Podgoria Silvania – One of Romania’s Oldest Wineries

Podgoria Silvania

Podgoria Silvania

Twenty minutes from Zalāu, whose name generally translates from the old Traco-Dacian language as “The Valley of Wine”, lies one of the oldest and most northern wineries in untouched Romania, Podgoria Silvania. Dating back to 1820, the winery is located in the Silvania Hills, an area where archeologists found evidence of commerce and rare Dacian silver coins dating back to 1600. Podgoria Silvania’s first cellars were dug from caves over two centuries ago by the Jewish community that populated the area at that time.

Later, in 1960, researchers discovered that the caves held a constant temperature of 12 degrees Celsius and the accompanying humidity gave rise to a unique form of mold which also assists in providing optimal aging in the cellars. After this discovery, additional cellars were dug and today, Podgoria Silvania’s incredible labyrinth of cellars (which are located 60 meters underground) stretches over 3.5 kilometers. 

Fascinating history is not the only remarkable thing about the winery.  Podgoria Silvania has a 45-year old tradition of specializing in sparkling wines. The wines are made in the Traditional Method (second fermentation in bottle) from Pinot Noir, Muscat Ottonel, Feteascā, and Chardonnay grapes and are aged on lees for 2-3 years.

Bottle-shaking cart

Bottle-shaking cart

Hand-turning of the bottle is still done and the winery uses a special cart to help shake the bottles (remuage).  This helps to move the wine’s sediment up into the cork so that it can be more easily removed later.  I had not seen a cart like this before nor the unique way of storing the bottles here with sticks laid between.  It still makes me nervous to see this picture!

Wine Storage with Sticks

Wine Storage with Sticks

Several sparkling styles are available including Brut Natur (1-2% residual sugar), Sec (3-4% residual sugar), Demi Sec, and Dulce. Due to the area’s cooler climate and Feteascā grapes, higher acidity gives their sparkling wines a unique and delicate freshness which makes them stand apart from many others.

Podgoria Silvania also makes dry wine from Feteascā, Traminer, Pinot Noir, Muscat Ottonel, Riesling, and Chardonnay from their 50 hectares of vineyards (planted in 2013-2014).

Podgoria Silvania's Vineyards and Hills

Podgoria Silvania’s Vineyards and Hills

I had the great pleasure to visit this beautiful area in northwest Romania a few years ago and am still enchanted by its idyllic rolling hills, iconic hay bales, and farmers still plowing fields with horses and hand-held harnesses.  The land is stunning with much of it unpopulated and the small town of Zalāu a place where people still walk to the daily market for fresh fruit and vegetables.  I had never had a strawberry like I tasted there – completely fresh and juicy with not a touch of pesticide ever a thought.

Romanian wine is slowly starting to hit the wine world radar with a few mentions popping up in wine magazines of late but its potential is far greater than anything you’ll read about.  The pristine land, continental climate moderated by the Carpathian Mountains, and local grape varieties Feteascā Albā (white), Feteascā Regalā (white), and Feteascā Neagrā (red) produce interesting and substantive wines with some international varieties faring well there too.

Feteascā grapes

Feteascā grapes

Podgoria Silvania produces 300,000 bottles a year (all of it from grapes grown on their estate) and exports much of it to Russia, Germany, Poland, and even France (a source of great pride for the winery).  Prince Charles himself has apparently been a long-time fan of Romania and currently has two homes in northwestern Romania in the towns of Vicri and Zalanpatak.

Podgoria Silvania's Vineyards

Podgoria Silvania’s Vineyards

As Podgoria Silvania says, “When nature blesses you with a treasure, you have to share it with the whole world.” And that’s what they are trying to do with their brilliant sparkling wines.

 

 

 

 

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Experience Argentina through Familia Zuccardi’s wines

Familia Zuccardi

Familia Zuccardi

Argentina is best known for Malbec, the Bordeaux transplant grape that found its natural home in the Uco Valley’s high-altitude and sunny climate near Mendoza. However, Argentina has much more to offer besides great Malbec.  I recently got to try several wines from Familia Zuccardi which were both eye-opening and truly exciting.

Familia Zuccardi was founded in 1963 by Alberto Zuccardi and is now run by its third generation Sebastián Zuccardi.

Sebastian Zuccardi

Sebastian Zuccardi

The winery has always had a strong commitment to sustainability through its vineyard water recycling programs and use of green fertilizers, as well as through its social welfare programs and energy conservation efforts. Familia Zuccardi currently has 800 hectares of vineyards in the Mendocinian districts of Vista Flores, Altamira, La Consulta, Maipú, and Santa Rosa.  At present, 35% of these vineyards are certified organic with the rest of them using sustainable production systems.

Familia Zuccardi Maipu vineyards

Familia Zuccardi Maipu vineyards

Familia Zuccardi is also committed to innovation and has been a pioneer in the production of several varietal wines including Tempranillo, Bonarda, Viognier, Caladoc, Ancellotta, and Marselán.  In addition, the first late harvest wine of Argentina (Santa Julia Tardio mentioned below) and the first fortified Malbec wine (Malamado) were made in their winery.

 

We started our tasting with Argentina’s best-known white grape, Torrontés.  This grape has a unique texture and aromatics which make it beloved on a blind tasting.  As Torrontés is a cross between Criolla Chica (known as the Mission grape in U.S.) and Muscat of Alexandria, it combines the exuberant florals of the latter with the workhorse nature of the former. I’ve had a few in the past that were uninspiring but this one from Salta, the 2017 Zuccardi Serie A Torrontés, was impressive.  Pale lemon in color with green tints, this vivacious wine radiated salty citrus and pineapple aromas cushioned in crisp minerality.  Torrontés’ trademark waxy texture announced its arrival with an almost effervescent tingle on the nose.

Next up was the lovely Santa Julia Organic Blanc de Blancs.  Made with 100% Chardonnay organic grapes from Mendoza, this wine had an easy-going style with ripe red apple, lemon, and lightly toasted bread notes. At $12 a bottle, this is a steal for a quality sparkling wine. 

The 2017 Santa Julia Chardonnay was also very good with mouth-filling texture and a supple body made in a clean linear style.  While I’m not a Chardonnay fan, this was very drinkable with ripe lemon, almond and saline notes on a lingering viscous finish. This wine was also made from organic grapes.

We moved on to the reds after that and these were a real treat. We started with a side-by-side tasting of the 2013 Zuccardi Q Cabernet Sauvignon (from Valle de Uco) and the 2013 Zuccardi Q Tempranillo (from Santa Rosa).  The Cabernet came from two high elevation sites – Tupungato (4035 feet) and La Consulta (3608 feet) in the Uco Valley. Intensely purple in color, this wine tasted of red and black fruit with savory herbs. Firm tannins and zesty acidity supported the ripe fruit in this fresh and spicy wine. 

The Tempranillo was a beautifully structured tapestry of black plum, violet, iron minerality, tobacco leaf, and smoky campfire notes.  At $21 this is a fantastic value for a well-made wine that will also age several more years.

The 2013 José Zuccardi, from the Valle de Uco region, was named for Sebastián’s father José and made from 90% Malbec (from Paraje Altamira) and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon (from Gualtallary).  This robust wine was excellent with concentrated blackberry and plum notes, vibrant acidity, and a spicy elegant finish. Vinified in concrete vats and fermented with indigenous yeasts, the wine was then aged in oak foudres and bottled without filtering.

The 2012 Tito Zuccardi from Paraje Altamira and Valle de Uco was the star of the show rivaling many good Napa Cabernets and Bordeaux-style wines in complexity, elegance, and its myriad of black fruit, tobacco leaves, licorice, and dried herb nuances.

Named for founder Alberto Zuccardi who was known as “Tito” (Sebastián’s grandfather), this wine earns its noble name.  Made from 66% Malbec, 12% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Ancellotta and 10% Caladoc, this wine was made from fermentation in concrete vats with malolactic fermentation in barrel. Different lots were then aged in French oak of 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th usage for 12 months before blending.  In addition, part of the Malbec was fermented with its stems contributing to the freshness and spice flavors in the wine.

Last but not least, we got to try the 2016 Santa Julia Tardio (Late Harvest Torrontés).  What a cool wine this was! At only 7.5% alcohol but 130 grams of residual sugar, this wine was shockingly dry on the palate with a svelte body and the Torrontés trademark texture.  Fresh peach, pear, orange peel, and apricot flavors interlaced seamlessly with honey and almond notes, all backed by vibrant acidity and an ample yet lightweight feel on the palate.  This was a very unique and sumptuous wine, perfect with cheese and dessert.

