A Brief History of Wine at Blandy’s: Exploring Madeira (Part 2/2)

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 03-31-2014

Blandy's Lodge - 1If Madeira wine seems to exist out of time, so too does it complicate our conventional thinking about space. The history of the wine is the history of travel, colonial expansion, and the dream of the Edenic return.

Madeira is first a product of the vast spaces in between the vineyard and the table; it is a product of the open sea. Indeed, the peculiar qualities of the wine were so elusive that it was long assumed that the ocean voyage itself created the maderized effect. Owing to this belief, barrels were sent on long voyages to the New World in preparation for their appearance in British drawing rooms; these were the so-called “vinho da roda” (round trip wines).

Eventually, more budget minded producers developed technologies to imitate the ocean voyage — mechanical contraptions used to loll the wine back and forth. We now know that the darkening, oxidative effects of maderization occur through exposure to air and heat, and the process, called the canteiro system, all happens on the island.

But even this edenic island seems set adrift, no place at all, floating like a ship between the Old and New Worlds.

Of course, Madeira’s origins are now clear enough, and the story of the wine begins with vines rooted in the islands’ complex and dramatic terroir, which plunges from cool mountain heights to more consistently warm plateaus along the sea. The soil on the island, rich in minerals like iron and phosphorous, gives the wine its characteristic acidity. It also gives rise to another of the island’s major draws as a tourist destination: abundant, exotic, and diverse flora and fauna.

Perhaps no one place is as important to Madeira wine as Blandy’s Wine Lodge in Funchal. When I arrived at the timeless lodge and stepped into a library of history’s best bottles of the wine, I knew I had found the heart, the main nerve. Read the rest of this entry »

Organic Wines From Languedoc-Roussillon

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 03-22-2014

Cazes wine in window

Domaine Cazes in Rivesaltes.

If the Languedoc-Roussillon is the largest French wine region, it’s also the greenest.

The Languedoc-Roussillon is home to some 51,472 acres of organic vineyards, farmed by 1,245 producers, according to 2012 figures from the French Bio Agency. That’s nearly a third of the 160,124 acres of vineyards across France that have been certified organic or are undergoing conversion.

I recently spent five days wine tasting my way through this vast region. My trip was centered around the 2014 Millésime BioFair, a trade show in Montpellier focused on promoting organic and biodynamic wines. The fair was organized by SudVinBio, an association of organic Languedoc-Roussillon winemakers, which brought over a group of wine writers and sommeliers from the United States and Canada for the trip.

On the first day of our trip, we drove west from Montpellier to the small town of Rivesaltes, home of one of the region’s many Vin Doux Naturel sweet wines. I spent the two-hour drive looking out the window, observing this land of contrasts. A field of knotty old bush vines abutted an IKEA superstore. Campfires smoldered in the middle of trailer park sites. Newly pruned vineyards sat on one side of the road, abandoned vineyards on the other, their vines left to fend for themselves among weeds and mustard grass. Construction sites, covered in graffiti, looked over the clear blue of the Mediterranean. I began to understand where all those Vin de Pays d’Oc came from, and perhaps how they got their earthy, rustic character.

Before lunch, our group gathered in a tasting room at the organic powerhouse Domaine Cazes. SudVinBio gathered more than 70 bottles of organic wine from all over the Languedoc-Roussillon for us to taste. Most of the wines carried price tags in the 6 to 12 Euro range, although a few scattered bottles cost upwards of 25 Euros.

To be honest, the tasting was a mixed bag. Yes, the Languedoc-Roussillon still carries a reputation for insipid wine and crummy winemaking, and, yes, the wines can still live up to that reputation. Many of these wines tasted dull, bitter or reeked of brett. But among the mediocre, a few wines stood out and demanded attention.

My notes on a few of those wines are below the fold. Read the rest of this entry »

A Study In French Oak

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 03-19-2014

Clos-Fourtet-label-webLate last week, David White and I got together for dinner at Medium Rare, a DC restaurant that serves nothing but steak and french fries.

With steak, the drink choices were obvious: Bordeaux varieties. David brought something from the New World and I brought something from the Old. We ended up with two wines of great quality that could handle a judicious amount of oak:

2004 Chappellet “Pritchard Hill” Cabernet Sauvignon

1998 Clos Fourtet St. Émilion

A little bit about the wines.

Chappellet was founded by Donn & Molly Chappellet in the late 1960s after André Tchelistcheff suggested they make wine on Pritchard Hill. I would have taken his advice, too. Pritchard Hill is a rugged, high elevation site east of the Silverado Trail overlooking lake Hennessey with a constant breeze from the Foss Valley. Though it’s difficult to farm, the results appear in bottlings — producers like Continuum, Colgin, David Arthur, and Bryant Family are also willing to deal with the struggles of the land for the resulting concentration and longevity of their wines.

Clos Fourtet is one of the handful of “Clos,” or walled, vineyards in Bordeaux’s right bank. The walls date back to when it was a fort for the town of St Émilion. In the mid-1950s, the focus of the vineyard was brought to Merlot, which was natural considering the clay driven soil on the right bank. Merlot now occupies 85 percent of the plantings, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon at 10 percent and a mere 5 percent of Cabernet Franc. This vintage, 1998, was a seminal year for the right bank. While the big boys in Margaux and Pauillac were experiencing late-season hail and rain, the right bank was ripening and harvesting its Merlot like a champ. Vintage-driven prices seem to leave great value inn Pomerol and St Émilion. 2008 was another example. Seek them out.

Both of the wines exhibited great, long, sweet tannins driven by fruit ripeness and oak (the Chappellet saw 100% new French oak, while the Clos Fourtet saw 80%). The Chappellet was undoubtedly riper and more fruit driven, whereas the Clos Fourtet was drier, savory and had a touch of Brett to it (no complaints). Each has a solid 10-20 years left for prime drinking.

In the Roussillon, Shifting Lines Between Sweet and Dry

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 03-10-2014

For generations, Roussillon winemakers have relied on Vins Doux Naturels as their bread and butter. These “naturally sweet wines” are made by fortifying wine with near pure alcohol to arrest fermentation, resulting in a sweet wine with higher alcohol. But as consumers increasingly opt for dry wines, choosing to leave the dessert wines on the shelves, Roussillon is losing some of its sweetness.

Olivier Pithon produces stunning dry whites and reds from old vines once used for VDNs, and he makes a compelling case for his vision of the region's future.

Olivier Pithon produces stunning dry whites and reds from old vines once used for VDNs. He makes a compelling case for his vision of the region’s future.

Perhaps this is an inevitable swing of the pendulum after decades — even centuries — of many Roussillon winemakers producing a glut of sugary-sweet wines for an eager market. Perhaps, as several Roussillon winemakers told me, a younger generation is choosing instead to sip cocktails. In the face of these changing conditions, growers and winemakers are doing what they always do: adjusting. And based on my experience during a recent trip to the region, they’re doing a damn good job.

The Roussillon, which borders Spain and straddles the Mediterranean coast, produces more than 80% of France’s VDNs, according to the Conseil Interprofessionnel des Vins du Roussillon (CIVR), a trade group. VDNs are made in a variety of styles, according to the rules of the various appellations, and range from the apricot jam-driven Muscat de Rivesaltes, to the richly sweet reds of Maury and Banyuls. Of the Roussillon VDNs, Muscat de Rivesaltes makes up some 65%. From 1996 to 2012, the average annual yield for Muscat de Rivesaltes was 127,389 hectoliters. But in 2012, according to CIVR data, Roussillon winemakers only produced 108,834 hectoliters.

During a January trip to the Roussillon, I tasted a lot of sweet wines and spoke with several winemakers about the future of the region’s VDNs. Their responses were strikingly similar: the future looks bleak.

In Montpellier, I dined with Jean-Francois Deu, winemaker and proprietor of Domaine du Traginer. Deu grows Grenache, Carignan, Syrah and Mourvedre in Collioure, a seaside slice of France that abuts Spanish Catalunya. This is traditional Banyuls territory, a centuries-old dessert wine made from fortified Grenache. They’re rich wines with sweet plum, earth and caramel themes. There’s a lot to like about Traginer’s 2011 Banyuls — it’s velvety and sweet, full of structure, complexity and aging potential. Deu still sells some Banyuls, just not as much as his family used to.

When I asked Deu about the future of Roussillon’s VDNs, he laughed. “Sweet wine?” He ran his hand across his throat. “It’s finished.” Deu said importers are afraid to buy VDNs because they don’t think they can sell them. “When I pour this [Banyuls] for people, they like it a lot,” Deu said. “But they don’t buy it.” Whereas with dry wines, he said, people buy them, drink them and come back to buy more.”

Luckily for Domaine de Traginer and other Banyuls producers, they can use the same grapes to make dry red wine under the Collioure appellation. (Banyuls is basically fortified Collioure, as the two appellations share geographical boundaries.) Jean-Francois said his dry reds are selling just fine, and it helps that the Collioure appellation has a good (and I’d say well-deserved) reputation in France and abroad. “If I can sell Banyuls, I will,” Deu said. “If I can’t, I will sell Collioure.”

So, are lovers of Southern French sweetness in trouble? Well, no, not really. There’s still plenty of the sweet stuff to go around.

Some simple, uninspiring Rivesaltes wines may fall out of fashion, and they won’t be missed. But those who take it seriously, like stalwart producer Domaine Cazes, are still going strong, and making a case that this sweet and richly historic wine has a future. Cazes has been making sweet Rivesaltes since the late 1800s. In addition to a slew of dry whites, roses and reds, Cazes bottles several sweet wines with various Rivesaltes appellations. During a visit to the estate, I tasted a bunch of Rivesaltes with winemaker Emmanuel Cazes. His 2010 Muscat de Rivesaltes is a simple lychee-driven wine with honey undertones. The Rivesaltes Ambré is made from Grenache Gris grapes that are oxidized as they age for seven years in open wood casks. The 2000 vintage is a nutty wine with balanced sweetness and lots of toasted almond and dried apricot elements. Rivesaltes Grenat is another appellation-specific wine made from fortified Grenache Noir — and Cazes’ is quite tasty.

Domaine Cazes: Carrying the VDN torch for 100+ years.

Domaine Cazes: Carrying the VDN torch for 100+ years.

On a tour of the Domaine Cazes cellars, I wandered into a cold, damp room filled with old foudres. The room smelled of wet rocks, dried fruit and brandy. Emmanuel bottles and releases some of this wine periodically, reds, whites, ambrés, all at various stages of a long evolution. Emmanuel poured me some of the Cazes 1978 Rivesaltes, which was a simply beautiful wine, full of life and complex dried fruit, dried flowers and honeycomb notes. The domaine sells about a dozen other vintages of this wine, dating all the way back to 1931. These aged Rivesaltes appear aimed for a niche market of collectors and sugar-toothed enthusiasts, but Cazes’ commitment to traditional sweet wine is clear. They’ll sell VDNs as long as they can.

As I was riding around the areas near Rivesaltes with some representatives from SudVinBio, an association of organic Languedoc-Roussillon winemakers, I saw many vineyards that appeared abandoned. Grasses, wildflowers and windswept bushes had overtaken the old vines and were stealing all the sun. Rusted car parts and construction waste littered many vineyards. I asked our guide about these dystopian vineyard wastelands, and she said that many of them had once been home to Grenache Gris and Muscat grapes, used to make VDNs. Instead of ripping up the vines, apparently some growers just moved on and let nature figure it out.

But as producers of sweet wine bail, a group of enthusiastic young winemakers is stepping in. They’re buying up some of these old vineyards and making compelling dry wines.

One example is Domaine Les Conques vigneron Francois Douville. New to the Roussillon region, Douville bought a few plots of gnarled Granche Gris and Macabeo vines which had been used to make sweet Rivesaltes for decades. The grape varieties were all mixed together when they were planted, and Douville co-ferments them all into a dry white blend he calls Boheme. It’s a clean, zesty white with white peach and seashell flavors. The wine is so fresh, vibrant and food-friendly, it’s no wonder Douville chose this route instead of making a VDN.

Olivier Pithon is another Roussillon winemaker who snagged up some vineyards that had long been used to make sweet wine. His LA D18 was one of the most thrilling and surprising wines of my trip. It’s made from old vine Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris and Macabeo, which used to be blended into VDN. I tasted the 2007 and the 2011 vintages of the LA D18, and both were impressive — crisp, clean, citrus-driven wines tinged with mineral and oceanic flavors. Pithon, who is originally from the Loire Valley, chose the Roussillon because of the abundance of old vines (80 to 100+ years old) and the diversity of terroirs. He’s trying to prove that dry Roussillon whites, like the Loire whites he knows so well, can improve in the cellar. He’s making some solid arguments. Looking for a comparison to Pithon’s 2007, the best I could come up with was a high-end Muscadet with several years on it, although the LA D18 is certainly unique. And considering that the sea is only a few kilometers away from Pithon’s cellars, this dry white makes complete sense to me. It’s made for the table, and it provides a more honest explanation of terroir when compared to the sweet wines I tasted.

Severine Bourrier, winemaker-proprietor of Chateau de l’Ou, is also convinced Roussillon’s future rests on dry wines. We shared dinner in Perpignan, and she told me all about her Syrah and Chardonnay vines south of the city. Here, she said, appellation rules forbid winemakers from making more Muscat than they did the previous year. So, the production of sweet Muscat has only one way to go — down. For Bourrier, this isn’t a bad thing. She wants to represent the Roussillon with wines like her 100% Syrah and 100% Chardonnay, which are bottled under the proprietary name Infiniment and carry a Cotes Catalan appellation. They’re modern wines, made with ripe fruit and new oak, but they’re delicious and I think they could hold up well in blind tastings of similar wines from the New World.

Time will tell whether the market for sweet Roussillon wines will continue to dry up. But, in the meantime, consumers looking for dry, food-friendly, terroir-driven wines have more options than ever. And that’s awesome.

Photos from Languedoc-Roussillon

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 02-03-2014

I just returned from five days of wine tasting my way through the Languedoc-Roussillon. It was quite an experience. The trip was organized and sponsored by SudVinBio, an association of organic Languedoc-Roussillon winemakers, and centered around the Millésime Bio Fair in Montpellier.

I was joined by a group of wine writers (including Alder Yarrow and W. Blake Gray) and sommeliers from the United States and Canada. We kicked off the trip with two days of vineyard tours in the Roussillon, where I experienced more than my share of the intense Tramontane winds.

After the vineyard tours, we spent a few days at the Bio Fair in Montpellier, a trade show with more 700 organic winemakers from 12 countries. In the coming days and weeks, I’ll have more posts about the region’s wines and the people who make them. In the meantime, check out Terroirist on Facebook for more photos and updates.

Cazes - vineyard with clouds

Cazes - Emmanuel in the wind

Pithon - 100 year old vines

Gardies - vineyard shot (2)

Cazes wine in window


Wine & Waves with John Conover

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 01-27-2014

From PlumpJack

John Conover (Credit: PlumpJack Group).

John Conover’s a big guy with an unassuming personality. He laughs loudly and often. And if you spend more than five minutes with the guy, you’ll realize that he’s a man who loves life.

Since 1999, John has been general manager at Napa Valley winery PlumpJack, which is co-owned by California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom and San Francisco philanthropist Gordon Getty. During Conover’s time, the estate has grown from 1,000 cases a year to 10,000, and PlumpJack’s Oakville Estate offering has developed quite a reputation. Conover is also a partner in Cade, a Howell Mountain estate, which kicked off in 2009. And he has his hands in a third Napa project, Odette Estate, which recently opened at the former Steltzner Vineyards property.

It’s hard to imagine how Conover does anything else. But, like me, John has another powerful passion: surfing. We’re both members of two global tribes (wine nerds and waveriders), so John and I had a lot to talk about when we met a few weeks ago at Civil Cigar Lounge in Washington, DC.

I always enjoy meeting other surfers. We’re a fun- and nature-loving group, and we love putting ourselves in extreme situations just for kicks. John told me stories of surfing through heavy kelp in Santa Cruz and Monterrey, and I traded tales of catching bombs at Salmon Creek, a beach break on the Sonoma Coast, and getting into some shady situations at remote spots in Mendocino. My stories of chasing swell around New Jersey and Delaware beaches couldn’t really compare with his frequent reef pilgrimages to the North Shore, the Mentawais and Indo. But, then again, the guy runs several big-time Napa Cabernet projects, and I’m a writer.

John seems to strike a balance between his wine and his surfing. He tries to paddle out a few times a week. During harvest, when the grapes are reaching peak ripeness and the Pacific is lighting up with swell, things can get a little hectic. (I know the feeling. Try to get me to commit to anything during September. When the Atlantic starts kicking, I cannot be relied upon.)

We tasted through some of his 2010 Napa Cabernets, a vintage we both praised for its freshness and vibrancy.  “But,” he added, “just wait until you try the 2012s. And the 2013s.”

I asked John about some of the changes at PlumpJack over the years. He told me he never thought he’d have a double-digit number of employees. “But now I have 40 of the most passionate people in the world.” It’s simple, he says: “Great grapes and great people make great wine.”

The wines, I have to admit, are damn good. And they’re highly delicious. There’s no denying a similar stylistic thread weaves through Cade and PlumpJack. (I haven’t yet tasted Odette Cabs.) “Approachable” is a word Conover embraces, and it’s a fitting descriptor. The 2010s have tons of flavor yet — dare I say? — a graceful presence on the palate. Even so, I’d love to stash some Cade and PlumpJack 2010s away for five or six years, just to see what kind of deliciousness seeps out.

I took some notes on four wines from the evening. Check out my notes below. Read the rest of this entry »

Searching for the Heart of Playa

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 01-14-2014

Wikimedia Commons

Wikimedia Commons

Only a few hours away by plane from my home in Washington, DC, the snow-powder white beaches of Mexico have become my favorite quick getaway.

Exiting Cancun as quickly as possible, thank you very much, I’ll work my way down to Playa Del Carmen and Tulum, where you are far more likely to hear French or Italian than English (except, of course, around the pier when the cruise ships are in). You are also more likely to find the flavorful foams of molecular gastronomy than you are foam parties.

Sometimes it seems every hotshot chef in from Buenos Aires to Milan wants a crack at having their own restaurant in paradise, so — and I’m surprised how few East Coasters realize just how worldly, and how close,this paradise is — finding great Italian, French, Argentine, and Spanish food at great prices is a cinch along the Mayan coast.

But interesting wine for all of those interesting chefs delighting in interesting local ingredients?  Well, that’s a different story.

Sure, the Italians, for instance, bring some of the good stuff with them, including local specialties that you are unlikely to encounter in the States. And no doubt there are exceptions, such as the thoughtful cartade vinos at Posada Margarita in Tulum.

It’s also true that Mexico itself makes some wines worth exploration, especially if you lean towards jammy California style. But while Playa and Tulum have a vibrant restaurant scene with seemingly inexhaustible options, there’s little to make a real wine geeks’ heart pitter-patter.

To wit, a recent evening spent at the relatively new and unusually expensive (for Playa) Maiz De Mar — owned by Mexico’s most famous chef Enrique Olvera (whose flagship Pujol ranks 17th on the San Pellegrino List of the World’s Fifty Best Restaurants) — yielded a beverage list with cool cocktails and exotic flavored waters but not even one wine. Shame, too, because while Maiz De Mar features exquisitely fresh lomo de pescado dishes that commune with the ocean, even the most artisanal Margarita puts me right back on terra firma.

Worse still, for Playa-lovers and wine nerds alike, along with the disturbingly fast development of Playa have come some changes that threaten whatever little remainsof its once substantial fishing-village-quaint charm.These changes threaten to replace the small idiosyncratic businesses Playa has been known for with mall chains and superstores. Unlike the cycles of the Mayan calendar, the unfettered expansion of Playa seems endless.

On my early December visit, on what I’d come to know as a reliably romantic walk down 5th Avenue, Playa’s promenade — with its gentle grades, tropical foliage, and twinkle-lit shops — I was shocked to encounter the decidedly unromantic ruins of the once beautiful Calle Corazon, Playa’s spatial and spiritual heart. I’m told the demolition took place sometime early last spring. And with the destruction of Calle Corazon comes the loss of Playa’s best wine destination, John Gray’s Place, which once sat squarely at the heart of the heart. Depending on who you ask — and my inquiries yielded more questions than answers — the area will soon be replaced by a massive Hilton resort, or a gaudy mall like the one that has opened just a few blocks up.

But with the bad of progress has come some good, too. Read the rest of this entry »

Cahors: Home of the Black Wine

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 01-09-2014

Valentré Bridge in Cahors

Valentré Bridge in Cahors

Vines were planted in Cahors, France as early as 50 BC.

The wine, made primarily of deeply colored, highly tannic Malbec and Tannat, flourished and was well known in the 12th century as the “Black Wine.” Eleanor of Acquitaine, one of the wealthiest and most influential women of the High Middle Ages, and Henry II, King of England, chose to serve the wine at their wedding in 1152. In the late 1600s, Peter the Great was fond of the wine and demanded that Cahors be the communion wine in Orthodox churches across Russia.

It was the Bordeaux of the world before Bordeaux mattered.

The wine was historically successful largely because it transported well – the deep color and powerful tannic structure enabled it to survive the long journeys up to Bordeaux and England.

However, in 1865 the history of Cahors changed dramatically when phylloxera hit, wiping out the entire region in less than twelve years. Farmers, who had for generations relied on the wine trade for their prosperity, fled the area. Some moved to Argentina to begin replanting the grape, which had been brought over by French soil expert, Michel A. Pouget, in 1852. You’re welcome, Argentina.

Gradually the vines of Cahors were replanted only to be wiped out again by frost in 1956. To provide context as to the magnitude of this destruction, in the 1800s, the region was planted with 60,000 hectares of vine; at present, plantings amount to around 4,000 hectares.

Walking around the city of Cahors today, you feel like you’ve been picked up and plopped back into the medieval times. Like its wines, it has a marked hearty and resilient character. You’ll find old stone buildings, a spectacular medieval bridge, and giant doors on building facades, where the horse carts used to be stored.

Read the rest of this entry »

Photos from South Africa

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 11-18-2013

October was a busy travel month for Terroirist. As you may have seen, David was in Rioja and I visited South Africa.

My trip was organized by Wines of South Africa. Along with a few other journalists and a group of sommeliers, we visited several regions over 10 days before the trip culminated in the Wines of South Africa Sommelier World Cup in Paarl.

I’ll have more interviews and posts to follow (the first interview was posted Friday), but in the meantime, you can check out my photos from the trip on Facebook. While you’re there, please “like” Terroirist too!






Photos from Rioja

Posted by | Posted in Grape Adventures | Posted on 11-05-2013

As readers who follow me on Twitter or Instagram likely know, I visited Rioja in late October to attend the annual Digital Wine Communications Conference.

While there, I visited several wineries in the region with Tyler Colman of Dr. Vino, Paul Mabray of Vintank, and Pia Mara Finkell, who directs media relations and social media for Rioja Wines. (Please note that Rioja Wines sponsored our trip.)

I’ll be putting up a number of posts in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, please check out my photos from the trip on Facebook! While there, please make sure you “like” Terroirist.


Lopez de Heredia - 10-25-13 - 24Vivanco - 10-25-13 - 01