Death by Madeira

Until I took the Diploma from the WSET (Wine & Spirit Education Trust) in 2009, I had never heard the word Madeira, let alone experienced its earthly pleasures. I was taking the fortified wine segment of the class, and although I knew the liquid delights of Port and Sherry, Madeira was a complete mystery to me. A wine considered virtually indestructible due to the extreme elements that it is subjected to during production and aging, it is a fierce warrior libation that can live long past its fortified brethren. Many past American presidents have obsessed over it… it was even the drink of choice when the Founding Fathers had their celebration after signing the Declaration of Independence. Centuries before that time, in 1478, George, Duke of Clarence, chose to be drowned in a butt of Malmsey (Malvasia) wine when sentenced to death. Damn! Now that must have been some good wine!!

Madeira

Photo Credit: http://www.justinosmadeira.com/

Madeira is an island, part of Portugal, that is recorded to have started making wine back in the 1400s. A remarkable feat since not only is it a mere 459 square miles in surface area, but a significant part of the island has slopes above 25% and so many of the vineyards are planted within the construction of bench terraces, called “poios,” sustained by walls of basaltic stone. Some of my colleagues that have been lucky enough to visit this exotic island said that their plane landing made their heart jump out of their chest – since there is very little available flatland, you have to come in steep!

The relationship between England and France has been one that has historically swung back and forth from love to hate – fighting many wars. And so, during one of their off-again phases, England, a long wine drinking culture, was forced to find wine from other countries. They were able to strike up a relationship with Portugal, and hence Port and Madeira have been favorites among many British wine lovers. But since they were importing wine starting in the 15th century, the wine needed to be fortified with a spirit to withstand the voyage since moderate refrigeration and inert vessels were not available during that time. The Madeira wines in casks were subjected to extended periods of oxidation and heat on the boats while traveling from Madeira to England.

But as the great English proverb says, “necessity is the mother of invention,” and so astonishingly resilient wines were produced that benefited further from fierce acidity, created by many of the varieties used, as well as early harvesting. The heated, oxidative process would not only help to preserve the wines for the trip, as well as long term aging, but they would create aromas ranging from fruit cake to burnt sugar and find an enticing balance of richness and vitality.

And so, although they no longer need to subject the wines to this winemaking practice, they purposely have come up with better solutions to emulate the process but under more controlled conditions, such as the high quality “Canteiro” practice of placing the casks on the top floors of cellars. The best producers will move the casks around, as some areas of the top floor are warmer than others, to guarantee an overall consistency to the wines.

Find What You Love and Let It Kill You

My husband and I were having a conversation the other night about the most painful way to die. Drowning certainly made the top of the list, but I do have to admit that drowning specifically in Madeira makes it somewhat more appealing… as appealing as a death sentence can be. Visually, it is a poetic way to die, and I know for myself, if I buy a bottle of Madeira today, open it, drink some tonight then place the closure back on, it will live long past my body and perhaps even my memory – happy to be outlived by such a divine wine.

 

***”Find what you love and let it kill you.” –often times attributed to Charles Bukowski but some question him as the source. Basically, all you need to know is that I did not come up with it. Hehehe…

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Madeira Tasting on June 8th, 2017

It was great to taste a range of Madeira wines recently at a trade seminar led by kickass wine blogger Joe Roberts, 1 Wine Dude. He has been lovin’ Madeira since 2007 and he made no bones about his passion as he exclaimed, “I’ll drink the crap out of it!” Now, that is what I’m talking about… Here’s the line up:

CAF – Madeira Vintners, 3 Years Old Sweet: Madeira Vintners is a new project that is run by an all female team that intends to improve working conditions for women as well as improving vineyards of neglected varieties. This wine blends 60% Tinta Negra and 40% Complexa. A fun, spicy and slightly smoky libation with a medium viscous body that is bright and nimble on the finish. 17% abv & 116 g/l residual sugar.

Vinhos Barbeito, Historic Series Boston Bual Special Reserve: Founded in 1946 by Mário Barbeito de Vasconcelos and since then has been continually run by the same family. Blend of 85% Bual and 15% Tinta Negra. Dried apricots and prunes with walnuts and fleshy body. 19% abv and 89 g/l residual sugar.

Henriques & Henriques, Verdelho 15 Years Old: Bought by the Henriques family in 1850 and since the last Henriques’ had no heirs, it was left to three friends in 1968 who kept the name. I loved the purity of this wine with lots of tropical fruit such as guava and mango with a hint of sugared chilies. 20% abv and 71g/l residual sugar.

 

Blandy’s Madeira Wine Company, Blandy’s Colheita Malmsey 1999: If you know anything about premium Madeira then I’m sure you know the Blandy’s producer. They celebrated their 200th year of making Madeira in 2011. Chris Blandy, 7th generation, continues to work within the company. 100% Malvasia (or traditionally called Malmsey). This is classic Madeira to me, with burnt sugar, caramel and fleshy goodness on the palate with hints of baking spice… yet still mouth watering with all these decadent flavors. 130 g/l residual sugar. 20% abv. Also, the most textural of all the wines tasted. Side note: typically Bual and Malmsey get skin contact while Sercial and Verdelho get very little or none.

Pereira D’Oliveira, Verdelho 1973: Founded in 1850, one of the classic Madeira shippers, surviving from the pre-phylloxera era. D’Oliveira is one of my favorite producers… mind you there are only 8 producers (6 on the export market) and they are great at what they do since we are talking about small wine production. I guess they are my favorite because I have been able to taste very old vintages from this producer – such as an 1875 Malvasia (aka Malmsey). Orange peel and marmalade dominate the ’73, yet it is still youthful with electrifying acidity, but it was sneaky-ly complex… the only sneaky I like… with volcanic ash and clove rounding out the aromas. Around 20% abv but do not have an exact number on the residual sugar. Verdelho is typically around 60 to 80 g/l residual sugar.

Justino’s Madeira Wines, Justino’s Madeira Terrantez 50 Years Old: Established in 1870. 100% Terrantez. I was as giddy as a school girl trying this wine… Terrantez is a rare variety to find, is prized among Madeira connoisseurs, and I have not been given many chances to try it. It was much more linear on the palate than the others, with an incredible backbone of structure that gave this wine a precision on the long finish. Also, the nose was so interesting with eucalyptus and smoky black tea notes, like lapsang souchong, with zesty lemon drop flavors. 19% abv and 74 g/l residual sugar.

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The Greatest Accomplishment is to be Yourself Against All Odds

To be yourself is not such an easy task… especially considering it takes a while to get to know who the heck we are… and even that can be a lifetime process. Sometimes we rebel against what was presented in front of us in our childhood, or the opposite, we try to live up to an impossible, near perfect adult image. But I think many times, we are not just one thing… we do not so easily fit into a neat little box. That was certainly my issue. I desperately tried to fit in when I was younger but it was always a major fail… and still, even today, in New York City, with close to 9 million people, there are still people who want to have convenient, albeit limiting, labels… perhaps they can’t help it since they themselves are trapped in their own world of extreme dogmatic rules. Don’t get me wrong, I am not criticizing it. All of us need context… we need to know how we can relate… and that is why I love it when things appear in the wine world that give producers more freedom of defining themselves while helping wine lovers to find an accessible way to connect.

Vino de Pago

Many European countries started establishing regulations of controlled appellations (designations) that were based on France’s Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) – originally established to combat wine fraud which was prevalent in the late 19th century after the phylloxera epidemic destroyed many of the vineyards. Spain has their hierarchy of designations with Rioja and Priorat receiving the top wine regional classification – DOC. No one would ever doubt that both of these areas deserve adulation for the range of spectacular wines that they produce… but some may argue that there are other areas that could be just as deserving, if they only had the investment, the opportunity. And moreover, these designations can be constrictive to the artistry of wine – such as restricting which grape varieties one can use.

I remember the very first moment that I started to get into wine debates, the most dominant topic was the scourge of wine homogeneity plaguing the world. And as time has gone on, there has been a great outcry to use local grapes and many of these regulations ensure that only local varieties are used – of course there are a few exceptions. I am a strong believer in helping to promote what is indigenous to an area but I also get excited by great wine – no matter if the varieties have been there for thousands of years or not.

And this is where the recent, as of 2003, Spanish wine classification of Vino de Pago (DO Pago) gives a bit more freedom to single vineyards that excel in quality. The DO Pago status indicates a single vineyard that is considered to be one of the great estates in Spain and it can exist outside of an established wine region classification. Such things as the unique terroir (sense of place) and a tasting of a 10 year vertical of wines are considered to attain a DO Pago classification. Currently, there are only 14 such estates in Spain.

Arínzano

Arínzano is one of the few single vineyard wine estates that have received the status of Vino de Pago. They are located in north east Spain between Rioja and Bordeaux. I was able to taste two of their top wines, tasting notes given below, as I participated in their #winestudio virtual tasting on May 23rd. Their top red was a Tempranillo but their top white was a Chardonnay – some may scoff at such a notion considering it is Spain, and remorsefully in my younger days I may have done the same, yet it would be a shame. It was a dazzlingly Chardonnay that was elegantly shaped by being planted in an area that benefited from the Cierzo wind and a bed of chalk in the soil. The vibrancy and overall finesse was surprising to many of us. And yes, as one can guess, the Tempranillo was a superstar… still the Chardonnay could go toe to toe with it – and it beautifully differed from other Chardonnay wines from around the world.

Truly Being Open to All Possibilities

I’m happy that people have opened their minds to many different possibilities – women can work, same sex marriage is becoming celebrated and investment is given to discovering the potential of local grape varieties. But I think we miss the point when we think a woman can only be an accomplished person if she has an important career or impressive initials after her name – when we look as those women who choose to stay home with their kids as a failure. That is when we go back to the same closed minded attitude that created unfair prejudices that took away opportunities in the first place… whatever life we feel the most comfortable living, that is the path of success for us.

And with this thought in mind, I will continue to drink Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot from around the world, being open to those varieties that have been there for 10 years, as well as 1000… and I will reserve my judgments, if it was a good choice for that place, until after I taste the wine. During our virtual tasting, Arínzano winemaker Manuel Louzada wrote on Twitter that he takes inspiration from the words of Michelangelo, “the angel is already inside the marble, I’ve only (have to) release it”… he is not there to force any ideology, he is there to discover the full potential of that land… and that’s what we just need to do sometimes to find success… just surrender to who we are, no matter if it fits with popular opinion or not.

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Tasting of wines Arínzano on May 23rd, 2017

Please feel free to check out the other wines from Arínzano, besides those listed below, as they have others ranging in the mid-priced level.

2010 Gran Vino Arínzano de Blanco, DO Pago de Arínzano, Spain: Strict double selection of 100% Chardonnay. An incredible, expressive elegance of intense smoky minerality with white peach and spice; a long finish with lots of finesse.

2008 Gran Vino Arínzano de Tinto, DO Pago de Arínzano, Spain: Strict double selection of 100% Tempranillo. Generous blackberry liqueur flavors with spice, fresh leather and smoky coal embers… lots of flesh on the body, yet a regal backbone of fine tannins and marked acidity… it prances around my head like a beautiful nymph.

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To Live a Life Worth Living

After spending the day seeing ancient artifacts, cutting edge winery techniques, and tasting the top wines from one of the most prominent and famous wineries in Spain (let alone the world), it seemed that sitting there during our typical Spanish late lunch, letting it all soak in, that it could not get any better… and then the man, the living legend, Miguel A. Torres, walked up to our table. We had been touring just a sliver of the incredible history and operations of Bodegas Torres, in Penedès, Spain, enjoying a lunch with Christoph Kammüller, Torres’ brilliant Director of International Communications, when an elegantly dressed gentleman approached our table – when I looked up and saw that it was Mr. Torres, I instantly felt the wind knocked out of me. I have had the great pleasure to meet many greats of the wine world, but Torres is a man whose family had been able to create an empire under the toughest conditions.

Miguel A. Torres

Torres was a gentle man with an overall graceful quality that seemed to elevate our conversation by his mere presence. He shared his story with us, which started before he was born… when his father was a young man, basically running for his life during the time that Franco ruled Spain, starting in 1936. His father, Miguel Torres senior, was an educated man and was considered a threat to the fascist dictator, so he was eventually captured and sent to one of Franco’s concentration camps. I have to admit that unitl I heard this story, I had no idea that Spain had concentration camps. Later, I looked up reports talking about the crimes against humanity that were committed by Franco against his own people – it is estimated that anywhere between 200,000 to 400,000 were killed, but the number of those who survived their torture while imprisoned cannot even be estimated. The Catalonia region was especially targeted by the Franco regime and was repressed until his rule ended when he died in 1975.

Miguel Torres senior was fortunate to have a friend help get him out of the concentration camp. He returned to Catalonia where his family had a winery in Vilafranca del Penedès – it had to be rebuilt after it was destroyed during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

Bodegas Torres

Taking advantage of the fact that France was under Nazi control at the time, Torres senior started promoting his wines in America during World War II. His son, Miguel A. Torres, would follow in his father’s footsteps by joining the business in 1962 after studying both oenology and viticulture. He continued helping with his father’s dream to make world class wine, while promoting Spain to the world and specifically promoting the Catalonia region that had been through so much. In 1991, his father passed away and Miguel A. Torres became the President and Managing Director of Bodegas Torres.

We first visited their visitor center, in Pacs del Penedès, to see the glorious legacy of the Bodegas Torres history. Then we took a stop to see all the various experiments that they are conducting, from soil analysis, the recovery of obscure local varieties, to figuring out ways to combat CO2 levels such as using algae – which has not proven useful at this moment, but they are seeking out every possible solution to be kinder to the environment. Bodegas Torres began organic farming back in 1975, an auspicious year since it was the end of Franco’s rule, and they started doing it long before it became fashionable. Torres’ numbers with regards to sustainability are off the charts, as they aim to increase their recycling of treated water to 40%, have 45 hybrid cars (with Tesla charging stations) at their wineries, enough solar panels to produce 50% of the hot water for their bottling plant, and they protect 4571 acres (1,850 hectares) of forests and organically cultivate 4942 acres (2,000 hectares) of their own vineyards.

We then visited their newest winery, La Bodega Waltraud, designed to near perfection with an external shape that harmoniously blends into the surrounding nature and the internal construction that creates an ideal aging environment for their best wines – lacking light and not allowing any type of vibration. The winery is named after Torres’ greatest treasure, his wife, Waltraud Maczassek – originally from Germany. Waltraud is an artist and visitors can see her art displayed around the winery, giving a sense of passion to such a technically precise space. The winery has all the latest goodies for making outstanding, visceral as well as intellectually pleasing wine: optical sorter, amphorae (anfora) vessels, and oak tanks that were designated for specific plots, etc. It was glorious to behold a winery that strived for excellence of function as well as beauty.

Jean Leon

Part of the Torres legacy extends beyond their own blood, including close friends such as Jean Leon. Before visiting Torres, we went to the Jean Leon winery, also in Penedès, which was started by a man who overcame many obstacles to ultimately become an important figure in Hollywood, as well as being a great friend to the Torres family.

Jean Leon was originally given the name Ceferino Carrión at birth, in 1928, and was raised dirt poor in a large family in Spain’s north coast. Tragedy hit his family early with the loss of his father and eldest brother, and considering the dangerous times that eventually came with Franco’s rule, Jean Leon decided the only way to make money for himself and his family was to try to make it to America. He eventually took on the name Jean Leon as many Americans could not pronounce his name; plus, it was symbolic that he would leave the degradation of his past behind and open himself to the possibilities of the future.

Jean Leon eventually ended up in Hollywood, California, working in restaurants and befriending many of the top stars during the time. He opened the world famous Hollywood restaurant La Scala and was supposed to originally partner with his friend James Dean, who tragically died before he could see their joint dream come true. He regularly sent lunches to Marilyn Monroe and later had his wines served at President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration ceremony.

Jean Leon started his winery in 1963 because he was not happy with the wine he was serving at La Scala and thought this would be a great way to reconnect to Spain, bring his high standards that he already had for customer service and food to wine, and bring his love of Spain back to his adopted home in Hollywood. Like Torres, he was an innovator who was one of the first to grow Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay in Spain as well as obtain a single vineyard wine certification, Vi de Finca in Catalan.

Jean Leon was a great patron of the arts and every vintage of his “Vinya La Scala” Gran Reserva is now commemorated with artwork on the label. He was also a man who cherished his friendships, and towards the end of his life was planning a new restaurant on an island in Thailand that he fell in love with… he envisioned he and his long time friends making more fantastic memories together in paradise. But he knew that dream would never be realized when he was given the news that he was gravely ill and would only have a couple years to live. He turned to the Torres family to ask if they would purchase his winery, keeping his legacy alive, and so they did in 1994. His winery still continues today as a great tribute to Jean Leon with his wines made in the strict standards that he always employed himself when he was alive.

Gratitude for Each Day

Some people remarked that it was not typical for Miguel A. Torres to come to lunch while media people were there visiting. Torres expressed how his son and daughter were the new generation and they were gearing things for the future, such as wanting to use more indigenous varieties. And so, I think he is at the point in his life where he would like to pass on to people the most important part of his family’s legacy… which started with his father. Miguel Torres senior was able to survive something that many of his fellow countrymen and countrywomen were not able to survive. So often I think of the people I have seen taken in the prime of their life… they were good people… people who did everything right, they had everything to live for… why them and not me? Torres and Jean Leon did not dwell on their misfortunes because they knew that each day was a gift that many did not get to enjoy, and they made sure that every day of their life was one that was worth living.

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All of the Below Wines were Tasted on April 25th, 2017

 Formal Tasting of Jean Leon Wines:

Jean Leon Lineup with Enologist Xavier Rubires

-2016 “3055” Chardonnay, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Chardonnay. Organically farmed. No MLF. Two months partial aging in oak. A white chalky intensity with lemon rind and a touch of white flowers. 3055 was the taxi cab license number that Jean Leon worked under during his time in New York City – before moving to Hollywood.

-2015 “Vinya Gigi” Chardonnay Single Vineyard, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Chardonnay. Organically farmed. Six months in French oak. Named after Jean Leon’s daughter and coming from a 12 acre (5 hectare) single vineyard. Richer body and aromas of hazelnut and marzipan with ripe apples.

-2013 “Vinya Palau” Merlot Single Vineyard, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Merlot from a 25 acre (10 hectare) single vineyard with low yields. The name of this wine pays homage to Jean Leon’s home town. Gorgeous notes of lavender and lemon verbena with spicy plum pie.

-2011 “Vinya Le Havre” Cabernet Sauvignon Reserva Single Vineyard, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc from a 47 acre (19 hectare) vineyard. Named after the French port of Le Havre, where Jean Leon stowed away trying to get to America – a sailor discovered him but decided to keep him concealed – he never forgot that generosity. Black raspberry with autumn leaves and a slight grip on the palate that added another nuance to the juicy body.

-2009 “Vinya La Scala” Cabernet Sauvignon Gran Reserva Single Vineyard, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon from a 20 acre (8 hectare) vineyard named after his beloved restaurant. The 1975 vintage was served at President Ronald Reagan’s inauguration – a great moment for Spanish wine. A graceful Cabernet Sauvignon that shows black currant leaf and attractive fresh blackberries; although there is plenty of ripe fruit, there is an overall restrained, linear quality with fine tannins.

 

 Tasting at La Bodega Waltraud:

-2016 Waltraud Riesling, Penedès, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Riesling. Inspired by Miguel A. Torres’ wife, Waltraud Maczassek, from Germany yet she made her home in Penedès with her husband – the label is one of her own drawing that depict the sensation of this wine. These grapes are planted in the Upper Penedès where there are cooler micro-climates. Wonderful balance between sugar and acidity as it seems dry although off-dry with some residual sugar. Jasmine and orange blossom perfume this wine, offset with bright flavors of lemon confit.

 

Formal Tasting of Torres Wines Before Lunch:

-2014 Milmanda, Conca de Barberà DO, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Chardonnay. 2014 was a different vintage for reds because of too much rain, but with extremely strict selection (only used 1/3 of their harvest) they were able to produce enchanting whites such as from the Milmanda vineyards. Pristine white peach flavors with stony minerality and a creamy texture that still had marked acidity on the long, refined finish.

-2012 Mas La Plana, Penedès DO, Catalonia, Spain: 100% Cabernet Sauvignon. Mas La Plana is a prestigious single vineyard of 72 acres (29 hectares). This wine has always been a textbook example of why Cabernet Sauvignon can excel as a single varietal wine in warm weather – the first vintage of this wine dates back to 1970. A multi-layered wine that shows such complexity as fresh leather and sweet tobacco, while wrapped in juicy blackberry goodness. The well-manicured tannins melt into the alluring body of this wine.

-2013 Perpetual, Priorat DOQ, Catalonia, Spain: 90% Cariñena and 10% Garnacha coming from vines that range between 80 to 100 years old and are grown on steep, rocky slopes. This is a smoldering wine that slowly reveals its intoxicatingly smoky aromas, with notes of broken slate, powerful black cherry jam flavors and firm structure that gives drive and elegance to this opulent wine.

-2010 Grans Muralles, Conca de Barberà DO, Catalonia: Blend of Garnacha, Monastrell (Mourvèdre), Querol (a rescued local variety), Cariñena and Garró (another rescued local variety). Querol has small berries and offers lots of acidity – also the thick skin makes it quite challenging to break them, and Garró has no pits and gives intense floral notes. This wine has a great balance of savory and sweet with violet, tree bark and an explosion of creme de cassis, with mouth watering acidity along the prolonged finish.

The Muralles vineyards used to surround the walls of the historical Cistercian monastery of Poblet and today this wine still pays tribute to the ancestral varieties of Spain.

-2010 Reserva Real, Penedès DO, Catalonia, Spain: 66% Cabernet Sauvignon, 29% Cabernet Franc and 5% Merlot. At first, I was captivated by the smell of sautéed tarragon with cocoa powder; then went deeper with toasted oak and black currant that was superbly supported by the fine tannins – and yes, a jaw dropping-ly expressive finish.

The Reserva Real – Royal Reserve – was created in honor of the visit of HM Juan Carlos – then the King of Spain – to the Torres winery in 1995 to mark its 125th anniversary. The grapes come from their small vineyard of (4 hectares) in Agulladolç, showcasing the Silurian slate soil which is unique to Penedès.

 

Tasting of Torres Wines during Lunch

Santa Digna Estelado Rosé Sparking, Maule Valley, Chile: 100% País. This is just one of the examples how the Torres family was able to pioneer quality winemaking in other countries, such as Chile. País is an old variety that dates back to being planted in Chile around the 16 century, believed to come from Peru, and it was not taken seriously until Torres started making this delightful, traditional sparkling wine from it. Delicate bubbles with lively fruit of wild strawberries layered with toasted notes. A lovely sparkler for a modest price.

-2013 Torres Purgatori, Costers del Segre DO, Catalonia, Spain: Blend of Cariñena, Garnacha and Syrah from the high altitude vineyards of Costers del Segre. A rich wine giving generous fruit and spice yet still having lots of freshness.

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Powerful Things Can Happen When Women Come Together

Parés Baltà Winery

The most powerful memories I have are typically triggered by smell, and I think these important moments in our childhood are often times reflected by the images that are conjured when we smell and taste wine. Some of Marta Casas’ fondest early experiences have to do with actually smelling wine being made in the tiny cellar of her grandparents’ home. She grew up in a tiny fishing village in the Province of Barcelona, Spain, and becoming a winemaker was never considered an option since her grandfather only made wine as a hobby – to be mainly consumed by the family with a little sold off for bulk wine. But time with grandparents can often form the recollections we cherish, as grandparents don’t have to discipline or have the stresses of providing for the family… they are able to spend real quality time helping to shape the character of their grandchildren. These early “winemaking” smells would ultimately lead Marta down a path that she did not initially intend.

Parés Baltà

Marta Casas

In order to have a winery in a traditional winemaking country, such as Spain, typically either someone would need to inherit a family winery, be related to people in the wine industry, or have a large fortune that he/she does not mind turning into a small fortune. Marta had none of these, so she originally started studying pharmacy at university. During her studies, she met her future husband at a party, Josep Cusiné, whose family owned the Parés Baltà winery in the exciting wine region of Penedès, first made famous by Torres. When she started visiting Josep’s family winery, the aromas in the air reminded her of the precious time she spent with her own grandfather. She started taking winemaking classes at the university she was attending, not knowing where it would lead.

Finding Strength in Tradition

As Marta stood in one of the Parés Baltà vineyards of Syrah planted by Josep’s grandfather, at 1312 feet (400 meters) elevation (one of their over 60 sites that all needed to be individually managed and harvested) she shyly told us of her journey after some prying on our part, and uncomfortably mentioning that the wine from this plot, Marta De Baltà was now named after her. Since this vineyard was out in the open, she said it caused a great deal of gossip among their neighbors when they started using biodynamic practices. Of course, the other grape growers thought they were crazy. And now, after seeing the great success of the thrilling wines they started producing, their neighbors are starting more sustainable, organic practices and may even integrate biodynamic treatments. But it was important for Marta to credit her husband’s grandfather for believing in organic practices from the very beginning. Even though he lived through the depression during The Spanish Civil War and World War II, he always had a strong belief in restoring and maintaining harmony in his vineyards.

As we drove through many of their other plots (some as high up as 2460 feet (750 meters)), it was amazing to see some sites that were truly “isolated” biodynamic vineyards, surrounded by forests, that they have been allowed to remain untouched. We finally reached our tasting destination, located in the middle of one of Parés Baltà’s forests, where clay was excavated to make amphora (aka anfora) vessels thousands of years ago – baking the amphora vessels in the hole that was created when they dug up the clay. Today, Parés Baltà  themselves use this clay from their forests to make their own various amphora vessels in different shapes for their natural wines (wild yeasts and low to zero sulfites added) – now that is terroir taken to another level!

It was perfect to sit there, even as a few drops of rain fell on our heads, as we tasted their wines, some of them deeply rooted in the atmosphere that surrounded us. A few of my colleagues had never previously tasted a natural wine that they liked, and I could not blame them, as many faulted wines are passed off as acceptable in the natural wine world – but Parés Baltà Amphora white was a delicious surprise with layers of complexity, exciting flavors and not a hint of any fault – a pristine, knockout wine.

 

The Power of Women

Joan Cusiné Drinking from Porron

We finished this incredible day with dinner at their winery and a fun lesson of how to drink from a porron (Catalan: porró) which was artfully displayed by Marta’s brother-in-law Joan. During the dinner, Joan gave credit to his wife, Maria Elena Jimenez, who is the enologist, and Marta as the winemaker, for elevating their wines to world class status.

I was lucky enough to sit next to Marta… perhaps it wasn’t luck as I am always drawn to women whose energy recharges those that surround them… and so I was able to learn that her sister-in-law, Maria Elena, was originally on track to become a chemical engineer before she met her husband to be. These women did not know each other until they started dating Joan and Josep, but they quickly became complementary to each other. Maria Elena was the first to start working at Parés Baltà, with Marta starting a couple years after her. Maria Elena is happy to entrench herself in the science while staying out of the limelight while Marta places her energies on the artistry and she is more comfortable publicly speaking about their wines.

Marta’s brother-in-law, Joan, talked about the complications of a family winery. Although they loved and greatly respected their grandfather, and certainly to this day give him credit for continuously working in organic ways, the grandfather’s desire for high yields clashed with their desire to lift the quality of their wines. Joan said it was the two women coming together that were able to eventually convince their grandfather, a man who came from the depression mentality that you need to produce high yields, that this way the right future path for his family winery.

Conquering through love, support and unity as opposed to destruction

It just goes to show that when women get out of their own way, embrace each others’ different strengths and weaknesses, we can make the world a better place while raising all of those up around us.

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Tasting of Parés Baltà on April 25th, 2017

2010 Blanca Cusiné, Sparkling, Cava DO: 60% Xarel·lo, 20% Pinot Noir and 20% Chardonnay. Golden color with a nose of roasted almond and ripe apple and cinnamon spice on the finish. Fine bubbles that form a creamy texture in the mouth. Only 3,500 bottles made.

Alcoholic fermentation of Xarel·lo and Chardonnay take place in stainless steel tanks while Pinot Noir takes place in new French oak barrels. 30 months of lees aging after second fermentation in bottle.

-2016 Amphora, White Still Wine, Penedès DO: 100% Xarel·lo. This natural wine seemed to blow everyone’s mind. It had all the benefits of a natural wine – exciting aromas and flavors that are not typical in most wines, yet it had none of the potential issues, faults that cause ‘dirty’ flavors. Popcorn with candied ginger and lemon curd that had a rich texture and finished with a riveting acidity. My new favorite ‘natural’ wine. Only 2,600 bottles made.

Wild yeasts ferment in clay amphorae with no sulfites added.

2016 Indigena Rosé, Still Wine, Penedès DO: One can actually find this wine for $20 in New York City. 100% Garnacha (aka Grenache). A beautiful light pink color with highlights of salmon, an intense, stony minerality that is fleshed out with pink grapefruit, wild strawberry and hibiscus. It is agile and lively on the palate while still giving plenty of weight. I’m a real fan of the energy combined with generosity of the Parés Baltà wines – it seems to be one of the trademark qualities that I found across their lineup. This will definitely become my new favorite summer wine above $15.

100% Garnacha sourced from one of Parés Baltà’s plots located at 2021 feet (616 meters) inside the Foix Natural Park, one of the highest parts of the Penedès region.

2014 Mas Irene, Red Still Wine, Penedès DO: 74% Merlot and 26% Cabernet Franc. A wine that is meant to be dark and brooding and certainly lives up to the intention… mulberry jam with star anise and fresh black cherries – plush on the body yet it still has that energetic lift on the finish that seems key to the Parés Baltà wines. Only 5,000 bottles made.

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The Cusiné Family decided to start another project in the rugged landscape of Priorat with young winemaker Jordi Fernandez, under the label “Gravatavinum”.

2010 Gratavinum, GV5, Red Still Wine, Priorat DOQ: 70% Cariñena, 20% Garnacha and 10% Cabernet Sauvignon. A multi-layered wine sourced from old vines. A bouquet of slate, dusty earth and licorice gives this wine a depth of complexity beyond its years, balanced by bright notes of blood orange, black berry and scrub vegetation. It is rich and well-structured on the finish.

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The Memories We Hold On To

Photo Credit: Brooks Wine https://www.facebook.com/brookswines/

There are many memories that fill my heart from childhood… sitting at a festive holiday table… the warm hugs… the giggles… the touching moments of time spent with parents and grandparents that carve out images in my mind that would help to keep my inner light going in my darkest times. As I taste the wines from Brooks – whose story includes Pascal Brooks becoming the youngest winery owner, at the age of eight, when his father Jimi Brooks shockingly died of a heart attack in September of 2004 – I think about the memories that Pascal must hold on to, or Jimi’s sister Janie Brooks Heuck, who became the managing director of Brooks Winery, or his long-time friend Chris Williams who took over the winemaking duties, or even the Willamette Valley wine community, in Oregon, that helped to harvest Jimi’s grapes right after his passing, to make sure they could make a wine honoring his intended future.

Jimi Brooks

Jimi Brooks seemed like a man who followed his passion… from traveling the world right after college, to learning about winemaking in Beaujolais, to coming back to Oregon to further his on-the-job winemaking education, to eventually starting his own winery in 1998. He devoted his life to holistic farming and finding the ideal ways to express Willamette Valley Riesling and Pinot Noir. Jimi started with biodynamic practices in 2002 and Brooks Winery was able to expand their property to 20 acres (8 hectares). Although Jimi and Pascal’s mother divorced, it was still vitally important that Pascal was a part of Jimi’s dream of making wine and to one day inherit the winery.

Brooks Wines

Photo Credit: @BrooksWinery on Instagram Chris Williams (left), Janie Brooks Heuck (center) & Pascal Brooks (right)

As Jimi’s sister made the long, emotional drive from her home in California to her brother’s home in Oregon, once learning of his untimely death, she never thought she would find 60 strangers in his house… there were around a dozen winemakers who drew up a list of who would take turns harvesting his fruit and processing it in his winery… they were going to keep his wine and his name alive. She decided to run the winery as managing director while one of Jimi’s friends, Chris Williams, who learned winemaking by working alongside Jimi, would become the winemaker.

Today, Brooks Winery makes 20 different Riesling and 14 different Pinot Noir wines every year – pretty crazy, but crazy good; crazy in the way that life, just like memories, is precious and something about the memory of Jimi inspires those close to him to live a life they couldn’t even conceive of… let alone go after. To this day, Jimi’s sister, Janie, commutes back and forth from California to Oregon to help run the winery and she has become an important voice in the Willamette Valley wine community.

Keeping the Light Going While Dealing with Loss

The memories that we hold dwell on shape us as human beings… my memories of having precious moments with family, my blood, were nothing more than the figment of my own imagination, as my biological parents were not capable of having proper relationships and each went down their own separate dark path. And so, it took a while for me to come to grips with that and to understand that those fantasies were simply my deepest heart’s desires for the future…family comes in many forms, and the most important thing is that we are truly connecting, sharing and open to loving while the details of how our DNA is related to others matters very little.

Photo Credit: @BrooksWinery on Instagram Pascal Brooks

I think about Pascal Brooks, and although his situation is different, there is that same feeling of loss, of missing out on all those key shared moments with a father throughout his childhood… but there are the memories, the real memories in his case, of spending time with his father in the winery. I’m sure his aunt, their winemaker Chris Williams, Jimi’s friends and the Willamette community have shared their stories with Pascal over the years.

Looking at the Brooks website, I saw that Pascal had a blog that was last updated in 2015. At one point he says, “People continue the business because they want to and it is an incredible mark of pride to see it, knowing full well this is not my doing, but an intense debt with want to repay”. He is now twenty years old, trying to finish college and I’m sure also trying to find a sense of self… which is a journey that can seem endless. Although his father could not be there in the way that he intended, it seems that the best of him can still be felt in their vineyards, the winery, and in the hearts of all those who continue to fight to keep his dream alive. By his words, Pascal already seems like a thoughtful human being and perhaps that is due to the memories and stories he chooses to hold on to.

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Tasting of Brooks Wines Samples on May 25th, 2017

Many of the wines have the symbol of the ouroboros dragon on the label – Jimi Brooks had an ouroboros tattoo and used this icon on some of the labels of his wines. The ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail and symbolizes rebirth, which is very fitting considering Jimi’s spirit lives on in a different way even after the death of his body.

All of the wines below are part of the Willamette Valley AVA, in Oregon, with the Sweet P Riesling coming from their estate vineyard having the more specific AVA of Eola-Amity Hills within Willamette. The Janus Pinot Noir always includes a dominant percentage of Eola-Amity AVA fruit in their barrel selection for the final blend.

2015 Runaway Red: A Pinot Noir wine with notes of flowers and sweet raspberries with a touch of dusty earth… soft body with gentle acidity. A delicious wine! 4,750 cases made.

The label bears the portrait of Leon Trotsky, a runaway from the Soviet Union and is reminiscent to Jimi having a runaway barrel, during his second harvest in 1999, roll down into a creek during the night – he was able to find the barrel completely intact the next day.

2015 Willamette Valley Pinot Noir: More savory than Runaway with crumbly rock, cranberries and dried thyme on the finish… tighter tannins that give more shape… wild yet firm! 4,000 cases made.

2014 Janus Pinot NoirA dark, brooding wine that kicks up the wild to another level… fresh meat, volcanic ash with dried cranberries all wrapped up in a fleshy body that has beautifully interwoven texture and a long, exciting finish with marked acidity. Wow! 1,650 cases made.

In Roman mythology, Janus is the God representing balance for new beginnings and endings, the future and the past, and the connecting doorways. Janus is their flagship Pinot Noir and the first wine Jimi started making in 1998.

2016 Amycas: 44% Riesling, 21% Muscat, 18% Pinot Blanc, 10% Gewürztraminer and 7% Pinot Gris. Lemon verbena with lychee and spice that has medium weight with a sexy perfume and a surprisingly zingy finish. 2,000 cases made.

Amycas is inspired by the noble blend wines found in Alsace, France.

2015 Willamette Valley Riesling: A dry Riesling that has an intense, flinty minerality note that I love, with hints of chalky soil, white peach and orange blossom… sip it slowly and you will see it evolve in the glass over 30 minutes. An elegant wine. 1,000 cases made.

2016 Sweet P Riesling: This wine has 36 g/l residual sugar and is considered a medium sweet Riesling. It is from Brooks’ estate vineyard, planted in 1974, and it is the last fruit to go into their winery. Noble rot is welcomed in this plot as the partial shriveling of the fruit helps to intensify the sugars. Flavors of peach pie and apricot jam are the first to hit the palate, and that smoky volcanic note, as experienced in the Janus Pinot Noir, comes in on the finish… as the wine opened up, there was lemon peel, kaffir lime leaf and dried flowers with sweet spice. This wine has more flesh on the body, although it still has marked acidity and seems more off-dry than medium-dry to me… which I prefer… and so a great example that you cannot always go by numbers. Brilliantly balanced. Only 500 cases made.

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Be Careful Trusting the American Palate When It Comes to American Wines

In Alphabet City in the East Village

My earliest memories of drinking wine are filled with gritty pictures of downtown New York City, in the early to mid-1990s; cheap European libations being consumed over long, in-depth conversations revealing the deepest parts of our youthful souls and venting frustrations about being outcasts in our forsaken homes. At the time, among the artsy, international group, wine from Europe was the only option considered to be a safe buy, to avoid judgment from the other creative intellectuals. Years later, I found the majority of my NYC wine trade experience to revolve around a Eurocentric portfolio of wines, and it only a few years ago, perhaps 4 or 5 to be more precise, that I realized the true wealth of varieties and shear elegance and beauty of California wines when a couple of trendy wine buyers from London educated me about my ignorance of my own country.

Napa Valley

It was only fitting that British wine experts would open my eyes to all that I was not appreciating about my home country with regards to wine. Many of you may know of the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris that was arranged by Steven Spurrier, a British well known great taster, wine expert and former wine merchant in Paris, that unintentionally placed Napa Valley on the international map as a great wine making area.  He pitted Napa Wines against some of the greatest French wines in a blind tasting to be judged by eleven judges – nine of them being French wine savvy individuals in the trade, media or education. Two Napa Valley wines won for best red and white… it was the first time that articles written in respectable journals and newspapers considered another country in the same breath as France when it came to quality wine. It was not so much about who was better, but more of a hopeful sign to the US, and especially Napa, that we could hold our heads high with the progress that we had been making in the wine world.

Before that time, wine producers in Napa could not get banks to give them loans, so making quality wine did not have a bright future and really was only taken on by those hopeless dreamers that many thought would eventually end up bankrupt. What would have happened if the Judgment of Paris never happened, or if news of it didn’t leak out to major publications?? We are a country that is a hodgepodge of cultures from around the world, and the fact is that the majority of Americans’ ancestors that arrived during the height of immigration around the turn of the 20th century did not have an impressive pedigree. Often, they were people who were desperate, willing to take a gamble on their lives because the alternative was bleak and dismal… we were not considered a sophisticated, worldly nation that could appreciate premium wine, let alone make it.

Problem with Taking Away One Aspect that makes American Wines Special

Mustard Flowers in Carneros, Napa Valley

For some reason, we are now doing the one thing that our ancestors were trying to escape: placing ourselves in a box. Many of us think that Napa Valley is only ideal for Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay wines because those are the wines that won the Judgment of Paris, that were validated by 10 non-Americans wine experts. Even further is our misconception that all Napa Cabernets and Chardonnay are big, ripe and lush… not that there is anything wrong with that style, but it certainly doesn’t represent all the possibilities of the complex topography of Napa Valley.

White Wines

The Symposium of Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley

Back in February, I attended The Symposium for Professional Wine Writers in Napa Valley. I knew I would be drinking lots of great, varied Cabernet Sauvignon (earthy to fruity), as well as delicious Pinot Noir from Carneros, and Chardonnay ranging the gamut from rich and buttery to lean and zesty with a mineral edge… but I didn’t realize I would be the most excited to drink tons of Napa Sauvignon Blanc and other whites such as Riesling, Chenin Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Albariño, Grüner Veltliner and artisanal sparkling. The hosts were generous with the wine selection they constantly offered us during our stay, and although I could have drunk whatever I wanted, it was the plethora of white wine assortments that I ran to each day. And so, recently, I had the Napa Valley Vintners Association send me a sampler of their white wines.

We Need to Validate Ourselves

Re-tasting some of these Napa white wines, as well as discovering some new ones, reconfirmed in me that we have reached a level of expertise and diversity in our wine industry that we can stand behind our own wines…we no longer need approval from those with a longer wine history or culture. I love European wines and I will always love them, but I had allowed my need to escape from my own insecurities to cloud my judgments about my own home, my own history, my own wine culture. I had always fantasized about being part of a multi-generation European family that could trace their people to a specific town that goes back 5 or 6 centuries… but in reality, I am a mutt, a mutt that has no real sense of my ancestors or even traditions to follow. But why does that have to be better or worse? Why can’t we embrace that we, as Americans, often have to make up the rules as we go along, and sometimes that creates something not so great… but sometimes it creates a whole new spectacular, interesting thing that shows the world that your destiny is not always based on your birthright.

 

“The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty of their dreams.”-Eleanor Roosevelt

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Napa Wines Tasted on May 17th, 2017 

Napa Valley Sparkling Wine:

2012 Frank Family Vineyards Blanc de Blancs, Carneros, Napa Valley: 100% Chardonnay. Wow! This stunning bottle of sparking wine shows the potential elegance and finesse of Carneros sparklers. Many times when people drink California sparkling, they go to one of Champagne’s California outposts, trusting that if a Champagne brand is behind it, then it must be good… but I would like to plead the case for the smaller, California-born producers such as Frank Family if you want to really experience how great California bubbles can be. Intense minerality with lovely white flowers and lime blossom on the long finish. Only 500 cases made.

A while ago, I worked at one of Manhattan’s top fine wine retailers, and as one can imagine, we sold a lot of famous Napa wines. One customer, who was a die hard Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon drinker, talked about how one of the best wines he ever had was from Frank Family. At the time, I had not heard of them, so I was fascinated to try their wines one day. This past February, when I was in Napa, I got the chance to try a bunch of Napa wines blind during a Vintage Perspective Tasting during Premiere Napa Valley. There were a series of producers who were showing their 2012, 2013 and 2014 Cabernet Sauvignon wines blind. Afterwards, I found out Frank Family made my top three… and so I finally got to try them. I was so excited to see this sparkling in my group of samples.

2011 Schramsberg Brut, Carneros, Napa Valley: 88% Chardonnay and 12% Pinot Noir. Years ago, someone put me in my place about California sparkling wine being on the same level as top Champagne, using Schramsberg as an example. Any serious traditional sparkling wine enthusiast (who is open to tasting non-Champagne bubbles) I have met knows Schramsberg wines intimately. Delicious brioche, nutty notes with gold apple and a creamy body with a fine bead. Only 1,130 cases made.

2013 Schramsberg, Crémant Demi-Sec, Napa Valley: 78% Flora, 13% Pinot Noir and 9% Chardonnay. This was so much fun and truly a unique experience with 78% Flora – a cross of Sémillon and Gewürztraminer developed at UC Davis. Off-dry sparkling with playful flavors of lavender and lemon meringue and a zesty, bright finish. Only 1,991 cases made.

Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc Wine:

2016 Honig, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley: 95% Sauvignon Blanc, 4% Sémillon and 1% Muscat. Honig’s Sauvignon Blanc always has a great energy with linear body and mouthwatering acidity. This 2016 is a wonderful example of what one can always expect with their SB, with lemon zest, dried flowers and a stony minerality.

This is the first Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc I had tried many years ago, and it sells really well here in New York City. The owner, Michael Honig, and his wife Stephanie visit the NYC market often and so they were able to introduce their Sauvignon Blanc personally, which always impresses everyone when they try it… especially considering it is only $15.

2016 Turnbull, Sauvignon Blanc, Estate Grown, Oakville, Napa Valley: A seriously rich, textured Sauvignon Blanc that was fermented in terracotta amphora and aged in French Oak and Acacia barrels. It has all the brightness that one would expect with this variety yet it has bountiful exotic fruit such as papaya… besides being texturally seducing, there is also a unique mineral note that takes the form of crumbly calcareous rock.

Back in November of last year, I was able to hear the winemaker of Turnbull, Peter Heitz, talk at a seminar that highlighted the Oakville AVA in Napa Valley.   It was mainly focused on the dominant Cabernet Sauvignon wines of the area, but he did speak about the diversity of the soil, aspect and microclimates that allows for diversity of grape varieties. Turnbull is known for focusing on their vineyards, understanding them, and it was interesting when Peter briefly addressed the idea of climate change. He said that although the research shows some areas are minutely getting warmer, other pockets of Napa are getting cooler. Again, Napa has a complex topography so depending on changes of air flow, more or less fog, or a myriad of other factors, there may be an increase or even decrease in temperature. It is just another reason why they are able to produce an array of grape varieties with proficiency.

2015 Long Meadow Ranch, Sauvignon Blanc, Rutherford, Napa Valley: The Sauvignon grapes were harvested at two different times – the first for freshness and acidity, and the second for ripe fruit flavors. A fun, lively wine with lemon drops and apricot preserves with an interesting dusty, sort of volcanic ash note. For those who love the brightness of Sauvignon Blanc, as well as the flavor profile, but find it too lean, or sometimes people say “sour,” I would recommend them to try some of these Napa versions as they will give you more flesh, less severe acidity, wrapped up in all the SB goodness. Screw cap closure.

2015 Provenance Vineyards, Sauvignon Blanc, Rutherford, Napa Valley: Mostly Sauvignon Blanc with a “splash” of Sémillon. I was so happy that I tried all the wines without looking at the alcohol percentages. Most of the Sauvignon Blanc wines are 13 to 13.5% abv, with the exception of the Grgich Hills at around 14% abv, and this one at 14.8% abv. For those who doubt why a Sauvignon Blanc should be close to 15% abv I would ask them to try this wine, or better yet, I would give it to them without them knowing the alcohol. When a wine is in balance it is in balance. I have to guess that they decided not to pick the grapes early to make sure they got full development of the flavors. This wine stood out as being different, with a more honeysuckle, intense floral quality, pineapple fruit with no herbaceousness. It is a different expression of Sauvignon Blanc that is not better or worse but I think it is wonderful that people are exploring different ways to express it. I did not think this wine was too hot… it was still refreshing yet it had a fleshy body that may be preferred by some people. Screw cap closure.

2014 Grgich Hills, Estate, Fumé Blanc, Dry Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley: 100% Sauvignon Blanc. Mike Grgich is a living legend and represents the American dream. Mike was inducted into the Vintners Hall of Fame in 2008 for his achievements.  Fumé Blanc is a Sauvignon Blanc that has been fermented and aged in oak and it is synonymous with Napa Valley. Baked apple and melon with a hint of honey and spice with a textural body that can be paired with richer dishes.

Napa Valley’s Other Whites Wines:

2015 Etude, Pinot Gris, Carneros, Napa Valley: Majority of their grapes coming from their Estate Vineyard at Grace Benoist Ranch. Their Grace Benoist Ranch Estate vineyard is tucked away in the cooler northwest corner of Carneros. Back in the day, when I used to work for a major wine/spirits distributor in New York City, Etude was one of those wines that sold themselves. Their Pinot Noir wines seemed to always find the balance between having plenty of beautiful fruit while still having restraint and elegance… never too austere, never too fruity. They are able to achieve that same balance with this Pinot Gris with weighty body, peach skin notes while staying bright.

2014 Alpha Omega, Unoaked Chardonnay, Napa Valley: There was a fine wine retailer in Manhattan that I worked for that afforded the opportunity to taste Napa wines, as well as other top regions of the world, at least a couple times a week. It quickly became clear to me that the old stereotype of big, oaky, buttery Chardonnay did not represent the modern full spectrum of Napa Valley. Many producers pull back on the oak, partially blocking MLF or use malo bugs to avoid buttery notes as a byproduct (sorry for the wine nerd talk) and they pick cooler spots for Chardonnay or may use canopy management to lessen ripeness and to encourage acidity. Here’s another example of a balanced Napa Chardonnay that takes it further without any oak influence. It smelled like an apple orchard with plenty of body yet the finesse of white flowers with chalky minerality was beautifully displayed.

2016 Kale Somerston Vineyard, Grenache Blanc, Napa Valley: This Grenache Blanc comes from the Priest Ranch Block 6 at 1,250 feet (381 meters) in elevation and is rare to see since only 30 tons of Grenache Blanc are harvested each year in Napa. The grapes see little skin contact with gentle pressing of whole clusters and so the fruit can shine. Juicy nectarine with a hint of white pepper on the flavorful finish. Only 201 cases made.

2016 Lang & Reed, Chenin Blanc, “Oak Knoll District”, Napa Valley: I sort of got a little sad when I saw that this wine came from Chenin Blanc grapes from the cool Oak Knoll District known as one of the very few “remaining stands” of Chenin Blanc, just like the previous Grenache Blanc. It was lovely and interesting, and to think that because we have somehow associated only a couple of varieties with Napa, a lot of fascinating varieties are being pulled out because growers cannot afford to grow them. I love the Loire Valley, and yes, it is the rightful home of Chenin Blanc… but just like all the past immigrants who have come to this country, it is interesting to see how someone, or in this case a variety, can flourish in another environment and the different qualities that can be discovered. Quince paste and lanolin that were illuminated by encompassing acidity. Only 280 cases made.

2015 Galerie Terracea, Riesling, Spring Mountain, Napa Valley: 100% Spring Mountain Riesling. This bottling is a combination of wines that spent some time in concrete egg and new French oak. Kaffir lime leaves, rose petal and acacia flower with a flinty minerality and my mouth watered for several seconds after the finish.  Screw cap closure. Only 340 classes made.

2015 Nichelini Family Winery, Roman Press White, Napa Valley: 70% Muscadelle and 30% Sémillon. The Muscadelle was planted in 1946 while the Sémillon was planted in 2007. A fun experiment that shows how older and younger vines of complementary grape varieties can enhance the qualities of each other. Orange blossom, marmalade with exotic spice. Only 214 cases made.

2015 Stags’ Leap, Viognier, Napa Valley: Stags’ Leap has a long wine history that dates as far back as 1893. Viognier is not an easy variety to deal with and so only those who are truly passionate about it have kept their commitment to making it. This is a graceful expression of the Viognier variety which can have pronounced aromatics and a tendency towards low acidity if not managed correctly. I saved this wine for last because I thought it was going to be a little overbearing, but it was anything but… subtle perfume, meyer lemon and thyme with a full, round body, yet it had a bright lift on the finish and never lacked acidity or freshness.

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Better Sense of Community Over a Glass of Ribera del Duero Wine

Many people ask me why I am so obsessed with wine. How can I spend so much time researching it, talking about it, dreaming about it? Well, everything that drives us in our lives is usually connected to some unresolved childhood issue. When I was growing up, I had problems connecting with people… even on the most basic level. I didn’t know how to have a conversation… or even how to approach someone. This was due to my having a dysfunctional home – biological parents who really didn’t want kids and were detached -they couldn’t even have a simple relationship with a friend, let alone a parent-child relationship. And so I spent a lot of time alone, reading books, dreaming of having a family, being part of a community, connecting with people around the world. Through many years of working on myself and getting involved in the highly social world of wine, I have connected with more people around the globe than I could have imagined.

In my opinion, wine, more than any other product, is intertwined with the various facets of issues that greatly affect the human condition. I highly recommend the book, Hungry for Wine as an ideal example of a collection of wine stories that touch on economy, equality, sociology and most of all how this special libation helps to stir conversations that touch our innermost desires. I’m still not good at small talk, but with wine that never seems to be an issue… many times, whether it is with a friend or colleague or winemaker, our conversations always run towards deeper, more substantial topics. No one gets into the wine business to make money… there are not only other businesses that are more lucrative, but there are other alcoholic drinks that bring in a better profit. But many are still drawn to wine… maybe because of its ties to family, history, culture and how this drink forces us to take the time to get to know the heart of someone beyond their superficial shell.

Emilio Moro Bodegas

And so goes a lunch spent with José Moro, winemaker and president of his family winery Emilio Moro Bodegas, tasting his wines, infused with an exchange of thoughts of how to make the world a better place.

Let me just touch upon some important points about the Ribera del Duero region in Spain, and specifically the initiatives in the vineyards and winery employed by Emilio Moro Bodegas, before I go into my conversation with José about social responsibility.

Ribera del Duero

Ribera del Duero started to get international acclaim in the 1980s for producing Spanish reds with great concentration and structure, that were built to be long-lived wines. Their main grape variety, Tinto Fino, a local variant (or some may call clone or biotype) of Rioja’s Tempranillo. Tinto Fino has smaller grapes with looser bunches, hence why it produces wines with extraordinary depth and intensity. Ribera del Duero is the DO (demarcated area) in Spain with the highest average altitude, between 750 and 1,000 meters (2460-3280 feet) above sea level. This creates extremes in the climate with long, harsh winters and hot, dry summers, and plenty of rainfall during the spring. These are just a few factors why this area of Spain has been heralded as producing some of the greatest red wines in the world.

Emilio Moro started with José’s grandfather, Emilio, and is named after this patriarch that not only started the family’s wine business, but also laid down the pillars which would serve to inspire future generations: tradition, innovation and social responsibility.

José remembers learning these lessons very early as a young child looking up to his father, also named Emilio like his grandfather, and going to work at an early age. He remembers climbing into the small opening of the big casks with a brush and candle to clean the inside of these barrels. Of course, he said that you would not do that to a child nowadays but back then, adults had the attitude that those experiences that didn’t kill their children just made them stronger; similarly, how many of us remember ourselves as children, in a public playground swinging on metal monkey bars and cutting ourselves on rusty nails that were sticking out… how times have changed.

Wine Saves Water

José has a huge feeling of gratitude for his family’s previous struggles and the legacy they have built that he has inherited with his brother and sisters. He continued to  innovate by building a state-of-the-art winery called Cepa 21, as well as with working with Universities to isolate the Tinto Fino clone and the best indigenous yeasts to ferment it. But the project that he seemed the most proud of was his Wine Saves Water foundation.

José was greatly distressed to see data that showed that while 71% of the earth surface is water, only 3% is fresh water and only a 0.5% is fit for human consumption. He has worked with communities in Spain, as well as other countries such as Sri Lanka and Nicaragua, to implement programs to make potable water available to impoverished people. If you have ever suffered from extreme dehydration, or even have had a pet that didn’t drink enough water, you have probably realized that we can live a while without food but getting enough water on a regular basis is key to health and survival.

These programs have extended to offering meals, as well as training to disadvantaged children to learn valuable skills so they will have better opportunities for more meaningful employment with wineries and restaurants.

Wine’s Relationship to Social Responsibility

I’m not saying that all wine producers hold social responsibility as a high priority. If you were to Google this topic, I’m sure you would read a lot of horror stories of workers being mistreated and marginalized, especially in the vineyards. But don’t be dishearten by such stories, as there are plenty of families and producers like Emilio Moro. And to me, that is the whole reason why the world of wine is so special – because you can’t be truly a part of the world of wine unless you like people, all kinds of people, and you are willing to fight for them when they need you the most… that is the true dream of owning a winery… it’s not just the glamour of having a fantastic looking property and getting high scores for your wines, it is the fact that you are shaping the world to find a better sense of community over a lovely glass of wine.

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Emilio Moro Wines Tasted on April 13th, 2017

There is braille lettering on all of the Emilio Moro labels. All of the Emilio Moro Bodegas wines were fermented with yeasts selected from their own vineyard.

2016 Cepa 21, Hito Rosado: 100% Tempraillo grapes from young vineyards at altitudes ranging from 750 to 800 meters (2460-2625 feet). A lovely, aromatic rosé with floral notes and wild, tiny strawberry flavors with a zesty citrus finish.

-2016 Emilio Moro Bodegas, Finca Resalso: 100% Tinto Fino sourced from their younger vines, as their range is set according to vine age. Silky texture and fresh acidity make this a pleasure to drink without food or with lighter dishes. Bright blackberry and spice with a touch of dusty earthy notes giving old world charm.

-2015 Emilio Moro Bodegas, Emilio Moro: 100% Tinto Fino from vineyards ranging between 12 and 25 years old. 2015 was the hottest and driest vintage Ribera del Duero has seen in decades, but it is a testament to the care that Emilio Moro takes in their vineyards that this wine shows no notes of desiccated fruit. A rich, fruit forward wine with flavors of creme de cassis, lush texture with lots of round tannins. Simply delicious.

2014 Emilo Moro Bodegas, Malleolus: 100% Tinto Fino from vineyards ranging between 25 and 75 years years old. The 2014 vintage had a combination of power and freshness that was displayed nicely in this Malleolus. The word “Malleolus” comes from the Latin word “majuelo” (small vineyard) and it refers to the vineyards in Pesquera de Duero. Still has the generosity that one expects from Emilio Moro yet it has a lightness to it with fresh leather and hints of balsamic vinegar and exotic spice all wrapped up in a firm structure.

2011 Emilo Moro Bodegas, Malleolus de Valderramiro: 100% Tinto Fino. The Malleolus de Valderramiro comes from a single vineyard, 10 acre (4 hectare) plot in Pesquera de Duero, planted in 1924. An aristocratic, opulent wine that is like a King or Queen who gives his/her whole heart and soul to their people. Dark chocolate covered cherries, orange peel and garrigue with chewy tannins, with hints of sweet tobacco. A wine that envelopes the palate with richness yet has a solid structure to give it a lot of backbone. A long, flavorful finish and pairs amazingly with grass fed rib eye. Only 7,000 bottles made.

2011 Emilio Moro Bodegas, Malleolus de Sanchomartin: 100% Tint Fino. The Malleolus de Valderramiro comes from a single vineyard, 2.1 acre (0.84 hectare) plot located in Pesquera de Duero. The vines were planted in 1964 by using cuttings from the oldest family vineyards. This wine slowly reveals itself through time with chalky minerality, brambly fruit and cardamom notes that playful dance about and never fully settles on the palate. A completely different experience of power and elegance than the Valderramiro, and so, shows the real difference of terroir with each vineyard. While the Valderramiro gives one everything all at once with a firm grip this Sanchomartin holds back and releases a little more with each sip as one contemplates on the finish. Only 2,500 bottles made.

 

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Living Life on Your Own Terms with Cava Sparkling Wine

As I sat in an exquisite room with beautiful vineyards in the backdrop, in Penedès, Catalonia, Spain, eating the heaven sent Jamón Ibérico de Bellota and drinking some of the best, long-lived Cava sparkling wines, I found myself drawn into a conversation about… meditation. Xavier Gramona, an elegant, white haired gentleman who helps run his family’s vineyards and winery, Gramona, was speaking about his belief that the reason not all wines age well doesn’t necessarily have to do with only the type of variety… but has to do with the condition of the grapes and the potential traumas they have endured on the vine and in the winery. When Xavier was around 12 years old, sometime during the 1960s, he took up meditation. For many years he was plagued with horrible migraines and he hated taking medication all the time and he would fight his family trying to give it to him to relieve his pain. One day, he was stressing out so much about the medication that he went into cardiac arrest – they were able to save his life but he knew that he needed to try a more holistic way of dealing with these intense headaches. Through meditation and natural herbs, the headaches stopped.

Xavier learned very early in life that it is not in everyone’s best interest to conform to society, to ignore what seems right in one’s own heart and mind. He started to believe in the longevity of well made Cava, as well as focusing on Xarel·lo (or Xarel-lo, Xarello) – a local variety that contributes structure and freshness for longevity. He believes in aging his Cava wines for many years – for example, the ones we tasted at dinner with Xavier ranged in vintage from 2012 to 2001. Initially, top wine critics of Spain, as well as his friends and family, said that he was crazy to try to make fine wine Cava – there was no market for it and it was best if he made Cava like everyone else.

Juvé & Camps

Old Bush Vine of Xarel·lo at Juvé & Camps

Prior to my visit to the small, artisanal Gramona, I visited a larger producer (but still medium sized relative to all Cava producers) Juvé & Camps, which is known in my NYC world as the premier Cava wine of choice. Many of the Cava producers talked about their own belief in the Xarel·lo grape variety. Once accused of causing rubber-y aromas (anyone blind tasting sparkling wines looked for this note to spot the Cava) but they have realized that with lower yields and better practices in the vineyards and winery, they can grow Xarel·lo that has a flinty minerality with delightful fennel and dried herb notes. It is the one variety that is traditionally used in Cava Brut (the other two being Macabeo and Parellada) that has a distinct character that is not so easily found in other sparkling wines.

Juvé & Camps talked about the shift in attitude about Xarel-lo of some Cava producers, which is evident by its growth in plantings.  Over 30 years ago, it only made up 20% of the plantings and now it makes up around 40 to 50% of grapes used for Cava. They said it is the simple idea of not trying to compete with Champagne by tasting like it, but instead finding what is unique about Cava and highlighting those traits… many of us know this concept may sound easy but is not so easy in practice to believe that each of us are enough and do not need to emulate others.

Youthful Attitude with Respect for Roots

Cava is an interesting sparkling wine. The bottle prices can range from $6 to over $200… unlike Champagne which you would typically never see a “real” Champagne on the shelf below a premium price. We associate Champagne as being purely a premium product, while some actually view Cava as a “value” sparkling wine and not always a “quality” sparkling wine because there are many priced for entry level to mid-market.

Why are so many Cava wines inexpensive?

Cava, unlike other Spanish DO, do not have one single delimited area, but instead is restricted to many municipalities in various areas across Spain. Yet it is said that around 95% of all Cava are made in Catalonia, most of it in and around the town of Sant Sadurní d’Anoia. The Cava DO allows higher yields than one would find in Champagne, yet the larger producers will have different quality ranges in their portfolio of wines that come from various vineyards, some producing grapes for quantity and others for quality, and price accordingly. One may argue that this freedom allows them to make large amounts of tasty Cava that is affordable for most people while also producing others that reach the same pinnacle of excellence of Champagne. Alternatively, the other side of this argument is that their lack of severe regulations is a detriment, creating the misguided perception that Cava is only easy drinking and playful, and so people do not take serious Cava wines seriously… But as all the producers told me over and over again, the Spanish are not good at marketing.

Segura Viudas

Segura Viudas is a nice example of a Cava one would find in most areas of the US, and perhaps a decent section of the world, that gives lots of bang for the buck. They are part of the larger company, Freixenet, which is the number one Cava exporter. I was instantly enchanted when we drove up in our little bus and I saw two distinguished looking gentlemen in front of a beautiful stone building, riding bikes with wicker baskets. Before I knew it, we were all riding these electric-assisted bikes… you could set the bike depending on how much help you needed… let’s just say I was kicking it up to level 8 and 9 a lot (too bad it didn’t go to 11). We rode through the vineyards and stopped here and there to see a stream, wild orchids growing, and finally, to stand in front of a breath taking view as we drank a couple of their Cava sparkling wines.

I am a Nervous Nellie, as they would say, when it comes to anything athletic as I am the least coordinated person I know, but the playful energy that is apparent in Cava just carried me away with the idea that I could ride through all sorts of terrain that the Segura Viudas’ vineyards offered. If you ever want to be the life of the party, find a magnum bottle of their ornate Segura Viudas Reserva Heredad. Not only is it a crowd pleaser with a creamy texture and intense chalky mineral backbone, it is a stunning bottle that is ridiculously grandiose in bigger format and can be found for only $40 dollars.

Mistinguett

Uncoordinated me on a Segway! I love technology… anyone can ride these things!!!

 The adventures did not end with Segura Viudas… it continued through the end of the week with Mistinguett Cava wines (of the larger parent company Vallformosa – giving them the resources to produce delicious bubbles at a remarkably good price). We rode all over on a Segway – though the main streets, villages, up and down steep hills, vineyards and hidden tucked away places within the forests. It was terrifying at first, but by the end, empowering. I felt as if I had just jumped out of a plane. Also, it was nice to see such a big, modern winery have strong beliefs in investing in local varieties such as Trepat. This red grape is wonderfully displayed in their Mistinguett Cava Brut Rosé, which is 100% Trepat. It had all the delicious red fruit one would expect yet it had a touch of complexity, with dried flowers and red pepper, with more acid than those Cava Rosés (aka Rosado) made with Pinot Noir or Garnacha (Grenache). Trepat is a dark skinned variety that was not always taken seriously and so it was commonly neglected in the vineyard. But thankfully, Cava producers are realizing its potential and starting to use it more and more. They think it will retail in the US for around $12 bucks! I’ll easily take a couple of cases.

Believing in the Potential of Cava   

It was certainly surprising to taste a gorgeous 2000 Cava from Gramona, and although I had always heard that their Cava wines were transcendent, I had to taste it to believe it. But I visited another Cava producer who is focused on long-lived Cava wines – one that I had not heard of, since their main export market is Japan, but they will hopefully be entering the US soon with an importer with good logistics:

Roger Goulart

Giving the guys at Roger Goulart a hard time about sending more of their Cava wines to the US market instead of the Japanese market – all in good fun!

We entered the historic farmhouse of Roger Goulart, named Can Goulart, which dates back to the 19th century. They produce their Cava in the same style as they did when they were first established in 1882 – long lees aging ranging from 3-4 years up to over 10 years – as we tried their Gran Reserva 2005 later that day at an epic lunch at El Celler de Can Roca; but their winery and bottling line could have not been more modern with them receiving the lowest percentage of faults with rejected wine bottles imported into Japan – a market that expects perfection in every aspect of a product.

Gramona

Thinking back with my dinner with Xavier Gramona, tasting his outstanding 2001 Enoteca Brut Nature, it was interesting to hear Xavier say that the same famous critic who once told him, many years ago, to make simpler Cava, recently gave Gramona’s 2000 Enoteca Brut Nature the title of the 2017 Best Wine in Spain in the La Guia Peñin wine guide. Xavier smiled at the irony but I think even if there was no way he could have ever succeeded, he would still go down the course of trying to make the best sparkling wine in the world… and he hasn’t let up one bit on continually improving as he is now in the process of converting his vineyards from organic to biodynamic, taking great measures of using poop from pregnant cows, burying 300 cow horns, and hiring superstar soil experts Lydia and Claude Bourguignon to help bring their soils back to life.

But after seeing all of Gramona’s impressive cellars, vineyards and winery practices and animals roaming about, there was nothing that struck me more as being a true reflection of Gramona’s commitment to keeping a holistic balance than their bottling room… we were passing it as we left and I was just about to walk by the opening of the doorway when I got a glimpse of a beautiful view: the room has a big, arched window giving an uplifting visual of the vineyards, with a colorful tiled ceiling to match, for those working in that room.

It was pointed out that the most boring job was there – wrapping each bottle by hand in plastic – yet they were given a picturesque view. It was not a room for tourists, press or guests, it was a room that we were going to pass on our way out… a room that was designed for the workers who would spend many hours in there. Actually, I got the feeling that people thought it was odd that I would even want to go in that room… not the first or last time people think I’m odd!

All of us in this world are driven by different things… some may think Xavier Gramona is mad…but he is living the only life he can bear to live… and that was the same with all the Cava producers I visited. They do not have strict regulations to help market a brand that only sells one style of Cava… they have allowed open rules so that the creative people of Catalonia can express all the different facets of this surprisingly diverse style of wine – I had no idea how excitingly different Cava could be! And in this world, that guarantees very little to anyone, being authentic to oneself is the only way to succeed, whether one owns a big empire or a tiny tattered place, because then everything surrounding you is imbued with meaning as it is a reflection of the balance you have found within yourself – a scenario that is a win, win for all involved.

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*All of the below wines are dry unless noted.

Cava Tastings on April 24th, 2017:

Juvé & Camps

2013 Reserva de la Familia: 40% Xarel·lo, 30% Macabeo, 20% Parellada and 10% Chardonnay. Smoky, flinty with quince jam and pastries with gentle bubbles.

2012 Gran Juvé & Camps: 40% Xarel·lo, 25% Macabeo, 25% Chardonnay and 10% Parellada. An overall steely quality with intense, mouthwatering acidity and a touch of golden apple with lemon zest on the finish.

Essential: 100% Xarel·lo. The Xarel·lo variety has a tendency towards reduction and that is where that rubber note may come in… so they are very careful in the winery to make sure that the flinty minerality and fennel, dried herb notes are enhanced over the undesired rubber notes. This was a delicious sparkling wine that really shows how Cava is on the right track of showing the world what is special about them… also, great mouthfeel with creamy body.

Brut Rosé: 100% Pinot Noir. Although they are a company committed to the local Xarel·lo variety for their regular Brut they are fans of Pinot Noir for their Rosé. Bright cherry and cinnamon stick with lilacs on the finish.

-2015 Gregal d’Espiells: 77.5% Muscat de Alejandria and 22.5% Gewürztraminer. This is not part of the Cava DO but it was interesting to try this still, aromatic white wine from the Penedès DO. Green mango with a hint of perfume and spicy finish.

 

Segura Viudas

Brut: 85% Macabeo and Parellada with 15% Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. They said although they are the defenders of indigenous, local, varieties their customers in Belgium and Holland demand the use of some international varieties. A brioche-y nose with toasted hazelnuts.

Reserva Heredad: 67% Macabeo and 33% Parellada. This bottle is awesome for a party – especially as I said before if you can get the Magnum size. Ornate bottle with subtle fruit flavors and tiny bubbles that gently caress the palate. From older vineyards and 60% free run juice.

Rosé: 90% Trepat and 10% Garnacha (Grenache). It was nice to see Segura Viudas using a significant amount of the Trepat as well. When you look at their blends you can see their commitment to using a majority of Spanish varieties. A pale pink color which seems to be just a trendy in Spain as it is in the US. Zingy cranberries with chalky minerality

Extra Dry: 50% Macabeo, 35% Parellada and 15% Xarel·lo. This is the only wine in this whole tasting list that has any perceptible sweetness with 15-17 g/l residual sugar added at dosage and the sweetness is balanced by the bubbles and acidity so it is seemingly off-dry. Found in the North American market. Fuller body with almond paste and peace pie flavors.

 

Gramona

Gramona – well known as an artisanal Cava producer making sparkling on a fine wine level – uses a solera for their dosage that contains wine going back to 1881.

 

 

2012 La Cuvee Gran Reserva: 70% Xarel·lo and 30% Macabeo. Blanched almonds, spiced toast with crush rocks and an overall finesse and elegant that is stunning for a sparkling wine that is only 5 years old.

2011 Imperial: 50% Xarel·lo, 40% Macabeo and 10% Chardonnay. Higher acidity gives this Cava more of a linear, taut body that is intertwined with lemon confit, lime leaves and a wet stone finish.

2009 III Lustros: 75% Xarel·lo and 25% Macabeo. 100% Artisanal process with hand riddling and disgorgement. Creamier on the body with star anise and smoky wood embers with a long, aromatic finish.

2006 Celler Batlle: 75% Xarel·lo and 25% Macabeo. 100% Artisanal process with hand riddling and disgorgement. This Cava still seems so young with lively acidity and an intense minerality that overshadows the white peach and tangerine flavors in the background. Still tight… it has a lot more to give… I would cellar this gorgeous bottle for a few more years as I have a feeling it is right on the cusp of being a bottle that will transcend. Only 7,000 bottles made.

2000 Enoteca Brut Nature Gran Reserva: 75% Xarel·lo and 25% Macabeo. The 2001 just was rated by the top critic in Spain – Guia Peñin – Best Wine of Spain…the first time a sparkling wine was picked. The bubbles have a fine bead with aromas of toasted pine nuts with orange rind, ripe golden apple and a hint of morrells on the long, acid laced, mineral driven finish. Only 2,000 bottles made.

Cava Tastings on April 26h, 2017:

We only had one winery visit this day as the rest of the day was devoted to our remarkable lunch at El Celler de Can Roca.

Roger Goulart

For its top Gran Cuvée sparkling Cava Roger Goulart will take a future step in the autolysis process of adding complexity to wines by actually moving the bottle and stacking them up again in another area during their time aging on the lees. They may do this up to 4 different times. It is called déplacé technique.

2011 Brut Nature Reserva: 40% Xarel·lo, 25% Macabeo, 25% Parellada and 5% Chardonnay. This Cava is a big favorite with local Catalan people with no sugar added at dosage. The yeasts added for the second fermentation was selected to not impart flavor but to only create finer bubbles after aging on the lees for 30 months. Pristine flavors of honeysuckle and apricots balance out the dry finish.

2014 Brut Reserva: 40% Xarel·lo, 30% Macabeo and 30% Parellada. Rounder body with juicy white peach and floral aromatics.

2011 Gran Cuvée: 35% Chardonnay, 30% Xarel·lo, 20% Macabeo and 15% Parellada. This wine went through the déplacé technique and so it has rich autolytic flavors of butted biscuit and wild flowers. Delicious.

2014 Brut Rosé: 60% Garnacha (Grenache), 35% Monastrell (Mourvèdre) and 5% Pinot Noir. Cherry blossom and raspberry sorbet with a hint of gravelly rock.

2014 Demi Sec Reserva: 40% Xarel·lo, 30% Macabeo and 30% Parellada. This semi-sweet Demi Sec Cava with 35 g/l residual sugar added at dosage is a local Catalan favorite like the Brut Nature. It makes sense since this is a refreshing dessert for those who like lots of rich stone fruit flavors but still want the bubbles and acidity to keep it light and bright. Dangerous bottle since it has such a drinkable quality to it one could easily finish the whole bottle.

Gran Reserva 2005: (This wine was tasted at our lunch at El Celler de Can Roca ) 40% Xarel·lo, 20% Chardonnay, 20% Pinot Noir and 20% Parellada. Fine bubbles that had a long persistence, with lime blossom and brioche notes dancing about in the aromatics with a serious structure and overall elegance. Only 948 bottles made.

 

 

 

Cava Tastings on April 28h, 2017:

Our last Cava visit and it was bitter sweet because honestly I had no idea how exciting Cava could be until I actually visited all these wineries.

Mistinguett

-Brut Nature: 40% Xarel·lo, 30% Macabeo and 30% Parellada. They said they have a local joke when it comes to Cava, “People say they like the Brut Nature but they drink the Brut.” Hehehe… I think we do that to a certain degree in the US as well. Roasted almonds with peach pit and gentle bubbles.

Brut: 40% Xarel·lo, 30% Macabeo and 30% Parellada. Softer, rounder body with riper peach and hint of green mango.

Brut Rosé: 100% Trepat. Mouth watering acidity with raspberry, dried flowers and red pepper. They said this is a lighter color than traditionalist Cava drinkers are use to for their rosé.

-2015 Brut Reserva: 40% Xarel·lo, 30% Macabeo and 30% Parellada. Sesame seeds, lime oil and flinty minerality with a sustained, flavorful finish.

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Sharing a Song in Our Heart & Wine in Our Glass

On a cold, rainy day, I found myself eating upscale comfort food at The Dutch in the trendy area of Soho, Manhattan, while drinking wines from Napa Valley and Anderson Valley… just a typical day in the world of wine. But although I have been connected with this world for over 12 years, I still cannot help but have moments of thinking “How the hell did I end up here?” On this particular day, I traced my journey with Remi Cohen, the Vice President and General Manager of Lede Family Wines, and she reciprocated with an interesting early twist to her journey.

 

Remi Cohen

Me and Remi

Although Remi ended up in Napa, she originates from the East Coast, born and raised in East Brunswick, New Jersey. She was planning to become a doctor and was all set to go to medical school, but right before she enlisted in a summer internship to work in a hospital, she decided to spend her summer interning at a fruit farm. During her internship she learned that one could get a master’s degree in making wine and she ended up going to one of the top programs in the world at UC Davis. I loved how her eyes lit up as she said, “Who knew you could get a graduate degree in wine?!?” Since then she has never looked back and has covered every aspect of the wine trade, from the vineyard, winery, bottle to sales around the world… she ended up getting an MBA as well. But like so many of the top wine people, she has warmth and an ability to immediately connect and share.

Cliff Lede

Our conversation extended to Cliff Lede (pronounced lay-dee) the owner of Lede Family Wines… a man who grew up in his family’s construction business in Canada and fell in love with Napa Valley in the 1990s. His wines are interwoven with the very essence of his heart, naming certain plots of his Napa vineyards after his favorite rock songs such as the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” and Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love”; he even named his new set of wines, that are made from his purchase of vineyards in the cooler climate Anderson Valley, FEL after his mother – Florence Elsie Lede.

Cliff Lede Vineyards and Poetry

Cliff’s adventure as a wine owner began in 2002 when he purchased 60 acres (24 hectares) in the infamous Stags Leap District in Napa Valley and founded Cliff Lede Vineyards. He is a man who seems to be always inspired by the land, illustrated by naming one vineyard “Poetry” because it yields grapes that produce a wine that is the epitome of finesse and purity due to the stressful conditions of the site, reaching one of the highest elevations in Stags Leap District.

Napa Valley

On the outside, Napa and New York City couldn’t be more different from each other; New York is gritty and loud while Napa is picturesque and serene; but there is the interesting connection: people from the around the world come to live in both places and there is a communal feeling of people sharing their stories. I’m not 100% sure of the exact moment that I was hooked by the desire to be a part of the wine world, but it seemed to always come in and out of my life, and each time I found myself tasting wines with people from around the world, I felt less alone and that the wine, food and even my surroundings seemed so much better due to the conversations. It is the sharing that has hooked most of us in… it is not just Remi’s bottle of wine for her to drink, or my story to keep to myself, or even Cliff Lede’s vineyards for him to only view – it is for the enjoyment of anyone who feels a song in their heart when they drink a lovely wine among good people.

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Tasting with Remi Cohen on April 4th, 2017

2016 Cliff Lede, Sauvignon Blanc, Napa Valley: Cliff Lede Napa Sauvignon Blanc is already known as a top wine in the category and proved it with delicious fruit and an overall precision. 82% Sauvignon Blanc, 14% Sémillon, 3% Sauvignon Vert (Muscadelle) and 1% Muscat Canelli… I wonder if it is the only US white Bordeaux blend that has all three varieties (Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon & Muscadelle)… honeysuckle, gingerbread and lilac with creamy yet bright, juicy stone fruit flavors on the palate.

Also, a side note about the Sauvignon Vert (Muscadelle): European producers will say it is either another old clone of Sauvignon Blanc (such as in France also called Sauvignonasse) or in Friuli they say it is called Friulano ….but Sauvignon Vert in California is Muscadelle (it even states it in the current Oxford). The vineyard that has it was originally planted in the 1940s. I just wanted to make sure this didn’t cause any confusion with people who are used to the European Sauvignon Vert.

2015 FEL, Chardonnay, Anderson Valley: No MLF or new oak and so this wine is lively with lemon confit and white peach flavors – still good fleshiness on the body and beautiful, pure grapefruit finish.

 

2012 FEL, Pinot Noir, Savoy Vineyard, Anderson Valley: The Savoy Vineyard is recognized as one of the benchmark vineyards in Anderson Valley for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. It was nice to taste one with some age and it was singing! A velvety texture with burst of ripe strawberries and cassis that had hints of forest floor and thyme – complex and refined.

2014 Cliff Lede, Scarlet Love, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley: 94% Cabernet Sauvignon, 3% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc and 1% Petit Verdot. The Scarlet Love is one of their superstar blends that include two special plots: Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” in their Twin Peaks vineyard and from Cream’s “Sunshine of Your Love” in their Poetry vineyard. This wine is a knockout with a lush, concentrated body that has an explosion of cream de cassis and lavender, and has an underlining tapenade note that opens even further on the finish with visceral pleasing aromas of truffles and fresh leather. A profoundly full-bodied wine that had invitingly manicured tannins across the long, flavorful finish. Drink now or cellar for up to the next 20 years.

2014 Cliff Lede, Cabernet Sauvignon, Stags Leap District, Napa Valley: 80% Cabernet Sauvignon, 9% Petit Verdot, 5% Cabernet Franc, 4% Malbec and 2% Merlot. This wine is composed of small lots from their best blocks, representing a diverse range of carefully selected clones and rootstocks. An intoxicating nose of lilacs and exotic spice, with intense gravelly minerality that is enhanced by a firm structured body with a good amount of acidity that gives it a sense of graceful purpose with an outstanding precise length. Drink now or keep for the next 15 years.

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Enjoying Wine and Food from Alsace, with a Side of Philosophy

With a beautiful golden guinea fowl in front of me and drinking wines that were inviting yet never over-zealous, I sat there taking it all in… the charming bistro of Le Coq Rico and the enchanting sounds of conversations in French. For a second, I thought I was in France, specifically the region of Alsace, as I was, at one point, surrounded by Owner/Chef Antoine Westermann, who is a legend from that region, and Alsace wine producer Rémy Gresser while sipping his delightful Alsace wines. But we were in New York City having an Alsace experience with conversations that meandered from food to wine to deeper philosophies of life.

Rémy Gresser

Rémy has a big, imposing frame yet he could not be more gentle and sensitive in his demeanor. He was very keen to talk about the increase in female ownership of Alsace wine estates, but he also noted that although his father was the one who technically ran their family winery and vineyards, Domaine Gresser , it was his mother who tasted the wines and shaped the stylistic choices as a producer. Rémy said his own palate was shaped by his mother and always leans towards wines that are refined and elegant as she would always prefer. When we were tasting his 2015s, he even remarked that he preferred the cooler 2014 vintage because it was more subtle…although many people seemed be more drawn to the wealth of fruit flavors in the ‘15s.

Gender Roles in Wine

We ended up discussing women’s roles in the past compared to the present. Centuries ago it was thought that women were the weaker sex not capable of being able to do anything beyond running the household; perhaps this came down to the practical fact that many women did not survive child birth and so you needed someone else who had a probability of living longer to support the family. As time went on it became the norm for men to go out to the world to carve out a career or run the family business. Interestingly, in China, since people are relatively new to owning their own businesses, that around 50% of them are owned by women. This was explained to me by a Chinese friend as being contributed to the lack of having a history of entrepreneurship and so there were no previous barriers created for women in the first place.

Rémy had a wonderfully simple idea that people should take the roles they are best suited for, no matter their gender or any other superficial factor. From his perspective, his mother was always in charge but he whole heartedly agrees that living in a world where female leadership is openly recognized is the best for a balanced society.

Who must do the hard things? He (She) who can.

My conversation with Rémy reminded me of a line from Trevanian’s book Street of Four Winds about the Paris revolution of 1848, “Who must do the hard things? He who can.” Through the years I always tried to interpret what that line meant on a more universal level – at first I thought it meant that only a few people who had what it takes, whether they were men or women, could take on the fierce challenges of fighting the good fight in the world. But through time I have altered that viewpoint. Who is to say what the “hard things” in life are? Is not staying home with small children just a difficult as running a business? Recenly, I met one woman who said that her husband stayed home with their baby while she worked… they didn’t plan it that way but it just made sense since she liked working more than being home and he liked staying home with the baby more than working.

Or sometimes life presents us with a path that we thought we would never follow, we never envisioned ourselves living, because it never occurred to us that it was an option. Simply the act of getting up everyday and trying to live an honest life filled with decent acts makes us capable of doing the hard things in life.

As I sat there with Rémy and a couple of colleagues, it was wonderful to be able to enjoy an exquisitely golden bird and taste wines that begged for another sip as we openly talked about our various opinions with smiles, laughs and pausing here and there to allow the opinions of other people to expand our own minds. These are the moments in life that I cherish, that I depend on to grow… these are the moments that will mend a broken world.

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Wines Tasted at Lunch with Rémy Gresser on March 31st, 2017

All of the wines are from Rémy’s Kritt vineyard in Alsace, France, which comes from predominantly gravelly soil that produces wines with a great purity and expression of varietal characteristics. Alsace is a wine region with various types of soils that are capable of showing the ranges of complexity for different grape varieties.

2013 Domaine Gresser, Kritt Pinot Blanc: 100% Pinot Blanc. If you are like me, perhaps you have had your share of Pinot Blancs that have very little distinctive varietal characteristics, and I was nervous that this one was going to be the same. Thank goodness I was wrong – it was brimming with apple-y deliciousness and peach flavored cream with a spicy finish. 12.5% abv & 3g/l residual sugar

-2015 Domaine Gresser, Kritt Riesling: 100% Riesling. The 2015 was a warmer vintage for Alsace and a good contrast to the cooler 2014 vintage (side note: 2014 is a great vintage for sparkling Crémant) and so this wine had good generosity of quince paste and honey suckle flavors that had a nice lift of citrus peel on the finish. It was absolutely dreamy with the guinea fowl at lunch. 13% abv & 4g/l residual sugar

2015 Domaine Gresser, Gewürztraminer: 100% Gewürztraminer. Typically, I find the Gewürztraminer fruit a bit muted when they are made in Alsace (its noted home) as compared to Chile…not saying one is better or worse – just different. But the pristine lychee flavor on this wine really made this wine jump out of the glass, the floral aromatics taking a backseat to the fruit flavor. I thought leaving it at 12.5% abv with 10g/l residual sugar was a good choice as there was never a sense of it being too sweet and there was none of the heat that one can get on the finish of a Gewürz… it was so tasty that I forgot to take a picture of this bottle.

Martine’s Wines is the exclusive importer for Rémy Gresser in the United States.

 

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