This tasting was fantastic and gives a tiny glimpse into the great diversity and quality that Argentina has to offer.  Look for these selections and enjoy the history and pride behind Familia Zuccardi’s terrific wines.

Familia Zuccardi Valle de Uco

Familia Zuccardi Valle de Uco

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Taste Washington

Suzi Pratt Photography

Suzi Pratt Photography

It’s always exciting to find a tasting festival with dynamic new wines and the Taste Washington (held in Seattle in late March) was a fantastic discovery.  Wonderfully spacious aisles, decadent food interspersed among the vibrant wines, and the warmest of hospitality greeted us both days at the Grand Tasting.

The Taste Washington (the largest single-region wine and food event in the U.S.) presented wines from over 230 wineries and food from 65 restaurants/vendors ranging from a wonderful chocolate smorgasbord, to smoked meats, diverse cheeses, and fresh seafood. The festival ran over 4 days including daily “explore Seattle” events and nightly tastings along with weekend educational seminars all culminating in two days of Grand Tastings.  This was a perfect way to taste some great Washington wines all in one place as the state is notoriously large and spread out when it comes to visiting wineries.

Suzi Pratt Photography

Suzi Pratt Photography

As background, Washington has 14 AVAs (American Viticultural Areas) that are spread out from the cool maritime west end of the state to the dry, arid, and very warm east end.  The Cascade Mountains play a key role in protecting the eastern end of the state from the Pacific Ocean rains. These diverse climates produce world-class Riesling, Syrah, and Cabernet Sauvignon among many other varieties which combine the pure fruit flavors of New World wines with the acidity and tannins of Old World styles.

From a wine tasting perspective, there were too many festival highlights to count but here are a brief few.  The most interesting grape we tried was the Siegerrebe from Whidbey Island Winery.  Whidbey Island is a cool growing site located an hour from Seattle. Siegerrebe is a white German grape and the 2015 Estate Siegerrebe ($18) had tingling acidity backed by cascading citrus flavors –  a unique alternative for Sauvignon Blanc lovers. Whidbey Island Winery also made a terrific 2016 Sangiovese ($22) with grapes sourced from Columbia Valley in eastern Washington as the island is too cool for red grapes.

Long Shadows Vintners was one of our favorites from the festival featuring Michel Rolland’s 2014 Pedestal Merlot ($65), John Duval’s 2015 Sequel Syrah ($60), and Gilles Nicault’s 2014 Saggi Red Blend ($55) all from the Columbia Valley AVA.  Long Shadows Vintners employs a unique concept of pairing a handful of the world’s best winemakers with some of Washington State’s best grapes to produce several ultra-premium wines. These were all wines of great depth, robust in nature, yet elegant in style.

Long Shadows The Benches Vineyard

Long Shadows The Benches Vineyard

Three Rivers Winery ($14) had one of the most interesting rosés in their 2017 Columbia Valley Rosé.  Made from 70% Syrah, 27% Sangiovese, and 3% Riesling, this wine ran the entire fruit gamut intermingling grapefruit, strawberry, and guava flavors with its clean vibrant finish and firm structure.

Cadence Winery was another great find.  Their owners, Benjamin Smith and Gaye McNutt, named the winery and all of their wines after musical terms. Their two Bordeaux Blends from the Cara Mia Vineyard in Red Mountain AVA were exceptional.  The 2014 Camerata ($60) was Cabernet Sauvigon-dominant and tasted of concentrated black fruit, spice, and earthy notes.  The 2014 Bel Canto was Cabernet Franc-dominant with white pepper, violet, and cherry flavors. Both wines were smooth, regal, and possessed subtle exuberance and power.

Stemilt Creek Winery won the award for most charismatic staffers.  Shelly and Karen were hugely entertaining and enthusiastic about pouring their wines. The 2015 Ascent Estate Cabernet Franc ($48) and the 2015 Ascent Estate Syrah ($45) were highlights here. Richard Hood also recently joined Stemilt Creek as their General Manager and Winemaker bringing a wealth of experience to the winery.

We also enjoyed Cloudlift Cellars’ 2014 Halycon Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) and the 2014 Panorama Merlot ($27).  The Halycon was firmly structured with black fruit, spice, and mocha notes while the Panorama was an enticing style of black cherry, blue fruit, and coffee flavors.

Vendor wise, the food was glorious and intelligently placed among the wines within each aisle.  Such a simple change, it made the flow of the tasting smoother and much more enjoyable to be able to easily eat while not missing any wineries in each aisle.

Capital Grille’s steak sandwiches were a huge hit as well as AQUA by El Gaucho’s oyster and fresh seafood bar.  The Groves on 41 (a Templeton, CA olive tree farm) ran a contest to see which new olive oil flavor to keep – jalapeno or chipotle (jalapeno won).  Incidentally, this family-friendly farm offers tours and tastings along with a large, elegant farm house vacation rental on the property if you’re looking for a unique experience.

There was fantastic cheese everywhere and along one side of the room was a large array of desserts and chocolate. jcoco was one of the best, offering 10 different flavored bars including Bali Sea Salt Toffee Milk, Arabica Espresso Dark, Black Fig Pistaccio Dark, and Vanuatu Coconut Pecan Milk among others.  Their women-owned company’s mission is also noteworthy as they donate a fresh meal to someone in need for each chocolate bar purchased; so far 2.6 million servings have been donated.  Look for this chocolate nationally at Williams-Sonoma.

We also stumbled upon a “chocolate of the month” club in Chococurb which partners with various chocolatiers to create monthly chocolate collections delivered right to your door for either $20/month or $35/month depending on your selection.

As you can see, we happily ate and drank our way through our Seattle weekend and had a blast at this incredibly well-run event.  It is definitely one to visit again and to put on your calendar for next year.

If you go, Seattle is a beautiful city with ever-changing weather and incredible sea views.  It has San Francisco’s exotic feel mixed with Boston’s quaint brick buildings and winding streets in the older section of town.  If you’re a foodie, you’ll be in heaven as the list of eclectic restaurants is long and fulfilling combing world-class food with a down-to-earth vibe.  Try The Pink Door, AQUA, and Matt’s in the Market for some excellent options.

Matts in the Market

Matt’s in the Market

There is also much to see and do in Seattle starting with glass blowing which it’s well-known for. The famous Chihuly Garden and Glass Museum is spectacular and the Seattle Glass Blowing Studio lets you watch live demonstrations all day long (and purchase gorgeous items).  Seattle has the advantage of a temperate climate which we were told aids in glass blowing as the ovens used are over 2000 degrees Fahrenheit.

Chihuly Glass

Chihuly Glass

The Underground Tour is a fascinating part of Seattle’s history and consists of 25 blocks of subterranean storefronts and sidewalks entombed after the town rebuilt itself following the 1889 Great Fire.

If you want to see great views, consider skipping the Space Needle and heading to the top of the historic Smith Tower which has a beautifully ornate and charismatic bar where you can walk outside and see the city as well as enjoy panoramic views in all directions.

Then there is Pike Place Market which is nothing short of amazing both in its 100+ year old history and vast selections of shops, restaurants, fresh food, and entertainment.  Definitely check out the fish-throwing that occurs right in the middle of the market throughout the day.  There are several levels to the market and over 500 small businesses so you can easily get lost for a good part of the day.

Pike Place Market fish

Pike Place Market fish

There are multiple hotels located strategically along the waterfront with glorious views and easy access to all of the above.  We stayed at the Marriott Waterfront which was steps away from Pike Place Market and perfectly situated.  And if you go, don’t forget a raincoat as we were not disappointed in Seattle’s reputation for rain.  There’s a reason that REI was born in Seattle but it was worth every drop.

 

Three Days in Pinhão

If there was one word to describe our visit to the Douro Valley last fall it was “sun-dappled”.  I don’t recall seeing light in so many nuanced colors and rays of intensity as we did driving through the spectacular Douro Valley.  Breath-taking slopes and stone-walled terraces dotted the rugged landscape with vines clinging to every last angle in unpredictable patterns illustrating their quest to survive.

And survive they do.  The Douro has some of the heartiest grapes on the planet which are able to withstand ever-increasing summer temperatures above 100 degrees Fahrenheit and scant rainfall.  The same grapes that go into world-renowned Ports (Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinto Roriz, Tinta Cão, and Tinta Barroca among many others) are also made into exceptional dry red wines as well.

These grapes are special because of their heartiness which in turn produces dense dark color, racy acidity despite the heat, and tannins that run the gamut from austere to fine-grained.  All of these attributes contribute to wonderful wines which are truly unique as these grapes are rarely seen together outside of Portugal.

The Vintage House

The Vintage House

It was for these reasons that, after an exhilarating week in Porto, my Dad and I headed out to the Douro for a few days to get a glimpse of the countryside where these grapes are grown.  While staying in the rustically posh Vintage House doesn’t exactly constitute “country” living, we had the best of both worlds by walking the hot dust-filled streets during the day and relaxing by the meandering Douro on our balconies at night – sipping Douro reds of course.

The Vintage House

The Vintage House

The Vintage House is owned by The Fladgate Partnership and is a sister property to the stunning Yeatman hotel in Porto.  Located right on the Douro River and literally steps from the Pinhão train station, this hotel offers old-world charm and class in brilliant shades of royal blue and yellow.

The Library Bar

The Library Bar

A highly acclaimed restaurant, the Rabelo Restaurant, is located onsite and you can step back in time at the Library Bar filled with dark wood, oversized leather chairs, and a brooding fireplace. It’s one of a handful of upscale places to stay while exploring Pinhão and the Douro Valley and well worth the experience.

The other positive about this hotel is its location.  The river proximity has obvious perks with the many boat cruises that depart right outside the hotel but you can also walk to several wineries nearby.  Quinta do Bomfim (vineyard that supplies Dow’s brand grapes) is literally 5 minutes away while Quinta das Carvalhas is just across the river bridge and offered some of the best wines of the entire trip.

Quinta da Roêda

Quinta da Roêda

Quinta da Roêda, the unbelievably steep vineyard that provides the grapes for the Fonseca brand, is about a 25-minute walk through some of the most stunning countyside we’d ever seen (it’s also quite an ascent on the way there but the return trip is much easier).

We also got incredibly lucky by staying at the Vintage House during their annual harvest party (last weekend of September in 2017).

Harvest Party

Harvest Party

This was an amazing event held outside on their sweeping hotel grounds along the river where 40-50 winemakers from all over the area came in to show their wines.

We got to try many wines we’d never heard of and may never see again as well as talk to the people who made them.  It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a wine geek like me that wants to know all the details about a wine and how it’s made in such an unusual region.

Some harvest party wine highlights were the Morgadio da Calçada Mimi Espumante Bruto (a lean but luscious sparkling wine), 2015 Quinta do Besuvio Pombal do Vesuvio, Dona Berta Reserva Tinto 2013 (medium-bodied red fruit delight), and Lavradores de Feitoria Três Bagos 2009 (full-bodied menagerie of black/red fruit and smoky finish).

However, the best find of all were the wines from Wine & Soul (established in 2001 by Sandra Tavares da Silva and Jorge Serôdio Borges:

2016 Guru Douro White made from a field blend of Viosinho, Rabigato, Códega do Larinho and Gouveio, this elegant wine tasted of pear, grapefruit, and zesty minerality.  Five months aging in new French oak contributed to its textured and creamy mouthfeel.

2015 Pintas Character – a decadent red field blend of 30 Douro grape varieties lush with plum and black cherry flavors, silky tannins, and long lively finish.

Jorge and Sandra of Wine & Soul

Jorge and Sandra of Wine & Soul

2015 Manoella made from 60% Touriga Nacional, 25% Touriga Franca, 10% Tinta Roriz, and 5% Tinta Francisca bursting with cranberry, currant, clove, and mocha flavors backed by fine-grained tannins and a lingering spicy finish.

2015 Pintas Vintage Port made from 40 indigenous grape varieties, this wine was dense purple in color with concentrated notes of violet, cassis, wet stone, and brambly raspberry.  A cascading drawn-out finish highlighted robust but regal tannins and savory spice.

The harvest party also had fabulous local food of course – cheese, meats, soups, olives, pork right from a suckling pig that was roasted that day, and desserts galore.

Suckling Pig

Suckling Pig

 

As night fell, a full moon came out and local dancers and musicians streamed in to perform harvest dances and sing.  These are the kind of immersive experiences that teach you about a region like nothing else really can – truly memorable!

So needless to say, there is plenty to do for 3 days in Pinhão.  Nearby wineries will also come by boat and pick tourists up for a visit to their locations down or upriver which offers two experiences for the price of one (boat ride plus winery visit).

Rabelo boat

Rabelo boat

We enjoyed the two-hour Douro River cruise so much that we did it twice.  Sitting in a classic rabelo boat that sits almost at water level, you can see the Douro from a vantage point like no other.  The first thing I noticed (besides the jaw-dropping scenery) was the complete lack of commercialism.  Each winery (quinta)had a lone stately sign way up on the hill denoting their name and that was it. No other billboards, buildings, or signs in sight.

Every bend of the river was mesmerizing with vines growing horizontally on terraces (socalcos or patamares) and vertically (vinha ao alto) up the hills.  The former are older trellis styles while the latter is a more modern attempt to prevent erosion and improve drainage on steep slopes up to 30 percent gradient.

We visited Quinta do Bomfim which has a fascinating 90-minute tour followed by several different tasting menus of various Ports which you can enjoy out on their expansive patio. We tried the Vintage Port tasting which included the Dow’s 1985 Vintage Port, Quinta do Vesuvio 1995 Vintage Port, and the Graham’s 2000 Vintage Port.  While all were exceptional, the 1985 stole the show with its dried cranberry, apricot, orange peel, and spicy tobacco notes backed by racy acidity and surprisingly dry finish.

Quinta da Roêda also offers a 60-min tour followed by a Port tasting overlooking the incredible sloping vineyards.  Here we tried a flight of the 2012 Quinta de Roêda Port, Croft 10 Year Old Tawny, Croft 20 Year Old Tawny, and the Croft Reserva Tawny Port.

The last day of our stay we went to Quinta das Carvalhas intending to do the 2-3 hour agricultural tour which goes into great depth on the vineyard and growing practices (one of the few of its kind) but had to shorten that to a tasting only due to time constraints.  However, the tasting alone was terrific.

While sitting right at the river’s edge, we sampled a mixed flight of 2015 Branco White (medium-bodied white wine made from Viosinho and Gouveio grapes), 2015 Tinta Francisca (elegant and medium-bodied red), 2014 Touriga Nacional (the blackberry-scented red power grape of Douro), 2014 Vinhas Velhas (old vines), and 10 Year Old Tawny Port all of which were fantastic.

The Vinhas Velhas was exceptional tasting of black and red berry, spice, and dusty herbs with brilliant structure and velvet-glove fisted power.  I’d not had Carvalhas wines before and now have them on my list of favorites.

If you visit Pinhão, it’s a 2-hour drive from Porto along some of the most impressive scenery you may ever see and well worth the trip.  There are a handful of restaurants and shops in the small town and some of the wineries also offer meals.

We found one of the neatest experiences was at a tiny

Port cake

Port cake

family-owned shop (Restaurante Rufete) eating the national favorite Bacalhau (white fish with huge bones), mountains of steamed vegetables, and a sumptuous home-made Port cake (yes there is Port in it and it was the owner’s grandmother’s recipe). Cooking doesn’t get much better than Grandma’s recipe for anything. Nor was I aware Port could be used in cake which was a gustatory revelation.

You can also take a boat cruise from Porto to Pinhão or a train so there are many travel options and all offer incredible scenery at every turn.  The Douro Valley is definitely a more rustic experience than Porto but absolutely worth every minute to see the birthplace of the grapes for some of the world’s most famous wines.

Quinta da Roêda

Quinta da Roêda

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Napa’s Winter Delights

Napa

Napa

Winter may not be your first thought on a great time to visit Napa, but it’s definitely a good idea.  Clear blue skies and 50-60 degree temperatures awaited us along with few crowds and fantastic wine.  The vineyards are at one of their most peaceful moments with winter pruning just starting and workers starting to meander through the fields. Greenery has grown over many of the fire-topped hills making last fall’s vicious fires less evident and unless you know what to look for, it’s pretty hard to see any damage in the vineyards whatsoever.

Del Dotto Vineyards

We kicked off our long weekend at Del Dotto which always gives a great tour with barrel tastings, good humor, and sumptuous wines.  It’s also a terrific learning experience as the barrel tastings offer a glimpse into how different types of oak impact a wine’s development as well as how wine develops in general before it gets bottled.

Some tasting highlights were the French oak aged 2015 Piazza Del Dotto Cabernet Sauvignon ($175) which was spicy, red/black fruit driven, and showing some cedar notes. Some of our group preferred its counterpart aged in American oak which had more pronounced vanilla and sweet spice flavors. This tour is also a fun way to better understand what tastes a group of people have and why as you get to compare the same wine side-by-side aged in different kinds of oak.

Barrel Staves

Barrel Staves

We also had an easy-drinking 2016 Sangiovese (the Italian owners understandably favor this grape as well as red in general) and it’s a reasonable value at $58.  In addition, Del Dotto produces a well-made dessert wine called Dolores ($55) which is similar in style to a young Port and made predominantly from Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Perfect with chocolate and truffles.

Old Caves

Old Caves

Del Dotto has a couple of locations but I prefer their Atlas Peak, Napa spot as it’s the historic cave and less opulent than the newer St. Helena location.  It’s also a mere 15 minutes from downtown Napa which makes it convenient especially if you have to go back to your room to sleep off the many tastings this tour provides.  The tour also includes pizza, cheese, and chocolate with the tastings which adds to its great value ($60/person during week and $75/person on weekends).

Turnbull Wine Cellars

Turnbull Tasting Room

Turnbull Tasting Room

I never thought riding an elevator would yield such rewards but after one of our Master of Wine student seminars last year, I got talking to the charismatic, hilarious, and extremely talented winemaker for Turnbull, Peter Heitz.  I finally got the chance to pay him a visit in Oakville and try more of their terrific wines on this trip.

Peter explained the different soil types of the four vineyards Turnbull works with and what they, along with the site’s aspect and elevation, add to each wine. I’m a total soil geek and loved seeing the rock displays they had on hand, as it makes it even more evident how soils contribute different characteristics to each wine.

Turnbull soils

Turnbull soils

The soils at Turnbull include red volcanic rock (produces wines with minerality, ripe fruit, and concentration), alluvial soil (produces darker red fruit, spice box notes, and elegant early expression), clay loam (expresses in tart cherry flavors and dense red wines), and bale (produces strawberry/red fruit notes in red wines and mineral-driven Sauvignon Blanc).

The highlights for me were the 2016 Josephine Sauvignon Blanc ($44) which was vibrant with citrus, tart apple, and mineral notes on a textured palate. Their signature Cabernet Sauvignons were also excellent.  The 2014 Fortuna Cabernet Sauvignon ($135), from alluvial soils, was alluring with black cherry, raspberry, spice, and dusty tannins, while the 2014 Black Label Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) was a haunting, powerful wine cast with dark fruit, nuanced layers, and a firm structure.

While these are obviously not everyday wines for most, the 2015 Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($85) is a more approachable offering. Blue and red fruit showcase this wine’s energetic length and verve.

Fisher Vineyards

Fisher Vineyards

Fisher Vineyards

The next day we drove an hour up into Spring Mountain to visit Fisher, a wine I have had a few times and always enjoyed.  Fisher’s location feels worlds away from Napa with its Douglas pines, angular slopes, and cool brisk air.  Fittingly, the owner’s gorgeous Akita mountain dog Sake, (a gigantic but gentle giant) greeted us as we pulled in.

Founded in 1973 by Fred and Juelle Fisher, the winery is completely family-run with the Fisher children Whitney, Robert, and Cameron making, overseeing, and selling the wine respectively.

A small production winery, Fisher focuses on wine from single vineyards or blending wines through their various sites. We tried the following wines here:

2015 Mountain Estate Chardonnay ($75)– Aged 18 months in French oak, this was a robust style. Fresh minerality and zesty acidity framed ripe pear, lemon, and toasty crème brulee notes with a lingering finish and creamy palate.

2013 Mountain Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($95 and from Sonoma) – dark and brooding with concentrated blackberry, plum, and savory spice with a firm dense structure and lush finish.  Made from 87% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Cabernet Franc, 6% Merlot, and 1% Syrah.

2014 Coach Insignia Cabernet Sauvignon ($110 and from Napa) – dense and powerful. Intense flavors of black/red cherry, leather, and licorice with a powerful long finish and vibrant acidity.  This wine was already approachable although it will age another decade. Made from 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Merlot, and 8% Malbec.

2009 Wedding Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($150) – from the

Wedding Vineyard

Wedding Vineyard

sloping vineyard where Fred and Juelle were married right next to the winery, this spellbinding wine is 78% Cabernet Sauvignon and 22% Cabernet Franc. This was my favorite of all with explosive flavors of brambly blackberry, cedar, pencil shavings, and forest floor cascading along a mineral-driven backbone and chewy tannins. This wine’s mountain terroir and site elevation of 1200 feet are evident in its power, elegance, and terse acidity.

Salvestrin Winery

Salvestrin

Salvestrin

Another first for me on this trip was getting to visit Salvestrin which is a wine I discovered at the Taj Campton hotel in San Francisco (a regular haunt for other pre-wine country visits).  The bar there always has interesting and unusual wine finds.  Salvestrin is also family-owned (in its fourth Italian generation) and located in the St. Helena A.V.A. (American Viticultural Area).  Their wines manage to combine characteristics of lush valley fruit with the restraint and regality of mountain fruit.

We had a fantastic tasting here while overlooking their striking quadrilateral cordon-trellised vines.  This setup allows the canopy to be split which allows filtered sunlight to get into the middle of the canopy (a common method in warmer climates).  The first wine we tried was the 2016 Sauvignon Blanc ($25). Made in 50% neutral oak and 50% stainless steel, this wine was spritely and refreshing with mouth-filling texture and tropical fruit and pineapple notes.

Quadrilateral cordon vines

Quadrilateral cordon vines

The next three wines were all from the historic Dr. Crane Vineyard.  The 2015 Retaggio ($50) was an intriguing blend of 42% Sangiovese, 41% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot, and 7% Cabernet Franc. Tasting of red and black fruit intermixed with Provence-style garrigue and spicy savory notes, tight structure and lively acid made this wine a lighter style of red.

The 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon ($64) is a blend of 92% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Merlot, and 3% Cabernet Franc and is a killer buy for a quality Napa Cabernet. Blackberry, cherry, tea, and vanilla flavors preceded concentrated coffee and cedar notes backed by fine-grained tannins and a long savory finish.

The 2013 Three D Cabernet Sauvignon ($145) is 100% Cabernet Sauvignon and was recently released as it spent 34 months in 100% new French oak.   Sustainable growing practices and rigorous selection make this wine a true standout (the “Three D” stands for the three Salvestrin daughters). This wine expressed intense aromas of tart black cherries, plums, and dried herbs while a velvet finish eased in seductive notes of sweet spice and earthy mineral notes.

We also got to try the 2014 Cabernet Franc, a real gem here, and a varietal I saw made in a 100% style more than I have on prior visits.  The pepper, herbaceous, and inky violet tones of this variety can be incredibly seductive and haunting in the right hands as it is in this wine.

Incidentally, Salvestrin also has its own charming Inn at Salvestrin which features on-site accommodation right at the vineyard with gorgeous views and a short walk into St. Helena. There are few things better than waking up next to vineyards in my mind.

Merus Wines

Merus

Merus

Our visit to the charmingly chic Merus took us to another idyllic location at the outer edges of St. Helena near Calistoga and Howell Mountain.  Merus means “complete, undiluted, and pure” in Latin.  This small production luxury wine was created in 1998 and continues to be a showstopper.  In addition to Merus, their second label, Altvs, is also a stunner and was created in 2005.  “ALT-US” means “noble and profound” in Latin.

We started our tasting with the 2014 Altvs Chardonnay ($40) which was an impeccably balanced wine that appealed to everyone in our group, even those that typically don’t like Chardonnay.  Moderate in alcohol yet pleasantly weighty in body, this wine tasted of pear and lemon with a mineral core, steely acidity, and a long lush finish.

2013 Altvs ($75) is another great buy for a high-quality Napa Cabernet.  Produced in small quantities by winemaker John Clews, Altvs combines fruit from mountain, hillside and benchland sites to create this concentrated beauty.  This wine was laser-focused in its intensity with sustained black and red fruit, cassis, and sweet tobacco notes. Regal structure and fine-grained tannins made this wine approachable now but also allow for longer aging. 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Petit Verdot.

Merus Private Room

Merus Private Room

Next we tried the 2013 Merus ($160) which was a riveting blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 6% Petit Verdot, 6% Malbec, and 3% Merlot from the Coombsville A.V.A. (one of the coolest sites in Napa).  Its longer growing season produces robust wines that are powerful yet still elegant like this one. This wine was rich in complexity with aromas of brambly blackberry, tarry minerality, violet, and bacon that introduced palate flavors of wet rock, black currant, and menthol.

Merus

Merus

This wine is carefully handled throughout its birth using whole-berries and warmer fermentation temperatures along with frequent punch-downs to yield ideal extraction without compromising the wine’s final balance.  Separate vineyard lots are also maintained throughout fermentation as well as aging (done in individually-matched French oak for each lot) in order to create the optimal Merus blend each year.  If you’re a points person, Robert Parker gave this wine 93 points.

If you do go to Napa, you’ll be pleasantly surprised with how much there is to do in the town itself.  Napa has developed into a vibrant town with great restaurants, wine bars, eclectic shops, and a diverse hotel selection.  We stayed at the Westin Verasa was which fantastic and a 5-min walk to Napa (right past the many delights of the Oxbow Public Market).  We also found a great driving company in SafeRide Wine Tours owned by former Napa law enforcement officers – what could be safer than that?

 

 

 

Porto’s Many Charms

Porto’s Many Charms

Porto

Porto

It’s rare when you visit a place you immediately fell in love with for the second time and feel the same rush.  My recent trip to Porto and the Douro Valley was all that and more with still-recurring wistful feelings of “saudade”, the haunting Portuguese word (not translatable in English) for longing for something or someone that is no longer near you.

Besides the eye-grabbing adobe-topped buildings of Porto

Francesinha sandwich

Francesinha sandwich

and the sweeping beauty of the Douro River, Porto offers a wealth of richness in cuisine, dry wines (not just Port), and incredible culture and history.  I had no idea what a gastronomic place Porto is: teeming with fresh fish and vegetables, amazing bread, cheese, and sausages, and my new favorite splurge meal – the francesinha sandwich.  The latter is a seemingly crazy blend of beef, pork, and ham smothered with cheese and a tomato-based sauce made of whiskey, bourbon, wine, and beer.  While it sounds bizarre, it’s truly incredible and ends up tasting somewhat like a spicy barbecue sauce atop a pizza burger.

Portugal is, of course, best known for its world-renowned Port, a fortified sweet drink made in both wood and bottle-aged styles.  The history of Port is one of the most unique wine stories around dating back to the mid-17th century.  The grapes were grown 70 miles up the Douro River in the Douro Valley where they were also made into base wines for Port using traditional processes of foot-treading in granite lagares and fortification with 77% alcohol grape spirit to preserve some sugars thus creating Port’s natural sweetness.

Granite Lagares

Granite Lagares

The wines were stored for the winter and then, when spring arrived, the wines were shipped down the Douro River to Vila Nova de Gaia in precarious flat-bottomed boats called barcos rabelos.  Many lives and Port barrels were lost in these journeys due to the turbulent Douro River (which has since been dammed up in several places to allow easier passage).  Vila Nova de Gaia offered higher humidity and cooler temperatures that allowed the Port to age better.

Today these same processes continue except trucks are used instead of boats and some quintas (estates or vineyards) such as Quinta do Noval choose to store their Ports long-term in the Douro since temperature-controlled rooms and tanks are available now. Port lodges dot the banks of the Douro River (as do rabelo boats) providing a timeless yet historical backdrop to a thriving and vibrant town.

Rabelo boats

Rabelo boats

Fascinatingly, the same grapes that go into Port (commonly Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Cao, Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Roriz (aka Tempranillo) are also used to produce robust and characterful red wines.  Conversely, White Port also exists and its grapes (Rabigato, Gouveio, Arinto, and Boal among many others) produce intriguingly full-bodied and complex white wines. Rosé is also fabulous, typically made from Touriga Nacional, arguably the Douro’s flagship grape (said to be like Cabernet Sauvignon is to Napa, CA).

A few side-notes on Porto before we get to the wines.  Not only is it blessed with jaw-dropping natural beauty, Porto is very clean with a safe and almost pristine feel to it.  Independent vendors line the streets paralleling the Douro river peddling unique wares including cork purses and wallets, hand-carved figures, and all kinds of vividly-colored textiles which Portugal is known for.  Each Portuguese region has its own textile design and colors.  It’s a kind of daily market which, while a bit touristy, owes its authenticity to the fine workmanship in most of the things I saw.  Another thing that struck me is no matter what you buy or where you buy it, the attention to attractive packaging is always there (and there’s no bag cost).

The Yeatman

The Yeatman

Speaking of attractive, if you can splurge, consider staying at the fabulous Yeatman hotel in Porto.

The Yeatman Room

The Yeatman Room

Owned by The Fladgate Partnership, the hotel is a shrine to the wines of Portugal. Each spacious and impeccably-decorated room offers a patio overlooking the Douro River.  The hotel offers world-class dining in the Gastronomic Restaurant (2 Michelin stars) and a literally perfect bar (Dick’s Bar) featuring fascinating Portuguese wines, mesmerizing views, and the kind of aura that makes you want to stay all night and ponder the world.  There’s also a lovely spa, infiniti pool, gym, and unparalleled service by every single employee I spoke with from the breakfast servers to the concierge, bar staff, and events team.

Taylor Fladgate's Port Lodge

Taylor Fladgate’s Port Lodge

The Yeatman lies on the Vila Nova de Gaia side of the river along with all of the Port lodges.

Ramos Pinto Port Lodge

Ramos Pinto Port Lodge

The Port lodges are charming time capsules of wine history and lore.  Most offer guided tours, tastings, and occasionally even Fado (the traditional Portuguese music) concerts such as the one at Cálem. If you haven’t had much Port you may think they all taste alike but this couldn’t be further from the truth.  Each Port house has its own style, blending, and aging regimen which is easily evident when the various Ports are lined up side by side.

We spent time at Taylor Fladgate’s lodge as well as Graham’s lodge in Porto.  The Fladgate Partnership owns the Taylor Fladgate, Fonseca, and Croft brands and chooses to only make Port (they don’t make any dry wine but they do partner with several quintas that do).  The Symington Family owns Dows, Warres, Graham’s, Cockburn, and Optima among several brands.

Taylor Fladgate tour display

Taylor Fladgate tour display

At Taylor Fladgate, we did a wonderful self-guided tour (which I had initial doubts about) as well as a world-class tasting.  Last time I visited, our Masters of Wine group had an amazing tour done by Adrian Bridge himself (CEO of Taylor Fladgate) but obviously that model doesn’t scale so we were told that the new self-guided tour was created to insure content consistency and also to allow visitors to experience what interested them most.

During the tour, we saw the expansive Port cellars, a complete life cycle demonstration of grapes budding to being made into Port, soil and rock samples of the incredible Douro schist terraces, and several videos explaining how Port is made. I asked several people at the end how they liked the tour and all said they absorbed more from going at their own pace than listening to a guide so it appears the self-guided tour was a winner.  I enjoyed it as well although I have to say it’s hard to beat Mr. Bridge’s historical accounts and vast knowledge of the Douro region.

Taylor Fladgate barrel

Taylor Fladgate barrel

Afterward we had a brilliant tasting of the 7 Ports below:

Late Bottled Vintage (LBV)– these are Ports made from a single vintage and aged 4 -6 years in wood.  This style is aimed at earlier drinking and offers great value for the quality as it’s like a Vintage but much more affordable.  This one tasted very fruit-forward with black and red fruit at the forefront and round soft tannins balancing out zesty acidity.

2012 Quinta da Vargellas Vintage – Vargellas is the enchanting vineyard located far east in the Douro Superior that provides grapes for the Taylor Fladgate Ports.  These grapes have vibrant acidity and natural tension as a result of their home at higher altitudes. This Port is a Single-Quinta Vintage Port which means that all grapes came from the same year and vineyard and that it was primarily aged in bottle (only two years in wood) which produces the deep opaque purple that is characteristic of Vintage ports.  Bottle aging prevents oxygen from getting into the wine thus preserving the deep color and producing more fruit–forward flavors. Flavors of blackberry, blueberry, chocolate, and violet with an electric acidity showcase this Port.

10 Year Tawny – A tawny is aged at least 6 years in wood and the “10 year” designates that the average age of all wines used in the blend is 10 years old.  Tawnies are always blends of many different years and always lighter in color than Vintage Ports due to slight oxygen ingress from being aged in barrel which also produces a more dried fruit and nut profile versus the fruitiness of a Vintage. This Port was the darkest in color of the 5 tawnies and tasted of dried fruit, spice, and almonds.

20 Year Tawny – Charming flavors of orange peel, dried apricot, marmalade, and walnuts with supple tannins and that lightning acidity to keep it fresh.  This was the most universally popular of the bunch. In general, 20 Year tawnies offer the best value for the quality as they are substantially more complex than a 10 Year and typically not much higher in price.

30 Year Tawny – This Port demonstrated the developing signs of age with notes of acetaldehyde (that “sherry-like” smell) accompanied by polished mahogany, dried pineapple, and orange flavors with a highly viscous mouthfeel.  Most port houses don’t make 30 and 40 year-old Ports anymore and it’s a category that Taylor Fladgate excels at.

40 Year Tawny – Making the leap of preserving the 20 Year tawny’s freshness and youthful acidity but combining those wonderful age flavors of dried fruit, prune, and walnuts that started to appear in the 30 year-old, this Port was exceptional with brisk acidity and regal structure.

1967 Colheita – Colheita is a vintage tawny Port which means that it’s aged at least 6 years in wood (like a Tawny) but is made from grapes all harvested in the same year (like a Vintage).  All of these grapes were from 1967 which I have a special fondness for as it’s my birth year and I used this Port to celebrate the big 5-0 earlier this year.

This Port was a complex menagerie of maple syrup, caramel, honey, walnuts, dried herbs, and furniture polish with an almost Cognac-like edge to it.  Its beautiful amber gold color was tinged with olive flecks on the rim which also speaks to its age. 11,000 bottles were produced and this Port can still be found in the U.S. for $300.

Taylor Fladgate also has a beautiful restaurant next to the tasting room called Barão Fladgate.  With a panaoramic patio and spectacular views from inside, this is a perfect place to enjoy everything Porto has to offer.

Vinum Restaurant

Vinum Restaurant

We also visited Graham’s Lodge in Porto which has a stunning restaurant in Vinum.  Sweeping views of the city and Douro river abound whether indoors in the sultry wine-themed interior or the spacious veranda.  We had a guided tour of the elaborate cellars (a typical “smaller” Port barrel is 550-liters in size compared to the typical French 225-liter barrel) and more oval shaped in the middle.  New oak is rarely used in Port as the competing wood flavors would detract from Port’s own decadent nuances.

550 liter barrel

550 liter barrel

At Graham’s we tasted a flight of 4 Ports:

Six Grapes Ruby – early-drinking Port with youthful energy and concentrated blackberry and violet notes. The “Six Grapes” name comes from the symbol traditionally used to mark barrels containing the highest quality wine from Graham’s Douro Valley quintas. This Port is primarily made of Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, and Tinta Barroca.

Graham’s 10 Year Tawny – Amber gold in color with flavors of red fruit, caramel, and slight nuttiness developing. Robust tannins and firm structure.

Graham's Lodge Tasting

Graham’s Lodge Tasting

Graham’s 20 Year Tawny – Smoother tannins with dried apricot, savory herb, and walnut flavors backed by lively acidity.

Warre’s 1980 Vintage Port – Warre’s is one of the drier (less sweet) styles of Port and consequently one of my favorites.  This one had pronounced mineral flavors of slate and wet rock, accompanied by Touriga Nacional’s trademark violet and blackberry notes all riding a cascading wave of vibrant acidity.

Unlike the Fladgate Partnership, the Symington Family does make its own dry wines from the same grapes that go into Port.  Keep in mind that Port is one of the most highly regulated wines in the world with only a certain percentage of grapes produced allowed to be made into Port each year.  The thought (smartly) occurred to someone along the way that those grapes not going into Port were far too good to be wasted thus dry wines were born.

Symington has many wine brands and we tried these two over lunch at Vinum.

2016 Altano which is an organic wine of mixed grape varieties aged in French oak. Fresh and fruity with lush blackberry, spice, and vanilla, this wine is young and vibrant.

Note: the 2015 vintage of this wine just got written up in Decanter’s November issue.

2014 Altano Reserva is a blend of 90% Touriga Nacional and 10% Touriga Francesca aged in American oak. This was my favorite of the two with lovely notes of cassis, blackberry, and violet supported by smooth tannins and racy acidity. This wine went perfectly with the rib-eye steak that we had for lunch.

Douro Valley

Douro Valley

Next up, our time in the spectacular Douro Valley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Wines of Le Tour de France

2017 Tour Map

2017 Le Tour de France

It’s that time of year again when Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen (as well as the superhuman riders) light up the screen with their fascinating Tour de France coverage interspersed with local facts about the beautiful regions the Tour passes through. Three weeks of bike racing with some daily rides over 120 miles leaves the announcers some downtime to dig into local culture which got me thinking about all the interesting vineyard and wine-related areas the riders are passing through.

Stage 1

The Tour started this year in Dusseldorf which is home to ProWein which is the biggest international wine fair held each March. While Dusseldorf itself is too far north to grow grapes, there are plenty of nearby options from the famous Mosel and Rheingau wine regions.  World-class Riesling of all styles (dry, off-dry, and sweet) may be found here with all of them sharing lively acidity and brilliant mineral notes. Look for any wines produced by Selbach-Oster – fantastic! 

Stage 2

The Tour went through Belgium next which focuses on varieties such as Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Noir, and also produces sparkling wines.  80% of Belgium’s wine is white with 15 approved varieties.

Stage 3

Stage 3 took the riders through 3 countries in one day: Belgium, Luxembourg, and France. Luxembourg has been making wine since Roman times but its wine is rarely found outside the country as most is not exported.  White wines dominate and crémant (sparkling) wine is also popular.  Auxerrois (a Pinot Blanc relative) is a beloved white grape and does particularly well here due to its low acidity which is important in a cooler region.

Stage 4

Stage 4 passed through the Côtes de Toul which produces a local Vin Gris wine.  While the name translates to “gray wine”, in reality the wine is light pink and typically made from Gamay and Pinot Noir grapes.  Quiche Lorraine is also a regional specialty that pairs quite well with Vin Gris.

Vosges Mountains

Vosges Mountains

Stage 5

Stage 5 ended with a dramatic climb into La Planche des Belles Filles which is located in the Vosges Mountains.  The Vosges are an important geographic feature for Alsace as it provides a rain shadow which creates drier and warmer growing conditions for Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewüztraminer, and Muscat grapes.

Stage 6

Stage 6 was the first entry into Champagne (enough said there) passing into the Aube département.  The local specialty here is Rosé des Riceys which is a pale pink wine made from “bleeding off” some of the Pinot Noir juice after a short maceration with the skins.

Stage 7

Stage 7 brought the Tour’s first-ever appearance in the town of Nuits-St-Georges which shares its name with one of the most famous Burgundy (Pinot Noir) appellations.  Wines from this region are known for their animal/game aromas, robust tannins, and powerful style.

Vin Jaune clavelin bottle

Vin Jaune clavelin bottle

Stage 8

The Stage 8 ride included a ride through the Jura which is a fascinating wine region showcasing the rarely seen Savagnin (a Sauvignon Blanc parent) and the highly unique Vin Jaune.  Vin Jaune, which means “yellow wine”, is an unfortified wine made from Savagnin grapes and aged for at least 5 years with a film-forming yeast called voile on top of it.  The voile imparts unusual aromas that resemble that of a dry sherry.  Vin Jaune is easy to spot as it comes in a squarish bottle called a clavelin and its incredibly long distinctive finish makes it unforgettable after one taste.

Stay tuned for more Tour wines next week and here’s the map if you want to follow along:

http://about-france.com/tourism/tour-de-france.htm#route

P.S. A recent Wall Street Journal article by Jason Gay (https://www.wsj.com/articles/paul-phil-will-make-you-love-the-tour-de-france-1498759126) said that Phil likes French red wines, Montrachets (white Burgundies), and Sancerres.  I wonder what Paul is drinking as well as Paul Burmeister, Bob Roll, and Christian Vande Velde (the captivating studio and analyst hosts).

 

Aging Taste Buds

bd2So what does one drink when hitting a milestone birthday like the big 5-0? I looked back through my wine log of the many wines I’ve tried through the years and realized my tastes have changed along with my aging body.  When I started drinking wine, without knowing why, I tended toward fruit-forward big red wines.  That’s a rather typical American red-wine drinker profile (for my age) as it’s what I grew up on and a style that comes naturally from our “warmer” climate.

Napa was the most well-known wine region when I started drinking wine, thus I started drinking it first and in the 90s and early 2000s, the style was big, bold, ripe fruit, heavy oak, and high alcohol.  Ripe fruit and high alcohol can contribute to a sense of sweetness which Americans also tend to like.

Through a lot of wine study, global wine exposure, and just getting older, I realized that my tastes have changed a bit.  I no longer like overt oak, prefer lower alcohol, and gravitate toward earthy (versus fruity) wines such as Barolo, Brunello di Montalcino, Tempranillo, or an aged Napa Cabernet.  I’ve heard many people say that as they age they prefer lighter-bodied wines.  Clearly Barolo and Brunello aren’t “light” wines so I have a ways to go on that one but my preferred style today is different than it was 20 years ago.

Mostly I’ve learned that a wine’s balance is one of the most important things in determining a good drinking experience.  “Balance” in a wine means that its key elements (alcohol, tannin, acid, and flavor profile) are all in harmony.  This is true for any category of wine from entry-level to premium levels so a balanced wine doesn’t necessarily need to cost a lot of money.

However, where age-worthy red wines are concerned, balance often requires time as the wine elements of alcohol, tannin, acid, and flavor need time to meld together in a pleasing way and to develop the complex tertiary flavors (mushroom, cigar, tobacco) that I’ve grown to love.  Unlike for most humans, time and age co-exist quite happily with wine.

As I started pulling out wines for my 50th birthday month, I wondered if I would still like some of them since I’d bought some long ago and knew that my tastes have moved in a different direction.  Some were joyous surprises while a few were disappointing jammy bombs but most were wonderful in their own way.   Here are a few favorites along with some other wines I got to enjoy compliments of great family and friends.

2012 Conterno Fantino Sori Ginestra Barolo sori

This wine was one I tried before it was even bottled while in Piedmont, Italy 2 years ago.  I didn’t think I’d ever see it again but it showed up in Binnys and I immediately snapped it up.  Unbelievably, it tastes even better than I remembered it with black cherry, leather, tobacco, savory herbs, zingy acidity, and a cascading finish.

 2011 Coppo Pomorosso Barbera d’Asti

Named for a red apple tree that grows on top of the vineyard’s hill, this is the flagship Barbera that Coppo makes (and they are Barbera specialists). Produced only in the best years, the grapes come from three vineyards located in Agliano Terme at 450 feet elevation. The soil is calcareous clay marl and rich in minerals which gives the wine finesse, minerality, and longevity. Aged 14 months in French oak, this wine sings with elegant cherry, blackberry, licorice, and violet with mineral notes, supporting acidity, and well-integrated soft tannins.

TF21967 Taylor Fladgate Very Old Single Harvest Porto 

A reviewer in Wine Spectator described this wine as “rarified air” and I think that’s the perfect description. To me, this is the Mona Lisa of wine as it shows what heights great wine-making can attain.  Molasses, caramel, walnut, licorice, menthol, and ginger are only a few of the sumptuous flavors in this wine. There are layers and layers of nuanced spice, herbs, fruit, and earthy notes that culminate in such rich and decadent aromas that you can smell the bottle from the next room.  The structure of the wine itself is remarkable with gripping viscosity, tautly tuned sweetness with vibrant acidity, and a haunting finish that is literally unshakeable.

This wine is technically a Colheita (meaning all grapes were harvested in the same year) but Taylor Fladgate calls it “Single Harvest”.

2011 Caymus Cabernet Sauvignon (Magnum)

This wine is bursting with black plum, blackberry, dark chocolate, cedar, spice, and earthy notes.  2011 was a cooler growing year in Napa but you wouldn’t know it from the ripe fleshy fruit and robust smooth tannins on this classic wine. The finish is long and velvety now but this wine can easily last another decade. A perfect expression of Napa Valley Cabernet and a great reminder of why it’s so famous.

2006 Beaulieu Vineyard Georges De Latour Cabernet Sauvignon

Well-structured robust wine tasting of black fruit, licorice, violet, and graphite mineral flavors. Ripe showy fruit intermingles with leather and spice on top of powerful tannins and a long decadent finish. The best of power and elegance combined.

lail22012 Lail J. Daniel Cuvee Cabernet Sauvignon

I’m not a big “point person” but this was the first 100-point wine I’ve ever had (as rated by Robert Parker).  This wine is an explosive powerhouse with an ethereal finish that clings on for dear life.

The Lail family has a deeply-entrenched Napa history through their great grand-uncle Gustave Niebaum who founded Inglenook in 1879.  This wine comes from three different vineyards (Calistoga, Oakville, and Howell Mountain) representing some of the best Napa has to offer.  Made of 97% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Petit Verdot and aged 20 months in 75% new French oak, this wine has hedonistic aromas of violet, blackcurrant, pencil lead, forest floor, sweet spice, and wet stone. Incredible freshness and vibrancy is punctuated by its showstopper finish.  One of those few wines that takes your breath away.

78vy12013 Vineyard 7/8 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon Spring Mountain

This single-vineyard wine from Spring Mountain is dark and unctuous.  Layered flavors of black pepper, anise, savory herb, and a mineral backbone support rich black fruit. Tightly-wound tannins (typical of mountain wines) unfold with decanting and brisk acidity elevates the intensely full body. The 15.1% alcohol slips nonchalantly into the background illustrating how seamlessly this wine comes together. Substantial time in oak (26 months) is still evolving and will help this wine age many more years.

2011 Mastro Janni Brunello di Montalcino Vinga Loreto mastro2

This wine is a dark and mysterious beauty that hits great heights with voluptuous body, elegant structure, chewy tannins, and a silky smooth finish.  Intense flavors of fresh-cut cigar, juicy black fruit, and Asian spice explode on the palate and continue to interrupt conversation because it’s hard to get past just how good the wine is.  Aged 36 months in French oak barrels (sizes 16, 25, and 33 hl) with an additional 6-8 months in bottle.

2013 Beaux Freres The Upper Terrace Pinot Noir bf

A regal wine with great finesse and purity.  From Ribbon Ridge in Willamette Valley, Oregon, this wine is made from 6 Dijon Pinot Noir clones and tastes of exotic red plum, sweet cherry, and earthy mushroom.  Somehow it manages to taste delicate and muscular at the same time. Unfined and unfiltered treatment contributes to its complexity, freshness, and lingering finish.

2007 Tahbilk 1860 Vines Shiraz

This is a monumental wine made in a deep rich style unique to Australia.  Located in the Nagambie Lakes region of central Victoria, the 1860 vineyard (which was nominated in 2002 U.S. Wine & Spirits Magazine as one of the 25 Great Vineyards of the World) has some of the oldest Shiraz vines in the world.

This wine kicked off with brooding black and red fruit and an incredible mouth-coating texture.  A few hours later, the fruit was intertwined with dried herbs, liquorice, smoke, and dark earth.  Fine-grained tannins and subtle oak cascaded into a long, rich, savory finish.  I would have loved to try it the following day but of course it didn’t last that long.

While I wasn’t sure how I’d feel about turning 50, I’d have to say it’s off to a good start!
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Australia’s Barossa Valley

27L bottle on right

27L bottle on right

The last part of our Australia trip focused on Barossa which we toured from our base at the exquisite Louise hotel.  Barossa is a bit further north and has more daily temperature variation as a result. Our first stop was Torbreck.  The Torbreck name comes from a forest in Scotland and interestingly enough, there are still quite a few Scottish folks who live in the area.  Torbreck produces about 60,000 bottles of wine with half of that being their Woodcutter Shiraz.  They use simple winemaking techniques such as open ferment and basket press for their wines.  They also do many special format bottles (even large ones such as 27 liters) for private collectors all over the world.  If you’ve ever wondered what some of those bottles cost, a 27L bottle of their RunRig Shiraz goes for $27,000. A bottle of that size alone, minus the wine, may cost $3000. 27L of wine is equivalent to 6 cases of wine so you’d need quite a big party to break that out!

We tried at least 20 wines here including Semillon, Marsanne, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, Grenache, and many blends. Highlights for me were the 2014 Struie, the 2013 Descendant, and the 2012 RunRig.  These three wines are all predominantly Shiraz and they increase in depth and complexity from the Struie to the RunRig. The dense and powerful RunRig reminded me of a fireplace in my mouth (smoky, dense, and spicy) in a good way.   The Descendant tasted of layered mulberry, black pepper, and savory spices.  While high in alcohol (15+), the ripe fruit and full tannins made for a seamless integration.

http://www.torbreck.com/TheWines/tabid/55/Default.aspx

tait4That evening we went to Tait Wines.  Set back among rugged hills, this was another highlight of the trip. The Tait family did a huge barbeque for us and we ate in their beautifully decorated cellar barn.  It was charming, quaint, traditional, and wonderfully casual.  We got to watch the meat come right off the grill while sipping through the Tait product line and talking with the entire Tait family (including their two enchanting children).   The Tait wines are also powerful and robust and are aimed at the American palate.  My favorites here were the 2014 Border Crossing Shiraz and the Liquid Gold Fronti, a Port-like wine made from Frontignan grapes for only $20.  There are not many places where the hostess and winery owner (Michelle Tait) is out picking the table arrangements herself and the winemaker owner (Bruno Tait) is making his own pies for us to try.  It was a truly special visit.

http://www.taitwines.com.au/default.aspx

louise1louise3Remember that driving rain I mentioned earlier?  Well it continued through the rest of the trip.  Turns out we were there during a rare early spring storm and most of the year’s rain fell in just a few days.  The rain and harsh winds added a nostalgic character to the visit for me as I love rainy days and The Louise was just the place to hunker down by the fireplace and drink some Aussie Port.  Also in such a water-challenged place as Australia, it’s hard to not appreciate water when it comes naturally.

On our last day in Barossa we set out again in the rain for Two Hands Wines.  We lunched in another cellar and had home-made pizzas while enjoying, interestingly enough, a 2005 Domaine Lucien Boillot & Fils Nuits St. Georges Burgundy and a 2000 Clos des Papes Châteauneuf-du-Pape.   The Two Hands owners have a rule to never drink their own wines during meals as they feel it makes them lose objectivity.  Their wines were also very good especially the 2013 Ares Shiraz.

https://www.twohandswines.com/

sthOur final Barossa stop was at the lovely St. Hallett.  We tasted through about 15 wines here including Riesling, Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Shiraz, and Cabernet Sauvignon.  The 2010 St. Hallett Blackwell Shiraz was a group favorite as was the 1996 Old Block Shiraz.  We also did a blending exercise which is always fascinating.  We used three vats of different wines and combined them into our own wines.  This is a lot harder than it sounds and gives one a great appreciation for how hard it is to make a good wine.

sth2Anne Marie Wright, one of the winemakers here, was wonderfully effusive and knowledgeable explaining the nuances of all of the wines to us.  She is also a Scottish transplant, one of many to visit Australia only to never leave.

We ended the evening with a stunning sparkling Shiraz called The Black NV.  This one was dry (not sweet like many) and incredibly good.  Unfortunately like many of the other excellent wines we found on the trip, this one doesn’t get sent to the U.S.

https://www.sthallett.com.au/age-verification

wendoureeAustralia was full of surprises, rugged and graceful beauty, and incredible wines. The many different expressions of Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon were astounding and impossible to lump into one style. We barely scratched the surface of this huge continent and we have many reasons to go back.  One of those is the Wendouree Cabernet Sauvignon I mentioned before.  This wine is from Clare Valley (north of Barossa) and is apparently a small production cult wine in Australia whose owners sell by mail-order only and don’t like attention to the point that they have no website, no tasting room (called cellar door in Australia), and not even an email address.  One must call or write a physical letter in order to communicate and even then, there is a long waiting list for their wine.

Somehow all of this only adds to the incredible appeal of this ethereal wine for me.  It was one of those rare wines that make time stop for a minute with its brooding complexity and cascading finish.  I am trying every angle to hunt one down again but I suspect it will end up on my future list of “Wines that Got Away”.  But I’m going to keep trying even if I have to go back to Australia to get one.

 

 

Australia’s McLaren Vale

shawWe flew from Melbourne to Adelaide (two hours west) for the second leg of our Australia trip which focused on McLaren Vale.  McLaren Vale has a bit of a surfer vibe being only 15k from the ocean along with expansive rolling hills.  Our first visit there was at Shaw + Smith where we worked our way through a flight of 2015 M3 Chardonnay, 2016 Sauvignon Blanc, 2014 Pinot Noir, and 2014 Shiraz (all from the cool climate of Adelaide Hills).  Restraint and elegance were common threads running through all of them and I particularly liked the Pinot Noir.  Cousins Martin Shaw and Michael Hill Smith MW started the winery in 1989 with Martin making the wine.

shaw1That evening, we dined at their cozy Adelaide restaurant, Mother Vine, for dinner where we tried the 2009 M3 Chardonnay which was excellent as well as the 2009 Shiraz.  We also tried the 2014 La Linea Tempranillo which was also very good and unique for the region.  It was in the restaurant’s small but robust cellar that I discovered my new favorite “last dinner” wine: the 2011 Wendouree Cabernet Sauvignon but more on that later.

http://www.shawandsmith.com/

mollydThe next day we set off for Molly Dooker, which has a cultish following among its fans.  These are big, burly wines with high alcohol, huge color and flavor extraction, and bags of character with clever eye-catching labels. Molly Dooker also has one of the most stunning vineyards we saw with the ocean almost visible on a clear day.  My favorites here were the 2014 Blue Eyed Boy and the 2014 Velvet Glove (yes it comes in a velvet bag as well). The Velvet Glove is a hedonistic, densely textured wine with lush flavors of blackberry, licorice, clove, and chocolate.  The overall style of Molly Dooker is a big hit in the U.S. where robust wines like these became popular in the wake of wine critic Robert Parker.  Some of them are too over the top for me, but my palate has mellowed with age so maybe I’m missing something.  Molly Dooker even has a sparkling wine in the Verdelho Girl on the Go with 15% alcohol.  I don’t think I’ve encountered a sparkling wine with such high alcohol but it was well-integrated enough to not be apparent.

https://www.mollydookerwines.com/Default.aspx

mitolo4Our first evening was spent with Mitolo Wines which was one of my favorites of the trip from the overall perspectives of atmosphere, wine, and food.  Italian varieties are making more of an appearance in parts of Australia and we got to try the 2016 Jester Sangiovese Rosé here as well as several Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignon blends.  I loved the 2010 Jester Cabernet Sauvignon as well as the fascinating 2007 Serpico Cabernet Sauvignon which was made from 100% dried Cabernet Sauvignon grapes (amarone style) adding a luxurious richness and mouthcoating texture  to the plum, dried herb, and fig flavors.  One of our charming hosts, a vineyard grower, pronounced this wine “Glamour” saying “this wine is a cracker!”  I have to agree with him as it was one of my favorites of the trip.  Incidentally, there were a lot of hilarious “lost in translation” moments between the Aussie accents and ours as well as some different vocabulary choices – make sure you know what people are saying before responding!

http://www.mitolowines.com.au/

darenbuergThe next day we spent a rainy morning and lunch at d’Arenberg with one of the more humorous personalities of the trip, Chester d’Arenberg.  He is the one who walked us into the vineyards amidst pouring rain without batting an eye; his full commitment to winemaking readily apparent.  He said that McLaren Vale has a climate somewhere between that of the North and South Rhone for those of us challenged by southern latitudes.  We tried his well-known 2013 Dead Arm Shiraz, a fabulous sparkling wine called Polly, and an intriguing NV Nostalgia Rare Tawny Port (20.9% alcohol). Made in a semi-solera style (like Sherry) from mostly Grenache, this wine blends those of different ages (from 7 years old to 50 years old) to create the final wine.  This wine was a deep bronze color tasting of roasted walnuts, dried fruit and figs, and toffee butter notes.  He compared McLaren ports to Barossa saying that Barossa Ports tend to be richer, denser, and heavier with more pronounced tannins.  Port-style wines are a popular thing in Australia with many well-made and inexpensive options.

We also tried a Sauternes-style Semillon called the 2015 Noble (10.4% alcohol).  Chester said a Sauternes from Bordeaux would have higher alcohol (around 14%), higher acid, and lower residual sugar (120 g/L versus his 231 g/L).  Residual sugar is the reason these dessert wines taste so sweet but they typically have high enough acidity to balance this out so they don’t taste too cloying. To put the sweetness level in perspective, a dry table wine usually has under 4g/L of sugar.

http://www.darenberg.com.au/

yangarraOur next stop was Yangarra, a beautiful spot with elegant and poised wines.  Their vineyards lie in the most northern part of McLaren Vale where sea breezes and a cooler climate preside.  Two knockout wines of the trip came from here in the 2013 Ironheart Shiraz ($105) and the 2013 High Sands Grenache ($130).  I’m not usually fond of Grenache but this wine was ethereal with tense acidity, red and black fruit, complex spice, and dried herb flavors backed by atypically powerful tannins.  yang1

The Ironheart Shiraz was also a blockbuster with poised violet, Asian spice, and stony mineral notes overlaid with fine-grained tannins and a haunting finish.  Neither of these wines are everyday drinkers but in comparison to many Napa Cabernets, the quality is superb at this price point.  Incidentally Jackson Family Wines bought Yangarra in 2012 so you may see more of this brand in the U.S. (brilliant purchase by them).  We ended the night with Pavlova which is a killer dessert made of egg whites with a fruit and lemon center.

https://www.yangarra.com/