Category Archives: Wine

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.


Wine and Cheese 2017

 

At a recent visit to the Sonoma County Artisan Cheese Festival, we were strolling through the books section.  Pointing to a book entitled, “Cheese and Wine: A Guide to Selecting, Pairing and Enjoying”, by Janet Fletcher, I declared it as the best book of its kind on the market.

“So you like that book’” a woman said, as she approached us, “well, I wrote it.”

Janet Fletcher has written for several magazines including Bon Appetit and Food and Wine. She is a food columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle and has written

“Wine and Cheese” by Janet Fletcher

several books such as the aforementioned.  “Cheese and Wine” lists cheeses throughout the world, in alphabetical order.  For each, it provides pronunciation, type of cheese (cow, goat, sheep), country of origin, information about the cheese’s history, taste, and texture and, finally, wines that work.   It was a pleasure to meet Ms. Fletcher and tell her firsthand how much I appreciate her writing.

Her book was in full use as I prepared for another cheese and wine tasting to support ArtStart, a local Santa Rosa-based non-

Janet Fletcher

profit that supports high school artists by providing work opportunities in creating public murals and other projects.  There would be repeat donors participating, so this year’s event must be unique and different than earlier years. The following menu highlights the adventure in store for this years guests.

#1: 2014 Bollig Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese (Mosel/Germany)

Comte – France (raw cow’s milk)

During a recent visit, I discovered that Comte’ is the largest selling cheese in France.  Made from co-operative diaries using milk exclusively from large Montbeliard cows,

Comte’

I enjoyed the smooth texture and brown butter flavors.  Comte’ is a perfect balance between sweet, salty and tart.

I chose a reliable favorite, the 2014 Bollig Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese, to pair with the Comte’.  Don’t let the long, fancy name intimidate you.  This rich riesling, from the Mosel region of Germany, is available at some wine shops and on-line for about twenty dollars.  My first taste of this wine, over a decade ago, served as an introduction to the mineral/metallic/petrol/wet stone flavor of a fine German riesling.

Bollig-Lehnert Piesporter Goldtropfchen Riesling Spatlese 2012

The German word spatlese (spat-LAY-see) literally translates to “late harvest,” but should not be confused with the late harvest dessert wines produced in California and the Pacific Northwest.

Montbeliard cows

With regard to flavor and richness, Spatlese riesling sits between the more austere Kabinett (ca-bin-net) and sweeter Auslese (aus-LAY-see) styles, the later equal to our late harvest wines.  The Bollig Lehnert is always distinctive, but never overpowering.

#2: Auteur Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2013 (Sonoma)

   “Mount Tam” – Cowgirl Cheese Co. (pasteurized cow milk)

This is an all-Sonoma County pairing that features a complex, non malolactically

Auteur Chardonnay Sonoma Coast 2013

fermented California chardonnay from respected winemaker Ken Juhasz, with an elegant, buttery triple-creme cheese with earthy mushroom flavors. Cowgirl Cheese Company, maker of the popular “Red Hawk,” dedicates this cheese to Mount Tamalpias in Marin County, a popular place to harvest fresh, wild mushrooms, abundant this year due to heavy rainfall.

Many of the vineyards within the Sonoma Coast appellation are located at higher elevations, above the fog line, producing

Cowgirl Creamery “Mt. Tam” triple-cream cheese

distinctive flavors.  This chardonnay is austere with mineral elements that did not compete with the creamy cheese, but added hints of orange peel and honeysuckle to the mix.

#3:  2013 Seasmoke “Southing” Pinot Noir (Santa Rita Hills/Santa Barbara County)

#4:  2012 Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Yamhill Cuvee (Willamette Valley, Oregon)

Monte Enebro – Spain (pasteurized goat milk)

Point Reyes Toma -Sonoma County (pasteurized cow milk)

When it comes to pairing cheese with pinot noir, the opportunities are so abundant that

Sea Smoke Pinot Noir “Soutwihing” 2013

I can’t restrain myself.  To show the range of pinot noir, I selected one from the southernmost appellation, the Santa Rita Hills in Santa Barbara County and the Yamhill appellation in the most northern region of Oregon’s Willamette Valley, both premier releases awarded 92-points from Wine Spectator magazine.

