Saturday, January 27, 2024

Sparklers for Valentine’s Day and Super Bowl

Since the winter holidays, one doesn’t have to look far for a reason to pop open a bottle of sparkling wine. With Valentine’s Day right around the corner, there is yet another occasion for a sparkler. Let’s also not forget that Super Bowl beer bros and Swifties may enjoy some bubblies too. With that, here’s a primer on the different types of sparkling wine and my take on what to drink for the occasion.

Sparkling Wine by Michelle McEwen on Unsplash

From the Rustic Pét-Nat

Let’s start with how sparkling wine came about. Wine is produced from the alcoholic fermentation of grapes or grape juice (called the must). During the process, yeast in the must converts sugar into alcohol and produces carbon dioxide as a byproduct. When making a still (as opposed to a sparkling) wine, the yeast will consume virtually all the sugar and release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. When that happens, fermentation is considered complete. The wine is then racked to remove grape debris and remaining yeast (called the lees) and bottled.

If residual sugar is left in the wine and the lees are not thoroughly removed prior to bottling, then fermentation may continue in the bottle. Carbon dioxide that is released in the process is then trapped in the bottle, resulting in a bubbly. This was probably how sparkling wine was first discovered, and the process is known as the ancestral method or méthode ancestrale. This class of sparkling wine is called pétillant-naturel or pét-nat for short.

I have made pét-nat before, and it is a really fun wine. (My friend in the video was opening a bottle of my pét-nat.) While it may be the father of all sparkling wines, pét-nat has only returned into vogue in recent years. This, not surprisingly, coincides with the natural wine movement. Unconstrained by conventions and rules, the lightly fizzy wine may be made with any grape varieties and may be filtered or not. The main requirement is that the wine is made in a single fermentation that lasts through the bottle. Many pét-nats have playful labels and are sometimes enclosed with a crown cork, like a beer bottle.

Best for Super Bowl party or any casual get-together with pub grub. A little lower in alcohol content (around 10-12% ABV) and with a friendly price point (around $20/bottle), pét-nats may deliver a range of fun and funky flavors depending on the grape variety and the length of lees contact. In fact, many would compare a pét-nat with a craft beer. So drink up, Super Bowl beer bros.

To the Ritzy Champagne

If pét-nat is the wine of the people, then Champagne is the wine of royalty. Besides being made in the region of Champagne, the namesake wine is also highly regulated in terms of grape varieties (primarily Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier), viticulture practice, viniculture method, and the length of maturation on the lees; all of which run contrary to the making of a pét-nat.

Champagne tasting at Möet et Chandon
Unlike pét-nat, Champagne goes through an elaborate winemaking process to deliver a floral, bready, nutty wine with a creamy and full texture, crisp acidity, and a steady stream of bubbles. The steps in making a Champagne, known as méthode Champenoise or méthode traditionalle, include:
  • First alcoholic fermentation: A still wine is first made and bottled.
  • Second (or secondary depending on your perspective) alcoholic fermentation: Add more yeast, sugar, and wine (the mixture is called liquer de triage) in bottles of still wine.
  • Aging: The bottles are then aged for at least 15 months on the remaining lees.
  • Riddling or remuage: The bottles are placed on special wooden racks called pupitres or the machinery-equivalent at 35° angle and then gradually shaken and rotated in the rack at an increasing angle.
  • Dégorgement: When the bottles are virtually upside down, the remaining lees that have now settled in the bottleneck will then be frozen and removed.
  • Final Touch: The bottles are then topped up with base wine, sucrose, and sulfur dioxide (the mixture is called liquer d’expédition) to balance and stabilize the wine before being secured with a cork and a wire cage (muselet). The amount of sweetness added is also known as the dosage.
Best for Valentine’s Day or any special occasion. Champagne, the gold standard for sparkling wine, can be a splurge with a starting price of $50/bottle. However, the sparkler is super versatile and can pair with a wide range of cuisine from fried chicken to fresh oysters. But nothing says luxury better than Champagne and caviar.

And Everywhere in Between

Traditional Method, but not Champagne - Do you like a Champagne but not the price? Thankfully, there are many wallet-friendly bubblies available outside of Champagne that are made in the traditional method. These include French crémant, Spanish cava, and sparkling wines all over the world with Traditional or Champagne Method stated on the label.

