Monthly Archives: March 2015

Here’s Why You Should Care the Lowest pH Riesling in the World Comes From Okanagan Valley, British Columbia

BCValley

All Images by Lauren Mowery

If you missed my Village Voice column, here’s a second look…

Acid: wine needs it for balance. It makes your mouth salivate, cuts through fat and cream, keeps wines fresh, especially sweet ones, and helps them age gracefully in the bottle. But too much of it, and the drinking experience mimics sucking a tart, mouth-puckering lemon. Too little of it, and the wine tastes flabby, or flat, or even syrupy like bad, store-bought Margarita mix.

Bright, zesty wines have long been considered the provenance of the Old World. Self-proclaimed “acid freaks” who love the crackling, electric tension (myself included, to the detriment of my teeth), track regions where high-acid levels occur naturally. Chablis, Austria, Germany, and Northern Italy, for example, reliably produce laser-sharp, racy whites. But pH levels taken from a global pool of rieslings uncovered an interesting phenomenon: the semi-desert grape-growing region of the Okanagan Valley in British Columbia, Canada — the New World — delivered some of the lowest numbers ever recorded.

Acid, naturally occurring in grapes, diminishes as they ripen, especially in warm climates. The general backlash against the over-ripening of fruit, and trend towards picking earlier to create wines with “balance” (simplified: less ripeness in grapes means lower sugar levels and higher acid, which makes lower alcohol and higher acid wines) is in full-throttle, but not all growers have the luxury of retaining acid levels naturally after fermentation. Wines from hot zones like South Australia and Central California often require an addition of tartaric acid (which comes as a big bag of white powder, and gets measured and dumped in like sugar in a cake recipe).

Let’s geek out for a moment on pH. This scale from zero to fourteen measures acidity versus alkalinity. A pH of seven is neutral. The higher the number, the more alkaline or basic the substance, like root vegetables. The lower the number, the more acidic the substance is, like apples. Most white wines fall between three to four pH; reds lean a bit higher, depending on the variety.

Riesling specialist Stuart Pigott ran a story on the variety’s range of pH levels in the December 2013 issue of Wine & Spirits. The lowest pH wine he’d ever encountered in the world was “the off-dry 2012 Platinum from Cedar Creek in the Okanagan, with an astonishing pH 2.73.” He noted that “the only wines that sometimes match that figure are chardonnay base wines for Champagne, deliberately picked early to get that acid.”

You might be wondering why anyone would want to drink a wine with such a low pH if high acid levels equate to a jarring tartness. Well, sometimes you wouldn’t. Just as acid can be added to wine, it can also be removed. But the key here is balance; Okanagan rieslings have equilibrium because their fruit expressions soften sharp edges, as do the occasional, small amounts of sugar left in some wines. (Think about lemonade: the synergy of sugar and lemon juice is greater than the sum of its parts.)

PaintedRockVin

While this isn’t exactly fresh news to the industry, the revelation lacked relevance to the average New York consumer because British Columbia’s wines weren’t available in our market. Until now.

Recently launched on the Wines of B.C. website, an e-commerce platform makes available select bottles from a small portfolio of boutique producers, directly to New York consumers. The selection won’t overwhelm you into indecision, but there’s enough to whet your palate. Plus, shipping costs are relatively nominal (although the wines are rather expensive).

Located a four hour drive east of Vancouver in south central British Columbia, the Okanagan Valley has around 130 producers spread across sub-regions like Kelowna, Naramata, Oliver/Osoyoos, Summerland, and the neighboring Similkameen Valley.
The Okanagan is considered the northernmost fine wine producing region in the world. (Although climate change is pushing the latitudinal reach of vitis vinifera further into Northern Europe).

The lake- and wilderness-dense countryside encompasses a stunning 125-mile swath of patchwork vineyards running south to the border with Washington State. The semi-arid desert climate provides hot, dry summers and long sunlight hours for the ripening of grapes, with cool nights helping to retain fresh acidity.

