Visiting Marques de Riscal – A Bucket List Item Achieved

(June 2018) For many wine lovers a visit to Marques de Riscal Winery in Rioja is a bucket list item.  It definitely was for me, and not just to taste the delicious wine, but to stay overnight in their masterpiece hotel designed by Frank Gehry. With swirling patterns of pink, purple and silver, the famous architecture feat appears to be a decadent piece of salt water taffy floating on a sea of green vineyards.  The chance to stay in such a magnificent location, now operated by Starwood as a luxury resort, compelled me to consult my SPG loyalty points and book one night after the conclusion of the 2018 MW Symposium in Logrono.

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The Marques de Riscal Hotel in Rioja Designed by Frank Gehry

Alas, I should have also consulted the symposium schedule, because the organizers decided to hold the gala dinner at the Marques De Riscal winery.  This not only allowed us to take many photos in front of the Frank Gehry masterpiece, but also to be treated to a riveting flamenco show with great Spanish guitar and ravishing dancers.  At the same time, we had the opportunity to taste wines from many of the famous Rioja wineries and enjoy delicious appetizers.

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Flamenco Dancers and Spanish Guitarists at Marques de Riscal Winery

Next we were treated to a four-course dinner prepared by Chef Francis Paniego, holder of three Michelin stars (see menu at end of post). During the meal, the President of Marques De Riscal, Alejandro de Aznar Sainz, gave a toast with a 1955 Gran Reserva. Everyone appreciated the spectacular opening of multiple dust covered bottles with a burning tong ceremony. The evening continued with dancing and a full open bar until three in the morning.  I only made it until 1am, and somewhere between the winery and the bus, I lost my high heel shoes.

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Opening the 1955 Marques de Riscal Grand Reserva with Tongs

Checking Into the Frank Gehry Masterpiece

After the conclusion of the MW Symposium the next afternoon, I drove the 20 minute distance from Logrono to Elciego, in the south of the Rioja Alavesa, where Marques De Riscal Winery and Hotel is located. My daughter and I checked into the Spa wing, also designed by Frank Gehry, with larger rooms and an opportunity to gaze across the vineyards and out at the magnificent architecture masterpiece.  The hotel is rather small, with only around 40 rooms in total, and 3 restaurants.  We were told it was full when we checked in.

A nice aspect of staying there is the fact that you can use the spa facilities free of charge, and receive an invitation to tour the winery and taste some of the wines. Every room also has a complementary half bottle of the Marques De Riscal Reserva.  Therefore after exploring our very large room and even larger bathroom, we headed to the tasting room for a private tour, kindly arranged the evening before by PR Director, Cristina Perez Martin. We met with Francesca, who is studying to become a winemaker, and therefore, made a perfect tour guide to answer my technical questions.

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View of Town from Inside Marques de Riscal Hotel

Overview of Marques De Riscal Winery and Vineyard Operations

Francesca informed us that the winery was established in 1858 by Guillermo Hurtado de Amézaga, who was living in Bordeaux and came to Rioja to start the winery. The oldest section of the winery was completed in 1860, built out of the local sandstone. Today the enterprise is owned by four families, and they produce around 5 million bottles of wine per year, with 16 different labels.  There are around 130 full-time workers, which swells to nearly 300 during harvest, when seasonal employees from Portugal and Eastern Europe arrive to help harvest the grapes.

They own 500 hectares of vineyards and also purchase grapes from local growers in both Rioja and Rueda. The Rioja vineyards rest at around 500 meters (1500 feet in elevation) and are composed of clay and limestone. Rioja has a maritime climate, being relatively close to the sea with a frequent cooling fog layer in the morning.

 

Frank Gehry Was Hired to Build the Corporate Headquarters

I was surprised to learn that, originally, Frank Gehry was hired to build the corporate headquarters for Marques de Riscal.  However, when the building was finished, the design was so spectacular that they knew they had to share it with the world. Therefore, it was converted into a hotel. Since it had so few guest rooms, they commissioned Frank to also design the Spa wing, where we stayed.

The spa includes a massive indoor pool overlooking the vineyards, along with a steam room, dry sauna, Jacuzzi, and pebble foot massage section.  I visited twice – after our winery tour, and also the next morning. It is decorated in a red and black theme, with a black bottom pool, red walls, and grape vine branches.

Winemaking Process at Marques de Riscal

Francesca led us to the older part of the winery where the high-end wines are made. Gehry Collection, Barón de Chirel, Gran Reserva and Finca Torrea . The evening before, we had seen the newer section of the winery, filled with hundreds of stainless steel tanks where the Reserva wines are made. She showed us where they set up the sorting tables, and also explained the optical sorters they are employing in order to insure that only the best grapes go into the top cuvees.

All of the high-end wines are fermented in large French oak foudres, with natural yeast.  They use pigeage by climbing into the tanks to help start fermentation.  After it begins, they use gentle pumpovers.  Fermentation temperature is maintained at 25 – 26 C for 8 – 12 days. Then they use a gentle basket press to select free run and some pressed juice to transfer to small 225 liter barrels for aging.  The remains are sold to a distiller.

Next the wine spends 2 to 3 years in French and/or American oak barrels, depending on the brand. It is racked 3 to 4 times per year the first year, and then 2 to 3 times during second year. “It is a lot of work for our cellar team,” said Francesca, “and we lose a lot of wine to evaporation, but the process of very good for natural filtration, so we do not need to fine or filter much.” The very clean and modern bottling line is actually located under the hotel, and there are massive cellars to store the unlabeled bottles for the required time for Gran Reserva and specialty wines. They also have a locked library cellar with old wines dating back to the 1860s.

Marketing of Marques de Riscal Wines

Marques de Riscal wines are sold in 110 countries, with 65% of production exported. The major export wine is the Marques de Riscal Reserva, with its signature gold net enveloping the bottle.  They also conduct direct to consumer sales at the winery tasting room, where they receive over 100,000 visitors. They have a variety of tour and tasting options, and have become the most visited winery in Rioja.  Visitors flock there not only to taste the wine, but to take photos in front of the famous hotel.  They can also dine at the one Michelin star restaurant and schedule spa appointments.  The small town of Elciego that surrounds the winery is very picturesque, with a beautiful stone church, cobblestone streets, tree-lined plazas, and several restaurants and small shops.

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The Small Town of Elciego

Tasting Notes on Marques de Riscal Wines

I was fortunate enough to taste through the majority of the Marques de Riscal wines – some at the gala dinner the evening before and others at the tasting room.  Following are some of my notes on the wines.

Marques de Riscal Sauvignon Blanc Rueda 2017 – Fresh and crisp with citrus, grass and minerality. Great acidity, very refreshing. 100% stainless steel. Great value. 89, $9

Marques de Riscal Limousin Rueda 2016 – 100% Verdejo aged 6 months on oak. Heavier body with more complexity, toasty, dried pear, citrus. 88, $16

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Marquis de Riscal Reserva 2014 – their bread and butter wine, exported all over the world, with its classic label and gold netting.  Always a safe bet to order.  Made in a consistent style with red cherry, spice, vanilla, and powdery tannins. Aged two years in American Oak barrels. I ordered this many times in Spain by the glass for around 3 euros, and it always satisfied. Made from the 3 classic varieties of Tempranillo, Graciano, and Mazuelo.  They also give you a complimentary half-bottle of this wine if you stay in the Hotel. 90 points, $17

Finca Torrea 2015 – made from tempranillo vineyard next to the hotel. Black cherry, spice, and soft tannins.  Lighter and more elegant on palate with fresh finish. Has a cool looking label, that is supposed to represent the vineyard, and looks like a Picasso painting. 90 points, $25.

