Category Archives: wine

Patio pleasures at Trattoria Gianni

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Trattoria Gianni's charming enclosed patio
Trattoria Gianni’s charming enclosed patio
Sitting on a block of Halsted in Lincoln Park that’s also home to high-flying successes like Alinea and Boka can be a challenge for any restaurant. Trattoria Gianni, 1711 N. Halsted, takes it on as a comfortable Italian oasis that has the distinct summer advantage of a large, enclosed, charmingly decorated patio.
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On a recent press visit we sampled some of the restaurant’s signature dishes. Rice balls that were tender inside and deep-fried just enough to give a hint of crunch on the outside. Meatballs made with pork and veal. Pasta veggie primavera. Italian-dressed romaine and tomato salad with Italian bread. Italian food, filling and plentiful.

Prices are reasonable, and this is an ideal place to come before or after the theater – Steppenwolf Theatre is across the street down the block. Be forewarned that the air conditioning works much better in the front section of the restaurant; the hot day we were there it was uncomfortably warm in the back section. But if it’s a nice day, don’t hesitate to take advantage of the patio. This patio is beside the restaurant – not stuck out on the sidewalk as so many are these days – and runs the length of the building, so it’s roomy. A glass door opening to the patio allows servers a clear view of tables and easy access to patrons. Sadly, it was raining the day we visited so we didn’t get to experience it personally, but I can picture us enjoying some wine or a summer cocktail among the flowers and the twinkling lights.

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Moscato d’Asti will open your eyes

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Surprise: Moscato d’Asti from Italy’s Piedmont region is worlds away from what “moscato” meant to most American 20 years ago – which was generally an over-sweet wine without the balance of appropriate acidity. Just plain cloying to drink.
There are versions of Moscato being made in Sicily and other parts of Italy, but the magic of Moscato d’Asti comes from the strict regulations of the DOCG designation. No extra sugar can be added, for example. And fermentation must be natural, not from injected gas. Because standards are so strict, every year is declared a vintage.
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Today 4000 companies in Piedmont grow grapes on 27,000 acres of mostly hillsides to create the light, low-alcohol, floral white naturally sweet wine with a touch of bubbles. The natural fermentation sets it apart from the simplicity of Prosecco, which bears no comparison to the complexity of this Moscato d’Asti. Some say this Moscato has similarities to complex yet lightly sweet German wines like Riesling and Gewurtztraminer.
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Generally considered a fresh wine, you won’t find many older vintages of Moscato d’Asti. Though you might find a bottle here and there that has stood the test of time for a few years, up to 5 or so. Part of the reason for the freshness is that producers don’t bottle the wine until it’s been ordered. They actually use fine-tuned technology to maintain the fresh, non-alcoholic juice at 2 degrees below zero Celsius until it’s time to bottle. Once an order is placed,  winemakers gradually raise the temperature of the juice until fermentation sets in, then watch it carefully until the perlage – bubbles – are just right for the maker’s vision.
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Climate change is affecting how the Piedmont Moscato winemakers do their work. They are having to pick earlier and anticipate in the near future having to grow their grapes almost exclusively on the hillsides where it’s cooler than in the valley, has more light and cooler nights.
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Most of these winemakers suggest enjoying their wines as apertif or even as a midday refreshment. Remember the study that said office workers who consumed a glass of wine at lunch tended to perform better, come up with more creative solutions, and generally be in better moods? It’s true, people. Come on, live a little!
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Here are a few wines that struck a chord at this event:
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Saracco Moscato d’Asti DOP 2016. Surprisingly delicate, complex and slightly fizzy rather than bubbly. Fun to drink with dessert or alone, as a pleasant mid-day break. Remember – delicate bubbles, low alcohol (generally only 5%) and extremely aromatic. A treat.
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Coppo Moncalvino Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2016. Moscato represents one of the most important indigenous grapes to the Piedmont region. And Moscato d’Asti has higher acidity – to balance the natural sweetness – than almost any other sweet wine, which keeps the flavors interesting and complex. This particular wine is fresh and aromatic with floral notes and peach and pear overtones.
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Marenco Vini Scrapona Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2016. This wine has a heady combination of aromas – almost reminiscent of musk oil – that translate into a deliciously rich flavor. The winemaker said, “We are all about preserving the distinctive aromas of the Moscato grape.” One part of achieving that goal is to allow no irrigation; the wines are made with whatever moisture nature provides. This particular wine is substantial enough to pair well with a wide variety of foods: from tempura and spicy foods, to light cheeses, to desserts and fruits of multiple varieties.
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Vignaioli di Santo Stefano Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2016. A bouquet of elder flowers, lime and peach. A little sweeter than the others with a delicate rather than a bold aroma. Suggestions to pair: sweets, cakes and ice creams plus some cheese or fruits like figs or melons.
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La Caudrina Moscato d’Asti DOCG 2016. Aromatic with a delicate flower scent, sweet yet lightly acidic. Perfect for dessert, with dry bakery such as Panettone (a fruity bread) or Easter Coloma. Refreshing anytime as a low-alcohol option. Only 5% alcohol. Lively and pleasant.
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Lovely white – William Fèvre Chablis Champs Royaux 2015

