Weekly Photo Challenge: Fresh

Our theme for the Weekly Photo Challenge this week is:  Fresh.
Our instructions:  “For this week’s photo challenge, share with us a photo that expresses something fresh.  This topic is particularly wide open to interpretation.”

My mind jumped immediately to Subway: Eat Fresh.  Don’t worry.  I didn’t take picture of a sandwich.  😉

My next thought for this theme was to drive out to one of the local vineyards and take some photos of the grapevines at bud break.  Because what’s fresher than a hopeful little grape bud?

And then I remembered . . . it’s March.

March is my least favorite month of the year.  March is seasonal purgatory — it’s not really winter, and it’s not really spring.  It’s just cold, dreary, and brown (at least here in Virginia, anyway).  There isn’t a bud breaking anywhere.  Sigh.

C’mon, Mother Nature.  Give me something.  One tiny, fresh, harbinger of spring.  I was just about to give up (and go take a picture of a sandwich) when I spotted it — a little March-defying fern, sunbathing in the woods.  Spring is springing!


Nikon D800
ISO 800 | 28mm | f/3.5 | 1/1250 sec

Now . . . go away, March!  And don’t let the door hit you on the way out.


Wine, Words & Wednesday, No. 45

During last month’s Virginia Wine Chat at Rappahannock Cellars, we had a lively discussion about which grape was the most under-utilized grape in Virginia.  Not the most under-planted grape, the most under-utilized grape (and by utilized, we meant used effectively.)

Rappahannock winemaker, Theo Smith, suggested Chardonnay as an under-utilized grape, and the more I sat there and thought about it, the more I agreed.  Chardonnay is the most widely planted grape variety in Virginia (heck, it’s the most popular white wine grape in the world). But, planting a lot of Chardonnay in Virginia doesn’t make it the most utilized grape in the Commonwealth.

I feel like a lot of Virginia wineries use Chardonnay as their “safety wine”.  Well over half the wineries in Virginia make Chardonnay.  And why wouldn’t they?  Chardonnay is adaptable, expressive, and wildly popular.  It’s money.  But safe wine is often boring wine.

A while back, I read a quote from New Zealand winemaker, Neil Culley, and it resonated with me:

ChardonnayChardonnay is often called the winemaker’s grape, a blank canvas of creativity, presenting a winemaker with the opportunity to show off his or her stylistic chops — to get out their winemaker’s palette and create a really good Chardonnay.

There are a handful of Virginia wineries that consistently produce really good Chardonnay.
But, I taste a lot of completely decent, but ultimately boring, Virginia Chardonnay, too.  There’s nothing really wrong with it, but I’m not carrying a bottle of Chardonnay to my car after the tasting.  Happily, the Chardonnay bar has been rising in Virginia (at least according to my palate), as more and more Virginia winemakers are making terroir driven Chardonnay that’s restrained, complex, and really good.  Utilization is on an upswing.

But, at the end of the day . . . I’m not a winemaker.  I have no idea how difficult or not difficult it is to make Chardonnay.  Winemakers?  Wine-drinkers?  What are your thoughts?  Is it difficult to make a really good Chardonnay?


Weekly Photo Challenge: Wall

Our theme for the Weekly Photo Challenge this week is:  Wall.
Our instructions:  “Share an image of a wall that reveals something about a place, people, or you.”

For this week’s photo challenge, I headed out to the Manassas National Battlefield Park in Manassas, Virginia.  If you’re a Civil War buff, or you attended school in the Commonwealth of Virginia (and went on the obligatory field trip), you know that was the site of the First and Second Battles of Bull Run/Manassas.

My intent was to photograph some of the spectacular stone walls that dot the landscape here in Virginia, especially in the “horsey” counties of Fauquier and Loudoun.  The Mr. Armchair Sommelier and I have been fascinated by these dry-stack (no mortar) walls for years now.
A well-made stone wall can last for centuries.  But how do they fit the stones together so perfectly — so the walls don’t come tumbling down like a pile of Jenga blocks??  It’s just so damn . . . impressive.

But you know what?

