Category Archives: Wines of the World

Group classification for countries and wine regions.

Benvenuto Brunello

bb2017

Each year in February, in glorious anticipation of welcoming a new vintage, the Consorzio del Vino Brunello di Montalcino hosts a bountiful tasting for the wine trade in the quaint Italian hilltown of Montalcino. Row after row, table upon table, 150 producers share their current release wines: light, fresh, “drink now” Rosso di Montalcino, current release Brunello di Montalcino, and age-worthy Riservas.

2017 Benvenuto Brunello in Montalcino, Italy

2017 Benvenuto Brunello in Montalcino, Italy

The 2017 extravaganza featured 2015 Rosso di Montalcino, 2012 Brunello di Montalcino, and 2011 Brunello di Montalcino Riserva.

The 2012 vintage has already been rated by Italian wine expert Kerin O’Keefe who, in a recent Wine Enthusiast review, proclaims this vintage to be a “return to finesse” for the second year in a row. See Kerin’s top 20 list of 2012 Brunellos here.

Wine critic James Suckling has called the 2012 vintage a “rock star.” Read about his early assessment of the 2012 Brunellos here. His earlier take on the 2011 vintage bodes well for the Riservas that are just now being released into the market. Suckling’s top 95+ Brunellos, by rating, are:

  • 100  Valdicava “Madonna del Piano” €175; Renieri €150
  • 99  Fuligni €130
  • 98  San Fillippo “Le Lucere” €58; Sassetti Livio “Pertimali” €55
  • 97  Ciacci Piccolomini “Pianrosso” €58; Altesino “Montosoli” €75; Banfi “Poggio All’Oro” €120; Castelgiocondo “Ripe al Convento” €120; Castello di Romitorio €120; Siro Pacenti “PS” €160
  • 96  La Rasina €38; Argiano €40; Castiglion del Bosco €40; Casanova di Neri “Tenuta Nuova” €75; Giodo €85; Valdicava €85
  • 95  La Mannella “I Poggiarelli” €38; Talenti €95; Banfi “Poggio Alle Mura” €95; Canalicchio di Sopra €45; Siro Pacenti “Pelagrilli” €45; Uccelliera €55; Poggio Antico €58; Renieri €59; Fuligni €60; Siro Pacenti “Vecchie Vigne” €85; Biondi Santi €100; Le Ragnaie “La Fornace” €120; La Ragnaie “Vecchie Vigne” €120; Caparzo €60

I chose my “top 10” selections  from the moderate price range (€30-45) to round out O’Keefe and Suckling top picks, and to encourage your regular experience of these fine wines. These are some perennial favorites of mine as well as some new to my personal cellar (not rated, just well liked at Benvenuto Brunello!):

  • Campogiovanni “San Felice” €35 (rated 93 by JS)
  • Casanove di Neri €45
  • Cinelli Columbini “Prime Donne” €45
  • Fanti €32
  • Fattoi €30
  • Il Poggione €45
  • La Fornacina €35
  • Lisini €40
  • Padelletti €35
  • Villa Le Prata €35

Two more bonus wines from me: Villa Le Prata 2004 and Lisini “Ugolaia” 2010. Villa Le Prata still has library wines available from most years 2003-2010. I am particularly fond of the 2003 (even though the vintage was only rated 88 — it shows what a quality winemaker can do in a less than great year!!).

Want your wines before they show up on shelves at your favorite wine merchant? You can order directly from Molesini Market in Cortona. Brothers Marco and Paolo Molesini host a trade visit to Benvenuto Brunello each year, assess the best of the best wines, and stock up for international wine lovers. Reach out to Marco. You won’t be disappointed!

Marco Molesini (center right) at Villa Le Prata in Montalcino

Marco Molesini (center right) at Villa Le Prata in Montalcino

Touring Southwest France: A Hidden Treasure

In this third and final piece about Southwest France, my goal is simple: introduce you to the little-known quality wine appellations that comprise the discontinuous set of AOCs known collectively as Southwest France, and inspire you to experience these surprisingly good, reasonably priced, wines on your own. Here are links to the first two stories about Southwest France based on the experience of traveling with wine writer Andrew Jefford on a study tour sponsored by the Wine Scholar Guild.

Southwest France: Diverse by Design?

Traditional Southwest France

Before launching into the individual AOCs, it is important to understand the importance of the highly significant IGP zone of Côtes de Gascogne. Recall that IGP stands for the European Union-designation “Indication Géographique Protégée,” a category of quality French wine positioned between table wine and the top designation of Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC). Côtes de Gascogne is a predominantly (85%) white-wine zone, the number one IGP in France, and perhaps in the world – 70% is exported! Most of the 93 million bottles of wine produced each year are made from light, thirst-quenching grapes including Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, Ugni Blanc and a bit of Sauvignon Blanc. Usually low in alcohol and sometimes semi-sweet, these are perfect introductory wines for “newbies” starting a journey to learn about wine.

Armagnac AOC is the only region of Southwest France to specialize in distilled wine. Although the known history of distillation is nearly 2,000 years old (from China during the Jin dynasty), it wasn’t until 1310 that the first written record of brandy distillation appeared in Armagnac, some 150 years before written references to Cognac. Even though Armagnac is France’s oldest brandy, Cognac is positioned closer to the sea, creating a commercial disadvantage for Armagnac.

The key difference between Armagnac and Cognac is the distilling method. Cognac is a pot-stilled spirit, which is the same method of double-distillation used for malt whisky. Armagnac is distilled only once in an Alambic continuous still, and to a lower alcoholic strength than Cognac. As a result, brandy from Armagnac has more impurities, is more rustic in style, and has more pronounced aroma and flavor.

Ugni Blanc is the primary grape variety for Armagnac (and Cognac). It accounts for about 55% of plantings in the appellation. Other permitted grape varieties include the hybrid Baco, Folle Blanche, and Colombard.

Age categories to aid consumers:

  • 1 year for VS (very special)
  • 4 years for VSOP (very superior old pale)
  • 6 years for XO (extra old, also called Napoleon)
  • 10, 20 and 25-year Hors d’Age (“beyond age,” youngest component is at least 10 years old)

All vintage wines must come from the year stated, as well as being at least 10 years old.

Photo Credit: Darroze website

Photo Credit: Darroze website

Visit Bas Armagnac Francis Darroze:
277 avenue de l’Armagnac, 40120 Roquefort
+33 5 58 45 51 22
Contact: delphine@darroze-armagnacs.com
www.darroze-armagnacs.com

Darroze was founded by Francis Darroze in the 1970s after several decades of searching out exceptional properties in the Bas Armagnac for his father Jean’s restaurant in Villeneuve-de-Marsan. Son Marc, a trained oenologist, joined the family business in 1996 and runs the operation today. The “Unique Collection” is comprised of Armagnacs sourced from 30 different domaines. Seven offerings called collectively “Les Grande Assemblages” are aged 8, 12, 20, 30, 40, 50, and 60 years respectively. Vintage wines are also made in exceptional years.

Bergerac AOC is Southwest France’s second largest planting zone. It is both blessed and cursed by its proximity to the right bank of the Dordogne River and inevitable comparisons to Bordeaux. Conditions of terroir for the exquisite sweet wines of Bergerac are ideal. The soil composition is largely a continuation of what you find in Bordeaux: river terraces, deposits of gravel and sand, and limey clay. Compared to Bordeaux, Bergerac is slightly warmer in the summer and cooler in the winter, but the grape varieties are the same: Semillon, Sauvignon, and Muscadelle for the whites, and Merlot plus the two Cabernets for the reds. Yet, for all of these delightful similarities, Bergerac suffers commercially in the shadow of powerhouse Bordeaux.

Chateau Tour des Gendres Photo credit: Kathy Merchant (October 2016)

Chateau Tour des Gendres
Photo credit: Kathy Merchant (October 2016)

Visit Château Tour des Gendres:
SARL La Julienne
Les Gendres, 24240 Ribagnac
+33 5 53 57 12 43
Contact: familledeconti@wanadoo.fr
www.chateautourdesgendres.com

Winemaker Luc de Conti farms 20 of 50 ha that he and other family members have owned since 1925 when his Italian ancestors emigrated to Southwest France. Since 1996, de Conti has practiced organic farming, including one 6 ha parcel which is biodynamic. Recently, de Conti has begun experimenting with amphorae. Wines: three Bergerac Sec Blanc (white blend, 100% Muscadelle, 100% Sauvignon Blanc); and two Bergerac Rouge.

Cahors AOC is an appellation for red wine only. Distanced physically and commercially from comparisons to regions along the Dordogne River, Cahors is distinguished by its relationship to the serpentine Lot River. The river’s twists and turns create two different types of vineyards, each producing different styles of wine. The first terroir consists of four levels of gravel river terraces, increasing quality with elevation and distance from the riverbed’s fertile soils. The second type of soil is found on the causses, or plateau, the limestone uplands.

Malbec, locally known as Auxerrois, is the key grape variety in Cahors, though Merlot and Tannat can also be used for up to 30% of the blend. As a point of interest, it has been proven that Malbec is Merlot’s aunt! And although Malbec’s spiritual home is Cahors, Malbec is now far more widely planted in Argentina (27,000 ha) than in France (6,100 ha). Modern relationships between Cahors and Mendoza are very good even as the professional union (UIVC) promotes the brand “Cahors: The French Malbec.”

