Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Tasting of Wines from Yarimada Winery in Azerbaijan

Wine Tasting at Art Garden Restaurant
January 2015 - Several days after arriving in Baku, I received an email invitation from Ibrahim Abdulrahimov, the Commercial Director of Yarimada Winery. He invited me to a private wine tasting and lunch at the Art Garden Restaurant in the Old City of Baku.

Ibrahim was kind enough to pick me up from my hotel, and as we drove to the restaurant, he explained more about the winery. The name, “Yarimada” means “peninsula” in Azerbaijani. The winery is named this because it is located 40 minutes from Baku on the Absheron peninsula in the village of Nardaran, where summer houses and beaches that attract many tourists can be found. The peninsula is also known for its migratory birds, and they are using the symbol of the Hoopoe bird on their labels. They have plans to open a tasting room there because it a great tourist location, but still close to the city.

Drawing of Hoopoe Bird on Label
The company was recently started in 2012 and is part of a holding company with many other products, including construction, juice, and water manufacturing. They own and operate 500 hectares of vineyards and buy grapes from another 500 hectares across the country. Though they have a small demonstration vineyard at the winery, they primarily source from Gabala, which they report the best grapes come from.  Their winemaker is David Maisuradze, who is quite famous in Georgia. He is a consulting winemaker for Yarimada.

They currently produce around 60,000 bottles per year, with plans to expand. With a luxury focus, the sales strategy is to place the wine in high-end restaurants and fine wine shops in Baku, and then slowly expand across Europe. They don’t want to be seen in grocery stores, and their price points range from $30 to $50 manats (1 manat = $1.26 US dollar), which is quite high for wine in Azerbaijan (in fact the highest prices I saw).

Currently they produce 6 wines, and I was able to taste them all, along with a delicious meal of Azerbaijani grilled lamb, fresh vegetables, and local cheese and breads. A truly delightful tasting, which showed off the wines to great advantage.

2012 Yarimada Matrasa – A dry red wine with a dark ruby color. Nose of subdued cassis, black plum, and earth. Complex notes of minerality and metal on palate with softy bushy tannins. Slightly reminiscent of Chinon or Bourgueil cab franc. Intriguing, fared better with food. Made from a 1934 Matrasa vineyard -one of the few remaining old vineyard that were not torn out by the Soviets.  Aged 9 months on French oak.  Medium to long finish.  Matrasa is considered to be one of the signature red grapes of Azerbaijan, and is also spelled as Madrasa. 89 points

2012 Yarimada Cabernet Sauvignon – A dry red wine with fresh ripe fruit, made in a modern style. Nose of dark berry with faint mineral note. Very approachable with soft well integrated tannins with 9 months in new French oak.  Moderate acid. Thinner body, and medium to long finish.  Simple and enjoyable, but lacks complexity and ability to age well.  Drink and enjoy sooner.  88 points

2012 Yarimada Saperavi – this wine was my favorite of the tasting with a dark opaque black/purple color and a big velvety mixed berry nose with soft spice. Made from the Saperavi red grape, which is claimed as the signature grape of Georgia, it still performs very well in Azerbaijan. Made in a full-bodied, heavier style, the wine flows across the palate with big velvety tannins and concentrated spiced berry fruit with a touch of minerality and some warm milk chocolate on the finish. Very fulfilling, and reminiscent of a well-made Argentinian Malbec. Aged 16 months in French oak, this wine is not shy and also supports a 14.5% alcohol, though the bottle reads 12%.  92 points

2012 Yarimada Shiraz –a dry dark red wine with a hint of tar, spice, and mixed black berry on the nose.  Larger firm tannins, moderate oak aging, and more of an old world style with some savory meaty notes and the distinctive touch of metal minerality I found in almost every Azerbaijan wine I tasted.  Is it in the soil, the water?  The wine is a little high in alcohol and finishes a bit thin.  87 points.

Fortress Walls of Old City of Baku, Azerbaijan
2012 Yarimida Rkatsiteli – a dry white wine with floral and lemon nose. On the palate, medium-bodied with pear and crisp acidity. Textured with mineral notes and a bit of a hot finish. Unique, complex, and invites you to taste it again to pick up new nuances.  91 points; drink within next year

2014 Yarimida Rkatsiteli  - a much more vibrant nose on this younger wine, with fresh perfumed flowers and ripe citrus. Heavier texture on palate with some subdued pear and minerality, though acid not as high as the 2012 version, so less refreshing finish. Not released yet. 90 points; drink in 1 to 3 years

Monday, March 23, 2015

Tasting the Wines of Savalan from Aspi Winery, Azerbaijan

Tasting with Timur & Jahid of Savalan Wines
January 2015 - Before visiting Azerbaijan, I did an Internet search for Azerbaijani wineries and discovered that Aspi Winery ( is one of the most sophisticated in that they have a website in four languages. The other wineries either didn’t have websites, or they were not in English. Furthermore I was distressed to learn there was no “Wines of Azerbaijan Association,” to assist me in scheduling appointments.

