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 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



What do Chalk Hill Road and Bruce Springsteen have in common?

Somehow this name reminds me of “Thunder Road” one of my favorite Bruce Springsteen songs that immediately conjures up images of romance, vibrant energy, and youthful hope intertwined with nostalgia. Those are all good words to describe the special wines that come from Chalk Hill Road in Sonoma, California. Chalk Hill Road is a beautiful and rustically scenic drive that crosses a couple of American Viticultural Areas (AVA) in a 7 mile strip. You can taste wine from the Chalk Hill, Russian River Valley, and Alexander Valley AVAs in this short drive and experience the great diversity between them.

I recently did my own virtual tour of Chalk Hill Road starting at the south end with Chalk Hill Estate. Chalk Hill’s founder, Fred Furth, discovered this natural amphitheater carved into the hills back in 1972 when flying his plane over the area which, to date, includes only 4 wineries in the AVA. Chalk Hill’s name comes from the unique volcanic soil of chalky white ash which provides ideal grape growing conditions due to low fertility which helps to restrain vine vigor. Wines produced from volcanic soil are often highly aromatic from the mineral content in the soil. There is no actual chalk in the soil which originated over centuries from St Helena’s volcanic deposits. These soils are notably different than those of the Russian River Valley AVA of which Chalk Hill is a also a part. Russian River Valley is more commonly known for gravel and sandy loam soils as well as being cooler and foggier than Chalk Hill. Due to Chalk Hill’s warmer climate, classic Bordeaux varietals such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Malbec, and Cabernet Franc do very well here as well as cooler climate grapes such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, and Pinot Noir.

I tried the 2012 Chalk Hill Estate Red ($70) which is a powerhouse blend of 44% Cabernet Sauvignon, 36% Malbec, 9% Petit Verdot, 5% Merlot, 4% Syrah, 2% Carmenere. Note that the blend changes yearly based on the best reds from the vintage. Lush aromas of blackberry, chocolate, tobacco, and spice meld harmoniously together. The full bodied, robust palate has smooth, succulent texture and a prolonged finish with still grippy tannins. Its high alcohol of 15.7 disappears seamlessly into the complex myriad of dark fruit, pepper, smoke, and earthy flavors. This wine has huge aging potential although is very pleasant to drink now.

The 2013 Chalk Hill Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir ($29.99) has a beguiling nose of cranberry, espresso, black cherry, and vanilla backed by elegant structure, silky texture, and a long refined finish. This wine was aged 8 months in Hungarian and French oak lending suppleness and spicy notes on the palate. This was one of the best Pinot Noirs I’ve had.

CH Tasting Room Remodel 1-1  Chalk Hill Estate

Windsor, California. Fall colors during the autumn grape harvest at the Chalk Hill Estate Vineyard and Winery. © Brent Winebrenner

Windsor, California. Fall colors during the autumn grape harvest at the Chalk Hill Estate Vineyard and Winery. © Brent Winebrenner


Just across the street from Chalk Hill Estate is Roth Estate. Roth Estate uses fruit from Alexander Valley to make excellent Bordeaux-style blends and also makes Chardonnay and Pinot Noir with fruit from the much cooler Sonoma Coast. I tried the 2013 Roth Estate Heritage Sonoma Country Red Wine which is a blend of 40% Syrah, 26% Zinfandel, 15% Petite Sirah, 8% Merlot, 7% Malbec, 4% Cabernet Sauvignon and aged 17 months in French and American oak (30% new).

A beautiful deep ruby in color, this wine has fresh aromas of red cherry, herbs, anise, earth, and tar. Firm and supple tannins serve as the backbone for intertwining flavors of sweet black cherry, cinnamon, anise, forest floor, and dill on a vibrant lingering finish. This is a finely structured wine with 14.7 % alcohol that is well integrated into the lively palate.

The 2013 Roth Estate Cabernet Sauvignon is deep ruby in color with dusty tannins, black pepper, cedar, tar, blackberry, and black currant aromas. Dense in complexity with black cherry, bramble fruit, black pepper, and cedar flavors, this is a heady wine with warming alcohol of 14.5 and a round full finish. This wine is a blend of 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Malbec, 5% Merlot , 5% Syrah, and 3% Petit Verdot.

RothTastingRothvineyardsShot  Roth Estate


Just up the road from Roth Estate and in the Alexander Valley AVA lie the 53 acres that make up Lancaster Estate. This winery also has its own natural cooling caves which consist of 9000 square feet carved deep into the heart of No Name Hill. Wines are aged here for up to three years before release. I tried the 2012 Lancaster Estate Cabernet Sauvignon ($75) from this estate. This is a wine I’ve had several times over the years, the first time in Napa and the second time, oddly enough, in Tanzania, Africa. Every time I’ve had it and every vintage I’ve tried is exceptional. It’s a truly beautiful, ethereal Cabernet with great finesse and serenity. The 2012 continued that tradition with rich blackberry, raspberry, spice, graphite, and licorice flavors accompanied by velvety tannins, supreme balance, and a long silky finish. This wine is a blend of 77% Cabernet Sauvignon, 12% Malbec, 8% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot and will easily age another 15-20 years. 2012 was also a great vintage in Sonoma so the combination is unbeatable on this wine.

lancastergrapes lancasterWineryEntrance_HiRes  Lancaster Estate


Chalk Hill Road offers a rich and diverse collection of wines with something for everyone in an idyllic location. I found the various blends of the wines very interesting as I haven’t seen much Malbec used in northern California Bordeaux-style blends in awhile and I also enjoyed the Syrah and Petit Sirah additions. All of these wineries have white wines as well but I only sampled the reds for this blog. Chalk Hill Estate in particular has a unique portfolio of whites including Pinot Gris, Sauvignon Gris, Viognier, Chardonnay, and Botrytised Semillon. Bill Foley owns all of these wineries as part of his very impressive collection.  Check the link below to find some other great wines of his.  I am definitely touring Chalk Hill Road on my next Sonoma trip to try all of these wines as well. Back to my “Thunder Road” analogy, Chalk Hill Estate is the nostalgia being the oldest of the three wineries, Roth is the younger lively partner, and Lancaster is the romance – just look at this picture!

Lancaster  Lancaster Estate



Fox Valley Winery

As part of my recent Illinois wine trek, I visited Fox Valley Winery in Oswego, Illinois. This is an easy drive about an hour southwest of Chicago and a destination well worth the trip. Fox Valley Winery has an amazing portfolio of wines from local varieties Chambourcin and Concord to international ones such as Marsanne, Cabernet Franc, and Cabernet Sauvignon. Some of the grapes are grown on Faltz Family Vineyard’s own property and others are sourced in from various part of the United States.  Faltz Family Vineyard is located near Sheridan, Illinois (about 20 miles from the winery) and consists of 28 acres of south facing land on the rocky ledges of the Fox River Valley. Vines were first planted in March 2000.

