Thursday, April 26, 2012

Sunny splendor at Chat. Mourges de Gres

A few days ago we enjoyed one of my favorite winery visits ever: not far north of Arles, France is Chateau Morgues du Gres. They're a medium-sized winery in the Costieres de Nimes, which borders the Languedoc but is the southern-most region of the Rhone (and thus, having the warmest climate of the entire Rhone). CMDG specializes in reasonably-priced wines that are well-made, so you can be sure that I wanted to visit.

First, Aurelian gave us a wonderful vineyard tour. Most of the (large and many) vineyards are floored with galets (rounded river stones), as they were in the path of the Rhone River many millenia ago. The rocks absorb heat and impart a minerality to the wines. The estate grows many fruits, and olives, along with grapes. The high-speed train passes amidst their vineyards, which is a nice counterpoise to the eternity of the grapes.

Then, the tasting, with Anne. Our favorite white was their Viognier; more fruity than many French versions. They make several very good roses. My favorite wine of my entire visit to France was their Capitelle Syrah; fantastic bouquet and rich Syrah notes on the palate, and pretty inexpensive.

As we left we met Francois, the owner. I asked him if I could take home one galet (out of the billions on his property). He acted excited, then ran over to get another one he would rather I take, to better express his estate's terroir: it was a rock the size of a small pig! Great sense of humor, as he should have in that business ;)  Their logo is Latin for "without the sun, nothing."

Incidentally, Arles is well worth visiting: a medieval city (in the old center section) with extensive Roman and old French history, and an amazing Roman history museum. Stay at Aubergine Rouge with Eric and Augusto, and you will love it!

1. One of the Mourges du Gres winery buildings:

2. Touring their vaulted cellar room with Anne, who also poured for us
3. Me with Francois,the owner of Mourges du Gres

4. Me standing in their "Galet" vineyard--just look at those rocks! Just like Cayuse in W.Walla, only this vineyard is centuries old! The Romans grew grapes here (Caesar's retired legionaries actually settled nearby Arles).

Monday, April 23, 2012

Scraping to get by in the Rhone

As I write this, in Aosta Italy, I look out on the clouds rolling over the top of Mt. Blanc (through which we drove a few hours ago, returning to Italy from France). It has been a monster snow season in the Alps--the snow still reaches pretty far down towards our valley.

Yesterday we were driving (a long way) from Carcassone, France to Belleville, north of Lyons, for our Beaujolais tasting today. On the trip I wanted to take a break and visit Gigondas, which is east of Orange and, after Chateauneuf-du-Pape, one of the best-regarded Rhone makers. (Rhones use up to 15 grapes, but most are mostly Syrah, Grenache, and Mourvedre--for me, a holy trinity of wine blends second only to Bordeaux's own blended varieties.)

Well, Gigondas was only open from 10-12 and we started as early as we could (after 8:15am breakfast at our wonderful Carcassonne B&B) and I drove the full 130kph (OK, I drove a bit faster) allowed on the AutoRoutes, and we rolled into Orange with just minutes to spare. But where was Gigondas? We had explicit directions, but, inside Orange, there were no signs on the roads to show how to get out of town headed towards Gigondas. Guess they don't get many visitors. We never did find the obscure city street that became the lesser highway we needed. At least we found other chateau with "degustation" (tasting), but they were all closed due to it being Sunday and the national elections.

Now, to the scrapping bit: We headed north to Mornas, where we stopped to hike up to a wonderful 11th Century fortress that sits on a tall, sheer rocky cliff and commands the entire Rhone Valley for many miles. On the way up we found a bar and I asked for a 250ml carafe of a local wine. On tasting it, it was excellent! Only 3E for a third of a bottle of wine; we poured most of it into an empty iced tea bottle and had it later with a picnic lunch. Lovely, lovely, Syrah blend. Often a place's house wine is a fantastic quality/price bargain.

Photos: 1. Parlaying a Rhone wine from a bar in Mornas, on Sunday, election day, when all the wineries were closed. We found Mornas on the drive up to Lyons.

 2. A typical northern Rhone vineyard: Note there are no trellises!
 3. Carcassone, arguably the best-preserved medieval walls and towers anywhere, though it is pretty commercial.
 4. Jane, and the view from the fortress at Mornas. Worth the climb!
5. The fortress, dating from the 11th Century.

