Santorini – a wine region worth discovering

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Santorini’s views can be breathtaking. Its wines are however worth discovering

It might sound like a cliche but Santorini is all that you can imagine about a Mediterranean island if not more. This volcanic island offers crisp blue seas, breathtaking views, glorious sunsets, excellent produce (particularly tomatoes and aubergines) and incredible wines.

The latter may come as a surprise for people not necessarily in the know. Greek wines can be surprising in their quality. But in terms of island wines, the ones which come from this beautiful island in Southern Aegean are exceptional.

If you have never tried the white wine Assyrtiko, which has a potent dryness and minerality with strong hints of lemon, then you are clearly missing something really special. Just like with Riesling, the first time I tried this grape variety, I was immediately hooked.

The volcanic soil of Santorini is great for grape growing and while many might consider the conditions to be too harsh for wine growing, both the land and the climate make for exceptional wines with great ageing potential.

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The Domaine Sigalas vineyards

The wine makers to look out for in Santorini, and those which are also available outside the island are Domaine Sigalas, Hatzidakis and Gaia – not to be mistaken for the wines of Italian wine giant Angelo Gaja.

Another white grape variety is Athiri which is also an indigenous, white variety. Athiri is an aromatic variety, of lower acidity than Assyrtiko and lower potential alcohol. This is also blended with Assyrtiko making a very interesting combination.

Among the reds is the lesser known though equally excellent Mavrotragano, a red variety indigenous to the island.  This grape came close to extinction but is again being grown by a number of wineries on the island. I can confirm that this wine has exceptional ageing potential. I have tasted a few 2004 over the years and still have a few in my cellar.

When in Santorini we visited the winery of Domaine Sigalas close to Oia. The wine tasting was exceptional in that you tasted the wines pretty much in the middle of the vineyards in a perfect setting. Despite being a small island, Sigalas produces around 300,000 bottles of wine annually and their wines are exported to many countries including Germany, France, Belgium, Austria, Holland, England, Cyprus, Switzerland, Hong-Kong, Shanghai, Sweden, Singapore, Australia, Brazil, USA and Canada.

We were told that the vines in Santorini are extremely old and have resisted to phylloxera (which is attributed to the fact that that the volcanic soil is well drained). This means that the vines did not need to be replaced during the epidemic of the late 19th century. What is interesting about the Santorini wines is that the vines are planted far apart to get as much exposure to dew as possible and they are often made in the shape of low-spiralling baskets, with the grapes hanging inside to protect them from the island wind.

My recommendation is to try the wines from Santorini if you come across them whether in your favourite wine store or a restaurant or wine bar. You will surely not to be disappointed. The white Assyrtiko might well be among the best wines you have tried in many years.

 

 

 

How to build your knowledge of wine

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Tuscany is a great place to start if you want to build your wine knowledge

Michael Broadbent for many is the modern patron saint of wine. In 2002, in the Decanter magazine, he listed the ten most important things that he had learned on wine. Two quotes stick to mind.

Drink good wine with every meal. Half a bottle of good wine is more interesting – and better for you – than six bottles of plonk.

Be honest and rely on your own tasting; avoid the influence of others.

Many love to drink a good glass of wine but are intimidated by the subject of wine and most people actually hesitate to go beyond the supermarket shelves.

The subject of wine is incredibly fascinating. It is one of constant discovery, one in which only very few if ever will completely master the subject given the width and breath of wines that can be tasted. Take a region and break it down into different communes, within those communes, find different vineyards, some growing different varietals of grapes. You will find that different producers make different wines a few metres from each other and you will end up asking why is one wine dry and the other less dry? Why does one wine have more alcohol then the other? Why is one wine able to age for many years and the other wine best now? How does a wine evolve in the bottle? The combinations are indeed endless.

My interest in wine grew gradually as my interest in food and cooking developed. Wine and food is a complementary subject and in fact you will find that many magazines dealing with food also have wine sections. But then, you can also find wine magazines which help you to start discovering the world of wines. The US magazine Wine Spectator and the British publication Decanter are both excellent magazines to develop your knowledge of wines. You can also look for the Italian Gambero Rosso or the French La Revue du Vin among others. These are extremely good starting points for discovering wines.