There are eight French crémant regions, each with its own regulations around grape varieties and style. The same goes to Spanish cava. However, these regulations are less stringent than those in Champagne, allowing the producers to keep the cost down while delivering quality sparklers.

While New World bubbly producers are not restricted in how they make their wine, they tend to go beyond méthode Champenoise. This includes the use of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and sometimes Pinot Meunier grapes. Many even follow the Champagne labelling of Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay) and Blanc de Noir (100% Pinot Noir clear juice) in their offerings.

Best for a Valentine’s Day celebration on a budget or casual brunch. The price range varies, but a bottle of Cava may start with $10/bottle. At that price, you can even use it to make mimosa or Champagne float guilt-free. (Side note - Please do not use real Champagne in your Champagne float.)

Charmat Method - If you remove the labor-intensive steps of second (or secondary) fermentation in the bottle as well as the subsequent riddling and dégorgement, you may end up with the Charmat method. In this method, the liquer de triage is added to still wine in a pressurized tank instead of a bottle. The wine then goes through second fermentation is in the tank for 1 to 6 weeks. After this, the wine is clarified, and dosage is added during bottling.

While commonly known by its French name, the Charmat Method was invented and patented in 1895 by Italian winemaker in Asti named Federico Martinotti. A couple of decades after that, French oenologist Eugène Charmat improved on the process and patented it. In Italy, this process is sometimes known as the Martinotti method.
Prosecco by Lisanne van Elsen on Unsplash
In terms of flavor profile, bubbly made in the Charmat method tends to be more aromatic (mostly due to the grape varieties used) but lacks the nutty, bready, multi-dimensional flavor found in Champagne. As one might expect given its origin, many Italian sparklers are made in the Charmat method; the most famous of which is Prosecco. This low-labor low-cost approach is also adopted around the world. If the label on a New World sparkling wine does not indicate the traditional method, it is probably made using the Charmat method.

Best for Super Bowl party, a casual get-together, or brunch. Starting at a price of less than $10/bottle, sparkling wine made in the Charmat method can be enjoyed as-is or be used to make fun sparkling cocktails. Peach Bellini, my Swiftie friends?

Now that you know about the different types of sparkling wine, what will be your pick for Valentine’s Day or Super Bowl party? I’d love to hear what you think.

Saturday, December 30, 2023

Tokaji, a Sweet Finish

If sparkling wine is for ringing in the new year, then dessert wine is for wrapping up the current one. For 2023, my sweet finish of choice is Tokaji. Tokaji is made with grapes that are infected with noble rot. Noble rot is caused by a beneficial fungus, Botrytis cinerea. Famous dessert wines made from botrytized grapes include the French Sauternes and German Trockenbeerenauslese. However, Tokaji is a botrytized wine of another level and is known as the king of wines and the wine of kings. Here are a few things you want to know about Tokaji.

Tokaji by Takato Marui
How do you pronounce Tokaji?

No matter what Google tells you, Tokaji is not pronounced toe-kah-jee. The dragged out pronunciation is toe-kah-yee, but most wine connoisseurs simply shorten it toe-kai

Where is Tokaji from?

Tokaji comes from the Tokaj wine region that is actually shared by two countries; Hungary and Slovakia. In Hungary, the region is called Tokaji borvidék while in Slovakia, it is called Vinohradnícka oblast’ Tokaj.
Licencnazmluvac.87-11-3899/2015	© Igor Vizner 201
Tokaj Wine Region adapted from Igor Vizner’s map
The majority of the wine region, which consists of 28 communes and 5,500 hectares, resides within Hungary. The Slovakian side of the wine region is a fraction of its Hungarian counterpart with 7 communes and over 900 hectares of vineyards. Under the current EU legislation, the name Tokaj (and other variations of the spelling) has been given the Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) status and may be used by either country. As of March 2007, French and Italian producers who had previously used Tokay or Tocai on their wine labels are no longer allowed to do so.

What kind of grapes go into a Tokaji?

As mentioned, grapes used to make a Tokaji are infected with Botrytis cinerea. The grey fungus infects ripe grapes in misty mornings and punctures the skins. As the temperature rises in the afternoons, water evaporates through the ruptured skin. Over time, the loss of water concentrates the sugar content in the partially raisined grapes.

Noble rot by John Yesberg
As for grape varieties, whether in Hungary or Slovakia, the three main ones are Furmint, Hárslevelű, and Sárgamuskotály (or Yellow Muscat). Furmint is the most dominant grape. Other grapes allowed in a Tokaji are Zéta, Kövészőlő, and Kabar. This is not to be confused with grape varieties that are or were named Tokay or Tocai. In the EU, these grapes are now required to use different names. For instance, Tocai Friulano in Italy is renamed to Sauvignonasse, and Tokay d’Alsace has gone with its international name, Pinot gris.

Are there different types of Tokaji?

Yes, there are different types of Tokaji wine, but the two most famous ones are Aszú and Eszencia.
Aszú means dried in Hungarian. The grapes are individually picked, collected in large vats, and mashed into a paste or aszú dough. Must (unfermented grape juice) or wine is poured on the aszú dough and stirred periodically for 24-48 hours. The juice is then racked (or transferred without the solid debris) into wooden vats to complete fermentation and maturation. 

Tokaji Aszú by Naotake Murayama
What’s new with Aszú? Previously, the sugar content of an aszú was measured in puttonyos, ranging from 3 to 6 puttonyos (or 60 to 150 grams of sugar per liter). Puttonyos were based on the use of 22-23 kg basket of the botrytized grapes, known as a puttony. Since 2013, Hungarian wine law has declassified wines with 3 or 4 puttonyos from the Aszú designation. These are now labeled as Late Harvest. Aszús today are required to have at least 120 grams of sugar per liter, previously known as 5 and 6 puttonyos.

Eszencia, one of the most expensive dessert wines in the world, is made from the free run of aszú grapes after harvest. Free run refers to the juice that is extracted using gravity and the weight of the grapes alone. This juice may be added to aszú wine to ferment or just ferments on its own. Eszencia takes at least four years to ferment into a thick syrupy wine. Called the nectar, Eszencia is enjoyed in small sips using specially made glass spoons. Watch British wine journalist, Jamie Goode, taste different vintages of Eszencia in the YouTube below.

To be classified as an Eszencia, the wine needs to have over 450 grams of sugar per liter. In some years, Eszencia may even exceed 900 grams of sugar per liter. Because of the high sugar content, the alcohol level rarely rises above 5%. Eszencia is known to cellar for 200 years.

Why is Tokaji famous?

Tokaji gained popularity among European royalties since the 18th Century. In 1703, Prince Francis Rákóczi II of Transylvania gifted King Louis XIV of France Tokaji from his estate. During a feast in Versailles where Tokaji was served, the menu read, C’est le roi des vins, et le vin des rois (translated to “It is the king of wines, and the wine of kings). The list of Tokaji fans among monarchs included Louis XV, Napoleon III, Emperor Franz Josef, Frederick the Great, Peter the Great, and others. In fact, prior to the end of World War I, the best Eszencia was not sold but exclusively reserved for the Imperial cellars of the Habsburg monarchy.

King Louis XIV, a Tokaji fan
Tokaji wine was also the among first to be receive appellation classification. Vineyard classification started in 1730 based on soil, sun exposure, and the potential to develop noble rot. In 1757, a closed production district in Tokaj was established. The Tokaji classification predated that of port and even Bordeaux wine.

What is my take on Tokaji?

After enjoying Tokaji in restaurants on several occasions, my husband bought me a bottle of 2017 Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos Aszú for Christmas. We coravin’ed a serving for each of us, and here are our tasting notes.

2017 Royal Tojaki 5 Puttonyos Aszú 

Remarkably pale amber in color, the Aszú smells of a blend of honeycomb and straw. On the palate, it is Meyer lemon-esque with a tinge of bread crust. It is sweet but not cloyingly so. It is rich, unctuous and well-balanced with high acidity. The finish goes on and on, coating the mouth and delighting the palate.

If there is a wine that provides a sweet finish to a year, this 2017 Royal Tokaji 5 Puttonyos Aszú makes a fine choice. If you do see a Tokaji in a restaurant (and it doesn’t come by often), try it. It’s an exceptional sweet finish to a meal too.

