Wine-Friendly Bayou Country Gumbo

DISCLAIMER – This is an essay about my recent experience digging down to my cultural roots deep in south Louisiana to cook smoked goose gumbo. I highly recommend you pour a glass of your favorite vinous drink – and keep the bottle handy – to sip as you come along on my bayou country adventure in my Colorado kitchen.  One more comment, sorry I don’t have more photos to share.  Making gumbo and shooting my own photos was a recipe for disaster.

In the beginning…..

When I set out to write a column on the fine art of creating goose gumbo, I didn’t realize how difficult it would be.  Not that it’s difficult to make gumbo since it’s actually surprisingly simple once you get the hang of it.  It’s because I’m a child of the bayou country, rooted deep in its fertile culinary ground.  With that, I feel a weighty responsibility to get it right.

As I began to free-write, memories of smells, tastes and countless family meals enjoying hearty gumbo possessed my fingers.  I couldn’t stop writing.  That’s a problem since my word budget in the Vail Daily is 1,200 words per column.  Even 2,400 words weren’t enough to share my passion for this centuries-old – if not older – dish Chef John Besh refers to as a “cultural stew.”

Another impediment to staying within my word budget is the wealth of information and stories about gumbo out there in cyberspace and on bookshelves. Louisiana luminary chefs such as John Folse have penned reams about gumbo.  There’s no way I could compete with that and I felt intimidated that my qualifications to weave a tale of gumbo might be lacking.

With all those thoughts swirling through my mind, I decided to restrain my writing voice in favor of a shorter Vail Daily piece, comply (sort of) with my word budget and just tell a shorter gumbo story in my column.  But I also wanted to tell my story and share it with my readers, so you’ll find it here in my own little corner of cyberspace.

What Does Gumbo Have to do with Winefamilies?

“Why here?” you say when this is a blog about wine families.  Hey, you have to eat when you drink beautiful vinous creations from these family-owned wineries, so why not eat gumbo!

Gumbo is a dish with many faces and can dance with an array of varietals, blends and terroir expressions.  Stick with me and I’ll share with you some spirited tips on pairing gumbo, particularly my smoked goose creation, Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director of Vail Resorts Mountain Dining, shared with me.

Stocking up on Flavor

In part one of my two part somewhat restrained Vail Daily column, I walked my readers through making a rich, homemade stock I used to make my goose gumbo for my article.

Yes, I could have bought “manufactured” stock from a grocery story, but that would be cheating.  Needless to say, you won’t find goose stock in your local grocery store and even if you could, store-bought goose stock would pale in comparison with what resulted from hours of extracting flavors from herbs, vegetables and the marrow, fat and residual meat from my goose carcass.  (Visit Schiltz Food’s website to order this delicious smoked goose to make your own gumbo.)

Partially submerged smoke carcass dull ofd
Partially submerged smoke carcass full of delicious residual flavors

The stock was the easy part.  Let’s go to my kitchen get into some hardcore gumbo making!

First You Make a Roux

Roux is the essence of every kind of gumbo, etouffée and many other Louisiana dishes such as shrimp creole.  Since this simple amalgamation of flour and hot fat is the cornerstone of gumbo, a perfectly crafted roux is the Holy Grail chefs and home cooks strive to attain.  Before we make our roux, let’s prepare our mise en place.

Everything in its place

As with everything you cook, preparation is key to minimizing stress and maximizing quality.  It makes no sense to stop in the middle of a process, grab a knife and start chopping away at your ingredients or start rooting for the correct pan.  Stress is an unwanted ingredient in epicurean creations.

With gumbo, it’s extremely important to have your mise en place ready.  Making roux is a relatively slow process, but when it’s ready, things will happen very quickly so make sure you’re prepared to meet the challenge when the time arrives.

Sidebar:  I am a bowl freak.  I have a broad assortment of bowls ranging in size from 1-ounce glass bowls – great for holding small amounts of spices and liquids such as vanilla extract – to 9-quart stainless steel mixing bowls great for holding prepped items.

My stock recipe yielded about six quarts.  I used four quarts and froze the other two.  I always like to have some stock on hand when the urge to make gumbo strikes me!

Although the process of making gumbo is fairly standard, what goes in it is limited by your imagination and, of course, logical choices.  Here’s what I use for my goose gumbo that begins with four quarts of stock.  Keep in mind, unlike making bread and pastries, gumbo ingredients don’t have to be exact.  This is truly art, not science.   Like painting, there are rules to follow in getting the paint on the canvas, but the colors you use and designs you create are purely your own.  So go for it!

Dice two large onions, three stalks of celery and seed and dice two green bell peppers.  If you want to play Picasso, substitute a red bell pepper for one of the green peppers to add a dash of color.  Mince two or three large cloves of garlic.

I love okra in my gumbo, but only fresh will do for me, not something easy to find during long Colorado winters.  I’ve learned to do without it.  But if you can get your hands on the fresh stuff, use two cups of frozen (and defrosted) sliced okra.

Nowadays with mass hydroponic production of tasteless fruit, tomatoes challenge discerning home cook.  Since Colorado in winter isn’t a haven for fresh tomatoes, I use a handful of canned San Marzano tomatoes when the snow’s flying.  In summer, I use the real deal, grown in dirt.  Pity I can’t get the red, sweet and delicious Creole tomatoes I was raised on.  Whichever, my recipe requires one tomato seeded and diced.

Leaves from a couple of sprigs of fresh thyme provide a subtle, woodsy taste.  We’ll also need two bay leaves.  I like California laurel leaves that are large and a bit pungent, so I only use only one.  Grind a couple of tablespoons of black pepper and measure a bit of Kosher salt.  A tablespoon of Worcestershire sauce will provide a je ne sais quoi that would definitely be missing otherwise.

I also use about an eighth of a teaspoon of cayenne pepper, teaspoon of ground cumin and a quarter of a teaspoon each of ground allspice, sweet paprika and ground coriander.  Some recipes call for Cajun spice mixes that include onion and garlic powders, but this is my answer to that.  It actually becomes a question of taste, but please, whatever you do, don’t kill the flavors with a ton a Tabasco or cayenne pepper.  Use those two sparingly.

