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.


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.

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:

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.

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.


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).

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.




Portugal – Tongs, Terraces, and Pipes – oh my!

Where do you go to see a bottle opened with scalding hot tongs, grapes planted on steep stone terraces, and barrels called pipes?  Answer: The Douro region in Portugal.  The Douro is home to Port, one of the most beloved fortified wines in the world.   This northeastern Portuguese region runs alongside the Douro River (which is a continuation of the Duero River from Spain).  It’s an incredibly diverse climate just east of the Marao Mountains which protect it from Atlantic sea breezes making it the only hot mountain viticultural site in the world.  And hot it is. The Douro relies on rain during winter and early spring to sustain it through summer and fall.  Summer temperatures are regularly over 100 degrees and continue to increase due to global warming. How do grapes survive this dry and arid heat?  By growing on steep slopes at altitudes of 500-1300 feet and by being some of the most unique and heat-resistant grape varieties in the world.  These are unusual grapes you rarely see elsewhere and include Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz (Tempranillo), Tinta Barroca, and Tinta Cão among others.  These varieties are used for Port wines but they are also made into exceptional red wines which I’ve long been a fan of.

douro1 noval  Douro River and Region

The Douro trip was another Masters of Wine sponsored event in conjunction with the executives of Taylor Fladgate, Symington, and Quinta do Noval companies – all world renowned Port houses.  It was an exceptional opportunity to get a behind-the-scenes look at how Port is made.  The Douro is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is one of the most fascinating and beautiful wine regions to visit.  We started off with an over-the-top stay at The Yeatman hotel in Porto.  The Yeatman is the brainchild of Adrian Bridge (CEO of Taylor Fladgate) and is thoroughly unique in being a luxury hotel but also a museum and almost shrine to Port as well as Portuguese wines in general.  It does a remarkable job of educating the visitor through regional wine maps posted subtly throughout the long hallways, a mini cork display (most of the world’s cork also comes from Portugal), and a phenomenal wine shop in the hotel that has incredible wines from all over Portugal.  It also has the only wine bar I’ve seen with 82 wines by-the-glass (Portuguese of course) enabling people to try many things they’ve never even heard of before.  I can’t say enough positive things about this hotel and my only regret was not being able to stay there longer.  The rooms were spectacular as well – there are only 82- and each is named after a Portuguese wine. I was in room number 2 (Vale dos Ares) which had an expansive patio overlooking the Douro River.  It was one of the best hotel experiences I’ve ever had.

yeatmanhall yeatmanpatio The Yeatman

Porto itself is a charming town situated right on the banks of the Douro River with steep inclines every which way you turn (think San Francisco but steeper).  The buildings are bright white with rust colored roofs and paint a striking backdrop to the ambling river (very wide at this point) and nostalgic barcos rabelos boats that used to transport Port from the Douro region to Porto to age.  These are distinctive vessels with great history – the earliest references to them dating from 1200.  Their flat bottoms and long oars enabled them to pass through the highly turbulent, narrow, and at times shallow obstacles of the dangerous Douro River.  Countless sailors died over the years bringing Port to lodges in Vila Nova de Gaia (where The Yeatman is located) and the place where Port has historically been blended, aged, and bottled due to its humid and cooler climate. The Port lodges are still visible along the river and are still used although Quinta do Noval is currently aging their Ports onsite in the Douro region now that temperature control and more modern technology exist.

portoPart of what makes Port so special are the grapes used to make it.  All are indigenous to Portugal and seldom seen elsewhere.  The grape grown most is Touriga Francesa which adds structure and an exotic floral note to wines.  Touriga Nacional is possibly the most renowned grape and adds tannin, color, and structure to wines due to its small thick-skinned berries.  It is a low yielding grape and doesn’t like heat as much. Winemakers there compared Touriga Franca to Merlot (more feminine) and Touriga Nacional to Cabernet Sauvignon (masculine).   Tinta Barroca prefers cool north facing sites and adds more color than tannin to a wine.  Tinta Cão is the most heat resistant grape of all and contributes a velvety texture.  Another indigenous grape, Sousão, is being grown more and adds acid as well as an exotic note to Bomfim wines.  Touriga Francesa, Tinta Roriz, and Tinta Barroca typically make up the majority of a Port blend.

