Wednesday, November 16, 2011

The Unique Refosk Grape of Slovenia in the Fairytale Port of Koper

Sept. 2011 - Our first port of call was Koper, Slovenia. It was delightful to wake up in the morning on Royal Caribbean and have coffee on the balcony while we watched the shoreline of Slovenia come into view. Koper is a small city and there is no need to pay for transportation from the ship. It is only a five minute walk into the charming old town - albeit you do have to climb a hill.

The city has cobble stone streets, an old castle with high walls, a beautiful old church which we ducked inside to attend part of a mass, and a lovely town square that was set up with a small farmers market on Sunday morning. Most of the shops were open for the ship tourists, and there were some good sales on shoes and clothes. A small play with two donkeys was taking place in the square and I found the town charming and delightful -- rather like a scene from a fairytale.

After shopping for an hour we went to a pub called Isrska Klet Slavcek Pub to taste the locals wine. This was a recommendation of the local tourist office. I have found in my travels around Europe that the best place to get good wine advice is by stopping by these offices with the sign of "I". In Italy some of them even host wine tasting! In Koper they were very friendly and recommended this pub as the best spot for local wines. This is how I was introduced to the Refosk grape.

The pub owner was also the wine maker and he provided a tasting of three local wines for less than 2 Euros. The first was a bone dry malvasia with a subdued nose -- not the normal floral aroma - and a refreshing high acid finish.

Next was the Refosk grape which makes a red wine which is only grown in this part of Slovenia--no place else in the world, according to our host. It had a ripe red berry nose, high acid, no oak, and a medium body. It reminded me very much of a barbera, but when I voiced this opinion out loud, I upset our host who told me once again that it was only found in this region and it was not barbera. He said it was similar but different and was also known as teran and refosco. I really enjoyed it and would buy a bottle if I found it again.

We ended with a sweet muscat which had the typical floral grapey nose. It was semi-dry and also had a high acid. This was my mother’s favorite wine.

This was our second trip to Slovenia. We had visited three years ago and drove through the mountains in a rental car staying at a remote village high in the hills on our way from Croatia to Austria. It was an equally wonderful visit, and Slovenia seems to me like a perfect jewel of a country hidden away in the mountains with magical unspoiled villages and friendly people.

I really enjoyed our two hours in Koper, but after our excursion we headed back to the ship to relax for the rest of the day. We were both still jet-lagged from our long flight from California to Venice where we boarded the ship the night before. So we took a nap, lazed the pool, and then got ready for another great dinner and entertaining night on board the ship.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Visiting the Wineries of Sedona Arizona

(July 13 - 21, 2011) Ironically, the most difficult issue with winegrowing in Arizona is frost. Most people find this surprising because Arizona is known for very hot temperatures, but since most of the vineyards are located in the high desert at 4200 to 5200 feet in elevation, it can get quite cold at certain times of the year. In years where the frost arrives during bud break, a large percentage of the crop can be at risk.

Arizona now boasts 45 wineries, and though I had visited wineries in the Sonorita region south of Tucson several years ago, imagine my delight when I arrived in Sedona this week (one of the most beautiful places on earth) and discovered they have 8 wineries within a 30 mile radius of the town. Sedona is already very magical with magnificent red rock formations, numerous hiking trails, great restaurants, and a mystical aura due to its vortexes. Now with the presence of small family wineries producing some very high quality wines, Sedona, located two hours north of Phoenix, is even more alluring.

Three Main Wine Growing Regions in Arizona

In addition to the Sedona region (also referred to as the Verde Valley area), there are two other grape growing areas. The oldest is the Sonorita/Elgin region south of Tucson. It has the largest number of wineries and also boasts the only AVA in Arizona at this time (Sonorita AVA). The third region is southeast of Tucson near Wilcox in Cochise County. Both of these more southern regions have larger vineyard acreage than Sedona area wineries, which often purchase the southern grapes to supplement their smaller vineyard production.

Major Grape Varietals in Arizona – A Focus on Reds

Like many newer US wine regions, it appears that Arizona is currently experimenting with many types of grape varietals. I tasted everything from nebiollo to gewürztraminer, but the wines that I preferred (and that also seem to be gaining high scores from the critics) were their reds.

I came away very impressed with several 100% grenache wines, as well as GSM’s (grenache, syrah, mouvedre) from all 3 regions. It is logical that with daytime temperature soaring into the 90’s and low 100’s that they would produce such excellent warm climate varietals. Fortunately the temperature in the high desert drops dramatically at night, so the grapes are able to preserve their flavors and acid.

Red Italian grape varietals also appear to be doing well here – especially in the Sedona area. I tasted some very nice barbera, sangiovese, and a blush nebiollo. At the same time, there were also some very decent merlots, cabernet sauvignons, blends of such, and even zinfandel.

In terms of whites, I tasted several chardonnays, but found them to have bitter finishes. Two white varietals which appear to do well here are viognier and malvasia bianca.

