Napa Valley wines… and earthquake!

Notwithstanding its influence on the world wine market, Napa Valley is quite small, stretching less than 50 kilometers from cooler Carneros in the south to the much warmer Castiloga in the north. Yet there is astonishing variety here: nearly 150 different soil types stretch along this corridor, which is never more than eight kilometers wide.

I had a few appointments to meet some quality producers, where I was able to taste a wide variety of wines. On August 18th, I had lunch with Bruce Cakebread, President of Cakebread Cellars. The business began in 1973, when brother Jack, owner of Cakebread’s Garage in Oakland, purchased a neighbouring ranch in Rutherford and planted vines. Bruce joined on as winemaker from 1979-2002, when he was promoted to President and now oversees all operations.

Bruce-Cakebread

Bruce Cakebread, President of Cakebread Cellars

The Cakebreads are known to be a culinary family; they regularly hold wine dinners in three different venues on their property. So we sat down in their Pecan Patio for a lovely four course lunch accompanied by seven different wines.

First was the Napa Valley Sauvignon Blanc 2009, dry with very little fruit, nice mouth feel and medium high acidity. I was surprised that a five year old Sauvignon was holding so well, so we opened a 2013. It was fresher with more citrus notes, but less complex. The 2009 has actually aged better than many Sancerres, though whether Sancerre should be aged is another topic in itself. more>>

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Tasting for Handbook for the modern wine lover

Together, wine writers Harold Hamersma and Nicolaas Klei have sold more than one million books in the Netherlands. On May 9th, they launched a new book they have co-authored: Handboek voor de moderne wijnliefhebber (Handbook for the modern wine lover) is now on the shelves.

klei-hamersma

Nicolaas Klei and Harold Hamersma, photo by Vinorious.com

The event took place at Brasserie van Baerle in Amsterdam, where sommelière Patricia Verschelling combined a flight of seven wines chosen from the cellar by Hamersma and Klei, with culinary creations by the kitchen. Here are some of the highlites:

Our first wine was a Petit Chablis 2012 from Domaine Lavantureux, successfully combined with a scallop in an oyster beurre blanc sauce. I might say that this was a big Petit Chablis, very expressive with a mineral character, I expect very good wine for the money. more>>

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Sherry, the least understood wine?

Sherry has an image problem in the Netherlands. It’s largely remembered as something grandma used to sip in the evening, or put in her trifle. Is it joining Madeira and Marsala, respectable fortified wines now largely denigrated to wines you cook with?

javier-hidalgoQuality wines are meant to be drunk. It wasn’t always this way. Historically, sherry was a popular drink in Holland. I worked for a while at Wijnkelder Brouwersgracht, an original cellar dating from the 17th century. Up until the 1980s, it was a storage and tasting place for sherries. But today, the average bottle of sherry in the Netherlands costs €5-7 and is bought in the supermarket. These wines do not represent the artisanal nature, the quality and diversity of styles that distinguish true sherry. I was in Jerez recently, and had the opportunity to visit three bodegas. I will not spend time here discussing how sherry is made. What I want to illustrate is the amazing range of styles of wines, and their culinary possibilities. During tastings, my hosts were fond of suggesting food combinations, and it is my belief that if sherry will enjoy a renaissance in the Netherlands, then restaurants must lead the way!

Bodegas Tradicion

bodegas-tradicionI first visited Bodegas Tradicion. This relatively young house was formed in 1998 yet only produces aged sherries. This is facilitated by buying in wines from other producers, an established practice in the industry. Two sacas (the process of drawing off of wines from each barrel) are performed traditionally by hand per year, leading to an annual production of about 13,000 bottles, half intended for the domestic market.

In Jerez, aged sherries whose blend have a minimum average age of 20 years are designated VOS, or Very Old Sherry. Blends with a minimum average age of 30 years are designated VORS, or Very Old Rare Sherry. more>>

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Slovakian wines!