Sea smoke Cellars produces three low-yield pinot noir releases

Domaine Serene Pinot Noir Yamhill Cuvee’ 2012

each year, available to a few select restaurants in southern California and allocation list members only.  The 2013 “Southing” expresses smokey flavors of red fruit, cinnamon and vanilla that pairs well with both cheeses, especially the dense, buttery and herbaceous flavors of the Monte Enebro.

Monte Enebro cheese

Equally creamy and buttery, the Point Reyes Toma was new to my palate and a good fit with the caramel and mocha notes expressed on the finish of the Domaine Serene Pinot Noir.  The Monte Enebro is available on-line through sites like “Igourmet,” while the Toma is seasonally available at fine cheese shops.

Known primarily for fine pinot noir releases, Domaine Serene

Toma

recently received accolades by placing a new chardonnay in the third spot in Wine Spectator’s list of the most exciting wines of 2016.

#5:  Tablas Creek Vineyard Tannat Paso Robles 2010

Rogue River Creamery “Smokey Blue” – southern Oregon (certified sustainable cow’s milk)

This was, by far, the most difficult pairing of the event. Tannat is a rare French grape

Rogue River Creamery “Smokey Blue”

that is generally used to give texture and deep earthy flavors when blended with other, more fruity varietals.  Tablas Creek of Paso Robles, arguably the finest producer of Rhone wines outside of the Rhone Valley, released this 100% tannat that has been in my cellar for five years, softening its harsh tannins. Luckily, I found this seasonal, gluten-free “Smokey

Tablas Creek Tannat 2010

Blue” with with deep earthy flavors of hazelnuts, caramel and candied bacon, one of the few cheeses that could stand up to this aged tannat

#6:  Hall “Eighteen Seventy-Three Cabernet Sauvignon 2013 (Napa Valley)

Abbaye de Belloc – France/Basque (pasteurized sheep’s milk)

Rutherford-based Hall Wines, in the Napa Valley, annually produce some of the highest rated cabernet sauvignon in California.  I knew this wine had been given a 93-point

HALL Cabernet Sauvignon Eighteen Seventy-Three 2103

rating by Wine Spectator, but did not expect that it would be included in their top 100 list of 2106 releases.  The “1873” retails for $80 per bottle, a moderate price for Hall Wines whose other cabernets range from $100 to $280 per bottle.

Surprisingly, my research of Abbaye de Belloc, a sheep’s cheese from the Basque region of the French Pyrenees Mountains,

Abbaye de Belloc

described it to be a good pair with cabernet sauvignon.  It is made in the Abbaye de Notre Dame de Belloc by monks and contains milk exclusively from the red-nosed Manech sheep, who look like a round bowl of fuzzy wool with skinny legs protruding out the bottom.  This cheese has a rich, buttery, fine texture with caramelized brown sugar flavor.  It is

Red-nosed Manech sheep

dense with a creamy, off-white color and the wine seems to have a “liquefaction effect” that breaks it down, nicely coating your tongue and throat.  It is somewhat difficult to find, but the effort is rewarding.

Thanks, again Janet Fletcher.  A desire to support ArtStart is my motivation and “Wine and Cheese,” among other books, gave me the choices to assemble another pairing event.  We will do it again next year.  Meanwhile, I have discovered some new and unique cheeses to enjoy with my wines throughout the next year.

 

 


An Afternoon At Flora Springs

 

My friend Jon began an internship with Flora Springs Winery in the heart of the Napa Valley and invited me in for a tour and a tasting.  The plan was to buy a bottle of sauvignon blanc, grab some sandwiches at the neighboring Dean and DeLucca and picnic in a nearby vineyard before tasting their extensive palate of wines.  This sounded like a nice Sunday afternoon in the Napa Valley; sunshine, a great albacore tuna salad sandwich paired with the creamy texture and mineral

an estate vineyard

finish of the 2015 Flora Springs Sauvignon Blanc Napa Valley ($25). With annual production exceeding 3,600 cases, this estate wine uses two different clones including the musque clone, fermented in stainless steel and aged on its lees in oak barrels with many stirrings.  Hence, we find creamy, complex flavors.

I first became aware of Flora Springs Winery in the mid-nineties through their flagship blend, “Trilogy” which has become a classic “meritage,” defining Bordeaux blends from California soil. If fact, “Trilogy” was first created over thirty years ago when successfully blending cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet blanc, malbec and petit verdot in California was a new thing. The result

Flora Springs “Trilogy” – a classic CA meritage

of a good vintage, the 2012 Flora Springs “Trilogy” Napa Valley ($90), aged for 22 months, achieves elegance through expressive aromas and rich texture with dark cherry and berry flavors, some spice and a nice finish. My first memory of this wine was being shocked at the $40 price.  Now at $90 per bottle, it is indicative of the increasing market value of Napa Valley wines.

Although Flora Springs Winery was first established in 1978, the land has an auspicious history dating back more than a century. The first vineyards were planted on sixty acres in the late 1800s by Scottish immigrants James and William Renne, the first known owners of the land. Later, a fire destroyed the wine-press and all their cooperage, leading them to sell the property to pursue other dreams.

Over the ensuing years, property ownership changed several times during which the vineyards were re-planted with phylloxera-resistant stock.  Phylloxera is a microscopic insect that attacks the roots and leaves of vines and destroyed entire vineyards in California and France throughout the

Flora Springs tasting facility

late 19th and early 20th Centuries. The only known cure is grafting the vines with stock resistant to the disease.  Admist dealing with pests in the vineyards, Prohibition became law in 1920 and this and many wineries were literally abandoned.

Louis Martini purchased the property in 1933, replaced the old structure with a new one and operated the winery until 1977 when it was purchased by Jerry and Flora Komes. The next year, their children, John and Carrie Komes and Julie and Pat Garvey, founded Flora Springs Winery, naming it after their mother and the natural springs on the property. The winery will

indoor tasting space

celebrate its 40th birthday in 2017.

Our afternoon tasting on the patio began with two releases, one white and one red, from their Family Estate Wines and

The tasters

evolved, through the “2012 Trilogy” to a series of five premium, high-priced, single vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon with tremendous ratings, a special surprise given guests of staff.  With ten percent of its juice aged in concrete tanks, the medium-bodied 2014 Flora Springs Family Select Chardonnay ($35) is a beautifully balanced wine, lightly oaken, with flavors of fresh pear and subtle tropical fruit through the finish.  It is a very nice Chardonnay among many great options within the $30-40 price range. The red, from local sustainably-farmed vineyards, the 2014 Flora Springs Napa

Flora Springs Merlot

Valley Merlot ($30) was nicely balanced with notes of sweet spice like vanilla, a good value for merlot lovers.

Basking in the diffused sunlight under colorful stretched screens, our journey through these impressive single-vineyard Cabernet, priced far beyond my budget, was a special treat.  It began with the 100% 2013 Flora Springs Rutherford Hillside Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon ($125) from a sloping, benched vineyard near the winery.  Awarded 94-points by Wine Enthusiast magazine, it is most amply defined with “warm notes of blackberry pie, crème de cassis, coffee liquor and maraschino cherries that slowly evolve into a decadent core of melted bittersweet chocolate inflected with vanilla bean.”  It is as good as it sounds.

The Renne Reserve Vineyard in the St. Helena appellation is one of the finest blocks within their 550 acres.  After 22 months in new French oak, the 2013 Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon St. Helena Renne

Flora Springs Single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon releases

Reserve ($150) has an impressive bouquet followed by complex flavors of black currants and coffee with a rich mouthfeel.  The lingering spice finish sets this Cabernet apart from the others, awarded 95-points by Wine Advocate

The next wine comes from the nearby Oakville appellation, known for limestone and granite soils.  The 2103 Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon Holy Smoke Vineyard ($125) displays firm tannins with intense black cherry, licorice and cinnamon spice on the palate.  James Suckling awarded this low production release a 94-point rating, citing nice chocolate nuances through the finish.  The most balanced and finely structured wine of the day was the 2013

Flora Springs “Wild Boar Vineyard” Cabernet Sauvignon

Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon Wild Boar Vineyard ($125)from the

Pope Valley, east of the Napa Valley where elevations rise to 1,200 feet.  For me, the “Wild Boar” was the best that we tasted, expressing complex and robust flavors of ripened currants, plum, cherry, vanilla and caramel.  The tannins are firm, but rich and plush.

Remotely located in the Stag’s Leap District along the Silverado Trail, the organically-farmed “Out Of Sight” Vineyard produces dense fruit for the 2013 Flora Springs Cabernet Sauvignon Out Of Sight Vineyard ($125), a wine with vivid aromas of wild berries and layered tastes of vanilla and spice, woven within concentrated fruit.  Smooth tannins are present throughout creating a wine that they claim will be optimum for the next 12-15 years.

Flora’s Legacy Wines are remarkable, low-yield releases that honor the matriarch and namesake of the winery, Flora Komes.  One wine of depth, the 2014 Flora’s Legacy Chardonnay ($70), was our last tasting of the afternoon.

Flora Springs “Flora’s Legacy” Chardonnay

Again there is very impressive competition with other chardonnay at this price.  That being said, this wine, after 50% malolactic fermentation and aging sur lee with weekly stirrings, reveals rich, concentrated fruit flavors of orange marmalade, pear, jasmine and ginger.  The nice mineral finish sets it in the company of many superb California chardonnay releases.

The one wine not available for tasting boasts a total production of one barrel (25 cases).  Combining 50% juice from the Renne Reserve Vineyard in St. Helena and 50% from the Rutherford Hillside Vineyard in neighboring Rutherford, the sold out 2014 Flora Springs St. Rutherford

Flora Springs St. Rutherford Cabernet Sauvignon

Cabernet Sauvignon ($300), aged 22 months in French oak, is their premiere wine.  We were told that the Renne brings the berry and fruit flavors and the Rutherford the earthiness and spice nuances.  How can my palate miss something that it hasn’t ever experienced?  Maybe another time. The high demand for wines in this price-range is still amazing to me.

Clearly, Flora Springs Winery has moved beyond their first-rate flagship wine, “Trilogy,”  to become one of the finest

Flora Springs vineyard

producers in the Napa Valley.  When I learned about the 40% discount made available to staff and their guests, I had to re-think purchasing a bottle.  Expressing thanks to the tasting staff, I invested in my palate by purchasing a 2013 Wild Boar single-vineyard cabernet sauvignon for $75.  It sits in my cellar waiting for a special occasion with special friends. We had a wonderful afternoon at Flora Springs Winery, located along Highway 29, south of the town of St. Helena, which has been named one of the “Best Napa Wineries To Visit” by Food and Wine Magazine and is great place to taste some of the best wines the valley has to offer.


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.


Wine Spectator’s Top Wines of 2016

 

Envelopes, please. ’Tis the season for Wine Spectator magazine to release their Top 100 Exciting Wines Of 2016, an annual tradition since 1988.  Although there are other reputable lists, the Spectator’s Top 100 is like the Oscars, much suspense, but if one reads the monthly, many of them are not surprises.  Differing from their standard reviews, this list has a criteria, one that needs to be understood for the whole thing to make sense.  Wines are ranked by the editors based upon quality (wines with 90-point

Lewis Cellars and vineyard

Lewis Cellars and vineyard

or above ratings only), value (cost), availability and excitement, the last criteria rumored to generate the most spirited discussions. This may explain why the Hartford Family Zinfandel Russian River Valley Old Vine 2014 (93-pt/$38) was ranked #10 on the list and the A. Clape Cornas (96-pt/$120) number 87.  I can go to nearby Healdsburg to taste and purchase our local zinfandel while the French Rhone blend is more expensive, more difficult to find and won’t be ready for drinking until 2020.

With the criteria in mind, the magazine has selected the Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon

Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013

Lewis Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley 2013

Napa Valley 2013 (95pt/$90) as the seventh Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon to be named Wine Of The Year in its nearly three decade history. The Lewis’ cabernets have been on the radar of wine experts since their inaugural vintage, the best ones deemed and recognized as special.  This wine has been named to Wine Spectator and other periodicals Top 100 and Top 10 lists on many occasions.

Randy Lewis was a former Formula One and Indy 500 race car driver

Randy, Debbie and Dennis Lewis

Randy, Debbie and Dennis Lewis

.  A crash into the wall during trials in the early nineties helped channel racing partners Randy and Debbie Lewis into winemaking partners, releasing their first vintage in 1994. Lewis is known for being patient with the vines, preferring the grapes fully ripened.  The result has been rich, elegant, lengthy wines and the 2013 vintage, described by Senior Editor James Laube as “a hedonistic wine experience from a spectacular vintage,” apparently, is one of their best.

The other top ten wines are equally interesting featuring two Oregon releases in the top five, whites from Bordeaux, a more obscure Italian region, a historic vineyard, a history family and a consistently good blend from California.

I am quite familiar with the Domaine Serene Winery in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, especially their 2012 vintage pinot noir releases.  Owners Ken and Grace Evenstad, who have produced fine pinot noir grapes for years, began in 2010 to combine choice barrels

Domaine Serene Chardonnay Dundee Hills Evenstad Rserve 2014

Domaine Serene Chardonnay Dundee Hills Evenstad Rserve 2014

from single vineyards to create the Domaine Serene Chardonnay Dundee Hills Evenstad Reserve 2014 (95-pt/$55), Wine Spectator’s #2 wine. I am intrigued by descriptions of minerality with layered and lengthy flavors, all pointing to elements of a Burgundian white. From a terrific winery, this wine will soon be in my search engine. It is back to back Oregon releases with the #3 Beaux Frères Pinot Noir Ribbon Ridge The Beaux Frères Vineyard 2014 (95-pt/$90)from a respected producer, also from the northern

Evenstad Vineyard

Evenstad Vineyard

Willamette Valley.  Senior Editor Harvey Steiman’s characterization of “supple, expressive and multilayered flavors” is enough to peak my interest.

That two Bordeaux wines placed in the Top 10 is somewhat normal, the fact that they are both white wines is anything but.

The #4 Château Climens Barsac 2013 (97-pt/$68) is a sweet wine made from

Chateau Climens Barsac 2103

Chateau Climens Barsac 2103

semillon grapes, produced at a biodynamically farmed, certified organic winery located south of Bordeaux along the left bank of the Gironde River, north of the famous Sauternes region.  The first Barsac named to the Top 10, this wine used only sémillon grapes infected with Botrytis cinerea, the “noble rot” and is described as balanced, with ample stone and tropical fruit flavors and a creamy mouthfeel.

A few miles south of Bordeaux lies the Pessac-Léognan appellation, the home of the #9 Château Smith-Haut-Lafitte Pessac-Léognan White 2013 (96-pt/$106), a highly rated, expensive blend of sauvignon blanc, sauvignon gris and sémillon. Senior editor James Molesworth’s descriptive words like “gorgeous,” “opulent,” “shortbread,” “white peach,” and “tarragon-laced” are, indeed, exciting.

In the late 1950s, four Stanford Research Institute scientists purchased an old winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains, 2300 feet on Monte Bello Ridge high above the current technologies of Cupertino. Years later, the Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz

Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2012

Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2012

Mountains 1971 helped re-shape the wine industry by placing fifth in the 1976 Paris tasting, then ranking first in the 2006 Reprise Tasting, judging the aged versions of the original vintages.  Described as an old-school cabernet, the Ridge Monte Bello Santa Cruz Mountains 2012 (94-pt/$175) adds merlot, cabernet franc and petit verdot to take its place among our finest meritage blends.

From the Piedmont region, produced with a co-operative managed by Aldo Vacca, the #5 Produttori del Barbaresco Barbaresco Asili Riserva 2011 (96-pt/$59) comes from an appellation that is

Produttori del Barbaresco Asili Reserve 2011

Produttori del Barbaresco Asili Reserve 2011

smaller than Barolo and the wines are accessible sooner. Asili is one of nine single vineyards that lies atop the hills where it’s generally cooler. Fermented in stainless steel after the malolactic process, it is highly reviewed for concentrated, elegantly balanced flavors and is the best value within the Top

vineyard_4047544_1600

Asili Vineyard, Barbaresco, Italy

10. The sangiovese-dominant #8 Antinori Toscana Tignanello 2013(95-pt/$105) comes from a pioneering winery who was a leader in introducing French varietals to the Tuscan varietals, labeling them “Super Tuscans.”  The addition of cabernet sauvignon and cabernet franc is said to add ”power, depth and structure.”  Always consisting of the same blend, this is the highest rated vintage from IGT Toscana designated Tignanello Vineyard, over one hundred acres high above sea level.

The Orin Swift Winery, founded in 1998 is derived from winemaker Dave Phinney,s fathers middle and mother’s maiden names.  I have enjoyed his zinfandel-based “The Prisoner” wine for years, a brand he sold in 2010 to concentrate on new blends with

Orin Swift "Machete" 2013

Orin Swift “Machete” 2013

names that include “Papillon,” “Machete” and “Abstract.”  I was pleased when the #6 Orin Swift Machete California 2014 (94-pt/$48) received such lofty recognition.  Having tasted previous vintages, this is a big, earthy wine with ample tannins and rich flavors.  A good value, but now harder to find.

California dominated the list with 21 wines and after the addition of ten more from the Pacific Northwest (Oregon-4, Washington-6) and one from the Fingerlakes region of New York, the #70 Ravines Riesling Fingerlakes dry 2014 (90-pt/$18), the US contributed 32 wines.  France provided 16 releases, divided evenly throughout their diverse regions and Italy placed 18 wines, mostly from Tuscany. Spain was the only other country in double figures with 10 wines, including two standards from the Haro wine loop in northern Rioja that we visited in 2010. Returning to the list are the #22 Cune Rioja Gran Reserva 2010 (94-pt/$33), after the vintage 2004 Imperial Gran Reserva was named the 2013 Wine of the Year and the #65 La Rioja Alta Rioja 904 Gran Reserva 2007 (93-pt/$55), both good values.

Tzora Judean Hills White 2014

Tzora Judean Hills White 2014

Israeli winemakers are beginning to show their diversity by setting two wines, a red and a white, into the fold.  A kosher chardonnay-sauvignon blanc blend, the #79 Tzora Judean Hills White 2014 (92-pt/$30)relies on winemaker Eran Pick and his world of experience for the complex flavors and and the north region #93 Galil Mountain Yiron Galilee 2013 (92-pt/$32), the winery’s flagship release,  blending cabernet

Yiron Vineyard, Galil Mountain

Yiron Vineyard, Galil Mountain

sauvignon, merlot, syrah and petit verdot.

The 2016 list is filled with old veterans, a few grace or have graced my cellar.  Having long described it as my favorite food-pairing sauvignon blanc, the #17 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley 2014 (93-pt/$32) signals an extraordinary vintage.  I have enjoyed single-vineyard zinfandel from Paso Robles’ Ueberroth Vineyard since the mid-1990s when grapes were

2013 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley

2013 Merry Edwards Sauvignon Blanc Russian River Valley

sourced to the now defunct Martin Weyrich Winery. Turley has continued to honor it with the #20 Turley Zinfandel Paso Robles Ueberroth Vineyard 2013 (94-pt/$48).  Ancient vines and limestone slopes are the key to the vineyard’s rich expressions.

I savor each vintage of the Sojourn Cellars pinot noir from Gap’s Crown Vineyard in the cold, breezy Petaluma Gap. The #35 Sojourn Pinot Noir Sonoma Coast Gap’s Crown Vineyard 2014 (94-pt/$59) caught the Spectator’s attention with a high rating and moderate price.  We recently shared a bottle of the #47 Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eighteen Seventy-Three 2013 (94-pt/$80) with friends,

Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eighteen Seventy-Three 2013

Hall Cabernet Sauvignon Napa Valley Eighteen Seventy-Three 2013

pairing it with an Abbaye de Belloc cheese from southern France.  It has the depth, balance and richness expected from Hall, but this one is their most moderately priced.

I am actively searching for the #31 Tenshen White Central Coast 2015 (92-pt/$20), celebrating its second appearance on the list. In fact, the wine has appeared in

Tenshen White Central Coast 2015

Tenshen White Central Coast 2015

periodicals and is generating excitement for winemakers Joey Tensley and Alex Guarachi.  From a white Rhone blend of viognier, roussanne,grenache blanc with a touch of chardonnay, we expect it all:  body, texture and expressive, balanced flavors.

South America was well represented with seven wines total from Chile and Argentina, including a wine that meets all the criteria and I feel compelled to mention, the #74 Bodega Norton Malbec Mendoza Reserva 2014 (90-pt/$19).  Retailing for less than $20, each vintage of this nicely structured wine from the Mendoza region of Argentina seems to be readily available in most wine outlets and, in the best years, extolled as an exciting wine.

Finally. a special mention goes to Sonoma County, especially the Russian River Valley appellation that contributed six wines.  Known for pinot noir and cool climate chardonnay, the 2016 releases expressed more diversity than normal with two zinfandels and a sauvignon blanc in the top 20 and one each of syrah, chardonnay and pinot noir. The Russian River Valley appellation is a leader among leaders.


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.