Another reason that Port is special is the way the wine is made.  The grapes are harvested and then foot-trodden in granite lagares (wide shallow tanks) or modern steel tanks.  Harvesters  hop in up to their knees and walk back and forth over the grapes in order to provide a gentle grape extraction without breaking the more tannic seeds or pips.  As much fun as this sounds, it is hard work and the workers do this for 4 hours a night over 2-3 weeks as the grapes come in.  Fermentation kicks off the next day when yeast is added to the grapes.  Normal table wines are fermented all the way dry which means the yeast used in the fermentation eats up all of the sugar and converts it to alcohol.  The difference with Port is that a grape spirit of 77% alcohol is added to the fermentation while there is still sugar left.  This fortification halts the fermentation due to the high alcohol which kills the yeast and preserves the sweetness that is a trademark of Port.  After a few months of settling, a determination is made based on tannin and structure levels if the wine is best suited for a Tawny, Vintage, Late Bottled Vintage or Ruby Port.  Based on this decision, the wine will be aged differently and for different lengths of time.

Granite lagar

Granite lagar

Rubies are the youngest, fruitiest, and intended for early drinking (also the cheapest Ports).  Reserve Ruby Port is a higher quality version of the Ruby and is typically made by blending a variety of vintages with an average age of 5-7 years. They are still fruit-forward Ports but have more complexity and structure than a Ruby due to the extra time in cask.

Tawnies are aged the longest in neutral, old wood and become tawny in color with aromas of nuts, dried apricot, and marmalade from oak aging.  These wines will often be labeled 10, 20, 30, or 40 years old.  This age designation is not the age of the wine but the average age of the wines in the blend.  We were told that Tawnies are made by the winemaker while Vintage Ports are made in the vineyard.  The art of blending a Tawny is extremely difficult and takes years of experience to master.  A related wine is the Colheita which is a Tawny Port from a single vintage and aged at least 7 years in oak.  Pipes (average size of 550L) are used to age most Tawnies.  These look similar to typical French barriques but hold twice as much and have slightly pointed or tapered ends. Tawnies are ready to drink upon opening as they are filtered and fined during the winemaking process. They will last several weeks after opening as they are more resistant to air.

pipeVintage Ports, the holy grail of Port, are those made in such exceptional years that the Port houses agree to “declare” a vintage. All of the grapes will come from that year and these Ports are aged two years in oak with the remaining time in bottle (20-50 years worth).  Long bottle-age gives these wines a deep purple ruby color, intense freshness, more concentrated fruit flavors, and rich complexity and depth.  Late Bottled Vintage Ports are aged in wood 4-6 years and then bottled.  They are similar to Vintage in color and some flavors but much less complex.  Vintage Ports need to be decanted as they are unfiltered and unfined (will have sediment).  Vintage Ports will only keep about 2 days after opening as they are not used to air and oxidize quickly.  These are rare animals with high prices; however compared to other famous wines like Burgundy and Bordeaux, they can actually be great deals for the quality level.  The 2011 was the most recently declared vintage and is already difficult to find.  Other recent declared vintages were 2009, 2007, 2003, 2000 1997, 1994, 1992, 1985, 1983, 1980, 1977, 1970, and 1966.

We tried many Ports and it was amazing to taste the differences in house style among them.  Taylor Fladgate owns Fonseca, Croft, and of course Taylor Fladgate (the most famous for long-aged Tawny Ports).  Symington owns Dow’s, Graham’s, Warre’s, and Cockburn’s.  Quinta do Noval is famous for their same-named Ports and particularly those of the famous Nacional vineyard.