Marqués de Riscal 150 Aniversario 2010  – this was served with our dinner and paired very well with the filet mignon served by Chef Francis Paniego.  Massive structure and tannins with generous French oak and notes of balsamic, dried cherry and spice. Classic red Rioja varieties. 32 months in French oak. 94 points, $55

Marqués de Riscal Gran Reserva 2004 – classic aged Rioja with dried black cherry, tea, savory notes, vanilla and spice. Smooth and velvety tannins. 92 points, $70

Barón de Chirel 2005  – Made from old vines in a Bordeaux Style, with tempranillo and cabernet aged in French oak. Still very fresh with good structure. Dark cherry, earth, spice, and toasty oak. 93 points, $75

Barón de Chirel Verdejo 2016 – explosive acidity, 8 months in oak. Citrus and wet stone, savory. 91 points, $42

Marquis de Riscal  Rosé Viñas Viejas 2016,– aged on Sauvignon Blanc lees. Grenache and tempranillo. Nose of rose and watermelon. Bone dry on palate with some cherry notes. Very long , elegant and refreshing.  Very much like a high-end Provence rose.  93 points, $26.

Frank Gehry Collection  – we did not taste. Only released in certain vintages.  Priced well over $300.

The Bucket List Item Achieved

So in the end, I had two magical days at Marquis de Riscal. I definitely think it was worthwhile staying at the hotel, because the architecture is so beautiful both inside and out.  Unless you stay there, you cannot explore all of the nooks and crannies, and enjoy how the light plays upon the angles and metal at different times of the day.  Walking across the bridge from the main hotel to the spa wing is quite mystical – especially at night.

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Inside the Frank Gehry Bridge at Night

Though we did not dine in the Michelin star restaurant there (mainly because I had been treated to Michelin dinners the previous two nights and was seeking something simpler), we did eat at the 1860 Traditional Restaurant next door on the second floor. The views of the surrounding countryside and vineyards were delightful, the service was impeccable, and the food excellent. I ordered the hake fish with a glass of the Rueda verdejo, and it was perfect. Perhaps the most surprising aspect was the bright red toilet paper in the bathrooms – really!

The Best Wine Sales Person in the World – from Vietnam!

“Hey, lady, do you want to buy some wine?”

A female voice with a Vietnamese accent called out to me, and I glanced over the side of our boat to see a small woman in a bright orange shirt holding a bottle of wine. She was standing up in one of the many small “grocery store” boats that we had seen sailing around Halong Bay all day. These boats were filled with different types of food, drink and household supplies to sell to the tourist boats and locals who lived on boats in the Bay.

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Lady Selling Wine from Boat in Halong Bay, Vietnam

It was day three of our ten-day culinary tour of Vietnam, and we had spent the previous two days attending a cooking school in Hanoi and sampling amazing street food. This morning we left Hanoi for the 2 hour drive to Halong Bay, passing rice fields filled with water buffalo along the way (yes, just like the movies!). After boarding our boat, complete with private sleeping rooms and a crew of five, we spent the day sailing amongst the amazing rock formations and stopping at several places to swim and kayak.

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Rock Formations in Halong Bay, Vietnam

Now as the sun was setting, my husband and I were relaxing on the deck before dinner, and enjoying a plate of fresh fruit appetizers and two chilled glasses of white wine that the staff had served.

“Hey, lady, you like wine?” the voice came again from the water, and I looked over the rail to see that she was now waving the bottle of wine in the air.

“Just ignore her, and she’ll go away,” said my husband, reaching for a big piece of dragon fruit.

“I don’t want to be rude,” I said.

“You’re not being rude. It’s just her job to be a high-pressure sales person. Ignore her.”

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Wine and Fruit Appetizer on Halong Bay Overnight Boat Tour

Just then one of the boat stewards approached to check on us. Seeing the woman in the grocery boat, he yelled something at her in Vietnamese, and she slowly picked up her boat oars and paddled away.

“You wouldn’t want to buy that wine anyway,” my husband continued. “Can you imagine how bad it must taste being stocked on that open boat with the sun beating down on it all day in this 95 degree weather with 90 percent humidity.”

I had to agree with him. It wasn’t the first time we had seen wine stored in such a hot location in Vietnam. We had passed several tiny grocery stores and liquor shops in Hanoi with wine bottles displayed in glass windows in the bright sun with no air-conditioning. Most of the wine was inexpensive imports from France or local Vietnamese wine – much of it made with hybrid grapes, and often blended with fruit. The locals primarily drank beer, to which they frequently added ice.

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Our Private Boat on Halong Bay

Here on the boat, however, the staff were preparing a big dinner for us, and had served us a glass of cold sauvignon blanc from the Loire Valley. It was delicious with the fruit plate, especially after a long day in the sun and heat. We were feeling very spoiled, because the tour company we booked with promised to go whether or not they achieved the limit of 16 people. When no one else signed up, except for my husband, daughter, and a good friend, they honored the contract, and we were given a private ten-day culinary tour of Vietnam, complete with guide. This included all transportation, including this boat, which normally slept 20 people. So now we felt very pampered with a boat crew of five waiting on the four of us!

“Hey, lady, you want some wine?”

The voice floated out over the water again, and I looked around to see that the tiny wine sales woman had paddled around to the opposite side of our boat. She stood up again in her little dinghy with a big smile on her face, waving the bottle of wine at me.

“On no, not again,” moaned my husband.

“Come on, you have to give her credit,” I said. “Where else in the world would you have a wine sales experience like this?”

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The Best Wine Sales Person in the World

I held out my arms out and gestured at the amazing scene that spread out around us; the sun had set and the sky was ablaze in colors of soft pink, lavender and orange. The tall rock formations rose around us, with their mysterious nooks and hollows, and the sea looked like molten silver.

“Lady?”

Glancing down I saw with amazement that the tiny woman had inched her boat up to the back of ours, and was looking up at me with a big smile. She had short black hair, lovely tanned skin, and very white teeth.

“How much?” I asked.

“No,” groaned my husband. “You’re not going to buy that wine from her, are you?”

“Ten dollars,” she said. “Good price for very excellent wine.” She held out the bottle and I could see that it was the local Vang Dankia red wine that we had seen in many shops for around five dollars. I had tasted it in a restaurant, and it was quaffable, but given the fact that it had spent some time rocking on a boat in the hot sun, I doubted it was drinkable.

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Negotiating for Wine

“Five dollars,” I countered.

“No, no,” she said, smiling and shaking her head. “I have to bring to you in my boat, so more expensive. Eight dollars.”

“Six,” I said.

“Seven,” she smiled.

“Ok, sold,” I said. “Mike can you give me some money? I left my purse in the cabin.”

