Wine tastings in Europe – a few thoughts on regional differences

27 October 2014 – 15 November 2014, France & Italy

Diane and I just got back from our honeymoon this past weekend where we spent three weeks traveling through France and Europe.  We started in Paris, but quickly moved to Reims, St. Emilion, Margaux and Piemonte, finishing in Milan.  I’m still trying to get organized and start posting some tasting notes, but my general takeaway was that while the wines of each of the major regions we visited had the potential to be spectacular, the experience visiting the various producers couldn’t have been more different.

In Champagne, we started with two big houses: Dom Ruinart and Veuve Clicquot.  Their miles and miles of cellars in addition to the history resulted in fabulous tours.  The tastings reminded me that although Champagne produces a staggering amount of wine in terms of total bottles, the quality at the big chateau is incredibly high.  We also visited two growers: R. Geoffroy and Marc Hebrart.  A totally different but fascinating experience.  It was great to see them proudly point out on the maps their best parcels of vineyards that they owned, the various quality differences of each of the crus and their different beliefs in how to make a great Champagne.  I would highly recommend visiting this region especially as it’s so close to Paris – 1 hour on the train will get you there.

St. Emilion and the Medoc, from a wine tourist’s perspective, were a huge disappointment. The wines were great and the scenery, beautiful, but visiting the chateaus was a huge letdown.  Expect to be charged 15-25 EUR to be shown the cellars, force-fed propaganda ad nauseam and given a tiny pour of ONE (usually from a half bottle) of their most recent bottling to taste.  We were told on one tour that Bordeaux was the only wine producing region located on the 45th parallel, making it THE ideal place on the entire planet to grow wine (I decided not to mention Piemonte, let along Oregon).

When I asked one chateau if they thought some of the insane pricing of the 2009 and 2010 vintages may hurt the breadth of their customer base at some point, I was read the riot act about how even the best producers can lose money any year, how no producer in the region makes a lot of money because they invest so much in the properties and how it’s truly a labor of love … it sounded like they were about to apply for non-profit status.  We were then taken into the cellar to be shown a professionally made video about how great their chateau was in a huge home-theater setup.

St. Emilion is a beautiful town to visit and the food in the area is delicious, albeit very rich and heavy at times.  However, I can’t recommend visiting for wine tasting purposes as anyone who actually wants to learn about the wineries and taste through vintages will never encounter anything resembling that experience.

The winemakers of Barolo and Barbaresco were a breath of fresh air – family operations where everyone contributed to the business.  You could tell how passionate they were about their wines, their vineyards and their history.  We visited Giacosa, Pelissero, Vietti, Sandrone and Vajra.  The people who hosted us, often family members of winery, could not have been nicer and as they noticed our enthusiasm for their wines, they wanted to explain more – about their process, philosophy and history.

At each tasting, despite not being in the industry or VIP’s by any means, we were offered to taste through their full range of wines, Dolcettos, Barberas, etc. all the way to the Barolos/Barbarescos and the Riservas as well.  They would also typically include one older vintage to show how the wines would change over time.  The majority of the Barolos we tasted were 2010 vintage wines and I started to realize what all the hype was about – they were, as a whole, gorgeous – incredible aromatics, very approachable even at a young age, and had tremendous differentiation based on vineyard location.

For two Nebbiolo lovers who had never visited the region before, it was eye-opening and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough for any wine enthusiasts who want to the visit the region where their favorite bottles are made.

Tasting notes (hopefully) to follow as I get organized.

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