Favorite Arizona Wines on This Trip & Kudos to Arizona Wine Tourism

Though I must admit that I spent more time hiking in Sedona than I did tasting wine, I did manage to visit some wineries and wine-tasting rooms. One thing that very much impressed me was Arizona’s focus on wine tourism. There were several generic wine tasting businesses in Sedona and one in Cottonwood that allowed you to taste a wide variety of Arizona wines. In addition, every place I turned I found an Arizona wine brochure, map, or magazine, and the wine signage along the roads was great.
Altogether I tried 14 different wines and came away with six favorites:

2009 Dos Cabezas El Norte from Cochise County ($40) – A GSM (23% grenache, 42% syrah, and 35% mouvedre) with a bright berry nose and palate, complex spices and long finish.

2009 Page Spring Cellars from Sedona area ($40) – blend of 6 red varietals. Dark red fruit, cloves, earthy notes, complex with good acid and long finish. Similar in style and taste to a medium-bodied Super Tuscan

2010 Caduceus Cellars Dos Ladrones from Sedona area
($25) a delightful blend of malvasia bianca and chardonnay with floral nose, peach notes, good texture on palate and medium-high acid. Very refreshing.

2010 Caduceus Cellars Lei Li Rose from Sedona area ($40) –a rather unusual, though very delightful, rose of nebiollo with fragrant cherry nose, dry fruit palate, chalky tannins and a nice high acid finish.

2008 Oak Creek Vineyard Zinfandel ($35) – classic jammy zin nose, medium-bodied ripe berry fruit with spice and pepper. Made in a more elegant style with balanced alcohol and medium plus acid.

Arizona Vineyards and Terrior

I was able to visit two wineries in the Sedona area and see the vineyards. The soil is primarily volcanic. One vineyard was on level land with 8 x 12 spacing and VSP trellis. The other was on a steep rocky terrace. They both had irrigation, deer fencing, and bird netting. Since I hadn’t made advance appointments, I couldn’t find anyone in the tasting rooms who could describe rootstocks, clones, canopy management, disease, pests, etc.

At a tasting room in Sedona that featured wines from around Arizona, the pourer challenged me to identify the “terrior of the state.” One feature I found in all the wines I tasted was a ripe fruity nose – no bashful wines here. With the wines from the southern regions of Cochise County and Sonorita, I found a higher alcohol level with medium acid, and an intriguing note of dark bitter chocolate and sage. The Sedona region wines seemed to have more moderate alcohol and higher acid, but I couldn’t find any distinctive and replicating notes in the ones I tasted. Guess, I just need to go back for another visit and try more wines.

For more information on Arizona wineries, see

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Winning Wisconsin Wineries

(June 24-28, 2011) Did you know there are now 42 wineries in Wisconsin? This was one of the amazing facts I learned during my four day visit at the invitation of my good friend Peg. In addition to touring three wineries, we had a wonderful time sight-seeing in downtown Milwaukee. I was very impressed with the bustling businesses, the amazing architecture of the Milwaukee Art Museum, the historic mansions along Lake Michigan and the charming Third Ward. Peg also treated me to great food and wine, boat rides, and the chance to meet her fascinating friends.

We obtained a copy of the Wineries of Wisconsin Tour Guide and I was surprised to see that the wineries are spread all over the state. Wisconsin is especially known for fruit wines, such as strawberry, peach, blackberry and many others. Many of these wineries are clustered in the Door County Region. Since I am a grape wine person, we focused on visiting wineries that were best known for this and had won national awards for their wines.

Cedar Creek Winery in Cedarburg Wisconsin (

The first winery we visited was Cedar Creek during the mad rush of the Strawberry Festival. When Steve, the general manager, greeted us, he said it was one of their busiest days of the year. I was thrilled to see so many people crowding the tasting room to buy cases of wine, as well as to purchase wine by the glass and carry it around in the festival.

Despite the crazy atmosphere, Steve was kind enough to give us a guided tour of the cellar, show us the bottling line, and explain how their wine was made. Cedar Creek Winery started in 1970 and now produces around 27,000 cases per year, which is sold primarily in Wisconsin via wholesalers and direct to consumer. They are owned by Wollersheim Winery where most of the wine, with the exception of the unoaked chardonnay, is produced.

Steve said their biggest selling wine is the Cedar Creek Vidal Blanc. It is a semi-dry crisp white wine that has won numerous awards at wine competitions in the US. We tasted through 4 wines and they were all well made. My favorite was the 2010 Cedar Creek Waterfall Riesling with a lovely nose of apricot, slight residual sugar, but with such a crisp acid that the sugar is barely noticeable. Very refreshing. Since it was the Strawberry Festival, I also tried the 2010 Cedar Creek Strawberry Blush wine which is made by adding strawberry juice to vidal and seyval blanc. It was fun and sweet – like a strawberry lolli-pop; a perfect entry wine.

Cedar Creek is shipping grapes from Washington State and New York, as well as buying local fruit for the fruit wines. All together they produce 14 different wines, including a port. I left feeling very impressed at such an “energetic operation” in the charming historic town of Cedarburg.

Wollersheim Winery in Prairie du Sac (

It took us about 2 hours to drive from Milwaukee to Prairie du Sac and the scenery was lovely. We drove through rolling hills covered with green trees and lakes. We passed charming farms with quaint farmhouses, tall silos, old barns, and dairy cows. The main crops we saw were corn and wheat, and I was thrilled to see so many Sandhill Cranes with their babies in the fields.

As we came to the entrance of Wollersheim Winery it was so impressive that it seemed we were in Napa or Sonoma. Of course Wollersheim has always been a famous winery and I teach my students about it in wine class because Agoston Haraszthy, the Father of California Winemaking, came here first in 1847 when he left his native Hungary. He spent two years planting grapes and trying to start a winery, but left in 1849 to start Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma. Wollersheim was purchased by a German who planted Riesling and buried the vines every year to protect them from the harsh Wisconsin winters. Eventually in 1972 the current family purchased the property.

We were greeted by Julie Wollersheim and her husband, Philippe Coquard, who came from France to Wisconsin as a student and fell in love with Julie. Today they both run the winery with Philippe making the wine and Julie managing marketing. They provided us with a fascinating 2 hour tour starting in the vineyards and culminating in the cellars where we tasted through most of their excellent wines. Wollersheim Winery produces around 54,000 cases per year and makes 18 different wines.

I was impressed to see the 24 acres of vineyard which seemed very healthy and well-tended. Spacing was wide so a tractor could easily fit between the rows – approximately 12 by 8 feet. Trellising was high to keep the grapes away from the cooler ground, and Phillipe called it a “top cordon” system. The vines are Marechal Foch, Concord, Millot, La Crosse, and St. Pepin – all hybrids that can withstand the harsh Wisconsin winters. I had never heard of St. Pepin which is used for Ice Wine, and Philippe explained that it was developed in Wisconsin and required that LaCrosse be planted next to it for fertilization – very rare now days for grapes. The other famous grape that requires another vine and the wind for fertilization is the Keknyelu grape of Hungary.

In the cellar everything was modern with stainless steel tanks for fermentation, filters, and protective gas. We started with their signature white, 2010 Wollersheim Prairie Fume, which has a lovely grapefruit and lemon nose which follows through on the palate and a crisp acid, a touch of sweetness and a long dry finish. It reminded me of sauvignon blanc, but Phillipe explained that it was 100% Seyval Blanc from New York. He has it harvested at 19 brix and shipped to Wisconsin where he performs a cool fermentation to around 10% alcohol and 1.2% residual sugar. The result is stunning, and makes a wonderful sipping and food wine – very refreshing. It has won many medals and Phillipe calls it “the wine that opened the door to our brand.”

In the barrel room we tasted the amazing 2009 Wollersheim Domaine Reserve which is 98% Marechal Foch and 2% Millot. The wine was lovely – similar to a full bodied pinot noir with red berry notes, spice, firm tannins, and a good acid. Then Phillipe invited us to taste the wine from two different barrels. The first was half Wisconsin and half French oak with Wisconsin heads – this was more tannic. The second was the same but with French heads – this was more elegant with well-integrated tannins. It was fascinating to taste the difference. Phillipe also experiments with oak from Missouri, Michigan, and Minnesota. Another interesting fact is that Phillipe is experimenting with thermo-vinification on the Marechal Foch to soften tannins.

We ended the tour by tasting their white, red, and tawny port – all good!, as well as the whiskey is he starting to make. Though the Ice Wine was not ready to taste, Julie and Phillipe were kind enough to send us home with a bottle for the future. I left Wollersheim Winery very impressed with the high quality of winemaking, and especially for the passion and innovative spirit of the owners and employees.

Vetro Winery in Concord Wisconsin (

On the drive back to Milwaukee we stopped at the small and charming Vetro Winery in Concord, about 4 miles off the Interstate. This was a true small family winery with the tasting room in a small building next to the family house. The view from the winery was lovely – looking down a hill towards a small pond and the vineyard.

I was again happy to see that the tasting room was busy with two other groups dropping by to taste and purchase wine. The owner, who was running the tasting room by herself, was so busy ringing up sales she had a hard time pouring for us. However, I made things easy by explaining that I only wanted to taste wines from the vineyard. She kindly poured me Vetro Winery Nun on the Run which is a dry red wine made from the Millot grape. It was similar to a light pinot noir but had a very bitter finish. I enjoyed the second wine better, which was called Vetro Winery Wap-a-tu-e. This was a blend of Delaware, Niagara, La Crosse, and Concord grapes – all American varietals or hybrids. Though sweet, it was well made and quite pleasant to drink for an aperitif with ripe berry flavors and a pleasing finish.

It was interesting to notice that the other people at the tasting bar were trying all of the fruit wines. Vetro Winery provides an excellent selection of these, including blueberry, cranberry, blackberry, cherry, raspberry, and strawberry.

