Category Archives: Travel

Tasting “Sonoma Strong”

 

Sonoma County has experienced tragedy from the recent fires.  There was loss of life and property and we all see areas of scorched earth where beauty once prevailed. The land will recover and the community has begun the healing process with an outpouring of community support.

Staff at Merry Edwards Winery

Thanks to the efforts of firefighters and other public service personnel, most of the landscape remains unchanged, including our famous vineyards.  Sonoma County is open for business and the experience of great wine, food and natural beauty is very much intact. The following recommendations are intended to deliver it all for a memorable day-trip.

The first stop is a late morning reserved tasting at Limerick Lane Cellars, named for their street of origin, on property south of Healdsburg.  Since the Limerick Lane

Limerick Lane Winery

Zinfandel Russian River Valley 2012 (94-pt) placed #12 on Wine Spectator’s 2015 Top 100 list, their wines have become recognizable and highly rated. Currently, visitors can enjoy the 2015 Russian River Valley Zinfandel, the 2015 1910 Block Zinfandel (94-pt),a specialty field blend and the wonderful 2015 Syrah Grenache, a Rhone blend with a pinch of petite sirah added.

There are a plethora of good lunch opportunities in trendy Healdsburg, a few blocks north of Limerick Lane  Two of my favorites are The Shed, offering a delightful farm to table menu and Barndiva, with aesthetic patio dining.

Leaving town and traveling west, Healdsburg Road, passing over  Highway 101, soon intersects with the iconic Westside Road that weaves through the heart of the Russian River Valley.  Not all estates along Westside Road are open to the public,

Patio tasting at Gary Farrell

but MacRostie Vineyards, Gary Farrell and Thomas George Estates offer special tasting experiences that focus on cool climate chardonnay and pinot noir.  All of their single-vineyard releases feature noted local vineyards like Olivet, Durrell and Wildcat Mountain

They all offer a broad menu of tasting experiences, held in modish settings, that are

Gary Farrell Chardonnay Durrell Vineyard 2013

both exceptional and pricey.  Indulge yourselves while enjoying fine wines like the 2014 Gary Farrell Durrell Vineyard Chardonnay Sonoma Valley (94-pt). Reservations are required at each.

The continuing drive along Westside Road is a virtual feast for the eyes, passing through gorgeous redwoods, oaks and vineyards like Allen, Bacigalupi and Bucher that source grapes to many of the valley’s producers.  As with previous vintages, the medium-bodied 2015 Williams Selyem Westside Road Neighbors Pinot Noir, sourced from these and other nearby vineyards, has a rich mouthfeel with berry and spice flavors that pair well with my palate.

Hacienda Bridge

Driving south along Westside Road requires crossing the one-way Hacienda Bridge that affords splendid views of the Russian River. Soon, Westside becomes Wohler Road moving south to River Road, toward the Highway 116 wineries.  This is a good time set your GPS for Merry Edwards Winery on Gravenstein Highway North (116) near Sebastopol.

With consistent great releases from an iconic winemaker, poured in a private setting,

Merry Edwards Winery is unsurpassed. The free tasting treats you to more highly-rated single vineyard pinot noir, chardonnay and something more.  The 2016 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley, as well as previous vintages, is arguably the best sauvignon blanc in California. Stable ratings in the mid-nineties and multiple appearances on Wine Spectator magazines Top 100 Wines List substantiates it’s reputation. Several lees-stirrings and the addition of sauvignon musque adds richness to the complex flavor profile of stone and tropical fruits with expressive mineral notes on the finish.  The golden color and floral aromas alone earned a reserved place in my small cellar.

Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc

Another nearby option is Dutton-Goldfield, serving more chardonnay, pinot noir and the rich, balanced 2014 Dutton-Goldfield Cherry Ridge Vineyard Syrah, using forty-percent whole cluster grapes from a warmer vineyard to create a soft, velvety texture.

Zasu at the Barlow, featuring pork dishes, Jamaican food at Revibe or seafood at Handline provide options for an early dinner in Sebastopol.

Sonoma wineries are surely open for business and many are dedicating profits to help fire victims.  Come enjoy some of the finest wines on the planet and help Sonoma County rebuild itself.  Your taste buds will thank you.

 

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Precious and Fragile

 

October 7, 2017 was not an ordinary Saturday. We joined friends on a fancy tour bus for the ninety minute ride from Santa Rosa to Middletown, then up the mountain to the hydro-thermal power compound known as “The Geysers.”   Returning in the afternoon from Calistoga, the bus drove through the pass that became Mark Springs Road because it was the fastest and most accessible route.

Passing by the entrance to Safari West, an African animal preserve prompted discussion on who had been there

“We were there last month,” I said

Weeks before, in late August, out-of-town guests enthusiastically requested Safari West, a four-hundred-acre African preserve and breeding center, as a top priority during their short visit.  I either never knew or had forgotten that such a place existed northeast of Santa Rosa.  However, I was game and loved being around it.

On a warm morning, we arrived and soon met our guide and jeep driver, Cindy.  With dusty Levi’s, a khaki workshirt and the baked skin of someone who spends their days in our local Serengeti Plain, she was surely a seasoned veteran, comforting to our group.

Cindy explained that we would soon board what looked like a worn World War II surplus jeep retrofitted with a second level of seating for four people above the cab and a long gear shift protruding from the floor to the right of the driver. She  referred to the old jeep as her partner and I had full confidence in both.

First on our day’s agenda, before boarding the jeep, was some intense bird-watching, then viewing primates and predator cats that, for obvious reasons are prohibited from roaming freely among the appreciative prey on the preserve.

I have seen flamingos before, but never heard them make a sound.  We came upon a crowded colony of various shades of pink that, at times, sounded like an entire section of Type-A violinists who played and argued with each other simultaneously.  The crescendo came in waves.  One flamingo would annoy another, others, who I called shamers, would join in to escalate the volume and ferocity of the screeches, lowering their heads and projecting their necks forward like a weapon.  The colony moved from tranquil fluidity to chaotic dysfunction and back again within seconds. Watching their behavior made me think of the parallels between us and them.

After carefully cleaning the bottoms of our shoes, we entered the large aviary.  In trees and on the ground, we were surrounded by scarlet ibis, Argus pheasants, crown cranes,  Stanley cranes and a unique demoiselle crane named Kovu, who literally had no clue that she was a bird.  Some abandoned crane eggs were hatched in an incubator, producing Kovu,

Kovu

who was then hand feed by humans.  During both her formation and formative years, Kovu bonded with people, not cranes or birds at all.

She soon joined our group and participated in the walking tour. She stopped and started walking with us and seemed to enjoy observing these engaging winged creatures that surrounded us.  Cindy pointed out that she has, in the past, taken a particular liking to a specific person, prompting her to raise and spread her wings, strutting around ceremoniously in circles.

Moments later, I stepped back and accidentally nudged Kovu. I apologized.  She stared at me for a instant and then the “love dance” began. I became the one.   She pulled her wings back and, in full display, began to dance in circles just for me. I was embarrassed and flattered at the same time. At my age, it’s nice to have appeal, even by a demoiselle crane who thinks more like a girlfriend than being a bird.

Kovu

“Stand back Kovu.” Cindy delivered the disappointing news to our young friend, who had expectations of leaving the aviary and joining us for the rest of the tour.

After viewing the caged cats and before boarding the jeep, we observed several Black and White Colobus monkeys swinging from branches and moving quickly on the ground. Each one of these gorgeous creatures had a distinct black body with a white cape-like streak down it’s back and a ring of white fur that surrounded their entire face.

Colobus is the Greek word for “mutilate” and unlike any  other primates, these beautiful creatures, genetically, have no thumbs. They are also herbivores with a digestive system that enables the consumption of a variety of leaves, flowers and twigs.  Their sloppy eating habits and digestive systems are said to be vital to seed distribution.  It’s difficult to be neat without thumbs.

“Who wants to sit up top first?” asked Cindy as we boarded the jeep.  A young family of four jumped at the chance and were doubly pleased when we offered them our turn.

Buckled in, we started up the bumpy road.  Entering each section of the preserve required that Cindy stop and exit the jeep, unlock and open a gate, re-enter, start up the vehicle and move a few feet forward, stop and exit once again to lock the gate behind us.  She did this several times during the tour.  After all, this is old school Safari West, not Jurassic Park.

The first series of corrals belonged to five or six large giraffes with enough acreage to roam freely.

Cindy spoke.  “Thirty-six giraffes have been born here and we believe that Jamala, who is celebrating her twentieth birthday today, may be pregnant.”   She definitely was. When she turned, we were all surprised to see parts of two hoofed legs protruding from her.

Cindy quickly grabbed her radio.  “This is Cindy. Are you aware that Jamala is giving birth.”

A voice was transmitted.  “Yes, we’ve been monitoring her the last hour.”

“Does she need help?”

“We’re going to give her some time.”

“I knew that young Rico was up to no good.” Cindy smiled.

“Yeah, he was pretty active in the short time he was here.”

Rico was a nine-year-old male giraffe that was brought into the preserve to stimulate some growth to the herd.  Apparently, his activity level was so high that his stay was shortened.

Not knowing how long the birth process would take, Cindy suggested that we proceed with our tour but quickly return after any updates.

In the next minutes we encountered ostriches, water buffalo, varieties of antelopes and an interesting zebra dynamic.  We came upon three female zebras, standing side by side, intently observing a young male eating.

Admiring giraffes

“They shunned and were downright  mean to him when he first arrived,” said Cindy, “but after awhile, they all warmed up.”

The expressions of the tirelessly observant females seemed to say, “Isn’t he handsome when he eats?”

“Oh yes, such confidence!”

After listening to a scratchy voice over the radio, Cindy said, “It’s time to get back to Jamala.”

Handsome guy

We returned to the sight of two young women pulling on rope lines that had been secured around the calf’s hoofs, now below a dangling head and neck. This tug-of-war continued for several minutes before reinforcement arrived in the form of two more young women.

The giraffe corrals looked like one large square corral, divided into four equal parts. Although Jamala was separated, a six-foot fence could not keep the others giraffes from surrounding her with comfort and support.  They did not interfere, they were just there for her. One last tug by the young quartet and the new miracle of  life slid from the mother

Helping Jamala

and fell six feet to the ground.

The calf looked dazed for a moment and then began, in vain, to stand up.  Due to predators, standing is a top priority for baby giraffes.  After many wobbly, futile attempts, the twenty-minute-old calf finally stood up and a minute later was nursing.

Jamala tended to her new offspring, cleaned her up and, within  the forty minutes, we observed a new six-foot-tall baby giraffe walking steadily, looking a month, not an hour old.

She shared her wonderful birthday present with a small, fortunate group of people and supportive giraffes. The four interns were exhausted, but running high on

Jamala’s Birthday Gift

adrenaline.  We all shared a moment and a lifelong memory together, but theirs were up close and personal.

My story was convincing.  All on the bus agreed that we would go soon, together.

In the late hours of Sunday October 8, the Tubbs Fire ravaged through the same pass that we had traveled a day before and burned parts of Safari West.  After directing the staff to evacuate, owner Peter Lang, stayed behind and strung together ten garden hoses to hold it at bay. N one of the living creatures at the preserve were harmed.  The same could not be said for Lang’s home and a fleet of old, worn surplus jeeps with special seating above the cab.

Heroically, Peter Lang not only saved these beautiful creatures, but future

Mother and calf

opportunities for us to observe all facets of their complex lives, including the miracle of birth.

Safari West can be life changing.  At a minimum, it reminds us of what we have known all along and may have forgotten. We are part of a balance that is both precious and fragile. Although humans have benefitted from being able to walk and use our hands simultaneously, we still share an eco-system and a an obligation to nourish and protect it.

On October 19, our family welcomed Drew Sofia Norton, into the world. Her parents

Drew Sofia Norton

and Jamala experienced the miracle of birth months apart. I hope that this beautiful baby, precious forever and fragile for the short-term, will embrace and celebrate all living things in our world. Visiting Safari West in a few years may give her a head start.


The Wines of Saratoga

 

Growing up in Silicon Valley, I am familiar with the Santa Cruz Mountains.  Many times, I have driven the back roads that connect Saratoga with Santa Cruz, through towns like Ben Lomond, Boulder Creek and Felton.  Today, the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA is a large wine appellation that extends through San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz

Montebello Vineyard

counties. It has many diverse micro-climates that are all, in some way, influenced by the Pacific Ocean, the mountains and San Francisco Bay.  The region is often overlooked, but produces well-rated wines, vintage to vintage.

The Santa Cruz Mountain appellation is forever steeped in wine lore. The Ridge Montebello Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 1971, from the hills above Cupertino and the Apple campus, was rated fifth among ten cabernet sauvignon wines, five French and five California, competing in the original 1976 Paris Tasting that put us on the world stage.

Ridge Montebello Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon

In a 2006 reprise blind tasting of the original aged red vintages, the 1971 Montebello Vineyard was ranked at the top.  Current releases are priced near $150 per bottle and still sought after by wine collector’s.

The original destiny of the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation was supposed to be pinot noir.  The coastal influences and cool evenings were thought to offer the perfect terroir.  Although there is still plenty of pinot noir grown here, the grape struggles to reach full expression in many of the micro-climates.  Winemakers like Merry Edwards, left for the Russian River Valley, where she produces excellent pinot noir and sauvignon blanc.  Others, like Randall Grahm from Bonny Doon Cellars, stayed and changed his business model to Rhone blends, becoming an original Rhone Ranger. In a region that has been described as too hot for pinot noir and too cool for cabernet sauvignon, the Santa Cruz Mountains appellation wineries are comfortable in their own skins and celebrate their size and diverse micro-climates with many varietals.

On the far west end of the Silicon Valley, at the base of the Santa Cruz Mountains, is the quaint, upscale village of Saratoga, in the middle of the appellation.  It is the last stop

the village of Saratoga

before entering the remote backwoods that take you through the giant redwoods of Big Basin State Park and, eventually, to the beach at Santa Cruz.  More vineyards are appearing in the hills outside of town and exploring their wines and other local attractions makes for a fun weekend mini-vacation.

The flagship Saratoga winery, Mount Eden Vineyards, is also one of the oldest and finest producers in the United States, growing pinot noir, chardonnay and cabernet sauvignon for over seventy years, under the leadership of proprietor Martin Ray for the first thirty years. For me, there is no better white wine, vintage to vintage, in California than the Mount Eden RESERVE Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains ($75). It is consistently named

2013 Mount Eden Vineyards Estate Bottled Chardonnay

to Wine Spectator magazine’s annual Top 100 list.  Ratings are generally in the mid-nineties and the 2012 vintage was named to the No. 5 slot among 2015 releases.

The RESERVE consists of the same chardonnay grapes used for the Mount Eden Estate Bottled Chardonnay, Santa Cruz Mountains ($64) release, planted in half of the wineries forty acres. The difference is a viticulture practice that ages the wine in French barrels for ten months, then transfers it, with “gross lees,” to stainless steel tanks for several months of additional aging.

The lees consist of dead yeast that remain, like some soap cake, on the sides and bottom of the barrel.  Under a process known as racking, the wine is temporarily transferred to another barrel and dead yeast is removed.  Another process, sur lee, mixes the build up

Vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains

into the wine, creating a rich, silky texture.  The result is a Burgundian Grand Cru- style chardonnay with an earthiness and mineral nuances to enhance the rich fruit and finish.  There are many great chardonnay releases out there, but my palate puts Mount Eden RESERVE and the Foley Estate “Barrel-Select Chardonnay ($55) at the top of the list.

Different from most white wines, the Mount Eden chardonnay releases can continue to mature in the bottle for several years, a tribute to the vine stock, terroir and wine-making practices that have evolved over decades.

One that does not display heavy fruit influences, the Mount Eden Estate-bottled Pinot Noir, Santa Cruz Mountains ($62) is a medium-bodied Burgundian-style wine, austere, balanced and elegant.

Their current release, the 2012 Mount Eden Estate Bottled Cabernet Sauvignon, Santa Cruz Mountains ($70) adds merlot (22%) and cabernet franc (3%) in a typical Bordeaux blend from cuttings originally obtained from Chateau Margaux in France by viticulturist Emmett Rixford.

Mount Eden Vineyards Cabernet Sauvignon 2012

There is no doubt that these hillside vineyards are cooler, with more coastal influences than cabernet sauvignon is used to, preferring warmer days.  Expect more acidity, but not soon.  the winery declares that “fine integrated tannins buttress characteristic flavors of red currant, blackberry and earth, adding, “Recommend cellaring is ten to fifteen years.”  After all, it is Chateau Margaux stock.

There is a non-tasting, historical tour of the wine cellar, available by reservation only and a mailing list that allows for early notifications of new releases.  Mount Eden is an iconic California winery, yesterday, today and tomorrow.

Saratoga’s Savannah-Chanelle Vineyards, three miles from town, was founded in 1996 by Mike and Kellie Ballard, but the land was serving as a functioning winery well before Prohibition.  They produce pinot noir but, for me, the attraction is three unique releases.

Admittedly, my knowledge of port is limited.  I am always interested in the reviews of those from Portugal and a few California releases that get away with using the word,

2004 Savannah-Chanelle Tawny Port

“port” on the label. The 2004 Savannah-Chanelle Syrah, Tawny Port ($99) is from the same wine as the earlier released 2004 Ruby Port, but aged another nine years. A characteristic of aged port is the enhanced aromas that must be enjoyed for the complete experience.  A special wine for port aficionados.

Cabernet franc is a major component of France’s famous Bordeaux blends, partnering with cabernet sauvignon, merlot and others. Lighter than cabernet sauvignon, it adds spice and herbal flavors to the mix and is a respected member of the team.

California winemakers are obsessed with single-varietal releases and I have tasted many pure cabernet franc wines, some from the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Savannah-Chanelle claims to have the oldest cabernet franc vines in the state, dating back to 1923.  An end result from these old vines, The 2013 Savannah-Chanelle Cabernet Franc Estate ($65), has crisp cranberry flavors with definite herbal influences, almost like menthol.

2013 Savannah-Chanelle Monmartre blend

Lastly, and probably their most unusual wine is the 2013 Savannah-Chanelle “Montmartre” ($60), an eclectic blend of cabernet franc (45%) zinfandel (32%), carignane (9%), and syrah (14%) that displays an array of berry flavors, courtesy of the two dominant grapes. Some extra aging has resulted in a nice, rich mouthfeel.

A WWII pilot in Europe and, later, chief research test pilot at NASA, George Cooper founded Cooper-Garrod Estate Vineyards in 1973 and spent the rest of his life making wine.  Cooper died in 2016 at the age of ninety-nine, but his legacy continues at

2010 Cooper-Garrod “Test Pilot” Red Wine Blend

the winery today.  They offer a full palate of wines including the highly rated 2010

2010 Cooper-Garrod Cabernet Sauvignon George’s Vineyard

Cooper-Garrod Georges Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon ($41) and several blends named after famous fighter planes.  Their tasting room is always open, making it a must stop.

Of Spanish origin, “Ser” means “expressing identity.”  Ser is also an “artisanal” winery, the identity of Nicole Walsh.  She has an array of experience, including local Bonny Doon Cellars  and as far away as Marlborough, New Zealand.  She now specializes in creative old world-style wines from vineyards in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

Distinctive wines from Ser that caught my attention were the dry, creamy 2015 Ser

Nicole Walsh of Ser

Sparkling Rose’ of Nebbiolo ($34), an Italian varietal, the 2016 Ser Rose’ of Cabernet Franc ($22) and the rare 2014 Ser Cabernet Pfeffer ($45) from the Enz vineyard in San Benito County.  Ser shares an accessible tasting room with


Ser

Silvertip Vineyards on Big Basin Way, the main street of Saratoga.  Checking out Cinnabar and Mountain Winery are other options along the Saratoga wine trail.

For the most charm, the towns of Los Gatos and Saratoga are good, convenient bases and lodging and restaurants are available at all levels. Strolling both towns is part of the experience.

Between tastings, visitors should not miss the breathtaking Villa Montalvo Estate and

Hakone Gardens outside of Saratoga

Arboretum (where we married 47 years ago) and the eighteen-acre Hakone Gardens, one of the oldest and most impressive Japanese gardens outside of Japan. Also, many of the wineries have concert venues and their music series schedule is posted online.

Exploring the entire Santa Cruz appellation will take some time, although it could be fun.  The wines of Saratoga can be a great introduction to the elegantly charming side of the Silicon Valley.


The Wines of Corbières

 

During each of our two nights in Castelnaudary in southern France, we dined with friends at Chez David, a restaurant owned by Chef David Campigotto, a son of chefs, who prepares his renown cassoulet throughout the world.  Both evenings, based on the recommendation of our waiter, we selected a local 2013 Celliers d’ Orfee Corbières Cuvee

Chef David Campigotto

Sextant and were intrigued. Aside from the cassoulet, it also paired well with fresh cod on the second night. This newly discovered wine had a great nose, rich, fruity flavors and, most appealing, it was inexpensive.  While it sold for

2013 Celliers d’Orfee Corbieres Cuvee Sextant

twenty euros in the restaurant, we consistently found other wines from Corbières priced at ten euros. What else could we learn about these wines?

Corbières is the largest appellation in the Lanquedoc-Rousillon region, producing nearly fifty percent of its wine production on over thirty thousand acres.  Nearly all the wines are red blends, leaving about five percent for white and rose’ production.  They are similar to Rhone blends with one exception.  Among the five major grapes used in Corbières blends, carignan, also known as carignane or mazuelo, is often the main varietal.

Blended with grenache, mourvedre, the grenache-related liedener pelut, syrah and, at times, the more obscure piquepoul blanc and tenet noir, carignan clearly dominates.  During the late 1980s, carignan was the most widely produced grape in all of France, with over 400,000

Corbieres vineyard

acres under vine.  Then, in a comprehensive approach to improve the overall quality of  wines, the European Union hatched a “vine pull” program, offering subsidies to growers for pulling up their vines. As a result, production of Carignan dropped over forty percent and was replaced by merlot as the most abundant varietal.

Outside of the appellation, single-varietal carignane is produced by several California winemakers including the 2013 Carol Shelton Carignane “Oat Valley” ($28), from 60-year old vines in north Sonoma County’s Alexander Valley.  I recently paired this Santa Rosa-based wine with fresh salmon and found the creamy texture and smokey flavors complimentary, not overpowering.

We left Castelnaudary by boat, cruising down the Canal du Midi. In the villages and towns along the route, including Bram, Carcassonne and Trebes, the shops and restaurants proudly showcased their local wines, including the Cuvee Sextant.  Enjoying locals wines enhanced the cultural experience of the canal, especially at these low prices.

Vineyards in Corbieres

The Corbières appellation is so large and diverse that it has eleven identified terrors within its boundaries. Wikipedia defines terroir as a “set of all environmental factors that affect a crop‘s phenotype, unique environment contexts and farming practices, when the crop is grown in a specific habitat.”  This is a complicated way of saying that when factors like climate, sun exposure, soil types and conditions are matched with the proper varietal, stock and farming practices, a harmonious relationship ensues that creates a unique characteristic to the wine. The term “terroir” is not exclusive to wine.  It is used in growing coffee, chocolate, chili peppers, agave and others.

Still intrigued with this new-found region and what is has to offer, I began, upon my return, to research what was available in California.  Surprisingly, Corbières wines are readily accessible in wine shops and on-line.  It helps to know what you are asking for.  I have not tasted any of the Corbières wines described below.  However, based upon a recommendation or something in the wineries background that caught my attention, these are releases from the region that I have targeted.

From a small, organic winery described as a “true one-woman show,” the carignan-dominant 2014 Clos de l’Anhel

2014 Clos de l’Angel “Lolo de l”Anhel Corbieres

“Lolo de l’Anhel” Corbières($13) is a blend from limestone-laden soils, enhanced with small amounts of syrah, grenache and mourvedre. The low price reflects its profile as a great everyday wine. The Clos de l’Anhel winery also offers, at a higher price, the 2014 Clos de l’Anhel “Les Dimanches” Corbières ($23), that blends carignan (60%), from 80-year old vines, syrah (30%) and grenache (10%), boasting rich fruit and minerality, both welcome to my palate.  Les Dimanches translates to “Sundays.”  This is meant to be a special wine, reserved for special occasions.

From twenty-three different organic and biodynamically grown grape varietals that are field blended and harvested together, then co-fermented, the 2015 Domaine Tour Boisée “Plantation 1905” ($12) is as unique a wine that can be found within the region, from vineyards in the village of Minervois, near Carcassonne.  One of the newer producers in the region, dating back to 1826, the array of varietals in the Plantation vineyard were first planted in 1905.  I did not recognized the names of fourteen varietals used in this all-embracing blend, but, at $12 per bottle, I am very curious.

Domaine Tour Boisee “Plantation 1905”

Michel Gassier Corbieres de Nimes Nostre Pais

My interest in the Michel Gassier Corbières de Nimes Nostre Pais Red 2013 ($22) rose because the vineyards are in the AOC Corbières- Nimes appellation, located between the cities of Montpellier, Nimes and Arles, all places that we recently visited.  Secondly, it is grenache dominant.  Because the Corbières appellation is so large, these vineyards are within an hour of the Rhone Valley and share deep beds of limestone that influences the flavor.

Aside from grenache (40%), this blend includes equal parts carignan, syrah and mourvedre.  Awarding it 90-92 points, Wine Advocate described a wine that “exhibits pretty, perfumed notes of raspberry and passion fruit intermixed with subtle leather, violets and spice.”  With the history, unique terroir and reviews, this is the one that I will pursue first.

On the surface, the Chateau d’Aussieres Corbières 2013 ($30) is a typical Rhone blend.  Syrah-dominant and supported by grenache and mourvedre, this blend mirrors those produced in Chateaunef-du-Pape, Gigondas and other appellations in the southern Rhone Valley.  A wine that consists mostly of syrah, the tasting notes described fair amounts of typical spice (pepper), herbs and toasted flavors.  Of this vintage, Wine Advocate states, “Domaine d’Aussières has turned out an incredibly classy, elegant 2013 Corbières that checks in with the top wines of the appellation.”

For those who follow French rugby, apparently, Gerard Bertrand is a household name.  After 17 years as a star in the French leagues, he returned to the family wine business in Corbières and, recently, saw his Gerard Bertrand

Gerard Bertrand Corbieres

Corbières 2012 ($20), a blend of syrah, grenache and mourvedre, land on the #55 spot of Wine Spectator’s 2016 Top 100 wines

Since his retirement from professional rugby, Bertrand has focused on acquiring regional vineyards and refining his organic and biodynamic practices. Wine Spectator describes the 2012 vintage as “Full-bodied and powerful, with decadent layers of raspberry compote, kirsch and red plum notes that are met with savory details of herb and cured meat.”  The release price of the wine was under $20, but I found that wholesalers are seeking higher sums since its recent recognition.

The Lanquedoc-Rousillon wine region extends from the Pyrenees Mountains to the Mediterranean Sea.  The Corbières appellation, bordered by Carcassonne, Narbonne and Perpignan is large and assorted enough to offer a range of styles and terroir. These wine are made to pair with duck, pork and other meats in the region’s rich cassoulet, but are also complimentary to chicken and seafood.

There is a “new age” renaissance emerging from Corbières wines.  The number of wineries has expanded in recent years and there is a strong desire to improve the quality of the wine and vineyards in a responsible, sustainable way.  We discovered and explored this region via the Canal du Midi, but their local industry is expanding to welcome tourists of all types.  Of course, you no longer have to travel to Corbières to enjoy these finely blended wines. I expect that awareness among US wine consumers will swell as they expand their presence in our market.


Margaux, by chance?

 

After sleeping in St. Emilion during the last few nights of a month in France, we dedicated the next day to exploring nearby Bordeaux and the renown wine appellations to the north of the city.   Famous regions along the Left Bank of the Gironde River, like Haut-Médoc, Saint Julien and Paulliac, were at our fingertips but I was focused on

Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux

Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux

Chateau Margaux, the Grand Madame of them all.    A bottle of their Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux sells  for thousands of dollars and has been in the discussion as the world’s finest wine for more than a century.  We understood that time-consuming post-harvest activities were at peak and any chance of tasting required connections and months of planning.  “I just want to be there,” I said, trying to maintain reasonable expectations, “to see it, to touch a vine,”  Karen, remembering that I had followed her into three Cro-Magnon caves in Les Eyzies-De-Tayac days before, was supportive.  “Let’s do it,” she answered, “I’m in.”  We try to be conscious and supportive of each other’s passions.  For us, the concept first became instilled after listening to the 1977 Joni Mitchell song, “Jericho”:  “I’ll try to keep myself open up to you and approve your self-expression/I need that too/I need your confidence and the gift of your extra time/ In return, I’ll give you mine”/

Chateau Margaux wine production buildings

Chateau Margaux wine production buildings

Although fairly commonplace today, these were poignant thoughts in 1977, for two twenty-somethings trying to make a go of it.   Today, thirty-nine years later, it’s more about managing round-a-bouts and reminiscing of the anniversary dinner with a bottle of Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux 1992, a gift from the parents of our German exchange student.   Karen would stop eating sugar shortly after and forfeit the enjoyment of wine.  If these were her last two glasses, what a way to go out.  Her apt description of “liquid velvet” remains a standard by which I compare good wines today.

The central city of Bordeaux was being victimized by its own progress.  Road

Chateau Margaux

Chateau Margaux

construction and the ensuing congestion was everywhere.  Thanks to modern-day GPS, we were able to maneuver our way through and, more importantly, master the round-a-bouts.  During a previous visit, entering a round-a-bout was quickly followed by a female voice on the GPS directing us to, “Re-route.”   This time, improved technology and graphics, along with experience, neutralized our stress level.  Streets soon turned into country roads that connected the small viticultural villages, a calming transition into a world that defies progress.  Royalty resides here but essentially these people are farmers from families that have worked this land for centuries.  The marbleized skies, poplar trees silhouetted by the afternoon sun and freshly harvested vines created the autumn Bordeaux landscape that I had always imagined.

The tiny village of Margaux was on the horizon.  Looking in the distance, I recognized the steeple of an old church, one that I had seen in photographs of the Chateau property.  I turned the wheel abruptly, veering off to a side road.  “What are we doing now, isn’t the village straight ahead?” Karen’s question made me realize that I hadn’t been too forthcoming about my new plan  “The village can wait,  I think Chateau Margaux is less than a mile from here and I want to get as close as we can,” I said, hoping for even a distant glance.

Suddenly, we came upon a vineyard near mustard-colored production buildings.  Vines

In a field of cosmos

In a field of cosmos

tend to look alike, but these were surrounded on two sides by a thirty-foot swath of multi-colored Cosmos, creating a Jackson Pollack-type border surrounding the uniformity of the vineyard.  As we stopped to take pictures, I noticed numerous cars passing by that seemed to access a large grass and dirt field about a quarter-mile away, then stop and park. Something was going on.  I could see other landmarks from the Chateau and knew we were close.

We entered the field strewn with uniformly parked cars looking like we belonged.   It

Chateau Margaux grounds

Chateau Margaux grounds

was a small, eclectic crowd that were leaving their vehicles and strolling along a poplar-lined path toward the Chateau’s entrance.  Karen fit right in with her fashionable jeans, tweed blazer and scarf while my orange sneakers, matched with faded jeans and gray cashmere sweater, may have eventually outed us as outliers.   However, we did leave our car and casually stroll onto the estate, immediately coming upon the Chateau Margaux mansion. On display behind iron gates, looking like it had in photographs over the

years, it defined grandeur, elegance and tradition.  Staff was working in the courtyards of the freshly painted production buildings on immaculately manicured pavement.  These building clusters resembled the backlot of a Hollywood film studio more than a working winery.

Soon we were walking on neatly trimmed, rustic paths that directed us and others

Chateau Margaux grounds

Chateau Margaux grounds

through a grove of large trees and over a stone bridge spanning a small canal.  One man, with large, working hands, wearing old jeans and a white starched shirt, unbuttoned to reveal his chest, strolled with a young woman in a navy business suit, struggling to walk with four-inch heels.  Another young couple looked very Goth with tight black pants and many piercings.  The moment was surreal, walking through the grounds of the world’s most iconic and private winery with no idea where we were going or what we may find when we got there.

Once across the bridge, we came upon another grove of the same Cosmos that framed a

stone building at Chateau Margaux

stone building at Chateau Margaux

large one-storied stone building with several  framed window openings, each with a small crowd gathered outside.  This was definitely where everyone was going.  We thought we were blending into the crowd as we looked into one of the windows to discover an elegant luncheon setting for about one hundred and fifty people with white linen tables cloths and napkins,  porcelain dinnerware, sculpted silver and five crystal wine glasses at each place.  We had seen settings like this before, but never of this size.

“May I help you?” said the nice looking forty-something man in a tailored black suit and open blue shirt, as he approached Karen.   We were busted.  She described our little sojourn and he patiently explained that we were at the Chateau Margaux Harvest

Discussing wine at the Chateau

Discussing wine at the Chateau

Luncheon, an annual event to celebrate the harvest and honor all the local vineyard owners and staff that contribute grapes and/or land toward each vintage.  This famous luncheon is both very exclusive and very local.

During our brief  conversation, I informed the gentleman of our Grand Vin du Chateau Margaux 1992.  “I hope you still have it,” he said, “the 1992s are peaking now.”  “No”, I answered, slumping my shoulders, “we drank it,”  adding, “But, it was damn good in 1995.”  Karen repeated her “liquid velvet” metaphor and thanked  him.  “We don’t want to crash your luncheon any more than we already have,” she said.  Speak for yourself, I thought.   We said good-bye and he reminded us to walk by the mansion on our way out.  At Chateau Margaux, even being bounced from an exclusive event is done with distinction.

Karen in Margaux

Karen in Margaux

My day visiting wineries in the Bordeaux region was over.  No other experience could match this one.  During a late lunch at a boutique hotel in the village, we  stared out at the vineyard, then looked across the table at each other and smiled.  Feeling exhilarated and mischievous, we knew that this would always be a good story and a great memory among many.


A Tasting in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

 

The opportunity to experience the extraordinary blends in France’s Chateauneuf-du-

vineyard in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

vineyard in Chateauneuf-du-Pape

Pape is a rare treat for anyone serious about wine.  Blessed with near perfect terroir and climate, the area is always in the discussion of the world’s best appellation.  Nearly all the 280 wineries in Chateauneuf-du-Pape are owned by small families, not the case in Bordeaux or Burgundy.  There are thirteen grapes approved for the appellation by the governing AOC, which also requires that they are all hand-pruned, hand-picked and essentially dry-farmed, allowing two irrigations per season during drought years.  The famous “La Mistral” winds blow 100 days per year, a benefit during wet vintages and a challenge in dry ones.  The production of rose’ or sparkling wine is also prohibited in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, allowing winemakers to focus on the best blend of grapes that most align with the terroir.

Translated “the Pope’s new castle” or “Chateau of the Popes,” Chateauneuf-du-Pape became a significant winemaking region in the 14th Century after the papacy was relocated to the town of Avignon.  The “Avignon Popes” appreciated their

Chateau de Vaudieu

Chateau de Vaudieu

wine and were first to promote viticulture in this area, 10 miles northeast of their palace residence.  It’s esteemed terroir has continued to produce superb local wines for eight centuries and is still revered today. With all the acclaim that Chateauneuf-du-Pape gets, one would expect them to be promoting tourism.  They do not. It is authentic, a relatively small area with family farmers doing what they have done for centuries, create near perfect wines.

October was a busy month for winemakers, following up on the recent harvest.  It was off-season and our time was limited, so we chose Saint Charles Cave,in the heart of the village, for our first tasting. Located in a 13th Century cave, Saint Charles represents

Tasting in Saint Charles Cave

Tasting in Saint Charles Cave

many of the producers and offers selections of the best the region has to offer.  In addition, it also houses the La Cour Des Papes Restaurant that could extend our experience through mid-afternoon. Sitting on wooden benches in the cave, our young, knowledgeable host began to take us through his selection of wines from the region.

The Château de Vaudieu is one of the genuine 18th Century castles left in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, operated by the Brechet Family since the mid-1980s.  Described as “a real mosaic of terroirs,” the vast vineyards of the Chateau represent very distinct micro-climates and elevations. Our tasting at Saint 3efcc0ec2827a487028818f55a178c90Charles Cave began with the Chateau de Vaudieu Blanc 2012 ($32), a mostly grenache blanc and roussanne blend that expressed a complex bouquet and rich citrus and mineral notes on the palate.  The varietals were fermented separately in oak and stainless steel to form a dry wine that would be a perfect pair with seafood or shellfish.

The grenache dominant 2011 Clos Saint Jean Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($35-40), our second pour, is a classic wine from the region, full-bodied, dry, herbal with deep fruit and savory flavors. The grenache is aged in cement tanks while the syrah, clos-saint-jean-chateauneuf-du-pape-rhone-france-10675487mourvedre and bits of other varietals get the benefit of oak.  Brothers Vincent and Pascal Maurel took over the winery from their father in 2003 and have produced very good vintages since.  Robert Parker awarded this one, that I found online at klwines.com, with a 92-point score.

Covered by the famous diluvial red pebbles that protect them from the dry climate and La Mistral winds, the vineyards at Chateau Maucoil are said to consist of all chateau-maucoil-chateauneuf-du-pape-rhone-france-10293833tChateauneuf-du-Pape soil types.  The 2011 Chateau Maucoil Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($30-40) is an old vine grenache dominant blend that adds 20% syrah, 10% mourvedre and cinsault, very fruit forward and balanced.  This wine is produced only when the vintage is good and the 2011 was a very good one.

Our next wine was a big, earthy release, the only one created by the Barrot Family, long-standing growers producing 5,000 cases annually on 16 hectares in the appellation, divided among 24 different parcels.  The 2011 Domaine Lucien Barrot et Fils Chateauneuf-du-Pape ($50), with 80% grenache, 10% syrah and five percent each cinsault and mourvedre, is made whole cluster, fermenting in large cement vats before aging up to 36 months in oak. Significant aromas of spices, herbs and earth are followed by deep, dried cherries and anise flavors of great length.

Their family has farmed the land since the 17th Century, but Domaine du Pegau was 160164lformed in 1987 by father, daughter team, Paul and Laurence Ferard. The grenache dominant Domaine du Pegau Chateauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Reservee 2013 ($70), our next wine,is produced whole cluster and was the most masculine wine that we tasted. Aromas of ripe fruits and pepper precede rich, earthy flavors with soft tannins on the finish.  All the major periodicals rate this wine in the 90-95 point range.

From another family with local roots dating back to the 17th Century, the Chateau de la Gardine was established in 1945 by Gaston Brunel, producing great red Rhone blends and a special roussanne-dominant white, the Chateauneuf-du-Pape Château de la Gardine Cuvée des Générations Marie-Léoncie 2013 ($30).  The 60-year old

The "Gardine Bottle"

The “Gardine Bottle”

vines lay atop limestone soil and, with early rains followed by a warm 2013 summer, the roussanne was allowed to fully ripen, creating a rich, buttery texture and full flavors. Although there is no malolactic fermentation, the wine is fermented and aged in new French oak. Many wineries in Chateauneuf-Du-Pape can be identified by the shape of their unique bottles and this wine is exclusively released in the “Gardine bottle,” broad at the bottom with long, narrow neck. Counter to tasting wine in the States, it is tradition in Chateauneuf-du-Pape to end with a white blend and this one was memorable.  Approximately 70% of the Chateau’s wine is exported, so these wines can probably be found with a little effort.  The group was enamored by all six wines and immediately discussed shipping a case home to the US. Soon, our practical sensibilities prevailed and we settled on a 2011 Chateau Maurcoil Chateauneuf-du-Pape to accompany our lunch.

Lunch at La Cour Des Papes was both distinct and memorable. Firstly, the large dining table is in the chef’s kitchen and guests are welcome to stand, roam and question the chef while he is cooking. The partly set menu in French was intriguing with dishes described as “filet de Canette e au marine au soja et champignons” or “Hachis parmentier d’epaule d’agneau et sa sauce de Chateauneuf-du-Pape” that were translated fullsizerenderto “Filet of female duckling, pickled and raw with soy beans and mushrooms” and “Shepherd’s Pie with lamb and Chateauneuf-du-Pape sauce.” I opted for the raw duckling entree and “Cabillau” or codfish with butter and saffron as my “plat” or main course.  Our chef, Julien, was not only patient with our questions, but serenaded us with song and entertained us with his humor throughout the entire meal that included a rich crème brûlée’ dessert.

La Cour Des Papes also offer cooking classes where patrons can learn new dishes that they prepare for their own meal. Our once in a lifetime luncheon was a bit extravagant but the Browns Valley Fork and Cork Society, six people strong, saved their pennies and were ready.

Chateauneuf-du-Pape and other nearby towns located between the cities of Avignon andimg_3780 Orange boasts nearly 8,000 acres of vineyards and produces as much wine as any other region in France.  Those lucky enough to visit the area will be rewarded with beauty, history and the ability to purchase these remarkable wines at local prices.  They are a bargain as long as you drink them locally.


Chateau de Beaucastel

 

Two-hundred forty-thousand contiguous vines, dry-farmed, hand pruned and picked, in the middle of France’s famed Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation is what defines the family owned Chateau de Beaucastel, the region’s largest.  Eighty-percent of the

270,000 bottles produced annually are exported to the United States and Canada and

Chateau de Beaucastel

Chateau de Beaucastel

they contain iconic French Rhone wines for discerning palates.  Traveling through the region in October, we had the opportunity to visit Chateau de Beaucastel to tour their vineyards and production facility before tasting current and past releases.

The estate includes a quarter of a million vines that, aside from being cultivated by hand, are all organically grown and de-stemmed before fermentation.  The Chateau produce and use all thirteen grapes permitted by the governing AOC, seven white and six red.  The white grapes, namely roussanne, picpoul, muscardin, picardan, clairette and bourboulenc, are fermented in separate rooms from the red grapes, mostly in large concrete tanks with

Diluvial deposits (stones) in the vineyards

Diluvial deposits (stones) in the vineyards

tile floors.  Among the red grapes, syrah and mourvedre are aged in oak, grenache, vaccarese, terret noir, cinsault and couniose in similar concrete tanks. All varietals are fermented separately and blended only after the malolactic fermentation process is completed for each, giving the wine a softer, more balanced mouthfeel.

While visiting the estate, we soon understood that we were visiting French Rhone royalty, one that has been a force among the world’s magnificent Rhone blends for the past

barrel room at Chateau de Beaucastel

barrel room at Chateau de Beaucastel

107 years.  The bottles in the cellars are enigmatic, the huge, meticulous barrel rooms look like they belong in Architectural Digest and each of the tall concrete vats had beautiful tile flooring. After seeing the immaculate grounds, we were assured there were no shortcuts at Chateau de Beaucastel.

In 1687, the land where the Chateau exists today was given to Pierre Beaucastel by Louis XIV after he converted to Catholicism. In 1909, Pierre Tramier transferred ownership of the property to his son-in-law, Pierre Perrin who established the Chateau de Beaucastel.  Pierre’s son Jacque

Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Hommage a Jacques Perrin 2012

Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Hommage a Jacques Perrin 2012

Perrin took over operations shortly after and spearheaded its growth and reputation until 1978 when it was transferred to his children who collaboratively operate the estate today. The recently released Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Hommage a Jacques Perrin 2012 ($617), is a very serious wine produced only during great vintages, that pays respect to the long-time winemaker and innovator.  The experts have rated this wine in the high nineties and I will just have to take their word for it.

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Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Blanc 2015

We began the tasting with the Chateau’s only white release, using all permitted varietals.  The Chateau de Beaucastel Chateaunuef-du-Pape Blanc 2015 ($70) will be released in January 2017, ready for consumption and peaking within the first two years. They had experienced more heat and less rain in 2015 that allowed the roussanne, 80% of the blend, to fully ripen.  Small amounts of grenache blanc, picardan, clairette and bourboulenc help add a beautiful golden color with the stone fruits and spice on the nose and nice mineral notes on the finish.  The estate describes the terroir as “molasses seabed of the Miocene period covered by diluvial deposits (rolled pebbles)”.  The diluvial deposits are actually medium reddish stones, two-inches in diameter, that covered the soils throughout the vineyard. Representing the limited plantings of the white varietals, the nicely structured, balanced “Blanc” is not excitable, but subtle and elegant.

Out to the west, the vineyards are dissected by a small, but significant road. Any vines located outside the road are not within the Chateauneuf-du-Pape boundaries and cannot, according to AOC regulations, be identified with the name.  Therefore, the

Coudoulet de Beaucastel Cotes du rhone

Coudoulet de Beaucastel Cotes du rhone

Chateau created the Condoulet de Beaucastel Cote du Rhone blend to give these grapes a home.  A grenache, mourvedre, syrah (GSM) blend with 20% cinsault added, the Condoulet de Beaucastel Cote du Rhone Rouge 2013 was rich with wild berry flavors and hints of pepper and herbs. This was another refined and balanced release.

The white varietals across the road produce the Coudoulet de Beaucastel Cote du Rhone Blanc 2014 with a zesty, citrus quality, revealing apples flavors mid-palate. A blend of marsanne, viognier, clairette and bourboulenc, aged half in oak, half in steel, this is one for the patio on a summer evening. Bourboulenc is a white grape grown in southern France, primarily the Rhone, Provence and Lanquedoc. Its challenge is that it is a late-ripening grape that must be fully ripened to achieve full body, citrus aromas and smoky flavors it is known for.

The flagship release of the estate is the Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge, considered an adolescent until it is aged 20 years or more. Today we tasted a flight of the 2013, 2007 and 2001 vintages, each with very distinctive structure and flavors.

101438lThe young Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2013 ($60), mostly grenache and mourvedre has concentrated berry flavors with some nice spice throughout. Our host said that it would take another 4-5 years before the wine is taken seriously, but the balance and structure was already evident. The vintage 2007 was a great one for the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation and the Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2007 ($90-100), awarded 96-pt by Wine Spectator, expressed a deep ruby color and delivered loads of spice, licorice and burnt wood flavors on the palate, more earthy than the recent release. We missed the 2005 vintage that was #8 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines of 2008 with a 98-pt rating.

Although still described as a young wine, the Chateau de Beaucastel Chateauneuf-du-Pape Rouge 2001 ($60-75) was balanced with a very earthy quality that set it apart from the other two. With an aromatic nose, the wine was complex and spicy with flavors of licorice, roasted herbs and, what was described as “cigar box”. Aside from the main three varietals, the 2001 vintage adds counoise, cinsault and a small percentage of other red and white grapes.  This wine began to express what an aged Chateau de Beaucastel wine could taste like and it was for serious consumers.

The presence of the Chateau de Beaucastel in the United States goes far beyond importing their wines. The well-respected Tablas Creek Winery in Paso Robles,

perrin_la_route_menant_au_chateau_de_beaucastel_2_jpg_11453 producer of terrific Rhone-style wines is a 30-year partnership between the Perrin and Haas families.  Attracted to the limestone laden soils and similar climate to Chateauneuf-du-Pape, the partnership purchased land in 1989 and imported clones from the French estate.  Today, Tablas Creek, similar to the patriarch, produces Rhone blends from their “Espirit de Beaucastel” and “Cotes de Tablas” labels. Tablas Creek Winery is organic and sustainable and their wines are well-rated, best represented by the 2006 Tablas Creek Espirit de Beaucastel Paso Robles (93-pt/$45) that was named #50 on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of 2008.  The Mourvedre, grenache, syrah and counoise blend is full-bodied with earthy flavors of ripened berries and nutmeg.  The best example of Rhone-style wines outside of Chateauneuf-du-Pape is Paso Robles, centrally located for access by all Californians.

Another partnership with the Miraval estate in Provence, owned by Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, produces the Jolie-Pitt and Perrin Cotes de Provence Rose’ Miraval

Chateau Miraval 2015

Chateau Miraval 2015

2012 ($25)that landed the 84th spot on the Wine Spectator Top 100 Wines of 2013 list, leading their marketing staff to hail it as the world’s best. There is a bit of uncertainty about future vintages but we were told that Brad is mostly involved.

Visiting the Chateauneuf-du-Pape appellation in southern

The vines are manicured by hand

The vines are manicured by hand

France is a special treat for anyone serious about wine.  But, the opportunity to spend time at a historical and refined producer like Chateau de Beaucastel, to observe their methods and facilities, is truly a memorable learning experience.