Sunday, August 30, 2009

Visiting Champion Dragon Winery (Guanlong) in Heshuo, China

(8/21/09) Champion Dragon Winery is located in a modern industrial looking building and produces 6000 tons, with most of it being sold off in bulk. They produce 10,000 bottles on their own, uniquely specializing in chardonnay and the unusual malvasia we tried the evening before. Pricing ranges from 80 to 200 RMB. They were harvesting the chardonnay when we arrived, and we noticed that they pick rather early – at 22 brix. Some of the grapes appeared to be slightly unripe, and we didn’t see any sorting. However, the chardonnay we tasted out of tank (after only 1 day of fermentation) was fresh, crisp with sharp apple and some citrus. It was simple and uncomplicated with no ML at this point; no oak; and no lees stirring. All of it was to be shipped in large tankers to wineries in other parts of China where it would be mixed into different brands, with perhaps some oak aging. They employ 20 full-time employees and 100 at harvest.

A unique feature of this winery were its floors made of marble in the tank rooms. Marble is another of the major products of the region (along with oil, coal, jade and gold mining), and it is used extensively in hotels and other facilities. It was beautiful, but as we were exiting, one of the Chinese officials slipped and almost took a nasty fall because the red marble floor was wet from winemaking cleaning procedures.

Vineyards and Wineries in Heshuo, Xinjiang, China

(8/21/09) The next morning we met at 9am in the lobby and then drove to the restaurant – scene of the banquet from the night before. Breakfast is more challenging for me to eat in China than other meals, because they eat a lot of vegetables and a milky rice porridge that reminded me of cream of wheat. Fortunately they also served hard boiled eggs, doughy white buns, and fresh melon and grapes which I ended up eating all 8 days for breakfast. They also serve green tea mixed with salty soy milk, which is a little difficult to get used to. Kindly, Demei brought packets of powdered coffee which I blended with warm milk.

The Heshuo portion of the conference (we were to travel to Turpan for the next part) started at 10am with Chinese officials and research professors providing an overview of the local wine industry. This was all translated from Chinese to English for us by Demei – a winemaker and researcher himself. We learned that Xinjiang is the 2nd largest grape producing region (80% table; 20% wine) after Shandong near Shanghai. Heshuo and a large vineyard called Suntime produce the most wine grapes, with the Heshuo region currently producing 3,000 hectares and plans to increase to 7,000.

The region is high desert with sandy rocky soil – perfect for wine grapes. It is in a valley (3000 feet) surrounded by tall mountains (over 19,000 feet in some locations) and is close to a large body of water (Lake Bosten). Summers are quite hot at 40 C degrees (high 90’sF), but winters are freezing – dropping below -25C. This issue requires that they bury all grape vines during the winter – an incredible amount of labor as there are currently no machines invented that can handle this type of operation. However, since the going rate is 60 RMB ($10 US) per day for labor, the cost is not yet that high.

As mentioned previously, because of the pristine protected climate, all grapes are organic – they even use natural fertilizer. The wines from here tasted much better than those I tasted in Beijing 2 years ago, and didn’t possess that acrid taint that seemed to reflect the pollution in the skies of Beijing – though to their credit, I saw less pollution in Beijing this time. Furthermore, I learned that much of the wine produced in Xinjiang is shipped in bulk to supplement the wine made by the 4 large producers in the Beijing and Shandong areas: Cofco (owner of Great Wall brand), Changyu, Dragon Seal, and Dynasty.

Currently in Heshuo there are only 4 wineries, but the local growers want to increase this number so they can produce more fine wine, rather than just be a bulk wine producer. At the break, we tasted the wines of Aromatic Garden, Champion Dragon (as mentioned previously), and an all organic winery called Refine. Unfortunately 3 of the 4 Refine wines – three 2005 Cabernets with varying oak applications and a 2005 Riesling – were oxidized, most likely because they didn’t use SO2 according to organic winemaking standards. The one that wasn’t oxidized – an unoaked cab – had a nice red fruit nose, was medium bodied with an elegant mouth feel, but ended with a bitter finish. We never did find out the name of the 4th winery. During the break, they paired the wines with table grapes and different varieties of Chinese cookies. I found that, amazingly, their soft easy-drinking cabs went quite well with mooncakes!

