Judging the Santa Cruz Amateur Wine Competition 2022

This year I had the distinct honor and privilege of judging the 2022 Santa Cruz County Fair Amateur Wine Competition. It was the first time I’ve judged a wine competition, and it won’t be the last. I had lots of fun and met some wonderful people who take the hobby of home winemaking to the next level. With 109 wines submitted this year, I was amazed at the overall quality level of the wines. And I was impressed by the organization that runs this annual event.

The Santa Cruz County Fair Amateur Wine Competition Committee has been around since 1979. Back then, co-founder Rudy Pedulla knew the Santa Cruz County Fair manager at the time. Rudy suggested that amateur winemakers have a place at the fair. “Folks can bring their pickles, jams, garden crops and quilts to be judged and shown, so how about our wines?” They got the go-ahead, and the rest is history. The Committee has been organizing the judging as well as the tasting event at the fair every year since. The group is very organized and run by many volunteers who are passionate about wine, community, and having fun. Check out the Santa Cruz County Fair Amateur Wine Competition website with lots of great photos, history, and more information about the group.

The Santa Cruz County Fair is held in September. Judging the wines takes place usually about 6 weeks or so before that to avoid conflicts around harvest time. The week before the Fair opens, the Committee organizes a Public Tasting Event at Heritage Hall, where the general public can taste all the wines submitted for the competition with the Golds and Double Golds presented in flights by the winemakers.

Barbara Donofrio, committee volunteer, keeping it fun!

On the day of competition, judges and volunteers descended on Heritage Hall at the Santa Cruz County Fairgrounds. The hall is a well-kept building decorated in wood with carvings of wine grapes and a beautiful old bar, setting the mood. We got started at 8:30 AM, with 3 or 4 judges sitting around 6 tables. Each table was assigned several flights of 5 or 6 wines per flight. For example, our table was assigned 4 flights in the first round. Each judge got the essentials of a wine tasting: a set of 5 or 6 wine glasses, a bottle of water, spit cup, bread to cleanse the palate, and judging scoresheets.

Flights of wines for our judges’ table

The wines were tasted blind, meaning we couldn’t see the bottles or labels, so we didn’t know who made the wine or where it was from. Wines were concealed in brown bags and poured by volunteers. The only identifying information we had was the vintage and varietal. Each wine was also assigned a code to track it through the judging process. 

Submitted wines are bagged and coded for blind tasting

For each wine, each judge tasted the wine and filled out a judging scoresheet indicating wine characteristics, rating the wine based on those characteristics (on a scale from 1 to 5), and then assigning an award based on the total points for that wine. This way, each judge could rank each wine differently. After judges at the table finished evaluating the wines in a flight, the table would then talk about each wine and come to a consensus on an overall award for it. If all the judges at the table initially awarded the wine with a Gold medal, then the wine could receive a final award of Double Gold. Wines that received Gold or Double Gold then were judged in the next round by another set of judges who picked the best one of those, and then those top wines were re-evaluated by final group of judges who picked the Best of Red, Best of White, Best of Other, and Best of Show.

Judges’ scoresheet and flight of wines

Our table of three included myself, Fanny Gonzalez (my friend, wine professional, and fellow Cabrillo College wine student), and Thad Newton (who had judged this competition in the past). We were lucky enough to begin judging with a flight of 5 Pinot Noirs. What a way to start the day! The first Pinot Noir tasted at our table was awarded Gold by consensus! A few of the Pinots were still pretty young, some were overly oaky, one or two were a bit thin or green; but there were a couple of really well-made Pinots in that flight. In the whole competition, more Pinot Noir was submitted than any other varietal—20 Pinot Noirs were submitted, edging out Cabernet Sauvignon with 16. 

Our second flight was a series of Barbera wines plus an outlier, Montepulciano. (Montepulciano is a red wine grape varietal widely planted on the Adriatic coast of central Italy.) These wines were in the “Other Reds” category. Barbera is one of my favorite Italian wine grape varietals, so I was delighted to taste these wines. Although these wines for the most part showed skilled winemaking, none of them earned higher than Silver, still a respectable award. Surprising to all of us, the Montepulciano garnered a Gold from all 3 of us, getting a Double Gold. The wine had excellent structure and balance with good fruit expression, medium-high acidity, and a long finish. Outstanding wine and not a varietal you often see from a Santa Cruz wine producer.

The next flight included 3 Syrah (2 of which we awarded Gold) and 2 Petit Sirah (1 Double Gold). Again, the quality of the winemaking was excellent, showcasing the varietal characteristics of the wines, with good structure (acid, tannin, alcohol) and fruit.

Our last flight was very interesting: 2 Cabernet Sauvignon, a Tannat, a Pinotage, and a Barbera Port 2011 vintage. Both Cabernets showed very well, with one of them garnering a Double Gold for its lush velvet texture, firm tannin, ripe fruit, and alcohol in balance with acidity on the finish. The other Cab unfortunately suffered from overly pronounced pyrazines (green bell pepper) and under-ripe tannin. Our table of judges were very impressed with the Pinotage and Tannat. Both are rarely made in California, much less in Santa Cruz. Our consensus was Gold for each of these wines.

Judging the “Other Red” flight

After a short break, our table was presented with four wines in brown bags marked “OR” (“other red”category). These four wines had each gone through prior judging and were awarded either Gold or Double Gold. Our task with this flight was to simply choose our favorite out of the four. Other tables were doing the same thing, so six wines would move on to the final judging round for Best of White, Best of Red, Best of Other, and Best in Show. For this round, we were not provided information on the vintage or varietal until after judging, so it was truly a blind tasting. Immediately I recognized one of them as our Double Gold Montepulciano, still tasting amazing and a strong contender for favorite. But all four of these wines were excellent quality. As we judges talked amongst ourselves to puzzle out which one of these wines we wanted to put forward to the last round, each of us argued for our favorites. To put one through, we had to have consensus. Finally, after much debating, we agreed on the Montepulciano.

Custom glassware used in the Competition

The final round went to a table of well-qualified, seasoned judges to determine the final awards. As they tasted, discussed, quietly deliberated, and logged their results in official forms, the rest of us got to enjoy tasting all the wines that were submitted into the competition (except those under final consideration). Our hard-working volunteers pulled all the wines out of their paper bags and set them out on tables by the bar so we could at last identify our favorites by label and taste the other wines with our fellow judges. Not only was the overall quality of the wines made by these amateur winemakers excellent, the vast variety of grape varietals being made into wine by these folks was impressive. In addition to the varietals our table tasted, and the ubiquitous Chardonnay, other varietals included Viognier, Muscat Cannelli, Pinot Gris, Sangiovese, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Tempranillo, and Grenache. Lots of creativity went into the wine labels too. The open tasting was fun, socializing with the other judges and meeting some of the home winemakers, comparing notes, and generally enjoying the sense of community in the room.

After the tasting, we were treated to a delicious outdoor lunch catered by Ella’s at the Airport. After all that wine, we were ready for some food! As we feasted, the winners of the competition were announced. Our Montepulciano did not win Best Red or Best in Show. But the wines that did win are very fine examples of the skilled and dedicated winemaking from our region. And the competition itself, and its longevity, is a testament to the community, comradery, and dedication our winemakers share. Kudos to everyone involved and congratulations to the winners!

Winners:

  • Best of White: 2021 Muscat Cannelli (Ken McKee, Winemaker)
  • Best of Red: 2018 Merlot (Roman Beyer, Winemaker)
  • Best of Other: 2011 Late Harvest Tannat (Dave Donofrio, Winemaker)
  • Best of Show: 2018 Merlot (Roman Beyer, Winemaker)

Visit the Santa Cruz County Fair Amateur Wine Competition website: https://www.sccfairwine.org

Special thanks to Debbie Yakulis, Committee Chair, for her assistance with fact-checking this post!

All content and photos copyright © Laurie Love.

Zayante Vineyard Zinfandel – A Special Wine from a Special Place

Santa Cruz, CA – Recently I was fortunate to join a small group to taste some very special Zinfandel from a very special old vineyard in the Santa Cruz Mountains. The tasting featured three bottlings from the historical Zayante Vineyard, one of the very few remaining vineyards for this grape varietal in the AVA.

Before I get to the wines and my tasting observations, here is some identifying information and brief history of this amazing little vineyard.1

Zayante Vineyard is located near Felton, CA, west of Highway 17 and south of Summit Road in a large south-facing clearing deep in the forest at an elevation between 1250 and 1400 feet and about 12 miles from the Pacific Ocean. Typically the microclimate here is very warm with no rain during the growing season, while winters tend to be wet and springs mild. Moderating factors here include proximity to the coast and high elevation. Temperatures are moderated by the vast Monterey Bay and from the summer coastal fog that settles in the valleys below the mountain slope.

The 20-acre vineyard is unusual for this area in that it is planted to many different varietals: Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Grenache, Merlot, Barbera, Syrah, Petite Sirah, and Zinfandel. The Zinfandel is now planted to approximately 1.5 acres, with one of the plots bordering a redwood grove.

Zayante Vineyard map showing planted blocks – Source: everyvine.com, 2022

The vineyard soils are sandy clay loam formed from 20-million-year-old shale and sandstone with a mineral base of quartz and feldspar and primarily derived from Lambert Shale bedrock. The soils have a perfect balance of water retention capacity and drainage further benefited by gentle slopes that allow successful dry farming (no irrigation).

Because of these sand-rich soils, the vineyard has had continuous wine grape plantings here for over 140 years. Sandy soils deter pests such as phylloxera, a root-eating louse that has devasted vineyards around the globe. The current vines are 45 years old and were planted by then-owner, visionary, and steward of this special place for many years, Greg Nolten. Greg passed away in January 2021. Currently, Prudy Foxx of Foxx Viticulture is the vineyard consultant, who farms the vineyard using organic practices. All of the vines are own-rooted, and the whole vineyard is dry-farmed (no irrigation), although there are several natural springs in the property that enable the vines to tap into water. Being own-rooted and dry-farmed (and old vine), along with careful and caring farming practices that respect the health of the soil, equates to premium quality fruit and thus outstanding quality wines from this special vineyard.

In 2017, the property was purchased by Charles and Sara Liang, who renamed the vineyard Green Earth Zayante Vineyards as a nod to the environmental stewardship of Greg Nolten and Kathleen Starkey (his wife) and to express the commitment by the Liang’s to carry on the vision of honoring the land with organic and sustainable practices. All replanted vines are taken from existing cuttings on the property and the blocks are maintained in their original designations.

Here is a link to a wonderful 4-minute video from 2010 of Greg doing a walking-and-talking tour of Zayante Vineyard. When Ray and I first moved to Santa Cruz over 30 years ago, Greg was growing, producing, and bottling for his own estate label, Zayante Vineyard. We always enjoyed visiting the winery and vineyard, and loved his Zayante Zinfandel. It paired beautifully with a concert of cool jazz at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz.

THE TASTING

Joining me for a very special tasting of three Zinfandel bottlings from Zayante Vineyard were John Ritchey, owner and winemaker of Bottle Jack Winery; Jeff Emery, owner and winemaker of Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard, along with his assistant winemakers; and, Prudy Foxx, our local viticultural wizard here in the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA, who is owner/viticulturist at Foxx Viticulture.

The wine lineup was (in order of tasting):

  1. 2018 Bottle Jack Winery Zinfandel, Zayante Vineyard – 100% Zinfandel
  2. 2018 Ridge Vineyards Zinfandel, Zayante Vineyard – 75% Zinfandel, 25% Petite Sirah
  3. 2021 Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel, Zayante Vineyard – 100% Zinfandel

All three wineries are located in the Santa Cruz Mountains. Bottle Jack Winery is a small, relatively young (since 2008) family-owned winery with production in the 1500 to 2000 cases per year range. Ridge Vineyards, on the other hand, was established in 1962 and is a much larger producer which specializes in single-vineyard bottlings (including Zinfandel) as well as their well-known, highly rated red Bordeaux blend called Monte Bello. The 1971 Ridge Vineyards Monte Bello competed in the famous 1976 Judgment of Paris and placed fifth out of the ten California and French red wines in that historical tasting that put California wines on the world map. Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard has been around since 1975 and focuses on old-world style wines showcasing Santa Cruz Mountains fruit.

Bottle Jack, Ridge Vineyard, and Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard are three of just a small handful of wineries in the Santa Cruz Mountains that make Zinfandel from Zayante fruit. Beauregard Vineyards also makes a Zayante Zin.

As we started the tasting, John shared that at harvest for this vintage (2018), the grapes came in at 3.48 pH and 24.5º brix. By comparison, the Ridge Zinfandel noted the brix level slightly higher at 25º at harvest, indicating a later pick. Another key difference between the Bottle Jack and Ridge wines: the Ridge had 25% Petite Sirah co-fermented in the blend, Bottle Jack’s wine was 100% Zinfandel. The Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel was much younger (2021), and what we tasted was a barrel sample. Jeff explained that the grapes for this wine were at 3.2 pH and were 100% destemmed and whole berry. The vineyard is known for yielding higher acidity in the fruit, so winemakers must be skilled at selecting a harvest date each vintage that is late enough to dial down acid levels but not too late that the grape sugar levels are too high. The resulting higher acidity in Zayante Zinfandel makes it a food-friendly and refreshing wine.

The 2018 Bottle Jack Zinfandel was a beautiful medium ruby with garnet rim. On the nose, aromas included black pepper, blackberry, black plum, eucalyptus, and brown spice – more savory notes. As the wine opened up in the glass, some coffee notes and a touch of caramel became apparent. On the palate, the black pepper really came through. The structure was acidity high, tannin medium with fine dusty texture, alcohol medium-plus, body medium, flavor intensity medium-plus, and a nice medium-plus finish. This was not a high-alcohol fruit bomb Zin. The wine was well-balanced between good fruit expression and high acidity and those fine-grained tannins, and has a good potential for aging an additional five to seven years. Sniffing the empty glass, the aromas reminded me of Pinot Noir with more floral and red fruit aromas. I felt this wine did a wonderful job expressing the terroir of Zayante Vineyard, with just a touch of oak influence so the special qualities of the vineyard shone through. 

The 2018 Ridge Zinfandel was next. In the glass, the Ridge had a deep ruby color with noticeably long legs. The addition of Petite Sirah added color and alcohol. On the palate, oak aromas immediately jumped out of the glass. Other aromas were blackberry, mulberry, black pepper, and dill. Flavors on the palate showed plenty of wood notes and riper fruit qualities, dare I say a bit more jammy, than the Bottle Jack wine. Acidity was medium, tannin medium-plus with smooth texture, alcohol high, body medium-plus, flavor intensity medium-plus, and finish was medium. On the label, Ridge noted that the wine was aged for 17 months in American oak (15% new). The wood notes in this wine were dominant, and the high alcohol felt out of balance with the lower-end acid expression in this wine. Comparing the Bottle Jack and Ridge together, my conclusion was that the Ridge was not as terroir-focused as the Bottle Jack Zinfandel, and showed a more “new world” approach to winemaking with lots of oak influence and higher alcohol.

Last was the Santa Cruz Mountain Vineyard Zinfandel. The color was deep ruby with magenta rim. A 2021 vintage, it was still looking quite young in the glass. On the nose, big fruit notes were dominant—blackberry, mulberry, bright red raspberry—plus licorice, black pepper, root beer, vanilla, and brown spice. Even after 30 minutes of oxygen, the wine still had loads of fruit aromas. On the palate, the acid was medium, tannin medium, alcohol medium-plus, body medium-plus, flavor intensity medium-plus, and finish was medium-plus. Flavors were the same as the aromas with notable “chewy fruit”. This wine has the potential for aging and, when it’s released, those up-front fruit notes will be more evolved and integrated into the wine. I’m excited to try it again when it’s released in a few years.

What a special experience it was to taste these wonderful and unique wines from a single small vineyard in our region! All three were excellent quality and truly special. I highly encourage you to track down a bottle of Zayante Zinfandel, open it, and enjoy. Cheers!

1 Prudy Foxx assisted in providing technical and historical information on the vineyard for this article. Thank you, Prudy!

To read about another historical California Zinfandel vineyard, read my blog post on the Old Grandpère Vineyard in Amador County here.

Santa Cruz Mountains Grand Wine Tasting Event April 2022

On Sunday, April 24, 2022, a perfect spring-weather day, I had the privilege and pleasure to attend the Wines of Santa Cruz Mountains Grand Tasting event at the jaw-dropping venue of Mountain Winery in the hills above Saratoga. This was the first big tasting event for Wines of the Santa Cruz Mountains since before the pandemic, and judging by the number of attendees (500+) and wineries representing the AVA (40+), local wine producers and wine lovers alike were more than ready for it.

The venue itself is amazing. The views across the Silicon Valley are absolutely breathtaking and on a clear day you can see almost to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

Mountain Winery above Silicon Valley, Santa Cruz Mountains AVA

Sitting at approximately 1400 feet in elevation, the Mountain Winery is the location of the historical Paul Masson Winery. Paul Masson was one of the first to bring Chardonnay and Pinot Noir wine grape cuttings from Burgundy, France, to the Santa Cruz Mountains back in the 1870s, and made one of the area’s first traditional method (AKA champagne method) sparkling wines from Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, earning him the name “Champagne King of California.” Today, the Mountain Winery is not only a working winery surrounded by perfectly manicured vines, it is also a well-known concert venue during the summer and fall months. But on this day, the stars of the show were the wines of Santa Cruz Mountains and their enthusiastic and skilled producers.

As I attended this event, I was wearing a few different hats. First, I was there with my friend and colleague, Deborah Parker Wong, to promote the Wine Studies program at Cabrillo College in Aptos, where Deborah teaches classes and where I occasionally co-teach and TA after completing the program and attaining 3 Skills Certificates in Wine. The Wine Studies program has undergone a make-over and will re-launch in the Fall starting with the first wine class in a series that can culminate in a Certificate of Achievement. For more info and to register for classes, click here.

In addition, as Field Coordinator and contributor for the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA for Slow Wine USA, I represented the Slow Wine Guide USA at the event, meeting with producers and tasting wines that are already in the Guide and those who would be good additions to it. The Slow Wine Guide is part of the international Slow Food movement and strives to showcase wineries and vineyards that are using best practices for making and growing wine. Many are certified sustainable and/or organic.

Jim Cargill (right) of House Family Vineyards

My first tasting stop was House Family Vineyards, based in Saratoga on the next hilltop over from the event. Jim Cargill, the talented winemaker, took Deborah and I through a tasty tasting of his lineup of the day: 2017 Santa Cruz Mountains Chardonnay, 2018 Santa Cruz Mountains Pinot Noir, 2017 Monterey County Coastview Vineyard Syrah, 2016 Santa Cruz Mountains Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, 2016 “Vintner’s Reserve” Estate Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2019 Cabernet Sauvignon “Block 10”. The wines showed beautifully. Both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir gave the classic Santa Cruz Mountains fruit expressions of those varietals—nice fruit aromas and flavors balanced by good acidity—with old-world winemaking. The Chardonnay sees one year in oak (35% new) and båtonnage (lees stirring) to soften the mouthfeel. It’s a lovely wine! The Syrah was one of my favorites of the day, coming from an organic vineyard high up in the Gabilan Mountains of Monterey County, and co-fermented with Viognier in the Northern Rhône style. House’s Cabernet Sauvignons are classics: cassis, blackberry, mint, and touch bell pepper notes with firm but silky tannin and a rich finish. A great tasting and a great way to start!

My press pass gave me access to the “VIP Lounge,” where some fine rosé wines were on offer, including the Equinox 2019 Pinot Noir Rosé. Barry Jackson, owner and winemaker at Equinox Wines, makes traditional method sparkling wines and is well-known for them in this region. Starting with bubbles is always a great plan! This wine is delightful, fresh, floral, and some nice autolytic characteristics from time spent on the lees in the traditional method. The Equinox 2019 Santa Cruz Mountains Blanc de Noirs had weight and body while being light and refreshing. Several lovely, lively, and youthful still rosés were poured at this table as well, with the 2020 Lester Estate Wines Rosé of Pinot Noir a standout.

