Monthly Archives: April 2013

Barren-Ground Caribou Bull

Barren-ground caribou bull (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus)

I took this image of a barren-ground caribou bull (Rangifer tarandus groenlandicus) during my trip to Canada’s arctic territory of Nunavut (by the way, I have published other photographs from that trip on this and this previous posts).

This bull was strutting on a Nunavut beach, stomping its hooves on a layer of dried sea weed that the high tide had left behind and in so doing the animal was making literally hundreds of black flies come out of those sea weed for the joy of both the caribou and… the photographer! Whenever the wind dies down in the tundra, black flies and mosquitoes fill the air and become a major nuisance. This image was taken in the summer, when caribou shed their winter fur and leave patches of skin exposed to mosquito or black fly bites.

Anyway, to me the key points in this image are the position of the caribou, with two raised legs to convey a sense of motion, and the graphic four-layer background, which appears to be interestingly divided into four bands of brown, yellow, green and cyan.

If you would like to see more images of mine, feel free to browse my Galleries.

As per my copyright notice, please respect my work and do not download, reproduce or use the image above without first seeking my consent. Thank you :-)

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Wine Review: Donnafugat​a, Contessa Entellina Bianco “Chiarandà” 2009 DOC

Donnafugata, Contessa Entellina Bianco "Chiarandà" 2009 DOCOn a previous post over at Flora’s Table, we have talked about how Chardonnay is successfully grown in various regions throughout Italy, literally from Valle d’Aosta in the north to Sicily in the south, and how several Italian wineries make some excellent wines from such a widely cultivated international variety.

Very broadly speaking, I have to say I rather review and promote wines made out of Italian indigenous grape varieties, essentially because they differentiate themselves from the ubiquitous international varieties, because there are many excellent ones and because, by so doing, I think I am giving my small contribution to preserve biodiversity also in the vineyard (a wine world populated only by Chardonnays, Sauvignons, Pinots and Merlots would be a pretty boring one, if you ask me!) and to make certain Italian wines better known outside of Italy.

However, it is undeniable that certain international varieties have been successfully grown in Italy and that excellent, elegant wines are made out of such grapes which oftentimes are not very well known to the general public.

So today’s review is of a Sicilian Chardonnay that I very much like and that illustrates the point that Chardonnay is an extremely versatile variety that can give excellent results even in warmer climates like Sicily’s.

The wine I am talking about is Donnafugata‘s Contessa Entellina Bianco “Chiarandà” DOC 2009 ($35).

The Bottom Line

Overall, I very much enjoyed the Chiarandà, which I found to be a very elegant and “clean” Chardonnay, in which its oaky notes are not dominant but rather very well integrated such that they add to (instead of overwhelm) its pleasantly fruity and mineral flavor palette.

Rating: Very Good and definitely Recommended Very Good – $$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

About the Producer and the Wine

Founded in 1983, Donnafugata is one of the top Sicilian wineries that contributed to the “Sicilian wine revolution” by contributing passion, investments and professionalism to raise the profile of Sicilian winemaking and produce top quality wines.

Their Chiarandà is a 100% Chardonnay wine made from the grapes grown in Donnafugata’s vineyards in a hilly region of the Contessa Entellina DOC appellation near the homonymous town (about halfway between Marsala and Palermo), in the western part of Sicily, at an altitude between 200 and 600 mt (650 to 1,950 ft) above sea level. The vineyards from which Chiarandà is made achieve an excellent density of 4,500 to 6,000 vines/HA and the vine training system used is spurred cordon.

The wine has 13% ABV and is fermented in stainless steel vats and then undergoes 6 months of aging on its lees in a mix of concrete and oak vessels of various sizes plus 24 additional months of in-bottle fining. Given its lively acidity (see, tasting notes below) it is a wine with great aging potential, in the 10 year range. In the US, the Chiarandà retails for about $35.

Our Detailed Review

Let’s now get down to the actual review of the 2009 Chiarandà that I had. As usual, I will use a simplified version of the ISA wine tasting protocol that we described in a previous post: should you have doubts as to any of the terms used below please refer to that post for a refresher.

In the glass, it is a beautiful golden yellow in color, and thick when swirled.

On the nose, its bouquet is intense, fine and definitely complex, with an array of enticing aromas of peach, tangerine, butter, vanilla, herbs (sage), mineral and iodine notes.

In the mouth, the wine is dry, warm, smooth; with lively acidity and pronounced minerality. It is medium to full-bodied with good structure and very balanced, with intense and fine mouth flavors reminiscent of its aromatic palette and a long finish, with those flavors pleasantly lingering in the mouth long after gulping down a sip. Its evolutionary state was ready (meaning, fine to drink now, but can take two or three more years of aging without compromising its qualities).

As usual, if you have tasted Chiarandà before, let me know how you liked it.

The Long and Winding Road

Cabin in the tundra

I took this image at sunset on a stormy day in Canada’s northern territory of Nunavut, in the Canadian Arctic. On that huge expanse of barren flatland, most houses are built on short stilts because of permafrost that makes it virtually impossible to dig deep enough to lay a proper foundation.

The vast majority of the about 31,000 people living in Nunavut are Inuit (about 26,000 or 85%). Inuit are one of the three groups of Aboriginal people who live in the Canadian Arctic (the other two groups being First Nations and Métis): Inuit speak a language called Inuktitut (Nunavut and Inuit are two Inuktitut words respectively meaning “our land” and “the people“) and some of them also speak English. If you venture out of the just 26 communities where most of Nunavut’s Inuit live in that immense territory of almost 2 million square kilometers (about 772,000 sqm), it is not unusual to see isolated cabins such as the one in the image above that Inuit use mostly as a base for hunting.

That day, when I realized that the setting sun was about to briefly peek out of the thick stormy cloud cover, I quickly set up my camera and tripod and framed that dramatic sunset using the winding dirt road created by the wheels of the there ubiquitous quads as an element of the composition leading to the cabin that I placed in one of the rule of thirds “power points” to add an element of interest to what would otherwise have been a flat, static composition.

This image brings to my mind the lyrics of the famous Beatles’ song:

The long and winding road that leads to your door
Will never disappear
I’ve seen that road before it always leads me here
Leads me to your door

If you would like to see more images of mine, feel free to browse my Galleries.

As per my copyright notice, please respect my work and do not download, reproduce or use the image above without first seeking my consent. Thank you :-)

Wine Review: Two Italian Dry Rieslings Made by Elena Walch and Abbazia di Novacella

I am writing this review with some trepidation as I know that most likely it will be read by fellow wine blogger and friend Oliver who authors the very enjoyable and educational blog The Winegetter (if you do not follow him already, I sure think you should!) and, most importantly, is definitely an authority when it comes to Rieslings! I think I know that his preference goes to German sweeter Rieslings, while the two wines that I am going to review today are both Italian dry Rieslings from the Alto Adige area of the Trentino Alto Adige region.

And now on to the reviews of the two wines that I tried. As usual, I will use a simplified version of the ISA wine tasting protocol that we described in a previous post: should you have doubts as to any of the terms used below please refer to that post for a refresher.

1. Elena Walch, Alto Adige Riesling “Castel Ringberg” 2010 DOC (12.5% ABV; ab. €15 in Italy)

Elena Walch, Alto Adige Riesling "Castel Ringberg" 2010 DOCElena Walch is one of my favorite producers of white wines from Alto Adige and, let me say it upfront, her Castel Ringberg did not disappoint me!

This is a single vineyard wine made of 100% Riesling grapes grown in the Castel Ringberg vineyard near the town of Caldaro. It was fermented and rested on its lees exclusively in stainless steel tanks. Unfortunately, although other Elena Walch’s wines are available in the US, this wine does not appear to be, which is a shame.

In the glass, the wine was straw yellow and quite thick.

On the nose, its bouquet was intense, complex and fine, with pleasant aromas of petrol (very discernible), followed by grapefruit, citrus, pear, minerals and herbs.

In the mouth, it was dry, quite warm, smooth; fresh and tasty, with medium body. The wine was balanced, with intense and fine mouth flavors that trailed the wine’s bouquet. It had a long finish and it was ready in terms of its evolutionary state.

Overall, a very pleasant, fresh dry Riesling with a captivating bouquet.

Rating: Very Good Very Good – €

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

2. Abbazia di Novacella, Alto Adige Valle Isarco Riesling “Praepositus” 2009 DOC (13% ABV; ab. $35 in the US)

Abbazia di Novacella, Alto Adige Valle Isarco Riesling "Praepositus" 2009 DOCThis wine is part of Abbazia di Novacella’s premium line “Praepositus”. It is made of 100% Riesling grapes, grown in vineyards with an outstanding density of 6,000 vines/HA and harvested for 2/3 in October and 1/3 in December (late harvest). It was fermented in stainless steel vats and aged in bottle for 9 months before being released to the market.

In the glass, the wine was straw yellow with greenish hints, quite thick.

On the nose, its bouquet was intense, quite complex and fine, with aromas of petroleum, grapefruit, lime and Granny Smith apple.

In the mouth, it was dry, quite warm, quite smooth; fresh and tasty, medium-bodied. The wine was balanced, with intense and fine mouth flavors. It had a long finish and was ready as to its evolutionary state.

Overall, another very pleasant dry Riesling, although it personally impressed me a touch less than the Castel Ringberg, especially due to its narrower bouquet.

Rating: Good to Very Good Good to Very Good – $$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

At any rate, two Italian dry Rieslings that I would certainly recommend and that I am pretty sure would not disappoint you.

That’s all for today! As always, if you have tasted either one (or both!) of these wines, make sure to share your thoughts by leaving a comment below!

A Food Photography Primer

Over time, a few readers over at Flora’s Table who seem to have been enjoying the food images that I make and publish in that blog have been asking that I write a post with a few pointers about food photography: today is the day for that. Bear in mind that what follows is not intended to be a comprehensive course on food photography, but just a reflection on some basic rules of photography that play an important role in making a good food photograph.

There is no magic, food is just one of the subjects of studio photography and food photography is still photography, so the same basic principles apply. As such, there are three main guiding criteria that everyone with an interest in food photography should focus on:

1. Composition
2. Lighting
3. Post-Processing

Let’s take a closer look at each of them.

1. Composition

Composition is an element that can literally make or break a photograph. A successful image, including one of a food item, needs to have a strong, clean, balanced composition or it will look flat and boring at best. Here are a few pointers as to how to tackle this aspect:

  • Devise a plan before your shoot: pre-visualize how you would like your image to look like and figure out what you need to accomplish your vision (in terms of props, lighting, background and focal length of your lens)
  • Set up well ahead of time, when you have no time pressure: the shoot should be set up according to your plan and your vision, with everything in place except the food you are going to photograph. Take a few test shots in the same light that you would use for the real thing and see how your image looks like through the lens you chose. Use this opportunity to find out what does not work and to move things around or change camera/lighting settings until you achieve a pleasing composition that conveys your vision. Add the actual food item to be photographed only when you are all set and ready to go, so when you photograph it, it is going to be perfectly fresh, in top condition
  • Although composition is subjective and should convey your own vision, there are a few “rules” that will generally make your image a stronger one, including the following:
    • Less is more: keep your composition clean and simple;
    • Compose in such a way that the main subject of your image is immediately obvious to everyone;
    • Avoid blank space near the edges of your frame: make sure that your subject and other meaningful elements of your composition fill the frame in a balanced and pleasing way, making sure that you have a strong foreground, middle ground and background in your image;
    • Very rarely does a subject that is in the smack center of your image look good (unless you are going for an extreme close-up where your subject fills the entire frame): try to create some more dynamism by for instance resorting to the rule of thirds, that is placing your main subject off center, near one of the corners of your frame, or positioning important elements in the frame along an imaginary diagonal line;
    • Know your camera’s commands well and select a focal length and an aperture suitable for what you are trying to accomplish: do you want to achieve a compressed look with quite shallow a depth of field? Select a telephoto lens. Do you want to place a strong subject in the immediate foreground in the context of a wider scene with greater depth of field and a clearer sense of depth? Go for a wide angle lens. Do you want more depth of field? Select a smaller aperture (bigger f/stop number). Do you want only a narrow area in your image to be in sharp focus with the remainder being rendered as a soft blur? Pick a large aperture (smaller f/stop number). Every tool (i.e., your lenses) should be used for the purpose it is intended for and ultimately to realize your vision.

2. Lighting

Lighting is the essence of photography (the very word “photography” comes from Greek and means “writing with light“) and yet it is an often overlooked component in a photograph. Almost never will a photograph taken in bad light look good. Once again, here are a few things to bear in mind while you are planning for your shoot:

  • If you want to photograph using natural light, never set up in direct sunlight (you would end up with harsh, unattractive contrast) – prefer the light of an overcast day or light coming from a northern facing window or skylight, but be prepared to supplement it with some extra light source so as to avoid that the image looks too flat – also, be ready to use a tripod (especially if youintend to use a smaller aperture) as your shutter speed will likely be fairly slow, unless you crank up the ISO which however may end up in a noisy (as in, grainy) image
  • Stay away at all costs from your camera’s pop-up flash and never place a flash head directly onto your camera’s hot shoe as this arrangement would give you flat, unattractive front light: remember, photography (like painting) is the art of creating the illusion of a 3D object in a 2D medium, and the key to achieve that is creating visible, pleasing shadows in your image
  • In order to create visible shadows you need to ensure that your main light source (AKA your key light) is off axis with your camera: side lighting and backlighting are both effective ways to create shadows
  • Generally, in food photography you want to achieve soft shadows and stay away from harsh, unpleasant shadows. The way to do this is to use a large light source or, if you don’t have one, to make your light source as big as you can: remember, the bigger the light source, the softer the shadows it will cast. This is why photographing food (or making people portraits) in natural light on an overcast day is something appropriate: thanks to the cloud cover, the sky turns into a gigantic source of diffused, soft light. In the studio, soft light can be achieved in several ways: by using a light modifier, such as a soft box (essentially, a big diffuser) or an umbrella (a reflector) or (assuming you have white walls and ceiling) by bouncing the light of your flash head off a wall or the ceiling
  • If you need to open up a bit the shadows that you have created, so as to reduce the contrast and provide more detail in the parts of your image that are in the shadow, you should use a fill light, which is another light source coming from a different direction and with a lesser intensity than your key light (you don’t want to obliterate your shadows altogether, you only want to make them lighter): a second flash head at a weaker setting or a reflector that bounces some of the light coming from your key light back into the scene are both good solutions to achieve this (tip: some aluminum kitchen foil crumbled and then flattened out works fairly well as an improvised silver reflector)

3. Post-Processing

Neither in the “good ol’ days” of film-based photography nor in nowadays digital photography world will a great image come straight out of the camera. While the old GIGO rule still applies (Garbage In, Garbage Out – meaning, if you start out with a bad image, it will be very difficult that you may turn it into a good one in post-processing alone), even a very solid image out of the camera will require some extent of post processing to become a great photograph. A few tips:

  • Shoot RAW, not Jpeg: by shooting RAW you will retain the maximum flexibility on your files and will not have to live with choices irreversibly made by the camera – the possibility of changing your white balance into whatever light temperature you desire is by itself totally worth the choice of shooting RAW instead of Jpeg
  • Learn how to use at least the basic features of Photoshop (or whatever other image editing software of your choice): at a minimum, learn how to crop your image (should you need to); how to work with levels and curves and with the dodge/burn tool to control contrast and exposure; how to use the saturation and color balance commands to control color; how to effectively sharpen an image; and finally how to work with layers so every change you make can be reversed at a later time if need be
  • Generally, be subtle with your changes and only aim them at optimizing your image so as to extract all of its potential from that digital file and turn a good image into a great one.

That’s it! I hope the above may be of help or inspiration to some of you to push the envelope a little bit and try to apply all or some of the above tips to your own food photography and see what comes out of it. And especially, have fun in the process and experiment!

If you are interested in seeing more of my food images, feel free to check out my photography Web site.

Bighorn Sheep Portrait

Bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis)

I have uploaded a new gallery to my Web site with a selection of my bighorn sheep (Ovis canadensis) images taken in Canada’s Jasper National Park: feel free to go take a look if you feel like it.

The image above is a sample from that gallery: a few hours “invested” following a herd of bighorn sheep during their grazing rewarded me with a few photographs that I am happy with. This one is a head shot of a beautiful individual who let me approach at a safe but relatively close distance. I am fond of this image because I think it shows the character of these animals, highlighting their most distinctive feature: those majestic, weathered, curled horns in a graphic way, while the soft, diffused light of an overcast day limits contrast and allows viewers to see every detail of the subject’s face.

The gallery contains a collection of different images, some of which will be the subjects of future posts because they are interesting behavioral shots of these animals.

if you have the opportunity to check them out, let me know what your favorite ones are!

If you would like to see more images of mine, feel free to browse my Galleries.

As per my copyright notice, please respect my work and do not download, reproduce or use the image above without first seeking my consent. Thank you :-)

Wine Review: Tenuta San Guido, Bolgheri Sassicaia 1995 DOC… and the History of “Super Tuscans”

Tenuta San Guido, Bolgheri Sassicaia DOCLast month, a friend of mine invited me and a common friend to dinner at his place. At the time of the main course, he showed us what he had decided to share with us: not only was it a bottle of Sassicaia, but it was a 1995 vintage!

The Bottom Line

Tenuta San GuidoBolgheri Sassicaia “Sassicaia” 1995 DOC ($150): let me say it right from the outset – WOW! Although I had had Sassicaia before, having the opportunity to taste a bottle having 18 years of in-bottle aging under the belt was beyond fantastic.

Rating for this excellent wine: Spectacular Spectacular – $$$$$

(Explanation of our Rating and Pricing Systems)

Before we get into the details of that almost mystic 🙂 experience, let’s take a closer look at the notion of “Super Tuscans” and let’s delve into some history about the archetype of all Super Tuscans, that is in fact Sassicaia.

History of the “Super Tuscans”

If you pardon my quoting my own Wine Glossary, the term “Super Tuscans” indicates certain Bordeaux-style red wines that have been made in Tuscany, since the early Seventies by winemakers who wanted to experiment and veer off traditional Tuscan winemaking styles, often utilizing international grape varieties (such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah) as opposed to traditional local ones (such as Sangiovese). In order to enjoy such freedom to experiment, those winemakers produced their Super Tuscans outside the strict rules of the most prestigious Italian appellations (DOC and, more recently, DOCG), which resulted in those premium wines to be initially labeled as “table wines” and more recently as IGT wines (a more loosely regulated Italian appellation) in spite of their quality and substantial price tags. The “grandfather” of the Super Tuscans is Sassicaia, whose notoriety and quality led to the creation in 1994 of the DOC Bolgheri which includes a Sassicaia sub-zone, thus making Sassicaia the first Super Tuscan to enjoy DOC appellation status.

Although it appears that nobody knows for sure who coined the incredibly successful moniker “Super Tuscans“, some believe that it was created by Burton Anderson, a wine reviewer who covered Italy for Wine Spectator in the 1980s. What is certain though is that it very quickly became the name by which that kind of wines were internationally identified.

As we said, the wine that started the Super Tuscans phenomenon was Sassicaia. This fabled wine was created by the Marquis Mario Incisa della Rocchetta, who first completed his agrarian studies in Pisa in the Twenties and then, thanks to his being a family friend of the Baron de Rothschild (the owner of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, one of Bordeaux’s Premier Crus), he had an opportunity to visit the famous estate and study the terroir where the grape vines that produced one of the world’s finest reds grew. Incisa then went on to acquire a few rootings of 50-year-old Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc vines from an estate near Pisa owned by the Dukes Salviati to transplant them in 1942 at the family’s San Guido estate in Bolgheri, Tuscany.

His decision to transplant those vines in an area of Tuscany that up until then had never known any serious viticulture was due to the resemblance of the soil of that area (“Sassicaia” alludes to the Italian word “sasso” meaning stone, and seems to refer to a pebbled terrain) with that of the Graves (which in French means gravel) on the Left Bank of the Garonne river near Bordeaux, where another Premier Cru, Chateau Haut-Brion, is located.

At first, Sassicaia had not enthused the Marquis (nor his employees working the vineyards, who supposedly called the wine, with typical Tuscan coarseness, “good only for the pigs“): this convinced Incisa to keep the first “experimental” vintages of the wine for personal consumption only. However, Incisa soon realized that, after a few years of aging, that same wine that had not convinced him initially would turn into a much better wine.

This realization gave him the incentive to keep at it, making several improvements, including being the first one to import small barrique oak barrels into Italy for aging Sassicaia and cutting a deal with wine producer Antinori (Piero Antinori was Incisa’s nephew) for the future distribution of Sassicaia, as a result of which arrangements Antinori sent their well-known enologist Giacomo Tachis to the San Guido estate to work on Sassicaia. Tachis refined the blend, the wine making process and the cellaring of the wine until, in 1968, the first “official” vintage of Sassicaia hit the market with just 3,000 bottles and initially it did not really rock the wine world…

The turning point was 1974, when Luigi Veronelli, a famous Italian food and wine writer, published a rave review of the 1968 Sassicaia. International acclaim for Sassicaia came not long after that, in 1978, when during a worldwide blind tasting of 33 Cabernet Sauvignon-based wines organized in London by Decanter Magazine, the 1975 Sassicaia took the top spot, ahead of all the prestigious Bordeaux reds, thus marking the beginning of the Sassicaia success story. Later, Robert Parker awarded Sassicaia’s 1985 vintage (universally considered the best yet) a perfect 100 point score and James Suckling of Wine Spectator even compared it to the 1985 Mouton-Rothschild, admitting Sassicaia into the Olympus of the world’s best wines.

(Credits for most of the information that I researched as a basis for this Sassicaia history: Decanter; L’Acqua Buona; Sassicaia.it; and Sassicaia.com)

About the Estate, the Appellation and the Producer

For detailed information about Tenuta San Guido and the “Bolgheri Sassicaia” appellation, please refer to this post.

I would definitely recommend that you also check out this other post featuring an interesting interview with the owner of Tenuta San Guido, Marchese Nicolo’ Incisa della Rocchetta.

Our Detailed Review

Now, on to my tasting notes for the Sassicaia 1995 that I had the pleasure of drinking! Considering the high profile of this wine, I am going to follow all of the steps of the ISA wine tasting protocol in my review (for more information, see my previous post about such protocol and its various steps).

Tenuta San Guido, Bolgheri Sassicaia “Sassicaia” 1995 DOC is a blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc, with just 12% ABV. It underwent between 14 and 18 days of maceration and malolactic fermentation. It aged 24 months in barrique casks, part new and part previously utilized. The Sassicaia 1995 vintage retails in the US at about $150.

For more information about the grape varieties Sassicaia is made from, please refer to our Grape Variety Archive.

In the glass it was clear, ruby red with garnet hints, thick.

The bouquet was intense, complex and fine, with aromas of black cherry, blackberry, sweet tobacco, cocoa, vanilla, soil and a graphite hint.

In the mouth it was dry, warm, silky smooth; quite fresh, gently tannic, quite mineral; medium-bodied, perfectly balanced, intense in its mouth flavors (with very good correlation to the bouquet), with a long finish, of excellent quality; mature and definitely harmonious.