Tuesday, October 14, 2008

CHAMPAGNE – July 20 – 24, 2008

The delightfully giddy week in Italy turned into a week of serious academic research in Champagne. Time to get back to work – even though we did get to taste many wonderful Champagnes every day. We were here to do research and write a book, so each day was jam-packed with interviews at wineries and institutions.

When we arrived in Reims that first evening – after many delays on the day long trip from Siena – we checked into the Holiday Inn. It was a nice clean hotel with a magnificent buffet breakfast every morning with a great view from their top floor dining room. That first evening, all 8 of us had dinner in one of the many restaurants within walking distance of the hotel. Naturally we celebrated our arrival with 2 bottles of Champagne.

The next day was packed with lectures and information, beginning at the university in the morning. This was followed by a fancy lunch with red Bordeaux, before we drove to Epernay to spend the afternoon and early evening at the famous CIVC. They provided a fascinating overview of the Champagne region and a private tasting.

That evening I was feeling a little tired with an upset stomach, so I met the research team in the lobby bar for a glass of bubbly, but then decided not to join them for dinner. Instead, I actually went back to the lobby bar and ordered a second glass of the very tasty NV Legram from small local producer. After all -- doctors from the 1800’s recommended two glasses of Champagne for an upset stomach…and I had an upset stomach. I felt much better after the second glass and enjoyed catching up on the BBC world news in bed and finally having a full 8 hours sleep instead of the 4 or 5 I was getting in Italy. The NV Legram, by the way, was an incredible crisp, citrus, high acid wine with the most refreshing finish I’ve ever tasted ($8 Euros per glass). Turns out it was more than 80% chardonnay. I learned by the end of the trip that my taste is more for the light crisp Champagnes, rather than the big yeasty ones….and that those which include a lot of pinot meunier are not to my liking.

The next morning we did a short vineyard visit near Steve’s village and I was able to see the ravages of downy mildew for the first time. We only have powdery mildew in California. Next stop was a great tour and tasting of Nicholas Feuillatte, one of the most successful cooperatives in Champagne, producing 30 million bottles per year. Lunch was a picnic in a beautiful sunny park in Epernay, and then we had a wonderful visit with the SVG – Syndicate General des Vignerons de La Champagne. This was followed by the most magnificent tasting of more than 30 wines from 6 different grower-producers. It is now understandable as to why we opened my Barbaresco for dinner that evening – after being spoiled with so many fabulous Champagnes that day, we were craving red wine! We also had a nice Australian shiraz that someone else brought to the very nice BYOB restaurant in Epernay.

Next morning started with a private tour, tasting, and meeting with the CEO of Laurent-Perrier – fascinating caves, and an even more fascinating business strategy! Also – incredible Champagnes! This was followed by a wonderful picnic in the vineyards with a sweeping view of the landscape. The weather was perfect – sunny and warm with clear blue skies. It was hard to believe that the land of Champagne was the scene of so many wars and bombings in the last two world wars. This was my second visit to the region, but I didn’t get to see all the charming little villages and lovely vineyards on my first visit to Reims with appointments at Piper Heidsick and Veuve-Cliquot (both excellent tours).

The afternoon started with a tour and tasting at Tattinger, as well as a private meeting with the CEO – a very colorful fellow. Next stop was with private grower – Gatinois – who has been successful selling his beautiful wines in both Asia and the US. I was able to buy a small bottle here to take home for my husband. The final meeting was at the original monastery of Dom Perignon where we met with one of the 2 winemakers of this most famous wine. This was the highlight of the trip for me, because we got to taste 5 fascinating Doms from different vintages and learn how each was made. I must admit that I probably asked too many questions, but it was so fascinating learning how such a legendary wine was crafted. The setting was also very peaceful and serene. We actually tasted in a long hall in the monks’ quarters.

That evening we had dinner at another café in Reims and debriefed the trip to that point. I had to leave the next morning, and so I missed the visit to the banks and Pommery, but received the information via email later. I feel very honored to have been invited on such a special research trip, and actually started writing my chapter on the plane trip home.

Conference in Siena, Italy – July 17- 19, 2008

The wine conference lasted 3 fun-filled days. Leave it to the Italians to plan the best conference yet. It was held in the ancient hospital (which is now a museum) across from the Duomo, and the sessions were very information. Lunch, which included wine each day, was an amazing stand-up affair with luscious cheeses, meats, pastas, and salads. There were several highlights to the conference:

Grand Gala Dinner at the Cloister Piccolomini – a beautiful villa in the Tuscan countryside. Everyone dressed up for this special event, and each professor brought a favorite bottle of wine from their country to share. As we left our chartered bus and entered the grounds of the villa, it looked like a Hollywood set, with waiters in black tuxedos serving appetizers like fried zucchini flowers and hundreds of different wines to taste. The villa was very elegant with white pillars, a formal garden, and great marble terraces. We dined outside with round tables holding 10 people each to accommodate the more than 200 people present.

The food courses were amazing, with each one eclipsing the last. I will never forget the thick warm tomato soup with shaved parmesan served in large wine glasses with long breadsticks. As the evening progressed, and everyone wanted to share their wine, people traipsed between tables, filling glasses, and discussing winemaking. Though half the wines were from Italy, the rest came from around the world including France, Germany, Austria, Spain, USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and many other places. It was hard to leave such a beautiful place, and we caught the last bus back to Siena and ended up joining a group who celebrated late into the night on the famous square where they have a horse race every year – the Piazza del Campo.

Visit to Montalcino - Another highlight was the field trip to the city of Montalcino, home of the famous Brunellos, which are 100% sangiovese and required to age 5 years before release. We were divided into 3 groups, each visiting a different local winery. My group went to Banfi, and the winery tour was amazing. I was impressed to learn how many awards they have won for positive environmental practices. The tasting room was beautiful – in an old castle on the hill above the winery. The wines we tasted were all very good, but I was disappointed not to be able to taste a Brunello.

Later that evening we attended a dinner concert in the Fortress of Montalcino – an ancient walled castle in the hilltop town of Montalcino. The dinner was light – salad, cold meats, and pasta -- but quite fine with all of the wine. The music was jazz, and we even got in a little dancing. We also had time before dinner to wander around the shops of Montalcino and I purchased a Brunello in the castle enoteca. It is certainly a very charming town, and I would enjoy visiting again – and this time staying overnight.

The next morning was Sunday and everyone said farewell. Janeen headed off to Rome to meet her boyfriend Paul for a week, and I joined the research group of 7 other professors to spend the day traveling first to Pisa by train then by plane to Paris and bus to Reims in the Champagne region of France. Before I left Siena though, I got up early to attend mass in the Duomo. Though the whole thing was in Italian, it was still an exquisite experience -- surrounded by all of the amazing beautiful of the ancient cathedral. What a way to go to church!

Piedmont, Italy – DAY THREE & Drive to Siena: July 16, 2008

The day dawned sunny and bright, and we took our time enjoying our last breakfast on the flowered terrace of the Hotel Barolo. Our original plans called for us to go back to the Monferrato to visit another winery and not leave Piedmont until noon, but once we looked on the map and realized how long the drive to Siena was, we had to cancel our appointment. Instead, and because we were feeling sad about leaving such a beautiful place, we decided to take the scenic drive along route 661 and over the rolling hills and mountains of Piedmont. Therefore, we left the little village of Barolo the back way and spent the next 2 hours driving through some of the most beautiful country and lovely little towns in Italy. Also, it seemed completely unspoiled by tourists. Vineyards, sunflowers, stucco walls, crumbling castles, and glimpses of high snow-capped mountains in the distance.

Eventually we made it down to the A10 Expressway and made good time to the Santa Margarita exit where we decided to stop for an hour. I had visited this town and Portofino in 2000 and thought it to be one of the most beautiful seaside resorts I had ever seen. It is filled with lovely pastel colored summer homes in yellow, pink, and pale green. They are covered with ornate designs, flowering shrubs and vines, and surrounded by palm trees. The water is the most amazing aqua blue with shimmering clear depths. We found a place to park near a small beach with outdoor café and a park. It felt like a perfect 80 degrees as we wandered around in the sun, stretching our legs, and gazing into the ocean. A nice respite, but wish it could have been longer.

Back on the expressway, we passed the industrial mess of Genoa, and then headed east towards Florence – which we skirted – and then south towards Siena. The landscape changed, and became browner with cypress trees and small hills. Eventually we started to see sunflowers and vineyards, and knew we were in Tuscany.

Driving into the hilltop city of Siena in a rental car is not recommended, but we decided to take our luggage to the Hotel Duomo first. We got hopelessly lost in the small cobblestone streets of the medieval walled city, and finally realized we were close to the hotel when we drove into the plaza of the Duomo - -the very famous cathedral. It was then that we discovered we were not supposed to drive there, and had to turn around. The hotel gave us directions to take our car back to Hertz, but of course, we still got lost and had to stop twice more to ask for directions. An hour later, we found Hertz, returned the car, and took a mad taxi-ride back to the hotel. We were sure he was going to run over pedestrians in the narrow streets. After that, we were sans-car and the trip became more relaxing.

After a shower and nap, we dressed up for the fancy conference wine reception that was held at the Enoteca Italiana. It was great fun to be reunited with fellow wine professors from around the world. The welcome reception included wines from all over Tuscany and we greatly enjoyed tasting the famous Chiantis, Brunellos, and Montepulcianos, as well as some of the lighter whites and great sparklings.