Then there are books like The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson which is a superb reference book not only teaching you about the growing process of wine but also illustrating with photos, maps and accurate descriptions the wines and specificities of different wines and regions. One of the best books to read on the subject is Hugh Johnson’s A life Uncorked which is a gem of a book which is part biography and full of information on every aspect of wine. This is a book I recommend to all friends because it is beautifully written and touches upon subjects like tasting, cellaring, choosing, understanding, comparing and buying wine as well as wine’s pleasures, lures and mysteries. Read this book with a notebook by your side and write his recommendations. This is the best place to start if you want to learn more about wines.

You can also follow some wine critics on Twitter. Some of the best critics to follow are Jancis Robinson who also writes a weekly column in the Financial Times, James Suckling formerly of Wine Spectator and now having his own website. I also particularly like the insights of Tim Atkin and Robert Joseph among others. My favourite wine blogger is Alder Yallow who writes a wine blog – Vinography.

There is a more direct approach to wine which is to head to a wine region and let yourself become immersed in the culture of wine of that wine region. Whichever the region, you are bound to discover passionate people who will guide you to what the region has to offer in terms of wine and cuisine. They will indicate their favourite wineries or wine stores. The latter are also a great source of information. Go with an open mind and allow the wine merchant to take you on a voyage of discovery. If you eliminate your prejudices, you are bound to be pleasantly surprised.

One thing which I have discovered is that whenever there are vineyards, the landscape is bound to be beautiful if not spectacular. This is the case wherever you go.

Once you start to get more and more knowledgeable you are bound to discover that you want to learn more and more. What is most important is to avoid plonk and always choose to try wines from winemakers which have a story to tell. When you do that, you are bound to never be disappointed. As they like to say, life is too short to drink bad wine.

 

 

Caffe al Dente – a wine lover’s den

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Caffe al Dente has an impressive selection of Italian wines – Photo taken from Caffe al Dente’s website

Ask any Italian, and there are many in Belgium, what their favourite Italian restaurant would be and you are likely to get a very different answer from each and every one of them.

Italians take their food very seriously but probably few as seriously as Federico of Caffe al Dente. A Roman who has settled in Brussels, he is obsessed with a simple rule “Il Pesce non si serve con il formaggio”, i.e. it is a sin to serve cheese with fish.

Now there are some who argue that the client is always right. At Caffe al Dente this is not necessarily the case. If you go there, you will notice that they take this rule extremely seriously. You will find an asterisk on the blackboard with the day’s menu telling you that the pasta dish with fish or shellfish will not be served with cheese on top, and there will be other small blackboards hanging around in the restaurant telling you that you should not put cheese on your spaghetti alle vongole (with clams).

Of course, there is no question that this would be akin to a mortal sin. But while the French or the British are known to use cheese with certain fish dishes, the rule is not as rigid as it sounds. There are some regions which are starting to experiment with fish based dishes and cheese. If you look at Sicilian cuisine, you are bound to find the occasional dish such as the polpette sarde (sardine balls) having pecorino inside. I have also come across a 2 Michelin star chef Gennaro Esposito of Torre del Saracino  who stuffs calamari with smoked cheese.

But back to Caffe al Dente. This is a really great place. Firstly it has an Italian wine list which is incredible in its depth. There are wines from pretty much all regions of Italy and most of the best wine houses are covered. The prices, compared to other Brussels restaurants are also very reasonable given that the wine list shows the price for buying the wines from the enoteca next door as well as those charged in the restaurant.

The menu is extremely simple so you might go there once and be disappointed because of the choice on offer. But the mantra is rather simple. They use what is available and what is in season. So you are unlikely to eat the same thing if you go on separate occasions. They have a choice of two or three antipasti, two or three pasta dishes and two or three main courses. The same goes for desserts.

I have eaten there on a few occasions and the food and service have always been good albeit sometimes slightly slow. But then, that allows you time to savour the atmosphere, drink wine in good company and to chat with Federico who is a very interesting character.

