Not quite en Primeur Bordeaux and Old Vintage Beaujolais

Red wine tastings

Today I want to talk about RED wine; in fact I want to share my experience of two rather unusual tastings I attended recently. I call them unusual as tastings of this kind are normally not associated with these wines. Secondly they are a little unusual in having their place here as I am talking about conventional red wine – something I very rarely do here. However both tastings have stuck so I would like to share my experience.

The first tasting I want to talk about is one of my favourite tastings in Bordeaux. It is an en Primeur tasting – but not your traditional one. The tasting still consists of barrel samples, but the wines are about 18 months old (rather than a mere 6 months). That is why I think of it as a “en primeur tasting avec recul” or a delayed en primeur tasting.

I find this tasting interesting as the wines are very close to being bottled, and after about 18 months of (oak) aging they are a little easier to taste and evaluate but we have to remember that they are still mere toddlers and will need quite a bit more time.

The tasting is organised by Millisema – a large Negociant in Bordeaux – and takes place in their famous chai store rooms in between the many cases of famous Cru Classée wines.

One of the line ups at the Millesima tasting

One of the line ups at the Millesima tasting

A big part of why I really enjoy this tasting is that it covers the whole of Bordeaux and is organized per region which makes makes it really easy to form an opinion on the vintage qualities of a certain place and compare notes on the different sub regions. The line up is the same in both sides of the table – which allows to easily taste the same wine from a different bottle and compare notes. Speaking of the line up – it is pretty impressive as most of the renowned Chateaux participate and a lot of the people at the tasting are insiders (Chateau owners or Bordeaux wine makers) who are interested in comparing notes but also readily share experiences. It is not very often that one has the opportunity to ask direct questions about Bordeaux’s second to fifth Growth wines to the winemaker and compare answers as one goes along. For me the learning curve was pretty steep:-)

The only slight negative about the tasting is that it is rather quick – one has just over one and a half hours to taste through 150 samples… Having said that I am not too sure how many tasters (which were all trade and press) would manage to work their way through all the wines even with more time. I chose to taste a 4-6 wines per region and generally went on recommendations of others or on notes I had taken the year before at the 2011 En Primeurs.

So what are my conclusions on 2011, a difficult vintage in more than one sense of the word. After the awesome 2009 and some say even better 2010 vintage which both commanded crazy prices, everybody was watching what would happen in 2011. The fact that the weather played havoc and caused a lot of damage just around vintage did not help this cause; in fact the vintage was just about written off by investors and press alike at a time that wine making had only just begun. Needless to say the “En Primeur” campaign was notoriously difficult, and several negociants really struggled to shift even half the amount of cases of what they had done in the last few years.

According to Patrick Bernard, CEO and part owner of Millisema, the En Primeur system grinded to a halt in May/June 2012. He blames the pricing and the uncertain market. In the light of the sky rocketing prices, it was obvious prices had to come back down, but he feels they did not come down enough to entice buyers to invest in a difficult vintage. Bernard told me that “the system of En Primeur is all based on value – the customer believes he is getting a great deal by buying a wine which is not finished yet, and the Chateaux sell the wine below value to help with the cash flow. Unfortunately as lots of people heavily invested in sorting procedures – either through buying really expensive equipment or investing in more people to go through the grapes several times -the cost of production had been significantly higher than the previous years. This was partly reflected in the price which did go down, but not as much as the public expected. As a result fewer people invested believing prices would come down further down the line.” Bernard continued by stating that the prices would have to come down more for the 2012 vintage – which is not considered a great vintage either but on average better than 2011.

But besides this doom and gloom I am very happy to say that I did taste some very promising wines. In general the wines with more Merlot in the blend (very generally speaking the right bank) showed better than their Cabernet Sauvignon based counter parts. A big reason for this is that Merlot ripens earlier than Cabernet, so a lot of it was harvested before the bad weather hit. Another reason could be that Merlot is more seductive when young than Cabernet Sauvignon, which tends to be more austere.

Chateau la Conseillante 2011

Chateau la Conseillante 2011

I focused on the region of Pomerol as I was to visit the region after the tasting for an article which will appear in Snooth in June and found overall the wines quite lifted and elegant. There was an evident freshness in all the samples I tasted. Favourites were Chateau La Conseillante, with wonderful floral and red fruit notes, Chateau l’Evangile, very elegant and integrated wine just about ready to drink now and Chateau le Gay – very layered and complex which kept on surprising me.

Some other favourites of the tasting were Chateau Pape Clement – I really have a soft spot for this wine as I seem to pick it out time after time – but even in its youth this Pessac-Léognan was seductive with its intense black fruit notes and quite round and balanced in the finish.

I found the Margaux wines still very closed but was pleasantly surprised by Chateau Palmer and Chateau Giscours. In St Julien I had 3 stars next to Chateau Lagrange and in St Estephe I quite like Chateau Montrose.

St Emillion was just as Pomerol a little easier on the taste buds and here I liked the structure and mouth-feel of Chateau La Gaffelière and the texture and floral notes of Chateau Fleur Cardinale.

Miss Vicky Wine - the god mother of the 2013 Fête des Crus!

Miss Vicky Wine - the god mother of the 2013 Fête des Crus!

For the next tasting I have to fast forward about a month in time and travel from Bordeaux to Beaujolais (via Champagne bien sur!) where as a guest of the Fête des Crus, a popular yearly wine festival held on the last weekend of April, I got to taste some rare old(er) Beaujolais Crus vintages.

Beaujolais is a region very much known for its young wines; the Beaujolais Nouveau craze of the last few decades has made many of us believe that all Beaujolais should be drunk young. But this is definitely not the case for the Cru wines, which come from one of the ten following villages – Brouilly, Cote de Brouilly, Chénas, Chiroubles, Fleurie, Juliénas, Morgon, Moulin à Vent, Régnié and Saint Amour. Whilst there are distinctive differences between each Cru, the wines from these villages have more body and structure than the Beaujolais village and most of them benefit from at least a couple years aging.

The “Fête des Crus” takes place in a different village every year and this year we were hosted by Brouilly. Tickets are sold at several key entry points and the entry includes a glass and a map to the village. Every Cru has their tasting area and once inside the village one can taste (drink?) for free. Wines poured are generally from the last vintage but bottles of older vintages can be purchased at the stand. It really is a wonderful opportunity to taste the different Crus site by site in a party atmosphere! Even this year the heavy showers could not dampen the party spirit and people were having fun drinking and dancing in the rain ;-)

Old vintage  Beaujolais tasting in the cellars of the Chateau de la Chaize

Old vintage tasting in the cellars of the Chateau de la Chaize

A regular event at the Fête des Crus is the tasting of old vintages, which needs to be booked in advance but the event is open to everybody with a ticket. The aim of the tasting is to show off the aging potential and development of the Beaujolais Cru wines and entice people to age their wines a little.

The tasting took place in cellars of Chateau de la Chaize and we got to taste in between the large barrels by candle light. We tasted 20 wines starting with the youngest one – a wine from 2006 – and ending with the oldest – the 1976 vintage.

Just over half of the wines came from Brouilly and the Cote de Brouilly and it was really interesting to see the evolution of the different vintages in these Crus but I also enjoyed the opportunity to compare the aging differences of the same vintage in different Crus.

My favourite was Domaine Chevalier-Métrat 1996 (Morgon), which was complex and elegant with still lots of fruit and freshness. I also like the Domaine du Pressoir Fleuri 1999 (Chirouble) and the Chateau du Prieuré Cuvée Raconat 1989 – both had an almost velvet texture, good intensity and a long and fresh finish – which I found pretty impressive for these older wines.

My only criticism is that I find it unfortunate that a few of the wines were obviously faulty. I just want to raise this here as it proves my point that it is not only at natural wine fairs that faulty wine is proudly poured…

However besides the few faulty examples I was amazed at the quality and aging potentials of these Beaujolais Crus and feel that they were equally elegant and graceful in age as their more pricey Burgundian cousins!

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Where I look for terroir and bubbles when I am not in Champagne

Terroirific Geneva

I am intrinsically attracted to quirky slightly off beat places and tend to look for them wherever I go. Today I want to talk about 2 of these places; I feel they belong in this blog as they have become a part of my life. Both are wine bars, both focus on terroir and both stand out, at least in my opinion, for their creative approach to wine. Both places beckon from the street and as soon as you walk through the door the outside world dissipates as you find yourself in this wonderfully happy cocoon!

The first place was always going to have a special place in my heart for two reasons: first of all the concept was created by my good friend and business partner Onneca Guelbenzu. She met Terroirific partner Julio Bem at a wine tasting in Lausanne about a year ago and at the end of 2012 they decided to go in business together. Onneca provided the concept and the vision and Julio the place. This brings me to the second reason why I have a special bond with this wine bar: it was the venue of the first Tasting with a Twist – when we still called it the Magic of the Magnum Bubbles and the Bar was still called Bar a Bem;-) However at that time, only a mere 5 months ago, the place was but a shadow of the cozy “Terroir Haven” it has become today!

Terroirific in Geneva

Terroirific in Geneva

Onneca totally re-invented this welcoming wine bar close to the Cournavin Station in Geneva and her flamboyant happy personality can be felt as soon as one walks in. I know this may sound biased but I am really not saying this because she is my friend; but I came to this conclusion by talking to several patrons on the few occasions I have helped out as every person told me how much they enjoyed the place, the concept and Onne’s warm welcome!

Onne & I at the opening night

Onne & I at the opening night

Terroirific opened with a bang on Valentines day. Onneca had organized a DJ and an independent Genevois “sausage” artist who hand made and cooked a 4 meter terroir sausage on a 4 meter barbecue just outside of the bar. The opening had been widely advertised through social media and the expat community which definitely paid off. Thirty minutes after the doors had opened the place was packed; in fact the stream of people never seemed to subside all night. The place was pumping and full of positive energy and this energy has carried through the last 6 weeks. I am very happy to say that Terroirific is going from strength to strength!

I believe this is driven by Onne’s passionate persona, creative flair and excellent wine choice. The bar is open from Tuesday through to Saturday and most nights there are some special events going on – and when I say special I mean business! Some examples of Terroirific events up till now have included live Fado concerts, an exclusive jewelry night with the artists, live ham cutting, psychic reading sessions, and coming soon Champagne brunches (with special opening times). I am also very proud to announce here that from next month we will have a monthly Tasting with a Twist – exploring sparkling wines and Champagne in an unusual and fun way!

Terroirific Geneva

Terroirific Geneva picture by Laure Noverraz ©

The eclectic wine list which changes regularly and aims to bring unusual and difficult to find terroir wines. Every wine on the list has a story to tell and is very much the expression of a specific place as interpreted by the winemaker. All wines are available by the glass so there is plenty of opportunity to broaden your horizon and expand your palate whilst listing to awesome rock music!

Another reason to visit Terroirific is that you will taste THE best ham – either in the cubes of ham-happiness or freshly sliced – outside of Spain. The ham and the chorizo’s are very much part of the whole Terroirific theme, so much that in fact a wee pig is part of the logo! There are other tapas available besides the ham and sausage (though you should definitely try at least the ham!) which like the wine change regularly.

Lastly if you want to learn about wine – Terroirific also offers a range of wine education programs – check out the website for details.

Terroirific is located 14 Boulevard James Fazy, 1201 Geneva and is open Tuesday, Wednesday & Thursday from 5pm – 11 pm
Friday & Saturday from 5pm – midnight
In summer a there will be a brunch opening as well – again please check the website for exact details.

CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® de Bruxelles

CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® de Bruxelles

My second “coup de coeur” is the CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® de Bruxelles. This esoteric Champagne bar is located in the centre of Brussels and has in fact recently changed location. It is the labour of love of Eric Vauthier, who set up the concept in the Gallerie St Hubert more than 3 years ago. He gambled right from the start when he chose to open in the old workshop of fashion designer Kaat Tilley , a place he rented on borrowed time. Eric knew he would have to move when the owners building permits would come through. In the end this took more than 3 years which allowed Eric to build up a loyal following. The CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® closed early January and re-opened in its current location not long afterwards.

Wall of Bottles at the CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE®

Wall of Bottles at the CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE®

As very adequately put by the man himself, the fact that he had to move and start again was not necessarily a bad thing – it proved he could reproduce the concept.The new location is in fact not very far away from the original CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® so the existing clientele followed. However a large chunk of the CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE®’s business comes from tourism visiting the heart of Brussels hence the eclectic window display and an outside terrace – which will be a great draw card once it warms up a little.

I first met Eric last year at my favourite tasting Terres et Vins de Champagne. He immediately caught my eye as he was the only person wearing an apron. The apron is very much part of the CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® branding – it has the logo – Champagne bottle top (plaque de muselet) – and a small Belgian flag on the breast pocket. Eric wears it everywhere and so does anybody who helps out in CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® as I found out when I visited a few weeks ago. Within 10 minutes of entering I was donning one myself!

The Champagne Vasque - Picture Eric Vauthier ©

The Champagne Vasque - Picture Eric Vauthier ©

The CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® concept is in fact pretty simple. There are about 150 different Champagnes; the bulk of them are from Vignerons who aim to make wine which reflects and expresses the essence of their village or vineyard. However, Eric also stocks the classic grandes cuvees and some wines produced by co-operatives. All wines are available as a taste (5 cl pour), by the glass (10 cl pour) or by the bottle. There is no wine list as such, but all the wines currently in stock are displayed on the Wall of Bottles, where every bottle has a price tag with the 3 different prices.

Besides the wall of bottles there is also the Vasque - a large and very chique Champagne ice bucket where the open bottles are kept under a specially devised pressure system to keep them fresh. Generally there are 6-10 bottles in the Vasque, from which a Tasting Palette will be formed. I have to admit to have fallen hard for the tasting palette concept as it really is mega cool and quirky!

Pouring the tasting palette

Pouring the tasting palette

The palette is a flight brought in an unusual way – ie it is a cardboard cut of a painter’s palette, with 3 holes for stemless glasses; I love the way the he glasses are stored in a riddling rack! The palette is tailored to the customer’s palate as the 3 champagnes are selected to best match the customers taste.

The unique presentation not only speaks to the imagination of the customer, it is also the CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® unique touch to bring the different subtleties in terroir & winemaking in Champagne in a very visual way.

Eric also has a mobile version of the CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE®, which can be hired for corporate events and has several exciting projects to expand the horizons of the CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® even more up his sleeve. Again I am mega proud to write here that one of these projects is a 10 series collaboration with “Tasting with a Twist” starting on the 28th of April. The full program of this exciting partnership will be published very shortly – so stay tuned!

The CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® is located 11, rue de la Madeleine – 1000 Brussels. Opening times are Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 11 AM till 10.30 PM.
Friday & Saturday from 11 AM till midnight.

The CHAMPAGNOTHÈQUE® also offers discovery boxes of several Champagne producers at a very competitive price. I strongly suggest that you do check out this amazing “cultural” Champagne experience on your next visit to Brussels!

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Caroline’s Champagne – vins clairs, terroir & savoir faire

Vins Clairs tasting at Nicolas Feuillatte

Vins Clairs tasting at Nicolas Feuillatte

This last month I have been very lucky to have been invited to taste vins clairs (in plural!) in lots of different places. The term “vin clair” literally means clear wine – it dates from the time that the wine had cleared after the first fermentation;all the yeast and sediments having fallen to the bottom. I feel vins clairs are often a great expression of their particular terroir, as they grape varieties are generally vinified per cru or village.

However, vins clairs tastings are not for the faint hearted – the wines are often very acidic, and can be a little thin. They are very different from other still wines made from the same grape varieties… One must remember these wines will be blended together, often with some reserve wine added to make the final base wine which will be bottled and undergo the second fermentation.

It takes practise to understand these tastings – in the same way that tasting en primeur wines takes practise. You are looking for characteristics – acid, mouth feel, elegance, minerality and flavour – and imagine them after a second fermentation in the bottle, several years of aging in the cellar, and with a dosage added. In other words – you taste the wines and think of the final blend, and even the Champagne and try to imagine what each wine can add.

In a way it is desecting the Champagne and piece it back together – and by doing so one slowly learns about the sub terroirs in Champagne as well as the differences in savoir faire and the individual style of the champagne makers.

These last few weeks I have tasted quite a few vins clairs and I would like to share 4 of them. The tastings have been very different yet in their own way they have left a mark on me; I learned a lot at each place but most of all I feel these 4 tastings are a great example of the diversity we have in Champagne.

Table of Vins Clairs tasters at Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte

Table of Vins Clairs tasters at Champagne Nicolas Feuillatte

The most formal of vins clairs tastings I attended was at Nicolas Feuillatte at the beginning of the month. I had received an official invitation, confirmed my attendance by post and I took place at tasting with about another 20 people. Most other tasters were from Champagne, and a lot of them worked for the CIVC or the SGV. There were a few members of the Press – all French and all involved with specialized viticultural magazines. David Henault, the Chef de Cave invited us to quickly introduce ourselves before we started the tasting with 4 Chardonnays. I was really happy I took detailed notes as I quickly realized that we were all supposed to say a little about the wines and pick our favourites. We continued this way with the 3 Pinot Meuniers, 3 Pinot Noirs and 3 red wines (Pinot Noir as well).

Champagne Nicolas Feuillate 2004 Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru

Champagne Nicolas Feuillate 2004 Blanc de Noirs Grand Cru

At lunch I was seated next to David and told him I had been extremely impressed by the quality of the wines; it is a fact that 2012 is a great year – but I had expected to taste thinner, more acidic and less flavoursome wines. David admitted that he received his fair share of these wines but that they had already been blended for the pending bottling of the brut. The wines we tasted would go in special cuvees or become reserve wines. I was impressed by his straight forwardness as after all I was one of what he called difficult foreign writers :-) We got to taste a few of the special cuvees, which are made in relatively small quantities and I was particularly impressed by the Grand Cru Vintage Blanc de Noir (100% Pinot Noir 2004).

I had decided to attend the Feuillate Vins Clairs tasting because I wanted to get a better understanding of the vintage across the board. I believed that Feuillatte being the largest co-operative would have a wide variety of wines. Whilst I did not really achieve what I originally set out to do I learned a lot from my chat with David about the “big blending exercise” and discovered the co-operative has access to terroir wines as well which they sometimes choose to vinify separately.