Cahors Terroir Photo credit: www.la-parole-au-vin.fr

Cahors Terroir
Photo credit: www.la-parole-au-vin.fr

Visit Château Haut-Monplaisir:
Monplaisir, 46700 Lacapelle-Cabanac
+33 (0)5 65 24 64 78
Contact: chateau.hautmonplaisir@wanadoo.fr
www.chateau-haut-monplaisir.com

Visit Clos Troteligotte:
Al Cap Blanc, 46090 Villesèque
+33 (0)6 74 81 91 26
Contact: contact@clostroteligotte.fr
www.clostroteligotte.com 

Visit Château du Cedre:
Bru, 46700 Vire-sur-Lot
+33 (0)5 65 36 53 87
Contact: contact@chateauducedres.com
www.chateauducedre.com

Union Interprofessionelle des Vins de Cahors (UIVC) Malbec Lounge
Villa Cahors Malbec, Place F. Mitterand, 46000 Cahors
+33 (0)5.65.23.82.35
Contact: complete form on UIVC website
www.vindecahors.fr

Gaillac AOC. Unlike the all-red appellation of Cahors, Gaillac is an appellation with many options – red, rosé, young primeur red (like Gamay, made by carbonic maceration and sold quickly), dry white, sweet white, and sweet lightly sparkling white wines made by the ancestral method which are bottled toward the end of the first fermentation. In this appellation, the Tarn River is the predominant influence, with stone, sand and gravel on the left bank, and chalky clay soils on the right bank.

The most planted grape in Gaillac is white Mauzac (37%).  It’s mentioned locally in records from 1525. It is the only grape permitted for ancestral method sparkling wine, and is also used for dry and sweet white wines.  It has a fresh and distinct apple aroma. Other grapes grown in Gaillac include white Len de l’El, only found in Gaillac; red Braucol, known elsewhere as Fer (“iron”) or Fer Servadou; and red Duras, also unique to Gaillac. Familiar international varieties include Sauvignon, Syrah, Gamay and Muscadelle, with small quantities of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

Aurélie and Jean-Marc Balaran Photo credit: www.ladepeche.fr

Aurélie and Jean-Marc Balaran
Photo credit: http://www.ladepeche.fr

Visit Domaine d’Escausses:
La Salamandrie, 81150 Sainte-Croix
+33 (0)5 63 56 80 52
Contact and “like” Domaine d’Escausses on Facebook

The winemaker for Domaine d’Escausses is Jean-Marc Balaran, son of the founder Denis. Jean Marc’s daughter, Aurélie is also fully engaged in the family enterprise.

Fronton AOC is situated just north of Toulouse, France’s fourth largest city. Yet it remains largely unknown on the international stage. Until the 18th century, Fronton was essentially a cereal-producing area. It wasn’t until the privilege de Bordeaux came to an end that farmers in Fronton could entertain the idea of growing winegrapes and getting wines to market.

Negrette is the grape of Fronton, used to make both rosé and red wines. Negrette produces dark wines, but they are not particularly dense or well structured. Their charm is a light note of fruit with a bit of black pepper pizzazz. Although similarities to the relationship of the Gamay grape to Beaujolais might easily be drawn, Fronton does not (yet) have the same prestige as the ten Beaujolais crus. Negrette can be blended with the Cabernets and Syrah, but must comprise at least 40% of the blend.

Château Plaisance Photo credit: www.aoc-vin-fronton.hautetfort.com

Château Plaisance
Photo credit: http://www.aoc-vin-fronton.hautetfort.com

Visit Château Plaisance:
Place de la Mairie, 31340 Vacquiers
+33 5 61 84 97 41
Contact: chateau-plaisance@wanadoo.fr
www.chateau-plaisance.fr

The Penavayre family has been farming grapes and other crops in this region since 1870. Louis Penavayre decided in 1971 to devote the entire farm to winegrapes. His son, current winemaker Marc, joined his father in 1991 and has expanded the operation. Château Plaisance converted to biodynamic farming in 2006, and Penavayre produced the first fully certified vintage in 2011. 60% of the property is planted with Negrette.

Irouleguy AOC. This is Basque country, which does not exist politically, but certainly exists culturally and linguistically. The Romans more or less left the Basque tribes alone, so their language and culture didn’t disappear as happened in the rest of Gaul and Iberia. The Pyrenees Mountains form an imposing boundary between France and Spain, with the discontinuous mountain vineyards forming a sort of amphitheater around Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Vineyards face north, east and southeast on soils based on sandstone and lime. Winegrowing in this challenging location has a strong cultural element, which is close to the pass of Roncevaux and the Abbey of Roncevalles in Spain.

The appellation produces 60% red, 25% rose and 15% white.  The reds and rosés are typically the Tannat grape plus the two Cabernets, and whites wines are made with the Gros Manseng, Petit Manseng, and Petit Courbu. Most Irouleguy wine is sold locally, and thus not much is exported.

Photo credit: www.gutizia.fr

Photo credit: www.gutizia.fr

Visit Domaine Gutizia:
quartier Leisparz, 64430 Saint-Étienne-de-Baïgorry
+33 5 59 37 52 84
Contact: complete a form on the winery’s website
www.gutizia.fr

Domaine Gutizia was founded in 2011 by Sébastien Clauzel and Cécile Sabah, nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees Mountains. Sébastien has worked vineyards in the Rhone, Provence and Beaujolais, while Cécile studied in Bordeaux and learned about winemaking in that region. Sébastien’s passion for wine and rugby led him to the Basque country and Irouleguy. D. Gutizia is small (6 ha) but produces white, rosé, and red wines.

Jurançon AOC. Many of the parcels of vines in Jurançon are tiny and isolated, which served to halt the sweep of phylloxera through the region in the late 1800s. Jurançon vineyards face southwest toward the Pyrynees Mountains, and are tucked between two parallel west-flowing rivers (locally called gaves): the Gave de Pau and the Gave d’Oleron. The mound of land between the rivers makes a lovely mound, and nice southwest-facing slopes, where about 1,200 ha of vines are grown.

Jurançon is one of France’s wettest regions, and so there is very little organic farming. High training and long pruning methods are used to avoid excess moisture. However, its two main grapes – Gros Manseng and Petit Manseng – have very thick skins and are thus not susceptible to mold in rainy conditions.

Jurançon is known for its great sweet wines (about 60% of production, mostly Petit Manseng). A distinctive feature of the climate is the foehn wind which often gives this area a beautiful Indian summer. The sweet wines of Jurançon are not made by botrytis. Instead, the method used is passerillage: grapes are left to shrivel on the vine and raisin in the autumn.

Photo credit: D. Cauhapé website

Photo credit: D. Cauhapé website

Visit Domaine Cauhapé:
64360 Monein
+33 (0)5 59 21 33 02
Contact:
contact@cauhape.com
www.jurancon-cauhape.com

Winemaker Henri Ramonteu brings great energy to the presentation of both dry and sweet wines made primarily from Petit Manseng grapes. Gros Manseng and Courbu bring finesse and fruit to the blend; Camaralet and Lauzet are ancient varieties used sparingly as they are reintroduced to dry Jurançon wines. The dry range includes five wines; the sweet range includes six wines that exemplify what happens to the Petit Manseng grapes from October through January as well as unique blends of those same wines.

Domaine du Cinquau Photo credit: www.zankyou.fr

Domaine du Cinquau
Photo credit: www.zankyou.fr

Visit Domaine du Cinquau:
64230 Artiguelouve
+33 (0)5 59 83 10 41
Contact: p.saubot@jurancon.com
www.jurancon.com

Established in 1617, D. du Cinquau is one of the oldest wineries in Jurançon and one of 60 independent producers. Recognizing that Jurançon is not as widely recognized as other regions of France, current owner Pierre Saubot invested in a beautiful modernization of the chateau as a way to bring people into the winery experience. The winery offers two dry and four sweet wines, the latter demonstrating how the grapes evolve through autumn to become increasingly sweet with extended raising.

Madiran AOC (red) and Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh AOC (dry and sweet white). It is said that Madiran is in the middle of nowhere. It is, in fact, very difficult to get to. It is possible to drive through Madiran and never even see a vineyard because they are hidden away on a switchback landscape of east- or south-facing slopes along a series of valleys and ridges created by streams. The soil is heavy clay, and Madiran bears the brunt of Atlantic weather systems and rain.

The big story in Madiran is about its main grape, Tannat, which accounts for about 70% of all local plantings. It is very high in tannin, which must be handled with great care to find the balance between rustic and gentle style extremes. It is also high in acidity, and has a tendency toward reduction. It is definitely a food wine, but be sure to decant it for 24-28 hours regardless of vintage age!

Drumroll: Madiran is the most healthful wine you can drink! An emerging view of Tannat’s health properties is that it has the greatest concentration of procyanidins among common red grapes. This is not the same thing as resveratrol (a polyphenol, or antioxidant). It’s even better. Cardiovascular research conducted by Dr. Roger Corder, author of “The Red Wine Diet” (2006), has found procyanadins to be the main source of red wine’s health benefits. Offered as evidence is the surprisingly long lifespan of people living in the département of Gers in Southwest France where Madiran, spiritual home of Tannat, is located. This is the real French paradox!

Tannat is also the primary grape of Uruguay, having been taken there by Basque settlers. However, in contrast to the Cahors/Mendoza situation, there are still more plantings of Tannat in France than in Uruguay — 3000 ha vs. 1800 ha.

Pacherenc du Vic-Bilh specializes in sweet white wines. (Vic-Bilh means “old hill.”) They are late harvest (not botrytis) wines, rich and full-flavored with lots of honey notes, made from various combinations of Petit Courbu, Petit Manseng, Gros Manseng, Courbu and Arrufiac. A small amount of dry white wine is also produced mostly from Petit Courbu.

Château Montus Photo credit: www.dax.ie/restaurant

Château Montus
Photo credit: www.dax.ie/restaurant

Visit Châteaux Montus and Bouscassé:
32400 Maumusson Laguian
+33 5 62 69 74 67
Contact: contact@brumont.fr
www.brumont.fr

These properties (and two more) are owned by Alain Brumont, and include the region’s highest profile single vineyard site, La Tyre. Grape varieties are Tannat, Petit Manseng, and Petit Courbu. Brumont makes white and red wines in the appellations of Madiran, Pacherenc du Vic Bilh, and Côtes de Gascogne. Brumont is a large producer with distribution in over 40 countries.

