Wine column no. 52: Not one life's dream, but two

June 29, 2014: The sun rises, and Francois D’Haene is hitting the trails, his running shoes smacking dirt, his legs navigating leafy grape vines. The sun sets, and this 28-year-old is sitting down to dinner with his family, his hands palming a glass of Domaine du Germain, his mouth swigging his own version of a fairy tale.
Somewhere in the middle of that day, at least two dreams are balanced against the other. The first has made D’Haene one of the top ultra-trail runners in the world, the kind that Salomon Running TV features in a YouTube video. The second has turned D’Haene and his wife into winemakers running a very small winery in the Beaujolais region of France. These kinds of winemakers, like many small business owners, aren’t afraid to wipe sweat from their brow.
“Ultimately we knew it would be very hard, but maybe that’s what motivated us,” D’Haene said of the process of growing grapes on the vineyards he and Carline purchased in 2012. “It was an unusual activity which almost seemed bound to failure. More importantly, we had no idea as to whether we would succeed, if it would work or not. That’s really what makes you want to go for it. It motivates you every day as you try to accomplish new things.”
New is good, I think, especially for certain types of Beaujolais. This thin-skinned, low-tannin, high-acid Gamay grape is most popularly celebrated on the third Thursday of November. In fact, according to Karen MacNeil’s “The Wine Bible,” Beaujolais Nouveau wines are typically shipped to locations around the world just a few days earlier than the third Thursday, where they must be held in a bonded warehouse until 12:01 a.m. At that point, these fruity red wines can then be opened and consumed. This year, Beaujolais Nouveau Day is Nov. 20.
Domaine du Germain makes appellation d’origine controlee (AOC) Beaujolais from Gamay grapes in the communes of Saint Julien and Chenas. MacNeil says Beaujolais from Chenas often has a nose of wild roses. Unfortunately, I haven’t had any Domaine du Germain wines. The company is so young that its wines are hard to find, even in France, which is where I’ve been visiting my grandmother and other family members this past week. But as a fellow runner, I certainly admire D’Haene’s disciplined efforts to extract the best of two very different dreams from the same stretches of land.
All that hard work certainly can’t hurt his cardiovascular health, either. “Red wine and Your Heart,” according to a 2005 issue of Circulation, a Journal of the American Heart Association, said a series of scientific studies suggests that the polyphenolic compounds in red wine, such as flavonoids and resveratrol, may play an active role in limiting the start and progression of atherosclerosis.
This starts when blood vessels begin to lose their natural ability to relax. And regular — but not excessive — alcohol consumption of one to two drinks per day can increase levels of high-density lipoprotein (HDL) cholesterol, or the “good cholesterol,” by about 12 percent. “This extra HDL cholesterol can then serve to remove some of the ‘bad cholesterol,’ low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, from the circulation and lessen the amount of material available for fatty plaque formation,” the publication said. Additionally, both the alcohol and polyphenolic compounds in red wine appear to have anti-clotting action, thus reducing heart attacks or strokes.
Given all his hard work both on and off the trails, D’Haene doesn’t seem to have much of a risk of having either cardiovascular issue. He won The North Face Mont-Blanc Ultra Trail race, which covers 168 kilometers (roughly 104 miles) through parts of France, Italy and Switzerland in 2012; the 2013 Grand Raid, a 170- kilometer (about 106 miles) race held on a French territorial island in the Indian Ocean; and the 168-kilometer Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji race, which takes racers around the entire circumference of Mt. Fuji, held in April earlier this year.
“You need to reflect on your choices,” D’Haene said. “It’s the same at the end of each race. You have to evolve and continuously question yourself each year. The fact that we work mainly outdoors, that I spend a lot of time among the grapevines, it means I’ve changed the way I train and probably also the way I see things.”
Like I said: New is good.
Victoria Grabner is a freelancer who has blogged about wine for several years.
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Wine column no. 51: Calvados in celebration and in war

June 15, 2014: I am not sure what happened to the foot-tall glass jar of macerated cherries that my French grandmother would remove from her cabinet to offer guests on days when things were going especially well.

