Wednesday, May 13, 2009

The Mile High Wine Club-And One On The Ground

Some of the most unexpected wine experiences can be ahead above the clouds rather than below them.  On the ground, The Vintage Club is Mexico's best option.

Several years ago on a flight from Mexico to Toronto , I was sitting next to the Mexican ambassador to Canada, a descendent of the family that founded the Casa Madero Winery, which happens to be the oldest winery in the Americas (founded in 1574).  The airline happened to be serving two Casa Madero wines, a red and a white, and my seatmate also made an excellent ambassador for the winery, explaining to me the history and encouraging me to continue sampling both offerings.  While the Mexican wineries that are currently getting all the press are from Baja California, Casa Madero is located in the north of the country, in the Valle de Parras, not far from Monterrey.  I arrived in Toronto a bit more buzzed than planned, but with a respect for a winery I had previously known little about.  I have been drinking Casa Madero wines sporadically ever since, and I think that both the chenin blanc and merlot are well worth the reasonable price, as well as the slight rush that comes with drinking wine from the oldest winery in the Americas.  Take that, overpriced Napa whites.

The first time I ever tried Duetto was on a flight from JFK to Mexico, more than ten years ago, and from that moment on, I knew I was on to something special.  Originally, Duetto was a wine produced in Baja California with a combination of grapes grown north of the border and locally.  It was positioned as a joint venture between California’s Wente Brothers and Santo Tomas, the Mexican winery founded in 1888, and the northern grapes were brought in to temper the somewhat unrefined local grapes.  Or something like that.  I have had a lot of Duetto since then, as it appears on many good restaurant wine lists, and it has doubled, and in some case tripled, in cost.  A bottle of Duetto here in Mexico now costs about $US50 in a retail store like El Naval, and about $US100 on restaurant wine lists.  I am not sure when they stopped using the grapes from north of the border, but the 2005 I drank this evening was a combination of tempranillo (60%0) from the Valle de San Vicente and cabernet sauvignon (40%) from the Valle de Santo Tomas, both in Baja California.  It has a nose of mature fruit with background notes of cinnamon and vanilla and a taste of structured tannins with an elegant and smooth finish.  Is Duetto worth the cost compared to similarly priced reds?  Sometimes.  Depends on the moment.  

I’ve had the good fortune of being able to fly in first class from time to time on some of the world’s better airlines and I think there is a special pleasure in drinking well or making a new discovery while flying.  It certainly helps the time pass.  For me, food on planes is rarely memorable, and when it is, it is for how bad it was rather than how good.  But airlines can’t really screw up wines and when they actually try and invest a bit of time, effort and money, it leaves a very good taste in your mouth.  Thanks to Lufthansa, I have learned a bit about German wines, especially riesling, which is always pleasant to drink above the clouds, especially during the daytime.  I never would have thought it would pair well with caviar, but it does.  It also goes beautifully with the Asian chicken recipe below.  And then there is Weissherbst, which I have looked for and tried to find after sampling it on one flight, but without success.  It is a rose usually made from pinot noir grapes grown in the German regions of Baden and Wurtteberg.  On Singapore, there is always a choice between Dom Perignon and Krug,  And on my all time favorite, ANA, I have had amazing sakes, Japanese scotch and a rose champagne that was quite exceptional; Duval-Leroy Rose du Saignee.  I hear wine tastes different at higher altitudes, some say not as good as on the ground, but I can’t imagine this champagne tasting better than it did when I tried it on a flight from Washington to Tokyo a couple of years ago.  Perfect with sushi.

Speaking of wine clubs, I belong to The Vintage Club ( , owned and run Mark Galindo Herrera, who is one of the most knowledgeable and likable people on the wine scene in Mexico.  In the short time I have known him, Mark has turned me on to some amazing wines from Spain, Italy, Argentina and Mexico that are unavailable at retail stores here.  If you live in Mexico and love wine, I highly recommend a membership.  The 2005 Duetto was one of this month’s club selections.  

This past weekend, I had some colleagues over for Chinese food, and this simple recipe was a serious hit.  Try it with a dry riesling (if you can find one...not easy in Mexico).  Might work with some rose champagne as well.

Steamed Chinese Chicken Breasts

-2 bone-in chicken breasts, skin left on

-4 tablespoons soy sauce

-2 teaspoon sesame oil

-1/2 cup scallions, whites and greens, finely chopped and 3 additional, left whole

-1/2 cup canola or grapeseed oil (or other neutral oil with high smoke point)

-2 tsp. kosher or sea salt

-1/4 cup minced ginger

-1 cucumber, peeled, cut in half lengthwise and thinly sliced

-Steam the chicken breasts for about 20 minutes, then plunge them into ice cold water to stop the cooking.  Dry with cloth and set aside.

-Mix soy sauce with sesame oil.

-Combine the chopped scallions with the ginger and salt in a small bowl.

-Heat the oil until just barely smoking, then pour over scallions, ginger and salt

-Using your fingers or a knife, debone breasts, cut them lengthwise down the middle and crosswise into 1/2” pieces.  Place the sliced cucumber on a serving platter and the chicken over them.

-Pour the soy/sesame oil evenly over the chicken

-Cut the white ends off the 3 scallions and reserve for other use.  With a sharp knife, cut the remaining greens into 2” lengths, shred them lengthwise into ribbons and scatter over chicken

-Serve chicken with ginger scallion sauce on the side

-Serves 4-6 as appetizer.

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