Tag Archives: wine

“Wine hiking” is a thing in my home region…

We’re currently in Piemonte, enjoying the region for our first time ever. More on that in another post. Before we came here, we spent five days with my family in Nackenheim, a village just south of Mainz along the river Rhine. Nackenheim is fortunate to have some of the best soil along the Rhine between itself and Nierstein to its south: the Rothenberg. As the name indicates, its soil is of intense red color, an iron-rich sandstone and clay mix including red slate.The vines face east, down towards the Rhine to get maximum exposure on this steep hill. I grew up in these hills, hiking and biking, and the sight of the soil makes my heart skip a beat.

Shortly before we got Nackenheim, my mother informed me there’d be a “wine hike” the Sunday we’re there. We were intrigued. Armed with glasses we bought for 10 euros each (which included servings of four different wines), we set out on the 2.5 km trail, which led us into the vineyards and by four stands manned by winemakers. It was a nice day (I even caught a sunburn), and over 400 people were out and about on the trail, I was told by a winemaker. This particular hike was to celebrate a wine made in honor of my hometown’s most famous son: Carl Zuckmayer (yeah, I know…not that famous), a German playwright whose books were banned by the Nazis and has a literary voice I enjoy.

In any case, I realized I haven’t really posted much from my hometown, which should deserve a bigger place on this blog, and so I decided to share some photos.

Hope you’re all doing well, and sure hope a wine region near you starts wine hikes soon!

Even snails like our vines...

Even snails like our vines…

Baby vines, a little older vines.

Baby vines, a little older vines.

Hiking along, high above the Rhine.

Hiking along, high above the Rhine.

Overlooking the vineyards along the Rhine towards Nierstein. The yellow plants are rapeseed.

Overlooking the vineyards along the Rhine towards Nierstein. The yellow plants are rapeseed.

We were relieved there was not a single "shark" in the vineyards ("kein" means "no").

We were relieved there was not a single “shark” in the vineyards (“kein” means “no”).

I love gnarly vines, and the buds keep them young.

I love gnarly vines, and the buds keep them young.

Drinking wines while hiking does have its perks. And even German reds can discolor your teeth.

Drinking wines while hiking does have its perks. And even German reds can discolor your teeth.

At the final pit stop, it was hard to leave.

At the final pit stop, it was hard to leave.

Heading back town into the village, the iconic church towering above it.

Heading back town into the village, the iconic church towering above it.

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A little place of serenity outside of Napa: Ladera Vineyards

End of January, Nina and I spent a week in California. I’ll readily admit it was a nice break from the Michigan winter. We’d both never been to either Napa or Sonoma, so we decided it was time. Me being the complete newbie to wines from that region, I relied on friends and fellow bloggers to give me some direction on which wines to try. We decided to limit it to four wineries, two in Napa and two in Sonoma. We only had the weekend, and we have by now learned that tastings usually take a while and there is nothing worse than rushing away from a tasting to make the next on time.

The first thing that struck me visiting the two regions is really how much they look like other wine regions: a long, winding road in a center of a valley, with hills rising, sometimes steeper, sometimes gentler, but always surrounded by vines. There really is nothing like it, and I was not prepared for how much at home I felt immediately. And the light and slight warmth certainly helped.

Ladera Vineyards was suggested by Anatoli of Talk-a-vino. He insisted one had to try their wines, and he helped us in setting up a tasting there. The first thing I had to do was google the winery (I know, shame on me). So what did I learn? Ladera is located on Howell Mountain, one of the top spots in Napa, and its roots go back to 1886, when the first winery building was erected in that same spot it now is, with vineyards dating back to 1877 (not the vines, mind you). The winery building is still standing in all its glory, but has been completely modernized inside and a large cellar has been constructed underneath. Ladera has been owned by its current owners Pat and Anne Stotesbery since 2000 and has built an impressive reputation for Cabernet Sauvignon.

So on Sunday, around noon, we curved our way up the valley onto Howell Mountain, pretty steep at times, and then finally turned into the property of Ladera Vineyards. From the website, Nina and I were not prepared what was awaiting us at the winery. The place is an absolutely breathtaking stunner: The old winery building with its gorgeous sandstone facade, the sky was of a deep, satisfying blue, and the vineyards are gently sloping around it. It was just a wonderful piece of quiet and calm, way above the fray that can be Napa. We were really speechless for a bit. I mean, look at this:

Ladera Winery Building

Ladera Winery Building (and yes, that is Nina sitting in the sun)

Everything was just so peaceful, you almost wanted to speak in a hush not disturb it. The tasting room manager during our visit, Julie, was friendly and knowledgeable and was happy to share with us the story and wines of Ladera. And we were ready to have both shared with us.

Get what I mean about the sky?

Get what I mean about the sky?

We started with a 2013 Ladera Sauvignon blanc, from what I can tell the winery’s only white wine ($30). And it was a great start: The nose was full and lush, with kiwi and gooseberry aromas, some flint, slight green pepper and bitter almonds, as well as beautiful hints of cassis (yes, I am a white wine person). It was bone dry, crisp and fresh, and oh so flavorful: grapefruit and other citrus in the forefront, cassis and blackberry, but also nicely creamy and almost doughy (in a good sense – it spent 7 months on lees!). I loved the balance of it, it was the right opening for a sunny day. I could drink that any time.

On we went to the 2010 Ladera High Plateau, a mix of 98% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Petit Verdot ($65). The wine poured in a dark ruby red, and the nose was amazingly powerful, with what felt like many layers of blackberry, plums, cacao, and, to my surprise, what I can only describe as watermelon. I guess a hint of sweetness combined with freshness. Definitely unexpected. The wine was dry with medium tannins and body, and nicely crisp acidity. On the palate it was aromatic, with sage and brush (Julie mentioned later the vineyard is surrounded by evergreens), raspberry, mocha and bitter chocolate with a long finish. Count me as impressed: This was a Cabernet Sauvignon that made me understand why people can love that grape, which I am often ambivalent about: It had the right mix of fruit and spice, and presented itself very well.

In between, we took a tour of the facility and state of the art cellar, probably one of the most beautiful modern cellars I have ever visited. And they have a great tasting room down there as well. The press and fermenting tanks are modern and lots of steel, it was quite pretty. In general, wines are fermented in open top vats with a cold soak for two to three days.

Inside Ladera's modern cellar

Inside Ladera’s modern cellar

From there, we went to the 2011 Ladera Howell Mountain Reserve Cab, a just released 100% Cabernet Sauvignon sourced from the winery’s best lots in Howell Mountain ($85). It poured in a similar dark ruby that the 2010 High Plateau poured in, but the nose was a lot more powerful: plums, but then a bunch of green peppercorns, tobacco, and some smoke with definitely more prominent wood aromas in the nose. To my surprise, the palate was definitely more fruity than the nose gave away: There was a bunch of black berries and cassis, but paired with a certain rubberiness that can be expected in such a young wine of this intensity. What I loved most about this wine was its texture, which was just beautifully chewy. The acidity and the tannins were in good balance, and the wine showed a lot of promise, although I want to try it in five years when it has calmed down a bit (as most of you know, I like my reds with some age on them).

Finally, we got to try some of the 2011 Ladera Howell Mountain “S” Cabernet, another 100% Cabernet Sauvignon, but this one stemming from the one block in Howell Mountain with the oldest vines, and only the four best barrels of that. So just a teeny little amount available ($175). The wine poured in a very dark ruby, almost black. The nose was intriguing, but also a bit mystifying: some brush, some licorice, some red berries, but also a bit musty at this stage. On the palate, you could tell this is way too young right now, but it provided a nice little window into its development: It felt a bit all over the place and very intense right now. What I liked about it was its fruit and acidity with powerful tannins that need settling down. But that’s a great structure for development. The finish was great: dark chocolate for days with no end in sight. Want to try this again in seven to ten years.

For me, this visit has the potential of being transformative. I never quite got why people could be so obsessed with Cabernet Sauvignon, which to me is often just powerful with no finesse. Ladera showed me that there is a different route for that grape, and it’s definitely worth exploring more. Needless to say, Nina knew that all along and had a great time as well. So, thanks to Ladera and thanks to Anatoli for opening my mind!