They don’t have any stone walls at the Manassas National Battlefield Park.  At least not where my daughter and I were hiking.  There were plenty of stack-rail fences, but no stone walls.  I’ve been to MNBP numerous times, and I would have sworn there were stone walls there, but sometimes my middle aged brain invents things.

And then it hit me.  There is a stone wall at Manassas National Battlefield Park.  Stonewall Jackson.  You see how I twisted the theme there?

Photo #1:  Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson earned his nickname at the First Battle of Bull Run in July of 1861.  One of Jackson’s fellow generals (General Barnard Elliott Bee), impressed with Jackson’s resolve in the face of enemy fire, commented, “Look men, there is Jackson standing like a stone wall.”  Sometimes, you’ll hear the quote as, “There stands Jackson, like a stone wall!”  But, since General Bee was killed right after he said the words (and Anderson Cooper wasn’t on scene), there’s no way to know for sure which words are the “right” words. So, pick your favorite.

There stands Jackson today, in bronze, next to a totally random, but really cool cloud formation.

Photo #2:  This is one of the walls of Henry House, the home of Judith Carter Henry, the only civilian killed in the Battle of Bull Run.  Miss Henry was in her mid-80s on that hot July morning in 1861.  She was bedridden, and either unable or unwilling to leave her upstairs bedroom (it depends on which side is telling the story).  Regardless, Confederate snipers commandeered her house, and opened fire on Union positions in the mid-morning hours of the battle.  The Union returned fire, and Miss Henry was mortally wounded by a Union cannonball.  After the battle, Henry House was razed and carried away (in pieces) by souvenir hunters.  The house was rebuilt in 1870, and is today owned by the National Park Service.

The sky was so blue the day we were at the park, and I loved the way the color reflected in the window at Henry House.  So, I made a post-processing, creative decision to throw the photo into black and white, save for that blue reflection.  The actual walls of Henry House are a weathered brown color.  And, because I can’t leave well enough alone, I’ll show you that one, too!

Henry House Reflection

Nikon D800
Photo #1:  ISO 500 | 26mm | f/8.0 | 1/1600 sec
Photo #2 and 3:  ISO 500 | 38mm | f/8.0 | 1/1250 sec


March Meatball Madness (and why I’m doing a major face-palm)

Recently, I was invited to participate in an event called March Meatball Madness (I’ll take alliteration for $500, Alex).  The Madness took place on Monday, March 9th — National Meatball Day (there’s a day for everything, isn’t there?).  I received two bottles of wine from Kaiken Wines in Mendoza, Argentina — to pair with the meatballs of my choice.

The background information from Kaiken surprised me a little:  “Up to 24 million Argentines have some degree of Italian descent (up to 60% of the total population), making it the largest ethnic group in the country.”  Huh.  I always thought German was the largest (European) ethnic group in Argentina.  But I can confirm the Euro influence — I’ve been to Buenos Aires, and it’s a very cosmopolitan, European-feeling city.

Uh-oh.  Now, I’ve got a meatball dilemma.  Am I supposed to make Italian meatballs? Fuggedaboutit.

I love Italian meatballs, but I’m a terrible Italian meatball maker — they always turn out dry and tasteless.  There must be some kind of secret to Italian meatballs.  That, or I need better recipes (hint, hint).  The only meatballs I can make are Swedish (it’s in the genes) and an old family recipe from what I call the Nebraska Farmwives collection.  I have no idea where this recipe came from, only that it’s on an old recipe card in my mom’s handwriting, and we’ve been making it for decades.  It’s très Midwestern.

Tangy Meatballs

2 lbs. ground beef
1 lb. bulk pork sausage
1 onion, chopped
1 can evaporated milk
2 cups old-fashioned oats
1/2 tsp. pepper
2 tsp. chili powder
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
2-3 tsp. salt
2 eggs

Mix all ingredients together.  Shape into small, 1-inch diameter balls.  Place (in a single layer) in a 9×12 baking pan.  Combine sauce ingredients in a saucepan over medium heat until well incorporated.  Pour over meatballs.  Bake at 350 for 1 hour.

For the sauce:

2 cups ketchup
1-1/2 cups brown sugar
1 tsp. liquide smoke
1/2 tsp. garlic powder

And there you have my meatball entry for the madness!