The time we asked him about the cheese philosophy he told us that a client had once walked out after insisting that he wanted cheese with his Spaghetti Marinara. He told us how, at one point his client asked him whether he was going to bring cheese or else he might as well give him the bill. He refused to take cheese to the table and sent the bill instead. The customer walked away angrily but Federico told us that he returned a few days later with an apology and a gift for him.

I am here to offer an authentic service he had told us. Most of the people who come here come for an authentic Italian experience. How can I serve cheese with fish if that is not how it is done in Italy? You must respect the place you are in but you must also understand our philosophy. You cannot really fault him with that.

Verdict: This is one of my favourite Italian restaurants in Brussels. The food is excellent, the atmosphere nice, the wine list for Italian wines is probably one of the best I have seen outside Italy. It is like going to an Italian enoteca. The good thing is that it is in Brussels. Booking recommended because it can fill up very easily.

Caffe al dente

Rue du Doyenné 85, 87, 1180 Bruxelles

Beat your fear – how I overcame my phobia of cheese

IMG_6135Phobias are irrational and unexplainable. Cheese until a few years ago was my achilles heel. Few people could understand how someone who could be so obsessed with food and wine had a ‘fear of cheese’. This was not an allergy but rather real fear.

I recall a day when I was still at school and a friend had placed a piece of cheese in my school bag as a joke. I never used that bag again. I remember protesting with my father to refrain from using the same knife he had used to cut a piece of cheese to cut bread or spread butter. I even would tell him to wash his hands before handling anything else.

Such was my fear. Now, with the benefit of hindsight a fear of cheese is not only irrational, it is also ridiculous. This was not an allergy. That would be perfectly understandable. Can you imagine never eating a pizza with mozzarella. Hard to believe but true.

So you can just start to imagine what a big deal it was to actually try cheese for the first time. I overcame this phobia thanks to my wife who  talked me into trying what in Malta we call fresh goat’s cheeselet, similar in taste to ricotta which was the only ‘cheese’ I liked.

It took a few weeks to convince myself that I would try this cheese which has a similar texture and taste to ricotta but which was out of bounds because of this fixation.

I still remember the day in Gozo, the second island in Malta, when served with this mild goats’ cheese. The anticipation was tremendous. But as soon as I tasted it for the first time, my reaction was a rather incredulous one. I remember smiling and then wondering ‘what was all the fuss about?’.

The next hurdle to overcome was Mozzarella di Bufala and again the reaction was pretty similar.  As soon as I tried it, I again remember that the reaction was a similar one. Then it was an overdose of pizza with mozzarella to compensate for what I had missed in the past.

The conversion to Parmigiano Reggiano was more painful. I recall going to Fulvio Pierangelini’s Gambero Rosso, at the time considered as the best Italian chef who had an exceptional restaurant in a small Tuscan town near Bolgheri called San Vincenzo. I promised myself that I would try whatever was served to me in this restaurant.

The tasting menu looked safe given it was mainly fish-based but I opted to add suckling pig as an additional dish on top of the tasting menu. All was fine until the kitchen sent an amuse bouche which was a small ‘cannolo’ stuffed with mince of suckling pig. It was sprinkled with Parmigiano Reggiano. I started sweating, my face turned red and I panicked. The table next to us realised something was wrong because they were looking at us constantly. There was clearly no turning back. Leaving the dish there would have led to lots of questions and probably a visit from the chef to our table to ask whether there was a problem.

And then, I plucked up the courage and tried it for the first time. Those were probably the longest moments of my life. But again my reaction was one of wonder. What was all the fuss about? Not only was the taste mild, it actually boosted the flavour of the dish.

So for the time being, only blue cheese is off limits though I must say that this is again more psychological than rational. Actually, I have tried Roquefort once and again found it rather mild except for the smell which takes some getting used to.

Proof, if any was needed, that I overcame the phobia, came a few weeks ago at Massimo Bottura’s Osteria Francescana. There served with his signature dish, the five ages of Parmesan, I actually thought that it was one of the best dishes I have ever tastes. Such are the wonders of life.