Grumbling under his breath, he pulled the wallet from his pocket and gave me some money. “You know it is going to taste awful,” he said.

“Yes, probably,” I agreed. “But that is not the point. I am so impressed that she is selling wine out here in the middle of HalongBay in a Vietnamese grocery boat, that I cannot help but support her.”

I leaned over the side of the boat to give the money to the “best wine sales person in the world,” and she gently handed me the bottle of wine with a huge white grin on her face. I thanked her and wished her a good evening, then watched as she slowly paddled away in her little wooden grocery dinghy.

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My Sales Lady Paddling Away into the Sunset on Halong Bay

Later, as the four of us settled down to an eight course dinner of amazing seafood and fresh vegetables, the waiter asked me if I wanted him to open the wine. I nodded yes, and as he poured it into a glass, I was surprised to see it was still a dark red, rather than the orange-brown color I was expecting. On the nose, however, the wine was oxidized and a bit “cooked”, with stewed berries and an earthy note. According to the label, which was written in both Vietnamese and English, it was a blend of the Cardinal grape and mulberry fruit. Under different storing conditions, it could have been quite interesting.

We all tried it for fun, and agreed that it was worthwhile to purchase the wine just for the experience and to support my new favorite wine sales person. Then my daughter, friend and I all reached for the chilled white Loire, while my husband and our guide asked for a beer.

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Our Group with Guide Enjoying Vietnamese Dinner on Boat

Will America Soon Have a Rosé Wine Aisle Like France?

My sister adores rosé wine, so when we visited France recently, I took her to one of the many large French grocery stores and introduced her to the rosé wine aisle. She nearly swooned in delight. Various-pink and salmon hued bottles of wine were lined up on both sides of a very long aisle. The wines were from all regions of France, including Provence, the Rhone, Languedoc, Bordeaux, Burgundy, Alsace, and other locals. In fact, the rose wine aisle in French grocery stores is usually similar in size and length to the red and white wine aisles, because 35% of French people drink rose (Frank, 2018). Now this same trend is sweeping America, making people wonder if we will soon have similar size rose wine aisles in our grocery stores.

My Sister in the Rose Aisle in French Grocery Store

My Sister in the Rose Wine Aisle for a French Grocery Store

The Rise of Provence Style Rose Wine in America

Trends in wine come and go.  Remember the Mateus craze for semi-sweet pink frizzante wine from Portugal in the 1980’s and white zinfandel in the 1990’s? Now pink-hued wines are back in style again, but this time as an elegant dry style, based on the roses from Provence, France. In fact, according to Impact Databank, sales of imported rose wine grew 44% in the past two years in the US.

Part of the reason for the increased popularity of rose is a dedicated wine marketing campaign by the Provence Wine Council, who several years ago, re-organized with a focus on increasing sales globally. Their efforts have paid off handsomely with an increase of 40% volume in the past several years (Haller et al, 2016). In the US, imports of Provence rose have grown at double-digit rates since 2003, according to the Provence Wine Council.

Star power from Hollywood is also part of the rose allure. When Brat Pitt and Angelina Jolie purchased a wine estate in Provence and introduced Miraval rose to the US market, sales of the wine immediately took off. More recently, Jon Bon Jovi and his son paired up with French rose winemaker, Gerard Bertrand, to produce a new rose called Diving Into Hampton water (Sciaretta, 2018). The rapid fire sales of rose across the nation have also encouraged hundreds of US wineries to jump on the rose band wagon and offer new pink-hued options to their line-up of wines.

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Provence Rose and Fruit Bowl at a Gite in the Hills above Nice, France

The Three Major Styles of Rose

Many Americans are attracted to rose wine because of its light refreshing taste and lack of pretense.  It is fun to drink as a cocktail beverage, or as a pairing with many types of food, including various appetizers, seafood, grilled vegetables, fruits, salads, and poultry dishes.

There are also three major styles of rose, which can be produced from almost any type of red grape. However, the most common are grenache, syrah, cinsault, and pinot noir, or a blend of different grapes. The three styles are:

  • Provence Style: Pale salmon color, light elegant body, and dry finish. Usually with a floral and citrusy note
  • International Style: Medium-hued pink with more pronounced fruity style with a hint of sweetness. Often with strawberry, raspberry and watermelon notes.
  • Tavel Style: Darker-pink, medium-bodied with slight touch of tannins. A more masculine, powerful style of rose, which can pair well with barbeque. Named after the Travel rose wine region of France.

References

Frank, M. (2018). Rose’s New Era. Wine Spectator, June 30, 2018.

Haller, C., Bede, S., Courderc, M and Millo, F. (2016). Pink Wine and Movie Stars: How the Provence Wine Trail Was Established. Chapter in Thach, L. & Charters, S. (eds.) Best Practices in Global Wine Tourism. NY: Miranda Press.

Impact Databank (2017). Available at: http://www.shankennewsdaily.com/index.php/impact-databank-report/

Sciaretta, G. (2018). Jon Bon Jovi Dives into Wine. Wine Spectator, June 30, 2018.

Wines of Provence (2019). Provence Export Stats. Available at: http://www.provencewineusa.com/site/market-stats

 

Cattin Winery in Alsace – Creating Captivating Cremants & Great Wine Tourism Experiences

(March 2018) On my most recent trip to Alsace, my friend Coralee took me to visit Cattin Winery. Established in 1720, the winery is now operated by the 12th generation of the family – husband and wife team Jacques and Anais Cattin. What makes Cattin distinctive is their line-up of captivating cremants, as well as their unique wine tourism experiences.

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Modern Tasting Room at Cattin Winery

Cattin’s Modern Tasting Room in the Village of Voegtlinshoffen

After a delicious lunch in Colmar at Restaurant Maison de Tetes, we drove about 20 minutes to Voegtlinshoffen – one of the many small enchanting wine villages that line the foothills of Alsace. There, in a town of ancient buildings, stood the modern tasting room of Cattin, just opened in late 2017. Anais Cattin came to greet us and then provided a very entertaining tour and tasting for the next two hours.

She escorted us upstairs to a magnificent tasting room with glass windows overlooking a panoramic view of the long valley that stretches through Alsace with the mountains of Germany and the Black Forest beyond. The tasting bar is designed to look like a silver wine bucket, and was handmade by an artist in Western France. We settled into some comfortable chairs to admire the view and learn more about Cattin.

We discovered that the new Cattin tasting room and cellars is just one of three wineries the family owns. The original old cellar is just a short walk down the road, and Anais has established a wine tourism option for €12 euros per person that includes a visit to the old cellar, and then a tasting on the top level of the new winery, so visitors can see their vineyards stretching out in the valley below. The third winery is a very large cremant production facility in southern Alsace.

Altogether Cattin produces around 3.6 million bottles of wine per year (300,000 cases), and owns 70 hectares of vineyards. Obviously in order to produce such a large quantity of wine, they also purchase grapes from many local vineyards

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Tasting Bar at Cattin Shaped Like Wine Bucket

Cattin Cremants and Still Wines

Though they produce all types of wine from Alsace, Cattin is especially known for their Cremant d’Alsace, sparkling wines made in the same fashion as Champagne, with secondary fermentation in the bottle. They age all of their cremants on the lees for at least 12 months, but also have some higher end vintage wines that are aged as long as 4 years in the bottle before release. Anais told us that they are now exporting their wines to the East Coast of the US.