Sunday, November 26, 2023

Thanksgiving with Saint Joe

I thought I didn’t like Roussanne until I opened a bottle of white Saint-Joseph (pronounced “sahn joe-zef”) over Thanksgiving. Made with 100% Roussanne, the 2020 vintage from Domaine des Pierres-Sèches delighted my palate and changed my mind. It reminded me of the time when I thought I didn’t like Chardonnay, and then I tasted my first white Burgundy.

2020 Domaine des Pierres-Sèches Saint-Joseph Blanc

The same day, my neighbor surprised me with a 2012 red Saint-Joseph from Domaine de Blacieux. It was earthy, spicy, and quite vibrant for its age. As it turned out, both white and red Saint-Josephs made fine pairings for a turkey feast. It seems appropriate to give some love to this Northern Rhône Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) that has been dwarfed by its more famous siblings - Côte Rotie, Hermitage, and Cornas. 

2012 Domaine de Blacieux Saint-Joseph Rouge

So let's talk Saint-Joseph.


It is believed that vines were grown in the Saint-Joseph region during the Roman Empire, as early as 124 BC. By the Middle Ages, the wines were known as Vin de Mauves or Mauves wines. Vin de Mauves were enjoyed by royalties, such as Emperor Charlemagne and King Louis XII. French writer Victor Hugo even mentioned the wine in his masterpiece, Les Misérables.

And Now

Fast forward to 1956, Saint-Joseph received its AOC designation. Today, it is now among over 30 appellations in the Rhône Valley. Located on the west side of the Rhône River, Saint-Joseph is the longest appellation in Northern Rhône, stretching 50 km from north to south. To its north is Condrieu, famous for its exquisite Viognier. To its south is Cornas, known for its powerful age-worthy Syrah.

Northern Rhône Wine Map by DalGobboM at French Wikipedia via Wikimedia Commons
Vines and Wines

Three grape varieties are grown in over 1,300 hectares of vineyards within Saint-Joseph. They are Syrah, Roussanne, and Marsanne. The vast majority of the wines produced (about 85%) are red. AOC regulations require that red Saint-Joseph be made with at least 90% Syrah and no more than 10% Roussanne and Marsanne. White Saint-Joseph can be made with any amount of Roussanne and/or Marsanne. 

The vines in Saint-Joseph are mostly grown on east-facing slopes, and the grapes are ripened by the morning sun. The terroirs range from rock formations to limestone and alluvial soils along the Rhône River. The resulting wines tend to be lively with varied expressions depending on the soil from which the grapes grew. Red Saint-Joseph tends to be meaty and spicy with more vibrancy than its more famous Rhône counterparts. White Saint-Joseph is rich and floral with lively acidity to balance it out. 

Here are my tasting notes from the two Saint-Josephs:

2020 Domaine des Pierres-Sèches Saint-Joseph Blanc
A lovely deep gold and almost amber hue, the wine was aromatic with honeysuckle and jasmine. The palate was rich, silky, and pleasing with honey and a tinge of herb, all balanced with a nice acidity. The finish was long and lingering. It was the first Roussanne that turned my head.

2012 Domaine de Blacieux Saint-Joseph Rouge
Deep brick red, the nose on the wine was earthy, funky, leathery, and reminiscent of an old Cornas that I once had. On the palate, it was tart cherry and spice. Its body was medium to light with high acidity and refined tannins. For a 2012 vintage, it was surprisingly vibrant. The finish was brief but pleasant.

Thanksgiving by Pro Church Media on Unsplash
My Verdict: There were a few firsts for me this Thanksgiving - my first Saint-Josephs, both white and red; and the first Roussanne that I loved. I was also pleasantly surprised by how well both wines paired with our Thanksgiving meal. Both have a nice acidity to cut the richness of the gravy galore as well as the herb and spice undertones to complement with the turkey and stuffing. It was a nice change of pace from the usual Pinot Noir, Gamay, and Riesling rotation. Try it some time and let me know what you think.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Talk Fermentation Like a Wine Pro

A few weekends ago, my girlfriends and I went wine tasting in a touristy town outside of Seattle. As I was going over the tech sheet, the description of a wine piqued my interest. According to the write-up, this wine was fermented with two different yeast strains. Curious, I asked the tasting room manager for more information.

Wine tasting

“Well, I am not a winemaker,” he prefaced and then proceeded to describe what essentially was a case of stuck fermentation.

If you get the sense that the term “stuck fermentation” sounds more dire than what is presented in the tech sheet, you are right! For this month’s post, we will go over some wine fermentation terms so that you can talk like a wine pro in a tasting room.

Alcoholic Fermentation

All wines go through alcoholic fermentation. This is often referred to as primary fermentation. Wine grapes are typically harvested at a sugar level of 20-25 Brix. During alcoholic fermentation, yeast converts the sugar into alcohol and carbon dioxide. To make a dry (as opposed to a sweet) wine, the fermentation will typically go for 2-3 weeks till the sugar level drops to 0 Brix. At which point, the yeast will run out of sugar to consume and become dormant. With a starting Brix of 20-25, the resulting wine will be at 11.5-15% of alcohol by volume (ABV).

Spontaneous vs. Inoculated Fermentation

Spontaneous fermentation is how wine and other fermented goodness were discovered. It refers to the fermentation caused by ambient or natural yeasts. However, not all yeast strains are capable of fermenting to dryness. Nor do they always produce the flavors you want in a wine. Except for very established wine regions where the natural yeast strains have proven success in fermenting and making good wine, one would be relying on chance to make wine using spontaneous fermentation.

Pitching yeast in inoculated fermentation
With modern winemaking, yeast strains have been commercially cultivated to reliably ferment and to produce certain characteristics in wine. In inoculated fermentation, wineries will first treat the must (fancy term for crushed grapes or juice to be fermented) with sulfite to prevent spoilage from wild yeasts and bacteria. After a couple of days, the selected yeast strain will then be pitched into the must to start the fermentation process. 

Stuck Fermentation

Sometimes alcoholic fermentation gets sluggish over time. A fermentation is considered stuck when Brix is stagnant for over 48 hours. Stuck fermentation is a symptom of stressed yeast and is a winemaker’s nightmare. Some of the stressors include:

  • Inadequate yeast nutrition - Beside sugar, yeast needs nutrients to properly propagate and complete the fermentation process. There are established nutrition protocols for different yeast strains to ensure successful fermentation.
  • Hostile must temperature - If the must is too cool, the yeast will become dormant, and fermentation will halt. On the converse, an excessively hot must may kill the yeast. Keeping the must at 75-85 degrees Fahrenheit is a safe guardrail.
  • High alcohol must - This is often the result of fermenting grapes with a high starting Brix. The must then reaches an alcohol level that is toxic to the yeast before all the sugars are fermented. Hence, the Brix level stays stagnant and does not fall to 0.
Measuring Brix using a hydrometer
The fix for stuck fermentation is to restart it. This can be tricky and often requires a different yeast strain that can tolerate the specific must environment presented by the stuck fermentation. The resulting wine is often of a lower quality or exhibits less desirable characteristics than intended.

Primary vs. Second vs. Secondary Fermentation

This is a surprisingly confusing topic, and I have seen the terms used differently. But this is how I understand the difference:

  • Primary fermentation refers to fermentation prior to racking. Racking is the process of transferring wine from one vessel to another to remove sediments and dead yeasts. Some winemakers rack in the middle of alcoholic fermentation while others do it after.
  • Second fermentation refers to a new alcoholic fermentation due to the presence of sugar. This may be accidental if there is sugar left from a prior fermentation. Or it may be intentional where more yeast and sugar are added to a still wine to trigger a second fermentation and subsequent carbonation. That is how a sparkling wine is made.
  • Secondary fermentation refers to fermentation after racking. If racking occurs in the middle of alcoholic fermentation, then secondary fermentation is the continuation of that. If racking occurs after alcoholic fermentation is complete, then secondary fermentation may refer to malolactic fermentation if used.
Racking from barrel to carboy
Malolactic Fermentation

Often known as malo or MLF, malolactic fermentation is the process of converting tart malic acid (think green apple) in wine to creamy lactic acid (think milk) using a bacteria called Oenococcus oeni. MLF is common in making red wine to create a velvety round texture. It is rarely used in making white wine except to create a buttery Chardonnay. MLF is sometimes known as secondary fermentation.

That concludes the primer on fermentation terms. Go forth into that tasting room and talk fermentation like a pro. Or at least spot a marketing spin. Now you know.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

When the Crush Gets Real

I remember my first crush day seven years ago. It was a gorgeous sunny fall day as we prepped the equipment at the crush site. Once the truckful of grapes arrived, we got busy distributing the loot into crates of 50 lbs, making sure that everyone got what they ordered. We then moved like clockwork, running the grapes through the crusher-destemmer. It was backbreaking but satisfying work.

Crush Day 2016 - grapes heading home

Looking back, I wish every crush was like that. Call it the beginner’s luck, but I have since learned that crush days often don’t go that smoothly. Without the resources of a commercial winery, a typical crush event for hobby winemakers can be challenging and chaotic. Let me quash any romantic notion and share some of my experience.

It’s Not Always Sunny in Snoqualmie

The crush site for my winemaking club is conveniently located in Snoqualmie, close to the gateway between eastern and western Washington and also between the vineyards and the winemakers. We process our grapes in the open area outside the storage unit that contains the club’s winemaking equipment. There is no roof or canopy to protect us, the grapes, or the equipment from the elements. Unlike the weather on my first crush day, the more typical Pacific Northwest fall weather ranges from light drizzle to straight downpour and even hail.

Crush Day 2023 - processing grapes in the rain

The club rules are based on the principle that we are in this together. It means all the winemakers involved will work together to prep the equipment, weigh and distribute the grapes, process the berries, and finally clean up the sticky grape-y mess. Regardless of whether you ordered 100 lbs or 1,000 lbs of grapes, you’d stay for the four to five hours needed to crush the grapes. Now, imagine doing this in the cold and wet fall weather.

Not American Pickers

Grapes, like many agricultural products, are best picked early in the morning. Harvest is a busy period as vineyards coordinate pick dates while keeping in balance the optimal grape ripeness, the forecasted weather, and the available vineyard crew. It is a wonder how the stars were ever aligned to pull that off, but they did for the most part. Still it is easy to tip the balance and in the area that we often take for granted - migrant vineyard workers.

Harvest by Vindemia Winery on Unsplash

In the past several years, vineyards have been grappling with labor shortage, initially due to immigration crackdown and more recently the pandemic. As a result, grapes were sometimes picked past the prime hours, impacting the grape quality. For the club, this also means hours of delay on the same-day crush, extending grape processing into nightfall. This leads to the next set of challenges.

Noise, Lights, Action!

Using the outside of a storage unit to crush grapes is ideal for numerous reasons. You can retrieve and set up the necessary equipment quickly. When the crush and cleanup are done, the equipment are returned to storage, just feet away. All is well till you have to crush in the dark. The storage unit has no power outlet. The only source of light comes from a low voltage bulb that is operated by an analog timer, similar to the one you use to run your bathroom fan. 

Crush Day 2017 - crushing in the dark

Where one generator is used to fuel the crusher-destemmer in the day, a second is needed to power the heavy-duty flood lights at night. Even then, head lamps are donned to illuminate areas that are missed by the lights. More generators also means more noise to compete with while coordinating crush activities. 2017 crush day was by far the most challenging for that reason. We finally completed the crush close to midnight, exhausted but relieved.

Crushing, but Not Crushed

The anticipation of crush day is a mix of excitement and anxiety for me. Oftentimes it is not till a few days prior that the harvest and crush date is confirmed. And you pray - for good (enough) weather, for manageable amount of grapes to process, and for no delay. 

Crush day is not exactly the image of Lucille Ball stomping grapes in a wooden vat or grape fighting with the Italian winemaker. You do what must be done till all the grapes are processed - crushing, but not crushed. Once the grapes are home with me, that is when the real fun begins - pitching the yeast, punching down the cap, and guiding the fermentation process. I love all of that! 

Soon it will be time to press the grapes. While not quite the mess that crush day is, it is a feat in itself and a topic of another post. In the meantime, I shall enjoy the buzzing of the yeast transforming grape juice into wine.

Thursday, August 31, 2023

A Tale of Two Wine Programs

I noticed an emerging wine trend in some of the snazzy new restaurants. I am talking about the kind of restaurants that will more likely snag a James Beard than a Wine Spectator Award. You will probably not find Bordeaux First Growths, big Champagne houses, or Napa’s Screaming Eagle on their wine lists. But that is the point. Their wine offerings are meant to pair with their food and not with Robert Parker’s scores. Let’s explore further.