One of my goals at the event was to taste smaller, lessor-known producers, some of which I hadn’t tasted before. As it turned out, several of these are wineries that have either resurrected old vineyards and relaunched with a new brand or are working with vineyards that have a long history in the AVA. I especially enjoyed connecting with the people behind these wines. With most of these wineries producing very small lots from highly sought-after fruit, it was a special treat to be able to taste them in one spot. I had many favorites (and wasn’t able to taste at every winery’s table), but a few highlights follow.

Aptos Vineyard – Aptos Vineyard was originally founded and operated by Judge John Marlo and his wife Patti in 1974, and the Baker family has rebooted it with a keen eye towards making high-quality wine from the site’s estate vineyard, DaLarDi vineyard, at the hands of talented local winemaker John Benedetti. The flight started with a lovely 2020 “All Rise” Rosé of Pinot Noir (the name is an homage to the Judge), which showed good fruit and lovely framboise notes through the mid palate. Delicious! The next two wines were two different vintages of the “Opening Remarks” Pinot Noir, 2018 and 2019. Both were made using 20-30% new oak for 10 months on the Pinots. Wow! The nose on the 2018 was simply awesome and I must admit I spent a good long time just enjoying those aromas: dark cherries, raspberries, earth, redwood notes, mushroom, kiss of oak. The 2019, although expressing younger with more wood notes (brown spice), was equally amazing. Fruity with cola notes, bright and youthful, long finish. Last in the flight, the 2019 “Amicus Curiae” Lester Estate Syrah presented dark fruit, black pepper and oak notes, still pretty young but will evolve nicely over the next 3-5 years.

Armitage Wines – Brandon Armitage is the owner/winemaker at Armitage and his estate vineyard is Heart O’ the Mountain, which used to be the home of Hollywood producer/director Alfred Hitchcock. At the Armitage table, I tasted two different Pinot Noirs, each showcasing the difference in terroir between them: 2019 Meadowridge Vineyard Pinot Noir and 2019 Heart O’ the Mountain Vineyard Estate Pinot Noir. The Meadowridge Vineyard, located in the Corralitos area, showed lovely cherry and strawberry notes along with touches of oak and a soft texture, more feminine. The Heart O’ the Mountain Vineyard, which sits at 1100’ elevation, was bolder, more rich and intense, a more masculine expression of Pinot Noir: bold fruit, redwood and mushroom umami notes, with a smooth rich finish.

Charmant Vineyards – A relatively new winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains is this gem established in 2017. The estate vineyard was formerly known as Windy Oak Vineyards’ Diane’s Block, and is farmed using sustainable practices. Eugene Theron is the owner/winemaker, with local wine-whisperer Tom Stutz acting as consulting winemaker since 2018. Charmant’s estate is comprised of 5 acres of vineyard located in the Corralitos area. The flight of wines showed exceptional quality with terroir focus and really stood out for me. The 2019 Tondré Grapefield Chardonnay from the Santa Lucia Highlands AVA was outstanding. Made to really express the terroir of this special place along limestone-laced benchlands on the eastern slope of the Santa Lucia Mountains, this Chardonnay brought lemon and tropical fruit notes nicely balanced by good acidity and a smooth, lush finish. One of the best Chardonnays I’ve tasted from this vineyard! Charmant’s 2018 Estate Pinot Noir, fermented with native yeasts and aged 24 months in 30% new French oak, again showed nice balance between fruit and acidity, bringing in some spice and umami notes. Just delightful!

El Vaquero Winery – Owner Bob Prikazsky and his daughter, winemaker Alex Prikazsky, are the talent behind El Vaquero (Spanish for “cowboy”), producing excellent quality wines from small vineyards utilizing some intriguing varietals that you don’t typically find in this AVA. Alex took me through the tasting flight, taking the time to talk with me about how each of the wines were made and sharing the backstory on some of their labels. The 2019 “One-Eyed Charlie” Sandy Lane Vineyard Contra Costa Carignane and the 2016 Athena Vineyard Santa Clara Valley Cabernet Franc both blew me away. The aromatics on both of these wines, especially the Cabernet Franc, were amazing. Alex explained that she prefers to use Hungarian oak to age her wines, giving them less overtly oak notes and allowing the fruit and terroir to shine through. The Carignane comes from 120-year-old vines in the northern part of the East Bay where the vineyard receives Delta and marine influences. Fruity with bright acidity, this was one of the best California Carignane’s I’ve tasted. But the Cabernet Franc had aromatics off the charts: cherry, cranberry, cassis, floral, earth, bell pepper. One of the best wines I tasted at the event.

La Vida Bella – Another revival, in 2011 Joe Quink and his family purchased this estate that used to belong to the Biagini family, and had their first vintage in 2013. The 18-acre estate is located off Pleasant Valley Road in Corralitos, with 13 acres planted to vines on sandy loam soil and 130 olive trees around the property. Joe holds a degree in Viticulture/Enology and brought in Prudy Foxx, the master Santa Cruz Mountain viticulturist, to consult. The traditional method Sparkling Rosé was made by local legend Dan Person, and offered subtle white raspberry and floral notes on the nose and soft frothy bubbles on the palate. The 2018 Estate Pinot Noir, derived from clones 113 and 114, saw 18 months in 100% new French oak. The aromatics were great: terroir focused with a major oak kiss.

Sandar & Hem Wines – Robert Bergstrom, owner and winemaker at Sandar & Hem, is a great guy, a wealth of knowledge, and super enthusiastic about the Santa Cruz Mountains’ terroirs and his wines made from them, as he justifiably should be. Ray and I had the pleasure to end the day’s event at Robert’s table, where he was holding court with several fans. Sandar & Hem is a new winery that sources fruit from some of the best vineyards in the region. The 2019 Bald Mountain Vineyard Chardonnay was sublime: old-world style, elegant, restrained fruit expression (lemon, white flowers, minerals, touch of stone fruit), good acidity, refreshing and lively now, but also worthy of aging. If you like Chardonnay, you will love this wine. Hands-down the best Chardonnay I tasted at the event. As I was swooning over this wine, Robert opened up a fresh bottle of his newly-released 2020 Bates Ranch Vineyard Rosé of Grenache. Bates Ranch Vineyard is a storied vineyard for some of the best quality Cabernet Sauvignon in the region. So to see Grenache from this spot, much less a rosé, was such a pleasant surprise. The wine tasted like a fresh summer breeze: strawberry, grapefruit, saline, just a hint of floral and spice. Absolutely delightful and refreshing! Robert also makes a 2019 Mindego Ridge Vineyard Pinot Noir, which he was out of by the time we made it to his table. But I have no doubt this wine will be excellent.

Spencer Schultze, Winemaker at Windy Oaks Estate

Other outstanding wines I tasted at this event: Mount Eden Vineyards 2018 Estate Chardonnay – a classic from the self-named Mount Eden clone, this wine comes from vines at 2000′ elevation on Franciscan shale and shows lovely golden apple, pineapple, and French oak notes balanced by minerality; Mindego Ridge Vineyard 2017 Estate Chardonnay, from their sustainable estate vineyard, was balanced with good acidity and lively fresh fruit notes; Madson Wines 2020 Toyon Vineyard Pinot Noir and 2020 Chardonnay – Madson wines are great, made with minimal intervention from small parcels; Lester Estate Wines 2018 “Domingo” Pinot Noir – such a great vineyard you just can’t go wrong with any wines from this fruit; Muns Vineyard 2012 Estate Pinot Noir – from the “vineyard in the sky” at 2600’, this Pinot is tasting great at 10 years old with evolved fruit, tertiary qualities, rich and smooth; Windy Oaks Estate Winery 2018 “One-Acre” Chardonnay and 2019 Whole Cluster Estate Pinot Noir – lovely and elegant Burgundian style in the Corralitos area.

I had a great time connecting with old friends and making new ones at this event. Our Santa Cruz Mountains wine community is a warm, welcoming tight-knit group comprised of enthusiastic enthusiasts and small family-owned and operated wineries. Ray and I enjoyed being there together, tasting the wines, and taking in the views. Till next time, cheers!

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About the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA

The Santa Cruz Mountains American Viticultural Area (AVA) was established in 1981. It was the first AVA in California to be defined by minimum elevation requirements: 800’ minimum on the eastern slope overlooking Santa Clara Valley and 400’ minimum on the western slope overlooking the Pacific Ocean, with some vineyards planted at 2600’ or higher. Approximately 1600 acres of vineyard area is dispersed in small pockets across the large mountainous region (320,000 acre total). Many of the vineyards are plated in plots that were either originally cleared for logging redwoods or for planting orchards in the 1800s. The mountains and hillsides provide a large diversity of microclimates and terroir. The most prominent grape varietals are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and other varietals include Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, and Zinfandel. Some vineyards are considered old vine, planted before Prohibition, having survived phylloxera thanks to sandy soils in those vineyards. Click here for a detailed map of the Santa Cruz Mountains AVA including wineries and vineyards.

Cava – a Spanish Wine Category in Transition

Written by Laurie Love, WSET L3, December 2020

Cava is well-known around the world as an easy-drinking sparkling wine that is also easy on the wallet. Much like it’s cousin Prosecco, for years Cava was not really taken too seriously; it was simply a fun beverage cranked out by a handful of mega-producers to satisfy the thirst of budget-conscious wine drinkers. But that is changing now. The Spanish sparkling wine category, once simply known as Cava, is undergoing a transition that aims to improve its quality and its image.

The Cava wine category is evolving from its origins as a DO (Denominación de Origen, a Spanish wine protected designation of origin) to the inception of five other sparkling wine designations in use today: Conca del Riu Anoia, Clàssic Penedès, Corpinnat, Cava de Paraje Calificado, and Espumoso de Calidad de Rioja. These designations seek to improve the overall quality and global image of Spanish sparkling wine by focusing more on terroir and setting higher standards—for aging, for production, for winegrowing, and more—than the original Cava DO traditionally has.

To start, let’s take a look at the original Cava DO so we have a basis for how and why things are diverging in this category. At the end of this article, you’ll find detailed tasting notes for some of the wines in the divergent designations. ¡Salud!