By law, Cremants d’Alsace can be made from Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay grapes. The wines are either white or rose. Due to their high quality and lower prices, Crémant d’Alsace is the top AOC sparkling wine consumed in France, according to Wines of Alsace.

We tasted through the line-up of cremants, and it was a very delicious experience:

  • Cattin Cremant d’Alsace Brut = floral nose, fresh, fruity and very approachable. Made from Pinot Blanc & Auxerrois grapes; 7 grams per liter sugar
  • Cattin Cremant d’Alsace Rose = made from 100% pinot, this sparkling rose had a nose of strawberry, with bright red fruit and citrus on the palate; 9 grams per liter sugar
  • Cattin Cremant d’Alsace Emotion – a more complex sparkling made with 20% Pinot Blanc and 80% Chardonnay, this wine had the more classic notes of citrus, pear and minerality. 24 months aging in the bottles; 6 grams per liter sugar.
  • Cattin Cremant d’Alsace Grand Cuvee 2010 – this was my favorite sparkling with a mouthwatering high acidity, notes of nuts, toast, mineral, and green apple, and a creamy mouthfeel. Made with 80% Pinot Blanc and 20% Chardonnay, this wine was aged for 4 years in the bottle.  5 grams per liter sugar.

 

Still Wines of Cattin

We also tasted some delicious still wines, including the Cattin 2013 Riesling Sec Pur de Roche, a single vineyard Riesling oozing with complex mineral notes and a touch of salt. Their Cattin 2015 Rouge d’Alsace Steinbach is made with 100% pinot noir and exhibits black cherries, earth, truffle and structured tannins – quite unique, compared to most Alsatian pinot noirs, which are usually light colored, silky, and rather simple. My favorite was the Cattin 2015 Gewürztraminer Vendages Tardives, which jumped out of the glass with classic notes of honeysuckle, litchi and apricot. On the palate it was smooth and delicious, filled with a hint of spice, honey, and dried mango.

 

It’s Now Cool to Add Ice to Champagne, Cremant, and Provence Rose

Probably the most unusual and fun wine we tried was their new product release of Cattin Cremant d’Alsace ICE. This sparkling wine, made from 100% Pinot Auxerrois, is purposely made in a sweeter more fruity style, with 40 grams per liter sugar (4% RS). It is designed to be drunk with ice as an aperitif, and is targeted at younger wine drinkers in France and abroad. The packaging on the bottle is also unique, with the design created by a French street artist who specializes in painting large outdoor murals.

The trend of adding ice to sparkling wine was introduced several years ago by Moët & Chandon, and is now very popular in France. Other Champagne and Cremant houses have followed suit, but, interestingly, have created separate blends and new products. Anais explained that because these wines are usually consumed in the summer with the ice melting in the wine, that the blend must be fruiter and sweeter. I was amazed at the number of advertisements I saw in France for Champagne Ice, Cremant Ice, and even Rose Ice from Provence. Finally it’s cool to add ice to wine – something my mother has been doing for years – adding ice to her white zinfandel.

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New Cattin Cremant Ice – Delicious!

Unique Wine Tourism Experiences at Cattin Winery

In addition to the beautiful new tasting room, Cattin has added another unique wine tourism experience – Segways in the Vineyard. For only € 57 per person you can book a 3 hour tour, which includes the tasting described above, as well as a tour through the vineyards with a guide.  Although I didn’t have time to do this during my recent visit to Cattin, I definitely hope to do so the next time I return to Alsace!

Finally, just like Napa Valley and Sonoma County, Cattin has begun to build a huge list of private clients who want to buy wine and return to the winery for special events (similar to a wine club in the US). Anais told us they now have a list of over 10,000 people, and have created wine dinners that attract many of their local fans. For example, they recently hosted a Foie Gras dinner which sold out in one hour. They have also organized a New Year’s Eve dinner party, and brought in a Michelen star chef to pair their wines with his cuisine. Cattin is truly a trailblazer in creating unique wine tourism experiences in France!

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Segway Tours in the Vineyards of Alsace. Photo Credit: Cattin Winery

Enchanting Rogue Valley: A Visit to Weisinger and Irvine Roberts Wineries

(February 2018) Recently I was honored to receive an invitation to speak at the Southern Oregon Wineries Association Annual Meeting in Ashland, Oregon. When they asked me if I wanted to arrive a day early so I could visit some wineries, my answer was –  naturally – yes! Though I have visited many wineries in this region in the past, because my relatives live in Medford, Oregon, this area is booming right now, and I wanted to take advantage of the chance to visit a couple new wineries. Therefore, I was pleased to visit Weisinger Family Winery and Irvine Roberts Vineyards.

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Vineyards in the Rogue Valley AVA of Southern Oregon. Photo Credit: TravelSouthernOregon.org

About the Southern Oregon Wine Region

Vineyards were first planted in Southern Oregon in the 1850’s by Peter Britt, near present day Jacksonville. Britt was an immigrant from Switzerland, with skills in photography and horticulture, and he saw that the warm climate of Southern Oregon was perfect for grapevines and fruit trees. By the 1880’s, he had acres of vineyards and was making wine from a multitude of varieties, including Riesling, Zinfandel, Malbec, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Pinot Noir.

Today that same spirit of entrepreneurship and diversity of winegrapes continues to thrive in Southern Oregon.  Now home to more than 150 wineries, with 5 AVA’s, and 70 different grape varietals, Southern Oregon is starting to receive much more attention in the US market. Though most people think of the cooler Willamette Valley further north with its award winning pinot noirs, Southern Oregon has also won multiple awards, not only for its pinot noir, which is 40% of their production, but for its delicious tempranillos, malbecs, and white Rhone blends, such as Viognier, Roussane and Marsanne.

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Map of Southern Oregon Wine AVAs.  Photo Credit: Oregon Wine Board

The Five AVAs of Southern Oregon

Diversity is the key word of Southern Oregon, and this is clearly reflected in their five AVAs, which exhibit a wide range of climates and soils. Following are the five major AVA’s of Southern Oregon, listed according to the dates they were established:

  • Umpqua Valley AVA (1984), coolest region. Known for delicate pinot noirs and award-winning tempranillos.
  • Rogue Valley AVA (1991), warmer region, sheltered from the cool Pacific by mountains. Excels at producing many different grape varieties.
  • Applegate AVA (2001), warm region on the Applegate River with alluvial and granitic soils. Known for bigger reds and Rhone whites.
  • Red Hill Douglas County AVA (2005) single estate, very warm AVA. Can easily produce big cabernet sauvignons, malbecs, and syrahs.
  • Elkton Oregon AVA (2013), a smaller AVA within Umpqua Valley that is high in elevation and closest to the Pacific Ocean, producing aromatic Rieslings and Gewürztraminers, as well as delicate Pinot Noirs.

