Off the Grid Dinner with South American food and wines!

This was good fun with a dynamic crew of nice folk!  A private dinner through “Off the Grid” ( – a small group of food and wine lovers who, every month or so, get together with a broad-minded chef who is willing to close a restaurant to the public and create a fun evening with like-minded foodies.

South America – especially Argentina and Chile have a long history of wine making and fine cuisine (although I’ve recently had a nice Southern Rhone style blend from Brazil that was surprisingly good and quite drinkable).  Chef Toni Pais and his staff used his casual bistro Café Zinho to produce a wonderful five course meal matched to five wines that represented the Chilean and Argentine food culture – as a special note I have to say that the second course, a ceviche of Diver Scallops and Shrimp, lime cured for 30 hours, was the best ceviche I have ever had!!!

Below is a summary of the foods and wines

–          Tapas – Empanadas Two Ways – Onion Tomato Chicken & Onion Tomato Cheese.  Wine: Trapiche Extra Brut NVArgentina

–          Marisco: Diver Scallop and Shrimp Ceviche.  Wine: Natura Organic Chardonnay 2010 – Chile

–          Ensalada: Mixed Green Salad

–          Plato: Seared Delmonico Steak with Chimichurri with Roasted Potatoes and Vegetables.  Wines: Cono Sur Organic Cabernet / Carmenere Blend 2008 – Chile AND Bodega Paris Goulart Malbec 2007 – Argentina

–          Postre: Almond Cookies with Dolce de Leche served on Dolce de Leche Crème Anglaise.  Wine: Reginato Blanc de Blancs 2006 – Argentina

(Please make a comment if you are interested in full notes on the wines and I will post them)

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WPSU Wine Festival & Celebration – State College September 19th

When Pittsburghers think about driving a couple of hours to a wine event, many might be think ‘why bother’, since the State of Pennsylvania is known to have generally similar choices at all the state owned wine shops across the state.   But wait – this event looks a little different.   For anyone thirsting for wine knowledge and seeking a chance to sample a broad variety of wines in one setting, the drive up to State College will be very attractive.  (

Ensuring that the event will be as wine-focused as possible is the event’s co-chair Ted Liberti, who is an energetic wine-enthusiast, and has studied wine all around the world.   Thanks to a great deal of work by Ted and the other capable co-chairs and directors, the WPSU Wine Festival & Celebration promises to provide an interesting experience to all attendees at all levels of interest and background. 

September is a beautiful month for a drive through Pennsylvania’s countryside, and an event like this one in State College makes the road trip even more compelling!

Here are some interesting facts and links:

  • Ticket cost is $60 each in advance and online, $75 each at the door.
  • Huge variety of wines will be available to sample, including many American Cabernets and Pinots, an Italian Barolo, a number of Spanish wines and even a couple of Rhone reds – here is the current list:
  • Book Signing/Tasting – wine writer Marnie Old will present a VIP wine and food pairing for an additional $20 per person.  Marnie will be selling and signing copies of her most recent wine and food pairing book entitled, “Wine Secrets: Advice from Winemakers, Sommeliers & Connoisseurs.”
  • Added bonus: This event features the PLCB’s on-site store where the PLCB will offer for sale 80 listed and luxury wines for sale from among the wines featured at this year’s festival.
  • The Penn Stater Conference Center Hotel is offering a special room rate for Sunday, September 19. Cost is $84 per room, plus 8.5% tax. Call 1-800-233-7505 and reference the “WPSU Wine Celebration” to make your reservation.
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Joseph Droughin Saint Veran 2008

Who doesn’t love a nice Chardonnay???   In this case I am talking about a French White Brugundy, a group which is very close to my heart.   White Burgundies have had very good vintages for the past five years, so no one should be afraid of purchasing one (unlike the reds of the past five vintages that have exhibited great variation).   Below is a good value chardonnay that should be considered if you are seeking an ‘old world’ chardonnay.