For our meat, we need a half-pound of andouille sausage sliced or chopped.  I like to slice it on the bias, place on a sheet pan and bake on 350 degrees for about 10 minutes to render the fat.  Since my goose carcass had been picked clean at Christmas, I ordered more smoked goose breast from Schiltz Foods of South DakotaThree to four cups of rough chopped goose meat is perfect.

A few words about the andouille.  First, this is not andouillette you may have eaten in France (if you had buy accident, you’d know it!).  It’s a course smoked pork sausage typical to south Louisiana.  There are some great purveyors of Jacob’s in “The Andouille Capital of the World,” La Place, Louisiana, is a great source for andouille, if you happen to live within driving distance of the store.  Shipping costs more than the sausage, so I turned to Aidells Cajun Style Andouille as a reasonable substitute.  It’s good quality and I can even pronounce each ingredient on the label, always a plus for me.

Don’t forget to prep ingredients for the roux: fat and oil.  Fat choices include clarified butter, rendered duck or chicken fat and oil.  If you were making etouffee or bisque, I’d say go for the butter, but with gumbo I use oil.  Chef Folse, recommends using vegetable oil.  I use canola.  Perhaps next time I go with the expert’s suggestion.

A quick note about butter-based roux.  Butter burns easy as you’ve probably discovered.  To make a dark roux, you need heat and time.  Both of those don’t agree with butter so much.  Accordingly, butter is glorious for etouffee where a light roux is preferred – at least that’s my opinion – and for a dark (black) roux that’s part and parcel to the deep, rich flavor of goose or duck gumbo, oil is the preferred route.  NEVER OLIVE OIL in any case!

As to flour, Chef Folse advises cooks use “fresh and properly stored flour.”  In Louisiana, the high humidity makes that an issue.  “Mee-mees” in flour is one thing I do not miss about Louisiana!  Cooking at altitude may be challenging, but storing staples like flour is a dream.

My mom used Wondra flour because it’s fine and resists clumping.  I generally use all-purpose, unbleached King Arthur flour for my roux.  Do not – I repeat – do not consider any other thickener for your roux than white flour.  Chef John Besh believes “only a flour-based roux yields that traditional flavor” of gumbo.  Bottom line, if you want the real deal in your bowl, there’s no gluten free alternative.  Make soup, not gumbo.

A one-to-one ratio of flour to oil is ideal.  One cup of oil – vegetable as Chef Folse advises or canola – and one cup of fresh flour works great for four quarts of stock.

Serious Business of Roux Making

Now, as I walk you through making the rest of the process, you’ll discover why prepping is so important.  Before you begin making the roux, take care of all calls, including Mother Nature’s, and walk the dog because there’s no stopping once you’ve started.

SIDEBAR – Roux can be an incredibly contentious issue between Louisiana cooks.  There’s so much written about it and even 40 years since I made my first roux, there is still so much for me to learn.   Chef Folse is one of those who have written reams on the subject and I doubt he’s covered everything he knows about it.

Back to cooking.

Which pot to use?  Certainly not a shallow one, definitely not non-stick and preferably heavy-bottom.  My grandmother had a cast iron Dutch oven that seemed to be the only pot she ever used except the small one for boiling milk for her coffee that I proudly gave her for Christmas one year.  She was a fabulous Sicilian-American cook whose love of family and food fused in her pot to create memorable meals, particularly Sunday lunch.

But I digress.  See why I couldn’t write a short article?  This is family history for me and memory lane leads right to my kitchen.

I prefer to use a large pot, so my 13.25-quart gargantuan Le Creuset Dutch oven Santa Claus gave me last year is my pot of choice for a large batch of gumbo.

My 13.25 quart Le Creuset behemoth Dutch Oven is a workhorse in my kitchen.
My 13.25 quart Le Creuset behemoth Dutch Oven is a workhorse in my kitchen.It’s heavy and can easily overheat, but it heats evenly.

It’s heavy and can easily overheat, but the most important quality is it is heavy and heats evenly. Since moving to a house with a gas stove, I find my Le Creuset pots much easier to use on gas than on halogen.

With my treasured pot on high heat and my whisk and trusty 30 year-old wooden spatula in hand, I’m ready to go.  Oh, I forgot.  My step stool.  At 5’1”, the extra 6” helps me see into the pot and is easier on my arms.

Chef John Besh advises heating the oil before whisking in the flour.  He believes it speeds up the process and produces a deeper dark chocolate color.  I concur.

Once the oil is “dancing” – making ripples – add the flour, whisking until it’s all dissolved.

Bubbling flour is the beginning of the roux
Bubbling flour is the beginning of the roux

Next, lower the heat to medium – continue to stir and watch the heat, lowering as needed to keep it from burning.  If you see little specks of black, that’s not a good sign. Toss it and start over.  Don’t feel inadequate if you do burn your roux.  We’ve all done it and it will actually help improve your skills.

More sage advice from Chef Folse: “Risk is the tariff paid to leave the shores of predictable misery.” I’ve risked burning my roux – which I’ve done several times – to speed up the process.  Confession time.  I did burn the roux last week because I was taking photos; almost dropped the camera in the pot, too.  Not to be deterred, I started again and, with better focus, had a glossy, dark chocolate-colored roux in 20 minutes.

Initially, the flour will bubble and then settle down, releasing a fragrant nutty aroma as it begins to cook.  It’s a smell of my childhood particularly Lenten Fridays when dinner consisted of seafood gumbo and fried catfish or speckled trout.  With duck and goose gumbo, a dark chocolate-colored (black) roux is desirable.  For seafood and chicken, it’s more like milk chocolate.  We’re going for dark.

Once the flour is completely dissolved, I switch to my wooden spatula.  I believe moves the roux around better than a whisk.

This is when being ambidextrous comes in handy.  It’s a process that imperfect cooks like me need to take slowly, which sometimes means 20 minutes or so of constant stirring.  I’m getting better.  It used to take me 45 minutes to make a dark roux because I was so paranoid about burning it; now I can do it in 20.