Didier Barré in the field Photo credit: www.sudcomer.com (Berthoumieu website)

Didier Barré in the field
Photo credit: http://www.sudcomer.com (Berthoumieu website)

Visit Domaine Berthoumieu:
Dutour, 32400 Viella, France
+33 5 62 69 74 05
Contact: contact@domaine-berthoumieu.com
www.domaine-berthoumieu.com

The winery is physically located in Pacherenc du Vic-Bihl AOC, homeland of the famous Musketeers and stronghold of d’Artagnan (aka Charles de Batz). Ch. Berthoumieu specializes in sweet white wines. Owner Didier Barré is the 5th generation winemaker of this property. Some of the family’s vines are more than 100 years old. A speciality of Ch. Berthoumieu is Tanatis, a late harvest port-like Vin du Liqueur, which they have made since 2000.

Monbazillac AOC is France’s leading sweet-wine appellation, producing more wine than Sauternes. Monbazillac’s stickies are made primarily from Muscadelle grapes, although Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc are in the blend – essentially the reverse of Sauterne. Up to 10% is permitted in the blend from a combination of Chenin Blanc, Ondenc, and/or Ugni Blanc grapes. But unlike other regions where grapes are harvested late to ripen or left to raisin on the vine, the vineyard process in Monbazillac is the same as Sauterne: botrytis.

The terroir is also similar to Sauternes: limey clay and marl soils, although a bit less gravelly; hilly; and a river-influenced Mediterranean climate with perfect conditions for noble rot as autumn morning mists from the Gardonette River give way to warm, sunny afternoons. Monbazillac wines compare favorably with some of the lesser Sauternes, although the style is different: a little darker in color, a little stronger in aroma and flavor, and typically even sweeter than Sauterne.

Photo credit: ©Gunther Vicente (Tirecul La Gravière website)

Photo credit: ©Gunther Vicente (Tirecul La Gravière website)

Visit: Château Tirecul La Gravière:
24240 Monbazillac
+33 5 47 77 07 60
Contact: contact@tirecul-la-graviere.fr
www.tirecul-la-graviere.fr

Tirecul La Gravière is owned by Bruno and Claudie Bilancini. The farm is organic. The photo above shows morning mists that typically lift by 1:00 pm, introducing warm sunshine into the cool vineyards. The range includes four white wines: Cuvée Madame, Ch. Tirecul La Graviére, Les Pins, and Andrea (dry).

Pécharment is a leading red-wine appellation, focused primarily on the familiar Bordeaux grapes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec for the reds; and Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon for the whites.

Photo credit: Ch. de Tiregand website

Photo credit: Ch. de Tiregand website

Visit Château de Tiregand:
118 route Sainte-Alvère, 24100 Creysse
+33 5 53 23 21 08
Contact: contact@chateau-de-tiregand.com
www.chateau-de-tiregand.com

Château de Tiregand is owned by the heirs to the Comtesse F. de St-Exupéry, run today by François de St-Exupéry, with his son Cyril serving as able winemaker-in-training. The winery offers three red Bordeaux blends consisting of four out of five classic grapes (all but Petit Verdot which does not grow well in Pecharment), a Cabernet/Merlot blend, and a Bergerac Blanc.

Traditional Southwest France: Malbec and Tannat

Historic Regions of Southwest France (Photo courtesy of hubertbrooks.com

Historic Regions of Southwest France
(Photo courtesy of hubertbrooks.com)

Political History

The political history of wine in Bordeaux explains in part why the appellations of Southwest France’s “high country” are hidden in its popular shadow. At times called Gascogne (including Béarn) and Aquitaine, today Southwest France is called l’Occitainie administratively.

Bordeaux was controlled by England from 1154 to 1453. This period proved to be a golden era for wine exports to England, Scandinavia, and Baltic ports, laying the foundation for Bordeaux’s enduring reputation as a preeminent source of fine wine. Because Bordeaux merchants controlled access to the sea and collected taxes for the English Kings, a system of market control emerged called Police des Vins or the Privilege de Bordeaux. Here’s how it worked: only new wine from Bordeaux could be shipped before December 1 each year. Even if “high country” wines arrived in Bordeaux in December, they could not be shipped until after Christmas. This prejudiced system remained in place well into the 17th century.

Regional nuances explain modern circumstances in some of the better-known areas of Southwest France. For example:

Only Bergerac was exempt from the Privilege de Bordeaux system. Bergerac became part of British Aquitaine in 1255 and was afforded the same shipping privileges as Bordeaux, thus enjoying the benefits of this golden era, especially shipping to Holland where the Dutch were particularly fond of sweet wines. But disparities existed nonetheless. Bergerac is in a different department than Bordeaux (Dordogne vs. Gironde), resulting in lower bulk prices for Bergerac’s wines. Its image suffers even today in comparison to Bordeaux.

The wine-related histories of Cahors and Gaillac go back to Roman times. Madiran’s foray into wine started later, when Benedictine monks arrived in the 12th century to found the Madiran priory.

Archeological evidence (amphorae) shows that Gaillac was a major wine production center as early as the first century. At the time of the Roman conquest of Gaul, it was one of the first places soldiers came to as they made their way north. (Neither Burgundy nor Bordeaux had yet become significant key wine regions.) They may have viewed Gaillac as the furthest north horizon for viticulture due to its positioning on a navigable river (Tarn). Wines from Gaillac emerge over the centuries in stories of gifts among royals and the court’s preferred libation.

Cahors was the place where Romans crossed the Lot River as they worked their way north. Vineyards were planted early and extensively in Cahors. The town was quite prosperous and cultured even before Bordeaux began to occupy that esteemed position. In fact, half of the wine shipped out of Bordeaux in the 14th century came from Cahors. Despite economic disadvantages caused by the Privilege de Bordeaux, and other setbacks through the 19th century, Cahors managed to maintain its reputation for fine wines. Problems began to escalate in the mid-1800s, however, and for the next 100 years (through the 1950s), Cahors experienced a sharp decline in production and market reputation. Today, producers are aligned in a rebranding strategy to reposition the region as home to “The Original Malbec” in a friendly competition with Argentina.

Madiran wines did not enjoy the export notoriety of the other regions of Southwest France. The Adour River, key to moving product from the region to export markets, did not become navigable until the 18th century, and then only in one small area. Madiran’s rural location in the “middle of nowhere” with no major cities or towns has meant that other crops such as cereals and root vegetables predominate. Most of the great winegrowing sites in the region have already been planted. The wine industry in Madiran seems destined to remain small, slow and steady.

Spiritual Home of Malbec and Tannat Grapes

Most wine consumers today highly associate Malbec with Argentina. Others may think of Malbec primarily as a blending partner with the major grapes in Bordeaux blends. One of many French paradoxes, however, is that Malbec’s original spiritual home is actually Cahors.

How can two countries, one in the old world and one in the new, both lay claim to the preeminence of one grape? The history of the Cahors region shows that Malbec has been documented to Roman times, but a combination of market forces and vine diseases diminished growing, production and market relevance.

Spiritual Homes: Cahors and Mendoza (Photo credits: Wine Folly grapevine; Wines of Argentina map; Lot Cycling Holidays “Cahors Malbec”)

Spiritual Homes: Cahors and Mendoza
(Photo credits: Wine Folly grapevine; Wines of Argentina map; Lot Cycling Holidays “Cahors Malbec”)

As this was happening, mostly in the mid-19th century, Malbec made its way to Argentina – according to “Wine Grapes,” possibly via cuttings that were imported to Chile from Bordeaux. The timing is key here: these vine cuttings escaped the deadly phylloxera louse taking hold in France! Malbec quickly found its happy place in the Lujan de Cuyo region just south of Mendoza.

Both Cahors and Argentina have made the modern mistake of either replanting sick vineyards (Cahors) or grubbing up Malbec vines (both countries) in favor of more popular international varieties. It has taken some time to restore total Malbec vine supply in both places. Today about 70% of all Malbec is grown in Argentina, perhaps at least partially explaining consumer familiarity. At considerable risk of oversimplification, differences in terroir yield Malbecs in Argentina that tend to be higher in alcohol and fruit-forward, whereas the Malbecs of Cahors are more savory, even meaty, with firm tannins.

It wasn’t until Cahors AOC was approved in 1971 as a 100% red appellation that the region embarked on a three-decade “golden age.” There has been a strong brand strategy movement afoot for nearly a decade to reposition Cahors as home to the original Malbec. “The French Malbec” campaign was born to elevate Malbec and Cahors to “the center of the modern world.”

Tannat is a dark-colored red grape, richly textured with readily extracted tannins, and relatively high in acidity. But there is one common misunderstanding, oft-repeated by wine writers (and even some wineries on their websites): Tannat is not a thick-skinned grape! Like its brethren great grapes – Pinot Noir, Nebbiolo, and Grenache, just to name a few – Tannat has thin skin, but excellent skin-to-pulp ratio, and thus generates excellent tannins for structure and aging potential.

Tannat from Madiran (Photo Credit: aquitaineonline.com)

Tannat from Madiran
(Photo Credit: aquitaineonline.com)

An emerging view of Tannat’s health properties is that it has the greatest concentration of procyanidins among common red grapes. This is not the same thing as resveratrol (a polyphenol, or antioxidant). It’s even better. Cardiovascular research conducted by Dr. Roger Corder, author of “The Red Wine Diet” (2006), has found procyanadins to be the main source of red wine’s health benefits. Offered as evidence is the surprisingly long lifespan of people living in the département of Gers in Southwest France where Madiran, home of Tannat, is located. This is the real French paradox!

Less well known in wine world is the fact that, like Malbec, Tannat also has two spiritual homes: Madiran and Uruguay. Wine write Alder Yarrow (vinography.com) describes Uruguay as a “quiet neighbor” to South America’s big producers: Argentina, Chile and Brazil. Uruguay has been producing wine for over a century, and getting to a pretty high level of quality in the last 25-30 years. Many of Uruguay’s residents are Italian immigrants – a longer story for another day. Their native grapes did not do well in the windy, humid Uruguayan climate. In 1870, a Basque immigrant by the name of Pascal Harriague brought Tannat plantings to Uruguay. Today, Tannat plantings represents about 25% of all vineyard acreage.

Traditional Food

Southwest France is the land of geese and ducks prepared every way imaginable (including pâté, foie gras, and rillettes). Fat from these birds is used in many recipes ranging from potatoes to confit. But don’t overlook the many other regional specialties including garlic soup, black Périgord truffles, goat cheeses, walnuts, and dried fruits (especially prunes). The Southwest diet, plus all that tannic red wine, is actually a very healthy one – the real French paradox!!

“Perhaps there is no dish in the Southwest France more iconic, cherished, and controversial than the cassoulet. Cassoulet was originally a food of peasants–a simple assemblage of what ingredients were available: white beans with pork, sausage, duck confit, gizzards, cooked together for a long time.” [dartagnan.com, a French purveyor of gourmet food]

The legend of cassoulet is claimed by Castelnaudary, dating back to 1355 during the Hundred Years War when hungry townspeople gathered up available ingredients to make a hearty stew. Other cities – particularly Toulouse and Carcassonne – also lay claim to this traditional dish as the one, true Cassoulet. The name cassoulet comes from the word cassole, the traditional clay pot in which it is cooked (c. 1377).

Cassoulet (Photo Credit: Curtis Stone on Pinterest)

Cassoulet
(Photo Credit: Curtis Stone on Pinterest)

Traditional cassoulet is made with goose or duck confit, but the recipe varies from town to town in Southwest France. Some recipes include pork shoulder and sausage or mutton. Whether or not to add crumbs to the top is a matter of fierce debate. Even the type of bean is debated. In southern areas closest to the the Pyrénées Mountains, the bean must be the Coco, or Tarbais, bean. Further north, flageolet beans are used. In the spring, fresh fava beans are used. But in other parts of the world, cassoulet is typically made with Great Northern or Cannellini beans.

Some general advice for making a classic cassoulet:

  • The texture should be similar to a thick stew. If it is too dry, add some liquid. If it is too moist, cut the crust to concentrate the juices.
  • If adapting a recipe to maximize flavor, which is encouraged, use as many different confit meats as possible.
  • Always eat cassoulet very hot!
  • Cassoulet is better the next day as a leftover after the flavors have had more time to meld.

“How to Make Cassoulet” from allrecipes.com

INGREDIENTS (8 servings)

Beans
1 pound dried Great Northern or Cannellini beans
1 whole clove
1/2 onion
4 cloves garlic, smashed
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
10 cups water

Soak Great Northern (or Cannellini) beans in water in a large bowl overnight. Drain beans and place into a large soup pot. Push whole clove garlic into the 1/2 onion and add to beans; stir in 4 cloves smashed garlic, bay leaf, thyme, rosemary, and 10 cups water. Bring beans to a simmer and cook over medium-low heat until beans have started to soften, about 1 hour. Drain beans and reserve the cooking liquid, removing and discarding onion with garlic clove and bay leaf. Transfer beans to a large mixing bowl.

Casserole
1/2 pound thick-sliced bacon, chopped
2 ribs celery, diced
2 carrots, diced
1/2 onion, diced
salt to taste
1 teaspoon olive oil
1 pound link sausages (preferably French herb sausage), cut in half crosswise
1 pound cooked duck leg confit
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence (or similar herb mixture)
1 (14 ounce) can diced tomatoes

Topping
1/4 cup butter
4 cloves garlic, crushed
2 cups panko bread crumbs
1 bunch fresh parsley, finely chopped
salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1 tablespoon olive oil

DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
  2. Cook bacon in a large, heavy Dutch oven over medium heat until lightly browned and still limp, about 5 minutes. Stir celery, carrots, and 1/2 diced onion into bacon; season with salt. Cook and stir vegetables in the hot bacon fat until tender, about 10 minutes.
  3. Heat 1 teaspoon olive oil in a large, heavy skillet over medium heat; brown sausage link halves and duck confit in the hot oil until browned, about 5 minutes per side.
  4. Season vegetable-bacon mixture with 1 1/2 teaspoon salt, cracked black pepper, and herbes de Provence; pour in diced tomatoes. Cook and stir mixture over medium heat until juice from tomatoes has nearly evaporated and any browned bits of food on the bottom of pot have dissolved, about 5 minutes. Stir mixture into beans.
  5. Spread half the bean mixture into the heavy Dutch oven (or traditional Cassoulet baking dish) and place duck-sausage mixture over the beans; spread remaining beans over meat layer. Pour just enough of the reserved bean liquid into pot to reach barely to the top of the beans, reserving remaining liquid. Bring bean cassoulet to a simmer on stovetop and cover Dutch oven with lid.
  6. Bake bean cassoulet in the preheated oven for 30 minutes.
  7. Melt butter in a large skillet over medium heat; add 4 crushed garlic cloves, panko crumbs, and parsley to the melted butter. Season with salt and black pepper, and drizzle 1 tablespoon olive oil over crumbs. Stir to thoroughly combine.
  8. Uncover cassoulet and check liquid level; mixture should still have several inches of liquid. If beans seem dry, add more of the reserved bean liquid. Spread half the crumb mixture evenly over the beans and return to oven. Cook, uncovered, for 20 minutes. There should be about 2 or 3 inches of liquid at the bottom of the pot; if mixture seems dry, add more reserved bean mixture. Sprinkle remaining half the bread crumb mixture over cassoulet.
  9. Turn oven heat to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C) and bake cassoulet, uncovered, until crumb topping is crisp, edges are bubbling, and the bubbles are slow and sticky, 20 to 25 more minutes. Serve beans on individual plates and top each serving with a piece of duck and several sausage pieces.

Up next: Appellations and Winemakers (Part 3)

Southwest France: Diverse by Design?

Southwest France (Sud Oest) is best known for what it isn’t. Frankly, and unfortunately, it’s not widely recognized at all. With an accompanying eye-roll, I must report that many people have asked me – quite genuinely – “where is Southwest France?”!

Let’s get positioned on the map. Sud Oest is the deepest rural France, la France profonde. “In terroir terms, it’s a big area and rather difficult to generalise about, but most of the high-quality vineyard zones…owe their existence to the slopes created by rivers coming down either from the Massif Central, or from the Pyrenees. The overall zone is the Aquitaine Basin, and almost all of the soils…have been developed from sedimentary rocks of various kinds, or by the action of the rivers themselves.”[1]

  • To the west, the Atlantic Ocean curves along the French coastline, moderating altitude and winter weather (along with several smallish rivers) to create both maritime and semi-continental climates with plenty of rainfall.
  • To the south, the Pyrenees Mountains separate France from Spain. Beautifully majestic and occasionally craggy, the mountains are quite permeable. Basque language, food, and culture seep into the foothills on the French side.
  • To the north, Southwest France stretches inland, cupping the edges of Bordeaux and capturing misty river effects to generate some of the world’s greatest (if little known) sweet wines.
  • To the east? Well, that’s a good question. Several of the appellations that comprise Southwest France are actually nestled within the great Massif Central. The city of Toulouse might be a good eastern marker signaling the regional shift to Languedoc-Roussillon.
Map Credit: Wine Folly

Map Credit: Wine Folly

So what is (or is not) Southwest France? It is not an official appellation; it is a collection of appellations, glued together for convenience into a sort of cornucopia. Its terroir is not homogenous, although there are some common threads. It is the spiritual home – exclusive, in some cases – to spectacularly interesting grapes. Despite New World claims to the contrary, Malbec and Tannat can rightly claim Cahors and Madiran, respectively, as their spiritual homes. It’s not all obscure and mysterious, though. The appellations closest to Bordeaux do grow international varieties and make familiar blends.

This all adds up to a perplexing global-market branding nightmare for the winegrowers of Southwest France. There is very little that ties this huge geographic region together naturally as either an appellation or a brand. What might it be called instead? South X Southwest? Pyrenees North? Bordeaux Near? Gascony? High Country? l’Aquitaine?

Contributing to the overall brand issue is the fact that only about 25% of the 330 million bottles produced in Southwest France is AOC wine. Most of it – nearly 2/3 – is a regional designation of IGP (formerly Vin de Pays), and the rest is basically table wine for local markets. It is difficult to lift up and distinguish the highest quality wines.

It’s quite possibly impossible to create a proper synthesis of the region. While this alignment and branding problem is being sorted out, perhaps at a smaller scale on an appellation by appellation basis, the interim solution seems clear to me. Take a deep breath, hire a driver, plan a wine route that matches your sense of adventure, and enjoy by design the diversity of Southwest France. Just be sure to plan enough time to make the most of the >1,800 km touring experience!

Up next: Part 2 | History, Food & Wine

[1] Thank you to Andrew Jefford for the use of his extensive reference notes and excellent leadership of a Wine Scholar Guild tour of Southwest France.

Tradition Meets Innovation in Bergerac, FR

(This article was published October 20 by Wine Scholar Guild)

Day one of the Wine Scholar Guild (WSG) study tour of Southwest France, led by Andrew Jefford, was a very special opportunity to spend quality time with the owners/winemakers of three appellations, each providing a different glimpse of the diverse terroir of the region.

A bit behind schedule, we stopped for lunch at La Flambée near Bergerac just before 1:00. Bruno Bilancini had earlier explained the region’s daily rhythm of cool mists lasting until about 1:00, then giving way to warm sunshine (and thus perfect conditions for botrytis). The daily weather story was right on schedule!
Back on the bus, warmed by a lovely meal and and a preview of a white wine from Château Tour de Gendres, we headed to our third and final visit of the day in Bergerac with winemaker Luc di Conti. Instead of vineyard cats, we were greeted enthusiastically by a boisterous pooch who was determined to latch onto the knitted scarf of one member of our group.

In Ch. Tour’s vineyards we walked high atop a hill where we could see clearly the patchwork quilt of soils that provide great diversity and a perfect setting for organic farming (since 1996) of each parcel in a different manner. While the complete picture of the di Conti family vineyard holdings encompasses 50 ha, Luc farms 20 of them, choosing the 6 ha closest to the winery and cellars for biodynamic farming. When asked whether organic farming is more expensive than traditional commercial methods, Luc said unequivocally “no. If you are playing chess, you are always one step ahead. The same is true of viticulture.” After 20 years, nature is in balance at Ch. Tour and inspires new directions such as the dozen amphorae where Luc is also making orange wines.

Our tasting included a sample of Sauvignon Blanc from amphora (no skins, 10 days in the vessel) to compare with SB from a wooden vat. The amphora sample was cool, cloudy, slightly effervescent and sweet. The vat sample was warmer and also cloudy at this stage; though there was no sign of effervescence, there was more residual sugar. Continuing with comparisons, we tasted a vat sample of 2016 Bergerac Blanc (Muscadelle a Petits Grains) and a finished sample from 2014 which had been aged 80% in vat and 20% in amphora. The vat sample was quite leesy and tasted of pamplousse (grapefruit), while the finished wine was rich and full bodied with a slightly saline character. The vines for a 2014 Sauvignon Blanc are 80 years old, grown on calcere soil, resulting in a style typical of SW France. The final taste was a sample of 2015 Cabernet Franc, aged 14 months in a vat, ready to spend a year in bottle prior to release.

Chateau Tour Des Gendres

Chateau Tour Des Gendres

Southwest France: Monbazillac, Pecharment and Bergerac

Day one of the Wine Scholar Guild (WSG) study tour of Southwest France, led by Andrew Jefford, was a very special opportunity to spend quality time with the owners/winemakers of three appellations, each providing a different glimpse of the diverse terroir of the region.

Chateau Tirecul La Gravière

The misty morning launched with great aplomb: sweet breakfast treasures from Monbazillac. Standing with us on the edge of vineyards where botrytised grapes awaited the launch of harvest (by hand) on October 19, Bruno Bilancini led a discussion of the vineyard’s primarily clay (with a bit of limestone) terroir, explaining the influence of being situated in the microclimate of a valley on the left bank of the Dordogne River and the effects of slopes that face north and east (rather than the more customary south and west). Although Sauternes is perhaps better known than Monbazillac, the latter has twice the vineyard area. We also savored a vineyard sampling of raisined Semillon and Muscadelle grapes. The Bilancini family’s hunt for their white vineyard cat — yes, cat! — added a suspenseful moment to the visit.

Winemaker Bruno Bilancini; Wine Scholar Guild study group led by Andrew Jefford; misty morning in Monbazillac

Winemaker Bruno Bilancini; Wine Scholar Guild study group led by Andrew Jefford; misty morning in Monbazillac

Our tasting started with a dry white wine, 70% Muscadelle and 30% Semillon (2013), named “Andrea” for Luc’s daughter. Unoaked, virtually no skin contact, only a single day of fermentation (no MLF), resulted in a rather flinty but elegant super-dry wine. The centerpiece of the tasting, however, was a trio of sweet wines, all revealing a tangy tangerine note that Bruno said was characteristic of the region. Ranging from light and crisp (young vines) to bold and complex (vines 20-30 years old), these field-blended wines are not intended for dessert! Bruno’s advice was to serve them decanted for as long as two days and quite cold, the lightest (2015 Les Pins) as an aperitif and the more luscious pair (Tirecul La Graviere, bottled spring 2015, and a 1998 Cuvee Madame) with spicy cuisine.

Chateau de Tiregand

Onward to Pécharmant, where the youngest heir to the Saint-Exupéry dynasty met us for a tour of the vineyard, winery and tasting. Cyril is the son (and winemaker in training) of the current winery leader, François-Xavier, who was en route from a trip to Belgium. A bit nervous to lead the presentation for eight wine students and professionals, young Cyril did a fine job walking us through the vineyards, the basics of wine production, and a tasting. (At one point in the cellar, a black cat, heavy with soon-to-be-born kittens, managed to give us all a start as we discussed barrel aging.) Due primarily to its location, Ch. de Tiregand specializes in blends of traditional Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Malbec, as well as Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Muscadelle. Our walk through the vineyard revealed vines heavy with nearly ripe grapes, sweet and juicy to the taste until met with the crunch of a still-green pip. The date for harvest will be soon, but had not yet been selected.

Cyril Saint-Exupery; Cabernet Franc nearly ready for harvest; busy preparations in the winery.

Cyril Saint-Exupéry; Cabernet Franc nearly ready for harvest; busy preparations in the winery.

xx

Making Sweet Music in the (To Kalon) Vineyard

Geneviève Janssens

Wine Director for Robert Mondavi Winery and Chairman of the 2017 Cincinnati International Wine Festival

Top photo L-R: Robert Mondavi (C. Mondavi and Sons/Charles Krug), Charles Forni (Napa Cooperative Vineyard), Madame Fernande de Latour (Beaulieu Vineyard), John Daniel, Jr. (Inglenook), and Al Huntsinger (Vin-Mont/Napa Cooperative Winery). Source: “Bottled Poetry: Napa Winemaking from Prohibition to the Modern Era,” courtesy of the Napa Valley Wine Library Association/St. Helena Public Library. Bottom photo credit: palatepress.com

Top photo L-R: Robert Mondavi (C. Mondavi and Sons/Charles Krug), Charles Forni (Napa Cooperative Vineyard), Madame Fernande de Latour (Beaulieu Vineyard), John Daniel, Jr. (Inglenook), and Al Huntsinger (Vin-Mont/Napa Cooperative Winery). Source: “Bottled Poetry: Napa Winemaking from Prohibition to the Modern Era,” courtesy of the Napa Valley Wine Library Association/St. Helena Public Library.
Bottom photo credit: palatepress.com

Doesn’t every story about the heart-stopping beauty and allure of Napa Valley need to start with a picture of this sign? It announces, with pleasure, “you’ve arrived”! The original sign was installed on June 30, 1950, to welcome visitors to the Valley.

The top photo includes a young Robert Mondavi (far left, age 37), fifteen years before he was faced with what was surely among his most significant life inflection points.

In 1965, a seismic shift in the family’s CK Mondavi and Charles Krug business relationships propelled Robert Mondavi to search for a new future. In his 1998 autobiography Harvests of Joy, Mondavi says “…at the age of 52, I was at a decisive crossroads and I knew it.” Three years earlier, on the first of many trips to Europe, Robert Mondavi had been smitten by the differences in quality between European and American wines and winemaking practices – things like distinct methods and styles for each grape variety, treating wine as “high art” instead of a bulk beverage business, the joys of savoring a beautiful glass of wine with a wonderful meal. Mondavi wrote that he told his (then) wife Marge “I want to create (w)ines that have grace and style, harmony and balance.” And so he did. Robert Mondavi Winery (RMW) was born in 1966.

Robert Mondavi, Pacesetter and Maestro

The man who many called “Mr. Mondavi,” and who some call the industry superlative “Maestro,” became a legend in his own time long before his passing in 2008 at age 94. He carved a path of innovation for American wines that catapulted Napa Valley onto the world stage (notwithstanding the prescient message on the 1950 Napa Valley sign!). Mondavi’s vision, passion, persistent efforts, and strong leadership are an indelible part of brand Napa Valley.

Robert Mondavi – happy in the vineyard (1966), and on top of his game (1990), for over four decades when most people would have retired or considered an encore career! The Winery’s 50th anniversary logo (2016)

Robert Mondavi – happy in the vineyard (1966), and on top of his game (1990), for over four decades when most people would have retired or considered an encore career!
The Winery’s 50th anniversary logo (2016)

“When creating Maestro (wine) for our 50th anniversary, we were inspired by memories of Robert Mondavi. To celebrate the 2000 opening of our To Kalon Cellar, Robert Mondavi commissioned a special piece of music. At the gala, when the orchestra began to play, he took the baton and began conducting. We realized that Robert Mondavi was the maestro of our lives. His vision and passion guides us. He will always be the maestro of this winery, and our inspiration.” (Source: Robert Mondavi Winery website)

The 50th anniversary Maestro wine, released in 2016, is vintage 2013, which was the year of Robert Mondavi’s 100th birthday. Winemaker’s notes: “Merlot leads the orchestra of aromas, flavors, and textures in this Bordeaux blend. Easy to enjoy, Maestro is smooth and rich with black fruit and mocha aromas and fresh, mouthfilling cherry flavors.

You can hear the commissioned piece playing softly in the background as wine director Geneviève Janssens talks about the 50th anniversary and Maestro release.

Photo Credits: Decanter Magazine, RMW website

Photo Credits: Decanter Magazine, RMW website

Geneviève Janssens: RMW Concertmaster

Every maestro needs a strong, talented concertmaster in the “first chair” as the next most important person in an orchestra. Like a concertmaster, RMW’s wine director Geneviève Janssens executes on the maestro’s vision and passion with charm, finesse, and quiet humility. She leads a hand-picked team of winemakers to continue a tradition of winemaking and mentorship in the style that Mr. Mondavi defined for his new winery in 1966. She is an active member of the vineyard management team, helping to keep the RMW “orchestra” in tune and in time to the rhythms of the winery and the vineyard.

Geneviève’s journey to this important leadership position is a fascinating story, one that she considers to be gender-neutral. Recognizing that the statistics on women winemakers show that fewer than 10% of those posts are held by women, Geneviève rarely stops to consider her prominence in this rarified – if gradually changing – air.

Geneviève was in some ways destined to work in the wine industry. Her ancestors were part of a group of French nationalists who migrated in the 1870s to the French protectorate of Morocco in Algeria. While many family members were surgeons, jewelers, and other professions, the part of the family hailing from Burgundy grew grapes for bulk sale to wine merchants (nègociants). Geneviève’s father was a fourth generation winegrape farmer who in 1955 experienced personally the beginnings of the French/Algerian decolonization war. He wisely foresaw the end of French rule and resulting independence of Muslim Algeria (1962). Rather than wait to be expelled, her father moved the family to Nice and developed a new winegrowing business on the French island of Corsica when Geneviève was quite young.

With that move also came the family’s shift to winegrowers, making wine in bottles rather than in bulk, and her father’s encouragement to attend the University of Bordeaux where Geneviève earned a National Diploma of Enology in 1974. She returned home to work in the family vineyards, but with entrepreneurial ambition, she also launched an enology lab in Provence and worked as a consulting enologist at various French Chateaux.

Her father’s mentorship continued when he urged Geneviève to tour the United States, specifically Napa Valley, where he had visited Robert Mondavi Winery “because everybody knew who he was, even in the 1970s. My dad visited RMW with a group of winemakers, and ironically Margrit Bievers was the wine educator. (After that trip) he went on and on about Margrit because she was so fantastic.”

Geneviève headed off to Napa Valley in 1977, securing a meeting with Zelma Long, who was at that time RMW’s enologist. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, so Geneviève pitched her interest in working at RMW if ever there was an opening. Two months later, Zelma offered her a position in the enology lab.

During the two years that Geneviève worked in the lab at RMW (1978-79), she met and married Luc Janssens, then a university professor. She left RMW to spend time with her husband and their two children, Gabrielle and Georges, working part-time as a wine consultant in California.

But she was destined to rejoin the Mondavi enterprises.

Tim Mondavi, who had taken on the mantle of winemaker in 1974 from brother Michael, was executing his father’s vision of a French/American joint venture with Baron Phillippe de Rothschild. We know that venture today as Opus One. Geneviève remembers fondly that moment in 1989 when Tim asked her to become director of operations at Opus One so that he and Mouton Rothschild winemaker Patrick Leon could focus on integrating the styles of two wineries. It was time to get back in the game, and the position was perfect for a person with her sensibilities for both French and American cultures!

During the nearly ten years that Geneviève kept the trains running on time at Opus One, Robert Mondavi Winery experienced a number of changes, including a public offering of the company in 1993. In Harvests of Joy, Robert Mondavi called it “the gamble. We didn’t see it coming.” Between an outbreak of phylloxera, the heavy cost of acquisitions, and the growing intensity of competition from premium wines, “we weighed all the issues—and the risks—and decided (to) give it a go.”

As the structure and scale of the company continued to evolve, Tim asked Geneviève in 1998 to join RMW as wine director. During her long career in that capacity, Geneviève has been named the Croix de Chevaliere dans l’Ordre National du Merite Agricole (2009) and Winemaker of the Year (2010) by Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Is To Kalon Vineyard a “fountain of youth”?

Is To Kalon Vineyard a “fountain of youth”?

Always the multi-tasker, Geneviève insists that wine is her passion, her job, and her only hobby. When their children were headed off to university, she and Luc started a boutique winery called The Portfolio, making one wine that is 80% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Cabernet Franc. Production is purposely small enough at 200 cases that the couple can do everything themselves, and by hand – no pumps, only gravity, for example. Their wines are available only through a direct mailing list, a few retailers in California, and in Tokyo from a young woman who only imports Portfolio wines!

As she approaches her 20th anniversary in that role, with characteristic humility, Geneviève says “life is good, the future is brilliant.”

A Walk Down Memory Lane: RMW Winemakers and Mentors Through the Years (1966-2016)

The list of winemakers who have shaped Robert Mondovi Winery is an illustrious slice of “who’s who” in Napa Valley, starting in 1966 with Warren Winiarski. He joined Robert’s son Michael Mondavi in the inaugural winemaking positions. Winiarski is perhaps better known as the founder of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars, winner of the red wine (Bordeaux-style) competition in the 1976 Judgment of Paris. Like Mondavi, Winiarski had fallen in love with wine in Europe and caught the bug to make it. He spent two years as a winemaker at Souverain Winery before signing on to help Robert Mondavi jumpstart RMW.

When Winiarski moved on in 1968 to start an entrepreneurial venture making wine in Denver using California grapes, RMW engaged Mike Grgich as chief enologist. Grgich had also spent time working at Souverain Winery, plus several years at Beaulieu Vineyard under the tutelage of another “Maestro,” winemaker André Tchelistcheff. In 1972, Grgich left RMW to join Chateau Montalena, also later distinguished in the Judgment of Paris by winning the white wine (Chardonnay) competition. His eponymous winery, Grgich Hills Estate, was launched in 1977.

At a time when there were many fewer women in leading industry roles than even today, Zelma Long started breaking that glass ceiling when she was tapped in 1972 to succeed Mike Grgich as chief enologist. In 1979, Long moved to SIMI as winemaker, and in 1989 was named CEO, the first woman in Napa Valley to hold a senior management role. Long worked with Geneviève Janssens for two years while Geneviève absorbed the mindset and style of RMW and Mr. Mondavi himself.

By 1974, son Tim Mondavi was ready to step into the winemaker and director of winemaking roles. RMW interests were beginning to expand to international and other pursuits, so Michael’s role shifted initially to sales and marketing, and later to winery executive. Along with his brother Michael, who managed sales and marketing, Tim weathered the financial crisis in 1993 that resulted in a public offering of the company and ultimately led to the 2004 sale of RMW to Constellation Brands. Today Tim Mondavi runs Continuum Winery (with sister Marcia) which is perched high atop Pritchard Hill.

“Who I am is mainly my father, but now Mr. Mondavi and Tim. I was lucky to have Tim as a mentor. Mr. Mondavi always asked ‘and what is next.’ The present was finished; he always wanted to see the future. Mr. Mondavi was so demanding, he always wanted the best, so Tim worked very hard to push himself and his employees to excellence.”

Top photo L-R: Genevieve Janssens (1997-present), Mike Grgich (1968-72), Warren Winiarski (1966-67), Zelma Long (enologist 1970-79); Tim Mondavi (1974-2004); Margrit Bievers Mondavi, and Peter Mondavi. (Source: Pinterest 100th birthday celebration lunch, 2013) Bottom photo L-R: Megan Schofield, Geneviève Janssens, Joe Harden

Top photo L-R: Genevieve Janssens (1997-present), Mike Grgich (1968-72), Warren Winiarski (1966-67), Zelma Long (enologist 1970-79); Tim Mondavi (1974-2004); Margrit Bievers Mondavi, and Peter Mondavi. (Source: Pinterest 100th birthday celebration lunch, 2013)
Bottom photo L-R: Megan Schofield, Geneviève Janssens, Joe Harden

One of the concertmaster’s most important tasks is to hire talent. The current winemaking team is led by Megan Schofield and Joe Hardin.

Megan graduated (with honors) in the first enology and viticulture degree program offered by Brock University in Ontario. Before joining RMW in 2015, Megan gained nearly 15 years of experience at Beringer, Buena Vista and SIMI wineries. Megan is the winemaker for RMW’s Fumé Blanc and cool-climate Chardonnay and Pinot Noir programs.

Joe is a viticulture and oenology graduate of UC Davis. Equally passionate about sports, the 6’7” adventurer tried his hand at professional basketball in California and Australia before turning his attention back to wine. He became winemaker for the red wine program at RMW in 2014 after two years of learning the ropes there as an intern and enologist.

Postscript: Farewell to Margrit Bievers Mondavi

In a recent interview, conducted the year Robert Mondavi would have celebrated his 100th birthday, Mr. Mondavi’s widow Margrit described herself as the “keeper of the flame” of his passion for wine, food, and art. She passed away at age 91 on September 2, 2016. Enjoy a tribute to Mrs. Mondavi, and to their loving relationship, here.

Robert & Margrit

Fond Remembrance of Margrit Mondavi

From top, clockwise: To Kalon Vineyard @ Robert Mondavi Winery; tasting; homage to Mr. Mondavi; Margrit Mondavi

From top, clockwise: To Kalon Vineyard @ Robert Mondavi Winery; tasting; homage to Mr. Mondavi; Margrit Mondavi

It was a gray, chilly February morning in Napa Valley, too dank even for the season’s hearty bright-yellow mustard crop to light up rows of vineyards. Two dozen aspiring and accomplished wine writers braved the drizzly day for a tour of Robert Mondavi Winery (RMW) with Director of Winemaking Geneviève Janssens, and for the opportunity to interview Margrit Mondavi. Even if she hadn’t been wearing blue-sequined Ugg knock-off boots, she absolutely lit up the room (and the day) with love stories of “Mr. Mondavi” — I swear, she really said that.

If he had still been alive in 2013, Robert Mondavi would have been 100 years old about four months after our visit. Margrit Mondavi brought him to life for us, regaling us with stories about their life together over a 28-year marriage. She had us at “I married the boss!”

As her story begins, Margrit was in charge of PR, making $2 an hour after working at RMW for about a decade, and had recently introduced the innovation of a tasting room to showcase the wines, food, and art. “At 5:30, we (the staff) pulled the chain across the driveway and drank the dregs of the day’s wine. One day, when Mr. Mondavi came out to discuss money and how we could improve things, he said ‘Why don’t you come out to dinner with me? I have a couple of questions.’  We went to Chez Panisse — there were others we knew who asked us to sit with them — but from then on we looked just at each other.” (We will never know if there is a he said/she said version of this story.)

The room gave up a collective sweet sigh as Margrit shared small glimpses of the couple’s long romance. Her advice? “Well, you have to be lucky, go to great places, and cultivate and talk about the relationship.” According to Margrit, Mr. Mondavi always sent flowers with a note: “For my wife, who I love more than the day I married her.” Their daily ritual during dinner prep, the most natural part of their day when not traveling, was to build a fire, cook together, and sip on a bottle of RMW from the cellar. Mr. Mondavi apparently loved pastina in brodo (chicken soup!!) as well as classic homemade pasta smothered in fresh parmigiano reggiano cheese. Oh, and around the edges she “schlepped him to museums” to make sure that her love of art was fully integrated into his intense focus on wine. Listen up folks! This might be a good recipe.

As our interview drew to a close, Margrit Mondavi looked wistfully out toward the dormant winter To Kalon vineyard, and softly pronounced it to be exactly as it had been for 50 years. Almost as if speaking to herself, Margrit shared a favorite Robert Mondavi quote, “moderation with glorious exceptions.” Shifting quickly out of her reverie, back to the person who asserts that every day should be full of passion and creativity, looking forward, Margrit reminded us that there are “more old winemakers than old doctors.”

When asked to speculate on what the future holds, she twinkled with energy worthy of those sequined boots and said “I have a secret”! She might be taking that little secret with her. We never learned what exactly it might be.

So just a guess: 2016 is the 50th anniversary of Robert Mondavi Winery, the first post-prohibition winery to be built (in 1966) in Napa Valley. Margrit was the self-described keeper of Mr. Mondavi’s passion and story. She would be duty bound to honor his many innovations, pushing the industry to grow, excel, and achieve high levels of worldwide brand recognition for American wines.

I have no doubt she put all the finishing touches on her vision of a fitting celebration. Rest in love and peace, Mrs. Mondavi.

One of Margrit Mondavi's books, a celebration of wine, art and food.

One of Margrit Mondavi’s books, a celebration of wine, art and food.

Kathy Merchant photo credits from an old iPhone!

Argentina

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If the phrase “Argentine paradox” had not already been coined to describe the country’s tumultuous economic and political history, I would certainly want to lay claim to it. It is essential to grasp the broad outlines of recent history as context for understanding what’s happening today in the Argentine wine industry. The schisms are wide and volatile — dramatic shifts over many decades from abundance to scarcity, prosperity to poverty, growth to recession, democratic advance to military coup d’tat. It’s a minor miracle that a wine industry even exists!

Economic Volatility and Political Instability

Argentina’s first constitution was created in 1853. Five years later Argentina was unified as country. For the next 140 years, until 1995 when a president and vice president were first directly elected by voters, more than twenty “indirect elections” were decided by electoral college, not by popular vote, bordering on (and at times outright) dictatorship and election fraud. I find this pattern especially interesting on the heels of “super Tuesday” as March primaries unfold in the United States, and as the nuances of candidate popularity vs. delegate votes command headlines every day.

Stepping back in time to the 1930s depression era, Argentina dove headlong into persistent economic decline. A wild ride of inflation ensued, including six recessionary defaults, most recently in 2014. Inflation was chronic and volatile from 1976 into the late 1980s, culminating in a staggering peak of 20,000% in the early 1990s. It was reined in and stabilized for a brief period by pegging the Argentine peso to the US dollar. Although this monetary policy was eliminated after a few years, and annual inflation more or less stabilized at an average of 10%, in 2015 it began to change almost daily and spiked as high as 27%.

Women were not permitted to vote until 1951, a privilege granted during the first term of Juan Domingo Perón (who served twice as president, 1946-55 and 1973-74 until his death). There were five military takeovers during a 50-year period, the most recent coup ending in 1983. In an interesting turnabout, the 1853 constitution was then reinstated, which led to more waves of economic and political instability.

Two excellent articles published in January 2016 by Mike Veseth, editor of The Wine Economist, covered the impact of Argentina’s turbulence on today’s wine industry. You can jump to his first article (“Whatever Happened to Argentina’s Wine Boom”) here, and the second one (“Will Argentina Wine Export Growth Return in 2016?) here.

Despite all of this drama, today Argentina is quite remarkably the fifth largest wine producer and the eighth largest consumer of wine. According to a March 2015 USDA foreign agriculture report, there are there are 1,250 registered wineries and approximately 4,000 labels in Argentina. In 2014, Argentina exported more than 2,300 brands to over 100 countries. United States, Canada and the UK top the consumer list. Although figures vary somewhat by source, it is estimated that Argentina exports 15-30% of total production. The six largest wineries — including big brands Catena Zapata, Alamos, Norton and Trapiche — account for 70 percent of the market.

Image courtesy of lahistoriaconmapas.com

Image courtesy of lahistoriaconmapas.com

Q: “How do you make a small fortune in the wine business?” A: “Start with a big one!”

The pioneers who developed wineries in this context have been true visionaries, able to see far beyond the hurdles faced at every turn, focused on embracing the beauty and opportunity of the land. But the owners of most of the wineries we visited on the Argentina segment of a two-week South American BKWine Tour were not only visionary, they started with clear economic advantage: a labor of love launched by people who have been successful in other industries (or the wine industry in other countries).

AlpamantaLuján de Cuyo – Biodynamic

An Austrian and Dane of Ukrainian descent, Alpamanta CEO Andrej Razumovsky emigrated to Argentina in 2000 after a career working for multi-national companies in Europe, Russia and Latin America. He is descended from an 18th century Moldavian winegrower family, as is his business partner and cousin André Hoffman. The winery was established in 2005 by Razumovsky, cousin André, and their French friend Jérémie Delecourt. Alpamanta is one of seven certified biodynamic wineries in Argentina.

General manager Rocio Martin Bravo and biodynamics educator Emilie Giraud treated our group to animated walking tours among the fields and colonies of ants that inhabit every square inch of vineyard walkways. Our lessons in “dynamizing homeopathic preparations” invoked inspiring visions of Rudolph Steiner’s cosmos.

Biodynamic Vineyards of Alpamanta

Biodynamic Vineyards of Alpamanta 

On a sweltering day that reached nearly 100°F, our asado comida (charcoal-fired mixed grill lunch) hosted by the winery was quickly moved into the cool shade of a covered portico. Our (by now) traditional lunch included amazing empanadas, sliced tomatoes, roasted potatoes, a bit of green salad, blood sausages and chorizo, and a selection of grilled pork and beef followed by dessert (with dulce de leche almost always incorporated in some manner). Alpamanta makes three ranges of wines: Natal (basic), Estate and Reserva.

MendelLuján de Cuyo – Conventional

A member of an “established Argentine family,” Anabelle Sielecki is the winery’s proprietor. The winery is named for her father, Mendel, who had been a successful businessman in several different industries. She tapped prestigious Argentinian winemaker Roberto de la Mota to be her partner in developing the winery. Although the winery is relatively new, purchased from a previous owner in an all-too-familiar moment of economic crisis, some of the vines were planted in 1928.

Having been lost on poorly marked dirt roads in our quest to find Alpamanta, our tour group was similarly thwarted in achieving a timely arrival at Mendel. A warning to visitors: few wineries are situated in close proximity, and GPS doesn’t work if you can’t get cell service! Though it was tempting in the late afternoon, gratefully we did not give up! Our gracious hostess provided a brief tour of the vineyards and a glimpse of the rapid-fire mobile bottling operation for a previous vintage. If you visit, make sure to taste the amazing and unusual (for Argentina) Semillon. It was a show-stopper! The range of wines available from Mendel include Lunta, Mendel, Unus (a blend) and Finca Remota.

Domaine Bousquet Tupungato, Uco Valley – Organic

The third generation of the French winemaking Bousquet family first came to Argentina in 1990 to investigate vineyard properties in Mendoza. It took a few years of research, but in 1997 the founding family members identified what they considered to be ideal property in cool-climate Tupungato, and they relocated to Argentina. Today, two members of the fourth generation Bousquet family are involved in operations — Anne (CEO) and Guillaume (European sales manager) — along with Anne’s husband, president Labid Ameri .

After a tutored tasting of six wines hosted by chief winemaker Emilio Abraham, our group adjourned to a spectacular six-course lunch at Gaia Restaurant where a sparkling rosé and Pinot Noir were added to the mix! Do plan to dine at Domaine Bousquet.

Lunch at Gaia Restaurant, Domaine Bousquet

Lunch at Gaia Restaurant, Domaine Bousquet

Finca SOPHENIA – Luján de Cuyo – Conventional

Named for the youngest daughters of founder Roberto Luka and his business partner, named Eugenia and Sophia respectively, SOPHENIA was founded in 1997. Luka’s extensive wine experience include managing the largest Argentine export company and serving as president of Wines of Argentina.

Situated at 4,000 feet in the foothills of the Andes, in the sub-district called Tupungato, SOPHENIA is neighbor to the better-known large producer Salentein, The district is well known for growing apples, pears and plums as well as wine grapes. SOPHENIA makes three ranges of wine: Altosur (“high in the South”) which is the basic line, E.S. Vino (for the daughters) varietal wines, and two labels of “Synthesis,” one a varietal Malbec and the other a Malbec-predominant blend.

After a tasting of a 2013 varietal Synthesis and 2012 Synthesis blend, and a discussion of strong tannins and high alcohol, we were advised that all young red wines from Chile and Argentina need to be decanted.

Bodegas Krontiras Lujan de Cuyo – Organic and Biodynamic

Also Demeter-certified as biodynamic, Bodegas Krontiras was founded in 2004 by Greek businessman Constantinos Krontiras and his Argentinian wife Silvina Macipe. He hired Bordeaux-trained Panos Zouboulis as consulting winemaker. Mericruz Antolín, an agronomist, is training as on-premises winemaker. Although the winery is relatively new, some of the vines are 80-120 years old. He built a winery facility in 2008 in the shape of a half moon that is almost entirely underground — there are no 90° angles!

Offering a unique horseback riding experience to visitors, Krontiras is also experimenting with a new spiritual artistic presentation for guests. A one-woman “play” starring gods from mythology to explain biodynamics and how wines connect to one’s soul demonstrated the power of a blended wine to elude love, power and peace in measures equal to each person’s own needs. For both horseback riders and the performance audience, it was a magical (if unusual) treat!

Krontiras currently produces three lines of wine, Doña Silvina, Doña Silvina Reserva, and Solar del Alma Malbec. Our “breakfast wine” (at 9:00 am!) was a clean, fresh 2014 Malbec followed by a stunning 2009 Malbec.

Altos Las HormigasUco Valley – Organic and Biodynamic (vineyards only)

Back to the ants… That is the translation of “hormigas.” It turns out that ants love to feast on the roots of young vines. We heard more than once that vineyards must learn to live with them (if not love them). There is an expression “un trabajo de hormigas” or “a job for ants” — metaphor for the humble, patient work it takes to build an ant colony or nurture a vineyard. It takes two to tango…at least in Argentina!

Tango image courtesy of Pintrest

Tango image courtesy of Pinterest

Born in Florence IT, Altos Las Hormigas founder and general manager Antonio Morescalchi started his career as a winemaker in 1988 at his father’s winery in Tuscany. He founded Altos Las Hormigas in 1995 with renowned winemaker Alberto Antonini. Reversing the Malbec trend and heading back to Southwestern France, Antonio has started a new project in Cahors, the grape’s spiritual home. During the last three years, the winery has converted vineyards (but not winemaking operations) to biodynamic. According to our guide, himself a former winemaker at Altos Las Hormigas, “we just supervise in the winery.”

A special treat for our final winery visit: sparkling Bonarda Brut Rosé 2014, and a 2014 “Colonia les Liebres” (hares) Bonarda, as well as a varietal Malbec sampler across classic, terroir and reserva ranges.

More about Argentina and Malbecs…

Wine writer Eric Asimov’s recent New York Times review of Malbecs from Argentina emphasizes the considerable influences of soil variation and oak on the finished wine. Included in his review, published just a few days before our BKWine group toured Lujan de Cuyo and Uco Valley, were two of the wineries we visited: Mendel and Altos Los Hermigas. I share his view of the beautiful result from limiting the use of new oak.

To experience another wine writer’s recent trip to Argentina, which he characterizes as the “anti-Napa,” and some elaboration on both history and market dynamics, read “Mendoza the Home of Malbec” by Grape Collective’s Christopher Barnes.

New Realities for Chilean Wine

Vina Vik Hotel and Restaurant

Viña Vik Hotel and Restaurant

It’s amazing how long it takes for new realities to pierce the membrane of old truths and commonly held beliefs. That’s Chile in a nutshell. It’s time for the rest of the world to catch up with what’s really happening in one of the world’s most pristine wine growing countries. Entrepreneur Max Morales, owner of AndesWines.com based in Santiago, hopes to do just that as an energetic ambassador connecting consumers to the hidden gem of a wine scene in Chile.

It is commonly understood that 80% of all wine in Chile is produced by four big companies: Concha y Toro, San Pedro, Santa Rita and Santa Carolina. The data get a little fuzzy after that. Chile is not as hyper-organized as other countries, so the exact number of wineries is an estimate of around 150 (90 of which are members of a promotional trade association called Wines of Chile). The “big box” figure may — or may not — include boutique operations such as biodynamic Emiliania which is privately owned by the founders of Concha y Toro and marketed as part of the Banfi portfolio of wines.

Let’s say for the sake of argument that a reasonably high percentage of the wineries producing the remaining 20% of the wine are “conventional” winemakers. That is the strongly held perception among Chilean winemakers with whom an international group of wine enthusiasts met during a five-day BKWine tour of nine Chilean wine properties.  It likely leaves a small share of wineries practicing sustainable (holistic), organic or biodynamic farming and winemaking methods, making it all the more remarkable that six of the eight wineries we visited practice these methods with great pride of place and process.

Chile: The Perfect Place to Grow Winegrapes

I have learned, taught and shared events about the magical terroir of Chile. It’s one thing to understand the map. It’s altogether enchanting to see first-hand how the thin Central Valley is nestled between cordilleras (Coastal Range) and the foothills of the Andes Mountains, a green carpet of grapevines. Long, thin Chile encompasses 1,000 miles of pristine growing area.

Chile is unique in that many vines were imported pre-phylloxera, so they are not threatened by the killing louse. Even so, many wineries have grafted vitis vinifera grapes onto American root stock as a form of insurance. Sunshine is frankly the key factor of terroir: 150 days per year of cloudless blue skies near the coastal areas, 250 days in the Central Valley. As you might expect, slope and aspect also play a large part in vineyard decisions. Some vines are planted east-to-west, others north-to-south. The most special places are where the cordilleras and Andes foothills are within walking distance, creating small webs of biodiversity, but they are never out of sight. Like most places, Chile’s soil variation creates great opportunities for matching the right grapes to the best places.

Image courtesy of chilean-wine.com

Image courtesy of chilean-wine.com

Meet the Winemakers

Clockwise from top left: Marcelo Retamal, De Martino; Gonzague de Lambert, Vina Vik; Patricio Celedon, Vina Viu Manent; Eugenio Lira, Vina Las Ninas; Juan Pablo, Antiyal

Clockwise from top left: Marcelo Retamal, De Martino; Gonzague de Lambert, Viña Vik; Patricio Celedon, Viña Viu Manent; Eugenio Lira, Viña Las Niñas; Juan Pablo, Antiyal

It’s summertime in Chile. Winemakers are busy inspecting vines, testing grapes for ripeness, planning for harvest, making sure all systems are “go” for one of the most important decisions made in the annual vineyard life cycle. Yet these five men took precious time to share their winemaking philosophies and their wines! Each has a unique story, personally and about the vineyard, much abbreviated for this Chilean experience. Following the order of the photo:

Marcelo Retamal, enológo jefe of De Martino, is spearheading an amazing experiment making wine using amphorae (Viejas Tinajas) that have been collected “house by house” from previous owners. They are essentially extinct. The only other areas well known for using amphorae are Sicily and Georgia (the country). 100% natural wines “from the clay pot to the bottle,” the 2011 Cinsault and an amazing dry Muscat (de Alexandria) were simply delicious. An outdoor parilla (barbecue) on the winery’s beautifully landscaped property is breathtaking, providing testimony to De Martino’s “gastronomique” wine style.

The magnificent Viña Vik — a “design, wine and art-centric escape” including a hotel and restaurant (featured above) — has been lovingly created from scratch over the last decade by a team including Norwegian entrepreneur and owner Alexander Vik, head winemaker Patrick Vallette, and Gonzague de Lambert, winemaker and director of sales/marketing. Viña Vik farms sustainably (holistic) and makes just one wine, a Bordeaux-style blend, paying homage to the French winemaking heritage of both Vallette and de Lambert. Sign up for a unique experience: taste the component parts of the blend and then the finished product (2011). A multi-course tasting menu lunch in the restaurant is a divine experience.

Following a short tour of the Viña Viu Manent vineyard property launched with a ride on a horse-drawn carriage, our group was treated to a WSET-quality professional wine tasting of seven wines by head winemaker Patricio Celedón. Despite the late hour of the day — the winery was essentially closed to visitors by the time we concluded our review of the wines — Patricio walked us through the showcase of seven red wines: two blends branded “ViBo” because it is made by the third generation (Viu Bottini); single-vineyard Syrah (El Olivar Alto); 100% Malbec; single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon (La Capilla); a Carmenere blend called El Incidente to pay homage to the “discovery” of Carmenere in Chile some two decades ago; and the winery’s iconic “Viu 1” made from a selection of hand picked grapes.

The property of Viña Las Niñas in the Apalta sub-region of Colchagua was purchased in 1996 by three French families who also own wineries in France and Spain. The name signals leadership by a second generation, the daughters who fell in love with Chile and created the winery. Nearby neighbors include the large producer (and fellow French family) Casa Lapostolle. In an interesting nod to global tastes, head winemaker Eugenio Lira manages both certified organic and conventional vineyards at Viña Las Niñas.

Antiyal and its winemaker/owner Alvaro Espinoza are modern legends. Alvaro is credited with working with an ampelographer, helping to discover Carmenere, and with pioneering biodynamic winemaking in Chile. Assistant winemaker Juan Pablo provided an in-depth review of biodynamic practices in the vineyards and in the winery, including some amusing stories about the roles that chickens and cattle play in the vineyard life cycle. Antiyal means “sons of the sun” in the language of Mapuche, an indigenous people. Because Antiyal is a family affair, we also met Alvaro’s wife, Marina, and two of their three sons at an alfresco lunch prepared at the small guest house where visitors can stay.

Fantastic Wine Education

The story of Emiliana is unique among the wineries we visited, and may represent a small fraction of winery entrepreneurship in Chile. The family who owns Concha y Toro, Guilisasti, founded Emiliani in 1986 as a private enterprise dedicated to organic farming. Premium Emiliana Gé and Coyam blended wines (primarily Carmenere, Cabernet Sauvingnon and Syrah) are made in accordance with biodynamic principles.

Rooster patrolling biodynamic vineyards at Emiliana.

Rooster patrolling biodynamic vineyards at Emiliana.

MontGras Winery has planted a multi-variety vineyard used exclusively for educational purposes. Each leaf and berry has a story, and the staff at MontGras does an exceptional job of conveying many vineyard concepts in a short walkabout. The best part of a visit to MontGras, however, is a blending workshop! Guests are provided with samples of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Carmenere, a beaker and funnel, and an apron. Each person blends a wine to his/her taste, then each table holds a competition, and then the top wines from each table compete for a “gold medal.” Of course there is quite a lot of sampling going on…

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MontGras owns Ninquén Vineyard, high atop a hill that requires four-wheel drive vehicles to reach. With spectacular views of vineyards as far as the eye can see, lunch al fresco is an amazing capstone to an already envigorating day.

Several things stand out about Neyen, also a certified organic winery. One is that the owner of this property also owns Veramonte, a large brand well known in the United States, and Quintessa, a Napa property. Another is that many of the vines are 125 years old, coinciding with the launch of the oldest winery in Colchagua Vally starting out as a co-operative called Apalta Winery. Perhaps owing to the influences of the larger wineries rather than its traditions, Neyen is a sophisticated winery, seen in this photo of the winemaker evaluating harvest conditions.

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