The red carpet in Romaneche-Thorins (Beaujolais)

This morning we were in Romaneche-Thorins, north of Belleville, France, where we toured the "Hameau DeBoeuf," the "Hamlet of DeBoeuf," where Georges DeBouef is, the largest maker of Beaujolais.

They really rolled the red carpet out for us. Yann, their manager of exports to the US (who travels in the US about a third of the year, and has been to Portland five times already), gave us a vineyard tour. The winery sits in Moulin a-Vent (named for a windmill), which is one of the ten or so upper-quality communes in Beaujolais. The winery was well worth seeing, as it has several innovations I had not seen elsewhere. We met the winemaker and toured the winery. We saw the vineyards of Moulin a'Vent, where the trunks are only 6" high with no trellises, so the vines grown into a low mound (to be close to the heat of the ground, we were told).

Then we went into the lab, where Mr. DeBoeuf (who's about 79 now) tastes over 300 wines per day--G.D. makes perhaps a dozen or so of their own wines, but they also put their name on the wines made by many small area growers, most of whom make their own wine and use G.D. for tasting advice and lab work; it's a great cooperation between one huge winery and many local growers and winemakers. The lab's tasting room is where Spectator and Parker come to taste! It has a huge tile island and many stainless steel sinks which have swirling water, where we spat out our tastes (pity, I know, but I had to drive to Geneva and through the Mt. Blanc tunnel back to Italy afterwards, and the Europeans are very strict about blood alcohol levels). We tasted 16 (!) wines that they opened just for us. That is awfully impressive. We were the first Americans to taste their 2011s; quite an honor,

My overall perceptions and tidbits for you:
1. Gamay is their only red grape; all their reds use 100% Gamay. And Beaujolais is small--only 30 miles wide and tall. So the wines reflect only the differences in terroir from site to site, and also the differences (which are few) in winemaking practices.
2. The order of grape regions there, heading north to south as the weather gets warmer, is Pinot Noir (Burgundy), then Gamay (Beaujolais), then Syrah (the Rhone Valley). This makes me wonder why more Willamette Valley growers don't plant some Gamay, instead of planting Syrah.
3. Gamay is a vinifera hybrid; one of its parents is Pinot Noir. This explains how the upscale G.D. Beaujolais that have been oaked have a distinct Pinot presence (barnyard nose; the subtlety of Pinot; etc).
4. G.D. also makes great--really great--Chardonnays from Macon Villages (just N of Beaujolais, in Burgundy) and from Pouilly Fuisse. These are given malo-lactic fermentation but are not California oak/butter bombs; very elegant while possessing just enough body and smoothness.
5. The G.D. wines are for the most part very low in cost, which is a great market segment for them, given the price of Burgundy and Bordeaux.
6. I preferred the newer (2010 and 2011) Beaujolais; the 2009's, while from their greatest year ever, have lost some fruit as the various secondary flavors emerge. This makes for a more-complex wine but I am not yet used to those flavors. The younger wines are very vibrant with fresh red fruit notes (cherry and raspberry), with good acidity (like Sangiovese here in Italy) so they marry well with food. We didn't have them with food, but I want to try them that way.
We were then given free passes to what must be one of the three finest wine museums in the world. We saw Roman wine amphora, a GIANT wine press that it took many men to operate, antique grapegrowing and winemaking tools, a bottle blowing exhibit, barrel making, etc. Really amazing. There are three theaters showing movies but we hadn't the time.

Also, the G.D. complex includes the town's train station and they even have a historic wine train (with tank cars for wine)! Plus a hotel and a retail shop where the wines are far cheaper than in the US (perhaps to the cost of shipping?). Yet these wines are very, very good for the price. Look for my offerings of them when we get home!

This was a very classy, impressively large, wine tourist experience!

1. Moulin A Vent (named for a windmill in the commune) is one of ten or so top Beaujolais communes, Hameau DuBoeuf sits in that commune.

 2. DuBoeuf's tasting room, with swirling sinks for spitting wine. This is where Spectator and Parker come to taste, so it was pretty cool. That's Yann on the right--he's their US export sales director.
 3. Hameau DuBoeuf is a complex which includes Romaneche-Thorin's train station and also a large and wonderful wine museum. They get about 200,000 visitors per year. Quite the opposite of the typical "we're not open to the public" model in Europe.
 4. We tasted '09s-'11s, Gamays and Chardonnays from nearby Pouilly-Fuisse.

Sunday, April 22, 2012

Sportorno, Italy

After pulling our luggage through 6" of snow to get to the airport shuttle bus in Stockholm, and after enduring the criminals at the Plaza Hotel in Pavia Italy, it was a delight to reach the Italian riviera.

I highly recommend Sportorno for its long crescent beach, gorgeous blue ocean waters, pretty buildings, and just plain A+-ness for the sights.

This is the view from our hotel--Aqua Novella, a Best Western hotel in an old building; they have a funicular to get up to the hotel from the street; the rate was pretty decent for that view (about 110E, and since it was off season they put us in one of the top-floor suites for the same price as a regular room!). The room is gorgeous. Breakfast is panoramic overlooking the sea and coast.

The other pic shows me with our chef at Cantinone Mare, on the beach. He cooked up amazing fresh fish dishes (but with no veggies, a common European problem, even in France). He makes his own limoncello and recommended Pigato, a local white wine that was excellent--good body, fresh citrus notes, nice floral nose, and it dispelled my belief that this was a weak wine region. Our chef owns the restaurant and staffs it for the summer, then cooks and windsurfs in Brazil for 6 months. Nice work if you can get it ;)


We visited Stockholm in April to see our daughter who's studying abroad there. Sweden is a vibrant, successful economy/culture; everyone was friendly and helpful to us, the social services (trains, buses, medical care) are excellent. There are other large cities that lie further north (Oslo, Reykavik), but Stockholm was still in winter when we visisted in mid April (in fact, it snowed 6" the morning we left and there was nary a leaf on a tree).

Taxes are high there, and incomes are low, and yet the cost of living is very high. Thus, you must really want to live there, or else you are likely to live somewhere else.

Representative incomes in Sweden:

A doctor might make about $84k per year in Sweden, and a lawyer $72k, and a teacher $42k. Considering the high income and sales taxes (and I mean really high), that is not a lot of income for a country where the cost of living is super-high. But college is free if you can get in, and healthcare is free.

The photo is of the Swedish museum.

Overall impressions: Sweden does have many blondes but for the most part their hair is colored blonde ;) . There are no homeless persons in Stockholm. Stockholm is a Germanic-looking, old, well-kept but gritty city. The sidewalks and plazas have no trees, which lends a cold feel to the place, though there are numerous islands, waterways, and parks. The newer architecture looks like old USSR style to me--monoliths of cold concrete. But the people are wonderful and the city and country show us a good example of one way to create social harmony: tax the fool out of the rich and make sure everybody has a place to live and good medical care and access to education.

There is a lot to be said for social harmony.

Golden Arches en Francaise

We're in Belleville France, to taste at Georges DuBoeuf tomorrow (Beaujolais, which I always called "Bow-jhue-lay" until I heard a French speaker or two call it "Boo-jhue-lay"). It is Sunday and also national election day, so every cafe, brasserie, restaurant, and grocery store is closed. No, we did NOT eat at McDonalds, but I did saunter over to check out the menu. The lot (at 8:45pm) was chock full of cars, and the place was packed with maybe eight cars waiting for the drive through.

Inside, some sample menu items included (I have translated the omnipresent high French prices to USD for convenience): a Big Mac for about $6.50; a Big Mac combo meal for about $10; a kiwi on a stick (peeled and pierced with a corn dog-style stick) for just 0.60E.

It has happened. The U.S. has truly succeeded in tricking the most culinarily-advanced nation on Earth into gorging itself on food that has been so tricked out with addictive additives (to build customer loyalty) and non-food (to keep prices low and profits high) and useless calories (because management doesn't care about the health of its customers) that the French waistline is expanding.

Except for that kiwi on a stick. That is pretty cool.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Where are the Americans?

I went to Stockholm, Sweden to visit my daughter who's studying abroad there. In mid April it was still winter, and it snowed 6" just before we had to drag our suitcases like snowplows to the airport shuttle stop. In our 4 days/3 nights there we didn't meet any Americans.

We sat by a Yank on our flight from Copenhagen to Milan, Italy (he had business there). We've been traveling in Italy for four days so far and no Americans to be seen. I know the high season for Europe hasn't started yet, but this seems like a real shortage of American tourists. My theory: The US' world-worst twin debtloads (federal budget deficit and trade deficit) which tend to make our currency weaker, coupled with a real rate of US inflation that is running at perhaps 4-8% (regardless of the much lower reported number), and combined with our general fear of a weakening economy (even if we aren't right about that) conspire to keep us at home.

The people in Sweden, Denmark, Italy and France are so wonderful that we won't greatly miss making new US friends, but this is a first--it's like strangers in a strange land.

I cannot help believing that unless we get our American economic house in order, and soon, then we will create an economic black hole from which it will become too expensive to escape (i.e., our devalued currency will make everything overseas too expensive to buy, including trips overseas and everything imported that we might want to buy. That is one prediction on which I sincerely hope I am wrong, but since when has massive debt load led to anything good in the long term?

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Blackwood Canyon Winery

This is a controversial winery in the Red Mountain AVA (Benton City WA). Having heard so much about it, I have long wanted to stop by, and finally did, yesterday. Cameron the former intern and new winemaker (that's him with the barrels in the vineyard) met us on the way in (he was pruning the vineyard) and he very graciously gave us over an hour of his time with the wines. (He is a great guy and I predict he will go far.)

Sadly, Mike Moore (the owner, the winemaker, the thrust behind the controversy of this place) died last Fall, at the age of only 55 (!). His legacy is composed of many tanks and barrels full of the oldest wine you will ever see that isn't bottled yet.

So what's unique about Blackwood? Let's see:
1. The grapes are starved for water, and the juice is thus more acidic with lower pH than normal (perhaps 3.1 or so).
2. The wine is made in barrels or tanks, and sits on its gross lees (the yeast, and grape seeds and skins) for years, sometimes decades. This is taking the concept of "sur lie" aging to heights most of us cannot imagine. Either the heat or the lees robs the red wines of their normal color.
4. The barrels sit in the vineyard (check out that photo), through 100 degree summers and frigid winters (cold enough to freeze wine).
5. This is almost exactly how sherry and Madeira are made (the wines are baked in the sun, in barrels), and yet Blackwood maintains that instead of oxidizing the wines, the oxygen interacts with the gross lees and creates unique secondary flavor characteristics. Blackwood says that the wines are fresh and fantastic, after 10 years, 20 years, and longer, in barrel or tank.
6. Their wines no doubt are among the oldest to be bottled, anywhere. They have a 1990 Chardonnay still in tank! This causes the whites to look dark yellow or gold. I have had some surprisingly excellent aged whites--including an Owen Roe Pinot Gris 7 years old--and I am a believer that such aging can help white wines achieve greatness. (But that PG was not baked-it was made in the modern way and aged in a cool cellar.)
7. One thing's for sure: An oxidized wine (or a fortified one-think Port) will last just about forever. I'm not sure how that is an advantage to us wine drinkers, but it is one by-product of the Blackwood process. Maybe future archeologists would like the Blackwood process ;)

This "ancient method" (my term, based on my understanding of winemaking) is practiced by only ten or so wineries in the whole world now. I found one of them last year in the Similkameen Valley, B.C, where a very old Hungarian immigrant winemaker makes wines this way. In that case, I went in expecting "modern method" wines, and as a result I absolutely hated the Hungarian's wines, as I found them heavily oxidized and spoiled.

According to the conventional wisdom, this ancient method is lunacy--the heat and long exposure to air will oxidize the wine. Bad things (sulfides, Brettamyces and other infections) will happen when a wine sits on its lees for too long, when it has too much air space (ullage) over the wine, or when it is too warm. A wine simply cannot remain fresh after so long in tank or barrel, on the lees.

Blackwood states that its method was used by most European wineries before WWII; after that, the "modern" method of winemaking was developed. Almost every winemaker in the world uses the modern method now, and customers by and large are familiar with the result, and they expect that style of wine.

What do others think about Blackwood Canyon?
I. Here are some wine pros' comments: Dan Berger of the LA Times wrote:
i. "Mike Moore is the dynamo behind Blackwood Canyon, an artist constantly trying to extract all the grape can yield. Some call the wines eccentric. But they are exciting and show Moore's sense of commitment to the soil and his intense methodology."

ii. No less a luminary than Robert Parker himself wrote:
"Blackwood Canyon is a must stop in the Yakima Valley. The wines are the product of a true eccentric, Mike Moore, who makes artisanal, individualistic wines which can strike amazing highs..."

iii. Ted Meredith, of Northwest Wine, noted: "Blackwood Canyon is a radical, take-no-prisoners, anti-commercialistic, extremism in the pursuit of excellence is no vice kind of a winery. ....Mike Moore's methods do not fit the Washington norm, but the complex flavors of his wines validate his approach."

Here are some amateur posts:
a. Alan H. posts that Mr. Moore "is self-delusional from too many years of indulging in his own product . . . Everyone I ever met who was world-class in anything never told me what an expert he was."
b. Jeremy S. said, "I would agree his wines are unique. They're also awful--unless you like overaged Chardonnay and over-oxidized off-balanced reds. The facility is filthy and Moore was smashed drunk and obnoxious. There are a lot of unneutered dogs with sores, eye infections, and ticks running around."
c. John M. says, "Although there is a certain amusement value to visiting Blackwood Canyon, I would otherwise not recommend this place. The wines here are uniformly awful; most are over acidified, maderized, etc. The winemaker, while quite passionate about the wines he makes, apparently has no clue when it comes to making good wine. He likes to tell unsuspecting visitors that his wine is made in the "old world" method, which in this case means he ages them for years (whites and reds) in old, basically neutral oak barrels, to the point where the wines are dead as a doornob. He will then tell you that this is how wine is supposed to taste, that everyone else is doing it wrong, and that wine publications like the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker are complete idiots (or worse)."

But, read this, by Nick B.:
d. "It is true that Mike specializes in a style of wine-making that is rarely practiced today, typically resulting in potently flavorful varieties that taste nothing like what's available in stores or at other wineries . . . Drinking wine this good anywhere else would feel pretentious. And it would be unfair to accuse those who don't appreciate Blackwood of being uncultured swine who probably cried at the end of Avatar and think Tom Clancy is a literary genius."
e. And the Winery Journal said this, "The best winery in the state. This is a real winery, not a gift shop. The winemaker is a genius. The wines are amazing, not like the typically overprocessed standard wine. Not for all. If you like the Olive Garden don't come here."

What do I think of the wines? It's complicated: On the one hand, I am certain these wines are oxidized, way past the point of being flawed. I have also read about, and have been lucky enough to drink, some wines up to and more than a hundred years old, and I know that, say, a century-old Lafite was not made as a sherry--it was not baked in the sun for years or left with huge air pockets over it. However, the Blackwood wines do carry varied and subtle flavor profiles--I think if you disassociate yourself from what is "normal," if you can suspend your beliefs, you might conclude that Mr. Moore was onto something special here, even if he may have failed to maximize the idea eneologically*. Would many of us be willing to let go of our "wine security blanket," and venture into Mike Moore's idea of Vino Heaven? I doubt it-I would guess that the percentage of wine drinkers who, if given the "story" and a full exposure to these wines, would appreciate these wines and prefer them to Modern Wines, is far less than 1%. And that's not much of a market to shoot for.

All this inventory carriage results in very, very delayed winery sales, and delayed profits. Perhaps as a result of this, a portion of the Blackwood vineyards is in Chapter 11 bankruptcy now. But as soon as that is resolved, Cameron and Mike's family hope to continue operations. Cameron plans to sell some fruit from the vineyard, for cash flow, and to make most of the grapes into traditional wines, keeping the "ancient" method only for perhaps 10% of the grapes. I think that is a very rational and promising plan. I would also suggest some "tweaks" to the Blackwood method (see below).

I plan to host a food-wine pairing to go with the six bottles I bought from Cameron yesterday. I hope I can find a dozen or so wine lovers who are willing to check their security blankets at the door, at least for one night, and join me on what will be the wildest wine ride they have ever had.

If I was going to utilize Mike Moore's philosophy, here are the changes I would make:
1. Get the barrel-aging wines the $#&!!* out of the vineyard! heat is the enemy of fine wine. Those wines belong in a cool environment. Don't let them freeze and while they're aging, don't let them get above 60F.
2 Age them as long as you like on the lees--its a great (and risky) way to develop complex secondary wine characteristics-- but keep the tanks and barrels topped up, to reduce the exposure to oxygen.
3. Consider limiting the time that the reds have on the lees, to perhaps no more than 5 years, and monitor the color--I prefer reds to maintain a dark rich color and I theorize that too much time on lees (and/or possibly too much heat) causes loss of color.
4. Sanitize! The insides of the tanks may be clean (I don't know) but the winery itself needs major cleaning.
This should reduce the maderization of the wines but will allow long aging to develop unique complexities. That is the kind of compromise that I think would help the new Blackwood succeed, while remaining faithful to the very interesting core concepts going on there.

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