Sidebar: Time for a health warning (sorry, but it’s the lawyer in me).  Hot flour and oil splashing on tender skin – like fingers and forearms, not to mention foreheads – leaves pretty nasty burns.  The combination of hot oil and flour gave roux its name “Creole napalm” since it’s sticky and contact with skin quickly results in a nasty burn.  I have the scars to prove it!  Take care to keep the roux in the pot, not in the air.  Hot roux “spits” if you’re not careful, so it’s important to continue carefully stirring not just to keep the roux from burning, but to keep the roux from burning you!  It’s not a bad idea to have some Aloe Vera gel nearby.

Getting darker…..
Getting darker…..
And darker….
And darker….

When the roux is glossy and the right color, it’s time to assemble the gumbo.

….and now ready!  Dark and shiny is the goal for smoked goose or duck gumbo.
….and now ready! Dark and shiny is the goal for smoked goose or duck gumbo.

Here’s where another great tip from Chef Besh I use.  After stirring and stirring, you’ll have the urge to dump the onions, bell peppers and celery – the Holy Trinity – into the roux all at one.

Chef John Folse's black roux ready for the addition of the holy trinity.
Chef John Folse’s dark (black) roux ready for the addition of the holy trinity of onions, bell pepper and celery (Photo courtesy of John Folse & Company).

Resist that urge and just add the onions first.  I tried it and it works fairly well.

As the hot roux cocoons the onions, a tantalizing, nutty aroma emerges.  Adding the onions first also allows the onions to caramelize and release its sweet juices without interference from the water in the vegetables.

Louisiana culinary icon Chef John Folse making gumbo.
Louisiana culinary icon Chef John Folse making gumbo. (Photo courtesy of John Folse and Company)

Reduce the heat, add the onions and stir for about 5 to 10 minutes.  Next, add the other vegetables, herbs and spices, stirring well while cooking for another few minutes.

Try adding onions first, then celery and bell pepper to get an optimal caramelization of the onions.
Try adding onions first, then celery and bell pepper to get an optimal caramelization of the onions.

The stock is next and, as you’ll see, is another opportunity for disaster if not done correctly.

After recently breaking my roux – after burning the first batch (wasn’t a good day) – I turned to Chef Folse for some troubleshooting advice.  If, after adding stock, flour separates and floats instead of mixes with the liquid, it’s broken.  To avoid this, add the liquid in one-quart intervals, stirring constantly to allow the roux to absorb the stock before adding more.  I was flustered from my previous roux failure and added the stock too quickly.

My second mistake was not to warm my stock.  Chef Folse cautions that when “Cold liquid is added to hot roux, the fat may coagulate as it rises.”  He advises to bring the liquid to a boil then briskly whisk to blend the mixture back into suspension.   Problem solved.

Once you’ve successfully crossed that bridge, add the andouille, goose meat, Worcestershire sauce, file, and balance salt and pepper.

The careful marriage of the stock and roux then addition of the meat marks the beginning of the easier stages of gumbo-making.
The careful marriage of the stock and roux then addition of the meat marks the beginning of the easier stages of gumbo-making.

A few dashes of Tabasco will add some kick, but only add a little at time.  Don’t forget to remove the bay leaf.  Stir, bring to a boil then simmer for about an hour to let the flavors meld, skimming fat that floats to the surface.  Note that you’ll find many recipes that call for a different ordering of ingredient additions at this stage, but this is what I do.  You’ll discover over time how gumbo can be a very personal dish.

While the gumbo is simmering, it’s a good time to prepare the rice.  Since I grew up on it, I often use extra long grain Mahatma white rice, but I recently discovered Full Circle organic long grain brown rice at Village Market in Edwards that is quite nice.

Place about a half cup of steaming rice into a bowl, spoon the gumbo over it and garnish with sliced green onions, parsley and filé, preferably homemade from dried sassafras leaves.  Salad and crusty garlic bread – baguette or ciabatta – are perfect partners for your gumbo.

A bowl of gumbo is soothing on a cold winter day, but is a pleasure all year round.
A bowl of gumbo is soothing on a cold winter day, but is a pleasure all year round.

What to drink?

Quite honestly, Barq’s root beer was my favorite soda growing up.  It wasn’t the kind made with high fructose corn syrup sold today – yuck!  Until the late 70s, no one had to put “real sugar” on the label.  My other favorite root beer was homemade using Zatarain’s root beer extract.  Oh the memories!  Therefore, I must confess that root beer is hands down my favorite drink with gumbo.

But since this is a wine blog, I thought I’d turn to Master Sommelier Sean Razee, Beverage Director of Mountain Dining at Vail Resorts, for some advice to share with my readers who stuck with me for the last 2900 words.

Since Sean so perfectly articulated his recommendations, here are his words verbatim:

My first wine inclination (following an amber ale or sweet tea) to pair with a dark roux, goose meat, and likely some spice, is to serve a thin-skinned red grape with a hint of sweetness—something like a Côtes-du-Rhône Grenache-based red.

My thoughts:

  • I envision the goose meat lending a hint of gamey earthiness to the dish that would be complimented by a Grenache/Syrah/Cinsault/Mouvedre blend
  • Any herbal notes in the dish would merge beautifully with the Southern French flavors that are typical in these wines (thyme, rosemary, parsley, bay leaf)
  • Grenache will carry a hint of sweetness to counter the spiciness of the dish
  • Gumbo has French, Spanish, etc. influences and this wine is a French wine based on a Spanish grape (Garnacha/Grenache); so there is a nice cultural connection
  • For small, estate producers, my recommendations would be:

Final Thoughts

I discovered Schiltz Foods’ smoked goose gumbo at a dear friend’s house on Thanksgiving.  Delicious, moist meat that make bird my new go-to star for my holiday feast!  From that point on, I was on a mission to make smoked goose gumbo.  This article emanated from that mission.

Schiltz Smoked Goose
Schiltz Smoked Goose (Photo Courtesy of Schiltz Foods)

Gumbo is such an amorphous dish that can challenge your imagination.  Other proteins that are at home in gumbo include shrimp and crab, turkey, chicken and duck.  Here are some resources that you might find helpful whether you’ve made gumbo before or inspired to broaden your cookery horizons.

