Friday, June 28, 2013

Three Days in Madeira – Not Enough Time

In June I was fortunate enough to spend three days in Madeira – well, really 2.5 days because our plane landed at 1pm on Monday and we had to be at the airport to leave at 1pm on Wednesday. Madeira, a wine island in the middle of the Atlantic off the coast of Morocco, and owned by Portugal, is a place I’ve always dreamed of visiting. Now I’ve decided I must go back sometime and spend at least a week on this enchanted isle.

Flying to Madeira from Lisbon

My friend Lupe and I flew from Lisbon on TAP Air to Madeira – the total flight time about 1 hour and 20 minutes. The Madeira airport is small and easy to get around. I was shocked when our Hertz rental car was not available and we were told we had to wait 4 hours (Hertz has always been there for me on so many international visits), but we were able to get a local rental car for the same price. By the way, the executive TAP lounge in Lisbon is wonderful – we had a great breakfast with Portuguese sparkling wine.

Checking Into Our Hotel & Exploring Downtown Funchal

The drive from the airport to Funchal – the main city on Madeira – took only 20 minutes, and we checked into the Madeira Regency Club Hotel. The service was friendly and the rooms large and clean. Though the hotel is a bit dated, the location right on the ocean and 10 minute walk to shopping and restaurants is great. We checked into a nice apartment with small kitchen, living rooms, and 2 beds. It also had a great balcony overlooking the ocean. The pool area, happy hour, and full buffet breakfast were all excellent.

After unpacking, we walked along the ocean wall to the downtown shops. We had a great time looking at cork purses, shoes, and Madeira wine. The painted doors of Madeira are also fun to explore. Local artists paint colorful scenes and images on doors (see photo).

Dinner at Goviao Novo Restaurant

A shop owner recommended that we have dinner at Goviao Novo and gave us directions. We sat outside on the sidewalk and had a wonderful time chatting with our fun waiter, the British couple next to us, and all of the people who walked by with their dogs. We feasted on local fish with banana, tomato and egg soup, and washed it down with an icy cold white Madeira wine made of the verdelho grape. When we got back to our room, we sat on the balcony and shared a tiny bottle of fortified Madeira Malmsey wine we had purchased in a shop. A perfect first day!

Visiting Miradouro Do Cabo Girao Lookout

The next morning after our buffet breakfast by the sea, Paolo, a Wine MBA student I had met in Sonoma the year before, arrived to escort us to two wineries (see separate postings on Barbeito and Henriques & Henriques wineries). The weather was a perfect 78 degrees with a bright blue sky. Our first stop was the overlook at the second highest cliff in the world – the Miradouro Do Cabo Girao. It was terrifying to walk on the glass floor overlooking the drop off, but I was delighted to see vineyards thousands of feet below near the ocean.

Lunch/Dinner at Chalet Vincente & Evening Walk Along the Lido Sea Promenade

Around 2:30 we arrived for lunch at Chalet Vincente and didn’t finish until 6:30. Paulo and Humberto treated us to a 5-course feast of traditional Madeira food paired with both fortified and still Madeira wines (See previous posting on menu). Afterwards we decided to take an evening stroll along the Lido – a paved walkway that runs along the seashore for miles. The sun slowly set and the sea turned a pale lavender, which was breath taking to behold. We passed many restaurants, oceanfront hotels, and friendly tourists, and also found more places to shop.

The Twisting Drive Up to Eira do Serrado and Hiking Along Levadas

The next morning we had a leisurely breakfast at the hotel buffet on the patio overlooking the pool and ocean. After checking out we drove to the top of the highest mountain on Madeira to the lookout called “Eira do Serrado” which is at 1094 meters, or 3300 feet. The drive up was a little hair-raising at times, in that the road was narrow with many switch-backs, and of course we got lost several times. It took about 45 minutes all together.

Once we reached the top, we went hiking for a bit and saw the famous levadas, which are ancient stone irrigation channels, which also make great hiking trails. I’d highly recommend this outing, because the views from the top of the mountain are breathtaking, and you can see many of the high terraced vineyards along the hillsides.

Visiting Rada Villa Do Machico

On the way to the airport, we decided we wanted to stop at a smaller village along the ocean because we had spent the whole time in Funchal and its surroundings. Therefore, we drove past the airport to the small town of Rada Villa Do Machico, and found they had a beautiful man-made beach of golden sand, as well as charming restaurants, shops, and painted doors. In the main plaza, a vendor was selling freshly picked cherries, so we bought a bag and munched on them as we wandered around.

We arrived at the airport an hour before our flight and had no trouble returning the car. They were very careful to check it to make sure we had not dented it. Once in the TAP lounge (much smaller than Lisbon’s) we relaxed and had beer and peanuts before catching our slightly delayed flight back to Lisbon.

All in all, a very wonderful visit, but not enough time. I wanted to return to explore all the other parts of the island I missed, as well as to visit the other Madeira wine houses.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Pairing Madeira Wines with Food – Amazing 5 Course Meal at Chalet Vincente in Funchal

(June 11, 2013) - We enjoyed a 3.5 hour lunch at Chalet Vincente, a charming restaurant near the ocean in Madeira’s main city of Funchal. The menu was impressive, custom ordered in advance, and served with both Madeira fortified and still wines which accompanied traditional Madeira dishes.

Appetizer: 5 year old H&H Sercial with Marinated Octopus and “Bolo do Caco” (Madeira Bread, unleavened with garlic)

First Course: 5 year old Barbeito Verdehlo with Tuna simmered in a Tomato & Onion Sauce

Second Course: Still Verdelho Wine Terras do Av├┤ with "Espada Preta" (Black Scabbard Fish) lightly battered in a local passion fruit & banana sauce

Third Course: Still Red Wine Beijo (Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz & Cabernet Sauvignon) with Cubed Pork slow cooked in garlic & vinegar and garnished with fresh orange.

Dessert: 10 year old Barbeito Boal and 10 year old H&H Malvasia with local goat cheese sprinkled with walnuts, spaghetti pumpkin jam, chocolate mouse, and cake and fresh fruit soaked in a warm custard sauce

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Buying Wine in Moorea, Bora Bora & Tahiti

May 2013 – My husband and I decided to celebrate our anniversary in the Tahitian Islands on an 8 day/6 night trip. The reason it was 8 days is because the non-stop flights from Los Angeles to Papeete only fly at night, so we spent two nights trying to sleep on a plane, and the other 6 nights sleeping in beautiful resorts.

Naturally we packed some wine to take with us – 3 bottles – but quickly discovered that we should have brought more, or purchased it in duty free as we witnessed many other people doing. This is because wine prices are quite high in these islands. For example, we found Veuve Clicquot orange label in a grocery store on Bora Bora for 11500 Pacific francs, or approximately $127! In restaurants, it was even pricier. But since the wine must be imported a very long way, I guess this is to be expected.

Moorea – Incredibly Beautiful, With Manutea Tasting Room

After traveling 12 hours from San Francisco (SFO to LA on American, 2 hour layover, then 8.5 hours Air Tahiti), we finally arrived in Papeete, the capital and largest city on the island of Tahiti. It was 5.30 in the morning, and there was a 3 piece band singing local songs, which was quite nice, but the hour long wait in the customs line was exhausting. There were no seats, and no air conditioning in the humid 80 degree climate.

Once through customs, our luggage was waiting, and we were greeted by our travel agent rep with fragrant tuber rose leis and then asked to wait another 2 hours before our 15 minute flight to Moorea across the bay. We were happy to reach our hotel, the Pearl Beach Resort & Spa (see review on Trip Advisor link at end of post), around 9:30am, but had to wait until noon to get into our room. However, they allowed us to take a shower in the hospitality room, and relax by the beautiful infinity pool with view of the ocean.

Our first wine experience was that evening at their restaurant when I ordered a glass of the house white. It was a basic Vin de France of no clear varietals, but was serviceable with the grilled mahi-mahi with vanilla cream sauce.

The next day we rented a car to drive around the island, and the first stop – as recommended by our guide book – was the Manutea Tasting Room, a mere 20 minutes from our hotel. We were expecting to only find fruit liquors, such as their famous pineapple brandy and vanilla cream which were delicious to taste, but imagine my surprise to find they also stocked the only wine made in the Tahitian Islands – the Tahiti wine brand made on the island of Rangiroa (see below).

The next evening, we ordered some of the excellent local BBQ and had it on our private pool patio with a wonderful Alexander Valley cabernet sauvignon, which we had brought with us. The final night on the island, we walked 10 minutes to the Moorea Beach Club (see Trip Advisor review below) and had a fabulous dinner of fresh fish with a minerally 2011 Macon recommended by the French owner. Overall we were quite happy with our wine experiences on Moorea.

Tahiti Winery on Rangiroa Island - Domaine Ampelidacees

The Tahiti Winery is located on Rangiroa Island, which we did not visit, but we found their wine in several locations. The actual name of the winery is Domaine Ampelidacees, established in 1992. They currently have 8 hectares of vineyards, produce around 40,000 bottles per year, and because the climate is so warm, they have 2 harvests.

The primary grapes they are using are Carignan Blanc and Muscat of Hamburg. Both perform well in warmer climates, so they are apparently able to grow it successfully here, even though the humidity is a problem at times.

I tasted three of their wines. The first was the Blanc de Corail, made from a blend of carignan red and muscat, which they were selling by the glass at our hotel on Bora Bora – the Pearl Resort. It had a perfumed nose similar to gew├╝rztraminer and some residual sugar on the palate, and was perfect as an aperitif by the pool.

The second two wines I tasted at the Air Tahiti lounge on our way home. The first was the Blanc Sec, which was made in an old world style (oak aged 12 months, carignan red). The next was the Rose Nacarat (same grapes as Corail), which was similar to a dry Provence rose, with muted berry and hints of earth and minerality on the palate. All three wines had a distinctive character, and I found them quite interesting.

Bora Bora – Even More Expensive Wine

We arrived in Bora Bora on our fourth day, after a 40 minute flight from Papeete (yes we had to fly back to Papeete from Moorea first). From the tiny airport, you must take a boat to all of the hotels, and we arrived at the Bora Bora Pearl around 10am, but were able to check into our over-water bungalow around noon (See review on Trip Advisor below). Even though expensive, I think this is something everyone should do at least once in a lifetime, if possible. It was one of my bucket list items, and worth it.

Bora Bora is stunningly beautiful with turquoise water, white sand, jagged mountain peaks, and some of the best snorkeling I’ve ever experienced. The first day we snorkeled off our deck, worked out in the gym, swam in the pool and just relaxed. My husband also continued to drink the local beer, Hinano, which he had discovered on Moorea and was around $5 per can.

Since the resort was so beautiful – and you had to take a boat and expensive taxi into town – we ate at their restaurant the first night and were impressed with the food. Because the weather was so hot, I was craving a glass of NZ sauvignon blanc, but couldn’t find one on menu, so I settled on a bottle of basic French rose. My husband ordered a glass of 2009 Bordeaux Superior to go with his beef, and really enjoyed it. However, I have discovered that even the cheapest 2009 Bordeaux are usually quite good.

The second day we did the Lagoon tour and went snorkeling in 4 different locations, including the Coral Gardens, which was amazing! I’ve never seen so many fish, plus a huge moray eel with sharp teeth. That night we ordered room service of fresh fish and paired it with the last bottle of wine we had brought with us – a vintage Champagne.

American Brands in the Islands – Mondavi and Barefoot

The third day we took the resort bus into the small town of Vaitape to go shopping and buy wine at the grocery story. We had noticed that Mondavi and Barefoot (Gallo) seemed to dominate at restaurants, and so I was curious about grocery stores prices. Here I found Barefoot to be 1995 Pacific Francs, which equaled to around $22 US dollars per bottle! However at our unpleasant experience eating at Bloody Mary’s restaurant that evening (see Trip Advisor links below), I found that it cost around $40 per bottle!

At the grocery store, I ended up buying an IGP sauvignon blanc from Languedoc for around $18 to drink on the deck (the resort has small refrigerators and plenty of ice). It was pleasant when chilled. We also did other shopping in Vaitape at the local craft market, and enjoyed wondering around the art galleries.

Where is “New Zealand Wine” in Tahiti?

During our time in the island, I couldn’t help but wonder why New Zealand wine was not more prevalent. Tahiti is only a 6 hour flight from New Zealand (in fact, one of our flight choices was to fly to Auckland and then back to Tahiti), so I was expecting a lot of cold, crisp NZ sauvignon blanc in such a hot climate. However, I found very little NZ wine, with French wine dominating the market here. Obviously the French heritage of the islands and the fact that it was Gauguin’s adopted home, and is a primary reason for this.

Overall Impressions

I am very happy we had the opportunity to travel to Tahiti, Moorea, and Bora Bora. It is worth saving up for at least once in your life, though I’m not sure I would go again because there are so many other beautiful places that are less expensive. Also there is more poverty in the islands that I was expecting.

Overall, it is a very romantic place. Most everyone there was either on his or her honeymoon or celebrating an anniversary.

In terms of wine, I would recommend bringing your own, buying in duty free in LA, or just accept that you must pay high prices.

Links for Trip Advisor Reviews

Moorea Pearl Resort

Moorea Beach Cafe

Bora Bora Pearl Resort -

Bloody Mary’s, Bora Bora

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Wine and Food in Hilton Head and Savannah Georgia

One of the items on my husband’s bucket list is to play golf on Hilton Head Island, so when I was able to get a good deal on a weekly condo rental there recently, we jetted off to the South Carolina island covered with long white sandy beaches, swaying palms, pink azaleas, and oak trees dripping with lacy moss.

He was happy because he was finally able to play Harbour Town golf course with the famous red and white lighthouse on the 18th hole. He also enjoyed the challenge of Sea Pines Ocean course, Palmetto Dunes and Shipyard. I was pleasantly pleased because I stumbled across some wine by the glass lists with unique wine choices, while also managing to get in a little golf and take an excellent short game clinic with Doug Weaver at Palmetto Dunes.

Unique Wine by the Glass Selections

In general, I find many wine by the glass lists rather boring in that they carry the same major brands, although I do recognize that many consumers are seeking the comfort of a familiar wine, and that restaurants want the reassurance of solid cash flow. Therefore I was quite surprised to find buried within the KJ Chardonnays, Beringer White Zins, Kim Crawford Sauvignon Blancs, Robert Mondavi Cabernet Sauvignon, and Apothic Red Blends, a few unique gems.

The first surprise was at the Topside Waterfront Restaurant where we found a Picpoul (white grape from the South of France with a zippy lemony edge) and a Chapoutier Grenache Blanc and Clairette blend on the extensive wine by the glass list – both for under $10. When I asked to see the complete wine list by the bottle, I found it was the same as the by the glass list, but with the prices inflated by four. Therefore it made no sense to buy a bottle, so instead we opted for 4 different glasses.

Pink HouseThe next day in Savannah when dining at the famous Old Pink House, we were quite surprised to find a Godello on the wine by the glass list. This is a white wine from Spain that is rarely found in the US. It was crisp with sharp acid, grapefruit notes, and a mineral edge. They also carried a Lioco unoaked chardonnay, which is a tiny artistic winery in Sonoma that most people have never heard of – including me, and I’m from Sonoma!

Probably one of the best culinary experiences we had was at a restaurant that I didn’t want to enter because it looked like a nightclub with a dark interior, red lights, and bar stools at high tables. However, we had been told that Daniel’s at Coligny Beach on Hilton Head featured a creative chef with artistic large tapa plates like the angry lobster, lamb lollipops, and tableside hummus preparation. The wine by the glass list was equally innovative with several flights served in a tiered candelabra presentation (see photo), as well as Naked “natural” wine from Snoqualmie Washington and two unique styled malbecs from Argentina. Equally intriguing about Daniel’s were their homemade liquors, such as vodka with Skittles, peach and bacon soaked bourbon, and many other unusual concoctions.

Difficult to Get a Wine List

One interesting observation at all three of these higher-end restaurants is that none of them brought the complete wine list with bottle prices to the table with the menus. Instead they featured extensive wine by the glass lists inside the food menu. Perhaps this is a custom in this part of the country. I’m not sure what the explanation is, but I did notice that a lot of people were drinking wine in Georgia and South Carolina – a good sign for American culture because as Thomas Jefferson said, “No nation is drunken where wine is cheap; and none sober, where the dearness of wine substitutes ardent spirits as the common beverage. It is, in truth, the only antidote to the bane of whiskey.”