The moral of the story is to fight your fears and try to beat the irrational.

Here are my tips

1. Talk yourself into fighting your fear.

2. Believe that you can beat your fear.

3. Read about what you are afraid of. In my case it was reading about food and wine including articles about different cheeses, pairing with wines etc. If you are  afraid of flying, read travel books, think about places you would like to visit or about planes. You get the gist.

4. Start gradually and increase the dose step by step.

5. Speak about your conquest. Be enthusiastic and tell anyone who wants to listen.

6. Ideally find someone with whom you can share your steps.

7. Good luck – you can beat your fear.

Discovering Ligurian wines

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Vineyards in a spectaular location. Overlooking one of the villages of the Cinque Terre, Vernazza

There is nothing more pleasant for a wine ‘amateur’ then to close ones eyes and judge a wine on its own merits without looking at what wine critics have to say about the wine or the price. Nothing beats a surprise. This can come in the form of a supposedly inferior wine surpassing ones expectations even when compared against a more expensive or prestigious wine. Or else it can come from discovering a new grape variety or a region which you have not heard much about.

In today’s globalised world where wines from pretty much everywhere can be bought locally, it is becoming harder to discover new wines when you travel to specific regions. Wine is not just about sharing a moment, it is also about breaking misconceptions or prejudices. Nothing is more true than for Ligurian wines.

Look into any wine magazine or book, including renowned wine encyclopaedias and you will barely get a mention of Ligurian wines. It is as if this region in Italy has been completely overlooked. Surprising, given that it borders Piemonte and Tuscany, the two giants of Italian wine.

My first taste of Ligurian wine was a Pigato from the west side of Liguria which we tried at Balin Cuisine in Sestri Levante. It was a great match to a fish based meal but what made us sit in awe was a wine which the owner of the restaurant opened at another table. True to his nature, seeing we were interested, he came and poured us a glass. It was an aged Vermentino Etichetta Nera (Black Label) from Cantine Lunae which had incredible complexity. He told us that he was also surprised at how well this white wine could age.

From there, the next morning I immediately headed to the main wine shop in Sestri Levante to discover more wines of the region.

There I was told the secret as to why Ligurian wines do not travel the world. Ligurians and tourists who head to the region consume most of it. Sometimes, stocks are already exhausted before the summer approaches.

Then there are the tourists who visit the region by car and take these wonders home to remind themselves of the beauty and splendour of the region.

What makes the white wines special, at least the ones which I have tried, is the fact that the Vermentino grape is very difficult to grow. But here, and in particular in the area close to La Spezia (where the Cantine Lunae come from) and the Cinque Terre, the location of the vineyards perched on the cliffs overlooking the Mediterranean sea are protected. Moreover, there is a pronounced minerality to the wine (nearly a salty sensation) making this a perfect wine to sip either before dinner as an aperitif or else in combination with fish and shellfish.

Then, what can I say about the Sciacchetra, the sweet white passito wine from the spectacular Cinque Terre tasted for the first time in a bar overlooking the beautiful town of Rio Maggiore and the cliffs which make the Cinque Terre so special. Bosco, Albarola and Vermentino grapes are used to make these wines, the same grapes used to make also the excellent dry counterparts.

Five wines to try when you are in Liguria

1. Cantine Lunae Colli di Luna – Vermentino Etichetta Nera – The Colli di Luna area borders Tuscany.

2. Costa de SeraLitan – a fabulous white wine grown on the hills of Rio Maggiore look at their website to see the location of this incredible vineyard. Made in small quantities if you find it, don’t hesitate to try it.

3. Cantine Lunae Colli di Luna – Auxo, a very interesting blend of Sangiovese, Ciliegiolo and Canaiolo. Incredible price/quality ratio.

4. Clan du Corsu – Sassarini. If you cannot find the Costa de Sera, this is a great wine to discover what wines from the Cinque Terre area are all about.

5. Az. Agricola Pino Gino Missanto – a blend of Bianchetta Genovese and Vermentino grown in the vineyards on the hills above Sestri Levante in Castiglione Chiavarese.

 

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