Fortunately Timur Mamedov, Commercial Director for Aspi Winery, was extremely responsive. He answered my email almost immediately and invited us to a tasting of wines at their business offices in downtown Baku. Since it was winter and time was limited, it was not possible to drive to the vineyards and winery outside the city. We were joined in the tasting by Jahid, the Marketing Director.

Background of Aspi Winery and the Savalan Wine Brand

Aspi Winery was launched in 2007 by the privately held conglomerate of Aspi, which also sells glass and helicopters. They built a brand new state of the art winery with a production capacity of 1 million bottles, but only produce about half that much currently. The winery is located in the mountainous region of Gabala at 400 meters (1200 feet), in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains. President Ilham Aliyev actually visited during the grand opening of the winery.

They have named the wine, Savalan, to honor the Savalan Valley in which the winery is located. The valley is nicknamed “sleeping beauty,” because it protects the people and plants that reside there from harsh winds, and is blessed with the beautiful river, Turian Chay. Currently they produce 18 different wines that feature brightly colored labels to distinguish the different varietals, and proudly display a stylized version of the mountainous valley in which they are located.

Climate and Viticulture Practices of Aspi Winery

Vineyard in Azerbaijan
Aspi farms 340 hectares of vineyards along the slopes of the mountains. The region of Gabala is an ancient wine making region, which has a dry sunny climate with highs up to 40 C in the summer days, but with a drop to 27 C at night. Afternoon breezes and the higher elevation also moderate the temperature a bit. Winters can be cool with average temperatures dropping to around 0 C at night, and occasional snow. The soil is a mix of clay and small pebbles, and is currently not irrigated, but they are considering adding drip irrigation. Trellis systems are generally VSP with short double guyot.

They have planted 22 different varietals, with a focus on classic grapes, such as Chardonnay, Riesling, Merlot, and Syrah, with a few exceptions such as Alicante Boushet, Aleatico, and Marselan. They are also experimenting with unique blends, such as Grenache, Syrah and Alicante Bouschet in their Limited Release Reserve, which won a Bronze medal at the 2014 International Wine & Spirit Competition.

Winemaking and Sales at Aspi Winery

The winemakers, Mr. Daniel D'Andrea and Ms. Eliza Vagnoni, are from the Friuli region of Italy. Much of the equipment and grapevines are also imported from Italy, as well as oak barrels from France.

Current sales are in Azerbaijan and Russia, which a focus on fine wine shops, restaurants, and upscale grocery stores. “We do not want sell to shops that do not have good temperature control for wines,” said Timur. “If a shop places wine in a hot window and a customer buys it doesn’t like the taste, then it reflects poorly on the brand. We are focused on producing the highest quality Azerbaijani wines.” He mentioned they have plans to begin exporting to Europe and the US.

Tasting Ten Savalan Wines – A Surprising and Fun Experience

In a tasting of 10 wines, alcohol levels were surprisingly high ranging from 13.5 to 15%. Despite this, the nose was quite fresh and exuberant on the majority of the wines, especially the whites such as the unoaked chardonnay, riesling, viognier, traminer, and muscat. I’m assuming some of this could be a result of the Friuli winemaking experience and style.

On the palate all of the wines exhibited a distinctive touch of minerality with a hint of saltiness and/or nuttiness mixed in the more subdued fruit profile. Acids were all natural, and in some cases not that high. The reds all had an expressive nose with ripe berry profiles and higher alcohol levels. A few had astringent tannins with some tart characters, but others had broader, velvety tannins with well integrated oak. Highlights of the tasting for me were:

2013 Savalan Semi-Dry Traminer – a semi-dry white wine with a fresh floral nose and light apricot and citrus on the palate. Well-balanced with a high acid cutting through the semi-sweet fruit, and a medium-long finish.  A great aperitif wine for sipping before dinner, or perhaps as a light dessert wine with fresh fruit.  89 points

2012 Savalan Marselan-Syrah  - a dry red wine, dark ruby in color, with an expressive mixed berry and spice nose, and a surprising creamy palate with rich milk chocolate, smooth tannins, and a long finish. Good to drink on its own, or match with cheese, duck, or other hearty poultry.  90 points

2012 Savalan Limited Release Reserve – a dry red wine with an opaque red-purple color this was a unique blend of 1/3 each Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and Alicante Bouschet which was co-fermented and then aged in French oak for 12 months. With a 15% alcohol, this wine had a bold nose of spice and complex berries, but was very approachable on the palate with sweet velvety tannins, medium-plus acid, and hints of dark chocolate cherries.  Though a little too high in alcohol for some, this New World style wine would fit in well with the current “Red Blend” craze in the US.  91 points

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ancient Wine in the Land of Fire - Azerbaijan

Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre
January 2015 - It had been 18 years since my first visit to Baku, Azerbaijan in the Spring of 1996, when I was working for Amoco Oil. My memories were of a black city covered in grimy oil and soot, dinners of caviar and sturgeon, and sweet reds wines along with gritty white sparkling wine. Arriving again in Baku for 10 days from Dec. 26, 2014 to Jan. 4, 2015 was like walking into a futurist city. Everything was clean and sparkling, and there were many new buildings with amazing architecture like the Fire Towers and the Heydar Aliyev Cultural Centre. A long pedestrian walkway wove along the shores of the Caspian Sea, dotted with palm trees, fountains, and flowers, where black oil rigs used to be. Baku had transformed itself into a modern city - similar to Dubai, in some respects, with great oil wealth - but also managed to preserve its ancient culture and remember its wine heritage.

