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Missouri Wine Has A Long History

July 31, 2018

Recent Forbes posts I’ve written are about wines from Sicily and Puglia, as well as from Prosecco country in northern Italy. There is also a review of a lively new book about aperitifs, by Kate Hawkings.

Now, heartland wines …

I stopped to visit friends Barb and Andrew in Kansas City, Kansas

I recently drove across part of the United States to transport books to a cabin I own in a remote portion of the state of New Mexico.

The trip was both reinvigorating and mind clearing.

From Columbus, Ohio, I spent days driving across parts of the Midwestern and Southwestern U.S. states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico, where I finally unloaded books. I then spent a night on that land, and later at the property of friends who own a new ranch where they produce ‘grass fed/grass finished’ beef (apparently the demand for this beef is too high for them to satisfy).

Norton, the Missouri state grape, produces a hearty red wine

Much of the portion of this journey crossed parts of the geographical and cultural ‘heartland’ of the United States, which few people associate with wine.

Yet in the past they did, and may well do so again.

As mentioned in my book Vino Voices—Wine, Work, Life, before Prohibition (which basically outlawed alcohol in the U.S. between the years 1920 and 1933) the state of Missouri included the second largest winery in the U.S. It was named Stone Hill Wine Co., and was located in the town of Hermann. It was reopened in 1965 as Stone Hill Winery, and now thrives. Back in 1915, it sold wines with names such as White Pearl, Starkenburger, Ozark Queen and Sweet Scuppernong. The property included a nearby forest as well as a sawmill and the owners produced their own barrels. Stone Hill then sold 1.25 million gallons of wine a year, which won prizes in Paris, Vienna, New Orleans and Buffalo. Even earlier, in the mid 1800’s, a greater volume of wine was produced within the state of Missouri than in any other U.S. state.

In June of 1980, the first American Viticulture Area (AVA), [similar to a European wine appellation], was established. This defines required practices for producing wines within certain geographical regions (if they are to be accorded with AVA status). The first ever AVA status in the U.S. was conferred on the region of Augusta, Missouri. It was only eight months later that the second AVA was established—in Napa, California.

Because of Missouri’s sometimes harsh continental climate conditions, grapes here include those from both vitis vinifera (European) and vitis labrusca (American) vine species, and grapes are often clones. Popular grapes include—for whites—Traminette, Chardonel, Vignoles, Vidal Blanc; for reds they include Norton (Cynthiana), Concord, Catawba, and Chambourcin.

Today, Missouri’s wine industry is worth more than $1.5 billion annually.

According to the Missouri Wine and Grape Board, between 1995 and 2015, grape production increased in Missouri from about 2,400 tons to 5,500 tons. During that time, the land bearing vines soared from 900 acres (360 hectares) to 1,700 acres (690 hectares). Today, the most planted grape vines are Norton (20%) followed by Vignoles (15%), Chambourcin (10%) and Vidal Blanc (8%).

Apparently July 21st has been designated as ‘Junk Food Day’ and a published guide pairs Norton with Nacho Cheese and Corn Chips, Traminette with Caramel Corn, Chardonel with Buttered Popcorn (note the prevalent role of corn in day-to-day life in much of the U.S.) and Chambourcin with Chocolate Sandwich Cookies, or Oreos. (French friends may not understand this celebration, no doubt.) A handy online map of Missouri wine trails breaks the state into 11 distinct regions, and identifies 65 wineries in a state that is about half the size of Montana, twice as large as Portugal, or roughly the same size as either Cambodia or Uruguay.

Les Bourgeois Winery in Rocheport, Missouri

[I wrote about wines from Missouri before, in this article, and in this.]

While passing through Missouri, I stopped for a wine tasting (spitting only—no swallowing while on the road) at a winery named Les Bourgeois, off Interstate 70 Highway.

Below are tasting/value notes for wines tasted at Les Bourgeois. On a 100 point scale, wines here rank between 89 and the early 90’s.

These have been ‘value-evaluated’ (which relates overall quality to local price per bottle) as ‘superlative ♫♫♫,’ ‘excellent ♫♫,’ or ‘good ♫,’ based on my own proprietary Vino Value algorithm that matches subjective input (taste) to local bottle prices. Prices are local.

Solay – a blend of white grapes

2017 Vidal (white). $25. [Good Value ♫]

Nose and taste like a cross between Chardonnay and Viognier. Grapefruit on the tongue; an acidic mouthful.

2016 Solay (white). $20. [Superlative Value ♫♫♫]

Like a crisp Sauvignon Blanc on the nose. Brittle, crisp and tart in the mouth.

2016 Chardonel (white). $25. [Excellent Value ♫♫]

Ash and pears on the nose, meringue pie and chewy bananas in the mouth.

2016 Traminette (white). $25. [Good Value ♫]

White flowers and a massive hit of lemon drops on the nose. Candy cane in the mouth.

Image is titled ‘Discombobulated,’ and is by Bill Manion

2015 Syrah. $25. [Superlative Value ♫♫♫]

Cherries and cherry cough drops on the nose. Black and white pepper in the mouth.

2015 Norton Premium Claret (red). $25. [Excellent Value ♫♫]

Leather, ash and smoke on the nose, though subtle. Acidic with mild lemons in the mouth.

2016 Noiret (red). $25. [Good Value ♫]

Like a sweet Tempranillo. A stiff taste of wood in the mouth is offset by decent charcoal aromas and spice.

Below is an extract, about Missouri, from my book Vino Voices—Wine, Work, Life.

This piece includes the second half of a chapter about Stone Hill Winery. This ends a segment about co-owner Jon Held, and then includes an interview with their South African winemaker, Shaun Turnbull. [My writing is in italics; interview quotes are in non-italicized font.]

We return to the winery and enter a large tasting room. I look at photos on the wall. There is an award for Small Business 1982, presented to Jon’s parents by President Reagan in the Rose Garden.

