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



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



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



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.



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



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:

P.S. A recent Wall Street Journal article by Jason Gay ( 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

New Finds in Napa

Napa is always a fantastic wine destination (particularly in fall), and there is always something new to see there no matter how many times one visits.  Our latest visit was no exception with the great finds of Moone Tsai, Hoopes, and Copper Cane wineries.  We also saw Peju, Continuum, and had lunch with Michael Mondavi’s Animo team.  Due to a lot of rain (this is a good thing for Napa), we weren’t out in the vineyards much but still saw lots of glorious color.

continuum1We started at Continuum which I saw a few years ago when it first broke ground on Pritchard Hill. Now sporting cellars and tasting rooms along with that still-stunning view to the Pacific Ocean, we tried the 2013 Continuum (66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 21% Cabernet Franc, 4% Merlot, and 9% Petit Verdot) as well as the 2014 Novicium (74% Cabernet Franc, 15% Petit Verdot, 10% Merlot, and 1% Cabernet Sauvignon).  Novicium means “new or fresh wine” in Latin. The Continuum is meant for the long haul and is a dark dense beauty of all things black – cherry, earth, coffee, and cassis notes. The Novicium is drinking well now with floral, vegetal, and inky notes backed by firm acidity and smooth tannins. Tim Mondavi and his very accommodating family were most gracious as always and continue to produce knockout wines of elegance and balance.

hoopes2Our next stop was Hoopes which I’d not heard of but was thrilled to discover.  We spent a scintillating lunch with Lindsay Hoopes and Tim Gaiser (Master Sommelier) learning about the estate as well as how to be better tasters.  Try this trick the next time you drink wine: roll your eyes to the top of your head and try to smell at the same time.  It doesn’t work so well as one apparently loses their sense of smell while doing this.  Tim spent a lot of time tasting with a behavioral scientist and came away with all sorts of interesting findings including that good tasters move their eyes in the same pattern (usually to the left versus right) when in a groove tasting.

Lindsay got thrown into running the winery when her father became ill and has done a stellar job by the looks of things.  She has an all-female staff and is working on building a proper tasting room although we got to experience her mother’s warm and welcoming house which will be hard to beat.  The wines were among the most exciting from Napa that I’ve had in awhile.  The 2013 Hoopes Oakville Cabernet Sauvignon was lush with violets, graphite, and blueberry pie notes amid finely-grained tannins.  The 2013 Hoopes Dante’s Block Cabernet Sauvignon was also excellent tasting of black currant, mint, violets, and blackberry.  Both are full-bodied powerhouses yet also elegant.  I thought the Oakville Cabernet was a little more approachable now but hard to go wrong with either.  Lindsay and her team are also dabbling in Napa wine travel and possibly in-home wine tasting around the country.

We ended the day at Copper Cane which is the new brainchild of Joe Wagner. Joe also created Meiomi which Constellation Brands recently bought for $315 million. In his new venture, Joe is making Oregon Pinot Noir, Zinfandel, and sparkling wine among his other California wine offerings.  There is a reason Joe has gotten so much press – he is an unusual visionary and wise far beyond his years.  Every detail counts even down to the well-chosen names of his wines, all which have particular meaning attributed to the wine itself.  His Steorra (sparkling wine) means “star” in old English and is on the California flag, Beran (Zinfandel) means “bear” for the bear in the California flag, and Elouan (Pinot Noir) means “good light”. Not only is he fascinating to listen to, his wines are also intriguing.

Among the many wines we tried were a flight of 3 Pinot Noirs; a single-vineyard from Santa Maria Valley, CA (2015 Belle Glos Clark and Telephone), one from Russian River Valley, Sonoma (2015 Boen), and the last from Oregon (2014 Elouan).  The Elouan was higher in acid and the lowest in alcohol, being from a cooler climate, while the Russian River Valley Pinot had notes of cola and cherry.  The Santa Maria Pinot had the fullest body of the three, with the highest alcohol (14.9%) from the warmest growing site and notes of baking spice, blackberry, cranberry, and caramel.  This is a great exercise if you’re trying to determine what style of Pinot Noir you like as the spectrum moves from more savory and lighter-bodied to fruit-forward and full-bodied.  His Steorra sparkling wine was also terrific.

napafogThe next day we set out for a tasting with Moone-Tsai amidst dense Napa fog which only added to the mystique and allure of these beautiful wines.  Moone-Tsai’s vineyards are on Howell Mountain which has always been one of my favorite Napa appellations since my first visit to White Cottage Vineyards in 2011. I fell in love with it then and have remained enamored with wines from this AVA ever since.  Howell Mountain wines are like the yin and yang.  They are lush yet restrained, exuberant yet shy.  It’s no surprise then that Howell Mountain was actually the first AVA in California based on these unique growing traits.

Moone-Tsai is perched right on the edge of this historic mountain.  We spent an awe-inspiring morning with Mary Ann and Larry Tsai tasting through some of their wines.  Their 2014 Sonoma Coast Chardonnay was almost Burgundian-like in style with apple, white pepper, and lemon zest notes.  Despite 17 months of aging in 50% new French oak barrels, the oak was remarkably subtle with a creamy palate and long, elegant finish. This is a special Chardonnay and that’s saying a lot coming from me as Chardonnay is not my favorite variety.

We moved on to several Cabernet Sauvignon blends after that.  All of them were exceptional however my favorites were the 2013 Howell Mountain Hillside Blend (71% Merlot, 29% Cabernet Sauvignon) and the 2012 Cor Leonis Cabernet Sauvignon.  Howell Mountain does Merlot exceptionally well and that’s evident in the Hillside Blend which tasted of plum, roses, mint, and brambly black fruit.  The 2012 Cor Leonis (means “heart of the lion”) was more garnet in color and tasted of black currant, cocoa powder, and wet stone with sweet vanilla notes (from the 24 months in 90% new French oak).  Both of these wines will age another 12-15 years with the Cor Leonis easily lasting another decade.

There is something unique about the Howell Mountain tannins that always stick out for me as they are so finely- grained and almost sandy on the tongue.  This quality, along with the deep concentration and firm structure that are also trademarks of Howell Mountain, makes these wines among the best of Napa.

Animo Vineyard, Atlas Peak

Animo Vineyard, Atlas Peak

Our next stop was with Michael Mondavi and his Animo team at a Napa restaurant due to the heavy rain.  We also got to meet his new assistant winemaker, Sabrina Massola, who is a transplant from Mendoza, Argentina.  We tasted their 2013 and 2014 Cabernet Sauvignons which was interesting as the 2014 was the first vintage made by Sabrina. Her style was evident as the 2014 was unfined and a bit more savory, earthy, and restrained which I really liked.  Fining makes a wine more clear and bright and the 2014 was a bit more opaque and cloudy as a result of being unfined.  Fining is more of an aethestic thing as most consumers want clear wine but the process can also strip a wine of some flavor and color so winemakers differ in their opinions around this topic.  Both wines were fantastic; they just differed in style.

Sabrina brings a wealth of knowledge (and infectious enthusiasm) from her winemaking days in Mendoza and combined with Michael Mondavi’s long-running excellence, it should be a great partnership for years to come. It’s always impressive when a company so well-established continues to try to innovate and change even with wines that are working well.

peju1Our last winery of the trip was at Peju.  This idyllic spot is located in Rutherford Valley within Napa.  The winery sports a beautiful tower, stunning tasting room with Australian stone, and a nostalgic stained- glass window wall from Germany.  It’s a lovely and tranquil place to visit and taste wine.  Peju owns several other vineyards which allows them to make a wide variety of wines including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot, Muscat, Zinfandel, Syrah, Merlot, several sparkling and rosé wines, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon.

One of my favorites here was the 2013 Sketches I wine which was a blend of 57% Cabernet Sauvignon and 43% Merlot aged in equal parts French and American oak for 16 months.  This is a full bodied lush wine tasting of blackberry, cherry, cedar, and cocoa with another decade in front of it.  The sparkling wines were also very nice as were the 2013 Zinfandel and Cabernet Sauvignon.



12 Glasses and the MW Marathon

Anyone out there a wine-drinking runner?  Among my running friends, the two go hand-in-hand although it may seem an oxymoron to more hard-core athletes.  I’ve been thinking a lot about the parallels between marathon running and the Masters of Wine (MW) program in recent months since I got my Stage 1 exam results.  In the “you can’t make this stuff up” strange karma of life, I was in Germany visiting wineries with my Dad (courtesy of the MW Reh Kendermann bursary I had won earlier) when the results arrived.

I already knew what they would be thanks to a disastrous tasting exam on my part but humans have survived millenniums of time based on hope, as futile as that may be.  So I was suitably disappointed to find my instincts were correct and that I had to re-take Stage 1 but I was also happy to be given the opportunity to re-take it as not everyone gets that chance.  The MW program is not for the faint of heart and there is a reason that only 354 people worldwide  have passed in 60 years – it’s just hard.

I was sitting in one of the coziest B&Bs (HinterConti) in one of the most idyllic towns (Bretzenheim, Germany) with one of my most favorite people in the world (my Dad) when I read through the results.  To feel such disappointment amid all that goodness seemed surreal but it also helped numb the pain.  My Dad and I promptly headed for the B&B’s honor-system bar and poured some glorious German Rosé and Riesling.  While I wish it had been a celebration, I couldn’t be more grateful to be with my Dad in that moment.  First of all that he’s healthy and still likes to travel and second to be with someone who has cheered me on and up my entire life through all sorts of growing pains as well as celebrated many great moments with me along the way.  So it was strangely the perfect end to this first MW year (aside from the results of course).

Since then I’ve spent a lot of time figuring out what I did wrong, why or if I should continue, and also trying NOT to think about it and just keep going. This is where marathon running comes in.  I have been a runner most of my life starting from junior high track.  In college I started running longer distances and soon after got into marathon running which I still do today (or at least maintain the training for).  Any runner knows that once you’re in shape, running becomes more of a mental journey than a physical one. Quite simply, it’s hard to keep going when you’re in pain, are tired, lack motivation, or face inclement weather.  The only thing that gets you to the finish line of your goal or of the race is the strength of your mental desire.

You don’t have to be a fast runner to know how hard it is to finish a marathon.  In fact, it may be harder to be a slower marathon runner because it takes so much longer to finish.  Most humans weren’t really built to be running for 4-6 hours at any speed.  Finishing alone is a heroic feat but finishing in a time you want is even harder.  Half my running life I, like many others, chased what some view as the Holy Grail of running – qualifying for the Boston Marathon.  I finally got there in 2002 and while I’d like to say that happened because of sheer grit and determination, it was also a lot of luck.  Many things have to go right to run a consistently-timed marathon (weather, training, sleep, the natural biorhythms of one’s body, mental attitude, fitness, etc).  The day I qualified was actually more memorable and special than the day I ran the Boston Marathon with the exception of being with my Dad who met me at mile 17 near the Newton Hills to run in with me.


During all of this training, I started wondering why everyone cares so much about Boston.  I suppose it’s the history of the course, the challenge, and the fact that you have to qualify to run it meaning it’s a select few that ever get there.  And I wondered what is it about us that makes being in the elite few so interesting?  It’s the same question many ask about very difficult wine programs like the Court of Master Sommeliers or the MW program – why isn’t just knowing a lot about wine enough and why does one need this title to feel knowledgeable?

In the end, for me at least, it’s not about the title.  Sure, it’s a nice achievement just like running Boston was.  But the real win is in the mastery of the journey.  In running, there are few things more satisfying than running a consistently timed mile-by-mile race for 26.2 miles.  In order to achieve this, it means that you are running with patience, strength, experience, and utter control of your body and mind.  It doesn’t get any better than that with or without Boston.

On the MW front, it’s about knowing things off the top of your head like different grape varieties, where they originate, how certain wines are made, what vintages are special around the world, and how particular soils contribute to wine characteristics among many other things.  It’s about the sheer knowledge and depth and breadth of the wine world which is changing by the second.  In order to gain this knowledge, one also needs patience, dedication, mental strength, and experience as well as mind and body control (tasting is hard on the body too).

So while failing is not my favorite thing in the world, I remember that I’ve run 35 marathons with only 3 being Boston qualifiers but that I learned something valuable from each and every race.  Most importantly, I learned never to quit no matter how bad I feel.  There are lots of times you may not feel like you’re going to get there but you keep going anyway.  That’s how many running days feel.  But if you just don’t quit, you’ll eventually cross the finish line.  That’s true for almost anything in life not just the MW program or running a race.  So I’m starting Stage 1 again and I’m going to keep going.

Note: Please see the first post on the “12 Glasses” topic if you missed it. This will be a periodic and ongoing blog about what it’s like to be a student in the Institute of Masters of Wine Programme.


Australia’s Yarra Valley

VinYAWD Rain

VinYAWD Rain

Our recent Landry’s/Mortons trip to Australia was full of surprises, great humor, brilliant wines, and vast landscapes.  One of the best quotes of the trip which captured the feel of the trip came from winemaker Chester D’Arenburg on a torrentially rainy day in McLaren Vale:  “The rain is not coming down sideways so we are going into the vinYAWD.”  That, of course, meant there was a differentiation between rain pouring straight down and rain that’s coming at you sideways.  So off we went umbrellas in tow amid a mix of suppressed laughter and a few grimaces.

Australia was also an unexpected delight.  I say “unexpected” because I guess we are conditioned to think that places that speak the same language are less exotic than those that don’t, but that was not the case here.  Huge skies, panoramic views, and truly unique wines abounded in Australia.  We only had time for Melbourne’s Yarra Valley, McLaren Vale, and Barossa but each had knockout wines with special terroir features.

Yarra Valley

Yarra Valley

Yarra Valley was green and lush with rolling hills dotted with sheep and vibrant wines from Giant Steps, Levantine Hills, Fowles, Tahbilk, and De Bortoli.  It was also home to the Healesville Sanctuary which was a fantastic opportunity to see animals indigenous to Australia.  We got to pet and feed kangaroos, fawn over koalas, and see cartoon-inspired creatures like the Tasmanian Devil (which is quite small for all his big fame).

sunsetMcLaren Vale offered nostalgic sunsets just miles from the Southern Ocean.  Its wines are elegant and poised like the ones we sampled at Yangarra, Mitolo, and D’Arenburg.  Molly Dooker, the famous cult winery with the catchy labels and powerhouse reds, was also fascinating with breathtaking vineyards and family-style hospitality.  We also visited visit Shaw & Smith in the Adelaide Hills complete with wild kangaroos feeding on the outskirts of the tree-lined vineyard.



Barossa had sweeping beauty, rugged terrain, and big bold red wines with high alcohol to match but it was usually well integrated into the background.  Here we visited Two Hands, Torbreck, Tait, and St. Hallett.

Due to the length of the trip and the many wineries we visited I’m going to split this blog into the above three regions in separate installations.

Starting off with Yarra Valley, this wine region is just an hour from Melbourne and one that is justifiably experiencing a huge boom in tourism.  It’s an idyllic place with low rolling hills and wistful views. Being a cooler growing region, some of the predominant wines here are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and some sparkling wines but we also encountered elegant Syrah and brilliant Cabernet Sauvignon.

Giant Steps Winery

Giant Steps Winery

Giant Steps is a modern, charmingly chic yet slightly rustic winery and restaurant with freshly- made bread and pastries coming right off the wood fired grill.  This winery is a truly enjoyable place to while away an afternoon with fresh pizzas sipping fantastic wines.  I found a great freshness to the wines here with a backbone of minerality which seemed to thread through all of them.  One of my favorites was the 2015 Giant Steps Tarraford Vineyard Syrah ($50) which had lilac, white pepper, and spice notes on a silky palate backed by judiciously smooth tannins.  A less expensive but equally good option is the 2015 Giant Steps Yarra Valley Syrah ($35) which tasted of black raspberry, bay leaf, and sweet pepper.  The 2015 Giant Steps Harry’s Monster ($55) was likely my favorite which is a Bordeaux blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Petit Verdot.

levantinehillLevantine Hill has a cozy winery with sweeping vineyard views and knockout Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Shiraz, and sparkling wine.   The 2013 Levantine Hill Syrah was very good with notes of tar, blackberry, violet and black pepper amid smooth tannins and a medium plus finish. My favorite here was the 2013 Yarra Valley Estate Cabernet Sauvignon which tasted of blackberry, black currant anise, purple flowers, and “leafiness”.  “Leafiness” seems to be a term used in Australia for herbaceousness as I heard it a few times but is not to be confused with green or unripe fruit.

fowlesvinesFowles is located in the granite Strathbogie Ranges north of Yarra Valley.  This is an enchanting boulder-strewn land with decomposed granite soils which play a key role in Fowles’ award-winning wines.  Fowles also has a lamb farm and the estate has a lovely laid-back feel to it as any farm would.  My favorite wine here was the 2012 Cabernet Merlot which was a great blend of both grapes’ best traits – blackberry, plum, mint, and cassis with lively tannins and medium bodied in nature.

This winery stood out not only for its wines and outstanding food but also for their “Ladies That Shoot Their Lunch” brand which they cleverly worked into a trap shooting event with Olympic Double Trap Gold Medalist Russell Mark.  Russell was also accompanied by his wife, fellow Olympian Lauryn Mark, as well as James Willett and Laetitsha Scanlan (two other Olympians fresh off Rio). Getting to meet and be coached by actual Olympians in any sport was extremely cool.  The actual shooting part was a lot harder than it looked and the gun itself was quite heavy with a serious recoil for those of us who don’t hold a gun often (or ever).  They were all excellent coaches as evidenced by the fact that they shootwinegot even me to hit a target three times.

Our Olympians

Our Olympians

Russell and Lauryn have their own company and do many corporate events like this which are quite popular in Australia.  Ironically, Lauryn is from San Jose but after a few months training in Australia she fell in love with the country.




tahbilkTahbilk is the oldest winery in Victoria (one of 6 states in Australia) and has that old-world feel to it with dim cellars and 19th century architecture.  This winery has outstanding Shiraz and Cabernet along with the largest stock of Marsanne (as well as some of the world’s oldest Marsanne vines) that I’ve come across.  We actually did an entire flight of only Marsanne which most people have never heard of let alone tasted a full flight of.  It was fascinating to see how this Northern Rhone variety, rarely seen on its own, evolves with time into rich complexity. This was evident in the 1996 vintage which was a golden amber color and viscous in body with nuts, marmalade, and honey.  In contrast,  the much younger 2016 Marsanne was a pale lemon color with lime, citrus, and tropical pineapple flavors in comparison. Note that Australia has already completed their 2016 harvest because they are half a season ahead of us so don’t be surprised if you see Aussie wines (or any other from the Southern hemisphere) already on the 2016 vintage.

De Bortoli

De Bortoli

De Bortoli is perched on a hill and a 90-year-old family-owned property well known for their excellent wines.  They are possibly best known for their famous sweet wine, Noble One Botrytis Semillon, which is a Sauternes-like dessert wine rich in marmalade, dried apricot, and honey flavors.  There was a lot to like here including the 2016 Villages Heathcote Grenache Rosé ($20), the 2015 Riorret Lustia Park Pinot Noir ($42), the 2015 Vinoque Pinot Blanc ($25), and the 2015 Vinoque Same Same (an intriguing blend of Pinot Meunier, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Gris).

The 2015 Vinoque Same Same tasted of fresh cranberry, raspberry, and savory spice and was medium bodied with a pleasant lingering finish.  Whole-bunch pressing was used on 15-20% of the grapes in making this wine which means they were not destemmed at all.  This old winemaking technique is somewhat of a new trend lately and we heard a lot of it being done in Australia.  Whole-bunch pressing can create more complexity and freshness in the wine along with silkier tannins and perfume. Vinoque is De Bortoli’s “play” label where they test out new wines and see if the market responds to them.  Once they do, they move under the mainstream De Bortoli labels.

The 2016 Villages Heathcote Grenache Rosé was made in a dry Provence style with a pale salmon color, strawberry and dried herb flavors, zippy acid, and a tingling mineral finish. Dry rosés are quite popular in Australia and this one was superb.

One of my favorite wines of the trip was the De Bortoli 2013 Melba Reserve Yarra Valley Cabernet Sauvignon ($45) which I came home with a case of.  Tasting of mulberry, black plum, and “leafiness”, this wine is from 25-year-old vines and truly exceptional quality especially for the price.  I tasted it when it arrived at my house and it is one of those few wines that taste even better at home than it did in the idyllic site in which I found it.  That’s always the true test of a good wine!

Healesville Hotel

Healesville Hotel

The last place we visited in the Yarra Valley was the historic Healesville Hotel with its Quince restaurant.  It’s a must-see if you visit this area with its candle-filled rustic yet romantic dining room.  We had a fascinating tasting of Bordeaux blends by Mac Forbes along with absolutely amazing beef filet.  The Australian beef was some of the best I’ve had anywhere.  We tried the 2015 EB17 Lovechild which was fantastic as well as the 2013 Hugh.  Both wines went perfectly with the filet and it was hard to decide which was better although I think I swayed to the EB17 Lovechild.


Stay tuned for McLaren Vale coming next.