Monthly Archives: February 2010

Women in Wine: Wines With Ancient Lineage & The Silk Road, A Talk By Mollie Battenhouse

Last week, Feb. 17 to be exact, Mollie Battenhouse, Wine Director at Maslow 6 in Tribeca, gave a fascinating talk on wines with an ancient lineage. She was joined by Peter Cousins of Cornell University and together they traced the path that some grape vines may have taken along the silk road. The talk was inspired by the current show at the American Museum of Natural History on the silk road. The silk road is one of the oldest trading routes in the world and created links between the East and the West, bringing goods back and forth. Apparently grape vines also migrated up the silk road.

I love the natural history museum and always have. Many early memories take place in there. I remember my delight at the dinosaurs and my mom finally finding her pocket book on a school trip despite leaving it there for hours (can you imagine that happening today?) or meeting friends under the big blue whale. I still haven’t had a sleepover there yet but my niece and I have been planning to do it for a few years. I always get a thrill when I walk into that stately castle on Central Park West.

Apparently grape vines have been growing in China for over 2000 years ago. In ancient times, there were three main wine growing periods which took place during the Han, Tang and Yuan dynasties. That ended in about 1368.

Much of the area along what was the silk road is today a harsh and dry desert. Many of the grapes grown in that region today are used as either table grapes or raisins. Today, Mollie noted, China is the 6th largest producer of wine in the world. While much of that wine is consumed locally, she said that she expected the picture to be significantly different in “5 to 10 years.” She also said that a lot of outside investment from Western countries is flowing into the region. “China has over 600 wineries today and 10 wine growing regions,” she noted, “there is even a vine nursery begun in 2000 with a French company.

Cousins showed a fabulous series of slides to point out the differences between grape clusters, much of which is related to size and health of the berries. On one side he would show pictures of shrivels small berries and on the other, beautiful clusters of healthy grapes. This, he noted, was the difference between wild grape vines and domesticated ones. Apparently, there are more than 1000 indigenous grapes in China.

We tried a number of different wines which could be seen as related to or exactly what was growing along the silk road in its heyday. One of the wines we had was a Rkatseteli from Konstantin Frank. As I mentioned in a blog post last week, Rkatseteli is originally a variety from Georgia, the area where people think grape growing first began more than 7000 years ago. Georgia was on the Western end of the silk road.

Cousins also spoke about a grape variety I had never heard of called Koshu which grows in Japan and has for over 1000 years. This is a vitis vinifera variety but vinifera isn’t native to Japan so the thinking is that it migrated along with traders. It is similar to Rkatseteli and has large clusters. Cousins also showed us the similarities between grape vines in different countries such as Turkey, Egypt, Pakistan and Japan.

The talk was much more complex than my explanation but suffice it to say it was a very interesting initiative by the Museum of Natural History as part of their Global Kitchen series. Both Mollie and Peter Cousins put together a fascinating trip along the silk road, leaving me hungry for more information, always a good sign.


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Chile Day 13 & 14- Trip To Easter Island

Last year I had the good fortune to spend almost three weeks in Chile traveling happily up and down the country. One of the last things I did on the trip was take a plane to Easter Island, some five hours off the coast. When you first get off the plane, you are greeted by people giving you flower garlands.

I went swimming that first afternoon and looked around the island a bit. The people were exceeding friendly and the island was filled with wild horses. I found a horse looking into my bedroom window the first night. It was quite odd indeed.

There are a number of things to see on Easter Island including the ruins of an ancient civilization, volcanos and Eucalyptus forests but most people go to see the Moai. Truly a remarkable experience, I spent a few days driving around in a jeep with a British friend Adam who happened to have a PhD in Archeology looking at these Moai statutes and ruins.

The stautes were just breathtaking with some reaching up to 30 feet in height while weighing more than 75 tons. The statutes were all built between the 12th and 15th centuries and served as altars and places for religious ceremonies and family gatherings. At the height of their glory some 900 of these statues graced the island.

They were truly breathtaking and as always with these types of monuments, I found myself wondering how in the world they were able to carve such enormous statues. Not all of the Moai were in good shape as this photo shows. Many were destroyed, some had disintegrated and others were merely toppled over and eroded by the wind and the sea breezes.