12portsFrom my perspective, if you’re comparing Vintage Ports, I find Fonseca’s style the sweetest and richest followed by Graham’s.  Dow’s is the driest style with Warre’s and Taylor Fladgate somewhere in the middle.  We got to taste the 1978, 1988, 1998, and 2008 Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim which were fascinating to see the age evolution.  Oddly enough I found that I liked the 1988 and 1998 the best.  The 1978 was almost over the top in complexity and spice and took more concentration to drink. Taylor Fladgate is also well known for their supremely complex Tawny Ports and I’ve always loved them.  10 year old Tawnies are usually good but for the minimal uptick in price, a 20 year old delivers much better quality and overall value.  Quinta do Noval has a thoroughly unique style that seems to have an attractive vein of minerality running through many of their wines. They are exceptionally well made and world renowned as well.  Some of my trip favorites were:  Warre’s Quinta do Cavadinha Vintage 2001, Warre’s Vintage 2000, Dow’s Vintage 2007, Taylor’s 20 year old Tawny, Graham’s Quinta doc Malvedos Vintage 2004, Quinta do Noval Vintage 2007, Dow’s Quinta do Bomfim Vintage 1988, Graham’s Vintage 2011, and Taylor Fladgate Vintage 1970.

Fonseca  Fonseca grapes

One of the many highpoints of the trip was getting to stay at the Quintas (means “farm” in Portuguese).  We stayed at Quinta do Bomfim in the Cima Corgo (middle region of the Douro) and Quinta do Vargellas in the Douro Superior (furthest east region of the Douro).  Both of these were spectacularly beautiful and there’s nothing like waking up to stunning terraced vineyards dotting the landscape.  At Vargellas, I was also treated to blooming orange trees, wisteria, and lemon trees right outside my window.  The smell of orange tree flowers is truly intoxicating.  Grapes are grown on old stone terraces called socalcos which took incredible amounts of human labor to establish hundreds of years ago.  They are nostalgic structures yet expensive to maintain as well as erosion prone. Because of this, many vineyards are using a planting system called vinha ao alto now which means “vertical planting” where the vine is literally planted in a straight line up the hill.  You can see these vineyards right next to the socalcos.  Vertical planting helps with drainage and erosion which are both huge concerns in this area.  We also saw patamares which are modern terraces but not edged with stones.  These are made by bulldozers but also present erosion problems. Schist soil dominates with some clay and huge craggy boulders dot the landscape.  This stone was used to build the socalcos years ago.

orange   terrace  Stone terraces

bomfim  Vertical planting at Bomfim

At Vargellas we also experienced tonging which was a first for all of us.  Traditionally, Port was opened with long tongs heated in a fireplace.  We tried this on a 1987 Quinta do Vargellas Vintage Port and a 1977 Taylor Fladgate Vintage Port.  The two- foot- long iron tongs are placed in the fireplace for about 20 minutes making them really hot.  Then the tongs are placed around the neck of the bottle about 2 inches from the top – snugly but not too tight.  After about 30 seconds, if it’s done right, you hear a clink like when two people toast glasses and the bottle top shears cleanly off. If it’s not done correctly, like our second bottle, you have to keep trying and pray that you’re not ruining a classic Vintage Port!  We finally got the top off the second bottle after three tries and great anxiety.  I would not recommend trying this without experienced help. Incidentally, both of these Ports were among the best of the trip, particularly the 1977, which is also a favorite vintage among connoisseurs.  This Port was perfectly integrated with dense black fruit, wafting violets, earthy minerals, and spice notes. It had explosive flavor yet was highly elegant with haunting layers of complexity that lingered persistently on.

tong  vargel1  Tonging and Vargellas

The same grapes used to make Port are also made into dry (not sweet) red wines of exceptional quality. Taylor Fladgate has chosen not to make dry wines and focuses solely on Port production but Symington and Quinta do Noval make dry reds.  From Symington, one of my favorites is Chryseia and its lower priced sister, Post Scriptum. These are etheral wines with great complexity, depth, and concentrated black fruit and mineral flavors.   Binnys has both from time to time. Symington also has the excellent 2012 Quinta do Vesuvio as well as a lovely white wine called 2013 Altano.  This is a beautiful blend of 4 Portuguese white grapes – Viosinho, Rabigato, Malvasia, and Gouveio – which is a crisp lively wine that would appeal to anyone who likes Sauvignon Blanc or unoaked Chardonnay.

While Taylors doesn’t make dry red wine, they do distribute wine for other wineries.  We tried several fantastic ones from their collection including the 2013 Crasto Superior Douro, 2011 Quinta Pessegueiro, and 2011 Grainha Reserva.  The latter is a touch fruitier than the Pessaquero but I loved them both.  At The Yeatman wine bar I also really enjoyed the 2008 VT Douro Tinto and the deeply complex 2010 Quinta do Crasto. If you’re a Pinot Noir fan, you should try the 2012 CARM Reserva as it has some similar flavors.