Not sold on Wines of B.C., but available in the New York market, are the rieslings of Tantalus. Winemaker David Paterson and vineyard manager Warwick Shaw are experts at transforming the grape into a transparent, piercing expression of their vineyard sites. Tense, almost quivering, lemon-lime notes snap like pop rocks above a chalky, mineral complexion.

Riesling isn’t the only grape to enjoy the favor of the climate and soils. Vivid pinot noir, chiseled syrah, savory cab franc and attractive Bordeaux blends, show promise in the red category. Available on the B.C. site, Meyer Family specializes in pinot, and Black Hills Estate and Painted Rock produce some of the region’s most serious red blends. Until more producers penetrate the competitive NYC market, however, my best advice for exploring Okanagan Valley wines: go there, and bring along a big suitcase.

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Sleep Here: Le Quartier Francais, Franschhoek, South Africa

LeQuartierFrancaisPoolView

All images by Lauren Mowery

Le Quartier Francais

If a hotel can embody the spirit of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s novel Secret Garden, Le Quartier Francais comes close.  On Franschhoek’s main street, an unassuming front entrance adjacent to the outdoor patio of the property’s cocktail and wine bar belies the escapist fantasy waiting inside. Guests and visitors must funnel through common spaces, past très chic French décor punctuated by African accents, and whimsical rabbits perched on pedestals in anthropomorphic poses, to reach the rose- and jasmine-scented courtyard oasis. Echoing the sentiments of the book, time spent shuttered away within Le Quartier’s serene confines, provides a tonic for the neuroses and afflictions of day-to-day life.

The family-owned, boutique property offers more than just the curative aromatics of a lush garden in summer bloom. A range of “Le Quartier” rooms to various sized “Auberge” and “Four Quarter” suites, suit a spectrum of budgets and spatial needs. All rooms are immaculately dressed in sensuous textiles and warm, playful colors with bright accents (my color shock came in vibrant pink), feature touches like fireplaces and towel warming bars, and boast details such as wood-beamed ceilings to contribute old-world charm. Serving as the focal point of the courtyard, guests can relax poolside with views of the steadfast, cloud-capped Franshhoek Mountains, promising themselves to step foot off the property for a stroll through town. At some point. Or  maybe visit a vineyard (I recommend Chamonix followed by lunch at Solms-Delta). At some point.

LQFGardenRabbits

Sparring rabbits and blooming gardens

 

LQF serves a thorough, fresh breakfast in the brightly-hued garden room which feels evocative of vacationing on a French island, St. “Somewhere” in the Caribbean (Saint-Barthélemy?). A buffet featuring enormous, flaky croissants, a selection of seasonal fruits and juices, three types of homemade granola, plus a hot breakfast menu, come with the room rate. The most acclaimed restaurant in town, The Tasting Room by chef Margot Janse, calls LQF home. (Note: the restaurant closes on Sundays. Such was my luck during my recent visit.)

LQFBreakfast

Breakfast spread with the city’s best croissant

 

Highlights: A book, a mountain view, a cocktail, all by the pool in the afternoon. Croissants at breakfast: they must be the best in the village.

Location

Tucked off the main avenue of the romantic, French-flavored village of Franshhoek in South African wine country, 45-minutes out of Cape Town.

LQFRoom11

Room #11

 

Amenities

  • Full breakfast
  • Gym (nearby)
  • Wi-fi
  • Heated towel racks
  • Nespresso coffee and tea service in rooms
  • Pool
  • Restaurant and bar
  • Spa
  • Library
  • Secure parking
LQFLounge

Bar and Lounge

 

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Idaho Riesling in a can launched

The Idaho wine industry makes headlines with #Riesling in a can.

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The Sad State of Restaurant Coffee

Because of the deep parallels between wine and coffee, I am using my blog to highlight articles I’ve written on caffeinated drinks.

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 All images by Lauren Mowery

 

Last fall, I drifted through the meticulously revamped Union Station in Denver toward my first cup (actually, three) of coffee for the day. Mercantile Dining & Provision, the largest and most dynamic restaurant in the active train depot, rather unusually, offers a coffee flight on its morning menu. Astride a wooden stool at the bar, pure mile-high sunlight flooding the counter, I accepted a platter of three different brews from beans roasted locally by Commonwealth and hand-poured on a timer, for comparison. Akin to a wine tasting flight, the best way to understand nuance in what we drink (in my opinion), Mercantile seeks to introduce coffee drinkers to the same experience. After tasting the differences between the three coffees — a natural processed Panamanian (orange, sage), washed processed Panamanian (honey, cherry), and Guatemalan (pizza herbs, cinnamon) — I wondered why the hell I had to come all the way to Denver, better known for its microbreweries and orange jerseys, to experience something my home turf should’ve conceived of long ago.

It hardly needs pointing out that New York boasts a vibrant dining culture and robust coffee scene; why, then, do restaurants continue to serve customers crappy coffee? Even if the low end of the spectrum (diners and Irish pubs) might be forgiven, one stratum of the market should be ashamed of itself: For example, approximately one third of Michelin-starred restaurants serve their customers Nespresso coffee pods. These restaurants will source only the finest, most rarefied ingredients (such as seasonal, foraged Candy caps from Northern California), bake olives into dainty bread loaves, squirt squid ink into hand-cranked pasta, meticulously orchestrate plating so that every aspect of the dining experience is on point with their projected ethos, and then serve you the equivalent of a seat on the subway while charging for a cabin on the Orient Express.

Restaurateurs cite a litany of reasons for serving automated coffee; “it saves space, training time, and money” form the predictable triad of excuses. While some argue push-button coffee isn’t evil per se, I have to question if such lukewarm advocates for said machines have ever enjoyed the deep, searing experience of an expertly pulled shot. If they’ve only ever tasted what passes for “espresso” in America, there’s a good chance they have not.

With growing consternation and a list of questions, I sought input from people pushing for a sea change, like coffee industry maven Jesse Kahn. It turns out that serving excellent coffee is not that hard, nor that far off into the future.

Kahn is head of Northeast regional sales for Counter Culture. As one of the East Coast’s best specialty coffee roasters and wholesalers, their business is wholly interested in developing the trend of marrying great food with great coffee.

New York restaurateurs have traditionally noted a slew of obstacles to improved coffee programs: training, space, low margins, and lack of appreciation and/or demand. Kahn discounts several of these. “Training,” he remarks, “is not an obstacle that’s specific to coffee…it’s challenging across the board. To be a quality establishment in the first place, a restaurant will already have an integrated training program. This is about deciding to dedicate training time to coffee.”

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 Ellen Seidenstein Brewing with a Nel at Eleven Madison Park

 

Most specialty coffee roasters like Counter Culture, Stumptown, and Intelligentsia provide training programs, but Taylor Mork, co-founder and president of Brooklyn-based green coffee wholesale company Crop to Cup, still finds flaws in the implementation. “Currently, when restaurants have coffee training, the coffee roaster comes in and does a dog-and-pony show for at least a dozen staff (as many as the manager can rustle up before their evening meeting/staff meal)…all in 45 minutes.” He argues that’s too little time to teach milk texture, shot pulling, and drink recipes, and that managers should nominate fewer staff for the job, and train them legitimately. “Trying to train the entire wait/bar staff is the most common [method] for restaurants, but it is useless,” he says.

To Mork’s point, Kahn observes that coffee is often mistaken as a front-of-house product like alcohol, and is prepared by front-of-house staff, despite the fact that “no one is producing alcohol to order in a restaurant, just pouring a pre-made product into a glass.” Rather, he equates making coffee to preparing food: “I don’t know how well the food would be received at a restaurant if every time an order was placed, a back server had to jump on the hot line…coffee is mistaken as a ‘difficult’ product to serve well, when in fact it’s no more challenging than the food that’s going out of the kitchen.”

As far as equipment and its maintenance, the costs are high for restaurateurs who feel compelled to offer espresso-based drinks. That decision forces investment in an extremely expensive machine (all espresso machines are pricey; La Marzocco weighs in near the top) needing regular tending and operator expertise, or a default to an automated system like Nespresso at a fraction of the cost. As a biased coffee lover, Kahn believes the quandary shouldn’t excuse bad coffee. “There has to be value for the restaurant. If you’re not selling enough coffee (or selling it at an appropriate price) to justify the cost of equipment and maintenance, or if you can’t balance the cost laterally across the rest of your offerings, you shouldn’t be serving coffee. Serving lower-quality coffee is not a great solution.”

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 Brewing with a Siphon at Eleven Madison Park

 

Kahn does see a speck of light at the end of the subway tunnel, however. Two forces, upgrades in alcoholic beverages and New York’s thriving coffee scene, continue to drive coffee program improvements. For example, as restaurants swap mass-market beers like Heineken and Amstel for craft options, inevitably, the same mindset applies to the pre-ground bags of generic coffee they’d heretofore been ordering in bulk. And “the existence of phenomenal coffee venues in their neighborhoods,” Kahn conjectures, “serving freshly roasted, seasonally relevant, deliberately prepared coffee” will also challenge them to evolve.

Maialino, the Roman-inspired Danny Meyer establishment in the Gramercy Park Hotel and Counter Culture client, is commonly acknowledged as one of the first NYC restaurants to make coffee a front-and-center focus. Other venues have followed, though the list grows slowly, considering there are approximately 16,000 full-service dining operations in the NYC area. The Spotted Pig (espresso and French press), Franny’s (espresso), Marta (espresso and filter), the Queens Kickshaw (espresso, filter coffee, pour-over, kegged cold brew), and Fort Defiance (espresso and pour-over), are just a few of Counter Culture’s other progressive clients.

Perhaps epitomizing the apogee of luxury coffee service, Eleven Madison Park utilizes Intelligentsia single-origin coffees in several theatrical, tableside preparations. Ellen Seidenstein, a former barista (and formerly of Maialino), is now an EMP captain and manager of the coffee program. Seidenstein has the uncommon, coveted luxury of freedom of ambition without the constraint of demonstrating an ROI. Her coffee selections change by the season (most recently featuring Zambia, Ethiopia, and Mexico); the team boasts full-time baristas; hand-poured options include Chemex, siphon, and the elusive Nel; coffee is brewed through a flan(nel) filter into a glass decanter. This last method is seen in restaurants as rarely as a snow leopard in the Himalayas.

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 The Nel

 

The transporting coffee fantasyland cultivated at EMP isn’t a practical model for most restaurateurs or diners to aspire to (although Nespresso-serving Michelin-starred restos should be taking notes). Spending hundreds of dollars shouldn’t be a prerequisite to drinking good coffee at a fine meal’s end. In fact, compared to other luxury foods (truffles, urchin, caviar), enjoying a cup of something distinct, special, even rare, doesn’t cost that much. Restaurants should seize on the opportunity to market a good coffee program as a point of differentiation from the rest of the competition. As Sarah Miller from Birch Coffee points out, “serving a customer bad coffee is like putting a wrapped Twinkie on a plate for dessert. You just would not do that.”

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Postcard: Sunset Over Stellenbosch, South Africa

StellsunsetSunset over the Upper Blaauwklippen Valley, Stellenbosch, South Africa 

 

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Sleep Here: The Cellars-Hohenort Constantia Valley, Cape Town, South Africa

CellarsHoenhortVineyardView

All images by Lauren Mowery

 

The Cellars-Hohenort

Transporting guests back in time to a more genteel epoch, Relais & Châteaux property The Cellars-Hohenort predictably attracts an older (almost elderly), stylish crowd.  One of three Liz McGrath properties (the iconic hotelier who also owns The Plettenberg in Plettenberg Bay and The Marine in Hermanus), the historic manor, adjacent to the stunning estates and vineyards of Constantia, dates back to 1693. Originally called the Klaasenbosch Farm, the Cellars-Hohenort was the expansive estate that belonged to the chief surgeon of the Dutch East India Company, Hendrik ten Damme.