Seaside Walkway with Fire Towers
Today the abundant restaurants are filled with the fresh local flavors of the land, specializing in some of the tenderest lamb in the world accompanied by fresh herbs, pomegranate sauces, rice, naan breads, vegetables, fruit, and local cheeses. Some say Azerbaijani food is similar to Persian (its neighbor to the South) or Turkish (its neighbor to the West), but experts say it has its own unique cuisine, and I would have to agree. Probably one of the aspects I loved most about this country is that, though it is 93% Muslim, they still drink wine. Wine in part of their ancient heritage, because Azerbaijan is nestled along the Caucasus Mountains, which are the birthplace of wine, in the country of Georgia (their neighbor to the North). Today, much of the wine is still slightly sweet, but they are also making dry styles from classic European grapes.
Fire Mountain

Azerbaijan is called the “Land of Fire,” because as far as records go back in time, visitors described the flames that burst from the ground and never went out. These fires are from natural oil gases below the rocky surface, and it is still possible to visit Yanar Dag (Fire Mountain) where the flames have burned for thousands of years.

History of Wine in Azerbaijan

While in Baku, I tasted many wines from Azerbaijan and was able to visit with two wineries. The people I met there told me that wine has been produced in Azerbaijan back to the second millennium BC. Proof comes from the archaeological digs of places such as Karabakhlar and Galajig, where stone fermentation and storage vessels were found with grape seed residue. Through the ages there have been frequent references to the high quality of Azerbaijani wine by ancient Greek, Arabic, and Roman scholars such as Homer, Herodotus, Al-Masudi and Pliny the Great.

Fire Temple Outside Baku
However, when I returned from Baku and was writing an article to publish regarding my winery visits, Jancis Robinson contacted me regarding her new book, The World Atlas of Wine, 7th edition, and the section on Azerbaijani wine. She said she had been in contact with Dr. Patrick A. McGovern who mentions evidence of grapes and possible winemaking dating to the 7th Millennium BC at Shomu-Tepe in his book Ancient Wine. Shomu-Tepe is located near Tuvuz in the northern region of Azerbaijan near the Georgian border.  Therefore, I contacted Dr. McGovern and he confirmed this.

Consequently wine has been produced in Azerbaijan much longer than previously thought, and continued to develop over the centuries. Even with the adoption of Islam, wine continued to be produced in Azerbaijan, and in the 1820’s attracted foreign investment from German immigrants who established operations in the area near Ganja, and ushered in Azerbaijan’s modern winemaking era.

Major Wine Regions of Azerbaijan
It was only in the 1980’s under Soviet rule that Azerbaijan’s wine industry was halted for a nearly a decade by Mikhail Gorbachev’s edict against drunkenness. In an act similar to America’s Prohibition, thousands of acres of vineyards were destroyed in the USSR. However with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, Azerbaijan has slowly been rebuilding its wine industry.  Today there are five major winegrowing regions: 1) Shamakha, 2) Ismaily, 3) Gabala, 4) Gandja, & 5) Tuvuz (see map).

The Azerbaijani Wine Industry Today

Following are several statistics on the wine industry in Azerbaijan today:

  • Wine Production:  5 million liters (555,000 cases) in 2012, according to the Wine Institute
  • Wine Consumption: 10.24 liters per capita in 2012; very similar to the US at 10.42
  • Population: 9.5 million, per
  • Vineyard Acres: 30,000
  • Number of Wineries: 17, according to the winery people I met with in Baku

  • Major Grape Varietals: Chardonnay, Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling, Matrasa, Saperavi, Rkasiteli, and Muscat
  • Wine Styles: slightly sweet, including the reds, though there is a trend towards producing dry wines to pair better with food
  • Common Wine Brands: Savalan, Yaramida, Fireland, Caspian Sea, Ivanovka, Rubai 

Growth of Azerbaijan Wines

Wine  in Azerbaijan Grocery Store
Currently the growth trend for Azerbaijan wine appears to be positive within the country, though increasing at a modest pace. This progress is due to government support, improved wine quality, and a slump in vodka sales. Also, according to Euromonitor, more young and middle aged people in the country are consuming red wine. I was able to find wine in every restaurant I visited, as well as the bars, grocery stores, and even small convenience shops that seem to be on every corner.

Though many may be surprised that a predominately Muslim country produces and consumes wine, one of the cultural aspects Azerbaijan prides itself on is tolerance. Not only are there many Christian churches and Jewish synagogues mixed among the Islam mosques, but there is a wide acceptance of Western clothing with women wearing all of the latest styles, and shops such as Tiffanny’s, Gucci and Zara doing a booming business. The expat community is strong, and the economy, in general, is doing well, though the recent drop in oil prices is hurting them somewhat.

Last Wine Dinner in the Old City of Baku

Dushbara Soup
On my last night, we had dinner at a restaurant serving local cuisine in the Old City of Baku. This is an amazing warren of small streets filled with shops and restaurants and surrounded by the ancient fortress walls. The famous Maiden’s Tower, dating from the 7th century AD, is also located here.

Azerbaijani Women Drinking Red Wine
I had ordered the delicious local soup called Dushbara to start. This is made with small lamb dumplings, broth, spices, and fresh herbs. Next I ordered a green salad, and then grilled lamb chops with cilantro scented rice. My wine choice was a glass of semi-dry Rkasiteli to start, and then a glass of Matrasa (also called also Madrasi), the Azerbaijan signature red grape varietal that can be made either dry or semi-sweet. My glass was the dry style, with the black plum and earthy notes I was expecting. It was perfect with the lamb, and as I glanced around the restaurant I was pleased to see a table of four Azerbaijani women in their 20’s sitting near me. They were talking, laughing, and toasting with wine glasses filled with red Azerbaijani wine.

Watch a short video about my trip to Azerbaijan

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Hidden Wineries in the Steep Hills Above Nice - Visit to Chateau Bellet de Cremant in Bellet AOC

Zia at Chateau Bellet
(Summer 2014) Another afternoon during our two week stay in Nice to attend a French language school, we visited Chateau Bellet de Cremant in the steep hills above Nice. It was actually only a 10 minute drive from our gite that we rented in the hills, and is about 20 minutes from downtown Nice.

The Bellet AOC is the second smallest in France, after Chateau Grillet in the Northern Rhone. Bellot includes only 70 hectares of vineyards and 10 domaines (wineries). They do not advertise and there is no tourist office with maps to help you find the wineries. Instead you have to drive through the tiny winding roads in the steep hillsides above Nice until you see a small sign signaling a winery. Once you find one, it is necessary to call and make an appointment. Alternatively there are two open houses per year, if you arrive on the correct date.

The only winery that is open to tourists without an appointment is Chateau Bellet de Cremant, which is the largest. It is an impressive structure that looks like a small castle with stone walls, gates, and towers. A special feature is the massive stone balcony that provides amazing views of the Mediterranean Ocean and Nice far below. Technically it is considered to be one of the only wineries in a French city, though really it appears to be in the far rural outskirts of Nice.

The winery was established in 1906, and built on the site of an ancient Roman galley, where they stored treasure. Now that portion of the chateau is used for the barrel cellar.

Legend States Coco Chanel Visited Chateau Bellet de Cremant

Double "C" Logo Over Door
Another interesting story about the chateau is that the original owner used the logo “CC” for Chateau Cremant, but when CoCo Chanel apparently visited in the early 1900’s she fell in love with the logo and adopted it for her own. The owner, who adored her, gave her the right to use the logo and changed the logo of the chateau to “CK” – not nearly as exciting. However the original “CC” logo, which looks just like the famous logo used by the House of Chanel (one of my favorite places), can still be found carved into the walls and above the main door.

Vineyards of Rolle, Braquet and Folle Noire Grapes

We visited the tasting room and were greeted in a very friendly fashion, though we did not have an appointment. The service was excellent, and we were told the history of the estate, invited to walk through the facility and vineyards, and given three wines to taste.

In terms of production, the Chateau has 15 hectares of grapes and produces 40,000 bottles of wine per year. They do not export, and only sell at the winery and in select wineshops and restaurants in France.

Chateau Bellet produces 4 major grape varieties: Rolle, Chardonnay, Braquet and Folle Noire*. Farming is all organic and the vineyards are planted on narrow ledges along the edge of the steep hills. We walked into a Rolle vineyard (which is the French name for Vermentino) that had 3 x 3 spacing on a tall VSP trellis. We were told the soil is primarily “sand and stones called Poudingue.”

Steep Vineyards of Bellet
The red grape for which they are most famous is the Braquet, which originally came from the Braquetto region of Italy. It produces a lighter colored red like pinot noir, and has similar berry flavors, but a more earthy note.

Tasting of Three Wines at Chateau Bellet de Cremant

2013 Rose ($17E). 50% Braquet and 25% Grenache and 25% Cinsault. Crisp but with soft tannis and rounder on palate. Bigger mouthfeel from the Braquet grape. Drink young - within 2 to 3 years of release. 

