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!