Jon stands behind the counter and pours wine together with Shaun Turnbull. Shaun and his wife moved from South Africa five years earlier to work at Stone Hill. Shaun is young, tall, black-haired and wears a brown t-shirt. When Jon could find no local winemakers with the experience he desired, he recruited Shaun from South Africa.

Shaun:

I come from close to Stellenbosch in South Africa. Grew up there. College as well. I saw my future in the States. I’m pretty much a rock spider—an Afrikaaner who doesn’t speak very much English. I was brought up in Afrikaans culture, but also subtly with the westernization of South Africa. We seem to fit more in American culture than our own South African culture.

It’s pretty easy to make wine anywhere else in the world, but it’s not easy here. To make decent quality, you really have to know what you’re doing. It’s phenomenal. Pretty much the whole spectrum of wine styles is out there. Like Traminette and Vignoles grapes, which are very diverse. You can experiment and that’s really exciting. You don’t have to think inside the box. There’s always some new variety that pokes its head out that suits our climate. There’s a whole big pot of stuff you can work with.

Missouri River and bluffs

The climate for grape growing, for winemaking, that’s challenging. Last year, October; cold, wet, we never saw the sun. It was like living in the northwest. Raining all the time. The leaves were falling off and turning yellow. That was quite a challenge. Sometimes you can plan a harvest and what you’re going to do. But here it’s like four seasons in one day. The weather can change like that. You’ve seriously got to make decisions on your feet according to what we get.

What drew me also was that it was a relatively unknown wine region. There’s no vinifera grape varieties in it. The size of the operation also blew me away for a Midwest winery. Just seeing all the equipment and the amount of effort that goes into producing. It’s not just a fad. I come from an area and a wine growing culture where it’s very, “Oh, wineries, cool, let’s try that.” But business wise, they were run like a hobby. But you come here and see this and you’ve never heard about it. But it’s a success, and there’s potential. It’s also a niche. It’s got its own identity. It’s kind of an angle. It’s unique. You don’t want to get ridiculously commercialized. You want your identity.

We try to keep our grapes from Missouri. I like that idea, keeping your own identity. Some producers around here, they’re buying straight from California to make a Cabernet or Pinot Noir. Why do that? It’s just another bandwagon.

Vines belonging to Stone Hill Winery, Missouri

We descend to visit the old vaulted cellars.

Shaun:

These are the old cellars, dug out by Germans. Think it took them eighteen years to dig. Imagine them by candlelight. They didn’t have electricity back then. This is the Apostle cellar. Used to have twelve big casks, and every cask had an apostle carved on it. Prohibition destroyed most of it. Legend goes that some of the barrels got saved and put on a train and shipped off to Germany, but nobody really knows. I like drinking red wine. I like making red wine. I like thinking about red wine. Believe me and my wife, if it’s ninety, one hundred degrees out there, we’ll drink red wine. We really enjoy red wines. I seriously like coming up with the best red wine in the bottle, making red wine from beginning to end. I’m not one of those winemakers who likes the limelight. I like spending time in the cellar, the creating part. I enjoy that.

Winemaking is a very patient process. You can think a lot about it while you make it, while you wait for it. You can ponder on it. You really think about what you’re doing and how it’s going to turn out and what you need to do. Wine is like an oil painting—you’ve got layers and layers to make it more complex. The more complex the wine, the better it’s going to be.

What’s winemaking all about? Balance. What’s grape growing all about? Balance. You want balance at the end of the day. In your vineyard, you want balance and vigor. With canopy management, with crop load, everything’s got to be in balance. When it comes to the winery—acid, sugar, complexity, flavoring, density. All that’s got to be in balance.

It can be frustrating. You’ve got to take a lot of care with this product because it’s a living, breathing entity. It’s got microbes in it—bacteria, yeast. You can spoil it easily. You could lose some complexity, some of the fruit aroma. You’ve seriously got to be very careful. One of Missouri’s challenges is to get educated people into the industry. The key wineries, they’ve got educated, experienced people. The reason? They’re business owners and do not treat it like a hobby.

I didn’t want something to tie me down in the office. I wanted to create something and knew I may as well use my God-given gifts; my palate and nose. I’m from the suburbs and had to compete with a lot of guys coming from the agricultural community. That’s what drove me. I really wanted to make it and prove to myself that I can actually do this. I never look back.

Eventual arrival in southwest New Mexico…

Thanks for tuning in…

A Quick Spin Through North, East and Southern Europe

July 10, 2018

Summer is in full gear, and wines are flowing.

There have been few posts in the past month, as I was traveling a bit to northern, eastern and southern Europe. But before I get to those lands and wines…

First, a few recent Forbes posts are here, which include a quick spin through some shining wine regions of Hungary as well as southern Italy, a stellar wine meal with Angélus wine in Saint-Émilion in Bordeaux, and dinner at a beaut of a new restaurant in Paris. There’s also coverage of the Volvo Ocean Race from Sweden, as well as new maritime technology that includes ‘self-docking’ boats that may bring cocktail hour even faster on the seas.

Also, our Etalon Rouge 2016 red wine (100% Cabernet Sauvignon) has been bottled, and it’s the best yet—even better than 2015. As you can see in the photo below, U.K. wine writer and television personality Oz Clarke truly enjoyed a glass when we spent time together in Hungary recently.

Wine author Oz Clarke enjoying Etalon Rouge

Other good people met in Italy, including press, television and blog journalists from Italy and the U.S. also enjoyed glasses of the rouge.

Media personalities in Brindisi downing Etalon Rouge

Skipper Caudrelier

And, as you might remember, French Skipper Charles Caudrelier is seen here holding a bottle of Etalon Rouge from our meeting in Hong Kong back in February.

The news?

His Dongfeng team won the Volvo Ocean Race a few weeks ago in The Hague, Netherlands. Big victory. The New York Times included a full page spread about the story.