2011 White ($20E) – 95% rolle and 5%chardonnay.  Aged in 100% new oak barrels for 50% of wine.  Tasted like heavily oaked chardonnay, but more of old world style.  Vermentino eclipsed by oak, but good acidity, with buttery ML. Aged 3 years in bottle before release. Signature wine. Very unique.

2010 Red ($23E) – 60% Folle Noire and 40% Grenache. Aged in oak for 12 months, then bottle for 2 more years. Berry, smoke, stone on nose as well as on palate, but with surprising white pepper finish that was very long. Rather amazing wine – also quite unique. Purchased this one. (*Note: I couldn’t find the Folle Noire grape in any book, but when translated into English it becomes Wild Black.)

Altogether, we enjoyed our visit to Chateau Bellet de Cremant, and would gladly return again in the future.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

A Magical Day in Provence with Visit to Maison des Vins de Provence in Les Arcs

The Beauty of Provence Roses
(Summer 2014) During our two week visit to Provence with French language classes every morning in Nice, we managed to slip away one afternoon to visit Maison des Vins de Provence. It was about a 50 minute drive from Nice and easily accessible from the freeway, where we exited at the town of Les Arcs.

A large sign signals the entrance to a cluster of buildings, which include the welcome center and tasting room, a wine shop, restaurant and the administration buildings for the Maison des Vins de Provence. There is ample free parking in the large tree-shaded parking lot in front.

A Warm Welcome at Maison des Vins de Provence

We were welcomed by the hospitality manager, and later by the director, Francois and marketing manager, Celine. I was impressed with the friendliness of the well-trained staff, and the fact that we were allowed to taste 14 different Provence wines free of charge. Then if you decide to make a purchase – which we did – you receive a discount on the wine, as well as wine cooler bags. We were told that the 14 wine selections are changed every few weeks.

Maison des Vins de Provence
Celine informed us that there are 400 domaines in the Provence AOC and that 230 of them are represented at the Maison. The center is supported by the French government as part of their wine tourism and regional promotion service.  Other wine regions of France have similar wine tourism support.

As we tasted through the wines, we were told that Rolle (Vermentino) is the main white grape of Provence. It is one of my favorite grapes as it produces a light refreshing lemon-lime wine with high acidity. The roses are produced from grenache, syrah, mouvedre and/or cinsault, with some potential addition of clairette and ungi blanc.

While we were tasting a family with small kids came in, and the mother and father were allowed to taste a few wines while the children were happily occupied with toys in a corner of the room that was set-up as a play center. Very clever!

We purchased two rose wines along with a darling white plastic bag that serves as an ice bucket for the wine. They look very appealing on a table with the sun shining through the clear ice filled bag with a chilled bottle of rose nestled inside.

Lunch at La Bastitedes Magnans and Visiting Le Thoronet Abbey

Francois and Celine were kind enough to recommend a local restaurant for lunch, called La Bastide des Magnans.  They even called to make reservations for us. The experience was incredible, with a three course meal served in a garden under giant plane trees. The chef even came out to welcome us and ask how we were enjoying the food. It was a true gourmand experience.

Pork Chop Dinner with Rose
Later that afternoon we visited the famous Le Thoronet Abbey, which is an ancient Cisterian Abbey with amazing architecture. On the way back to our gite in the hills of Nice we stopped in Cannes, and took a walk on the beach, and then visited several of the expensive shops along the boulevard, including Chanel. 

Sunset and a Glass of Provence Rose

That evening, back in our gite high in the hills above Nice, we feasted on local pork chops, fresh vegetables and cheeses, and a chilled bottle of Provence rose while we watched the sun slowly slip into the ocean in the distance.

Friday, February 6, 2015

Tasting the Wine of Dreams - A Visit to Domaine Romanee Conti

Statue of St. Vivant
It is the dream of every wine lover to someday have a chance to visit “the Mecca of Wine” - Domaine Romanee Conti. So when the opportunity finally came for a private tasting at DRC, I couldn’t believe it was actually true. I won’t go into details of how I finally received an invitation. Just know that it took months, and contacting many people – to whom I say thanks to in my dreams every night. However, I should mention, that when I arrived, I was told by our host that a good old-fashioned hand-written letter to Aubert explaining why it would be a dream come true to visit, does, in some cases, open the gates.

The Gates of DRC

And gates there are! There is no sign announcing the entrance to DRC, but a quick search of Google maps will produce an address in the tiny village of Vosne Romanee. The domaine is hidden behind a very tall stone wall with impressive iron gates. It is necessary to push a call button to announce your presence, and then the gates will slowly swing open.

Once inside, there is a sweep of gravel drive, and a collection of stone buildings.  However it is the beautiful statue of St. Vivant, looking like a winged angel and poised over the exquisite vines of her namesake vineyard Romanee St. Vivant, that captures the attention. It reminded me of the fact that the monks of the Abbey of Saint Vivant established this estate in 1232.

