Vega Sicilia – The Ultimate Iconic Winery of Spain

(June 2018) There are certain times in life when you taste a wine that is so magnificent that it transports you into another century. That is what happened to me the first time I tasted Vega Sicilia Unico Gran Reserva a few years ago. We were attending a pool party at a friend’s house, when one of the guests approached me with an open bottle of 1986 Vega Sicilia. “My company is relocating me to Europe,” he said, “but I cannot bring my wine collection, so I’ve decided to share some of my favorite bottles with friends here tonight.”

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Bottles of Vega Sicilia Unico

Of course, I had heard of Vega Sicilia – considered by many to be the top wine of Spain – but I had never tasted it. “Thank you,” I said with enthusiasm, and watched as he deftly poured one ounce into my glass. It was a dark ruby with hints of garnet on the rim, and the bouquet jumped out of the glass, enveloping me in spice, leather and dried black plum. The palate was electrifying with exquisite acidity, textured tannins, black tea with a smoky note, and a very long mesmerizing finish. That one small taste of the 1986 Vega Sicilia Unico spawned a dream to one-day visit the estate.

Fast forward five years to the Wine Spectator Experience in New York City in the fall of 2017. There I bumped into Elisa Alvarez, co-owner of Vega Sicilia, who kindly invited me to visit the next time I was in Spain.

Arriving at Vega Sicilia

So, it finally happened! On June 13, 2018, I picked up at Hertz rental car at the Madrid airport with my 21-year old daughter, and we drove the two hours north to Vega Sicilia. The drive was beautiful, as we snaked through deep valleys and hills on the main freeway, and then eventually turned west to meander along smaller roads with fields of red poppies and ancient castles dotting the way.

There are no signs announcing the entrance of the famous winery, so a good GPS system is necessary. Making a sharp right turn down a narrow hedge lined road that ended in an iron gate with a guard shack, I wondered, at first, if my GPS had led me to the wrong location.

“Hola,” I said to the guard, “Esta Vega Sicilia?”

“Si.”

“Tengo una reserva para las doce.”

“Nombre?”

So I told him, and he consulted a ledger in the office. “Bienvenido,” he said and slowly the iron gates swung open. I continued to drive along a narrow twisting road, lined with beautiful trees and hundreds of white rose bushes in full bloom. To the right we saw a Japanese garden, while on the left there rose a two-story very long peach colored brick building.

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The Driveway at Vega Sicilia Lined with Roses

After parking in a small parking lot, another guard met us and escorted us to a wooden door in the large brick building. There we were warmly greeted and invited to relax until Elisa and her husband, Pablo, arrived, along with the rest of our group. Once everyone was present, Elisa led us on a three-hour very in-depth tour of the estate, concluding with a tasting in their beautiful old manner house filled with antiques and exquisite artwork. It was there that Pablo joined us again to see how we were enjoying the wines.

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Part of our Group with Elisa and Pablo Alvarez

The Green Land of Saint Cecilia

Elisa began our tour by explaining the mean of the name “Vega Sicilia.” Apparently the term “Vega” means “green vegetation or green land,” whereas the term “Sicilia” is in honor of Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of musicians.

“Many people think our winery is located on Island of Sicily in Italy,” explained Elisa, with a smile. “But as you clearly know, we are in the Ribera del Duero DO of Spain.”

The winery was established in 1864 by Don Eloy Lecanda y Chaves, who trained in Bordeaux and wanted to start a great winery in Spain. He selected the Ribera del Duero region because it was warmer and at a higher altitude than Rioja. The winery sits at around 750 meters and has a continental climate. The area achieved DO status in 1982.

The Vineyards of Vega Sicilia

Vega Sicilia has a total of 1000 hectares, with 200 hectares planted to vines. There are 50 separate vineyards, with 90% planted to tempranillo. The terrain is quite diverse with 19 different types of soil, including some limestone. Elisa told us they have been practicing organic farming for the past 15 years, but are not certified. The vines are on a combination of different trellis systems, including small bush vines and some VSP. There is no irrigation, unless it is a new vineyard – in which case, it is only irrigated for the first year.

The estate used to be a self-sufficient farm with many crops and workers living on the property. They still maintain a poly culture, with more than 50% of the property covered with forests and a collection of 300 different types of trees.

Interestingly the best vineyards, including Unico, are situated on north facing slopes, so they receive less sunlight in the hot afternoons and also have better drainage. The word Unico means “Unique,” and the Don named the wine this because he felt it was very unique for Spain, because it usually has some Bordeaux grapes in the tempranillo blend. For example, cabernet sauvignon, malbec, and merlot are often part of the blend. We were told that the Unico vineyard blocks have more limestone and less organic material than other vineyards.

Major challenges in the vineyard include “esca,” which is an extreme form of eutypa. Elisa said they are using 41B and 110R rootstock to help combate this as well as other types of rootstock. They have also created and patented a spray made from garlic, vanilla and other ingredients to spray on wood cuts to help alleviate esca. Frost is also an big issue, and so they have purchased large wind machines at 50,000 euros each.

They do not harvest the vines until they are 10 to 12 years in age. “Vines are like kids,” stated Elisa, “and we believe it takes about 25 years before they are good quality. At 65, they are very good quality, but less quantity.” Harvest is usually around 22 hectoliters per hectare (approx. 2 tons per acre), but Unico is only one ton per acre.

There is also a small plot with vines that are over 100 years old. These are primarily a mix of different varietals, and they are trying to preserve this block.

State of the Art Unico Winery

We took a walking tour of the estate, and I was surprised to see how big it is. Elisa told us there were five different wineries there to produce their various wine brands. We toured the winery where Unico wine is made. The cellar was spotless with very expensive, top of the line equipment.

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Impressive Wooden Foudres at Vega Sicilia

All grapes are hand-harvested in 12 pound white plastic bins. They use a Pellenc to crush and destem, and then the must gently transported to French oak foudres with double insulation. They allow natural yeast to carry out the fermentation, but have a back-up batch ready just in case of a slow or stuck fermentation. Temperature ranges from 26 – 28 degrees C, and the whole process takes about 10 – 14 days, with gentle pumpovers.

After fermentation, they use a basket press and then transfer the wine to 100% new French oak 225 liters barrels for 18 months. Next the wine is moved to used oak barrels for another 18 months, and then, finally to large used oak foudres. Altogether Unico spends four years in oak, and then another 5 to 6 years bottle aging. Unico is always released 9 to 10 years after harvest date, and is considered to be one of the longest aging red still wines in the world.

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Barrel Cellar at Vega Sicilia for Unico

Onsite Cooperage – Toasting the Barrels

We also had the opportunity to visit the cooperage onsite and to witness one of the coopers toasting a barrel. It was fascinating, and smelled wonderful. Elisa gave us each a small piece of barrel stave with the imprint of Vega Sicilia.

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Toasting a Barrel at Vega Sicilia’s Cooperage

Grand Tasting in the Manor House

The wine tasting at Vega Sicilia was one of the most elegant I’ve ever experienced. Once we were all gather in the beautiful old mansion near the fire place, Elisa opened a bottle of 2008 Pol Roger champagne and we all enjoyed a toast together. Later Pablo stopped by to see how we were enjoying the wines.

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Seated Tasting at Vega Sicilia Manor House

Next we tasted several wines from their other properties, including Oremus in Tokay, Hungary, Pintia from Toro and Macan Classico from Rioja. All were excellent, but I was more interested in the wines from the property – and they were amazing:

Vega Sicilia Alion 2014 – 100% tempranillo aged in 100% French oak for 12 – 14 months. Savory palate with spice, chocolate and red cherry. Quite enjoyable. 92, $65

Vega Sicilia Valbuena 2013 – balsamic, black fruit, earthy and savory. 95% tempranillo and 5% merlot, 70% American oak. Very long and delicious. I continued to enjoy this wine at several locations in Spain. Always good. 94, $200

Vega Sicilia Unico 2006 – 94% tempranillo, 6% cabernet sauvignon. 6 years in barrel/vats, 4 years in bottle. Black cherry, tar, tea, earthy notes. Great acidity; well integrated oak, very long and luxurious. Truly mesmerizing, and one of the great wines of the world. 96 points, $570

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Vega Sicilia Wines Heavily Allocated

As we tasted, several guests asked Elisa about their marketing and sales strategy. She explained that they sell via distributor and to some private clients. The wine is completely allocated, and they require advance payment before shipping. Currently they are in 102 countries, with 40% allocated for Spain. They also distribute DRC and Petrus in Spain, and partner with Gaja in Italy.

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Vineyard in Ribera del Duero with Red Poppies

As we departed, I look around the beautiful property and felt a great sense of gratitude for Elisa and Pablo in welcoming us to their winery. They are carrying on the tradition of one of the truly great and extremely special wine estates in the world. In doing so, they are offering employment to many people, preserving the land, and creating great works of art in their wine.

Postscript: Several days later, I  discovered that my iPhone made a video of the day. Here it is below:

https://youtu.be/HbET2nkXs_E

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