The Joseph Droughin Saint Veran (located in southern Burgundy) 2008 has a lovely, big fruity floral nose initially, which then subsides to ‘normal’ levels after a few minutes in the glass.   Flavors are light and fruity with typical apple and pear with this un-oaked 100% Chardonnay, but there is a backbone of serious minerality from mid-palate through the finish.  The mineral notes nearly overpower the fruit, but a few minutes after opening the mineral notes relax and the wine regains balance.  Trademark late-palate acidity marks this wine as representative of the breed, as white burgundies are known to have nicely integrated acidity at the finish.   In Pennsylvania this wine is currently on sale for only $11.99, which represents a fine value for a White Burgundy that in this case would typically cost $18.   I imagine at this price that people will discover the wine and then purchase very quickly.

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Wines and Cheeses from Italy river cruise – Delicioso!

Wow – what fun flavor combinations we had for this Italian-themed cruise – as always, my cheese-expert pal David Bennett chose cheese from the same country as the wines – we tried to obtain traditional, ‘old-world’ style wines to express traditional Italian flavors – no Super-Tuscans in this tasting!  Feel free to post questions and comments. 

Zardetto – Prosecco Brut NV – Made by the Zardetto family about 30 miles due north of Venice in the town of Conegliano.   Apple-ish aroma with slight floral notes.  Flavors are crisp with light frothy apple followed by a light lemon zest bitterness on the finish.  Some sweetness enters mid-palate despite the residual sugar of 12 grams per liter which qualifies as a Brut.  Overall, a fine aperitif accompaniment and wonderful match for the Robiola Bosina Cheese. – A luscious, mild, creamy cheese made from the milk of Piedmont cows and sheep, making for a perfectly balanced set of flavors: mushroomy, salty, and sweet. You will love the silky texture and complex taste!

Ca Stella Pinot Grigio – 2009 – Fine example of Veneto classic Pinot Grigio from the North East region of Italy – citrus and fruity nose followed by a crisp and fresh wine that is light in all aspects.   Light, slightly tart fruit flavors, light body with a crisp finish.  A classic Italian wine matched nicely to the classic Italian cheese Piave Cheese.   A cow’s milk cheese made in the Piave River Valley region of Belluno, Italy.  It’s a hard cheese, slightly sweet, with a marvelous finish. An “experts” pick.

Montaribaldi La Consolina Barbera d’Asti – 2007 – Produced a few miles south of Torino with grapes from the historic town of Asti, this wine has dark berry aromas leading into a light to medium bodied wine.   The wine is bright, with red berry fruit flavors like cherry and raspberry, backed by a wonderfully smooth smokiness.  Typical to Barbera, the acidity makes a good food matching wine, especially at the finish.   David’s cheese match for this wine proved fascinatingly complex.  Fontina Val d’Aosta Cheese – Rumored to have been revealed to the early inhabitants of the Val d’Aosta by a mythical man called Sarvadzo.  Italian cousin to the French Gruyère, made from unpasteurized milk.

Tenuta del Priore Montepulciano d’Abruzzo -2008** – Lovely purple color, this wine is lower in acidity than most Italian varietals, which makes it easier drinking when young.   Medium bodied (light for most Americans) has rich flavors of blackberry and plum that flow smoothly to a well-focused finish.  This wine matched (if I may say?) perfectly with the lush and gorgeous Dolce Gorgonzola Cheese –Younger, milder, version of aged Gorgonzola. Dolce  is wetter and more ivory colored than Gorgonzola Naturale. Soft texture, marvelous flavor, classic cheese!  **Remember not to be confused with: Vino Nobile di Montepulciano (70% Sangiovese) which is a wine from a place (within Tuscany), rather than the wine of the grape named Montepulciano (up to 10% Sangiovese), which is what we had for this tasting.

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Vive la difference!! Seek wines of all types

In a world where we are told, by the best marketing campaigns, to want more and more of everything, this cultural marketing push has even captured segments of the wine producing world.   The result of this “big is more” approach is that many wines appearing in our markets contain so much fruit, so much oak and so much alcohol that the character of the wines becomes solely “Big” or “Huge” or one fun term I have heard, “flesh-eating-monster”… this is not always a bad thing, as some wines are comfortable with bigness, and balance their largeness with equivalent finesse and flavor.   But for those who enjoy tasting food and wine together, without one overpowering the other, the market seems to deliver few popular choices.   However, with some diligence on our part, we consumers may seek out interesting and alternative choices that simply deliver character, without palate-busting flavors roughing up our dining experience.  

In this wine column, we will try our best to find wines that deliver character and food accompaniment, especially in conjunction with a good price for the value delivered.   This may lead to examining unusual grape varietals from unusual regions or to consider old favorites in new vintages.   Either way, we hope the discussion will be interesting and fruitful for all involved.

Spanish Wine and Cheese, great combinations!

Spanish Wine and Cheese combinations

I was fortunate to be invited again to participate in a river cruise built specifically around the pairing of wines and cheeses, this time Spanish wines and cheeses.   The event was promoted by Grapenuts (, a group in which I have been involved for many years with John Mahood, and David Bennett, possibly the most enthusiastic cheese expert in our fair city.   Our floating platform for the cruise was the “Fantasy” Yacht which is a fine platform for our purposes – plenty of tables for seated tasting, the walls wrapped by waist to ceiling windows stretching from bow to stern, with the added bonus of an upper deck which could be accessed for even better views of the sunset over the city.   Guests were treated to four hand-picked cheeses all distinctly different, matched to four complimentary wines – two whites: an effervescent Cava, and a Verdejo, followed by two reds: a Tempranillo and an old vine Garnacha.  Below are notes on the cheeses (from David Bennett) and the wines..   Maybe our readers would like to try a cheese/wine combination and let us know the result?

Garrotxa cheese – goat’s milk cheese from the Catalonia region of northern Spain. The color of is snow-white and it has a moist, almost flaky texture that melts easily on your tongue. Garrotxa is mildly herbal and tangy with a marvelous nutty aftertaste.  Pairs well with a crisp Cava.   Paired with Cristalino – Cava Brut NV  Subtle aromas of apple, spices, flowers and nuts. Dry, with fine acidity and floral notes, backed by apple flavors and slight nutty-ness. Finishes very dry and taught.  This is a fresh, clean sparkler that pairs well with starter foods or simply as a starter on its own.

Mahón – from the island of Menorca, is one of a few cow’s milk cheeses from Spain. Mahón has unique lemony flavor that evokes a rural Mediterranean seascape. The rind is rubbed with olive oil mixed with paprika, which gives the cheese its distinctive orange color.  Paired with Marquis de Riscal – Rueda 2009   A superb example of Verdejo varietal wine with a mixture of tropical fruit aromas and hints of fennel and grassiness.   Light to medium bodied with a slight final bitterness which is characteristic of these wines, flavors open as the wine warms in the glass.

Zamorano – sheep’s milk cheese made in Zamora, Spain. This is a hard cheese which is aged about 6 months. The wonderful flavor is attributed to the breed of small scruffy Churra and Castellana sheep.  Think Manchego, but with more character and flavor. Paired with Campo Viejo Crianza Tempranillo – Rioja 2006   Light to medium bodied, this wine is a wonderful, yet affordable, all-purpose red food wine.   The nose has a red berry sense to it, while the flavors are a nice mix of red fruits, vanilla and oak (from 12 months of barrel aging.  This wine has some structure, but not overly so as all elements are in balance, even though generally a light wine.   Considering that this wine is made in great quantity, the quality is very high.

Cabrales – Hands down, the world’s best cheese, a blue cheese made in the eastern Asturias. Wrapped in Sycamore Maple leaves and aged in limestone caves.  Made with raw cow’s milk, also mixed with goat’s and ewe’s milks in the spring and summer.  Really perfect to try with big red or dessert wine.   Evodia Garnacha 2008   The Garnacha vines for this wine were planted at high altitude (2500-4000ft) long ago and some are now more than 100 yrs old.  The resulting wine is dark purple colored with spicy nose followed by dense, red berry and smoky flavors and intense finish.  A great value Garnacha – Big fruit, big flavor, big wine!

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