John Folse on Roux
Southern Foodways: How to Make a Roux
John Besh on Duck on Oyster Gumbo 
Schiltz Foods

I truly hope my musings provided you with some food for thought and that you’ll experiment with this wonderful dish steeped in centuries of Gulf Coast history.  Since this dish represents all that is good about familial cooking in my home region, it goes perfect with the concept of honoring family-owned wineries, which is what I strive to achieve on this blog.

Let me know how it goes or if you have any questions.  I may not have the answer to all your queries, but I’m blessed to have wonderful Louisiana culinary resources available to me.

Ready for the table where it will get a sprinkling of file (Photo courtesy of Alisha Quinn Bosco).

Bon appetit, y’all!

Passing of Ca’ del Baio’s Beloved Patriarch

Ernesto Grasso – 1922 – 2014

Fiorentina and Ernesto Grasso
Fiorentina and Ernesto Grasso

The Grasso family of Ca’ del Baio, a century-old Barbaresco winery in Treiso, experienced the pain of loss on March 11th with the passing of their patriarch, Ernesto Grasso.  Surrounded by the family that loved him dearly, Ernesto passed with the same dignity with which he lived, in the house he built over 5 decades ago.

On that late winter day, the Grasso family’s hearts collectively entered a winter of loss shared by all those who loved Nonno Grasso and the family that always surrounded him with love.  Nonno had been in failing health, but he still was able to participate in the winery’s work – including the 2013 harvest – and two years of delightful times with the fourth generation of his family, Lidia Deltetto. 

Sign of the noble vineyard of Valgrande, a great Barbaresco produced by the Grasso family of Ca' del Baio.
Sign of the noble vineyard of Valgrande, a great Barbaresco produced by the Grasso family of Ca’ del Baio.

The Legacy of Ca’ del Baio

Ernesto Grasso’s grandfather moved his family of six – including his son Luigi – from Calosso d’Asti to Treiso in 1881.  The wine made from the great Asili vineyard in Barbaresco Ernesto’s grandfather acquired as a wedding dowry from his wife’s family is today one of the Barbaresco appellation’s prized treasures.

Immediately after completing his military service during the First World War, Luigi married and founded Ca’ del Baio.  Luigi’s wife gave him five children of which the first four were girls.  In those days, the patrimonial system made it unthinkable for women to inherit land (what would Luigi say about his three granddaughters working the winery now!).  In 1922, Luigi’s prayers for a son were answered with the birth of his youngest child Ernesto.

Throughout the Fascist regime, Ernesto remained a bachelor, a stigma the Fascists branded with a special “bachelor” tax.  Ernesto obviously was waiting for the right woman to come along.  And she did.  In 1956, he married Fiorentina Cortese, the woman with whom he would share the next 58 years of life.

In the 1950s, Ernesto built the family’s home next to the ever-expanding cantina. It was then he stopped selling the family’s prized grapes and began the legacy he passed to his son Giulio – bottling wines under the Ca’ del Baio label.  Ernesto and Fiorentina, later joined by Giulio and his family, lived in the house Ernesto built until he passed quietly in his own bed.

The Future is Secure

For some time Giulio has been running the family’s winery, but Ernesto remain engaged in the day-to-day operations and watched with great pride as his three granddaughters – Paolo Grasso Deltetto, Valentina and Federica – took their places with Guilio and their mother Luciana in the winery.  How times have changed that the absence of sons as heirs no longer deals a fatal blow to an estate.  Thank God, because Ca’ del Baio will live on through the hard work of Giulio and Luciana, and their three daughters!

Three generations of Grasso winemakers - Giulio, his father Ernesto and Paola Deltetto Grasso (in the back)
Three generations of Grasso winemakers – Giulio, his father Ernesto and Paola Deltetto Grasso (in the back) – Photo courtesy of Valerie Quintanilla
Four generations of the Grasso Family in the winery's tasting room.
Four generations of the Grasso Family in the winery’s tasting room.

Soon, Paola and husband Carlo Deltetto’s second child will join sister Lidia in the next generation of the two esteemed wine families.  No doubt the knowledge his legacy is in capable hands helped him peacefully join his father to become Ca’ del Baio’s newest guardian angel.

My Thoughts

Although I met Nonno Ernesto at the turn of the millennium, I can’t say that I really knew him.  We didn’t share a spoken language, but we exchanged knowing smiles that we shared a love of his wonderful family and the wines they produce.  I got to see him in the winery, around the tasting and dining tables, playing tug with Rocky II and, best of all, seeing him play with his great granddaughter Lidia.

Ernesto Grasso enjoying a game of tug with Rocky II
Ernesto Grasso enjoying a game of tug with Rocky II

In March 2013 during a research trip for my book about the women of Piemonte’s wine families, I once again was invited to join the four generations of Grassos around their dining table for lunch.  With Lidia in her happy world of pasta on one end and Nonno Ernesto on the other end of the table sitting next to Nonna Fiorentina and two generations of Grassos in between, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming emotion of joy at being able to share part of their daily routine with them.  It’s an indelible image in my memory.  Such a privilege to be able to know them as family.  So much life happens around Italian dining tables and those snapshots of their life will live inside me forever.

Thank God family togetherness on a daily basis still exists in the hills of the Langhe!

Lidia Deltetto enjoying her pasta at lunch with three other generations of Grassos
Lidia Deltetto enjoying her pasta at lunch with three other generations of Grassos
Nonno Grasso and the ever-loyal Ca' del Baio winery dog, Milo.
Nonno Grasso and the ever-loyal Ca’ del Baio winery dog, Milo.

 

Piemonte – Early 2013 Harvest Report

On both this blog and suziknowsbest.com, I strive to include valuable content from talented bloggers and experts.  Wine expert, blogger and fellow Piemonte-phile, Valerie Quintanilla of GirlsGottaDrink.com, is someone whose witty and informative narrative style is a delight to include on Winefamilies.

It’s the vendemmia (harvest) in Northern Hemisphere vineyards.  And one of my favorite Northern Hemisphere wine regions is Piemonte.  Valerie lives in Alba – I’m jealous – deep in the heart of Piemonte’s hills.  So since she’s there and I’m in snowy Colorado, she penned an overview at the ongoing vineyard activity in the Langhe and Roero regions of Piemonte for my readers.

With my own glass of Barbera d’Alba Superiore from G. D. Vajra in hand, I’m about to hit the “publish button.”  I hope you will grab your favorite Piemontese wine (or try out some of Valerie’s wonderful suggestions below) as you take an armchair journey to the autumnal vineyards of Piemonte.  I know you will enjoy it.  And we still have the Nebbiolo harvest to go!

Valerie Quintanella doing what readers should do when taking this armchair harvest trip to Piemonte
Valerie Quintanilla doing what readers should do when taking this armchair harvest trip to Piemonte

Piedmont Harvest 2013 Report: Early October
By Valerie Quintanilla

The 2013 Piedmont Harvest has the makings of a good year!  But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  We still have a few weeks to go and as different producers have told me, rain in the last few weeks can change everything.

Mother Nature’s insistence that late winter and spring should be cold and rainy in Piemonte (and many other wine regions such as Napa and Valais) made vintners as gloomy as the weather.  In Piemonte, bud burst was on average two weeks late and the vines struggled in the cold, wet weather.  Finally, in mid-June the sun came out and the vines sprung into action producing what looks to be beautiful fruit.

Better late than never! Early July grapes on the vine at Malvira in Roero.
Better late than never! Early July grapes on the vine at Malvira in Roero.

With harvest well underway, the first grapes picked were whites: Moscato, Chardonnay, and Favorita. From there, it moved to Arneis (also white), and Dolcetto, kicking off the reds. Barbera harvest has started in some areas, but not all. It depends on the location and the producer.

Autumn colors of the vineyards around Treiso in Barbaresco appellation.
Autumn colors of the vineyards around Treiso in Barbaresco appellation.

All around, the vibe is that the grapes are showing good quality, and good quantity. The lack of rain means these healthy grapes are maturing well with no mold issues and good air circulation.

Over the past month, I visited various producers and took notes on the 2013 Piedmont Harvest:

Cascina Bruciata
Zone: Barbaresco
Annual Production: 80,000 – 90,000 bottles

During a visit with winemaker Francesco Baravalle in mid-September, he praised the healthiness of the grapes thanks to wind cooperation and dry conditions. Francesco said the 2013 Piedmont Harvest will be slow, similar to 2010, which suggests a classic vintage.  Though, he cautioned that rainy conditions could change things.

Azienda Agricola Deltetto
Zone: Roero
Annual Production: 170,000 bottles

On Saturday, September 27th, Carlo Deltetto explained that harvest normally starts the second week of September.  However, the 2013 Piedmont Harvest didn’t kick off till September 20th.  By the 27th, they were halfway done with Arneis and Favorita (both white grapes).Carlo

Carlos’ take on the vintage is that nothing strange is happening.  The grapes are good quality and quantity.  The Pinot Noir (which the winery uses for its methode champanoise Spumante) looks fantastic. The Arneis is coming in very fruity thanks to the weather conditions – not too warm, which preserves freshness (tip: put 2013 Arneis San Michele on your list, based on this, it’s bound to be a beauty). The Nebbiolo also looks good.

Barrel room at Deltetto in Canale
Barrel room at Deltetto in Canale

Moccagotta
Zone: Barbaresco
Annual Production: 60,000 – 65,000 bottles

On Wednesday, October 2nd, winemaker Martina Minuto explained that green harvest helps a great deal on time in the vineyards in terms of labor and also helps with grape health and maturation. Green harvest generally takes place around veraison when the grapes begin to ripen, changing from green to purple.  Producers prune the least desirable grapes, making way for better nutrients and maturation for the best bunches.

Martina Murito of Moccagatta.
Martina Minuto of Moccagatta.

Moccagotta started the Chardonnay harvest on September 23rd and finished in two days. Dolcetto was next, taking 1.5 days.  On October 2nd, they were taking Nebbiolo samples from the vineyards to check the progress of the grapes.  Martina said if the weather is sunny, they would likely harvest Barbera the week of October 7th.

Azienda Agricola Ca’ del Baio
Zone: Barbaresco
Annual Production: 120,000 bottles

ca del baio sign

On Thursday, October 3rd, the youngest of the three Grasso sisters, Federica, told us they were expecting to harvest Riesling the following day.  She updated me that the grapes look really good with good alcohol degrees, which means great wine. Takeaway: Get yourself a bottle of Ca’ del Baio’s 2013 Riesling.  Weather permitting, the Grassos anticipate harvesting Barbera the week of October 7th.  Federica echoed the sentiments of other producers: the grapes are healthy, good quality and good quantity.

Three generations of Grassos in the bottling room at Ca' del Baio (left to right: Giullio, his father Ernesto, Paola Grasso Deltetto (background) and Federica)
Three generations of Grassos in the bottling room at Ca’ del Baio (left to right: Giulio, his father Ernesto, Paola Grasso Deltetto (background) and Federica Grasso)

 Mid-Harvest Conclusion……

Overall, it’s looking like we are in for a classic 2013 Piedmont vintage.  If the weather continues as it has, that means the Barbaresco and Barolos will show great structure, will be well-balanced, and will develop well in the bottle for decades.  Bottom line – 2013 should be a vintage to lay down.

Grapes today....wine tomorrow (or a little later)
Grapes today….wine tomorrow (or a little later)

Be on the lookout for another 2013 Piedmont Harvest Report as Nebbiolo harvest kicks off!

About Valerie Quintanilla

One of Italy’s newest expats, Valerie has taken up residence in the beautiful hills of Piedmont, Italy. Follow her wine, food, and travel adventures on her blog, GirlsGottaDrink.com, on Twitter @Valeriekq and on Instagram.

Can’t visit Barbaresco now?

Can’t visit Barbaresco now?  Whether you are planning a trip to the region or want to take an armchair trip, EnotecaMarcella.com is a great destination.

This recent post Marcella Newhouse shares with us is a wonderful pictorial trip to this fabulous wine region.  She poetically describes the beauty, cuisine, people and, of course, wine of the region.

Click the link and take a trip…..preferably with a glass of the beautiful wine from this appellation!

Next generation of women winemakers in Piemonte, Lidia Deltetto with the Ca' del Baio winery dogs.
Next generation of women winemakers in Barbaresco (or Roero), Lidia Deltetto with the Ca’ del Baio winery dogs.

Enoteca Marcella’s Advice

Wine expert, Marcella Newhouse of Enoteca Marcella, has some great advice on opening those special bottles of wine.  In her post, “So when are you going to open that?,” Marcella ponders that ago-old question, “why isn’t the bottle as special as I remember it?”  Her discussion of the abstract concept of wine appreciation is worth the read.

Enjoy!

Raclette Paradise at Chateau de Villa

As readers of my reviews know, I lived in Switzerland for over 2 decades.  We had a home in Valais near Crans-Montana for 25 years, so I know the south-central canton of Valais quite well.  Many wonderful gems that escape visitors’ notice, particularly Americans, can be found in the Valais.  One of those special gems is Chateau de Villa, a veritable raclette and wine paradise.

Unusually heavy Easter snow blankets the 16th Century Chateau de Villa.
Unusually heavy Easter snow blankets the 16th Century Chateau de Villa.

This 16th century chateau lies above the valley town of Sierre, bordered above by the lower vineyards of the Cote de Sierre and just west of the imaginary, but realistic roestigraben (the linguistic border between French and German speaking Switzerland also know as the “potato ditch”).  Is that a good enough description or would you prefer satellite coordinates?  Just wanted to set the scene for readers because its location is part of its magic.

Summer is a great time to dine under the chestnut trees at Chateau de Villa.
Summer is a great time to dine under the chestnut trees at Chateau de Villa.

Recently I returned to Valais and was delighted to discover than in this world of tumult and unpleasant changes, one cherished thing has remained the same.  The Chateau de Villa is still the best place on the planet to enjoy delicious raclette des alpage.  Well, perhaps sitting in an alpine hut enjoying the raclette where it’s made could top it, but only by a small margin.

To begin with, there is nothing kitsch about Chateau de Villa.  It is what it is – a 16th century chateau that houses an oenotheque with a vast selection of local wines and a lovely restaurant specializing in this region’s signature products – dried meats and cheese, particularly raclette.  If you are unfamiliar with the vinous delights of Valais, this is just the place you need to go to explore these treasures.

The best way for me to describe the food and wine at the Chateau is to take you through a typical meal.  But first, let’s order the wine.

The Oenotheque at the Chateau de Villa is a great place to taste and purchase Valais wines.
The Oenotheque at the Chateau de Villa is a great place to taste and purchase Valais wines.

Under Discovered Wine Treasures

Starting with white isn’t merely the usual Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio choices so prevalent in the US.  Yes, you will discover wonderful Chardonnay (Simon Maye et Fils is one of the best I’ve had from anywhere, but not always available outside the cellar) and Sauvignon Blanc, but you should go for the local varietals such as Fendant, Petite Arvine and Paien/Heida.  There are over 20 different types of white wines on the restaurant’s massive wine list.

Terraced vineyards make the vendange a tricky exercise.
Terraced vineyards make the vendange a tricky exercise.

One of my favorites is Paien (Heida).  It’s a Savagnin Blanc that grows primarily in the mid to upper valley reaches of the Valais wine region.  You will not find this wine anywhere outside of Switzerland.  Actually, it’s hard to find outside of Valais.  My two favorite producers of this varietal are Mabillard-Fuchs and Simon Maye et Fils, but only the former is on the list.

Of course, Fendant (made from the Chasselas grape) is the most common white wine in the region.  Cheese must be in its DNA because it is a perfect pairing for all cheese dishes.  Fendant goes well with dried meats and sausages, too.

Different red varietals are also abundant on the wine list at the Chateau de Villa. There are fifteen different reds on the wine list.  My favorites – because they aren’t found anywhere else – are Dole (Gamay and Pinot Noir), Humagne Rouge and Cornalin.  More and more producers such as Nicolas Bagnoud and Simon Maye are making stunning Pinot Noirs that are gaining notoriety beyond Switzerland’s borders.  One restaurant in Alba in the middle of Nebbiolo country carried Simon Maye’s old vines Pinot Noir before the wife and chef-owner split.

Like all winemakers in Valais, Nicolas Bagnoud works hard during the vendange.
Like all winemakers in Valais, Nicolas Bagnoud works hard during the vendange.

Cornalin is a lovely red that goes great with red meats, particularly game.  Again, Nicolas Bagnoud is an excellent producer of this red considered one of Valais’ treasures.  It’s production dates at least to the early 14th century.  Unfortunately, you won’t find Bagnoud’s wines on the list, so go for another great producer, Gregor Kuonen.

Syrah from Valais is a very special wine, too.  It’s from clones of Tain l’Hermitage in the opposite end of the Rhone River in the Valle du Rhone north of the river’s delta.  This is very special Syrah.  Simon Maye was one of the first Valaisanne producers to grow Syrah and the winery’s old vines Syrah would rival many of its famous southern, French cousins.

I could go on and on, but I’ll let you discover these treasures on your own. One word about price.  Make no mistake, Valais wines are expensive.  If you spend time in the vineyards and caves of Valais, you’ll understand why.  Production is small and the labor required to produce these crafted wines is great.  Just enjoy it!  Surely from the over 600 different wines on the list you’ll find something to your taste and budget.

Fromages des Alpages

So let’s turn our attention to food.  To start, we always order a few plates of viande sechee for the table – three to four people to one plate if you’re having raclette is a good ratio.  Each plate contains meat from three different producers.  Your server will give you a clear explanation of each.

Viande sechee du Valais from three of the top producers make a great entrance into a delicious Valaisanne meal.
Viande sechee du Valais from three of the top producers make a great entrance into a delicious Valaisanne meal.

Since you’re about to indulge in a fabulous meal that is anything but low fat, don’t skimp on the calories or fat grams.  Throw caution to the wind.  With your viande sechee you will receive cornichons and the famous Valais walnut rye bread with pats of sweet, creamy Flora butter.  Spread the butter on the nut bread, put a piece of viande sechee and a cornichon on top and then savor this lovely flavor combination that is so uniquely Valaisanne.

There are a few other meat plates that are delicious starters, but I’m a creature of habit and always enjoy viande sechee when I visit, particularly the high quality meat Chateau de Villa serves.

So, we next order raclette forfait.  This is a degustation of five different raclette cheeses made in the alpages of Valais and bearing the AOC designation.  The Chateau only serves Raclette du Valais AOC from the alpages in the Rhone River’s lateral valleys that stretch from just east of Lake Geneva to the Valle des Conches further upstream from Brig.  The alpage choices change frequently, but the general areas remain the same.  Over 12 metric tons of cheese are served here annually.  Potatoes go hand-in-hand with the raclette and some of the fondue, so they serve over 600 kilos of potatoes each month.

Raclette oven gets used a great deal each day.
Raclette oven gets used a great deal each day.

“Master Scraper” Alexandre “Alex” Alder is in perpetual motion as he not only scrapes the cheeses, but serves each one as well, describing it in detail as, with a bit of panache, he places the plate before you. I am always amazed at how he keeps track of everyone’s plate and knows who in the room is having what.  He’s simply brilliant.

Maitre Racleur Alex Adler masterfully scraping raclette.
Maitre Racleur Alex Adler masterfully scraping raclette.
How does Alex keep up with the five different cheeses?
How does Alex keep up with the five different cheeses?

Ask Alex for some religieuse.  It’s the crispy, somewhat burned melted rind of the raclette.

Delicious religeuse will confirm to you raclette is a heavenly treat!
Delicious religeuse will confirm to you raclette is a heavenly treat!

The perfect partner for your raclette is the endless supply of small potatoes kept warm in a quilt-lined basket and bowls of cornichons and picked onions you’ll be served.  Ask for the pepper mill if your server forgets (it gets VERY busy, so please be patient….have another glass of wine and the passage of time will not matter).

You'll never run out of cornichons for your viande sechee or raclette.
You’ll never run out of cornichons for your viande sechee or raclette.

After you complete the tour des alpages, Alex will ask you what you would like to have again.  I love strong cheeses, so I go for eastern Turtmann, Gomser and Simplon alpages that are usually on offer.  Ask Alex for a map of the Valais that notes each alpage of origin.  He will gladly mark which ones you’ve had.

Map of the different alpages of Valais Chateau de Villa sources its raclette du Valais AOC.
Map of the different alpages of Valais Chateau de Villa sources its raclette du Valais AOC.

There was one slight change recently made.  Instead of an unlimited amount of raclette for a flat price, you “only” can get seven servings and will have to pay for each additional one.  Since eight is my maximum and only on a dare, trust me, you will not be paying for additional servings.

Holy Trinity of Valais - Molten raclette, potatoes and pickles.
Holy Trinity of Valais – Molten raclette, potatoes and pickles.
One swift stroke with a knife and the melted raclette slides off into a perfect puddle of cheese.
One swift stroke with a knife and the melted raclette slides off into a perfect puddle of cheese.

The fondue choices are also wonderful; however, I make delicious fondue, so I always go for what I can’t get at home which means this high quality raclette. If you do order fondue, go for the fondue aux tomates.  It’s typical to the region and is also known as Fondue Valaisanne.  Instead of dipping bread into the creamy, melted cheese and tomatoes, you will get raclette potatoes over which you ladle the molten cheese.  Superb!  Don’t forget the fresh black pepper.

Fondue Valaisanne also for by the name Fondue Tomate. Instead of dipping bread, the cheese is ladled over small potatoes.
Fondue Valaisanne also for by the name Fondue Tomate. Instead of dipping bread, the cheese is ladled over small potatoes.

ONE NOTE OF CAUTION: Many people do not realize the danger in drinking water – particularly cold water – with fondue and raclette.  You should drink only wine or hot tea that aids in the digestion of the cheese.  You will not feel very good if you have water while eating.

The Chateau de Villa is an excellent place to visit when you explore the wine families of Valais.  Make sure you visit the oenotheque before you go in for dinner as it closes early.  Seating outside in summer is quite pleasant.  Parking can be a hassle.  If there are no places along Rue St. Catherine, there is a lot on the west end of the street.  You can have pleasant walk to and from the restaurant.  Just follow that wonderful smell of melted raclette and you’ll find it!

Cows naturally battle for domination in the alpages.
Cows naturally battle for domination in the alpages when they aren’t grazing on the tender alpine vegetation.

Elisa Scavino – Alchemist of Barolo

Piemonte – the land where Nebbiolo not only grows best, but the alchemy of grapes to wine would delight Bacchus himself.  One of the region’s rising alchemists is 31 year-old Elisa Scavino.  Her family name should be familiar to any Barolo-phile since she is the granddaughter of Paolo Scavino, founder of the venerable Castiglione Falletto winery bearing his name.

No signage outside, but no mistaking where you are once inside
No signage outside, but no mistaking where you are once inside

Although famous for its 7 Baroli produced from grapes of 19 single crus in 6 of the 11 Barolo appellation villages, Paolo Scavino’s portfolio also includes other lovely wines of distinction.  What I love most about Piemonte – what’s missing from Tuscany, in my opinion – is the broad range of different interesting varietals, both red and white, the Langhe and Roero offer.  That’s certainly not missing at Scavino.  Six other wines grace the winery’s portfolio, all beautiful expressions of the region’s varietals.

This month I visited Piemonte to continue research for my book, “Under Discovered: Le Donne di Piemonte.” One of the women of Piemonte who will grace my book’s pages, Paola Grasso of Ca’ del Baio, introduced me to Elisa.  Since I restrict my writing to family owned wineries where the “family business speaks to the culture of wine,” in Paola’s words, I delighted in the opportunity to meet someone from the famous Scavino family.

Discovering a Barolo Treasure

On my last full day in Piemonte, I drove to the Scavino winery, spitting distance from our agriturismo, Gioco dell’Oca, on the outskirts of Barolo.  The winery’s buildings reflect its owners: non-pretentious, but distinctive.  Setback from the busy Barolo – Alba highway, the winery lies behind a lovely iron gate with a simple “S” on each panel.  Other than the obscure sign I barely saw from the highway, it was the only clue I was in the right spot.

