Question: I recently have been having some difficulty removing the corks intact when opening my older wines. Any tips for me Sid?
Answer: Switch to screwcaps? No I encounter the same issues. Used to be a big fan of the easy Screwpull type wine opener but having to go right through the bottom of the cork is not the best procedure for older more fragile ones. Also often like to use the handy double-hinged waiter’s corkscrew working it very slowly. However for older wines the Ah-So two pronged opener can work better though you have to be careful in inserting it not to push looser corks right into the wine. The safest bet for removing old corks with confidence and the one I now always use for old corks is The Durand (www.thedurand.com). The combination of both first a quality screw helix with stabilizer bar and then a two blade Ah-So style opener works marvellously! A wise investment for successfully removing your older corks.
Over the past year one of our tasting groups has shone a bright spotlight on the Syrah variety from the Northern Rhone. Quite an amazing journey! We enjoyed several theme dinners with a focus on various vintages of the most key regions including Hermitage (consistent leader Chave & top vintages from Jaboulet of 1990 & 1978), Cote Rotie (expensive Guigal Cote-Rotie single vineyard La La wines & still under rated Jamet), Cornas (amazing A. Clape, more controversial Jean-Luc Colombo & lesser known Domaine Alain Voge) and even lesser applauded Crozes-Hermitage: though that 1978 Thalabert from the late great Gerard Jaboulet is still world class!
Most recently we looked at St. Joseph a large area of some 40 miles from north to south planted on diverse soils of flat loam to prized hillside granite. A region presently without a clear unanimous leader though Chapoutier Les Granites has been a long time favourite of Robert Parker. We tried blind quite a few St. Joseph wines ranging from the Co-op’s special Esprit de Granite simpler aged 2006 to Chave’s young structured 2006 & cool menthol 2005. Impressed that so many of the best were all from long time Rhone specialty importer Kermit Lynch Wine Merchant (www.kermitlynch.com) in Berkeley, California: 2012 Domaine Monier “Terre Blanche” surprising white pepper from 30+ year vines, almost herbal Hermitage-like 2009 Monier-Perreol, very purple fresh 2011 Pierre Gonon granite slopes old school partially de-stemmed breeding, and rich complex 2009 Domaine Faury from ripe S & SE sun facing slopes. Check out the write-ups on his impressive featured producers! Some others of interest in our event were SCEA La Tache 2010s Cuvee Guillamy & Cuvee Badel, and 2 surprising ringers from Le Vieux Pin (www.levieuxpin.ca) a floral oaky vanilla 2010 & a fragrant more animal 2008 that both showed well in this tough company.
My overall impression is that St. Joseph is an important region to watch (and to collect at still relatively fair values) now finding an identity with keen producers making their mark and leading the way in different styles of Syrah with riper fruit all of increasingly top quality. Who will emerge over the next decade as the clear leader of St Joseph? Have you tried some? Check it out.
Alongside champagne, nothing has symbolized opulence and luxury more than the consumption of salty little fish eggs, better known as caviar. Long before Robin Leach first appeared on our TV sets, the bourgeois of London, Paris, and Berlin were simply enthralled by this exotic delicacy and the lavishness that surrounded it. When wealthy aristocrats from Central Russia demanded live sturgeon from Astrakhan—sturgeon that had to be transported in large tanks so they could indulge in only the freshest roe—many Europeans eagerly copied their culinary tastes, causing sales of caviar to go through the roof. Arriving first in porous wooden barrels and later in small tins, this scarce product has continued to command extraordinarily high prices. Just nine ounces of Ossetra caviar can cost more than a thousand dollars online.
But over the past twenty-five years, a disturbing trend has wreaked havoc across the Caspian Sea, home to the very best sturgeon. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, a power vacuum led to the dramatic rise of organized crime. With millions of dollars at stake in the lucrative caviar trade, inexperienced poachers, many of them financed by the mafia, began depleting the sturgeon population at a rapid pace. Environmental concerns had been pushed aside in attempting to squeeze every possible fish egg out of the Caspian. Working with corrupt customs officials and seemingly legitimate outfits in Europe and America, chances are that if you purchased Russian caviar in the early 1990s, it most likely passed through the hands of organized crime.
Writing in detail about this stark reality, author Inga Saffron explains why we need to start hitting the panic button in Caviar: The Strange History and Uncertain Future of the World’s Most Coveted Delicacy. Published in 2002, Saffron, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the paper’s Moscow correspondent from 1994 to 1998 knows from firsthand experience just how truly dire the situation is. As we see during her research, it seems whatever regulations governments and international bodies put in place to protect the sturgeon, the criminals are always one step ahead of them.
A key problem is that the five countries—Russia, Iran, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan and Azerbaijan—all share a perimeter around the Caspian Sea. So if the former two decide to crack down on over-fishing, one of the breakaway republics can easily offset it. “Notoriously corrupt, those republics became the center of the underground caviar industry,” writes Saffron. And as the sea became a Wild West for poachers, crude methods that are the antithesis to traditional sturgeon fishing quickly became the norm.
A sturgeon – weight 1020 lbs. – caught in New Westminster, British Columbia. Image courtesy: Library and Archives Canada
One of the book’s greatest strengths comes from its in-depth look at the history of both the fish and its prized roe. Considered a living fossil by scientists, the sturgeon with their sloping heads and shark-like tails have existed for approximately 250 million years, even before dinosaurs roamed the earth. Consisting of twenty-seven different varieties, some like the beluga, have easily weighed over a ton while a female’s eggs can account for fifteen percent of the bodyweight. Of course, retrieving the eggs at the right age and during the right part of the spawning cycle is paramount. “Sturgeon are in no hurry to reproduce. They take almost as long as a human being to reach sexual maturity. While a single fish may carry million of eggs in its belly, the odds are that only a single hatchling will survive into adulthood,” according to Saffron.