Also, if you are interested in my blog about publishing and ways of thinking, click here for today’s post from Roundwood Press (usually posts alternate each week between these two blogs, but this is a ‘loss of synch summertime,’ and for today, they come together….).

 

 

 

Now, a few unusual and worthwhile wines to try.

Visits to various locations in the past month have involved sampling multiple stellar vintages.

Those travels, with endless miles and meals and information overload (and constant note taking) within a short time mean it’s now time for much appreciated R&R back here at home base in Blaye, France.

It also means days of eating only fruits and vegetables and reducing coffee and wine intake to revamp the body.

We’ll start with Hungary.

HUNGARY

In Budapest, a funicular leads down to the Danube River

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Vineyards of the Somló region in Hungary

Vineyards of the Tokaj region of Hungary

Vineyards of the Hungary’s Eger region

A brief overview of Hungarian viticulture:

Wines here are generally increasing in quality, and younger winemakers are more focused on quality than quantity; reds make up 40% of wine production, and the best grapes generally include local Kékfrankos, often blended with international grapes in order to make Bordeaux, Burgundy and Rhone style wines.

Dry whites are dominated by Furmint (which is also the basis for the famed Tokaji sweet wine) while Viognier, Olaszrizling, Juhfark and Hárslevelü are also nudging up in quality.

Recently in the Eger wine region, ‘bulls blood’ blends (such as the reds mentioned above, with Kékfrankos as a base) known as ‘Egri Bikavér’ have been joined by white blends known as ‘Egri Csillag,’ which means ‘the star of Eger.’ Such wines must include juice from at least 4 white grapes, of which Carpathian Basin grapes should comprise at least 50%, while international varieties can make up the balance.

Budapest and the countryside are beautiful and the people are warm and friendly. Because winters are cold, try visiting in spring or summer. Also, boating on Lake Balaton is excellent.

One Hungarian winemaker in the Somló region names his 500 and 1500 liter oak casks after Hungarian kings from the past. One of these (or so he told us) was named Viagra (as seen on the label of a bottled barrel sample in the photo above, bottom right; notice Oz hovering nearby?).

ITALY

Palermo, Sicily

The countryside outside Sicily’s capital city of Palermo is gorgeous and includes such lesser known grape varieties as, for whites: Insolia, Catarratto, Grillo; for reds: Frappato and Nero D’Avola. The two with the strongest characteristics appear to be Insolia for white (think zesty lime and tangerine), and Nero D’Avola for red (think smoky and oaky aromas, and licorice and chocolate tastes).

On the southeastern coast of mainland Italy is the Puglia region, still seeking its own contemporary identity to present to visitors. It, too, offers wines from grapes you have likely never heard of (but don’t turn them down if someone thrusts any under your nose, preferably with a plate of steaming pesto risotto). Here, enjoy white wines made from the Minutolo grape (think flint and apricots) and red wines made from the Susumaniello grape (scent of charcoal and taste of blackberry pie).

Italian food, as always, blows visitors away. There’s detail, pride and a shovelful of sparkling flavors in every mouthful. Certainly, France, I love your magret canard (duck breast) and chocolatines, but when it comes to pasta, prosciutto and cinghiale wild boar, the descendants of the city of Rome should gastronomically lead the way.

Far to the north in Italy, in the Veneto province, the wine region of Conegliano-Valdobbiadne (which is now all classified at the highest DOCG level for quality) produces excellent Prosecco, but also a few (unexpected) stunner reds.

From the video below of a Valdobbiadene winemaker, you now know it’s encouraged to play with your food: create a little volcano in your risotto, then pour in Prosecco.

Who said growing up wasn’t fun?

Finally, as for caffeine in Italy, remember that no milk is allowed in a coffee beverage after 11.00 a.m. unless you’re at an airport. Consider it illegal. Seriously. I tried to order a cappuccino one evening near Palermo, but a local advised me that such an the act was treasonous, posing risk of imminent deportation.

Be forewarned, and instead, down an espresso.

Swimming pool at Baglio di Pianetto guest house south of Palermo, Sicily

SWEDEN

Just a quick note from the southwestern portion of this island riddled land…

Recently I enjoyed dinner with friends at The Grand Hotel of Marstrand, which is on an archipelago island northwest of Göthenburg. We traveled there via boat for almost an hour. This place is especially popular during the abbreviated Nordic summer here, and the wine and food pairing were excellent. Dinner included their famed langoustines, together with wine poured from a magnum of Alsace Riesling from Gustave Lorentz, as well as a Pinot Noir from Hahn Family Wines in Monterey County in northern California.

Both wines were excellent and the food and setting unique and splendid.

The takeaway came from speaking to a local, who told me that Sweden now produces its own wines.

That’s right! Swedish wines.

I’m working on sampling a few bottles to provide feedback. Soon enough.

Thanks for checking in again…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quirks And Qualities Of Life In France

June 5, 2018

The park within Place des Vosges, Marais, Paris

First a bit of news – weeks ago I had the fortune to be invited to Abruzzo in Italy to receive an international wine writing award (‘Parole di Vino,’ or ‘Words of Wine’) from Il Consorzio di Tutela dei Vini d’Abruzzo. Several of us, including Emanuele Gobbi (Spirit of Wine journalist), Giorgio d’Orazio (independent Abruzzo journalist) and Stevie Kim—Managing Director of Vinitaly International, received awards.

Grazie Mille…

Abruzzo is gorgeous, and the quality of life there is yet untrammeled by hoards of visitors.

More splendid news: our Etalon Rouge wine was just named by the U.K. Independent newspaper as one of the ‘wines of the week,’ within the Top Ten ‘Esoterica’ bottles at the recent London Wine Fair. Huge News!

Sadly, however, a rapid and vicious hailstorm more than a week ago damaged a massive amount of grapes in the Blaye and Bourg wine regions where we live (Etalon Rouge, fortunately, was not impacted). Some vineyards were completely knocked out. When the damage is better assessed, I’ll provide more information.

Now, a little about life in France….

Recently, I got lucky with trains.

Fortunately, the rail transportation strike did not take place last Wednesday, although it did on Monday and Tuesday. ‘Lucky’ because that let me travel to Paris for an appointment. The railway strike, which has lasted for months, is still on. Schedules have evolved a pattern: roughly (though not always) three days of strikes are followed by two days of trains. This cycle repeats—endlessly.

This strike—la grève—affects terrestrial transportation arteries that impact daily lives of millions of commuters who rely on them throughout France. It will apparently continue for at least another month. Perhaps more.

Looking out from Bordeaux’s train station – Gare Saint Jean

A national airline strike has also been going on for months. Air France canceled flights by the bucketful. I recently walked into Bordeaux’s airport to catch a KLM flight and the terminal was a ghost town. Only one ticket counter was open. After checking in, the airport seemed to be all mine: empty coffee stores, ample seats, no check out line after buying the Financial Times and passing through security was a breeze.

Flying the skies above Bordeaux and the Garonne River

Weeks ago I boarded a BA flight from Bordeaux to London. It was delayed for one hour—exactly—because air traffic controllers, not pilots, had decided to stage their own little strike. For one hour. At lunch time. Perhaps someone wanted more time for dessert and coffee? Although this had a minor impact on my schedule (I was late for a wine tasting—hardly a dire event) that was not true for a friend destined to Hong Kong via Heathrow for an important wine sales presentation. All because of a one hour strike. Ouch.

Lunch setting at the new Anne Restaurant of Pavillon de la Reine Hotel in Paris

This is all part of life in France. Call it cultural. As with any location, there are benefits and pitfalls of living here. Certainly, wine here is inexpensive and delicious, police are rarely militant about whether you actually halt at a stop sign (and—bizarrely enough for the linguistically proud French—these are actually red, hexagonal and include the English word ‘Stop’) while the selection of cheeses at any market is dizzyingly attractive.

Americans often gripe of encountering aloof or snobby Parisians. This would not happen if they merely dropped a polite ‘hello’ or ‘thank you’ in French. The exception is not in the city, but in the countryside—if you attempt to get a seat (and food) at a rural restaurant at 2 pm. Otherwise, the French are disarmingly charming and friendly.

Here is what I love about France: watching female bicyclists in Bordeaux—elegantly dressed, casually insouciant and capable of navigating, with aplomb, narrow twisted alleys in the company of snorting vans and gnashing dump trucks, all while displaying kittenish and coy zeal, as though auditioning for a Vogue photo shoot. It’s art.

Also: boulangeries and patisseries (the two differ) with their sinfully fresh, artful concoctions laid out each morning before the parade of burly farmers, female fishmongers and suited lawyers who march in to order their quotidian share of pain raisin or campagnarde (a type of baguette) or endlessly woven layers of scrumptious mille-feuille. And those chocolatine aux amandes? Dangerously delicious.

There is also lunch.

Ah, lunch in France. Legendary.

More ritual than meal, really. Baguette and bottle of wine and perhaps olives, but at least olive oil. A cork pops from a bottle of rosé and conversations stream, then torrent while plates appear with steamed white asparagus and grilled duck (topped with a nodule of foie gras), or roasted veal or pasta with slivers of salmon sprinkled with turmeric or tarragon. Then more corks pop and the Rhône Valley red begins to flow.

The French also have time.

Very important.

There is always time in France for conversation and friends. My friend Gabrielle is busy running her own wine consultant business: teaching classes, writing for Le Figaro, consulting for restaurants and appearing on a TV cooking show. Last week she booked dinner for us at a new restaurant, named ‘Anne,’ within a five-star hotel off Place des Vosges in the Marais (she prepared their wine list).

As always, when we met, she relaxed, never checked emails or took phone calls and instead engaged in witty, charming discourse over at least three courses and three bottles—Chablis, Bandol and Bordeaux—during a meal with digestifs that lasted, well, six hours (okay, a fourth bottle and the chef ended up at the table). Each time we meet, she has time. Like most French, she truly, irrefutably, inarguably and uncompromisingly has time for other people in this fleeting, precious, mysterious and limited concoction we call life.

 

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My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include pieces about how biohacking may change the health industry, wines from the Canary Island, a Sotheby’s wine auction in London and white grapes you have likely never heard of from Abruzzo in Italy. And more about that Parisian dinner to come.

Finally, a quick video I shot on the island of Tenerife in the Canary Islands some weeks ago. I’m including this of Pablo Matallana because he produces excellent wines—though only 500 reds a year and 70 whites. At 10 Euros a bottle? A steal.

As always, thanks for checking in.

 

 

Photo Splurge – Canary Islands and Madrid Countryside

May 15, 2018

It’s been awhile since posting – mostly due to travel. This post will include only recent images taken on the Canary Islands as well in the countryside around Madrid.

Recent Forbes posts I’ve written include text, and some are:

Why The Vines And Wines Of The Canary Islands Will Twist Your Head With Surprise

Why Swiss Wines Continue To Impress

Wines From Madrid Are Not What You Expect

The Entrepreneur Streamlining The Sale Of Top Wines

Why The Wine Vintage Of 2017 Has A Dual Personality

A Cookbook Created From Picnicking In Paris

Why Bhutan Is Still Out Of This World

 

Now, Photographs taken recently.

Lanzarote Isle, Canary Islands (Spain)

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Tenerife Isle, Canary Islands (Spain)

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Countryside surrounding Madrid (Spain)

Again, thanks for tuning in.

Forthcoming posts during the coming months will include a few doses of Italy as well as a European city more renowned for lager than for wine…

Bordeaux Jewels Of Wine And Life

April 17, 2018

The region where I live in France is a sizable, though little known, portion of Bordeaux (technically and administratively known, basically, as the ‘Gironde Département’) where wine prices are reasonable, historical intrigue is ample and day to day living is blissfully unrushed.

Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson visited this wine region of Blaye (taking boats from the city of Bordeaux for visits) on the right bank of the Gironde estuary. So has every king of France except one. Eleanor of Aquitaine (queen at different times of both France and England) also passed through here during the age of troubadours and female trobairitz (wandering minstrels who sang love songs) in the 12th century.

We are surrounded here by oceans of vineyards. There are several hundred around the towns of Blaye and Bourg, though it can difficult to discern exactly how many. The winemaker-sponsored website and literature about the Blaye—Côte de Bordeaux appellation neglects to number the wineries within the 12,900 acres (5,213 hectares) of vines. Bourg, which is smaller although in some ways better organized for international visitors, has 157 wineries (châteaux) within 9,800 acres (3,979 hectares) of vines, or about 15 square miles (40 square kilometers) of juice growing terrain.

Within these spaces, winery names can be disarmingly confusing. Many wine châteaux (which is the name of a winery here; singular is château, plural is châteaux) have similar names.

The team from Château Clos de Loup providing tastings at Blaye Printemps des Vins Festival this April

The effort of wine producers to distinguish themselves with striking originality in naming their brand is largely absent. Heritage appears more important than gaining a competitive edge. It is this attitude toward life that, though sometimes illogical, provides a sizable sliver of attraction for this region.

Looking at the estuary from Blaye Citadelle

For example—there’s Château Barbé and Château de Barbe, Château Nodot and Château Nodoz. There’s Château Lagarde and Château Roland La Garde. Château Monconseil-Gazin and Château Mondésir-Gazin. Château Bellevue and Château Bellevue Gazin. There’s Château Canteloup as well as Château Haut-Canteloup.

Most of these wine producers with similar names are veritable neighbors. Driving distances between the above listed pairs of wineries are: 3.8 miles, 4.5 miles, 3.3 miles, 1.4 miles, 0.5 mile and 0.5 mile.

Oddly, few locals appear confused. If you ask the difference between two like sounding châteaux, any local may walk to a window and point outside and inform you that over there is Château Barbé. He or she will then pronounce the two names slightly differently, with subtle tone and mannerisms implying that your linguistic deficiencies may be mildly heathen.

Should you dare mistake Monconseil-Gazin for Mondésir-Gazin, locals will likely shrug, shake mystified heads and query whether you enjoyed too many verre à vin last night?

It is now spring. Suddenly begins a parade of festivals: wine festivals, mountain biking and wine festivals, port festivals, music festivals, a black bass festival, an asparagus festival and a snail festival (which I tend to skip).

We recently had our annual Printemps des Vin de Blaye festival, where some 90 winemakers set up tastings in tents and ancient rooms in the local centuries-old Citadelle in Blaye. For a meager six Euros, visitors received an empty wine glass, a map and a pass that let them sample all the vino they desired for two days.

This is not a high cost or internationally renowned wine region. Yet I’ve tasted some local wines that cost between 7 and 15 Euros. Back in the U.S., some wines of the same quality might cost four times that amount.

Conviviality is key here. Friendless trumps marketing efforts.

Below is a visual tour of Printemps des Vins.

The smiling sisters from Château Lagarde

Each year I taste several wines and compare quality and cost to determine overall value, using my proprietary Vino Value Algorithm.

Below are results for a few reasonably priced good wines, together with value score: Superlative, Excellent and Good Value. (Subjective scores for taste were factored in, although not shown below.) All wines listed in this table are worth drinking. Unless noted, all are red.

Vino Value™ Scoring of Selected Wines – Printemps des Vin de Blaye – April 2018
Winery Wine Retail Price – Euros Retail Price – US dollars equivalent Value Score
Château Nodot 2015 € 9.00 $11.07 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Domaine de La Valade 2015 Tradition Rouge € 4.50 $5.54 Excellent Value ♫♫
Domaine de La Valade 2015 Cuvée Prestige Rouge € 5.80 $7.13 Excellent Value ♫♫
Tour Saint-Germain 2015 Cuvée Tradition € 11.00 $13.53 Good Value ♫
Château Rose Bellevue 2015 Secret € 18.50 $22.76 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château La Motte de Lignac 2016 € 7.00 $8.61 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Jussas 2015 € 6.50 $8.00 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Capron (Cantinot) 2011 € 10.00 $12.30 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château du Vieux Puit 2012 Les Racines € 6.50 $8.00 Good Value ♫
Château Clos du Loup 2012 Le Louveteau € 7.50 $9.23 Good Value ♫
Château Florimond 2014 Réserve € 7.70 $9.47 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Haut-Terrier 2015 Élevé en Barriques Neuves € 11.00 $13.53 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Moulin de Prade 2014 € 5.00 $6.15 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Segonzac 2015 Vielles Vignes € 7.00 $8.61 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Les Margagnis 2015 € 7.20 $8.86 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château de Calmeilh 2015 € 6.00 $7.38 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Lagarde 2015 Excellence € 12.00 $14.76 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Les Bertrands 2015 Cuvée Vieilles Vignes € 6.50 $8.00 Good Value ♫
Château Les Bertrands 2015 Cuvée Prestige € 8.50 $10.46 Good Value ♫
Château Magdeleine Bouhou 2015 La Boha € 8.50 $10.46 Good Value ♫
Château Marquisat La Pérouse 2016 Cuvée Prestige € 8.50 $10.46 Good Value ♫
Château Morange 2015 € 6.00 $7.38 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Morange 2014 Vin d’Augustin Morange € 9.60 $11.81 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Monconseil Gazin 2015 € 7.80 $9.59 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Haut-Colombier 2015 € 7.50 $9.23 Good Value ♫
Château Haut-Colombier 2016 € 8.00 $9.84 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Haut-Colombier 2017 € 8.00 $9.84 Superlative Value ♫♫♫
Château Grillet-Beauséjour 2015 No. 2 € 6.00 $7.38 Excellent Value ♫♫
Château Petit Boyer 2016 Grand Réserve € 12.50 $15.38 Excellent Value ♫♫

Monsieur Stéphane Heurlier, renowned local winemaker

Sampling reasonably priced bubbly from Domaine du Cassard

Monsieur Eymas of Château La Rose Bellevue

The Wizard of Château La Cassagne-Boutet, Nicolas Vergez, once again commands an audience

A cooper demonstrates barrel making

Friends having lunch after tastings

Primeurs 

In contrast to our humble wine region, there are better known, and commensurately more expensive wine regions located nearby. Each year for a few weeks in spring, châteaux hold ‘En Primeur’ tastings of wines made from grapes harvested the previous fall. These events take place to our east, around Saint-Émilion and Pomerol, or across the water to our west, around and within the Médoc, Pessac-Leognan and Sauternes appellations.

My latest Forbes pieces are here, and include a synopsis of tasting some 100 Bordeaux wines during this recent En Primeurs week, and discovering the dual personality of that recent vintage.

Below are a few photos from some of the events to give you an overall flavor of how spring kicks in here in southwest France.

Chilean Rodrigo Sepúlveda Schulz takes time off from Luxembourg financial work to enjoy Primeurs

 

A warm smile from Margot from Domaine des Chevaliers

 

For lunch, a double magnum of 1999 Château Smith Haut Lafitte.

 

Hospitality Manager Alex from Château Smith Haut Lafitte…with four excellent wines

 

Gardens in spring bloom

 

Daniel and Florence Cathiard, generous owners of Smith Haut Lafitte

 

It is the Season…(isn’t it always?)

 

Lunch at Château Rauzan-Ségla

 

This 3rd floor tasting room within Château Haut-Brion includes only nine seats, surrounded by ample bookshelves

 

This olive tree on the grounds of Château Pape Clément was planted in the year 193 AD. It’s still a beauty!

 

Looking down the limestone escarpment from Château Pressac, at Saint-Étienne-de-Lisse, near Saint-Émilion

 

Chãteau de Pressac (Grand Cru Classé) was purchased 21 years ago and renovated by Jean-Françoise Quenin

 

The 2017 Ángelus is a genuine winner

 

 

Clémence Collotte of Château Jean Faux shows a truly unexpected winning wine at an amazing price

 

Bordeaux wine author Gilles Berdin (on the left) enjoys international vintages from Bernard Magrez

Finally, a warm Thank You to Hubert de Boüard and Laure Canu from Château Ángelus in Saint-Emilion; Hélène Garcin-Lévêque and Patrice Lévêque from Château Barde-Haut in Saint-Émilion; Lahcene Boutouba of Clavis Oréa wine; author Gilles Berdin of Bordeaux; Florence and Daniel Cathiard of Château Smith Haut Lafitte; Thomas Hebrard and staff of U’Wine; Marie-Louis Schyler of Baron Philippe de Rothschild SA, and Soline Bossis from Château Mouton Rothschild.

The wine and food were wonderful, but your company was the true jewel of the En Primeurs week.

Thanks again for tuning in. The next posts will include wines from a few countries where you likely do not expect it…

Pinerolese Wine From Italy’s Alps

April 3, 2018

The French / Italian Alps, viewed from a flight between Bordeaux and Milan

Welcome to the Italian Alps….

First, however, I want to let you know that my recent Forbes pieces are here. They include an article about Txakoli wine from the Basque country, about a young woman about to circumnavigate the world via sailboat without stopping, and why this custom luxury lodge in the Italian Alps respects its origins, as well as ‘building biology.’

Now, back to the mountains.

In the year 218 B.C., a long-bearded Carthaginian general named Hannibal Barca, from what is now Tunisia in North Africa, crossed the French and Italian Alps with an army of some 20,000 motley, yet fierce warriors, as well as 37 elephants. The animals were brought to shock the Romans during Hannibal’s attack. Though few survived the crossing, the army was victorious in a few significant battles against Roman legionnaires.

Val Troncea Natural Park

Another onslaught of foreigners to these quiet mountain villages came in 2006, when Torino (Turin) hosted the winter Olympics here—across a conglomeration of ski slopes known as Via Lattea, or the Milky Way.

From this same region comes a wine you have likely never heard of.

Here’s the gist:

Thanks to two women who live in the eastern U.S. (film maker Camille Broderick Rodier of Juharo Productions and interior designer Lucie McCullough) I recently spent time with an intriguing character, and wines he serves, in the Italian Alps.

He grew up in the same house that his family and ancestors have lived in for over 300 years.

Today, Daniele Ronchail is an accomplished architect who designs and leads renovation teams to improve existing structures. Sometimes he gets the chance for a special project.

Daniele with children Matteo and Giulia in the Val de Troncea Natural Park

(Check out the Forbes piece I wrote about the lodge—Baita 1697— that he and interior designer Lucie McCullough collaborated on.)

Daniele strives to use traditional materials and techniques, and to preserve the structural integrity of ancient buildings.

Like many of the residents from this region of Piemonte, Daniele is seriously focused on work and craftsmanship details, but still loves conviviality, good food and wine.

Skiing down to the ‘frazione’ (village) of Pattemouche, in the larger ‘comune’ of Pragelato

I met Daniele at the restaurant he also owns named Rivet d’Or in the Pragelato comune of the Italian Alps—west of the city of Torino.

Daniele explained how his cellar holds hundreds of different types of wine, but in order not to confuse diners with an exhaustive list, he keeps it to a simple few pages, then changes the list now and then.

That’s refreshingly unusual.

Instead of making his wine list a virtual monument to himself, or an advertisement about his cellar, he modestly provides a shorter list in order to keep clients satisfied and not overwhelmed.

 

Sturgeon with black beans served with Ramìe wine

Because Pragelato is part of the region of Piemonte, much of his wine list includes renowned vintages from further south, such as Barbera, Nebbiolo and Barolo.

(Italy has 20 regions; Piemonte—which means foot of the mountains—is the second largest region, after the isle of Sicily.)

Yet Daniele’s list also includes local wines from the appellation known as Pinerolese, which is located relatively close to Pragelato.

Ski slope lunch in the Via Lattea (Milky Way) ski area west of Torino

A few technical details here….

This Pinerolese appellation region is less than 100 acres (40 hectares) in size and produces less than 10,000 bottles a year. Ten different grapes can go into Pinerolese wine. If it’s called a ‘rosato,’ then half of the grapes must include one, some, or all four of the following varieties—Barbera, Nebbiolo, as well as lesser known Bonarda Piedmontese and Neretto (also called Chatus). If instead a Pinerolese wine is named after some specific grape, such as Barbera or Dolcetto, the wine must contain 85% of juice from that grape. Finally, to call such wine a Ramìe, it must include 60% of juice from Avanà, Avarengo, Bequet and/or Neretto grapes.

Interior of Rivet D’Or Restaurant

Enough details.

The point is this: these wines include some grapes you have likely never heard of before, but added in quantities that cannot be haphazard or recklessly experimental (that is, if producers want to obtain their government denominazione’ quality control certificate, which often helps bottles to sell).

To drink this wine, it’s best paired with food.

So, let’s open Daniele’s menu. This includes a few quotes—perhaps from Daniele himself—such as:

“Do not look at the past with nostalgia … But take the best from it, and bring it into the future.”

Charcuterie with Arneis and Nebbiolo wines inside Baita 1697 luxury lodge in the Piemonte

During dinner we tasted two wines.

The first was on the list—a 2016 Merenda Con Corvi. The majority grape here is Barbera. With this we ate pork belly with oyster sauce, Jerusalem artichokes with a special ‘bagna caoda’ mousse (a specialty of the Piemonte that includes cream, garlic and sardines). The next dish was veal tongue on dried tomatoes. This selection itself formed an Olympic taste menu. The wine included that characteristic blueberry and biscuit taste of Barbera, but was also light and smoky. Barbera historically was considered sort of a common grape for making wine; no longer. In the past decades winemakers have been concocting some seriously flavorful, and more complex, juice from this grape.

I finished glass number two of the same wine before we even moved onto the next dish: rabbit ravioli with butter and hazelnuts.

OMG….Seriously delicious.

A Pinerolese wine based on Barbera

Daniele told me of his life and architecture business, then uncorked a bottle of 2015 Pinerolese Ramìe, made by Coutandin. Only a few thousand bottles of this wine are produced each year (so few that it was not even on his wine list). The included grapes (as mentioned above) were listed as Avanà, Avarengo, Chatus, Becuet, Barbera and others. The taste of this wine has the wake-up acridity of a Barolo, but is still less tannic and easier to drink young.

With this wine, out came the next plate: purple beet tagliatelle, followed by sturgeon with black beans, and then veal ‘cooked by osmosis’ with rocket sauce and rice vinegar.

Rabbit ravioli with butter and hazelnuts

Piemonte wine and food are unlike anything served elsewhere on earth (and appreciated even more after a day of sunblasted powerhouse skiing).

Visiting Daniele’s restaurant highlights how many people living in this Alpine region respect detailed cooking of traditional (and sometimes modern) dishes. Dining here is exposing yourself to a detailed mindset—focused on minutiae in the kitchen, as well as on selecting low production bottles that not only match food, but also surprise diners. Eating and drinking here is tasting cultural history.

While in Daniele’s restaurant I felt temporarily part of a local community. That’s something to savor while it unwinds, because such moments are fleeting.

If you enjoy getting out in fresh air, there’s also plenty to do in these mountains. Food and wine just complement a ski or hiking trip.

During days after eating at Rivet d’Or I shared more dinners at local restaurants with a few exploratory skiing aficionados pictured below. Their smiles tell all.

Ski accomplices Florence and Katie from London

 

Off Piste renegade skiier Matthew from Oxford

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

*****

Next week, ‘primeurs’ in Bordeaux kicks into full gear—where we will taste 2017 wines to rate the overall quality of that vintage, as well as to compare specific wines. Remember—frost last year knocked out about half the grapes in Bordeaux (and many throughout Europe). The quantity will be reduced, but it’s the quality we’ll inspect.

I have the privilege of begin able to visit Château Angelus, Château Barde-Haut and others in Saint-Émilion, as well as Château Haut-Brion in Bordeaux and Château Rauzan-Segla as well as Château Margaux in the Médoc.

Additionally, this coming weekend is the Printemps de Vin de Blaye, when we sample local Blaye-Cotes de Bordeaux wines within the sprawling 17th century local Citadelle, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and enjoy music and barbecues on the ample lawns.

I’ll keep you informed.

Once again, thanks for tuning in…!

Highland Wine from Bhutan

March 13, 2018

This post is overdue. I’ve traveled for a few weeks, some of which is covered in recent Forbes posts. A highlight was attending the inauguration of the reincarnated next spiritual leader, or rinpoche, of Bhutan (we met four years ago, and I was invited back after his 3 years of solitary meditation), as well as attending part of the Sail In Festival in Bilbao, Spain. Those posts also include a book review about the attraction of Volcanic Wines.

First—a little piece about Bhutanese wine. Details, admittedly, are sparse.

Dochula Pass on a clear day

Four years ago, during s previous visit, I penned a blog post about searching for Bhutanese wine, mistakenly thinking this little nation of towering peaks and deep forests lacked wine production facilities, and that only rice alcohol (or ‘ara’) constituted the closest cousin to grape wine.

That is not true.

Colorful prayer flags outside Tango Monastery located on a hillside near the city of Thimphu

Apparently Bhutan produces several wines.

Peach wine

In a rest house outside of the city of Paro, I found a copy of the government’s manual of statistics for 2017. Inside, the numbers showed that the leading cause of death in hospitals relates to alcoholism. I suspect the real problem is that most alcohol in this highland country is dangerous, poorly made equivalent of ‘moonshine,’ which can eventually poison drinkers.

A view of Himalayan peaks from the monastery on Dochula Pass, between Thimphu and Punakha

One counteraction is that the Royal Bhutanese Army is now involved with the production of wine and whiskey. First, the profits help support the army; second, the controlled quality of this alcohol is better for the people of Bhutan. The program is known as AWP, which stands for Army Welfare Projects, and was founded in 1976.

There are now a few commercially produced wines in the country (there may have been four years ago; I wasn’t aware then). One wine is made from peaches, and others from grapes. Most, but not all grapes are procured outside the country.

At a rest house in Thimphu I twisted the screwcap off a bottle of ‘Vintria Shiraz Dry Wine.’ The label declared that this ‘…elegant textured Shiraz Dry wine with great fruit flavors reminds of dark berry fruits, hints of oak pairing and vanilla aroma with long-lasting fruit palate aftertaste.’

Though the first sip was imbalanced and the alcohol tasted uninhibited, on the second sip I did indeed detect that vanilla, though the ‘long lasting fruit palate aftertaste’ was not happening. Some other ‘Bhutanese’ wines are actually produced in India and imported. The wine is yet of a caliber that during most of this trip I stuck with extremely good Bhutanese beers—Red Panda, Druk (both 5% alcohol) and Druk 11000 (8% alcohol). With time and more visitors to the country, the wine here will likely improve.

Construction of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery near the city of Paro was initiated in the 17th century by Tenzin Rabgye

I’ve not yet sampled the whiskey, a bottle of which was given to me as a gift by friend and guide Tshering and his wife Wangchuk. The label looks enticing, with a drawing of snowcapped peaks and the words Essence of The Himalayas. It’s a blend of ‘vatted malts from Scotland’ and is produced at the Gelephu Distillery in Bhutan.

‘Essence of the Himalayas’

On left are friends Tshering and his wife Wangchuk and son Ngawang, and on right are KP and his wife Mindu. We all hiked uphill to the Tango Monastery for the rinpoche’s inauguration.

Irrespective of wine and whiskey, the photos below show a sampling of life within this peaceful little mountainous nation, which includes a closed border to the north with Tibet (which China now claims) and a southern, open, border with India.

View of the Tiger’s Nest Monastery from below. It takes about 2 hours to hike there.

The rinpoche we met is apparently the 8th reincarnation of Tenzin Rabgye, who in the 17th century did much to bring together the people of Bhutan. One way he did this was by adopting annual festivals in each town, a notion he acquired from an emissary he sent to visit Nepal. The festivals draw people out of their relatively secluded mountain homes and villages, and are often attended to by politicians or members of the Royal family, coming from distant regions. A few of the following photos and short video below are from the national day festival we attended within the massive and handsome fortress, or dzong, within the town of Punakha.

Punakha Annual Fesitval

Reincarnation of Gyalsey Tenzin Rabgye of Bhutan

How does a ‘reincarnation’ come about? Basically, when the King visited the eastern part of Bhutan for National Day one year, a five year old boy from a very poor family in Trashigang tugged on his clothing as he was walking, and declared that he was Tenzin Rabgye (who had lived in the 17th century). Thinking he was being teased, the King asked him a few questions, and found the boy able to describe the route to, and interior of, Tango Monastery in the west of the country. The boy and his parents had never been there. The King sent two groups, including monks, to meet the boy with his parents. During this time they quizzed the parents, who had not coached the boy, but had sent him at a young age to be trained—as he emphatically desired—as a monk. During quizzing, the boy’s knowledge about Rabgye, the names of his parents and about monuments on the other side of the country convinced the visiting monks this was no ordinary child.

Typically colorfully dressed family attending the Punakha festival

The major cities in Bhutan are Paro and Thimphu, about an hour drive from each other. There are still no traffic lights in either and the pace of life is a bit sleepy, but the number of vehicles is ramping up and the cafes catering to foreigners are multiplying. With road improvements, it’s now about two hours to drive to the town of Punakha, which sits tranquilly along a river valley. During this trip, vehicles cross Dochula Pass. There’s a sizable cafe and a monastery and stellar views—on clear days—of the highest Himalayan peaks in Bhutan, some of which are between 18,000 to over 25,000 feet  (5,400 to 7,500 meters) in elevation.

These 108 stupas, or chortens, were built on Dochula Pass in 2003 to commemorate a short internal war (or battle) that took place in the south against illegal foreign settlers. The then king of Bhutan was involved in the battle.

During both visits to Bhutan it was on Dochula Pass where I experienced unexpected shafts of mental clarity. Which was a little odd. If these were to happen anywhere, I expected it would be while meeting the Rinpoche or hiking to Tiger’s Nest monastery. Both were similar—basically being aware of being ready for far larger scenarios to unfold in life (which occurred after the last visit). Dochula Pass is quite the transition point.

A group of monks at Tango Monastery

Viewed from Dochula Pass is Masang Gang peak, with an elevation of 23,507 feet (7165 meters) above sea level. This is not the highest peak in Bhutan, but perhaps the most visually distinctive. Mountaineering is forbidden in Bhutan, as are ascents of peaks above 19,685 feet (60oo meters) elevation.

That’s all for a brief report on this jewel of a peaceful, mountainous, Buddhist nation.

Recently a friend named Brad, who I spent time with in Angola, Pakistan and on a sailboat in Colombia and who now lives in a small town named Coyote, New Mexico, sent me this New Yorker article about Chinese wine. It’s entertaining, especially the latter portion where the writer is cruising around the countryside with some guys who pilfered wine and drank it from a huge plastic jug.

Thanks for tuning in again. We have a nice lineup for the coming months, including more on Swiss wine and sommeliers, a yet to be revealed Tuscan wine in London, more peeks at Hungarian wine, and perhaps a few vintages from Sicily.

 

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