Not only does Fox Valley Winery use a wide variety of grapes in their wines, they also make many diverse styles of wines from dry to sweet, carbonated, and dessert wines (and even ciders). They also use environmentally friendly packaging in many of their products as well as sustainable practices such as plowing their leftover grape stems back into the ground as fertilizer.   Overall production is around 10,000 bottles with Concord, Niagara, and Grandma’s Blush being their top sellers. Mike Faltz (winemaker) said that 7 out of 10 bottles they sell tend toward the sweet side. He also said that their millennial population consumers prefer the sweeter wines. Sweet Evolution is one of these wines and is a barrel aged red with a touch of sweetness. Sweet Evolution is also one of several wines that come in a 3L box which is a packaging more frequently seen today as it’s very environmentally friendly. You might have laughed at your parent’s box of Franzia growing up but no one is laughing now when they see a boxed wine.

The Faltz family grows 11 varieties in their vineyard. Soils here are sandy and rocky Sheridan soil. One of the popular grapes grown in the vineyard is Frontenac which is used in rosé, blush, and Zinfandel wines. Mike said that Frontenac doesn’t do well in a dry style as its high acid needs some sweetness to offset it. The Concord and Niagara grapes are purchased from Southern Michigan because they need a bit more warmth to get to the alcohol levels needed to preserve the wines. Faltz Family Vineyard also grows Petit Pearl which is a red hybrid from Minnesota (a hybrid is a crossing between two grape species). Petit Pearl is a very cold hardy grape capable of surviving winters down to -30 degrees thus making it a good choice for Illinois. The vines here are the second oldest in the country (of their type) after those in Minnesota.

From a winemaking standpoint, Mike uses oak barrels on many of the wines and has both American and French oak as well as stainless steel vats. The American oak barrels are from Minnesota and Missouri. Mike thinks that the Minnesota barrels impart a more subtle flavor then the Missouri barrels which contribute stronger flavors to the wine. Both American and French oak are used on the 2004 R.A. Faltz Vintner Reserve ($30). This wine is an interesting blend of Chambourcin, Cynthiana, and Cabernet Franc with lush flavors of dark cherry, leather, cedar, and black currant. I haven’t seen many wines that blend international and local varieties so it was fun (and rewarding) to try this one.


I tried many other wines including the following:

2006 Chambourcin ($15) – a dry red wine tasting of black currant, cherry, and earth with toasty oak flavors intertwined

Grandma’s Blush ($30) – a red table wine with medium body and made in honor of Mike’s two grandmothers

2008 Lemberger ($19) – a dry red wine with medium body and ripe dark berry, black cherry, and a velvety texture

2011 Blaufrankisch ($27) – a spicy dry red wine aged 18 months in French and American oak and tasting of leather, tobacco, cherry, and smoky barbecue flavors.

2005 Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon ($25) – These grapes were sourced in from Snows Lake Vineyards in California. This ink colored wine tasted of dark jammy fruit with spicy notes and tobacco.

2008 R.A. Faltz Vintner Reserve ($35) – A very nice full bodied red, this wine was a Bordeaux- styled wine tasting of dark berry, earth, tobacco, and cassis with vanilla undertones from the 18 months of barrel age.

Brusecco ($22) –one of the coolest wines of all. Mike wanted to make a sparkling styled wine that had the tartness of Brut sparkling wine and the sweetness of Prosecco so he called this wine Brusecco. It’s a carbonated wine made from Seyval and Vidal grapes and is a charming sparkler with racy acidity and flavors of green apple, melon, and white peach. I just had it again and really enjoyed it.

foxvalleybru  Brusecco sparkling wine

Not being a millennial or a sweet wine fan myself, I preferred the red wines at Fox Valley Winery. I was very impressed with the quality of the winemaking and the wines themselves. The R.A. Faltz Vintner Reserve is a serious red wine on par with many California reds. I also enjoyed the Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon and the Blaufrankisch which were well-made quality wines at very reasonable prices. Fox Valley has a full service tasting room with plenty of space and a private events room as well. There is also a nice gift shop with local artwork and of course many wines to purchase. It’s a terrific and relaxing place to spend an afternoon. Don’t miss the chance to try a wonderfully made Cabernet Sauvignon only an hour from Chicago.

127 130 Fox Valley Winery


Where is Waterman Winery?

At the Midwest Wine Show last March, I started wondering why Illinois wines don’t get more publicity. I saw several wineries represented from Missouri, Michigan, and Indiana but few from Illinois.  Living in Chicago, I rarely come across publications about Illinois wine and decided to go take a look for myself. When I started doing research on Illinois wineries, I was surprised to find that Illinois has over 100 wineries and 450 vineyards scattered throughout 8 major wine trails. I was looking for the closest ones to Chicago to visit and decided to start with the area around DeKalb since it’s only 75 miles from Chicago. I was also particularly curious about this area since my family and I used to live there long before I became fascinated with wine and I had no idea there were wineries right in my own backyard.

On a late autumn afternoon, we set off to visit Waterman Winery and Fox Valley Winery (covered in next post). The frenetic city pace and traffic quickly fell away as we made our way west on I-88 past all the suburbs and into the smaller towns of Big Rock, Hinckley, and finally Waterman. It was a beautiful drive filled with wheat-colored harvested corn fields and splashes of fiery red, yellow, and orange dappled trees. I was thrilled to notice an apple orchard/pumpkin farm (Honey Hill Orchard) right up the road from Waterman Winery as I knew that meant cider and fresh apple donuts. These are some of the fantastic staples of a Midwest autumn that I remember from growing up here.

Waterman Winery is the real deal experience with 12 acres of vineyards just down the road from the winery and tasting room. The tasting room itself is one of several charming farm buildings and consists of the wine shop, tasting tables, two tractors for display, and plenty of space to kick back and enjoy the experience. Alexa Tuntland (owner and ex-Chemistry teacher) warmly greeted us all and gave us a quick history lesson on the farm. She started with a quiz on the grains below and asked who knew what they were (I think we got 2 right as a group). All of these grains were grown on the farm at one time but the very first thing grown was tomatoes for the Campbell Soup Company. By the way the grains below are in order from left to right: wheat, oats, grape seeds, soybeans, and corn.

grains3  Waterman grains

We then set off for a tour of their 4 different vineyard plots. Waterman winery grows 40 varietals including many French American hybrid grapes as well as American grapes. Frontenac (red) is the grape they grow most followed by Niagara (white), and La Crescent (white) but they also grow Frontenac Gris, De Chaunac, and Concord among many others.

As background, hybrids are grapes that are made from crossing two different grape species. Vitis Vinifera is a species from Eurasia and is the source for most familiarly known grape varietals like Merlot, Cabernet, Chardonnay, etc. Vitis Labrusca is a different species from North America and includes grapes like Concord, Delaware, and Catawba. There are several other American grape species as well. French American hybrids are crossings of something like Vitis Labrusca (an American grape) with a French grape. Examples of these are Frontenac, La Crescent, Léon Millot, and De Chaunac. These grapes are grown in the Midwest and eastern parts of the U.S. due to their ability to withstand cold. Frontenac for example can survive a winter up to -30F. Vitis Vinifera grapes typically need to be grown between latitudes of 35-50 degrees north or south of the equator as well as in areas with moderate winters. This means that most will not grow in the colder parts of the U.S.

All vineyards are fascinating in my view as there is much to be learned from each but Waterman’s vineyards are also striking because of their sustainable practice of grass growing between the vines. The grass gives a plush and serene feel to the vineyard but its main purpose is to promote vine competition and stress due to the extremely fertile soils (remember this is world class corn country). Grape vines typically grow best on infertile or poor soils so the grass provides a little more competition for water and key nutrients needed to grow. The vines themselves are trellised on a single high wire which is different than you might see in California. Ideal vine yield here is 8 pounds per vine versus something closer to 15 pounds per vine in California. As a point of reference, it takes about 15 pounds of grapes to make one gallon of juice which equates to 5 bottles of wine. It takes two vines at Waterman Winery to make 5 bottles of wine. I say all of this to help illustrate the point of how much work it is to make a bottle of wine.

087 Frontenac grapevines

Waterman Winery’s commitment to sustainability is also evident through the use of recycled materials for everything in the vineyard (posts, trellising) and the use of only organically approved chemicals on their vines. The four vineyards have four unique microclimates due to rolling hills, a creek that runs between them, and a pine forest on the northwest side. This was apparent when we moved to the west side of the creek as there was less wind near the forest and it was a few degrees warmer. One of the most striking things about this vineyard was seeing the Concord grape vines. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more vigorous vine and we named it the “Cousin It” vine. Steve, Alexa’s son-in-law who also helped with the tour, told us it was absolutely the worst grape to harvest as the grapes grew inside of this massive vine and were next to impossible to get to.

watermanconcord  Concord grapevines

We headed back to the bottling and aging barn which is an old hay barn dating from the late 1890s. The beautifully rustic second floor still has the space where the hay was tossed down to the horses below. That area now contains several stainless steel fermenters of various sizes for the wine. Waterman is talking about building out this space or another one for private events or destination weddings. It would be a perfect spot for someone who wants to get married in a winery close to Chicago.

Back in the tasting room, we started tasting from dry to semi sweet to sweet wines. I really liked the Royal red which was a blend of De Chaunac and Rubianna grapes. This wine was a deep purple red with black spice, cherry, and blackberry flavors. Too bad I didn’t buy it on the spot as by the time I finished tasting it was already sold out. The DeKalb red was a blend of Foch, Léon Millot, and Frontenac grapes and featured the DeKalb corn label on its bottle. Alexa told me that this logo is one of the top 5 recognized labels in the world.   This wine was an opaque deep purple red in color and had a nose of almond but a palate of dark black and red fruit with lively acidity.

119  Waterman winetasting

Next I tried the 2014 Blown Away which was made from the Frontenac grape and screamingly high in acid amid red spice, blackberry, cranberry, and stewed prunes. It was quite pleasant despite the acidity. Frontenac is especially high in acid and Alexa said that they use cold stabilization (leaving the tanks in the cold) to precipitate the tartaric acid out of the wines with higher acidity. She actually had a jar of the acids once they were removed and it was amazing how large the thin filaments were. We tasted them and they tasted strongly of salt.

tartratesalexa  Tartaric acids

I then tried the Wine Dog which was a crisp blend of their French American hybrid grapes. This wine won an award at the Illinois State Fair and tasted of sweet pear and stone fruit with zesty acidity. I also tried the DeKalb white which was a pale lemon green in color and was neither sweet nor dry but pleasantly right in between. For sweet wines, I tried the Harvest Pumpkin in honor of fall. This was a spiced wine and definitely spicy along with nuts, orange, and pumpkin flavors. Perfect for a warm fire and cold night. Last I tried the Chef Rudy (a blend of Frontenac and the skins of the Kay Grey grape) which reminded me of a ruby Port. This wine was a pale garnet in color and tasted of almond, fig, grapes, and orange marmalade. It was very pleasant and two people next to me immediately bought it as we tasted it together.

Waterman Winery is a wonderful place to visit and offers everything you’d want to see in a winery and vineyard very close to home in Chicago. It’s amazing to have that experience so close to a major city. I loved the family’s commitment to the land and sustainability and how all of the wines are made as naturally as possible. Waterman Winery also won an award from the Governor of Illinois for their sustainable practices. It’s a real working vineyard with a terrific variety of different grapes and a great learning experience hosted by wonderful people in an idyllic setting. I need to go back to try more of their wines.

084 095




The Mystique of Bordeaux

Bordeaux has often been a confusing topic for many Americans. Bordeaux is itself a region in southwest France, which includes two famous wine growing areas referred to as the Left Bank and the Right Bank. These areas are naturally divided by the Gironde Estuary and its tributaries, the Dordogne and Garonne Rivers. The Left Bank sits on the left bank of the Garonne while the Right Bank is situated on the right bank of the Dordogne hence the names Left and Right Bank. Historically, the cool maritime climate of Bordeaux made it difficult for grapes to ripen fully so growers hedged their bets by planting several grape varieties which ripened at different times. In a poor year it was better to have something than nothing so Bordeaux wines have typically been a blend of different grapes. Generally speaking, the Left Bank focuses more on Cabernet Sauvignon dominant blends and the Right Bank relies more on Merlot and Cabernet Franc dominant blends. These blends are also referred to as Bordeaux wines. There is also an actual town named Bordeaux on the Left Bank side. So there are more than a few references for the word “Bordeaux”.

I remember growing up hearing my Dad and his friends talk about Bordeaux with a sense of reverence in their voices. I didn’t know what it was of course but my first memory was that it must be something special. After several years of wine study, I’ve read about this illustrious region many times but still not had many of their actual wines. Like most people, one tends to drink what is most common and readily available and for me that was California Cabernet Sauvignons. It’s no surprise that what people drink first shapes their palate for years to come and California Cabernets are in general much more fruit forward and less earthy than Bordeaux wines.

My early attempts to buy Bordeaux wines were frustrating as these wines (like most European wines) are labeled by region and not grape variety. Americans are used to buying wine labeled by grape and not region. Even if you recognize Bordeaux itself on the label, there are hundreds of different Château (winery) names and unless you’re very familiar with them, they can all look very similar. Then there’s the added confusion of the classification (quality) names. “Grand Cru Classé” on the label means that the wine was part of the 1855 Classification which represents a top Chateau and presumably a quality wine however there are many other terms that may or may not mean anything regarding quality. So these wines can be confusing to buy for many consumers.

I recently had the chance to attend two Bordeaux tastings, one for the 2011 vintage and one for the 2013 vintage. These were walk-around tastings (versus seated) and require greater concentration due to the crowds and movement. Both were extremely interesting and helpful in better understanding these wines, vintages, and specific wineries. At a high level the 2011 vintage (which started off too warm and then got too cool) was a more challenging tasting. Many of the red wines were hugely tannic, bitter, and green and it was tough tasting a room full of them. I did find a few I liked from the Right Bank which again are predominantly Merlot and Cabernet Franc (earlier ripening grapes that do better in a tough year like 2011). The Château La Couspaude (Saint-Émilion) made from 75% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc with the remainder Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon was an opaque ruby color with plum, cassis, and black currant notes. Somewhat approachable now, it will evolve to be much better in 5-10 years. The Château Petit Village from Pomerol was also pleasant with spicy black pepper notes and riper red and black fruit. Château Clinet made predominantly from Merlot with 12% Cabernet Franc was also promising.