As you can see, there are many beautiful reasons to visit the Douro.  Wine tourism is still relatively young there but you can visit several of the lodges in Porto as well as several quintas (including Quinta do Bomfim and Fonseca’s Quinta do Panascal) in the Douro.  A friend of mine used the tour company below to set up a Douro day tour and was very happy with the experience.  The folks at the Yeatman can also help plan tours if you start there. By the way, if you go, make sure you pass the Port (and anything else edible) to the left otherwise you may be referred to as the “Bishop of Norwich”.  Legend has it that the Bishop used to famously fall asleep (or pretend to) when the Port got to him enabling him to keep more for himself.

novalbig  Quinta do Noval


10 Châteaux in 2.5 Days – Day 1.5

On a recent trip to Bordeaux with 34 other Masters of Wine students, we visited 10 châteaux (castle/winery in France) in 2.5 days. It was an intense pace filled with mouthwatering food and world class wines and more castles than most of us have ever seen. We spent a few days upfront in the charming town of Bordeaux. We stayed right in the town center at the comfortable Aparthotel Adagio which had apartment-style rooms that were much larger than typical European hotels. The town is very walkable with quaint streets lined with shops, patisseries, and incredible chocolate shops. We walked into every chocolate shop we saw, each one having different yet equally amazing Easter dessert displays. There were also many restaurants, several with outdoor seating. We had dinner at the Brasserie Bordelaise which had an incredible wine list as well as fantastic veal, scallops, and unbelievably good mashed potatoes. We also took several walks along the banks of the very wide Garonne River which flows through town about 10 minutes from the hotel. There is a lot more to see in Bordeaux so allow a few days if you visit (we only had about a day there).

rest eggs Brasserie Bordelaise and chocolate shop

garonne Garonne River

We kicked off our châteaux tour in southern Bordeaux drinking sweet wines at Château Doisy-Verdines in Barsac followed by another sweet wine tasting and wonderful dinner at Château Rieussec. At Château Doisy-Verdines, we tasted ten sweet wines from 2010-2011 and got a great education in how the different growing areas and vintages result in very different tasting wines. As I wrote after some earlier Bordeaux tastings this year, I really love the laser focused acidity of Barsac. The 2011 Château Climens (Barsac) was once again exceptional as was the extraordinary 2011 Château Suduiraut from Sauternes. It was helpful to sample Barsac and Sauternes side by side to get the nuances of both. Generally speaking, Sauternes, which lies just slightly south of Barsac, is bigger, bolder, and sweeter if that’s possible.

doisy  Sweet wines at Château Doisy-Verdines

At Château Rieussec, we did a brief vineyard tour and what an interesting one it was. It was our first glimpse into some of the real differences growing- wise in Bordeaux. The very low vines and gravel soils of Bordeaux were immediately apparent. The famous gravel was piled up in little mounds around the vines in such abundance that someone said it looked as if someone had transported a truckload of gravel in. The vines are grown much lower to the ground in order to capture every bit of heat in this marginal, cool, and wet climate. The other very noticeable thing is how densely planted the vines are (8000-10,000 vines per hectare). This is at least twice the amount compared to what you might see in California as a point of reference. Since we visited Bordeaux in March, nothing was in bloom so the multitude of vine stakes and trellises were clearly visible for miles.

low  gravel  Gravel soils

Moving into dinner, we had a fascinating pairing of a dry and sweet wine with each course. Our host, Mr. Charles Chevallier (GM), wanted us to see that sweet wines can be used throughout an entire meal and he was right. The sweet wines were surprisingly complementary to everything we ate. That said, I was thrilled to see a few dry reds from their owner, Domaines Barons de Rothschild, just to break up the sugar rush I was enjoying. To put the sugar in context, a normal table wine usually has less than 4 grams of sugar per liter. Sweet wines from Sauternes are usually around 130-140 grams of sugar per liter so it’s a substantial uplift in sweetness and a bit wearing on the palate when you taste many at once.