Charles Philipponnat pouring some Clos de Goisses vin clair

Charles Philipponnat pouring some Clos de Goisses vin clair

The second tasting which really stuck was my tasting of a selection of “Clos de Goisses” wines at Philipponnat. I had been invited by Charles Philipponnat, after a few chats on Facebook, and was lucky to be one of the first external guests to taste through several different wines from this famous vineyard. We tasted together with Antoine de Boysson, the Philipponnat Export Manager, and for each wine Charles explained where in the Clos des Goisses it came from. We started with a few wines vinified in stainless steel tanks, however the bulk of the wines underwent fermentation in the traditional Champagne barrels (205L) and a few “double barrel” -demi-muid (410L in Champagne).

The Clos des Goisses is planted with both Pinot Noir and Chardonnay but I there is a majority of Pinot Noir. This harvest included 3 press loads of Chardonnay and 8 of Pinot Noir and I tried some wines of each pressing. It was amazing to taste the differences in flavour per subsection of this single vineyard, and whilst the Chardonnays where good, the Pinot Noir was outstanding! All the wines had an almost round mouth feel, great intensity of flavour and a balanced acidity and freshness. Towards the end of the tasting we tried few Grand Cru vins clairs which were good as well but they lacked the rich and intense character of the Clos des Goisses.

The amazing 2003 Champagne Philipponnat Clos des Goisses!

The amazing 2003 Champagne Philipponnat Clos des Goisses!

The last wine I tried was the wonderful 2003 Champagne Clos des Goisses. 2003 was a difficult year with small yields, a bit like 2012, which means only 6000 bottles were produced, but the Champagne in the bottle was beyond delicious!! I have tried the 2000, 2001 and 2002 Clos des Goisses before, and have always loved this wine but I have not often been blown away the way I was by the 2003!! I loved the complexity and richness of it – this champagne is so beyond sexy that I am happy it is a wine and not a man :-)

My third great tasting experience came a week later, when I went to Chouilly to visit Champagne Legras et Haas. Before I arrived there I knew very little about them except that the very generous Jérôme Legras had been one of our sponsors for our #onthewineroad trip to California last year. I had come through Chouilly a few times this month and had been thinking of contacting Jérôme to make an appointment when he reached out to me.

Chouilly is one of the 17 Grand Cru villages but somehow it is a little less famous than the other Grand Crus in the Côte des Blancs. It is also the only Grand Cru village with a mainly northern exposure and it is the largest Grand Cru. The Legras family has had vineyards in the area for a few generations and in 1991 François Legras and his wife Brigitte Haas founded, together with their 2 oldest sons Rémi and Olivier, the Champagne House Legras et Haas. Jérôme joined the family business in 2006 and today the family as a whole runs the Champagne House. The decision to be a “Champagne House” or negotiant, was a conscious one, as the family wanted to have the freedom to make the Champagnes they wanted to rather than be restricted to making wines from only the family vineyards in Chouilly, Vitry le Francois and Les Riceys. Hence, they purchase each year some Pinot Meunier for their Brut Tradition as well as some Ay Grand Cru Pinot Noir (only in exceptional years) for the Cuvee Exigence.

Chouilly vins clairs tasting at Champagne Legras et Haas

Chouilly vins clairs tasting at Champagne Legras et Haas

After a quick tour of Chouilly where Jérôme explained the different terroirs in the village, we tasted through a few specific Chouilly terroirs as vins clairs. Again I was totally amazed by the different characteristics of the 3 sites I tasted – the first wine was very tropical and rich , the second showed more citrus and apple, whilst the 3rd wine was more elegant, lacy and mineral. The most interesting part of this exercise was that I had the wines right next to each other so I could go back and forth.
I also tasted two different Soleras of Chardonnay which the family uses for the Cuvee Exigence Grand Cru. The oldest Solera was rich, complex and very layered, whilst the second one – which is significantly younger, was a lot fresher and more linear.

Champagne Legras et Haas Cuvee Exigence 7

Champagne Legras et Haas Cuvee Exigence 7

We finished off the tasting with a few Champagnes which we tasted out of order, starting with the Premium wines and finishing with the fresher Brut Tradition. Again I fell for the richest and most opulent wine – the Cuvee Exigence Grand Cru 7 – as it is the 7th time the family decided to make this wine. The base wine is a mixture of 50% reserve wine from the Solera (from Chouilly) and 50% 2007 Pinot Noir from Aÿ and has been aged for around 5 years. I loved the power and intensity of the wine, however this Champagne is definitely a meal wine.

Whilst I was tasting and talking to Jérôme, I became totally intrigued and in a way very excited by the the experimental nature this smallish Champagne House has. They actively look for innovation and take risks by trying out small runs of new cuvees. They test these wines over time and very often they sell the lot off as exclusive one off’s. However I strongly feel that by working in this way Champagne Legras et Haas expand their horizons in ways which are very rare for this region. I really hope to go back soon to taste more of the range including some of these special and rare cuvees!!

My last WOW tasting was at Champagne Charlot-Tanneux in Mardeuil last week Monday. Vincent Charlot had invited me, again through Facebook, and again I knew very little about this producers. As we had set a date Vincent had mentioned that he was off to a biodynamic conference in Bordeaux later in the week and I have to admit that I was pretty excited about discovering another biodynamic producer!!

Vincent Carlot showing of the life in his soil

Vincent Carlot showing of the life in his soil

It was a beautiful sunny day last Monday which was a good thing as the next few hours were spent in the vineyard. Vincent took me from plot to plot in his 4 hectares of vineyard and opened up his soils so I could see all the activity going on in it. In between his rows he has natural grass and we even saw a few wild flowers which had started to flower encouraged by the few days of good weather. I was overwhelmed by all this life in WINTER and definitely want to have a similar tour in spring to see Vincent’s vineyard really buzzing!

Vincent also showed his compost heaps to me – he explained his preparations and spoke about the different herbal sprays he uses in the vineyard. This guy really knows his land, understands the circles of live and wants to work with nature to get the purest expression of his terroir!

After the vineyard it was time to taste the vins clairs. All vinification is done in old Bordeaux Barrels (225L) and happens spontaneously (using natural yeast); ferments are quite slow and the wines do not go through malolactic fermentation. Whilst some wines were still in the last stages of fermentation they were very pure and almost electrifying. Again they tasted significantly different from plot to plot, and the acidity was extremely balanced and integrated. Once fermentation is completely finished, the wines will remain on their lees till August when they are racked, blended and bottled.

The delicious 1992 Pinot Meunier - freshly disgorged

The delicious 1992 Pinot Meunier - freshly disgorged

Vincent brought the biggest smile to my face when he disgorged a bottle of 1992 Pinot Meunier (the first Champagne he ever made) for me to taste. This was a wine from before the domain was biodynamic; nevertheless it was pretty amazing and I was very much wowed by it. It’s pretty unusual to find a 20 year old Pinot Meunier without dosage; when I tasted the wine I did not know what it was – from the colour I could see it had been in the cellar for a while but I would definitely not have guessed 20 years. I have been thinking a lot about this wine this last week and have wondered how I would have tasted and appreciated the wine had I known what I was tasting – but in a way I am glad I did not know as it allowed for the wine, and not its story to seduce me :-)

From this wee story one can see that the palate of wines in Champagne is pretty big – and I believe this comes from the terroir including the savoir faire and expression of the terroir by the winemaker. It is this what makes up the richness and uniqueness of this region and draws me in a little more with every wine I taste.

Posted in Caroline's Champagne, Champagne, biodynamic, terroir, vins clairs | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Caroline’s Champagne – the celebration of St Vincent

The blessed barrel of wine for St Vincent

January 22nd is the name day of St Vincent – patron saint of the winegrowers in France as in some areas of Spain and Italy. In Champagne it is an important day as most of the 319 villages celebrate the event – probably because just about everybody seems to have vines or have a family member who works in the wine industry :-)

The celebration of St Vincent is very much rooted in tradition and it seems to me the format has changed very little over the generations. In general one of the winegrowers in the village, who is a member of the Confrérie or fraternity of winegrowers, offers a barrel of wine for the festivities and most of the village will gather at his place at the start of the day. From here, a procession will weave it’s way through the village to the church. The parade is headed by the members of the brotherhood, and a brass band and inhabitants of the village, often dressed up in traditional clothing will follow. A statue of St Vincent, the barrel of wine as well as a wee tower of brioches, are carried through the village. A church service, where the village gives thanks for last vintage and prays for a good vintage this year follows. During the service, the barrel of wine and the brioches are blessed and the services often resembles a party as there is a lot of music and songs performed by the brass bands and or a choir. After the service, the parade continues direction village hall, where the mayor will discuss highlights of the year that was, before the head of the Confrérie hands out several viticultural awards. After the speeches it’s time for a wee drink – which once upon a time came from the blessed barrel, but since has been replaced by bottles of Champagne and a piece of the blessed brioche. Festivities continue with an elaborate lunch and a dinner dance which goes on till the wee hours of the morning.