Weisinger – Top Tempranillo Estate in the Rogue Valley

Weisinger is one of the oldest wineries in the Rogue Valley, established by John Weisinger who was visiting from Texas and fell in love with the area. He planted 4 acres of Gewürztraminer in 1978 and then opened the winery in 1988. Weisinger is ideally located just outside the popular tourist town of Ashland that attracts many visitors due to its famous Shakespearean theaters, charming downtown, and delectable restaurants serving local food, wine, and beer – most of it sustainably produced.

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Weisinger Family Winery is small and charming, set a top a small knoll and surrounded by vineyards.  It boasts a sunny patio with umbrellas and tables, and allows visitors to relax and look at the view while sipping wine and enjoying a cheese and charcuterie platter. They are quite small – producing only around 2,000 cases annually, and selling the majority of the wine directly to consumer (DTC). Today the winery is run by John’s son, Eric, who is very passionate about the Gewürztraminer, but even more so about the 10 acres of tempranillo he planted around the winery.

Touring the Tempranillo Vineyard

When I arrived Eric immediately took me into the vineyard and we discussed the different clones he was using there. The vineyards were planted on a slope at an elevation of 2200 feet in average. Eric had consulted with winemakers from Rioja to learn more about tempranillo clones, and to determine which clones and pruning methods were the best for Southern Oregon. He found that Clone 1 provides a dark fruit flavor, but often has issues with shatter and poor fruit set. The Duero clone provides more bright red fruit and performs well in the region. He found that using multiple clones for blending allowed him to achieve a higher level of complexity in his wines.

Interestingly, he was also in the process of converting the vines from cordon to cane pruned, because he said you could achieve higher yields in Southern Oregon with cane pruning.  He mentioned that some years in the past the yield was so low he couldn’t produce much wine. By converting the Clone 1 Tempranillo from cordon to cane pruning, he said he was able to stop the shatter issues and double the yield to around 3 tons per acre.

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View of Tempranillo Vineyard at Weisinger Family Winery

Just as we were leaving the vineyard, my cousins, Matt and Staci, who live in Medford arrived. They were fascinated by the pruning process that was in progress. After examining the vines a bit more, we headed into the tasting room and were treated to 8 different wines along with their signature cheese and chacuterie platter.

Favorite Weisinger Wines

Though all of the wines were delightful, the ones that really stood out for me were:

  • 2014 Weisinger Tempranillo – floral and cherry notes with mixed berry and spice on palate. French oak aging. Very elegant with intense flavors and a long finish.
  • 2014 Weisinger Touriga National – deep black color with earthy fruitcake notes and velvety tannins. Very concentrated. 18 months on American oak. Truly delicious!
  • 2015 Weisinger Malbec – oozing with blackberries, spice, and coconut notes from American oak. Large velvety tannins. Crowd Pleaser.
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Wine Tasting with Cousins Matt and Staci at Weisinger Family Winery

Irvine Roberts Vineyards – An Elegant Pinot Noir and Chardonnay Estate

The next stop was Irvine Roberts Vineyards, about a ten minute drive from Ashland, and hidden in an enchanting valley dotted with other wineries and beautiful estates. As we entered the sloping driveway, pinot noir vineyards fanned out on both sides of the road, climbing up to the brand new state of the art modern winery and tasting room perched on the hillside above.

We entered the beautiful visitor’s center with its unique chandelier made of cherry tree roots, massive tasting bar, and picture windows looking out over the vineyards and valley below. Outside a fire flickered in a fireplace where deck chairs were strategically positioned to allow the visitor to enjoy the warmth and the magnificent view.

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Outdoor Firepit at Irvine Roberts Vineyards

The 26 acre vineyard of chardonnay and pinot noir was started by husband-wife team Doug and Dionne Irvine in 2007. Later they were joined by Doug’s sister and brother in law, Kelly and Duane Roberts, so they named the winery Irvine Roberts Vineyards. Situated on a hillside within a cooler region of the Rogue Valley, the vines are planted on east-facing slopes at a higher altitude, and are certified sustainable by LIVE and Salmon Safe. The goal of Irvine Roberts is to produce ultra-premium pinot noir and chardonnay wines. They have recently added one acre of pinot meunier, with hopes to create a small sparkling wine production in the future. Production is currently around 6,000 cases, but they plan to plant 26 more acres, doubling production to around 12,000 cases eventually.

Cellar Tour and Tasting at Irvine Roberts

We were greeted by Managing Director, Michael Donovan who took us on a tour of the new winery, where we were able to see all of the modern winemaking equipment. In the cellar we bumped into owner, Doug Irvine, who invited us to taste the 2016 Irvine Roberts Reserve Chardonnay, which had not yet been released. It was rich, creamy, and delectable with ripe apple, pineapple, and a cleansing acidity. The one word that came to mind was “yum.”

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Wine Tasting with Doug Irvine (left) and Michael Donovan (right) at Irvine Roberts Vineyards

After the cellar tour we returned to the tasting room to relax in comfortable chairs near the picture windows.  There we were served the 2016 Irvine Roberts Rose of Pinot Noir. This was a truly elegant rose with watermelon, strawberry, and citrus notes. Very refreshing with a juicy acidity. Also it was not made in the saignee or blended fashion, but in the more expensive method of intentionally harvesting the pinot noir at a lower brix, letting it sit for one hour on the skins, and then making rose.

Soon a large platter of local delicacies arrived at the table, including nuts, cheese, and meats. We enjoyed ourselves immensely as we moved onto sample several pinot noirs and another chardonnay. My favorite was the 2015 Irvine Roberts Estate Pinot Noir, with expressive black cherry, truffle and earth notes. It was aged for 18 months in 25% new French oak, and had silky yet powerful tannins and a long, complex finish.

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A Nap Before Presenting and a Glass of Kriselle Cellars

Obviously after visiting two wineries during the day – even though I was professionally spitting the wine – a nap was still called for before my presentation that evening. However, when I arrived at the conference center, there was an advance tasting of many other Southern Oregon wines, followed by dinner, and then my keynote speech. Therefore, it wasn’t until much later in the evening, that I was able to relax and enjoy a full glass of Kriselle Cellars Sauvignon Blanc, an awarding winning wine from the Rogue Valley.

For more info on Southern Oregon wineries, please check out the following links:

Russian Dancers, Ballerinas and Caviar Enrapture Guests at Jordan Winery’s Holiday Party

I always enjoy receiving an invitation to visit Jordan Winery in the Alexander Valley AVA of Sonoma County. Not only is it one of the oldest wineries in the region, with an impressive gate and curving driveway which leads to a golden ivy-covered building designed in the French chateau style, but they are known for their very innovative events.

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Ballerina Dancers at Jordan Winery in Sonoma County

This time it was an invitation to attend their Tchaikovsky Christmas Party tasting to highlight their new Jordan Cuvée Champagne made in partnership with AR Lenoble in France. This is a true Champagne made near Epernay, France and aged for 4 years on the lees. It has the telltale chalky minerality and crisp acidity that I crave in Champagne, along with hints of pear, lemon and brioche.  It is quite sophisticated and pairs well with the caviar that Jordan is now selling.

