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

 

Five Famous Wineries to Visit in Roussillon

In May of 2019, I was fortunate enough to tour the Roussillon wine region for five days and taste more than 100 different wine brands. Though Roussillon is most famous for its Grenache grapes (see below), it is also well-known for Muscat, Syrah, Carignan, and produces at least 20 other varietals. Altogether Roussillon has over 420 wineries and 29 cooperatives.

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Beautiful Hillside Vineyards by the Sea in Roussillon

The Four Colors of Roussillon Grenache

It is worth taking a minute to describe the four different colors/flavors of Grenache in Roussillon, because this is their signature grape. These descriptions were provided by Eric Aracil, Deputy Director of the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon, who explained this while we were standing in a vineyard examining the various types of Grenache:

  • Grenache Blanc brings floral, pear, sometimes peach, and a touch of green dill to the wine.
  • Grenache Gris provides a twist of citrus, gunpowder, and structure.
  • Grenache Noir is known for its fresh, fruity raspberry, cherry, and plum notes.
  • Blue Grenache (also known as hairy Grenache because the leaves are hairy underneath) has blue red grapes and provides structure, fig, guava and a touch of iron or blood notes.
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Exploring Old Vine Grenache Vineyards in Roussillon

Five Famous Roussillon Wineries

Domaine Gauby – Located in the tiny town of Calce, Domaine Gauby is a truly authentic expression of Roussillon soil.  Using biodynamic principles of farming and winemaking, Gerard Gauby is passionate about the land and expressing the true terroir and vintage variations. He took us on a walk through the old vineyards, of which he owns 40 hectares, including some 90 year old Grenache vines. It was a beautiful spring morning, with many wildflowers between the vines and wild birds overhead. Afterwards we tasted numerous wines and had a delicious lunch in the modest cellars. I was especially impressed with the vibrancy of his white wines, with a zesty energy and pure mineral streak running through the wines. Two of my favorites were: 2018 Jasse Orange Wine – a dry Muscat, with apricot, lemon, and minerality – absolutely delicious! 2018 Calcinaires Blanc – fresh, zesty, textured, made from a blend of Vermentino, Chardonnay, and Grenache Blanc.

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Tasting in the Cellars of Domaine Gauby

Mas Amiel Winery – this is one winery that no wine lover should miss. Located in the Maury wine region of Roussillon, I was blown away by the field of VND wines aging in demi-johns (called bon bons) in the bright sun. They leave them there for one year, before moving back into the 130 old cellars to age in giant wooden foudres for anywhere from 10 to 40 years in an oxidative fashion. Truly amazing! We were told that the VDN’s (Vin Doux Natural) are made from 70% Grenache as the flesh, with some Carignan as the Skeleton and Syrah as the Muscles – an intriguing analogy. The winery itself has a modern tasting room and design, with older outbuildings. Altogether they have 145 hectares of vines, produce 35,000 cases annually and are certified organic, moving towards biodynamic. We tasted 12 wines here (both dry and sweet), and the highlights for me were: 2016 MA Sec Legende Maury made from 80% Grenache Noir and 20% Carignan with the grapes coming from a 1949 vineyard; and notes of fresh raspberry jam with a textured palate. The MA Maury 40 Year Fortified – made from 100% Grenache and fortified to 16%, this wine started with a floral lifted nose, then enticed with dried orange peel, spice, caramel, and a long elegant finish.

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Magnificent Field of Sweet VDN Wine Aging in the Sun

Lafage Winery – Started by Jean-Marc Lafage, who grew up in the region, but traveled around the world to work in other wineries until he realized that Roussillon was the ideal place to establish a winery. Therefore, he returned to build a world class winery and implement his theme of “restless innovation” to create a line of fascinating wine brands.  The winery is located very close to the ocean outside the town of Perpignan, so it is easy to find. Altogether they have 200 hectares of vineyards, are certified sustainable, produce over 2 million bottles per year, and export 75% of their production to 30 countries. Considered to be one of the major wine players in Roussillon, this is an important winery to visit, and we enjoyed the tour of the modern cellars and tasting room. We tasted 10 wines here, and two favorites for me were: Centenaire 2018 White Sec – very aromatic, textured, medium-bodied white blend with juicy lemon and white peach, long and lovely. Domaine Lafage Miraille 2016 – made with Grenache and Mourvèdre, this wine had a lifted violet nose, mixed black fruit, velvety tannins, good concentration, a hint of anise and earth; rich, long and warm to the finish.

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Modern Cellars of Lafage Winery in Roussillon

Domaine Cazes – established in 1895, I was delighted by the Mediterranean design of this winery with stucco walls, tiles, flowers, fountains and palm trees. Located near the ocean in the town of Rivesaltes, it boasts a small charming tasting room as well as restaurant, and they have won prizes for wine tourism. Altogether, they have 185 hectares of organic and biodynamic vines, and focus production on 25% sweet wines. Their icon brand is Le Credo – a massive red blend designed to age for years and inspired by the wines of Priorat. The wine actually has its own “throne room” at the winery. The family also owns two other wineries in Roussillon. We tasted seven wines here and highlights for me were: Cap Bear 2018 Grenache Gris – great acidy, zippy, mineral citrus, fresh and lovely; and Aime Cazes 1978 AOP Rivesaltes – a 22 year old sweet tawny with apricot, gingerbread, and lemon peel – yum! Le Credo 2012 – made from old vines circa 1900, this wine was filled with savory notes, black fruit, peppery, earth and anise; massive tannins, textured, long, and concentrated.

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Inner Courtyard of Domaine Cazas Winery

Chateau Valmy – this winery looks like a fairy-tale castle with its big beautiful chateau set high on a hill overlooking the ocean. Located a few miles outside the charming seaside village of Collioure, Chateau Valmy was originally built in 1900, but fell into disrepair and “slept until 1995” when it was resurrected by the new owners. Today they have 25 hectares of vineyards, produce 120,000 bottles and sell 60% direct to consumer. This is because they are a very popular wine tourism location, known for not only their delicious wines and great ocean views, but also for the summer concerts that have been known to attract more than 10,000 people to hear the music of bands such as Santana.  We tasted 8 wines here, and two of my favorites were: Première Rose de Valmy 2017 – fresh strawberries, light and elegant; made from 100% Grenache, Subtils Privilèges de Valmy – a sparkling wine made of Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, 9 months aging in bottle, with floral top note and textured pear with lemon finish.

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The Splendid Chateau Valmy Winery in Roussillon. Photo Credit: Xaviateur

Seven Small Family Wineries to Visit in the Umpqua Valley of Oregon

The small family winery is alive and well in the fairytale Umpqua Valley. Often overlooked with the mad rush to the Willamette Valley just one hour north, or the warmer Rogue and Applegate Valleys of Southern Oregon, the Umpqua wine region is located in the center of Oregon where two rivers converge into one of the most picturesque mountain valleys in the West. The word “Umpqua” is based on the Native Americans who lived in the area, and is thought to mean “thundering waters.”

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The Umpqua Valley of Oregon – View from Cooper’s Ridge Winery

The main town is Roseburg, with a population of 22,000, and is a great place to stay for a few nights while checking out the local wineries. Roseburg has a charming old downtown district complete with hometown shops and restaurants. Two of the great restaurants we visited were True Kitchen where some of the food is served in a skillet, including one of the best ice cream desserts I ever had, as well as Parrot House, located on the outskirts of Roseburg in a beautiful old Victorian House.

About Umpqua Valley Wine Region

With a winegrowing history from the 1880’s when Germans first brought vines to the region, today there are over 30 wineries and 1500 acres of vineyards in the Umpqua Valley. Most of the wineries are small friendly family-run wineries focusing on Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Tempranillo and Riesling, but also experimenting with many other grape varietals. I had a chance to visit for three days during the Greatest of the Grape Celebration, and was pleased to stop by and taste at the following seven wineries — all located within a short 20 to 30 minute drive of Roseburg. A map of the wine trails can be found HERE.

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Location of Umpqua Valley in Oregon. Photo Credit: OregonWine

Seven Umpqua Valley Wineries to Visit (Listed in Alphabetical Order)

Abacela – probably one of the largest and most famous wineries of the Umpqua Valley, Abacela produces around 10,000 cases and owns 77 acres of vines with 17 varieties planted. Owners Earl and Hilda Jones, great fans of Rioja, had a vision to establish a winery that could produce world-class tempranillo, along with other Spanish varieties such as Albarino.  They found the perfect location a few miles outside the town of Roseburg. Today their tasting room is large and filled with wine lovers who are attracted to their many award winning wines. This was my second visit to Abacela, and once again I was impressed by the wines, as well as the beautiful vineyard and picnic grounds just outside the door. Two of my favorites this time were the 2018 Albarino with refreshing lemon-lime notes, minerality and crisp acidity, as well as the 2008 Ten-Year Colheita Port made from the five classic port grapes in a tawny style with caramel, fig and a faint touch of cherries – truly mesmerizing and delicious.

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Hilda & Earl Jones of Abacela Winery. Photo Credit: Abacela.com

Bradley Vineyards – with vineyards first planted in 1983, the Bradley family were one of the first to plant grape vines in this upper region of the Umpqua Valley, and still sell grapes to many of the local wineries. Located in Elkton, their small winery is north of the central town of Roseburg. Producing only 1000 cases, the young winemaker, Tyler Bradley, enjoys experimenting with natural winemaking. From this he crafts a delicious 2018 Pet Nat Riesling, with a fresh floral nose, juicy white peach, nectarine, lemon and tiny bubbles. Another great wine was his 2017 Aligote with a bone dry palate of lemon, mineral and juicy acidity on a long and complex finish.

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Tyler Bradley of Bradley Vineyards

Brandborg Vineyards – one of the larger and more well-known wineries of the Umpqua, Brandborg was established by the very friendly and fun husband/wife team of Terry and Sue Brandborg. They specialize in award-winning single vineyard Pinot Noir, producing around 8500 cases annually, of which they sell 30% direct to consumer in their charming tasting room located in the little town of Elkton. A great place to stop by and taste wine, and then have lunch across the street at Tomaselli’s. Two of my favorites here were the 2014 Pinot Noir Ferris Wheel Estate with a seductive floral nose with a core of sweet raspberry, cola and earth on the palate. The 2015 Riesling was also extremely delicious with classic diesel, juicy peach, star fruit, and refreshing acidity. Yum!

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Terry & Sue Brandborg of Brandborg Vineyards

Cooper’s Ridge – Nestled in a beautiful valley with a great deck overlooking a magnificent view, Cooper’s Ridge is just a short drive out of Roseburg. Owned by Robin and Lesa Ray, the winery is named after their son, Cooper. They produce 2500 cases from 12 acres of vineyards, with seven different varietals. What makes this winery unique is the fact that they have become a community center for people to gather after work, have a glass of wine and appetizer, and enjoy the lovely view on the deck. This is because they stay open until 7pm.  Two of my favorites here were the 2016 Gruner Vetliner with ripe pear, clover and a hint of marmalade on the semi-sweet finish, as well as the 2015 Reserve Merlot with classic cassis, fruitcake, spicy oak and good concentration.

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Robin & Lisa Rey of Cooper’s Ridge Winery

Delfino Vineyards – with a last name that means “dolphin,” Terri and Jim Delfino adopted this symbol as the logo for their darling winery situated a few miles outside the town of Roseberg. Also sporting small guest cottages and a beautiful pond near the vineyards, this small winery is a relaxing place to visit and enjoy a glass of wine on the lawn. With 18 acres of vines, the Delfinos sell some of their grapes, but maintain enough to produce 1000 cases. My favorites here were the 2016 Tempranillo with a floral nose, notes of black cherry and tea followed by velvety tannins with very long finish; and the 2015 Forza – a dessert wine similar to a port made from Tempranillo with dark fruit, black chocolate and a rich long satisfying finish.

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Jim & Terri Delfino of Delfino Vineyards

Marsh Anne Landing – “Grenache sings here,” states Greg Cramer the owner of Marsh Anne Winery. Named by combining his middle name of “Marsh” and his wife’s middle name of “Anne,” this charming little family winery employs a “Space and Martian” theme, using images from the Hubble telescope on many of their labels. “The photos are actually in the public domain,” explains Greg. Producing only 700 cases per year, they sell all of their wine direct to consumers from the winery. With 17 acres of vineyards in back of the winery, it is a relaxing place to stop to taste wine or attend their summer jazz wine concerts and view their art collection. Two of my favorites here were the 2015 GSM with 70% bright and cheerful red Grenache bursting with cherries and berries, as well as an elegant 2015 Cabernet Franc with a perfumed violet nose and earthy black fruit.

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Greg Cramer of Marsh Anne Landing

Melrose Vineyards – this winery was managed by some of the friendliest people I’ve met in a long time. Situated in an old barn overlooking the vineyards, owner Wayne Parker rode up on his tractor to greet us. With over 200 acres of vineyards, Wayne primarily sells most of his crop to other wineries, but keeps enough back to produce 5000 cases per year. Two of my favorite wines here were the 2012 Parker’s Pinot Noir which was a big bold pinot brimming with red cherry, root beer, and cinnamon, and the 2015 Baco Noir with ripe jammy marion-berry, juicy acidity, and a long delicious finish.

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Wayne Parker of Melrose Vineyards with Sister-in-Law Janelle Parker

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Beautiful Old Oregon Barn – Tasting Room of Melrose Vineyards

Which Famous Global Wine Region Prohibits Swearing in the Vineyard?

(June 2019) Though vineyards can be very beautiful with their lush green foliage and jewel-like clusters of grapes, anyone who has worked amongst the vines knows that it can be back-breaking work with long hours of suckering, thinning, and sculpturing the vines.  Obviously on certain occasions, this could result in some exhausted workers letting loose a few swear words. However, there is one famous wine region of the world where the vineyards were considered to be so sacred and a gift from God that anyone caught cussing could be fined.

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Sacred Vineyards of Tokaj, Hungary

“The fine was actually doubled if you were a noble man,” explained Dr. Peter Molnar, General Manager of Patricius Winery and President of the Council of Tokaj.  Yes, the region was Tokaj, Hungary, and the timing was probably between 1631, when the sweet noble wine of Tokaj was said to be discovered, through the mid 1700’s, when the Church held so much dominance over the region.

“Our special Tokaj Aszu and Eszencia wines were coveted by kings, queens, and priests,” stated Peter. “From the beginning, these wines were so special that they were considered to be the wines of royalty.” Still called “liquid gold or liquid luxury today,” the rarest Eszencia’s are only produced in special years, each single berry picked individually by hand, and are so expensive that they are often served in a crystal spoon.

Tokaj Eszencia in Crystal Spoons

Tokaj Eszencia Served in Crystal Spoon

Given this background, it only makes sense that swearing in the vineyard was outlawed.  Indeed the “vineyard was like a church” and they had to be protected. This may be why Catherine II of Russia sent members of her royal army to guard the vineyards for more than 90 years. Yes, the history of the Tokaj region is rich, fascinating, and delicious.

Historical Tokaj Tasting at Buena Vista Winery

I heard all of these fascinating stories from Peter Molnar when I attended a historical winetasting at Buena Vista Winery in Sonoma, California on June 22, 2019. Peter, along with a delegation of Hungarian dignitaries, winery executives and guests, all enjoyed a tasting of four exquisite wines: a dry Furmint and 2008 Aszu under the Buena Vista label, but produced in partnership with the Patricius Winery in Hungary, and two rare Eszencias.

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Tokaj Wines Served at Historical Buena Vista Winery Tasting

Tokaj Eszencia is a special wine only made in certain years when the conditions are right to produce grapes of great sweetness in the small village of Tokaj in Hungary. Then it is aged in small demi-johns for years where it only ferments to about 5% alcohol, creating a drink of exquisite sweetness with notes of honey, apricot, marmalade and brown sugar. According Peter, it has excellent health properties with beneficial anti-oxidants. In the old days, it was used as medicine and served in a small spoon.

Buena Vista winery, owned by Jean-Charles Boisset, established this special partnership with Tokaj, Hungary to celebrate the history of Buena Vista, which is California’s oldest premium winery formed in 1863 by the Hungarian Count Agoston Haraszthy.

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A Photo with Dr. Peter Molnar, President of the Council of Tokaj

The “Terroir Whisperer” at Domaine de Villaine in Bouzeron, Burgundy

(May 27, 2019) It was only a 45 minute drive from my hotel in Vougeot to the small village of Bouzeron in the Côte Chalonnaise where I had a 10am appointment at Domaine de Villaine. I was greeted by winemaker, Pierre de Villaine, a slim man with a goatee and calm grey eyes. Even since tasting his Aligote several years ago in Beaune, I have been wanting to meet him, because he has an intriguing reputation of being a “terroir whisperer,” with strong beliefs in the benefits of organic and biodynamic farming, as well as the use of numerology to impact wine quality and energy.

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Entrance to Domaine de Villaine in Bouzeron, Burgundy

About Domaine de Villaine

The winery was started in 1971 by Aubert de Villaine, also general manager of Domaine de la Romanee Conti. Located in the village of Bouzeron in the Cote de Chalonnaise, Domaine de Villaine is a classic small Burgundian winery famous for focusing on Aligote – Burgundy’s other white grape, as well as the traditional Chardonnay and Pinot noir. Today they produce around 110,000 bottles per year, and own 30 hectares, as well as hold a lease on 6 more hectares. They focus on the appellations of Bouzeron, Satenay and Rully.

In 2001, Aubert persuaded his grandson, Pierre de Villaine, to take over daily operations. At first reluctant to leave his job as a lawyer in Paris, Pierre eventually got “infected by the wine bug” and agreed to take over as General Manager. He became fascinated by organic and biodynamic farming, as well as ancient numerology.

A Unique Cellar Designed According to the Divine Number

Pierre explained that they expanded the winery in 2015 to include a state of the art cellar based on the numerology wisdom of the ancient Egyptians, as well as the writings of Leonardo da Vinci. The ceiling of the cellar is filled with graceful arches “designed to link the ground to the sky,” and built according to the divine number of God, which is 1.618. The Great Pyramid of Khufu was also designed according to this number. This was all news to me, and is the first wine cellar I’ve ever visited that has been designed in this fashion. However, I looked it up online, and discovered that this is well-documented. See more information HERE.

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Barrel Cellar Designed According to the Divine Number

Winemaking at Domaine de Villaine

We toured the cellars first, and I was surprised to learn that Pierre ferments and ages all of his white wines, Aligote and Chardonnay, in large neutral oak foudres – meaning the whites are primarily unoaked with loads of pure fruit and terroir expression. He explained that the reason he does this is because the CO2 gases inside the foudres move around the wine forming an eternity pattern like the figure “8”, which is better for the wine and provides a higher level of energy.

Whites are produced in a non-interventionist fashion with a gentle pressing and then settling out in stainless steel tank overnight, before transfer to the large wooden foudres where they ferment with natural yeast and age on the gross lees for 12 to 14 months. In general he does not do battonage, but tops the tanks as needed. Minor additions of SO2 are made so that the total usually results in 25 to 35 mg/l – very low for white wine.

Pinot noirs are made in the traditional Burgundian fashion with fermentation in large open top oak barrels, pigeage twice a day, and then transfer to and aging in 30 to 40% new French oak for 12 to 18 months. Pierre said they usually do around 60% whole cluster. Again natural yeast is used, and very minimal SO2 — usually around 25 mg/l total for reds.

Before bottling both whites and reds spend time in a stainless steel blending tanks to marry wines from different plots and/or vineyards. This can last several weeks to several months. Then the wine is bottled and left to rest in bottle for a while before being sold around the world. Pierre said they export 65% of the wine to multiple countries, with the rest sold to restaurants and fine wine shops in France. In the US, Kermit Lynch is their importer.

Foudres for White Wines and Large Wooden Vats for Red Wines

Linking the Four Energies

Pierre spoke with passion about metaphysical properties that go into producing the wine. He explained that there are four energies that need to work together to allow both the fruit and the terroir to shine in the wine. These are: mineral energy, water energy, animal energy and vegetable energy. He said some of this is based on the ancient Celtic philosophies.

Though I did not understand a lot of his explanations, I could taste how everything seemed to come together in the wines. Both the whites and reds were vibrant, with amazing aromatics as well as ripe fruit and complex earthy terroir notes. Where oak was used, it was well-integrated, and all of the wines had both texture and energy. Following are my tasting notes and scores:

  • 2017 Bouzeron Aligote – very aromatic with lemon zest and minerals notes on palate with a touch of salinity; textured with a refreshing zippy acidity and a light finish. Delicate and delightful – 91
  • A side note on Aligote. Pierre explained that the only AOP for Aligote is Bouzeron. At the domain they use a 115 year old clone of Aligote that is pre-phylloxera. He has created a nursery to continue the cultivate the clone because the vine is already well-adapted to the terroir. It is “ massal selection,” and grows well on the hillside vineyards composed of limestone, clay and silt.
  • 2017 Cote Chalonnaise Les Clous Aime – 100% Chardonnay from multiple vineyards, pale straw in color with nose of honeysuckle, apple and lemon. Very fresh and juicy with enticing texture on the palate and zesty acidity. A wine of great energy and happiness – 92
  • 2017 Rully Les Saint Jacques – 100% Chardonnay from single vineyard. Aromatic floral nose, fresh kiwi on palate with a long juicy grapefruit finish and a touch of salt. Wow! This wine has lots of energy and personality. Pierre said it shows a “memory of the sea” that existed in the area in the past. Fell in love with this wine, but they were sold out – 95
  • 2016 Rully Premier Cru Les Margots – 100% Chardonnay from single vineyard. Ripe yellow apple on nose with creaminess on palate; rich and seductive with wet stone notes and a juicy high acid finish. Pierre said this wine is “digesting the fruit and letting the terroir come through…but the wine decides when it wants to do this.” – 92
  • 2017 Cote Chalonnaise La Digoine – 100% Pinot Noir from a monopoly vineyard. Very pale ruby color with a perfumed nose that reached out a hand to pull you down to a raspberry body with electric flashes of minerality. Light bodied and elegant but with exciting energy – very intriguing. 93
  • 2016 Rully Premier Cru Les Champs Cloux – 100% Pinot Noir from a single vineyard. Medium ruby purple; closed nose; black cherry and rhubarb palate; concentrated; tannic and young. Needs more time – 90 (Note: Pierre said I should come back to taste this wine the next day when it would have had the time to open up.)
  • 2016 Santenay Premier Cru Passetemps– ripe red maraschino cherry nose and palate; dipped in delicious dirt, with velvety tannins, rounded and concentrated body, and a long finish. A big and satisfying wine – 94
  • 2007 Aligote Domaine de Villaine – golden hue with pink tinge, butterscotch nutty nose, fresh and juicy on the palate with complex straw, oatmeal and a hint of white pepper on a long dry finish – 92
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Two of My Favorite Wines at Domaine de Villaine

Concluding Thoughts

This was a delightful visit and tasting, and Pierre was the ultimate gentleman host. I requested to purchase two bottles of wine to take home. Since I had already purchased the Aligote at the Hospices de Beaune wine shop, I decided to opt for a Chardonnay and Pinot noir that I thought could fit in my suitcase (later had to pay a penalty to Air France because my suitcase was too heavy). Since the Rully Saint Jacques Chardonnay was sold out, I opted for the 2017 Cote Chalonnaise Les Clous Aime, which I found delightful — especially since Pierre told me it was the local name for a happy wine.

I had already fallen in love with the monopole 2017 Cote Chalonnaise La Digoine, so I purchased this as well. It is rare that you can find such a light-bodied Pinot noir with so much character and flavor. The last one I had was a very expensive Faiveley. Pierre validated my choice by telling me a story of a famous British wine critic who had come to dinner at the domaine years ago to dine with Aubert and his wife. Aubert served an old La Digoine with an old DRC Echezeaux Grand Cru. At the end of the dinner, the wine critic admitted he had mixed up the two wines and thought La Digoine was the Echezeaux.

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The Winery Dog at Domaine de Villaine – Actually Quite Friendly!