Tuscany has wild boar, Piedmont has veal, and Bordeaux has foie gras. We had more foie gras than I’ve seen in my life starting with our dinner at Château Rieussec. Many other decadent courses were served along with several different vintages of Château Rieussec (2011, 2008, 1997, and 1985) which gave us a tremendous opportunity to see how Sauternes age. All of these wines had varying percentages of the dominant Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Muscadelle grape varieties. The complexity, deep color, and amazing array of flavors were truly remarkable. My Château Rieussec favorites were the floral and citric 2008 and the apricot, marmalade, and orange peel nuanced 1997. The 1985 was off the charts exceptional and almost had amontillado sherry notes to it with dried raisins, nuts, and spice. The 2008 Château Duhart-Milon (73% Cabernet Sauvignon and 27% Merlot) was also fantastic with black currant, bay leaf, smoke backed by dusty tannins. After all of this sugar, none of us got any sleep but it was a tremendous experience.

rieussec 1985, 2008, and 1997 Château Rieussecâteaus/Château-rieussec/

The next day we headed off to Château Léoville Poyferré in St. Julien. Global warming was visibly present here as our host told us that Merlot was not needed as much anymore as ripeness was no longer an issue. Merlot (which ripens earlier then Cabernet Sauvignon) was historically grown in Bordeaux as an insurance policy during cold and difficult ripening years. Wine counterfeiting is a current issue with prestigious wines such as these and one method they use to discourage counterfeiters is engraving the Château name on the bottom of the bottles. We had an extensive tour and concluded with a terrific tasting of 10 different Grand Cru Classés wines from the different regions of Bordeaux (Saint-Estèphe, Saint Julien, Pauillac, and Margaux). It was fascinating to taste the nuances of the different sites and soils. In general Saint-Estèphe tends towards the highest acidity (being the furthest north) and Pauillac is known for its dense and concentrated wines. Margaux is the furthest south which contributes to its wines being the lightest of the bunch and it often has the most Merlot in the blends whereas St. Julien is somewhere between Margaux and Pauillac styles as it physically lies between them. Our final two wines were a 1995 and 1996 Léoville Poyferré. Both were fantastic with the 2006 slightly better with black cherry, plums, mouthwatering acid, dusty tannins, and a powerful finish. Perfect start to the day!

leo  007

Château Lafon-Rochet

Moving north to Saint-Estèphe, Château Lafon-Rochet is located on a dramatically beautiful and windswept hill, one of the few in Bordeaux. It is also, interestingly enough, located across from Château Lafite-Rothschild (one of the 5 famous first growths). The vineyards consist of 41 hectares and are marked in spots by stunning yellow mustard flowers which have returned over the past 10 years as more sustainable growing processes have been utilized. Three different soils are prevalent here – clay on gravel, clay, and sand. Four varieties are grown (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Cabernet Franc). Most vines are an average of 37 years old. Two wines are made here, their first wine Château Lafon-Rochet (Cabernet Sauvignon dominant) and their second wine, Les Pélérins de Lafon-Rochet. Most of the estates we saw have a second (and even third wine) that use younger vines or more Merlot dominant blends. Our host, Basile Tesseron (owner) gave us a wonderful tour including showing us how to prune vines. He said that they also use drones which help them determine which plots have too much nitrogen or not enough water. All of this was followed by a marvelous lunch overlooking his vineyards. He and his family are extremely laid back and personable not to mention fantastic cooks. One of the meal highlights was perhaps the best homemade chocolate cake I’ve ever had. The wines were outstanding as well particularly the 1996 and 2002 Lafon-Rochet. The 2002 was spicy with black fruit and a lively full body. The 1996, still almost opaque ruby in color, tasted of blackberry, earth, mushroom and cedar and ended in a spicy smooth finish. They were truly beautiful wines and you can look for them at Binnys in Chicago. Incidentally, check out Lafon-Rochet’s website as they have some knock-out videos of the property and some of the best marketing material I’ve seen.

lafon  lafonv  Château Lafon-Rochet

Château Montrose

Mr. Hervé Berland (CEO) hosted us on a wonderful visit to the beautiful Château Montrose. Located in the heart of Saint-Estèphe just off the bank of the Gironde River, the Château is only 5 kilometers north of Pauillac.   Château Montrose is composed of 95 hectares and remains one single plot. It is one of the few Bordeaux estates to remain a single plot. Four grape varieties are grown: 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Merlot, 6% Cabernet Franc, and 2% Petit Verdot. Mr. Berland said that they like having the four varieties as each brings something different to the blend. Cabernet Sauvignon contributes the backbone and power. Merlot brings a feminine touch with aromatic flavors and silky tannins, Cabernet Franc contributes elegant aromas, freshness, and complexity, and Petit Verdot adds color and spicy pepper to the blend. Larger gravel is present over clay subsoil which provides sufficient water for the grapes. Drought has never been an issue here due to the clay subsoil which acts like a sponge.

The Gironde River provides a temperate climate and helps to moderate the growing conditions. The grape leaves never change color here as the weather is so consistent (no autumn). Frost has never been a problem here due to the moderate climate and drought pressure is also low (even in the warm vintage of 2003) due to the Gironde. A strong northwest wind blows across the vineyard from the ocean helping to blow away any humidity which helped remove unwanted botrytis rot in 2013. Rows are planted north to south in order to get full sun exposure.

We tried the 2012 Château Tronquoy-Lalande (57% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot). This wine was a deep ruby red in color with dusty herbs and plum flavors with medium acid, medium body, and supple tannins with a medium plus finish. Well balanced and elegant structure.

Next we tried the 2012 La Dame de Montrose (76% Merlot, 24% Cabernet Sauvignon) was medium ruby red in color with ripe blackberry, sweet spice, and mint aromas. Dense complexity and finely structured with velvet tannins well balanced against linear acidity and a medium plus finish.

Last, the 2012 Château Montrose (57% Cabernet, 37%, 5% Cabernet Franc, and 1% Petit Verdot) was an intense purple ruby color with medium plus aromas of black fruit, menthol, and sweet spice aromas. The palate had intense and complex flavors or blackberry, earth, game and tar with medium plus acid, alcohol, and body. Firm tannins with smooth texture backed a long powerful finish and concentrated structure.

montrose  Château Montrose

Château Pédesclaux

We ended the first full day at the ultra modern Château Pédesclaux which was like something out of a James Bond movie. Walking into the winery, you pass by a stunning building which is an old Château preserved in its original state with glass wings added on both sides. It’s a brilliant structure that does a beautiful job unifying both new and old styles. The glass wings house rooms that can be rented out, possibly one of the most romantic vineyard stays one could imagine (and yes the glass rooms have curtains)! The tanks here are so beautiful and shiny that they almost look like silver curtains flanking the room which has a floating staircase in its center. I didn’t see a single fingerprint on anything throughout the entire tour which uses only gravity and no pumps to move the wine from harvest to tank to barrel.  Starting in 2011, they began using 116 two-storied conical steel vats which have two tanks of different capacities housed in one vessel in order to have options for fermentation of different sized lots. As we saw many times over the trip, one tank is used per plot so it is especially helpful to have two tanks in one as it saves on space. About 200,000 bottles are produced from their 45 hectares. At dinner we had a truly unique meal of ravioli stuffed with sea bass followed by a pigeon entreé. We concluded with the traditional cheese plate (which I am a huge fan of) and a spiced chocolate ball with caramel. The French do know how to eat and I’ve never seen such beautifully prepared meals and tables as I did in Bordeaux.

pedch   pedtank Château Pédesclaux and two-story tanks

The wines we had to accompany this meal were: 2010 Château Lilian Ladouys, 2012 Château Pédesclaux, 2010 Château Pédesclaux, and the 1990 Château Lilian Ladouys. Needless to say the last one stole the show for me as it was a velvety smooth and sexy wine with lushly ripe tannins, dark plum, cedar, and a long poignant finish leaving no part of my mouth untouched. I also enjoyed the 2010 Lilian Ladouys which appears to be priced around $25 so that is well worth grabbing for later drinking. When I looked online to see the price for the 1990 I saw that it was around $678 so I’m glad I got to try that once in my life! Château Lilian Ladouys is the little sister to Pédesclaux and located north in Saint-Estèphe (Pedesclaux is in Pauillac).


sunbor Bordeaux