Wednesday, March 4, 2009

South Beach Wine & Food Festival - Grand Tasting

The primary focus of the South Beach Wine & Food Festival is the Grand Tasting Village - located directly on the sands of South Beach. The village is split into two sections; the bow contained the seminar tents, sponsor tents, and this year a Wines of Spain display, whereas the stern consisted of two large tasting tents. In previous years we had spent the large proportion of our time in the tasting section; this year we decided to actually attend a few seminars and browse the sponsor tents.

We loitered in the Delta Airlines tent for awhile where they not only served excellent wines (Don David Torrontos), but we learned that the airline uses an elaborate system to select wines for their BusinessElite® customers. In house sommelier, Andrea Robinson, accumulates over 80 wines that met a strict criteria of outstanding flavor, brand recognition, diversity and destination connection, as well as ease of serving in flight. She then tasted the wines at 30,000 feet; apparently the structure of wines can change at high altitudes. Ms. Robinson then selects a final array of wines from those that passed the "flight" test. She will also hold "wine culture" seminars for flight attendants that will "enhance the personalized service they provide to Delta customers." We may have to consider Delta for our next international travel.

Back to the festival, on Saturday we saw Ingrid Hoffmann strolling the sands without the standard entourage that usually swarms around a Food Network personality. She cheerfully greeted attendees posing for snapshots all the while reminding people the time for her seminar. She became an instant favorite - no pretentiousness - she could have been just another party goer. But after watching a few seminars, our favorite Food network personalities were easily the Neelys. As with Ms. Hoffmann, they also fit naturally into the environment and had a playful relationship. Plus they were preparing mac and cheese keeping it simple.

The Wines of Spain was a somewhat obvious choice for a special tent, not only from Miami's Spanish background but also because of the rising status of their wines. There were over two dozen vendors, so too many wines to taste in one setting. Thus we stuck to cava and the sherry - being poured directly from the barrel. We are neophytes regarding sherry so this was a nice education, learning about the Solera process in the Cardenal Mendoza as well as the history of the product.

But of course, throughout the day the tasting tents were a constant magnet and eventually we succumbed. The South Beach festival has the largest assortment of spirits of its kind so this year we planned to keep to that genre. We eventually tasted a few wines that caught our attention, but in general we stuck to the vodka, gin, brandy, cachaca, and rum. And was there rum. Many of our favorites that we have discussed previously were on hand (Vizcaya, Diplomatico, and Ron Barcelo); but within a few yards of the first tent we struck gold. Gold as in the Ron Zacapa Centonario (23 years) - perhaps the best rum ever produced (At least in our estimation). And according to Robert Pallone, the resident Rum Ambassador "it's won so many tasting competitions that it's actually been retired." This rum is made from the juices from the first press of sugar cane, like a rhum agricole, and distilled in the high mountains of Guatemala of Quetzaltenango. The rum is aged white oak casks using the "solera" method the same method as sherry. Basically the angels share lost through evaporation is replaced with rum that was casked the following year. We also tried a couple new rums that are worth naming: Ron Atlantico, Angostura and Ron Botran. There was also a Thai rum, the Mekhong, named after that country's national river. "The amber colored liquid is the result of a unique combination of an age-old distillation process followed by the artful blending of this quality spirit with a unique (and secret) recipe of indigenous herbs and spices that brings out its classic taste." The spices provide enough variety to make this an interesting drink neat - but they advertise it more as a mixer. These last rums were nice, but after drinking Ron Zacapa, Vizcaya, Diplomatico, and Ron Barcelo; there was no more room at the top. Sorry.

The newest novelty and perhaps the most popular vendor was the LIQ Frozen Cocktails. Yes frozen strawberry daiquiris and margaritas on a Popsicle stick - made with real rum and tequila. Our first question was "How do you get the alcohol to freeze"? Well, they employ a proprietary system that somehow freezes alcohol. The pops are 100% pure ingredients, the strawberry daiquiri includes real strawberries that melt with the Popsicle. And tasty. The company has even planned how to get the product into retail outlets that normally don't have freezers. They provide their own. This is one product that fits with south Florida - if they only sold it on the beach.

We also re-tasted several spirits that we discovered at last year's New York City Food & Wine Festival. The Castries Peanut Rum tasted as good in South Beach as well as it did in New York. The same holds with the Whitley Neill Gin. One of our favorite creme liquors, Amarula - made from the African Marula fruit was also on hand. Whiskeys were represented by Evan Williams bourbon and Glenrothes scotch. There were several new products we liked. Our favorite vodka was the Polish Sobieski Vodka - named after King Jan III Sobieski. The brand was launched by Imperial Brands only two years ago and is already the world’s #7 best selling international vodka. In its first year the vodka was awarded a Gold Medal and the "Best Buy" award by the Beverage Testing Institute (BTI), and was ranked the #1 premium vodka and #2 overall in a random blind-tasting of 108 vodkas, the largest review of vodkas in its history, that included extravagantly priced super-premium brands. The last sentence is important because a bottle retails for approximately $11. What a bargain. We also learned about cognacs from the House of Hines - particularly that cognac shouldn't have the harsh bite that we normally experience in the states. In fact, many of cognac brands are specifically made in this style and targeted to certain communities. Not Hines. Their brandy has been produced in the Cognac region for over 250 years and meet the strenuous legal requirements in order to bear the name, Cognac. Its smooth finish was enough of a raw to keep us coming back.

We did sample a few wines. The first set of wines we tasted were from the Finger Lakes' Heron Hill Vineyards. We had to support east coast wineries. They were pouring two nice Riesling styles a dry and semi-dry. Can't go wrong with that. The other set of wines we tasted were from the Greek and Cyprus alliance booth. How could we pass on wines made from regions with centuries of wine making experience. We learned that the oldest named wine in the world, the Commandaria, has been produced in Cyprus since 1,000 B.C. Today there are 15 indigenous grape varieties found on the island. We started with the Greek wines and loved the Assyrtiko - a white wine grape indigenous to the island of Santorini. There were also two exceptional reds. The Megapanos Namea made from the Agiorgitiko grape, but named after Nemea region of the Peloponnese and the Pavlou Winery Xynomavro, produced in northern Greece. Moving two the Cyprus wines, they actually had a version of the ancient Commandaria, the St. Nicholas from Etkos Winery. This dessert wine is made from the ancient Mavro and Xynisteri grapes that are spread out to dry in the sun, then pressed. The juice is collected and fermented in old, very large wooden barrels. The result is a sherry like substance with caramel flavors without the fortification. A nice dessert wine. Its companion is the Centurion - made in the same style just aged longer (at least 30 years). This is a potent wine, once again not fortified but with a deeper richer dark raisin \fig flavor. The downside - $130. Our budget favors the Commandaria ($20); but our tastes the Centurion.

The food served in the tasting tents was also outstanding. Each day, the Puerto Rico booth prepared outstanding dishes. We also enjoyed grabbing a Agua Luca cachaca and pairing with guacamole from Rosa Mexicana. The most entertaining chef was Eric Grutka from Jensen Beach's Ian's Tropical Grill, who used a hand held propane tank to sear pork bellies. There was plenty of other food that made this an overwhelming success. Representatives of the Washington D.C. Food & Wine Expo should take notes - the SOBE Wine & Food Festival is a real Food & Wine event.

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