The familiar tinkling sound of bottles moving along a bottling machine’s conveyor belt greeted me when I walked through the massive wooden doors into the courtyard.  It seems like everywhere I went, something delicious was going into bottles, some for sale now, some to age for a few more years.

After a few short minutes alone in the tasting room, the door opened.  In trotted a large, somewhat smiling yellow lab, Lino (short for Ercolino), and Elisa Scavino.  The first thing I noticed about Elisa was her smile.  Unlike many people whose smiles are restricted to the muscles around their mouths, Elisa’s smile sparkled in her dark, half-moon eyes as well.  My intuition is usually spot-on.  It was screaming, “This is going to be a wonderful experience.”  It certainly was.

Lino, Elisa's constant companion
Lino, Elisa’s constant companion

No more “Due di Picchi”

Elisa has plenty to smile about.  Like Paola Grasso, Elisa was born in a time when women are no longer relegated to the shadows.  “Women’s work” no longer excludes making wine.  Elisa is a member of a growing demographic of talented, rising stars of Piemonte: young women.

Elisa and Lino
Elisa and Lino

Since the 1980s, Piemontese women now possess career choices.  However, for Elisa, there was no “choice” to make, only opportunity to grasp.  She was born into a wine producing family.  To her, like Grasso, there was never any doubt she would be a winemaker.  Since early in her life, Elisa worked hard to join her father Enrico’s profession.  To her, to be a successful winemaker is to honor her father.

It’s a good thing women are now accepted in the wine industry since so many of the prominent Piemonte houses will pass into women’s hands in coming decades.  This was not always possible.  For generations, the birth of daughters and no sons doomed estates.  Given the culture of the times, having girls was akin to being dealt a “due di picchi” (bad hand) at cards.  Those times have changed.

In the 1980s, women like Chiara Boschis and Livia Fontana graduated from the “school of hard knocks” after learning viticulture and oenology from their fathers.  These pioneering women emerged as Barolo’s first women wine producers.  When Barolo master, Bartolo Mascarello, passed away in 2005, daughter Maria Teresa assumed control of the family winery, continuing in her father’s footsteps.  Now, Elisa and sister Enrica, Marta Rinaldi, the three Grasso sisters – Paola, Valentina and Federica – and many other women are in line to inherit generations old wineries.  The future of great estates is no longer at risk to the whims of genetics.

One of Barolo's first women winemaker's, Chiara Boschis, at home amongst her treasured nebbiolo vines
One of Barolo’s first women winemaker’s, Chiara Boschis, at home amongst her treasured nebbiolo vines

Cracking the Educational Glass Ceiling

Although daughters of wine families could learn winemaking from the time they first walked, formal wine industry training was not possible.  Only in recent decades did the famous Wine School of Alba (formerly the Royal Enological School) Domizio Cavazza founded in the late 19th century accept women students.  Elisa and two other women, including Rosanna Gaja, comprised one of the earliest classes of women oenologists the famous school graduated.

For Elisa, however, the only education she wanted was the one she got in the vineyards and cellar with her father.  Her parents encouraged her to consider other studies, such as science or classical studies, but only wine school’s six-year program would do for Elisa.

Next, Elisa graduated with an oenology degree from the University of Torino’s three-year program.  Since long before her first awareness of Barolo’s special nature with the release of 1985 vintage in 1989, Elisa knew what she wanted to do in life.  She now had the tools to do it.  In January 2005, Elisa returned to Castiglione Falletto and took up her position in the family business.

Finding Her Place

Family businesses often are daunting places to launch careers.  Pressures to contribute and learn all aspects of the business, including marketing and competition, created new challenges for Elisa.  No longer were her days in the vineyards part of crafting career aspirations.  This was reality, not dreams and longing.  Her career took flight as she accepted the heavy responsibility that comes with being a member of a wine producing family.  Elisa considers that time to have been a “big moment for her” in her “changing life.”

Shortly after graduating, with older sister Enrica, Elisa made her first marketing trip to America.  Enrica, who studied languages and now handles marketing and sales for the winery, wanted Elisa to experience firsthand the their wines’ American market.  It was an eye opening experience.  Following the birth of Enrica’s first child in 2011, Elisa assumed more responsibility for traveling the world to show the wines.

Aging wines to their perfection takes time and money.
Aging wines to their perfection takes time and money.

Elisa enjoys tasting their wines with clients in different countries, but home definitely is where her heart lies.  Although Elisa cherishes her earliest childhood memories of her father playing the harmonica while he drained casks in the cellar, she loves her work in the vineyards most of all.  She explained to me how liberating she finds the lack of control one has when growing grapes.

Elisa finds “playing and interacting with nature” and following “nature’s philosophy” less intimidating than working in the cellar where she must confront the alchemy of the wine.  Control is crucial in the cellar. I envy Elisa’s ability to eschew control and let nature take its course. It’s a gift.

The vineyards of the Barolo appellation stretch for miles across the Langhe's rolling hills.
The vineyards of the Barolo appellation stretch for miles across the Langhe’s rolling hills.

No doubt, Paolo Scavino would be proud to see his granddaughters, members of an evolving generation, walking the path he laid for them when he started his winery in 1921.  No more shadows for the women of Piemonte.

Ornella Correggia: A Piemonte Woman of the Vines

Writing this article about Ornella Correggia for an upcoming Matteo Correggia wine dinner at Zino Ristorante in Edwards was a warm up for Chapter 2 of my book, “Under Discovered: Piemonte through the eyes of its women.”  Ornella  is a humble, kind and serene woman whose innermost courage and strength helped her endure the unimaginable loss of her husband, Matteo, 12 years ago.  She is a woman who is easy to spend time with and hard to say “good-bye” to as I discovered in March when I visited her at the winery outside of Canale in the Roero district of Piemonte.

I hope you enjoy this glimpse at a woman I greatly admire.

Behind the Scenes: A Piemonte Woman of the Vines

Ornella Correggia (right) and her daughter, Brigette
Ornella Correggia (right) and her daughter, Brigette

Wine is an expression of culture made by man, not just by nature. Wine families are the ultimate vinous artisans.

%d bloggers like this: