Hiking and Yoga in the Vineyards of Burgundy: My Favorite Trails in Vosne Romanee

(Autumn 2016) Probably one of the best things about living in the tiny village of Vosne Romanee in Burgundy was the opportunity to hike through the famous vineyards. Instead of going to the gym, as I would have in California, I took time each day to do some yoga in my small rental house (gite) and hike through the vineyards just outside my door. Sometimes, I also did yoga poses in the vineyards, and took the time to meditate in such beautiful surroundings.

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Roading Leading to Romanee Conti Vineyard and Hillside Trails

Leaving my house, I would turn left and in less than 5 minutes, I was at the intersection of eight of the most famous grand cru vineyards in the world: 1) Romanee Conti – home of the most expensive pinot noir in the world, marked by the famous stone cross; 2) La Tache – my namesake vineyard, 3) Romanee St. Vivant, 4) Richebourg, 5) La Grand Rue; 6) La Romanee – smallest grand cru in Burgundy; 7) Echezeaux and 8) Grands Echezeaux. In addition, there are many famous Premier Cru vineyards, such as Les Chaumes and Les Suchots, as well as delectable Vosne Romanee village vineyards, such as Les Colombiere. I love how the Burgundians name each vineyard, no matter how small.

Hiking Map

Map of Vineyards Near Vosne-Romanee

Multiple Trails through the Vineyards

Over the course of three months, I hiked multiple paths through the vineyards, because there are small roads connecting all of them and climbing to the top of the hill (see map). Also, many of the vineyards are surrounded by small stone walls and marked with stone monuments or crosses. Most have stone name plates as well.

You will not be alone, as the vineyards attract many tourists to take photos in front of the stone cross of Romanee Conti. If you go there, you will probably be handed a smart phone and asked to take a photo of the tourists. This happened many times to me. In addition to tourists, there are many locals who bike, jog, or walk through the vineyards for exercise – just as I did. Following are three of my favorite vineyard hikes.

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Hiking in the Vineyards with View of Vosne-Romanee

  1. Aux Raignots Panoramic View Trail (or the Picnic Table Trail)

If I was craving some good exercise and a great view, I would leave my gite and turn left to walk up the street towards the corner of Le Grand Rue and Romanee St. Vivant vineyards. Then I would continue up the road past Romanee Conti and La Romanee on my left. The road branches to the left as you continue up hill. Halfway up you will come to a stone bench, which is a great place to pause and look at the view, with La Tache spread out below you. Often I observed couples there sharing a glass of wine and/or kissing.

Continue up the hill and make a sharp turn to the right, passing Aux Champs Pedrix Premier Cru vineyard, until eventually the paved road ends and you see a small dirt road at the top of the hill on your right. Follow this to a group of trees with two picnic tables. Then turn to look at a view that will take your breath away. All of Burgundy is spread out below you, and you can easily see Clos de Vougeot museum in the distance. After taking some photos, consider doing some yoga poses and then sit on the picnic table to meditate, as I often did. It is a wonderful place for peace and contemplation.

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Hiking Up to Picnic Tables

  1. The La Tache Trail

If I was in the mood for a shorter hike, I would leave my gite, heading towards the vineyards, but turn left at Rue de La Tache.  I always took the time to stop and enjoy the beauty of the two different sections of La Tache, as well as the pink stucco house with gardens that has a perfect view of this vineyard. One time I saw a horse with plow tilling the soil in La Tache. Then I would continue south past Aux Malconsorts (what a name for a vineyard) and continue walking in the direction of Nuits St. George. After hiking for a mile or so, I would turn around and return to the village in a circular route, turning right at Les Chaumes.

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La Tache Vineyard Name Carved into Stone Wall

    3. Clos de Vougeot Trail

It is about a four mile round-trip hike from Vosne Romanee to the ancient cloister of Clos de Vougeot. For this, I would first walk to the church square in Vosne Romanee, and then turn left, taking the road through the middle of Romanee St. Vivant. When I arrived at the famous cross of Romanee Conti, I would turn right, walking past Les Richebourgs. Then take a right at the next road for a short distance before turning left to cut across the vineyards of Les Suchots and through multiple sections of Echezeaux and Grands Echezeaux. You will see Clos de Vougeot in front of you, rising up through the vines like some ancient ship floating on top of a vineyard sea. One day I hiked this trail in the rain with my friend Barbara, who was visiting from Germany.  We decided to take this fun photo of dancing in the rain on the stone walls of Clos de Vougeot.

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Clos de Vougeot Sailing Across the Vineyards

Other Trails to Hike in Burgundy

In addition to the trails near the village of Vosne Romanee, there are many other hiking trails through the other famous Grand Cru vineyards of Burgundy, including further north near Gevrey Chambertin and south near Puligny-Montrachet. A list of these hiking trails is available at the Beaune-Tourism website.

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My Friend Barbara Dancing in the Rain Near Clos de Vougeot

Burgundy Vineyards Part of Unesco World Heritage

In 2015, UNESCO recognized the vineyards of Burgundy as a Cultural World Heritage site. Also referred to as “climats”, because each vineyard is unique, they are considered to be a “living cultural landscape.” Many were laid out by the monks as long ago as 11th century. Today on the Road of the Grand Crus, there are 1247 “climats”, with many opportunities to hike, bike, or walk through the vineyards.

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With Friend Barbara at Chevaliers-Montrachet

Visiting the Unique Cellars of Philippe LeClerc in Gevrey-Chambertin

(Sept. 2016) Hidden off a narrow road in the tiny wine village of Gevrey-Chambertin is the entrance to a Burgundian winery called Domaine Philippe LeClerc. Located in a 13th century building with yellow limestone walls covered with flowing baskets of colorful flowers, the domain is not only the home to some very excellent pinot noir wines, but also houses a cellar crammed with antique winemaking equipment and a bizarre collection of taxidermy animals.

Entrance to Philippe LeClerc Winery

Entrance to Philippe LeClerc Winery in Gevrey-Chambertin, Burgundy

I visited here twice with relatives during my three months in Burgundy, and both times we were welcomed by a friendly employee who encouraged us to visit the museum in the cellar first (free of charge), and then come back upstairs to taste some wines (€10 euro charge, refundable with wine purchase.)

About Philippe LeClerc

The owner, Philippe LeClerc, was born in Gevrey-Chambertin and raised in a winemaking family that sold their wine to negotiatants. When he took over from his father in the 1970’s, he decided to take the business in a new direction and bought an old building to establish a winery where he could sell directly to consumers. Around the same time, he started collecting old winemaking equipment and taxidermy animals – both items that people were glad to part with, because neither was in vogue.

Over the years, Philippe was able to purchase some of the surrounding buildings, which had old cellars – a common architectural feature in Burgundy. He connected several of the caves so he would have room to store his wine, and then began to display his collection.

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Inside the Wine Musuem of Philippe LeClerc

One of the Few Tasting Rooms in Burgundy Open on Sundays

Today visitors are welcomed to stop by seven days a week between 9:30am and 7pm to tour the cellar and museum for free, and then to enjoy a wine tasting. These long opening hours are rare in France, especially when most businesses close for two hours during lunch and are rarely open on Sundays.