They only plant 4 different varietals in Heshuo: 60% cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, and Riesling. The Chinese still produce 90% red grapes, because they believe red wine is more healthy than white. Personally, I think that many Chinese do not like the taste of wine, and only drink it because it is fashionable and because the government encourages it. Besides, since they gulp it in toasts, they really don’t taste it. When they asked us for ideas on new grape varietals to plant, I suggested that they not only research what will grow well in their climate, but conduct some market research on Chinese taste preferences (as the Australians have done in China) to determine what will sell in their market. It is highly probable that white, rose, and sweeter wines will eventually sell better, as beginning with more tannic red wines is often difficult for the novice wine drinker.

In the afternoon, we had a field tour and visited several vineyards and a winery. Spacing is 3.2 meters by 60mm (approx. 12 x 3 feet). The reason the middle aisles are so large is to allow them to lay the vines down and bury them in the winter. They use an unusual training system of single cordon which is tied vertically to the wire and pruned to 2 buds per spur. This is the same method they use for table grapes, and according to the viticulture professors with us, is probably not the most efficient. All vines are irrigated using water from Lake Bosten or snow run-off in the mountains. No rootstock is used, as the vines are all on their own roots. In most parts of the world this is unheard of due to disease risks – but here, in this remote valley, they are still safe with this practice. Hopefully it will stay this way.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Fabulous Banquet in Heshuo China at Aromatic Gardens Winery

(8/20/09) If I was asked to name the best thing about the trip to the Xinjiang Region of China, I would have to say it was the hospitality. Everyone we met was incredibly charming, friendly, and helpful. They went out of their way to treat us well and serve us fabulous meals.

The winery owner of Aromatic Gardens is a beautiful Chinese woman. She, along with the mayor of Heshuo, 3 other local winery owners, and many other government officials (40 people in all), welcomed us to a wonderful banquet dinner that first evening starting around 9:30pm. We started with 6 different types of greens – all so delicious and fresh, I was in heaven. One, called “luo le”, tasted like a type of spinach with mint spices. The tomatoes were juicy and bright. The vegetables here were the best I’ve had in my life. I think it is because they are organic and very fresh. Plate after plate of food was delivered to the lazy susan on our table (all Chinese meals are served in the center on a rotating glass plate so that everyone helps themselves.) I lost track of the number of courses, but every type of dish was served ranging from beef, chicken, pork, tofu, fish, multiple vegetable dishes, and exotic courses such as farm-raised swan and pigeon (the last with the head on the plate too!)

In terms of wine, we started with a Malvasia from Champion Dragon Winery (Guanlong, in Chinese). It was floral with strong minerality, and unfortunately was served too warm – as is common in China with all wines. Next were the 2006 Cabernet and 2006 Reserve Merlot from Aromatic Gardens. Both were quite good with a ripe berry nose, medium-bodied and soft tannins, but the merlot actually had better concentration and some spice. Neither wine showed any complexity and both had medium-length finishes. As it was to turn out, the Merlot ended up being the best wine of the trip. Unfortunately, I was told that it is only available locally.

As is traditional, they served the wine in very small glasses and provided about a one-ounce pour so that we could “gambay” (toast) with it. This required you to drink the complete glass, upon which it was promptly refilled. I was familiar with the custom from my last visit to China and knew as a woman it was expected that I participate in the first “bottoms up,” but afterwards could sip. Demei, our English speaking guide on this portion of the trip, kept cautioning and reminding me of this – which I appreciated. However, the whole custom is rather upsetting to me personally, because wine is not tasted for pleasure, but is knocked back as a shot. On the plus side, the Chinese government is encouraging people to drink wine (12-13% alcohol) over the obnoxious distilled rice spirit (40-60% proof) to cut down on riotous drinking and death from alcohol poisoning, as well as to save rice for food.

As we proceeded through the evening with approximately 10 toasts, the men became more and more inebriated. This was accelerated when a troop of dancing women brought full goblets of wine to us on 2 occasions. The goblets were made of jade, gold, and silver – rather like the chalices at church, but without the stem. After toasting, they placed silk scarves around our necks to welcome us to the region. Soon we were all invited to dance with the dancers, who wore wonderful Arabic, Mongolian and Chinese costumes. Their dances were amazing, and this was truly one of the highlights of my wine travels around the world. We finally stumbled back to our rooms around midnight and didn’t have any trouble sleeping.

Traveling from Beijing to Heshuo, Xinjiang - China

(8/19/09) Earlier this year, I was honored to receive another invitation to present at a conference in China – all expenses covered by the Chinese government, with the location being the Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region. As China is now the 6th largest wine producing country in the world and has over 600 wineries, I was very excited to attend.

When I arrived in Beijing on the non-stop United flight from San Francisco, I was amazed at how the city had changed since I had been there two years ago. Last time I arrived in an old crowded terminal and stayed near the Agriculture University in a rather run-down part of town with people camping out on the sidewalk. It was a colorful side of China, but we were cautioned not to walk the streets on our own. This time, we flew into the brand new international Terminal 3 built especially for the Olympics and took a taxi to the Taiwan Hotel downtown. The terminal is a work of art, and flawlessly clean with signs and announcements in multiple languages, including English. I was very impressed. The drive downtown had obviously been beautified with trees, gardens and lakes lining the modern freeway, as well as elegant Chinese buildings.

Professor Qin Ma had invited me, and she sent two of her students to meet me at the airport and escort me to the hotel. I landed at 2:15 and was in my hotel room by 4pm – about a 40 minute ride from the airport. The Taiwan Hotel is clean and basic, but situated in a good location in the heart of the city and near the famous outdoor eating stands. I unpacked, took a power nap, showered, and then met the rest of the team at 6pm in the lobby as planned. Qin had recruited 6 of us from around the world specializing in grapes and/or wine - with two professors from Israel, one each from Italy and Australia, and a wine writer originally from Canada who was living in Beijing. I was the only female, except for the wife of one of the Israeli professors and Qin. By the end of our 7 days together, we would know each other quite well.

Dinner was a happy affair at a local Chinese restaurant within walking distance, and then I went back to the hotel and promptly fell asleep in order to be ready for our 8am departure to Heshuo – the first stop on our itinerary. We caught a 3-hour Air China flight to Urumqi (the site of the ethnic riots where 197 people were killed 2 months ago – but we were assured it was still safe to travel), and then were treated to a banquet lunch at the newly opened Urumqi Airport Hotel by local wine government dignitaries. The food was fabulous (see photo of spicy mutton) with many local specialties such as mutton, pork, melons, and lamb pizza. However instead of wine, they served beer.

One of the dismaying aspects of arriving in Xinjiang is when we discovered that our cell phones and Internet access were blocked. This was due to the unrest in the area, and all of us were upset that we were not told this in advance. Demei, our guide for this portion of the trip called Qin, who had remained in Beijing and would join us several days later in Turpan, to voice our concerns. It turns out that Chinese cell phones were not blocked – just ours. Qin kindly phoned our families to let them know we were safe and that they would not hear from us for a week. It was strange to spend a whole week cut off from the Internet and all news from the rest of the world.

After the 2 hour lunch, we climbed into a mini-van and drove 5 hours through the desert and high mountains to Heshuo. The drive was part fascination and part hell as we passed windmills, camels, vendors selling table grapes – and stopped at the most appalling restrooms I’ve ever visited in my life. With the temperature hovering in the 90’s F, the open stall bathrooms stank so bad it was hard to enter – and looked like the scene from Slum Dog Millionaire. As we left the desert and started the climb through the mountains, the road became winding and it was easy to get carsick. The scenery reminded me a bit of the Badlands of South Dakota with no trees, grass, or animals – only huge rocky hills and giant sand-dunes rising on all sides. As the sun set and it grew darker, I prayed the journey would end, but we didn’t arrive at Heshuo until 9pm.

The Heshuo portion of the conference was hosted by the Aromatic Gardens Winery about 5 miles from the China’s largest freshwater Lake Bosten. The winery is one of the largest in the area, and also boasts huge gardens, a hotel, conference center, restaurant, and other agriculture crops such as tomatoes, red peppers, and wonderful fresh vegetables. The whole place is organic – in fact, all of Heshuo is. It is so isolated from the rest of the world, that there is no other industry but agriculture. Amazingly, it is so pristine that no herbicides, pesticides or fungicides are needed. They don’t even have to put sulfur (which is an organic substance) on their wine grapes, because the climate is dry and they don’t suffer from powdery mildew.

The inside of my hotel room was very nice – in fact, the best on the whole trip – but the outside of the building looked like an army barrack; very bare with paint chipping off the wall. They had tried to make the area look like a resort with a few yurts (Mongolian tents) and a swimming pool, but lining the drive-way with old tires didn’t help the overall appearance. The other downside is that during the 2 nights we stayed there, we never had hot water, so I didn’t get to shower and wash my hair for several days. Not enjoyable. On the positive side, however, was the hospitality – see next posts for details.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Private Tasting in Stanley, Idaho with 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards

The next day we drove in a caravan of 4 vehicles to Stanley, Idaho – taking the scenic route over Highway 12 through some amazingly steep mountain passes, but breath-taking scenery. Though Google Map told us it would take 3.5 hours, we managed to make it in 2 hours and 50 minutes. The family reunion was scheduled to take place in Stanley because my uncle owns the Sawtooth Luce restaurant there. When we arrived, they had prepared large pizzas to welcome us for lunch.

Next we headed out to Smiley Creek Ranch where we had rented out the place for all 40 family members who arrived from across the nation. Smiley Creek offers standard lodge rooms (which we booked); cabins; teepees; and campsites – something for every budget. They also provided 2 wonderful dinners and scheduled a private wine-tasting for us with 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards out of Eagle, Idaho.

Sara, a marketing rep for 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards, ( set up a long table for us outside and provided an informative lecture on the farming philosophy of the winery. They are one of the only Certified Organic vineyards and wineries in the State of Idaho; have 41 acres and produce 10,000 cases. Sara let us taste through 7 different wines, and I found myself extremely impressed with their Rhone varietals (viognier, roussanne and syrah). She said that many experts are starting to believe that Idaho has the right terrior to grow good Rhones. I have to admit that their Roussanne was the best I’ve ever tasted – however this is a rare grape, even in the Rhone, so I’ve only tasted a few other 100% Roussannes, but this one was exceptional -- along with two others:

2008 Estate Grown Roussanne, 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards – lovely aromatic nose of pear with floral notes; dried pear on the palate with a refreshing crisp acidity; complex mineral notes, and a very long finish. Amazing!
2008 Estate Grown Viognier, 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards – classic apricot and honey nose/palate with no oak; clean with a dry finish; lighter bodied and more elegant than most viogniers. Refreshing, but finishes with a slight burn.
2008 Estate Grown Chardonnay, 3 Horse Ranch Vineyards – a very pretty elegant chardonnay with a kiss of oak to mingle with bright apple and citrus notes. Good balance with crisp acid and an intriguing floral nose.

Our 3 days in Stanley also included drinking much wine and beer around the campfire in the evening, with some people staying up quite late into the night. The kids loved playing Tag and racing around the hills every evening. Saturday night’s special dinner of steak, Idaho trout and stuffed chicken prepared by the chef at Smiley Creek Lodge was excellent. We spent one crazy morning rafting down the Salmon River with 30 of us piled on 5 rafts and having huge water fights over the rapids. We all emerged completely soaked. We spend a sunny and fun afternoon at Redfish Lake swimming and renting paddle boats. Hiking and horseback riding were other fun events, as well as time catching up with all the relatives. Altogether, it was a wonderful reunion and wine-tasting trip to Idaho!

Finding Great Idaho Wines at the Grape Escape Wine Bar – Cinder and Fraser

After asking around during the day for a restaurant recommendation – a place where we could get fresh Idaho trout and a good wine list – the name Red Feather came up so often that we called there to book a table. It is located in the charming downtown area of Boise near the river and all of the shops. When we arrived a farmer’s market was in progress selling fresh produce and other goodies.

Red Feather, like most of the restaurants along the street, had outdoor seating, and as the night was a balmy 80F, we hoped to sit outside. Unfortunately we were escorted upstairs to a dark table with leopard skin booths in what seemed like the bar area. It seemed a strange place to seat 4 adults with 4 kids under the age of 12, but perhaps they were trying to hide us.

Despite my disappointment over our table, our server was excellent and the food was outstanding. We started with the smoked Idaho trout appetizer, and then ordered other fresh fish on the menu. They have an incredible wine list focusing on West Coast wines with a good by the glass selection, and an amazing glassed-in wine cellar that is 2 stories tall. Perhaps because we had tasted Idaho wine all day, I started with a glass of the Gruet NV Sparkling Brut from New Mexico – one of my standard favorites; and then moved on to an intriguing gruner vetliner from the Willamette Valley of Oregon.

After dinner, we wandered around a bit and then settled into a wonderful outdoor table at the Grape Escape Wine Bar just down the street from the restaurant. Our server, Jackie, whose business card listed her job title as Room Brightener, was absolutely delightful and very knowledgeable about Idaho wine. She was also very good to the kids and had no problem with us ordering them ice cream from across the street and letting them eat it at our table -- while we 4 adults had our ‘ice cream.” We each ordered a big glass of red wine. My sister decided on an Oregon pinot noir; while my cousin Matt went for a Napa blend. Stacie and I chose to stay with Idaho and we asked Jackie for her recommendation on a big red. Her suggestions were right on…. and we ended up with two of our very favorite Idaho red wines:

2007 Cinder Winery Syrah – dark purple-black wine with rich blackberry and spice nose/palate. Good concentration and complexity with hints of smoke and espresso. Very long finish. Wow – this was the best red wine I tasted in Idaho. It reminded me of a big chewy Walla Walla syrah in style. Afterwards, we found out from Jackie that this wine was made by a woman winemaker who worked in Washington State at St. Michelle Winery for many years. (

2007 Fraser Cabernet Sauvignon – an elegant cabernet with cassis, clove and herbal notes. Medium-bodied, but with good concentration. Finishes with a tart berry note. The wine bottle itself is very attractive with a plaid motif to emphasis the Scottish connection. (

So we ended the night on a great high at the Grape Escape Wine Bar, and I would recommend it as a definite stop on any Idaho wine-tasting trip.