These facts help to underscore just how much damage has been done in terms quality and quantity since the poachers—or brakanieri (buccaneers) as they’re called in Russia—took over. Netting any type of female sturgeon, no matter what age they are in order to meet a short-term quota has clearly done irreparable damage to the species; one report from 1996 estimates that there are only 1,800 mature sturgeon left in the Volga River. Compounding this travesty are the crude methods used to extract the eggs by inexperienced and unlicensed fishermen.
“Never make caviar from a dead sturgeon,” is one of the rules Saffron learns from the skilled masters known as the ikryanchik.
Being able to purchase this product in some run-of-the-mill grocery stores by the mid-1990s, American demand led to an explosion in counterfeit and smuggling operations. With a chapter titled “Caviar from a Suitcase,” there are some fascinating stories about Eastern Europeans arriving at JFK Airport with suitcases containing over $100,000 in caviar contraband. Even more revealing is one company that sold inferior paddlefish roe disguised as authentic caviar to American Airlines—whose customers and staff never noticed the difference. These illegal activities even went all the way up to reputable dealers like Hansen-Sturm, an offshoot of Dieckmann & Hansen, who along with Petrossian were the two most respected pillars of the international caviar trade.
It’s ironic that people would go to such lengths when for so many years caviar was considered to be simple peasant food. According to the book, Louis XV was so repulsed by it that he spit the eggs out onto the carpet at his Versailles palace. And when German entrepreneurs arrived in the United States to assess the Delaware River, which contained an abundance of sturgeon, they were shocked to see people using the roe as bait or to feed their livestock. Describing the early colonial experience, Saffron writes, “As these Europeans struggled to make their way in the wild land, it seemed that eating such a grotesque bottom-feeding fish as the sturgeon would be the equivalent of sinking into barbarism.” How times have changed.
Tracing this rich history, it appears that what is currently going on in the Caspian Sea is exactly what happened in both Germany and the United States. At one time, the port city of Hamburg on the River Elbe was rich in sturgeon. So was Penns Grove, New Jersey, who along with a nearby town aptly named Caviar, supplied more roe in the 1880s than any other place on earth. But due to a combination of overfishing and pollution, the caviar rush in both countries was very short lived. Could the Caspian Sea be next?
For many conservationists, the answer appears to be yes. Even though measures have been enacted to prohibit the importation of certain types of caviar (beluga caviar was banned outright in 2005), the future of sturgeon seems to be in North America and Western Europe where hatcheries have been established to prevent its extinction. In the decade following the book’s release, numerous facilities in Canada and the United States have sprung up in order to save the species. But the future in Russia seems very much in doubt. Despite surviving two world wars and a massive hydroelectric dam that once threatened their entire existence, the will to protect what was once a cherished part of Russian culture appears to be evaporating. Quoting one fisherman, he stated, “The U.S. couldn’t save the buffalo and we can’t save the sturgeon.”
Question: I am organizing a vertical tasting of the same red wine from different vintages and receiving conflicting opinions on the best order for service – youngest to oldest or vice versa?
Answer: Interesting issue. Historically the best order was usually youngest to oldest to see how the younger wine develops and changes with age becoming less tannic but more elegant and complex. More recently verticals often start with the oldest wines which are usually more fragile needing less airing time, lighter bodied and easier to assess while finishing up with the youngest bigger and more tannic years. Remember that tannins tend to build up on your palate so easier to taste the very tannic wines towards the end. Would be helpful to know the specific wine and the vintages you plan to taste which would influence my advice. At some extensive verticals of many flights we sometimes group the weaker vintages from different decades to taste early on and leave the very best vintages (young and old) till the last flight. Other factors include the number of wines to be tasted, the property being tasted, and how long the winery has been producing that wine. Lots of newer wineries are still finding their best style with maturing vines as well as vineyard and cellar experimentation so each year they are improved making better wine than the one before. Therefore their best wines are often their youngest wines to be served last. There is no definitive answer and you should decide for yourself the order considering these issues. It will be educational in either case.
I have fond memories as a boy digging madly in the beach sands with the outgoing tide at Boundary Bay on the Canada/USA border to catch those elusive deep burrowing geoducks. What fun to catch such cherished buried treasures. Boy did they ever make the very best most flavourful clam chowder I have ever enjoyed! Today they are less commonly seen in the North American market and are recognized as a real delicacy. They have become so popular now in the Chinese community and most of the product is shipped live to Hong Kong and China as the “Elephant Trunk Clam”. They are also increasingly used in Japan. They have become quite expensive but a small amount delivers a very special sea-fresh flavour from the sweet textured meaty neck (or siphon) making excellent raw sushi/sashimi or cook them slightly by stir fry/sauteed. Remember that the meat can toughen quickly if you overcook them.
The average size weighs in around one kilogram but they can live a very long time (over 150 years) with their growth rings measured on the oval shell (average length around 7-8 inches) like on a tree trunk. The industry on the Pacific Coast is well regulated and sustainable since the 1981 formation of Underwater Harvesters Association (UHA) representing and managing some 55 British Columbia commercial geoduck and horse clam licence holders. Since 1994 the UHA has started enhancing geoduck populations to ensure continuing long term success. They are harvested by divers with high pressure water jet hoses (“stinger”) to loosen the substrate with minimal ocean floor environment disturbance. Annual allowable catch is very conservatively managed to maintain existing stocks.
You probably already have tried clams, oysters and other bivalves but have you treated yourself to geoduck? Seek it out.