Original Cava DO (1986)

Cava was established as an official Denominación de Origen in 1986, shortly after Spain joined the European Union. Prior to that, sparkling wine made in Spain was simply called Cava, which means “cave” or “cellar,” referring to the traditional method of sparkling wine production used by Cava where secondary fermentation happens in the bottle while it rests in the production cellar or cave. This is the same method used in Champagne. The first traditional method sparkling wine made Spain was crafted in 1872 by Josep Raventós of the Cordoníu family in Catalonia after he had spent some time in the Champagne region of France (Raventos.com). Raventós is considered the founder of the Cava industry.

Cava DO wines must be made in the traditional method with a minimum of 9 months on the lees (basic Cava), 15  months on lees (Reserva, 18 months beginning with 2021 harvest), and 30 months (Gran Reserva). Sweetness levels are the same as for champagne; however, Gran Reserva may only be Brut or drier. Authorized grapes include both indigenous (Xarel-lo, Macabeu, and Parellada) and international varieties (Pinot Noir and Chardonnay). The heart of Cava production is the Penedès region of Catalonia. However, Cava grapes can be from any of eight non-contiguous Cava growing regions throughout Spain (including Catalonia), and producers are allowed to buy base wines from other regions (Cava.wine, Guildsomm.com).

It is precisely this laxity of sourcing that prompted several quality-focused Cava producers to question the DO’s commitment to terroir specificity and geographic indication of origin. From that arose five new Spanish sparkling wine designations in use today: Conca del Riu Anoia, Clàssic Penedès, Corpinnat, Cava de Paraje Calificado, and Espumoso de Calidad de Rioja.

Conca del Riu Anoia (2012)

A new generation of Raventós, Pepe Raventós of Raventós i Blanc, broke away from the Cava DO in 2012 and established Conca del Riu Anoia (Anoia River Basin) as a potentially separate DO (Hudin 2020). Pepe felt that Cava DO had become too volume-oriented without focus on geographic origin and terroir. Among other things, Conca del Riu Anoia defines a small geographic area in the Penedès region between the Anoia and Foix rivers. It stipulates grapes must be indigenous, can only come from vineyards within those boundaries that are organically certified, and are minimum 10 years old with set yields, and wines must age on the lees for 18 months minimum (Lawrence). So far, Raventós i Blanc Winery is the only producer following this designation, which has no legal recognition (Hudin 2020). However, Raventós is an historic name in Spanish sparkling wine production, so this designation carries quite a bit of clout.

Clàssic Penedès (2013)

At the same time that Raventós was breaking from Cava, 18 Cava producers left the Cava DO and formed a subclassification of the Penedès DO called Clàssic Penedès in 2013 (DOPenedes.cat, Hudin 2016). Unlike Conca del Riu Anoia, Clàssic Penedès is a legal designation for Spanish sparkling wine recognized by the Consejo Regulador and the EU, the first such designation outside of the Cava DO. The primary goal of Clàssic Penedès was to establish a premium sparkling wine category from a specific region within the classic growing and production area of Cava in Catalonia.

The rules for Clàssic Penedès require that grapes come from certified organic vineyards, notably the first sparkling wine category in the world to do so (DOPenedes.cat). There are strict regulations against buying base wines from outside the region; all production must take place within the producer’s own premises with the Penedès DO.

Furthermore, Clàssic Penedès wines may be made in the traditional method, or the ancestral method, the only Spanish sparkling wine designation with regulations for ancestral sparklers. Traditional method wines require minimum 15 months lees aging (equivalent to the classic Reserva level of Cava), and all wines must be vintage and include the date of disgorgement. Ancestral method wines may be released after four years on lees, and label with the term “No Degorjat” (or “No Degollat”), indicating it has not been disgorged (DOPenedes.cat).

Clàssic Penedès went a long way toward terroir specificity and promoting organic production. But several issues remained: to use the Clàssic Penedès designation, producers had to leave the well-recognized Cava DO (18 producers as of this writing). Also, the rules allow for a laundry-list of grape varieties, including international varieties (such as Gewurztraminer and Riesling!) alongside the traditional indigenous varieties, and the designated growing region is still considered too large. For these reasons, in addition to the fact that the name may seem too generic, several premium producers opted to remain in the Cava DO while they worked independently on forming yet another more stringent sparkling wine designation: Corpinnat.

Corpinnat (2018)

Simultaneously, a band of independently-minded premium producers worked to form Corpinnat. Corpinnat, which means “heart of Penedès,” was formed in 2015 and authorized by the European Union in 2017 (Corpinnat.com). Corpinnat was officially launched in April 2018 as a terroir-driven, premium quality-focused collective. It is not a separate DO, but rather a brand and collective of winemakers and growers. Corpinnat wines are certified under the Vino Espumoso de Calidad category, its guidelines are enforced and audited by the European Bureau Veritas, and Corpinnat is an EU trademark (Hudin 2020).

The rules shine a bright light on grape sourcing: all vineyards must be certified organic, grapes must be hand harvested and grown and sourced from the strictly defined Corpinnat region, a 997 square kilometer area that encompasses approximately 23,000 hectares of vineyards (Corpinnat.com). Additionally, grapes must be minimum 90% indigenous varieties, and there are minimum pricing standards for grapes, protecting growers. Corpinnat producers are required to make their own base wine on their own premises and undergo traditional method secondary fermentation in the bottle for a minimum of 18 months lees aging. 

Intentionally, all of these rules effectively exclude large-scale producers. As of 2020, there are 10 Corpinnat-authorized producers who left the Cava DO in order to use the Corpinnat brand.

Cava de Paraje Calificado (2017)

Meanwhile, in response to the movement started by Raventós as well as Clàssic Penedès and Corpinnat producers away from Cava DO, the Cava DO Consejo Regulador created a new subclassification called Cave de Paraje Calificado (CPC) in 2017 (Cava.wine). CPC addresses the terroir issue by requiring single estate bottlings from single vintage certified organic vineyards. International varieties are still allowed, but the vines must be minimum 10 years old and owned and controlled by the producer. Minimum 36 months lees aging is required and wines must be Brut or drier.

The downsides are that large-scale producers can still qualify, and participating wineries’ overall production are not taken into consideration (Barnes 2017).

To complicate things even more, the Cava DO Consejo further changed the rules in July 2020 forming two new “super classifications”: Cava de Guarda and Cave de Guarda Superior. In the Cava de Guarda bucket is basic Cava with minimum 9 months lees aging. The Cava de Guarda Superior category encompasses all of these: Reserva, Gran Reserva (minimum 30 months and only Brut or drier), and the new Cava de Paraje Calificado. At the same time, the Cava DO also increased the minimum required aging time for Cava Reserva from 15 to 18 months (Cava.wine), thereby aligning it with the Corpinnat requirements.

Espumoso de Calidad de Rioja (2017) 

At the same time, Rioja DOCa gets into the act. Rioja, arguably the most well-known Spanish wine region, is one of the eight regions in Spain authorized for Cava production. As further evidence that quality-focused producers are moving away from the Cava designation, in 2017 the Rioja DOCa Consejo Regulador authorized a new sparkling wine category, Vino Espumoso de Calidad de Rioja, with wines so designated being first released in 2019 (Barnes 2018). The designation is for traditional method sparkling wines only. Aging requirements exceed those for generic and Reserva Cava (15 and 24 months, respectively), while wines aged 36 months or more are labeled Gran Añada (Riojawine.com). Grapes must be hand harvested and can be any of varieties authorized in Rioja DOCa. These wines are part of the Rioja DOCa, so are not labeled Cava DO.

Throughout the wine industry, consumers worldwide are demanding more terroir-focused wines, with a movement away from mega producers to micro producers with a more hands-on approach. The growth of sales in the grower-champagne category is a good example of this. The thinking is that smaller production from a more specific geographical area yields better quality wines. Moreover, savvy consumers are looking for premium wines sourced from certified organic vineyards, and producers are responding by stipulating organic production methods. Organic production requirements are a key and growing trend (OIV.int). These things are becoming more and more important to wine drinkers. On the whole, the changes that have taken place in the Spanish sparkling wine category go a long way towards meeting these market demands.

However, producers opting out of the Cava DO to follow these more stringent terroir-focused categories face an uphill climb to establish these as top-quality sparkling wines. They risk losing market share without the well-known and heavily-marketed Cava designation. Clàssic Penedès, Corpinnat, and Conca del Riu Anoia, are not well-known outside of Catalonia. In addition, the flurry of activity in this category (new designations and subclassifications, changing terminology, zones and subzones, etc.) all but certainly will create confusion in the market. And retailers will need to be educated and prepared to educate consumers on the differences between these designations. “As a retailer, it’s not necessarily an explanation or conversation I want to get into with every customer who’s looking for a ‘Cava,’” said retailer Andy Booth, co-owner of California-based The Spanish Table (Vinepair.com). But with time, exposure, and word of mouth, these pioneering sparkling wine producers will reap the benefits of adhering to strict production rules while supporting the all-important and on-trend organic vineyard certifications. In the future, they will be seen as trailblazers that improved the quality and image of Cava. The proof is in the glass!

CITATIONS

Barnes, Amanda. “Getting to Know Cava’s New Category,” December 2017, https://daily.sevenfifty.com/getting-to-know-cavas-new-category/.

Barnes, Amanda. “What You Need to Know About Rioja’s New Regulations,” May 2018, https://daily.sevenfifty.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-riojas-new-regulations/.

Cava.wine, https://www.cava.wine/en/ and https://www.cava.wine/en/categories-types/cava-de-paraje-calificado/.

Corpinnat.com, https://www.corpinnat.com/en/.

DOPenedes.cat, http://www.dopenedes.cat/en/classicpenedes.php.

Guildsomm.com, https://www.guildsomm.com/research/compendium/w/spain/360/cava-do.

Hudin, Miquel. “An Introduction to Clàssic Penedès,” March 2016, https://www.guildsomm.com/public_content/features/articles/b/miquel_hudin/posts/penedes-article

Hudin, Miquel. “Three Misunderstood Topics in Spanish Wine,” August 2020, https://www.guildsomm.com/public_content/features/articles/b/miquel_hudin/posts/misunderstandings-spanish-wine.