With such welcoming hours, it would be expected that the wines may not be up to par, but this is not the case. Philippe owns vines in some of the top premier cru vineyards in Gevrey-Chambertin, including the famous Les Cazetiers and Les Champeux vineyards. Sustainable practices are used, and many of his pinot noir wines are aged for 22 months in French oak barrels. The wines have won awards and wine critics have rated many in the 90’s.

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Wine Tasting at Domaine Philippe LeClerc

Unique Cellars with Stuffed Animals and Antique Wine Equipment

Upon arrival visitors are encouraged to take a self-guided tour of the cellars, which generally takes about an hour. Descending a steep stone staircase, long arched hallways stretch out in multiple directions, and dusty bottles can be seen sleeping in side caverns. Turning a corner, a large baronial dining room comes into view with tall antique red velvet chairs and wooden tables rescued from monasteries. All along the wall are stuffed animals, including badgers, fox, deer, small boar and a mountain cat.

Then, descending into another cellar, a huge lighted tunnel comes into view. Collections of antique winemaking equipment line the walls, as well as a suit of arms, and hundreds of other bizarre antiques that Philip has collected over the years from estates all over France.  At the end of the first tunnel, three other tunnels branch off and loop around, filled with even more bizarre items, such as life-size models of cows and horses, as well as stuffed pigs. The site of a large stuffed dog is a little off-putting, but is most likely testimony to someone’s favorite pet from decades gone by.

Cellars of Philippe LeClerc Winery

Stuffed Animals in Unique Cellars of Philippe LeClerc

Tasting the Wines of Philippe LeClerc

Though it is possible to tour the cellars and museum without tasting the wines, it would be folly to miss the inspiring pinot noirs that reflect the different vineyards and vintages of Gevrey-Chambertin.  After all, Chambertin is reputed to be one of the favorite wines of Napoleon Bonaparte, who supposedly said, “Nothing makes the future look so rosy as to contemplate it through a glass of Chambertin.”

During my first visit, we tasted the following seven wines:

  • 2013 Village Chambolle Musigny – soft, floral and elegant €30
  • 2011 GC Village En Champs – earthy, tannic, interesting €36
  • 2012 GC 1st Cru Champeaux – ripe cherry nose, vanilla, velvety tannins, long finish €42
  • 2012 GC 1st Cru Les Cazetiers – mineral on nose; black cherry and vanilla on palate, velvety tannins, more concentrated the Champeaux – €46
  • 2013 GC 1st Cru La Combe Aux Moines – strange nose of tar and charred oak, black anise on palate. Perhaps just in a dumb stage. €50
  • 2011 GC 1st Cru Les Champonnets – Earthy, big tannins, no fruit. Not approachable yet €56
  • 2006 GC 1st Cru La Combe Aux Moines – older vintage so showing secondary notes of truffle and spice. Very complex, with new notes on each taste. Long finish. €68
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Dusty Wine Bottles in Cellar of Philippe LeClerc

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Vineyard Maps for Wine Tasting at Philippe LeClerc

Three Months in Burgundy

(Autumn 2016) The opportunity to live in France for three months was a dream come true – part of a bucket list item I’ve had for years as something I would do “someday”. However someday came much sooner than expected after a doctor told me I only had one year left to live. Five days later another doctor told me it was a misdiagnosis, but during those five days – which were some of the longest of my life – my husband and I had deep talks about how we would spend that last year together.

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Beautiful Vineyards of Burgundy at Sunset

The one item that kept coming to the top of my list was living in France for a while. So when the trauma was over and I learned I had a sabbatical coming up at work, my husband and I agree that I would go to France for a semester to teach and do research. It was decided that since he works internationally in the oil industry, he could easily stop by to visit me several times coming and going from his job.

Burgundy, Bordeaux or Alsace?

So then came the tough decision of where to go in France. Fortunately for all of us in wine education, there are always opportunities to work at universities in France part-time. Therefore, I reached out to my fellow professors in France and was offered the chance to teach in either Burgundy, Bordeaux, or Alsace. I chose Burgundy because my research matched the region better, and because I have always dreamed of living amongst those famous pinot noir vineyards.

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Finally Living in France — Beaune Farmer’s Market

A Gite in Vosne Romanee

Therefore in the autumn of 2016, I found myself in France for three and a half months. I spent the first two weeks at a French immersion program in Bordeaux (see post here), before flying to Paris to rent a car and drive the 3 hours south to Burgundy. On the way, I stopped off to visit my relatives who live near Fontainebleau for a few days, and then arrived in Burgundy at the beginning of September for a three month stay.

During my sabbatical, payment for teaching part-time at the Burgundy School of Wine & Spirits in Dijon came in the form of a rental house. I was offered an apartment in Dijon or a 3 bedroom house in the village of Chambolle-Musigny, of which I promptly chose the latter. However, one month before departing California, I received an email informing me that they were changing the location and I would be staying at a 2 bedroom gite in Vosne Romanee. A gite is a rental apartment or house that is located in an older dwelling, and has been subsidized by the French government to assist in renovating  historic structures.

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Private Garden of Gite with Striking Blue Door

At first I was disappointed, because expecting many visitors, I was hoping for a 3 bedroom house; however, when I saw the gite, I was delighted with how spacious and charming it was – including a private walled yard with striking blue door at the entrance. It even had a name – the Consulate. Still more thrilling was the fact that the gite was only a five minute walk from some of the most famous vineyards in the world, including my namesake, La Tache, as well as Romanee Conti, La Romanee, Richebourg and Romanee-St. Vivant.

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Living Room of Gite – Photo Credit: Le Consulate website

However the biggest surprise was to learn that the gite was owned by the Chateau Liger-Belair, and my landlords were the count and countess, who lived across the street in the large chateau that dominates the center of the small village of Vosne-Romanee. They turned out to be delightful and friendly hosts, and the last evening I was invited to a cozy dinner complete with amazing wines. Of course the other very famous winery in Vosne-Romanee is DRC – Domaine Romanee-Conti, which was also one block away from my gite. I was fortunate enough to have visited here in the past (see post), but was honored to be allowed to visit three more times during my stay.

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Looking Through the Gates of Chateau Liger-Belair

Living in Vosne-Romanee – a Village without a Bakery

Several people thought it was strange that I wanted to live in a small French village without a grocery store or bakery, rather than live in the bustling center of Dijon or Beaune.  But I am a country girl at heart, and living near the vineyards is important to me. So though Vosne-Romanee has less than 500 people, and only boasts a small, friendly post-office, a church, and two excellent restaurants, it was perfect for me.

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Downtown Vosne Romanee

Each morning I was able to take a long walk in the vineyards, which are trespassed by many hiking and biking trails that run along the Cote d’Or. The grocery store and bakery were only 2 kilometers down the highway in Nuits St. George, and the distance to both Dijon and Beaune was only 18 kilometers each way. So I settled into my little gite, and melted into my dream of living in France. Some days were challenging, many were miraculous, but none were lonely – because as soon as my friends and family knew I had a gite in France, I had visitors almost every weekend.