In 2001, Chilean winemaker Aurelio Montes (you’ve probably had his Purple Angel or Montes Alpha labels before) founded Kaiken Wines in the Uco Valley of Mendoza, Argentina.  Yep, a Chilean winemaker in Argentina.  Today, Kaiken is run by his son, Aurelio Jr.  The name Kaiken comes from the Kaikenes (wild geese), indigenous to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego.  They are the only birds that migrate (back and forth) from Chile, over the Andes Mountains, and into Argentina.  The Kaikenes symbolize the Montes family’s decision to cross the Andes Mountains, and start making wines in Argentina.  Clever!


Release the Caiquen! (Sorry, couldn’t help myself).

Photo Credit

On to the March Monday Meatball Malbec Madness!  I know, I know.  The alliteration is just getting silly now.

Kaiken Terroir Series Malbec 2012  
This wine is a blend of 80% Malbec, 12% Bonarda, 8% Petit Verdot.  Dark, inky color.  The nose is slightly vegetal (green), with a little funk.  Is that the Petit Verdot?  Flavors of blueberry and coconut (which I was not expecting), wet rocks, with a tobacco finish.  Great structure and mouthfeel.  A slight bite on the finish pulls my focus, but that mellows as the wine opens up. Retail = $17.

The Pairing 
Meh.  The wine competes with the sauce on the meatballs.  I scraped the sauce off of a meatball, and it was much better.  Oddly, it was a far better match to my green beans.  I’ll bet this would be killer with some steak and chimichurri sauce.

Kaiken Ultra Malbec 2012  ⭐⭐⭐⭐/90
100% Malbec.  Ruby to violet color.  The nose is blueberry and fire pit with a flash of black pepper.  There’s a passing whiff of Opium perfume in there, too (think sandalwood and cedar). Vibrant and powerful, this wine has a bit of the tango in it.  Dense and fairly tannic, but beautifully structured.  Black fruit flavors, with vanilla, and rosemary on the finish.  I suspect this wine get better and better as it ages.  Retail = $24.

The Pairing 
Another meh.  Again, the wine competes with the meatball sauce, making the astringency more pronounced.  It’s not awful, but this would have been much better with Italian meatballs. Or . . . a traditional Argentine asado (barbecue).  Oooh!  Or Empanadas!

Hindsight being 20/20, I’m doing a major face-palm right now (😐✋).  What was I thinking?!? Pairing Malbec with a glazed meatball?  A rookie mistake.  I violated one of the fundamental pairing rules — pair ethnic wine with ethnic food.  Oh well, you live and learn, right?

Anytime you taste a wine, there’s an opportunity to learn something.  And I’m always grateful for the opportunity to taste something new-to-me.  So what did I learn from this madness?

  1. There’s a National Meatball Day.
  2. Italians make up the largest European ethnic group in Argentina.
  3. Kaikenes are very handsome birds.  (Patagonia is on my bucket list, so hopefully I’ll get to see them in person one of these lifetimes).
  4. Petit Verdot and Bonarda are expressive blending partners for Malbec.
  5. Don’t pair anything remotely sweet or tangy with Malbec & Malbec partners.
  6. I need more meatball recipes (if you’ve got a good one, please pass it along).


Wine, Words & Wednesday, No. 44

DSC_4114-1I love used bookstores.  I go used bookstore-ing (yes, I just made up a verb) the same way others go antiquing.  My motivation is similar, though. You never know when one person’s castoff will become another’s treasure.  I found my latest treasure at a used bookstore in Charlottesville, Virginia.  It’s a 1967 book about Champagne, written by Patrick Forbes. The pages are yellowed and brittle, and it smells of vanilla and dust.  And I couldn’t wait to crack it open!

As I started reading my new treasure, I was drawn to what Forbes calls the Historical Perspective of Champagne — how revolution and war shaped and influenced the region.  And I thought to myself, History and wine, tangled up together?!?  This book is going to be right up my alley!

Champagne is drenched in history, but I jumped into the historical rabbit hole of World War I for today’s words.  During that merciless, four year slog (1914-1918), Champagne provided the setting for some of the most decisive battles of the war.  But perhaps the most enduring feature of the war in Champagne was its role as unintentional, but official host of the Western Front.

Indulge me in a little background . . .

In early September of 1914, the German Army rolled into Reims.  Their objective was to cross the Marne River and from there, waltz their way across the Seine and into Paris.  Easy-peasy, right?  Wrong.  The Allies had other plans.  French and British resistance near the Marne was unexpected and fierce, and (long history story short) they repelled the Germans back across the Marne.  The Germans would never reach Paris, but they weren’t just going to go home and lick their wounds.

After the Allied victory at the Battle of the Marne, both sides dug in, and adapted to the realities of a new kind of warfare — trench warfare.  A criss-cross network of trenches weaved and stretched its way across the chalky vineyards of Champagne, becoming the scene of a four year impasse in which neither side gained significant territory.

World War I also saw new military technologies — artillery and machine guns became the key weapons of war.  The no man’s land in between the trenches became a tangle of artillery craters, barbed wire and impending machine gun fire — a lethal combination that made attacking nearly futile (well, futile until the introduction of the tank in 1916).

Life in a trench was a horror show — death and misery on an unimaginable scale.  The men who lived and fought in those trenches endured constant artillery bombardments, sniper fire, rats, lice, poison gas, trench foot (which, btw, is something I wish I hadn’t Googled), trench fever, and shell shock.  And if you weren’t actively engaged with that walk in the park, you waited for it.  Your odds of escaping those realities were, well, almost zippy.

Forbes dedicates an entire chapter to the soldiers of World War I and their experience in Champagne.  Forbes asked veterans about their wartime memories (remember, this book was published in 1967, so war veterans would have been in their late sixties or early seventies), and a theme emerged:  “If you ask a man who fought in Champagne what his most vivid memory of the campaign is, he replies,


The chalk that in summer lay like virgin snow on hill and plain, ready at a whisper from the wind or flicker of human movement to rise up in furious puffs and shroud man, beast and vehicle in ghostly whiteness; the chalk that in winter became a hell of gray, clinging mud; the chalk that all the year round was lanced with zigzag trenches, pocked with shell holes and mines.  The chalk — and the waiting.”

I have chills — I’ve never thought of waiting as such a tense and ominous word.

Newsweek Magazine has some great photographs of the chalk trenches of Champagne, if you’re interested (it’s worth a look).

And what about the Champagne?

Remember, it was September — harvest time.  But, all the men of Champagne were at the front (in the trenches).  So, the task of bringing in the harvest fell to the women, the elderly, and even the children of Champagne.   Often targets themselves (because World War I was a total war — civilians were considered collateral damage), they picked grapes under nearly constant artillery bombardment.  Right up until March of 1918, when civilians were ordered to evacuate Champagne,

“the vine in those vineyards continued to be tended.  Many growers needed a military permit to get to their plots; many found that shells rained down on them the moment they showed themselves among the rows; but so great was their love of the vine, so strong their determination to save something for those who returned, that day in, day out, they risked — and sometimes gave — their lives for the vines.”

Ironically, 1914 vintage in Champagne is regarded as one of the finest of the 20th century.  The 1915 and 1917 vintages are also considered very good.  The 1916?  Well, you can’t have everything.  There was a war going on, after all.

Dangerous conditions were so persistent in Champagne, many of the great Champagne houses opened their underground cellars to the population for protection from the bombings. Children even attended ad hoc school underground.  Today, many Champagne cellars still contain, and even preserve graffiti from World War I.

It’s impossible to talk about the terroir of Champagne without talking about chalk.  Chalk directly contributes to the clean, crisp, mineral bubbles adored around the globe.  But, after reading Forbes’ words, I doubt I will pop open a bottle of Champagne without thinking about the chalk . . . and the waiting.


Weekly Photo Challenge: Orange

Our theme for the Weekly Photo Challenge this week is:  Orange.
Our instructions: ” This week, share a group of photos where orange is either the dominant color, or provides a bold highlight. Shoot for at least three photos, and look for different shades — bright neons, deep rusts, delicate peaches.”

Most of the snow piles have melted here in Virginia, but underneath all that snow is a mosaic of . . . brown.  Blah.  So, to pull off this week’s orange challenge, I had to raid my photography archives.

