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).

 

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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/

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.

http://www.continuumestate.com/

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.

http://hoopesvineyard.com/

http://www.timgaiser.com/

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.

http://www.coppercane.com/

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.

http://www.moonetsai.com/

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.

http://www.michaelmondavifamilyestate.com/

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.

http://www.peju.com/

 

 

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.

boston103

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.

https://eodalton.wordpress.com/?s=12+glasses&submit=Search

 

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

Barossa

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.

koala1

Touring Germany’s Rheinhessen and Mosel regions

After such a fascinating visit with Reh Kendermann, we were excited to see more of Germany’s wines.   Our next stop was Weingut Hofmann, also in the Rheinhessen region.  Jürgen Hofmann (owner and winemaker) hosted us for at least half a day showering us with the widest range of dry Rieslings and German whites wines I’ve tried.  We tasted several interesting German varieties such as Silvaner, Scheurebe, Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), Grauerburgunder (Pinot Gris), as well as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  Jürgen specializes in dry (trocken) wines as do most winemakers in Rheinhessen.  His Rieslings were over-the-top spectacular, literally vibrating with electric acidity and brilliant minerality.  I don’t usually care for Chardonnay and even that was fantastic in a neutral-oaked style.

Willems & Hofmann Soils

Willems & Hofmann Soils

When young, Jürgen’s Rieslings exhibit a range of flavors such as spice, yellow fruit, citrus, and saline notes depending on what soil they came from.  Those grown on red slate like the 2015 Riesling “vom Rotliegenden” tasted of yellow peach and lime with firm structure on the palate.  Limestone soil yields more saline and minerality with great complexity and elegance.  Jürgen has 4 kinds of soils in his vineyards including limestone, volcanic, red slate, and blue slate (clockwise from right in picture).

There were so many excellent Rieslings it’s hard to name a favorite but one of them was definitely the 2015 Hundergulden Riesling which was dancing with minerality, saline notes, white flowers, savory spice and ended with a brilliantly crisp and lingering finish. Hundergulden Riesling

Another favorite was the 2015 Laurenzikapelle Sauvignon Blanc.  This was a complex wine with flavors of figs, coconut, yellow cake, and wet rocks due to 2 days of skin contact and aging in old barrels. Skin contact adds complexity and depth while old barrels round out the wine’s texture.   This was a Sauvignon Blanc like I’ve never tasted and one I wish I could taste on a daily basis.

We also got to try Jürgen’s 2015 Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) right out of the barrel which was also fantastic.  Whole bunch fermentation is used (literally using the entire grape cluster without de-stemming or crushing it) as the clusters end up crushing themselves which kicks off fermentation.  Many Pinot Noir winemakers prefer this process as it’s very gentle and results in delicate wines and fresh flavors.

Jürgen’s wife Carolin is also a renowned winemaker and makes wines at their other estate, Willems Willems, in the Saar region.  She makes a variety of Rieslings as well as many on the off-dry or sweeter side.  Several of these are sold in the U.S. so be on the lookout for them.  Americans tend to still prefer sweeter wines according to market data so most of the German wines we see here are in that category (unfortunately that means none of Jürgen’s wines are sold here yet).

Weingut Hofmann vines

Weingut Hofmann vines

Weingut Willems is a beautiful place to spend a morning with a striking and contemporary tasting room on the edge of a tiny town called Appenheim.  Stunning views and amazing hospitality abound and it was a phenomenal visit with wines I will never forget and hope to see again.

http://www.schiefer-trifft-muschelkalk.de/en/hofmann-zur-person.php

The next day we set off for the Mosel region.  An iconic region known for its grape-defying steep slopes and endlessly twisting Mosel River, this is a land of a million microclimates which produces truly special grapes.  A boat trip down the lazy Mosel River illustrates how the light changes constantly on the many angles of the slopes and river turns.  Add misty mornings and a large temperature range between day and night and you have one of the most unique wine-growing areas in the world (and also one of the furthest north at 50 degrees latitude).

If you drive in the Mosel region, be aware that all of those twists and turns make what looks like 45 miles on the map turn into 2 hours pretty easily but you can’t beat the beauty and absolute remoteness of the little roads leading from town to town.  There is a faster way via the A5 but you’d miss the sheer cliff drop-offs, lightly trickling waterfalls, and the soft-brown deer eyes I spotted watching us from the forest.  Thankfully she stayed in the forest.  And by all means get a GPS in your car as you won’t understand the ten-syllable pronunciations being called out and will need the step-by-step guide (unless you know German).

Bernkasteler Doctor vineyard in Mosel

Bernkasteler Doctor vineyard in Mosel

We made our way eventually to Weingut Selbach Oster in the charming riverside town of Zeltingen.  Another incredible visit awaited us with a tour by Barbara Selbach and a phenomenal tasting with Johannes Selbach.  I was once again blown away by the hospitality we were shown and the rich passion that these winemakers exude when showing and describing their wines.  Being in the Mosel with its unique climate and proximity to the river, this winery focuses more on off-dry and sweeter wines.  The Mosel is renowned for its sweet wines, many of which originate due to the cool and wet mornings which inspire botrytis.  Botrytis is a special mold also called “noble rot” that removes the water from the grapes and leaves only the sugar to concentrate and shrivel the grapes into a decadent form.

We tasted our way through a full range of Rieslings from dry to sweet.  They differed by vintage, growing site, and sweetness.  Sweeter styles are classified by increasing degrees of grape harvest sugar levels – Kabinett, Spätlese, Eiswein , Auslese, Beerenauslese, and Trockenbeerenauslese (TBA).  The difference between these categories is based on when the grapes were harvested (their sugar levels) and if the grapes were affected by botrytis.  Selbach Oster sources their grapes from 5 different vineyards located at various elevations and sun exposures along the Mosel River.    You can see the vineyards here:

http://www.selbach-oster.de/en/our-native-land.html

The 2014 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese Trocken was classically styled with a linear structure, vibrant acidity, and flavors of fresh grass, citrus, slight petrol, apricot and honey.  Made from ungrafted 70 year old vines, this is one of Selbach Oster’s top wines.  Priced at 14.5 Euros, this wine is also quite an incredible buy.  Alcohol was 12% with 7 grams of residual sugar per liter.

Selbach Oster wines

Selbach Oster wines

The 2013 Zeltinger Sonnenuhr Riesling Spätlese Feinherb (another term for “off-dry”) had a touch of botrytis in it which Johannes identified by the honey, smoke, and almost bacon-fat notes in it.  He said that botrytis makes a wine sweeter, fatter in body, and smokier tasting.  This wine also had a pleasant yeastiness on the nose along with dried apricots and marmalade.  Alcohol was 12.5% with residual sugar of 23 g/L.  Johannes said this wine would age 50 years!

One of the wines I’ll never forget was the 1976 Wehlener Hofberg Riesling Spätlese.  This deeply colored lemon gold wine was ethereal tasting of lemon, petrol, slate, lanolin, honey, savory spice, chicory, mango, and beeswax. You can tell by that long list of descriptors how unique and complex the wine was.  Utterly mouthcoating and lush in texture, it ended on a perfectly clean zippy finish due to Riesling’s characteristic high acid which helps a wine like this age so long and remain so fresh even after 40 years.  Alcohol was 9% with residual sugar of 60 g/L.  This wine was a masterpiece and Johannes told us that 1976 was a well-regarded year with high ripeness and relative opulence by Mosel standards. Be on the lookout for this vintage if you get to try or buy it.Selbach76

After the tasting, we headed to our second bed and breakfast which was in the idyllic town of Cochem and situated right along the Mosel River.  I did immense research before the trip on the best towns to stay in the Mosel area and opted for Cochem due to location, size, and proximity to boat rides, trains, and walkability.  It was a perfect choice for us.  We stayed in the Hotel Villa Vinum which was a fantastic spot, located about 5 minutes walk from the center of Cochem.  It has its own parking lot and modern, spacious rooms with balconies facing the Mosel River.  I highly recommend it (think there were 10 rooms) all with different décor.  Driving in the smaller towns is crowded and parking is hard to find so it was great to park at the hotel and not use the car for a few days.

Riverboats on the Mosel

Riverboats on the Mosel

Watching the river boats come in daily to dock for the night was fun and while there were many tourists in town from these boats during the day, the hoards thinned at night and it didn’t have an overly-crowded feeling even in mid-July.  Cochem has many good restaurants, wineries, and cute shops.  Castello and Ristorante da Vinci (oddly both Italian) were quite good.  Castello offers a lovely second floor patio and Ristorante da Vinci has a relaxing terrace overlooking the Mosel.  Dazert was an authentic German restaurant.  So authentic in fact that we had no idea what we was on the menu or what we were eating.  My dad knew a remarkable amount of German but the nuances of a menu eluded us both.  We ended up with the most interesting vegetable omelet I’ve had with the most sinful potatoes ever.  I’m not sure what they were fried in but they were outstanding.  We also started with an appetizer that we thought would be meatballs but it was more like spinach balls with meat on the outside.  I tried a glass of St. Laurent, a pale light-bodied red wine, which went well with the meal but didn’t have enough zip to try again.

I was pleasantly surprised how few people spoke English in the smaller towns like Cochem.  It felt like we were really in a different country which was nice.  Grapevines are sold all over town at wine shops and even at the gas stations.  Cochem has many terrific tasting rooms where you can just wander in and taste with no appointment.  One of the best was Weingut Walter Oster (no relation to above).  Once again the German hospitality appeared with our host pouring far more wines than we could drink.  We tried everything from sparkling wine (Sekt in Germany) to dry and sweet local varieties like Dornfelder, Muller Thurgau, and Silvaner as well as an eiswein (ice wine).  Ice wines are those made from grapes left on the vine to freeze through the winter.  They are magnificently concentrated, luscious, and exceptionally pure in flavors.

Cochem from Reichsburg Castle

Cochem from Reichsburg Castle

Reichsburg Castle

Reichsburg Castle

Other fun things to do in Cochem are to take a tour of the Reichsburg Castle (an hour in length), take a boat ride down the Mosel (many options from 1-hour to all-day cruises), and by all means don’t miss the bakeries which have beautiful mouthwatering pastries stacked high made from apples and marzipan.  Lastly consume all the beer and pretzels that you can.  I rarely drink beer as I’m a wine lover but the beers here are outstanding (and of course the giant pretzels).

 

Germany’s Reh Kendermann

The first time I saw a picture of the Mosel River with some of the world’s steepest vineyards clinging to its hillsides, Germany became an instant forerunner on my wine-travel bucket list. Anytime you study something deeply, you become fascinated with the nuances and outlying possibilities of the topic at hand.  For me, unique soil, climate, vineyard location, grapes, and culture all combine to make the most interesting wines and places to visit.  Germany has all of these and much more not to mention some of the most hospitable people I’ve met.

On a recent trip to the Rheinhessen and Mosel wine regions which I was fortunate enough to get to see through a bursary sponsored by Reh Kendermann in my Masters of Wine program, my great expectations were not only met but exceeded.  My father and I spent over a week touring the two regions which are about 45 minutes and 90 minutes respectively from Frankfurt.

HintercontiOur trip started at the Hinterconti Bed and Breakfast in Bretzenheim, a short drive from Bingen and Reh Kendermann’s property in Rheinhessen.  A lovelier host and cozier accommodations would be hard to find.  Kristina, the owner, is a bundle of warmth and energy with great attention to detail which is plainly obvious in her modern oversized rooms, the beautifully rustic and chic bar and dining areas, and her amazing wine selections which she handpicks herself.  She regularly visits local wineries and selects her favorites for the bed and breakfast.  hinter3

We were extremely fortunate benefactors of her fantastic taste and her wines were some of our favorites of the trip.  I fell in love with Gebruderkauer’s  Secco and Rosé.  My dad’s favorite was her Jakob Schneider Riesling.  The Secco is a lightly sparkling wine made from Riesling and Scheurebe grapes while the Rosé is made from Spatburgunder (Pinot Noir).  Some of our most tranquil trip moments were spent on her terrace patio sipping these refreshing and lively wines with singing minerality.

http://hinterconti.com/

bretzBretzenheim itself is also charming.  It is a tiny town, so quiet at night that you can hear voices down the road.  Grapevines form arbors over many of the streets and old red brick walls line the sidewalks.  Biking and hiking trails abound in Germany and the one leading out of Bretzenheim took us to a stunning mustard-colored field of swaying wheat. wheat

There are also several good restaurants. Taverna Tipota (Greek) offers the most beautiful vine covered patio I’ve seen.  With vines well over 50 years old, it’s a cool respite from the summer heat with very good food.  The Italian place just next door to Hinterconti is run by a native Italian and his personable Croatian wife.  The food was fantastic and very authentic.  I even had an Italian after-dinner drink with raisins that I’d never seen before.  Patios reign in this part of Germany and this was another very pleasant area to while away the time.  Weinguts (wine tasting rooms) line the streets and I wish we’d raisindrinkhad more time to investigate them.

Rheinhessen itself is one of 13 Anbaugebietes (Germany quality wine regions) and is sometimes overlooked  due to its famous Mosel and Rheingau neighbors to the west and north but it shouldn’t be.  Some of the most exciting German wines are coming from this region due to an infusion of young winemakers and the revival of some historic properties.  At the center of this region is Reh Kendermann which is a bit like the Gallo of Germany with its immense creativity, attention to quality, and incredible product portfolio.  They also have many brands that belong to them but are not labeled with the Reh Kendermann name so their presence is much larger than it might appear.

Alison Flemming (one of the few Masters of Wine in Germany and Export Director) hosted us with her incredible team at Reh Kendermann for the better part of a day.  We started with a true MW tasting exercise, complete with actual questions we’d see on an exam (I think my Dad has even more respect for the MW program after attempting this exercise himself!).  She told us a few key things about Rieslings:

  • If the wine is sweet, it is most likely to be from the Mosel. Rheingau does do some sweet wines occasionally but it would be more unusual for other German wine-producing regions to produce them.
  • Mosel Rieslings will taste more earthy and mineral, often with a “petrolly” character to them while Rheingau will exhibit more yellow fruit flavors. Sweet Mosel Riesling will have lower alcohol as the yeast simply can’t convert the high sugar levels to alcohol (fermentation will stop naturally).
  • Sweet Sauternes will never taste as fresh as a sweet Riesling due to the high acidity in Riesling.
  • Botrytis wines made in a wet year will show more fungal notes in them.

kalkThe first flight was a fascinating set of two Sauvignon Blancs (yes Germany does very well with this varietal) and a Grauerburgunder (Pinot Gris).  The 2015 Sauvignon Blanc Kalkstein from Pfalz (a region further south) had zippy acid, savory herb aromas, and classic flavors of grapefruit and lime.  Made from Kalkstein (limestone soil), I initially thought it was from New Zealand due to its exuberant profile.  The other Sauvignon Blanc was Reh Kendermann’s 2015 Island Bay from Marlborough, NZ which was paler in lemon color with bright citrus fruit, zesty acid, and grassy flavors.

The 2015 Grauerburgunder vom Kalkstein was also from Pfalz and was a harmonious balance of citrus, tropical fruit, and wet stone flavors backed up by medium acid and a round body.   2015 was a relatively early harvest from early September.  2016 conditions were cool and rainy in May and June but warm and sunny weather in July and August should mean the grapes are picked from mid September.  Incidentally we were told that “dry” German wines typically have around 7 g/L of sugar in them, slightly more than other dry wines, as this is a kind of “sweet spot”.

The second flight featured 6 different kinds of Riesling, one of the most fascinating exercises of all.  Riesling can be dry or sweet with everything in-between.  We tasted two dry Rieslings in the 2015 Riesling Roter Hang, Rheinhessen and the 2015 Kalkstein Riesling, Pfalz.  The first was grown on red slate (helps with earlier drinking) and was bone-dry on the palate with robust creamy texture.  The second was also bone-dry with crisp acidity and medium aromas of lemon juice and ripe yellow fruit.

The 2013 Oppenheimer Riesling trocken was a more vivid lemon gold in color with petrol and tart fruit notes from the cool 2013 vintage.  The palate was slightly off-dry and exhibited yogurt notes due to partial malolactic fermentation (rare for a Riesling) along with subtle toastiness and elegant acidity.

On the sweeter side, we tried the 2015 Kendermanns Riesling, Mosel  (45 g/L sugar), the 2015 Signature Auslese (70 g/L sugar), and the 2005 Leiwener Laurentiuslay Riesling Beerenauslese, Mosel (160 g/L sugar).  All were around 8% alcohol. The Kendermanns Riesling tasted of dried peaches and apricots with earthy slate notes. Its yeasty character revealed its youth.

The Signature Auslese had some fizz to it from residual CO2 and tasted of ripe fruit, apricot, and petrol.  Very refreshing and lively style.

The Leiwener Laurentiuslay Riesling was lemon gold in color with medium plus aromas of marmalade and apricot with botrytis touches (honey).  This was an elegant and well structured wine with dense complexity and a long finish. 2005 was a perfect year for botrytis according to Alison and this wine was one of the last vintages made from old vines on guyot trellises.

Reh Kendermann – The Company rehlogo

Reh Kendermann has the most awarded wines in Germany (901) and won the best Riesling award in 2012 and 2013.  It is also one of the largest wineries in Germany and makes a large amount of private labels as well as contract bottling.  The company is at the very forefront of innovation and yet is a historic one dating from 1920 with Carl Reh’s founding of a trading company for grapes, must, and wine in the Mosel region.  It was one of the most fascinating winery visits I have done due to its cutting edge technology, future vision, wide brand portfolio, and the number of highly creative projects going on within the business.

Reh Kendermann has a diverse and expansive portfolio of wines and brands with a total annual production of 45 million bottles coming from 4 modern facilities.  60% of their wines stay in Germany with 11% going to New World countries and 23% going to other European countries.  The other 6% is made up of de-alcoholized wine.   The U.K. is the key export market with Scandinavia, Canada, and the U.S. being continual markets of interest as well as Japan.  Wines are made in sizes from 18.7 cl up to 1.5L and some are also packaged in bag-in-box (very popular in Scandinavia).  Only 20 different bottles are used in order to maximize efficiency and production.

The Kendermanns line is made up of modern easy-drinking wines while the Carl Reh line comprises more traditional styles.  Reh Kenderman’s portfolio also includes the Romanian brand Val Duna (Merlot and Pinot Grigio), Waka Waka (South African Sauvignon Blanc/Chenin Blanc blend and Shiraz/Cabernet Sauvignon blend), and Fern Point (New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc).  Bottling is done within the country of production for all of Reh Kendermann’s wines as they believe this gives the producers more credibility.

blacktowerTheir biggest brand of all is Black Tower which is also the number one brand from Germany, selling over 15 million bottles annually.  This long running brand was founded in 1967 in a black ceramic bottle.  There have been many bottle iterations over the past 49 years but the black bottle has always been preserved in some way.  In 2010, there was another bottle change to make it appear more contemporary (now only the top half of the bottle is black) and the logo itself was feminized a bit in 2016 to look softer.  Young people think Black Tower is an old fashioned brand which is why some of the above changes were made.  A special campaign focused on millennials (the WOW campaign) is currently underway in an effort to attract this key demographic group to Black Tower for the first time. The U.K., Ireland, Canada, and Scandinavia are the biggest markets for Black Tower.

Reh Kendermann does a tremendous amount of market research and has special offerings for the current trends of low alcohol and Kosher wines.  They are working with the U.K. Weight Watchers group on a wine with lower alcohol and hence fewer calories which is highly attractive to consumers both from the health and lifestyle point of view.

Reh Kendermann also makes an alcohol-free wine called Ebony Vale which is made from normally fermented wine and then de-alcoholized very gently by vacuum distillation at 32°C.  Their winemakers believe that the taste is much better deriving from real wine versus water and wine which is how some of these wines are made.

Kosher wines are also produced and sold most commonly to the U.S., U.K., and Israel.  In order to be Kosher, these wines must be heated at some point above 90 degrees Celsius for just a few minutes.  When I asked about the impact of the heat on the wine, Alison said that the wine can taste a little bit less bright and less aromatic but other than that, they show very well.  These wines also have 15 g/L Residual Sugar. rehuksummerlaterose

Another fun category is “trendsetting” wines.  These range from Rosé (made from Portugieser, Pinot Noir, and Dornfelder), Black Tower Bubbly, B by Black Tower Fruitiful and Handwerk Red wine blend (Dornfelder and Cabernet crossings).

One of my favorite brands was Reh Kendermann’s Soil Series.  This is a brilliant effort at making the wines easier to understand to consumers as well as to educate the public in a simple way about the wines and what makes them special.  Grauerburgunder Kalkstein (limestone) and Riesling Löss (loess) are two examples of this product line.  They each have a highly attractive and sleek picture of their respective soils as well as the variety name on the bottle.  The wines themselves are excellent, tasting of classic minerality and freshness.

rehuksummerrose rehwinterrivanerAnother creative thing that Reh Kendermann does exceptionally well is to issue collectors bottles  which they do 3-5 times a year with all kinds of themes from special events to seasonal commemorations.  The bottles are simply beautiful and so eye-catching with vivid colors and lovely designs done by their own in-house label designer.  Production is around 10,000 bottles.

Reh Kendermann’s logo itself is quite catchy which I inquired about.  The black castle is taken from a tower in Rheinhessen where an evil ruler was killed by mice when he wouldn’t give the locals grain from his store in the castle during a poor harvest.  “Reh” itself means deer and is also the surname of Carl Reh, the owner of the company.  As of 2016, the logo has been revised to make the stationary deer look to be leaping as a sign of the company continuing to make progress and innovation.

From a winemaking perspective, Reh Kendermann has a 25 million liter capacity for wine making and tries to purchase as many grapes and must as possible in order to better control production.  Ready-made wine is also purchased but only from long term partners whom they trust and with a strict selection process.  500 contract growers contribute grapes to Reh Kendermann (as they have few vineyards themselves) and grower-vineyard plots are very small. Average grape price per kilo was 1 Euro in 2013 and was 0.6 Euro in 2015 with much price volatility recently.  Only 10,000L are made from Reh Kendermann’s own vineyards. _J0A6654

Another asset of the company is having 3 crushing stations and vinification plants all within one hour of their winery as this ensures the freshest fruit and least amount of grape damage during transportation.  They are certified organic producers and bottlers which is quite impressive for such a large company. Reh Kendermann is also highly committed to sustainability and has implemented many energy saving and CO2 reduction practices. Glass, aluminum, paper, and plastic are all recycled.

RehxmashouseQuality Control is of utmost concern at Reh Kendermann and they have an incredibly advanced, highly automated winery.  They keep samples of every single bottle batch made (1 case batch per bottling) which are then stored in a warehouse.  These are required to be kept for 2 years but Reh Kendermann keeps them for 3.  If there are customer complaints, they can then compare the sample to the issue and see if the issue was from Reh or in the storage/transport since leaving Reh.  Aging tests are also run on these samples to see how the wines evolve.  There have been no justified callbacks since 2000.  “Always test the test” is their motto.

Here are some of Reh Kendermann’s wines (priced $7-$15) that can be purchased in the U.S.: rehrivaner

Carl Reh Riesling, Carl Reh Sweet Red, Carl Reh Riesling Spätlese, Black Tower Rivaner, Black Tower Riesling, Black Tower Fruity White, and Black Tower Smooth Red.

Before I left for Germany, my mother-in-law asked me if there were any good wines in Germany (she’s a die-hard red wine drinker).  I laughed and said “well of course there are!”  As you can see from this in-depth visit with Reh Kendermann, there are not only fantastic wines but also an incredible focus on quality and creativity.  Just as Gallo is one of America’s great stories, Reh Kendermann is definitely one of Germany’s.

http://www.reh-kendermann.com/

rehwinmakers

12 Glasses and Karate (Part 3)

In some ways it has been such a fast year from getting accepted into the prestigious Masters of Wine (MW) program to now, just 9 days before the first year exam on June 6. In other ways, an incredible amount has happened. It’s been an intriguing mix of euphoria, frustration, fascination, angst, and gratification. One of the program’s side benefits was explained to us on Day 1 at our Introductory Seminar which is the amazing people you meet in the process. That has definitely proven true. From the wide range of diverse new friends I now have to the many winemakers, vineyard managers, and wine industry leaders we have been introduced to, these are contacts that can’t be made elsewhere. And similarly to any bonds formed in challenging situations, some of these will last a lifetime.

We also saw beautiful new places and vineyards through the unique eyes of those that know the land and grapes best. From the historical grandeur of Bordeaux to the gravity-defying terraces of Portugal, there is no better teacher than travel to absorb the nuances of a place. These too were opportunities that would be hard to come by without being in a learning program like this.

Education wise, I know I’ve learned a ton but in some ways I feel like I know less than ever. I told this to a friend of mine who is a philosophy professor. He said “ah you’re being torpified”. When I inquired what this was, he said that this is a theory posed by Plato (through his “mouthpiece” Socrates) about how, in order to gain knowledge, one’s current opinion or set of opinions must be broken down or disassembled in order to clear the way for genuine knowledge. A visual analogy of this comes from The Karate Kid in the “Wax on, Wax off” scene where Ralph Macchio is taught higher level karate steps through “sanding the floor” and other household chores by his wise teacher (Pat Morita).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bg21M2zwG9Q

This process is definitely true with the writing style required by MW on essays. The general format of an MW essay sounds simple but is harder to do in practice. It’s basically:

  • Intro with road map of the essay
  • Paragraphs with this structure:
  • Topic sentence
  • Explain that sentence
  • Explain further and add a global example
  • Give your own view which shows critical analysis and evidence of analytical thinking
  • Final sentence should tie back to the topic sentence and the initial question
  • Summary and conclusion

The trick is that the topic can be literally anything related to wine and that the time limit imposed is challenging. For our first year exam, we only have two essays with an hour to do each. We also have a flight of 12 blind wines including white, red, rosé, sparkling, sweet, Port, Sherry, and Madeira with a time limit of 2:15. It does seem that the more wines you taste and the broader your option pool gets, the more difficult it is to nail these wines. So I’ve also learned the concept of torpification along the way.

A lot of people have asked me what the test will be like. First off, we need to bring our 12 glasses, our own spittoons (colored plastic cups for me), black pens if we’re writing, and paper for notes and outlines. Other preparation tips involve being careful of fragrant shampoos or anything with a noticeable smell. A spritz of perfume or cologne would send your peers into a tizzy as these things heavily interfere with smelling and tasting wine.

One of my friends said another student got annoyed with the way his pen clicked so you can see the level of stress and potential annoyances. I saw one guy in a course day wearing headphones attached to nothing to block out sound so everyone has their own game day prep. Come to think of it I’ve done that myself on planes but that’s a different story.

There are some foods known to coat (therefore deaden) the palate such as eggs and peanut butter so those are things to avoid as well. One other consideration is coffee which for some, like me, can skew tasting. Since we have limited ability and time to go to the bathroom that’s a good thing to skip anyway.

We’ve been told to taste a neutral white wine before coming to the test so that the first wine we taste is not in the exam. Mornings are best to taste because your palate is clean and alive. The downside of this is when you taste a wine in the morning it can taste much harsher or more acidic than it really is thus skewing your view on what the wine may be.

We need to arrive about 45 minutes early to pour our wines and set up our computers. This is the first year that computers will be allowed in order to take the test. The pros of this are that many of us have terrible handwriting after years of using computers and that most people can type faster than write which is crucial during a timed test.

The con is that 12 glasses of wine in a tight space with a computer is a potential disaster (spillage) as well as the fact that since it’s the first time, you never know how a computer will behave. What you don’t want is some technical issue half-way through causing you to lose your work and then not having enough time to hand-write it out again. Big bags/backpacks are lethal in these rooms as they tend to wipe things out without the wearer realizing it. But hopefully all will go well for us.

Someone asked me why we pour our own wines. I have never actually asked that question but I suspect it is so that we each bear accountability for getting the correct wine in the correct glass. The wines are in plain green bottles or foil wrapped bags with numbers on each. You can tag your glasses or write numbers on them but the main thing is to know which wine is which however you choose to do it. You also need to pour enough of a sample to get a good feel for its color, viscosity, and obviously taste.

After the tasting portion, we’ll have about 90 minutes to regroup our brains then head back for the two essays. Once the exam is over we’ll get notified by mid-July if we passed, didn’t pass but can re-take Stage One again, or failed badly enough to have to leave the program for a few years. I don’t know what the pass rate is for the first year exam but it seems lower than I initially thought based on the folks I’ve talked to around the world.

In any event, it’s been a thrilling ride and an incredible year. I’m excited to keep learning about wine and to see how the journey unfolds. For now though, I have to get back to “sanding the floor”.  Please wish us luck!

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.

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