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The Famous Stone Cross of Romanee-Conti Vineyard

Amazing Wine Selection on Oahu, Hawaii at ABC Island Country Markets

(Jan. 2017) As Californians we usually take advantage of inexpensive airplane flights to Hawaii at least once every other year for a relaxing vacation.  Only a 4.5 hour flight from San Francisco, you can fly direct to Oahu, Maui, Kauai and the Big Island, and enjoy the year-round warm weather. However as wine lovers living in the Napa/Sonoma region, we usually bring our own wine – packing 6 to 8 bottles in the special wine airline case my husband gave me for my birthday several years ago. This is because the wine selection in the islands is usually sparse and over-priced. However, on this trip, we were in for a big surprise.

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Relaxing at Four Seasons Adult Pool on Oahu

This time we decided to stay on Oahu, because we hadn’t been there in a long time, usually preferring the wild freedom of the Big Island with all of its natural foods, white beaches, and great golf courses, or staying on the lush beauty of the island of Maui.  We chose Oahu this time because my husband hadn’t yet played golf at Ko Olina or Turtle Bay, so we booked 3 days at the Four Seasons Ko Olina using United Airlines miles, and got a great rate on an Airbnb condo at Turtle Bay.  As usual, we brought our wine with us.

Surprise, surprise though!  The first morning in Ko Olina we walked over to the local ABC Store to buy a cup of coffee and a breakfast loco moco – a local Hawaiian favorite made with egg, rice, hamburger and gravy.  ABC stores are the most common convenience store in the Hawaiian Islands selling souvenirs, coffee, and quick take-out food. However we discovered that the ABC Store in Ko Olina is a new bred called Island Country Markets and has one of the most amazing collections of wine I have seen – even in California.

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It is a beautiful selection of not just Napa and Sonoma wines, but includes choices from Santa Barbara, Monterey, Paso Robles and other regions of California. It even has delectable pinot noirs from Oregon, and a special glass case of high quality wines from around the world, including Gaja and Sassicaia from Italy.  Even better the prices were reasonable, and made it so that it was no longer necessary for us to bring our own wine – at least to Oahu.  ABC Island Country Markets plans to open other locations, but currently they are only in Ko Olina.

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Large Selection of Wine at ABC Store in Ko Olina, Hawaii

So I picked up a bottle of chilled New Zealand sauvignon blanc to drink on the balcony of our hotel room, and we enjoyed the other wines we had brought with us in our condo at Turtle Bay.  The last night we grilled local steaks on the BBQ and enjoyed them with a plush Napa Valley Peju Cabernet Sauvignon before watching the sunset on the beach.

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BBQ Steak Dinner at Airbnb Condo at Turtle Bay, Hawaii

Ah Hawaii.  I love it there, and just have to figure out some way to live there at least one month out of every year…

See my other post on the wineries of Hawaii at: http://www.winetravelstories.com/2010/01/wines-from-hawaii.html

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Turtle Bay Beach at Sunset

Domaine Carneros – Still Enchanting Young and Old Visitors Over the Years

(March 2017) “Mommy, can we stop at the castle winery with the long flight of stairs?”

This was the question my 6-year old daughter asked me every time we drove past Domaine Carneros coming or going from Sonoma to Napa Valley. Since she was three when we first moved to California wine country, I have joined many winery wine clubs over the years. One of the first was Domaine Carneros, because I love their delicious bubbly wine as well as the expansive view of the vineyards from the terrace of the massive chateau designed after one in the Champagne region of France.

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Domaine Carneros in Napa, California.  Photo Credit: Domaine Carneros Gallery

During those early years, Domaine Carneros was one of the most welcoming wineries for children. My daughter loved climbing the huge flight of stairs, which made her feel like a princess, and then sit at a table overlooking the intricate stone railing. Then she would be spoiled by the servers, who not only brought me my complimentary glass of sparkling wine for being a wine club member, but would always bring her a special bottle of grape juice and pour it into a champagne flute, along with a plate of cheese and crackers.

Thus every time we passed Domaine Carneros she wanted to stop. I still do occasionally, but changed wine clubs years ago. With almost 1000 wineries between Napa and Sonoma, I feel it is my duty to “research” different wine clubs.

A Royal Welcome to the Chateau

So when I returned to Domaine Carneros (for perhaps the 20th time) with a group of 30 of my students from Introduction to Wine Business, I was thrilled to introduce them to such a great winery. For the majority of them, it was their first visit and they were very impressed with the huge flight of stairs, fountains, and views from the terrace.

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Sonoma State University Wine Business Students Visiting Domaine Carneros

They were even more impressed when CEO Eileen Crane came to meet them personally. Eileen has long been one of my favorite female CEO’s in the region because she is an extremely dynamic speaker, very intelligent, and beautifully striking. The students were immediately enchanted with her when she said, “Welcome to your chateau.” She then invited us all into a private room to tell us more about the domaine.

Domaine Carneros – A Rare All-Estate Sparkling House

Established by the House of Tattinger in 1987, the estate today includes 350 acres in the Carneros AVA on the Napa Valley side (the AVA spans both Napa and Sonoma counties). Since the domaine is located in southern Napa Valley and is close to San Pablo Bay, it is a cooler region and ideal for producing chardonnay and pinot noir. It is for this reason that many of the great sparkling houses of both counties have decided to establish operations here, or if they are not located here – then they buy their grapes from this region.

Domaine Carneros is unique because it is one of the smallest major sparkling houses in the USA, and uses all estate-grown grapes, with their 225 acres of pinot noir and 125 acres of chardonnay. Many of their competitors purchase grapes. Due to this situation, Eileen, as director of winemaking, can insure that only the finest grapes go into the cuvees.

A Brief Tour of the Winemaking Facilities

After viewing a large map of the estate outlining the 5 vineyard ranches, all within 4 miles of the estate, we moved into the riddling demonstration room. Eileen explained how the riddling racks were used in the past, but pointed to the many large gyropallet that are now used to gently turn the bottles so the yeast can collect near the top of the bottle for disgorgement. She explained the different types of dosage treatments, and showed us a video of how the complete process works. The students asked many questions, which she cheerfully answered. She also described how sparkling wine “tickles” the palate, which made everyone smile.

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Learning About Riddling Racks

Impressive Sustainability Practices and Large Array of Solar Panels

An important aspect of the estate, which truly impressed the millennial students, is their focus on sustainability. Eileen described all of their various environmental efforts and certifications. It turns out that Domaine Carneros doesn’t only have one certification in sustainability, but four! These include Fish Friendly Farming, Napa Green Land, Napa Green Winery, and the prestigious California Sustainable Winegrowing Certification. They also boast one of the largest array of solar panels for a winery in the US, but they are not visible from the road, so there is no “eye sore” for visitors. Instead they are strategically placed behind the winery on a back hillside, and provide much environmentally safe and clean energy for the estate.

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Solar Panel Array at Domaine Carneros

An Elegant Tasting in the Chateau Society Club Room

Next we were invited to the elegant Chateau Society Club Room, a private tasting space with chandeliers, a large French fireplace, and a view of the barrel room. We were seated at impressive wooden tables, and treated to a tasting of 3 wines. All together Domaine Carneros makes 10 sparkling wines and 7 still wines, including some excellent pinot noirs and chardonnays.

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Tasting with Elaine in Chateau Society Club Room

Their tete de cuvee is Le Reve, a vintage wine that generally stays on the lees for 7 years. It is one of my favorite sparkling wines of California. They also produce a rose version, but the classic style is a blanc de blanc (100% chardonnay).

For our tasting, Eileen shared:

2012 Ultra Brut ($44) – extremely small streaming bubbles, a nose of fresh lemon zest with a hint of jasmine. On the palate, streamlined acidity, zesty citrus, and spicy ginger notes. Very refreshing and bone dry. Delicious. This was the favorite of many of the students, and several purchased a bottle before we left, as this wine is only available at the winery and online.

2013 Brut Rose ($39)- an inviting and approachable sparkling rose with a beautiful pale pink color, nose of cherries and floral, with a heavier bubble palate of strawberry and toast. Also a favorite of many students – especially those who preferred the slighter sweeter dosage of .9% sugar, compared to the .5% of the Ultra Brut.

2013 Domaine Carneros Estate Pinot Noir ($39) – a delightful pinot noir with classic Carneros raspberry and red cherry, complimented with subtle spicy oak and a touch of earthy mushroom. Medium-bodied, well-balanced with silky tannins.

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Some of the Wines of Domaine Carneros

Sparkling Grape Juice Provided for My Under-21 Students

As this was an Introduction to Wine Business class, five of my students were not yet 21, and according to university regulations were not allowed to taste wine until they reached the age of 21. Therefore, I sat with them at a back table, and let them view the bubbles and lovely colors in my wines, as well as smell – since 70% of wine evaluation is in the nose. They were all excellent students and seemed to enjoy viewing and smelling the wines, but I’m sure they were all feeling a little left out that their fellow classmates actually got to sip and/or spit.

Then amazingly, after only about 5 minutes into the tasting, a delightful server – whom I will refer to as a magical fairy creature because she brought so much delight to our table – appeared with Vignette Wine Country Soda, a non-alcoholic sparkling drink made with pinot noir grapes. She poured the sparkling rose beverage into tall Champagne flutes for each of my five students and served us a bowl of mixed nuts. Big smiles appeared around the table, and everyone was “tickled pink!”

What a great visit! I couldn’t help but think of my daughter and how delighted she had always been to visit “her castle.” Now I look forward to bringing her back her when she turns 21. Domaine Carneros truly continues to create magic for young and old visitors alike.

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Non-Alcoholic Bubbly at Domaine Carneros

The Route of the Cathars & Wines of Limoux and Maury, France

June 2012 – Before leaving the US, I read several articles on the Cathars and their unusual and tragic history in the Languedoc-Roussillon area of France. Therefore, I was anxious to visit some of their territory, and was pleasantly surprised to find that the Route of the Cathars coincided with my planned visits to the wine towns of Limoux and Maury. (Wine was introduced into this region in 600 B.C. by the Phoenicians and Greeks.)

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Lonely Region of France -Route of the Cathars

The Cathars were an usual sect of Christians who were vegetarians and believed in reincarnation. Some of the ancient rumors – picked up by Dan Brown in his book, The Da Vinci Code and those following – suggest that Jesus Christ actually came to this region of France with Mary Magdalene and taught the local people Christianity with a splash of Buddhism based on his travels through India. Whether this is true or not, the Cathars thrived for hundreds of years until they were exterminated by the church as heretics in the early 1300’s. The Knights Templar, also originally from this region, met a similar fate around the same time period (1314) when the Church decided they were becoming too powerful and had many of the tortured and killed – even though they protected many Christians on their journey to the holy land.

Carcassonne – Medieval City of the Cathars

The main legacy of the Cathars is a series of beautiful medieval castles and cities throughout Southern France – the most famous of which is Carcassonne. I visited here several years ago and wanted to take my family to see the oldest intact medieval city in the world. It is truly amazing the first time you see it from a distance rising up with its many tower, turrets and great double walls.

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Ancient City of Carcassonne

From our apartment in Collioure, it took 1.5 hours to drive to Carcassonne on A9 – toll freeway. We arrived early – around 9:50 and were able to find parking close to the entrance. The city itself is free to walk around, but you must pay for parking as well as the chateau tour – should you decide to take it. We wandered the narrow streets of the amazing medieval city, stopping to shop in the many stores filled with knight and princess gear, complete with swords. When we arrived at the church, we were blessed to encounter a group of monks singing in harmony that echoed beautifully off the ancient gothic walls. Later we climbed the outside walls to the ramparts and gazed out across the new city below, and then stopped to have an apricot crepe. There are many restaurants in the old city serving cassolette – the specialty of the region – several providing small delicious samples to tempt you. In hindsight, we should have stayed there to eat lunch, but we decided to push on towards Limoux.

Limoux – Home of Blanquette Sparkling Wine and the Mauzac Grape

We left Carcassonne around noon to drive to Limoux (20 kilometers away). I assumed that since it is such a world-famous wine town that it would be beautiful and set-up for tourists. Unfortunately none of this is true. Limoux appears to be run down and neglected as if no one has spent any money on the town for decades. Yet in terms of wine regions, it is so old and famous, I’m surprised they didn’t qualify for a Unesco world heritage region like Tokay in Hungary.

Regardless, we wound our way through the confusing tiny streets towards “Centrale” – never once seeing a sign for the tourist office. Eventually we encountered the main square with a beautiful fountain with no water. It started to rain and became even more depressing. However, we made our way to a small café called La Concept. There we encountered very friendly service, free internet, and huge, comforting bowls of cassoulette filled with beans, pork, and duck. I had this with a small coup of Blanquette – not a great match, but it was still quite lovely.

After lunch we pulled our umbrellas out and went in search of the tourist office. We found it half an hour later hidden in a back corner of the town. Once more we encountered much warmth and friendliness in the tourist office, and left with directions to several wineries and many brochures.

After getting lost several times, we finally arrived at L’oustal Anne de Joyeuese Winery just outside the old town. This was one of those recommended by the tourist office. Again we found a very friendly staff, and I was able to taste 3 sparkling wines, though I was hoping for more. Later I found they did have more, but it was a communication disconnect. Turns out the place is a large cooperative and they seem to specialize more in dry still wines with many merlots, cabs, and syrahs – as well as gasoline-type pumps of white, rose, and red wine sold by the liter and pumped into your own container. Very amazing by US standards.

Of the three sparkling wines I tasted, the first was a NV Blanquette de Limoux (6 euros), which by law, must contain at least 90% Mauzac grapes, but can also include chardonnay and chenin blanc. The Mauzac grape is unique to the region and has a fruity, yet musty taste. It is supposedly the grape that was used when sparkling wine was first discovered in Limoux by a monk in 1531 – several years before Champagne. Because of this Limoux is considered to be the home of the oldest brut in the world. They still make wine here using the Methode Ancestrale, which involves fermenting the grapes in tank/barrel and then transferring to a bottle when there is still sugar left in the wine. Once in the bottle, the wine starts a secondary fermentation – usually in March when the weather warms up and the yeast left in the wine start consuming the sugar. This results in a sparkling wine which may still be a little sweet and has a low alcohol – around 7%.

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At L’oustal Anne de Joyeuese Winery in Limoux

The second wine I tried was a Limoux Cremant, which by law must contain a minimum of 40% chardonnay and 20% chenin, but no more than 90%. Other grapes which may be added include Mauzac and pinot noir. The cremants are made using the traditional method (also called methode champenoise) which includes secondary fermentation in the bottle but only after the base wine has been fermented to dryness. Sugar and yeast are added to create the bubbles, and a final dosage determines sweetness level. The Cremant I tried was very lovely and well priced at 6.50 euros, but my favorite was a 2008 Vintage Antech Heritage Brut Millesime Cremant de Limoux for 10 euros. It was very creamy with tiny bubbles and a toasty flavor with light pear notes. I ended up buying two bottles, and wishing I had more time in Limoux. The next time I visit, I must make advance arrangements so I can experience a proper tasting and visit the vineyards and cellars.

Renne Le Chateau and Its Unique Legends

Afterwards we drove 20 minutes to the mystical village of Renne le Chateau. This is high in the mountains along the Route of the Cathars, and attracts many tourists because of its stories of lost gold, Templar Knights, alien spaceships, a corrupt priest, and the last hiding place of Mary Magdalene and her four children. It is perched on a high hill with magnificent views in all directions. It had stopped raining and turned blue and sunny when we arrived, so we wandered around the few small shops and visited the Church of Mary Magdalene with its unusual devil carving. It is a very special place, and definitely worth a stop. Also, several very cute looking restaurants in town. Next time I would prefer to eat lunch here.

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At the Church in Renne Le Chateau, France

The Village of Maury & Magnificent Wines

We continued down the Route of the Cathars along the river Aude and found the road to be more twisty as we headed deeper into the Pyrenees on our way back towards Perpignan. At some places the rock wall came down so far over the road that large trucks had to stop and back up in order to pass. After driving about an hour through charming little villages we came to Maury – another famous wine village for Vin Doux Natural (sweet dessert wines with fermentation stopped by the addition of alcohol – usually 15.5%). We stopped at Les Vignerons de Maury – another cooperative, but an excellent one with a professional tasting room, large displays and very capable staff.

We started with the AOC Maury Blanc which seemed very sweet and simple. Next we tried the AOC Maury Ambre which was one of my favorites. It was made of white Grenache but oxidized so that it tasted of dried apricots, orange and carmel. The price of 7.80 euros for a full bottle was amazing. I also tried a Rancio tuile version which was even more complex, but I ended up buying a half bottle (so it would fit in my luggage) of the Vendange 2011 AOC Maury Grenache for 8.50 euro. It was a deep ruby red and tasted of fresh berries and spices.

The vineyards of Maury are farther inland from the ocean compared to Banyuls and appear to be on flatter land (not the steep terraced slopes of Banyuls). Some experts say that because of this Maury wines are bigger and more tannic than Banyuls.

A short time after Maury we reached A9 and were back in Collioure by around 6:30 so we stopped in the town and had a pastis on the beach before heading back to our apartment. For dinner we had a quiche Lorraine, salad, and of course, more cheese, salami and wine.

Wine in 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.

 

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On the Island of Moorea

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).

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Wine at the Manutea Tasting Room

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 gewürztraminer 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 . 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.

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Our Over Water Bungalow on Bora Bora

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, 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.

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Wine Sandy Beaches in Bora Bora

 

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.

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Sunset on Moorea

Tasting the Wine of Dreams at Domaine Romanee Conti

(May 2014) It is the dream of every wine lover to someday have a chance to visit “the Mecca of Wine” – Domaine Romanee Conti. So when the opportunity finally came for a private tasting at DRC, I couldn’t believe it was actually true. I won’t go into details of how I finally received an invitation. Just know that it took months, and contacting many people – to whom I say thanks to in my dreams every night.

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Statue of St. Vivant in Courtyard of DRC

The Gates of DRC

There is no sign announcing the entrance to DRC, but a quick search of Google maps will produce an address in the tiny village of Vosne Romanee. The domaine is hidden behind a very tall stone wall with impressive iron gates. It is necessary to push a call button to announce your presence, and then the gates will slowly swing open.

Once inside, there is a sweep of gravel drive, and a collection of stone buildings.  However it is the beautiful statue of St. Vivant, looking like a winged angel and poised over the exquisite vines of her namesake vineyard Romanee St. Vivant, that captures the attention. It reminded me of the fact that the monks of the Abbey of Saint Vivant established this estate in 1232.

There were five people in our party and we slowly approached a door leading to a small and rather basic office and reception area. It was professionally furnished but not grand or over the top. We were greeted by the office manager, who asked us to wait while she summoned Bertrand de Villaine, cousin to Aubert.

Though serious at first, over the next two hours, Bertrand revealed himself to be a very jolly host with a great sense of humor. Dressed in grey pants, boots, and a long-sleeved shirt, he was of medium height, very fit and muscular. His thick hair was cut short and his face was tan from many hours outdoors. I could imagine him in a monk’s brown shift with sandals and rope belt, perhaps descended from one of the monks who guarded the estate hundreds of years ago.

Bertrand’s first explanation to us, reinforced this image. When we asked him the reason the wines of DRC are considered to be some of the best it the world, he replied, “Because the vineyards were a gift from God.” However as our tour continued, Bertrand began to tell us slightly bawdy jokes and revealed his wicked sense of humor. “I’m not a monk,” he said with a huge grin. “I have five kids, so you know I love my wife a lot!”

Farming the Vineyards from God

We spent some time with Bertrand in the Romanee St. Vivant vineyard just outside the front door of the office. He explained that altogether the domaine owns 27 hectares of vines that are biodynamically farmed. Behind us, climbing up the gentle slope, were the famous vineyards of La Tache and Romanee Conti, which we had visited an hour before on our own. Also nearby were their hectares of Richebourg, Echezeaux and Grands Echezeaux.

We could see the vines were trained on a low guyot, and cane pruned to 4 – 6 buds, with one cluster per shoot. The spacing is approximately 3 x 3 feet, and average 9,000 vines per hectare in most of the vineyards. However Bertrand told us there are a few which are 10,000 vines per hectare.  Yield is generally 27 hectoliters per hectare (around 2 tons per acre), but many times they only achieve 17 hectoliters per hectare. In 2013, they lost 50% of the crop due to weather issues.


I was impressed with how healthy looking the soil was with ric
h red-brown clay(marl) and small pebbles of white limestone scattered throughout. Bertrand said the vineyard is the most important aspect of the wine, and as soon as the harvest is finished and the grapes are in the cellar, their only role is to “observe” the wine being made. He explained with a grin, “Being in the vineyard is my favorite part of work, then the cellars, and the office last.”

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Rich Soil of DRC

When we asked him about rootstock and clones, he responded that the rootstock was all of American origin, but the clones were 80 – 95% marsale selection.

Some of their biodynamic farming practices include keeping a garden where they grown the herbs and other plants that go into the biodynamic preps. In addition, they have two horses that plow the vineyards. “Mickey is the name of the oldest horse,” said Bertrand fondly.

Interestingly, he mentioned that frost is actually good for the soil and vines, because it causes the soil to break apart. He said they had not yet had frost in the Spring of 2014, and that it was missed. He demonstrated by picking up a piece of clay and tried to crumble it in his hands, but it didn’t break easily. He said if frost were to come in the next few weeks it would help the soil be healthier. This is the first I’ve heard of this concept.

Bertrand also described how the ancient monks who had worked at Clos de Vougeot, just one kilometer from DRC, had deciphered the message of the soil and terroir of the area. He explained, “In certain parts of our vineyards, you can have amazing differences in soil just a few meters apart. For example in La Tache, we say there is upper and lower La Tache, because the soil is different in two sections.”

Wine Making at DRC

We were told that currently there are 35 people working full-time at DRC. The winemaking process is similar to other estates, with a few key differences. The first is access to world-class grapes from the “vineyards of God,” which are meticulously tended throughout the year.

During harvest the workers begin around 5am each morning and continue picking until around 2pm in the afternoon. The first sorting occurs in the vineyard, and whole clusters are gently transported to the winery, which is just across the street from the main DRC office and cellars.

We walked across the small plaza and entered the cellars through an old wooden door set into the high stone walls that surrounded the operation. Immediately we could see huge wooden foudres and long conveyer belts for transferring the whole clusters into the foudres. Bertrand explained that during crush, large tables were set up within the winery for the second sorting. Generally 14 to 20 people sort the clusters to remove green berries, rotten or over-ripe berries, clusters that are too big, hail damaged berries, and insects. If it is raining during the harvest or there are a lot of insects that year, they set up an additional table for a pre-sort.

After sorting, the whole clusters are gently moved up the conveyor belt to the top of the large wooden foudres where they are destemmed in an electric machine that rests on top of the foudres. The purpose is to protect the individual grapes from oxygen as long as possible. Many are left intact so there can be a small amount of carbonic maceration taking place within individual berries. This was one aspect of the winemaking process that I had never heard of before, because most reports state that DRC ferments as whole clusters.

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Barrel Aging Cellar

Natural yeast is used, and the berries are left to start fermentation on their own. A cold soak is not forced on the grapes, but it generally takes about 5 days for fermentation to start. Pump overs are used up to 3 times a day to assist, and when fermentation takes off pigeage is conducted up to 3 times per day by hand or by physically jumping in the tanks some times. Fermentation temperature ranges from 25 – 27 F, with total maceration at 17 – 25 days, depending on the vineyard and vintage.

The wine is pressed in a large Bucher vacuum press and the free run and pressed juice is kept in separate tanks for 24 hours to settle out. Then it is tasted, and decisions are made on how much pressed juice to blend with the free run. The wine is then transferred to 95% new French oak barrels, medium toast (they used to do 100%, but have made some minor adjustments). Interestingly they have discovered the Corton vineyard they have recently acquired is not as accepting of oak, as the others. Therefore, Corton now receives less oak.

The wine is aged for 16 – 18 months with no racking, unless certain exceptions warrant a barrel to be racked. ML takes place in barrel, and often doesn’t start until the Spring. Everything is very natural, and Bertrand stated that they do not like to rush things. “Everything in its own time,” he said. Barrels are topped as needed.

Amazingly, bottling occurs directly from the barrel – no blending of all barrels into a large tank first. Therefore, each bottle is quite individual. The finished wine is not fined, but may be gently filtered, depending on the vintage.

Tasting Dreams Deep in the Cellars of DRC

Eventually we descended deep into the cellars of DRC. My first thought after climbing down a steep flight of stairs was “how small this is!” Looking around, we could see barrels of wine lined up around the walls, separated by white gravel pathways. The barrels were not stacked on top of one another, but sat in solitary splendor resting on wooden rails.

Bertrand explained that this was the aging cellar, and that after bottling the wines were moved to another cellar across the road for further aging. He grabbed a wine thief and motioned for us to follow him to a series of barrels marked Echezeaux. We were each given a glass and watched in fascination as he transferred a small amount of the wine from the thief into our glasses.

I was impressed with the brilliant ruby hue of the wine, and the exquisite but delicate nose of the 2013 Echezeaux. As it was May, Bertrand explained that the wine was mainly finished, but a few barrels were still undergoing ML. The texture was very silky on my palate with smooth tannins, crisp acidity, notes of black cherry and tea, and a long finish.

Though we knew the protocol was to spit, it was just not possible because this was our first (and perhaps only) taste of these legendary wines. I explained this to Bertrand, and he nodded with a smile. However, we did pour the remnants of the glass back into the barrel after two sips.

Next we moved to the barrels of Grands Echezeaux, which delivered with amazing accuracy its reputed style of bolder tannins and larger mouthfeel than the regular Echezeaux vineyard. The aroma was stronger with black fruit and earth, and on the palate the wine had more concentration, huge velvety texture and tannins, and a strong masculine feel to it. Notes of black cherry, coffee, and anise lingered on a very long finish.

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Finally Tasting La Tache with Bertrand at DRC

Next, trembling with anticipation, I followed Bertrand to the barrels of La Tache. For years I had dreamed of tasting this wine because my last name “Thach” is correctly pronounced “Tache (tosh).” Therefore, I felt a strong affinity to the wine, and was convinced it would be my favorite.

La Tache did not disappoint. In the dim light of the cellar, it flowed into my glass in a glowing ruby stream, and the perfume of raspberries and violets filled the air. Reverently putting my nose to the glass, the berries became more complex with mixed spices. On the palate it was probably the most elegant wine I’ve ever tasted. It was delicate but concentrated with silky texture and tannins, fine acidity, and a kaleidoscope of complex flavors ranging from red and black berries, rose, black tea and allspice. The finish was very long and satisfying.

As we moved from the barrels of La Tache to Romanee Conti, I felt very satisfied. Finally I had tasted the wine of my dreams, and was confident that nothing could ever eclipse that taste. I was wrong. Who knew that Romanee Conti could taste even better?

Perhaps it was the hype around Romanee Conti that had put me off. I’ve never been a fan of jumping on the bandwagon of what everyone else proclaims to the best. So my first sip of this wine came as a shock. It was a darker ruby that La Tache in color with a more pronounced nose of berries, violets and spice, but on the palate it was even more elegant with huge concentration and an extremely long finish.

As my companions were oohing and ahhing over the wine, I stood there trying to analyze what made it so great, and in doing so nearly consumed all of the wine in my glass. It reminded me of a perfect combination of the best Russian River pinot noir I’ve ever tasted, rich with flavors of raspberry, spice and violets, but with the added magic of a core of the pulsing minerality and complex earthiness of Burgundy. It seemed to embody the best of new and old world pinot noir in one exquisite glass. Perhaps it really was made by God?

Bertrand woke me from my reverie by asking, “Don’t you want to be part of this barrel of Romanee Conti too?” I looked over and saw that everyone else was gently tipping the remainder of the wine in their glasses into the hole of the barrel. Peering into my glass, I was embarrassed to see there was only one drop left.

“It is alright,” Bertrand said with a grin, “even if you only have one drop, you will still be a part of this barrel.”  He motioned for me to come over and I slowly shook my one drop into the barrel. “Now you are all apart of this wine,” he said. “Where ever it goes around the world, you are a part of it.”

As he said this, I wondered who would eventually buy the bottle of wine in which my one drop was mingled. Though some people may think the Burgundian custom of pouring wine from your glass back into the barrel is strange and perhaps unsanitary, this is not the case. Because the wine is so rare, every drop is needed to top the barrel and protect the wine from oxygen. Also, because they are using so much new French oak that “drinks the wine,” is it is necessary to preserve with more wine. Finally, the alcohol in the wine will kill all human germs that may linger on the glass.

“So where are the rest of the barrels of Romanee Conti?” one of my companions asked.

The answer surprised us.  “Because the harvest from 2013 was so small, we only have these 13 barrels of Romanee Conti for the whole world.”

What? Thirteen barrels for the whole world! This was earth-shattering news.  Bertrand went on to explain that this was the reason they were so careful to whom they sold the wine. “We don’t want a complete vintage to end up the dark cellars of a few rich collectors,” he said. “We want the wine to be shared by many people around the world. This is why we allocate so carefully.”

One of my companions then told Bertrand of how his store in California was allocated 4 bottles per year of DRC wine. He explained that most of the time the bottles were purchased by a group of winemakers who pooled their money so they had enough to afford one bottle and they each had a sip or two. Bertrand smiled at this story and said, “This is the type of thing we like to hear.”

As we left the cellar, I asked Bertrand how difficult it was to deal with the fickleness of Mother Nature –  that in some years brought them bounty, and in others, such as 2013 with all its hail and frost, decimated the harvest by 50%.

His response was poetic, and brought a sense of calm and peace to my soul. “When we work in the vineyard, we go with the flow. If the year brings hail, frost, or sunshine, we accept and know this is what is supposed to happen for this vintage.”

A Taste of Golden Sunshine Before We Departed

During the last part of our two hour visit to DRC, Bertrand took us to visit the bottle aging cellar. It was also quite small, but very beautiful with the bottles stored in tall cases for one year before they were labeled and boxed for shipment.

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Bottle Aging Cellar

However, we soon discovered it was not necessarily the bottle aging cellar we had come to visit, but a small dark room in the back carved out of the natural limestone with gravel on the floor. In the center stood a tall wooden barrel that served as a table, with a flickering candle set upon it.

Bertrand motioned for us to stand around the barrel table, and then slipped off to the right where he bent down and grabbed an unmarked bottle from a pile of shiners in a dark corner of the cave room. He placed the bottle on the table and uncorked it with a flourish, and then poured it into our glasses. In the dim candlelight the wine glowed with hues of yellow and flashes of white gold. “Guess what this is?” he asked.

Bringing the glass to my nose, I could smell fresh apple pie, butter, and allspice. On the palate the wine was creamy, with more yellow apple, pastry, mixed spices, and very generous well-integrated toasty oak notes. It was so rich and concentrated, it reminded me of dessert. At first, the thought of a rich over-the top Marcassin chardonnay flashed across my palate memory. Surely this couldn’t be from the Sonoma Coast? But then the crisp acidity and electric core of limestone minerality asserted itself – Burgundy. This must be DRC’s Montrachet.

It turned out to be the single barrel they make each year of Batard Montrachet, and only share occasionally with visitors to the cellar. “This is the 2007 vintage. I call it my little pastry,” smiled Bertrand as he watched our shocked expressions. “Doesn’t it taste just like a pastry dessert?”

I agreed, and just then one of my companions fell on his knees in the gravel and exclaimed, “I have died and gone to heaven.  Thank you God and Bertrand for letting me taste this wine.”

We all laughed and helped him up to his feet again. Then we took photos with Bertrand and thanked him, and the others who had helped us receive an invite to DRC, for making all of our dreams come true.

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Famous Cross of the Romanee Conti Vineyard

Searching for Mexican Wine on the Mayan Riviera

(Dec. 2016) The last time I visited Mexico was in Cabo San Lucas where you can buy a glass of Mexican wine in almost every restaurant. This is because more than 80% of Mexican wine is produced there in the Baja Peninsula, south of California. The climate is Mediterranean, with hot dry summers and cool wet winters, and is ideal for wine grape growing.

Beautiful White Sand Beaches of the Mayan Riviera, Mexico

However, this time I traveled to the opposite side of the country to the Mayan Riviera located on the Yucatan Peninsula and bordered by the Caribbean Ocean. Here the climate is much more humid, with an average temperature of 80 F degrees year-round. Lush jungles embrace miles of white sandy beaches, and the exquisitely colored turquoise water is warm and balmy. Due to the climate, most visitors drink margaritas or beer (cerveza). And though I found bottles of Mexican wine for sale in restaurants, I struggled to find any wine by the glass.

About the Mayan Riviera

The Mayan Riviera of Mexico stretches from Cancun in the north to the temples of Tulum in the south, with the town of Playa del Carmen in the middle, and the island of Cozumel just a short ferry ride away. Huge resorts line the fluffy white sand beaches, and the area is filled with many delicious restaurants and fun shops. Scuba-diving, snorkeling and deep sea fishing are amongst the most popular tourist activities, as well as visiting the ancient Mayan cities and the unique “cenotes” – sink holes with fresh water that often form underground caves.

A “Cenote” Sink Hole Cavern

It is hard to believe that a mere fifty years ago there were only sleeping fishing villages along the coast. Today it is a booming international tourist destination, identified by the Mexican government in the 1960’s as part of the country’s mega-development projects, which also included Los Cabos in the Baja Peninsula.

The Ancient Mayan Civilization

I was fascinated to learn more about the Mayan culture, which is considered to be one of the great civilizations of the world, with amazing knowledge of science and architecture – similar to the ancient Egyptians.

The Mayans actually lived not only in this part of Mexico, but further south and into Belize, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. However their capital, Mayapan (for which they are named), was located in the Yucatan Peninsula. The original people were called Olmecs (1500-200 BCE), and they carved huge heads out of stones – many of which are still around to be viewed – but most of the famous stone cities and pyramids of the region, such as Chichen Itza and Coba, were built in the Classic Period from 250 – 950 CE.

