Terroir – Rhoda Stewart's Journal on Wine

Archive for the ‘Wines of the World’ Category

Union Des Grands Crus de Bordeaux – a tasting event – 2017

Palace Hotel - Les Grands Crus de Blordeaux Tasting eventUnion Des Grands Crus de Bordeaux – January 2017 – (with a couple of small digressions) ©2017 Rhoda Stewart

“These are classic wines, lean, structured, balanced, moderate alcohol [13 – 14%), balanced oak (mostly if not all French, from Centre de France.” (Bernard Portet, January 2011, founding winemaker for Clos du Val—est. 1972, Napa Valley, CA)

Held in the ballroom or in a spacious conference room in one of San Francisco’s grand hotels, where stunning chandeliers hang from the vaulted ceilings with their frosted glass skylights, the Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting event is a wondrous affair.

Elegant even in daylight, the ambience is further enhanced with an enormous bouquet of dazzling red roses at the entrance.

Bouquet of Red Roses - Palace Hotel

Inside the room are tables covered with crisp white cloths for each of the presenting chateaux, and across the front is a table holding rows of gleaming wine glasses. Situated strategically throughout are enticing stands of cheeses, fruits, and thinly sliced baguettes, all adorned with more flower arrangements.

 All done to heighten anticipation for the main event: the wines themselves, and the particular appellation each represents.

The 2011 event was my first experience with the wines of Bordeaux.

Frankly, I was quite overwhelmed. Apart from the Sauternes, which are all sweet white wines, Bordeaux AOCs are predominately red wine appellations.  So many wines (upwards to 200); so many soil types (a dozen or more appellations):  how to distinguish! So I was delighted to have encountered Monsieur Portet; his words gave me a direction, and some sense of what to expect, and what not to expect. Certainly not the big, luscious, fruity wines of the annual California Zinfandel (ZAP) tasting, which represents most of California’s prime Zinfandel regions.  Most of these wines have forward fruit of red or black berries, ripe currants, and other luscious fruits, and carry alcohol levels of 15% or higher; some reek of oak.  Rather, expect a less fruity, less luscious wine, leaner, with perhaps more spiciness and earthy fruit tones, and with alcohol levels of from 12.5% to 14%.  And definitely NOT smothered in oak!

The primary appellations of Bordeaux are commonly referred to as “Left” and “Right” bank, which refers to the two rivers, the Garonne and Dordogne, running north-east through the Bordeaux peninsula. Left Bank are vineyards to the west of the rivers; Right Bank are vineyards to the east of these rivers.  There is also AOC Entre duex Mers, which occupies the land between the rivers.

The Right Bank appellations consist of the AOCs Pomerol, Saint-Emilion, and The Côtes, together making up the region surrounding Libourne, the principal city of the right bank.  The wines of the Right Bank AOCs are Merlot-based, and are enhanced and balanced out with varying percentages of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. The most prestigious are the heady wines of Pomerol and Saint-Emilion.  Pomerol, the tiniest Right Bank appellation, is distinguished by its iron-rich clay soil. The Merlot-based wines from this appellation are blended with small percentages of Cabernet Franc, and are renowned for their silky tannins and soft elegance.  It is not uncommon that they have some of the Zinfandel fruitiness, notable for flavors of prunes that are typical of Zinfandels made from super-ripe grapes.

There is no classification system for Pomerol. The most prestigious wines of this appellation are Petrus and Le Pin.

The soil of the adjacent and much larger Right Rank appellation of Saint-Emilion is mostly limestone-based, which produces more structured Merlot-based wines that are usually blended with varying percentages of Cabernet Sauvignon, and in some instances, also with a bit of Cab Franc. The limestone-based soil also yields wines of higher acids and robust yet elegant tannins.  These wines, while showing less of the fruitiness and more structure than the Pomerols, are nonetheless softer wines than are usually found in Left Bank Bordeaux wines.

Marie Pourguet – Chateau Grand Pontet – St. Emilion Grand Cru Classe

St. Emilion-Chateau Grand Pontet 2010

Chateau Grand Pontet – St. Emilion – 2009 – Grand Cru Classe

St. Emilion has a classification system; the highest accorded is Premiere Grand Cru Classé A. Château Cheval Blanc is the most consistent recipient this classification

For those of you whose perceptions of Merlot wines were soured by the raging invective against Merlots leveled by the character Miles in the 2004 Hollywood film Sideways, I recommend a second look, both at the wines and at the film.   For while Miles shrieks at his lecherous pal, Jack, as they approach their first bar to mark the beginning of Jack’s week-long pre-wedding sexual debauchery, “I am not drinking Merlot,” yet the prized bottle that he has been hoarding for his 10th wedding anniversary celebration is a bottle of the much-coveted 1961 Château Cheval Blanc, ironically, a Merlot-based wine. The variety (Merlot) is not the problem, as Miles unwittingly reveals in a conversation with his friend Maya a few scenes further on.  The problem he has, or thinks he has, with Merlot, is, of course, with himself!

Sadly, there is no mention in that scene, or anywhere else in the film, that Miles realizes that his Premiere Grand Cru Classé A Cheval Blanc is Merlot-based, which acknowledgement might have spared California’s Merlot growers some of the financial losses that Miles’ ignorant tirade against this variety cost them—not to mention greatly enhancing the screenplay!  The scene between Maya and Miles at Stephanie’s house (while Stephanie and Jack have retreated to her bedroom) could have been the perfect place for this revelation.  When Miles tells Maya that he has this 1961 Cheval Blanc in his tiny “gathering” of wines, I could envision Maya casually remarking how wonderful and long-ageing a Merlot can be under the right circumstances and in the hands of a knowledgeable winemaker.

It is tantalizing to contemplate what Miles’ response to such a comment from Maya might have been. Of course, such an addition to that scene would necessarily change the film into something quite different—and probably much better.  As Pulitzer Prize winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda once wrote in a magnificent little essay called “The Word”: An idea goes through a complete change because one word shifted its place, or because another settled down like a spoiled little thing inside a phrase that was not expecting her but obeys her.  (Pablo Neruda: Memoirs, New York:  Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974, 53.)

So, too, can a single line in a screenplay transform a film.

A further irony occurs at the end of the film when Miles, depressed with the realization that his ex-wife is never coming back and that there will be no10th anniversary celebration with his Cheval Blanc, he finally and surreptitiously drinks this prized wine out of a plastic cup while dining alone on a hamburger in a fast-food roadside restaurant.  And, the film suggests, does so with great enjoyment.  So a great Merlot can be enjoyed just about anywhere and with any food.  So much for Miles’ misplaced outrage, actually one among many, indicating perhaps that the film itself should have been “misplaced” into some obscure corner before it ever made it to the theaters.

But I digress . . . now back to the wonderful world of Grands Crus de Bordeaux!

The Medoc is the largest appellation in the Left Bank. It covers most of the peninsula between the Gironde (the estuary of the Garonne River) and the Atlantic Ocean.  It is broken into several sub-appellations whose distinctions are subtle, at least to me, and took me some time to perceive.

In contrast to Right Bank wines, wines of the Medoc are primarily Cabernet Sauvignon-based, and are tempered with the additions of varying percentages of Cab Franc and Merlot as well as with such lesser varieties as Petit Verdot and Malbec. And while you could find a few blends from the Left Bank AOC’s dominated by Merlot, with Cabernet Sauvignon and others among the lesser percentages, the effect overall are nonetheless consistently leaner and more restrained wines than from the Right Bank, with a more distinguished tannin backbone, and with a lingering earthy, spicy component that is instantly recognizable in most Bordeaux reds.  These wines usually benefit from a few additional years’ of bottle-ageing in a cool, dark cellar—or a similar environment.

January 2017 Grand Crus de Bordeaux event was my third, and during this event, I felt that I was at last beginning to make some headway. I was detecting distinctions; and I was discovering some favorites among the appellations and within the appellations.

The first such distinctions that I noticed were the spicy, earthy, cocoa-like tannins and flavors in the wines from the warmer gravel-and-clay-based soils found in the AOCs of St. Estèphe and Pauillac, the two northern-most appellations. St. Estèphe is situated on a gravel-based soil next to the Gironde estuary and closest to the Atlantic.  Pauillac borders St. Estèphe along the estuary just to the south. These are widely described as powerful reds with a strong Cabernet Sauvignon backbone (upwards to 60%), softened and mellowed with varying percentages of both Merlot and Cabernet Franc.

Chateau Malescot St. Exupery - 2008 Margaux

Chateau Malescot – St. Exupery 2008 – Margaux Grand Cru Classe

These two appellations are the ones I now search out.  Not that they are better wines than wines from other of the Bordeaux appellations; rather, it’s just a matter of taste. I am finding the earthy, spicy component that the gravel-and-clay-based fruit imparts to these wines irresistible.

Note:  the higher the percentages of Merlot and Cabernet Franc in Left Bank wines, the earlier the wines become approachable; the higher the percentage of Cabernet Sauvignon, the longer the bottle-ageing needed.

Although not immediately on my mind when I approached my first “Grands Crus de Bordeaux” tasting, some few years earlier, in summer of 2001, I made a 3-day sojourn to the Medoc while staying with friends in Saintes, a couple of hours’ drive north of Bordeaux. I had taken the tiny ferry from Royan, across the mouth of the Gironde Estuary, to debark on the very tippy-tip of the Medoc. From there, I followed a “D” level road through the flat terrains of the Medoc and past several of the famous Premier Growth chateaux to the village of Margaux, where I had booked a room in a Relais du Silence.  I arrived in time for dinner, and after, I went for an enchanting stroll through the famed vineyards of First Growth Chateau Margaux under a full moon. A memorable evening!

The next morning, my hotel concierge secured an invitation for me to join a small tour group at Chateau Margaux, just a couple hundred meters’ stroll from my hotel along a lane through vineyards. There, a charming professional tour hostess took us through the cellar, including the breathtakingly beautiful white colonnaded chai (the barrel room), and later poured me a full glass of the current release, which, I believe, was the1997.  Although it was still well before noon, I savored that wine to the last drop as the hostess and I chatted about wines of the region and also about my book on Zinfandel, which was due for publication by years’ end.

I did not, however, purchase a bottle of the Chateau Margaux, which would have cost me more than my few days’ stay at my small hotel. Instead, I later visited a couple of non-classified chateaux, and upon my return to the village, found a wine store where I purchased a two bottles of Cru Bourgeois recommended by the store sommelier as typical expressions of the Medoc, for about $30 each.

The visit left a vivid impression on me, but not quite what I expected. While the First Growth chateaux are grand establishments with impressive grounds, gardens, and landscaping, and, generally speaking, require appointments made months ahead of one’s visit, their wines are not the only great wines of the region.

Grand Cru wines, wines from grand vineyards, are as capable of producing superb wines as are the great vineyards, those recognized by the five classification “growths” established in mid-18th century. All that differentiates the Grands Crus from the Premiers Crus, actually, is the prestige associated with Premier Cru classifications—and the pricing.  The Grands Crus do not, however, lack the quality . . .and price never has been a score.

Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux, all lovely wines, all structured, balanced, and with long ageing potential (even the Merlot-based!), are available at prices that will leave you with a budget to shop for a dinner menu to accompany. And I still buy Cru Bourgeois whenever presented with the opportunity. And, yes, I do still think about that bewitching glass of 1997 Chateau Margaux, especially when I approach the Grand Cru Classé tables pouring AOC Margaux.








El Priorat DOQ – The Phoenix of Catalonia, Spain

El Priorat DOQ (The Phoenix of Cataluña, Spain)
Story and Photos by Rhoda Stewart ©2016

My first taste of Priorat DOQ wines was in 2014, when I noticed some bottles of H & G Priorat DOQ (Denominació d’Origen Qalificada) in the wine section of my local Whole Foods. Intrigued by the DOQ classification, the back label (which indicated that H & G wines are “hand-picked small lots of wine sourced from prized appellations”), the vintage date (2008), and the under $30 price, I bought a bottle. After decanting it for an hour, I took my first sip, and discovered a richly flavored and bold wine of deep garnet color that bewitched my senses and lingered on my palate. I was smitten! I wanted to know more about this Priorat DOQ. So I looked it up on Google, and found a description of the region together with a few photos. One image in particular captivated me, an image of a winery nestled at the base of the massive Montsant Mountains, dwarfed, in fact, by this startling band of beige-colored peaks overlooking steep slopes densely covered with low-growing bushes and a few terraced vineyards.


Scala Dei winery situated in 10th century Carthusian Monastery, at foot of Montsant Mountains.

I felt a compelling need to visit that region.

Priorat was awarded DO (Denominació d’Origen) classification in 1954. In 2000, the Catalonian government ungraded this classification to DOQ, the Spanish central government in Madrid following suit in 2009 (DOCa in Spanish). Priorat is just the second wine region in Spain to be awarded the top classification DOQ, the other being Rioja.

Placard identifying DOQ region

DOQ Priorat, Catalunya, Spain

(For more information on European wine classifications, please see my posting dated June 2015.

It wasn’t until mid-April 2016 that I was able to fulfil my wish to visit the region. After a 10 ½ hour flight from SFO to Charles De Gaulle Paris, connection to Barcelona, I found myself on a beautiful Monday morning departing Barcelona for Priorat DOQ accompanied by the Catalonian guide I had engaged to create an itinerary and be my driver for my one-week visit to the region.

A couple of fascinating stops along the way and we arrived at our destination of Falset, a village set in the Montsant mountains at the edge of the Priorat, as darkness was falling. Our hotel was in Old Town, reached by foot-bridge just across a dry river bed that ran along the edge of the modern down-town area.


The author at Lotus Hotel, Falset, Catalonia, Spain, April 2016 (photo by guide, Cesar Escuin)

The air was fresh, clean, and chilly enough to grab a cozy pullover and jacket from my bag before stepping back out with my guide to shop in an Old Town green grocers’ for fresh salad and tomatoes, some tuna, and a baguette, enough for a delicious supper in our third-floor kitchen suite.


Green grocer’s cart – Old Town Falsett – Priorat region

Later, we enjoyed the view  from our terrace of the village below and the darkening mountains surrounding us. I felt as if I had discovered a long lost and still unspoiled paradise.

My anticipation of my first venture into this enchanting wine region on the morrow was high. I was eager to discover just what was it about this region that enabled it to emerge so quickly (since about the 1990s) from relative obscurity to one of two premium wine regions of Spain. Why was Priorat a “prized appellation,” how were the vineyards farmed, how were the wines a reflection of the top classification of DOQ, and who were the people who brought all this together to produce a red wine worthy of the prestigious denominació, the best of which are today considered among the very best red wines of Spain? And why, according to my guide, were the indigenous Garnacha and Cariñena vines of Priorat for decades nearly “lost?”

My first glimpse next morning of the stunning beauty of the region momentarily made me forget about the wines. The roadsides were scattered with Western Europe’s indigenous red poppies;


Red Poppies and abandoned old vines by roadside of Priorat DOQ

meadows were filled with them, their brilliant scarlet petals sparkling in the sun like a Monet painting come alive.

Meadow of Red Poppies - Monet Effect - Priorat DOQ

And under the incredible Montsant mountain light, the terraced vineyards and olive orchards on the steep slopes of the valleys beneath the barren peaks looked like nature’s own amphitheater, enchanting my senses and eliciting repeated pleas to my guide to stop for photos.


Terraced vineyards, orchards, Montsant Mountains – the challenge of Priorat DOQ

Fortunately, the narrow, twisting road was sparsely travelled, which allowed him to safely stop the car here and there for a quick (thanks to auto-focus) shot. But we had a mid-morning appointment at a family-owned winery, Clos Figueras, in the vibrant village of Gratallops, so I had to forego many image opportunities— at least until later.


Village of Grattalops, Montsant Mountains in background

Clos Figueras is owned by British couple Christopher and Charlotte Cannan since 1997. Here would begin my introduction to the wines of the region, winemaking practices, and an understanding of the all-important contribution the unique soil imparted.


View or Priorat DOQ from patio of Clos Figueras

After a few minutes enjoying the views of the mountains and the valleys below from the lavender-scented patio, we were greeted by Gisela, the hospitality manager, and taken down a steep ladder into the small barrel room, formerly a large cistern. Here were 500-litre oak barriques, chosen to minimize the amount of contact the wine has with the wood.


500 liter barriques at Clos Figueras, Priorat DOQ

The wines were made primarily from Garnacha (Grenache) “from vineyards planted on steep terraces overlooking the Montsant River valley,” and from 2,500 old vines of Garnacha and Cariñena, with some as old as 60 years. (From winery brochure) The winemaking practices sought to maintain the distinctive character of the region, using just enough oak to round out the body and flavors.

Back on the terrace, I was shown pieces of black llicorella (Catalan for “slate” or “schist”). Llicorella, of which there are several kinds, forms the basis of the soil of Priorat, and is unique to the region. This is the first and most important point I was to learn when seeking answers to the emerging success of the wines of el Priorat: it’s in the llorcella soil.  And what an amazing soil it is!


Llicorella, the rocky schist soil of Priorat, with Clos Figueres’ wines

The llicorella soil was produced beneath the sea that covered the region in the Paleozoic Era. It is a metamorphosed fractured slate containing crystalline quartz, and was formed from the extreme pressure exerted by two layered plates of limestone up to 50 kilometers below the earth’s crust, compacting clay deposits that had settled at the bottom of the sea from erosion of the ancient mountain sides. According to geologists, this soil formation was a rare occurrence, the clay soil first being compressed under extreme pressure while at the same time being heated to temperatures up to 900° Celsius from magma extrusions that metamorphosed the compressed slate. Such rocky schist, which glistens with quartzite crystals, provides one of the defining characteristics of Priorat terroir.

This happened hundreds of millions of years ago, and then millions of years later, after the sea had dried up, the llicorella, rich in minerals and metals from the shells and skeletons of sea creatures that formerly swam in the sea, was “floated” to the surface through subsequent tectonic plate movements, creating the mountainous topography that is today’s Priorat. This llicorella soil is unlike any other of Europe, according to geological experts, and is the last soil to emerge in Europe, a testimony to the strong geological convulsions of tectonic plates in procession that formed this region of mountains, great cliffs, a few small planes, and many rocks. It’s a land whose origins are as difficult to write about as the origins of the sun, claims Catalan author Ferran Mestres in his book, “El Curiós món dels vins del Priorat” (2012), and has been misunderstood by those living outside the region, who at one time regarded the region as a mal pais” (bad country). (49,50)

Mestres was our hospitality host during our visit to Scala Dei Cellars, described below.

What isn’t a difficut to explain, however, is why llicorella is such an amazing soil, and so suitable to grape growing. There are two reasons: its capacity to absorb moisture through its fissures from the irregular rain fall, and then to retain this moisture, up to one-third of its volume, in the thin layers of clay trapped within the fissures, allowing the vines access to moisture during the driest months of the summers; and its capacity to trap heat of the Mediterranean sun during the day, then release it back at night, enabling the vines to continue the maturation of the grapes even during the nighttime.

And because the top soil of decomposed llicorella is thin, perhaps just 20 centimeters (8 inches) the vines are forced to send their roots deeply into the llorcella (some 20 meters in the oldest vineyards) through the fissures in search of the mineral-rich nutrients. This austere environment results in tiny vines with small crops (less than 2 kilos per vine, and as little as 200 to 300 grams for the oldest vines) of intense flavors and complex character, or, as Mestres writes, “Poderiem dir doncs que al Priorat hi ha un rendiment molt baix de raīm peró alhora un raīm de molt bona qualitat.” (56) (Transl. RS: “One is able to say, therefore, that the Priorat produces few grapes but of very good/high quality.”)


Steep hillside vineyard of Priorat DOQ, showing small vines of Garnacha with new (spring) leaves.

From Clos Figueras, our next stop was Scala Dei Cellars, where I met Ferran Mestres.


Scala Dei Cellars Pacard at entrance to tasting room.

Scala Dei Cellars, which today occupies portions of a 12th century Carthusian monastery, is an impressive winery, as are its authentic wines. Here, I was to learn more of the history of this captivating region, and why is it called “El Priorat.” The following is my translation and summation from Mestres book (which is in Catalan). It also contains details from Wikipedia.

The region has a winemaking history stretching back to the Middle Ages, when monks of La Cartoixa D’Escaladei (the “Staircase to God” Carthusian monastery) began making wine for Mass. This was the first Carthusian order founded in Spain. The leader was called a prior, and ruled over his territory (his priorat), thus the name for the region. The monks planted Garnacha grapes and made wine from the 12th century until 1835, when the Spanish prime minister Juan Álvarez Mendizábal, under Queen Isabel II of Spain, issued a set of decrees (called desamortització) that resulted in the monastic properties being expropriated and privatized, and redistributed to nobles and merchants wealthy enough to afford the purchase (“noblesa i burgeses amb capital sufficient to acquirer , , , Mestres, 40)

Escala Dia monastery and vineyards were acquired at that time by five families who set up Societat Agricola l’Unió, and in 1878 bottled the first Priorat wine, which was presented at the Paris World’s Fair.

The vineyards flourished until phylloxera arrived in the late 1800s, effectively ruining Priorat’s wine industry, and costing many families of the region their patrimony. It was not until the 1950s that vast swaths of land were again devoted to vineyards, and the wines of Priorat again began to appear.

In 1974, Societat Agricola l’Unió was re-founded, the Scala Dei winery operation resumed, housed in what were the monastery’s stables; the barrel room in the cellar of the 17th century Charthouse.


The 17th century  Charthouse of Carthusian Monasery, now barrel ageing room for Scala Dei Cellars

Shortly thereafter, Scala Dei produced the first numbered and bottled Priorat wine in the modern era.


Scala Dei Priorat wine – vintage 1974

The wine was of the quality of the great wines of Bordeaux and Rioja, but was made 100% from Priorat’s indigenous Garnacha grapes gathered from the best of Scala Dei’s estate hillside vineyards, which included some of the oldest vines in Priorat.  Traditional wine-making techniques of Priorat were applied. The result was “a vi potent, explosiu i tànic, típicament prioratí.” (Mestres 65)


Terrace vineyards – Montsant Mts – Scala Dei Cellars

With this bottling, Scala Dei had moved to the forefront of a trend away from the region’s traditional, dark, intense and fairly alcoholic wines to a more balanced and elegant, yet full-flavored, style of Priorat wines.

During my visit to Scala Dei, Mestres emphasized the small stainless steel tanks today used for “microvinification” of grapes, “vineyard by vineyard” for its 60 separate vineyards.


Small stainless steel fermentation tanks, Scala Dei Cellars, Priorat DOQ

The vineyards range in altitude from 100 meters to 700 meters, and grow in several soil types of the region. The vines are up to 80 years old, and yield about 2 kilograms (4.5 pounds) of intensely flavored grapes/vine. The wines are fermented with extra yeast and allowed a short maceration (8 – 20 days) to control oxidation. Blending takes place after fermentation.  At the end of maceration, the wines are put into 500 – 1400-litre barriques for 7 – 15 months, to preserve the complexity and delicacy of the Garnacha grapes. The trend is away from 225-liter barriques.

Mestres explained that the region, generally, and Scala Dei Cellars in particular, is turning more towards its traditional grapes and “character wines,” that is, making wines that respect the grapes (primarily Garnacha and Cariñena), and preserve the character of the soil. “We are coming back to the land,” said Mestres, and are looking more to the “traditional ways of vinifying the traditional grapes of our region.” He cited three elements in achieving this goal: using the traditional grapes of the region (Garnacha and Cariñena); fermenting Garnacha with stems, and ageing the wines in 500- to 1400-liter barriques.

In 2000, Grupo Codorniu assumed the management of Scala Dei’s vineyards and winery, employing modern techniques and state-of-the-art equipment.
From: http://www.aveniubrands.com/wines/scala-dei/)

The early success of Scala Dei winery were augmented by the now famous producers Alvaro Palacios and Rene Barbier, who brought wine practices from France’s best regions to Priorat in the 1990s, where they planted vineyards and built their wineries in their efforts to make their mark and establish their names in this emerging DOQ region. The elegant rich reds made by these producers were part of the 1990s revolution that built upon the early success of Scala Dei, revitalizing the region and helping to bring Priorat wines out of the darkness that followed the devastation of phylloxera in the 1890s and to establish Priorat as Spain’s second DOQ region.

My guide also took me to a lovely historic family winery Sangenis I Vaque.


Sangenis I Vaque Placard at entrance to winery/tasting room.

Owned by the family with two daughters, this small winery (16,000 bottles) is finding a balance between the more traditional winemaking practices favored by the father and the younger daughter (Nuria Sangenise) and the newer methodology favored by the elder, university-educated daughter, Maria, which includes using 225-liter French oak barriques by Taransaud tonnellerie, rather than joining the trend to 500-liter and larger oak barriques.

The wines are made from Garnacha and Cariñena, and are corked with a natural Catalonian-grown cork. Nuria Sangenis, who provided us with a tour of the little winery and a beautiful tasting of their 7 Priorat wines, explained that their wines are neither fined nor filtered. “Wine is alive,” she said.


Nuria Sangenis in the historic tasting room of Sangenis I Vaques, Priorat DOQ.

After fermentation in small stainless steel tanks, the wines are aged 225-liter French oak barriques, from 15% to 100% new, for about 14 months, and one year in 2-year American oak barriques. When fermentation and oak-barrel ageing are complete, the wines are bottle-aged 6 years before release, a costly practice. “We are not money-oriented,” she said.


Sangenis I Vaque 2007 Clos Monlleo

Sangenis I Vaque family began planting vines in 1978, but the land has been in the Sangenis family, on the maternal side, since 1700. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that the daughters joined in the winery operation, the family deciding that the new recognition of the Priorat region and its wines indicated that it was timely to begin investing in their vineyards and their wines. “We are proud of our wines, which are made to age, and we believe that our wines deserve to sell for much more.” said Nuria.  With their wines now being sought after by wine buyers as distant as the independent wine stores in Alberta, Canada, there is no question that the family will soon see the deserved increase in market value placed on their wines.

My last winery visit was to the modern facility Buil I Giné.


Buil I Gine winery with trellised vineyards, Priorat DOQ

Situated on a hilltop with panoramic views of its vineyards below and of the region around, including of all the local villages, Buil & Giné produces white, red, and sweet wines from both the Montsant DO and Priorat DOQ regions. The dry red wines, produced primarily from Cariñena and Garnacha, are aged in both French and American oak, some of it new, for up to 12 months, the sweet wines for 14 months. The wines are then bottle-aged at the facility. Our visit concluded with a tasting of both Montsant DO and Priorat DOQ wines. A favorite of mine and of my guide was the 2012 Montsant DO Baboix Negre, produced from Garnacha and Cariñena and small amount of Tempranillo, and aged 6 months in American oak casks. Giné Giné , DOQ Priorat, produced from old vine Garnacha and Cariñena, and without oak ageing, is readily available in California markets for under $20. It is among my locally available favorites.

The best of Priorat wines today are considered some of the best wines coming out of Spain, and also among the most expensive, relatively speaking. Because of the rugged terrain, all care of the vineyards and harvest of the grapes are done by hand, and the yield is small. Many of the producers also believe in the costly practice of bottle-ageing their wines for a few years to ensure they are ready to drink when released. The interest, globally, that Priorat DOQ wines are beginning to generate suggest that wine lovers are recognizing the value for Euro for these amazing wines. The returns are beginning to compensate the quality of the wines, and to recognize the work it takes to produce them.    For these producers, who have stood by their tiny (4,151 acres) region and their nearly lost patrimony during “El Trist Segle XX” (Mestres 46), the sad century of little profit and much hard work, the improving returns are a just and timely reward, providing money for investment in their prized region, for new vineyards, new barrels, bottle ageing facilities, and more.

Too soon Saturday morning arrived; my lovely week in this beautiful and enchanting region had come to an end. As I packed up my things, I felt exhilarated and spiritually rejuvenated. Yet there was also an underlying tinge of  wistfulness. It had been a great, if slightly bitter-sweet, experience. But given the intensity of the connection I had felt for the region long before visiting, it could not have been otherwise.

I had discovered what I had come to find out:  what it is that makes the wines of Priorat worthy of the DOQ classification: It begins, as it does with all great wines, in the soil of the vineyards. In the vineyards of Priorat DOQ, the soil, that “piece of ground the vines grow in, is llicorella.


Tiny vines and terraced vineyards – Priorat DOQ

But the amazing wines are not the only memorable experiences this spectacular wine region offers. The magnificent Montsant Mountain range that embraces it and its convoluted terrain offers an ancient and still pristine paradise of great mysteries, untouched wilderness, and breathtaking vistas.


Reservoir on Suryiana River – Montsant Nat’l Park – Catalonia,Spain

Hard to fathom, at times, how in the midst of all this history, culture, and spectacular natural beauty has been established one of Spain’s two DOQ wine regions.

Yet it is there, and will be for at least another millennium or two. And in the rich and robust wines of Priorat DOQ one may savor (I’m sure I did), in the aromas and flavors of the Garnacha and Cariñena, the smell and taste not just of the wine but also of the history, culture, and incredible beauty of the Priorat/Montsant region.


My guide, Cesar, in Falset, the heart of Priorat DOQ- Salud!


A few of my favorites from Priorat DOQ:
• Scala Dei – Cartoixa 2012 – A full-bodied “authentic” Priorat red wine. My personal favorite. About €40.
• Sangenis I Vaque – Clos Monlleó 2007 (made from 80-year vineyard), 50/50 Garnacha and Cariñena, is aged in new French oak barriques for 2 years, then bottle-aged 6 – 7 years. Will develop for an additional 10 years.
• Alvaro Palacios – Les Terrases – 2012 – An elegant style, smooth, like velvet. Reflects Palacios’ Bordeaux experiences. About €45.

AOC, DOC, and DO – European Appellations of Origin – (©2015 RhodaStewart)

White Ponies of the Camargue - France - in Appellation Cotes de Rhone

White Ponies of the Camargue – France – in Appellation Cotes de Rhone Controlee

I have long wondered what letters AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée, France), DO/DOCa (Denominación d’ Origen/ Denominación de Origen Calificada, Spain),   DOC/DOCG (Denominazione di Origne Controllata/ Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita, Italy) featured on the labels of wine bottles from France, Spain, and Italy respectively, signified.  I did know that European wines are identified by region of origin, not by grape variety, but beyond that I was perplexed as to what else these letters were telling me.

The perplexity lifted most unexpectedly one lovely September morning on the edge of the Mediterranean Sea.

The group I was travelling with had stopped in the village of Coulioure, France, to visit Domaine St. Sebastien, a small winery in the Banyuls Coulioure AOC. (See my 15 October 2013 post “A Visit to Domaine San Sebastien)

The tubs of grapes (Grenache) were just arriving in the bed of a small and somewhat battered truck when we arrived.  While the group went into the cellar to watch the crushing and to listen to vigneron indépendante Romauld Perrone explain the process, I remained outside to photograph the unloading.

When that was done, I stepped inside to hear what Monsieur Perrone was saying to my travelling companions.  I was just in time to hear someone ask, “What is AOC?”

“First of all,” he stated emphatically, “AOC is not quality.  It could be, but also might not be.”

I was all ears; never before had I heard or read of AOC being discussed in this way.

I wanted to hear more, but another question lead him to another topic.  So when I got home, I followed up this intriguing statement with further research in my French Wine Scholar Manual and elsewhere.  This time it made more sense, in that AOC indicates terroir, that is, the “delineated zone of production . . .with unique qualities and characteristics stemming from [the] geography, climate, and topography” that the grapes grow in.  It may also include delineation of viticulture and winemaking practices.  AOC refers both to the region itself and the product (wine) that comes from that region, and is the top rung in France’s classification pyramid.

The same is true for DO/DOCa (Spain) and DOC/DOCG (Italy), the top rungs in these two countries’ classification pyramids.

All wine classifications systems are a means to control (and protect) the quality of wines of the designated regions.   And by doing so, they also offer a means of assuring consumers that they are indeed buying an authentic wine of the region, and within certain quality standards.

At the same time, while these classifications are the top rungs on the wine quality control pyramids for these countries, in that the delineated zone of production is smaller in acreage and has tighter restrictions on maximum tonnage/acre production, minimum alcohol percentage, and the varieties and percentages of varieties allowed in the wines of these designations, compared to the lower classification rungs, or non-classified wines, the designations by themselves do not necessarily assure quality.  Factors such as vintage, technology, and winemaking practices are equally important in determining quality.


The French Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée  (AOC) system was established in 1935.

As set out in my French Wine Scholar manual, the rules for this AOC system closely define which grape varieties, and viticulture and winemaking practices are approved for classification in each of France’s several hundred geographically defined appellations.

French law over the years developed four categories of wine quality, two falling under the European Union’s (EU) Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region (QWPSR) designation and two falling under the EU’s Table Wine category:

Quality Wine Produced in a Specific Region (QWPSR)

  • Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée(AOC) – Wine from a particular area that has many restrictions, including grape varieties and winemaking practices.  This is the top classification
Appellation Madiran Controlee

Appellation Madiran Controlee

Vin Délimité de Qualité Supérieure(VDQS) – Fewer restrictions than AOC, usually used for smaller areas or as a “waiting room” for potential AOCs.

Table wine:

  • Vin de Pays – Carries with it a specific region within France (for example Vin de Pays d’Oc from Languedoc-Roussillon), and is subject to less restrictive regulations than AOC and VDQS wines.
  • Vin de Table– Carries with it only the producer and that it is from France.


“The mainstream quality wine regions in Spain are referred to as Denominaciones de Origen and the wine they produce is regulated for quality according to specific laws.

As with French wines, Spanish wines are classified into two categories:  Quality Wines Produced in a Specified Region (QWPSR); and Table Wine (Vine de Mesa). These categories are further classified into sub-categories depending on the strictness of the criteria applied in producing the type of wine in question:

Quality Wines Produced in a Specified Region (QWPSR, and regulated by the Consejo Regulador:

  • Vino de Pago (VP; also DO de Pago): these wine regions are centered on individual single-estates with an international reputation, and aspire to the very highest standards with extremely strict geographical criteria.  About 15 such estates exist.
  • Denominación de Origen Calificada (DOCa); (Denominació d’Origen Qualificada—DOQ – in Catalan): regions with a proven track record of consistent quality are awarded a “Quality” designation. There are only two such wine regions with DOQ/DOCa status:  Priorat  – DOQ (in Catalonia District); and Rioja – DOCa (in the Community of La Rioja).
Priorat - Denominacio d'origen Qualificada

Priorat – Denominacio d’origen Qualificada

Priorat - Label Detail

Priorat – Label Detail

  •  Denominación de Origen (DO): mainstream quality-wine regions.  The greater percentage of Spanish vineyards is in the DO region.
Las Rochas - 2009  DO Calatayud

Las Rochas – 2009
DO Calatayud

DO - Calatayud - Label Detail

DO – Calatayud – Label Detail

  • Vino de Calidad  Producido en  Región Determinada. (VCPRD)  A “starter home” for wine regions climbing the quality ladder

Table Wine

  • Vino de la Tierra (VdlT): “Country wines” which do not yet have EU QWPSR status but which may use a regional name.
  • Vino de Mesa:  Table Wine is bulk-grown, usually drawn from a wide variety of regions and hence has no vintage or area designation on the label, apart from “Produce of Spain.”


The first official Italian system of classification of wines was launched in 1963. Since then, several modifications and additions to the legislation have been made, the last of which, in 2010, established four basic categories, which are consistent with the last EU regulation in matter of wine (2008–09). The categories, from the top level to the bottom one, are as follows:

  • Vini DOCG (Denominazione di Origine Controllata e Garantita). This classification denotes the highest quality recognition for Italian wines. It is comprised of a relatively limited number of first-class wines, most of which are red wines and fall within the Piedmont region, which includes Barbaresco and Barolo wines, made from the Nebbiolo grape, and Barberas; and the  Chianti region, which produces Chianti Classicos wines produced primarily from the Sangiovese grape. Chianti Classico wines are DOCG wines produced in the historically oldest part of the Chianti territory, and carry the red rooster on their seals.  In Lombardy region, Franciacorta has DOCG status for its sparkling (Metodo Classico) wines. Franciacorta is the only Italian sparkling wine not obliged to declare its DOCG appellation on its label (as is the case with Champagne).
Barbera D'Asti - DOCG

Barbera D’Asti – DOCG

DOCG collar on Barbera D'Asti

DOCG collar on Barbera D’Asti

Chianti Classico Riserva - DOCG

Chianti Classico Riserva – DOCG

  • Vini DOC (Denominazione di Origne Controllata): DOC wines are made in government defined zones in accordance to specific regulations designed to preserve the character of the wines derived from each of Italy’s defined regions.
  • Vini IGT (Indicazione di Geografica Tipica): This category is reserved to wines produced in a specific territory within Italy and following a series of specific and precise regulations.  It also serves as stepping stone to DOC status.  Most Italian wine falls into DOC and IGT classifications.
Monte Antico - IGT - Italy

Monte Antico – IGT – Italy

  • Vino De Tavola (VdT) Italian table wines whose only criteria is that they must be produced somewhere in Italy.

 In Summary

The classification systems for Spanish and Italian wines are relatively simple, since the top tiers are either DO/DOQ in Spain and DOC/ DOCG in Italy.

France’s top tier (AOC) classification has hundreds of sub-categories, in order to denote more highly delimited regions and higher quality wines.

No need to be overwhelmed, however: just remember that for each region, there is a general AOC that includes all classified wines of the region (some producers for various reasons do not seek classification of their wines). For example, all wines from Bordeaux are Appellation Bordeaux Contrôlée; all wines from Burgundy are Appellation Burgundy Contrôlée; and all wines from the Rhône River region are Appellation Côtes de Rhône Contrôlée); and so on.

Within these broad regional classifications are specific small regions where particular grapes have proven to be a superb match with the soil and climate, and have been processed into high quality, limited-production wines for decades, and whose producers have consequently sought a narrower classification for their wines, and higher prices.

For example:

    • Premier Grand Cru Classé, Appellation Margaux Controlee, within the AOC of Bordeaux.  In a good vintage, price can be €1,500, or more.
    • a vineyard or Climat, Appellation Volnay 1er Cru Controlee, in AOC Burgundy.  Prices range from $45 to €200
    • or Appellation Cornas Contrôlée, a north Rhône wine from the small region of Cornas in  Côtes de Rhône AOC.  Price usually between $60 and $85
Apppellation Cornas Controlee (Cotes de Rhone)

Apppellation Cornas Controlee (Cotes de Rhone)

Nonetheless, neither a prestigious AOC nor DOCa/DOQ nor DOCG are guarantees of quality; nor is price a score!  So while some wine consumers spend thousands of dollars or euros to fill their cellars with only First Growth wines from Bordeaux or wines with a 98+ score from wine journals, or with wines from the highest classifications of Spain and Italy, they have no assurance that their wines are the best available in that vintage or region, or even if they will like them when they finally come to pour them.  Not to suggest that these costly wines cannot be superb wines.

But wonderful wines can be found from lesser classifications as well.   When I was in Bordeaux a few years ago, I was invited to a private tour of Chateau Margaux.  Following the tour, the host offered me a glass of the 1997 Margaux.  It was a lovely wine, with a retail price of US $300.  Although just 11:00 a.m., I drank every drop.  Not being in financial position to spend more on a bottle of wine than I was spending on three nights in my Hôtel du Charme in Margaux, I didn’t buy it.  Instead I drove to a wine store in the village of Margaux, and was directed to a Bordeaux “Cru Bougeoise” for US $30.  I stored it for a couple of years, and when I poured it, it was gorgeous.  I continue to buy this category of wine whenever I can find it.  A great many factors go into the setting of the price of a bottle of wine.

Classifications are perhaps just the first important step to making the best wine purchase of classified wines relative to price.

Although there is evidence that some of the first delineations of zones of production originated in Spain in the 14th century, this system was not developed into the consistent hierarchy that it is known by today until much later, at the beginning of 20c, in France.

Grand Site Sainte Victorie - in Provence, France

Grand Site Sainte Victorie – in Provence, France

Note:  In 2012, a new system of wine classification was introduced in France. The long standing AOC (Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée) system is being replaced by AoP (Appellation d’Origine Protégée), designating the region as « protected » rather than “controlled.”

The AoP concept is to be adopted by all EU countries over the next few years.

To further read up on these changes, go to the link below:


A Visit to Domaine St. Sebastien (France) – AOC’s Coulioure – Banyuls

Domaine St. Sebastien, Banyuls, France

Domaine St. Sebastien, Banyuls, France

Hello folks! I’m back! I was travelling during September from Barcelona to Nice on a Picasso-themed journey.

Not only did we visit thrilling Picasso museums, historical sites, and architectural wonders like Antoni Gaudi’s spectacular “La Sagrada Familia” church in Barcelona, and the Dali museum in Figureres on our way out of Spain, we also were provided with a two- day respite from art and architecture in the sea-side village of Coulioure, just inside the French border with Spain. Coulioure is an Appellation d’Origin Contrȏllée (AOC) just across a little bay from Banyuls-sur-mer, itself established as an AOC in 1935, making it one of France’s oldest AOC’s (according to my French Wine Scholar manual). The center-piece of our two-night stopover in Coulioure was a visit to Domaine St. Sebastien—an independently-owned winery in Banyuls.

Façade Detail of Antoni Gaudi's "Sagrada Familia," Barcelona

Façade Detail of Antoni Gaudi’s “Sagrada Familia,” Barcelona

Dali Museum, Figureres, Spain

Dali Museum, Figureres, Spain

The morning after our arrival, we joined our tour guide at Coulioure’s port for a motor launch ride to Banyuls, where proprietor/winemaker, Romauld Peronne, was awaiting us at Domaine St. Sebastian. We were also to have lunch in the winery’s garden restaurant (Le jardin de St Sebastien).
We arrived in Banyuls just in time to see tubs of freshly picked Grenache being unloaded by cellar hands Bastien Ferannato and Clementine Marcon from the bed of a slightly battered pick-up truck in front of Domaine St. Sebastien. ]

While my travelling companions went inside the cellar (la cave) to hear Monsieur Peronne describe the winemaking process, I stayed outside to try for some photos of the unloading process. The mid-morning Mediterranean light was bewitching.

Bastien Ferannato and Clementine Marcon unloading Grenache at Domaine St. Sebastien

Bastien Ferannato and Clementine Marcon unloading Grenache at Domaine St. Sebastien

Unloading bins of Grenache grapes at Domaine St. Sebastien, Banyuls, FR

Unloading bins of Grenache grapes at Domaine St. Sebastien, Banyuls, FR[/caption

The tubs were being unloaded onto a hand-trolley for transport through the tasting/retail sales room into the cave. The entrance to la cave is on the Avenue Fontaulé, directly across from Banyuls-sur-mer’s seaport. Inside, the grapes were dumped into a hopper from which they were lifted to the crusher by a tiny elevator with shelves.

[caption id="attachment_193" align="alignnone" width="198"]Romauld Peronne and Clementine Marcon emptying Grenache into hopper, for crushing Sept 2013 Romauld Peronne and Clementine Marcon emptying Grenache into hopper, for crushing Sept 2013

Romauld Peronne tending elevator raising Grenache to crusher - Sept 2013

Romauld Peronne tending elevator raising Grenache to crusher – Sept 2013

The equipment at the winery was traditional, and performed smoothly to the operation. I found the situation interesting, refreshing—and unexpected—as if I’d stepped back in time, when life was more peaceful and authentic.

The grapes from the truck now being unloaded, I stepped inside the cave just in time to hear a question about AOC, and “vigneron indépendent” Romauld Peronne’s response that, first of all, “AOC is not quality. It could be, but also might not be.” I was immediately attentive; never before had I heard such an incisive statement about AOC, that it is not a stamp of quality on a bottle of French wine. What it indicates is which “delineated zone of production . . .with unique qualities and characteristics stemming from its geography, climate, topography, and viticultural and winemaking practices” the grapes used to make the wine came from. AOC refers both to the region itself and the product that comes from that region. (Also from my French Wine Scholar Manual)

While AOC is the top rung on the French wine quality control pyramid, in that the delineated zone of production is smaller in acreage and has tighter restrictions on maximum tonnage/acre production, minimum alcohol percentage, and the varieties and percentages of varieties allowed in the wine of the AOC than has the next lower rung, Vin de Pays, AOC by itself does not indicate quality. Factors such as vintage, technology, and winemaking practices are equally important in determining quality. This is an important point.

[In a later posting, I will be discussing AOC further as well as the detailed ranking systems for vineyards used in some of France’s regions, together with an explanation of American Viticultural Areas (AVA) and Canada’s Vintner Quality Alliance (VQA—the only ranking among the three that actually contains the word “quality,” and is a quality designation: a VQA collar on a bottle of Canadian wine indicates that the wine has met VQA standards of quality].

Since Roussillon, the regional AOC to which Banyuls and Coulioure belong, was a part of Spanish Catalonia from the 1200s to the 1700s, the major varieties of this region–Grenache Noir, Carignan, Mouvedre, and Grenache Blanc—are Spanish and were originally planted by the Spanish during their 500-year occupancy. Spain’s traditional winemaking styles, which tended towards full-bodied spicy reds and slightly oxidized whites, also became mainstream and still influence winemaking in the region today. Roussillon, in fact, is considered French Catalogne.

At Domaine St. Sebastien, Peronne makes wines under both Banyuls and Coulioure Appelations.
Banyuls is the ancestral AOC and its vin doux naturel (VDN = sweet) wines are its ancestral wines.
Coulioure AOC, established in 1971, was the first in the region for dry red wines. Noted for their rustic, tannic, and spicy character, the wines were made from a combination of 60% minimum of Grenache Noir, Syrah, and Mouvèdre, the balance from other accepted regional varieties. Today, dry whites, rosés, and reds are all produced under the Coulioure AOC.

Domaine St. Sebastein’s series “Empreintes” (Footprints) under AOC Coulioure provides the best expressions of Grenache from the schiste hillside vineyards, believes Perrone, since it is the emblematic and dominant variety in all its dry table wine blendings: white, red, and rosé. A white and a rimage (reductive red) “Empreintes” wine are produced under Banyuls (VDN) AOC.
Little if any oak is used in the cellaring of Empreintes series wines.

Domaine St. Sebastien’s estate vineyards consist of 14 hectares of old growth vines on terraces that can be harvested only by hand. As its website proudly states, its goal is to produce wines in accordance with the traditions and knowledge of past generations while relying on techniques and current agronomic and oenological knowledge.

Detail of Terraced Vineyards near Banyuls - Sept. 2013

Detail of Terraced Vineyards near Banyuls – Sept. 2013

Chief among current winemaking techniques for Domaine St. Sebastien is the practice of ageing its red wines for the “Inspiration” series, its signature wines, in 100% new French (Alliers) oak for one year. (New oak barrels are still widely considered a luxury in the Roussillon region.) The wines in the series “Inspiration” are “wines with a strong personality whose specificities and particularities” are highlighted. For Domaine St. Sebastien’s owner/winemaker Peronne, the robust character of hillside Grenache in this series needs the influence of new oak to create the style of wine he feels best suited to fruit from his historic vineyards. Even his Coulioure “Inspiration Minerale” (a Grenache Blanc blend) sees about 9 months in new Alliers oak.

Of course, since AOC does not necessarily designate “quality,” the test of these wines would be how they paired up with the lunch that was awaiting us in Le Jardin de St. Sebastien. I was ready! Soon we were all assembled and seated in this lovely seaside garden restaurant, with bottles of both white and red wines from the Empreintes series on the table. Since our menu featured seafood, I opted for the Coulioure Blanc, vintage 2012.

Domaine St. Sebastien  2012 "Empreintes" - AOC Collioure

Domaine St. Sebastien 2012 “Empreintes” – AOC Collioure

At first sip, I thought I detected a trace of residual sugar. But once my first course of seafood on a bed of butter lettuce arrived, all hint of off-dryness disappeared, leaving only a fresh crisp wine with loads of citrus, green apple, and mango aromas and flavors. The wine was perfectly suited to the regional food. I was happy.

Sea Food Salad at Le Jardin de St. Sebastien - Sept 2013

Sea Food Salad at Le Jardin de St. Sebastien – Sept 2013

And from the rising level of conversation from our large party, I concluded that the others were equally happy. I also sampled the Coulioure rouge during the course of our lunch. It was an equally delightful wine, with young fruit, yet spicy and robust. Our dessert course came with a luscious glass of the ancestral Banyuls VDN. It couldn’t have been a better close to a delightful day.

Dessert at Le Jardin de St. Sebastien - Sept 2013

Dessert at Le Jardin de St. Sebastien – Sept 2013

During my French Wine Scholar summer course in 2010, the entire South and South-West regions were left to our last day, a morning session for the South-West, and the afternoon for Roussillon, Languedoc, and Provence. To say I left feeling both confused and overwhelmed was a great understatement. However, by studying the regions in terms of wines from these AOC’s that I occasionally bought, I had been gradually acquiring a clearer picture of the regions and their AOCS and the grapes that made up their production.

To have found myself just a few weeks ago actually in the region of Roussillon during our stopover at Coulioure and our one-day visit to Banyuls, and seeing the vineyards and mountainous topography from the windows our luxurious bus as we made our way out of Spanish Catalonia to French Catanlogne, and then to visit an independently-owned winery that produces hand-made wines from these two AOCs, provided me with much-needed visuals and tastes. It was astonishing, actually, and amazing to me to see wines in this region still largely made by hand at every stage, with emphasis on vineyards and grapes and the focus on producing them in a traditional yet cost-effective way. Even oak-aged wines of the region are available at just €22 (or about $30 US).

Discovering Domaine St. Sebastien was like discovering a little jewel of beauty and authenticity among the larger and more famous “chateaux” and “maisons” of the Roussillon/Languedoc regions. It also gave me new appreciation for the Grenache grape and the wines made from it—it was a visit and wines I shall long remember.

Wines of Domaine St. Sebastien - Sept. 2013

Wines of Domaine St. Sebastien – Sept. 2013

©Rhoda Stewart 2013 All rights reserved

Domaine St. Sebastein website: http://www.domaine-st-sebastein.com

Camillo Magoni: The Power of One (to shape a region)

The successes of Camillo Magoni and Vinos L.A. Cetto (together with Bodegas de Santo Tomás) have attracted many new grape growers and producers to the Valle de Guadalupe region in the past decade and a half.
Bodegas de Santo Tomás, situated in the lush and beautiful Santo Tomás valley, which lies a few kilometers south of Ensenada, was established in 1888, making it is the oldest winery in Baja.

Bodegas de Santa Tomas Winery

Bodegas de Santa Tomas Winery

Lara Vamoria, self-taught winemaker for Bodegas de Santo Tomás since 2005, is not only the first female winemaker in Mexican wineries, but as well is the first Mexican female winemaker. Her innovative study of the effect of vine age on wine character of Tempranillo is one more example of the innovative studies towards improving wine quality being conducted throughout the region.

Bodegas de Santo Tomas wines

Bodegas de Santo Tomas wines

The newcomers, inspired by the achievements of Magoni and Bodegas de Santo Tomás, are bringing in their own philosophies of grape growing and winemaking, and have also begun earning worldwide recognition for their wines.
“The small producers coming into Valle de Guadalupe are very important for the promotion of the potential of the region, and to offer different style of wines for the consumers,” Magoni emphasizes.

Jesus Rivera, Enologo, Bodegas de Baron Balch'e

Jesus Rivera, Enologo, Bodegas de Baron Balch’e

Many challenges awaited them, however, just as they did Magoni, not the least of which is the fact that the region “is a land of many coasts and little water . . .mysterious in its arid fecundity.” (Magoni, Camillo. Historia de la Vid y el Vino en la Peninsula de Baja Calfornia. Universidad Iberoamericana, Tijuana, 25.) This passage translated by Rhoda Stewart

“Our region is semi-arid, so we have very little rain, and only in the winter months,” Camillo explained. “We also have vines planted in different soil types—sandy soils, sandy loam, and decomposed granite—so we need to manage the water carefully to suit each variety and each situation, depending on the soil,” and, I might add, to be in harmony with the region’s “arid fecundity.”

"Arid Fecundity" - Cetto Vineyards guarded by the magnificent Sierra Blanca

“Arid Fecundity” – Cetto Vineyards guarded by the magnificent Sierra Blanca

Not deterred by this and other challenges, among the small producers now flourishing in Valle de Guadalupe are several who have returned in the past 15 years to join in the excitement of producing distinctive Mexican wines from this region, and to experience the enthusiasm with which the local and regional consumers and tourists are embracing their wines as accompaniment to the excellent Mediterranean/Mexican Fusion cuisine that has grown up out of the same land that has produced the wines. Exquisite local cheeses and artisan breads also abound, and make perfect accompaniments to the superb local wines increasingly available.

Local fruit of the land--bread, cheese, Vinos L.A. Cetto Wines--make a tasty vineyard lunch!

Local fruit of the land–bread, cheese, Vinos L.A. Cetto Wines–make a tasty vineyard lunch!

In Wine Valleys – A Journey through Wineries and Other Points of Interest in Baja California (Puente, Esperanza Bustillo. Mexico: Ambardiseño, S.C., 2009), Hugo D’Acosta (not exactly a “new comer!”), Oenologist for Casa de Piedra, Valle de Guadalupe, writes, “Mexican wine is representative of our cultural mosaic. . . . the presence of a national wine in the culinary culture, which finds itself enriched by its native products . . .is a component that refreshes and solidifies our culinary patrimony.” (22)

Café Naranjas, Valle de  Guadalupe April 2011

Café Naranjas, Valle de
Guadalupe April 2011

Jesús Diez, Oenologist, Viticultura – Espacio del Vino, writes that he returned “to Mexico this century with the firm idea that national wine should be recognized by Mexicans. . . .I know that the very nature of wine and its soils, sooner or later, makes our relationship with the terroir and our taste for the homegrown to be reborn. . . .Wine is a dynamic part of the new and changing Mexico. (Wine Valleys, 24,25)

Zinfandel Vineyard, Valle de Guadalupe April 2011

Zinfandel Vineyard, Valle de Guadalupe April 2011

Chilean-born José Durand, Oenologist, Sinergi (Valle de Guadalupe), finds in Mexican wines an “intensity, as well as the fact they are joyful, aromatic, full of shadings and subtleties, and with a solid structure and at the same time smooth. As happens with food, people slowly have opened up towards their wines . . . Mexicans have made them a part of their lives and this is incredible.” (Wine Valleys, 27)

Magoni’s influence in the region extends beyond wine production.

Guillermo Gonzáles Beristáin, Chef, Pangea Group, writes, “ . . .the development of gastronomy goes hand-
in-hand with that of winegrowers; both become accomplices, because success depends on these two arts. . . . To be able to count with one’s own wines provides Mexican gastronomy with the possibility of being fuller and that a dynamics is created, as in a majority of other countries, where regional cooking is accompanied by the wines produced in their own regions. We cannot forget that eating Mexican food requires Mexican wines.” (Wine Valleys, 29)

Two Cowboys minding their Cattle - San Vincente Valle - July 2011

Two Cowboys minding their Cattle – San Vincente Valle – July 2011

Wine and Words

Everything exists in the word,” writes Pulitzer-prize winning Chilean poet Pablo Neruda in his “Memoirs.”


That includes wine.

When words are chosen with respect for their meaning, their power can be awesome.

The story of the 33 Chilean miners, Neruda’s compatriots, who became trapped in a copper mine a half mile below ground in August 2010, and survived to tell the tale of their ordeal, is the story of the power of seven simple words that meant exactly what they said to mobilize a world to come to the miners’ rescue: «Estamos Bien en el Refugio, Los 33» (“We are well in the security chamber, the 33”)

Penned in red ink and attached to the first drill bit to breach their refuge chamber, within minutes of this note reaching the surface, several continents had launched a rescue effort. Some provided heavy equipment, some the latest technology, and other experts in the field, all to aid in the rescue of “Los 33.”

All in response to just seven thrilling words.

As a writer and professor of English, I was left in awe of the simplicity, power, and poetic beauty of this amazing note, and was inspired to launch my own response to the power of these seven words that still give me goose bumps each time I read ithem.

I wrote “Seven Words that Moved the World” (below) in the weeks following the dramatic rescue of “Los 33,” then put it away. Recently, I came across a small selection of Chilean wines in the South Pacific section of wines in a local store. I was intrigued by the language on the labels. It told you what you needed to know, and left you to figure out the rest on your own. It was enough to enticed me to buy a couple of samples: a 2011 Los Vascos Special Selection Sauvignon Blanc ($14); and a Viu Manent Estate Collection 2011 Malbec ($9).

This power of a few words to generate action inspired me to turn again to my piece on the Chilean miners and the powerful note they had written for their rescuers. In my search for some clues to what I was beginning to regard as a cultural understanding by Chileans of the power of words, I reread Neruda’s Memoirs.

Just as wine is a product of the earth the grape vines grow in, and “of the sun and rain that fall on them,” so, it seemed to me, were the Chilean miners a product of the land and culture that produced Pablo Neruda and his sublime awareness that “everything exists in the word.” In the superb Chilean wines described in the paragraphs following “Seven Words that Moved a World,” I hope you will find the flavors of the culture that produced them.

(And not to miss the irony: it took me 1,036 words to express my appreciation for the power of seven!)
« Estamos Bien en el Refugio, Los 33 »
(“We are well in the security chamber, the 33”)

How did 33 Chilean miners trapped a half mile underground in dark, sweltering conditions for 17 dreadful days, the food scanty, the water foul-tasting, and with no way of knowing would they ever be found—not only survive but survive in good health and good spirits? The clue to the answer resides in the seven profoundly simple words they sent to the top with the first drill bit that broke into their safe room: “Estamos bien en el refugio, los 33.” It seemed unbelievable. After such an extended ordeal, how could they be both alive and well, all 33? Yet they were, as the first video camera images revealed.

Visible in the video were 33 strong and serenely calm men, their bodies and faces dirt-smudged, yet all physically healthy and seemingly at peace with themselves and each other as they moved about in their safe chamber. Clad only in underwear, and with expressions of relief, even joy, on their faces, they were just as their seven words said they were—alive and well, all 33.

After an additional seven and a half weeks below ground, during which time the world mobilized to find a way to get them to safety, they were winched to the surface, one by one, in the narrow rescue cage, and when they stepped out of this capsule named “Fenix,” it became apparent that their survival was a testament to the richness of their personal lives and the humble dignity with which they lived—at work, at home, and in their social connections. Out of this life was woven into their DNA the ability to form a little community within their security chamber that enabled them to keep hope alive for those 17 terrifying days when all might have seemed lost, and to survive in wellness and good spirits on their meager supplies.

And when found, to say so in just seven thrilling words: “Estamos bien en el refugio, los 33.” Just seven words declaring the safety, the location, and the well-being of all 33, seven words so strongly and beautifully penned that copies of the note later on became gifts to heads of State around the world.

Seven words in which they said what was needed to be said, and nothing more. In a world where we are bombarded daily with streams of meaningless words, the power, beauty, and utter simplicity of these seven words sent up from the depths of the earth declaring the well-being of the miners lost to the world for 17 days still moves me almost to tears each time I read them. And, it seems, they equally touched the world deeply.

Yet some were almost dumbfounded by the simplicity and truth of that brief message. In his essay “The Chilean Miners in Perspective,” James Soriano writes, “Seventeen days underground under sweltering heat and with barely any food or shelter, and all they had to say for it was, “We are okay.” (mb.com.ph)
But that is NOT all they had to say!

What they said, actually, was a complete story in seven words that exactly stated their conditions, thus providing everything that the rescuers and their families above ground needed to know—their state of health (well), where they were (in the security chamber), and how many of them there were (all 33).
To understand how a complete story in seven words could be written after 17 days trapped deep in the bowels of the earth, hanging between life and death, I turned to the miners’ Pulitzer Prize winning compatriot, the poet Pablo Neruda (1904 – 1973). In a brilliant metaphorical poem “The Word” (“La Palabra”), he writes of the word as if it were a child born in pain from a warm-blooded mother:

The word was born
in the blood,
it grew in the dark body, pulsing,
and took flight with the lips and mouth.
. . . .
“Later on, meaning fills the word.
It . . . was filled with lives,
everything was births and sounds:
affirmation, clarity, strength,
negation, destruction, death . . .

In this poem written in the 1950s, it is as if Neruda were anticipating the note from the miners, their seven words filled with their lives and telling the story of their birth, their struggles through hope, strength, clarity of purpose, and of their despair and their struggle against destruction and death.
For Neruda, words seem to have almost cosmic powers: “Everything exists in the word,” he declares in his Memoirs. [‘The Word,’ Translated from the Spanish by Hardie St. Martin. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1974, pp. 53-54]

Words to him are treasures greater than the treasures the “fierce conquistadores” took as they strode across the land over the centuries. “Wherever they went, they razed the land . . . But words fell like pebbles out of the boots of the barbarians, out of their beards, their helmets, their horseshoes, luminous words that were left glittering here. . . .our language. . . . They carried everything off and left us everything . . . They left us the words.”

In today’s world of so much meaningless chatter, this respect for the power and beauty of words is nearly lost. People micro-blog in various forms of cryptic shorthand—“how r u?” or else they spew incessant streams of verbiage that are utterly devoid of meaning.

Yet the miners in seven simple words said all that was pertinent at the moment of their discovery. Amazing as it seemed, they had survived, they were well all of them, in their safety chamber—and that was all that mattered. Simply amazing. Yet not so simple, not so amazing, when one considers that the culture that bred and reared these brave and dignified men is the same culture that produced Pablo Neruda.

These 33 miners not only survived their terrible ordeal; they survived well!

There were two miracles in the final hours of the spectacular rescue of the 33 trapped Chilean miners: the first, their state of well-being as they stepped one by one from their rescue capsule; and second, the power of just seven thrilling words, simply penned, to mobilize the world to come to their rescue!

Chilean Wines:
• Sauvignon Blanc, Los Vascos 2011 “Special Selection” Chile ($14)

Los Vascos 2011 Special Selection Sauvignon Blanc - Chile

Los Vascos 2011 Special Selection Sauvignon Blanc – Chile

From the label: “Los Vascos, one of Chile’s oldest wine estates, is managed by Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafitte) . . . .The 560-hectare vineyard is located in the Cañeten valley of the Colchaugua province, which offers a healthy microclimate for its ungrafted pre-phylloxera Bordeaux rootstock. . . . Los Vascos is committed to producing the finest consistent and balanced wines whose elegance and harmony are to be shared with connaisseurs around the world.”

The details that caught my attention were Domaines Barons de Rothschild (Lafitte) as managers, and that the vines are propagated from ungrafted pre-phylloxera Bordeaus rootstock. These factual details suggest that the piece of earth has been found worthy of the best selection of vines and of the best management available for this variety. The wine, I was sure, would be good. (It is!)

• Malbec, Viu Manent Estate Collection, Reserva, 2011 Chile ($9).

2011 Viu Manent Grand reserve Malbec - Chile

2011 Viu Manent Grand reserve Malbec – Chile

From the label : Valle de Colchagua, Chile: Intensely purple in colour. On the nose this wine exhibits notes of blueberry, black cherry and moist soil. In the mouth flavours of freshly picked boysenberry, raspberry and blackberry give way to notes of sweet spices and sweet mocha, combine a fresh acidity and soft tannins to give a long and balanced finish. Ready to drink now or cellar for up to 2 years.

I was drawn to the words “moist” soil, “freshly picked” berries, and “sweet” spices and mocha; I appreciated the absence of meaningless descriptors such as “delicious,” or “explosive,” or “lingering.” I wanted to try the wine. (I did; and bought more later.)