It’s actually hard to fathom how large these statutes are unless you are looking directly at them. These photo shows people walking around the site where the stones to make the Moai came from. This quarry still has some Moai statues built into the rock which were never finished and put on altars.

The next photo shows one of these statutes. It reminds me of Michelangelo’s sculptures of the slaves in the Accademia in Florence. Both sets of statues are trapped in stone and the figures seem to want to spring out. It’s amazing to think what was happening in Western art at the time these sculptures were being built.

All the Moai we saw were standing except for the one in the next photograph. Some faced the sea and some faced inward towards the land. Easter Island has always had a very small population so these sculptures which are the deification of ones ancestors were really built for families. They are quite formulaic with the head being 3/5 the size of the body.

Some sites had long rows of stautes. That’s me with the blue pants. I’m about 5’5 on a good day so that should give you an idea of the grandeur of these beautiful statutes.

Almost painful to think about as we await another snowstorm but yes, Easter Island also has beaches and sand. I went for a beautiful swim on this beach. People were surfing and the day was long and lazy with Moai overlooking the beach in the distant. Pretty snappy.

Hard as it may seem to believe, that is truly the color of the sky on Easter Island, a gorgeous midnight blue. The Moai on this beach have been reconstructed but originally all of the Moai had these top knots. They must be about five feet tall alone and about 40 tons.

Adam and I decided to celebrate that evening and went to an oddly expensive french restaurant on the isalnd called LaTaverne du Pecheur. It was great and we had a lovely bottle of Sauvignon Blanc.

I particularly like Sauvignon Blanc from Chile which is strange because I tend not to gravitate towards that variety. My guess is that anything would have appealed to me after that unbelievable day but if memory serves I actually liked it. I spent a bit more time on Easter Island but it is one of the places in my life that I would love to go back to at another point. I found it completely enthralling and I can see how someone ends up just staying for months or years at a time.

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Skiing in Valle d’Aosta Sipping Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle D.O.C.

I’m sitting at my desk in New York but I am armchair traveling to a time, not in the too distant past, when I used to ski in the Valle d’Aosta. I am lucky enough to have dear friends with homes in some wonderful ski towns such as Gressoney in the Valle d’Aosta. Gressoney is really two towns, Saint-Jean and La Trinite’.

I spent some lovely weekends there and that was when I discovered Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle D.O.C. made from the Prie’ Blanc grape grown in the Aosta Valley. The vineyards where these grapes grow are some of the highest in Europe, at approximately 1200 meters. The grape is quite particular and goes through its entire life cycle very quickly. Most of the vines are not grafted and live on their own rootstocks. The are trained to grow using a trellising system called “pergola bassa” or low canopy. The grape can also be found in the Valais region of Switzerland.

The wine is straw yellow in color, with a relatively low gradation of alcohol and has a delicate and fruity bouquet. This is a great wine to drink as an aperitivo or with a light first course. I have many fond memories of those days but alas no digital photos. While the Valle d’Aosta is a long way away, the wine can be found locally which makes me smile.

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Filed under Italian indigenous Grape Varieties, Italian regions, Italian wineries, italy, Travel, wines

Quick Updates About Wine Tasting In Coming Days In NYC

Just a quick note about some wine tasting that will take place in the New York area:

Lucio Caputo’s Gala Italia will be held on February 25 at the Marriott Marquis, as always. Last year I tasted some wines I really enjoyed including a few from Sicily that knocked my socks off.

On March 1, Alta Cucina will be holding a trade only tasting of a variety of wines offered by Wine Dreamers. I will most certainly be there, not least to say hello to my friends at Livon, a great winery from Friuli. I brought their delicious Braide Alte wine to the Diploma dinner this year.

On March 4, another friend has worked with the city of Dijon to organize a tasting of wines from Burgundy. The event is part of a larger event sponsored by the city of Dijon that will take place at Grand Central Station on March 3. I love Dijon and lived there for 8 months during my University days. Some day if you ply me with wine I will tell you about my 250 euro taxi drive to Dijon from Lyon…..

In the meantime, hope to see some of you out and about at these events.

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Tre Bicchieri Tasting In New York

Today was the Tre Bicchieri Tasting in New York. I didn’t go. For the past few years I have worked at the event for a producer friend whose wines always win a Tre Bicchieri classification. This year, things were a bit different and I had too much to do to be able to go and taste. Gran peccato. I look forward to reading other people’s posts about the event.

The Tre Bicchieri tasting is always a madhouse as people rush to taste which wines have won those coveted awards. Gambero Rosso, the organization which gives out the awards, has been much criticized of late as have other wine guides and wine critics. Gambero Rosso and Slow Food are officially divorced and this was the first edition of the show without their collaboration.

I am sure there are merits to all sides of the debate about guides in general and about Gambero Rosso in particular but I try to take it all with a grain of salt and to never discount a source just because they are famous or have made a lot of money from their ratings.

Like many other people, I like to discover wines on my own or through the suggestion of a friend whose palate I trust. Sometimes that isn’t possible though and I have discovered many a great wine thanks to the Tre Bicchieri event in years past.

The Tre Bicchieri list of wines for this year was impressive as always, with some new regions getting more play than in the past such as Emilia Romagna, Le Marche, Liguria, and the Valle d’Aosta. I’m sure I will have the occasion to taste some of these wines at Vinitaly in April.

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Filed under Italian indigenous Grape Varieties, Italian wineries, italy, Travel, wines

Women in Wine: The Rosina Sisters At La Mesma Make Gavi DOCG, A White Wine From Piedmont

Gavi always seemed to me to be an old fashioned wine, one that little old ladies drank. Somehow, it seemed declasse’. Boy was I wrong. Actually two Gavi wines were among my favorite wines tasted during the long marathon otherwise known as Vino 2010 held in New York from February 3 to February 5. They were made by a winery called La Mesma, located in Monterotondo (Alessandria). This area is on the border between Piedmont and Liguria, two beautiful regions of Northwestern Italy.

La Mesma has 26 hectares planted with the Cortese grape which is the grape in Gavi. La Mesma is run by three sisters from the Rosina family: Paola, Francesca and Anna. The sisters don’t have organic certification, most Italian wineries don’t either. They do not however use fertilizers or pesticides. Instead they have a planting system which uses legumes buried during flowering between the vines. This system helps to improve the vegetative cycle of the vine without harming the environment. The sisters are also using their pruned canes for biomass fuel, a pilot project they are working on with Enviro, a company of the SAIF SpA group.

In terms of vinification, the sisters use stainless tanks and are considering building concrete ones as part of a project to expand their winery. Cortese is a delicate grapes with citrus and white flower aromas, perfect as an aperitivo or when made into a sparkling wine. I tasted their sparkling wine and thought it was exquisite at Luca Maroni’s SensofWine event held on February 4. The wine is made in the traditional method with secondary refermentation taking place in the bottle. The wine rests on its lees for at least 18 months in the bottle.

I also tasted their Gavi D.O.C.G., a still wine which was delicious with fruit aromas of apricots and floral notes. Light and refreshing, both of these wines made me long to know more about Gavi and to make up for lost time.


Filed under Italian regions, Italian wineries, italy, wines, Women in Wine

Carnevale – How I Ended Up Moving To Italy

People always ask me how and why I chose to live in Italy for 15 years. The answer is of course complicated but one simple truth is that I went to Florence on the last day of Carnevale, Fat Tuesday, over 20 years ago today and fell madly in love. I was studying French in Dijon, a sober but beautiful city in North Eastern France and took the train with my mom to Florence for the first time. That was it. Between waking up in the middle of the night to see the Borromean Islands rising out of Lago Maggiore in the early morning hours to seeing children dressed in bright costumes throwing confetti and the stripped Romanesque churches of Florence, I was totally stregata (bewitched). It’s been a long love affair and one that I suspect will never lose its luster. Each year on Carnevale, I think of that day and smile at how strange life is and how much I would love to eat a piece of Schiacciata alla Fiorentina and drink a glass of Vin Santo. Vin Santo, as I wrote in my piece on Susanna Crociani is made from dried grapes, which are aged in Caratelli – small barrels and are aged in a Vinsantaia, generally Trebbiano and Malvasia.


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