However my favorite red from this tasting was from the Left Bank from Château Calon-Segur (Saint- Estèphe) but made predominantly from Merlot. The blend was 78% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 2% Petit Verdot. This wine was a seductive ruby garnet in color with notes of black cherry, blackberry, and tobacco with powerful tannins. It was interesting tasting the different areas of both the Left and Right Bank. Generally speaking, I found Saint- Julien (Left Bank) less green and smokier than some of the others as well as darker in color than Pauillac. Margaux (at the south end of the Haut Médoc Left Bank) wines were light enough in color to see through. The Haut-Médoc in general seemed riper and sweeter than some of the others as well. Of course these are only generalizations from this 2011 vintage and likely to differ each year due to blend and weather.

My biggest revelation of this tasting was the famous sweet white wines from the Sauternes and Barsac areas of southwest France which I’d not had many of. These sweet wines are typically a blend of Sémillon (predominant) and Sauvignon Blanc and are made sweet from a special mold called botrytis that grows on the grape skins in ideal weather years of early morning fog and warm, dry afternoons. This mold concentrates the grape’s sugar thus producing incredibly rich flavors. Sémillon contributes apricot and smoke along with a mouth-coating texture while Sauvignon Blanc contributes high acidity (to balance the sweetness) along with citrus and tropical notes. Occasionally Muscadelle will also be added which contributes a spicy note and additional complexity. It’s a fascinating experiment to see how the different percentages of each wine change the final product. We tasted the world renowned Château d’Yquem from Sauternes and it was love at first taste. This was an ethereal honey colored wine with lush apricot, dried mango, and spicy notes ending on a crisp and poignantly long complex finish. Of course this is one of the most famous wines in the world so perhaps there isn’t much to dislike but I’d have to agree on why it’s so renowned.

I also loved the Château Climent, which is from Barsac, a neighboring region also known for sweet wines but these are typically a bit lighter bodied and less intense on the palate relatively speaking. They may also have a slight mineral note to them due to their clay/limestone based soils versus the more gravelly soils of Sauternes. The Château Climent was made from 100% Sémillon yielding notes of rich apricot and marmalade with zesty firm acidity and a full bodied mouth coating structure.

After the tough tannins and bitter flavors of 2011 I was somewhat dreading the 2013 Bordeaux tasting but I was pleasantly surprised. There were several very good red wines from St. Julien (Left Bank). My favorite was Château Léoville Barton which had lovely minerality, crushed rock, tobacco, and blackberry notes. Extremely elegant, this wine spent 18 months in oak (60% new barrels) and was a blend of 74% Cabernet Sauvignon, 23% Merlot, and 3% Cabernet Franc. The Château Talbot was also excellent with a gamey, iodine, and black fruit profile. The Château Kirwan from Margaux was another standout with ripe berry fruit, subtle oak, and a well balanced structure. This wine was almost drinkable now.

The sweet whites were once again hedonistically divine with the Château Climent being among my top favorites as well as the Doisy Daëne. The latter had the most intriguing finish I can remember ending in a tantalizingly clean acidic burst that lasted for several minutes. This was all the more amazing given the dense myriad of tangerine, honey, and apricot flavors on the palate that swirled into this tight and pure acidic vortex.

The dry white blends from nearby Pessac-Léognan were also very nice. These wines are made from the same grapes as Sauternes but are typically more Sauvignon Blanc dominant (versus Sémillon) and fermented to a dry style. One very pleasant wine was Château Olivier which consisted of 70% Sauvignon Blanc, 28% Sémillon, and 2% Muscadelle. This wine had a rich nose of lemon citrus and tropical fruit with a round creamy finish from oak aging. These are very interesting wines to try so do look for these blends. Just a splash of Sémillon creates so much more complexity for the Sauvignon Blanc.

Tastings are a fantastic way to try new wines and those that are either price prohibitive or not locally available. I found tastings rather intimidating at first but all you need is a glass and an open mind. And most importantly don’t forget to spit. Even though this is a rather awkward (and at times gross) practice, it will save your palate and body. Bring your own colored plastic spit cup which makes it a lot less difficult plus you’ll look like a pro. These tastings demonstrated the beauty of Bordeaux which is that even in tough growing years, due to the diversity of grapes grown and styles made, there’s always something interesting and good to drink from this region. Do a little research (Wine Spectator and Vivino apps make that very easy) and go try a few.

12 Glasses and Harry Potter (Part 2)

Anyone who’s seen the Harry Potter movies knows about Platform 9 ¾ where the kids catch a train that mysteriously transports them to an unknown world at the mythical Hogwarts School. The School is full of fascinating characters and all sorts of special knowledge that they can’t learn anywhere else.   That’s probably the best way to summarize the past 6 days that I spent at the Masters of Wine Residential seminar in San Francisco. There were about 100 students there (a mix of Stage 1, Stage 2, and those only re-taking the Practical Tasting exam). Note that the study phases are called “Stages” versus “Years” as many people need more than one year to get through either stage.

Harry's Platform  Harry Potter’s Platform 9 3/4

Other than the first day, every day started at 7:30am with a 2:15 hour timed blind tasting exam of 12 wines – white, red, or mixed bag of sparkling/fortified/dry. This was followed by another hour of feedback and review of all the humiliations we suffered during the exams. One thing (of many) we learned during these sessions is that the exam is not meant to trick us and primarily focuses on classic wines from classic regions. Therefore we shouldn’t be looking for “flying zebras” – obscure wines from little known places or classic regions.

We rolled into lunch in a stupor of light headedness from the alcohol fumes and frustration about the mistakes we made. On the red wine tasting days we were also treated to completely black teeth! No one talks about the unglamorous toll on one’s teeth from frequent tastings but this is not to be understated.   I also learned a big lesson about pH which is that low pH wines literally make your teeth throb in pain. This lesson came through loud and clear during a night of tasting Australian wines. And I don’t know that that had anything to do with the Australian wines in particular or just a long day of tasting but I plan to look into that.

Afternoons were blessedly filled with lectures on the costs of owning a vineyard, digital marketing in the wine world, historical origins of wine, and many other compelling topics. One of my favorites was by Sondra Barrett, who takes pictures of wine drops (and body cells) under a microscope. Not only were the pictures strikingly beautiful, they oddly resembled what you might mentally conjure up as how a particular wine might look if visually displayed. For example, think about the taste of Sauvignon Blanc – how would you illustrate its lean acidity, tart grapefruit, and grassy flavors in a diagram? Probably something with angled or jagged edges right? That’s exactly what it looked like. Check these pictures out here, they’re stunning.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH Sauvignon Blanc under microscope by Sondra Barrett


We also spent significant time focusing on the other large part of the MW exam – essay writing. We received many tips and strategies on how to organize our thoughts (mind mapping for one) and how to structure a good essay on the required topics of the exam – viticulture, vinification, quality control, the business of wine, and contemporary issues. Mind mapping is a pictorial way of taking a main topic and attaching supporting points and examples to it. It works best for a more abstract thinker versus a linear (analytical) one therefore it made perfect sense to me and none to my attorney friend sitting next to me.

Evenings consisted of tastings sponsored by wineries like Jackson Family Wines or Robert Mondavi and Napa Valley Vintners (all big supporters of the MW program). Our last night included an outstanding dinner by Mondavi where we got to try their 1974 and 1975 Cabernet Sauvignons as well as a 1996 Fumé Blanc Reserve (all stunning and still drinking very well). We also had an enlightening lecture and tasting by Wine Australia with Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Semillon, Chardonnay, and many other unexpected varieties like Tempranillo. There is a tremendous amount of wine activity going on in Australia as always but with a shift towards more premium and hand crafted (versus mass produced) wines. This is a huge country with terrific potential and mind boggling size. The entire region of Europe fits into the bottom 1/3 of Australia according to our lecture.

fume   Fumé Blanc Reserve 1996 (right) compared to 2013 (left)

I’ve had the fortune to meet a lot of smart and interesting people in my life but this was one of the most fascinating mixes I’ve ever met. It was a wonderful collection of people from all over the world, a variety of backgrounds, and a charming mix of smart, funny, offbeat, and passionate personalities. Love for everything wine was the common thread along with a hardcore determination to plow through the MW program. As challenging as this program is, I have even greater respect for the many international students who don’t even have English as a first language – truly a heroic feat to succeed in those circumstances.

Now we have 4 months to incorporate everything we learned into the intense study we need to succeed on the June 6 test (for Stage 1 students like me). Along the way, many of us are heading to Bordeaux for an MW student trip and a deep dive on the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Semillon/Sauvignon Blanc based wines of this region. The hands-on nature of these kinds of trips is also a key element in gaining the mastery needed to pass the exams. Not only do we need intimate details on soil, trellising, and the specifics of the grape varieties grown in a region, we also need the holistic view of its culture, history, and overall climate to answer an exam question well. In addition, I was lucky enough to get selected for one of 18 spots on another student trip to Portugal (a wine region I’ve always wanted to see), so I’ll be checking that out too.

I didn’t know what I was missing before I got into the MW program but now that I’m in it, I don’t want to miss any opportunity. It’s a hectic schedule and a tremendous amount of time but for anyone who truly thirsts (no pun intended) for wine knowledge, this is the place to be. My 12 glasses did not need to make the San Francisco trip thankfully as Riedel graciously provided glasses for us but they lie in wait for the spring course day.

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.






The 27 Wines of Christmas

I need all the wine tasting practice I can get so I made good use of the holidays and a wider audience to taste through 27 wines in ten days. Please note these wines were tasted (not all drunk!) as I would not advocate this volume on a regular basis. There was no particular theme other than mainly reds with some diversity in origin, vintage, and price. We kicked off pre-holiday with 2009 Chimney Rock Cabernet Sauvignon ($60). This was a bit more tannic than I expected so it either wasn’t quite ready or was in one of those “awkward or dumb” phases that wines of aging potential sometimes go through. It should evolve into a great wine however as it has massive structure, firm tannins, and plenty of complex flavors present. Chimney Rock is from the Stags Leap District in Napa (a slightly cooler growing area) which can require a bit more aging time to integrate.

Undeterred, I opened a 2008 Heitz Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) along with the Chimney Rock and was much happier. Heitz rarely disappoints and presented its usual ripe but crisp black/red fruit, subtle tannins, and elegant structure. At a local dinner spot, the Pork Shoppe, we also tried the 2013 Chateau Le Bergey ($11 and a Bordeaux blend) which was light and unobtrusive with earthy red fruit as well as a 2011 Biga Luberri Rioja Crianza Tempranillo ($25). The Tempranillo was a great buy for the quality (as many Spanish wines are as they usually have extra age on them). It tasted of leather, dried herbs, and black fruit and finished on a spicy note.

On Christmas Eve we did a blind tasting of 4 wines: 2010 St. Clement Cabernet Sauvignon ($40), 2011 Daou Cabernet Sauvignon ($28), 2008 Conte di Campiano Squinzano Negroamaro ($12), and the 2009 Reserva Valiente Y Heroico Tempranillo ($15). The 2010 St. Clement was the favorite for half of us while the other half preferred the Negroamaro. Daou is usually an outstanding wine but either due to the funky 2011 growing year or perhaps another “dumb” phase, it was a bit off balance with too much tannin and oak dominance at this point. The Tempranillo was an easy drinking light red and another great bargain. We wrapped up the evening with a Fox Valley Winery Brusecco ($22) which was a fascinating and very pleasant wine from good old Illinois! Mike Faltz (winemaker) wanted to make a wine that combined the tartness of a Brut style sparkling wine with the sweetness of a Prosecco and came up with this wine that he named Brusecco. It’s a carbonated wine made from Seyval and Vidal grapes and is a charming sparkler with racy acidity and flavors of green apple, melon, and white peach.

On Christmas day we delved into a Cava Avinyo Reserva ($17) which was refreshing with its zesty green apple, nuts, and melon flavors. At dinner we had another blind tasting of 2007 Glen Carlou Cabernet Sauvignon Gravel Quarry ($45), 2010 Stags Leaps The Leap Cabernet Sauvignon ($85), and 2010 Chasing Harvest Douro ($21 and a dry Portuguese red wine). All of these wines went very well with our beef tenderloin dinner but they were very different wines. The 2007 Glen Carlou (one of my favorite South African wineries that we visited in 2014) was sublime with luxurious silky smooth tannins and intriguing flavors of forest floor minerality, wet rock, red and black fruit, as well as very pleasant graphite finish.

The 2010 Stags Leap was a huge wine with a more fruit driven nature and aggressive tannins. Part of this was the three year age difference which can have quite an impact in Cabernets and part of this was simply the origin of the wine and the years they came from. 2010 in Napa was a blockbuster year yielding powerful wines and ripe fruit while 2007 in Paarl, South Africa was an uneven growing year with hot and dry conditions. Comparing these two wines was a great exercise in seeing how two new world Cabernets (California and South Africa) taste very differently. The Glen Carlou was more restrained in nature (much like a Bordeaux) while the Stags Leap was big and bold. The 2010 Chasing Harvest Douro was the lightest of the three with inherent elegance, structure, and an enticing aroma profile of cranberry, dark earth, and dried flowers.

At a City Winery concert over the weekend, we had a 2008 Rioja Reserva Vina Alberdi (Tempranillo) which was on the lighter side with dried red fruit, savory herbs, and leather flavors. It was a very drinkable wine that went with a wide variety of flavors and entreés.

Between Christmas and New Years, we hit a few restaurants as we were all tired of cooking. At Rosebud Steakhouse, we had a powerhouse 2008 Numanthia Toro Tempranillo ($60) and a 2010 Piccini Villa Al Cortile, Brunello Di Montalcino ($35). I’ve had the Numanthia several times and it always blows me away with its sheer power. Inky black fruit, tar, leather, cedar, and ripe blackberry abound. The Piccini was much more elegant with lively acidity, dried cherry, raspberry, and dried herb finesse. It was kind of like the difference in a rock concert and a ballet taste-wise. Both were exceptional but polar opposites.  Incidentally, Rosebud Steakhouse has one of the best wine-by-the-glass lists in Chicago with a wide variety of high quality options from all parts of the world.

The next night we hit Flemings which is often a restaurant chain known for its wine list. This particular evening was an off night in the bar as the waiter didn’t seem to know the wines, the years, or care about either. The wine-by-the-glass list was long but rather disappointing with a 2013 Ladera Cabernet Sauvignon ($35) the oldest big red available. I love Ladera but 2013 is far too young for this blockbuster mountain Cabernet to show well in my opinion. I ended up with a 2013 Simi Cabernet ($17) which is always dependable although also a tad young. We also tried the 2011 Bodegas Izadi Reserva Tempranillo ($17) which was one of the few Tempranillos I’ve had that was not pleasant at all (far too much oak dominance). The happy hour crew however was contentedly drinking everything and anything at $5 so maybe I was in the wrong place at the right time.

That takes us to New Years Eve and another restaurant, Redstone Grill, which has always provided a great experience, service, and wonderful food (not a small feat on a busy night). We tried a 2008 Tempranillo ( $15), 2012 Volunteer Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($30), 2011 Higher Ground Pinot Noir ($16), and the 2012 The Rule Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($20). My favorite among them was the Volunteer Cab but all of them were good and pleasant with a variety of food options.

New Years Day we went to see the new Star Wars movie (yes it was awesome and the original Star Wars was the very first in-theater movie I ever saw as a kid). We toasted the series with a 2007 Silver Oak Napa Cabernet Sauvignon ($100). I was expecting a little more from this wine which I’ve kept for some time but it was still a bit on the spicy, oaky side encased in black fruit with a very firm structure. Certainly a charmer but needed some serious time to open up.

We ended the holidays at Mortons with a knockout 2010 Foley Johnson Cabernet Sauvignon ($40) compliments of the Mortons’ Coravin system. The Coravin system has made it possible for restaurants to pour pricier wines by-the-glass due to its ability to pour wine yet preserve the cork in bottle. This wine is supremely lush yet elegant and poised with ripe red and black fruit, tarragon, cedar, and cassis notes. It’s a fantastic wine and a great opportunity to be able to try it by the glass. We also tried the 2010 Banfi Chianti Classico Riserva DOCG ($20) which was another winery we got to visit while in Italy. This is a well made and very pleasant Sangiovese tasting of raspberry, red cherry, and dark spice. We wrapped up with a Sandeman 20-year Tawny Port. I have loved Tawny Port for a long time and this one was very good although it was a little lighter in both color and body than other 20-year Ports that I’ve tried.

Our grand holiday wine summary is 12 Cabernet Sauvignons, 6 Tempranillos, 2 Sangioveses, and one each of Cava, Bordeaux, Douro, Negroamaro, Brusecco, Pinot Noir, and Port. It was a blast tasting all these wines but we need to go back to work to give our bodies a break. Let me know if you had any interesting wines over the holidays and Happy New Year!

Note:  All prices above are based on retail bottle price, not restaurant prices.

12 Glasses – Part 1

It’s been a crazy couple of months since I kicked off my first year in the Masters of Wine (MW) program filled with several essay and (dry) tasting assignments as well as general mania about starting to get a study plan together. What’s a dry tasting assignment you ask? Well it’s one where you are given the wines to try and if you can’t find them (or can’t afford them which can also be the case), you can complete the assignment without drinking the wines. Ironically, this can be easier for someone like me who knows how certain wines should taste (due to years of study) but is still struggling with actual blind tasting. These assignments are not about writing tasting notes but more geared toward the wine’s structure. The simplistic difference between these two things is that a tasting note is something like “the wine was gold in color with aromas of melon, pineapple, and smoke” whereas a wine structure note is more along the lines of “the wine was high in acid, medium in alcohol, medium in body, with a long finish, creamy mouth feel, and deep complexity”. The structure focused notes are used to help the taster determine where the wine is from, how well it’s made, how it’s made, and what grape variety it came from. These are all difficult things to come by and the writing structure takes an enormous amount of practice (remember you only get 11.25 minutes per wine on the MW exam). Also the topic of how well the wine is made means a particular set of factors like balance, concentration, length, integration, and complexity – not how well you think it’s made. My first MW instructor told us very clearly that what we like personally is totally irrelevant on these tasting notes. At any rate, my first dry tasting went remarkably well. So much so that on my upcoming second one, I’m almost afraid to write it as I’d rather enjoy not screwing it up yet.

My first essay didn’t go so well. I’ve always liked to write and some have said I’m reasonably good at it but these essays are a particular format. It doesn’t sound hard in theory – intro, 3-5 main points, and conclusion – but within each point you need a real life practical example from wineries around the world. Herein lies the challenge as I’ve been fortunate enough to get to travel to many wineries but remembering and recalling these examples under timed conditions for a very specific topic is tough to say the least. I also feel like I’m stalking people in order to get examples which feels a bit uncomfortable. But no pain no gain right?

Examples are needed for the 5 main essay areas which are viticulture (grape growing), vinification/pre-bottling procedures (winemaking), handling of wines (quality control, packaging, transport), business issues in wine (branding, marketing), and contemporary issues (water management, natural wines, etc). All of these examples need to be compiled over years in order to pass the Stage Two 4-day test and many are also needed just to pass the Stage One 1 day test (June 2016). The other hard part about the essays is being concise and keeping one’s opinion out of it. It’s a very factual affair and a laser focused piece of writing. In fact the same MW instructor told us that good writers often struggle the most with the essay portions as it’s an entirely different form of writing.

On the plus side, the MW offers an incredible array of scholarship opportunities which is one of the many great things about being in the program. I applied for a couple of them and actually won one. This particular one is sponsored by Reh Kendermann and includes a bursary to visit them in Germany as well as several other wineries. Reh Kendermann is a large German winery with a wide portfolio of wines (Riesling, Pinot Noir, Pinot Grigio, bubbly, rosé, and many unique varieties such as Rivaner and Dornfelder). I was honored to win something like this and am very excited to get to see the historic and renowned vineyards of Germany. One of my all-time favorite pictures from Jancis Robinson’s The Oxford Companion to Wine (the bible of anyone seriously studying wine) is a stunning view of the Mosel River from the terraced vineyards nearby.   I always dreamed of getting to see that view for myself so now I’ll get the chance.

Next on the calendar is a week-long seminar in San Francisco focusing on more essays, actual tastings, and general knowledge likely infused with amazement at how one can learn all of this. The two day seminar we had in October was challenging so it will be interesting to see how 5 days works. I also decided to attend the 2- day Napa trip held prior to the seminar where we get to visit several wineries and have the chance to talk in-depth about MW test topics with them. This should be extremely helpful and interesting even though my brain may be overloaded before the seminar even starts. To wrap this all up, we are also invited to a Grand Crus Classés of the Médoc, Right Bank, and Graves Bordeaux tasting of the 2011 vintage wines. It is customary to taste the vintage five years prior to the year of this event which is why we are tasting the 2011 wines. As for my 12 traveling glasses, I’m sure they’ll be making the trip with me.

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.


Tuscany – Part 2

Continuing on with our Tuscan castle (castello) tour, we went to Castello di Bossi for dinner. Most of us agreed this was one of the most enchanting places of the trip with its serene and vast countryside coupled with a small but rustically beautiful castle said to be 1000 years old. Located in the Chianti Classico (historic) zone, this boutique winery is situated at 1000 feet above sea level. After a tour of the vineyards which had literally just been picked of their last grapes, we also got to see the attic where grapes are laid to dry for the dessert wine Vin Santo.   During the tour, Stefano the winemaker said that 2015 was the best harvest in 11 years in terms of quality in their Sangiovese and Cabernet Sauvignon so they were all very excited about the vintage. He said that the stony top soil of their vineyards imparted a special elegance to their wines while the clay soil yielded powerful wines with great aging potential. In their fermentation room, many of the tanks had a clear tube on the outside which allowed you to see the color of the wine. The wine that had literally just been put into tanks was a pale pink whereas the wine put into tanks a few days prior was a much darker red. It was very insightful to see the process at work from the beginning.

bossi10  Castello di Bossi

We had dinner on the second floor of a connecting cellar like structure with medieval chandeliers perched overhead. I liked many of the wines here. They were made with the utmost of care and all were very pure and authentic in their styles. We had the 2012 Chianti Classico which was an earthy style with red fruit and a pleasant rusticity to it. The 2010 Chianti Classico Riserva Berardo ($27) was one of my favorites. This wine was fuller and more robust due to additional aging and tasted of blackberries, tobacco, cedar, and chocolate with a long finish. Next we tried the Corbaia (Sangiovese and Cabernet blend) which had powerful flavors of blackberry, cassis, smoke, and coffee. The last red wine we tried was the 2010 Girolamo which was a Merlot from vines grown in the 1970’s (perhaps even the first of their kind in Tuscany). It tasted of red fruit and tobacco. We ended with a knockout 2004 Laurentino Vin Santo ($78 for 375 mL) which was rich with walnut, marmalade, honey, and fig flavors. It almost reminded me of an Amontillado Sherry. The depth and complexity of Vin Santos on this trip was fascinating and even if you don’t like sweet wines, they are worth trying just to experience their uniqueness.

Bossi12  Nebbiolo grapes (Photo courtesy of SVE Productions)


Our next castle visit was Castello di Gabbiano, another breathtaking spot way up on top of a hill. Beringer Napa actually bought this property in 2000 and they have replanted 70% of the vineyards as well as updated much of the equipment. Castello di Gabbiano also has a small hotel (11 rooms) which won a 2014 Best in Hospitality award as well as a practicing church right on its property.  You won’t see large hotels in these tranquil places as there are strict architectural rules about building large buildings (and why would you want to block these views anyway)?

Gab13  View from Castello di Gabbiano

On the tour, we saw many conical shaped small fermenters which provide more room for the juice to spread out as the skins are punched down during fermentation. Punching down helps to extract the tannin and color from the grapes as they ferment among many other things. Ivano Reali (our guide and Managing Director) also told that the wineries in this area prefer vertically planted rows instead of the horizontally planted rows which they refer to as “stairs”. Local culture says that grapes must be grown on the hills. Since it was pouring rain during our tour, the subject of global warming came up. Ivano told us that hail had become more of an issue since temperatures started to rise and that they’ve had some hail in the past 3 vintages (but only one frost in the past 15 years). He said that hail typically hits their vineyards row by row so some areas can be completely destroyed while others may survive. While owners do have hail insurance, it doesn’t mean much as one is paid on the value of the grapes (which after hail is zero). Castello di Gabbiano grows mostly Sangiovese on its 170 acres with the rest mostly Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. A typical plot is 3 acres so there are many different parcels of land with varying microclimates. Harvest is routinely 3-4 weeks earlier than 15 years ago.

Back in the tasting room, Federico Cerelli (the winemaker) led us through a terrific tasting. He said that 2015 was a very hot and dry year with rain in the spring (no irrigation needed), a hot summer with cool evenings (helps to retain acidity), and a sunny autumn (helps in ripening). The most important market for Castello di Gabbiano is the U.S. so you should be able to find these wines here. My favorites here were the 2011 Bellezza Gran Selezione, the 2011 Aleanza, and 2013 Solatio.  The Bellezza was ruby red in color with stewed plum, spice, herbs, and anise on the nose. It tasted of sweet spice, cherry, and smoke with an elegant finish, and velvety tannins. Alcohol was still a little hot (14.5) and will settle down with more time in bottle. This 100% Sangiovese just hit the market and its name, Bellezza, means “beauty”. Its grapes are from Castello di Gabbiano’s highest vineyards and this wine costs around $36-$39.

The 2013 Solatio is a blend of 50% Syrah, 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, and 5% Sangiovese. This wine was fermented half by carbonic maceration and half in open vats to achieve a fresh wine that is approachable at a younger age. Carbonic maceration helps to produce a more fruity wine with less tannin and involves fermenting whole clusters in a carbon dioxide rich environment without crushing the grapes. This wine tasted of sweet red fruit, plum, and had summery herbaceous notes.

The 2011 Aleanza ($35) was a 60% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Sauvignon blend and my favorite of the tasting. A deep ruby in color, this wine tasted of black brambly fruit, black currant, and cocoa. Backed by firm tannins and medium acid, this wine spent 18 months in new French oak and is not a wine made every year.

Gabbiano1  Castello di Gabbiano (Photo courtesy of SVE Productions)


Our last winery in Tuscany was Mazzei. Although a bigger winery, this was an outstanding and still intimate experience with fantastic wines.  Mazzei is located in the village of Fonterultoli and has very modern facilities utilizing gravity fall for grape movement instead of pumps in order to preserve the best grape quality. They produce 800,000 bottles a year which is considered medium sized in Italy. Mazzei produces mostly red wines and they have their own natural springs cave in their cellar which provides perfect humidity and a natural climate for aging.

mzcavemz13  Mazzei Cellar Natural Springs and outdoor view

Mazzei was founded in 1435 and is in its 25th generation of ownership. They typically do 10-20 day fermentations on their wines in order to extract a lot of tannin, color, and flavor. Several punch downs are also done to get further extraction. Most wines are aged for 6-24 months in French, American, or Hungarian wood. We got to climb up on walkways over fermenting tanks to see how the wines were progressing. This was fascinating as you could see the heat generated by the fermentation literally roiling the grapes upward as the process continued. The vats with darker juice had been fermenting a few days longer than the vats with light pink froth.

We had a first rate tasting complete with a visit from Francesco Mazzei (CEO) himself.   Francesco is a quietly reserved and amazingly gracious host with understandably great pride in his family and wines. All of the wines we tasted were excellent and everyone was arguing over which one was best. Good problem to have! We tasted the following:

  1. 2011 Chianti Classico Fonterutoli ($24) – ruby color, tasting of dark red fruit, mineral, black pepper, and sour cherry.
  2. 2011 Castello Fonterutoli Chianti Classico Gran Selezione ($50)– one of my favorites of the trip (and I came home with 6 of them).       This wine tasted of blue/black fruit and forest floor with tense acidity and an elegant body. Made of 92% Sangiovese with the remainder Malvasia Nera and Colorino grape, this wine spent 20 months in small French barrels and could easily last 20 years. This is a powerhouse of a wine and a terrific value for the quality.
  3. 2010 Mix 36 ($53)– a blend of 36 different clones of Sangiovese.   This wine was a favorite of many and tasted of strawberry, red berry, and leather with a long lingering finish.
  4. 2012 Phillip ($42) – a 100% Cabernet Sauvignon.       The 2012 is already sold out since it was a lesser quality year therefore less wine was made. The 2011is the vintage selling now and was a higher quality vintage. The grapes in this wine come from two different plots: Belguardo near the coast and the other in Fonterutoli. The actual blend changes each year based on harvest and the wine is named in honor of Philip Mazzei (1730-1816). This was my other favorite wine of the tasting.       A deep opaque ruby color, this wine tasted of cranberry, raspberry, and loam with lush ripe body and a long lingering finish.
  5. 2012 Siepi ($100)– a Super Tuscan composed of 50% Sangiovese and 50% Merlot. This is a massive wine with huge body and red/black fruit, chocolate, and dried herb on the robust finish.

At lunch, we were again joined by Francesco Mazzei who very generously brought out a 2009 Philip which was fascinating to try after the 2012. As good as the 2012 was, the 2009 was even smoother, mellower, and incredibly well integrated.   We also tried a Vermentino, several Grappas, and the Poggio Badiola (a Sangiovese, Merlot mix). We had to be rolled out of the restaurant after all of that and a huge lunch of eggplant terrine, wild boar pasta, and biscotti and cream. The hospitality we received at all of these places was incredible. Tuscany is everything we hoped for and then some.

FMazzei Francesco Mazzei (Photo courtesy of SVE Productions)



Several people have asked me about the hotels, restaurants, and towns that we stayed in on our Landry’s/Morton’s Italy trip so here is some information on those. There were also several wineries along the way with small hotels that looked amazing. Most don’t have many rooms which provides a very intimate experience and supreme tranquility. We had a large group so these places were out of the question for us but if you’re looking for this kind of experience, be sure to check out Castello di Gabbiano, Castello di Banfi, Castello della Sala, and Tignanello (Fonte de’ Medici). Castello di Banfi and Castello di Gabbiano have won several awards for their hotels. From the bigger hotel perspective, the places we stayed are below:

Rome – Regina Hotel Baglioni – some lovely spacious rooms with small patios, small gym/weight room with connecting spa located on the northeast side of Rome with a 15-20 minute walk to many famous sites like the Spanish Steps and Treviso Fountain with the lovely Borghese Park just to the back of the hotel. Quiet and very nice location which was a break from the hordes of tourists in Rome. I had never been to Rome and while I knew about all of the ruins, it was absolutely incredible to see them all over. The Colosseum and surrounding Forum area are simply spectacular and leave you without any words to accurately describe them. We weren’t there long enough to even scratch the surface of sights so make sure you allow a good week if you are fascinated by ruins and history. We had a terrific private guide one day (Maria Patrizia Pennuzzi – p.pennuzzi@libero.it ) which helped us tremendously in both navigation and knowledge for the Colosseum and Forum. Guides here are licensed in different areas/sites although our guide was licensed for anything in the area.


Siena – Grand Hotel Continental– a truly special hotel and former medieval castle with rooms that felt like royals recently slept in them, dark cozy lighting, canopied beds and spacious rooms, nice sized bathrooms, terrific restaurant, free wifi and exceptional location right in the heart of Siena which is a real gem of a town. No gym but there is a little park about 5 minutes away that you can run laps around (you may get some funny looks). The staff here was exceptionally friendly and always had smiles on their faces. Siena is the quaintest and most charming little town with huge character and amazing shops and restaurants, definitely one of my permanent favorites. The Palio is run twice a year (July and August) which is a local horse race around a tiny little square that gets packed with 70,000 people. Look too for the black, white, and rust colored ceramic tiles which are a specialty here as well as panneforte (fruit and nut like cake) that comes in either a sweet margherita style or the more bitter nero style. Check out the Forno Il Magnifico ristorante if you get a chance. The chef there is absolutely fantastic and as happy and talented a guy as you’ll meet. His pizzas were divine and he made a cookie called the Ricciarelli with his grandmother’s recipe which was to die for (also a specialty of the area). I didn’t fully appreciate how regional all of the different areas of Italy are – if you see a food, drink, or item you really like anywhere, grab it because if you move on to another region, it likely won’t be there.



Florence – Relais Santa Croce– this hotel had a bit of a colder feel to it and was one of those historic kind of places that had a ton of tiny sitting rooms all over but no big spaces. The staff was exceptional and very service oriented even happily obliging us bringing our own wine to the bar. Some of the rooms seemed nicely sized although the one I was in reminded me of downtown New York City (shoebox). If you can avoid this, the location is great, right next to Santa Croce which we ran around as there was no gym, and many other lively piazzas, shops, and restaurants. Leather bags, coats, and anything else leather is a specialty here so look for those if you’re in the market. Il Latini is a great restaurant if you want authentic style (and huge portions). Amazing food and bustling service. Francesco Vini was another of my favorite restaurants here. Located on a little side street, this restaurant has won many awards and had a phenomenal wine list as well. You can eat outside and watch the world go by with an outstanding bottle of Barolo or Chianti.




Alba – Hotel Calissano – tiny gym, nice breakfast buffet, free wifi, comfortable and spacious rooms, about 5 minute walk to town center, very interesting shops/restaurants, and convenient for Piedmont wine touring. We loved this town and wished we had a few more days to roam the streets. People were incredibly friendly and gracious and it was very nice to be in a town not overrun with tourists to get a more local cultural flavor.


Milan -Hotel Principe di Savoia – this is a 5 star hotel located on the northeast side of Milan. Big rooms, some absolutely huge rooms with parlors, and very elegant surroundings with large marble bathrooms and modern fixtures. Nice gym and connecting spa on the 10th floor, outstanding breakfast buffet and while wines were reasonably priced (15 Euros or so for Barolo), the cocktails and Whiskys were not (30-45 Euros for a martini or whisky) but that’s not atypical for big cities. Stick with wine! Milan certainly deserves its reputation as fashion capitol of the world as a trip down Via Della Spiga will show you. Other than that, the mind boggling shopping around the Vittoria Emanuele area, and the awe inspiring Duomo, it’s very much an industrial town and not the most scenic place. Of course coming from the sublime alpine area of Piedmont and the classic rolling Tuscan hills, it’s pretty hard to improve on.