Being Canadian, when I think of Slovakia I think of ice hockey players. The Šťastný brothers. Marián Hossa. Zdeno Chára. Miroslav Šatan. But the fact is, Slovakia also makes some pretty fine wines. The reason you haven’t tried any is because they are exported mainly to Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic, while the majority are consumed in Slovakia itself. So what’s a wine lover to do? Travel to Slovakia of course!

strekov-1075I was in Budapest this July, and my friend has a summer house just across the Slovakian border near Strekov (Kürt in Hungarian), which happens to be a major wine region in south-west Slovakia. This area is mainly Hungarian speaking and was in fact a part of Hungary up until the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. You won’t find many tourists here, and if you do they’ll tend to be the Slavic speaking variety. It’s just the kind of place I like to visit: off the western map, where Gypsies push carts down the village streets.

We visited two wineries in Strekov; I was both intrigued and impressed. Let’s start with impressed. Strekov 1075 is an interesting name for a family winery, with 12 hectares of vines on principally sandstone soils containing copious amounts of calcium and iron. According to co-owner Tibor Melecsky, the first documents for grape growing here stem from the 16th century. more>>

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Domaine Anne Gros / Jean-Paul Tollot: two Burgundians in the Languedoc

What better an endorsement can the Languedoc get than to have one of the top winemakers in Burgundy, a producer of such grand crus as Richebourg, Echezeaux and Clos Vougeot, come to the region, recognize a great terroir when they see it, and take the risk of making a major investment in an area which, let’s be honest, pales in comparison to the reputation of le Bourgogne?

Les Carretals

But that is what Anne Gros and her husband Jean Paul Tollot have done. Having established reputations in Burgundy, they were looking for a new adventure and were considering purchasing a vineyard in the south of France. more>>

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Burgundy vs Bordeaux vs Languedoc

Comparing Burgundy to Bordeaux to Languedoc wines is like comparing apples to oranges to bananas I suppose, yet it seemed like a novel idea for a tasting, so David Bolomey, Jan van Roekel and myself met recently to open some beautiful bottles. The idea was mine. Being the rather estranged Rhône/Languedoc lover in our little group, I wanted to see how some top Languedoc wines would stack up against similarly priced Burgundy and Bordeaux. We chose €35-50 per bottle as our budget to try to keep it competitive, and the results in my opinion were predictable: you cannot compare apples and oranges and bananas. There was perhaps only one exception. But first, the wines. We decided to start with Burgundy, then move to the Languedoc and then Bordeaux. more>>

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Winemaking Apprenticeship, Mas des Dames 2011, part 2

To continue from my last posting, which had more to do with the viticulturalist aspect of winemaking, I will now turn to the actual making of wine, which begins with the process of adding yeast to the grape juice, the basis for the wine. Mas des Dames, being an organic estate, wishes to avoid using yeasts which impart flavours, so “levures naturelles,” or natural yeasts are used. These actually come from Syrah vines from Guigal in the Rhône.

Laboratory of oenologist Xavier Billet

The question might be asked: why not just use natural yeasts which exist in the vineyard, but oenologist Xavier Billet explains that this at all costs is to be avoided. Some of these yeasts may be from the Saccharomyces cerevisiae family, but others (Brettanomyces, etc.) not. These are unpredictable yeasts which can rapidly turn wine into vinegar, or not. But one chooses for certainty. more>>

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Winemaking Apprenticeship, Mas des Dames 2011, part 1

It seems only natural to me that anyone seriously involved with wine would want to do a winemaking apprenticeship. It’s an idea I’ve had for some years now. Since I work in wine, I spend most of my waking hours with it. It is my profession and in the evening it is my joy and solace, a continually changing mystery: originating from all over the world, constantly differing and charming in so many ways.

Yet what is it, really? Fermented grape juice would be the most prosaic answer, yet in many cases I feel that good wine, like food, is art, the personal expression of the winemaker using grapes as material. It is the divine act of the alcoholic fermentation, the ancient alchemical transformation of grapes into a Bacchanalian elixir which has been a part of our history for 8,000 years, that interests me.

Lidewij van Wilgen at the sorting table

I’ve already written about Lidewij van Wilgen, owner/winemaker of Mas des Dames, who I met this past spring, while vacationing in the Languedoc. I received a tip that a Dutch woman produces great wines nearby and was about to publish a book about her experiences. Intrigued, I drove to her estate and met her briefly. She invited me the next day to a tasting for 13 sommeliers from top restaurants in London. After tasting the wines, I was thoroughly convinced. I contacted the importer, purchased the wines and invited her to do a tasting/launching for her book Het Domein, which took place in Wijnhuis Zuid on May 15th. more>>

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Winefield`s 20th auction in Amsterdam

Winefield’s Auctioneers completed their twentieth wine auction in Amsterdam on Sunday, October 2nd at a new location, the Diamantslijperij. It was once again a very successful day, with over 88% in value being sold.

This is an encouraging result, considering that auctions in 2011 have been challenged to repeat their record setting performances of 2010. Last weekend, Sotheby’s held their worst auction ever in Hong Kong. They have also closed their Amsterdam office, except for sourcing.

A couple trends seem apparent: the crazy prices for Lafite Rothschild have seemed to plateau, but Mouton Rothschild has come on strong, a shift of Chinese allegiance perhaps? Could it be the decision to use a Chinese artist for the 2008 label is helping promote interest in China, whether Mouton intended it or not? more>>

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“We will sell no wine before its time”

If you are old enough and from North America, you may remember the wines of Paul Masson, and the TV commercials from the 1970s featuring Orson Welles. These were some of the first wines I remember drinking, but strangely the memory was half buried and the name was forgotten. I thought the wines were from Paul Mas, but as Brigitte Barreiro, Paul Mas’ marketing manager wrote to me, “Paul Mas wines were not yet available then, but you were already dreaming of them!”

No, it was Paul Masson, who moved from Burgundy to California in 1878 and released his first “champagne” in 1892. Masson eventually became known as “the Champagne king of California.” The commercials featuring Orson Welles are priceless. At this point in his life, Welles was eating and drinking far too much, and the results were sometimes comical. Here is an actual commercial from that time: more>>

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Elk Run Vineyards, Maryland

It’s a simple fact, most people here equate American wine with Californian wine. There’s California, and then there’s Oregon and Washington state. Some quality wines are also made in New York state, in the Finger Lakes region (where Château de St. Cosme recently entered in a partnership with Forge Cellars) and on Long Island, but these wines are mostly consumed locally and never make their way overseas.

Elk Run Vineyards

But the U.S.A. is a big country. Eastern U.S. wines are not limited to New York, as Virginia has over 120 wineries, and there are another 44 in Maryland. A recent trip there brought me to Elk Run Vineyards on Mount Airy, in Frederick County. more>>

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Visit to Paul Mas, Part 2

To continue from my last posting, on visiting Domaine Paul Mas near Pézénas in the Languedoc, the red wines were presented by Cédric Deniset, European Sales Manager.

We first tasted the Vignes de Nicole Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2009 (€8.50). A very fragrant, ruby red wine with cherries and some strawberry jam in the nose. Tart red fruits, also some black currants, quite full bodied and very pleasant to drink.

Chateau de Conas

Château de Conas, seated within the Domaine Paul Mas

The Vignes de Nicole Cabernet Sauvignon/Syrah 2009 (€8.50) is much darker, both in its colour and bouquet, but the taste is still predominantly red fruits, with very strong tannins backing it up. This is a solid wine. more>>

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Visit to Paul Mas, Part 1

I sell a lot of Paul Mas wines, as these are very well made Languedocers ranging in price from €5 to €9, which come in a broad range of varieties and styles. It is not uncommon to see a full pallet arrive at the shop door, only to have to order more the next week. But of course, I’m not the only one. In fact, Paul Mas exports to more than 40 countries.

The modern business begins with Jean-Claude Mas, son of Paul, who together with his brother inherited 70 ha of vines at Château de Conas, just outstide of Pézénas.

Jean-Claude expanded the estate by acquiring Domaine de Nicole (40 ha) by Montaignac overlooking the Herault valley, Mas des Tannes (40 ha, half of which are certified organic), and Domaine Astruc (70 ha) at 300 metres in Limoux, with a cooler mid-Atlantic climate which favours white grapes, as well as Pinot Noir. more>>

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Understanding Fine Wines: Frank Smulders

Frank Smulders MW received his degree in 1992 and is to this day Holland’s only Master of Wine. I was his student while doing my WSET Advanced course, and I’ve also made a posting on this blog about a memorable Austrian wine trip Frank organized.

I was able, with great pleasure, to sit in on a recent lesson Frank gave, as part of his course on Understanding Fine Wines. The theme was Syrah, Grenache and Tempranillo, so there were top bottles from the Rhône, Rioja, Ribera Del Duero, Priorat and Australia to be tasted.

We began with a discussion of Tempranillo and a tasting of some top Spanish specimens. Tempranillo recently overtook Garnacha to become Spain’s most planted grape, and its character is very much determined by the climate. Frank underlined how important this is, by pointing out that Tempranillo produces clearly different wines in each of the three best known regions where it is grown: Rioja, Ribera del Duero and Toro. more>>

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Chateau de la Negly and Robert Parker

Possibly the best known of the 10 Grand Crus of the Languedoc, La Clape nonetheless remained a recent discovery for me–but what a discovery! At a recent tasting held by Winefield’s Auctioneers where such luminaries as Château Giscours 1975 and Château Palmer 1970 stood on the table, I found myself coming back repeatedly to taste the La Clape “La Falaise” 1998 from Château de la Negly.

Château de la Negly

Considered by many to be the red-headed stepchild of France, the Languedoc does not get its fair share of respect. But a simple google search will show you that Château de la Negly is an exception. I happened to be in the region, and decided to pay them a visit. I was greeted by the young Dylan Tabaret, who for the past eight months has been working for the Château as an apprentice.

I tasted a total of 11 wines by Negly, but it is important to note that only four of them are called La Clape, and this does not necessarily mean that they are the best wines. La Clape is a mountain just south of Narbonne and the legal requirements state that the whites must contain at least 40% Bourbolenc, while the reds must be an assemblage made principally from Grenache, Mourvèdre or Syrah. Other permitted grapes for the whites include Grenache blanc, Clairette, Marsanne, Roussanne, Rolle and Picpoul, and for the reds, Carignan and Cinsault. Any wines made from any other proportion of grapes fail to meet these regulations, but the result is deceiving. In fact, Negly’s top wines fall under the generic Côteaux du Languedoc appellation. more>>

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Lidewij van Wilgen, Mas des Dames

It’s a fascinating dream, and who hasn’t thought of it at least once: wouldn’t it be nice to buy a vineyard in France and begin a life as a winemaker? Some people actually do, and just sometimes, it turns out to be a major success.

Lidewij van Wilgen

Such is the case with Lidewij van Wilgen, the Dutch owner and winemaker of Mas des Dames, classed by Jancis Robinson amongst her favourite Languedoc wines. The accolades keep rolling in: her cuvée La Dame received 91 points from Wine Spectator, the highest score in the Languedoc. Tom Stevenson rated it #1 for quality and price in the Languedoc. La Diva won a silver medal at the Decanter World Wine Awards 2010. more>>

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In defence of the Languedoc: musings from Roquebrun

I’m house sitting in the Languedoc, and I can’t help but feel a bit jealous. Wouldn’t it be nice to have this for myself – a four bedroom villa with a heated swimming pool and a garden with olive and orange trees? From the balcony, the view looks out onto a field with 20 year old Syrah vines, single Guyot-trained, stretching in perfect rows to the village of Roquebrun with its thousand year old tower perched on the mountain. In the pale moonlight, the vines look like dark tombstones and it is as if I am looking at some monumental battlefield where soldiers are buried. Instead, these are the vines which produced the very wine I am drinking, the Saint-Chinian, Prieuré Saint-André “Cuvée Andréus” from Michel Claparède. A Syrah/Carignan blend, and I am crazy about old Carignan, since Carignan is crazy. I know of no other grape which has such outspoken wild berry flavours which stab you in the nose and palate. It needs to be tempered with the more serious Syrah, but together they are perfect counterparts, like Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis (Carignan would be Lewis, who by the way is in the French Légion d’honneur).