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Enjoying Jordan Cuvee Champagne and Caviar

As soon as we approached the winery, we were greeted by a small group of ballerinas who were there to entertain the guests with exquisite dances from Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker. As we entered, we were handed a glass of the Jordan bubbles and invited to help ourselves to a lavish spread of oysters on the half-shell, salmon, shrimp, multiple types of caviar, and many other delectable dishes including a huge table of desserts and Russian petit fours. Ice sculptures and Russian backdrops were arranged amongst the wine barrels, and Russian music was playing in the background. In addition to Champagne, we were also offered Jordan’s very classic chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon, which paired well with the multiple cheese and meat courses.

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One of the highlights was a troup of Russian dancers who jumped and spun in the barrel room, delighting everyone with their gymnastic style dancing. It was a great way to spend a Saturday afternoon in California wine country.

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Russian Dancers at Jordan Winery

Prior holiday celebrations at Jordan included a Hawaiian Christmas theme, Halloween parties with vampires and pirates, and Belle Époque Spring Celebration. Jordan Winery is also famous for its fun YouTube video parodies featuring winery employees, such as the recent Despacito Embotellado.

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Russian Christmas Theme at Jordan Winery

 

How Warren Winarski and Marketta Formeaux Inspired the Creation of Mi Sueño Winery: A Mexican-American Dream Come True in Napa Valley

(July 2017) Last Saturday evening my husband and I were invited to the 20 Year Anniversary Dinner Celebration of Mi Sueño Winery. Given that I knew the wines of Mi Sueno were very delicious and that the dinner was being held at Michelin star restaurant L’Auberge de Soleil, we were very pleased to be on the guest list. However, I didn’t expect to be brought to tears by the speakers, and completely awestruck by the support and mentorship of Warren Winarski and Marketta Formeaux in helping Rolando and Lorena Herrera to start Mi Sueño Winery.

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The Herrera Family, Owners of Mi Sueño Winery, Napa Valley

A Double Anniversary of Wine and Romance

The dinner began with a reception on the patio where we were treated to a chilled glass of 2013 Mi Sueno Chardonnay Los Carneros and many tempting appetizers. Then, as the sun was slowly setting over the Western mountains of Napa Valley, the more than 200 guests in attendance were ushered into a sparkling dining room with white orchids on each table and a sea of wine glasses at each place setting. Champagne was poured as Cristina Londono with Telemundo gracefully stood to propose a toast to Rolando and Lorena Herrera. Not only were they celebrating ownership of Mi Sueño Winery, which was launched in 1997, but they were also celebrating their 20th wedding anniversary.

As Rolando stood to address the crowd, he had a large smile on his face. “Thirty-five years ago I started working here at L’Auberge de Soleil as a dishwasher,” he said, “and today I can truly say my dream has come true.”

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Private Dining Room at L’Auberge de Soleil for Mi Sueño Dinner

 

The American Dream is Alive in Napa Valley

Then Rolando proceeded to tell the story of how he had left Mexico in 1982 at age 15 to attend high school in Napa Valley and wash dishes at night. He took on other part-time jobs, including building stonewalls for Warren Winarski at Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. One day Warren saw him building walls, and was impressed by his determination, so he decided to offer him a cellar job. Three years later, Rolando was promoted to cellar master, and during this time began taking winemaking classes at Napa Valley College. Over the ensuring years, he also had the opportunity to work at Chateau Potelle and Paul Hobbs wineries before starting his own very successful Mi Sueño Winery.

Rolando pulled a piece of paper from his pocket and expressed his appreciation:

  • “To Warren, thank you for giving me the opportunity and opening the doors to the wine industry. I loved you from day one.”
  • “To Marketta, thank you for your trust in me and hiring me as a winemaker.”
  • “To Paul Hobbs, you gave me wings to fly, and took me to South America”
  • “To my wife and children, you are everything.”
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Rolando and Lorena Herrera Thanking Their Guests

Warren’s Mentorship

When it was Warren’s turn to address the diners, he confidentially took the microphone and told a story that brought tears to my eyes:

“The day I first met Rolando, he was cutting and placing stones on a wall at my Stag’s Leap property. It was the summer of 1985, and I didn’t know that the workers had been told: ‘Don’t look up at El Senor when he passes. Keep your eyes down and stay working.’ But one worker looked up at me, and I looked down at him. There was something in his eyes that said, ‘I am not a stone cutter.’ It reminded me of myself when I started out as an apprentice. So I fell in love with this man who looked up at me, and I saw myself in that look.”

Warren went on to describe how he offered Rolando a job in the cellar. “Not only did he have to learn English, but he had to learn the vocabulary of wine. This is difficult because you have to find words to describe what you taste on your tongue.  Wine has its own vocabulary, and without it you cannot talk the language of wine. But Rolando excelled at all of this. He is filled with passion, dedication, consciousness, and courage. He was recognized at the Smithsonian this May, and his wines have been served at the White House. He produces the highest level of fine wine.”

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Warren Winarski and Rolando Herrera

Marketta Formeaux of Chateaux Potelle Offers Rolando a Chance to be Winemaker

After many cheers and much toasting over Warren’s story, Marketta Formeaux, former owner of Chateau Potelle took the microphone. She explained how she had approached Rolando and offered him the position of Assistant Winemaker at Chateau Potelle in 1995:

“I came to Napa Valley from France in 1980,” explained Marketta in her charming French accent, “and was a partner in launching Chateau Potelle. In 1995 I wanted to hire an Assistant Winemaker, and I met Rolando. As a woman in the wine industry, I know how difficult it can be at times, and the courage and hard work it took for him to achieve what he had done at Stag’s Leap. So we hired him, and he worked for us for two years. Rolando was an exceptional winemaker and perfectly understood our motto that ‘we don’t make wine, we make pleasure.”

Massive applause erupted after Marketta’s speech, and much clinking of glasses and wine toasts “for pleasure.”

Rolando Herrera, Marketta Formeaux, Lorena Herrera, Warren Winiarski, Barbara Winiarski

Rolando, Marketta Formeaux, Lorena and Warren

Flying Winemaker and the Launch of Mi Sueño

Rolando also had other jobs with Vine Cliff Winery and Paul Hobbs Winery. While working with Paul, he had the opportunity to fly to South America to assist with winemaking there. Paul Hobbs was not able to be at the dinner celebration due to his travel schedule, but I’m sure he would have had an equally compelling story to tell as Marketta and Warren.

Cristina took the microphone again, and we learned that Rolando’s story continued with his marriage to Lorena in 1997, after a decade of courtship. Lorena is the oldest daughter of the famous Robledo wine family, who own more than 350 acres of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties. So in addition to marrying the love of his life, Rolando had access to high quality wine grapes. Therefore, they decided to start their own winery the same year that they married. They christened it “Mi Sueño,” which means “My Dream” in Spanish.

Mi Sueño Winery Today

Today Rolando and Lorena produce seven major varietals, including chardonnay, pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, tempranillo, malbec, syrah and petit verdot. To honor their six children, they created a second brand called Herrera, naming each wine in this line after one of their children. For example there is Herrera Perla Chardonnay and Herrera Rolando Jr. Cabernet Sauvignon, for their children, Perla and Rolando Jr.

