Sunday, February 27, 2011

BubbleQ and More in South Beach

At last year’s Food Network South Beach Food and Wine Festival, my favorite event was the Perrier Jouet BubbleQ and it again lived up to my expectations.

My friend Lynn is with my this trip and I had been playing up BubbleQ so much that I think she thought I was exaggerating.  That all changed when we arrived.  We had VIP passes thanks to the sponsors, Pernod Ricard, so we were able to get in before the crowds. Our first greeting came with Perrier Jouet Champagne and Godiva Chocolate, so we were off to a great start!

In addition to the champagne and chocolate – and there is plenty of that, including scrumptious offerings from Sweet Street Desserts – host Bobby Flay and more than two dozen other chefs had a chance to showcase a dish.  Though the theme was barbecue (hence “bubbles” for champagne, “q” for bbq), the selection was even wider than that. From weatherman/cook Al Rocker’s Barbecued Chicken to Michelle Bernstein’s Corn Masa Tortillas filled with Kobe Beef and Green Tomato Slaw, the event had Lobster sauces and Lamb Meatballs with Shaved Parmesan (my favorite, though the Macaroni and Cheese from Chris Lilly’s Big Bob Gibson was to die for ). There was no way to go wrong with food from greats that included Jonathan Waxman, Rick Bayless and Todd English.

I also got a taste of things to come on my May Celebrity Cruise as they were represented with some delicious food and desserts.  The fans of BubbleQ included industry insider guests, like Guy Fieri, Martha Stewart and Giada De Laurentiis. Sadly, I hear this is the final BubbleQ and I can’t imagine anything that could come close next year.  One thing that isn’t going away is the selection of seminars offered at the South Beach Food and Wine Festival

I attended two seminars on Saturday at the W Hotel. The first was “Grape Nuts! Crazy-Good Brunch Wines Featuring Josh Wesson and Blue Ribbon” (owner Bruce Bromberg).  I’m not sure which I enjoyed more, the wine or the banter between the two hosts!  It was a fun time for all and even though I couldn’t eat most of the food (it was mostly seafood, to which I am highly allergic, I definitely enjoyed the wines and the pairing suggestions.  My favorite was the Chateau St. Michelle Pinot Gris (2009) from Washington, a place I will be visiting and sampling next month, though I also loved the Georges Grand Cru Beaujolais Fleurie (2009).”  Josh called it “a red wine that wants to be a white wine,” and I couldn’t agree more that it is very food friendly.

Before my next seminar, I met up with Swirl Girl Lilly for some great conversation about wine, food and the state of journalism.  We didn’t solve any problems of the world in 15 minutes, but it’s always fun to swap stories with a fellow imbibing writer.  I arrived at “Making Great Cocktails At Home” as host Tony Abou-Gani, aka The Modern Mixologist, was demonstrating the making of the perfect Margarita. It was followed by the Perfect Dry Martini, the Negroni, the Manhattan and then the Mojito.

Tony’s lessons, though the audience only got to taste the Margarita and the Negroni, were great for the novice mixer and the experienced bartender and included tips on everything from shakers to ice to glassware.  It was a lot of fun, however, I am a bit disappointed that this year’s seminars are more cocktails –  repeat cocktails in most seminars – then the wine regions we had last year.

After I left the seminars, I headed back to the Riu South Beach and enjoyed an hour of down time, a bit on the incredible beach and then with a dip in the pool.  I didn’t have very long because it was going to be a busy evening at the Cruzan Rum VIP Party, where they were launching Cruzan Strawberry Rum.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Welcome to South Beach Food and Wine Festival

The 2010 South Beach Food and Wine Festival was one of the first events I covered when starting this blog.  Since that time, I have been writing about food, wine, spirits and locations around the corner and around the world, but it remains one of my favorite experiences.

This year I am staying at the Riu South Beach on a beautiful stretch of the ocean with blue water and white sand.  I also arranged to arrive on Thursday evening so I wouldn’t miss any of the Food Network’s first event of the year. 

My first stop was at the W Hotel for Original MOONSHINE® presents Shine & Swine hosted by Master BBQ Chef Adam Perry Lang.  I have to say that it was the only event this year and last that I was disappointed in – and I was far from alone.  The problem was lack of food.  There were only two choices – Cuban Sandwiches and an appetizer size Cochinillo Confitado -- and nothing else to eat.

Fortunately, the drinks at Shine & Swine helped people forget about the lack of food.  They were plentiful and very interesting, including Shine Garden with cucumber juice, Bootlegger Punch and Peach Shine Julep.  My favorite was the Shine Blossom, with lavender syrup, lemon juice, chocolate bitters, lemon-thyme foam, angostura bitters and Moonshine.  (All of the recipes can be found on the Moonshine website.)

Friday was a full day as I headed over to the Welcome Brunch at The Betsy Hotel.  It was a perfect selection of yummy Kefir Yogurt Smoothies, popovers, croissants, muffins, fish, cheese, fruit and espresso drinks from Illy.  It was a mixture of sponsors and press and the rooftop view at The Betsy is the perfect backdrop.

After brunch, I took a break before heading to the trade preview of the Whole Foods Grand Tasting Village, the highlight of the South Beach Food and Wine Festival.  I referred to this once as an eating and drinking orgy and I think that is still accurate.  I was glad to have to opportunity to go to this preview Friday and then be able to return Sunday, so I could speak with some of the companies present and do some of the tasting. It’s impossible to sample everything in one visit, but I still tell everyone I know if you can only attend one thing at SOBE, this should be it.

The Grand Tasting welcomes you with a Waterford Crystal glass filled with your choice of Pinot Grigio or Chianti Classico from Ruffino wines (I enjoyed the Pinot) before you enter the village.  Individual tents present Food Network stars doing demonstrations, vendors like Barilla offering tastings, and even countries represented, like the “Experience Italy,” which includes everything from pasta dishes to parmesan and wine tastings.

Just beyond the Cruzan Rum setup -- where you can try endless flavors – and Whole Foods’ exhibition that can provide you with a start to finish meal to sample – is the first of the “tents.”  These mini cities contain every wine, spirits and food company you have and haven’t heard of!  Samples are everywhere and no one leaves hungry or thirsty (there’s plenty of water and coffee drinks around for anyone who doesn’t want to imbibe).

One of my first stops was at the Palm Bay International table as I had been told by CEO Adam Kamenstein that Voli Spirits was now working with this international company. I was excited to hear that Voli Vodka will be available in many states as early as April.  I also stopped at the Loire Valley Wines exhibit (a French region I haven’t visited yet), where I was surprised by the wide selection of whites, reds and rosés in this area. It was perfect with the samples of President Cheeses.  I also spoke with the reps of Layer Cake Wines, which I have heard nothing but good things about. This company’s wines are made all over the world.  I really liked the Virgin Chardonnay, a product of California’s Central Coast.

I am always drawn to the unusual and House Jam seemed to be calling me. These fruity white and read varieties are made to mix in sangrias or punches and do the job perfectly. Speaking of sweet, the Terra d’Oro Moscato does exactly what it should, providing a rich dessert taste without the heaviness of an ice wine and the Nuvo Sparkling Liqueur – which I tasted here last year – is a fruity mix of French Vodka, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and the nectar of strawberries, raspberries and passion fruit.  And, yes, it is as good as it sounds!

On my way out, I grabbed a bit (and there were many more there) of the Lindt and Green Organic chocolates.  I had to pace myself because the day was far from over.  It was time to go shower and get ready for the Perrier Jouet BubbleQ.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Chocolate Extravaganza and Australia Farewell

My final night in Adelaide was spent with a fellow American, now a South Australia resident with a most delicious business. 

Terena Blanton-Downs moved to Australia after she fell in love with a businessman visiting her native Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, home.  That was nearly a decade ago and she has used that time to build Cocolat, a chain of dessert cafes dedicated to chocolate.  In her three locations she sells delectable chocolate candies, cakes, cookies, crepes, drinks (from coffee to martinis) and more.  The Cocolat Rocher Gelati recently received the 2011 Champion Award at the Australian Grand Dairy Awards, recognizing it as the best ice cream in the country.

While I sat with the delightful Terena, listening to the story of how – as a single mom – she brought her son halfway around the world to build this business, and how she wants to expand, but will not do so unless she can guarantee quality control over the fine chocolate ingredients, she persuaded me to sample more a table full of chocolate products, only letting me leave when I promised to stop by their Adelaide Airport location in the morning for chocolate waffles! 

It was the airport I would be heading as I was leaving Australia after my three week stay.  I bid farewell to the Crowne Plaza Adelaide and hello to the waffles waiting for me at the airport.  They were delicious, as was the latte (non-fat, of course).  I was again impressed with Qantas’ domestic product as I flew from Adelaide to Sydney.  Snacks, drinks and helpful flight attendants came along with the television shows on a flight that was just under two hours.  It was an easy transfer in Sydney to the International Terminal and I had five hours at the airport to catch up on some work before boarding my flight back to the United States.  I had a bit of Margherita Pizza at Prego (very good, with lots of cheese) since I knew it would be a long time before I was on the flight and having dinner.

I wasn’t aware of my upgrade to Premium Economy on Qantas until just a few minutes before boarding and then I immediately experienced the benefits as I joined the first and business classes on the way to the top floor of the Airbus.  I had never sat on the top before and it felt a bit strange, but I soon felt the benefits of this class as I realized there were only about 50 passengers on this whole level with about a dozen workers attending to our every need.  I had a glass of Charles Heidsiek Brut and a menu in my hand before I knew it, and I quickly settled in for the next 14 hours.

The Premium Economy seats are a bit bigger than those in Economy and also have a slightly deeper recline.  The menus offer more choices in both food and drinks, including anytime sandwiches and snacks.   When dinner was served, it was a fish course (which I couldn’t eat because of allergies) or Beef in a Stout Sauce (which I wasn’t crazy about), so I requested a toasted sandwich.  I picked a vegetarian option and it was a wonderful combo that included artichokes and grilled eggplant with hummus on a warm ciabatta.

I settled in to catch up on some films (I love Qantas “Oscar” channel, with every winner from every year) and some sleep.  Before I knew it, I was back in the United States and the end of my Australia adventure.

I would like to give a big thanks to those who contributed to making my Australian trip a reality and, in this case, it took an Army of hard workers….

Tourism Australia                                           
South Australia Tourism Commission   
Tourism Victoria                                                      
Barossa Tourism                                              
Tennis Australia   

Pernod Ricard/Jacob’s Creek Wines  
Chandon Wines   
De Bortoli Wines    
Chateau Yering 

The Langham Hotel 
Healesville Animal Sanctuary
Wagstaff Public Relations                           
PEPR Publicity                      

Laura Davidson Public Relations                                          
Brandman Public Relations

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Discovering McLaren Vale

It was my final day in South Australia. After three weeks, I had thought I had seen every just about everything this area had to offer, but I was in for yet more (pleasant) surprises when Greg Linton of Wine Diva Tours picked me up.

Greg was taking me off to the Fleurieu Peninsula, specifically in and around McLaren Vale. This area is only an hour from downtown Adelaide (45 minutes from the airport) and I was told it was another region filled with wineries and beautiful beaches.  I listened to him talk about his hometown of McLaren Vale with great pride and was anxious to see it.

We only had the day, so we just touched the surface of this region, where you can find waterfalls, hiking, golf courses, whale watching, seals, penguins and even black dolphins. We made a quick stop at the Lintons home-base, where they not only run the Wine Divas Tours, but also rent out some adorable cottages (and reasonably priced) under the 3 Divas name. We were then off to meet Paul Petagna of Petagna Wines, who set up a very casual bottle and barrel tasting for me.

Petagna does it all in this family-run winery and he does it well.  The vineyards are only about two and a half miles from the water, the sea breeze brings out some slightly different flavors in the grapes.  I could taste this straight from the barrels of a newly oaked Grenache that was already peppery and full of dark fruit, and Shiraz that had the classic cherry taste mixed with tobacco and spice.  The bottled Dio and Diablo Shiraz Blends were great, but the treat was something I hadn’t seen before – a Late Harvest Shiraz.  It is about to be released and I may have to go back to South Australia to get a bottle to saver on the beach with some cheese (and friends, of course).

It was the beach that we headed to next.  As Greg watched my eyes light up at the beauty of Sellicks, he told me there was more to come and then delivered with Muslin Beach. The water, rock formations and sand at the Fleurieu Peninsula beaches were ideal, and it is not difficult to find places to stay and eat along the road, though the area is strict with zoning so it never looks overpopulated.

We had lunch at Vasarelli in downtown McLaren Vale, a town small town about to get its own “piazza.” We ate family style so I could try a few different things, and thoroughly enjoyed small portions of the Arancini Allo Zaffarano (rice balls with mozzarella and sautéed vegetables), Schiaffetoni Al Doppio Ragu (pasta slow cooked with pork, veal and beef), Penne Alla Norcina (pasta with Italian sausage, mushrooms and a parmesan cream sauce with nutmeg) and Risotto Primavera (rice sautéed with mushrooms, spinach, broccoli, pumpkin, pine nuts and covered in shaved parmesan).

Before we left Vassarelli, I had for the first time an Italian coffee drink that I had ironically discovered in Australia, not Italy.  It’s called Africado and it is espresso poured over vanilla ice cream. They then sprinkle some coffee beans on top and you have your iced coffee with a spoon!  It was dessert as far as I was concerned and the only one I had room for before we headed to Redheads Studio.  This unusual “cellar door” -- another term that I kept hearing in this area -- is run by five winemakers, who take turns working here.

We met with Steve Grimley of Loom Wine, who told us how wine businessman Tony Laithwaite started Redheads in 2002 and it has become a showcase of the area’s lesser known wineries.  All of the vineyard owners also have day jobs, but this is their labor of love.  I couldn’t possibly taste everything, but asked for the unusual for this area and Steve brought out: NV Ranger & Apprentice Blanc de Blanc, light and refreshing; Rogers & Apprentice Rose, made 100% from Sangiovese and full of strawberry, but far from sweet; and a Suckling Single Vineyard McLaren Vale Shiraz, made with hand selected fruit during a hot 2009.  It was fermented in stainless and then an old oak barrel, so it’s almost cherry juice, but certainly not as sweet.  I then got to taste a totally different Shiraz, Longwood by Phil Christian, made in small batches and in the more familiar Australian style. 

Our next stop was a place that makes many different things.  Lloyd Brothers grows everything from grapes, olives and almonds. They also produce clothing and bedding items from alpacas, an Australian animal that looks a bit like a Llama, but is actually part of the camel family.  The wine (and the olives) is all hand-picked here. Olives are used to make some very smooth oils, sauces and relishes. Among the oils the Late Picked Extra Virgin was my favorite, on a piece of fresh bread with a glass of their Sparkling Shiraz.

The final winery for the day was Paxton, a place that likes to experiment and bring in some grapes you don’t see often here. The Pinot Gris was just as it should be, full of mineral and citrus, not too sweet and not too dry. Tempranillo, a Spanish variety that is grown in Rioja, was a bit like Cabernet, a blend of cherry and earth. They also make the truly classic and most popular 2007 EJ Shiraz, 100% French Oaked and very dry, yet it retains a creamy mouth silky cinnamon.  It would lead me perfectly to the total opposite, a Late Harvest Sauvignon Blanc made in Moscato style, but not quite as heavy.

After a stop for coffee at Blessed Cheese Cafe, Greg drove me back to Crowne Plaza Hotel for my final 18 hours in Adelaide, which would include my delectable stop at Cocolat.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Exceptional Kangaroo Island

Exceptional Kangaroo Island is not just the name of the tour company my guide Rob works for, it’s one of the words I’ve used to describe this place.  I fell in love with Kangaroo Island the moment I arrived and that didn’t change on day two.

I spent the night at the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Retreat.  I had to admit I was disappointed when I found out I wasn’t staying at the beach and concerned at the words “wilderness retreat,” but it turned out to be great.  It’s a fun place to be, with the animals wandering freely outside your door.

I was also pleasantly surprised to find a gourmet eatery on site, The Nicolas Baudin Restaurant, where I warmed up with a spicy tomato soup, followed by the Pumpkin, Pine Nut and Ricotta Ravioli with Ginger and Coconut Chilli Cream Sauce.  It was delicious, as was the Raspberry and White Chocolate Bread and Butter Pudding with Vanilla Bean Custard.  I relished the free internet in my room for awhile before all the fresh ocean air got to me and I drifted into eight hours of uninterrupted sleep.

Rob was waiting for me in front of the Wilderness Retreat with a full day planned. First we drove to nearby Hanson Park where kangaroos and wallabies were out enjoying the cloudy day, which was also the coolest I’d encountered in South Australia. We watched them for awhile and then drove to Flinders Chase National Park, as Rob pointed out unique plants, such as the yacca, which is the slowest growing tree on earth, and the wattle, Australia’s plant. 

Our first stop in the park was at Remarkable Rocks, a beautiful granite formation that stands above yet another perfect Kangaroo Island beach.  I climbed for awhile, taking in the view and Rob had some hot coffee and Australian baked goods (this time KI Chocolate Cake and Anzac Biscuits) waiting for me.  He told me about our next stop, Cape Du Couedic, where the Lighthouse that guided the first settlers here still stands.  It is also the spot of another beach that took my breath away, this one home to some New Zealand fur seals. Unlike sea lions, seals will eat just about anything, including penguins. They are a bit smaller and move to other areas in the winter – even as far as Sydney.

We reluctantly left Flinders Park and made a brief stop to check out Southern Ocean Lodge, a luxury all-inclusive hotel on Hanson Bay, with perfect views from each of its 21 suites as well as the common areas.  From there we were off to the North Coast, where Rob promised I would see the best beaches yet. 

The first was Snelling Beach, which has some of the tallest cliffs on the southern hemisphere.  It was truly amazing, as was Stokes Beach , which you can only enter by climbing through a rocky tunnel!  It was worth it to see the view on the other side, where snorkeling is a popular pastime.

Before heading back on the road, I had a latte at Rockpool Café.  It was the kind of place I wish every beach would have, casual and fun, where you could have dinner with a glass of wine, or a sandwich and soda to take down to the sand.  We then took a drive through the small town of Kingscote so I could quickly check out some of the hotels (like Aurora Ozone and Queenscliff) and restaurants (such as Three Shekina Café and Bella) before boarding my plane back to Adelaide and leaving Rob and his Exceptional Kangaroo Island.

Once back at the Crowne Plaza Hotel Adelaide -- where they had turned the previous visits glitches into the perfect room for my second stay – I enjoyed a Toasted Ciabatta with Pesto, Tomato, Goat Cheese and Rocket (arugula) at the lounge with a glass of Oyster Bay Sauvignon Blanc, full of ripe fruit and kiwi.  I tried to get into the cricket game on television, but decided my concentration level wasn’t there, so I went back to my room for a good night’s rest before my final day in Adelaide, with a side trip to McLaren Vale on the Fleurieu Peninsula.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Finding Paradise on Kangaroo Island

As excited as I was to go to the Australian Open and see Melbourne, after the turmoil that Oprah’s visit caused to my trip, the thing that kept me going (literally) was the week at the end in South Australia, especially my trip to Kangaroo Island.  Everyone I met who had ever been there couldn’t stop talking about how wonderful it was and every photo I had seen confirmed it.  Still, seeing is believing and I quickly became a believer.

It was a quick 20 minute flight on Rex Regional Express from Adelaide to Kingscote.  Rob, my tour guide from Exceptional Kangaroo Island was waiting for me in the airport.  He had gotten the message that I was interested in going to some wineries and visiting the distillery, but since my tour was private (the company will do anything from small groups to fully customized individual itineraries) he asked me what I really wanted to do.  It didn’t take me long to blurt out, “go to the beach!”   Rob responded that there were about 50 beaches to see on the island and he would get me to as many as possible.  I couldn’t have been happier as I was on week three of my Australian adventure and the only beach I had seen was the few minutes at Glenelg the previous day.

We were starting our tour on the North Coast of the island.  Kangaroo Island is much bigger than I had imagined.  It is actually the size of the Long Island I had grown up on.  The difference here was that the population (not counting the kangaroos, koalas, wallabies and other non-humans) was only about a tenth of that of the New York peninsula!  This allowed for plenty of open space and a place where people that lived 50 miles apart to easily know each other. 

Just a mile from the airport we stopped to see a sleeping koala in a River Red Gum tree, known to the marsupials as home.  There are six varieties of koalas on this island and their population went from 18 in 1923 to 35,000 in 1997, when the island began sterilizing and relocating them to other parts of Australia before they destroyed all the trees.  It was a perfect 85 degree day and that meant the koalas would enjoy partaking in their ritual 20 hours of sleep so we were off to more exciting places.

Before I would get to see the white sand, we had a stop to make for some white liquor.  Rob whipped out a container of Australian baked goods and I filled my stomach enough to handle the wares of Kangaroo Island Spirits (KIS).  I’d be lying if I said the distillery was an attraction to miss (it’s really just a small building), but the spirits are worth a visit.   John has a KIS Wild Gin made with a wild juniper that is just full of herbs.  KIS Mulberry Gin is the first flavored gin that I’ve tasted and I loved it.  The grape-based KIS Vodka is available plain and in samphire, a salty plant that tastes a bit like pickles or relish, making a great dirty martini.  The Anisette reminded me of the one my grandfather used to put in his espresso and the KIS Chili Vodka is a spicy as it sounds! There is also a selection of liqueurs.

We then drove through Kingscote and stopped for my first view of the water (there are 450 miles of coastland). The Pelicans were all sitting there on the calm, sheltered waters of the northern side, a good spot for fishing scallops and lobsters.  We got back in the jeep to Bay of Shoals Winery.  They produce a nice selection of typical Australian wine, including Chardonnay, Riesling, Rose, Shiraz and Sauvignon Blanc.  It was the Sauvignon that caught my eye (or rather, my taste buds), with enough tropical and peach tones that it didn’t need to be too sweet.

We drove to the next beach, passing a salt lake (the first I’ve ever seen outside of Salt Lake City, UT) and an Emu Bay Lavender Farm, where I had to make a quick stop.  We then took a look at the light blue-green waters of Jaom Beach (above, left), a good place for snorkeling and diving, before heading to Emu Beach (right), a perfect mixture of flat white sand, no rocks and turquoise water.  It was there that Rob set up a picnic lunch with free range chicken, local cheeses, salad and bread with pumpkin spread.  For the first time since I had arrived Down Under, I felt I was really in Australia as I watched the light waves on the sea and drank a glass of yet another great Kangaroo Island Sauvignon Blanc, this one from False Cape Wines.

After Emu Bay, we stopped at Island Pure Sheep Dairy, where Rob got the delicious cheese from lunch.  I also tasted their great Greek-style yogurt before we were off to Seal Beach, which has no seals.  Since Rob is a recognized tour guide, we passed the official groups and walked the long bridges down to the beach where we sat for about a half hour watching the sea lions frolic on the sand!  There were so many of them that I couldn’t believe to count – mothers, fathers, babies – all spread out (see the video below).

We stopped for a very quick view of the golf course, the smallest of four on the island which don’t have actually putting “greens.”  Then it was Vivonne Bay (right), where the beach was also stunning and the water almost purple.  At this point we were on the South Coast, where the Southern Ocean leads nowhere except Antarctica, 3,000 miles away.  I thought it was just a bit more beautiful than our next stop, Hanson Bay, where the white peaks of the waves didn’t go quite as far as my stop for the night – the Kangaroo Island Wilderness Retreat.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Wine, Food and Chocolate Around Adelaide

My 24 hours started and ended in the same bustling place, on Rundle Street in downtown Adelaide, but it was filled to the brim in between.

I met with Matt Guy, Marketing Executive NZ and The Americas at South Australian Tourism Commission for dinner at Sosta Argentinean Kitchen.  The specialty here is steak so I went for the filet, with a delicious mushroom and wine sauce.  Matt filled me in on all that was still to come on my South Australian trip, from the wine to the beaches to the variety of food, as we were experiencing right there on Rundle Street, one of the main thoroughfares of Adelaide.  Although the city is small enough that you can easily walk around, trams and buses run frequently throughout this area too, where the eateries are sprinkled with stores before you actually hit the “Rundle Mall,” an indoor and outdoor complex that houses anything you could possibly need within a few pedestrian blocks.

In the morning I had breakfast at the Crowne Plaza and was ready to experience even more as Mary Ann Kennedy from A Taste of South Australia was my guide for the day themed around wine and chocolate – two of my favorite things. The first stop was at Hahndorf Hill Winery for the ChocoVino Experience.  Lots of wineries pair chocolate and wine, but I’ve never seen and tasted anything like this.  Tastings at Hahndorf Hill are as much about the chocolate as the wine and they encourage you to taste them both with all your senses.  You can follow one of their full experiences, or just pair your favorite wine with their suggested chocolate.  Or, you can put together something in between.  All of this includes unique wine blends from a South African owner/winemaker who likes Austrian grapes!

We went for the Discover Chocolate & Wine experience which took us through from the cacao bean to milk and dark chocolates, paired with Chardonnay and Shiraz.  We went through every step of the taste of the chocolate the way you learn how to taste wine.  Neither item is ordinary here, with gourmet chocolate that includes Dolfin Sauveurs du Monde, Hot Malsala and Earl Gray Tea bars; Dagoba Organic in Lemon Giner; Coppeneur in Menauvava Milk; and one of my favorites, Dolf Belgium Dark Chocolate with Lavendar, paired with Hahndorf Hill Sauvignon Blanc, a light version of this white wine, with just enough fruit to compliment the chocolate.

Among the wines, I suggest trying their Rose, a blend of Austrian grapes that gives you a ripe strawberry taste with plenty of fruit sweetness in virtually no residual sugar.   The Grüner Veltliner was sold out so I didn’t get to try it, but the Pinot Grigio was full of floral, pineapple and other tropical fruit.  I could have sampled the combinations there all day, but Mary Ann and I were off to see my first Australian beach.

It’s hard to believe I made it through two weeks in Australia without seeing a beach.  I was anxious to get to one and it wasn’t quite what I expected.  Glenelg is a popular beach destination in Adelaide, complete with shops, restaurants, white sand and an amusement park.  It’s not far from Port Adelaide, where the cruise ships dock, and the Southern Ocean is a place where you have a chance to spot dolphins (we didn’t) between the marinas.  I wished I had more time to put my feet in the sand, however, I knew this trip wasn’t about sunbathing, it was about discovering places in Australia where that was an option you could do.

After a delicious lunch at Zenhouse, a vegetarian place that specializes in Asian offerings, we met up with Mark Gleeson of Chef’s Media Tours.  Mark told me about his chocolate and olive oil business at the Central Market, one of Adelaide’s biggest attractions and a place to find fresh produce, meat and baked goods in abundance.   He turned out to be another great option for anyone looking for the foodie life in Adelaide.

Before Mary Ann left me for the day, we stopped at Cocolat, a dessert (mostly chocolate) café on Rundle Street.  We ended up sharing an assortment of their delicious cakes and I became intrigued by the owner, Terena Downs, an American who has started this chain in South Australia.  I made an appointment with her later in the week to hear (and taste) more before heading back to the Crowne Plaza for some rest because the next day was the one I had been waiting for since arriving in Australia – I was heading to Kangaroo Island.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

More Wine and Koalas in Barossa

I had a great dinner at the Novotel with Jaci Thorne, Regional Tourism Manager Barossa Tourism.  She picked a bottle of Radford Dale Eden Valley Riesling since it was one of the places I wouldn’t get a chance to visit and it was a good choice, not to dry, with just enough citrus to keep its flavor.   I got some sleep and then it was off to another day of my Australian adventure around Barossa Valley, home to a lot more than just Jacob’s Creek.

Chris of A Taste of South Australia picked me up at the hotel for my tour of the Barossa region.  He had a couple of plans in mind already and so did I.  As we made our way around Barossa, Chris pointed out some sites, starting with the memorial plaques on Commemorative Drive, the road my hotel was on.  It turns out the plaques were representative of the early settlers in South Australia

We continued on our way with a quick stop at Grant Burge & Kroncort for some coffee, where we ran into the owners of Villa Tinto Winery, a small family winery Albert and Dianne Di Palma own and run, with dedication to Albert’s Argentinean heritage.  I was disappointed we wouldn’t have time to stop by, but the schedule was already full.  After waiting for the sheep to pass by, we continued first with a visit to another small winery, Rockford.  We just spent a short time there, sampling their unusual selection, including Riesling, Semillon, Frontignac, and Alicante Bouchet.

As I often do when on these trips, I put out a note on Twitter that I would be in the area and had a little time.  Chateau Tanunda responded that they would love to give me a tour and tasting.  After a quick look at their website, I thought it was a great idea. Chateaus may have been common when I was in France, but you’ll have a difficult finding a selection in Australia.  This one was built in 1890 and belongs to the Gelber family, who began refurbishing it in 1998.  It addition to keeping the tradition of a chateau, it is dedicated to the family passions with a Cricket Oval and a Croquet Lawn. 

There are no living quarters at Chateau Tununda, but there is certainly wine.  Grapes are grown on 250 acres of vineyards in and around Barossa.  Almost everything made here is done by hand with gentle pressing. They do open fermentation to get the softness from the wines rather than harsh tannins.  It shows in the wines, which include a superb Chateau Tanunda Old Bush Vine Grenache Rose, slow fermented in an old wooden cold stone for 3 weeks.  With just a hint of mineral and subtle fruit, it goes down smooth. 

Three Graces can vary in its blends, but the 2008 I had was great with Cabernet Franc (29%), Merlot (25%) and Cabernet Sauvignon (46%).  Chateau Tanunda has many other wines of note, including the Chateau Tanunda 100 year Vines 2008 Shiraz -- very spicy and not overly dry.  They are one of the wines in Australia that is being distributed to the U.S, but if you visit their winery you can also check out other wineries, as Chateau Tanunda is the home of the Barossa Small Winemakers Centre so you will find bottles from many other wineries here.

Chris and I had a delicious lunch at the quaint 1918 Bistro & Grill that included a Spanish Meatball with Polenta and goat cheese.   It’s a place filled with locals looking for a relaxing lunch.  For a more extravagant meal, check out Appellation, where Chef Mark McNamara offers a locally fresh selection that you can get as a full tasting menu, a few courses or a la carte.  He also will alter anything to accommodate food allergies or intolerances – just let him know when you make the reservation.  You can also indulge all you want in the vast wine menu at Appellation and stay in luxurious comfort at the attached accommodation, The Louise.  This boutique property has only 15 suites (with amenities such as outdoor showers and indoor Jacuzzis) so you can expect personalized service.

On the way out of the Barossa, we past some other places that are on my list for the next trip, including Lyndoch Lavender Farms, the tiny village of Williamstown and Amadio Vineyards, but I  had been waiting all day for my final stop. My schedule had read “Cuddle a Koala at Gorge Wildlife Park.”  I had seen a few Koalas in Australia and even pet one at the Healesville Animal Sanctuary, but none seemed terribly interested in seeing me.  Apparently sleeping 21 hours a day was more exciting.  It was different with Claire, and when she was placed in my arms we were both comfy!  I actually pet her for awhile while she ate some leaves.  It was definitely an “I’m really in Australia” moment and I was sure it wouldn’t be the last.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Jacob’s Creek Leads the Way to Barossa

Greg Stirling, Head of Brand Sites &  Visitations for Orlando Wines, a division of Pernod Ricard, picked me up in Adelaide for the scenic drive up to the Barossa Valley in South Australia. It is one of the country’s top wine regions and home to his biggest brand – Jacob’s Creek.

I had spent some time with Jacob’s Creek (the wine and the people who make it) during the Australian Open, but this was my first visit to the winery and grounds. It began with a bit of history on my way up about Johan Jacob, the pioneer that purchased this land over 200 years ago. Greg also explained to me about the area, Roland Flat, which is also the translation of Jacob’s son, Orlando. It would be “Orlando Wines” that Jacob’s Creek was launched under in 1976, before Pernod Ricard would buy the brand.

The land was hilly with brown grass in between that showed signs of the dry summer, but it didn’t make the valley look any more beautiful.  It was an area where kangaroos and emus run free, as the signs make you aware of throughout the drive.  It was hard to believe this was just an hour from the city of Adelaide, which is just an hour’s plane ride from Melbourne. Jacob’s Creek has been continually voted the best major tourist attraction in this part of Australia.  Though tours are mostly be appointment, the tastings, movies on the lawns, trails and animal enclosure are all open to the public every day except Good Friday and Christmas.

Jacob’s Creek produces the typical varieties of the area, including Chardonnay, Riesling and Shiraz, but they are continually experimenting with planting lesser known grapes, like the Spanish Graciano, or Lagraein, known as Dolcetto in Northern Italy. Chief Winemaker Bernard Hickin also enjoys blending to make his own creations, such as the Three Vines selection, which includes a white (Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier), a freshly tropical wine full of grapefruit and a bit of apricot; Rose (Shiraz, Grenach, Sangiovese), a bit dryer, but light an fruity in the European style; and Red (Shiraz, Grenache, Tempranillo), complex and full of black berry with a bit of cinnamon and nutmeg.

Before I got to the blends, I went through the Jacob’s Creek standards with Winemaker Hickin.  We started with the Moscatos, first introduced in 2009 with the Sparkling and then expanded with the still wines last year.  The Jacob’s Creek Sparkling Moscato was full of pear, peach and kiwi, with a hint of honeysuckle.  Very sweet and tropical – a perfect summer drink.  I loved the Moscato Rose, full of red fruit like cherry and raspberry and a bit of sparkle.  The Jacob’s Creek Moscato 2010 was very light a little more citrusy than the others.  It was also not quite as sweet and though not sparkling, it had a bit of fizz. 
Jacob’s Creek Pinot Grigio is a combination of fruit and mineral, with some apple, pear and citrus notes. It’s drier than the Pinot Grigio most often seen in the U.S., but, according to Hickin, that makes it easier to pair with food, as is my first introduction to Jacob’s Creek, the Riesling.  For a fruity, floral blend, full of rose petals and citrus, try the 2010, an excellent year for this grape.  Jacob’s Creek also released a Reserve Barossa Dry Riesling that year.  It was a bit too dry for me, however, that’s not the case for everyone – it’s the biggest seller for the company in the United Kingdom.

I was very pleasantly surprised with Jacob’s Creek Chardonnay, a wine I don’t usually count as one of my favorites. The 2010 was given a bit less oak than most Chardonnays, leaving it with more melon and citrus than spice. For those who do like the more oaky Chardonnay, I’d recommend the Reserve Adelaide Hills Chardonnay, an area that also produced a terrific Pinot Noir, with lots of black cherry, as well as spicy vanilla and cinnamon.

I had my first Australian Merlot at Jacob’s Creek and it was quite a good one, with very light spice, dark cherry, blueberry and blackberry.  The soft tannins kept it more spice forward and fruit backward. The Cabernet Sauvignon (2009) had more mild flavors, including black currant, but was fruitier in the finish since the grapes were picked when very ripe.  For a drier Cabernet, the Coonawarra, from a cooler region, works well.  And, of course, Australian Shiraz is prevalent at this winery, with its meat friendly spice and long finish.

One interesting note about Jacob’s Creek is that they use screw caps on all their wines. There are a number of reasons for this, including the difficulty in getting good cork in Australia and the need to produce predictable, consistent wines.  We enjoyed another of the company’s offerings, Steingarten Riesling, during a delicious lunch at the Jacob’s Creek Visitor’s Center, where it is definitely worth planning a meal.  Then it was off to see where the Steingarten  vineyards on a beautiful drive up to the highest (and coolest) grape growing area in the valley, before I headed to the Novotel Barossa and got ready to meet Jaci Thorne, Regional Tourism Manager Barossa Tourism, who would tell me about the rest of my schedule in the valley.