My four days in Wisconsin were delightful, and I am pleased to find so many good wineries in that state. As always my heart is cheering for the small family winemakers of America!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Moseying Around Monbazillac – a Mini Sauternes

June 15, 2011 – On Wednesday morning we had a lazy breakfast, then packed and cleaned our apartment before checking out. We headed towards Bergerac and the Monbazillac AOC which was only a 30 minute drive from Le Bugue. On the way we passed an amazing site of over 100 white swans on the Dordogne River. We stopped to take photos and marvel at their beauty. They appeared to be feeding in the river, and were in a section that was covered with the tiny white flowers that grace the river in such an exotic fashion. An artist was sitting on the river bank painting the swans, and we both thought of Mom who would most likely be doing the same thing.

As it was around 1:30pm when we approached the city of Bergerac, we decided to go directly to Monbazillac for lunch before the restaurants closed at 2pm. We ended up at the charming Restaurant A La Grappe d’Or where the owner personally greeted us. Having spent the last 3 days in the Dordogne over-indulging in foie gras and duck, we decided we wanted anything but duck or goose. We had to laugh when the first 3 main courses on the menu were duck, duck, and duck (canard prepared in 3 different ways). Michelle jokingly said the next item must be “goose.” It was listed as Brochette La Gourmand, and I suggested it might be grilled beef or lamb on a stick. However, when we asked the server, we had to laugh when she told us it was grilled duck heart on a brochette – of course! We finally found a fish and chicken dish that was delightful, and the daily soup and terrine were served in large bowls family-fashion – very tasty!

After lunch we drove the few kilometers to one of the most famous wineries in the region – Chateau d’ Monbazillac originally built in 1322 (see photo). As we drove along the small and charming roads, I couldn’t help but compare the region to Sauternes and found it equally appealing, though different. It has low rolling hills like the Sauternes and Barsac region, but the sauvignon blanc and semillion vines are more widely spaced and they are allowed to grow higher. There are also fewer large chateaux, but many small domains. The Dordogne river provides moisture to the area so that in good vintages they achieve the noble rot needed to make the fabulous botrytis wines.

Chateaux d’ Monbazillac

Chateau d’ Monbazillac is one of the most impressive wineries in the region. It is perched on a hill with a commanding view of the valley below. A historical site, it provides a large shaded parking lot and an impressive tasting room (complimentary) and wine shop. You can also wander through the vineyards and around the castle free of charge. If you choose to enter, the cost was only 6 euros, and we enjoyed the self-guided tour with English descriptions of more than 16 furnished rooms. As the temperature was hovering in the high 80’s that day, we were happy to find that all the buildings were air-conditioned.

I enjoyed tasting (spitting) the sweet wines of Monbazillac. They included their own brand as well as a few neighboring estates. Coming from Napa/Sonoma where tasting fees are getting extremely high, it was amazing to find that they are willing to let you taste as many wines as you want complimentary. We tried 4 different vintages of the Monbazillac, and I ended up buying the 2008 Chateau Monbazillac because it had a higher acid and more subdued fruit than the 2007 (even though I knew 2007 was a better year). The Monbazillac wines seem to be lighter in texture than Sauternes, but still enjoyable. They had the typical mushroom/honey nose of botyris (except the 2003 when the summer was so hot no botrytis occurred), and satisfying apricot/peach and honey on the palate.

After our tasting, it was time to head back to Bordeaux to catch our 8pm flight to London. We savored driving through the lovely country-side with winding roads, flowers, horses, and pale yellow limestone houses. Eventually we hit the interstate and made it to the airport with two hours to spare. I had to agree with Michelle, who told the BA rep when we checked in, “I am not ready to leave France.”

Upon reaching Gatwick, we took a bus to our hotel and went down to the very British pub to have a very British beer. The next morning, we took a taxi to Heathrow, had a late breakfast and both caught our flights back home. I was able to fly Business Class on the way back, and though I missed the pajamas and nice sheets of First Class, it was still nice to be able to sleep on a flat bed.

The Wines of Bergerac – A Mini-Bordeaux

During the four delightful days we spent in the Dordogne, the main wine region represented in every restaurant was Bergerac. Each “verre de vin blanc, rouge, or rose” we ordered was always from a Bergerac appellation, but since the 13 AOC’s in the Bergerac region are part of the department of the Dordogne, that makes sense.

Before leaving home, I checked my wine atlas to verify the types of grapes allowed in Bergerac wines, and they are identical to Bordeaux – for the most part. Bergerac reds are a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and cabernet franc (Bordeaux is also using petit verdot, but has pretty much stopped adding malbec). Roses are made from any or all of these three red grapes, and whites are a blend or single source of sauvignon blanc, semillon and/or muscadelle. Nearby is the Monbazillac AOC (see next post), which produces a famous botrytis dessert wine from the same white grapes.

Having just spent 4 days in Bordeaux, it was easy to compare the two. In general, I found the wines of Bordeaux to have more elegance and complexity. However, we did find some lovely Bergerac white wines – one that was 100% Semillon and quite amazing. The reds were very tannic and astringent, while the roses were refreshing yet simple. The sweet dessert wines of Monzabillac were probably the best aspect of Bergerac.

