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Green harvest.

Grapes have been used in cooking for thousands of years, as wine, vinegar, and unfermented juice known as verjus. Grapes that never achieved full maturity were used in condiments and marinades. Though it is often referred to as an ingredient of Medieval times, verjus was used in recipes dating back to 71 A.D. Roman cooking included three different types of grape juice; a fresh pressed grape juice was concentrated by cooking it down to a syrup and using it to sweeten food; this later evolved into balsamic vinegar. Fermented wine was used as well as the unripe, sour juice acresta, meaning acrid. As the Romans made their way north, grape growing spread across Europe, and by 300 A.D., the use of fermented and unfermented juice in recipes was a common practice. During this time, Dijon became a big mustard capital because of the vineyards and sour grape juice in Burgundy. Mustard literally translates to "must," which is unfermented grape juice and "ard" comes from the Latin word for "spicy" or "fiery. "The culinar y world was silenced by the Dark Ages, and it would be 500 years before the Medieval period would rejuvenate the way people prepared food. A common practice of the time was to soak a piece of stale bread in verjus and then use that to thicken a stew. One of the first gazpacho recipes consisted of almond meal, sour grape juice, and breadcrumbs, a dish still served in Spanish restaurants. Though very tart, verjus's undeniable fruitiness makes it a far cry from vinegar, and its acidity prevents it from having a wine-y, alcohol quality. Unlike vinegar it lacks acetic acid, which causes vinegar to clash with wine pairings. Verjus is a staple of most wine growing regions. French and American verjus are popular, but very different. In general, French verjus is described as brighter or acidic in flavor, while American verjus tends to have a green apple acidity, showing more fruit. Verjus is still used as a traditional ingredient in the kitchen; however, there is a wider variety available produced in vineyards from Or egon to Massachusetts and from New York to France.

Bernard Lafon runs his French company Oh! Legumes Oublies from Domaine de Belloc, a 16th century farmhouse. His Perigorad verjus, a favorite of Chef David Feau of Lutece, is one of the many products that exemplifies his dedication to the revival of culinary traditions. Located in Bordeaux, the forty-four acre farm specializes in "forgotten vegetables" and other antiquities, including verjus. Just a stone's throw north of Manhattan, Roman Roth of Wolffer Estates on Long Island makes verjus from Chardonnay grapes. David Page of restaurant Home, himself a Long Island vintner, employs the Wolffer verjus for brines, vinaigrettes, sauces, and ceviche.

Perhaps the best known verjus is produced by the California-based Fusion Foods, which originated as the co-op project of Chef Jim Neal with support from Charles Krug Winery and Duckhorn Vineyards. The company was formed in 1994 by Chef Neal, who first learned of verjus from teacher Madeleine Kamman at Beringer Vineyard's School For American Chefs in 1990. "She used to make it when she was a kid," Neal recalls of Kamman's lecture. "They used to put some kind of high-proof alcohol to stabilize it so it wouldn't ferment." Years later, Neal was working at Stars in the Napa Valley when it closed. "I was kind of burned out on the restaurant scene," he recalls. "I've always been real interested in wine so I decided to take a job with my friend David Abreu who was a vineyard manager. I worked with his crew for the summer; it was really hard work but a great experience. One of the things we did was thin the crops for some of the high-end Cabernet producers like Staglin, Arroyo, and Harlan. We were dropping like ten t o twenty tons of grapes on the ground--in one vineyard. And, I thought, 'This is what they make verjus with; I can start doing that.' So, I told David that I had an idea for it and he said if I could figure out how to make it, 'I'll give you some grapes to try.' So, that's what I did. He started with a small batch of about one ton and some of the bigger guys around here heard about it and were interested." In that same year, 1994, his fledgling verjus company Fusion Foods, with the backing of a few neighboring wineries, was formed. The vintners, who hated to see valuable grapes go to waste, loved the idea, but would the culinary world? "One of Madeline Kamman's favorite students was Gary Danko," Neal remembers of his first chef supporter. "So, as soon as I had bottled my little batch of verjus I took some to Gary and he really liked it. He used it in New York at a food writers' lunch which was featuring new ingredients and things took off pretty fast." Wolfgang Puck soon became a fan. "I had worked for him a long time ago, and he started buying my verjus as soon as I made it. He was the one who requested the red verjus he had when he was a kid in Austria." Because the red grapes have not completely developed and there is no fermentation involved in the production, red verjus contains no tannins. A small percentage of Alicante Bouschet juice, one of the Chateauneuf-du-Pape varietals, is often added for its ability to impart a deep red color. Today, Neal owns the company outright and continues to produce both white and red verjus styles.

The grapes he uses vary from year to year, depending on the quality. "A good fruit source for me has been really good vineyards that are thinning their crop. I pay for the thinning process, and instead of just dropping the fruit on the ground, the guys put the grapes in picking bins," Neal explains. "This year I got my grapes during the last week of August." Often, the thinning process occurs when each grower deems fit. "A lot of people have different ideas about when to do it," explains Neal. "Some think it's best to do it as soon as the crop comes in and begins to look over-heavy. Other guys wait until the very end of the season because they feel the stress that the vine goes through is beneficial to the end fruits. So they'll stress the vine by having more fruit on it." The grapes are considered "green" or immature until they reach a point in the growing season known as verasion. At that point, they start to develop color and soften. The juice that is extracted from these grapes lacks any distinguishing c haracteristics other than the desired acidity and tartness. Of the many grapes Neal has used, Riesling grapes show some varietal characteristics and Merlot grapes have a slightly more herbaceous, green-pepper aroma, The sugar content is a mere 10-12[degrees] Brix, less than half its preferred sugar content for wine production. "This year I used Chardonnay, Sangiovese, and Dolcetto grapes." Most of the growers who thin their crop grow Cabernet and Merlot and other Bordeaux varieties. But Neal also uses Chardonnay, Riesling, Viognier, and Sangiovese, making verjus is similar to making wine, except juice is not fermented.

For Neal, the process begins once the grapes are picked. The grapes are then trucked to a crush facility. Whole clusters go into a press in which the juice is extracted and pumped into a big stainless steel tank. After resting for a day or two, much of the sediment in the juice falls to the bottom of the tank. The juice is then filtered through a mix of diatomaceous (mineral rich) earth and a filter pad. Though the juice has been clarified for the most part, it is still considered unstable. "The juice contains 10-12% sugar and it has to be packaged in a way that keeps any yeast out of the bottle or it will begin to ferment," Neal explains. To do this, he uses an aseptic bottling process, which is not only safe but gentle and exposes the juice to high temps for a few seconds to kill any wild yeast present. The juice is packaged in a sterile environment. The grapes go from vine to container in about four days according to Neal's estimate. Verjus doesn't benefit from any aging or wood exposure as wine does. The key with verjus is its acidity, which is at its best when fresh. Like wine, it will oxidize, so proper storage and minimum exposure to air or light, will ensure its quality.
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Title Annotation:wine making history
Publication:Art Culinaire
Geographic Code:00WOR
Date:Mar 22, 2002
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