Mi Sueño and Herrera Wines

Mi Sueño and Herrera Selection Wines

 

The Wine and Dinner Menu at L’Auberge de Soleil

In addition to being moved to tears by the speakers, we were also treated to an incredible meal by Executive Chef Robert Curry and Pastry Chef Paul Lemieux. Many of the wines were poured from magnum. The menu is listed below:

Sauteed Day Boat Scallop

2010 Perla Chardonnay, Herrera Selection

 

Grilled Kurobuta Pork Chop

2006 Mi Sueño Russian River Pinot Noir

 

Filet of Beef with Wild Mushrooms

2010 Rebecca Cabernet Sauvignon, Herrera Selection

2010 Rolando Jr. Cabernet Sauvignon, Herrera Selection

 

Valrhona Chocolate Mousse Torte

Hazelnut Custard

 

On the drive home my husband and I discussed the evening and how magical it was. It gave us both hope, that though we live in a time now where immigration to the USA is becoming tougher and tougher, there is still opportunity in wine country.

Later, I found out from Amelia Ceja, President of Ceja Winery, that there is a Mexican-American Vintner’s Association.  Currently they have around 13 members, but Amelia estimates that there are around 25 wineries started by Mexican-Americans in the US today. Five of these wineries, including Ceja and Mi Sueno, were honored at the Smithsonian earlier this year in a special ceremony focusing on food and wine.

Mi Sueño 2013 Los Carneros Chardonnay

 

Magnificent Meals at Domaine Drouhin, Serene and Penner Ash Wineries in Oregon

(May 2017) In addition to elegant food-friendly pinot noirs, the Willamette Valley is also well known for fresh farm produce grown in sustainable ways. So in addition to experiencing beautiful vineyard landscape and exquisite wine tastings, the 42 MWs on the tour organized by the Oregon Wine Board were treated to a variety of magnificent meals. Following is a recap of some of these delicious meals.

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Local Oregon Appetizers at Domaine Serene

Cellar Lunch at Domaine Drouhin

On the second day of our Oregon wine tour we were welcomed to Domain Drouhin. Established more than 25 years ago by the Joseph Drouhin family from Burgundy, the winery’s motto is “French Soul, Oregon Soil.” I had visited here twice in the past, and this time was just as welcoming as the prior visits.

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Entrance to Domaine Drouhin in Willamette Valley, Oregon

Even though it was raining lightly when we arrived, the terrace overlooking the vineyards had a stunning view and we enjoyed a variety of fresh appetizers before being ushered into the cellar. There amongst the stainless steel tanks we were able to partake of a buffet of fresh salads, fruits, and brick oven pizzas. Afterwards we enjoyed the “stories of the winemakers,” over a tasting of more amazing pinot noirs.

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Winemaker Story-Telling Lunch at Domaine Drouhin

Gala Dinner at Domaine Serene in New Estate Club House

That evening we dressed up to attend a very elegant dinner at the new tasting room/club house just opened at Domaine Serene. Again, I had visited this winery several times in the past, but in their original building. The new clubhouse is stunning with a large welcoming fountain in front of the Spanish style architecture with melon stucco walls and red roof tiles.

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Entrance to Domaine Serene, Willamette Valley, Oregon

As we entered, we were handed a glass of rose and invited to see the view of the vineyards out the wall of windows. Next we headed into the magnificent cellars made of white limestone. There we enjoyed a walk-around tasting of more Oregon wines, as well as a tempting table of Oregon cheese, meats, oysters, vegetables and other charcuterie items.

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Walk-Around Tasting and Appetizers in the Cellars of Domaine Serene

Dinner was held upstairs in a baronial ballroom with massive white stone fireplaces. We sat down at tables of eight, including two Oregon winemakers joining us at each table. Again the meal was comprised of fresh Oregon cuisine, including roasted beets, apples, sunchokes, breads, nuts, foie gras, and tuna as starters. The main course was a choice of Korean BBQ or Roasted Pork Leg. Dessert was Rhubarb compote with vanilla ice cream. Of course, every table was filled with mixed bottles of Oregon wine.

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MW Wine Dinner with Winemakers at Domaine Serene

The piece de resistance was a jeroboam of Domaine Serene 2005 Evenstad Vineyard Pinot Noir. It made me think of the 750ml bottle of this I had brought to a Masters of Wine dinner in London when I was still studying for the exam. We were each asked to bring a bottle of wine from our country that we were proud of. I brought the Domaine Serene Evenstad and it disappeared quickly – which made me feel good – considering there were also many lovely bottles of Burgundy on the table.

 

The evening concluded with the winemakers each providing a brief welcome and explanation of their winery. The chef and serving staff also were greeted by much applause and thanks. A truly magnificent and elegant evening in the Willamette Valley.

 

Baked Salmon Farewell Dinner at Penner-Ash Winery

The final evening of our trip we all gathered at the stunning Penner-Ash Winery with its modern architecture of wood, stone, and steel set atop a hill. Vineyards and pine trees surround the winery, and there is a large stone terrace with fire pits. We met here and in the great room inside, for a walk-around tasting and a debrief of our 3 day MW tour of Oregon wine regions.

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Penner Ash Wine Cellars. Photo Credit: Willamette Valley Wineries

Penner-Ash Wine Cellars was started in 1998 by Lynn Penner-Ash, winemaker, and her husband Ron. After studying at UC-Davis and working at Stag’s Leap and Rex Hill, Lynn built the gravity flow winery and focused on making award winning pinot noir. Recently the winery was acquired by Jackson Family Farms as part of their expansion into Oregon wine. Lynn is still actively engaged in winemaking, and is fortunate enough to work with the legendary Eugenia Keegan, who is the General Manager of Operations for Jackson Family Wines in Oregon, and winemaker at Gran Moraine Winery.

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Stunning Architecture of Penner-Ash Wine Cellars. Photo Credit: Waterleaf

I was fortunate enough to sit with Eugenia for part of the magnificent dinner in the barrel room of Penner-Ash. We enjoyed a family style meal of baked Oregon salmon, fresh vegetables, salads, breads, and delectable desserts. Of course, again we were treated to many amazing Oregon wines, and were joined by some of the winemakers from the Columbia Gorge and Southern Oregon Winery Associations – a true testament to how well the Oregon Wine Industry works together to support one another.

Departure from Portland International Airport

The next day we all awoke early to take cars and vans to the airport in Portland. Several of us had a last coffee together before jetting off to all parts of the globe. For me, it was just a quick flight to Santa Rosa, back home in Sonoma County. For others it was off to Hong Kong, London, Paris, Munich, and all of the many other locations around the work in which MWs work. Thank you Oregon for a magical visit!

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Enjoying Oregon Wine.  Photo Credit: Oregon Wine Board

 

Southern Oregon Wineries Focusing on Diversity

(May 2017) The wineries of Southern Oregon have always held a special place in my heart because I have been visiting them for two decades. Ever since most of my relatives left California in the early 1990’s to move to Medford, I have made many trips to the area. Each time we have visited the charming towns of Jacksonville, Ashland, and, of course, the wineries of the Rogue and Applegate Valleys.

