The Madman of Moscato d’Asti

For almost a year, I have been delving deeper into the world of Moscato d’Asti DOCG from Piedmont (Piemonte), Italy. I’ve found it fascinating to research this style that inspired a worldwide trend of making semi-sparkling, sweet Moscato wines. As much of a compliment it is to the Asti area that other parts of the world want to emulate this style, it has been a detriment to its reputation as many mediocre wines have flooded the market bearing the Moscato name, but from areas that do not have the same sense of place, tradition, and most importantly, quality of Asti. This has made the producers who make Moscato d’Asti DOCG even more vigilant to strive for only the best in farming their particular clone of the Moscato Bianco grape on their steep vineyards, coupled with ideal winemaking procedures, enhanced by their intense research and investment. This commitment to excellence is being led by none other than Romano Dogliotti, whom some say is crazy because of the extreme practices he employs to bring a distinctive sense of place to his Moscato d’Asti wines.

Romano Dogliotti

Romano Dogliotti came from a grape growing family that specialized in the Moscato Bianco grape. His father sold the must (freshly pressed grape juice) to larger companies who made the semi-sparkling Moscato d’Asti and the sparkling Asti wines. But, in the late 1970s, when Romano got involved in their small family grower business, Azienda Agricola Caudrina, he decided to reserve the best grape bunches from his vineyards, painfully experimented with inventive winery practices that would express the purity of the fruit, bottled it, and sold it directly to wine consumers. Word started to travel about his enticing Moscato d’Asti wine that was named “La Caudrina” and the increasing demand from his local restaurants and wine bars started to cement his reputation with those who sought out the best Moscato. This led to the famous “La Galeisa” Moscato d’Asti, which is his strictest selection from his vineyards, and the delightfully playful “La Selvatica” Asti Spumante which bears a label drawn by the legendary grappa distiller Romano Levi.

Today, Romano Dogliotti is still an innovator, a passionate zealot that some have deemed a madman in the greatest sense of the word. Although many of the top producers of Moscato d’Asti DOCG wines produce low yields in their vineyards, for quality and concentration, Romano still makes 1/3 less than even the most high quality minded producers. A madman that many of his fellow producers admire, and sigh at the very thought of his efforts and how his standards seems impossible to obtain by mere mortals.

Consorzio dell’Asti DOCG

Consorzio dell’Asti Presentation: Director Giorgio Bosticco (left) and Chairman Romano Dogliotti (center)

It was fitting that before we visited Caudrina, we spent time at the Conzorsio Asti Laboratories to participate in a seminar conducted by the Consorzio dell’Asti DOCG – a group that protects the Moscato d’Asti DOCG and Asti DOCG wines as well as conducts research and development. Romano Dogliotti is the Consortium’s Chairman, and when it comes to safeguarding the integrity and prominence of these wines, there is no other person that is better suited.

As it seems that the news is constantly filled with everyone trying to fight for the largest piece of the pie, it is great to see that there are still those madmen whose focus vigilantly stays fixed on improving themselves instead of wasting time looking for what others possess that they lack. We need more of Romano’s spirit in the world – a spirit that not only never wavers on its extreme standards but also a spirit that spends each day believing that there is always a higher bar to set.

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Wine Tasting Lunch at Caudrina on September 1st, 2017

 2016 Romano Dogliotti, La Caudrina, Moscato d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Moscato Bianco planted in 1979 – 35 acres (14 hectares). Low alcohol (5.5% abv) with 120-130 g/l residual sugar and semi-sparkling (frizzante) by the Asti method. Pristine stone fruit and white flowers with an overall finesse that is absolutely lovely.

 2016 Romano Dogliotti, La Galeisa, Moscato d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Moscato Bianco planted in 1970 – 9 acres (3.5 hectares). Low alcohol (5.5% abv) with 120-130 g/l residual sugar and semi-sparkling (frizzante) by the Asti method. Intense chalky minerality with sweet spice and a velvety texture that has a long finish.

2016 Romano Dogliotti, La Selvatica, Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Moscato Bianco planted in 1975 – 6 acres (2.5 hectares). Low alcohol, 7% abv, yet slightly higher than above, and 80-90 g/l residual sugar, made in a fully sparkling way (spumante). Light and agile on the palate with wild flowers and a hint of brown sugar – so much fun!

2015 Romano Dogliotti, MEJ, Piemonte Chardonnay DOC, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Chardonnay planted in 1980 – only 2.5 acres (1 hectare). Hedonistically tropical on the nose with elegant stone fruit on the palate and a touch of wet stones on the finish.

2016 Romano Dogliotti, Lunatics, Piedmont, Italy: A dry, white sparkling wine made from the local red grape variety Albarossa planted in 2004 – only 2.5 acres (1 hectare). Albarossa is one of the few successful crossings. In 1938, Giovanni Dalmasso thought he crossed Nebbiolo and Barbera, but in fact, crossed Barbera with Chatus (also known as Nebbiolo di Dronero). It is known for its small berries and thick skins that produce wine with delicately spicy and fruity aromas and a creamy texture. Typically it is used as a blending partner, yet a couple producers in Piedmont do make a 100% Albarossa red wine – but this was the first white sparkling wine I have every heard of… let alone taste. It had a gracefully alluring nose with a richly textured body.

2016 Romano Dogliotti, La Guerriera, Piemonte Barbera DOC, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Barbera planted in 1975 – only 2.5 acres (1 hectare). Another fun innovation with a slightly sparkling Barbera red wine that expressed violets and ripe cherries, ideal with the homemade veal tartare they served us at lunch.

2015 Romano Dogliotti, La Solista, Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Barbera planted in 1975 – 5 acres (2 hectares). Lots of energy and bright wild berry fruit was beautiful expressed in this Barbera without any maturation in oak.

 2013 Romano Dogliotti, Redento, Piemonte Moscato Passito DOC, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Moscato Bianco planted in 1968 that have been dried to intensify the concentration and sweetness – 5 acres (2 hectares). An exquisitely lush and complex sweet wine made from the dried bunches of Moscato Bianco. This wine “Redento” is named after Romano Dogliotti’s father who wisely handed over their family wine business to Romano in 1997 – a fitting tribute.

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The Birthplace of Moscato d’Asti: Wandering the Underground “Cathedrals”

As we descended further and further into the cavernous dwellings, it felt as if we entered another universe, an underworld of serenity that majestically displayed an untold number of  bottles and barrels of wine. Further along, I felt the temperature drop – I started to put my light jacket on as I gazed up at the arches in the ceiling, formed by bricks. I wandered off from our tour here and there, and followed the glow of lights that led me to wondrously large format bottles that were comfortably evolving in this heavenly subterranean dwelling… all of the various tunnels beckoned me to discover the delightful libations aging at the end of each path. I was in the land of Canelli, a place were Moscato grapes have been grown since the 13th century, and explored the Coppo cellars that carry the prestigious subzone “Canelli” on their Moscato d’Asti DOCG wine.

Coppo

Coppo winery has been around since 1892, and the Coppo family has remained sole owners since that time, making them one of the oldest family-run wineries in all of Italy. We were guided by the founder’s great-grandson, Luigi Coppo, who spoke with great reverence of the historical accomplishments of the previous generations. One of the many Coppo achievements is their “Underground Cathedrals”… cellars that have such distinct architectural allure that they have been recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Barbera

Although we were there to delve into the special qualities of Moscato d’Asti from Canelli, in the area of Asti, Piedmont (Piemonte), Italy, we could not visit Coppo without tasting their famous Barbera d’Asti wines. Luigi’s father and three uncles run the winery and were truly visionaries when it came to taking the grape variety Barbera more seriously; they sought out single vineyards that expressed the different facets of the Asti area as well as employed modern vinification techniques that displayed the structure and intricacy of this famous Piemontese grape. Their work was ultimately expressed in their outstanding Barbera d’Asti Pomorosso, in 1984, which ushered in a new era of high quality Barbera production in the area.

Moscato d’Asti in Canelli

Because of the focus on their well-heralded Barbera d’Asti wines, it is easy to forget Coppo’s importance when it comes to shaping the Moscato d’Asti and Italian sparkling world. It was in Canelli in the 1800s when Coppo made the first Italian sparkling (spumante) wines that were made with secondary bottle fermentation. Although Moscato d’Asti is made in its own unique way that highlights its varietal characteristics, it illustrates Coppo’s long experience and devotion to finding the right sparkling techniques for different styles of wines. Their Moscato d’Asti semi-sparkling (frizzante) has that creamy texture that is ideally sought from a Canelli Moscato.

After walking through their extensive “Underground Cathedrals” – 16,400 square feet (5000 square meters), reaching a depth of 130 feet (40 meters) – we ended up emerging into their enchanting courtyard, greeted with a bottle of their Moncalvina Moscato d’Asti. It was the perfect drink to have after such a celestial experience. As I sat there thinking about Luigi’s role within his family winery, a family that already has four strong-minded men running it, I could not help but be impressed by his emotional intelligence. He had a way of making each person, no matter their personality, feel at home and valued. Despite the intense pressure he felt being the spokesperson for his family’s astounding wine legacy, he still kept things fun and playful. Like their Moscato d’Asti, Luigi is complex and has many layers, yet he never loses sight that the most important thing about wine is that it connects people from all over the world and creates experiences that we will never forget.

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Tasting at Coppo on August 31st, 2017

2016 Coppo, “Moncalvina”, Moscato d’Asti DOCG, subzone Canelli, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Moscato Bianco. Low alcohol (4.8% abv) with 136 g/l residual sugar and semi-sparkling (frizzante) by the Asti method. Peach jam with a touch of rose water and a lush body with a slight hint of white stones on the finish.

2016 Coppo, “L’Avvocata”, Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Barbera. This wine offers great value (around $13) and expresses Barbera in its fun and easy form as it only sees stainless steel vessels in the winery. It has a pretty cherry blossom nose with fresh strawberries and mouthwatering acidity on the finish.

2015 Coppo, “Camp du Rouss”, Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Barbera. For only a couple dollars more, this Camp du Rouss offers more complexity, with stricter grape selection and 12 months aging in French oak barrels. The bright red fruit is still evident, yet enhanced by cinnamon spice and tobacco leaf with more weight on the palate.

2014 Coppo, “Pomorosso”, Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Barbera. This label celebrates the 20th anniversary of the creation of this wine that was instrumental in changing the perception of Barbera. Extremely strict selection of grapes from one of their top vineyards, where an apple tree grows (hence the name), with 14 months aging in French oak barrels, although it is the profound sense of place that makes this wine stand apart from the rest. Sweet blackberry jam and floral notes are dominated by a fierce minerality that gives this wine an elegant drive.

 2000 Coppo, “Pomorosso”, Barbera d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Barbera. It was a nice treat to see a Pomorosso with a lot more age to exhibit its ability to improve with time. Truffle-y goodness was the first aroma to waft into my head, followed by cigar box and roasted nuts. It still had plenty of fruit, with more noted on the palate, and a vigorous finish.

 

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A Mosaic of Vineyards Make Up an Outstanding Wine Region

After many years of loving the wines of Piedmont (Piemonte), Italy, I recently had the opportunity to travel there to delve into the wines of Moscato d’Asti DOCG . But, of course, how can one visit a land that produces so many different outstanding wines and not touch upon the variety of wines in the area, and ultimately marvel at the multitude of outstanding libations this land yields? And so, we first started at Ceretto Winery talking about the Langhe, a particular area in Piedmont, where some of the great names such as Gaja, Prunotto, Giacosa, as well as Ceretto, bought vineyards to make their wines. It was interesting to hear how that came about from the always charismatic Federico Ceretto; how “the miserable land” became one of the top wine growing areas in the world.

Ceretto Winery

Ceretto is a third generation winery with Federico’s grandfather and great-uncle founding Ceretto Casa Vinicola in Alba, part of the Langhe area, in the 1930s. Back then, although the major cities like Turin in Italy were booming, the farming areas were economically hurting. Langhe people were placed in the difficult position of either giving up their land and everything they have known to move to Turin, or to continue to stay languishing in poverty… and so, for a time, it was known as “the miserable land” because no one could make a decent living there. Things started to change when the Ferrero family turned a small pastry store in Alba into a factory. They would go on to make the now world famous Ferrero Rocher chocolate and hazelnut delights in the golden wrapper, and the chocolate and hazelnut spread Nutella.

The Ferrero family told the people of Alba to stay in the Langhe and keep their land; they would provide shuttles, painted with the distinctive Nutella colored stripes, to bring them back and forth to their factory – eventually employing 9000 workers. The workers would work five days a week at Ferrero, work their hazelnut farm on the sixth day, on Saturday, and then they got to rest on Sunday. Ferrero helped the Langhe people keep their land, stay in their ancestral home and bring in two incomes. It also created an opportunity for families such as Ceretto to come in and buy vineyards, as a hazelnut farm can only be tended to once a week, but grapes meant for superior wine is a seven days a week job. The “miserable land” became a thriving one that would become one of the greatest places for food and wine on the planet.

Federico’s father and uncle, Bruno and Marcello, respectively, as the second generation, would take their winery to the next level. Inspired by Burgundy, they decided to select vineyards that were historically the best for different grape varieties. Albeit a marketing nightmare, they decided that staying true to the spirit of each vineyard by planting the best variety for each plot, with micro-terroir vinifications, was the ideal way to be one of the Langhe standard-bearers for fine wines. And today, we can thank Ceretto for introducing the elegant white grape Arneis to the US, with their Langhe Arneis DOC, as well as an ideal point of reference for La Morra Barolo with their Brunate vineyard.

Piazza Duomo

Ceretto’s idea of excellence doesn’t just encompass wine, it touches on food – growing vegetables and herbs, too. Their three star Michelin restaurant, Piazza Duomo, in Alba, has a unique experimental garden and greenhouse. The chef, Enrico Crippa, seeks out plants from around the world… one tasted like oysters, another like salt, and another like Camembert cheese. We were treated to a cooking class led by the sous chef of Piazza Duomo showing us how they use these herbs, as well other ingredients, to create dishes that show the best of the world while still keeping the soul of the Langhe. The sous chef said that his conversations with the chef were never about a list of ingredients for a dish, but rather, deep discussions about their childhood and those memories that have shaped them, and then they try to figure out which ingredients and methods do they need to employ to convey these deep thoughts to their patrons.

Vignaioli Santo Stefano

Our visit wound up at Vignaioli Santo Stefano, one of the original three villages of Moscato d’Asti in Santo Stefano Belbo in Asti. As a side note, it is way up in the hills and one has to drive along toe-curling twists and turns to reach the top… yet it was exciting to see the extreme farming that took place on such steep vineyards.

In 1976, Ceretto and the Scavino families helped to establish the I Vignaioli di Santo Stefano “The Winegrowers of Santo Stefano” to produce a Moscato d’Asti DOCG and Asti spumante DOCG that would have a strong sense of place and of spirit, supporting the farmers that grow some of the best Moscato Bianco in the world. Their unmistakably unique bottle with the high quality wine inside shows the wonderful symbiotic relationship between Ceretto and these growers. Also, Federico’s grandfather, the first generation of Ceretto Winery, came from the village of Santo Stefano Belbo, and so, it is only fitting that they would want to support the winery in that area as well as to show the world the Moscato Bianco of their ancestors.

This visit was a great lesson of how enterprising people can work with the land, have a worldwide vision for sales, and yet not force their workers to compromise their way of life. At one point, Federico Ceretto said that the Langhe people pride themselves on being very hard working – that they can do anything. They can grow hazelnuts, they can make world class wines, and if they are really crazy, “they do a three star Michelin restaurant”. It is all part of the mosaic of creativity that exists in Piedmont, and an important reminder that we can lift ourselves out of miserable times if we remind ourselves to respect the value and importance of those around us.

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Tasting of Ceretto Moscato Wines at Vignaioli Santo Stefano on August 31st. 2017

2016 Vignaioli Santo Stefano (Ceretto), Moscato d’Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Moscato Bianco. Low alcohol (5.5% abv) with 120-130 g/l residual sugar and semi-sparkling (frizzante) by the Asti method. Rich body with dried pineapple and peach cobbler flavors with a hint of dried herbs on the long and flavorful finish.

2016 Vignaioli Santo Stefano (Ceretto), Asti DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Moscato Bianco. Low alcohol, yet slightly higher than above, with 7% abv, and 80-90 g/l residual sugar, made in a fully sparkling way (spumante). Light perfume of purple flowers and fresh pears with fine bubbles that danced on my palate.

 

Tasting of Ceretto Barolo “Brunate Vineyard” Vertical at their Monsordo Bernardina Winery on August 31st, 2017

2011 Ceretto, “Brunate Vineyard”, La Morra, Barolo DOCG, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Nebbiolo. This series of Brunate vineyards bottling from Barolo are perfect examples of Ceretto’s dedication to sense of place (terroir) by highlighting well-known crus within particular areas. My goodness was this a delicious wine! So young, with round tannins that would melt in ones mouth, ripe blackberry fruit, and lots of complexity with smoky earth and fresh leather. It is shocking how well this Barolo is drinking at such a youthful age. Ceretto handled this warmer vintage very well.

2012 Ceretto, Barolo DOCG, “Brunate Vineyard”, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Nebbiolo. This was characterized as a difficult vintage and shows more muscular structure with intense earthy flavors. But I was just as big of a fan, perhaps even more, as I love the savory, rough side of Barolo. The chewy tannins allowed me to dig into this wine and I can’t wait to revisit this wine in 5 and again in 10 more years.

-2013 Ceretto, Barolo DOCG, “Brunate Vineyard”, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Nebbiolo. It is said that the Brunate cru (top vineyard) is supposed to have an austere, intense quality that shows a deeper side of Nebbiolo – it’s interesting that the “difficult” vintage of 2012 illustrated this best, as if to say “we show our true character under the worst of times.”  This 2013 could not have more finesse or elegance with its pristine fruit, fleshy tannins and an elegant spice on the pretty finish. All of the vintages tasted showed so many faces of this highly regarded vineyard, and so perhaps, this plot is so multifaceted that it takes a vertical to truly appreciate all that it can offer.

 

Tasting at Ceretto Lunch on August 31st, 2017

-2016 Ceretto, Dolcetto d’Alba DOC, “Rossana”, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Dolcetto. A lovely Dolcetto with a bright ruby color and stewed cherry flavors, with a hint of blueberry, all wrapped up in a generous, velvety body.

2015 Ceretto, Langhe DOC Rosso, “Monsordo Rosso”, Piedmont, Italy: Red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. An example of how Ceretto is the leader in combining innovation with tradition. A firmly structured wine that is balanced by lots of fleshy black currant fruit, white pepper and a hint of mint on the finish. A robust red wine that delivers grit with class, which resembles the gracefully strong Langhe people who helped make Piedmont a world class region.

 

Tasting of Ceretto Arneis at La Curia Restaurant on September 2nd, 2017

2016 Ceretto, Langhe Arneis DOC, “Blangé”, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Arneis. One of the best white wine buys from Italy, and shows the spirit of the Langhe people. This is the wine that introduced Arneis to the US. Exotic perfume of green mango and Vietnamese coriander with a soft acidity that is balanced by finishing notes of citrus.

Tasting of Ceretto 2006 Barolo at Consorzio dell’Asti Greetings Dinner on August 30th, 2017

2006 Ceretto, Barolo DOCG, “Brunate Vineyard”, Piedmont, Italy: 100% Nebbiolo. Okay, I don’t need to tell the Barolo lovers how much of a real treat this was! The texture was sublime… that’s right, I used the word SUBLIME!!! It was nimble yet fine with well-integrated tannins that broaden on the finish with dried violets and licorice. It had a mouthfeel that only comes from older Barolo from superior vineyards of a great year, even though this wine is just starting to open and I expect it to keep evolving for 15 more years.

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All We Need Is A Little Hope

Bordeaux City at Night PHOTO CREDIT: Christophe-Bouthe http://www.bordeaux-tourism.co.uk

Our first encounters with wine can shape how we see the wine world, even after a couple of decades of avid wine tasting and learning. We cannot help but have those old assumptions sit on our shoulder and whisper in our ear. Some wines can never get past the preconceived prejudice of being too low in quality… and some… such as Bordeaux… are assumed to be too expensive – too elite – just too damn exclusive. The top Bordeaux wines with their soaring, astronomical pricing and domination of the wine news as being some of the most costly libations in the world (while only accounting for a meager percentage of Bordeaux’s total wine production) actually have hindered the multitude of small, hardworking producers in the region – the backbone of Bordeaux wine in many ways.

Bordeaux

Bordeaux, as well as many French wine regions, had been the leaders of the world when it came to wines to emulate. Then many of the “new world” wine regions started to find their own style and research, and France, especially Bordeaux, started to open themselves to evolving by learning from those same new world regions that first looked up to them. A great symbiotic relationship started to form between, for example, California and the top Bordeaux producers. In 2010, I heard Paul Draper, retired CEO & Winemaker of the famous Ridge winery in California, and Paul Pontallier, former Managing Director of legendary Château Margaux in Bordeaux (who sadly passed away too young last year), get into a lively discussion about how each wine region has been extremely influential to the other. Draper said he always dreamt of making wines that lived up to Bordeaux and Pontallier reciprocated by saying that he was constantly aiming to be on par with iconic California wines such as the ones Draper had produced for years.

But the hesitation for Americans to purchase less-known Bordeaux does not come from the concern that these wines will lack in quality, it is the out right fear of the cost, as well as the notion that we, as wine drinkers, may not be sophisticated or worldly enough to enjoy these wines. Well, the reality could not be further from the truth. In my early years in the East Village in New York City, I was fortunate to be given my daily lessons of the reality of people from various countries around the world. Many Europeans, on a shoestring budget like myself, would show me around hole in the wall Mom-and-Pop wine stores… they would point out the value wines from various European countries and, surprisingly, they were able to find a couple from Bordeaux. Unfortunately, many of the small Bordeaux producers had issues exporting their wines, so I never got to try many of the lovely Bordeaux wines that were very affordable that my friends often talked about as they reminisced about their previous life in Europe.

Château de Fontenille

Now, fast forward 20 years later – I am sitting in a Manhattan restaurant with Stéphane Defraine, owner and winemaker of Château de Fontenille in Bordeaux. Stéphane owned his own winery, Château de Fontenille since 1989, and he previously had worked for other Châteaux in Bordeaux for many years. He had a huge smile – beaming with excitement – during our entire lunch as we tasted his wines and discussed his winery. I was so taken aback by his enthusiasm, especially since he had been in the business for so long. Then when I mentioned that I was so happy to see Bordelaise wines with so much spirit and beauty at such an accessible price, around $15, coming into the US, he said that yes, he was just as thrilled if not more… many like himself who decided to have their own winery could never even be considered for the US export market. There were Bordeaux négociants, aka merchants, who would only consider the top Châteaux for export, and at one time, if the merchants didn’t want to deal with a producer then that producer had no chance.

But he said that nowadays a producer can find an importer directly, and with social media get their name out there. Eventually, it came out that this was his first trip to New York City; he didn’t want it to be known, but I thought it just made everything about him that much more refreshing. I could see a spark in his eye because he had hope that there was a chance… for him… for all the little guys… and at the end of the day, isn’t that what we all just ask for… a little hope?

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Tasting Notes of Château de Fontenille Wines Tasted on August 7th, 2017

2016 Château de Fontenille, Entre-Deux-Mers, White Bordeaux: This impressive $13 White Bordeaux really made my day! A blend of 40% Sauvignon Blanc, 20% Sauvignon Gris, 20% Muscadelle, and 20% Semillon really stands out from many of the other Sauvignon Blanc wines… juicy white peach, good body on the mid-palate with hints of spicy, floral and chalky notes.

2016 Château de Fontenille, Bordeaux Rosé: A textural, mineral driven rosé from Bordeaux made from a blend of 70% Cabernet Franc, 20% Merlot and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon with a fun, tactile impression on the palate and hints of raspberry fruit and lemon blossom…. and for only $14.

2014 Château de Fontenille, Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux, Red Bordeaux: Some of you Bordeaux wine lovers may know Cadillac as a tiny sweet wine producing area close to Sauternes, that makes wines that are relatively lighter and not as expensive as its more famous neighbor. But Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux encompasses a larger area, still relatively small compared to the entirety of Bordeaux as a region, and produces supple reds with pretty fruit for everyday drinking. This Château de Fontenille is a nice example of a $14 medium-bodied, approachable red Bordeaux with red cherries and only a subtle hint of toast that had plenty of body and texture to hold up to the fried chicken spicy sandwich I had during lunch.

*PHOTO CREDIT of top photo (Bordeaux City at Night): Christophe-Bouthe on http://www.bordeaux-tourism.co.uk

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Seizing the Opportunity to Live a Life with Passion

The chatter on the bus came to a screeching halt as we were enveloped by astonishing views in Catalonia, Spain… we had entered a very special designated-wine Catalan wine area… some of you may be thinking that I am talking about Priorat… yes, I visited Priorat during this same trip, and of course, it lived up to its hype as a fine wine region, and I will openly admit that during the whole trip I was thinking when are we going to get to Priorat…. but no, right now, I am talking about entering Terra Alta territory. If you have never heard of it, well, you are not alone, and those who have previously delved into some serious Spanish wine books may had been misled that this area lacks quality wine – far from it, as Ramon Roqueta Segalés, manager and family owner of Lafou Celler, showed us the heart-stopping landscape of his beloved Terra Alta and tasted us on his gracefully expressive wines, it became profoundly confusing to me as to why they were not known as a super star wine region.

Lafou Celler

We first arrived at a little village called Batea, in Terra Alta.  It has only a few buildings, with a couple of streets – actually our lunch came from the only restaurant in town, which looked like a truck stop, yet their food tasted like we were in paradise. The Lafou Celler winery and tasting room, a formerly abandoned 16th-century house, was a grand structure that made me feel as if I had somehow been transported back in time… the only thing that grounded me in reality was that the Roqueta family has renovated it with all the goodies of a first-rate producer, with the latest temperature controlled stainless steel tanks, cement “eggs”, and top quality control procedures from transportation of the grapes to the final libation of the liquid expression of their glorious place. One of the issues in this area has been the lack of modernization of cellars due to little or no investment, and so the wines have had a reputation for being rustic.

Terra Alta

As Ramon was driving us around, it was obvious that Terra Alta had many special aspects to it. We saw the “panal” soil – chalk and sand topsoil over entrenched, clay-limestone with limestone bedrock. The low-nutrient panal soil has an enormous capacity for storing water, which comes in handy during the warm, dry summers. Terra Alta has the highest altitude in the Catalonia region, with mountains reaching 3117 feet (950 meters) which makes sense once I realized that Terra Alta means “high land” in Catalan. This region is so picturesque that famous artist Pablo Picasso spent many summers here – I had no idea!

The other Terra Alta wine producer we visited, Herència Altés, further illustrated the point of the insane beauty of the area. It made my heart ache seeing this property as these types of views should have been experienced with my husband and not on a work wine trip. We walked around this magnificent land drinking a fun “Experimental” White Garnatxa (aka Garnacha/Grenache) skin contact, oxidative wine. This wine may seem like a style for a younger generation of cool, urban wine drinkers but Terra Alta was once  known for its white wines, especially the oxidative  whites called amber blanc. As we walked along the Herència Altés vineyards with owner Rafael De Haan, sipping this multi-textural, complex white, it was remarkable to see so much untouched beauty… Why were there not more people visiting? Why were there not more people drinking these wines?

Herència Altés

Unfortunately, in the late 1800s, the pest phylloxera, devastated this area and ever since then it has been overshadowed by its neighbor, Priorat. Rafael’s wife, Núria Altés, came from a poor local Terra Alta family who were wine grape growers. Núria’s grandparents, if alive today, would be awestricken to see the massive project that she and her husband have undertaken, since their life was one where they often didn’t know if they would have enough to eat… and now, their granddaughter has a massive, state-of-the-art winery with the capacity to create its own electricity (since they are off the grid), brought in one of the top wine consultants, Claude Gros, to make wines that can go toe to toe with any other premium wine region in the world, and is gearing to become certified organic in 2018 – doable since Terra Alta has the assistance of intense winds which create a low-disease pressure environment, as well as helping them generate their own electricity with windmills.

As a semi-outsider, Rafael De Haan, born in England to a British father and Spanish mother, sees the potential of the wines and land of Terra Alta as many of the younger locals have decided that the only decent option for a better life would be to move to an area with more opportunities. But Rafael sees the opportunities in Terra Alta… he envisioned it as a glamping (glamorous camping) wonderland, spas and trails for tourists, and of course, the potential for great wines. He talked about how Terra Alta was a special place where, in the local town of Batea, the older people would still siesta in the middle of the day and dance until the wee hours of the night… it was typical for his children to not come home until 1AM from a summer night of dancing with their elders.

Now or Never

When I think of that car ride with Ramon when we visited his Lafou Celler winery, I was surprised to learn that he had lived a decent amount of his life in a bigger city, traveled the world, already had success with other businesses, and then he decided to come back a few years ago to the land of his ancestry – 32 generations of winemakers in his blood – most of them struggling at this profession. Why would he come back? He pointed to the unique Garnacha Peluda, aka “hairy” Garnacha, a special clone of Grenache local to Terra Alta, with its higher acidity and extraction, that was being grown in tiny bush vines that would give minuscule yields; he said that he believes that there is a small window of opportunity to save these rare quality vines… the world is starting to crave more honest wines that express special qualities of various places… hence another reason why he is experimenting with a 100% Morenillo wine – only around 15 acres (6 hectares) of this local variety currently exist in Terra Alta.

Then he pointed to the olive trees and said that there is a risk that Terra Alta will one day only make olive oil if they do not seize the opportunity to save what is left of their superior vineyards. “It is now or never”, Ramon said with fierce determination. And I realized in that moment that Ramon was faced with a realization that so many of us face when we hit a certain age… for so long we feel we have to change ourselves to be accepted by the larger world… but then one day we realize that we have denied what was extraordinary about ourselves for fear of rejection.

A life lived in fear is not much of a life… but someone who has the courage of conviction of his/her passion will be guaranteed an inner fire that will burn brighter than any success that can be witnessed by the superficial eye.

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Terra Alta Wines Tasted on April 27th, 2017

Side note: White Garnacha will be specified for the white wines since it is not as common to taste a wine from this variety but Garnacha Tinta, dark skinned version for red wines, will be referred to as simply Garnacha due to its more prevalent availability in the market.

Lafou Celler

-2015 Els Amelers: 100% White Garnacha. White Garnacha (Garnacha Blanca) was born in Terra Alta as a mutation of Garnacha. Intense chalky minerality that is not typically common among other White Garnacha wines I have tasted, with lots of peachy flavors on the weighty body… it has a lovely saline finish.

-2016 Els Amelers: 100% White Garnacha. I found this vintage to be completely different than the ’15, with dried herbs, grilled asparagus, citrus pith… more linear and energetic on the body.

-2014 El Sender: 60% Garnacha, 30% Syrah and 10% Morenillo. A lovely perfume of dried flowers with sweet mulberry jam flavors that are balanced by a marked acidity which gives this a lift on the sustained length.

-2015 El Sender: Not sure of the blend but guessing it is similar to the 2014. This vintage is earthier and brooding with dark fruit and savory notes.

-2013 De Batea: 85% Garnacha and 15% Cariñena. Only 3,500 bottles made. A complex wine that needs more time in bottle, with the punch of primary fruit – black cherry evident although it was still incredibly enjoyable, with olive, fresh coffee grounds and a wafting hint of wood smoke that I could have smelled all day. It is still primal in some ways but it delivers lots of layers and so I would be excited to revisit it in a couple more years.

-2014 De Batea: Again, not sure of the blend, but guessing it is similar to the 2013 as well as quantity of bottles produced. The 2014 was significantly tighter with a fierce focus of acidity and tannin with hints of gingerbread spice, singed rosemary and blackcurrant… this wine needs a lot more time but the very long finish and fine quality of the tannins suggest that one will be rewarded for their patience.

 Herència Altés

-2016 Experimental Garnatxa Blanca: 100% White Garnacha. A skin contact, oxidative white wine with the aroma of blanched almonds and butterscotch and a lush body that had grip and nerve. Mysterious yet approachable… an experiment as stated by the name but I hope they decide to keep it and ship it to the US!

2015 Benufet: 90% White Garnacha and 10% Viognier. Benufet is one of the vineyards that belong to Núria’s parents. Right from the first taste I got this saline quality with a flinty minerality… there is something really special about the high quality White Garnacha wines in Terra Alta that have such elegance and backbone of a salty, mineral edge that I have not experienced with this variety in other places. Terra Alta is the home of White Garnacha, aka Garnacha Blanca, and the clones (aka biotypes) that are grown in other areas are different, they must of mutated with their different environment, which would explain why the wines in Terra Alta are so distinctive.

-2015 La Serra Blanc: 100% White Garnacha. Smoky minerality with green figs and a saline finish. Again, that intense saline mineral note as found in the other premium White Garnacha wines is here, but still, this wine brought those exhilarating aromas to the next level with white lilies and fennel fronds. Fermented in 1,500-liter oak foudres and then aged for a further ten months… the oak is in the background and would not be noticeable if it wasn’t pointed out, nevertheless, it gives a lovely structure to this wine.

2015 L’Estel: 60% Garnacha, 20% Syrah and 20% Samsó (Cariñena). Lush with sweet black fruit and a slight impression of cumin and blackcurrant leaf, finishing with sweet spice.

2015 La Peluda: 100% Garnacha Peluda. Wild brambly fruit with mouth watering acidity… a Garnacha of a different animal… jumps out of the glass with an aromatically sassy character.

2015 La Serra Negre: 80% Samsó (Cariñena) and 20% Garnacha. Herència Altés did not make a 2014 of this wine because they were not happy with the Samsó (Cariñena). For those who think Samsó (Cariñena) shouldn’t dominate a blend in a wine intended to be high quality, they should try this La Serra Negre. Well-judged oak on this wine with ripe, pristine, red and black fruit that gave underbrush undertones with a touch a truffle and a nice amount of grip on the tannins that allowed me to really chew on all its multi-layered deliciousness.

2015 Lo Grau de L’Inquisidor: 90% Syrah and 10% Garnacha. Only 2075 bottles made. Before tasting this wine, I would have questioned why anyone would make a fine wine in Spain made largely from Syrah when there are so many other great local varieties they can focus on… well, this wine WOWed all the wine professionals tasting that day. A mixture of freshly cracked black pepper and lilacs, with opulent, fragrant black fruit, suave tannins and an overall polished quality with a sense that there is a ferocious animal trying to get out.

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Finding Our Value by Realizing We are Never Alone

I remember sitting in one of my first few yoga classes, a young lady of 22 years old, and getting ready for a spiritual (or inspirational for those who are not feeling the word spiritual or its kind) talk, and getting ready to “testify”. Okay, so you are now asking, what do I mean by the word testify? Especially being an atheist this may seem odd, but to testify is to exclaim in such a way that it lets the person giving the inspirational talk know that you passionately agree with what they are saying. So I shout out things like “Yes!”, or “Thank you!”… Now, I am from New Orleans and so such exclamations were common growing up… lucky enough, New York City embraces such fervent displays of approval… But during this one yoga talk, there was something that was addressed that I did not care for… did not care for one bit. The topic was based on the Sanskrit word vaśīkāra:  the state of dispassion, in which an aspirant is no longer interested in even the charms of heaven and is no longer afraid of hell. Or in more real world terms, one should not dwell within criticism or praise, within horrific times or great times, feeling bad or great about oneself. One should always try to bring themselves back to a balanced, contented state.

As a young lady sitting there with very low self-confidence, trying to deal with some anger and pain, I all of the sudden said out loud, “Why wouldn’t we want to allow ourselves to feel praise, to feel that we have value, to feel an overwhelming warmth of happiness?” Well, I think I was taking this lesson too literally, especially for someone who was living in the world as opposed to living a monastic life which is necessary to be in constant vaśīkāra.

Grounding Ourselves in What is Constant

At that young of an age, my main goal was just to find a way to let go of those negative feelings that were weighing me down, to find a way to live a life of joy and happiness, to get away from my constant focus of trying to prove my worth… and in my mind, the way to do that was by achieving as much as I could, thereby gaining respect and approval from others…. then my existence would mean something; there would be a purpose for my life. And so I shrugged off this teaching thinking that I was not going to think about anything that made me uncomfortable or was not part of making me feel good about myself.

Well, quickly enough, through time, my plan to only take in what made me feel good was not working out for me. I know all of you are shocked! I felt that I was going into a deep hole because my sense of self was dependent on endorsements from others. And so my journey was constantly rocky, uneven, and fraught with highs and lows.

And then, one day, when I had gone as low in my esteem as I could go, I thought about that teaching… about vaśīkāra and that it was not so much based on not feeling anything and being devoid of exuberance when there is fanfare around you, or it was about not dealing with sadness or anger when you have felt cheated or hurt.  You allow yourself to surrender to those feelings but then you should quickly force yourself back to your daily rituals of life – cleaning the kitchen, doing laundry, or giving back to one’s “family” and community, realizing that my worth should be associated with how I make the world a better place in tiny ways.

Victor Schoenfeld

I was really excited to sit down for a press lunch with Victor Schoenfeld a couple months ago. Victor is the head winemaker at Golan Heights Winery and is credited with starting the wine quality revolution in Israel. Earlier this year, I had been on a wine press trip in Israel and visited Golan Heights Winery, but at that time, he was out of the country with the important responsibility of promoting and educating people about his wines as well as about the Golan Heights sub-region of the Galilee region of Israel. I was disappointed to miss him and so I was thrilled to be given an opportunity to pick his brain during this lunch in New York City.

Victor is a warm and instantly likeable sort of person. He is at ease in his own skin and obviously likes talking to people and connecting. Some of us remarked that although he is a living legend in shaping the Israel wine world, he was very humble. He then noted that he ended up in this position, starting in 1992 as head winemaker, because of luck. Born and raised in California, going to one of the top schools for winemakers – UC Davis – coming to Israel at a young age and being inspired to become a farmer – farming food for people to eat (Israel has many communities that share the cost of farming, and in some communities they share the profits). Through time and the influence of being a young man at one of the top enology schools in the world, he changed his focus to becoming a farmer of wine grapes. He said timing and working for a producer that was happy to invest in resources and research, such as Golan Heights Winery, were key to his success.

Getting Beaten Down

Also, he said that it is easy to keep humble because every farmer gets beaten down by Mother Nature. Although Golan Heights Winery is in a highly regarded wine area in Israel with cooler temperatures at night (and sometimes during the day as I experienced 32F (0C) during my trip in January), higher altitudes, as well as having humidity which is important for vines not to transpire too fast (aka sweating water vapor) and so less likely to shut down, Mother Nature will still slap him and others who devote themselves to the land a harsh reality of what they can control and their overall importance when it comes to the bigger picture.

What is Our Value?

Personally, I think it was more than luck that has built Victor’s reputation, but what makes him even more approachable is that he realizes that no matter how many awards and titles he receives, he will still need to go out and face those vineyards everyday and they will not always deliver what he expects, no matter how much of his blood, sweat and tears he gives them. But he recognizes that his faith is not any worse or fairer than anyone else’s and everyone has their peaks and valleys…. so no feeling sorry for oneself, let alone better than anyone else… and in that way, he is never alone.

When I think back to that yoga lesson, I realize it is fine to shout out to the world, “Yes, I did this! Isn’t this awesome?” but it must be tempered by the realization that we were perhaps given a little bit more luck than others in that moment and we should ground ourselves in the idea that we are just part of contributing to something that is greater than ourselves – some call it God, or the universe; I’m more comfortable calling it my local, and even broader, global community. Because if we get attached to being too much about only oneself – my title, my award, my glory – then we imprison ourselves to live a very lonely life, a life where we face all our ups and downs alone. But if we immediately bring ourselves back to what it means to truly have value – to better other lives around us – then we will never be alone, …and when we fall from that high place of glory, as people do several times in their lives, our fall will not be that big, or make that much of a personal impact because we knew the whole entire time that we were already a worthy being who deserves love freely because we give it freely.

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Golan Heights Winery Tasting on June 22nd, 2017

My visit to the Golan Heights with Mount Hermon in the background and a wild horse enjoying the open land.

All Golan Heights Winery wines are kosher although I hesitate to even mention it because some interpret this as having a negative effect on quality or meaning it is intended for only religious Jewish people. Please note that it means neither of the aforementioned concerns as it does not alter quality, and the wines are for everyone – actually they sell quite well in Japan. Being kosher only indicates that the wines were made in a safe environment for those who follow kosher law. I hope these wines will be shown a little more love with proper placements on wine store shelves and in online wine stores as being quality wines, not just lumped into the kosher section.

The Golan Heights is in northern Israel, a sub-region of Galilee, and has very different geographical aspects than the regions surrounding it. It is a volcanic plateau with basalt and tuff soil, rising to 3937 feet (1200 meters) above sea level. The area benefits from moderating influences such as the snow covered Mount Hermon, which I saw with my own eyes during my trip there. Also, a fun side note, there are wild horses that gallop freely in the Golan Heights.

Yarden series of wines: Each year, the finest grapes from the best vineyards are reserved for Yarden wines.

-2009 Yarden Blanc de Blancs Sparkling Brut: 100% Chardonnay. A traditional sparkling Blanc de Blancs with toasty notes, zingy green apple and lime blossom flavors.

2011 Yarden Rosé Sparkling Brut: 72% Chardonnay and 28% Pinot Noir. A traditional sparkling rosé with delicate, fresh strawberry notes, surprisingly intense minerality and hint of spice.

2016 Yarden Gewürztraminer: Majority Gewürztraminer. This is a delicious, rich white wine with ripe mango, lychee syrup and a lift of rose water flavor on the finish. This would be perfect with Middle Eastern food… which is fitting because it was made in the Middle East!

2016 Gilgal Rosé: 100% Syrah. This rosé made from Syrah grown on volcanic soil in the cooler Golan Heights, is a must for any rosé lover who wants to try something different. I really got this smoky, crumbly earth character on it, with black fruit dominating and a noticeable structure that would make this a great rosé to pair with food. (The Gilgal Series of wines offer great value yet still take pride in expressing the ancient soils of the Golan Heights by noting the Gilgal Refaim – an arrangement of 42,000 stones that date back to prebiblical times – on the label.)

-2014 Yarden Katzrin Chardonnay: This wine proves that you can be big with finesse… the oak was so well integrated that no one at the table could guess that it was made with 100% new French oak. Victor just smiled at our surprise and said that he tasted many MWs, MSs, wine experts, etc. on this wine and no one had ever suspected. It all comes down to the quality of the oak and selecting his best Chardonnay grapes. This wine is complex, yet balanced by vigor and brightness. Nutty aromas, baked apples and a full body with tannic structure supporting its weight makes this wine a pleasure in every way.  It was open at this stage but could continue to improve for at least four more years.

2013 Yarden Malbec: Malbec from the single vineyard Yonatan Springs at 700 meters (2,300 feet). The nose was exciting with violets and dried tobacco notes; the body was elegant with fine tannins and fresh blue fruit.

-2013 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon: This is Golan Heights Winery’s flagship wine – it offers so much for only 35 bucks! Blackcurrant leaf, sage and basaltic soil with big, manicured tannins that give muscle to the body of this wine.

My visit to the Bar’on Vineyard

 

-2013 Yarden Bar’on Vineyard: 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 19% Syrah and 11% Petit Verdot. The 2013 Yarden Bar’on Vineyard is the first ever release of a single vineyard blended wine from this vineyard. Opaque color with fresh notes of mint, gravelly earth and graphite with majestic laced shaped structure. Only 20 barrels made.

-2013 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon Bar’on Vineyard: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from the single vineyard of Bar’on – blended wine previously tasted. Love the precision on this wine – lots of energy – and tons of structure with fine tannins – crushed rocks and wild flowers – pure and expressive with strong sense of place. Only 30 barrels made.

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Keeping Core Values While Staying Open to the World

There I was, having lunch in Tribeca, New York, with a woman talking about the cultural diversity of the place she comes from… Roman, Arabian, Spanish, Greek, and so on.  We connected over our mutual love of traveling, connecting with people around the world… she recounted a trip to Cuba with her family – she said it was wonderful for her to see her young son run around Havana and at one point exclaim, “Mama I love Cuba”. For a moment, I thought that perhaps I was talking to someone else from a big, metropolitan city the size of New York City… but no, it was someone from an Italian Mediterranean island, Sardinia. An island that has the largest population of people over 100 years old, where people know that food and wine should be savored slowly, teaches its young to take care of its old, and has charmingly interwoven the cultural influences from various invaders, over several centuries, that came from far and wide.

Argiolas

Photo Credit: @argiolaswinery on Instagram

I actually knew about Argiolas before I knew much about Sardinia itself – it was introduced to me around ten years ago by another wine nerd. Their wines have all the polished markings of modernized winemaking, yet the aromas, flavors and textures of their wines were like no other I had experienced. When I worked in wine retail, it became the producer that I would recommend for those who wanted something different yet well-made, and every time I would get rave reviews for recommending such an unknown gem.

Sardinia

Sardinia is an Italian island in the Mediterranean, the second largest after Sicily, and like another Italian region, Campania, it has a large wealth of indigenous grape varieties on which they place their focus. They have not caved into the pressure to plant significant amounts of international varieties. Actually, in 2012, during the Fourth National Congress on Viticulture, held in Asti, Italy, it was noted that there were 250 different grape varieties living on Sardinia, although only 24 were listed in the National Registry. One grape, called Cannonau, or known in Spain as Garnacha, or in France as Grenache, was mentioned by Bernardino Conti in 1549 as existing on Sardinia as Canonat, and so, some Italian experts say that the grape originated on Sardinian soil and not on the soil of Spain as many others believe. Of course this is completely disputed by Spanish experts with solid evidence backing up their claims as well. And so, the origin may never be known but Cannonau has certainly been present on Sardinia long enough, showing its own characteristics, that it is uniquely Sardinian.

Photo Credit: @argiolaswinery on Instagram

What is also widely known about Sardinia is that it has one of the largest populations of centenarians, people who live to or past the age of 100, as noted above. There have been many studies as to why people live so long, but I was excited to ask Valentina Argiolas why she thought her famous grandfather, Antonio Argiolas, the father of Sardinian modern winemaking, lived to the ripe age of 102.

Valentina Argiolas

Valentina and myself

When I first met Valentina for lunch in downtown Manhattan, I was immediately taken with her golden Mediterranean glow. I was able to learn so much about her family’s wines, wines that I had admired for so long, as well as getting a taste of what it might be like to be a Sardinian – especially the granddaughter of Antonio Argiolas. She was bright, worldly and grounded in her beliefs while also surrendering to the moment to take in a wonderful experience. She talked about the long life of her grandfather, how he lived a good life filled with exercise and conviviality until his last breath. She noted that he had a daily glass of Sardinian red wine and a whole fish for dinner… but I have known many people who kept an excellent diet, combined with moderate wine consumption and did not live such a high quality life for so long. To me, there had to be more…

Then she talked about her love for travel… how she and her husband travel everywhere with their small children, saying that it was not a big deal as her kids actually love it. And when I heard her story of visiting Cuba and her connection with the people, her remembering with a smile her children running on the streets of Havana, that although she is a sharp woman who knew how to help take care of her family’s business, she was also a woman who knew how to place business and stress to the side to live those precious moments that fill us with the magical dreams that all of us need to get through those less-than-magical times.

Enrich Yourself with Biodiversity while Keeping Core Values

I find it interesting how people see biodiversity… especially that which we find to be difficult to integrate. I spent all of my young adult life in a poor, artsy New York City neighborhood filled with people of various cultures, religions, and races that were happy to give their last dollar to someone else who needed it… and so, that is the most natural biodiversity to me. But I must admit, that since, most of the time, I was around artists who were proud of being unknown and poor, I didn’t really have any idea about the competitive ruthlessness of the world until I was in my 30s. I was an open vessel giving all without any consideration that I could have been used or taken advantage of. Through time, I have learned to be more careful, even though it is still hard to fight the impulse to want to open my heart to everyone in my path. I realized that I can’t live in my little bubble if I wanted to grow professionally and personally. But I never wanted to lose those core values of generosity, openness, and simply, pure surrender to moments that are rejuvenating to believing in humanity again. And so, I deeply admire how Valentina is able to live in the moment, appreciating the connections with people around the world without any noticeable fear or doubt while being very aware of the many realities of the world.

Maybe that is Sardinians’ secret to a long and, most importantly, good life. That no matter how many times they had been invaded, or they themselves travel beyond their captivating island, they know how to integrate the things that enrich the heart and spirit and avoid those things that tarnish their soul.

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Tasting of Argiolas, Sardinian wines, on June 13th, 2017

It is worth noting that Argiolas has carried out an ambitious project for the selection and conservation of native Sardinian grape varieties. They work with 11 local varieties (Vermentino, Cannonau, Monica, Bovale Sardo, Malvasia, Carignano, Nuragus, Nebbiolo, Moscato, Caricagiola and Nasco) and have researched 5000 different clones (or biotypes) for each variety to find the healthiest and highest quality vines. Their collection vineyard has around 5000 plants total, from 499 selected mother vines to help propagate the best replanting.

2016 Argiolas, Is Argiolas, Vermentino di Sardegna DOC: 100% Vermentino from the oldest vineyards of Argiolas. Vermentino is another variety that has enjoyed a long history in Sardinia, but like Cannonau, the origin of Vermentino is still a mystery. This variety does best on poorly fertile soils and it has a good tolerance for the salty Mediterranean winds. This Sardinian Vermentino really shows a sensational saline minerality that no other Vermentino winemaking area can replicate, with lemon zest and marked acidity while maintaining good flesh on the body. Its salty, stony finishing note is really out of this world.

2016 Argiolas, Serra Lori, Isola dei Nuraghi IGT: Dry rosato (rosé) blended from Cannonau, Monica, Carignano, and Bovale Sardo, four red grape varietals that typify Sardinian viticulture. What a fun, juicy, vibrant rosato, aka rosé, wine. I still got that hint of salinity, with wild strawberries and white pepper. Have you ever had strawberries with pepper on them? It may sound odd but when you have it you will ask, “where has this combination been all my life?!?” Also, the back label said to pair with pasta with sea urchin roe…. oh my God… yes, yes! And the idea that it is only $14 makes it my new summer wine of choice.

2013 Argiolas, Perdera, Monica di Sardegna DOC: Perdera is 90% Monica, 5% Carignano, and 5% Bovale Sardo. There are many vines on Sardinia that are supposedly incorrectly labeled as Monica, but Perdera from Argiolas is one of the wines that a wine lover can drink to know what real Monica tastes like… this 2013 was light and nimble with floral and sweet spices on the nose that evolved into an extra sweet tobacco note as I went back to my glass at the end of lunch. A perfect light red for those who want a bit more complexity than your average everyday wine… and at $13, it could very well be an everyday drinking wine.

2012 Argiolas, Turriga, Isola dei Nuraghi IGT: 85% Cannonau, 5% Carignano, 5% Bovale Sardo and 5% Malvasia Nera. Turriga is what placed Agriolas on the map of many fine wine drinkers. It is their benchmark wine for excellence and how that excellence can be achieved by only using indigenous, local varieties. This gorgeous wine had luxurious dark fruit that invites you in with exciting tension and precision that had never ending layers of intricacy… mocha, crushed rocks, balsam herb and espresso… it was loving and nurturing but there was always a feeling that you will never completely figure out this intricate wine. It is like the statue of the “Mediterranean Mother”, “Venus”, or “Turriga” that graces this label (an archaeological piece found by Valentina’s grandfather in 1935, possibly dating back to 400BC)  – open to nurturing the world yet she does not compromise her core characteristics or lose her individuality. This wine is a great example that a life filled with excellence does not have to come at the expense of what is native within us; in other words – they trusted that their top selection of native varieties could make a wine that rivaled the great wines of the world without the addition of international grapes. It was an honor to taste it.

 

***** Top Photo Credit: @argiolaswinery on Instagram

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If We Try to Deny the Bad and the Ugly, We Eventually Stop Recognizing the Good

Surrounded by a sea of varying shades of green, I had to remind myself to keep on the well-trodden path as there could have been some remaining undiscovered active landmines… although less likely in the year 2017, as they have been largely deactivated and unearthed, it is better to be safe than sorry. My husband and I were at the 17th parallel, the former Vietnam DMZ (Demilitarized Zone), a demarcated area that separated South and North Vietnam during what American’s call the Vietnam War and what the Vietnam government calls the American War – this is where the majority of lives were lost during a war that lasted from 1955 until 1975. It was just as stunning in its raw beauty as so many Vietnam Veterans, or vets, (Americans who fought in the war) had described it to me. One vet not only told me about the surreal, natural splendor of the Vietnam landscape, but he also talked about the kindness and care of the South Vietnamese people who took care of his army unit. He still kept a picture next to his bed of a Vietnamese woman who would make fish soup for them… she was a temporary mother to his 18 year old self, and to this day, her picture is a reminder of the better memories from that experience.

There is No Sugar Coating It

Vietnam is an intensely authentic place… I know people are tired of the word “authentic” but I think, in this case, it is rightfully used. Although, if you go through a very touristy place like Hoi An, a delightfully restored ancient area the Old Town section anyways (recently named a UNESCO World Heritage site),  you will be bombarded with the local Vietnamese trying to sell you stuff… so yes, like any other tourist place on the planet, be wary… but when you go off the beaten path, people are living their lives openly in the streets… hanging clothes up, burning things that they want to send to their deceased relatives, screaming at each other (or perhaps just loudly having a pleasant conversation?)… many people’s doors were open where I could see them taking a mid-day nap when the temperatures hit 120F (49C), and I would think, sweat pouring down my face, “I am such a sucker running around during this time of day!”… and hints of rusty sections of the dilapidated buildings would gleam in the fierce sun . No one was trying to compete with each other, or show that they were better than anyone else, or trying to pretend they were something they were not… they were living their lives, content with very little… of course this is not true for everyone, as we had some interesting conversations with some local people that there is a movement to make South Vietnam a more capitalist area of Vietnam… but I think in every country there is at least one group, if not more, that feels alienated by their government.

I like the transparency of how people live in Vietnam… or as some may say, “the grit.” Albeit a communist country, it has a loosey-goosey, anything goes feeling, where, for example, a red traffic light doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone on a motorbike will stop. And talking about motorbikes, there are tons of them… with all these easy riders driving on tiny bikes with 3, 4, sometimes 5 people. People transport huge deliveries, windows and livestock on these tiny bikes. Most people can’t afford anything else and people do what they have to do to survive. Even though, as a tourist, I would be cautious as I would be in any other city in a foreign country – never knowingly break the law… no matter how insignificant you think the law is.

The Free Spirits of Australians and Vietnamese

Any time we heard a non-Vietnamese voice during our trip, 7 out of 10 times it had an Australian accent. Like the locals, many Australians seemed to completely give themselves over to the Vietnamese way of life of riding motorbikes in chaotic traffic, and I think they somehow innately knew what the unspoken rules were in any given situation. Being a somewhat neurotic New Yorker, I could never ride a motorbike… even if I was just on it as a passenger with a professional driver. We all have our limits – I have no issues just walking through a local neighborhood and jumping into a random eatery; I brought my own toilet paper and I have had my typhoid and hepatitis immunizations updated so I was good to go… but if anyone knows real New Yorkers, we love to eat in hole in the wall restaurants… or at food trucks…. so not that much of a stretch for me.

But I did sit back and enjoy seeing how the Australians intermixed effortlessly with the Vietnamese. There was something playful about how people lived their life in Vietnam and the Australians fit in perfectly. Americans have always admired the seemingly free spirit of those who come from the “land down under.” Almost every other place on earth is a big trip for Australians, and I think that’s why you see many traveling the world as they are used to it, and hence don’ t fear travel. Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, is around an 8 hour flight from Sydney, Australia, and so relatively, it is not that big of a trip for our Aussie friends.

Ungrafted: Old Vines and Why They Matter

Three weeks before I left for Vietnam, I went to an Australian wine seminar that was based on the old, ungrafted vines that are unbeknownst to many Americans. The US consumer has had a very positive, albeit somewhat dysfunctional, relationship with Australian wines. The entry level to mid-market wines, at $7 to $12, really took off in the mid-1990s (although the biggest current category for them in the US is the $15-20) and the general attitude that Australians were a down-to-earth people who lacked pretense or judgment towards the American palate just made the wines that much more psychologically approachable. You always want to support those who you think support you. But as the Australian dollar surged high against the US dollar, and other countries with cheaper labor were able to undercut their prices, it became impossible for Australia to keep their wines a steal, and hence, they lost center stage placements in many wine retailers in the US.

As time went on, the US became more wine savvy in some ways while reinforcing unfair stereotypes in other ways. We started to assume that Australia could not make complex, elegant wines because our ignorance was based on the wines that first flooded our market, which were jammy, sweet fruit libations with a touch of residual sugar, ideal for the US wine neophytes at the time. But as artisanal wine consumption and consumers’ desire for wanting to inform themselves has quickly increased in the US, somehow the tiny production of extremely old vines tucked away in different pockets of Australia have not made the radar of many fine wine sommeliers and connoisseurs in America.

Australia has an astonishingly impressive, still existing, old vine history with the first vines planted in 1788 – only 10 years after the British settlement in Australia. It became a country for adventurous UK citizens willing to take a risk, others who were desperate for another opportunity in life, as well as a place where the British government shipped convicts, around 164,000 of them between 1788 and 1868.  In 1901, Australia gained their independence and they became the Commonwealth of Australia, with their own governing rules. This event started an explosion of creativity and innovation while also allowing Australians to find their own distinct culture. Three of the wines we had during the seminar had a combined vine age of 452 years… that was only three of the wines.

A Part of Ourselves

In my experience, Australian producers are completely transparent and have a self-effacing humor. They do not want to spin a mystical tale or present themselves as being better than anyone else; instead, they enthusiastically tell you the good, bad and the ugly of their situations, laugh about their colorful past, and proudly display their wines for the unique creations that they are. They want to tell you exactly what you are getting, show it to you, allow you to dissect it, and empower you to make your own mind about the diversity of their fine wines. I almost get the feeling that they despise any sort of fake veneer. Some marketers argue that Australians don’t sprinkle enough PR fairy dust on their regional images or even for individual producers, but they give it to you straight… they work hard and they feel they have nothing to be ashamed of… so why not share the full reality of their stories?

This was my third trip to Vietnam, and to be honest, I’m not 100% sure why we keep going back. Perhaps it is part of resolving certain things that happened in the Vietnam War that still haunt many Americans today… so much so that people don’t like to talk about it. There have been some American vets who have moved to different parts of Vietnam, embracing the past to heal for a better future.  There are a few who have set up tours for other vets to come and meet former North Vietnam soldiers so they can hug, talk and help each other find closure, because, at the end of the day, most of the soldiers who were on the frontlines were just kids who thought they were serving the greater good… as time goes on we realize it is a lot more complicated than the simple assessment of who was right and who was wrong.

That’s why I try to remind myself that there is so much I don’t know and may never figure out… at certain times, I try to just shut my mouth, leave the assumptions at home, and open myself up to what someone has to say. My previous New York City trade experience was with fine wine and it was nice to get a more inclusive look into the fine wine world that I have been acquainted with for many years. The frank world of the old vines in Australia is a refreshing and invigorating one. Like the 25 hour door-to-door trip from New York City to Central Vietnam, it takes a little bit more effort to seek out these old vine Australian wines, but it is worth it to expand our own bubble. Instead of allowing a one sentence soundbite to form our opinions, we can choose to seek out as much of the whole story as we can digest, as well as appreciate those we encounter who veraciously share their own tale that may not always correspond with our initial impressions.

If we constantly live in denial of the less-than-desirable aspects of our story, we eventually become numb to the beautiful facets of life… like that one vet refusing to pretend that Vietnam didn’t happen so others would not feel uncomfortable… he wanted to hold on to the memory of his temporary Vietnamese mother. Maybe the Australian fine wine producers are not so foolish… they may have a pretty good handle on knowing that being honest about their entire journey is the only way to guarantee security for the future generations… and even if it is not, it is a pretty fine way to live one’s life.

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Tasting at Australian Ungrafted Old Vines Seminar on June 7th, 2017

The below is a chart that shows the Barossa Old Vine Charter classifying the meaning of various old vine terms, actually old vines typically have no specific age range in many other countries and it is more of a judgment call from the producer, and although this is specific to the region of Barossa Valley, it is a good reference for other regions in Australia.

The University of Adelaide has been researching ungrafted old vines (ungrafted: many old vines in Europe and North American need to be grafted due to the pest phylloxera) The report has not been released yet but is anticipated soon.

Email research@wineaustralia.com if you would like to be notified once the research is released.

Also, some of the bottles below had a screw cap and some had cork (one glass closure)… here is some research from The Australian Wine Research Institute that addresses the idea of aging under different closures.

2010 Tyrrell’s Single Vineyard ‘HVD’, Semillon, Hunter Valley, Australia (screw cap): Hunter Valley Semillon is one of those wines that is truly unique to Australia. Hunter Valley is 80 miles (130 km) north of Sydney and it is a zone that only contributes about 3% to the total Australia wine production. Another odd thing about this highly heralded fine wine region is that the climate is hot, humid and rainy… so picking early is essential. Typically, the alcohol range is between 8 to 9% abv, yet this particular Hunter Valley Semillon is 11% abv. Bruce Tyrrell, managing director, said he wanted to start picking his Semillon a little later than what is normal in the Hunter Valley… that way the wine is more generous at a younger age. One cannot truly appreciate these wines unless you have had one at the minimum age of 20 years old, and they can last a couple more decades past that depending on the quality of the wine. As Bruce said, these wines “used to have a reputation for being like battery acid” with low alcohol, high acidity and a light body when they were consumed too young. But his 7 year example was certainly friendlier than its counterparts at the same age, with notes of lime zest, honeysuckle and a flinty smoke… still lots of tension, with an electric acidity that was tempered by a little bit more fruit and alcohol than normal. This wine will continue to improve for 20 years if not longer.

There is not much money in these types of wines as one makes such a tiny quantity, and they have to hold back on release, but as Bruce Tyrrell said, “This stuff runs in my blood” and so he is committed to these wines. No other country has even attempted anything close to Hunter Valley Semillon, and perhaps one needs to be a little crazy, in the good way, to do so. Personally, the first time I had one it was already 30-ish years old, then I tried a 40-ish year old, and these wines become liquid gold. But it is nice that consumers can get a sense of these wines at a younger age with a producer like Tyrrell.

This HVD plot was planted in 1908. Production is hand picked and hand sorted in the vineyard, through the crusher and press as quickly as possible, stainless steel cool fermented with neutral yeasts, stabilized, and put away in temperature controlled storage.

2008 Tahbilk, ‘1927 Vines’, Marsanne, Nagambie Lakes, Australia (screw cap): Nagambie Lakes is a sub-region of the Goulburn Valley wine region – the oldest wine region in Victoria. Although most wine states in Australia are phylloxera free (the pest that makes it necessary to graft vines in many countries), Victoria is a state that does have phylloxera, and so, one may ask, how they have ungrafted vines in this particular vineyard started in 1927? Sandy soils. Luckily, phylloxera cannot climb up in sandy soils, and so usually they cannot damage the vines. Marsanne is one of those varieties from the Rhône Valley, in France, that either people love or hate. There are certainly some mediocre Marsanne wines out there, or blends, but there are some exceptional ones and Tahbilk is legendary among those who love Marsanne to be the quintessential outstanding example of this white grape. This wine is based on the Hunter Valley Semillon old school technique of winemaking – with slightly higher alcohol at 11.5% – and it is ferociously acidic and may even outlive my 42 year old self. But it seems to have just started to come into its own with aromas of crumbly rock intermixed with flavors of golden apples drizzled with honey. It is texturally quite complex in the mouth as well.

Tahbilk’s association with Marsanne can be traced back to the 1860s – and this vineyard was planted in 1927 – they are the oldest winery in Victoria in a sub-region called Nagambie Lakes in Central Victoria – only 90 minutes north of Melbourne. Nagambie Lakes is the only Australian wine region, and one of only six worldwide, where it has been proven that the meso-climate is dramatically influenced by the inland water mass.

Alister Purbrick, CEO of Tahbilk, 4th generation winemaker (his daughter may be 5th and his grandsons may be 6th) talked about the winemaking for this wine…. harvest early, don’t add a lot of chemicals, drain as best they can and are then left with a brown juice with a high acid backbone… then they ferment it and all the brown oxidized matter falls to the bottom, and at the end of the ferment they are left with a “water white, flavorless, incredibly acidic white wine which you could not sell on the open market in its 1st year, 2nd year, 3rd year or 4th year”. Alister says all the “magic happens with bottle age”. The 2008 is their current release of this wine.

2016 Best’s Great Western ‘Old Vine’, Pinot Meunier, Grampians, Western Victoria Zone, Australia (screw cap): The Great Western is a sub-zone within the cooler Grampians area of Western Victoria. It is certainly a rare treat to taste a 100% Pinot Meunier outside of Champagne, and even in Champagne, 100% Pinot Meunier is atypical…besides noting that a 100% Pinot Meunier as a still wine is even more impossible to find. This vineyard was planted in 1865 and this 100% bottling is only made when it yields extraordinary fruit so this is only the 4th bottling for Best’s – 2005, 2008, 2012 and 2016 were the vintages made. This wine has a lovely nimble body that gracefully dances on the palate, yet no hint of greenness… floral and pristine raspberry notes dominate with some stony undertones. This is the sort of wine I would love to drink everyday… perhaps when I make it to Nirvana!

2011 Cirillo ‘1850’, Grenache, Barossa Valley, Australia (screw cap):  If you know anything about Australia fine wines then I’m sure you know of Barossa Valley. Stephen Henschke, winemaker at Henschke, was kind enough to talk a little bit about Barossa. English, Scottish and German immigrants settled Barossa Valley before the first pre-settlement, so he joked that the rest of the panel, including himself, who were established outside of Barossa were “just convicts”…hehehe…

Although 14% abv, there was no sense of the alcohol on this Cirillo beauty… a good backbone of structure that one does not expect from Grenache, with some grip on the fine tannins, yet lots of flesh to balance it out. Sweet red cherries dominate with complex layers of tar and earth.

Stephen talked about the clonal diversity of Grenache and that each clone has its own attributes… some are light with big berries, others have looser bunches with small berries and darker color – this vineyard has a combination of these clones…  He also remarked on the 2011 vintage, “2011 is one of the worst on record” like the tough 1974 vintage — rainy, cooler weather unlike the warmer, drier climate they typically expect in the Barossa Valley and it is a testament to these old vines, from 1850, that they were able to produce such an exquisite wine.

 2010 d’Arenberg ‘The Beautiful View’ Grenache, McLaren Vale, Australia (screw cap): McLaren Vale is another infamous wine region, with d’Arenberg being one of their international stars due mainly to rock star, family owner and chief winemaker, Chester Osborne. I have tasted many d’Arenberg wines over the years, and even though McLaren Vale wines can easily go over 15% abv, the d’Arenberg wines never come off as being hot and they always have an overall finesse and complexity that is distinctly their own. By the way, this wine is only 14% abv… and most importantly, it is balanced… silky texture with a more lavish body than the Cirillo… still it has a thrilling acidity on the finish with wild berries and spice.

‘The Beautiful View’ Grenache was planted in 1912. Their winemaker, Toby Porter, was in attendance and he said that there has not been one dull moment in his 14 years at d’Arenberg – they make 24 different wines, export to 70 countries and they have a total of 450 hectares of vines that are organic and biodynamic that always strive for low yields…. no wonder he is not bored!

 2013 Hewitson ‘Old Garden’, Mourvèdre, Barossa Valley, Australia (cork):  Some may know Australian Mourvèdre by the name of Mataro… Mourvèdre is the French name for this grape and in Spain it is known as Monastrell. I think the importance of these different names draws attention to the fact that although they are the same grape, they have morphed into a diversified set of clones, or biotypes, whatever term works for you, due to evolving to suit their different environments. So Australian Mourvèdre is a different animal. The first notes on this Hewitson ‘Old Garden’ wine were dried herbs and wet earth that had plenty of ripe blackberry and nutmeg deliciousness to bring a complex harmony to this wine… the chunky tannins allow you to take your time and chew it… bringing out more of the flavor. It is made from some of the oldest Mourvèdre vines in the world, ranging from 100-150 years old – first planted in 1853.

 2013 Kaesler ‘Old Bastard’, Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia (cork): Ahhh… ‘Old Bastard’… just the name of this wine makes you want to drink it. Again, the Barossa Valley and many of us are familiar with Barossa Shiraz, yet there is a lot more divergence in styles than the wine books will tell you. This particular vineyard has a heavy clay base with loamy top soil and makes a ripe, textural Shiraz. This wine showed a lot of muscular structure with brawny tannins… it was a big, robust Kaesler Old Bastard but still had so much energy… so much so it had a linear drive in the middle of the palate that made this more than just robust… it had a majestic quality… a king that is not shy about his unorthodox opinions. Vineyard planted in 1893.

 

2014 Langmeil ‘The Freedom 1843’, Shiraz, Barossa Valley, Australia (screw cap): This Langmeil was prettier, lighter, and brighter than Old Bastard… I thought it was nicely filled out with juicy fruit flavors and a hint of fun meaty flavors on the finish.

Langmeil found these vines, planted in 1843, in an abandoned vineyard and they dug them up and replanted them… remarkably, most of them survived the transition. It is believed that these were planted by vigneron Christian Auricht. Christian escaped war and persecution in Prussia to find freedom in his new home in Australia, hence why this vineyard is called Freedom. These vines are some of the oldest in the world – 174 years old.

 2010 Henschke ‘Hill of Grace’, Shiraz, Eden Valley, Australia (this particular bottle was under Vino-lok glass closure but Henschke was an early adopter of the screw cap and still uses it as his main closure): The clouds parted, the music played, and so I knew that meant only one thing… it is time to taste Hill of Grace. One of the most famous Australian fine wines with the humble yet humorous Stephen Henschke leading the way. I have been fortunate to taste Hill of Grace a few times, as I used to work for a fine wine retailer in Manhattan that would give staff tastings on most things we sold. Hill of Grace is stunning… not only for an Australian wine, but it could go head to head with any other fine wine in the world. The 2010 has stewed black cherries that give it immediate accessibility but the layers of complexity are never ending… potpourri, star anise, cloves, lavender… but what is most remarkable is the great generosity of this wine although it is ethereal… on another level of lightness of being… true grace… giving everything while still seeming delicate… nothing is like it. But I am not saying anything that anyone who has ever tasted a great vintage of Hill of Grace doesn’t already know.

Eden Valley is “high country” with cooler nights. 2010 was an interesting vintage – heat came early with hot, low-disease conditions, and then it became cool with a little bit of rain right when they needed it. It turned out to be a magnificent vintage for them.

Hill of Grace is not a hill but it is named after the Gnadenberg Lutheran Church in the center of town. The German word “Gnadenberg” translates into “graceful hill.” The vineyard was planted by Nicolaus Stanitzki in 1860 and Paul Gotthard Henschke purchased the vineyard in 1891… it has stayed in the Henschke family since that time.

The University of Adelaide has tagged and planted some of Hill of Grace’s better performing ungrafted old vines for their soon to be released research paper that will address the attributes of such plantings. But Stephen Henschke said he would never want to only make Hill of Grace consist of those better performing vines, as he likes the diversity and thinks even the vines that seem a little odd in their production add something special that cannot be necessarily determined by science.

Final side note: Hill of Roses is the wine made up of the newer plantings from the Hill of Grace vineyard. The 2010 comes from 21 year old vines… so at least they are legal.

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Within the Silence, Hope is Always Waiting for Us

There was a time in my life when I had no hope… every minute was painful, every day was dreaded and I only looked forward to sleep… and never waking again. I think many of us face this at least once in our life. I was young, in my mid-twenties, and I had just had my first husband tell me that he was having an affair and that he was going to leave me. I am a romantic… I actually had only dated one person before him, and prior to getting married at City Hall, we had only known each other for a short time. I know, obviously it was a mistake and bound to fail, but I took it seriously… and with no family or real support system in place, it became a devastating event in my life. I was in a deep, dark hole and I did not know how to pull myself out. Simply, I gave up on myself… On a slightly different note, I think it is interesting how we give up on some wines… especially those meant to age. We think, “this is it for the wine… why bother?” Even at wine trade events, I hear some people whispering that they are going to run to the wines that were given the biggest scores in the past and skip the ones that have been considered lackluster at one time.

Il Poggione

Over a month ago, I was invited to taste a Brunello vertical from Il Poggione, one of the four original families that started producing Brunello di Montalcino. Alessandro Bindocci, second generation of the Bindocci family to follow in the footsteps of legendary winemaker Piero Talenti, mentor to Alessandro’s father Fabrizio, presented the wines at the world famous Babbo Ristorante Enoteca, in New York City. We had a formal wine seminar followed by a wine lunch. It was one of those fantastic events that gave the participants the time to taste and really access the wines in the moment. Many times, as a wine writer, or even in the wine trade, you are forced to taste wines in a rapid fire situation – there is no other way to truly know a vintage, appellation or region… there are not enough hours in the day to take one’s time with every wine.

Silent Retreat

When I think back to that dark time in my life… the feeling of shame and complete despair, is in complete contrast to how I feel now, I try to think about how I initially got out of that place… and there is always one moment that sticks out. I had signed up for a yoga silent retreat located a few hours outside of New York City on a long Easter weekend. I had given up trying to get myself out of that dark place, I could not bring myself to talk about what happened to anyone else, and so, I thought this was my last chance to help myself. It was a week of listening to yogic teachings, practicing yoga and meditation, and of no pressure to have to talk – being terrified that people may ask me personal questions that I would not be able to answer… only silent smiles exchanged during lunches and dinners. I was part of a carpool of a handful of us going back to the city, and at that moment, sitting in that van on my way back home, I didn’t feel happy, I still had a lot of tough feelings to confront, but I felt hope for the first in the longest of times. Hope that while things may not get better tomorrow, or even next week, things would eventually get better. I just needed the time, space and freedom from expectation to reconnect with that hope that was always there.

1997 Il Poggione Brunello di Montalcino

It almost seems like that time in my life was another lifetime ago. Now, I’m much more confident, grounded and am married to an amazing man, the love of my life. But I try to always remember that important lesson that I was forced to learn so early in life – and I now try to think of that lesson when it comes to re-tasting wines. Before, I used to look up all the information about particular vintages/producers of wines I was going to taste… I also have my own database of wines I have personally tasted throughout the past 9 years. Being a lover of Brunello, I had already tasted many Il Poggione vintages as they are a well-known producer. But I have ended that practice of going to a tasting with an expectation… clutter and noise that can cloud my judgment to the possible detriment of a wine vintage. Now, I like to come into tasting a vertical in the same state I was in during that silent retreat.

At the tasting at Babbo, the 1997 Brunello was among the lineup, and I have to say that it was my outright favorite of the day. After the seminar, I went back and got more to taste during lunch and I was captivated by its richness, complexity and overall sense of poise. I remember sitting in the enchanting upstairs space of Babbo – the room glowed from the natural sunlight during an unexpected beautiful, sunny day in New York City. While I ate the infamous beef cheek ravioli, paired with a wine that has reached its great potential, I could not help but think about how life at times can seem crushingly bleak and other times overwhelmingly joyous.

When the world says, “Give up,” Hope whispers, “Try it one more time”

Later, when I looked at the vintages I had previously tasted of Il Poggione, I saw that the ‘97 was in my database, and it was a note of a mediocre wine. I did not have much hope for the wine, just like at one time, I did not have much hope for myself, but somehow we were both able to move past that awkward phase in our lives. I only hope that I become as graceful as that charming glass of 1997 Il Poggione Brunello one day.

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Il Poggione Vertical Tasted on May 16th, 2017

All wines are 100% Sangiovese according to Brunello DOCG & Rosso di Montalcino DOC rules.

-2006 Rosso di Montalcino: Rosso wines are like their big brother Brunello except there is less aging and typically the grapes selected from the Brunello vineyards have a fresh style for early consumption. This 2006 is a wonderful example of how some Rosso di Montalcino wines can age and this one will probably age for a few more years. It still has good structure with notes of dusty earth and old leather with a soft texture, and finishes with a lifted floral aroma.

-1985 Brunello di Montalcino: An intense meaty nose that is ideal for those who love savory wines; a velvety  body and roasted nut finish.

1997 Brunello di Montalcino: The 1997 vintage is a historic one and the American Press labeled it “the vintage of the century”. Perhaps that is one of the reasons I gave it a mediocre note in my database many years ago because my expectations where too high and the wine may have been going through an closed stage… or quite honestly, perhaps I was not having such a great day.

But when I had it recently it was singing! Out of all the Il Poggione Brunello vintages that day, none other sticks out like the 1997. This vintage was actually not shining as brightly a few years back, but somehow, someway, it came back and came back with spectacular glory. It was really singing that day. It just goes to show that although we may find ourselves in dark times, and I think all of us, sooner or later, get overwhelmed by life, we can still find a way to pull ourselves up and be better than we ever were before. Layers of complexity with leather, anise seed and moist earth leap from the glass with plenty of full-bodied goodness displaying plums and kirsch. The tannins are fine, giving this wine an elegant shape with a long, expressive finish.

2004 Brunello di Montalcino: This wine was still a young rock star with sweet black fruit, salty licorice and high quality, fine tannins. This wine already offers a lot of visceral pleasure at this age, yet I have a feeling that it will just continue to evolve to something even more incredible if given more time.

2012 Brunello di Montalcino: Such a great vibrancy to this wine makes me giddy with delight… succulent black cherry with a hint of cloves and leaves a pristine seashell note on the finish. Some of the most exquisitely subtle young Brunello tannins I have experienced.

I have already talked about tasting the 2012 Brunello wines when they were first presented to the wine trade/media in New York City. They are still mind boggling to me, as well as to many others. It is a Brunello that has such generosity with pretty, bright fruit flavors and the finest, most integrated tannins of any Brunello that was this young. When I asked Il Poggione winemaker, Alessandro Bindocci, how this happened to all the 2012s across the board,  and he said that no one has been able to figure it out – because if Brunello producers could figure out how to make a wine that had the potential to age for a couple of decades while also being incredibly accessible upon its release, well, they would do that every time! But we both agreed that 2010 was the greatest vintage of the 2000s… and we were both hoping to still be alive when they hit their peak!

Il Poggione Wines Tasted with Lunch on May 16th, 2017

All wines are 100% Sangiovese.

2016 Brancato Rosato: A fleshy body that delivers delicious strawberry flavors with an underlying gravelly minerality and a cherry blossom finish.

2015 Rosso di Montalcino: Rich body with stewed cherry fruit, cinnamon and supple tannins.

2009 Brunello di Montalcino: Black Raspberry jam with lavish flesh and brawny structure. Such a bada$$ and makes no bones about it.

2011 Brunello di Montalcino: It was interesting to have the 2011 right after the 2009 as they seemed opposites. 2011 is more linear with a fierce backbone of acidity; the fruit, as well as savory notes, all have an overall vivid, lifting quality. Really good for a 2011, showing intense energy and a bit of personality.

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A Titan’s Greatest Attribute is Compassion

Almost a couple years ago now, in October of 2015, I met a Titan, or as some of my French friends call him, a god on earth, Alain Dominique Perrin. A man who helped turn the fortunes of Cartier around and also led the Richemont group, which is considered to be one of the largest luxury goods groups in the world. But for me, the most intriguing reason to meet Alain was his commitment to helping artists, both established and emerging, with the Cartier Foundation for Contemporary Art, in Paris, as well as his connection to the labels for his flagship wine from his Château Lagrézette estate. I did not know what to expect during my dinner with him, tasting some of his wines, and even then, the unexpected happened that night.

Château Lagrézette

Photo Credit: https://www.chateau-lagrezette.com/en/the-winery/the-cellar

In 1980, Alain bought Château Lagrézette, a 12th century fortified house in Cahors, in Southwest France. As a man who appreciates beauty as well as history, he took on the enormous task of restoring the medieval architecture and the Renaissance ornamentation throughout the property. Once he learned that the property included vineyards that had historical importance, he realized that part of bringing the property back to its former glory would involve him becoming a wine producer. As a wise man, he knew the best thing to do was to hire the best in a particular field and trust their opinion. And so he hired world famous soil expert Claude Bourguignon to advise him where to plant vines and which ones to plant. Surprisingly, Claude said to plant Viognier in certain areas, a variety that is known to make its home in the Northern Rhône in France, not the Southwest.

Then when it came to the winemaking Alain turned to his longtime friend, who just happens to be one of the most famous consulting enologists in the world, Michel Rolland. Together Alain, Michel and his managing director, Claude Boudamani, devised a plan to renovate their cellar after rigorous review in 2011. Currently, their state of the art cellar includes such goodies as micro-sized, robotic, stainless steel wagons to swiftly carry the grapes from the sorting table to the tanks.

Unexpected Night

When I arrived at Le Bernardin for our dinner in 2015, I knew that the wines were going to be special because of all the information I had read about Alain’s incredible commitment to making great wine in Cahors. But I thought it was only going to be a pleasantly formal night at a fine dining restaurant, with a human being who had a remarkable resume; it was not going to be a conducive atmosphere to get to know the inner soul of Alain Dominique Perrin. Well, that evening, I got to know the man, his spirit, and his heart. Our conversations ranged from the movie American Sniper, and how he said he could not stop thinking about the horrible moral dilemma of the lead character, to him being close friends with one of the owners of Le Bernardin and remembering how heart breaking it was for her to lose her brother, Chef and co-owner at the time with his sister. Alain said he realized that she lost her partner and picked up the phone and told her to come to Paris to see him so she did not need to be alone.

Halfway through the night, the owner of the restaurant, his friend, sat right next to him to have a private conversation. She had come to the restaurant late and seemed to be having a stressful night… but I could see the closeness between her and Alain… you could tell that she had leaned on him as a friend, and he, being the tower of strength that he was, was able to be there for her in a time of need.

Mon Vin

Me and Claude

Around a month ago, in the magical garden-like ambiance of La Grenouille, with managing director of Château Lagrézette, Claude Boudamani and a couple of other colleagues, I found myself thinking about Alain Dominique Perrin and how he was much more than I could have imagined. We had a good group of open hearted people escaping from the rainy day to share a lovely meal and to re-taste the Château Lagrézette wines. It was wonderful to see Claude again and to revisit our enchanting dinner at Le Bernardin, as well as making new memories that day. I remember that Claude’s story was one of modest beginnings, such as mine, working his way to eventually become the vice president of Château Haut-Brion and now working for a man who allows him to shoot for the stars.

Although Alain Dominique Perrin was not there at our La Grenouille lunch, I could feel his spirit and it was perfectly represented by the Mon Vin wine we tasted that day… a wine made in secrecy from Alain, that would represent his intrinsic qualities that nourishes and firmly supports those around him… from a struggling artist on the street to a world renowned expert, Alain appreciates the inner life of a person that goes beyond their pedigree. He is the Titan we need today… whose powerful presence can only be matched by his capacity for compassion.

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Château Lagrézette Wines Tasted at Lunch on May 25th, 2017

2014 Le Pigeonnier Viognier, “White Vision”, Rocamadour Single Vineyard: 100% Viognier from a 2.5 acre (6  hectares) single-vineyard located in the Côte du Lot with extremely low yields – around 25 hl/ha. Soil is Kimmeridgian like in Chablis. This wine had intoxicating layers of exotic spice and floral notes that had a nice amount of flesh on the palate with lively acidity giving it a lift at the end.

2014 Château Lagrézette Malbec: 87% Malbec, 12% Merlot and 1% Tannat sourced from 30-year-old estate vines on the clay/limestone second and third terraces of the Lot River. Each year Alain Dominique Perrin commissions a young artist to design a different label featuring Château Lagrézette – 25-years worth of labels now exist. The 2014 was designed by Agathe Gonard and was inspired by the tragic bombings in Paris in November of 2015. This 2014 of their flagship wine has juicy plumy fruit and a medium body with charming underbrush, hints of rosemary and the well-integrated oak is hinted by subtle spice that dances across the finish.

-2014 Paragon Massaut Malbec, Clos Marguerite Single Vineyard: 100% Malbec from the 3rd terrace above the Lot River. Ancient trees surround the vines creating a “Clos” (enclosed vineyard). An opaque color with enchanting aromas of jam covered toast, damson and tobacco leaf. A full bodied wine that has an elegant shape with firm yet polished tannins.

In Château Lagrézette, there is a carving of Marguerite, Dame de Lagrézette – the person whom the vineyard is named after. It is said that though men built Château Lagrézette, it was women who had given the château its soul.

-Mon Vin: 100% Malbec from the top selection from 2014-2017 vintages. This is a bottle that was made in secret, hidden from Alain Dominique Perrin, by Claude Boudamani, his managing director and enologist, and his good friend Michel Rolland, consulting enologist. They wanted to create a wine that would express Perrin himself, and as someone who has only met him once, I have to say that I think they did a good job. A complex bouquet of violets, vanilla bean and truffles that had plenty of sweet blueberry fruit with hints of pencil lead and wild herbs that were generous yet profound, rich yet dignified and powerful yet nurturing, finished with a seamlessly textured body.

They decided on a unique bottle for this special wine but could not come up with a name, so Claude told Alain about the wine made in secret and that it was supposed to be a wine that represented Alain himself… well, of course this revelation surprised Alain, who started to ask, “Mon Vin?” and so they decided that that would be the name. A beautiful gift to a man who has given so much to the world.

2015 Merveille de Lilas, Viognier Noble Rot Sweet Wine: 100% Viognier from their Merveille vineyard that has clay and limestone in the soil. This was an experiment allowing some of the Viognier to receive noble rot (botrytis) and making a sweet wine. It was absolutely delicious and a rare treat with aromas of peach cobbler, baking spice and mandarin peel with only a hint of enticing perfume on the finish. It has a viscous body that offered a bright acidity at the end. This may be the last time they make a sweet Viognier as Claude Boudamani, managing director and enologist, said it would be too difficult to guarantee the high quality they would want year after year as the vineyard is not ideal for encouraging botrytis.

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