Food and wine by Lee Myungseong on Unsplash

Two Restaurants, Two Wine Programs

If you live in Seattle, you have heard of Canlis. Perched on the edge of Queen Anne Hill with a spectacular view of Lake Union, Canlis has been awarded multiple James Beard and Wine Spectator Awards. In fact, it has won Wine Spectator’s highest level Grand Awards consecutively for over 20 years.

Iconic Seattle restaurant, Canlis from

Canlis’s line of wine directors hailed from the International Sommelier Guild and/or the Court of Master Sommeliers. Two years ago, the restaurant welcomed its first woman wine director. Linda Milagros Violago carries comparable credentials as her predecessors. The wine list is a book of over 100 pages with 2,600 wine selections, ranging from sparkling to still wines of red, white, and pink.

In 2019, Brady Ishiwata Williams at Canlis cinched the James Beard Award for the Best Chef in the Northwest. Two years later, Williams left Canlis to start his own restaurant, Tomo. Located next to an adult video store in a lower- to middle-income, admittedly grungy White Center, Tomo serves well-executed innovative upscale fare, which is a  juxtaposition to its neighborhood.

Tomo next to Taboo Video by Google Maps

At almost 20 pages, Tomo’s wine list is a fraction of Canlis’s. Nonetheless, it boasts of over 900 wines, curated from small production wineries to complement their dishes. Tomo’s current wine director, Rebar Niemi, came from a background of technology and education. Rebar may not share the credentials of his Canlis counterparts. However, in my few interactions with him, Rebar is very much a wine geek with a pulse on the palate of the Millennials and Zoomers. It is hardly surprising that Tomo was a semi-finalist for the James Beard’s Outstanding Wine Program in 2022.

Let’s delve into their wine lists.

The Sparkling

Both Canlis and Tomo have separate lists for Champagnes and other sparklers. Canlis showcases about 100 Champagnes, neatly catalogued by growers versus négociants, subregions, and vintages or non-vintages. In addition, there are 35 other bubblies from six countries with a good mix of French crémants, Spanish cavas, and mostly sparklers made in the Champagne style or traditional method. There are also a handful of Italian Moscato d’Astis and European Pet-Nats.

Dom Pérignon in Canlis but not in Tomo

Tomo’s Champagne list is not too shabby with about 30 selections, favoring grower Champagnes. You will not find the big négociants such as Billecart-Salmon, Dom Pérignon, and such. More interesting though is the list of 50 non-Champagne sparklers. There is one crémant and a Pet-Nat, intermixed with sparkling ciders and other non-classified sparkling wines.

The Still

Canlis’s impressive list of 2,000 reds and whites come from almost 20 countries. They are methodically organized by country, sub-region, winery, grape variety, and vintage. Canlis also has about 25 rosés. Each producer is respectable, and each wine is of a high quality. With a multi-year award-winning cellar, Canlis caters to a knowledgeable wine clientele who expect to find almost any special bottle to mark an occasion.

Tomo’s Seasonal Wine Selections, May 2023

Tomo holds its own with 400 selections from about 15 countries. You will be hard pressed to find a bottle of Bordeaux (compared to nearly 100 offered at Canlis). What you will find in Tomo, but not at Canlis, are the occasional Japanese wines as well as close to 80 orange wines. Listed under “Skin Contact” with 50 pink wines, that is the most orange wines I have seen in any restaurant wine list. Unlike Canlis, Tomo is catering to a younger and more adventurous wine clientele, who are willing to go off the beaten Robert Parker path to try something different.

About Skin Contact

While I love the incredible list of orange wines at Tomo, I am perplexed by the use of Skin Contact as a category. For those new to orange wine, it is made using white wine grapes with extended skin contact. White wine is typically made by separating the juice from the skin prior to fermentation. When making orange wine, these white wine grapes are fermented in the skin which leads to the orange hue in the wine; hence the term “skin contact.”

Orange wine at Tomo

Skin contact is, however, not an accurate descriptor for pink wine. Pink wine is technically the opposite of orange wine. Rosé, in essence, is made the same way as a white wine except that it uses red grapes. There are different ways to make rosé; separating the juice from the skin immediately after harvest or siphoning a portion of the juice from the red grape must into a different vat for fermentation. Regardless of the method, the goal is to minimize skin contact, not prolong it. Otherwise you will be making a red wine. 

My Verdict: I am excited about the new wine trend I see in hip innovative restaurants, like Tomo. It introduces a myriad of wines that are not constrained by traditional winemaking methods or Old World classification systems. This may just be up the Millennials’ and Zoomers’ alley. That said, I also don’t want to lose the tried and true wine styles - the Bordeaux, the Barolos, and similar styles in the New World. So let’s encourage innovation but continue to celebrate tradition - in wine.

Monday, July 31, 2023

Fourteen Wine Hacks or a Wack? Part Two

This is Part Two of my review of the 14 Practical Wine Hacks that Are Here to Save the Day, published by CNN. As mentioned in my last post, I only counted thirteen hacks in the article so I will cover the remaining six. Unlike last month, I am happy to report that many of these are truly hacks or at least semi-hacks, focused on what to do with leftover wine. There is one that feels like a Martha Stewart wannabe moment gone complicated. Check them out!

8. Whip Up a Slushy

SEMI-HACK. This is technically a frosé hack. Frosé is a wine cocktail that originated from Bar Primi in New York City. Since its inception less than a decade ago, frosé has grown in popularity. Today, you can find frosé in many restaurants and even ballparks during summertime. The original recipe calls for freezing rosé, some vermouth, and muddled strawberries. Because of the alcohol content in rosé, it may take up to six hours to freeze. Several shortcuts have since emerged, which skip the step of freezing rosé. Instead, you freeze the berries and blend them with the rosé.

Frosé by John Rodriguez on Unsplash

9. Make a Wine Cocktail

HACK. Not a particularly new idea, but yes, you can make sangria from leftover wine. Sangria is a wine cocktail that came from Spain and Portugal. The standard sangria recipe calls for wine with chopped or sliced fruit, some sweetener, and a liquor. The author’s shortcut recipe skips the liquor and uses a splash of soda water.

10. Make 2-Ingredient Red Wine Vinegar

SEMI-HACK. I once tried making my own vinegar from a batch of homemade wine that had gone acetic. As it turned out, it is harder to make good vinegar than good wine. My vinegar got moldy. Maybe it is because I haven’t mastered the science behind vinegar making the way I have with winemaking. So yes, theoretically, you can make vinegar out of oxidized wine. But it is harder than you think!

Acetic acid by CA Creative on Unsplash
11. Make Wine Syrup

HACK. This is really a wine reduction with sugar in a 3:1 wine to sugar ratio. I haven’t tried this since we don’t do much dessert at home. But it is worth a shot if you’d like some wine syrup over ice cream, fruit slices, or pancakes.

12. Reduce Oxygen Contact to Make Wine Last Longer

HACK. While minimizing air contact by putting leftover wine in a smaller container is a wine hack, the explanation offered by the author is kind of wack. The suggestion that screwcap wines taste fresh for longer than bottles with cork closures is only true so long as the bottle has not been opened. Even then, the difference is minuscule given that oxygen ingress via natural cork is only about 1 mg a year. Wine experts would also argue that micro oxygenation offered by a cork, as opposed to an anaerobic environment from a screwcap, helps the wine develop its complexity.

Opened bottles by Ibrahim Boran on Unsplash
Once the bottle is opened, it is no longer about the closures nor the surface area. It is all about the headspace or the amount of oxygen in the bottle. When you transfer leftover wine into a smaller jar, depending on the width of the jar, you are not necessarily reducing the surface area of the wine that will be in contact with oxygen. But you will be reducing the headspace. 

13. Chill Wine with DIY Frozen Wine Holder

SEMI-WACK. I confess that I am no Martha Stewart. The instructions to create this frozen wine holder may be for someone with more time, DIY flair, and freezer space than I do. The steps include freezing a see-through container with some water and an empty wine bottle, taping the bottle in place, filling the container with more water and whatever floral and fruit combo, refreezing them all, and finally transferring wine into the bottle.

Ice mold wine chiller from C&B
This DIY idea is likely inspired by Crate and Barrel’s Ice Mold Wine Bottle Chiller. My friend owns one of these, and I thought it was really cool. Plus, the use of the store bought version requires a fifth of the DIY steps and half the freezer space. For $45 a pop, I’d rather get the Crate and Barrel chiller or order a knock-off from Amazon for a few bucks less.

This completes my review of the wine hacks published by CNN. Do you know of any other cool wine hacks to share? Or maybe a wack?