Napa Valley Winemaker Conquers Coombsville AVA

In my quest to support local wineries during the COVID19 pandemic and demonstrate the safety procedures they are using, I reached out to one of my former students, Marbue Marke, who has been making wine in California for more than 20 years now. He has an impeccable winemaking background, with a B.S. from UC-Davis in winemaking, an MBA from Sonoma State University, and winemaking stents at Jordan, Gallo, Benziger, Cosentino, and Caldwell Vineyard in Napa Valley. Several years ago, he started his own successful firm called Marbue Consulting (Marbue.com), and now crafts wines for several small prestigious brands in Napa Valley.

Marbue Marke, Consulting Winemaker in Napa Valley

Italics Winery in the Coombsville AVA of Napa Valley

One of Marbue’s clients is Italics Winegrowers, located southeast of the town of Napa in the rolling hills of one of Napa’s newest AVAs (appellations), known for its cooler climate and well-balanced acid-driven cabernet sauvignon wines. I had never been to Italics Winery, and was impressed with the large arch over the entrance and then a set of gates requiring an entry code. Once through the gate, I drove along a winding road through the vineyards and past a golf course, until, eventually, I reached the tasting room and caves at the top of a hill.

Marbue met us, wearing his mask, and we spent some time outside observing the vineyards. Marbue, who holds the title of Director of Winegrowing at Italics, explained that they had 34.5. planted acres, with 70% composed of cabernet sauvignon and other Bordeaux red blends. Sustainable farming methods are employed, including use of recycled water in the vineyards and solar panels for the winery.

Marbue with Mask in Italics Caves

We were impressed with the extensive underground cellars, complete with expensive French oak barrels and private tasting nooks. Marbue led us to a room at the far back, and we caught our breath at the beauty of the chandelier arching over a long wooden table spread with food and wine glasses. The decanted wines for our tasting were arranged on a long table to the right.

Marbue started the tasting with some older vintages from different client wineries, and then we focused on Italics wines matched to different gourmet food pairings:

  • 2019 Italics Rosé, 100% Malbec paired with turnip soup
  • 2017 Italics Placemark Red Blend, paired with duck rillete and black garlic crostini
  • 2017 Italics Weapon X Cabernet Sauvignon paired with beef braciola with arugula pesto and parmesan
  • 2018 Italics Cabernet Sauvignon paired with smoked cocoa beef brisket with honey verjus glaze

Marbue’s Winemaking Philosophy – Elegance and Balance Start in the Vineyard

As someone who has produced many 90+ wines over the years, Marbue can easily pivot to create different styles of Napa Valley cabernet based wines, ranging from big, masculine powerful wines to those with more finesse. Lately, Marbue has gravitated to wine styles that are more balanced, yet filled with grace, elegance, and a long concentrated finish. He believes that this has to do with having control over how the vineyard is farmed. “It is one thing to get a score,” says Marbue. “It is quite another to design a program that reflects the uniqueness of the vineyard and the people who steward it. Truly authentic wines reflect both.”

Discussing “Black Lives Matter

Obviously the topic of “Black Lives Matter,” came up during the tasting, because of the recent events in the news. Since Marbue was born in Sierra Leone, Africa, he doesn’t believe he can comment on the experience of African-Americans born in the USA. “I had heard about racism in America before I arrived,” said Marbue, “but being from Africa I have experienced it differently than black Americans who grew up here. Is there racism in America? Yes, there is, but many people don’t want to admit it.”

Marbue describes a situation where he interviewed with a company in the South and on the way to the interview, his black taxi driver warned him that he wouldn’t be able to buy a house or join a gym in certain parts of the city because he was black. “It was then that I decided to focus my career in California,” states Marbue, “because it is a more liberal state regarding racism, even though it is still here.”

On the positive side, Marbue admits that having the professional degree and experience of a Napa Valley winemaker has its benefits. He described a time when he visited Chateau Margaux in Bordeaux with John Caldwell and a few other colleagues. “At Chateau Margaux, when they learned I was a trained winemaker, I was the only one from our group that was allowed on the floor of the winemaking facility. So being a winemaker, regardless of the color of your skin, does have its privileges on some occasions.”

Highlights of the Tasting

Though we tasted many excellent wines during the tasting, several stand-outs for me were:

2009 Marston Family Vineyards Spring Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon – showing black plum, spice, oregano and earthy forest floor notes, this wine sang with elegance and complexity. Crafted in a lighter style, it harkened back to the early years in Napa Valley, when the Judgement of Paris was won.

2013 Caldwell Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon Coombsville – opulent and perfumed nose of blackberry and violets, this wine exhibited the plush velvety tannins for which Napa Valley is known around the world. Yet, it also showed grace and elegance with well- integrated oak and a long concentrated finish.

2017 Italics Placemark Red Wine Coombsvilleblended in 2018 when Marbue first started working with Italics, this wine spoke clearly of the cooler climate of Coombsville and the rich complexity that can be achieved by a master blender. Comprised of 43% cabernet sauvignon, 43% merlot, and 14% petit verdot, it exhibited classic cassis, spice and peppercorn with refreshing acidity, great balance, and a long elegant finish.

2018 Italics Cabernet Franc Coombsville – with a heady nose of raspberry and violets, I could have just enjoyed smelling this wine all day. Vibrant with red plum, cocoa and tobacco notes, this graceful and seamless wine seduced with fine-grained tannins and a long elegant finish.

6- Foot Wine & Food Pairing at Italics Winery in Napa Valley

A Place in Napa Where They Make Wine the Old-Fashioned Way: Charter Oak

I have lived for 20 years now in Napa/Sonoma wine country and still have not been able to visit the more than 1000 wineries that are located in this world famous wine region. However, with the COVID-19 pandemic still raging across the nation, I have decided to venture out to the wineries that are open and try to support them as a local tourist. I am not the only one doing this, as many of the tasting rooms are now booked weeks in advance by locals. Due to the pandemic, you must make an appointment to visit, and the tasting rooms are following all of the safety protocols, including the requirement to wear a mask and sit 6 feet apart.

Charter Oak Winery. Photo Credit: Charter Oak Winery

So, this past Friday, I visited 3 wineries in Napa that were new to me, with my friend Charlie Johnson. Please keep in mind that over the years, I have probably visited more than 200 Napa/Sonoma wineries, but never before have I encountered an old fashioned commercial winery like Charter Oak Winery. Located in the town of St. Helena, it is in a small house tucked away down a side street. I was surprised to find that it is not only a small gem of a winery, but also the home of internationally acclaimed artist, Layla Fanucci, who began her art career in that very house 20 years ago when she retired as a local music teacher.

Layla with her paintings & Liz standing near Layla’s larger canvases

The Chateau Wineries of Napa Valley

It’s not that I don’t like visiting the very famous old wineries of Napa Valley, such as Beringer, Robert Mondavi, and Chateau Montelena; or some of the newer landmark wineries with their unique architecture, such as Opus One, Darioush, Sterling, and Castelo di Amorosa, as illustrated below. They are large and exciting to visit with well-crafted high-quality wines, and professional tours. At the same time, I still remember the Napa Valley before the turn of the century (2000), that was more relaxed. This is what I found at Charter Oak Winery – a warm welcome and a tasting in the kitchen at an old wooden table.

Some famous wineries of Napa Valley. Photo credits: wikipedia commons

Charter Creek Winery – Still Making Wine by Hand in Basket Press

Winemaker and owner, Rob Fanucci, inherited Charter Oak and the cute little white house and half acre of vineyards from his grandfather, Guido Raggihaiti, who came from Italy more than 100 years ago. As was the traditional of many Italian families, Guido planted some vines and made wine in his barn, sharing it with family and friends. Now, Rob, does the same, using the same winemaking equipment as his grandfather.

It is rare today to still see a winemaker using an old-fashioned wooden barrel press, because they are a lot of work and require much muscle power.  But not only does Rob honor this ancient technique, he also picks all grapes by hand, used natural yeast, and ferments in large open containers using his grandfather’s wooden paddle to punch down the grape cap three times a day. Once the wine completes fermentation, he performs the pain-staking labor of crushing it in the 100 year old press, and then transfers it by bucket to age in barrel, before bottling unfined and unfiltered one year later.

Rob Making Wine. Photo Credit: Charter Oak Winery

Wine and Art Meld in Layla Fanucci’s City Scape Paintings

When we arrived at Charter Oak, Rob’s wife, Layla Fanucci invited us into the house and led us to the kitchen where we sat at a small oak table for a tasting of four red wines. On the way, we passed her art studio where she creates large oil paintings of “city scapes,” in which she uses a unique technique of painting multiple cities on top of one another. She has been incredibly successful with this technique, and exhibits her paintings in galleries around the world. She also showed us several books that had been written about her and the amazing style of paintings.

Wines we tasted in Kitchen at Charter Oak Winery

As we tasted through the wines, Layla described each one by reading Rob’s poetic descriptions, and it really made the wines come to life. They were primarily red blends, made in the old Italian fashion of field blends, as well as several zinfandels.  All were delicious and would easily pair well with Italian food. Even better, many of the wine bottles were graced by labels depicting some of Layla’s paintings.

Rob and Layla had a video produced that describes the old-fashioned winemaking and her unique painting style. See below:

Magical Backyard with Event Grounds, Vineyard and Guest Houses

After the tasting, Layla encouraged us to wander through her studio and the back garden. We discovered many interesting displays in the garden, as well as an old barn decked out for private events, and several guest cottages for wine club members.  It felt a bit like a magical playground, and gave me a warm feeling to realize that there were still authentic wineries in Napa that make wine the old-fashioned way.

The Amazing Wreath Vines of Santorini, Greece

On my trip to Greece, I was very excited to learn that we would be visiting one of the “wreath vine” vineyards of Santorini, because they are reputed to be some of the oldest grapevines on earth, with roots dating to over 400 years old. The climate of this island is dry and windy, forcing the vines to hug the earth in one of the most unique trellis systems in the world – called the “Kouloura.” With this the vines are pruned in the shape of a wreath, so that the grape bunches inside the wreath are protected from the wind and can reach maturity.

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Wreath Vine that Grows in Circle on the Ground in Santorini, Greece

We took a bus outside the main town of Fira, and were invited to go hiking through a vineyard composed of the wreath vines. The landscape was very barren, and it was hard to believe that these flat clusters of leaves and branches on the ground could produce grapes. We learned that after a number of decades, the wreath grows too tall, and is cut off so a new wreath can form. However, the original roots stay in the ground, resulting in grapevines that are hundreds of years old. During our visit, we were able to see one of the vineyard managers show us how to prune a vine.  See video below.

Assyrtiko – the Signature Wine Grape of Santorini

The main grape of Santorini is white and called “Assyrtiko.” It creates a wine that is known for its bracingly high acid, which some call the “White Burgundy of Greece,” and has been produced on the island since early Greek and Roman times. Many of the assyrtiko grapes are grown on the wreath vines, and because of the challenges of growing in this extreme environment, many of the wines are rather expensive and rare. The wines usually taste of bright lemon, hazelnut and a minerally salty note, and pair beautifully with seafood.

Santorini – An Island of Legend and Exquisite Wine

This was my second visit to Santorini, and like the first, I was stunned with the stark beauty of this island. We arrived by boat to see its huge volcanic cliffs soaring high above us, because Santorini is part of a sunken caldera. Originally much larger, the island was destroyed by a volcano that erupted in the 1630’s BC, causing some people to speculate that Santorini is the site of the lost city of Atlantis.

Our bus zig-zagged to the top of the cliff where the town of Fira with its white houses, pink bougainvillea, tiny winding streets, and blue domed churches enchanted everyone. We were able to spend three delightful days here, and tasted wines from many of its nearly 20 wine producers.  Some of the labels of these wineries are illustrated below.

 

 

Virtual Wine Tours on the Rise

Though we all enjoy traveling to the wine regions of the world, there are times that physical travel is not possible. Some of this may be due to work or health conflicts, but increasingly there are other issues that cause wine regions to close temporarily. Examples include the COVID pandemic, earthquakes in New Zealand, Chile and Napa; terrorist attacks in France, Spain and Germany, and wildfires and mudslides in California. Given these changing conditions, some wineries have started offering innovative virtual wine tours.

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360 Virtual Vineyard Tour (Modified Photo Credit: Pxfuel.com)

Three Types of Virtual Wine Tours

With the new virtual wine tours, tourists can tour a winery or wine region virtually by using their computer, tablet or smart phone. This can be accomplished with online videos, 360 photo tours, or 360 videos with VR glasses, and are designed to make the visitor feel as if they are really walking through the winery grounds. Currently there are three types of virtual wine tours offered by some wineries.

Engaging Online Videos showcase the winery and allow visitors to see the entrance to the winery, step into the tasting room, walk through the vineyards, see the cellars, wander the gardens, and see the wines. These can be fun and whimsical, or classy and elegant. Here are two good examples:

360 Photo Tours are simply photos of the estate filmed in a 360 format and then edited so that visitors can click on a link to take them into another room, such as the cellar, the wine library, the vineyard, gardens, etc. It is a technique that is often used by home sales websites, and is less expensive to produce than professional videos. Here is a good example :

360 Video Tours are filmed with a special 360 video camera and professionally edited. Virtual wine tourists are invited to don a pair of VR Glasses, which can be purchased inexpensively online, such as the Google Cardboard headset, so they can experience the 360 video as if they were actually there. Here are two examples:

 

NOTE: A longer version of this article was originally published at by Wine Industry Advisor at: https://wineindustryadvisor.com/2020/05/28/the-future-of-virtual-wine-tourism

Elegant Greek Wine Tasting with Poolside Lunch at Ktima Kokotos Winery

(Oct. 2019) We arrived at Ktima Kokotos Winery two hours before lunch, and immediately after our tour of an ancient Savatiano Vineyard nearby. Kokotos winery was established in the 1970’s by George Kokotos and his family. Located in the area of Stamata, the winery is less than an hour’s drive north of Athens.

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Pool at Ktima Kokotos Winery in Greece

Nestled amongst rolling hills at an altitude of 450 meters, the winery boasts seven hectares of organically farmed Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. An impressive feature of the estate is the large blue swimming pool situated on wide expanses of emerald green lawn. We were pleased to realize that we would be taking lunch poolside, as the staff was busy setting up round tables and a Greek barbecue grill. As it was a warm sunny day with a temperature hovering around 25 C, this was a very welcome sight.

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Walk-Around tasting at Kokotos Winery, Greece

To the right of the pool was a large indoor reception room where over 20 producers from Attica and Central Greece were serving wine at tables arranged in a large U-shape around the room. Altogether they represented 42 different wines from these two regions for our walk-around tasting.

Terroir and Grape Varietals for Attica and Central Greece

Though Attica and Central Greece, both located North of Athens, produce many different types of grape varieties, they are best known for Savatiano, Malagouzia, and some unusual red varieties, such as Moutaro. The terroir is hilly, with sandy gravely soils, low rainfall, and a typical dry Mediterranean climate

Though there were many excellent wines composed of different varietals as well as some blends, the ones that stood out for me were the signature regional white grape called Savatiano, as well as the aromatic white Malagouzia, and a few of the reds. Following are some of the highlights of the tasting for me.

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Vineyards Around Kokotos Winery, Greece. Photo Credit: Kokotos Winery

Selected Savatiano Wines

Savatiano is a neutral white grape known for its medium to full body, stone fruit and medium acid. It is the most widely planted grape In Greece, and traditionally used for making retsina, but is now being used to make dry full-bodied wines. When aged in oak, it can sometimes taste like an oaked chardonnay.

  • 2017 Aoton Winery Savatiano PGI Attiki  – yellow color, medium-bodied with complex savory notes, straw, citrus, salty minerality and textured body. No oak, but aged in stainless steel with 5 months of batonnage.
  • 2016 Kokotos Winery Barrel Fermented Savatiano 2016 – dried apple, lemon and vanilla spa on nose, with a juicy citrus and mineral palate. Fermented in acacia oak barrels with 5 months battonage – tasted rather like a fresh Chablis.
  • 2013 Markou Vineyards Savatiano – produced with no SO2, this wine was surprisingly aromatic with peach notes and a heavier textured body. Quite unique and appealing.
  • 2012 Mylonas Winery Savatiano and 2018 from same winery. Located close to the ocean this winery is in a cooler region, and the ferment in stainless steel and age on grow lees. The 2018 was fresh with lemon and minerality, whereas the 2012 had gained some more savory complex notes in the bottle.
  • 2017 Botanic Sparkling Savatiano – fresh and exciting, with exquisite small bubbles from 2nd fermentation in bottle. Straw, citrus, and yeasty flavors. Quite delightful.

Selected Malagouzia Wines

Malagouzia is an aromatic white grape known for its floral aromas, as well as exotic fruit and citrus on the palate, with an occasional minty finish. It can be crafted in a fresh lighter style with no oak, or aged on the lees to add texture and complexity.

  • 2018 Malagouzia Anastasia Gragou Winery – white flowers on the nose with fresh citrus and minerals on the palate, floral, with herbal note on finish. Clean, refreshing, and lovely.
  • 2017 Malagouzia Gikas Winery – delicately aromatic with hints of peach blossom, juicy acidity, and well-balanced.
  • 2018 Tzivani Bio Chrissie Golden Malagouiza – ripe peaches and lemon on nose, following by an intriguing texture palate of peach skins and wet stone. Quite delicious.

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Selected Unique Red Wines/Other

2017 Experimental Syrah Boutari Winery – vinified with no SO2 or oak, this Syrah was rather amazing in that it tasted quite fresh with ripe berries, pepper, and structured tannins.

  • 2016 Domaine Costa Lazaridid Oenotria Land Cabernet Sauvignon and Agiorgitiko, PGI Attica – made in a New World Style with rich ripe berries, black plum and generous toasty oak with vanilla and spice. Big velvety tannins and long finish. Aged for 18 months 50% new French oak – rather Napa Valley like.
  • 2017 Samartzis Estate Moutaro – very unusual red wine with cherry and violets on nose, followed by raspberries and rhubarb on palate. Very high acid and red black opaque color. Would have liked to try more of these.
  • 2018 Lenga Gewurtraminer Avantis Estate – this was an absolutely beautiful lighter-style Gewurztraminer with the telltale orange blossom and baby powder nose, elegant body with good acidity and a touch of sugar on the finish – enticing and well made.

Wines Followed Us to Lunch by the Pool

Towards the end of the two hour tasting it was difficult to ignore the smokey aroma of roasting meat on the barbecue grill. So with stomachs growling and nostrils quivering, we were happy to take a seat with the wine producers at one of the many round tables near the pool. They brought multiple bottles of wine to pair with the feast that was being prepared by a group of chefs under an awning near the head of the pool.

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Greek Wines Paired with Greek Cuisine

Eventually it was time for us to attack the buffet, and we were invited to help ourselves to a smorgasbord of delicious Greek food, including barbecued goat and chicken kabobs, classic Greek Salad, tzatziki, grape-leave wrapped dolmathakia, and many other delicious dishes. A truly delightful and memorable day in Greece.

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Enjoying Greek Wine & Food at Kokotos Winery, Greece

 

Seven Days of Greek Wine

(Oct. 2019) I just returned from a seven day tour of the major Greek wine regions as part of an Institute of Masters of Wine trip. Like most trips organized by the IMW, it was truly amazing, but allowed for very little sleep — usually about 6 hours per night. However, despite this small set-back, it was a great whirlwind adventure of tasting (and spitting) nearly 100 Greek wines a day. Along the way, I learned so many new things, and my appreciation for Greek wines, cuisine, and culture has grown dramatically.

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The Parthenon in Athens, Greece

Quick Facts About Greek Wine

According to Wines of Greece, there are 1295 wineries and 300 indigenous grape varieties in Greece, making it a wonderful place to explore and find new wine surprises. White wine accounts for 61% of production and red/rose wine 39%.  The most widely planted Greek grape varieties are: 1) Savatiano (white); 2) Roditis (rose) and 3) Agiorgitiko (red). Most Greek wine is sold within the country, as they only export 13% – suggesting that a visit to Greece is the best way to learn about and enjoy their delicious wines that pair so well with Greek cuisine.

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Major Wine Regions of Greece. Map Courtesy of WinesofGreece.com

Overview of Greek Wine Tour Itinerary

Following is a high-level overview of the MW Greek Wine tour, beginning in Athens with wines from the mainland, following by visits to both Crete and Santorini islands.

Day 1 Athens – Arrive in Athens and check into A for Athens Hotel. Walking tour around the Acropolis, followed by magnificent sunset dinner at 360 Cocktail Bar Roof Garden featuring the wines of Thrace and Macedonia wine regions.

Day 2 Athens – Morning hike to the Parthenon, and then take bus to Attica wine region, north of Athens. Visit an ancient vineyard that produces the Savatiano grape – most widely planted white grape in Greece.  Then lunch at Ktima Kokotos Winery with a walk-around tasting of wine from Central Greece and Attica. Back to rest at hotel, and then evening tasting at Oinoscent wine bar to taste wines and appetizers from Thessaly wine region, followed by a second tasting at Vintage wine bar to taste wines from the Greek islands of Cyclades, Dodecanses, Ionian and North Aegean. Evening concluded at Clumsie’s Bar to taste Greek Spirits.

Day 3 Athens – We took the bus to the port of Piraeus for a Masterclass on Greek Wine at the WSPC wine school. This was followed by a walk-around tasting of wines from the Peloponnese. Next, we enjoyed a great fish lunch at Dourabeis Fish restaurant with a retsina tasting. Afterwards we went to the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Culture center for a tour, followed by a walkaround tasting of wines from Macedonia and Epirus. We ended the day with a magnificent sunset view over the ocean, and a souvlaki dinner and Greek beer tasting at Kir-Aristos tavern.

Day 4 Crete  – We checked out of A for Athens Hotel at 7:15am to take the bus to the airport and catch a 10am flight to Crete. The flight was only about 40 minutes and we arrived in the capital city of Heraklion. Immediately we boarded a bus to visit the archaeological site of Vathipetro where we saw the ruins of the oldest wine press in the world. Lunch was at Semeli Restaurant in a small charming village called Houdesti in the hills. We were joined by Cretan wine producers and had a fabulous multi-course wine lunch in the patio. Afterwards we boarded the bus again and toured the magnificent Palace of Knossos ruins with a guide. Finally we checked into the Aquila Atlantis Hotel back in Heraklion where we had one hour to rest and plunge into the rooftop swimming pool. At 5:45pm we gathered for a two-hour master class on new trends in Greek wine, and then walked to Merastri Restaurant to enjoy a Cretan dinner with many wonderful wines and lamb dishes from Crete.

Day 5 Crete – We woke to a bright sunny morning in Crete so I took a walk along the seawall after breakfast. We departed at 9am for Asites village in the mountains and arrived at Earino Tavern where we had a walk-round tasting of Crete wines, with a magnificent view of the island landscape from the terrace. It was here that I first tasted the Vidiano grape and fell in love – an aromatic white wine of Crete. This was a followed by a huge lunch paired with the wines and more lamb dishes. Next we took the bus for a tour of Saint Georges Gorgoliani Monastery and a Tsikoudia tasting (local grape spirit). From there, we divided up into 4-wheel drive SUVs and trucks to drive far into the mountains on small narrow roads, and then hike to an ancient vineyard on top of the hills. Back at the hotel we had one hour to rest before attending a lovely Crete sparkling wine reception hosted by Aquila Atlantis Hotel, and then departed to have dinner at 7 Thalasses Seafood Restaurant, set in a casual outdoor setting. Everyone was very pleased to dine on seafood paired with Cretan wines, and enjoy a trio of local musicians – one of my favorite dinners of the whole trip.

Day 6 Santorini – We woke early to catch the ferry to Santorini Island. Everyone clung to the rails as we sailed into the famous caldera of Santorini, and then caught our breath on the bus as it zigzagged up the switchback road to Santo Winery. Here we had a welcome walk-around tasting of the wines of Santorini with a breath-catching view of the cliffs and ocean far below. Lunch was at Avantis Winery, where I had some of the best grilled octopus of my life paired with their wines. Afterwards we checked into the Katikies Garden Hotel in the town of Fira, which is very charming but does not have a view of the water. To make up for this, each room has its own balcony with private plunge pool. Next was a 2-hour masterclass on the wines of Santorini held at the hotel. This was followed by a delicious dinner with the wine producers at Selene Restaurant situated on a high hill with a great sunset view across the island.

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The Magnificent Island of Santorini, Greece

Day 7 Santorini – We began the day with a 2 hour Masterclass on the Assyrtiko grape at the hotel. Next we boarded the bus to attend a pruning demonstration in an ancient vineyard of assyrtiko grapes near the village of Pyrgos. It was amazing to learn that many of the unique “wreath” shaped vines were over 500 years old! Lunch was at Karamelegos Winery, which was quite delightful with a view of the ocean in the distance. Next we had a guided tour of the famous Akrotiri archeological site – an ancient city destroyed by a volcano. Back at the hotel, we had a short rest before a walk-around tasting of the “non-assyrtiko wines of Santorini” and then a fun farewell dinner at the De Paul Restaurant in our hotel. Here I enjoyed one of the most astonishing dessert of my life – a small cake shaped like the blue domes of Santorini (last photo below).

The next day most of us flew home. I had a half a day to shop in Santorini before my 3pm flight departed to Athens. Since my departure to San Francisco was at 6am the next morning, I stayed overnight in the very nice Sofitel hotel at the airport. It was quite luxurious, and included a spa and very high-end restaurant. I fell asleep dreaming about my seven days of Greek wines, and one of the most remarkable tours of my life. Thank you Greece!

Most Amazing Dessert on Santorini Island, Greece

What Are the Major Wine Grapes of the Czech Republic?

Portions of this post were originally published in WineBusiness.com

The Czech Republic has been making wine since the 13th century, yet most global consumers only know the country for Czech beer. So what are the major wine grapes that are grown and produced in the Czech Republic?

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Czech Village with Grapevines

The answer is a little fuzzy because many of the ancient vineyards of the Czech Republic were torn out during the Soviet Era and replanted with wheat. It has only been about 30 years now that Czechs have been reclaiming their wine-making heritage. Now with more than 1200 commercial wineries there is a positive sense of entrepreneurship in the country, along with much experimentation to determine what grape varietals and wine styles may become the signature grape of the future.

Location and Climate Help Determine Best Grape Varietals to Grow

The Czech Republic has a cooler continental climate, and is located to the north of Austria. In fact the majority of their major grape growing regions (where 90% of the wine is produced) is in the southern part of the country bordering Austria. The region is called Moravia, with the town of Brno as the main city. The Czech Republic produces many of the same grapes as the neighboring countries, but also some unusual ones. For example, they produce much Riesling like Germany and Grüner Veltliner like Austria, but also have some very unique wines such as Palava and Andre, describe below.

Possible Signature Wine Products in the Czech Republic

In an analysis of Czech wines that have won the most awards and/or are unique and distinctive, there are currently several contenders for “Signature Wine Product of the Czech Republic”:

Czech Riesling: Even though Germany and Austria produce a lot of Riesling, this variety is a good contender for flagship wine, because Czech Riesling has a distinct taste of being “dry with high acid, intense dried apricot, and a hint of salinity.” It is also produced in the majority of the Czech wine regions, ages very well, and has received multiple awards at international wine competitions. It should be mentioned that the Czech refer to this varietal as “Rhine Riesling (from Germany)” to differentiate it from Welshriesling.

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Czech Riesling from Sonberk Winery

Welshriesling: Also known as Italian Riesling, this is a different grape from Rhine Riesling, and produces a wine with more honey, floral and exotic fruit notes, without the telltale diesel of its German cousin. Generally produced as a simple easy-drinking bulk wine, on the limestone slopes of Moravia, Welshriesling takes on some intense savory notes with wet stone, salt and green apple. It also develops more character as it ages, producing complex textured wines with personality. Some excellent examples are produced by Kolby Winery, who specializes in single vineyard Welshrieslings.

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Welshriesling from Kolby Winery with Winemaker

Palava: Perhaps one of the most unique Czech wine varieties, the Palava grape was actually born in the Czech Republic and approved as a registered variety in 1977. It is a cross between Gewürztraminer and Müller Thurgau, taking on the best qualities of both grapes to produce a highly aromatic medium-bodied white wine with notes of honeysuckle and apricot with crisp acidity. It is made in dry, semi-dry, and sweet styles, and is very enticing. Indeed a sweet Palava, produced by Czech winery, Sonberk, using the straw method to dry the grapes, achieved 96 points at the 2018 Decanter World Wine Awards. The other positive of this grape is the fact that it has a name that is easy for consumers to pronounce.

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Palava Wine from Sonberk Winery

Andre: Though the Czech Republic does produce some delicious light-bodied reds wines made from Pinot Noir, Zweigelt and other varieties, perhaps the most unique is a grape variety called “Andre.” Developed in the Czech Republic as a cross between St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch (also called Lemberger, Kekfrankos and Frankovka), the Andre grape produces soft-bodied aromatic red wines with notes of mixed red berries, rose, and spice. It is produced in dry and semi-dry styles with minimal oak. Unfortunately it is not produced by many wineries, and its name, Andre, is already claimed by a large famous global wine brand. The most well-known producer of Andre is Slechtitelska Stanice Winery.

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Andre Wine from Slechtitelska Stanice Winery – in lower right corner

Czech Sparkling Wine: Given that the location of the majority of Czech vineyards are alongside the 49th parallel, the same as the Champagne region, it should not be a surprise that the country produces a large quantity of sparkling wine. Indeed, its largest winery, Bohemia Sekt, specializes in the category, with 9% of total country volume share, according to Euromonitor. Czech sparkling ranges from high-end traditional method wines made from chardonnay and pinot noir, to innovative blends of Pinot Blanc, Riesling, and Pinot Gris, made in the charmant method at affordable prices. Currently more small high-end producers, such as Proqin Winery, are producing award winning Czech sparklers.

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Czech Sparkling Wine with Oysters from Proqin Winery

Time and Consumers Will Determine the Answer

Given the fact that there are so many options available to Czech Republic wine producers, and the current culture of re-establishing grape-growing independence is so strong, it may take some time before the country will come to agreement on a signature wine product. However, they can also choose to do nothing, and let the international wine judging world and consumers decide.

Classic Czech Cuisine with Czech Wine

Four Wineries to Visit in the Czech Republic Wine Region of Moravia

If you’re planning a trip to Prague, one of the most beautiful cities in Europe, then consider adding a couple of extra days to your trip so you can visit Moravia- the major wine region of the Czech Republic. Only a short 2 hour drive south of Prague, this region delights with its landscape of rolling hills, tiny flower-bedecked villages, and delicious fresh wines paired with regional Czech cuisine.

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Wine Village in the Czech Republic Region of Moravia

I was fortunate enough to be able to visit this region in September of 2018 with my mother, right at the beginning of the grape harvest. While there we visited four wineries and two wine shops, at the invitation of the local wine associations and university. All were truly amazing, and should be on your itinerary if you are lucky enough to visit this unspoiled, and relatively undiscovered, wine region, which has been making wine since the 13tfh century!

Spend Several Days in Prague First

It is easy to catch an international flight into the modern Prague airport and then take a 20 minute ride via taxi or Uber to the old city. Here you can stay in a hotel (we stayed at the Prague Radisson) or Airbnb, and walk the ancient streets, which are only for pedestrians. They are filled with quaint shops, delicious restaurants, and hidden wine shops such as the Wine O’Clock Shop where we ate dinner the first night. Prague is also great for beer lovers, and we enjoyed a big bowl of goulash and two icy steins of beer for lunch the next day at the White Horse Restaurant with an outside table overlooking the bustling square.

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Enjoying Both Beer and Wine in Prague, Czech Republic

Everything in Prague is within walking distance, including the Old Town Square with its famous Astronomical Clock, Prague Castle, and the beautiful Charles Bridge that spans the River Vltava. We also signed up to attend a traditional Czech dinner with music and dancing at Restaurant Michael. This was so much fun, and everyone in our room – we didn’t know a soul when we first got there – was up and dancing by the end of the night. My great-great grandmother was from the Czech Republic, and it felt like we were being welcomed back to join our relatives.

Great Czech Food, Wine, Music & Dancing in Prague

A Quick Overview of the Czech Wine Scene

There are now more than 1200 wineries – called “Vinarstvi” – in the Czech Republic. They are located in two regions: 1) Bohemia, which is smaller and located about one hour north of Prague, and 2) Moravia, located two hours south of Prague near the Austrian border, where 90% of the wine is produced. The major wine styles are delightful sparkling wines made from Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, and Riesling, as well as still white wines from the same grapes. They also produce some red wines such as Pinot Noir and Zweigelt. Two very unique varietals they produce are Palava – a white cross of Gewürztraminer and Muller Thurgau, and Andre – a red cross of St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch. Both are described in more detail below.

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Roses and Vineyards in the Czech Republic

Two Hour Drive South to Moravia Wine Region

After three days in Prague, we took an Uber back to the airport to pick up our rental car. It is easy to rent a car there because it is on the outskirts of the city and you can get on the freeway almost immediately. The Czechs drive on the right side of the road (same as the USA), and all roads are well-marked and in very good condition. From Prague, it is only a two hour drive to Brno, the capital city of Moravia. This is a great place to stay with many restaurants, museums, and a pedestrian walking area. From here you can take day-trips to the wineries, or you can stay in a hotel in one of the small wine villages, such as Hotel Kurdejov, or an Airbnb like we did.

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Bar and Restaurant Scene in Downtown Brno, Czech Republic

Four Wineries to Visit in Moravia

The majority of Czech wineries are very small and family run, and therefore, you may need to make a reservation online with some of them. However, there is also a major visitor center and wine shop called the Wine Salon of the Czech Republic in the town of Valtice, which I highly recommend. It is located in an old chateau and you can even have lunch there. It should also be noted that during certain times in April, there is a Czech Winery Open House in Moravia where all of the wineries are open and offer free tastings. Click HERE for more information.

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Entrance to the Wine Salon of Czech Republic in Old Chateau

The four wineries we visited each specialized in a different style of Czech wine, so they are perfect to visit if you only have two days:

Proqin Winery (Vinarstvi Proqin) – specializing in Czech Sparkling Wines. This small and friendly winery is owned by Martin Prokes, who speaks perfect English and along with being a top Czech winemaker also teaches wine business at the University of Mendelu in Brno. Located in the small village of Velké Němčice, Proquin Winery is housed in a modest tasting room on the edge of town. Martin purchases all of his grapes from surrounding vineyards and produces around 100,000 bottles each year, which he exports around the world. Martin’s great-great grandfather came to the region in 1675 to become a winemaker, and now Martin is taking up the ancient family profession. “This region is located on the 49th parallel, just like the region of Champagne,” says Martin. “Therefore we are perfectly positioned to make world class sparkling wines.” Indeed if you ask kindly, Martin will proudly draw out his sword and saber (sabrash in Czech) a bottle of sparkling wine for you. Martin makes many great wines, but some of my favorites here were:

  • Proqin Matthias Sparkling Brut NV – a sparkling wine made from Chardonnay and Pinot Blanc, it has a lovely honey nose, green apple, yeasty notes and a cleansing minerality.
  • Proqin Extra Reserve Sparkling Riesling 2010– a vibrant and exciting sparkling Riesling with floral and peach notes, electric acidity and a zesty energy.
  • Proqin Neuburger 2017 – fresh and delightful, this wine tasted of grapefruit, grass, and mineral notes. It is a cross between Roter Veltliner and Sylvaner, and quite unique.

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Martin with a Saber and His Delicious Czech Sparkling Wine at Proqin Winery

Slechtitelska Stanice Winery – specializing in wines made from the Andre and Palava grapes. This winery is also a hotel and restaurant, so you can stay here for the night and enjoy a view of the beautiful vineyards. Located in the small village of Velké Pavlovice, the vineyards were originally planted here by the Romans in the year 200. The Christians arrived in 860 and continued to plant grapes and make wine, and then in 1908 it was set up to be a cross-breeding station (Slechtitelska Stanice in Czech) to develop new grape varietals. This is how the grapes called Palava (a white cross of Gewürztraminer and Muller Thurgau) and Andre (a red cross of St. Laurent and Blaufränkisch) were developed. They also grow many antique roses of the most amazing colors and aromas, as well as produce honey, jam, and vinegar. We toured the ancient cellars, the modern winery in the vineyards, and then had a delicious lunch at the restaurant, but you can also just stop by to taste and purchase wine at the cellar door. They farm over 43 hectares of vines and produce around 500,000 bottles of wine per year. Some of my favorite wines here included:

  • 2017 Riesling – fresh, crisp, aromatic with white peach and a salty minerality.
  • 2017 Palava – very floral with notes of honeysuckle, apricot, and crisp acidity
  • 2016 Andre – a medium-bodied red wine with ripe mulberry, spice, pepper, and earthy notes.

Sonberk Winery – specializing in Riesling and Palava wines. A beautiful modern winery and tasting room set on a hillside overlooking vineyards and Thaya Lake below. The region has more than 700 years of winemaking history and the hillsides are filled with limestone soil, which is ideal for producing fresh and dazzling wines. Sonberk was established in 2003 near the small village of Popice; has 45 hectares of vines, and produces around 150,000 bottles per year of all estate wines. They have won numerous awards for their wines, especially the Palava. While there, I got to see them drying the Palava grapes on special straw mats to make their famous dessert Palava, which received 96 points from Decanter. All of the wines here are excellent, but some of my favorites were:

  • 2015 Riesling VOC– very fresh with notes of lemon and green peach, a creamy body with good acidity and a hint of salinity. A very sophisticated Riesling with character.
  • 2017 Palava VOC – beautiful floral notes, apricot, lovely intense spice, good acidity and a dry finish.
  • 2016 Straw Palava – delicious sweet dessert wine with honey, peaches, ginger, and refreshing acidity.

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Sonberk Winery & Vineyards in the Czech Republic

Kolby Winery – specializing in estate Welsh Riesling. Located only a few miles from Sonberk Winery, Kolby is in the small town of Mikulov, next to an old cellar with chateau from the 1700’s. With 38 hectares of vineyards spread out on the limestone and loam hillside above them, many of the vineyards are on ancient sites, and it reminded me of the Grand Cru vineyards of Alsace. The difference is that the majority of the vines are either Riesling or Welsh Riesling, which the Czechs call “Rynlink Vlasky”. I had a tour of the winery, where the grapes were arriving for harvest, and then we had a delightful tasting outdoors. The winemakers at Kolby believe in aging their white wines before release, which gives them some complex notes of minerality and salinity. They also practice organic and biodynamic farming techniques, but are not certified. Some of my favorite wines here were:

  • 2017 Rynlink Vlasky (Welsh Riesling) – aromatic, floral and apricot, medium body, good acidity, fresh with nectarine and energy.
  • 2010 Rynlink Vlasky (Welsh Riesling) – textured, complex, mineral, stony, salty, sur lie aging, 11.5%.
  • 2013 Riesling – classic with diesel, lime, mineral, and straw; good complexity with hint of regional brine notes.

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Exterior of Kolby Winery in Czech Republic

Wine Shops to Check Out in Moravia

In addition to the famous Wine Salon of the Czech Republic described above, with more than 100 top awarded Czech Wines to taste, also consider stopping at the Hotel Kurdejov Wine Shop. Here you can taste and purchase local wines in a friendly atmosphere, as well as dine in the restaurant and/or stay overnight in the hotel. On the hillside behind the hotel, the owner’s son has planted 15 hectares of vines in 2013. He explained that in the old days it was all vineyards, but the communists had torn them out to plan wheat. Now the Czechs are reclaiming their ancient vineyard land around the country, and are experimenting with new varietals. He has decided to plant three colors of Pinot: 1) Pinot Noir, 2) Pinot Gris and 3) Pinot Blanc, and is using organic farming and natural winemaking techniques.

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Wine Shop & Tapas Bar at Hotel Kurdejov, Czech Republic

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Prague Castle at Night, Czech Republic

Maury Magic – Wineries to Visit on Your Next Trip to Roussillon, France

If you are lucky enough to be headed to the Roussillon wine region in the South of France, and decide to visit the historic Maury wine region, consider some of these innovative wine brands. While visiting there in May of 2019, I was treated to a tasting of Maury wines with ten producers, each presenting three wines. The tasting, followed by a delicious lunch was held at Department 66 (D66) Winery in Maury. This domaine was started by Dave Phinney from Napa Valley who visited the Maury region and fell in love with the terroir. Therefore, he started the winery, and also allows others to craft their wine there as well.

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Maury Wine Lunch at Cellar D66 in Roussillon, France

Tasting of Maury Wines from Ten Innovative Producers

Following is a listing of the ten wineries as well as a highlighted wine from each producer that was truly unique and compelling to taste:

  • D66 started by Dave Phinney from Napa Valley- creator of The Prisoner. The wines were poured by Richard Case of Domaine La Pertuisane, who also makes his wines at D66. The highlight wine of D66 was the 2017 Fragile rose, a blend of Grenache Noir with small percentages of Syrah and Carignan. Delicious with floral nose and palate of juicy watermelon.
  • Domaine La Pertuisane represented by Richard Case. Unique labels with cartoons. Wine highlight was 2016 Green Eggs & VIN from a single old vineyard that was a blend of Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Mourvèdre and Alicante. Therefore, blend of white and red grapes, vines estimated to be 70 to 80 years old. Aromatic nose with mixed berries, minerality, complexity and a very long finish.
  • Domaine Thunevin-Calvet represented by John Roger Calvet. A partnership with John Luc Thunevin from Bordeaux. Wines were all fresh and elegant with well integrated oak. Highlight was 2018 L’amourette Blanc – 100% Grenache Gris, fresh with citrus, minerality, complexity, and juicy acidity.
  • Domaine de Lavail Winery represented by Nicholas Battle. Highlight was 2018 Ballade made from 100% old vine white Carignan. Quite unique with floral nose, textured palate, and long lively finish.
  • Domaine Clos de Rey represented by Julien Montagné, who won the award for the most passionate winemaker at the tasting, as he showed everyone his vineyards from an IPad and waxed poetic about the wines. His enthusiasm was contagious and all of the wines tasted fabulous. The highlight was 2017 L’Epistaca, which was a single vineyard 100% old vine Grenache. Lightly colored, medium bodied, elegant with bright berry nose followed by raspberry and lavender on the palate.
  • SCV Les Vignerons de Maury were represented by Thierry Cazach. The highlight was a 2006 Maury VDN, which was Carmel in color, oxidized, and very delicious with dried apricot, orange rind, viscous body, and very long sweet finish.
  • Domaine does Soulanes represented by Daniel Lafitte. Highlight was 2017 Sarrat del Mas a blend of Grenache Noir, Carignan and Syrah. Classic style of mixed berries, earth, tar, and structured tannins.  Great food wine. Biologique.
  • Domaine Pouderox represented by Robert Pouderoux. Highlight was 2012 LaMouraine, a blend of 60% Grenache Noir and 40%Syrah. Fermented in foudre. Black berries, tar, earth, structured tannins, with a cleaning acid. All of his wines had big tannins, lots of texture and complexity — wines with personality.
  • Domaine Grier represented by Jeff Grier. Highlight was 2018 Grenache Noir which was perfumed with floral and raspberry, no oak, very pure expression – quite lovely and delightful. Made from 45 year old vines.
  • Domaine of the Bee represented by Justin Howard-Sneyd. Highlight was the 2017 Les Genoux, which means “the Knees,” for the saying “the bee’s knees.” This winery focuses on the beauty of bees, how important they are to nature, and seals all of its bottles with natural bees wax, creating a lovely design. Les Genoux is a blend of Grenache Noir and Carignan Noir from 100 year old bush vines in a field blend. It entrances with a milk cherry nose, minerality, and a soft approach on the palate; and then surprises with a touch of salty honey and a cleansing astringent finish.

Novel Wine Lunch at Cellar D66

After the tasting we were treated to a fabulous three course lunch in the cellars of D66.  A long white table with fresh local flowers was set for the more than 30 MWs and vintners in attendance. All of the wines at the tasting, plus a few new ones, were available to pair with the cuisine. The first course was salmon and cucumber with dill on toast, which matched many of the crisp white and rose wines quite well.  The main course was a savory short rib and mashed potato that was the perfect match for all of the structured and earthy reds comprised primarily from syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache noir, and Carignan. Dessert was a delectable chocolate tart with a single red cherry from Ceret.  This was delightful with the numerous sweet Maurys and VDNs available. A highlight was a bottle of 1999 Maury produced by Domaine Lavail. A truly memorable luncheon and tasting.

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Sweet Maury Dessert Wine with Chocolate Tart

Ten Fun Facts About Roussillon Wine

(Originally published in Winebusiness.com )

For most wine lovers the region of Roussillon brings to mind fortified sweet wines. Located in the far south of France, snuggled next to the Spanish border, Roussillon is often referred to as the “Other French Rivera,” and has a similar sunny Mediterranean climate as Provence. This allows the more than 420 wineries and 29 cooperatives that operate in the region to produce a wide variety of wines. However, over the last decade they have begun to focus more on dry wines with a fresh fruit-forward style, while still maintaining the heritage of the ancient fortified sweet wines that were lauded by generations of kings.

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White Sandy Beaches of Roussillon, France

Map of Roussillon

Wine Appellations of Roussillon

As Roussillon emerges as an independent wine region of its own, slowly attempting to disassociate itself with the larger Languedoc wine region to the northeast, surprising facts about its grapes, climate, history and terroir are coming to light. Here are ten facts about Roussillon wine that may surprise you:

  1. 80% Dry Wines – even though Roussillon is known around the world for its famous fortified sweet wines called Vin Doux Naturel (VDN), it is now producing a higher percentage of dry wines to cater to current global preferences for less sugar in wine.
  2. Grenache of Three Colors – Roussillon claims to be the oldest home of Grenache in France, and indeed 38% of their production is Grenache. What is fascinating, however, is they specialize in three colors of Grenache: Noir, Blanc, and Gris. From this they produce delicious dry white, red, and rosé wines, as well as their legendary sweet wines.
  3. Highest Percentage of Organic Wines – due to its unique climate with 316 days of sun, 22 inches of rainfall and beneficial winds, Roussillon has the highest percentage of organic and biodynamic vineyards in France by hectare, according to the Vins Du Roussillon Wine Council.
  4. White Beaches and Snow-capped Mountains – part of what makes Roussillon unique is its typography. Shaped like an amphitheater the region has 60 kilometers (37 miles) of coastline, including long white sandy beaches and steep hillsides covered with vines descending to the sea. In the background tower the snow-capped Pyrenees and the Corbieres Mountains with vineyards dotting the lower hillsides. All of this combines to create a dramatic and spectacularly beautiful wine region.
  5. Three Rivers and Eight Winds – Flowing down from the high mountains are three rivers that rush to the sea. Along the way they feed the vineyards and many vegetable farms and fruit orchards, as well as create a perfect climate for wine growing. This is supported by winds that come from eight different directions that help to keep the climate more dry and reduce mildew pressure, allowing for more successful organic farming.
  6. 28 Centuries of Winegrowing – the Phoenicians brought wine grapes to the shores of Roussillon in 624 BC, heralding 28 centuries of winegrowing “know how” in the region.
  7. VDN Wine of Kings – in the year 1285 at the court of the King of Majorca, a doctor names Arnau de Vilanova developed a process to add spirits to wine to stop the fermentation. This resulted in sweet wines that could age for decades and travel the world. Roussillon became famous for its sweet VDN wines made from Grenache and Muscat. They were highly coveted by the kings of Aragon, Majorca, and France.
  8. Ruscino and Red Soil – the name “Roussillon” is derived from two sources. The first is the prehistoric houses that were found on the site of its capital city, Perpignan. These small structures were called “Ruscinos.” The second source is the red soil that is found in many of the vineyards, including red clay, schist, and limestone. The term “Rousse” is a shade of red in French and “sillon” means furrow.
  9. 24 Grape Varieties – though Roussillon is most famous for its three colors of Grenache grapes, it grows 24 grape varieties of which 17 are dedicated for AOP (top appellation) wines. From these, they specialize in red blends made from Red Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre and Syrah, as well as white blends primarily produced from Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Macabeo.
  10. Award Winning Wines – Roussillon has received numerous top ratings and awards for both its sweet and dry wines from Decanter, Wine Spectator, Wine Advocate and many other wine critics. In 2019 its capital city of Perpignan was named European City of Wine.

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A Vineyard in Roussillon, France

Roussillon – Also a Popular Tourist Destination for Beaches, Cuisine & Art

In addition to these ten interesting facts, Roussillon continues to be a popular tourist destination with thousands of visitors arriving every year to enjoy the sunny beaches, hike in the mountains, and explore historic castles. Charming towns such as Banyuls, Collioure, and Ceret, which attracted famous artists such as Picasso, Matisse, and Dali, delight visitors with their museums, cafes, and shops. And of course, the cuisine of Roussillon, with a focus on fresh seafood, vegetables, and fruit, often prepared with a Catalon influence, pair beautifully with the chilled dry white and rose wines, the structured and earthy red blends, followed by a delicious sweet VDN for cheese and dessert.

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Charming Seaside Town of Collioure in Roussillon, France

 

Happy Dining in Roussillon, France