Members of the Archiconfrerie and the Bishop just before the service

Members of the Archiconfrerie and the Bishop just before the service

I was invited to attend the St Vincent in Hautvillers, my village, but unfortunately I had to miss the event as I was teaching. However, I was lucky enough to attend the St Vincent of the Archiconfrérie des Vignerons de la Champagne about 2 weeks ago.

The Archiconfrérie is the brotherhood of brotherhoods (or the arch-fraternity). It first saw the light in 1931 in Epernay, and its aim was to gather everybody involved in the Champagne industry across the whole region. The Archiconfrérie de la Champagne thus brings together village confréries of wine growers as well as representatives of the Champagne Houses. Maurice Vollereaux and Evelyne Roques-Boizel, the co-chairmen of the organization, represent their respective family and stand together in all their tasks. They symbolize the unity of all the players in Champagne.

Archiconfrérie de la Champagne - groups photo in front of the statue of Jean de la Fontaine

Archiconfrérie de la Champagne - groups photo in front of the statue of Jean de la Fontaine

Early 1990’s the celebration of the St Vincent de l’Archiconfrérie became a wee bit grander and a few years later it was decided to celebrate the event every second year in another capital city of the region, and in alternative years in Epernay (capital of Champagne as a Wine growing region). This year the event took place in Chateau-Thierry in the Aisne and the town put on a wonderful show. 90 different Confrérie’s followed the Archiconfrérie from the station to the place St Jean, where a family photo was taken in front of the statue of Jean de la Fontaine, a famous French writer. The parade then continued to the beautiful Saint Crépin Church, where the Bishop of Soisson, Laon and St Quetin, Monsigneur Hervé Giraud, together w two other priests, welcomed a full church to participate in the St Vincent Mass. The service was very colourful and beautifully animated by the Harmonie des Tonneliers (band) and Charlie Par Choeur (choir). As in a normal St Vincent mass, the barrel of wine and the brioches were blessed and everybody sang for a great vintage. But what stood out the most for me was the huge number of young people present in the church to celebrate their heritage. It shows that the tradition of St Vincent is still very much alive and important in Champagne!

Jean-Luc Barbier on Champagne's challenges and opportunities

Jean-Luc Barbier on Champagne's challenges and opportunities

After the service, everybody gathered in the local sport centre, where after a welcome and a warm thank you to the city of Chateau-Thierry by Evelyne Roques-Boizel and Maurice Vollereaux, several officials held speeches before silver and golden medals were awarded for service to the Champagne Region. The most interesting speech in my opinion was the one delivered by Jean-Luc Barbier, president of the CIVC, who spoke about the Champagne’s challenges and opportunities in 2012 and 2013..

After the prize giving, everybody was invited to have a piece of the blessed brioche and a coupe of Champagne to cheer in the new year – which may be difficult but also very exciting!

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My first Champagne anniversary – a time to reflect…

Hautvillers in the snow

Hautvillers in the snow

As I wandered through the snow dusted vineyards last weekend I was once again stuck for words by the landscape’s beauty. I am still amazed by the diversity of the local scenery and realized I am feeling very much at home here in Hautvillers. It is hard to believe that it now has been one year since I moved here; it seems the time has just flown by! So as I made my way back through the village I started to think about this last year and how it changed just about everything in my life…

I had decided almost on a whim to settle in Champagne and stumbled on Hautvillers. I did not know how lucky I was to end up in this iconic village; then again there were many things I did not know and had to learn about living in this region. But somehow it did not faze me. I was convinced I was on a sweet wicked and thought I could start again here without too many difficulties – in other words I kinda pictured the life I had, but in the country side and drinking more Champagne:-) I don’t think I was ready to change everything – in fact I think I was majorly under prepared… And looking back I think that was a really good thing; if I would have planned and researched I would not have taken the plunge…There were too many things in my “cushty” life that I would have to give up, and I know the rational Caroline would have reasoned her way out of it all. So I feel extremely lucky that I rolled into this unprepared and was able to adapt on the way, as this last year has been one of the most amazing and enriching experiences of my life so far!!

Maybe I should have guessed that country side and high flying jobs are very rarely mentioned in one sentence. So I quickly learned that I would have to adapt and become a lot more creative if I wanted to stay here. In other words I learned to survive. Ironically the more I struggled financially, the more how realized how lucky I was. I lived in a beautiful place, was healthier and happier than I had been in a long time, was learning and discovering Champagne at my own pace and for financial hardship was bringing out the creative side of me especially now that I had a little more time to spare.

I want to add here that I am really fortunate to have a very supportive family and generous friends who have helped me out by believing in me, giving me good advice, bought me virtual as well as real drinks and prevented me from going under. I am very very grateful for all the love and support that came and still comes my way :-)

So all in all I had a great year!! I started to write for Vinogusto, Palate Press, Snooth and Wine-Searcher and was obviously doing something right as I also won the WBC scholarship to go to Portland, which allowed me to see my brother again and travel a bit in Napa and Sonoma tasting some amazing wines #onthewineroad!!

Magic of the Magnum Bubbles

Magic of the Magnum Bubbles

Besides the US, I also travelled to Germany and twice to Italy. The first time to help launch the very first #winelover event which proved to be very successful! I also was invited at several important tastings in France (Bordeaux En Primeur, Vins Clairs tastings and the Ventes des Hospices des Beaunes) which were unbelievably rich and unique experiences!! I attended the 2 natural wine fairs in London – again an amazing experience and in these last few months I experienced real magic in our Magic of the Magnum Bubbles Tastings which I did with Onneca Guelbenzu of winedefender.org. Bonding and working with Onne has been pivotal and too much fun!! I hope we can continue to rock the wine world together with our “tastings with a twist” for a long long time to come! We have big plans and are all set to make them happen so watch this space!!!

Lastly, I also took up teaching, which I (surprisingly) quite enjoy even though I would never have guessed I would be teaching material :-) But it has been fun and I have really improved my public speaking!! I hope I can get a few more hours as it would be great to have a little breathing space, but I feel that with all these projects on the go the tide is slowly changing and life is looking pretty rosy!! Remember the self fulfilling prophecy – if you really really want something, you will find a way to get it!!!

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Caroline’s Champagne – more terroir, organic winegrowing and natural winemaking

The first thing I read this morning was “The latest stimulant to drag me out of natural wine commentary retirement was the ‘debate’ during the European Wine Blogger’s Conference in Turkey. Turns out this wasn’t a debate as much as it was a presentation–one that could have been entitled, Natural Wine? Wrong! Sorely missing on the panel was a winemakeris committed to working with nothing added or taken away. Without it, the genre of wine was merely a headline without a voice.”, which is an
extract of an article by Alice Feiring entitled EWBC–the natural wine edition. Gabriella Opaz, one of the organisers of the EWBC had posted it in the #EWBC group on FB.

The post hit a note… First of all I immediately clicked on the link and read the whole article, which I thought was excellent as it touched on a few interesting and in my opinion important points. First of all like Alice pointed out, this was not really a debate but instead it was a presentation by 4 different people all kind of stating that in a way all wine is natural, therefore natural wine is probably not the best term to describe these wines made in a non interventionist way.

I have to admit to be more than a little confused about why there still seems to be a need to continue the discussion about the name “natural wine”- rather than the wine or the philosophy behind the making of these wines. As far as I see it the term “natural wine” is already well established and being used today. To illustrate: in the last week I have had lunch in a restaurant where the wine list had a large “vins natures” section, I also saw several online retailers in Belgium and France with a section “vin nature”, and tasted several wines at the grand tasting in the Palais de Congres in Beaune last week which were presented as vins natures.

Natural wine evokes a certain idea or image in our mind – it refers to a certain philosophy in wine making whereby the grapes are grown organically or sustainably and where wine making interventions are kept to a minimum. As most people have their own idea as to what these minimal wine making techniques are nothing is set in stone, but the underlying idea is to bring you the wine in its purest state.
Why do I feel the need to let myself once again be dragged into this debate?
Well the answer is my quest for terroir in wine. I look for terroir as it gives me a sense of authenticity – it tells a unique and rare story of a place in time as expressed by a winemaker and it makes me feel special. And it is this precious “special” feeling that I look for when I eat and drink. I also feel, and this may be even more controversial, that this place in time needs to be alive and buzzing to the artisan for him to amplify these sensations. So in a way this means that for me terroir wine can only come from a living terroir and living soil; something which is generally achieved through farming according to organic or biodynamic principles. To paint a true picture of this living terroir, one needs, again in my opinion, to intervene as little as possible and use as many elements as nature has given us at that time.

The second reason why Gabriella’s post this morning hit a note is that it made me want to write more about terroir Champagne. In Champagne (natural) terroir wines are rare – yet they are the wines which have been rocking my world since I arrived here – they are my exciting category! Hence they are the wines and the producers I have been drawn to and they are also often the wines I address here in this blog.

Today I want to talk about 2 amazing events/tastings I attended last month. To me they were extremely interesting and awesome as all the wines I tasted had a “terroir” story to tell ;-)

Bulles Bio en Champagne poster

Bulles Bio en Champagne

The first even was Bulles Bio en Champagne, a tasting showcasing the Champagnes of 11 certified organic producers. It is important to note these 11 growers have committed to organic wine growing in a marginal wine growing region by opting for the official certification. This choice significantly limits their options when fighting diseases; it also limits their potential yields and volumes per hectare. And in a difficult year like 2012, a lot of these growers were significantly down in volume.