Great Idaho Wines at Bitner, Koenig, and Snake River Winery

One thing we didn’t realize is that many Idaho wineries are only open on the weekend, and since we had scheduled our appointment with St. Chapelle for Thursday (they are actually open every day), we were disappointed to find that several other wineries we wanted to visit were not accessible. Fortunately Bitner Vineyards was willing to make an exception and the owner, Ron Bitner, greeted us with warm Idaho hospitality.

Bitner is a very small winery located in a cute adobe building with a large wooden deck overlooking the hillside vineyards. Fabulous view! They have been farming grapes for over 27 years, but make a small amount of wine – less than 2500 cases -- with the assistance of consulting winemaker, Greg Koenig. We tasted 6 wines (no tasting fee) and my favorites were: 2008 Bitner Chardonnay ($16) with a nose/palate of ripe apple, pear and vanilla with a delightful butterscotch finish. Yes, it was oaky, but not overdone. 2007 Dry Riesling ($12) – a great value with peach and spice nose/palate and a refreshing high acid finish with a touch of lemon. 2006 Bitner Merlot – highly fragrant nose of plum and spice with a ripe red fruit on the palate and a long finish.

When we asked where to go for lunch, Ron suggested the Orchard House down the road where we enjoyed sitting outside on the patio while the kids played on the hammock in the garden. The restaurant had just been filmed for the TV show Diners, Drive-in & Dives, and their specialty is home-made onion rings and steak fingers – which, of course, we promptly ordered along with some sandwiches and salads. Since the day was so hot – in the 90’s – we opted for a white wine and we very pleased with their extensive Idaho wine list. Even more pleasing were the wine prices which were set to match tasting room prices. Why can’t the rest of the US follow suit?

I was so impressed I asked the owner about her wine pricing philosophy, and she answered that since many visitors came during the week when the wineries were closed that she wanted to make the wines available. Now that’s collaborative wine tourism – impressive! Since Koenig was one of the wineries we had hoped to visit, we ordered their 2007 Koenig Vineyards Viognier for only $17 a bottle. It had a classic nose and palate of peach, apricot, and honey, yet had a pleasing dry finish (1.5 RS) and a moderate alcohol of only 13.2%. Very well made, and perfect for such a hot day.

After lunch we headed back to Boise where there are 2 tasting rooms in the downtown area. Snake River Winery is open during the week and they were kind enough to give us directions when we called. You will need money for the parking meters, but plan to spend some time because the tasting room is in the middle of the shopping area. Boise has a delightful downtown with a walking mall, fountains, a park, and many wonderful restaurants.

Snake River Winery is impressive in that they have 88 acres and grown a wide variety of different grapes ranging from the classic to unusual varieties such as Zweigelt, Tinto Cao, and Orange Muscat. We were allowed to taste 5 wines complimentary, and we all fell in love with the 2006 Malbec Snake River Winery ($17.29). It was very impressive with dark velvety berry notes; spicy cloves; smooth tannins and good concentration. Everyone in our party bought at least a couple of bottles. I also found the 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon to be rather unique in that it had some Old World characteristics of restrained red fruit with touches of smoke, leather, bacon and mint on the finish. Quite complex.

We finished tasting around 4pm; did a little shopping; and then headed back to the hotel (Marriott Springhill Suites) to relax by the pool before getting dressed for dinner at 8pm.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Idaho Wines – Great Rieslings at St. Chapelle Winery

When I received the invitation for the family reunion to be held in Stanley, Idaho, I immediately began planning a side-trip to Idaho wine country. When my wine-loving Seattle sister and cousins from Oregon heard about the outing, they asked to join, and we had several fun-filled days tasting Idaho wine from 8 different wineries.

You may be amazed to learn that Idaho now has 29 wineries and one AVA (American Viticulture Area) called the Snake River AVA. The majority of these wineries are located close Boise, though there are a few in Northern Idaho. See for a list of wineries and directions. Grapes were actually first planted here in 1862, but didn’t make it through Prohibition. The oldest and largest winery is St. Chapelle established in 1976, and when I reached out to my network, I was pleased to learn that the winemaker there was still Chuck Devlin whom I had met several years earlier at the West Coast Wine Competition.

Chuck immediately responded to my email requesting a private tour and tasting, and he greeted us at the winery at 10:30am on July 30. With 4 adults and 4 kids we were rather a boisterous group, but Chuck was a wonderful host and welcomed us with his famous dry Riesling, which was one of my favorites.

St. Chapelle and most of the other wineries of the Snake River AVA are about a 40 minute drive from Boise going East on 84 and then taking Exit 28 at Caldwell. The valley is beautiful with the Snake River flowing through the center, and surrounded by hills with vineyards and the larger Owyhee Mountains in the background. There is also a famous and distinctive rock outcropping known as Lizard Butte. St. Chapelle itself sits up on a hill overlooking the valley ( The architecture is designed to look like a chapel because the owners wanted to build a winery that reminded them of the famous chapel in Hermitage, France (see my earlier blog on visiting this area).

Viticulture – Chuck took us into the vineyard and we saw that it and most of the other vineyards in the AVA are on 12 x 8 spacing, spur-pruned, and use sustainable farming with irrigation. He said the climate was primarily high desert with long hot sunny days in the summer and cool nights. It was 97 F degrees the day we visited. In most years they only receive around 11 inches of rain, so irrigation is necessary. The soil is very sandy and drains well. It used to be an old lake bed. Vines on southwest slopes with more afternoon sun exposure do best, as well as those that receive some wine. This helps the grapes ripen in time for the frosts of October, and the wind and dry weather also help to decrease threats of powdery mildew. Due to early frosts and snowy winters, they actually produce ice wine in Idaho! News to me!

In terms of varietals, riesling seems to be one of the most prolific grapes and Idaho has gained some good press and following for their rieslings. At the same time, they seem to be growing many other types of varietals which traditional viticulture logic would NOT recommend growing together, such as merlot, cabernet sauvignon and malbec next to riesling and gew├╝rztraminer, as well as Rhone varietals like syrah, roussanne and viognier. I also couldn’t get any clear answers on rootstocks and clones, and so I am assuming that they are in an experimental mode and trying to determine what will grow best here.

Riesling is actually an interesting choice as the summers are quite hot in the Boise area – not at all like Riesling’s cooler mountain home in Germany. However, Idaho may be more similar to the Clare Valley of Australia with its hot days and cool nights; yet Idaho Rieslings do not have the distinctive lime character of Clare. It will be interesting to see how this grape plays out here -- as there are those who believe the climate is better suited to Rhone varietals.

In terms of St. Chapelle, we tasted 13 different wines, and I found 4 definite favorites:

2008 St. Chapelle Dry Riesling – very aromatic nose of roses and honeysuckle with peach and lime on the palate. Medium to long finish with refreshingly crisp acid. Delightful!

2007 St. Chapelle Merlot – medium bodied red with spicy nose/palate of plums and cloves. Aged half and half in used French and American oak for 6 months.

2008 St. Chapelle Cabernet Franc Late Harvest – a rare wine which is difficult to find (have only had one other from Canada) in a lovely pink color with sweet strawberry rhubarb nose/palate; viscous body; and great acid finish. R.S. around 18%.

2008 St. Chapelle Late Harvest Riesling –lovely golden yellow sweet wine with honey and apricot on nose and palate. Some kiwi on finish. Yum! R.S. around 18%.

St. Chapelle also makes a sparkling Riesling, and has just introduced 3 semi-sweet wines they refer to as “soft.” There is a soft white, red, and rose, and they purposely leave residual sugar in the wine at around 6.5%. They created these wines in response to customer feedback and requests for sweeter wines – good for them! And guess what – the wines are flying off the shelf. Very popular. This is good, because St. Chapelle is quite a large winery at 150,000 cases made from over 600 acres of purchased grapes. They do not own any of their own vineyards.

Winemaking - since they have won so many medals and awards for their rieslings, I asked Chuck to focus on winemaking for riesling only. They generally pick the grapes in early October at an ideal brix of 23.5 to 25 (of course, late harvest wines are picked at a much higher sugar level). Grapes are destemmed and then crushed in a large Bucher press. They are then cold-soaked for 24 hours with no settling enzymes. If not clear enough, he will use a centrifuge. Juice is transferred to large temperature controlled stainless tanks where Steinberg yeast is added. The dry Riesling generally takes around 3 weeks to finish fermentation at cool temperatures (55 – 65F), but the sweeter ones are stopped by adding a small amount of SO2 and filtering. Finished wine generally stays in the tank for at least a month and is protected with nitrogen gas. They have their own bottling line which processes 85 bottles per minute. Bottles sparged with nitrogen and more SO2 added before corking for a total of 30-35 ppm free.

Interestingly Chuck mentioned that during the years in which he makes ice wine, he uses a continuous screw press to extract the small amounts of sweet juice from the frozen grapes. When asked about the temperature at which he harvests ice wine, he said that Idaho does not have a required F/C level such as the -8C in Canada and Germany.

Altogether our visit to St. Chapelle was very enjoyable. We purchased about 2 cases of wine before we left, as well as some other goodies from the beautifully appointed tasting room. My sister and cousins were delighted with the visit.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Day Trip to Monticello – Jefferson Vineyards, Kluge and Veritas Wineries

I must admit that Thomas Jefferson is my favorite president, and not just because of his love for wine and dream of Americans growing winegrapes -- but also because he was a world-traveler, well read, and the author of the Declaration of Independence. When we discovered that his home, Monticello, was only a 1-hour drive from our resort, we immediately decided that a trip was in order.

The day greeted us with a perfect blue sky and a balmy 85 F degrees, and when we arrived at Monticello, it was even warmer. The $20 admission fee seemed rather steep at first, but it was worth it because it included an inspirational 20 minute movie on his life, then a shuttle ride and guided tour through his house, gardens, and plantation. They actually have a small vineyard planted below his house now, though it didn’t survive when he was alive.

It turns out that the place that Jefferson had selected to plant his vineyard is actually one mile away, and is now the location of the Jefferson Vineyards. So of course, that was our next stop, and we had another delightful tasting with a relaxed down-to-earth pourer. The winery was started in 1981, has 29 acres, and is on Rabun Clay loam soil. They produce 5,000 to 9,000 cases ; are 60% estate wines, 100% Virginia grapes, and sell in 34 states. Wine Spectator has awarded them the “most consistent” wines in Virginia with decent scores in the mid to high 80’s. We tasted 9 wines, of which I had 4 favorites:

2008 Jefferson Vineyards Pinot Gris – lovely floral and citrus nose with grapefruit palate and very crisp refreshing high acid finish. Yes! I could drink this all summer.($18)
2008 Jefferson Vineyards Viognier – classic viognier with honey, peaches, apricot, bigger body, creamy and a slightly sweet finish. Very well made, but I wish it could have been completely dry.($25)
2006 Jefferson Vineyards Meritage – inviting dark berry and spice nose; medium body; elegant; coffee and herbs. Good acid; great food wine. 37% cabernet franc; 30% merlot; 23% petite verdot; 10% cab. ($30)
2007 Jefferson Vineyards Petit Verdot – perfumed nose of spice, dark berry, and tobacco with consistent palate. Good concentration and bigger structure than the 2006. We purchased a bottle of this and had with rib-eyes at our condo a few nights later – it was so good! ($20)

Next stop by Kluge Estate, about 15 minutes up the winding road through beautiful green meadows, vineyards, and leafy trees. It turns out the Kluge specializes in sparkling wine and is the largest vineyard holding in Virginia with 210 acres. When we arrived people were sitting outside on the porch tasting wine in the most intriguing glasses I have seen in a long time. They were thin triangle shaped “thimbles” and were placed in a wooden rack holder – 6 glasses per rack. When we received ours, I was surprised to find that the glasses were made of a light plastic. How very clever, and what a unique and beautiful presentation.

Unfortunately the reception at Kluge was not as charming as the wine presentation. We were kept waiting along with several other customers for almost ten minutes while the one tasting rep talked loudly on the phone in the other room. When she finally came back in the room she announced that it was her boss who was detaining her on the phone and seemed quite flustered and not very friendly. She couldn’t answer our viticulture and winemaking questions, and there was nothing written up to explain the process to us.

We decided to sit inside the air-conditioned tasting room to try the six wines in the $12 tasting. Outside it was quite humid and felt like the temperature had climbed into the 90’s. My favorite wine was the basic Kluge SP Blanc de Blanc for $28 which was made from 100% chardonnay and had a very refreshing citrus finish. My husband, who has opposite tastes from me when it comes to sparkling wine, preferred the bigger more yeasty Kluge SP Reserve 2005 for $48. The rose and blanc de noir both had a strange sweet tart finish and lacked finesse. We also tasted 2 still reds which had a very green edge to them. Definitely a place to buy sparkling. We left without any acknowledgement or good-bye from the stressed out tasting rep.

On the way to our next winery, we stopped at the historic Michie Tavern established in 1784 and enjoyed walking through the shop filled with so many unique items. Next we headed west towards Veritas Winery – which had been recommended to us by 3 different people along the way. It turned out to be a great suggestion, as one of the owners, a woman from the UK, was helping out at the tasting bar. She was extremely informative and passionate about Virginia wine, and we had a great time tasting with her and the staff.

The location of Veritas is about 30 minutes from Charlottesville and off the beaten path a bit, but is surrounded by vineyards and hillsides, and includes a large welcoming wooden tasting room with a big porch with rocking chairs. They have 24 acres, produce 14,000 cases, use riparia and 3309 rootstock, and are planted on the famous red clay soil of Virginia. She explained that most of the vineyards are on a south-facing slope so they can get enough sun. She also mentioned that the reason you don’t find much cabernet sauvignon in Virginia is because the growing season isn’t long enough and they can’t get it ripe. Therefore, cabernet franc triumphs here.

All of the wines we tasted were well-made, and the owner told us her daughter was studying winemaking in California. We actually tasted through 12 different wines, including some unique varietals such as Petite Munseng, Traminette, and the Tannat and Touriga Nacional in their signature port Othello. My favorites included the following:

2008 Veritas Sauvignon Blanc ($18) – a bracingly high acid, fresh grapefruit white wine that I fell in love with. It had a classic grass and citrus nose, and a pleasing lime blossom accent. Perfect with seafood.
2008 Veritas Chardonnay Saddleback 2008 ($18)– modeled after a Chablis, this is a clean minerally unoaked chardonnay (well – some neutral oak), with hints of green apple and a long well balanced finish. Elegant!
2008 Veritas Viognier ($20)– lovely floral nose; palate of peach and apricot. Classic, and with a dry finish.
2008 Veritas Rose ($14) – a very dry rose with spicy fruit nose and strawberry palate.
2007 Veritas Vintner’s Reserve ($25)– a blend of cabernet franc, merlot and petite verdot, this oak aged red provided dark red fruit, cedar, and some herbal notes. Elegant, but with a firm tannin structure; it will pair well with a big steak.

The rest of our week in Virginia included 2 days in D.C. where we visited the National Art Gallery, the White House, and the Smithsonian – including the space shuttle exhibit near the airport. It was my first visit to this great city, and I was amazed to find that all of the sites are free! A nice benefit to tax paying citizens. We also parked our car outside the loop and rode the subway each day. By the time we were finished touring the capital, we were happy to drive the 2 hours back to Massanutten and relax in the peaceful Virginia countryside.

We continued to taste Virginia wine by the glass at the various restaurants we visited, but didn’t have the chance to go to anymore wineries. I found several more excellent chardonnays which were crisp and refreshing – not the big over-oaked butter bombs we often find on the West Coast. In the end, I left impressed with Virginia wines – especially the viogniers, chardonnays, cabernet francs and petite verdots. We also met some wonderful people at the wineries, and would recommend that others visit charming Virginia wine country. The wines are well-made, elegant and distinctive – with a sense of place. The people are passionate, friendly, and fun.

Day Trip to CrossKeys Vineyards – Great Virginina Cabernet Franc

After lunch we drove to the nearest winery, CrossKeys Vineyards ( in Harrisonburg, and had a delightful tasting. The winery is very impressive with a large stone courtyard and beautiful cream stucco buildings. It is surrounded by vineyards – all with vertical shoot positioning (VSP) and 8 by 4 feet spacing. They have 29 acres, and produce 5500 cases of estate wine. It was a rather crowded tasting room for a Monday afternoon, and while there we couldn’t help but overhear how many people came in asking for their sweet wines. It appears that Virginia wine drinkers have a sweet tooth, because we did encounter sweet wines at every winery we visited and on the grocery store shelves – along with many fruit wines as well. I was impressed that they are trying to cater to all types of customers, and most every place we visited was friendly, relaxed and casual. We tried 7 wines at CrossKeys and found them all to be well-crafted, but our favorites were:

2008 Fiore CrossKeys – a delightful rose of Cabernet Franc that was flying off the shelf. They sold several cases while we were there and were running out of stock. It had a lovely berry nose and creamy mouthfeel with raspberry and pomegranate on the palate. Though it ended with 1% RS, it was still quite refreshing. I could see why it was selling so well ($16.50).

2007 Cabernet Franc CrossKeys – this was a lovely spicy fruity cabernet franc – just how it should taste. Both Mike and I were delighted with it, and bought a bottle. Plum, spicy and earthy nose; medium bodied; plum and blackberry on palate; good acid. $21.