Thursday, December 31, 2009

HAPPY NEW YEAR! No Matter How You Say It!

Happy New Year! Bonne Année! Felice Anno Nuovo! Feliz Año Nuevo! Shana Tova! Ein glückliches neues Jahr! La Multi Ani si Un An Nou Fericit! Xin nian yu kuai! Sehe Bokmanee Bateuseyo! Selamat Tahun Baru! Voorspoedige nuwe jaar! Gott Nytt År! Kul 'am wa antum bikhair! Gelukkig nieuwjaar! Hauoli Makahiki hou! Eutychismenos o kainourgios chronos! Akemashite Omedetou Gozaimasu! Onnellista uutta vuotta!

Best wishes to all for a healthy and prosperous 2010.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Olio Nuovo 2009: Mascio from Umbria

For many years now my family has enjoyed the Christmas tradition of having an Extra Virgin olive oil from the recent harvest. As the Italians would say, "Olio Nuovo/Novello.” Most years the new oil shared at our table is from either Italy or California. Many times the annual oil was one that I had participated in or at least witnessed the production in the mill. The aggressive grassy aromas hurl me instantly back to the memorable day of those pressings. Being in the mill during the harvest is truly magical. I strongly recommend the experience.

This year was no different. In early December I placed my order with a California source for two bottles of olio nuovo. Unfortunately, they have not arrived.

Not to worry, good fortune is coming my way. Yesterday morning I was scrambling to pack the car for the eight hour drive from Washington, DC to Kentucky to spend the holidays with my family. As I was about to embark on my journey, Mary, who manages the front desk during the day at my building, yelled, “Mr. Sanders, WAIT! I have a package for you.” After looking around for my father (nobody calls me Mister), I did what any gift loving mortal would do, I stopped. As I turned to Mary, she was holding a medium size box. To my surprise the sender address was from Italy. I had forgotten that Gioia Pinna, who with Giuseppe Giancalini, owns Agricola Mascio Farm (, located in the small picturesque village of Trevi in the Italian region of Umbria, was sending samples of her two olive oils for me to taste. So, with a “Joy to the World” smile, I wrapped the box in swaddling cloth and laid it in the trunk of my the car and sailed off through the blowing snow and tractor trailer rigs of western Maryland and West Virginia. Please note this is following 20” inches of snow from the weekend.

After the arduous drive and some semi-restful sleep, I bounce out of bed with my eyes all aglow and rushed to open this early Christmas treasure. Voila! There was one bottle each of Mascio's “Principe di Mascio” and ‘Gioio di Trevi” from the 2009 harvest. OLIO NUOVO! There was also a small bottle of 2008 Gioia for comparison purposes. The classic Italian varietals Moraiolo (80%), Leccino and Frantoio (20%) comprise the blend. Now I will give the oils a couple days to recover from the trip before tasting. Please, stay tuned for my tasting notes. Shipping this time of year can leave an olive a bit chilly. You can be assured my anticipation awaits the typical grassy, floral and artichoke aromas. Umbrian oils have a medium spicy character compared to their robust neighbors from Tuscany. This medium style seems to suit the American palate which has not grown up on olive oil.

It’s worth mentioning that many growers produce an olio nuovo in addition to their classic bottling. Technically speaking these are Mascio’s classic oils. The olive oil geeks can argue about that one. New oil is more assertive with bitter, spicy and peppery flavors which are the polyphenols (antioxidants) which give quality olive oil its healthy benefits. They can often bring a prize fighter to his knees with just one sip. Great stuff!

An indication of quality and attention to detail is Mascio's participation in the transparency and traceability system in Italy ( Place and time of each lot of olive trees can be traced to precision. As you know my rant is about freshness and verifying the harvest date of olive oil. This system is a huge step in providing consumers with confidence about the quality and freshness of the olive oil they are purchasing. Coincidentally, traceability was a major topic of discussion among researchers from olive oil producing countries at a recent conference in Tunis, Tunisia ( Do you know anyone who attended?

Let's start the holiday celebration by getting your hands on a bottle of olive oil from the recent 2009 harvest, olio nuovo. And you, too, will be hooked into a new holiday tradition, a healthy and flavorful one.

And for you, Gioia, grazie for the olio nuovo and saving our family's holiday tradition.

Finally I want to wish all of you and yours a joyful and safe holiday season and remember, FRESH is BEST!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Thursday, December 10, 2009

A Comment on Olive Oil Longevity

This comes from leading international food entrepreneur, Liz Tagami.

I agree that 12-18 months is preferred when considering the age of an olive oil. The challenge is that retailers will not unload old oil. For most major retailers, the 2009 harvest will not appear on their shelves until late summer or fall. This is a bad strategy on the part of retailers, which does not serve the best interest of the consumer.

This discussion is about an unopened bottle. Once the bottle is opened, it should be consumed within 30-60 days.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Buying Extra Virgin Olive Oil: Fresh is Best!

Because there are no Federal Standards for Extra Virgin olive oil in the United States, our country has become the dumping ground of inferior, adulterated olive oils from Europe. The words “Extra Virgin” offer no quality guarantee. A label containing this renowned phrase can be slapped on a bottle of spring water or soda pop and sold as Extra Virgin olive oil. Is this an illegal activity? No, except, perhaps, in California. Most American consumers of olive oil are consuming a product that is flavorless, flawed and lacking in the health benefits they are desperately seeking. The Western Farm Press reported on November 30, 2009 that California Olive Council Executive Director Patricia Darragh has been sharply critical of a lack of federal standards for olive oil. “We have become a market for oil that is potentially adulterated or mislabeled,” Darragh said.

This is unfortunate given the health benefits of olive oil are extolled in the press every day. The benefits are an established, scientific fact. Most consumers get that. What they don’t understand is all olive oils are not the same. They are unaware and confused about buying and using this natural nectar to maximum its flavor and health benefits.

How can you be assured of buying quality Extra Virgin olive oil? To begin, the source of the oil is crucial. The mislabeled, adulterated oils from Europe referred to earlier are usually "bulk" olive oils. These are found commonly on the shelves of mega supermarkets. They are cheap. When you see the words “Imported" or "Packed from Italy,” run. The source of fruit for these oils can be from most anywhere in the Mediterranean, and perhaps, cut with other seed oils. Some bulk producers are now listing on the label the countries supplying the fruit. Moreover, the age of the oil is usually a mystery and the shipping and storage conditions are often suspect. Consequently, flavor, freshness and health benefits are lacking.

Now here's what you want. Quality can be found with estate Extra Virgin olive oils. With these olive oils the when and the where are known. The individual grower has sole control over the process from tree to bottle. The fruit is usually handpicked (some excellent oils are mechanically harvested). With these dedicated, hardworking folks there's no sourcing fruit from another country. Their trees are family. The tender loving care is evident by their flavor and freshness.

Now, how do you know if it's an estate olive oil? The answer often lies in the fine print... the harvest date. The front or back label should state the date or year of harvest. The label will read, "November 2008" or simply the year. Some oils from the recent 2009 harvest are available now. These are referred to as new, nuovo or nouveau Extra Virgin olive oils. Intense pungency and pepperiness are their trademark, and super healthy. Most of the oil from the 2009 harvest will become available by early spring.

Why is the harvest date important? Olive oil is not like wine. It does not get better with age. The fresher the oil, the more flavorful and healthful it is. Oxidation and deterioration begins immediately after the fruit is picked from the tree, if not before. Olive oil should be consumed within 18-24 months from the harvest (18 months is better). In the northern hemisphere olives are harvested in the autumn, usually October, November and December. The southern hemisphere harvest occurs during our spring. Presently, the freshest available oils are from the southern hemisphere, except for the recently harvested new oils.

Alternative to the harvest date, a Best Used By (expiration) date is commonly listed on the bottle or label. Generally, this date is two years (or 18 months) subsequent to the harvest. For example, if the bottle indicates it’s Best to use by 12/10,” then you know the olives were harvested in the autumn of 2008. Buyer beware, many gourmet retailers will gladly sell you a three or four year-old olive oil for $35-40.

To what regions of the globe should be you looking for these estate growers? Your options are vast and fun. Here's a sampling of treasurers. First the earlier negative reference to "Imported from Italy," should no way reflect poorly on the Italian estate growers. These passionate folks produce outstanding olive oil. For your holiday gift giving consider the 2008 harvest in Tuscany was the best in a decade. Other regions in Italy produce fabulous olive oils. For ten years, my desert island oil (should I ever be stranded on one) is Ravidá from Sicily. Spain is now pouring out a flood of extraordinary oils. My good friend Rosa Vañó produces a steller portfolio at Castillo de Canena. Italy's historic bulk supplier, Tunisia, now has an expanding group of estate growers producing and bottling quality olive oil. France has Jean-Benôit Hugues' Castelas in Le Baux,Provence.

California has entered a oil boom and not with rigs. Chris Banthien's Le Colline in Santa Cruz and Apollo's Mistral have been my favorites for years. Australia (Rylstone), New Zealand, South Africa, and Chile (Olavé) are storming on to the scene with quality product that is worthy of a place in your pantry. So explore and have fun. Yet, always remember that Fresh is Best.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Discovering Bordeaux: Marvelous Margaux

Bordeaux is considered by wine experts to be the greatest wine region in the world (Burgundy and the Rhone Valley are my personal preferences). It is difficult, however, to argue with that lofty praise after tasting 50+ quality Bordeaux wines at yesterday's "Discovering Bordeaux," a trade tasting and seminar event sponsored by Robert Cavanaugh's Wine Adventure. When writing about wine, we should not assume the basics, as Robert Cavanaugh aptly stated. First, Bordeaux is a wine region, not a grape. The region is located in southwest France, near the Atlantic Ocean and spread along the Gironde River.

Jay Youmans, the only Master of Wine in the Washington, DC area (24 in the U.S) and owner of the Capital Wine School ( stated three primary reasons for Bordeaux's greatness. The first two are low alcohol (but rising) and high acidity which makes the wines wonderful partners with food. The third is their extraordinary ability to improve with age. No wine region in the world, particularly new world, can compare to Bordeaux's age worthiness. Grand Cru Burgundy and the Northern Rhone's Hermitage and Cote Rotie regions have rightful claims to excellent aging.

Now, here my thoughts and reflections from an afternoon of listening to Bordeaux experts and tasting the fine wines of the region.

To aid your understanding of Bordeaux, Youmans also offered a useful primer. To summarize briefly, Bordeaux is split by the Gironde River into the Right and Left Bank. The famous communes of Margaux, St. Julien, Paulliac and St. Estephe reside on the Left Bank (west of the river). Cabernet Sauvignon is the dominate grape variety because of the gravel composition of the landscape. The better drainage of the gravel allows the Cabernet Sauvignon to ripen earlier. Here the wines are blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and small amounts of Malbec and Petit Verdot. The Right Bank (east) includes the renowned Pomerol and St Emilon and other lesser known appellations. The Right Bank is primarily Merlot, which now accounts for more than 60% of all wine produced in Bordeaux. The high composition of clay in the soil which is cooler and retains water easily is more suitable to Merlot. Because of the lack of drainage, Cabernet Sauvignon has difficulty ripening in clay.

Now, there's much more to understanding Bordeaux such as the classification systems. Those discussions will be parked for future postings. For an in depth study, read The Complete Bordeaux, by Stephen Brook.

We need some wine ideas for the holidays.

From yesterday's tasting, the wines from Margaux were my personal favorites. Elyse Kudo, General Manger, Monument Fines Wines, offered a fantasy line-up. The 2006 Palmer Alter Ego, second wine of Chateau Palmer, typified the elegance and femininity of Margaux. The 2006 Chateau Malescot's silkiness and brightness could get my nod for best of the day (picking bests is a senseless exercise). My old friend Chateau D'Angulet illustrated the promise of the renowned 2005 vintage. The soft and integrated tannins framed the gorgeous fruit aromas. There was none of the drying coffee sensation on the palate that often comes from top youthful Bordeaux. Remember, this wine was from 2005, which is not known for its youthful drinkability. The 2006 Chateau Prieure-Lichine showed more richness, while retaining that Margaux elegance. Chateaux La Gurgue and Monbrison are worth a look. Simply, Margaux wines are made with food in mind.

The 2005 Phelan Segur showed surprising approachability for a St. Estephe, often burly when young. This a consistent chateau worth looking at every year. Youmans remarked that wines from St. Estephe are good value compared to the complete lack of value in Paulliac, St. Julien and Margaux. More Merlot is being added to the blends to improve approachability in their youth. St. Estephe is worth exploring.

Maisons Marques & Domaines presented a steller group led by the wines of former Decanter "Person of the Year and owner of Chateau Petrus, Christian Mouiex. From 2006, his Chateau Magdelaine, St. Emillion, (Premier Grand Cru Classe) and Pomerol properties Chateau Certan-Marzelle (Pomerol) and Lafleur-Gazin showcase Mouiex's distinct style which is the antithesis of the modern, international style of big, blockbuster fruit. These highly structured wines require patience, but worth the wait. Another St. Estephe, Chateau de Pez, is recommended.

Here are some other noteworthy wines that merit your consideration: Chateau Loudene (Medoc); Chateau Fleur de Rigaud (Bordeaux Superieur); Chateau Rilet Rouge (Fronsac), Chateau St. Andre Corbin, St. Andre Corbin, St. Georges St. Emilion; Chateau Larose de Gruard, St. Julien (formerly Sarget de Gruard-Larose and second wine of Chateau Guard-Larose); Chateau d'Aggassac (Haut Medoc); and Chateau Pibran (Paulliac).

Here are some other regions worth exploring. Pessac-Leognan in the Graves has to be at the top of the list. Also, venture into some smaller or lesser known appellations such as Haut Medoc, Listrac, Moulis, and Fronsac where good value can be found.

For most of us, it is impractical to attempt mastering a large region such as Bordeaux. The good news is that we do not have to. The fun is always in the adventure.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Olive Oil Line-up: Gregory Peck, Halle Berry, Audrey Hepburn.....

Along with Florence Devilliers, Le Lavandou Restaurant, Tony Quinn, Cleveland Park Wines, and Antoine Songy, Robert Kacher Selections, I cordially invite you to taste, learn and shop the wines from the South of France, olive oils from around the world and food of the Mediterranean. Chef Edith Reyes is preparing a fabulous menu of tasty treats to showcase the olive oils and wines. Wine and olive oils will also be available to purchase for your holiday gift giving.

Costs: $45 (tax and gratuity included). RSVP at (202) 966-3002, (202) 966-8530 or by email: or

Location: Le Lavandou Restaurant, 3321 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington, DC 20008 (Cleveland Park-across from the Uptown Theatre)

Here's the line-up of magnificent Extra Virgin olive oils that we will be tasting. To help describe the flavor and style profile metaphorically, each olive oil is compared with a famous celebrity.

  • Olave Organic (Chile) This olive oil producer is blending Italian and Spanish cultivars (varietals) and challenging the old world with price and quality much like the wines of South America. This might well be described as the Halle Berry, lovely texture and gorgeous with a little spice.
  • Colonna (Italy) Produced by the Countess Marina Colonna near Rome is the Audrey Hepburn with its undeniable grace, elegance and class. Say no more!
  • L'Estornell Organic (Spain) The Vea family standard bearer from Northwest Spain in Catalonia is produced 100% from the Arbequina cultivar. I refer to this olive oil as the Jennifer Aniston and Adam Sadler, charming, popular with hints of nuttiness.
  • Castelas Organic (France) Jean-Benoit Hugues produces a robust, high phenolic (the super healthy stuff) oil from traditional French varieties in the foothills below the beautiful village of Les Baux in Provence. This is genuine Clint Eastwood, explosive and in your face, but polished.
  • Ravida Organic (Sicily) The Ravida family traditionally produces one of the finest olive oils in Italy. This has been my desert island oil for over ten years and can best be described by no other than Gregory Peck, manly, suave, debonair, and always gives a stellar performance.
Please join us Sunday for a fun afternoon of olive oil, wine and food. Happy Holidays!