 
Mayan Temple Ruins at Tulum, Mexico

Tulum, the famous Mayan walled city near the ocean, was built during the Post Classic period, around 1200 CE.  In addition to their great architecture skills, the Mayans were also well-known for their skills in astrology and mathematics, and the creation of the Mayan calendar. We visited Tulum and found the site to be fascinating, as well as the lovely white sandy beach below.

Ancient Mayan City of Tulum Near the Ocean

Food and Wine Found Along the Mayan Riviera

After talking with many people who had visited the area previously, I decided to stay in Playa del Carmen, because it is supposedly a little less touristy and crowded than Cancun and Cozumel. My hotel was the all-inclusive, ROYAL, located on a huge white sandy beach and only one block from the famous Quinta (5th) Avenue – a pedestrian only street with many restaurants and colorful street artists.

The Royal All-Inclusive Resort at Playa del Carmen, Mexico

The resort has eight restaurants, and they featured a total of 27 different bottles of Mexican wine, which is impressive. Prices ranged from $44 for a Monte Xanic Chenin Blanc/Colombard blend to $113 for Icaro Nebbiolo and Bordeaux Blend. These wines illustrate the penchant of Mexican wineries to focus on innovative blends. However, since I was traveling with my daughter, and she doesn’t drink wine, I didn’t want to purchase a whole bottle for myself. Thus I was forced to sample the six wines by the glass that they did offer – all from Spain and Chile.

 
Mexican Food with a Glass of Chilean Chardonnay

The food in and outside of the resort was all fresh and tasty. We focused on the local fish, most of which had been caught that day, as well as fresh fruit and vegetables. We gorged ourselves on guacamole and other Mexican food favorites, such as cheese quesadillas, enchiladas, and fajitas.

Finding a Mexican Wine on the Last Night – Casa Madera Winery

On our last evening we ventured out to a Mexican restaurant called Maria’s at the Gran Porto, and I finally found a half bottle of Mexican wine to order. It was recommended by the server with great pride in his voice, and when I saw the bottle, I knew why. It was a 2014 Casa Madera Cabernet Sauvignon. I was very excited when I saw this wine because I’ve always wanted to taste it, and the price was reasonable at 375 pesos (around $18). Regular price in a store is around $9, so this was a 100% mark-up, which is normal in restaurants.

 
Mexican Steak and Shrimp with Casa Madera Cabernet Sauvignon

Established in 1597, Casa Madera is reputed to be the oldest winery in all of the Americas. Located 70 miles west of Monterrey, Mexico, it is nestled in the Valley de Parras, a mountainous region with an elevation of around 4900 feet, which provides the cooler more temperate climate that winegrapes love.

As the server deftly uncorked the wine, then poured a small amount for me to taste, I noticed that it was lighter in color than I expected – a medium-dark ruby red. The nose was enticing with ripe berries and plum. This carried through on the palate with subtle oak notes and spice. It had smooth silky tannins, good balance, and showed its New World pedigree in the ripe and approachable style. The cab paired very well with the rib-eye and shrimp combo I was having, along with a red spicy mole and rice.

The experience was very positive, and made me want to sample more wines from Casa Madera. Someday it would be nice to visit such a famous historical winery.

A short video highlighting our time on the Mayan Riviera can be found HERE.

A Wish for More Local Wines by the Glass

As I finish this post, I can’t help but reiterate my wish for all global wine regions to feature their local wines in restaurants and bars in a “by-the-glass format” so that tourists can taste them. Only offering local wines by the bottle is a deterrent for many visitors, because they don’t know how the wines will taste. A by-the-glass offering is much less risky, and encourages exploration. Restaurants are already featuring local cuisine – why not show-off local wines as well?  A simple investment in a Coravin makes this option much more feasible, because the restaurant doesn’t have to worry about the wine spoiling. My hope is that more places along the Mayan Riviera will begin to showcase wines from Mexico by the glass.

References

  • Berger, D. (2006). The Development of Mexico’s Tourism Industry: Pyramids by Day, Martinis by Night. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
  • Covarrubias, J. & Thach, L. (2016). Mexican Wine, Beer or Tequila: The Amazing Resilience of Mexico’s Wine Industry. Winebusiness.com, Feb. 1, 2016. Available at: http://www.winebusiness.com/news/?go=getArticle&dataid=164050
  • Hinsdale, J.E. (2015). Explorer’s Guide to Playa del Carmen, Tulum & the Riviera Maya. Vermont: Countryman Press.
  • History.com (2014). Maya History. Available at: http://www.history.com/topics/maya
  • Mark, J. (2012). Maya Civilization. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Available athttp://www.ancient.eu/Maya_Civilization/

Snapshot of the Mexican Wine Industry – Home of Oldest Winery in the Americas

(Dec. 2016) One of the distinguishing features of wine from Mexico is that the country is reputed to be the home of the oldest winery in all of the Americas. This winery is Casa Madero and is located in the Sierra Madre Oriental mountains in the state of Coahuila, about one hour’s drive east of the city of Monterrey.

Records show that in the 1520’s after conquering the Aztecs, Cortes had Spanish grapevines sent to Mexico in order to plant vineyards and make wine in this region. The date is several decades earlier than vineyards were first planted in Chile (1548) and Argentina (1551).

 

Major Wine Growing Regions of Mexico (Map created in Powerpoint by L. Thach, 2016)

Statistics on the Mexican Wine Industry

Finding up to date statistics on the Mexican wine industry can often be challenging, but there are several reputable sources. These numbers are primarily from the Euromonitor June 2016 report on the Mexican wine industry, the Consejo Mexicano VitiVinicola December 2015 website report; and La Ruta del Vina website for the Valle de Guadalupe.

Number of Wineries: approximately 100, with 70+ headquartered in Valle de Guadalupe of Baja

Major Wine Regions: Wine is produced in 12 of Mexico’s 31 states, but more than 80% is produced in the Baja Peninsula, which has a similar climate to California. Other major wine producing states include Sonora, Coahuila, Durango, Zacatecas, Aguascalientes and Querétaro (see map)

Major Varieties Produced: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Tempranillo, Syrah, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc

Largest Wine Producers: La Madrileña (20% of the volume); Casa Pedro Domecq; L.A. Cetto, Monte Xanic

Wine sales in 2015: 91 million liters valued at $28 billion Mexican pesos

Imports: 65% of wine is imported; 35% domestic

Economic Impact: annually generates 500,000 in employee wages and 1200 permanent jobs

Growth Estimates = 10% in volume and 11% in value in the next few years

 
Vineyard in Valle de Guadalupe of Baja.   Photo Credit: J Covarrubias 

The Future Trend in Mexico for Wine is Positive

Though beer and tequila are currently more popular drinks in Mexico, wine has been gaining traction over the past few years. Euromonitor forecasts that the growth trend in positive, especially since Mexico has a large population of 130 million people, with a median age of 27, and is ranked 10th largest country in the world. The Millennial generation in Mexico is beginning to adopt wine as a new beverage, as well as many of the urban professionals. In addition, the trend to consume local products is also positive for Mexican wine, as people begin to seek out more of their home-grown products.

(Excerpts of this post are from an article co-authored with Jorge Covarrubias in Winebusiness.com)

References: