Aurora Winery – A Disneyland of Sparkling Wine in Southern Brazil

(June 2018) It was raining lightly when we arrived at Aurora Winery in the town of Bento Gonçalves in southern Brazil. However, this did not matter because as soon as we entered the wide double doors we were transported into one of the top wine tourism experiences of the country. Beautiful women dressed in long red gowns from the glory days of 1800’s Brazil welcomed us with gentle smiles and gestured for us to enter the massive wine cellars.

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Golden Bacchus Statue at Aurora Winery in Brazil

About Aurora Vinicola – Largest Winery Cooperative in Brazil

Established in 1931, Aurora Vinicola (winery) is not only the largest winery in Brazil, producing more than 24 million bottles of wine per year, but is also the largest winery cooperative with 1100 families farming grapes for the venture. The winery pays the farmers 50% more than market price for their grapes at around 50 cents per kilo.  All grapes are hand-harvested from 2900 family vineyards, and the winery operations are certified ISO 9001, 14001, and 22000.

Today the winery employs 457 people, and holds 33% of wine market share in Brazil. In addition they export to 20 countries. Their specialty, like the majority of the wineries in Brazil, is producing sparkling wine, but they also produce some nice still wines as well. Because of their strong reputation, they attract more than 150,000 visitors each year to the winery, and amazingly do not charge a tasting fee. Visitors go on a guided tour with one of the beautiful women in the long red traditional gowns, and then are allowed to taste several wines along the way – ending in the very large wine shop so they can purchase something to take home.

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Tour Guide at Aurora Winery in Traditional Red Gown

A Winery Tour with Head Winemaker, Flavio Zilio

We were honored to have head winemaker, Flavio Zilio, export manager, Rosana Pasini, and enologist, Vitor Mizevski, escort us on a private tour through the massive cellars. The tanks were so tall in some rooms, that it seemed as if we were walking through a forest of giant trees. They had also maintained a museum of their original wooden tanks made from brazilwood, though they no longer use them to age wine.

                                                            Flavio and Rosana at Aurora Winery

Flavio allowed us to taste some of the base chardonnay wine from tanks, and explained that they produce all types of sparkling wines – ranging from traditional method with secondary fermentation in bottle, to charmant, and the Asti method. I was impressed to learn that they actually make sparkling Asti muscat wines all year long. Flavio said that fermentation lasts anywhere from 7 to 20 days, and they use nitrogen and CO2 to minimize oxygen impact.

As we explored the massive cellars, I was pleased to see many tour groups, as well as magnificent golden statues of Bacchus and grape chandeliers.

Tasting of the Wines of Aurora

We had a wonderful tasting of 13 different wines, along with an informative presentation. Everything was very professional, and I ended up identifying several wines that I thought were exceptional:

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Professional Wine Tasting at Aurora Winery in Brazil

  • Aurora 2018 Reserve Rosé   – made with merlot and tannat, it was very crisp and fresh with notes of cranberry and lemon. A very sophisticated rosé, it reminded me a bit of a dry cosmopolitan.  90 points
  • Aurora Prosecco NV – made in the charmant method, this was a classic sparkler with floral nose, white nectarine, and made from the prosecco grape grown in Brazil. Fresh and satisfying. 89 points.
  • Aurora 2017 Chardonnay Procedencias – complex toasty nose with lemon brule on a creamy palate. Aged 6 months in French oak, it was very enjoyable. Procendencias means “origins.” 91 points
  • Aurora Pinto Banderia Extra Brut NV – made in the traditional method, aged 24 months on the lees, this complex sparkling wine was filled with green apple, yeast, and a very high acid. Extremely refreshing, lemon-lime on palate with a very long finish. 60% chardonnay, 30% pinot noir, and 10% Italian Riesling. 92 points
  • Aurora Sparkling Moscatel – simple and very pleasing with floral, apricot, spice, and honey. Crowd pleaser – perfect for Sunday brunch. 90 points
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Our Group at Aurora Winery in Brazil

Which Top US Wine was Preferred by Chinese Master Class?

(May 2017) Recently I was asked to teach a Master class in Shanghai, China entitled “Top Wines of America.” It was scheduled from 7 to 9pm at the Hyatt Regency, and all 34 seats in the class were filled with young Chinese wine professionals. Most were working in the industry as wine retailers, marketers, or educators. There were also a few importers and winemakers in the class.

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Participants in Top US Wine Master Class in Shanghai, China

The hosts of the Wine100 Competition organized the master class and arranged for the wines to be available for the event. They requested that I select 8 highly rated wine brands that were available in the Chinese market, and that could represent the major wine-producing states of California, Washington, Oregon and New York.

My translator was Melody, who had graduated from the WSET Diploma program, so she knew wine quite well. We began with a 30-minute overview of the history and statistics of American wine, and then spent some time describing the climate and soil of the four major wine regions we would be tasting (See Powerpoint below, which includes Chinese translation).

Wine100 Masterclass on American Wines by DRLizThachMW

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Line Up of Top US Wines for Master Class

Line-Up of Top 8 American Wines

We tasted through the following eight wines, and then I asked everyone to vote by a show of hand for their two favorites. Following are the results:

  1. Forge Dry Riesling 2015 New York Finger Lakes = 3
  2. Kistler Vine Hill Vineyard Chardonnay 2013, Russian River = 11
  3. Domaine Serene Evenstad Reserve Pinot Noir 2013 = 13
  4. Kosta Browne Pinot Noir 2014 Gap’s Crown Vineyard Vineyard = 11
  5. Turley Old Vine Zinfandel 2015 = 6
  6. Opus One 2012 = 10
  7. Harlan The Maiden 2000 = 8
  8. Cayuse Syrah 2010, Cailloux Vineyard = 6

The Winning Wine from Oregon

So Domaine Serene Pinot Noir from Oregon ended up edging out the others by a couple of points. Though this wasn’t a scientific poll in anyway, and cannot be generalized, it was interesting to see the results.  They reflect an observation that was shared with me before arriving in China: that younger Chinese are beginning to show a penchant for pinot noir, over the more tannic cabernet blends that their parents usually drink. So perhaps we are starting to see a shift in palate preferences….

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My Two Brilliant Translators – Anita and Melody

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Royal Welcome to the Chateau

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

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Sonoma State University Wine Business Students Visiting Domaine Carneros

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

Domaine Carneros – A Rare All-Estate Sparkling House

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

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

A Brief Tour of the Winemaking Facilities

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

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Learning About Riddling Racks

Impressive Sustainability Practices and Large Array of Solar Panels

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

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Solar Panel Array at Domaine Carneros

An Elegant Tasting in the Chateau Society Club Room

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

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Tasting with Elaine in Chateau Society Club Room

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

For our tasting, Eileen shared:

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

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

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

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Some of the Wines of Domaine Carneros

Sparkling Grape Juice Provided for My Under-21 Students

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

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

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

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Non-Alcoholic Bubbly at Domaine Carneros