View of Roquebrun

Just behind me is the Cave de Roquebrun. Their metallic tanks rise above the cyprus trees, and they pride themselves on making wines from carbonic maceration. It’s a case of old world meets the new in Roquebrun, but walking down these ancient cobblestoned streets leads to a feeling of temps perdu, when wine itself was wisdom, in vino veritas. As if the truth was ever that simple… drink the wine at room temperature and it is silky and solid, well rounded and in balance. Leave your glass outside in the cool night air for 15 minutes and the Carignan begins to take over, as if someone had stuffed a bunch of wild raspberries and cowshit in your mouth. Which is better? It’s a matter of taste, I suppose. more>>

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Winefields’ Five Year Anniversary Auction

Winefields Auctioneers’ first auction of 2011 was held on Sunday April 3rd in the Oranjekerk in Amsterdam. Started exactly five years ago by Milan Veld and Martin Derksen, Winefields has grown into Amsterdam’s second largest wine auction house, regularly holding auctions specifically for wine in both Amsterdam and Singapore.

This was the most successful auction to date, with over 90% of all 522 lots being sold. There were of course wines in almost every style and price class available, but here are the top 10 lots purchased, rated by price per bottle (all lots are for 12 bottles, unless otherwise noted):  more>>

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Alicante Wines and Carnaval

Like anyone, my taste in wine is shaped by what is available to me. I’ve taken numerous trips to Malaga, Valencia and now Alicante over the last few years, and I have to wonder: why don’t we see more from the Spanish Levante on our wine shop shelves?

It can be easy to forget that Spain has 77 quality wine regions, since most of the market here is concentrated on only a few. If you’re talking top quality reds, then you mean mostly Tempranillos from Rioja/Navarra and Ribera del Duero, along with Toro and Cigales. And then there is Priorat. Little mention is made of the wonderful Montastrell varietals and blends from the Levante.

I know some of these wines are available in the Netherlands, but you have to look for them. I stumbled upon Rafael Cambra’s excellent wines the last time I was in Valencia and was impressed by the 100% Monastrell Uno, as well as the Cabernet Sauvignon and Franc blended Dos.

Alicante Carnival

So what would Alicante have to offer? Well, it happened to be Carnival. So you could say the party was on. We discovered a wonderful wine bar, El Portal, close to the marina. It was surreal to be tasting serious wines in a setting where many people were dressed in costumes. A guy dressed as a Rubik’s cube came in, drank a Chardonnay and left. We also came back the next, more quiet evening. more>>

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Wine Professional 2011: Madeira, Vinhos Barbeita

When I saw that Horizon Wines was hosting a master class on Madeira, Vinhos Barbeito at Wine Professional, I knew I couldn’t miss it. This was for me the highlight of the three-day long wine exhibition, the largest in the Netherlands.

Madeira is a tiny gem on the world wine map, producing a range of fascinating wines, some of which can last a couple centuries. But strangely it has been in a period of decline since the mid-19th century, when the island was hit by the powdery mildew and phylloxera plagues. Vintners chose to replant with inferior American grape varieties, then lost major markets in Russia and America to a revolution and prohibition. Eventually, the public perception of Madeira was downgraded to a cooking wine, and to some extent that misconception still exists today.

The future of Madeira became a bit brighter in the late twentieth century, when producers began replacing hybrid and American vines with the noble varieties Sercial, Verdelho, Boal and Malvasia (listed from dry to sweet). The red-skinned Tinta Negra Mole remains the workhorse of Madeira, but Ricardo Diogo Freitas, the owner and winemaker of Barbeito, showed that it is also capable of producing worthy wines. more>>

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