There were five people in our party and we slowly approached a door leading to a small and rather basic office and reception area. It was professionally furnished but not grand or over the top. We were greeted by the office manager, who asked us to wait while she summoned Bertrand de Villaine, cousin to Aubert.

Though serious at first, over the next two hours, Bertrand revealed himself to be a very jolly host with a great sense of humor. Dressed in grey pants, boots, and a long-sleeved shirt and vest, he was of medium height, very fit and muscular. His thick hair was cut short and his face was tan from many hours outdoors. I could imagine him in a monk’s brown shift with sandals and rope belt, perhaps descended from one of the monks who guarded the estate hundreds of years ago.

Bertrand’s first explanation to us, reinforced this image. When we asked him the reason the wines of DRC are considered to be some of the best it the world, he replied, “Because the vineyards were a gift from God.” However as our tour continued, Bertrand began to tell us slightly bawdy jokes and revealed his wicked sense of humor. “I’m not a monk,” he said with a huge grin. “I have five kids, so you know I love my wife a lot!”

Farming the Vineyards from God

We spent some time with Bertrand in the Romanee St. Vivant vineyard just outside the front door of the office. He explained that altogether the domaine owns 27 hectares of vines that are biodynamically farmed. Behind us, climbing up the gentle slope, were the famous vineyards of La Tache and Romanee Conti, which we had visited an hour before on our own. Also nearby were their hectares of Richebourg, Echezeaux and Grands Echezeaux.

We could see the vines were trained on a low guyot, and cane pruned to 4 – 6 buds, with one cluster per shoot. The spacing is approximately 3 x 3 feet, and average 9,000 vines per hectare in most of the vineyards. However Bertrand told us there are a few which are 10,000 vines per hectare.  Yield is generally 27 hectoliters per hectare (around 2 tons per acre), but many times they only achieve 17 hectoliters per hectare. In 2013, they lost 50% of the crop due to weather issues. 

Rich Soil of DRC
I was impressed with how healthy looking the soil was with rich red-brown clay(marl) and small pebbles of white limestone scattered throughout. Bertrand said the vineyard is the most important aspect of the wine, and as soon as the harvest is finished and the grapes are in the cellar, their only role is to “observe” the wine being made. He explained with a grin, “Being in the vineyard is my favorite part of work, then the cellars, and the office last.”

When we asked him about rootstock and clones, he responded that the rootstock was all of American origin, but the clones were 80 – 95% marsale selection.

Some of their biodynamic farming practices include keeping a garden where they grown the herbs and other plants that go into the biodynamic preps. In addition, they have two horses that plow the vineyards. “Mickey is the name of the oldest horse,” said Bertrand fondly.

Interestingly, he mentioned that frost is actually good for the soil and vines, because it causes the soil to break apart. He said they had not yet had frost in the Spring of 2014, and that it was missed. He demonstrated by picking up a piece of clay and trying crumble it in his hands, but it didn’t break easily. He said if frost were to come in the next few weeks it would help the soil be healthier. This is the first I’ve heard of this concept.

Bertrand also described how the ancient monks who had worked at Clos de Vougeot, just one kilometer from DRC, had deciphered the message of the soil and terroir of the area. He explained, “In certain parts of our vineyards, you can have amazing differences in soil just a few meters apart. For example in La Tache, we say there is upper and lower La Tache, because the soil is different in two sections.”

Wine Making at DRC

We were told that currently there are 35 people working full-time at DRC. The winemaking process is similar to other estates, with a few key differences. The first is access to world-class grapes from the “vineyards of God,” which are meticulously tended throughout the year.

During harvest the workers begin around 5am each morning and continue picking until around 2pm in the afternoon. The first sorting occurs in the vineyard, and whole clusters are gently transported to the winery, which is just across the street from the main DRC office and cellars.

We walked across the small plaza and entered the cellars through an old wooden door set into the high stone walls that surrounded the operation. Immediately we could see huge wooden foudres and long conveyer belts for transferring the whole clusters into the foudres. Bertrand explained that during crush, large tables were set up within the winery for the second sorting. Generally 14 to 20 people sort the clusters to remove green berries, rotten or over-ripe berries, clusters that are too big, hail damaged berries, and insects. If it is raining during the harvest or there are a lot of insects that year, they set up an additional table for a pre-sort.

After sorting, the whole clusters are gently moved up the conveyor belt to the top of the large wooden foudres where they are destemmed in an electric machine that rests on top of the foudres. The purpose is to protect the individual grapes from oxygen as long as possible. Many are left intact so there can be a small amount of carbonic maceration taking place within individual berries. This was one aspect of the winemaking process that I had never heard of before, because most reports state that DRC ferments as whole clusters.

Barrel Aging Cellar
Natural yeast is used, and the berries are left to start fermentation on their own. A cold soak is not forced on the grapes, but it generally takes about 5 days for fermentation to start. Pump overs are used up to 3 times a day to assist, and when fermentation takes off pigeage is conducted up to 3 times per day by hand or by physically jumping in the tanks some times. Fermentation temperature ranges from 25 – 27 F, with total maceration at 17 – 25 days, depending on the vineyard and vintage.

