for 10 minutes. Remove and turn out friands onto cookie sheet. Cook for 7 to 10 minutes more. Should be golden on top and firm to the touch in the center. Remove sheet from oven and let stand for 5 minutes. Invert each one onto wire rack. When cool, dust with confectioner’s sugar. Store in airtight container.

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Frozen Orange Muscat Mousse and Mangos (Adapted from the recipe: Almond Cookie Cups with Sauternes-Poached Apples and Frozen Sauternes Mousse (which is also delicious) on Epicurious)
For mousse
3/4 cup sweet dessert wine (such as Sauternes or orange Muscat)
1/2 cup sugar
4 large egg yolks
1 cup chilled whipping cream

For Almond cups
3 tablespoons all purpose flour
2 tablespoons (1/4 stick) unsalted butter, melted
2 tablespoons (packed) golden brown sugar
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/4 cup (about 1 ounce) finely chopped toasted almonds

Make mousse:
Whisk wine, sugar and yolks in medium-size stainless steel bowl until well blended. Set bowl over saucepan of simmering water (do not allow bottom to touch water) and whisk until thermometer registers 170°F and mixture is thick enough to fall in heavy ribbon when whisk is lifted, about 5 minutes. Remove from over water; whisk until mixture is cool, about 3 minutes. In another medium bowl, whisk cream until medium-firm peaks form. Fold cream into wine mixture in 2 additions. Cover mousse; freeze until firm, at least 4 hours. (Can be made 4 days ahead; keep frozen.)

Make almond cups:
Preheat oven to 400°F. Line baking sheet with parchment paper. Set 2 small custard cups or ramekins on work surface, bottom side up. Stir first 4 ingredients in small bowl to blend. Mix in almonds. Separately drop 2 level tablespoonfuls batter onto prepared baking sheet, spacing 6 inches apart. Using moistened fingertips, press each to 2-inch round. Bake cookies until deep golden (cookies will spread to about 5-inch diameter), about 7 minutes. Let cool on sheet until set enough to lift without tearing, about 1 minute. Using metal spatula, lift hot cookies 1 at a time and drape over cups, gently pressing to cup shape; cool. Remove from cups. Refrigerate baking sheet 2 minutes to chill quickly. Repeat with remaining batter, making 2 cookies at a time. (Cookies can be made 4 days ahead. Carefully enclose in resealable plastic bags and freeze.) Place 1 almond cookie cup on each of 6 plates. Fill each with scoop of mousse. Top with freshly cut mangos.

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Panna Cotta with Balsamic Strawberries (from Ina Garten)
1/2 packet (1 teaspoon) unflavored gelatin powder
1 1/2 tablespoons cold water
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, divided
1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 vanilla bean, split and seeds scraped
1/3 cup sugar, plus 1 tablespoon
2 pints (4 cups) sliced fresh strawberries
2 1/2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon sugar
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Freshly grated lemon zest, for serving
In a small bowl, sprinkle the gelatin on 1 1/2 tablespoons of cold water. Stir and set aside for 10 minutes to allow the gelatin to dissolve. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl, whisk together 3/4 cup of the cream, the yogurt, vanilla extract, and vanilla bean seeds. Heat the remaining 3/4 cup of cream and the 1/3 cup of sugar in a small saucepan and bring to a simmer over medium heat. Off the heat, add the softened gelatin to the hot cream and stir to dissolve. Pour the hot cream-gelatin mixture into the cold cream-yogurt mixture and stir to combine. Pour into 4 (6 to 8-ounce) ramekins or custard cups and refrigerate uncovered until cold. When the panna cottas are thoroughly chilled, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Combine the strawberries, balsamic vinegar, 1 tablespoon sugar, and pepper 30 minutes to 1 hour before serving. Set aside at room temperature.

To serve, run a small knife around each dessert in the ramekin and dip the bottom of each ramekin quickly in a bowl of hot tap water. Invert each ramekin onto a dessert plate and surround the panna cotta with strawberries. Dust lightly with freshly grated lemon zest and serve.






The Magic of an Aged Auslese

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Consider yourself warned. Go ahead and try those young, dry Rieslings. Delicious as they are, however, they may just turn out to be gateway wines, leading to all kinds of Riesling cravings. One particularly enticing style that is often overlooked is Auslese, which Eric Asimov calls one of “the greatest wines that nobody drinks.”

One of the reasons this style is so under appreciated is that no one is ever sure what to expect. Will it be dry or sweet? How sweet? What do you pair it with? As described in my earlier post Germany’s best wines (Prädikatswein) are categorized according to the ripeness of the grapes when picked, ranging in sugar levels from kabinett to trockenbeerenauslese. Auslese wines fall somewhere in the middle and are made from fully ripe, specially selected, sometimes lightly botrytized grapes. Regardless of sugar levels, Riesling’s searing acidity and ample fruit flavors make all of these styles age worthy, often for decades, and therein lies its magic. The wine’s fresh fruit flavors recede and integrate with the minerality, which comes to the fore along with the classic petrol notes. The sweetness softens, while the acidity keeps the wine fresh. The result is a harmonious, balanced, exquisite wine.

Those of us without the foresight (or awareness) back in the early 90s to sock away German Rieslings need to rely on those that did. Here in New York, some retailers such as Chambers Street and Crush have stocks of older vintages. I found two auslesen from 1993 that represent this style’s range of expression.

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At one end of the spectrum was this auslese by Weingut Schwaab-Kiebel. Made from grapes grown and hand picked in the famed Erdener Treppchen vineyard, a steep, south-facing slope in the mid-Mosel, the wine is vinified in the traditional 1000 liter fuders. This wine was completely captivating with its notes of apple, honeysuckle, and petrol, the signature scent of an aged Riesling. More surprising was its ability to pull off seemingly contradictory feats. How could it manage to be both creamy and finely chiseled at the same time? Such is the allure of aged Rieslings.

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Weingut Forstmeister Geltz-Zilliken thought to age their wines themselves and only last year released their 1993 auslese. Zilliken is based in the cool corner of the Saar River, a tributary of the Mosel, and is one of the top producers in the region. Most of their 11 ha of vineyards are in the famous, top-tiered Saarburger Rausch, where the grapes from this wine originated. It’s an area more exposed to cold easterly winds, which gives their wines a certain steeliness. What stands out for this wine is the bright lemon color, which you would not expect from a wine entering its third decade. The aromas are predominantly of ripe red apple and pear with a slight hint of petrol. It’s just off dry, with a deep concentration of fresh fruit, but is surprisingly light and delicate. After I let the wine sit open to the air for a few hours it settled into itself, with all the elements fully integrating and the petrol, mineral notes moving more to the fore.

With their bright acidity, Rieslings are one of the most complimentary wines to have with food. Too, a hint of sweetness softens the heat in many spicy Asian dishes. The Schwaab-Kiebel would be wonderful with a creamy, soft-rind cheese, but is so utterly delicious, I’d just drink it all on its own. The Zilliken, on the other hand has a silky, refined elegance that would make it a perfect accompaniment to lighter fare, such as a smoked trout salad.

Food Pairings

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Cheese is a natural match for a slightly sweet wine. In the same way that quince paste and Manchego or fig jam and blue cheese work well together, sweet and salty are a natural pair. Winnimere from The Cellars at Jasper Hill in Vermont won the Best in Show at last year’s annual American Cheese Society Conference. It’s made from unpasteurized cow’s milk, wrapped in spruce bark from a Vermont farm and washed in a lambic-style beer from the nearby Hill Farmstead Brewery. The best way to eat it is by slicing the top off and scooping out the creamy, gooey cheese with a spoon. A Vacherin Mont d’Or, (when in season around the holidays) or an Époisses would also be beautiful. 

Another great option is Hook’s Cheese from Mineral Point, Wisconsin made headlines in 2009 when it released a 15-year-old cheddar, which at the time was the oldest cheese sold to the public. Even at $50 a pound, it was a hit and sold out quickly. They’ve released a batch every year since, and there’s talk of releasing a 20-year-old cheddar next year. My fingers crossed. The 15-year cheddar is pretty spectacular. It’s so crumbly that slicing is futile. You end up eating little boulders that fall off the block, and they just melt in your mouth. The texture is surprisingly creamy and smooth with little bits of crunchy calcium lactate crystals. It’s only slightly younger than the wine but packed with so much flavor the wine only barely stands up to it.


I ♥ German Riesling

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Or What We Talk About When We Talk About Residual Sugar


Ask any sommelier what his or her favorite grape variety is and chances are German Riesling will be at the top of the list. Ask again what the toughest wine to sell is and you’ll likely get the same answer: Riesling. Why such a huge disconnect? In a word, sugar. Among the general wine-drinking public the perception persists that all German wine is sweet (in fact much of German wine is dry), but more erroneously that sweet equals bad.

I recently pulled out a bottle from the Mosel for a friend, who cast a wary eye at me when she saw the distinctive long, slender bottle. She took a sip, then another, and was genuinely surprised: “Oh, this is good. It isn’t sweet at all.” While some sweet wines are indeed bad, they are bad not because they are sweet but usually because they are unbalanced and simple. This wine was good not because it was dry, but because it had a beautiful concentration of fresh fruit, and the residual sugar present in the wine (yes, there was some) was balanced by a firm streak of acidity.

Acidity is the key when it comes to any wine with residual sugar. It turns out, however, that with German rieslings, I’ve been thinking about this backwards. I’ve always thought of it as sugar needing acid, but in the northern climates of Germany’s wine-growing regions where grapes often struggle to ripen, it’s just the opposite. Riesling is a grape with naturally high acidity, and here, even in summer, the nights can be cool, which means that a lot of that acid sticks around late into the harvest season.  It’s this acidity that needs a bit of sugar to soften what otherwise might be some razor sharp edges.

Vineyard site, then, becomes very important. There are excellent Rieslings made in the Rheingau, Pfalz and Nahe, but where Riesling reaches its height in finesse and delicacy is on the steep, south-facing slopes along the snake-like Mosel River. The best vineyards are planted with a southerly aspect, which allows the grapes to capture as much sun as possible, giving them time to develop sugars and concentrated flavors well into November. This confluence of climate and terroir is what makes Rieslings from the top vineyards and top producers in the Mosel so radiant. Whether it’s dry, off dry or sweet, what you get is a harmonious trifecta of fruit, acid and sugar. When made well, they are structured, well-balanced, glorious wines that are incredibly versatile with food. It’s what makes them so revered by sommeliers.

“A German wine label is one of the things life is too short for . . .” Kingsley Amis

With all those umlauts and syllables strung together in long breathless stretches, a German wine label can seem as impenetrable as German existentialist philosophy. They do, however, contain a surprising amount of information. First and foremost, to gauge the sweetness of a wine look for the word trocken for dry, halbtrocken for half-dry, or feinherb for slightly sweeter (although this term has no legal definition, it is often found on labels). Lieblich and Süss are for sweeter wines, but they are rarely used. If none of these terms are on the label, then look for the alcohol level. If the abv is 11 or 12%, the wine is likely to taste dry; if it is lower, expect some sweetness.

Just to make things more complicated, in 2012, the VDP—a group of around 200 top producers who have taken quality assurances into their own hands—gave us a few more terms to decipher. One of their goals is to emphasize and recognize wines by the quality of the vineyard sites (as is done in Burgundy). On newer wine bottles you will see Grosses Gewächs, which means a wine from one of the very best sites, a Grosse Lage. In essence, grand cru wines, and they are always dry. Erste Gewachs wines are the equivalent of premier cru, Ortswein are village wines, while Gutswein are regional. VDP member wines are identified by a band around the bottleneck with the symbol of an eagle clutching a cluster of grapes.


Traditionally, quality wines have been classified by their must weights when they are picked, and these terms are still used. The longer the grapes stay on the vine the heavier the must weights, the greater amount of sugar, and the deeper and richer the flavors. Kabinett grapes are harvested first (these are not allowed for Grosses Gewächs), followed by spätlese (late harvest), and then auslese (selected harvest). Beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese are made from grapes left to dry on the vine and are often affected by botrytis (noble rot). These last two are lusciously sweet dessert wines that can age for decades, while the first three can be made in a range of styles, from dry to sweet.

Although the dry Rieslings can be delicious, it’s the sweet versions of spätlese and auslese, which are made nowhere else in the world that make German wines unlike any other. These wines are often not fermented to dryness and therefore will have some residual sugar (even trocken wines can have up to 9g/L of sugar). Traditionally, however, they weren’t meant to be consumed until they had been aged. Spätlese wines will initially be very fruity and fresh, then shut down and enter an awkward phase. They need at least 10 years to really shine but will be delicious for another 20. Auslesen need a couple of decades, but will last for at least half a century. Over time, the intensity of the ripe fruit fades, allowing the minerality to come through. The acidity and sugar amounts technically remain the same but their edges soften and they become more integrated. What remains is a leaner, more complex, spectacular wine. They pair well with roasted game, such as duck, ham, smoked trout and cheese.


As with any other wine region the key to finding good wine is knowing who the good producers are. Recently, a group of top winemakers were in New York for Rieslingfeier, an annual event to promote top quality German Rieslings.  I attended a seminar hosted by Stuart Spigott, a wine writer based in Berlin whose book The Best White Wine on Earth –The Riesling Story is coming out this summer. Four notable producers from the Mosel and Rheingau poured their wines, and although most were dry (and fantastic), their other wines are worth seeking out. Whether dry or sweet, these are producers worth knowing about.

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Karthäuserhof is one of the most highly regarded estates in Germany and, unusually, is a single vineyard. Located along the Ruwer River, a tributary off the southern part of the Mosel, the vineyard comprises 19 ha of blue Devonian slate. The estate is known for its finely made Rieslings, though it also makes a small amount of Pinot Blanc and sparking wines. Evidence of winemaking in the area can be traced back to the Romans, but it was the Carthusian monks in the 1300s who brought acclaim to these wines. Today’s winemaker Christian Vogt brought two trocken wines from 2012. While both had 8 g/L of sugar these wines tasted bone dry and had a quite pronounced minerality to them.

Stuart Spigott introducing Christian Vogt

Weingut Peter Lauer has at its helm, Florian Lauer, a fifth-generation winemaker, who is one of the rising stars in the Mosel. Lauer has 8 ha of Riesling along the Saar River, off the southern part of the Mosel. It is slightly cooler and the wines in general have a steelier, chiseled edge to them. One of the most famous of Lauer’s vineyards is Ayler Kupp. It is also quite sizeable, and different parts have different soil, microclimates and sun exposure. Lauer believes in letting the grapes express the terroir so he harvests, vinifies and bottles these parcels separately. He also eschews the pradikat classification (kabinett, spätlese, auslese), Instead you will see Fass numbers, indicating wine from a specific parcel. He also likes to indicate the exact location so you’ll fine “Unterstenbersch” (the bottom), Stirn (the top) and Kern (mid slope) appended to the vineyard name. He uses native yeasts and will let the wine rest on its lees for six months. The wines we tasted were also from 2012. The Ayler Kupp “Unterstenberg” has 12 g/L of RS, and was richer and creamier than the Karthauserhofs, it still tasted dry. The Ayler Kupp “Stirn” had 30 g/L of RS and was merely off dry.  Absolutely delicious.

Florian Lauer

Clemens Busch, the eponymous owner of Weingut Clemens Busch, is a bit of a rock star in the Mosel. Jerry Garcia perhaps, in that he farms his 25 ha in the mid-mosel biodynamically, and he has a devoted following. In the cool folds of the Mosel this means he must climb the steep slopes every ten days to apply an herbal tea to fight fungal disease. He too believes in the expression of individual terroir and picks, ferments and bottles each of his parcels separately. Bottles are labeled with their respective parcels: Fahrlay, Falkenlay, Raffes, Rothenpfad and Marienburg. The wines are generally richer, fuller bodied with a striking minerality.

Clemens Busch
Clemens Busch

Weingut Leitz is one of the top producers in the Rheingau, where winemaker Johannes Leitz has been making wine since he was 21. The vineyards were his playground while growing up, but once he was old enough, he took over from his mother who’d been at the helm since his father died in 1965. Leitz manages nearly 40 ha of vineyards in the western part of the Rheingau where the soil consists of slate and quartzite. Leitz often picks his grapes late and lets them macerate on the skins for 36 hours. He will then often ferment them dry. We tasted the 2006 Rudesheimer Berg Rottland Alte Reben, which was a big, bold, full-bodied wine with racy acidity and tasted of ripe tropical fruits (pineapple) and lemon. The 2009 Rudesheimer Berg Kaisersteinfels was crisp and dry, very precise with mineral and petrol notes.