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Cold French wine Chablis made from Chardonnay
Cold French wine Chablis made from Chardonnay (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Chablis. Remember how that was practically the only white wine we knew of back in the 70s?  I always liked Chablis; didn’t know or care at the time that it was made with Chardonnay grapes – and still is today. So it came as a surprise to me that I didn’t like the original heavily oaked Chardonnay wines that came from those same grapes. Happily these days, the oaking craze has settled down quite a bit.

To my further surprise, years ago when I was searching out a white burgundy, a favorite of mine, I finally realized many of those bottles were labeled Chablis – and learned that the Chardonnay grapes used to make them are grown in Burgundy. For a good discussion of this slightly confusing situation, read Eric Asimov of the New York Times on Chablis.

William Fèvre is known for producing exceptional Chablis wines that are excellent expressions of the ideal growing conditions in their Grands Crus terroirs. In this Champs Royaux 2015 you’ll taste the minerality of the sea and the chalky soils typical of the area – which makes it a perfect pairing with oysters. Winemakers notes: Fresh bouquet of citrus and white fruits, very slight oak finish, fresh and supple,

Some experts claim Chablis is the only wine that pairs perfectly with oysters.  I’m not going to argue with that or the recommendation of consuming oysters, grilled fish or sushi with this one. But I also think it has enough structure to stand up to roast pork with a light sauce or even a creamy beef Stroganoff. It’s a white wine with backbone, like some white burgundies I’ve had. At $25 a bottle, you can be proud to present this as a host/ess gift or just as a treat for yourself.

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Greek wines make a splash in Chicago

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City Winery noshes for Greek wines
City Winery noshes for Greek wines

Remember retsina from the 60s and 70s? It was the only name most Americans associated with Greek wines back then – and it wasn’t usually a pleasant link. But this year, the Wines of Greece brought a collection of winemakers and wines to City WInery in Chicago’s West Loop that dramatically changed a lot of people’s opinions about Greek winemaking.

For one thing, Greek winemakers have picked up on many trends in global winemaking – and have even begun growing and blending with classic grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Their wines tend to be fresh and acidic, but many are making wines that hold up well to aging even as long as a decade. What a difference a few years can make.
In terms of white wines, our favorite new grape from Greece is Assyrtiko. Lovely and so flexible in terms of the types of wines that can be made from it, many delicious with no other blend, but many others beautiful with various combinations of Chardonnay or Sauvignon blanc and other grapes indigenous to Greece

In the red category, a favorite new Greek grape is Agiorgitiko (ah-jor-git-ee-ko). Be sure to pronounce it correctly – as one of the reps explained to someone who asked, if Americans can learn to pronounce Gewurtztraminer, they can learn to pronounce Greek grape names! This grape, too, makes some lovely wines on its own or in blends with indigenous Greek grapes like Kydonitsa, Moschofilero and Xinomavro.

City Winery spread for Greek wines
City Winery spread for Greek wines

We were more than pleasantly surprised at the quality of the wines at this event. It was a unique  educational opportunity to experience the viniculure of a country that has not previously been known for fine wines. Since my daughter lived in Greece for almost a year while on her world tour back in the late 90s, it’s an extra special  pleasure to see how far the country has come in creating delicious wines. You’ll need to consult with your wine vendor or Binny’s to see about getting particular wines through the importers. Here are a few that stood out at the tasting:

Tsantali Rapsani Reserve Red 2012. ***** This vineyard is in northern Greece, near Italian vineyards that grow Barolo. Grapes: Xinomavro, Krassato, Stavroto. Imported by Fantis Imports, Inc.

Domaine Costa Lazaridi Amethystos White 2016. ***** Grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Assyrtiko. Serve this 5-star lovely with seafood or grilled fish. Imported by Nestor Imports, Inc.

Argyros Estate Atlantis White 2016. ***** Grapes: Assyrtiko, Ahtiri, Aidani. This blend contains 90% Assyrtiko yet takes on just the right subtleties with the small addition of 5% of each of the other grapes. Imported by Athenee Importers.