CellarsHoenhortGrandRoom

Recently refurbished, today’s patrons can spend mornings at local wineries, and afternoons wandering the fragrant gardens blooming with rose and jasmine on the path to sunbathe at one of two pools.  A chic spa and hair salon ensure guests are relaxed and perfectly coiffed prior to dinner at highly-awarded The Greenhouse, run by R&C Grand Chef Peter Tempelhoff. The restaurant is bright and airy, enclosed in glass — hence the name — with white furnishings stamped in a green plant motif. No need to go off-site for a post-prandial; a range of wines and cocktails can be sampled at the Martini Bar.

CellarsHoenhortGreenhouseResto

Table Mountain is an impressive vision, made especially so from the privacy of a terrace room at Hohenort. Accommodation runs from luxury villas, suites, to smartly-furnished singles. My room, “almond,” was a charming space in eggshell white and seaglass blue, with French doors opening on to the pool. Outdoor furniture needs updating, and some edges of the property show the fray of time, but the freshest common rooms blend contemporary textiles, patterns, and colors with antique furniture and objets d’art.

CellarsHoenhortRoom

Highlight: Exploring the gardens while in full, intoxicating bloom; breakfast of eggs Benedict and fresh summer fruit on the terrace.

Location

Situated on 9.5 acres of lush, manicured gardens, the Hohenort lay a few minutes’ drive from the wineries of Constantia Valley and approximately 20 minutes from the CBD of Cape Town, South Africa.

CellarsHoenhortLawnView

Amenities

  • Two award-winning restaurants, including The Greenhouse
  • Bar
  • Business center
  • Tennis court
  • Two pools
  • Spa and Hair Salon
  • Wifi
  • Private transfer available upon request
  • Acres of gardens

 

Contact

Ariana van der Merwe

reservations@collectionmcgrath.com

+27 (0)21 794 5535

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Sleep Here: Vineyard Hotel, Cape Town, South Africa

Vineyard Hotel, Cape Town, South Africa 

VineyardHotelRearRestaurant

Seamlessly blending old with new, the Vineyard Hotel on the fringe of Cape Town in South Africa, delivers the charm of a 200-year-old heritage house with the comfort of modern amenities and stylish décor, all set to a stunning backdrop of Table Mountain along the Liesbeeck River.

Contemporary architecture utilizing glass and steel, has expanded the property beyond the original wood structure, delightfully wrapped during summertime in green vines punctuated by shocks of pink blooms. Built in 1799 by British colonial servant Andrew Barnard for his Scottish wife Lady Anne Lindsay, the property’s name derived from the vineyards found near the grounds at the time. Notably, it was the first English country house built in South Africa. Lady Anne set to cultivating beautiful, meandering gardens along the riverfront setting, which still afford guests today the chance to enjoy indigenous flora and fauna and abundant bird life.

Chic rooms feature cool color palates in contemporary fabrics; mine was in soothing sandstone and sky blue. The mountain view reminded why I came to South Africa in the first place: It boasts one of the most spectacular landscapes on earth. The warm service at the hotel left me wishing I’d had more time to relax on the beautiful grounds or utilize amenities like the expansive fitness center, exceptionally equipped for a hotel gym.

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Highlight of Stay

The Javanese massage at the spa. Poolside with views of Table Mountain.

VineyardHotelPool

Location

Tucked into the leafy, upscale suburb of Newlands, the Vineyard Hotel is within easy walking distance of the up-market Cavendish Shopping Centre and is just 10 minutes away from the City Center and the Victoria & Alfred Waterfront.

VineyardHotelDiningRoom

Amenities

  • 207 Rooms
  • Conference center
  • Free Wifi
  • Indoor and outdoor pools
  • Two restaurants, a lounge, plus patio and poolside dining
  • Angsana Spa by the Banyan Tree Group
  • Hair salon
  • Fully equipped fitness center
  • Garden walkways and jogging paths along the Liesbeeck River
  • Two tortoises, Herbert and Gloria

VineyardHotelDiningRoomTopView

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