  1. My beautiful daughter (who needs to stop it with the growing up) in front of Dark Hollow Falls at the Shenandoah National Park.  She’s sporting her orange soccer team jersey.  Btw, I did ask her permission to post this photo, so there won’t be any teenage wrath later this evening when she sees this.  😉
  2. Rooster — Key West, Florida.  These guys just run amuck in Key West!
  3. La Boca, Argentina.  I messed with the colors in this photo to highlight the orange family — I removed the blues and greens.  Man, I love post-processing!
  4. Gualeguay, Entre Rios, Argentina.  Just a random pot of herbs that I liked.
  5. Poppies!  Near Napa Valley, California.  (I took the green out of this photo for effect).
  6. Starfish — Newport, Oregon.  Believe it or not, these are the true colors — I didn’t change a thing.

The photo of my daughter was taken with my Nikon D800.  The rest were taken with my “traveling camera”, a Nikon P510.

Here’s hoping more and more orange starts popping up in Virginia!  Have a great weekend, everyone.


Making Room on My Riesling Pedestal for Alsace

I ❤💛 German Riesling (if you really love something, you break out the heart emojis).
In fact, I’ve put German Riesling on a pedestal.  For as many years as I can remember, German Riesling been my benchmark — the standard to which I compare all other Rieslings.

A few months ago, the Mr. Armchair Sommelier and I were enjoying our anniversary dinner at The Inn at Little Washington, and we had a wine I can only describe as transformative (honestly, there’s very little about dining at The Inn that isn’t transformative).  But this wine . . .

I didn’t even look at The Inn’s multi-award-winning wine list.  I mean sure, I opened it, but it’s 500 pages long (not literally 500 pages, but close).  Could I pick a wine?  Sure.  But The Inn has a dedicated wine-staff way more more qualified than me for that task.  Sommelier, take the wine-wheel!  Our sommelier recommended a Riesling from 2006.  An Alsatian Riesling.  The little voice inside my head said , “Don’t you have anything from Germany?”, but I got her to stay quiet.  We rolled with Alsace.  And, without question, it was one of the best wines of my life.

Behold, the 2006 Domaine Zind Humbrecht Herrenweg de Turckheim Riesling.  Just get a load of that color – an aged Riesling is such a treat!

Pre-Inn, I would have walked right by the Alsace section at the wine store.  Post-Inn, I’ve been actively seeking out Alsatian Rieslings.  And you know what?  I’ve been wearing Riesling blinders – Alsatian Rieslings are dynamite!  So where does that leave German Riesling? Fortunately, my Riesling pedestal is big enough for more than one region.  I’m not knocking Germany off the pedestal (perish that thought), I’m just sliding it over a smidge to make room for Alsace.  They can share the pedestal.

If you follow my Carpe Vinum adventures, you know that a couple of us are heading to France on vacation this summer (I’m going Paris and north; my girlfriend is going Paris and south). We’ve embarked on an in-depth study of the French wine regions where we’ll be traveling.
Last month, we spent a virtual afternoon in Provence.

And (as you’ve probably guessed), the next stop on our Carpe Vinum Tour de France is Alsace. What follows is my Alsace cheat-sheet for today’s tasting and pairings.

If I didn’t know this is Alsace, I’d say it was Germany.

Located in northwestern France, along the border with Germany, Alsace has been in a real estate tug-of-war for over 350 years.  At the end of the Thirty Years’ War (1648), Alsace belonged to France.  At the end of the Franco-Prussian War (1871), Alsace belonged to Germany.  After World War I, Alsace was French once again.  And it remained French until 1940, when the Germans rolled into France and re-annexed Alsace.  After the Allies evicted the Germans in 1945, Alsace was French once again.

Today, Alsace is decidedly French, but with a lingering German influence that reveals itself in the culture, architecture, language, food . . . and even the wines.

Alsace is about 60 miles long (north to south), sandwiched between the Vosges Mountains to the west and the Rhine River to the east.  The climate in Alsace is continental — the Vosges Mountains shield Alsace, making it a bit drier and warmer (allowing grapes to ripen more fully) than in Champagne and Chablis to the west.