Wine Art Estate Idisma Drios Assyrtiko 2016. ***** Grapes: Assyrtiko only. Compare this to a dry Riesling and enjoy the same ways.

Lantides Winery Nemea Lantides 2012. ***** Grapes: Agiorgitiko only. This wine can be aged up to 10 years. It’s excellent for an aperitif. The winery grows 60-70% of its own grapes and buys the rest from trusted sources. Imported by Dionysos Imports.

Greek Wine Cellars GWC Santorini 2016. ***** Grapes: Assyrtiko only. Grown from really earthy old vines. Volcanic soils and the nightly sea mist mineralize this wine. Imported by Fotis & Son Imports.

Domaine Hatzimichalis Estate Hatzimichalis Lefkos White 2016. **** Grapes: Sauvignon Blanc, Malagousia, Robota. This vineyard is located one hour north of Athens. Serve this white with grilled chicken, fresh salads or pork. Imported by Fantis Imports.

Bairaktaris Winery Old Monolithos Red 2012. **** Grapes: Agiorgitiko only. This wine is the epitome of old-world winemaking and the commitment to making wines that taste of their place. Pair with pork, steak, burger, or aged yellow cheese.

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The Symington family of fine port wines

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Charles Symington in the vineyard
Charles Symington in the vineyard

Interestingly, port wines often do not state vintage years. Instead, when a wine is particularly good one year, it is “declared” a vintage after it’s been bottled. Because differences in weather are unpredictable every year, only great years can command a declaration. It is always an exercise in self-restraint for port winemakers to decide which years deserve to be declared.

Rupert Symington checking the grapes
Rupert Symington checking the grapes

Some of the biggest names in port from the Douro Valley are all owned by the Symington Family Estates. Cousins Rupert and Charles Symington came to Chicago recently to introduce their exciting 2015 vintages and showcase a few of their older premium offerings.

 They brought four of their renowned name brands and presented the 2015 vintage along with carefully selected  older vintages of the same brand. It was a fascinating horizontal and vertical tasting exercise that highlighted the differences between young port wines and mature. It very clearly showed how aging in the bottle changes and deepens the complexity and flavor in a fine ruby port.
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Cockburn's vintage port 2015 label
Cockburn’s vintage port 2015 label

Our favorite among all was the Cockburn’s 2015 Vintage Port, its bicentenary vintage. The Symingtons purchased Cockburn’s from the  company that had been operating it since the family sold it in the 1950s – to the detriment, they believed, of the fine brand. “We wanted to bring back the spirit of Cockburn’s,” said Rupert. So they organized a tasting of some of the very oldest Cockburn’s vintages – from 1912, 1920 and so on. They knew, then, what their goal would be to engineer the re-birth of the Cockburn excellence. Their 2015 has lush aromas and flavors of maraschino and black cherry that eventually turn into Kirsch-like flavors. Rupert described it as “tropical jungle.” The 2011 vintage port is a perfect example of this super-refined structure and power of the Cockburn port profile: dark, brooding, powerful.

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The Symingtons offered a couple of observations about grapes: Touriga Franca is like Merlot – softer, forgiving, aromatic. Cabernet is more like Touriga Nacional – dark and needs softening.
Port goes through three phases: 1) young, fresh and full of fruit flavor; 2) after 10 to 15 years the port starts to mature and begins to get that raisiny flavor; and 3) 20-30 years when the port loses some of its intense, deep color and becomes much more subtle as it approaches serious maturity.
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Vintage port is made with extraordinary grapes. Then they add a colorless brandy with a 20% level of alcohol. The brandy gradually gets absorbed into the port and basically disappears, and then the wines darken up. A simple fact: it takes 7 liters of wine to make one liter of brandy– which is how they do it in Spain.
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Graham’s Stone Terraces Vintage Port 2015 was lovely. Made from tiny grapes, it has been declared a vintage. Shows very concentrated fruit and a pure expression on the nose. Slight tropical notes, Only 345 cases made.
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Six Grapes is a Grahams brand of port that uses the same grapes as Dow’s port. When Dow’s declares a vintage, the next best barrels go into Six Grapes bottles. When there is no declaration, the best grapes of all go into the Six Grapes brand. You get the finest quality at a much lower price with Graham’s Six Grapes.
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Their Quinta do Vesuvio winery does not declare – it bottles. The wines are velvety and sweeter with lots of fruit aromas. Sweetness makes it smoother on the palate. All Vesuvio vintages are trodden by foot. producers are so consistently exceptional that they simply call it a vintage almost every year.
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Dow’s rounded out the selection of pairs – themselves very nice, slightly drier wines. Quinta del Senhora da Ribeira has had almost ideal climate for growing port grapes. All their wines are velvety. Floral tones from the Touriga Franca, resin and spicy flavors from the Nacional along with some tar and smoke
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Cafe Brauer – good food, cocktails and great views