And thanks to the sun, for making these wines possible and that day gorgeous. I paid it my respects:

In the sun at Ladera

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Feuerzangenbowle and how to make your own Zuckerhut

Feuerzangenbowle in Alaska 2014

Feuerzangenbowle in Alaska 2014

I’ve written about the German winter tradition Feuerzangenbowle (aka “fire tongue punch”) before. In my post last year, I explained (eerily familiar these days when you look at the East Coast):

“Yet another “polar vortex” sweeping the Midwest is giving me a chance to write a post that I thought would have to wait until next winter. I meant to write it before Christmas, but then life got in between. So I relish this chance that Mother Nature has provided me with. Why could I only write this post in utter cold? Because of tradition…but let me begin:

If you type “Feuerzangenbowle” into Google, you will find a gazillion of hits for this term. Other bloggers, like John The Food and Wine Hedonist and Julian of Vino in Love, have written about it before, so I want to keep the intro part rather short. Feuerzangenbowle, usually translated as “Fire Tongue Punch”, is a German winter tradition. Most English-speakers are familiar with “Glühwein” aka mulled wine, and Feuerzangenbowle is an extension of mulled wine.” To be more precise, it’s pimped version of mulled wine.

If current weather conditions make you want to throw a party and impress your guests with a show of fire and light as well as a tasty mulled wine, this is what you need: a burner, mulled wine, sugar loafs or hats (in German: Zuckerhut), some metal rack (to set the sugar onto), minimum 50 proof rum, a metal ladle, and a lighter. The final product will be sugar drenched in rum that is lit up sitting atop a pot of mulled wine. It makes for quite the spectacle.

First up, you need some form of hardened sugar. In Germany, we use a Zuckerhut, a cone shaped loaf of sugar that fits perfectly on the tongues that are used to hold it above the mulled wine. It’s hard or expensive to get them in Germany, and I have experimented a lot with how to replace it. We’re throwing at least one Feuerzangenbowle party in Alaska each year, and usually one in Ann Arbor as well (like this past weekend). Initially, I played with adding a bunch of water to sugar and then putting it into the oven at a rather low temperature. The problem with that is that it can caramelize the sugar and then it burns down much harder (as happened to me this year in Alaska, where the sugar was so hard that the flames turned into a greenish color – pretty, but not what you want).

When I told Nina my dilemma, she did a Google search and found the perfect solution: a Youtube video. Not that I couldn’t have thought of that. The three minute video shows how easy it is to make your own sugar cones. Mix a cup of sugar with a teaspoon of water. Mix well with a fork, the sugar will resemble damp sand. Then take a champagne or beer flute or martini glass, put in a third of the sugar, use a muddler to press the sugar firmly, criss-cross the top of the sugar with the fork to loosen it a bit and ensure the next round will stick to this round, add another third of sugar, repeat and repeat again. Then flip the glass on parchment paper, tap the glass, and let it sit over night. It worked perfectly! I was very happy with the consistency of this cone, just right.

For the mulled wine, combine a box of Franzia Zinfandel (or any other cheap wine of choice) with 8 sticks of cinnamon, three oranges and three lemons cut in wheels, and some vanilla aroma. Heat up, but don’t let it boil (it will ruin the flavor).

When everything is ready, put the wine pot on a burner, set up the rack on top of the pot, put a cone or two on the rack (I use two cones of a cup of sugar each per wine box of 5 liters). Dim the lights in the room. Pour rum over the cones to drench them. Pour rum in the ladle and light it up. Pour the burning rum over the cones. You might need to light up the cones separately to get them started. Once they are burning, add more rum as you see fit. The sugar will drip into the mulled wine, there will be small fires of rum and sugar sitting on top of the mulled wine, giving the orange and lemon wheels a nice burn. Once the sugar is burned down after a couple of minutes, remove the rack, and start serving the mulled wine.

The mix is potent, so watch out. But it’s also SO good. Here’s to getting through the winter in style!

Feuerzangenbowle (as captured by The Food and Wine Hedonist)

Feuerzangenbowle (as captured by The Food and Wine Hedonist)

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