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Vineyards of Southern Oregon.  Photo Credit: Southern Oregon Winery Association

In the beginning there were not that many wineries, but today there are more than 120 in Southern Oregon. The landscape is delightful with rolling hills, streams, and great swaths of green verdant vineyards. The wineries themselves are small, and housed in charming old houses, barns, or other unique structures. There are innovative wine tourism options, such as wine and rafting or wine and hiking. Each valley makes a fun day trip for wine tourists, but also makes for a great week long vacation if you want to visit all of the major appellations (AVAs).

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A Tasting of Southern Oregon Wine in Portland

Because it was too far to drive to Southern, Oregon – a good five-hour drive south of Portland, a contingent of the Southern Oregon wineries kindly came to meet us in Portland at a conference facility called Flexspace.

A panel of four winemakers and Doug Frost, MW/MS as moderator explained what makes Southern Oregon so unique and allowed us to taste 16 delicious wines.

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Summer in Southern Oregon Vineyards. Photo Credit: Southern Oregon Winery Association

Key Facts about the Southern Oregon Wine Region

We learned there are 6 AVAs in Southern Oregon, with the oldest established in 1984 and the most recent in 2013. They are as follows:

  1. Umpqua Valley AVA (1984) – coolest region
  2. Rogue Valley AVA (1991) – warmer region
  3. Applegate AVA (2001) – warmer region
  4. Red Hill Douglas County AVA (2005)
  5. Southern Oregon AVA (2005) –encompassing all the other AVAs
  6. Elkton Oregon AVA (2013) – small AVA within Umpqua Valley

19059771_10154461839856898_7532125227228902500_nWith a warmer climate than the Willamette Valley, many Southern Oregon wineries have the opportunity to ripen varieties such as tempranillo, malbec, and Rhone whites like viognier, roussane and marsanne. At the same time, they still plant cooler climate varieties such as gewürztraminer and pinot noir, because as many vintners there will tell you – “Tourists known that Oregon is known for pinot noir, so they ask for it. Because of this, we grow it.”

But the pinot noir from Southern Oregon is different than that of the Willamette Valley – which is to be expected. It is generally more concentrated with larger tannins and riper flavors. For me personally, they are more reminiscent of wines from the Cote de Beaune villages of St. Aubin, St. Romain and sometimes, Pommard. Whereas, Willamette has the elegance and crisp acidity of some of the Cote de Nuits wines.

Altogether Southern Oregon wineries farm over 6000 acres of vineyards, producing 70% red and 30% white grapes. The largest production is pinot noir at 40%, syrah at 6%, and tempranillo at 5%.

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Agate Ridge Vineyard in Southern Oregon. Photo Credit: Agate Ridge

The Dilemma of Too Much Diversity

Because they produce more than 70 different types of grape varieties, Southern Oregon vintners profess that they are masters of diversity. “We don’t have a signature varietal….We believe in diversity….We don’t want to be fenced in.”

However, one of the members of our group challenged the panel on this position. “But if don’t have something that you’re known for, how will you attract attention?” asked one MW. “Just because you advertise a signature grape or two, doesn’t mean you can’t make other types of wine as well. For example, Napa Valley makes zinfandel and chardonnay, as well as cabernet sauvignon, but they attract the most attention and highest prices for cabernet sauvignon. What is it that Southern Oregon does very well?”

 

 

Favorite Wines of the Tasting

In order to answer this question, the simplest process for a new wine region is to keep track of which types of wines win the most awards and receive the highest ratings. At the end of our tasting of 16 wines, the panel asked the MWs to provide feedback. Interestingly the wines that received the most positive feedback were Rhone varietals: syrah and viognier. Following are some of my top scoring wines:

  • 2015 Kriselle Viognier
  • 2015 Quady North Viognier
  • 2013 Quady North Mae’s Vineyard Syrah
  • 2013 Cowhorn Reserve Syrah
  • 2013 Abacela Reserve Tempranillo – this was one of my favorites, but many others thought it had too much oak

The dilemma of a signature grape is an interesting one. On the one hand, it helps a region to be known for something and attract more tourists. But if the signature grape is not selling well on the market, then it is difficult to make a living producing wine. With syrah and viognier not doing so well in the US market, it is much more tempting to produce Oregon pinot noir, which sells quite well!

Perhaps Southern Oregon should focus on pinot noir, and celebrate how different it is than the pinot noir made in the Willamette. Then also continue to make the complex syrahs, tempranillos, and white Rhones that also taste very delicious, as well as the tempranillos, albarinos, gewurtraminers, etc.

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A Welcome from Michael Donovan of the Southern Oregon Winery Association

Visiting the Unexpected Beauty of the Columbia Gorge Wine Region

(May 2017) As the bus slowly approached the town of Hood River, I became more excited because it was my first time to visit the Columbia Gorge wine region. Whereas I have visited the Willamette Valley many times in the past, this smaller, less well-known wine region of Oregon was new to me. Looking out the window, I was pleased to see how charming the scenery was with trees filled with pink blossoms, tall pines, and the glittering blue of the massive Columbia River weaving through the town.

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Waterfall Rushing Down to Meet the Columbia River

We stopped at the Columbia Gorge Hotel, and immediately everyone rushed outside to peer over the stonewall at the mighty river below. From here the water was a dark navy blue with small white caps, and I could sense the power and grandeur of the river that has been an important conduit for commerce and travel over the centuries. Near-by a waterfall cascaded down the cliffs, and the sight and sound of the white rushing water was invigorating. Someone pointed across the river to the bluffs on the other side and we could see vineyards dotting the hillside. Immediately I thought of Germany, and the many vineyards that cover the hillsides of the Rhine River in the Rheingau region.

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Gazing Down at the River from the Columbia Gorge Hotel

Who knew the Columbia River Gorge wine region was so enchanting? Suddenly I was more curious about the wines from this region, because I had never tasted them before. Calling us back inside, we were introduced to Brian McCormick, President of the Columbia Gorge Winegrowers Association, and a panel of winemakers who proceeded to walk us through a flight of wines.

About the Columbia River Gorge Wine Region

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Courtesy of Columbia Gorge Winery website

Ideally situated one hour east of Portland, the Columbia River Gorge is an ideal wine tourism location for a day or weekend trip. Filled with stunning river scenery, quaint restaurants and hotels, and around 30 wineries, it is a very pleasant vacation spot. We also learned that the Columbia Gorge is one of the top five wind surfing locations in the world – thus the white caps we could see on the river.

Brian told us that the Columbia Gorge AVA was established in 2004, and that most of the wineries are small family-run establishments. The largest winery is Maryhill Winery, which produces around 50,000 cases per year. The AVA actually spans both the Oregon and Washington borders.

Highlights of the Columbia Gorge Wine Tasting

Since this wine region is relatively new, many of the winemakers are still experimenting with the types of grapes that grow best in this particular terroir. Therefore we were treated to a smorgasbord of different types of wines. However, with a cooler climate and varied soils, plus the river influence, I found that the wines that stood out for me were the whites, pinot noir, and cabernet franc. Some of my favorites were:

In summary, this was a delightful stop, and I will definitely encourage others to visit this wine region in the future. Especially since it is so easy to travel here from Portland.

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Map Courtesy of Winesnw.com