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English: Cafe Brauer also called South Pond Re...
English: Cafe Brauer also called South Pond Refectory is a National Historic Place in Lincoln Park Chicago. It is currently run by the Lincoln Park Zoological Society (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Lincoln Park has a number of interesting places to eat, and I just discovered the pleasure of one of those – the patio at Cafe Brauer. Delicious American food specialties, served by warm and friendly people, and a small selection of wines, craft beers and cocktails designed to satisfy most of us. One menu item promises fresh vegetables from Green City Market, one of the city of Chicago’s markets that sets up every Wednesday and Saturday nearly across the street on Stockton Blvd. This is a marriage made in heaven.

I love the fact that the patio  sits right next to the Nature Boardwalk that meanders through a nature preserve. Watch people walk their dogs, ride their bikes, enjoy the scenery. Or bring your own dog – the restaurant welcomes dogs on the patio.
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English: Lincoln Park South Pond and Lincoln P...
English: Lincoln Park South Pond and Lincoln Park Zoo Nature Boardwalk in Chicago (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Entrance to the Nature Boardwalk is right off the patio. You can walk all the way around its half-mile perimeter as it wends through a 14-acre nature preserve. It’s a closed pathway, so you can trust that your bicycling or dog-walking grandchild or friend will definitely find her way back to you. No way to get lost. Being in “the wild” in the middle of the city without being worried you’ll get lost. Can’t wait to bring my granddaughter here.

Mallard duck pairs occasionally break the still waters of the pond next to the patio. It’s an incredibly peaceful and calming environment. Bird song everywhere. People walking.

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Fried chicken with french fries
Fried chicken with french fries (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The Cafe Brauer patio is the site of many weddings, school and corporate events. The staff are highly experienced at providing buffets full of tasty all-American foods like buttermilk fried chicken (delicious!). The regular menu offers big plates to share – calamari, wings, guac and salsa, or steak chili nachos. Then there are soups and salads, plus paninis, burgers – including turkey and black bean and classic sandwiches, all served with fries. Sides are interesting – side salad,  Parmesan fries, waffle-battered sweet potato fries with maple-vinegar aioli, mac & cheese, and stir-fried Green City Market vegetablea, all priced at $4.95, but if you order them with a sandwich they’re only two bucks. Desserts are $5.95 and include Brownie Sundae, Blueberry Crisp, and Cookie Skillet with ice cream. Hungry yet?

Basically, Cafe Brauer has just about anything your heart could desire. They even play upbeat music at just the right decibel level – cheers the atmosphere and lightens the spirit.

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If you hop the bus through Lincoln Park, you can catch either the 156 or the 151 down Stockton Blvd. There are several stops you can get off at; the first stop for the zoo on the southbound 151 is at Webster. The next stop, Armitage, lets you off close to Cafe Brauer.
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Hours for the patio are 11 to 9pm Monday through Friday and 8:30 to 9pm on weekends. Obviously, Café Brauer has been around quite a while, but it sure feels nice to discover this charming option. BTW, they have free Wi-Fi, and if the restaurant is not busy, you are welcome to sit and enjoy as long as you like. So delightful. Thank you, Chicago. Another reason to love our city.
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Dreaming Tree – Wines you’ll love that love the earth

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Dreaeming Tree Chardonnay
Dreaeming Tree Chardonnay

Dreaming Tree is a winery that loves the environment as much as it loves making wine. Not only are their wines  delicious values at well under $20, but they’re also bottled in lightweight bottles that are manufactured with clean-burning natural gas. Labels are made with 100% recycled paper, using black ink printing—which means  no bleach is used and fewer toxins and heavy metals are released into the earth. And, get this, even Dreaming Tree’s corks are recyclable. All of which are good reasons to try these wines, but then there’s the taste! Below are tasting notes on some of their most popular vintages. Think green. Think delicious. Think value.