But I do know that jar, and its cherries, have a permanent place in my memory.

Victorine Bon is 94 now. A resident of an assisted living facility in St. Servan, France, she is in poor health and spends most of her time dozing in her armchair. But less than 10 years ago, my namesake who struggled through World War II and gave birth to, and raised, three children was a spry, independent woman who lived on her own, drove her own car and danced the night away at nightclubs with her friends.

And if she really liked you — if you really got her to laugh — she made sure that you tried some of her homemade macerated sour cherries from that foot-tall glass jar.

Since it’s easy to be inspired by my grandmother, we made our own version of macerated cherries using sugar and Menorval Calvados Prestige, a type of apple brandy from Normandy, France, here in Evansville on Dec. 31, 2011.

Many Evansville residents are likely familiar with Normandy as a result of the June 6, 1944, D-Day invasion that ultimately led to Germany’s defeat during World War II. Just recently, in fact, the United States and France celebrated the 70th anniversary of that invasion which, beyond the beaches of Omaha, stretched into wide expanses of apple orchards and large cities like Caen.

“The tales of danger, heroism and sacrifice are many,” Henrik Mattsson wrote in “Calvados: The World’s Premier Apple Brandy: Tasting, Facts and Travel.” “The importance of cider and Calvados fades into oblivion in comparison. Despite the horrors of war, many veterans can witness pleasant encounters when liberating the Normans, who dug up barrels and bottles to give or share with the passing troops. Some went through the rest of the campaign with two canteens, one for water, the other for wounds.”

When the war ended, the troops who were able to return to their home countries told others about Calvados, and word of this deliciously potent apple brandy spread. Yet Calvados remains a relatively obscure after-dinner drink. In fact, here in Evansville, it is more often an ingredient in a complicated dinner recipe than it is a treasure to be shared, by itself, in a glass.

While there are other apple brandies, French law states that only apple brandies produced in Normandy may be called Calvados. According to Karen MacNeil’s “The Wine Bible,” the apple varieties used for Calvados include Clos Renaux, Petit Jaune, Rouge Buret and more than 115 other types of apples. These apples are either sweet, bittersweet, bitter or acidic.

About 17 pounds of apples are needed to produce this powerful elixir that many French residents choose to use as a macerating device.

Recently, I had the very last cherry from the Dec. 31, 2011, Mason jar. Firm yet simultaneously sweet and tart, the cherry still had its stem and had turned brown from its original dark red. But the remaining cherry-and-sugar infused syrup was mellow, smooth and a welcome digestif after a heavy meal. The double-distilled brandy blended from the Pays d’Auge district of Normandy, which is known for its chalky soil and superior apples, had 40 percent alcohol. I had purchased it at The Winetree on Washington Avenue, though it is no longer sold there.

The Winetree now sells a Domaine Coeur de Lion Calvados Selection by Christian Drouin for about $19 that, as is typical with Calvados, produces a slight burning sensation on the tongue. It appears delicate, with noticeable but not overt apple flavors. Yet don’t be fooled by its small, 375 mL bottle, or by the liquid within it. It has 40 percent alcohol, and just the aroma can leave you sitting on the couch for hours.

According to calvados-drouin.com, the Coeur de Lion (Heart of a Lion) orchard is planted with only traditional low-yield varieties carefully selected to ensure a proper balance between the four types of sweet, bittersweet, bitter and acidic apples. These apples are harvested by shaking the branches of the trees.

While there are three different ripening periods, the website adds, only midseason and late-season apples are used to make Calvados. After a complicated distilling process, the Coeur de Lion Calvados is then aged in oak casks, many of which were previously used to produce sherry or port.

“It was observed that these reused casks yielded fewer bitter tannins and helped to give a finer color, more body and greater aromatic richness,” the website states.