The wine is pressed in a large Bucher vacuum press and the free run and pressed juice is kept in separate tanks for 24 hours to settle out. Then it is tasted, and decisions are made on much pressed juice to blend with the free run. The wine is then transferred to 95% new French oak barrels, medium toast (they used to do 100%, but have made some minor adjustments). Interestingly they have discovered the Corton vineyard they have recently acquired is not as accepting of oak, as the others. Therefore, Corton now receives less oak.

The wine is aged for 16 – 18 months with no racking, unless certain exceptions warrant a barrel to be racked. ML takes place in barrel, and often doesn’t start until the Spring. Everything is very natural, and Bertrand stated that they do not like to rush things. “Everything in its own time,” he said. Barrels are topped as needed.

Amazingly, bottling occurs directly from the barrel – no blending of all barrels into a large tank first. Therefore, each bottle is quite individual. The finished wine is not fined, but may be gently filtered, depending on the vintage.

Tasting Dreams Deep in the Cellars of DRC

Eventually we descended deep into the cellars of DRC. My first thought after climbing down a steep flight of stairs was “how small this is!” Looking around, we could see barrels of wine lined up around the walls, separated by white gravel pathways. The barrels were not stacked on top of one another, but sat in solitary splendor resting on wooden rails.

Bertrand explained that this was the aging cellar, and that after bottling the wines were moved to another cellar across the road for further aging. He grabbed a wine thief and motioned for us to follow him to a series of barrels marked Echezeaux. We were each given a glass and watched in fascination as he transferred a small amount of the wine from the thief into our glasses.

I was impressed with the brilliant ruby hue of the wine, and the exquisite but delicate nose of the 2013 Echezeaux. As it was May, Bertrand explained that the wine was mainly finished, but a few barrels were still undergoing ML. The texture was very silky on my palate with smooth tannins, crisp acidity and long finish. Notes of black cherry and tea lingered on my palate.

Though we knew the protocol was to spit, it was just not possible because this was our first (and perhaps only) taste of these legendary wines. I explained this to Bertrand, and he nodded with a smile. However, we did pour the remnants of the glass back into the barrel after two sips.

Next we moved to the barrels of Grands Echezeaux, which delivered with amazing accuracy its reputed style of bolder tannins and larger mouthfeel than the regular Echezeaux vineyard. The aroma was stronger with black fruit and earth, and on the palate the wine had more concentration, huge velvety texture and tannins, and a strong masculine feel to it. Notes of black cherry, coffee, and anise lingered on a very long finish.

Finally Tasting La Tache
Next, trembling with anticipation, I followed Bertrand to the barrels of La Tache. For years I had dreamed of tasting this wine because my last name “Thach” is correctly pronounced “Tache (tosh).” Therefore, I felt a strong affinity to the wine, and was convinced it would be my favorite.

La Tache did not disappoint. In the dim light of the cellar, it flowed into my glass in a glowing ruby stream, and the perfume of raspberries and violets filled the air. Reverently putting my nose to the glass, the berries became more complex with mixed spices. On the palate it was probably the most elegant wine I’ve ever tasted. It was delicate but concentrated with silky texture and tannins, fine acidity, and a kaleidoscope of complex flavors ranging from red and black berries, rose, black tea and allspice. The finish was very long and satisfying.

As we moved from the barrels of La Tache to Romanee Conti, I felt very satisfied. Finally I had tasted the wine of my dreams, and was confident that nothing could ever eclipse that taste. I was wrong. Who knew that Romanee Conti could taste even better?

Perhaps it was the hype around Romanee Conti that had put me off. I’ve never been a fan of jumping on the bandwagon of what everyone else proclaims to the best. So my first sip of this wine came as a shock. It was a darker ruby that La Tache in color with a more pronounced nose of berries, violets and spice, but on the palate it was even more elegant with huge concentration and an extremely long finish.

As my companions were oohing and ahhing over the wine, I stood there trying to analyze what made it so great, and in doing so nearly consumed all of the wine in my glass. It reminded me of a perfect combination of the best Russian River pinot noir I’ve ever tasted, rich with flavors of raspberry, spice and violets, but with the added magic of a core of the pulsing minerality and complex earthiness of Burgundy. It seemed to embody the best of new and old world pinot noir in one exquisite glass. Perhaps it really was made by God?

Bertrand woke me from my reverie by asking, “Don’t you want to be part of this barrel of Romanee Conti too?” I looked over and saw that everyone else was gently tipping the remainder of the wine in their glasses into the hole of the barrel. Peering into my glass, I was embarrassed to see there was only one drop left.

“It is alright,” Bertrand said with a grin, “even if you only have one drop, you will still be a part of this barrel.”  He motioned for me to come over and I slowly shook my one drop into the barrel. “Now you are all apart of this wine,” he said. “Where ever it goes around the world, you are a part of it.”