Oh, and if you’re into music, the guy behind the wines is also the guy in front of the Dave Matthews Band. And he partnered up for Dreaming Tree with New Zealand native Sean McKenzie – winemaker par excellence for his entire lifetime. Their goal is to make wines that preserve the true terroir and style of California’s fabulous growing regions.
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And now the Band’s professional chef, Fiona Bohane, creates recipes that pair with the wines and use local ingredients everywhere they travel. Check out some of the cool recipes here.
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Dreaming Tree Crush 2014. Blended of California’s finest varieties, this red wine gives you raspberry jam and vanilla oak characters on the nose. The flavors remind you of juicy mixed berries, and the wine’s tannins are full, yet soft and approachable. A robust red wine that goes great with spicy foods like barbecue ribs, Vietnamese-style pork sandwiches, or vegetarian stuffed poblano peppers. Worth every penny. SRP ~$15
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Dreaming Tree Sauvignon Blanc 2015. Lovely California-style SV, meaning its grapefruit zing is moderate and mellow as opposed to sharp. Winemaker notes: “fresh and juicy with tropical fruit aromas of passion fruit and kiwi. Finishing crisp and clean with hints of grapefruit and zesty lime.” Delicious as an aperitif, or serve it with fish, seafood or zesty Mexican food. ¡Olé! SRP ~$15
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And then there’s Dreaming Tree Chardonnay – delicious with grilled seafood, goat cheese, herb-roasted chicken, or fruit/ricotta/arugula salad. And their luscious, award-winning Dreaming Tree Cabernet Sauvignon – aromas of berries, cherries and cassis, wraped in toasted caramel with soft, mouth-filling tannins. Try it with grilled flank steak, ribs or vegetable kebobs.
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Environmentally conscious, sustainably grown, delicious wines at affordable prices and a good story to tell about them. Just in time for Mom, Dad or Grad gifts. Available at Walgreens, Target and lots of other locations around Chicago.
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Wisdom from Jackson Family winemakers – Masters of Oregon Pinot Noir

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Jackson Family wines in Willamette Valley
Jackson Family wines in Willamette Valley

If you’ve ever thought a Pinot Noir from Oregon tasted like a Burgundy, you’re not alone. Though half a world away from each other, both regions are located on nearly the same latitude and many winemakers in each area practice similar vinification techniques. Early makers of Pinot Noir in America had to go to Burgundy to study because no wineries here were making Pinot Noir at the time. Willamette Valley has been focusing on Pinot Noir for the last 51 years, and its capricious weather keeps winemakers on their toes.

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Oregon, according to a panel of Jackson Family Wines Collection winemakers from there who visited Chicago recently, is a state of mind that’s slightly different for each of them, but all of them speak about the need to be flexible and creative and collaborative because of the challenge of Oregon’s cool, fast-changing climate conditions.
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Chicago is 6th in the United States in consumption of Oregon Pinot Noir – consumption here is up by 26% in the last year. And one of the big reasons is the excellent quality of the Pinot Noirs produced in the Willamette Valley by these very winemakers.
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Pinot noir grapes growing in the Willamette Va...
Pinot noir grapes growing in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Below is a glimpse into the collective wisdom of these passionate and skilled winemakers – a somewhat loose arrangement of interesting bits about winemaking from the half-dozen panelists – who were, by the way, having more fun up there than we’ve ever seen in a wine tasting program!

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  • The soils in Willamette (pronounced Will-am-it, dammit) are actually oceanic, which is really good for growing Pinot Noir grapes. As the earth’s tectonic plates scraped against each other creating mountains in that area, they dislodged soil that was formerly at the bottom of an ocean and deposited that in the valley between the two mountain ranges, Cascade and Coast that both influence the environment and protect the grapes that grow here.
  • In 1988 there were only 49 wineries in Oregon. Now there are 700.
  • Unlike in Napa Valley where many owners don’t live, Jackson Family winemakers live on site. They also meet regularly and readily share information with each other. For example, when one grower decided to try earlier thinning than tradition, he readily passed along the results: vines mature better and the grapes have more flavor.
  • California, Oregon’s southern neighbor, is too warm to grow Pinot Noir grapes. It seldom has difficult growing seasons, whereas Oregon’s climate is a constant challenge to wine growers.
  • Julia Jackson, born in Sonoma, said her mother had a vision of going to Oregon, and then the whole family fell in love with wines grown there. Julia herself loves being out in the vineyards, being stewards of the land, a sense of discovery about the great wines.  Jackson Family winemakers also believe in educating visitors and so sponsor collaborative trips for that purpose.
  • The grapes in Willamette are more transparent than those grown in Burgundy, yet the finished wines can easily be aged 10 to 15 years. Burgundy has many different producers. Willamette offers multiple mesoclimates. Producers must be in intimate touch with the features of their terroir, and most consider their big markers as the specific site and the vintage – yielding wines with a rustic nature and a nice backbone of tannins. Even though Oregon Pinots have a darker profile, they tend to be fresher and more acidic than California’s.
  • Napa is most known for its Cabernet; Willamette is identified with Pinot Noir; Argentina with Malbec. La Crema was the first Jackson Family winery to move into Oregon. They definitely don’t try to make a California version of Pinot, but rather work on discovering what’s there and stay true to that. Willamette’s vintage-to-vintage variability necessitates constant continuing education. Jackson Family winemakers are required to dedicate 5% of land to biodiversity as part of the goal of keeping the land healthy.
  • Lots of volcanic soils are good for winemaking and viticulture. They have greater water holding capacity. Results in plush, fruit-driven wines. Sedimentary soil (as in Willakenzie) drains more freely. Vines struggle more, resulting in wines that are a bit more rustic, firm, structured. Oregon has only these two soil types – sedimentary and volcanic. California has many more soil types than France.
  • Wind is a moderating influence, and in Oregon it is significant. The last two wines listed below are grown in seriously windy areas. Zena-Crown is in the Van Duzer Corridor, where the same strong wind blows all year, even on 90-degree days. “We pick 2-3 weeks later, because vines shut down at night. It’s always been a truism that we can’t plant above 1000 feet, but now we’re considering it because the summers have been so much warmer. Skins get thicker from the wind – which helps grapes defend against weather. Keeps higher acidity, which equals freshness and tannins.” Read more about the cool-climate growing conditions in Willamette Valley.
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The winemakers are taking their program to various destinations around the U.S., and they said the character of the just-opened wines changes with every location – influenced by such things as barometric pressure, humidity, and the altitude at which you drink them. Even being on an upper floor, as we were in one of the beautiful Kimpton Gray Hotel event spaces where the program took place, would make a difference. They all said the wines were giving off more florals and more spice here than they had in the previous city. Ha! Most of us can only dream of one day achieving the level of sensitivity of such highly educated noses and palates…
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Jackson Family winemakers talk to each other and taste wines together. They are individual artists who make their own decisions. The Jackson Family does not prescribe that a winemaker must do something in a particular way. In fact, they even allow them to use blocks of land from partner wineries to make their blends.
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Structure, texture, and aroma are the concerns when putting together a blend. All Jackson Family vintners use French wood barrels and must be instinctive about how many oak barrels to buy – a decision that’s made long before the harvest.
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“Look out for the tannins,” said one panel member. “The fermentation process can get away from you. It’s not good to add salt later in the process – that amounts to ‘remedial winemaking’ and isn’t where we want to go.” In Oregon, it always rains during harvest, but every good winemaker will say that’s not necessarily a deal breaker. They know how to compensate.
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One panelist said they don’t drink their own wines at home, but rather experiment with others. “We go to the grocery store and buy European wines for $18-$20 a bottle. We want to know what the consumer is buying and experiencing.”
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Below are the names of the six wines the panelists provided for tasting, organized from lightest to most substantial in structure. Each is marked with our totally subjective star rating (remember, we tend to love highly structured wines) and a few winemaker tasting notes.
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  • Siduri Willamette Valley 2015. ***1/2  This Pinot is made with a blend of three different regions, uses 25% whole cluster (means they keep the grapes on their stems) and is made using Burgundian vinification techniques. Winemaker notes: “Darker berry and currant flavors, along with hints of cherry joined by earth, dried brush, and even tobacco flavors.” SRP ~$24
  • WillaKenzie Gisele Willamette Valley 2014. **** Blended to produce a rustic, brambly fruit flavor. Winemaker notes: “Juicy acidity and flavors of raspberry, plum and a hint of white pepper. The mouthfeel is elegant and polished with a long, velvety finish.” SRP ~$24
  • Penner-Ash Willamette Valley 2014. ****1/2 A gorgeous dark purple color but transparent. Jammy flavor. Winemaker notes: “Experience ripe, fresh raspberry, red plums and strawberry compote with a hint of subtle cedar. The fine texture and silky tannins enhance the vanilla, brown sugar, and leather notes on the finish.” SRP ~$40
  • La Crema Dundee Hills 2014. ***** Purple/garnet color with a mid-palate richness. Grown by the independent Oregon contingent of this famed La Crema California winery from two clones in an area sheltered from the winds, so with a longer growing season. This vineyard has 18 different soil types within its 80 acres. Winemaker notes: “A nose brimming with violets, cherry pie and earth. Flavors of pomegranate, raspberry and anise. Nuanced yet concentrated.” SRP ~$50
  • Gran Moraine Yamhill-Carlton 2014. ***** Another wine made with 25% whole cluster. Lovely pink-purple color. Winemaker notes: “Cranberry and rose hips up front that transform into orange zest and Meyer lemon on the mid pallet. This is followed by morel mushroom, red cedar, and exotic spices as allspice and mace.  Precise but broad; exhibiting restrained power and elegance combined with immense aging potential. Finish lingers giving impressions of pipe tobacco, earth, white sage and pure cocoa. Shaped like a teardrop rippling outward at the point of contact with a still body of water.” SRP ~$45
  • Zena Crown Slope Eola-Amity Hills 2013. ***** Couldn’t put it better than Wine Spectator’s 93-point rating – “Rich and expressive, featuring black cherry and pepper notes set against tangy mineral flavors. Comes together smoothly as the finish gains traction, with a light bite of tannins. Drink now through 2023. 348 cases made.” SRP ~$100
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Armand de Brignac’s Emilien Boutillat intros new champagne at Boka