Lawrence, James. “New Breakaway Sparkling Wine Appellation to Rival Cava,” March 2013, https://www.decanter.com/wine-news/new-breakaway-sparkling-wine-appellation-to-rival-cava-20501/.

“OIV Focus: The Global Sparkling Wine Market,” April 2020, http://www.oiv.int/public/medias/7291/oiv-sparkling-focus-2020.pdf.

Raventos.com, https://www.Raventós.com/originshttps://www.raventos.com/concariveranoia .

Riojawine.com, https://www.riojawine.com/en/rioja/types-of-wine/.

“Sparkling DO Penedès Winemaking,” http://www.dopenedes.cat/pdf/penedessparklingwines.pdf.

Vinepair.com, https://vinepair.com/articles/corpinnat-sparkling-wine-cava-guide/.

TASTING NOTES

2017 Julia Bernet “Cuvée Ú” Corpinnat, Brut Nature, 12% ABV, $22.99

The wine consists of 100% Xarel-lo from 15-40 year old organic vineyards on calcareous soils. The wine aged two years on the lees in stainless steel tank. Disgorged 10/2019.

On the pour, the wine was very foamy with a fine bead. Appearance: clear medium lemon-gold with a fine and delicate mousse and plenty of bubbles. Nose: clean with medium-plus developing aromas of ripe red apples, quince, Asian pear, white flowers, and brioche. Tree fruit aromas dominate. Palate: dry with medium-plus acidity, no tannin, medium alcohol and body, medium-plus flavor intensity and finish. The mousse is delicate and persistent. Flavor characteristics: Apples!, fresh baked bread, cream tart, wet stones, Meyer lemon pith. Quality level is very good. Drink now or hold 3 to 5 years. Quality for value: Meets expectation.

2017 Raventós i Blanc Conca del Riu Anoia, Extra Brut, Blanc de Blancs, 12% ABV, $21.99

The wine is a blend of 32% Macabeu, 40% Xarel-lo, 28% Parellada from 40 year old vines sourced from the estate biodynamic vineyard called “Vinya del Llac” (vineyard of the lake), which is north-facing. The northern exposure and lake moderates the microclimate of the vineyard. Soils are clay on calcareous bedrock. Dosage is less than 6 g/l. Disgorged 3/16/20.

On the pour, very fine, delicate, and abundant bubbles that persist for a very long time. Appearance: clear pale lemon very fine bead to the bubble. Nose: clean with medium-plus developing aromas of green pear, yellow apple, white flowers, white nectarine, saline minerality, raw almond, and a touch of brioche notes. Palate: very dry with a crisp texture, medium-plus acidity, no tannin, medium alcohol and body, medium-plus flavor intensity, and a long finish. Mousse is delicate and persistent. Flavor characteristics: Green tree fruit (apple, pear), unripe peach, dried pineapple, touch of crème fraiche, saline, wet stone, bitter almond, touch cidery, a kiss of anise seed on the finish. Very complex aromas and flavors! Very well balanced. Quality level is outstanding. Drink now or hold 7 to 10 years. Quality for value: Exceeds expectations.

2017 AT Roca Rosat “Vi de Paisatge” Clàssic Penedès Reserva, Brut Nature, 12% ABV, $25

Vi de Paisatge translates to “terroir wine”. This wine is a 50/50 blend of the indigenous grapes Macabeu and Garnatxa Negra. The Macabeu comes from calcareous, limestone, and gravel soils in plots from two subzones in the Clàssic Penedès: Costers d’Ordal and Massif of Garraf. It was destemmed and gently pressed. The Garnatxa comes from the Conca de l’Anoia subzone (central part of Clàssic Penedès) in calcareous clays and pebbles. It was macerated on skins 9-12 hours. The wine spent 20 months on the lees. Dosage is 3 g/l. Disgorged on 12/11/19 to order.

On the pour, very fine bead to the bubble and medium froth, bubbles more quiet than previous wines. Appearance: clear pale Salmon with fine beaded and persistent bubbles. Beautiful color! Nose: clean with medium intensity developing aromas of raspberry, strawberry, rose petals, white flowers, wet stone, toast, lemon, and unripe peach. Fruity and floral! Palate: Bone dry with medium-plus acidity, light tannin slightly noticeable on finish, medium alcohol and body, medium flavor intensity, and medium-plus finish. Mousse is very delicate and quiet. Flavor characteristics: Fruity! Strawberries, raspberries, watermelon, green apple, ripe Meyer lemon, chalk, licorice notes, and toast. Quality level is very good. Drink now or hold 3-5 years. Quality for value: Exceeds expectations.

Widows of Champagne, Part 2

This is the second of a 2-part article about the widows of Champagne, namely Nicole-Barbe Clicquot Ponsardin (aka Veuve Clicquot) and Louise Pommery. The first part explored Veuve Clicquot’s important contributions to champagne. This second part is all about perhaps a lessor-known but equally important widow of champagne: Louise Pommery.

Louise Pommery, Champagne and Roses

Important contributions happened during the later part of the 19th Century

Louise Pommery

Jeanne-Alexandrine “Louise” Melin Pommery was born in Reims, France, on April 13, 1819, 32 years and a generation after Madame Clicquot. Louise was raised in a female-dominant household; her mother was a widow as was one of her aunts who lived with them. She attended private schools in England and France before marrying Louis Alexandre Pommery in 1840. During her marriage, similar to Madame Clicquot, Louise had nothing to do with the family champagne business. Instead, she raised their son Louis and led a quiet comfortable existence. Before long, her life would change dramatically.

Like many in the Champagne region at this time, Monsieur Pommery’s primary business was the wool trade. In 1856, after earning a small fortune in his business, M. Pommery sold off the wool trade business and prepared for a leisurely retirement. But retirement was not to be as Louise discovered she was pregnant with their second child at the age of 38 and 17 years after the birth of her son. So, with little baby-girl Pommery on the way, Monsieur Pommery decided to go in to the champagne business. He partnered with Narcisse Greno, who had acquired the champagne house Dubois-Gosset in 1836, had large vineyard holdings around Reims, and had been making average still red wine. The new business was called Champagne Pommery et Greno, the same name for this champagne house today.

Only two years later, Louise Pommery was widowed when her husband died in 1858. Louise, like Nicole-Barbe widowed and with a young child, decided to take on the business herself. On his death, Louise declared: “I have resolved to carry on the business and take the place of my husband.” She convinced Greno to let her buy him out and took the reins at age 39. At the same time, she shifted focus from red wine to exclusively produce sparkling champagne.

At this time, the second Napoleon Empire under Napoleon III was in power, and the country was on the verge of the Franco Prussian War. The House of Champagne Pommery was in Reims, right in the battle lines of the war. Friends and family urged her to move to Chigny-les-Roses, her country mansion featuring her favorite flower, roses. Rather than move to a safer place, she stayed with her business, her employees, and her vineyards. She personally responded to every single piece of mail she received, earning her respect and admiration.

Moreover, she expanded her chalk caves (crayères) below ground and beautified her huge Champagne house above with magnificent rose gardens. Her objective was to make Champagne Pommery a brand of luxury synonymous with beauty and art and roses. In fact, she was one of the first people to market her brand as luxury item.

Champagne house of Pommery & Greno

The chalk caves were expanded by excavating an additional 12 miles of limestone, giving her a wine cellar for storing the wine for the longer time required to make the drier style she intended to make. Once the war broke out in 1870, these caves provided safe haven for people and wines alike. When 300,000 Prussian troops marched through Champagne, they wouldn’t find Madame Pommery’s wine because she had ordered her wines to be hidden behind false walls. With the Prussian victory in May 1871, the region was occupied by foreign military personnel. During the Prussian occupation in Reims, the military governor of the Prussian army, Prince von Hohenlohe, requisitioned Mme. Pommery’s home for his use. So Mme. Pommery was forced to share her home with the enemy. Also during this period, as Prussian soldiers were rounding up prisoners of war, Mme. Pommery is credited with saving the life of a local doctor by talking Hohenlohe out of executing him.

It wasn’t until after the war that Madame Pommery was able to accomplish one of her main contributions to the champagne industry.

The all-important Russian market preferred sweet wines, so most champagne made during this period was geared toward their tastes. From her time in England, Louise Pommery knew that the British consumers preferred dry (not sweet) champagne. So she established an agency in London headed by her representative Adolphe Hubinet and Champagne Pommery came to dominate the British market. 

Prior to the war, she began to experiment with making dry champagne. She dictated when to pick the grapes to control ripeness level, at a later harvest date so the fruit had more ripeness and available sugar for primary fermentation. After many trials and patiently waiting until after the war, Louise’s 1874 vintage Brut champagne hit the market with enormous success. With this wine, Madame Pommery became the first to produce dry Brut champagne and successfully market it at a commercial level. This was an important turning point for Champagne Pommery but also for the industry as a whole.

Every year on her birthday, Madame Pommery declared a holiday for her employees. Champagne and roses, her favorite flower, were the order of the day. Just 2 days before her death, knowing she was dying, Madame Pommery was concerned that she would not live past her birthday and her staff would miss their party. When she died on March 18, 1890 on her 71st birthday, she was given a huge funeral and a procession of 20,000 people followed her rose-strewn casket through Reims. She always put the well-being of her staff first, and was known for her warmth, generosity, and vast philanthropy to many charities, including the orphanage she established in Reims, as well as her love of art and roses, and for making the world’s most popular style of champagne first.

Veuve Clicquot and Madame Pommery contributed much to the beverage we know as champagne today. Bringing their tireless dedication, brilliant minds for business, and persuasive personalities, these women were able to not only make names for themselves as historical figures, but also further the quality and international appeal of one of the most celebrated beverages in the world: champagne. They also paved the way and provided inspiration for the many women who are champagne winemakers today.

#wine #champagne #pommery

Widows of Champagne, Part 1

If you know me, you know I love bubbles! Champagne especially. What’s not to love about a festive glass of bubbly? Mais oui! In honor of #ChampagneDay, I offer part 1 of my article about Madames Nicole-Barbe Clicquot-Ponsardin and Louise Pommery, two important women in the history of Champagne who also both happened to be widows.

Pour a glass of champagne and enjoy!

Introduction

Throughout the history of wine production in the Champagne region of France, it is both notable and curious that several widows became important figures for their individual contributions to the Champagne industry. In this industry dominated by males and their sons, with men like Dom Pérignon getting all the credit for making champagne what it is today, how could it be that these women became famous figures still celebrated in the modern era?

This article explores the important contributions to Champagne made by two historical and fascinating women who led their respective Champagne houses in Reims as widows during two different periods in history: Madame Nicole-Barbe Clicquot-Ponsardin and Madame Louise Pommery. 

First up…Veuve Cliquot!

Nicole-Barbe Clicquot Ponsardin, La Grande Dame de Champagne

Nicole-Barbe Clicquot Ponsardin – aka Veuve Clicquot

The most famous of the Champagne widows, Nicole-Barbe Ponsardin was born at Hôtel Ponsardin in Reims on December 16, 1777, to a wealthy and prominent family. Her father, Nicolas Ponsardin, was mayor of Reims at the time. Nicole-Barbe attended prestigious schools and received a proper education for a woman, destined to be a wife and mother like all women of the period. At age 20, Nicole-Barbe married François-Marie Clicquot in a Champagne cellar. During this time, François and his father Philippe ran the family business, Clicquot et Fils, a banking and wool trading firm with a little champagne production on the side. François also owned some Champagne vineyards, including some in Bouzy. Only seven years later, Nicole-Barbe was widowed with a 3-year-old daughter. When François died, Philippe was so distraught by his son’s death that he declared the end to the family business. In spite of being involved in the business very little up to this point, the new widow wanted to keep the business going and offered to take it over. So, Philippe handed over the business to Nicole-Barbe along with a $500,000 investment to help her succeed. She was only 27 years old.

In 1810, one of the first things she did was change the business name to Veuve Clicquot Ponsardin. Veuve means widow in French and was commonly used as a greeting of respect. Madame Clicquot also sold off the wool and trading part of the business and switched the company focus exclusively to champagne production. She ran the business for the next 60 years of her life.

Champagne house of Veuve Clicquot

During her tenure, Madame Clicquot steered the business through difficult historical events, built the Champagne house to be one of the most successful and internationally recognized in the industry, and contributed important improvements to the winemaking process still in use today.

Veuve Clicquot managed her business during a period following the French Revolution and through both empires of Napoleon I and Napoleon III. The Napoleonic Wars in 1804-1814 established blockades preventing trade. However, the brilliant businesswoman found a way around this and together with her sales representative, Louis Bohne, who had established a personal relationship with the czar and his family, Veuve Clicquot was able to be the first champagne to market in Russia when the blockades were finally lifted. It became an instant favorite of the czar and, by extension, the Russian people. In fact, Veuve Clicquot champagne was the champagne in Russia until the fall of the czars 100 years later. The Russian market accounted for 70% of her business. From Russia, Veuve Clicquot’s exports grew to every court in Europe. Thus, she was the first to establish a champagne brand on an international level.

Madame Clicquot’s brilliance as a businesswoman extended to her ability to establish strong brand identity. She selected a bright yellow-orange color for her non-vintage label, thereby distinguishing it visually for consumers. The same color label is used on Veuve Clicquot bottles today. The color is attributed to the bright yellow of egg yolks from Bresse chickens.

Famous yellow-orange label of Veuve Clicquot

Madame Clicquot’s contributions to the traditional champagne winemaking process are legendary. She is credited with inventing rémuage (riddling), the process of removing sediment that forms during secondary fermentation in the bottle. In 1816, together with her cellar master Antoine Müller, Madame Clicquot experimented with her dining table to create the first riddling rack, called a pupitre, by creating holes that could hold the necks of champagne bottles sur pointe (upside down) and at an angle. 

Modern-day interpretation of Veuve Clicquot’s dining table as riddling rack

They discovered if they moved the bottles from a horizontal position a little at a time to sur pointe, jiggling the bottles a little with each movement, that the yeast sediment would work its way in the neck of the bottle making it easier to remove. They also discovered that if they froze the neck of the bottle, the ice plug containing the yeast sediment could be easily removed (disgorged) without loosing much wine or effervescence. This second step is called dégorgement (disgorging). Both of these methods of riddling and disgorging are still in use today in the traditional champagne method. 

Madame Clicquot’s contemporaries were baffled as to how she was able to make her champagne so clear and yet still retain the bubbles. She and Antoine were able to keep this method of clarification a secret for several years, so the Veuve Clicquot wines were leaders in quality at the time. This also solidified her brand in the market. 

Madame Clicquot remained the head of the Champagne house bearing her name for the rest of her life, 60 years, until she died on July 29, 1866. Veuve Clicquot is still considered one of the top quality brands, or a “grand marque,” of Champagne. Their prestige cuvée, La Grande Dame, is named for this remarkable woman.

Next up…Louise Pommery!

#wine #champagne #champagneday #veuveclicquot

Wine Tasting in Solvang and Santa Ynez Valley

Recently I traveled to the Santa Ynez Valley near Solvang, California, to do some wine tasting. It had been a few years since I visited this region. Some of my old favorites are still there and still worth a visit; other new spots have sprung up and are bringing new energy to the region.

If you are heading to this beautiful part of California, here are my recommendations for wine tasting and some other fun tips. Cheers!

Santa Ynez Valley AVA:

* Foxen Vineyards – This winery has two locations; the one at 7200 Foxen Canyon Road is the one I like best. I know the tasting room manager there, Simone Masters. She is super knowledgeable and will take good care of you; tell her I sent you. Amazing award-winning wines here! Two tasting flights available: one is a variety of wines including a delightful Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, a Rhône blend, and a Syrah. The other flight is all Pinot Noir featuring wines from specific terroirs in the region. If you only do one flight, do this one! Foxen Vineyard is known for their outstanding Pinots. Nice spot for picnicking out back and a pleasant view of the area. Fun fact: my husband played drums in a band back in the 1980s that was managed by Foxen co-owner Dick Doré.

* Rusack – Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, several Pinot Noir bottlings, and Syrah; small nice peaceful spot with a shaded deck under oaks. Back in the late 1980s, this was the location of the Ballard Canyon Vineyard, fun spot owned and operated by a dentist who knew how to host a fun party complete with grape stomping.

* Brander in Los Olivos – Beautiful Chateau tasting room and really good wines. I’ll never forget the woman who worked the tasting room in the last 1980s, Lovette Twobirds (yes, that was her name!), who taught me how to “trill,” that is, moving the wine around your mouth to aerate it and open up esters in order to better evaluate aroma and flavor in a wine.

* Zaca Mesa Winery – The tasting room on Foxen Canyon Road was in the Sideways movie. Always consistently good wines.

* Fess Parker Winery – Foxen Canyon Road, a big beautiful winery, larger scale than the others, but nice wines and an unexpected Napa-type experience in the middle of seemingly nowhere.

Los Olivos – There are many tasting rooms in the little town of Los Olivos sprinkled around within walking distance of one another. These are great, but I personally prefer the experience of being out at the winery and vineyards.

Santa Rita Hills (officially known as Sta. Rita Hills AVA):

This is an amazing high-quality micro region to the west of Buellton and Solvang, specializing in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, cool climate varieties. The transverse (aka “Sideways”) range that runs west-east here allows cool air to funnel into the region from the Pacific Ocean. So many different soils and soil structures, some based on ancient sea beds, define the unique terroirs found in this compelling wine AVA.

Sta. Rita Hills AVA is spelled this way to differentiate it from Santa Rita winery in Chile, a mega producer in Chile, South America. Richard Sanford is one of the founding fathers Sta. Rita Hills AVA. I had the honor and privilege of meeting him at his boutique Alma Rosa Winery  tasting room (see below). What a thrill!

Here you will find awesome welcoming little wineries off the beaten path, less crowded, less expensive, with huge quality from this prime terrior known for world-class Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Take the beautiful drive along West 246 between Buellton and Lompoc, and discover this region that has been virtually frozen in time while it looks to the future.

Here are my Sta. Rita Hills favorites:

* Melville Winery – Some of the best Pinot and Chardonnay in the region. Jars of soil samples accompany the tasting. Geek out on terroir!

* Brewer-Clifton – Another best in the region. Focus on Pinots, including vineyard- and clone-specific bottlings. You won’t be disappointed! Check out the YouTube video of the winemaker Greg Brewer talking about winemaking. If Teresa Gillmore is working the tasting room, tell her I sent you. She is educated, entertaining, friendly, professional, and all-round passionate.

* Alma Rosa Winery – Tasting Room is in an industrial park near Buellton, but is a very cool experience. The Winery was founded by Richard Sanford, who is a celebrity in this region because he was instrumental at getting Sta. Rita Hills established as an AVA. Mr. Sanford happened to be there when we were tasting there, and I was honored to meet him. Pinots, pinots, pinots!

* Wine Ghetto in Lompoc – A consortium of a bunch of small tasting rooms in a little urban area near Lompoc, similar to the Westside Swift Street courtyard here in Santa Cruz.

And don’t forget…
The Hitching Post – Iconic restaurant with excellent food, ambiance, bar, and wines. Not to be missed. Oh, and it was featured in the movie Sideways as well. Hitching Post has a new tasting room in Buellton. Check it out. Amazing Pinot Noir wines!

Ostrichland – On Highway E. 246 down the road from Hitching Post. Great place for an entertaining, if a bit weird, post-wine tasting experience.

Here’s a couple more tips:
– Good place to stock up on picnic supplies and such is Nielsen’s Market in Nielsen’s Shopping Center just east of the main part of Solvang on Alamo Pintado Road. They have a pretty good wine selection too.
– If you are driving back north after your trip, stop at the Von’s grocery store at 1758 Grand Avenue in Grover Beach/Pismo Beach. It’s not far from Highway 101. They have an excellent selection of local wines (Santa Ynez and San Luis Obispo regions) with really good prices. You’ll be amazed! Got a $35 bottle of Hitching Post Pinot Noir there for $20. Worth a detour.

Cheers and have a great trip!

 

Original Grandpère Vineyard Celebration Weekend – Amador County, Sierra Foothills, CA

Amador County, Sierra Foothills, CA – I just spent a fascinating and fun January weekend in the California Shenandoah Valley AVA of Amador County celebrating the oldest documented Zinfandel vineyard in America, the Original Grandpère Vineyard. In 2016, the California State Fair bestowed its prestigious “Vineyard of the Year” award to this small yet historically important vineyard.

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This was the first annual celebration weekend honoring Original Grandpère (also known as OGP or Vineyard 1869). Here’s a link about the event.

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Featured were special wine tastings and wine and food pairings at three wineries in Amador County that source fruit from this very special vineyard. All weekend long, the celebrated and delicious Taste Restaurant in Plymouth offered a special prix-fixe pairing dinner featuring OGP wines from these three Amador wineries. Yum!

 

 

About the Original Grandpère Vineyard Planted in 1869 and still producing premium wine grapes, this 10-acre vineyard located off of Steiner Road in the California Shenandoah Valley AVA of Amador County produces very low yields—between 1 and 1.5 tons per acre (total of 16 tons from 10 acres). It is sourced by only four wineries, three of which are in Amador County: Vino Noceto, Scott Harvey, and Andis, all located within the Shenandoah Valley. (The fourth winery, Macchia Wines, is in Lodi.) Eighty percent of the vines in this vineyard are original vines planted 147 years ago.

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The roots dig 40 feet down through sandy, iron-rich clay loam soil. Burrowing down that far for water creates a smaller berry with intense flavor and aroma and yields complex minerality from the layers of various soil types.

 

OGP was originally planted and managed by a woman named Mahal Teter Upton to financially support her family until the 1930s. Today it is owned and meticulously managed and cared for by the hands of another woman, Terri Harvey, a local farmer’s daughter who has been tending the vineyard by hand since 1982. She does all of the vineyard management and maintenance, pruning each vine herself. The vines are free-standing (not trellised), head-trained, spur-pruned, and dry-farmed (not irrigated), as is typical of ancient vine Zinfandel. Although the rows of vines are 8 feet apart, originally planted for horses pulling plows, today the harvest is always done by hand to prevent injuring the vines and to produce superior results in the glass. You can see two OGP vines on display in the Scott Harvey tasting room in the Shenandoah Valley.

OGP wines are not wimpy; but nor are they the big alcoholic fruit-bombs you might expect from Amador County Zin. OGP wines are intense and rich with good acidity, softer tannins, and high minerality; but they also have an elegance and finesse to them. They tend to be clear, almost translucent in color. Because of their good acidity and strong fruit characteristics, OGP wines can be long-lived.

(Note: For a fascinating read on the detailed history of the OGP vineyard, check out this article “The Original Grandpère Vineyard: Powerful Women, Grapes, and Wines,” by Randy Caparoso.)

The OGP Celebration Wine Tastings

The first stop on our wine tasting tour was at the ultra-modern tasting room and winery of Andis Wines.

AndisTasting.JPGHere we tasted 2012 and 2013 OGP Zinfandel. Each was paired with a crostini and different toppings to complement each vintage’s unique characteristics. The 2012 vintage (13.5%) tasted more like a Syrah to me than to a Zinfandel; earthy and funky with firm tannins and not much fruit on the palate, the ripe goat chese paired well with it—funk on funk! The 2013 (15%) was my favorite of these two. A plummy color, the oak aging was apparent on the nose; palate yielded good cherries/cranberries fruit flavors along with some spice and alcohol heat, and paired well with the dried cherry tapenade.

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Next stop was Vino Noceto Winery, which is literally across Shenandoah Road from Andis. Lauren, the events manager at Vino Noceto, was in charge of the event and the pairing here. Vino Noceto had the best food pairings of the 3 wineries we visited. My husband and I both preferred their OGP wines from all 3 wineries as well. Here we tasted a vertical of 4 OGP wines: 2013, 2012, 2008, and 2007 (in that order). The 2013 OGP Zin was poured from a magnum bottle (1.5 liters). Wines from a magnum have less glass-to-wine ratio, providing a slower aging process, and are therefore considered the most desirable size for bottle-aging. Besides that, they are fun and festive! The 2012 OGP Zin was poured from a regular 750 ml bottle. Both wines were outstanding examples of a classic Amador Zin from OGP! The color of both was deep ruby, bright and clear. Dusty brambles, minerality, cocoa, good fruit, big black fruit on the nose and palate. Some alcohol heat on the finish, but not overpowering. Very well balanced, these 14.1% alcohol wines had medium-high acidity and paired beautifully with the accompanying bites—2013 with Genoa salami with sun-dried tomatoes and rosemary fromage on crostini, 2012 with black forest ham and cranberry cheese spirals topped with thyme Zinfandel glazed sweet onions—yum! The 2013 had more tannin expression, being a year younger. The 2012 had softer tannins, good fruit on the nose and palate, and was our favorite wine of the day. Both of these were lovely wines! We were told that Vino Noceto is the only winery of the 3 that does not add Syrah to the blend; their OGP Zins are 100% OGP Zin. (Note: AVA laws require 95% of fruit to be from a named single vineyard in California, which means 5% may be other fruit.) Next in the Vino Noceto vertical was the 2008 OGP Zin. This well-aged 15%-alcohol Zinfandel had notes of raisin, earth, fig, and olive on the nose. On the palate, big strong acids, nuanced fruit, and strong alcohol on the finish. This was paired with a date spread with chevre and sprinkled with cocoa nibs. The chevre calmed down the acidity of the wine. Lastly Lauren poured for us a 2007 OGP Zin, not on the usual line-up. What a treat! We liked this better than 2007, even though there was less fruit on the palate. The wine was perfectly aged and well-balanced with still firm acids, and the ubiquitous dusty bramble minerality. Before we left, we took advantage of the $99 OGP Vertical special.

ogp-vine-at-scott-hLast stop on the OGP tasting tour: Scott Harvey Wines, which is located next door to Vino Noceto on Shenandoah Road. It is Scott’s ex-wife Terri that owns and manages the OGP vineyard, which Scott Harvey calls Vineyard 1869. When they were married, the couple purchased OGP together in 1988 (although they had been working the vineyard since 1982). We tasted through a vertical of four wines: 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014, in that order. All were 14.5% alcohol, and have a touch of Syrah added. Although the wines were great, the food pairings were not as successful as the first 2 wineries; we felt the strong cheeses and spices in the bites here overpowered these Zinfandels. The 2011 “1869” was a cooler climate and yielded higher acidity. On the nose, not as fruity as Vino Noceto wines, but the dusty minerals were apparent. Color was clear and bright, elegant. On the palate: sour cherry, sour cherry candy, spice, and dry minerals. This was paired with a Point Reyes bleu cheese-Zin onion dip with potato chips. The bleu cheese dominated the palate of the wine, unfortunately. The 2012 “1869” was clear and bright with a magenta rim. The nose had the typical classic OGP notes of dusty brambles and big black fruits. A very well-balanced wine, the palate offered big fruit, softer dust/minerals than 2011, along with delicate spice notes. The 2012 was our favorite here, as it was at Vino Noceto. This was paired with a small pastry filled with spicy sopressata (like salami) and gouda, and again overwhelmed the wine. Next was the 2013 “1869,” which came from the first drought year for the vineyard. The wine was jammier with strong mineral notes. Less yields are typical in a drought, and that means less acids, and more concentrated fruit. More alcohol on the finish than the previous two. This was paired with a chicken/chimichurri empanada, which again was too spicy and overpowered the wine (however, the chimichurri sauce was really delicious!). Last we tasted the 2014 “1869,” which had less fruit but good dust/mineral expression on the nose, while on the palate it had good fruit, blackberries, jam, and not as much minerality. This wine is still fairly young for an OGP Zin, but with not as much fruit and acidity, it should be consumed within the next year or 2. In all, the Scott Harvey wines were very similar and consistent across vintages.

I look forward to attending this fun and educational event again next year! I hope you can make the journey as well to experience this unique place and its special wines. Santé!

Pilgrimage to the Birthplace of Bubbles

Limoux & St-Hilaire, France — During our stay in a small village within the Languedoc region in the South of France, we were treated to great food, wine, and hospitality, incredible values, and few if any tourists. But mostly we were treated to very rich and ancient history that washed over us every step of the way.

My husband and I stayed in the small village of Palaja, about 6 km south of Carcassonne, in a château owned by a lovely family. We were ideally situated to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site that is the medieval city of Carcassonne, an incredibly picturesque restored old walled city and castle on a hill overlooking the Aude valley.

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One of the waterways flowing below is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site–the Canal du Midi. This is an important water way built in 1681 through the South of France that connects Sète on the Mediterranean coast to the Garonne River in Toulouse which flows through the Bordeaux region to the Atlantic Ocean. It’s 150 miles long and was designated a UNESCO world heritage site in 1996. Our location in Palaja was also ideal for visiting small wine villages around the area, including St-Hilaire near Limoux, a pilgrimage point for any sparkling wine lover because this is the birthplace of sparkling wine.

Most people believe that Dom Pérignon discovered the method of making sparkling wine while working in the cellars in Champagne in the late 1680s. This is incorrect. Dom Pérignon did make other important contributions to the process of making sparkling wine that would be called “méthode champenoise” (Champagne method) or later “méthode traditionelle” (MT), including how to derive white juice from red grapes and the idea of blending grapes into Champagne (“cuvée”). But he did not make the first sparkling wine.

The first sparkling wine was made by the Benedictine monks of the Abbey at St-Hilaire in 1531, a full 150 years before Dom Pérignon’s work. The monks made their wine in a small stone cellar in the Abbey of St-Hilaire. The wine they made was called Blanquette de Limoux. Blanquette is a synonym for the Mauzac grape used to make Blanquette de Limoux. Blanquette means “small white” and probably refers to the white downy coating on the Mauzac leaf. The grape and resulting wine has distinctive apple-peel/bruised apple aroma and flavor characteristics. The monks used cork-stopped flasks to store their wine. With Limoux’s proximity to the cork oaks of the Pyrenees, they would have had good access to this important component of sparkling wine production.

The method of making Blanquette de Limoux (now referred to as the “méthode ancestrale”) involves a secondary fermentation in the bottle similar to méthode traditionelle. But the wine doesn’t go through the riddling and disgorging for clarifying as méthode traditionelle wines do. In méthode ancestrale the wine is bottled before the primary fermentation is complete. That means that not all of the sugar has been converted to alcohol, leaving the wine slightly sweet (6-8% residual sugar), with a lower percentage of alcohol (max 7%), and less fizz. It’s left in the bottle for secondary fermentation to occur later in the spring, and the sediment from this remains in the bottle, giving it a slightly cloudy appearance.

Blanquette de Limoux exists today as either Blanquette Méthode Ancestrale AOC, which requires 100% Mauzac made in the méthode ancestrale, or Blanquette de Limoux AOC, which requires 90% minimum Mauzac and 10% Chenin Blanc and/or Chardonnay made in the méthode traditionelle. A third sparkling wine is also made here, Crémant de Limoux AOC, made in the méthode traditionelle with mostly Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, the remainder is Mauzac and/or Pinot Noir, and with minimum 15 months sur lie (yeast sediment) aging. As a nod to its importance, Blanquette de Limoux was the first AOC in the Languedoc region, established in 1938. (See my page “What is an AOC?” for a discussion of French wine laws and the quality pyramid.)

In addition to the historical Blanquette de Limoux sparkling wines, the Limoux wine-growing region produces still red (Merlot-based) and white (Chardonnay-based) wines. These grape varieties used in the Limoux still wines are not typical for Languedoc region. The Languedoc region as a whole generally grows lots of Grenache Noir and Blanc, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignan, Clairette, Bourblenc, and Picpoul, among other obscure varieties, into blended wines. Muscat Blanc à Petits Grains is also grown here in 4 prominent subregions for dessert wine called Vin Doux Naturel.

The Limoux AOCs have a unique climate, on the western edge of the Languedoc in the foothills of the Pyrenees with winds blowing from the Atlantic and Mediterranean oceans, and have limestone-based soils. As a result, this sub-region of Languedoc can produce wines from “international” grapes that are easily recognized and appreciated by the international market (such as Chardonnay, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Malbec, etc.). In fact, the Limoux AOC produces some of the best quality Chardonnay in the south of France, and it is the only Chardonnay produced in France to require oak aging.

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We took a bucolic drive off the beaten path on the D56 along winding roads in the lush foothills just east of Limoux to the very small town of St-Hilaire, making our pilgrimage to the famous Abbey. The Abbey itself is open for visitors, but we were the only tourists that day. The birthplace of bubbles, and we were the only 2 people visiting! By contrast, years ago I visited Moët et Chandon in Épernay in the Champagne region, where Dom Pérignon supposedly discovered sparkling wine, and that was inundated with tourists, with expensive tours and tastings, reservations required days in advance, and a major marketing engine at work feeding the myth. The Abbey at St-Hilaire was the complete opposite. Granted, this is an abbey versus a wine corporation, but that corporation has essentially usurped the title from the Abbey.

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After touring through the Abbey’s beautifully restored chapel, rooms, and the lovely cloisters, we walked through a doorway out the back of the abbey. Alongside a driveway, next to a room that was used for a jail hundreds of years ago, are the wine cellars where the magic happened back in 1531.

 

Except for a couple of old wine barrels used to hold up signs explaining the significance of this place, the cellar is empty yet clean, and probably looks just like it did nearly 500 years ago. It was surprising that this historically important spot in the wine world would be so unadorned, unblemished, and considerably unassuming. The cave consists of a series of small alcoves or rooms located below street level in a cold, damp sandstone space. We were able to just walk right in and wander around the historic space. Literally the only ones there! It was an honor and privilege to walk in this sacred space.

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Back outside the Abbey and across the bridge was the cave cooperative (AKA “co-op”) of Anne de Joyeuse. Time for a tasting! This tasting room, adjacent to the winemaking facility, was modern, filled with all kinds of different wine from the Limoux AOCs, and again we were the only 2 people there, aside from the warm, welcoming, and knowledgeable young woman pouring. (See my page “What is a cave co-op?”)

We tasted the Antech Méthode Ancestrale (MA) first. This wine is 100% Mauzac. Delicate aromas and flavors of apple peel and brioche, and just a touch sweet. So refreshing on such a hot day! It reminded me of a delicate apple cider. Next we tasted the 2013 Brut Réserve – sublime! Mauzac, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc in the blend made in the méthode traditionelle (MT). Whereas the MA wasn’t very bubbly, the MT was quite bubbly; both had a fine, delicate bead. We also tasted the Grande Cuvée Crémant de Limoux, a classic fizz! We finished our tasting with a still Limoux white and red. The 2014 La Butinière Chardonnay was absolutely delicious! As a Chardonnay lover, I loved this wine. Not over-manipulated, not oaky/buttery. Delicate pineapple aromas with just a hint of oak and nice acidity, this was a mouthfilling nicely balanced Chardonnay. The 2011 La Butinière red wine, predominately Merlot, was smooth and silky. Slightly earthy with bright red plums on the nose and palate, this wine completely surprised us in its complexity. Both of the still wines were Limoux AOC, (100% of the grapes used to make the wine are from Limoux), where oceanic influences and clay and limestone soils make both Chardonnay and Merlot grapes very happy. We bought one of each of these still wines, and one of the Antech Méthode Ancestrale.

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From there we drove to the city of Limoux. The drive through the Pyrenees foothills and quiet rambling vineyards in the countryside was so peaceful and scenic. At Limoux, we stopped for wine tasting at Sieur d’Arques, a large producer. We had their Toques et Clochers Haut-Vallée Chardonnay for dinner the night before with escargot—what a pairing! This tasting room was significantly larger than Anne de Joyeuse, with many offerings from sparkling (done in all 3 methods), still white and red, rosé, and dessert.

We tasted their Première Bulle (first bubble) 2014 Brut and 2013 Premium Brut. Both of these sparklers were awesome! Chardonnay-forward with a nice acidity and brioche on the nose and in the mouth. Delightful! Next we tasted 4 Toques et Clocher Chardonnays, one from each of the four terroirs of Limoux defined by differing microclimates. Our favorites were the Terroir Océanique, which had a touch of salinity to the taste, and the Haut-Vallée, just an awesome Chardonnay! Delicately pale straw in color, this wine was well-balanced with white flowers, tropical notes, minerality, and good acidity on the palate. All of these wines were Limoux AOC wines. We also tasted a Pays d’Oc Rosé of Syrah, which Ray really liked, and a Pays d’Oc Merlot, which again had a surprising earthiness to it. The Pays d’Oc wines were IGP, Indication Géographique Protégée, not AOC wines. We left with some Première Bulle Brut and 2 bottles of Chardonnay. Yum!

Our visit to Limoux and the Languedoc region of France was memorable and too short. We would have liked to have visited many of the small wine producers in the area and explored more castles and villages. Someday we will return. Au revoir!

Barcelona and Bubbles

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Barcelona, Catalunya – It’s hot and muggy and it’s time for a bite after some sightseeing in this beautiful bustling city along the Costa Brava in Spain. Ray and I spent the afternoon today visiting the must-see Picasso Museum in Barcelona. Focusing on works from his formative teens and early 20s, this museum is housed in a series of 5 buildings spanning 5 centuries all connected together to accommodate the modern art master’s abundance of awe-inspiring works. Get the BCN Articket and skip the line that snakes down the cobblestone for blocks. The collection starts with pieces Picasso painted when he was 12-13 years old; you can already see the humanism in the expressions and connection with emotion. So many studies of the Les Meninas masterpiece he painted as an homage to Velazquez. I loved the photos taken by Jacqueline Picasso and David Duncan showing Picasso at work. And the beautiful, playful ceramics he created and painted while in Provence. I can see where Mattie Leeds may have drawn inspiration from Picasso. We chose to finish with the “156” galleries, a collection of 156 etchings donated by Picasso just before his death, featuring thousands of writhing bodies as only Picasso can depict them, with Degas lurking in the shadows.

Ah, good. There is a tapas wine bar not far away! This evening we chose La Vinya del Senyor, a small inviting bar on the Placa del Santa Maria del Mar, facing the imposing Santa Maria del Mar church built in the 14th century. It was a perfect time for pink bubbles. (And when is it not?) I chose a Cava Rose Brut Nature to pair with our tapas of jamon iberica (dried Iberian ham), pan tomate (bread with fresh tomato, olive  oil, and Maldron salt), and Spanish olives. The crisp lively wine paired beautifully with the fatty, saltiness of the jamon and olives. The wine had delicate fresh raspberry and strawberry notes along with subtle brioche aromas. Ray’s old-vine Granacha (Grenache) from Catalunya was delightful, strawberry pepper characteristics exploding the flavors of the pan tomate.

So what is Cava Rose Brut Nature exactly? Cava is a sparkling wine made in the methode champenoise style, which means the same as French Champagne. Secondary fermentation happens in the same bottle you purchase and pour from, and it’s this fermentation, when yeast convert grape sugars to alcohol leaving behind “lees” (yeast sediment) in the bottle, that makes the bubbles. For a rose, during the first fermentation the grape juice is in contact with skins of red grapes for a brief time (a matter of hours in some cases) allowing the juice to take on a blush color. The color of wine comes from the skins, not the pulp of the grapes. In some cases, the rose color comes from blending red and white base wines together. That is the case with this wine I had. It was a blend of Pinot Noir (one of the 3 grapes allowed in French Champagne), and Xarello, a neutral Spanish white grape.

Brut Nature is very dry. In the methode champenoise, after the yeast plug is popped and before corking, a small amount of sugar and wine mixture is added to the bottle to top it off. This mixture, called dosage, determines the sweetness level of the finished wine. Brut Nature, or zero dosage, means that there was no sugar added during this step.

So here’s to Santa Maria, Picasso, tapas, and our first day in Barcelona. Salut!