On our last day, we visited Cave Julien de Sauvignac which produces Bergerac wines, but is located in Le Bugue – about 30 km from the city of Bergerac. We received excellent service with an English speaking sommelier manning the counter that day. We tasted through (spit) 3 roses, 3 whites, 4 reds, and 3 dessert wines. Again, I found I preferred the unoaked whites and dessert wines over the more tannic reds and simple roses. The tasting was completely free as is the case with most wineries in the Bergerac region, and I purchased a small bottle of the dessert wine and some truffle oil before departing. The winery was located in an amazing wine shop that included a fabulous collection of wines from across France including verticals of Petrus and most of the 1st growths of Bordeaux.

One interesting point is that in all 3 wineries we visited in Cahors and Bergerac, we passed local French people carrying out large containers of house wine in big plastic jugs or boxes. Michelle was amazed, and I explained that it is the custom for locals to bring their own containers and buy direct from the winery. They usually fill it up out of tank or barrel, and then wheel it out to their car on a small cart. This used to be the custom in California as well, but now there are only a handful of wineries that still practice this delightful service, which is also good for the environment in terms of recycled containers.

Visiting Cahors Malbec Wineries – The Black Wine of the Middle Ages

June 14, 2011 –We took the back roads from Le Bugue to Cahors arriving in the city via D9 through the little towns of Espere and Mercues. On the way out of Le Bugue we were sidetracked for an hour when we ran into the weekly open air market on Tuesday mornings. It was a wonderful market with plenty of food – olives, foie gras, cheeses, truffles, wine, etc – as well as clothes, jewelry and household items. When we finally got back on the road it took us 1 hour and 20 minutes to drive to Cahors, passing through beautiful countryside and an incredibly charming town along the way called Belves.

I wanted to travel to Cahors because it is one of the few French wine areas I have not yet visited. In the Middle Ages it was famous for making “black wine” from the Malbec grape, and is still heralded as the birthplace of Malbec – even though Argentina now reigns as world champion producer of that grape. Interestingly, Cahors was exporting wine long before the Bordeaux wine industry even started.

The ancient city of Cahors is situated on a dramatic peninsula in the middle of the Lot River. It was originally settled by the Celts before being taken over by the Romans in 50BC. We actually saw the stones of an old Roman amphitheater when we parked in the garage under Gambetta Square. Also equally fascinating was the beautiful and ancient Valentre Bridge spanning the river with its two towers and curving arches. We had a quick lunch at a sidewalk café before stopping by the Tourist Office for a wine map of the region. They sent us out of the city via Pradines where many of the chateaux are clustered. I asked to visit a large winery, as well as a small one. They called ahead to Cave des Cotes d’Olt to make an appointment for us, and then suggested we just drop by other wineries to see if they were open. The wineries in this region do not charge tasting fees, but she warned that some of the owners may be working in the field as most were small family operations.

Caves des Cotes d’Olt

Caves des Cotes d’Olt is a large cooperative with multiple labels at different prices points. It is housed in an impressive stone building, and was a good place to start as an introduction to the region’s famous malbec grape. The lady operating the tasting room couldn’t speak English, but we managed with my smattering of tourist French. Her first question was whether we liked “pas tannic” or “plus tannic.” I requested that we start with the low tannin reds after tasting some roses. All three malbec roses were delightful with a dry, off-dry, and semi-sweet style. The latter reminded me of a white zinfandel. All three were very refreshing and fruity, under 4 euros per bottle, and would do well in the US market.

Moving onto the reds, we tasted through 5 different labels (spitting, of course) starting at 4 euros and going up to 16 euros at the high end. The first Malbec was a 2009 unoaked in a simple and fruity style with smooth, though large tannins. The next three were the traditional black and brooding malbecs of Cahors with earthy notes, dark fruit, huge tannins and a higher acid than Argentinean malbecs. My sister, Michelle, didn’t care for them that much, but I ended up buying the 2002 Le Paradis Cahors which was aged in new oak for 16 months. It won a gold medal at the Challenge International Du Vin Competition and was 14.80 euros.

I then asked if we could try another wine with less tannins and the lady brought out a 2010 Demon Noir Malbec which received a gold medal from the 2011 Concours des Feminalise Competition in Beaune (a women’s wine competition!). This wine amazed me because I thought I was tasting a malbec from Argentina or California. It was completely New World in style with very ripe and sweet fruit complemented by big, velvety tannins. The label was also New World with an adorable and quite memorable “demon.” I asked if they were exporting the wine, and she said she wasn’t sure – or perhaps didn’t understand my question. I can’t help but wonder if this is one of Cahor’s competitive responses to the tidal wave of Argentina sweeping the world. Michelle loved it and immediately bought a bottle for the very nice price of 4.80 euros.

Chateau St. Didier, Chateau de Grezels and Prieure de Cenac

After leaving Cotes d’Olt we drove around the small roads winding through the malbec vineyards trying to decide which chateau to visit next. There were many choices with good signage pointing towards charming limestone houses surrounded by flowers. Finally we decided on a group of 3 wineries making wine in one location near the River Lot -- Chateau St. Didier, Chateau de Grezels and Prieure de Cenac. Walking into a large room with a sign that announced “Degustation and Vente de Vin” (wine tasting and sales), we were greeted by a nice lady who led us to the tasting bar and poured 4 wines from the 3 estates, with the 4th being a rather expensive special vineyard selection. All of the wines were in the traditional Cahors style with massive tannins, dark fruit, and truffle notes…but I was impressed with the fragrant berry nose of all the wines. I ended up buying the 2007 Chateau de Grezels Cahors for 5.80 euros. It was aged in oak for 12 months and was a selection of the 2011 Le Guide Hachette Des Vins.

The whole conversation was again in French, but we were able to understand that 20 to 30% merlot had been added to the wines. Later I checked the official percentage of malbec that is required for Cahors and found it is 70% minimum, but wineries are allowed to add up to 30% of merlot and/or tannat.

The vineyards around the chateaux appeared to be wider spacing than Bordeaux – perhaps 4 by 6 feet with a single caned pruned arm (guyot). The vines were allowed to grow quite high for France – at least 5 feet. I wasn’t sure if this was because of the vigor of malbec (if often needs a kicker cane because it grows so fast), or because they just hadn’t had a chance to trim them yet. If we had more time, I would have done more research and made advance appointments with someone who could have explained the vineyards, but I wasn’t even sure we were going to get to Cahors. Now I am very glad we came. It is a charming, beautiful, and non-touristy area which is enjoyable to visit.

Delightful Dordogne – Land of Foie Gras, Truffles, Medieval Cities, Castles and Caves

June 12 – 15 – We departed Bordeaux around 10am on Sunday morning taking the toll way to the Montignac exit – one of the entry points to the Dordogne region. We arrived just before noon and were completely enchanted with the charming little town decorated with flower streamers above the streets. We found a quaint restaurant with outdoor tables along the river, and proceeded to order a foie gras salad and a half a carafe of Bergerac Blanc – made primarily of sauvignon blanc and muscadelle.

After lunch we wandered around the town and found an ice cream shop with an amazing assortment of flavors including rose, violette, and pampelmouse rose (pink grapefruit) – which I ordered. We purchased our tickets for the Lascoux prehistoric caves and found we had a couple of hours to spare, so we drove a few kilometers to the Chateau de Losse.

Chateau de Losse

Chateau de Losse is an ancient castle on the river, built in the 1300’s, complete with moats and beautiful formal gardens. Cost was $8.50 euros per person. We viewed the gardens and fountains first, before touring the castle with a French speaking guide. Helpfully they provided us with an English brochure so we could understand what was being communicated. The rooms of the castle were beautifully decorated in antiques and every effort had been made to renovate it authentically.

Lascoux II Cro-Magnon Caves with Prehistoric Paintings

One of the major tourist attractions of the Dordogne are the many prehistoric caves sprinkled throughout the region. We had Rick Steve’s Travel Guide 2009 with us, so we decided to take his advice and go to Lascoux II first. It is an exact reproduction, including humidity and temperature, of the original Lascoux I caves which are now closed to the public due to damage that was caused from too many visitors breathing on the paintings.

We had registered for the 2:30pm English tour for $8.50 euros. Wearing sweaters we followed the guide down a flight of stairs into the two caves. It was definitely chilly inside, but as the tour only lasted 40 minutes it was not that bad. Our guide began with the story of how the caves were discovered by 3 teenagers and their dog in the 1940’s. The dog chased a rabbit and accidently fell down a hole. When the teens went to rescue him they found a passageway into the caves.

The walls are covered with more than 100 paintings of horses, bull, deer, and other animals. Our guide did a great job explaining how they were developed over the centuries and pointing out the exquisite craftsmanship needed to paint such large scale paintings more than 15,000 years ago. We were very impressed, and I would highly recommend the tour. There are also several other caves nearby with original, rather than reproduced paintings, but none are as large or complete as Lascoux.

The Charming Village of Le Bugue

After the cave tour, we drove 40 minutes on a small road along the river that passed many historic sites. At one point we stopped at a foie gras farm with over 100 geese in a large park like setting. They encourage visitors to go on tours to show that the geese are not treated inhumanely, and that every part of the goose is used – including feathers, meat, and foie gras liver.

Eventually we came to the small village of Le Bugue where our hotel, Vacanes Residences (only $69 per night on was located. It took several telephone calls before we found it on the outskirts of town surrounded by rolling hills. It is a charming family oriented apartment complex with large sunny pool. We had 2 separate bedrooms upstairs and a living room/dining room with outdoor patio complete with table and umbrella. The only thing they forgot to mention is that we had to rent towels and sheets. Despite that, we enjoyed our three nights there.

After unpacking and taking a nap, we headed into town for dinner around 8:30pm, but made the mistake of stopping for a pastis at a river side bar in Limuel. By the time we looked for a restaurant, they were all closing at 9:30pm. I had forgotten how much France shuts down on Sunday. After being turned away from the 4th restaurant, the lady took pity on us and gave us directions to a take-out pizza parlor. So our first night in Le Bugue, we had pizza and a great bottle of 2009 Chateau Baron Le Mayne, AOC Bordeaux wine in our outdoor patio. It was my first taste of the legendary 2009 vintage, and even though it was an inexpensive wine, it was very fruity, full-bodied, with good length. Michelle said it was her favorite red Bordeaux of the trip….but then, it was a 2009!

Magical Dordogne Towns – Beynac, La Roque, Sarlat, Le Domme and Castlenaud

June 13, 2011 - Per Rick Steve’s book, we took his advice and booked a boat tour at Beynac. It was one of the highlights of the trip as we were able to see 4 castles from the Dordogne River within one hour. Afterwards we had a very nice prix fixe lunch at LaRiveria Restaurant overlooking the river in Beynac. We copied all the French families eating there and ordered a wonderful half bottle of Bergerac Rose.

After lunch we drove to La Roque and marveled at how the city was built into the cliffside. As the day was getting quite hot – in the high 80’s – we went back to our apartment for a lazy swim in the pool and nap. Then we drove to Sarlat and followed Rick Steve’s walking tour of that amazing medieval city. He said to visit most of these places in the evening as they are less crowded and cooler. He was right! Sarlat had to be one of the most beautiful ancient cities I’ve ever seen. There were so many charming restaurants – all decorated in pink, yellow, or orange tablecloths with glowing candlelight -- that it was almost impossible to pick one. But we eventually did and had a great fish meal with a bottle of 100% Semillon Bergerac blanc.

June 14, 2011 – the next day we attended the wonderful Farmer’s Market in Le Bugue and then drove to Cahors (see post below). On the way back, we stopped for a drink in the hilltop walled town of Le Domme and Michelle swore she would come back some day and stay in the hotel on the cliffs. Next we drove the few minutes to Castlenaud – another amazing ancient castle on the cliffs, and then ended up back in Beynac for a wonderful dinner on the river again. This time I had goose gizzard, which was surprisingly filling and reminded me of beef stew. After dinner we walked around the deserted Beynac castle and gasped when a full moon rose up over the valley and walls. We had the whole magical landscape to ourselves, and it felt like we had fallen into a fairytale.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Excellent Time at Bar a Vin and Le Mably Restaurant in Bordeaux

June 11, 2011 – After our field trip in the Medoc, we arrived back in Bordeaux around 6pm and immediately walked to the Bar a Vin for happy hour. This is a great wine bar in downtown Bordeaux which is sponsored by the CIVC. It is a good introduction to the wines of Bordeaux with all regions represented and excellent prices – with many of the wines only $2 euros per glass. Very modern and eclectic décor; it is a great place to hang out.

Eventually about 20 wine business professors congregated at Bar a Vin, and around 7pm 15 of us decided to go for an early dinner at Le Mably Restaurant. It was only a couple of blocks to walk there and we were immediately seated in a back private room without reservations. This is because most people don’t eat in France until around 8pm.

The best feature of Le Mably is the $18 euro prix fixe menu with 3 excellent courses. I started with the foie gras salad, then had a wonderful fresh fish course with vegetables, and concluded with a decadent crème custard dessert. Before we knew it, some of the more enthusiastic members of our group had ordered many bottles of wine and we proceeded to have a long and very fun dinner with many jokes and entertaining stories. When we all departed with lots of hugs, everyone agreed it was one of the most fun evenings of the trip.

Field Trip to Chateau Gruaud-Larose and Chateau Maucauillou

June 11, 2011 – We slept in on Saturday morning, then drove to downtown Bordeaux to park in their underground parking structure. Then we had brunch at a charming sidewalk café before boarding the bus which headed to the Medoc for a tour of two wineries. When we saw the names of the wineries – Gruaud Larose and Maucauillou – people laughingly said they must have selected the two most difficult winery names to pronounce. Most marketing textbooks recommend selecting a product name that is easy to spell and pronounce, but this is not always the case in Bordeaux.

Chateau Gruaud-Larose – Elegance and History
This chateau, located in St. Julien, was started in 1725 and has 80 hectares of vines. We started in the vineyard and enjoyed see the gravely soil and learning that the grand cru is only created from old vines (25 to 80 years of age). In the cellar, they use concrete tanks for primary fermentation with 2 pump-overs per day for the first 9-10 days and a total of 23 days for maceration. Secondary fermentation takes place in large oak foudres for the grand cru. Interestingly they blend everything after fermentation and then age 16 months in 70% new French oak barrels, topping every 2 weeks and racking every 3 months.

In the tasting room, I was surprised to see that they are selling some wine direct to consumer – but you must make an appointment to visit, as is the case with most Bordeaux grand cru chateaux. We tasted 2 wines, beginning with the second label, Chateau Sarget 2002. It had a ripe cassis nose with dark fruit and earth on the palate. It was a medium-bodied wine, lightly oaked with a medium to long finish. Good for food, and still rather astringent for a 2002.

The next wine was my favorite -- Chateau Gruaud-Larose 2001. It was nice they let us taste some of the older vintages. 2001 is usually over-shadowed by the brilliant 2000, but it is still quite enjoyable. This wine tasted very fresh, and still has 8-10 more years in the bottle. It was a dark red opaque color with a dense fruit nose and tobacco, earth, toast, and gravel edge on the palate – very complex, good intensity, well-balanced, and long finish. It was instructive to see and taste how careful sorting of grapes and different winemaking distinguishes the grand cru from the second label.

Chateau Maucauillou – Whimsy and a Great Museum

Chateau Maucauillou was started in 1871 in the Moulis region. It is considered to be a “Cru Bourgeois,” though the designation has now been dropped in Bordeaux. Regardless this distinction indicates it is of higher quality than a generic AOC Bordeaux. The first impressive I received upon entering the estate was one of delightful whimsy reflected in the large bronze bull on the lawn in front of the country-house chateau and the two roosters on the entry sign shaped from a large black ball (see photo). After disembarking from the bus, we had to wait 15 minutes for our tour guide who was running behind schedule, however she did provide an informative and quick tour of the cellars.

A unique aspect of their winemaking is that they ferment in stainless steel at rather low temperatures for Bordeaux red varietals – approximately 21 degrees Celsius – which is a technique usually adopted for pinot noir and zinfandel, rather than cabernet sauvignon and friends. The purpose is to maintain the fresh fruit aromas and notes in the wine. They also construct the blend after aging individual lots for 18 months in 100% new French oak barrels.

As this was my first time to taste this brand, I was disappointed to find they only opened the 2007 Chateau Maucauillou -- my least favorite vintage. Though it did start with a beautiful nose of ripe berries (most likely from the cool ferment), it did not follow through on the palate. Instead we were greeted with a medium-bodied wine with high acid, astringent tannins and a bitter finish. Hopefully I will be able to try this wine on another occasion with a better vintage.

After the tasting we had time to visit the wonderful wine museum, which is a special feature of Chateau Maucauillou. Definitely worth the time!

AWBR Conference at Bordeaux Business School Plus Dinners at Chateau Giscours and Millesima

June 8 - 11, 2011 – Another Academy of Wine Business Conference (AWBR) with the location this time at the Bordeaux Business School. This was my 4th visit to Bordeaux and I always enjoy the city because it reminds me of a “little Paris.” With just over 1 million people including the suburbs, Bordeaux has an amazing downtown that was renovated with the UNESCO World Heritage grant to bring it back to its 18th century glory. Sidewalk cafes, fountains, statues, and beautiful buildings enchant along the Garonne River.

The conference was enjoyable with over 80 academic wine papers spread over 3 days. I spent most of my time in sessions on wine social media, branding, and consumer behavior. In the evenings, the conference committee planned exciting dinners for us. As I was traveling with my sister, Michelle, this time she was able to accompany us.

Enchanting Dinner at Chateau Giscours

On Thursday, June 9, the Union Des Grands Crus de Bordeaux sponsored at dinner at the beautiful Chateau Giscours (see photos) in Margaux. Michelle and I drove from our hotel near the airport, and it only took about 25 minutes to arrive. We were greeted by one of the owners who was very excited because she had just negotiated the 2010 en primeur price that day and achieved a 10% increase over 2009.

At the welcome reception we started with Chateau Giscours Rose 2009 which paired well with the foie gras and cheese appetizers. When more than 100 of us sat down to dinner, they announced we would be drinking 2007 vintages for the evening from a variety of member producers. I wasn’t that pleased with the news because 2007 was a cool and wet season in Bordeaux resulting in high acid, astringent tannins, and lighter body. However, most of the wines worked well with food.

The first course was pate with salad paired with a white Bordeaux. The main course was grilled steak paired with 2007 St. Estephe which was so tannic that we had to ask for a Margaux. Everyone at the table was much happier with the softer Merlot dominant wine. The cheese course brought much delight in that a 2004 Chateau Giscours grand cru was poured as a complement. This was the favorite wine of the night, and showed some complex secondary notes, more integrated tannins, and a fuller body with longer finish. Even though 2004 isn’t considered close to the greatness of 2005, it was much more enjoyable than the 2007 reds. However, we ended with a raspberry crème cake paired with a 2007Chateau Doisy Daene Sauternes which put most people in a state of rapture. As our host informed us, though 2007 was not as great in the Medoc, it was perfect in Sauternes.

Celebration Dinner at Millesima

Friday evening after the conference, the celebration dinner was in downtown Bordeaux at Millesima – an amazing wine shop and cellar housed in a historic warehouse. Millesima is both a negotiant and a wine retailer, and has locations across France. The dinner was sponsored by the Union des Maisons de Bordeaux, and began with a tour through the cellars where was passed cases of famous labels, including all the first growths. However, we did not get to taste those wines, but were treated to other member wines from Bordeaux, plus our wines from around the world.

This was our traditional celebration dinner where we each brought a bottle of wine from our country. My contribution was Opus One, which was so popular the bottle was tasted and consumed by more than 30 people in less than one minute! Dinner was three courses and consisted of scallops to begin, grilled duck/beef as the main, and raspberry sorbet with crepes for dessert.