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Armand de Brignac occupies a premier position among the many prestigious makers of French champagne. Owner Shawn Carter and Winemakers Alex and Jean-Jacques Cattier, freely admit their goal is simply to make the finest champagnes in the world, designed specifically with the luxury wine collector/investor in mind.
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Armand de Brignac champagne line
Armand de Brignac champagne line

Winemaker Emilien Boutillat came to Chicago recently to introduce Armand de Brignac’s newest product, Blanc de Noirs Assemblage Two, made exclusively with Pinot Noir grapes. They also asked Chef Lee Wolen at Boka to create pairings for the new blend and several other offerings with a view to educating members of the trade and press about their line of fine champagnes.

Armand de Brignac brut rosé
Armand de Brignac brut rosé

All of Armand de Brignac’s offerings are non-vintage, said Boutillat, but rather are created as blends, often from three different vintage years. For the rosé champagne, they actually use a blend of white and red wines that yields an orangey-rose color with a very fine bubble that makes a delightful aperitif.

The blanc de blancs stood out strong and smooth and full of character, which may be why the first course paired it with an unusual fish called Striped Jack – also known as Shima Aji, categorized in the Jackfish family. Served with a bit of seaweed and potato and flavored with lime, this dish was the least favorite dish I’ve ever had at Boka. The champagne, nevertheless, was delicious and stood up well to the somewhat strong taste and very firm texture of the fish.
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Crispy skinned chicken breast with Gold Brut
Crispy skinned chicken breast with Gold Brut

The next champagne, Armand de Brignac’s Champagne Gold Brut – its flagship wine – was extraordinarily delicate and so beautifully blended that it felt almost ethereal on the nose and palate and in the mouth. It made a perfect accompaniment to the Chef’s incredibly moist-fleshed chicken breast,  stuffed under the crispy skin with house-made chicken-leg-meat sausage. Served with a small pouf of super-fine puree of parsnips, the serving was generous, the dish attractive and satisfying, and the wine a lovely accompaniment.

Lamb tender with apricot sauce served with newest Armand de Brignac champagne
Lamb tender with apricot sauce served with newest Armand de Brignac champagne

The next wine, of which Armand de Brignac has only made 2333 bottles, was a truly unique taste in champagne. If felt a bit strange at first on the palate, until I tasted it with the imaginative creation of a tiny piece of lamb tenderloin beside a dollop of creamy, thick apricot sauce. The combination was directly on the money. In fact, I’ve never experienced such a strong feeling of “Oh, yeah, these work perfectly together!” as I did with this pairing. This particular wine, said Boutillat, is made with a blend from harvests of 2008, 2009 and 2010.

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Elegant atmosphere and luxurious champagnes at Boka
Elegant atmosphere and luxurious champagnes at Boka

Dessert, an extraordinarily light combination of coconut and citrus and exotic tropical passionfruit with tapioca and elderflower, was perfectly paired with the world’s only semi-sweet champagne – Armand de Brignac took the plunge some years ago to create its own demi sec champagne, a task no other luxury champagne company has ever undertaken. By all accounts, and by the taste that so complemented this dessert, they are succeeding admirably.

Boutillat, the 30-year-old winemaker who has been with Armand de Brignac for four years, came around to answer questions about the various wines and tell stories about his experiences around the world before settling down with this high-profile family-owned and -operated winery. His experience is multinational and his passion quite obvious. When asked about his comparative youth, Boutillat explained that senior owner Jean-Jacques Cattier likes to hire young people for the energy and the imagination they bring to further inspire the making of their great champagnes. Judging by the lovely champagnes at this event, luxury collectors everywhere can rejoice.
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Maggiano’s does brunch Italian-style

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Maggiano’s, 516 N. Clark St., a long-time favorite in Chicago along with 51 other locations across the nation, is now doing brunch. Their creative series of Benedicts ($14-$15) is available seven days a week until 3pm, and the extended menu with pancakes, frittatas, and more is available Saturdays and Sundays from 11 to 3pm.

