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.

A few thoughts on wine

1 August 2012

During my recent trip to California, I thought about what characteristics I like in a wine. All the way from the farming and viticultural aspects to the techniques used in the cellar. Most of this is just common sense and nobody would say these qualities are revolutionary – in fact, they’re becoming the norm in high end wine-making. This is to help me enumerate exactly what I want in a wine and how this may change over time.

In the Vineyard

  1. Use primarily organic farming techniques – avoid using pesticides, fertilizers, or any genetically-modified products when possible.
  2. Green harvest and prune aggressively – vineyard management during the growing season should be the most labor intensive part of the wine-making process, whether managing the canopy, green harvesting to reduce yields, this, I believe, is where the wine is made. Yields should not be greater than 3-4 tons per acre.
  3. Take risks on when to harvest – wait for full phenolic ripeness. Not too early and definitely not too late. Early harvests that result from fears of rain lead to a bitingly acidic wine that lacks complexity and character. Harvesting over-ripe grapes (California and Argentina does this more often than other regions) yields jammy, heavy fruit bombs with no balance.  Produce what is possible under these circumstances.
  4. Use old vines when possible – with naturally reduced yields and higher concentration, old vines are usually preferred to young vines.
  5. When possible, harvest by hand with workers who know the vineyard site – the selection process should start at harvest. Use the same workers when possible to ensure proper execution.
  6. Exercise extreme selection – all non-ripe grapes should be sorted by machine and by hand. Only ripe grapes should go into the wine.

In the cellar

  1. Native yeasts – use the native yeasts that exist on the grape skin when possible. If additional yeast is needed, use cultures developed from the yeast that already exists in the vineyard
  2. Treat oak like salt, use as little as needed, not more – over-oaking kills more potentially good wines than any other factor that’s within the winemaker’s control. We don’t want to taste an oak stave, we want to taste the fruit with added complexity from the barrel. When possible, use older oak so the aroma is not as sharp.
  3. Avoid racking at all costs – do not disturb the wine. Top up as necessary but leave it alone until you plan on bottling.
  4. No fining or filtration – biodynamics can help here. Use natural techniques to clear out the wine. I’ll take some sediment and complexity over complete clarity and blandness any day.
  5. Minimal sulfer – as with the oak, use just as much as necessary, no more.
  6. Sell wine that’s ready to drink – many wines change over time and, depending on taste, can be enjoyable at various stages in its life. There are some wines however, that are mouth-puckering and so tannic and powerful upon release that they wouldn’t provide enjoyment to anyone other than a masochist. Be patient and sell a wine that’s ready to drink day 1.
  7. Be smart about storage and transportation – after spending immense amounts of time and money making a great wine, don’t ruin it by going cheap on the storage or transportation of the wine. Keep it cold, dark and humid.

As I think of more things I like in wine, I’ll amend this post. I don’t think people discuss these issues enough when they are at tastings or talking to sommeliers and winemakers. These should not be considered taboo or rude, but instead, a critical set of criteria to determine the method in making wine.

My simple way on rating and thinking about the wines I drink:

( ) no stars – bad wine, would not drink, flawed, gross.

* – table wine, easy drinking. Not particularly interesting or tasty but not flawed either.

** – a good effort, some complexity and noteworthy aspects but not enough to make it something you crave. For example, a wine may have a great bouquet but a disappointing mid palate and short finish. This wine doesn’t necessarily have to improve with age.

*** – a great effort with good balance. All parts of the wine, from the color, aroma, taste and finish should be delicious and interesting. This wine should change AND improve with time in the bottle, not just survive.

**** – a meditative wine. Something you taste and it makes you think and reflect. Incredible complexity that challenges our ability to describe the aromas and taste.

There is value in having a more granular scale like Parker’s 100 points or the British 20 point scale. For my purposes however, this is sufficient to make buying and consumption decisions.

An ambitious goal

I drink a lot of wine.  I drink it with meals, with cheese, by itself – any occasion, I’ll make an excuse.  My goal is to catalog the experiences associated with the wines I drink and what I learn about them in the process.  This will most likely include notes about my friends, what we’re doing and where we’re eating but also more serious notes about the wine, how it’s produced, does it express its terroir and how it can change over time.

As with 99% of blogs out there (Occupy Wall Street should be all over this), I’m hoping to be that 1% that actually stays consistent and continues posting interesting things I learn about wine.  There’s no audience in mind other than keeping a personal diary of this healthy (in my opinion) wine drinking habit.