As he said this, I wondered who would eventually buy the bottle of wine in which my one drop was mingled. Though some people may think the Burgundian custom of pouring wine from your glass back into the barrel is strange and perhaps unsanitary, this is not the cause. Because the wine is so rare, every drop is needed to top the barrel and protect the wine from oxygen. Also, because they are using so much new French oak that “drinks the wine,” is it is necessary to preserve with more wine. Finally, the alcohol in the wine will kill all human germs that may linger on the glass.

“So where are the rest of the barrels of Romanee Conti?” one of my companions asked.

The answer surprised us.  “Because the harvest from 2013 was so small, we only have these 13 barrels of Romanee Conti for the whole world.”

What? Thirteen barrels for the whole world! This was earth-shattering news.  Bertrand went on to explain that this was the reason they were so careful to whom they sold the wine. “We don’t want a complete vintage to end up the dark cellars of a few rich collectors,” he said. “We want the wine to be shared by many people around the world. This is why we allocate so carefully.”

One of my companions then told Bertrand of how his store in California was allocated 4 bottles per year of DRC wine. He explained that most of the time the bottles were purchased by a group of winemakers who pooled their money so they had enough to afford one bottle and they each had a sip or two. Bertrand smiled at this story and said, “This is the type of thing we like to hear.”

As we left the cellar, I asked Bertrand how difficult it was to deal with the fickleness of Mother Nature -  that in some years brought them bounty, and in others, such as 2013 with all its hail and frost, decimated the harvest by 50%.

His response was poetic, and brought a sense of calm and peace to my soul. “When we work in the vineyard, we go with the flow. If the year brings hail, frost, or sunshine, we accept and know this is what is supposed to happen for this vintage.”

A Taste of Golden Sunshine Before We Departed

During the last part of our two hour visit to DRC, Bertrand took us to visit the bottle aging cellar. It was also quite small, but very beautiful with the bottles stored in tall cases for one year before they were labeled and boxed for shipment.

Bottle Aging Cellar
However, we soon discovered it was not necessarily the bottle aging cellar we had come to visit, but a small dark room in the back carved out of the natural limestone with gravel on the floor. In the center stood a tall wooden barrel that served as a table, with a flickering candle set upon it.

Bertrand motioned for us to stand around the barrel table, and then slipped off to the right where he bent down and grabbed an unmarked bottle from a pile of shiners in a dark corner of the cave room. He placed the bottle on the table and uncorked it with a flourish, and then poured it into our glasses. In the dim candlelight the wine glowed with hues of yellow and flashes of white gold. “Guess what this is?” he asked.

Bringing the glass to my nose, I could smell fresh apple pie, butter, and allspice. On the palate the wine was creamy, with more yellow apple, pastry, mixed spices, and very generous well-integrated toasty oak notes. It was so rich and concentrated, it reminded me of dessert. At first, the thought of a rich over-the top Marcassin chardonnay flashed across my palate memory. Surely this couldn’t be from the Sonoma Coast? But then the crisp acidity and electric core of limestone minerality asserted itself – Burgundy. This must be DRC’s Montrachet.

It turned out to be the single barrel they make each year of Batard Montrachet, and only share occasionally with visitors to the cellar. “This is the 2007 vintage. I call it my little pastry,” smiled Bertrand as he watched our shocked expressions. “Doesn’t it taste just like a pastry dessert?”

I agreed, and just then one of my companions fell on his knees in the gravel and exclaimed, “I have died and gone to heaven.  Thank you God and Bertrand for letting me taste this wine.”

We all laughed and helped him up to his feet again. Then we took photos with Bertrand and thanked him, and the others who had helped us receive an invite to DRC, for making all of our dreams come true. 

Monday, January 26, 2015

Last Night in Paris and a Video Highlighting Our Adventures

Our Group in Paris
(May 23 & 24, 2014) The next morning we boarded the bus for the 3.5 hour drive from Beaune to Paris, stopping once along the way at another large French gas station to grabs some snacks.  We arrived back at the Mercure in Paris around 1pm, and everyone was happy to be back in a modern hotel with working wifi.
The afternoon was free time, so some people opted to take a nap, whereas others took the metro to Versailles, the Louvre, and many other Paris locals.  It was our last night in Paris, and everyone made the most of it.  Some people chose to stay up all night, reasoning that they could always sleep on the plane ride home.
The bus departed for the airport at 7am the next morning, and after managing the hurdles of checking in at CDG, we all managed to make our 10:40am non-stop flight home to San Francisco.  We arrived rather bleary-eyed at 1pm PCT the same day, tired by happy to be home.
One nice aspect of international travel is, no matter how much fun you have when you are traveling, there is nothing better than coming home to California!
Our Video on the Highlights of Champagne, the Loire & Burgundy
When we arrived home, many people sent some of their favorite photos of the trip.  These were compiled into a 7 minute inspirational video.  Please watch it here.  Enjoy!