Alsace is divided into two regions — the Bas-Rhin (to the North) and Haut-Rhin (to the South):


Map Credit (Click on the link to view the map in a larger format)

A few things make Alsace unusual as a French wine growing region:

  1. A whopping 90% of the wine produced in Alsace is white (that’s not the unusual part). The primary grape varieties are Riesling, Gewurztraminer (without the German umlaut), and Pinot Gris — three varieties which are essentially not grown anywhere else in France.
  2. Alsace wines often display the grape variety on the wine labels (can you imagine such a thing in Burgundy or Bordeaux?).
  3. The wines of Alsace are usually un-oaked.

The soil in Alsace is like a patchwork quilt — the composition is often wildly different from one commune and/or vineyard to another.  The potential for complex and varied expressions of terroir is off the charts.  You could spend hours reading about the various soils of Alsace’s Grand Cru vineyards (you’d have to be really interested in soil, though).  The bottom-line?  The higher elevation vineyards have very thin topsoil on top of granite, schist and volcanic basalt. The lower elevation vineyards have deeper topsoil, on top of limestone (the fossilized seashells which contribute to Alsace’s famous minerality) and clay.  The soil on the valley floor is alluvial, and a little “too good” for grape growing.

Alsace has three official appellations:

  1. Alsace AOC (1962):  Produces roughly 74% of Alsace wines.  AOC rules allow wines to be made from any of eight different grape varieties (as long as they are 100% varietal) — Riesling, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Pinot Noir, Sylvaner, Muscat, and Chasselas.  Blending is unusual, and only permitted in wines called Edelzwicker.  Unlike other French regions, Alsace has no smaller sub-appellations.  There are, however, a bunch of small communes (tiny geographic areas) that can be included on a wine label. Individual vineyard names (lieu-dit) are also permitted.
  2. Alsace Grand Cru (1975):  These are the region’s highest-quality wines, and account for only about 4% of total production.  There are 51 official Grand Cru vineyards in Alsace. Almost all of these wines are single-variety, and must be made from one the four noble grapes of Alsace — Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer or Muscat.  Most Grand Cru vineyards are located in the higher elevations south of Alsace, or the Haut Rhin.
  3. Crémant d’Alsace (1976):  These are the sparkling wines (both white and rosé) of Alsace, and they account for 22% of total production.  Most of them are dry (brut) and the dominant grapes used are Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Chardonnay, and Pinot Noir. Crémant is made using the same methods as in Champagne.

Clos Vineyards:  Though not technically an official AOC, wines with this designation are just as prestigious as Alsace Grand Cru, sometimes even more so.  These vineyards are a holdover from the Middle Ages when walled monasteries (clos) were making wines.  Most Clos vineyards are multi-generation, family-owned vineyards.  Some vintners in Alsace prefer to display Clos on their label instead of Alsace Grand Cru (some of the clos vineyards have Grand Cru status, and some don’t).

Clos Trivia:  One of the most famous clos is Clos Ste. Hune, aka, the Romanée-Conti of Alsace.  I took a quick look on wine-searcher.com — depending on the vintage, you can score a bottle for anywhere between $125-$650.  (A blue-light special compared to Romanée-Conti).

There are two styles of sweet (dessert) wines in Alsace:

  1. Sélection de Grains Nobles:  Very sweet, very concentrated wines made grapes affected by noble rot, or botrytis.
  2. Vendanges Tardives:  These are late-harvest, sweet wines.  The grapes used for Vendanges Tardives are left on the vine to dry out, naturally concentrating their sugar content.  They may or may not be affected by botrytis.

Flûte d’Alsace

Let’s talk about the weather:  Alsace whites are known for their dryness, or their lack of residual sugar.  However, the past few vintage years have seen much warmer summers in Alsace, producing riper grapes, and consequently, wines with higher sugar and alcohol content.

Alsace Trivia:  All of the wines in Alsace (with the exception of the Crémant) must be bottled in the flûtes d’Alsace, or flute shaped bottle, called Vin du Rhin.

Here’s to the wines of Alsace (and making room on the pedestal) . . . Salud!


Credit & Creative Commons License for the Alsace Photo