Why brunch, you ask? Because there’s no longer any doubt that brunch in America has become a special occasion in its own right, and Maggiano’s is all about helping you make your occasions special. They now open at 11 on weekends to satisfy your brunch cravings with their own unique take on traditional brunch features and a few surprises of their own. Naturally, because libations are a critical component of the good brunch, order your favorite Bloody Mary – Italian-style with a distinctive Maggiano’s flavor –  mimosa or peach Bellini. The full bar selection – from champagne to whiskey – is available if you prefer your drinks unmixed.

Maggiano’s was recently voted top allergy-friendly chain by Allergy Eats, and in a massive consumer survey by Restaurant Business, was voted the nation’s #1 favorite special event venue and one of the top 5 favorite chain venues in the country. So it’s a good bet there is something for every one.
When you order brunch at Maggiano’s, the first thing that appears in front of you is a light-crumbed orange streusel cake coated in an orange-flavored sugar glaze to amuse your bouche while you look over the menu. One of the star items on the extended brunch menu is the Lemon Ricotta Pancakes ($14.95). When Executive Chef Josh Rodriguez demoed this, we watched him fold whipped egg whites in to lighten the batter that also includes freshly grated lemon zest, egg yolks and vanilla bean paste. Chef uses an ice cream scoop to portion the batter and smush each cake down. Cooked 4 minutes on each side, they come out super-light and ready for you to go crazy with the whipped cream, blueberries, and syrup.

Another these-carbs-are-so-worth-it! dish is the Crème brûlée French toast. Made with cranberry-raisin bread, it’s got the creamy, rich flavor of the restaurant’s house-made Crème brûlée mix and is another great way to enjoy helpings of strawberries, blueberries, whipped cream and syrup.

Maggiano's fresh veggie frittata
Maggiano’s fresh veggie frittata

Veggie frittata features smoked Gouda, spinach, mushrooms – fresh flavors, softly finished eggs – served with crisp Vesuvio potatoes. You can also choose from the can’t-eat-anymore Italian breakfast of three eggs with ham, bacon and Italian sausage plus potatoes.

How about the Maggiano’s special Chicken & Waffles where the fried chicken is breaded in the same batter as the waffles are made from? Didn’t get to try that one, but it’s on my brunch bucket list.
Alright. The king of all brunch dishes is the Benedict, right? How do you make a bad one of these gloriously rich creations? If you’ve got your Hollandaise under control, your muffins are nicely toasted, and your ingredients are fresh, it’s hard to fail. But it takes some work to get original with it. Maggiano’s has managed it by putting together a few unique combinations.
  • Meatball Benedict – surprising combination. Nice tomato chunk balances richness of egg yolk and Hollandaise with the flavor of the sturdy beefy meatball. The Italian woman at our table – who, of course, makes her own meatballs – couldn’t stop talking about how much she appreciated how these meatballs worked with the Benedict formula. Hey, if an Italian approves…
  • The Chicken Francese Benedict takes a popular item from the regular Maggiano’s dinner menu – lightly breaded chicken that’s fried and served with arugula – and turns it into a house-made Benedict special.
  • The regular Eggs Benedict is served with a uniquely flavored ham made locally and shipped in from Wisconsin – Nueske’s, which also makes the thick, juicy bacon served at brunch.
  • Crab cake Benedict – nice combo. A pleasantly standard crab cake mixture blends well with the Hollandaise and egg yolk.

All Benedicts are served with house-made crispy Vesuvio potatoes – a deliciously salty preparation that was slightly undercooked on this occasion. If you’re a stickler for thoroughly cooked-through potatoes, make sure to ask your server to tell the chef to make them extra crispy.

Everything on all of Maggiano’s menus is made from scratch to order. If you’ve got any food issues, the chef will always come to your table to determine what they are: allergies, celiac, etc., with a view to designing and custom making your food for you. They make sure you’re safe by using completely separate equipment to cook your meal.
The Maggiano’s Clark St. location has been there for 25 years. It’s a dark-wood-paneled cozy spot perfect for dates, family dinners and special occasions. Patrons can reserve private dining space in the Wine Cellar below the main restaurant or around the corner in the beautiful separate building that sports graciously carpeted wide stairways and wood paneling and the warm welcoming service you can always expect at Maggiano’s. Call for reservations and go enjoy brunch at an Italian Chicago institution.
And don’t forget the Make-a-Wish special dessert and the Chef’s guilt-free pasta dishes (less than 600 calories each). And P.S. – their lasagna is DELICIOUS. They often give you an extra portion to take home when you order their pasta. Chances are really good that you will leave full and happy.
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