In any case, it’s apparently common in Normandy to imbibe a shot of Calvados in the middle of a long, rich meal. “The shot, called a trou Normand (Norman hole), supposedly creates a hole in the stomach, temporarily halting digestion and allowing even more food to be eaten,” MacNeil wrote.

Is it true? I wouldn’t know. My family is from Brittany, not Normandy.

Victoria Grabner is a freelancer who has blogged about wine for several years.


Wine column no. 50: If you must have a leek, make sure it's clean

June 1, 2014: They are tall, contain varying shades of green and white, and can be a bit awkward to bag. But that’s the seductive lure of the leek. Unlike carrots, which are orange and common and as a result are often easier to toss into your shopping cart, you can’t find leeks everywhere.

What is a leek? A cousin to the odorous and more pronounced onions and garlic, it’s essentially a whisper in the produce aisle. Relatively unused in these parts, this vegetable is rarely hawked from some corner farm stand. In fact, not many people even know what a leek is, much less where it comes from. Nor might they care. But with the right chef, a leek — or two or three or four — can become a delicacy.

Nuno Mendes is a Portuguese chef whose ambition and training have garnered him the spotlight in England and beyond. According to www.greatbritishchefs.com, his preparations often rely on unusual, cosmopolitan ingredients like charred leek hearts and sautéed watermelon. His approaches are unique, clever, artistic and, most of the time, successful — even when it seems like they shouldn’t be at all.

“Burning stuff is OK,” Mendes told the British newspaper The Independent in February 2011. “Obviously it sounds wrong, but we char lots of things in the restaurant: for example, we do a dish with charred leek emulsion where we take leek ash and make a mayonnaise out of it. You have to lose your preconceptions about ingredients and the way they should be used: cook with an open mind and the possibilities become endless.”

It’s not wrong, in other words, to bend or even break the rules of the kitchen — as long as it’s worth it in the end. And Mendes is a man who certainly knows how to wield his knives.

So what’s the best wine to pair with leeks? According to What To Drink With What You Eat, a highly informative book by Andrew Dornenburg and Karen Page, chardonnay is your best bet, though Muscadet and Riesling are also contenders. Yet these are general guidelines; as with anything, the quality, preparation and seasoning of the ingredients matter.

Mature leeks have a mild onion flavor and are usually plucked from the ground later in the year. Firmly rooted in their trenches, these cylinders of bundled leaf sheaths are long and resilient; it takes a sharp, determined knife to slice through their thick layers. Shorter, immature leeks are flimsier and easier to pull. The youngest leeks also tend to be the dirtiest of all. I think it’s because they are closer to the ground. You’ll find less dirt on the more fully-grown leeks. Either way, both need to be cleaned especially well. Cooking and then digesting dirty leeks is never a good idea; besides the obvious health safety issues, you wouldn’t want to inadvertently soil the other portions of the meal.

Chardonnays are a good general pairing with leeks because they are made in a variety of styles that can be angled to fit the recipe being used. This wine varietal is typically described as acidic, creamy, silky or rich; its more pronounced flavors may remind you of lemon, pear, green apple or butter. And then there are the chardonnays that I hesitate to call chardonnays. They are thin, watery and devoid of any taste at all.

The 2011 Louis Jadot fits this last description to a T. For roughly $13-$16, this chardonnay containing 13 percent alcohol is likely perched somewhere prominently on the lower levels of a number of grocery store shelves. I have nothing more to say about it.

A better choice is the 2010 Venge (ven-ghee) Vineyards Maldonado Vineyard Chardonnay, a Dijon Clone from Napa Valley, Calif., containing 14.5 percent alcohol. I had it at Madeleine’s — A Fusion Restaurant in 2012. Dijon is the capital of the Burgundy region of France; in terms of silky, intense chardonnay (in France, this varietal would be called white Burgundy), this one cuts the mustard. It’s buttery, silky and smooth, which means it would go very well with freshly boiled lobster — and/or one, two, three, four or more leeks, large or small. Just make sure those leeks are clean. And if you happen to find some for sale at a corner farm stand, be sure to let me know.