I was particularly impressed by the quality, liveliness and uniqueness of these wines; each wine was distinctively different and a true reflection of its place in time as expressed by the passionate winemaker. And this was something that really stood out – all 11 winemakers were really passionate – passionate about their wines, terroir, nature as a whole and an organic way of living more specifically. The members of the group whose wines I tasted were Françoise Bedel, Francis Boulard et Fille, Thierry Demarne, Jean-Pierre Fleury, Bertrand Gautherot, Vincent Laval, David Léclapart, Champagne Leclerc-Briant, Christophe Lefevre, Bruno Michel and Franck Pascal. Enjoy their wines and allow yourself to (time) travel to their place in time -you will be amazed by the purity and intensity of these remarkable champagnes!!

Terres et vins de Champagne Champagne Day poster

Terres et vins de Champagne Champagne Day poster

My terroir experience continued on the 26th of October when I attended the 3rd Champagne Day party hosted by Terres et Vins de Champagne. Terres et Vins de Champagne groups together an eclectic group of vignerons who have as a slogan on their site “J’aime le goût de la terre et les vins culturels” (I like the taste of the soil and cultural wines). It is a project which formed around the shared passion of these 19 vignerons to show off their “Authentic Champagnes”. I first was introduced to the group last year, also on Champagne day, just before I moved here, and was in awe by the diversity of terroirs. Once again each wine tells a story and takes you on a private and unique voyage. And this informal tasting where one can really exchange ideas and communicate with the winemakers really oozed of authenticity and originality!

The wines were paired with a plate of terroir nibbles – all produced in an artisan way and carefully selected by the “Epicerie Au Bon Manger”, the place to shop for authentic and very good quality cut meats and cheeses, Champagne lentils, chocolate, wine and other grocery items :-) I loved the way these terroir wines were paired with terroir food as I believe that if one looks for authenticity, one generally does this across the board! The following growers make up Terres et Vins de Champagne: Pascal Agrapart, Françoise Bedel, Raphael Bérèche, Francis Boulard, Alexandre Chartogne, Vincent Couche, Pascal Doquet. Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy, Etienne Goutorbe, Olivier Horiot, Cyril Jeaunaux, Benoit Lahaye, Aurélien Laherte, David Léclapart, Dominique Moreau, Franck Pascal, Olivier Paulet, Fabrice Pouillon and Benoit Tarlant. As you can see some growers are in both groups – but again if you are attracted to the natural wine philosophy, do look out for wines from these people, they so do tell a story and in my opinion they are some of the best terroir Champagnes money can buy!

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On the wine road – part 2: in search of “iconic” Napa Cabernet Sauvignon

Napa Valley Cabernet - on the vine and in the glass :-)

On this very grey autumn day, the blue skies and warm days of the Napa Valley last August seem very far away and I feel a little guilty that it has taken me this long to write the sequel to for our NapaValley #onthewineroad adventure…

One of the the goals Onneca Guelbenzu and I had set ourselves was to learn a little more about the iconic Napa cabs. Cabernet Sauvignon was among the first grape varieties which was planted in Napa at the end of the 19th century and it has steadily won in popularity to be the widest planted variety in Napa today. After the 1976 Judegement of Paris, when the 1973 Stags Leap Wine Cellars Cabernet took first place above 4 prestigious Bordeaux Premier Cru and Deuxieme cru’s, it became widely accepted that the Napa terroir and soil structure was particularly well suited to Cabernet Sauvignon. However – how would one define the Napa Valley terroir as there are believed to be at least 100 soil types in the Napa Valley…

Like most of the Northern Californian coast line, the Napa Valley is the result of continental drifts and plate tectonics – the valley itself is a former sea bed, now covered with sedimentary soils, which runs about 50 km north to south, wedged in between 2 mountain ranges: the Mayacamas Mountains in the west and the Vaca Mountain range in the east. Both mountain ranges are the result of volcanic activity and lava has also spilled into the valley – especially on the slopes. Besides its geological complexity the valley is also climatically diverse: temperatures can drop or rise significantly as one moves about the valley. This is why the valley is divided in 16 (sub) AVA’s, and in 15 of them Cabernet is King. The exception is Carneros, located in the most southern part of the valley, where it is too cool for Cabernet to flourish.
With so much Cabernet around and so little time where were we to start in our quest for iconic Napa Cab? In the end we decided on 3 producers who were all distributed worldwide, whose wines are a true expression of their specific terroir and who besides rising to cult status have none the less have stayed semi boutique Napa operations. And an added plus for me is that all 3 have been experiencing with sustainable and organic farming!

Caymus home block Cabernet vineyard in Rutherford

Caymus home block Cabernet vineyard in Rutherford

Caymus Vineyards
Caymus Vineyards was established in 1971 when Charlie and Lorna Belle Wagner convinced their 19 year old son Chuck to start a winery in Rutherford. The Wagner family had been farming grapes in Napa since 1906, but only in 1972 did they make their first wine – 240 cases of Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon. The Wagner family picked the name Caymus from Rancho Caymus, the Mexican land grant which was given to George Yount which allowed him to settle in the Napa Valley. The land encompassed by the Rancho Caymus included Rutherford, where the Wagner homestead and their Napa vineyards are located.

The Rutherford AVA encompasses about 6 square miles, located in the widest part of the Napa Valley where it has a longer sun exposure then the rest of the valley. As everywhere in the valley the nights are cool, and the diurnal temperature differences allows the fruit to ripen at a steady pace. The soils are dominated by the Franciscan marine sedimentary materials with some volcanic deposits (primarily Bale, Pleasanton and Yolo loams).Vineyards are planted on deep and well-drained fans – which are are formed from shattered, well-bedded sandstone with a high gravel content – and very well suited to Cabernet Sauvignon.

Onne  & I are all wrapped up with the Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon :-)

Onne & I are all wrapped up with the Caymus Special Selection Cabernet Sauvignon :-)

Over the last 40 years the Caymus family successfully expanded the business, creating several other brands and are now selling over 200,000 cases of wine. The Caymus name however, remains exclusively linked to their Napa Valley wines, and the focus in Napa is still on Cabernet Sauvignon. Today Caymus produces two Cabernet Sauvignons, which are both pretty rich in style. Chuck, who today is the chief winemaker, believes in letting the fruit “hang” extensively, allowing for full phenolic ripeness, hence he tends to pick quite late in the season. He likes the suppleness, deep color and matures tannins the extensive hang time brings to the wines. Chuck has also been experiencing with sustainable and organic farming, and the home block vineyard boosts a small orchard of fruit trees as well as lots of flowers to stimulate a diverse ecosystem.

We tried both Cabernets and I was amazed by the difference in flavor and style. The 2010 Caymus Vineyard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon was quite fresh on the nose with lots of eucalyptus notes. On the palate, besides the layers of blue and black fruit again there was this fresh kitchen herb (thyme, rosemary and even mint) characteristic. The 2009 Caymus Vineyard Special Selection was richer and also a little more complex. I was impressed with the velvet characteristic of the tannins and how drinkable this wine was right now, after just being released. Again there were layers of blue and black berries, a hint of roasted fennel and some cocoa and coffee notes in the back palate.
We were told that Caymus prides itself on producing wines that are as approachable in youth as well at maturity and both Cabernets certainly proved this statement

Welcome to Shafer!

Welcome to Shafer!

Shafer
John Shafer moved his family from Illinois to California in 1972 when bought a property of 210 acres (just under 85 hectare) in Stags Leaps. The property had an existing 30 acre vineyard of Zinfandel but as John had his heart set on Cabernet Sauvignon he created small hillside vineyard blocks where he planted Cabernet.

The Stags Leap District was the first appellation to be designated an AVA based on the unique terroir characteristics of its soil. The district is located in the eastern part of the Napa Valley and is barely a mile wide and three miles long. The two main soil types are the old river sediments of loams with a clay-like substructure in the lowlands and volcanic soil deposits left over from erosion of the Vaca Mountains on the eastern elevations. Both types are rich in coarse gravely soils resulting in low-vigor Cabernet Sauvignon vines that yield fruit of great intensity and flavor.

Shafer 2007 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon

Shafer 2007 Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon

In 1978 Shafer produced its first vintage – 1000 cases of Cabernet Sauvignon, a wine which made quite an impression as it won the acclaimed San Francisco Vintners Club taste-off upon release in 1981. 12 years later, this same wine took first place in an international competition in Germany, outranking Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux. It remained the bench mark for all future Shafer vintages and wine makers Doug Shafer and Elias Fernandez, have relentlessly strived to maintain and even improve the quality of their Cabernet.

In 1983, Doug convinced his father to produce the Hillside Select Cabernet Sauvignon – produced from the best block on the original Hillside vineyard. It is this wine which has made the Shafer reputation as an iconic Cabernet producer. We tasted the 2007 25 years Hillside Select Cabernet, a wine just about purple in colour, with an elegant nose (floral notes, bright red fruit and eucalyptus) and a complex palate. The wine was fresh and full of flavour, with almost silky tannins – I loved how the layers of black fruit (cherry, dark juicy plum, blackberry and mulberry) were interwoven with herbaceous notes. To me this wine showed great potential and whilst it was pretty delicious when we tasted it I think the best is yet to come if we allow it a few more years of cellaring.

Shafer Hillside Vineyard

Shafer Hillside Vineyard

The Shafers have always focused on the vineyard – John, Doug and Elias have been absorbed in understanding their particular Napa Valley terroir right from the start and have developed an in depth knowledge of their soils, climate and fruit over the last years. This lead them 20 years ago to embrace the principles of sustainable wine growing: from planting cover crops in between the rows and making their own compost to enrich the soils in a natural way to encouraging birds of prey to find a home in their vineyards and help them combat the rodents. In 2004 they moved to using only solar energy to power the farm and winery and from 2008 they have been reusing and recycling their water. Over the years they have expanded and bought more vineyards in Carneros and Oak Knoll and today’s production has increased to 32,000 cases.

Opus One winery

Opus One winery

Opus One
Opus One was founded in 1979 and was the brain child of Baron Philippe de Rothschild and Robert Mondavi. These 2 visionary men set out to produce a super premium Bordeaux Blend based on Cabernet Sauvignon in Napa’s premium Oakville area.

Oakville is a small AVA located in the middle of the Napa Valley and stretches out over 5700 cares of which 5000 are planted. The soils are primarily made up of decomposed volcanic rocks from the eastern Vaca and western Mayacamas and silt, clay and gravel deposits left behind by the the Napa River. The weather is a little cooler, as Oakville is low enough to benefit of the cooling fog and winds which roll in from the pacific ocean and has full sun exposure from late morning till late evening. These conditions once again are ideal to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and other Bordeaux varieties.

Vineyard worker tending to the vines at Opus One

Vineyard worker tending to the vines at Opus One

The first Opus One vines were planted in 1984 according to a tightly spaced planting schema. The plant density stimulates competition and as Opus One has very few bunches per plant it makes for intense fruit flavours. The fact that the rows are quite close together also means that just about everything is done by hand – except for the hedging which is done with a special tractor. Opus One employs 20 full time vineyard workers and many of them have been with the company for a long time and know the 3 company vineyards inside out. These workers spend their days among the vines and part of their daily duty is to actively look for changes in the plants – this close monitoring allows Opus One to have a very healthy vineyard, to pre-empt diseases and be very reactive.
The vineyard is planted with Bordelais varieties – 80% of the plantings are Cabernet Sauvignon, and the remaining 20 % is made up of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec.

With love from Opus One!

With love from Opus One!

The winery, designed by LA architect Scott Johnson, was completed in 1991 and is an amazing building both aesthetically and from a winemaking perspective. The grape processing is gravity fed and at the lowest level is a large barrel hall to age the wines. As in the vineyard, everything is closely monitored in the winery as well to assure the highest quality possible. Expensive precision sorting machinery is used to assist with the sorting and every cork is test for cork taint before bottling.

Vineyard markers at Opus One

Vineyard markers at Opus One

Originally the winemaking was shared between the winemaking teams from Mondavi and Mouton, but since 2001 Michael Silacci has been appointed the winemaker. Michael has made several changes in the vineyard, including the conversion to dry farming and has been experimenting with organic and biodynamic farming on some of plots of the vineyard. Silacci aims to produce wines, which truly reflects the terroir and the vineyard and that is why he does not make any must adjustments – no tannin nor acid is added, nor is the must watered down or dealcoholized. He feels the balance needs to come from the fruit itself, and that is why he is very involved in the vineyard and has even embarked on a total replanting project which will take about 30 years to be completed to not impact the production too much.

Opus One 2008

Opus One 2008

The flagship wine is Opus One, a wine made in the great Bordelais traditions but at the same time a wine which strives to expresses all the potential of the Oakville terroir. We tasted the 2003 and the 2008 vintages – both wines showed very well. The 2003 vintage, a blend of 91% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Cabernet Franc, 3% Petit Verdot, 2% Merlot and 1 % Malbec, just about jumped out of the glass and I was enthralled by its velvety tannins, great acidity and the wonderfully rich layers of red and black fruit and the orange clove & fennel notes in the finish. However, it was obvious this wine was just a beautiful teenager, showing promise of turning into a very handsome and desirable adult in a few more years!

The 2008 vintage (86% Cabernet Sauvignon, 8% Petit Verdot, 4% Merlot and 1% Cabernet Franc and Malbec) was but a toddler, yet again I was impressed by the approachability of this wine – it was definitely enjoyable to taste and drink. It showed more herbaceous notes – coriander seed, aniseed and a little garique and eucalyptus – and the tannins were little more fine-grained and pronounced as was the acidity. Again it showed lots of promise for the future and it is definitely an iconic Napa Cabernet (blend).

This very small sample of Napa Cabs we tasted showed indeed 2 things. Firstly Napa Valley has definitely the potential to create excellent Cabernet Sauvignons, which are actually drinkable and enjoyable to drink upon their release, yet they definitely have the potential to age gracefully and seduce when they are a little more mature. Secondly, the wines we tasted were very different – each was the expression of their specific terroir – by this I mean the actual piece of dirt from which they came as well as the interpretation of the winemaker. As they say here in France, one needs a person with a vision to bring out all the potential of a great terroir!

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On the wine road – from Oregon to California

#OnTheWineRoad #California- Hotel California from Wine Defender TV on Vimeo.

We did it!! Onne and I got enough sponsorship together to make it out to California and live our great wine adventure!!!! The weather was great, the scenery gorgeous and we we had a stellar line up of appointments and wines to taste! And this is all thanks to you!!! So once again THANK YOU to all the people that have sponsored and helped us to realize this #onthewineroad dream!!! So Lisa Weeks, Andre Riberhino, Matt Wilson, Cori Page, Mariella Beukers, Gabriella Curin, Simon Woolf, Elisabeth Gtzar, Elisabeth Seifert, Roger Kolbu, Mary Morrison, Julian Horvath, Amaya Guelbenzu, Denise Medrano, Stephen McEleney, CJ Brown, Yoshi Katzuko, Joe Bercera, Melanie and Benoit Tarlant, Gregoire Japiot, Thomas Lavin, Paul Colley, Frederic Henry, Justine Ryan, Maria Margarita Uralde Garcia, Gabriel Dvoskin, Luiz Alberto, Audrey Domenach, Shula Melamed, Thomas Lippert, Ward de Muynck, Marco Cecchini, Maria Godoy, Kevin Jacklin, Antonio Metz, Ana Laura Solis, Jerome Legras, Ros MacKenzie, Maria Dapontes-Dougherty, Russell Curtis, Lisa Augustine, Bob and Debbie Broman, Valerie Brockbanck and Molly Horvaka – YOU TOTALLY ROCK!!! THANK YOU VERY MUCH!!! We totally appreciate your kindness and we will return the favour one day!!!!

Soil composition at Lenné Estate

Soil composition at Lenné Estate

We started our trip on the 20th August in the Willamette Valley in Oregon were we made a blitz visit to Lenné Estate, a very small Pinot Noir producer in Yamhill. We tasted with the owner Steve Lutz, who told us his story in the beautiful tasting room. Lenné Estate was established in 2000 when Karen and Steve Lutz purchased a 21 acres block and planted a 15 acres Pint Noir vineyard in the very poor soil on the south facing slope. Farming the block has not been easy, but then beautiful wine is seldom made in an easy way. The vineyard is planted and according to European high density principle and the 2100 vines per acre are dry farmed – without use of irrigation to encourage deeper roots to give a better terroir expression. Like many a small winery in Oregon (and Burgundy :-)) Steve focuses on farming sustainable and has been working the poor marine sediment soil in his vineyard rather than all the paperwork needed for the certification. All blocks and clones are vinified separately to preserve terroir and clone specific characteristics and the best barrels from certain blocks are bottled and commercialized as single block/single clone wines. I really enjoyed the Pinot Noir Blanc 2011 and the single vineyard, single clone Karen’s Pommard Lenne Estate 2009, but to be honest all Lenne Estate wines were very elegant and complex!

Our super special; Crow Victoria :-)

Our super special Crow Victoria :-)

From Yamhill we rushed back to Portland where we boarded the Amtrak direction California. The train pulled into Sacramento very early on Tuesday morning and after 17 hours of no wifi, Onne and I were mega excited to see a Starbucks next to the station. We got our internet and caffeine kick, cleaned up in the very large restrooms and headed out to the airport to pick up our wheels for the trip – a Ford Crown Victoria. We had asked for the “special” and we sure got a whole lot of car for our money!! We had the impression that we were driving a mini lounge around – the car was huge with seats which felt like sofa’s and really thick carpet at our feet ;-)

Quintessa vineyards

Quintessa vineyards

We headed out to Napa where we first visited Quintessa. The place is gorgeous, very modern and sleek and our first Napa wines were 4 vintages of their Bordeaux blend and a sauvignon blanc. The sauvignon was elegant and balanced with a great mouthfeel and good acidity and made us pay attention to this variety in Napa/Sonoma. I found it very interesting to compare several vintages of the Quintessa flagship wine, a Bordeaux blend as it allowed us to evaluate how the wines age as well as notice some significant vintage differences. The wines were all pretty bold, maybe a little too Parkeresque for my taste, but definitely very well made and approachable even at a younger age. I have read that Quintessa farms biodynamically and there definitely was a freshness present in all wines, but unfortunately we did not hear anything about these farming methods in our tasting.

Benzinger Biodynamic Vineyard Tour

Benzinger Biodynamic Vineyard Tour

We continued our biodynamic theme in the afternoon at Benzinger where we enjoyed a wonderful biodynamic vineyard tour on an electrical train. We learned all about the specific Benzinger terroir, the way of farming and conversion to biodynamics, and the huge effort the winery puts into sustainability as a whole. The 85 acres Benzinger farm in Glen Ellen, Sonoma County, only has 35 acres planted in vines and accounts for 10% of the total Benzinger production. The vineyards are planted on the slopes of a 360° volcanic caldera, stimulating varied polyphenol development and different flavour patterns in the grapes. More than 30 distinctive “flavour” sites have been differentiated on the Benzinger estate and to preserve this diversity the grapes are (hand) picked and vinified separately. They are blended at a later stage into one of the 6 Estate wines in a way which truly reflects the vintage and the terroir.

One of the Benzinger organic gardens

One of the Benzinger organic gardens

On the flat of the caldera, there are several organic gardens planted which acts as natural bug farms. The family also farms cattle and sheep who all add to farm’s ecosystem and the sheep are also used for grazing in between the vines in winter. The family believes in a “natural” environment made up by plant diversity and a healthy living soil and has not used any pesticides for more than a decade now.

They only purchase certified sustainable grapes and are actively looking to increase the percentage of organic and biodynamically grown grapes among their growers. This is why the family will pay 20% more for biodynamically grown and 10% more for organically grown grapes and offer help and advice to growers who are taking up the organic or biodynamic certification.

Onne taking notes whilst Cathy Benzinger explains her family's approach to Biodynamics

Onne taking notes whilst Cathy Benzinger explains her family's approach to Biodynamics

Whilst there is no doubt that the family is committed to the environment their main reason to convert to biodynamic farming was to improve the quality of their wines. Cathy Benziger explained how her brother Mike felt that sustainable, organic and biodynamic grape growing has allowed them to go beyond the variety to express the terroir and make purer and more intense wines. She also feel strongly about the certification, as it’s a program with guidelines, checks and balances which are 3rd party audited.

The conversion to biodynamic farmer and their general “greener approach” has also helped to set the family apart and has provided with a point of difference. This in turn has allowed them to continue to grow as a family business. Benzinger is one of the few remaining 100% family owned wineries in the region and the family is actively involved in all parts of the vine growing, wine making and wine marketing process.

Living it up at the Bromans

Living it up at the Bromans

After an educational afternoon in Sonoma we drove the “Crown Vic” back over the Mayacaya Mountains to Deer Park – Napa. Here we were welcomed by Bob and Debbie Broman, who had kindly offered us accommodation for our stay in Napa/Sonoma. Bob Broman makes about 1300 cases of high quality wine under the Broman Cellars label focussing mainly on Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Sauvignon which they source from premium vineyards in the Napa Valley. I visited the winery last year as part of my Californian wine trip and was already mega impressed with the wines at that time!! This year Onne and I were treated to more of Broman goodness and besides falling in love with the Sauvignon Blanc, we were blown away by Bob’s home made sausages and Debbie’s zucchini loaf!!!
We were treated like royalty and learned tons from Bob who has been a winemaker in the region for the last 39 years and who willingly shared his knowledge on the different AVA’s and their micro climates. For me our 3 night stay at the Broman’s residence was definitely one of the most educational and fun times of our California #onthewineroad experience!!!

Posted in Californian wine trip, Onne and Caro's wine trips, biodynamic, organic | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Wine Bloggers Conference Portland 2012 & Pre-trip to Eugene

WBC12

WBC12

Finally!! The much anticipated and long awaited moment is here!! It’s been a long journey to get to Portland, and I am soooooo excited to have woken up to my first American Wine Bloggers Conference (WBC)!! I have attended 2 European Wine Bloggers Conferences and heard so very much about the American one that I feel very fortunate to actually be here!!

The story actually gets even better, as I am attending my first WBC thanks to a full scholarship!! Without this funding I would not be here right now so I would like to send a HUGE thank you to Thea Dwelle and her team, who are running the scholarship and have found the following amazing corporate sponsors Cornerstone Napa, Layer Cake, Mia Malm and Twisted Oak Winery as well as the countless private people who have donated to make my dream come through!!!

Old farm truck at Heidi Tunnel Catering

Old farm truck at Heidi Tunnel Catering

The conference started for a lot of us with a pre-trip, in my to Eugene, in the Willamette Valley. The Southern Willamette Valley is a very beautiful part of the country, very near the cascade coast, which I hope to visit one day. However this trip was focussed on sustainable farming and grape growing in the Willamette Valley and our 22 hours there were filled with delicious local food and sustainable wines. Our first stop was the rustic barn restaurant of the Heidi Tunnell Catering Company , run by the softly spoken Heidi Tunnell. Heidi aims to prepare a personalized and wholesome meal experience in a 19th century restored barn on her family farm. All the ingredients are fresh, most of the fruit and vegetables comes from her vegetable garden and the meat comes either from the family farm or was locally reared. She served us 3 original delicious yet simply prepared dishes which were paired with 3 local wines. My favourite pairing was the chick pea fritter with a zesty lemon yoghurt dressing and the Kandarian Wine Cellar Blue Eye Sauvignon Blanc 2011.

Royal views on King Estate

Royal views on King Estate

Next up was King Estate – the largest Pinot Gris producer in Oregon, as well as the largest sustainable and organic wine farm. I was pretty impressed by size of the solar panel and manure farm, loved the electrical car charging point and was amazed by the “wine on tap” used in the tasting room. Whilst kegs are a whole lot less sexy, at least in my opinion, it is a fact that the carbon foot print of a wine keg is significantly lower than that of a bottle and wine. King Estate produce around 250,000 cases of wine per year. Most of this is grown organically on their own farm, but they also purchase sustainably grown fruit from a few growers in the region and in Washington State. All the estate grown fruit is hand picked before carefully being vinified. All the different Pinot Noir blocks are vinified separately with minimal intervention, and aged in oak – mainly in barriques, but also a few neutral Oak larger casks – before being carefully blended.

The views from the restaurant terrace are amazing, and the food we enjoyed at night was awesome. My favourite pairing was the King Estate Pinot Gris 2011 with the Oregon Dungeness Crab Cakes.

Water garden at Pfeiffer Vineyards

Water garden at Pfeiffer Vineyards

More gorgeous views were enjoyed the next day at Pfeiffer Vineyards, whose water garden was bliss to relax in :-) Danuta and Robin were great hosts and their Pinot Clinic was a unique and fun experience which I can highly recommend.

We ended our blitz visit of Eugene with a cheese and wine tasting on the Amtrak Coast Starlight train which also brought us back to Portland in time for the pre-conference Oregon Wine reception.

The conference program looks pretty priomising and I feel that besides meeting a whole new group of people I will have learned heaps by Sunday!! A lot of people have told me the American conference is very different to the European conference, and secretly I am really happy about this. In fact I feel as excited as when I first attended the EWBC in Vienna 2 years ago – a conference which really changed my life!

Speaking of the EWBC, last year I was involved in setting up the EWBC scholarship fund and am really happy to say that we were able to sponsor 2 candidates. It would be great if this year the fund could sponsor even more people – so please spread the word and donate if you can here. Your donation can make a huge difference as it will help someone to fulfil their dream and become part of a wonderful community!!!

Posted in EWBC, Food and Wine Pairing, WBC, Wine Regions, networking | Leave a comment

Being a blogger, press trips and different ways to visit and learn…

San Daniele ham platter

San Daniele ham platter

I have been thinking a lot lately about blogger’s trips and other freebie’s and what they mean to me or what I expect to take away from them. I think all of this has been brought on by the discussion about the future of blogging and the definition of a blogger. To be totally honest I do not define myself as a blogger no more as I would define myself a dog walker. Yes I do blog (keep a web log of my wine adventures) and I walk my dog but besides blogging and dog walking, I also teach, write, broker, consult on wine marketing, study, translate, take tourists around, read, cook, dance, run and travel just to name a few other activities which are important in my life. However, to me these activities do not define me – instead I feel they are just a facet of who I am. So when people define me as a blogger I feel I have been reduced to just a part of me, in a similar way as when people call me ” the blond chick”. Yet being blond has sometimes given me preferential treatment, and indeed being a recognised blogger does have several advantages as well.

One of these advantages are “press” invites. As I somehow made it onto the French (and to a lesser extend Belgian and UK) press list I tend to receive all kinds of invites, including several “press trip” invites. A press trip is a sponsored (read just about free) trip to a wine region/chateau/event/ tasting, where the travel, accommodation and meals are provided as well as the opportunity to learn more about the region/event/tasting or chateau with an implied semi obligation to make some “noise” about the experience. This noise can include or sometimes even be limited to all kinds of social media mentions, shares and posts instead or as well as a more elaborate written, photo or video article.

In the past I have accepted trips to visit a wine region, en primeur tastings, conferences and wine judging opportunities, but only if I felt that 1) I could learn a great deal from attending and 2) contribute to getting the message out and create a buzz. The latter means that I already had a previous interest and limited understanding in whatever was on offer so would be more inclined to be enthused and share. Having worked on the other side of the fence for many years I feel pretty strongly about being able to give something back as I am well aware of the costs involved. If I go for free that means someone else picks up the tab and I feel it is not fair to let this happen if I already know in advance I will have very little interest in writing on whatever is on offer or if I feel it is not very related to what my readership may expect to find here, or on any of the other sites I write for.

I therefore have to admit to being more than a little annoyed with my experiences of a press trip to Friuli I took at the end of June. Ever since last year’s EWBC, I have been more than a little curious about Friuli wines after hearing so many great things about them so I decided to attend this trip as I wanted to learn and write about these wines. However, as soon as I confirmed it appeared that the organisers of this trip were not too familiar with what they were doing and slowly but surely I felt I had ended up in Shakespeare’s “Comedy of Errors”.

First there was the confusion about whether or not I was actually confirmed on the trip an all the craziness that went with it. Next none of us received flight confirmations till the eve of our departure. When we got to the airport the next day, it seemed the ticket had not been confirmed and the flight was overbooked. In the end we only made it on the flight as a connecting flight had been held up in Canada. On arrival in Venice, there was no-one at the airport to pick us up, and when we finally met up with our pick up it seemed we were part of a large food and art bloggers trip rather than the 8 people wineblogger’s as we were originally told. By the time we arrived at Pitar winery where we were scheduled to have lunch and a tasting we had established that the wine part had just been tagged on to an already existing bloggers trip to give some international visibility to the Selezione Friulano & Friends 2012 wine competition and the San Daniele Aria di Festa Festival. Organising groups with different interests can be tricky and soon enough we realized that the choice to combine bloggers from different ilks in the same programme meant that everybody lost out.

Friuli wine tasting at Pitar Winery

Friuli wine tasting at Pitar Winery

I am a little sad to admit that I learned very little about Pitar Winery, besides what I already looked up on the internet. I tried a Prosecco, Friulano and a little Merlot, but had to drink the wines to taste them as no spittoons were provided. The wine was served by catering staff who spoke no English and had no information about the winemaking at all. The lunch was elaborate, and went on for several hours, which I guess was great for the food bloggers. After lunch we had a good presentation about the Friuli wine industry where we learned about the diversity of varieties before we started the tasting at 3.20pm. This meant we only had 40 minutes to race through the 30 odd wines… I originally was taking and comparing notes, but gave up 10 minutes before the bus left to speed taste through the rest of the whites as well as a few reds. Because of this fast pace I did not get the time to analyse the wines enough and feel the tasting could have been so much more…

Luckily the diner at al Picaron was great – we had the opportunity to taste some of last year’s Selezione Friulano & Friends winners in the whites as well as a few red’s which were on the table, which allowed us to at least sample some of the diversity together with the local cuisine. However, as no information was readily available we did not really learn very much.

Principe San Daniele Ham factory

Principe San Daniele Ham factory

The next day really was a waste of time. We were picked up early only to wait about an hour at al Picaron for our ride to the Principe ham factory where we had a 2,5 hour tour. After the ham factory we were off to the International School of Mosaics in Spilambergo (la Scuola Mosaicisti del Friuli) where we were taken on a tour which unfortunately was only in Italian so us international bloggers did not understand much. At about 1 we finally arrived at agriturismo La Casa Rossa, were we had an opportunity to taste the wines which made it to the finals of the Selezione Friulano & Friends 2012 competition as well as participate in a cooking class. I skipped most of the cooking and managed to taste just about every wine, which gave me a better overview of Friulano, Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Grigio in Friuli. However, I was totally baffled to find out that whilst we were visiting the ham factory and mosaic school, we could have been judging in the competition if things had been properly organised in advance. As an experienced judge, I would have much preferred this as it would have provided me with more material to write than the 2 morning visits did. Especially since we would have still had the opportunity to take a shorter tour of the ham factory in the afternoon after the tasting…

Instead, the international group spend the whole afternoon in the grass at al Picaron waiting for a bus to bring us back to our hotel. The bus never came, and this meant we missed another tasting which had been put on especially for us… Having worked for a winery in the past I know that to be included in these kind of tastings a participation fee has to be paid and special promotional materials are often prepared as well and I felt really bad that this all had been in vain. By this stage I was pretty shocked by the inefficiency of the organisation, it seemed that no-one knew what was happening, and instead of looking for solutions the different parties were too busy yelling on the phone, blaming each other whilst the minutes and later hours ticked by…

When we finally arrived in San Daniele later that night we unfortunately did not experience the Aria di Festa festival. I am not sure if this was because we were late or because we were expected to attend some kind of VIP reception. The wines poured at the reception had very little in common with the wines we tasted earlier that afternoon as most of them were extremely commercial and ordinary. As we were not too sure what the point of the reception was (again there was no explanation), all 8 of us left the VIP marquee to go and have beer in a neighbouring bar. By that stage we were more than fed up with the whole shenanigans and just wanted to chill…

This day really put a damper on the trip for me. I actually felt like I was not supposed to be there, that including wine bloggers really just was a hassle that the rest of the group did not want to deal with and the whole thing left a semi bitter taste in my mouth. Yes Friuli was a beautifully sunny place, but I did not feel welcome, and to be frank I often wondered what the point of our trip really was…

Taking notes and tasting at Masut de Rive

Taking notes and tasting at Masut de Rive

Luckily the last few hours were a little better as we spend the morning visiting 2 wineries and actually learning something. I do find it a pity that the focus Masut de Rive was put on Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs rather than some indigenous grape varieties, as I feel this once again was a missed opportunity. However the wines were good, we received plenty of information about the winegrowing and wine making process and I feel I finally was doing something I wanted to share.

As you may have gathered, I feel pretty bad about the whole Friuli experience. I feel like I was sent on a free holiday – a nomination which is often used for blogger’s trips and one I really do not like very much – but in this case free holiday is pretty accurate… I feel that after 2 days there I still have very little understanding of Friuli wines in general nor am I clear on the criteria for the selection of the best Friulano and Friends wines, and what the competition stands for. I am also still not sure what exactly the Aria di Festa entails or what it’s history is. All I figured out is that it seems to be a big street festival with lots of entertainment and ham eating. Really not a good result all in all, especially not if I am semi expected to share my experience online…(*)

I do however know that my stay in Friuli would have cost ERZA at least €800, and that they probably did not expect this kind of article in return…. So why then have I decided to write up my experiences in this way? I feel often blogger’s and journalists get given a bad name for accepting anything and everything that comes their way, and I want to distance myself from this. As explained in the beginning I am not just writing to receive the freebies. I furthermore feel that if I was to hide the true waste of this trip I would just be prostituting myself – ie say only what people want to hear as in a round about way they have paid me for it by plying me with a press trip. I am well aware that any wine region/event organising a press trip will think twice about inviting me after reading this, however I feel we need to understand that these trips are supposed to create some ROI.

But as in all business to create ROI certain conditions need to be fulfilled. First of all the the organisers (whom often are a PR agency or another third party) need to know what exactly they are trying to achieve and provide the facilities needed – ie educate wine bloggers on Friuli wines requires time for them to taste in peace, a means of transport to be able to attend all of the tastings, and information in English. I feel the agents should never forget that they are spending other people’s money and that they need to organise themselves to cut costs to a minimum - ie not purchase flights at the last minute so prices are extortionate and organise transport in advance so not taxi’s need to be ordered at the last minute…

I am also writing this in the hope that inter-professional organisations and other event sponsors will check on what the agents are doing as well as connect directly with the writers/bloggers so they can contact them if they want to plan another trip or need more information. I often prefer to make my own arrangements to visit properties and areas I want to learn about rather than just going on any tricket that comes along. I feel there is a lot more value in this approach as I feel I can focus better and often have more opportunity to get exactly the information I am after and relay the story better afterwards. In a way I think the ROI on hosting me or a small group in this way is significantly higher and after the Friuli trip I have taken this more independent approach to organise a small trip to Bordeaux focussing on organic wines, which I felt was a great success. It is also the approach Onne and I are taking in regards with our road trip in Oregon and Napa later on this month. I hope more inter-professional organisations will follow the lead of the BIVB and the CIVC who have been focussing on facilitating specific individual or small group needs rather than organising more general press trips. Tailor made press provisions, rather than tagging on different groups of writers onto an existing press trip, I believe, will increase the ROI, as they allow for deeper and personal experience. And these are the stories we all want to write and read I think… So from now on, I will be actively looking to expand on those more tailor made experiences. Watch this space to find out how I am getting on with this:-))

(*): I would like to note here that I did make some positive “noise” on Twitter and Facebook about the Friuli trip whilst on it and straight afterwards. All in all I had a lovely (if unproductive) time and feel I at least gave something back for in the ways of Social Media noise :-)

Posted in General wine biz stuff, Wine Business, Wine Regions, wine marketing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments