Monday, December 31, 2007

Real Swiss Cheese

Cheeses that are actually made in Switzerland are quite different from most of what passes for 'Swiss Cheese' in the United States. Most genuinely Swiss cheeses (e.g., Gruyère, Raclette, Tilsit, Tête de Moine), for example, do not have the large holes that are characteristic of American-made "Swiss" cheeses. The holey Emmental variety is only one of many Swiss-made cheeses. (For more information on the variety of Swiss cheeses, click here.)

The holes (known as "eyes") found in stereotypical Swiss cheeses are produced by Propionibacter bacteria that release carbon dioxide during the production process. The characteristic nutty flavor of "Swiss" cheeses in America are produced by this and other bacteria used in the production of Swiss cheese. Generally speaking, the larger the holes, the stronger the flavor of the cheese. American producers prefer smaller holes and blander flavors so that the cheeses are easier to slice. European producers of Emmental prefer larger holes.

Recently, my mother returned from a trip to Switzerland with a tasty wedge of farmstead cheese produced by Ida and Urs Müller-Stalder. The cheese she bought was labeled as a 'Tristächäs.' I'm not sure what that means, but I do know it was an aged, raw cow's milk cheese that had been soaked in brine. The aging and brine gave the creamy, nutty cheese a very slightly pungent flavor that was very enjoyable both as an appetizer and on sandwiches.

Instead of buying "Swiss" cheese that is made in America by the J. L. Kraft corporation, look for the Swiss flag on wedges of handcrafted cheeses imported from Switzerland. The range of styles of real Swiss cheeses may surprise you.

Sunday, December 16, 2007


Cognac is brandy made in the Cognac region of France. The name 'brandy' is short for 'brandywine,' which comes from the Dutch word brandewijn, meaning 'burnt wine.' If you ferment grape juice, you get wine. If you distill wine, you get brandy. Although brandy can be made from the fermented juice of any fruit, the best brandies (e.g., cognac) are made from grape juice.

After recently attending parties at the homes of Sandy Goldberg and Randy Dipert and enjoying some tasty spirits there, I was motivated to revisit my own spirit collection. Last night I drank Courvoisier X.O. Imperial Cognac, which was voted "Best Cognac in the World" at the 1994 International Wine and Spirits competition. This spirit, which sells for around $140 a bottle, has aromas of toffee, caramel and roasted nuts. Its smooth, refined flavor made for a very enjoyable end to my evening.

Tonight I drank Rémy Martin's V.S.O.P. Fine Champagne Cognac, which sells for around $40. This seemingly fruitier cognac is a is a blend of brandies from the Grande Champange and Petite Champagne subregions of Cognac. Despite the big difference in price between the two, there was not a huge difference in my enjoyment of them.

The three most common types of of brandy or cognac are V.S., V.S.O.P. and X.O. 'V.S.' stands for "Very Special" but since this is the lowest quality level of brandy one will likely encounter, there is nothing special about it at all. The youngest brandies in a V.S. blend must be aged at least three years in wood casks. Avoid V.S. brandies. The youngest brandies in 'V.S.O.P.' ("Very Special Old Pale") blends must be aged at least 5 years. Those in X.O. must be aged at least six years. The average brandy in an X.O. blend is over 20 years.

The primary grapes used in making cognac are Ugni Blanc, Folle Blanche, and Colombard, which make lousy table wines. Most cognacs are blends of brandies from different vintages and different growing regions. Cognac is distilled twice in pot stills like those used in making Scotch. The rich caramel and amber color of cognac is usually the result of artificial coloring additives.

Do not heat cognac by holding your brandy sniffer over a candle. I don't know where this practice first started, but it will have deleterious effects on your enjoyment of any brandy. Because of the way it speeds up the rate at which aroma particles in the cognac are released into the air, the unique aromatic blend of the brandy will be broken. Certain kinds of aromas will be speedily released ahead of other aromas with which they usually interweave. The brandy will not have the aroma it was meant to have. Heating brandy also makes the nose too pungent for most people to enjoy.

Cognac is a wonderful spirit. The only frustrating thing about it is the tremendous rate at which cognac prices increase with each increase in quality level. Cognac that sell for $200 a bottle is considered to be modestly priced.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Train Your Nose

How well can you distinguish aromas of blackcurrants, cherries, and liquorice in the wines that you drink? The line of wine aroma kits from Le Nez du Vin can help train your nose to discern these and other aromatic components of wine.

Each kit contains vials of aromatic essences that are commonly found in wines. For example, the aromas in the Red Wine kit include strawberry, raspberry, blackcurrant, blackberry, cherry, violet, green pepper, truffle, liquorice, vanilla, pepper, and smoked. Each vial provides your scent memory with a distinct reference aroma with which aromas in wines can be compared. They also help you put a name on the aromas you are already able to detect and distinguish.

The kits were developed by wine expert Jean Lenoir with the aim of helping trade professionals, sommeliers and ordinary wine lovers to find the right words to describe the wines they drink. The kits come in several varieties: The Master Kit (54 aromas), Le Duo (24 aromas), White Wines (12 aromas), Red Wines (12 aromas), Faults (12 aromas), and New Oak (12 aromas). Jean Lenoir has even created a 36-vial kit of coffee aromas.

The aroma kits also come with explanatory cards and illustrated booklets that explain the connections between aroma and wine. Each aroma and the molecules underlying the aromas are explained in detail. The Red or White Wine kits sell for $109 each in the US.

If my family members have not yet completed their Christmas shopping, the Red Wine Aroma Kit would make the perfect gift for me!

Monday, December 3, 2007

Wally Wine

Wal-Mart has teamed up with Ernest & Julio Gallo to launch a brand of wines that will be sold exclusively at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores. The "value-priced" wines will be sold in 750ml bottles for around $6.

The name chosen for the new line of wines is 'Alcott Ridge Vineyards.' Market researchers have suggested that the following names might have been more appropriate:
  • Chateau Trailer Parc
  • White Trashfindel
  • Big Red Gulp
  • World Championship Riesling
  • NASCARbernet
  • Chef Boyardeaux
  • I Can't Believe It's Not Vinegar
  • Nasti Spumante

The beauty of Wal-Mart wine is that it can be served with either white meat (Possum) or red meat (Squirrel).