Piedmont, Italy – DAY TWO: July 15, 2008

If the previous day was full, July 15th was even more jam-packed with wine adventures in Piedmont. We hadn’t meant to schedule all 3 wineries in one day, but that is what worked best with the winery owners. After a nice breakfast on the sunny terrace (it came with the room, which was only $100 Euros per night for two – two twin beds with a private bath), we drove to the town of Barbaresco to view Angelo Gaja’s house – the very famous vintner from this town and also visit the Producttori de Barbersco. This is a type of coop with 55 growers who produce 1 million bottles per year. We tasted several wines, and I ended up buying their 2004 Barbaresco which was fruit forward with nice concentration for only $16 Euros!

Next stop was a small winery called La Casacita -- a boutique winery where the husband/wife team produced hand-crafted exquisite local wines for very reasonable prices. My friend Doug told us to visit here; otherwise we never would have found it. In fact, we almost didn’t as we got hopelessly lost in the small charming hills and villages of the Monferrato. With no cell phone reception in the country, we couldn’t call and ask for help, so we stopped at least 3 different people on the road and used halting Italian and sign language to finally find the winery.

Arriving one hour late, we were still greeted warmly by Giovani who gave us a wonderful tour of the small winery, including the famous tufo stone cellars (A soft yellow stone that maintains coolness and humidity for the wines). They have 7.5 hectares of grapes and produce about 10 different types of wine including a sparkling chardonnay/pinot noir. We tasted his regular chardonnay which was non-oaked and very refreshing with green apple notes. Both of the Barberas were excellent with bright fruit and milky cherry notes, but my favorite was the Gringolino. This is a red grape with produces a spicy strawberry flavored wine. It is unoaked with a nice acid and is intended to be consumed slightly chilled like a robust gamay. They also produce a Freisa, which is another red Italian grape which tasted quite similar to sangiovese. I ended up buying 2 bottles of the Gringolino for only $5 Euros each and one of the sparkling for $8 Euros. Good wines for good prices!

Our next appointment was with Marchesi de Barolo, back in the village of Barolo. Since we were so late for the first appointment, we were also late for this one, but called ahead to inform them. Despite being tardy, we were treated quite well when we arrived at this much larger, more international winery – the 2nd largest producer in Barolo. The tasting room was very modern with professional service and many wines for sale. Seemed like we were back home in Napa or Sonoma.

We were treated to a private sit-down tasting of 8 different wines; a Gavi, a Barbara, a Barbaresco, 3 Barolos, a Passito and their Chianto. Of the Barolos, I was most impressed with the Sarmassa 2004 which had layers of flavor ranging from blackberry, black licorice, cedar, and tar all wrapped up with wonderfully huge tannins. The Cannubi 2004 was also nice, but much softer. My preference is for huge Barolos. I also really enjoyed the Barbaresco Riserva 2001, which I ended up purchasing because it was more affordable. It was a lovely garnet red with soft plum, fig, earth, and herb notes -- a grand old wine, in its prime. (We ended up drinking it the next week in Champagne one evening with dinner after all 8 of us were tired of tasting too many beautiful bubblies.) The passito was made of Moscato which was dessert in a glass, and the Chinato was a very strange drink of wine, herbs and 16.5% alcohol which was meant to be a digestif, but which I found far too bitter.

Next was a tour of the winery, which was quite impressive with a mixture of old and new technology. We learned that they rarely use the pressed juice with the nebbiolo grape because the tannins are too harsh. They also do minimal racking, no filtering, don’t use protective gases, and fine with “fossil flowers,” which is a beautiful way of referring to clay.

It turns out that our next winery visit, which was scheduled for 4pm was a half a block away. This was Cantina Bartolo Mascarello, one of the oldest and most famous Barolo wineries for adhering to traditional wine styles. This tasting was 180 degrees opposite of the Marchesi de Barolo. Where the Marchesi was global elegance, Mascarello was down-home friendly and informal. As we entered, a tiny woman seated at a square table with 4 other people gestured for us to sit down. It turns out that she is Maria Theresa, the daughter of the famous Bartolo Mascarello and the current winemaker. We were given glasses and told to pick a wine to taste from the group of bottles on the table. Eventually, she asked who we were and after learning we were her 4pm appointment, she introduced us to the other around the table who included a neighbor who had dropped by to chat, a wine buyer and his wife from a nearby village, and a young man from Japan.

It was an interesting tasting, and rather disjointed, as she would begin to tell us about a wine, then jump up to answer the phone, or leave for long periods to handle an order. At one time she was gone so long we wondered if we should leave – especially since we were starving as we had to skip lunch. Eventually we did get to taste 4 different wines, a Barbera, a Dolcetto, and 2 Barolos. My favorite was the 2003 for $35 Euros which I ended up buying. It was a pale ruby color with the traditional tar and earth. Janeen picked up some dried orange rind, and I found some spice. As a 2003, it was higher alcohol due to the hot summer, but was much more approachable than the very tight dried sour cherry of the 2004. She said the 2003 spent 3 years in barrel and 1 year in bottle, and recommended I not open it for 8 years. The 2004, which she called “classic” needed a minimum of 10 years in bottle before opening.

Eventually all of the other visitors left, and then she gave us a private tour of the winery. It was then that we learned her philosophy was that she makes wine according to “wine time, not market time – and that customers can just wait!” I guess we found that out in her visitor room as well. She also focuses on traditional styles and is not interested in following market trends. I like a winemaker who is clear about their niche. Fermentation takes 20 to 30 days using natural yeast and 2 pumpovers per day. She uses soft pressed wine and racks after 20 days. In the vineyard they cane prune to 9-10 buds at 1 to 2 meter spacing. In the end, I really enjoyed the spirit and spunk of Maria Theresa. This had to be the most unique and colorful visit of the day!

It was difficult to pick a favorite from the 3 wineries, as they were all so unique and each had special characteristics. Instead, I would recommend a visit to all three.

After a snack and short nap back at the hotel, we headed into Alba to find a restaurant. We had been told that Alba has a great old center with lots of fun shops. With no clear directions, we headed into the town following the town center signs. Eventually we just decided to park and walk, asking others for directions until we arrived at the famous shopping streets. Unfortunately most of the stores were closing within 30 minutes, but we did manage to see a sign saying “free truffle tasting.” That is how we found Tartufi & Co. and had another great experience in Piedmont. The son and mother were managing the shop that evening and getting ready to close, but they still welcomed us with warm hospitality and let us try all of the truffle products ranging from oils and spreads to minced truffles. We tried both black and white (the white being almost doubly as expensive), and then they opened wine, bread, and desserts. They poised us holding large black truffles – the size of your hand – to take photos for their website, and gave us free postcards and other small gifts to take home. Needless to say, we bought many wonderful truffle gifts in that shop and would highly recommend it to anyone. They also invited us to come back to Italy and go truffle hunting with them in September/October, and I think the mother even gave us a hug before we left. At least it felt like it, because the visit was so warm and welcoming. Wow – what hospitality!

After that, we had dinner in a cute little restaurant across the alleyway from the truffle shop. We started with a glass of the famous Moscato d’Asti, which we hadn’t been able to taste yet (Janeen accused me of having a myopic focus on Barolo – but I just can’t help it). Anyway, it was a refreshing way to start dinner, and I ended up ordering Gavi with my salad and fish to stay with light whites. On the way home, we got very lost and ended up driving around many little hilltop villages in the dark, until finally we figured out where we were on the map. Eventually we made it back to our charming Barolo Hotel – completely exhausted.

Piedmont, Italy – DAY ONE: July 14, 2008

Enroute to the 4th International Wine Business Conference in Sienna, Italy, my good friend Janeen and I scheduled 3 days in Piedmont. She found a great hotel online in the hilltop town of Barolo, called – simple enough – the Hotel Barolo. It was family-run, quaint, and very friendly with an amazing view over the vineyards and the charming village of Barolo.

Several weeks before the trip, I began doing research on wineries and enotecas to visit. I also contacted my friend, Doug Cook, who knows everything about Italian wines and wineries for recommendations. He got me in touch with a couple of wineries via Internet, and I was able to schedule 3 confirmed visits to wineries and several drop in visits to enotecas.

I managed to find a passable airfare from San Francisco to Milan, then from Paris back to San Francisco for around $1500 on US Airways (I was traveling from Sienna to Champagne with a group of 7 other professors, so I had to fly back from Paris). As I had never flown on US Air and the stories I had heard were not positive, I was a little concerned about the trip. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was treated well, the planes were clean, and in every flight segment we actually arrived early. It also had the shortest flight time of any other airlines, with short layovers. On the flight from SFO to Philadelphia I was upgraded to first class, which was quite nice. When I boarded the Philadelphia/Milan segment, which was only 8 hours, I immediately took an Ambien and slept most of the trip. When I woke up, we were landing in 30 minutes and I was surprised to see that many of the seats were empty. I probably could have stretched out and slept on 3 seats if I hadn’t fallen asleep so quickly.

Arriving 30 minutes early in Milan however, was not a benefit, as I had to wait an hour and a half for the Hertz car-rental to open. I used the time to wash up, have breakfast, and eventually got my economy sized car. It was raining lightly as I left Milan and drove towards to Asti via the A4 and A26. It only took about an hour and half, and as I drove further south the sun came out. As I got closer, I decided to take the back roads to Asti and drive through the Monferrato on SR157 (I think?). It was beautiful with rolling hills, small villages, vineyards, sun flowers, and the beautiful snow-capped Italian Alps in the distance. No one had ever mentioned how beautiful Piedmont is. Instead I only heard about the cold and fog – or nebbia for the famous nebbiolo grapes. Now I knew better – I actually found Piedmont more beautiful than Tuscany (perhaps some people will think it is blasphemous to say so?).

Once in Asti, I stopped at the tourist center and picked up a map. Also grabbed some lunch and then headed into the hills to see the surrounding country side and try to find the Costiglione d’Asti, however when I arrived it was closed. Very disappointing. After that it was time to drive to Turin and pick up Janeen at the train station. Driving in Turin was NOT fun –but eventually I found the train station and Janeen. She loaded her backpack filled with Fruilian wine (she had spent the week biking in Fruili) into my car and we immediately headed back to Piedmont – about an hour drive.
Our first stop was the Enoteca Grinzane Cavour which is quite famous, because it is in an old Italian castle. In fact, most of the enoteca – places where you can taste and buy regional wine across Italy – are housed in old historic buildings. They are usually open from 9 to 5pm, but are closed one day per week – it is important to check in advance, because they all have different schedules regarding which day they are closed! We tasted about 4 wines. My favorite was an Arneis 2007, Deltetto S. Michelle with hay and grass notes and a refreshingly high acid. We also tried the 2004 Serralung-Massolino Barolo, which was light ruby color, like a pinot noir, with tart fruit and tar and rough tannins. A little too young to be drinking.

After that, we drove about 20 minutes to our hotel, checked in, and took a very fast shower. We wanted to walk to the Barolo Enoteca before it closed. It was a delightful 5 minutes walk up a cobblestone street from our hotel, and here we received much friendlier service and were able to taste 3 different Barolos side by side while sitting down at a table. The server also gave us a small educational lecture on Barolo and its 11 boroughs. She said there were 1200 producers with around 1400 hectares in vines. In general, they get 52 hectoliters per hectare, and the Barolos aren’t released until 3 years after harvest, with riservas released after 5 years. Most spend a minimum 2 years in older oak. Of the three wines we tasted, my favorite was Damilano Cannoloi Vineyard 2003 Barolo. It was spicy with dark fruit, earth and tar, as well as a nice long finish. Unfortunately it was also $56 Euros.

After that we wandered around the village and checked out the restaurants, but decided the one at our hotel had the best view. So we walked back and discovered we were an hour too early for dinner. Therefore we headed to the pool bar and found that they sold Favorita by the glass. I had read about this grape, but never tasted it, so I was very curious. It was a lovely pale straw color with a floral citrus nose and a high acid finish. I loved the nose, but found the bitter metallic finish a little strange. However, when we settled back into some lounge chairs near the pool with a beautiful view over the vineyards, and the waiter brought us a lovely plate of cheese, salami and bread, the wine was a perfect compliment. And as we sat there, relaxing in the now very sunny day, it turned into one of those perfect moments that you remember from a trip. Beyond the pool were the rippling green vines of Barolo, flowing up and down the hills. We could see small hilltop villages in the distance with castle turrets. The sky was a flawless blue and the air smelled crisp and fresh from the morning rain. Leaning forward, Janeen and I clicked glasses to make a toast to Barolo!

But the lovely day wasn’t over. Dinner on the terrace with the huge earthen ware pots of red geraniums tumbling over the wrought iron railing with the Barolo village and castle beyond was enchanting. As the sun slowly sank behind the hills, they lit candles on the tables. I ordered a beef dish to go with a glass of local Barolo, and Janeen ordered pasta with a Barbera. I thought about ordering a shaving of the famous white truffles with my meal, but they were an additional $22 Euros – yikes. I was glad I waited, because the next evening, we found a great free truffle tasting store in Alba. That night, however, I didn’t have any trouble falling asleep. We had packed a lot into one day, and it was amazing to think that I had arrived in Milan just that morning, and had also driven all the way to Turin and back – plus visited 3 enotecas!

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Bandol and the French Riviera- May 2 – 6, 2008

For our 23rd wedding anniversary, my husband flew to meet me in the South of France on his way to work in the Azerbaijan oil fields. We decided to stay in Bandol, on the French Riviera because they are known for the dark, earthy mourvèdre – one of my husband’s favorite wines. We left Montpellier on May 2nd and arrived in Bandol in about 2 hours. It was a lovely scenic drive and the weather was perfect.

Our condo was outside of the town about ten minutes and called Pierre & Vacances - Résidence Les Rivages de Coudouliere. It was on the sea, and had a nice kitchen, living room, small bedroom, and large balcony overlooking the pool. We went grocery shopping and then settled in to relax, wander along the water, took a nap, then had a lazy dinner at a restaurant on the beach.

The next morning we drove to Domaine Bunan and Ch. La Rouviere for a tour and tasting. They had wonderful red and roses, and a vineyard with multiple clones of mourvèdre. The hillsides were covered with wild flowers and red poppies, and it was delightful to be back in the sun and pure light of Provence.

We spent the rest of the day relaxing, and then drove the next day to visit St. Tropez, Cannes and Antibes. It was a long, but very scenic drive along the coast, with steep hillsides in some places and lovely white beaches in others. We had dinner in Antibes on the beach as the sun was setting – a huge bowl of fresh mussels and white flaky fish all washed down with a bottle of dry Provence rose. Very dreamy and romantic.

The next day more relaxation at the pool, hikes, and naps – then a wonderful anniversary dinner at a very cozy restaurant in Bandol called Le Restaurant de l'Auberge des Pins. The meal started with a glass of Champagne, and then we ordered a bottle of mourvèdre to go with the exquisite meal.

Driving back to Montpellier the next day, we drove through the Camargue to see the white horses and then had dinner with Francois and Anne that evening at their apartment. The next morning, we parted ways and I flew to London to stay overnight and visit some of the wine shops and grocery stores such as Tesco, Sainsbury, Oddbins and Majestic with Vicky. I took her to dinner, and she dropped me off at my Heathrow hotel where I collapsed into bed, looking forward to being spoiled by Virgin Airlines in their Upper Class Lounge the next morning before my flight back home to San Francisco. Thank goodness for airline miles!

The Medieval City of Carcassonne – Thurs., May 1, 2008

Thursday morning, I packed and then did a quick tour of the city of Bordeaux. It is much bigger than I thought, with a beautiful drive along the river and lovely old stone buildings and leafy plazas. Then I started the four hour drive back to Montpellier so I could meet my husband at the airport at 8pm. On the way, I stopped to visit the amazing ancient city of Carcassonne. It was hard to miss it, because you could see it from the toll way.

I’m glad I stopped, because it was a beautiful warm spring day, and the city was filled with tourists, wandering musicians, cute shops, and charming restaurants. The city itself was built in the 13th century and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is surrounded by huge stone walls and towers. Inside are tiny winding cobble-stone streets, stone buildings, and a beautiful old church. It is considered to be the most intact medieval city left in the world – and definitely worth a visit.

I had lunch in a sunny outdoor restaurant and savored a glass of red wine as I watched the crowds wander down the narrow street. Then I visited the church, and did some shopping to purchase gifts for people back home. I found the prices quite reasonable. It was a wonderful respite, before getting back on the expressway to arrive in Montpellier for the evening.

Sauternes and Chateau d'Arche – Wed. 4/30/08

I fell in love with the little village of Sauternes. I don’t remember anyone mentioning how charming it is, with its tiny streets, lovely old church and stone buildings set in the middle of the Semillon and sauvignon blanc vineyards. My appointment at Chateau d'Arche was equally delightful, as I met with the winemaker and hospitality manager. Chateau d'Arche is a second growth, but has a solid reputation for producing good sweet white wines. They also have a bed & breakfast, and encouraged me to stay there next time I visit. I think I will – I was so charmed by this area.

We started the tour in the vineyards and I learned how they pruned the vines and selected the botrytised grapes in multiple passes through the vineyard – resulting in a yield of only 17 hectoliters per hectare. The winemaker mentioned that L’Yquem picked to only 9 hectoliters per hectare! Next we toured the winery and I learned how complicated it is to produce Sauternes, with volatile acidity being a big problem because it take so long for fermentation to finish. They also had 2 basket presses to handle different grape quality. We tasted through a 04, 03, 02, and they were all great, but I was easily able to detect the higher concentration and longer finish in the higher quality wines. They were kind enough to give me a small bottle to take home.

Afterwards, I drove around Sauternes and took photos, stopping at Chateau L’Yquem and wishing I would have had time to schedule a visit. Next time…

Chat. Smith-Haut Lafitte – Wed. 4/30/08

My original plan was to visit Chateau Smith-Haut Lafitte and Sauternes on Thursday, but I discovered when I arrived in Bordeaux that most wineries would be closed because May 1 was a national holiday. Therefore, I had to scramble and telephone to make appointments at both wineries for Wednesday afternoon.

I gave myself enough time to have an elegant lunch at the famous Les Sources de Caudalie Hotel and Spa – which is next door to Chat. Smith-Haut Lafitte, and managed by one of the owner’s daughters. First I visited the Spa and picked up a brochure. It was surprisingly affordable, and I wished I would have had more time to spend the afternoon taking some treatments – but wine education is the first priority. The lunch was expensive and upscale, but it was nice to sit near a crackling fire in the dining room and look out over the vineyards.

When I arrived at Chat. Smith-Haut Lafitte, I was impressed by the lovely old building. The estate is in the middle of the 55 hectares of vineyards and specializes in both red and white Bordeaux, but I was visiting to primarily taste and focus on the white winemaking technique. I was surprised to learn that they made their Sauvignon/Semillon blend in a very similar fashion as a white burgundy with whole cluster press, debourbage, battonage, ferment in barrel, and aging in 50% new oak for one year. The result was excellent, and I was able to understand why the wines receive such high praise from wine critics around the world.

Chateau Margaux – Wed., 4/30/08

It took me three emails and several phone calls to get an appointment at Ch. Margaux, and I actually started the process a month in advance. Eventually they agreed that I could visit and I was very excited, though a little tired as I started out that morning in the rain. However, I had only driven one mile when disaster struck. As I slowed down to approach a roundabout, the car behind me rear-ended mine, and the person behind her, smashed her car – resulting in a 3 car collision. I think the rainy pavement caused the accident. Shaking, I pulled over and the other two cars followed me. Unfortunately neither of them spoke English and my French wasn’t good enough to communicate effectively. Both of their small cars were pretty messed up, but amazingly my larger Peugeot only had a small scratch on the back bumper and the license plate was crooked. Finally we decided to exchange phone numbers and insurance information. I told them I had an important appointment, and would call later. I didn’t want to miss Margaux!

Shaking, I got back in the car and drove slowly towards the Medoc. Fortunately I had given myself some extra time and still managed to arrive at the Chateau thirty minutes before my 10am appointment. I was met by the Hospitality/PR Manager who provided a wonderful private tour and tasting through the cellars. The property is so beautiful, and I was very impressed to see their private cooperage. After the tour, I met for thirty minutes with the charming and very eloquent Paul Pontallier, General Manager, who described the traceability process beginning with bar-coding baskets of grapes in the vineyard. Truly amazing.

On the way back from Margaux, I called the girl who rear-ended me and she had a friend who spoke English talk to me. He said she didn’t want to report it to her insurance and would meet me later that evening to fill out paper work, but she never showed up.

The Left Bank – Tuesday, 4/29/08

Another absolutely amazing day! I am so blessed to have such wonderful friends that they introduce me to people like Christian who is the international winemaker for Lafite. As arranged, he picked me up at my hotel at 8:30am and we headed north to the Medoc and our early appointment with Charles Chevallier at Chateau Lafite. What a tour! The place is amazing with splendid old cellars – both a first and second year cellar; huge impressive fermentation vats; and state of the art equipment. The vineyards are filled with gravel and are close to the river – as are all great vineyards on the Left Bank.

The tasting here was one of the best, with vertical comparisons of Lafite, Carrudes (the 2nd label) and Duhart-Milon (one of their many other estates) for 2007, 2004 and 1999. Of course, the 1999 Lafite stole the show with layers of dark fruit, black licourise, spice, a perfect balance and layers of complexity. Wow!

Next stop was Pichon Longueville (see photo) – one of the most beautiful chateau in Pauillac. One of the winemakers was our tour guide and I was extremely impressed with the circular tank room and two underground barrel rooms, as well as the new bottling line. We tasted 07’s and 06’s, and after begging, I was allowed to buy a bottle of the 2005.

Next stop was lunch at Lynch Bages new villages behind the winery with hotel, restaurant and shops. A nice new tourist destination. Christian ordered a bottle of his Argentina Malbec with lunch, and I tried not to drink too much because I knew we were touring the winery afterwards. First stop was the Lynch Bages museum which was fascinating with all of the old equipment. After the tour, we tasted 07’s, 06’s, and a 2004 Lynch Bages with 84% cab, which was my favorite. We ended with the 2007 Blanc de Lynch Bages which was incredibly refreshing with grapefruit and honey – 45% sauvignon blanc. I was surprised to end the tasting with a dry white, but they said it was the custom and helped to clear the red tannins. It turned out to be true!

On the way back to Bordeaux, Christian took a quick detour so I could see Château Cos d'Estournel in St. Estephe – just a few minutes up the road. We then drove by Latour and Mouton Rothchild, which I had visited on my previous trip. After a brief rest at my hotel, I drove the short 15 minutes to Christian’s house and met his lovely wife and daughter. They treated me to a memorable dinner including Krug sparkling and a bottle of Latour with the main course. Talk about a day in heaven!

Dreams Come True in St. Emilion – Monday, 4/28/08

Today was truly amazing. Even though it rained on and off, it was filled with so many great experiences that it didn’t matter. As arranged, I met Thierry (a friend of my co-author Tim Matz) in St. Emilion at 10am where I parked my car and jumped into his. As a native of the Right Bank, Thierry knew everyone in town and he was a fabulous tour guide. He was also good friends with the owners of L’Ausone – our first stop at 11am.

The tour and tasting of L’Ausone was perfect. Mr. Vauthier and his daughter explained the vineyard system and winemaking process, then allowed us to taste out of barrel the 2007 from En Primeur as well as 2006 in the second year barrel room. All of the wines were brimming with blackberry fruit, mocha, minerals, and velvety tannins with a very long finish. Extremely powerful, yet elegant wines of Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

The vineyards of Bordeaux are quite different from Burgundy with a Guyot Double pruning and wider spacing with around 6000 vines per hectare. The soil is gravel with clay, but the Right Bank also has more limestone – attested to by the many limestone caves beneath St. Emilion. Rootstock, yeasts, and winemaking are also quite different.

After the tour at L’Ausone, Mr. Vauthier treated us to a wonderful lunch at Le Tertre on a steep cobblestone street in town. We started with a bottle of aromatic 2006 Sancerre to go with two amuse bouches and a dream lobster salad that included the whole lobster artistically arranged in a circle around the lettuce. The main course was fish which we had with a big (slightly overpowering) 2005 La Fleur Cardinal St. Emilion Grand Cru. Dessert was a wonderful apple tart with ice cream followed by chocolate truffles and coffee. A truly scrumptious lunch!

Next stop was Cheval Blanc – a place I’ve always dreamed of visiting because of my love for Cabernet Franc. We were greeted by the technical manager who showed us the vineyards and winery; then we were allowed to taste the 2007 en Primeur blend of Cheval Blanc and Cheval Petite. Both had ripe fruit, plush tannins, and some violet aromas, but the Cheval Blanc obviously had more complexity, a longer finish, clearer acidity and some interesting spice. Both, however, needed much more aging time.

Afterwards we drove through the surrounding vineyards to view Petrus, Pavie, Le Pin, and other famous wineries before heading back into town to visit the Cloisters and engage in a walking tour of the city. This concluded at the doorway of Gracia – a famous and engaging garagist of the Right Bank. Michel Gracia , the owner and winemaker, was a delight with a charming sense of humor and a huge passion for winemaking and architecture. He has received numerous very high ratings from top wine critics around the world, and I called him the “King of Triage” because of his obsession of sorting grape by grape so that only the ripest and most perfect of berries make it into his final blend. This explains the perfection, exquisite fruit, and excellent balance of his wines.

It was difficult to end such a perfect day, but I was rather tired from all of the excitement. Thierry lead the way back to Bordeaux in his car, and I eventually settled -- exhausted but happy -- back into my hotel room around 7:30pm.

Driving from Beaune to Bordeaux – Sunday, 4/27/08

Since most businesses are closed in France on Sunday – with the exception of some restaurants and the gas stations on the tollways – it is a good day to travel. I left Beaune around 11am and made it to Bordeaux exactly in the 6.5 hours that Google Map said it would take. Tolls ended up costing around $30 Euros, but it was worth the fast smooth drive.

On the way out of town, I did have to take some of the smaller roads winding along the Saone River and through many little towns. It was charming, but quite slow as huge packs of bicyclers would hog the road. Once on the toll way, driving was fast – 130km per hour – and the French gas stations are huge, clean, and welcoming with lots of food, coffee, restrooms, and expensive gas. My little diesel car saved me some money on the trip, but it is still about double the price of our gas in the US.

Once in Bordeaux I found my apartment hotel, Cap Affairs, in an ugly industrial setting near the airport. It was not nearly as nice as my other apartment hotel and consisted only of a small studio with kitchen, rather than the 1 bedroom I thought I had reserved. However, there was no opportunity to change as there was no reception – even though I arrive around 5:30pm – and I had to call a number in Paris to get a code to open a lockbox and find my room key. Then when I headed to the grocery store to get milk and eggs for breakfast, I suddenly remembered they weren’t open. Therefore, I was forced to buy dinner at Quick – France’s version of McDonald’s. I got a cheese salad and chicken tenders, which I washed down with some of the excellent Chablis from the previous day, before settling in for the night for my big week in Bordeaux.

Sunny Chablis – Saturday, 4/26/08

Saturday dawned bright and sunny, and was the warmest day of the year so far – or so I was told. This was pleasing to me, because it was also my birthday and I was happy to drive on a bright Spring day the 1 hour north to the small village of Chablis were I had two appointments.

First stop was Domaine Grossot where I was able to see the unique pruning of Chablis called “Taille Chablis” (see photo). The vineyards are not as tightly spaced as Cote d’Or, and they have two canes instead of one. However, some of the new vineyards are now starting to adopt the style of their southern neighbors. The cellars were filled with stainless steel tanks with just a few oak barrels – to create the more steely style of Chablis. The wines were lovely – nice crisp acidity, tart apple, and lots of wet stone and cheesy-leesy character. I purchased a bottle here and also at La Chablisienne – the large cooperative which is considered to be the best in France. Very polished and professional tasting room, where I was able to try some of the Grand Crus as well.

Lunch was at a cute pub in the middle of town where everyone was sitting outside to soak up the sun. Wish I would have had more time in Chablis, but I am very glad I was able to visit. That afternoon I headed back to spend more time in the Cote d’Nuits and then meet Eric and Mao for my birthday dinner in Beaune (see previous post).

Driving Through the Famous Villages of the Cote d’Nuits - 4/25-26/08

I grabbed a few extra hours on both Friday and Saturday to drive around the Cote d’Nuits. Since it is only 18 miles long, it didn’t take long. I took the faster road up to Marsannay, and then slowly weaved my way through each of the little famous villages – taking pictures as I went: Fixin, Musigny, Gevry-Chambertin, St. Denis, Vougeot, Vosne-Romanee, a quick detour to Echezeaux, and Nuits St. George.

In Gevry-Chambertin, I stopped to buy a bottle of wine for Mike – since this is his favorite village. Driving around I saw a sign for Domaine Heresztyn saying “Ouvert.” Thinking it looked like a charming little winery in the middle of the village, I drove in and asked to taste. The owner only spoke French, so she called an American friend to help translate. Turns out she is the new VP of Marketing for Benzinger. Small world! We had a nice chat and plan to reconnect back home in Sonoma. I was also fortunate enough to be allowed to buy 3 bottles of the 2005 Premier Cru.

Another great stop was Clos de Vougeot – the famous home of the monks who laid out the grand vineyards of Burgundy in the 1100’s. I was amazed at the four huge wine presses and large wooden tanks that took up a huge portion of the Clos. I also spent some time in the vineyards outside soaking up the sun and meditating on what it would be like to be a monk working those fields.

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Vosne-Romanee & Lunch at La Tache – Friday, 4/25/08

Our appointment in Vosne-Romanee was at 2pm with the two sisters, Marie-Christine and Marie-Andree of Domaine Georges Mugneret. I arrived in the small charming village an hour in advance so I could grab a sandwich and bottle of sparkling water and drive out to the famous vineyards of La Tache and Romanee Conti. I found Romanee Conti first up the small road behind the church. It was exciting to see such a famous vineyard and even more special -- there was someone plowing with a horse and hand-plow further up the hill.

After watching for a while, I headed to La Tache and sat on the stone wall in the sun to eat my lunch. It was truly one of the most peaceful times on my trip to France, and I still remember the calmness that settled over me as I viewed those amazing old vines that give birth each year to one of the most expensive and famous wines in the world. The weather was partially sunny with wispy clouds, birds singing, and the sound of machine plows in the distance.

As I ate my sandwich and relaxed on the wall I noticed a second horse and plow further up the hill above La Tache. Then one of the strange looking blue machines actually came into La Tache vineyard. I watched astounded as its metal blades dug up the earth and re-deposited it around those famous old vines. What if his hand slipped on the wheel? What if he accidently ran over a vine? It was a job that I wouldn’t want.

Eventually I finished my lunch and drove the short distance to Domaine George Mugneret where I reconnected with Eric and Mao. The sisters were incredibly gracious and took us into the vineyards, through a tour of the cellars where we were able to see their amazing pigeage machine, and then we tasted some of the most heavenly wines I’ve ever had in my life. I’ve read that Vosne-Romanee wines are the jewel of the Cote d’Nuits, but I had never tasted one until today. Each wine – even the village level – was brimming with pure fruit; elegance; grace; and something magical.

As we moved up in level from village to premier to grand cru, my amazement only increased. The wines had escalating levels of complexity, and each was a joy to explore. In the end, I discovered so many elements in the last wine that I finally understood what others have written about a wine that mesmerizes. When I held it to my nose, I first had a whiff of earth and minerals; then on the tongue it turned into elegant cherry and raspberry fruit; next came vanilla, spices, and finally a hint of coffee – with a long finish of perfect tannins and a cleansing acid.

Of course they were sold out of everything, but it was still such a delight to taste those wines. As we headed out the door, we bumped into Robert Parker’s new Burgundy reviewer - coming to taste their wines. I am hopeful that he gave them some very positive scores.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Beaune & Pernaud Vergelesse– 4/25/08

The city of Beaune is a delight to visit with its old walled center, cobblestones, quaint shops, and wonderful restaurants. I was able to wander around the Hospices and see the amazing multi-colored tile roof and intricate architecture (see photo). I had two wonderful dinners in town – the first in a charming restaurant with melon colored walls where I had a tomato & zucchini gratin, veal, and a cream flan for dessert. The second was my birthday dinner with friends Eric and Mao in La Paradox restaurant. There I had the traditional Burgundy 4 course meal starting with escargot, then beef Bourgogne, cheese, and dessert. Of course all meals came with a wonderful glass of red burgundy – and sparkling Cremant de Bourgogne to start the meal on my birthday.

The first winery in the old town of Beaune was the famous Maison Champy with some of the oldest cellars dating from 1720. Eric and Mao joined me on my visits all day. Dimitri, the winemaker, immediately took us to the vineyards outside of town where we were impressed with the biodynamic practices they were implementing. Next we tasted 12 wines and toured the ancient cellars. All of Dimitri’s wines are very international in style with pronounced tropical fruit and creamy lees in the whites and soft cherry and spice in the reds. Maison Champy is very successful in selling their wines around the world. We tasted through Beaune village, Pernard Vergelesse, Savigny Les Beaunes, Pommards, Volnays, St. Romain, Meursault, and ended with a fabulous 2006 Corton-Charlemagne Grand Cru. This had a very long finish, pineapple, mango, minerals, and vanilla.

A second winery in Cote d’Beaune was Domaine Rollin Pere et Fils in the small village of Pernaud Vergelesse. Here the owner only spoke French, so it was nice to have Eric there to translate. Again we started in the vineyards and toured the cellars. We enjoyed seeing how he tested the barrels to see if malolactic was finished and kept track of everything on a large wall chart. The wines were lovely and I purchased a 2005 red Premier Cru which was both elegant and fruity for $17E. I was torn because the whites were exquisite with a streak of pure minerality and acid dancing around the apple/pear fruit – but I can only take so much wine back on the plane. Remy also let us taste a 2006 Grand Cru Corton-Charlemagne (he owns an excellent parcel in this vineyard) and a 1986 Pernaud Vergelesse out of magnum. He sold about 35% of his wine direct from his cellar, so this was a great place for visitors to stop, taste, and purchase. So many of the famous wineries do not have wine to purchase as they export most of it and sell only through brokers and negotiants.

The last winery I visited in Beaune was the 3rd largest winery in France – Maison Bouchart-Aine. Cecile at Sopexa was kind enough to obtain an invitation for me to attend a lovely wine & food pairing there at 6pm. They had a fascinating sensory tour consisting of aromas to smell, textures (fabrics to feel), and colors to see – all reflecting wine. The pairings were quite unique, and we started with red wines paired primarily with seafood – such as my favorite: 2003 Grand Cru Echezeaux paired with lobster – and ended with whites paired with meat. Rather avante-guard – but perhaps they were trying to be controversial in trying unique new pairings. All of the wine and food was lovely. Nathalie, the PR director, gave me two of their famous wine posters of aromas and colors in wine glasses to share with my students. A very thoughtful and useful gift.

A final note on wine-tasting in France: at least 6 of the wineries I visited in both Burgundy and Bordeaux began the tasting with reds and ended with whites. This is completely opposite of what we do in the US, but they all insisted it is a better way to taste, because the crisp acidity and fresh fruit of the dry whites cleanses your palate after the big tannic reds. Guess what – it actually worked quite well! Perhaps we should reconsider our tasting order in the US.

Pommard & Volnay- 4/24/08

I visited Domaine Cyrot-Buthiau in Pommard for a 4:00 to 5:30 appointment. Oliver is a small producer of Pommard and Volnay, but his wine shop and cellars are in the small village of Pommard. His wife helps run the wine shop and also sells home-made stuffed toys such as adorable ducks, geese, and teddy bears. She told me that she likes to keep busy while waiting for wine customers, so her sewing machine and ironing stand are in the shop with the wine. Very charming, and a great place for tourists to stop and buy both wine and unique gifts.

Oliver immediately put me in his truck and we went out to visit all of his vineyards scattered around the town. He has 7 hectares ranging from a 1914 vineyard to 1938, and some newer ones. His vines are on the traditional Single Guyot with 4 to 6 buds per vine. While in the vineyard he picked up a handful of clay and limestone to show me what makes Burgundy soil so unique (see photo).

Next we visited the cellars and I saw that he was making all of his wines in the large wooden foudres and then aging in barrel for 12 months. We tasted 3 2007’s out of barrel and then went back to the shop to taste 7 more wines – 2006 and one 2005, that was fabulous. Of course, he is sold out of 2005.

We spend some time talking about the difference between Volnay and Pommard. He said Pommard is much more powerful and requires at least 5 years in bottle before drinking, whereas Volnay is softer with perfume and more feminine. The young Volnays I tasted here, and the next day, however, were not that soft. They were highly structured with strong tannins and high acid. Perhaps they were just too young. The Pommards were all big with strong tannins and dark fruit. I really enjoyed meeting with Oliver, his wife and daughter. They hope to export more wine to the U.S.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Montrachet & Meursault – Thurs., 4/24/08

This was a busy day with 4 winery appointments on my calendar and no detailed map. Fortunately all were quite close to Beaune, and I was able to drive into each little village and either find the name of the winery on a sign or stop and ask someone for help. In the first village of Meursault, I had to go into a tobacco shop and ask for directions. The very kind man drew me a map to arrive at Domaine Henri Germain et Fils. The owner only spoke French, but we managed quite fine as I had already translated all of my questions into French and can generally follow what people are saying. Our first stop was the vineyard where I learned that almost everyone in Burgundy uses the single guyot system of pruning with 4 to 6 buds -- top producers limiting to 4 buds with 4 bunches per vine. We then toured the cellars and tasted through 7 wines. They had more minerality and higher acidity than Macon. I ended up buying the 2006 Meursault-Charmes Premier Cru for $35E.

Next stop was the very famous village of Puligny-Montrachet where I visited Domaine Louis Carillon et Fils. This conversation was also in French, but we immediately went to the cellars and tasted out of barrel as we went through the interview. I had a great time and he showed me how to do battonage and light the sulfur wicks for barrel cleaning. The wines here were incredible, with layers of complexity (fruit, minerality, spice), concentrated, racy flavors and a very long finish. He had sold out of all 2005 and 2006, but I was still able to taste many of the 2006’s and some of the 2007 out of barrel. We tasted 9 wines, ending with the 2006 Batard Montrachet Grand Cru selling for $70 euros. It was very elegant with minerality, high acid, and a long finish. Afterwards I drove around the village and took photos of the 4 grand cru vineyards outside the town – including the very famous Le Montrachet vineyard. They are all marked with signs and have lovely stone walls around them.

For lunch, I headed back to Beaune and checked into my new apartment hotel called Golf Garden in the small village of Levernois – 3k from Beaune. It was a wonderful large, sunny apartment with a balcony where I had lunch and could see the golf course. The day had turned very warm and sunny, and I was very happy to be in such a beautiful place.

After lunch, I drove to my 3rd appointment in Chassagne-Montrachet (30 min from my hotel) and had a delightful visit at Domaine Bernard Moreau with Alexandre. He spoke English and we immediately went into the vineyard where I was able to learn all of the technical details. Next was the full cellar tour and then a tasting of 9 wines (spitting of course), including an Aligote which I had never tried before (citrus, mineral, high acid, very refreshing). My favorite was a 2006 Premier Cru Grande Rochettes for $35E. Unfortunately, he was over-allocated and I could not buy any wines. We also tasted 2 pinots which I thought were wonderful with strawberry floral nose, velvety texture and good balance with refined tannins. The 2006 Premier Cru – Le Cardeauses was a great value at $22E, but he said it is more difficult to sell pinot noir from Chassange, since the village is known more for chardonnay – despite the fact that they make 50% pinot.

We ended the visit with a discussion of the difference between the villages, and he said he viewed Chassagne-Montrachet as having more power, structure and fruit; whereas Puligny-Montrachet is known for elegance, minerality and pure fruit. I would add that the Meursault were broader with slightly lower acidity and more apple flavors. Then I headed to Pommard for my last appointment (see next blog).

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Magical Macon & Mercury – Wed., 4/23/08

Wednesday morning was cloudy with light rain, but I packed the car and headed north to the Macon. It was less than an hour’s drive from my hotel outside of Lyon. Macon is a pretty magical land with rolling hills, tiny villages tucked into the folds, and some very famous cliffs – such as the Rocks of Vergisson (see photo).

The only downside of Macon is very poor signage. Their two most famous villages – Pouilly and Fuisse are almost impossible to find. The roads twist and turn with very few signs. Finally after 45 minutes of driving in circles – and find the rock and village of Vergisson by mistake – I finally asked someone for directions. Eventually I arrive in the small village of Fuisse for my first appointment – a good 30 minutes late.

This was not a problem for the owner of Domaine Christopher Cordier, however, and we had a lovely tour of the cellars, viewed the vineyards outside, and tasted some wonderful ripe apple, full Macons –all chardonnay, of course. Chris won winemaker of the year in 2005 and makes very high quality wine which he exports around the world. Indeed, he had run out of wine to sell.

Lunch was in the famous village of Cluny where I was able to see parts of the ancient and largest cathedral outside of Rome. Very impressive town. Afterwards I drove through the hills to the small town of Vire where I visited Domaine Sainte-Barbe and was able to spend much time in the lovely 60 year old organic vineyards. Jean-Marie even let me taste his rare boytrised chardonnay.

Last stop was Mercury where I visited Domaine Dumeix-Foulart where Agnes had built an impressive new cellar painted in red and pinks tones. She specialized in both pinot noir and chardonnay and we tasted through her wines. She bottle ages up to 2 years and enjoys “taking her time to make good wine.”

Around 6pm, I arrive in Beaune to check into my hotel – Hotels Stars. Immediately I tried to find a new hotel, because it was not a place to stay for 4 days. I lasted one night and moved the next morning to a lovely place (see next blog for details). However, had a wonderful dinner in old town Beaune and was amazed to see how large the town had become since Mike and I last visited in 1992.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Castles in Beaujolais – Tues, 4/22/08

Today it felt like I entered a fairytale as I drove around the very charming and quaint villages of Beaujolais. I had been invited to attend the professional tasting event of Rendezvous-Beaujolais (www.rendez-vous-beaujolais.com) which was held at four different castles (chateaux). The weather wasn’t great – mainly cloudy, but it didn’t rain. The drive was only 20 minutes from my hotel, so it was an easy commute.

First stop was Chat. de Pizay which was tasting Morgon (my favorite), as well as Chiroubles, and Chenas. All 4 estates were tasting Beaujolais-Villages and Beaujolais. Each offered a free lunch as well. The whole program was very professionally organized. I was even interviewed for a customer service survey before I left for the day. I tasted (spit) MANY wines and have notes on all of them, but a few that stood out are listed below. There is no way I could have visited all 160 wineries represented.

Next stop was Chat. De Corcelles (see photo) which was tasting Moulin-a-Vent (the famous windmill), Julienas, and Saint Amour. I also had lunch here and fell in love with another cheese (they had at least 10 to sample) from Touraine which was a chevre in a long log with a pole in the middle and sprinkled with gray ash. It melted in your mouth. Lunch was a stand-up affair as is common at professional tastings, but as it was in France, it was quite good – salad, duck, pates, desserts, etc.

I then drove around to see the villages of Morgon, Fleurie (where I stopped at the church to light a candle), Brouilly, and Moulin-a-Vent. The whole area is like stepping into a picture book – rolling hills covered with tiny tightly spaced grapevines and charming villages with friendly people. I want to go back on a sunny day.

The next chateau was des Ravatys with its orangery where they were tasting Brouilly and Cote-de Brouilly. It was here that I was able to really tell the difference between the two. Brouilly is much lighter and fruitier, whereas Cote-de-Brouilly is more intense and concentrated. In fact, I met a lovely gentleman at Chat. De Corcelles who gave me his personal tasting scheme on the Beaujolais Cru which I found to be completely accurate. He classified them into 3 categories:

Level 1: - Light and Fruity. To be enjoyed as a glass of wine without food: Brouilly, Chiroubles, and Regnie
Level 2: Medium intensity with fruit. To be enjoyed alone or with small food bites. Cote de Brouilly, Julienas, Fleurie, Saint-Amour
Level 3: Big, intense, more tannic and earthy. Must drink with food: Morgon, Moulin-a-Vent, Chenas.

I also found the vintages quite different. 2007 is fruity and concentrated; 2006 is still tight and rather tart (should age well); 2005 is an excellent vintage with complex flavors and a long finish. Many people think Beaujolais will only last 1 to 3 years, but some of the crus I tasted were fermented only semi-carbonic and then fermented in a regular fashion, as well as aged in oak. They were quite different from the bubble-gum Nouveau Beaujolais that is primarily represented in the market. Also tasted some lovely chardonnays and roses.

A few wineries I really enjoyed:
· Chat.de Belleverne (not in US market yet) – offered a fresh, fruity 2007 St Amour, an intensely cherry 07 Julienas, and a wonderful big, highly structured Moulin a Vent 2007.
· Jambon Martine et Guenauel – Morgon, Cote du PY 2006 – big, dusty traditional wine that I loved. Also had some 80 year old semi-carbonic with barrel aging that was huge and concentrated.
· Christian Dix Vin Beaujolais – nice 2007 rose; excellent 2006 Morgon and Chiroubles from old vines with a long finish.
· P. Ferraud et Fils – really liked their 2006 Moulin-a-Vent with good structure, tannins, and long finish.
· Domaine de Bel-Air 2006 Brouilly – a classic with pretty fruit, floral and nice acid. Very feminine and refreshing.
· Chat. Pierreux – 2006 Mommessin – big concentrated Brouilly. Seemed more like the Cote rather than Brouilly.
· Finally, Beaujolais from Cave du Bois d’Oingt where I spoke with the winemaker who introduced me to his range of wines with very attractive labels (at least for the US and UK market). All of the wines were good – from the refreshing and perfumed 2006 chardonnay, to the strawberry-nosed rose to the 2006 La Rose Poupre, which was aged 7 months in oak with complex flavors, spice and a long finish.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Cote Rotie & Condrieu – Mon., 4/21/08

An excellent wine tasting day! I managed to make my 9am appointment at Guigal in Ampuis right on time. Two Americans from Arizona and two Australians from Brisbane were on the tour with me. We had a fabulous 2 hour tour of the cellars and saw every piece of equipment, and learned every process. The most amazing part was the quality system used to evaluate fruit as it came to the receiving docks. Another interesting note is that the high-end single vineyard wines are aged 42 months in 100% new oak!

The tour was followed by an incredible tasting of 11 wines, with the last two being the very famous La Mouline from the Cote Blonde and La Turque from the Cote Brune. They were both 2004 vintage and excellent. The La Mouline included 11% viognier with the syrah. It was filled with dark berries, elegance, complexity and a slight perfumed note. The La Turque was dark, brooding, with coffee, tea and dark chocolate notes. It was 7% viognier. Both had great balance with huge tannins, good acid, and a long finish. They fit their namesakes well – with the ancient legend of the Cote Rotie hills being owned by a man who had two beautiful daughters – one a blond and the other a brunette. The lighter colored hill was names for the blond and said to produce lighter, more fruit forward wines to match her sunny nature. Whereas the darker soiled hillside was name for the brunette and produces more complex and deeper flavors to fit the quieter nature of the brunette. (see video)

Most Cote Rotie wines are a mix of both Cote Brune and Cote Blond, but in exceptional vintages they will make the famous single vineyard wines which sell for over 100 Euros. This vintage was $120E. All of the wines were delightful, but these two stole the show. I also enjoyed the 04 Cote Rotie Chat. D’Ampuis, the 03 Cote Rotie, and 05 Crozes-Hermitage, and a beautiful 2006 Contrieu. The latter was 100% Viognier with a honeysuckle nose, honey palate, viscous with a long finish and refreshing acidity. Really lovely.

Next step was Domaine Ogier, a small winery run by son Stephane and father Michel. Stephane was kind enough to provide a tour of the complete cellar, a tasting, and then take me to lunch at the excellent Restaurant Caves du Vigerons on the main street in Ampuis. It was wonderful to visit a small winery and listen to Stephane’s passion about his wine. The family has 11 hectares, including Cote Rotie, Condrieu and some excellent Vin de Pays which are borderline with the AOC. Stephane’s wine is such high quality that he sells out within a month or two of release. He also consistently receives high scores from Parker.

We tasted many 2007’s out of barrel and the vintage is wonderful – very concentrated with lush berry flavors. They lost a portion of the fruit to bad weather, but what they did harvest was high quality. Stephane also sells his single vineyard Cote Rotie for $120Euros a bottle.

At lunch we tasted 4 current wines – beginning with an excellent 2006 Viognier which was highly perfumed with honeysuckle and pear, soft and creamy from the ML, but not over blown and fat like some can get. We also had his excellent 2006 Syrah Vin de Pays which are fruit-forward, international in style and very approachable. They sell quite well in fine restaurants throughout France. My favorite was his 2005 Cote Rotie which was 60% Brune and 40% Blonde and showed in the wine. It was “big” and concentrated, and I loved the rich complex flavors of dark berries, spice, pepper, and a little game on the finish. Unfortunately, he is sold out, but there is still some left in fine wine shops around the world.

Lunch at the restaurant made it impossible for me to eat the rest of the day. We started with a salad with ham and warm chevre. The main course was a melt-in-your-mouth leg of lamb with haricots, petite potatoes, and mushrooms. This was followed by warm chocolate brownie and ice cream, plus coffee. Wow!

Last stop was George Vernay in Condrieu where I was hoping to taste some more Viognier before heading back, but they were sold out. Driving back I decided to stop in Lyon. I managed to find the “old city,” but then got helplessly lost. There was also no parking to be found and it started to rain. Deciding this was a sign, I headed back to my apartment, stopping for a few items at the store. Since I was so full from lunch, tonight’s dinner was mushroom soup, cheese, and a glass of Clairette de Die. This is another wine from the Northern Rhone which I’ve never tasted before. I bought the Jaillance which is a top producer in Die (south of Hermitage) and it was only $6 Euros. It is a sweet sparkling wine made of muscat and clairette – very similar to Asti Spumante – and very enjoyable! A good way to end a great day of Northern Rhone wine-tasting.

Hermitage, Crozes-Hermitage & St. Joseph – Sun., 4/20/08

Sunday is a tough day in France because most everything is closed – even Auchan, the large supermarket. I slept in late – my first day to do so and didn’t leave my cozy apartment until 1:30. Heading north, I decided to find Guigal in Ampuis so I wouldn’t be late for my 9am Monday morning appointment. I was pleased to find I made the drive in 30 minutes taking the A6 through Lyons.

Ampuis was very charming and I drove up into the steep vineyards and took pictures of Cote Brune and Cote Blond (see Cote Rotie video). Since I had free time, I decided to drive the wine route from Ampuis through Condrieu, the tiny AOC of Ch. Grillet, and the vineyards of St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage, until I finally arrived in the twin towns of Tain and Tournon which is the heart of Hermitage. The complete drive took about 45 minutes, winding through charming little towns with the Rhone on one side and very steep vineyards on the other.

It wasn’t until I crossed the Rhone to the Tournon side that I could see the famous Hermitage hill with the small chapel. When I went to Chapoutier – which is amazingly open 7 days a week (as well as the Cave de Tain-l’Hermitage) – they told me the romantic story of the hermit who lived in the chapel on the hill was invented by the British for marketing purposes. They said the real French spelling was Ermitage, without the “h” and that is why they list their highly expensive single vineyards wines as “Ermitage” on the bottle instead of “Hermitage.” (At first I thought it was a typo!)

The visit to Chapoutier was lovely and I ran into 4 Californians there as well on vacation. They took the photo of me at the tasting bar. Chapoutier has a great display of all the soil types from the various appellations and it was easy to see the difference. All of their company owned vineyards are biodynamic, but they also source grapes from others. Like many of the larger houses they sell wines from both the Northern and Southern Rhone.

They have 5 different levels of wine. I focused my tasting on Hermitage, St. Joseph and Crozes-Hermitage. From the Fac&Spera collection, I had the 2004 De L’Oree which is a biodynamic marsanne with great intensity; and the 2005 St. Joseph Les Granits red and white. From the Prestige collection, I tried the 2005 red Hermitage La Sizeranne, which was my favorite and the one I bought, as well as the 2005 white Hermitage Chante-Alouette, which was exquisite, and the Crozes Hermitage Les Meysonniers 2006. I also had the 2005 white and red St. Joseph Deschants. This region is quite easy to understand, because all of the reds are Syrah and the whites are primarily Marsanne. They are allowed to use Roussane, but rarely do because it is difficult to grow. They explained the production and aging process to me, and I greatly enjoyed my visit.

On the way home I tried to have a light dinner in Touran, but as it was only 6pm all of the restaurants were closed. They said I could have a drink, but no food until 8pm. Therefore, I drove back to my Lyon suburb and had a quick dinner at a pub style restaurant – steak, fries, and a salad (not very French).

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Recommending Citea Residences in France

My hotel apartment outside of Lyon is quite nice. It is called Citea Lissieu and is about 10 minutes north of Lyons. I didn’t want to stay in Lyons because I didn’t want to drive in the city. This place is quite nice, clean, and new. I have a living room, kitchen, bath, and bathroom – 4 rooms in all. It has Internet, a swimming pool, breakfast for $7 Euros if you want it, and a laundry. Plus I got a great price and one night free on Hotels.com.

Unfortunately I got very lost following the Google Earth Map instructions to find the hotel, and wish I would have just drove to Lissieu instead. If I had, I would have saved at least an hour and A6 tolls going the wrong way. As it was, I met lots of people stopping to ask for directions. Two guys drew me a map at one point; but finally a lady in a grocery store found a customer who spoke English and together they got me to the hotel.

Once I arrived I understood why it was difficult to find, because it really it like a very nice apartment complex instead of a hotel. There is a private gate which requires a remote control. There are flowers and trees in bloom, and it is painted in lovely colors. A very nice place to relax at the end of the day.

In Praise of French Cheeses

I am so amazed at the wonderful price of cheese in France. As I headed north towards Lyons, I stopped at a grocery store near Avignon because I knew I may not have time later. It was called Intermarche and is a chain. I purchased a gold medal award winning St. Aubin Brie for only $2.67 (large cheese in photo); two Crottin chevres totally $1.94, and a long thin pork sausage for $1.27. These were not even the special cheese in the glass case – they were regular cheese in the everyday case. And yet when I tasted them that evening with a glass of wine (that was dinner, because I was still full from lunch), I was amazed at the quality. Low cost, but excellent flavor! Wish we could get cheeses like this at home for these prices!


My tour of the winery was lovely. On the way in, I observed and took photos of the vineyards with their very small tightly spaced vines in the stony soil. Once at the winery, I was taken on a private tour of the cellar with all of the processes explained, and then tasted through the two recent vintages of whites and reds, as well as one special taste of a 1991 Chat. La Nerthe Rouge. It was spicy and earthy with cloves, and amazingly made of 42% Mouvedre. I ended up purchasing the 2003 (2005 had not yet been released in reds), because it was much more approachable than the 2004’s – and I couldn’t afford the older vintages that were available.

Probably the most surprising fact about the wines were how different the composition of each vintage. Obviously by law, they can use 13 different grapes, but it is QUITE different based on the year. For example, the 2003 which I purchased was 47% Grenache, 26% Syrah, 20% Mouvedre, 5% Cinsault, and 2% other grapes. 64% of the wine went through pigeage (punch downs); fermentation and extended maceration lasted 17 days, with 35% being aged in oak, 54% in foudres (large oak tanks) and 11% in cement tank. These numbers change dramatically – depending on what is needed for each vintage. The very high end wine – Cuvee des Cadettes – which starts at $60 Euros and up, is aged 100% in oak barrels which are about 30% new. My visit was very pleasant and I was given a gift of the chateaux olive oil when I departed.

CHATEAUNEUF DE PAPE – Lunch at Chat. Des Fines Roches

I arrived in Chateauneuf de Pape via Avignon and found it as enchanting as I did the other 2 times I have visited. Since I have been here before and visited wineries both in and outside the town, as well as Gigondas and Beaumes des Venise, I decided to just visit one special winery this time – Chat. La Nerthe. I arrived early to make sure I knew where it was, and then found a restaurant right next to it at Chateau Des Fines Roches.

This chateau looks just like an ancient castle (see photo), and I actually visited the winery there in 2000 with my mother and Zia. I remembered the estate because it has a very nice hotel and restaurant. Hoping I could get in without a reservation, I stopped and found they had one table left. I order the prix fixe menu at $25 Euros and found it to be an excellent value.

For the price, I received an appetizer of local olives, tapenades, crackers, and chips. The salad course was fresh dorado fish with grilled fennel; the main course was grilled duck with mushrooms and risotto, and it was followed by coffee with a small plate of dessert cookies and brownies. The lunch also came with my choice of red, white, or rose Cote de Rhone. I chose rose, hoping it would be lower alcohol than Tavel – but it wasn’t. Still quite good, but I couldn’t finish it. A very lovely and elegant lunch at a beautiful place.


I left Chateau Chirac and drove to Tavel – about a 1:15 minute drive, and on the way went through Uzes. I was going to stop and explore, but as it was Saturday morning, the town was mobbed due to market. I knew if I stopped, I would have trouble making my appointments. So I head to Tavel and went to Les Vignerons de Tavel which is open every day to the public. There I was able to taste the famous roses of Tavel – much larger, rounder, and higher alcohol than roses of Provence – and learn how they were made. I also tasted a Lirac blanc and rouge and found them rather rustic – mineral on the white and “animale” on the red. The town of Tavel is adorable and I walked around a bit, before heading to Chateauneuf de Pape.


On Friday evening, Francois led the way from the University through Montpellier to Chateau Chirac – his wife’s (Anne) family estate. It was about a one hour drive through the rain and on the way we stopped at a tasting room in Pic St. Loup to take a short break and watch them fill up people’s take-home plastic gallons of wine. The Chateau is near the town of Uzes, but is in the country. It was built in the 1800’s by Anne’s great grandfather and has been passed down through the family.

It was a lovely old Chateau built in the traditional stone with a tower and blue shutters. There are two large iron entry gates with posts, and outlying buildings attached to the chateau so it appears to be a small village. They rent out some of the buildings and have remodeled the barn to be a lovely house. The Chateau is reserved for the large family on holidays. There are also about 60 hectares of land which used to be under vine, but is now primarily wheat and orchards.

They used to have a winery there that was known for its great red wine. Francois has now sold the winery to a Belgian who makes equally good wine, primarily from syrah and mouvedre. We had a bottle with dinner which was chicken with tomato and a lovely zucchini a gratin for which I got the recipe (cut and saute zucchini in olive oil and garlic, then put in a baking dish and cover with béchamel sauce. Then grate gruyere cheese on top. Cook until cheese melts and is a golden brown.) Next course was a green salad, then a cheese course, followed by a flourless chocolate cake. We also had a bottle of the old vine carignan that I brought from Famille Lignares with dinner. I should mention we started with a glass of my Vin Jaune and tapenade appetizers. After dinner, we had tea with local honey by the fire. A huge storm blew in and rattled the windows with rain, thunder and lightning. Anne’s father, mother, and brother joined us for the meal.

The next morning was bright and sunny and I walked around the grounds taking photos (some included with this blog). Breakfast was café au lait in a bowl with toast and homemade jams and chocolate chestnut jelly. Francois said the locals used to live off the chestnuts in the mountains. The area is also known for mulberry trees and silkworms – similar to Lyons. On the third floor of the chateau, Francois showed me a room that had been used to raise silkworms. It had a fireplace in each corner to keep them warm. He said they fed them mulberry leaves and then when they cocooned, locals would slowly extract the silk and weave fine fabrics.
The experience at the chateau was magical and one that I will treasure for a long time to come. To have the opportunity to stay in such a magical place with a real French family was very special.

Friday, April 18, 2008

The Famous Wine Ladies Statue

Last time I visited the University of Montpellier in July of 2006 to attend a wine conference, I encountered this intriguing statue. It depicts a younger woman holding and soothing an older woman. For days I kept asking people what it meant, but it wasn't until the last day that I found someone who knew the story of the statue.

It is a representation of France and America helping one another with viticulture. When France's vineyards were dying of phylloxera in the 1800's, America gave them American rootstock which is resistant to the disease. So the majority of France's vineyards were replanted on American rootstock with French clones. The older woman depicts France as ill and dying, whereas the younger woman illustrates America coming to help and sooth. It is a very touching story. The only piece that is left out is the fact that America was actually responsible for bringing phylloxera to France in the first place.

Regardless, I think it is a beautiful representation of the bond between France and the USA. There is a long history of love/hate between the two countries...but love seems to prevail. After all it was France who gave America the Statue of Liberty.


The last few days I’ve been interviewing French students at the University in Montpellier. It has been fascinating learning their views on wine and why wine consumption has dropped so dramatically in France. The weather was nice (in the high 60’s and sunny) on Tuesday and Wednesday, and I was able to explore the city and have a nice dinner on Wednesday evening. Montpellier was established in the 900’s by the Dukes of Toulouse and has some fascinating arched structures, impressive mansions, and an old city center where no cars are allowed. It is filled with plenty of outdoor cafes, restaurants, and shops to explore.

I had dinner at a small charming restaurant called La'Colyte that sold local wines by the glass and had a great jazz piano player. I dined with Guitier, a wine student, who acted as guide and showed me the local wine shops. Dinner was filet mignon of porc with a great local red with leather and “animal” notes. In one of the wine shops, Gautier helped me locate a bottle of Vin Jaune from the Jura – a wine I have been wanting to taste for a long time. It is yellow colored and oxidized with a sherry-like nose, but tastes of nuts, dried apples, orange rind and has a refreshing acidity with about 14% alcohol. Very intriguing. The more I tasted it, the more it grew on me.

Today – Thursday – is cold and rainy. It was a good day to do my lecture on American wine marketing and let the students taste 6 popular American wines. I’m impressed with the caliber of the Montpellier wine students, who are pursuing the equivalent of a Masters degree. Most of them speak at least 3 languages. Tomorrow I attend more lectures and do some final research, before heading to Francois’s chateaux north of the city to visit his winery, have dinner and stay the night with he and his wife.


On Tuesday I drove one hour SW of Montpellier to visit Famile Ligneres Winery near Corbierres. It was a wonderful visit with owners Anne and Jean. They provided an excellent tour of the vineyards where they specialize in growing Grenache, Carignan, Mouvedre and Syrah for reds, and Rousanne, Grenache Blanc and Vermintino for whites. They have 200 acres – all dried farmed and organic. Some of the soil is quite rocky (see photo), with dramatic mountains rising behind. They are about 30 minutes from the Mediterranean.

Currently they export about 90% of their wine to the USA where they have received scores of 92+ from Wine Spectator and Advocate. The red wines all have concentrated fruit flavors with plush, velvety tannins and higher alcohol levels. They are now looking to export to other countries and sell more wine directly in France.

The most unusual element to the winemaking, and perhaps what makes the wines so delicious, is the fact that they age for 12 to 16 months in 20% new French oak, but only top up the wines once during that time with no racking. They let all of the wines age on the gross lees, which are transferred from fermentation tanks to barrel. A unique barrel turning device allows them to rotate the barrels in order to stir the lees without opening the bungs. They also protect with nitrogen gas. The result is a wine of very concentrated fruit, dense color, and smooth tannins.

I was impressed with the international character of the wines and will seek them out in the USA market. Prices range from $15 to $30 – depending on the program level. I tasted three vintages – from 2004 to 2006. All were excellent, but the 2005’s (which have not yet been released) are even more impressive with very long finish and layers of complex fruit and mineral. See http://www.familleligneres.com/ for more information.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008


It’s hard to believe but I’ve had 2 great neck & shoulder massages within the last 24 hours – and they both were free! The first was with Virgin as part of their Upper Class service. Not only do they give you great martinis and full meals in their lounge (I had pork tenderloin with grilled fennel – lovely), but once on board, they give you pajamas, down comforters and pillows, seats that turn into flat beds, more than 60 movies to watch, and free massages! When I worked in industry I was able to fly business class on other airlines, such as United, Continental, British Air, and American – and none of them were as generous as Virgin. What a treat!

The second massage just occurred in the Air France lounge in Paris. I stopped by the massage booth to ask how much they were and was told “gratitude” – or free! So I had a wonderful free 15 minute neck and shoulder massage, and received a free sample of Clarin’s products. Apparently it is a joint promotion by Air France and Clarin’s. Very nice of them. Makes me think even more positively about both brands.

So now I’m relaxed and getting ready for the final leg of my trip – an hour and a half flight down to Montpellier.