Posts tagged the Wine Chronicles
Falling for Franschhoek

It’s a warm, blue-skied, spring morning in Franschhoek, on a date I am unaware of and a day I have no reason to place. Jack pants beside me in the lush green grass and my fingers run absentmindedly through his golden fur as I watch a pair of birds waltz together among the tiny, purple wildflowers that dust the bright green floor. The sky is the sort of blue you’ve waited a very long winter for and everything comes alive under the South African early morning sun. Rows of barren grape vines stretch longingly upwards toward the warmth. Even the lake at the end of the yard seems to be finally relaxing. The only sound for miles and miles is residential bird choir practice and Jack’s gentle breathing. I wonder in between dosing off how Linda and Bruce would feel about adopting me so I never have to leave this perfect little cove of heaven. I could just stop right here and never go any further. Just me, the birds, the flowers and Jack.

Nestled at the foothills of the Franschhoek mountains, outside the quaint little town, stands a modest piece of land and small family vineyard owned by Linda & Bruce, where they run the charming Chanteclair guesthouse. With the ease and graceful hospitality that makes you forget you are paying them to stay there, it is impossible not to feel like a welcomed guest in their home. A few elegant bedrooms named after trees hide privately in corners of this ivy wrapped, rennovated farm house and breakfast is served out on the terrace each morning, homemade by the Petro and Leonora. This is my favorite part of the day here, with their yellow lab, Jack patiently waiting for scraps at my feet (I’ve been feeding him against instruction in hopes that he will follow me when I go) as I watch the world wake up. A torrent of white clouds comes crashing over the mountaintops each morning, as fast and furious as tidal waves, racing each other in their expansive playground, tumbling down the slopes like an avalanche of powdery snow and breaking on the shore, dissipating into nothing amongst the vines. 



I’m in Franschhoek because some few days after my 27 hours of travel agg, I’ve remembered and regained my purpose for coming to South Africa in the first place – the wine. (Huh? South Africa has wine?) Yes, they do in fact and some of the greatest in the world at that. The Cape winelands are located only 45 minutes north east of Cape Town and have been making some of the most unique wines ever since this lush landscape was discovered. However, only since the 80’s have they been world recognized.

My quest began in Stellenbosch, a town only a 30 minute drive from my current location, founded and claimed by Sir Simon van der Stel who, with an ego no smaller than this country, decided to name this haven after himself, because, hey, why wouldn’t ya? Surrounded by mountains, the most famous of which is said to look like the arrogant bastard, drunk lying on his back with a bottle of wine. And that is exactly what it looks like … lazy van der Stel himself napping in a drunken haze, his profile in perfect view showcasing his rather large nose, and his hand gripping a forgotten bottle that rests on his rotund belly just below his sagging chin, ready to drink or passed out from it.

Here I discovered the native South African grape Pinotage, after which, I spent a shameful amount of hours comparing every version of this exciting wine. A wine that I had been rather uneducated in and often getting a bad rap, I instantly developed a fond fascination with this varietal. The love child of two separate grapes, Africa has birthed an heir to the New World wine family that is as unique and exciting as it claims to be. It was long since discovered that the beloved Pinot Noir did not take to these South African climates quite as well as English and French settlers had hoped and thus, some genius decided to cross breed it with the polar opposite grape, Cinsaut (formerly known as Hermitage in SA), creating the perfect offspring of the two. Pinotage yields the delicacies of its mother – the elegant and soft-spoken Pinot Noir- with the bold resilience of its daring father, Cinsaut. A dark maroon in color, this wine varies vastly from winery to winery in terms of nose and mouth, from simple table wines to elegant and robust centerpieces. The best of it’s kind, in my opinion, delivers an orchestrated dance that begins with a warm chocolate and coffee nose enticing you in before delivering a punch and loudness of fruit to shock, surprise, confuse and intrigue you. Certain to keep you coming back for more.



Despite it’s close proximity, Franschhoek has a different feel entirely to it’s brother counterpart, Stellenbosch. Discovered in the 1600’s by the French Huguenots, this quaint little town known as the “French Corner” has all the elegant feel of France without the upturned noses, and the remote picturesque landscape of Africa. What you find here today is the beautiful fusion of bold South African wine traditions intertwined with the subtlety and grace of its knowledgeable French mother. A unique and undeniable success in the marrying of Old World wine traditions and New World wine explorations.

A much smaller, quieter place than Stellenbosch, although its food and wines do not shy away in comparison, Franschhoek has all the quaint small town feel, breath taking landscape, and lazy Saturday afternoons that anyone could ask for. The town is comprised primarily of one simple street - Main Street - and what it lacks in distance, it makes up for in depth as "the food and wine capital" of the country. Just a short, peaceful walk from Chanteclair, Main Street is bustling on a Saturday with markets, African jewelry, and families enjoying lunch, wine, and laughter outdoors. One small restaurant in particular catches my eye on this certain Saturday with it’s white linen table cloths and Porcupine Ridge embroidered umbrellas, tucked into a small stone square by a bubbling fountain and although I’m not quite hungry, I ask for a table for one (a routine that I have become incomprehensibly comfortable with). I am instructed to sit where I please and a four-person table ornate with all the silverware and fancy dressings of a 5 star restaurant accompanied by farm charm aura, is the only one open so I pull out a chair.

No sooner do I allow my weight down into the white chair as elegantly as I know how, do I tumble over backwards. One leg of the chair abruptly wedging down into a grate in the cobblestone floor, landing me boots over head, ass out in daisy duke denims, sprawled out on the concrete, and knocking the back of my head into the legs of a proper lunchtime date behind me. A little more than slightly mortified in front of all these sophisticated types, I laugh hoping these fancies might join in the fun and games however, they decline. Twenty plus stares and pauses before turning their attention back to their meals while I wrestle with a chair, trying to pry it out of the grate in silence. Not my finest hour.

Taking a seat in the most poised manner possible after such a debacle, I join in the pretending that the little charade did not happen and order my lunch. Franschhoek, although a modest little town, is unabashed in boasting about the food delicacies they prepare and the perfect neighboring wine pairings they orchestrate, and my first food experience does not disappoint. Lightly battered calamari stuffed with pesto, pine nuts, and harami cheese, drizzled in a sweet chili glaze, accompanied by a glass of Porcupine Ridge Sauvignon Blanc, already has a ring on my finger before the delicate artichoke hearts dripping in a pool of garlic butter has time to seal the deal.


Careful not to trip over my own feet as I exit the restaurant, I decide it's time for what we came here for - the wineries. The Franschhoek Wine Tram hop-on-hop-off is a thing of genius and the most charming way to explore the lush wineries of this infamous Cape Wineland region. A small fee will get you an all day pass. Plan your winery route accordingly, or just hop off at one that happens to strike your fancy. An old trolley cart with open windows and an educated, bubbling driver, it gives any traveler the ideal view of the countryside and picturesque beauty that this small town encompasses in a big way. (

If you know me, you will assume that, clearly, I did not pick out any wineries beforehand, nor did I care too. Taken with the ride, I simply waited for something to tell me to get off at each winery I passed and trusted that instinct. Because so far, albeit getting me into some bastard situations, it hasn’t quite steered me wrong thus far. 

Having spent the previous night dining at Holden Manz, a romantic dinner for one that postively surpassed any date that I have ever been on, I was already swept away and couldn't wait to see what the other Franschhoek wineries had to offer, or if they dared to top my first love. Candelit tables next to a crackling fire, overlooking the stretch of Holden Manz vineyards, along with a mouth-watering, daring menu that would get any adventurous food lover's heart pumping, Holden Manz provides the same elegant and cozy, family feel that the small town of Franschhoek does, while delivering bold culinary and varietal statements that everyone should witness. ( 

Today, I come to the culmination of my previous Pinotage quest for perfection at La Couronne. An intensely ripe, fruit boasting mouth feel disguised in a chocolate and espresso aroma. Well balanced and entirely intriguing – definitely one of my favorite South African wines. (

And my venture would not be complete without the savory lunch menu of Moreson winery, a stroll through their enchanted Orchid greenhouse, and their endearing, hilarious Miss Molly collection of bubbly and wine. With tasting notes like these, I am right at home …

“MISS MOLLY IN MY BED ~ Miss Molly, the captivating Môreson Weimaraner, doesn’t do mornings. Her late night social schedule ensures that, by sunup, she’s ready for bed. After Miss Molly’s breakfast is served, and devoured, she loves to climb (uninvited) into whichever bed is available. In My Bed is a wine designed to be two of Miss Molly’s favourite things – comfortable and easy going.”

Moreson is a must stop on any Franschhoek winery tour. Perfect for that midday break and a quick snack to soak up some of that early morning wine and fatten you up for a full day’s worth of drinking ahead. (


And after today, I am certain that I need to live here forever and I can't think of anything I'd rather do than curl up by the fire at Chanteclair with a glass of their newest red and Jack at my side. 

Improv Stops in Galicia

So, I decided to give couch surfing a try. Before you say anything, let me endorse your sketchy suspicions with my own and then contradict them by telling you what I found. Contrary to terrifying assumptions, couch surfing is simply an amazing, secret, underground society of travelers helping travelers for the sake of karma, that they might be helped along their journey later down the line. And for experiences, because they simply love to travel and love meeting people who share this passion. It’s a different world in this society … no hotels, not even hostels, just locals; and let me tell you, I never would have seen Galicia the way I got to see it without couch surfing with a born and bred local Galician.

Cambados wasn’t in my plans. In fact, it wasn’t even on my radar, but those, I’ve found, are the absolute best stops in travel. However, as fate would have it, Adrian reached out to me on Couch Surfers and told me he had a room open should I wish to visit a town about 45 minutes from Santiago de Compostela, where I was currently residing. Well, it was now or never, so I decided to get it well over and done with so that the fear would be gone.

After getting off the wrong stop on the bus and wandering around with a non-English speaking, 90 year old, Galician man trying to help, Adrian met me at a local bar. I had told him I was at the bar, Estrella Galicia -only to find out later that that was actually the name of the local beer. Talk about foreigner. Adrian was a punk rock / rasta / musician looking type with unkempt facial hair and a slight mullet. He looked like he possibly sported a rat-tail for the better part of his youth.

Adrian is everything that the gypsy part of my soul longs to be. He hitch hikes through Poland and France, learns English while living with Italians in Ireland, travels around in a van for weeks in search of peaceful beaches, and plans trips to Portugal only to get onto an impulsive plane to Germany as soon as he arrives. But he always comes back to Cambados. He bleeds Galician. He was born and raised here and he will die here. He was my traveling gypsy kindred spirit and I thought about bringing him with me down through Portugal. Unfortunately, Adrian had more of a Romeo and Juliet duo in mind rather than Louis and Clark and thus the duo eventually parted ways.

Cambados is a small fishing village on the west coast of Spain above Portugal, known for Albarino and seafood. Adrian says that people come from all over the world just to have lunch here (and after lunch, I absolutely believe him.) Here being a place that wasn’t known to me for anything and had not been on my list until yesterday. An impromptu stop that I would become increasingly grateful for with each passing hour. One night turned into three and it wasn't even twenty-four hours before I had canceled all of my planned trains and hostels for the next three stops. 

Back at his house, Adrian cooked lunched for us. A plate of mussels fresh from the dock down the street, where he knew the fishermen by name and they often gave him mussels for free because they were harvested in such abundance here that people didn’t know what to do with them. He steamed them in a pot without water because he said the salt water inside the shells was the only flavor you needed. We ate them with our hands. He picked some herbs from his garden, sliced some tomatoes and other vegetables, threw them in a pot with more mussels, rice and Berberchose – tiny clam like creatures and my new favorite word. (Pronounced “barry barry truce”, I later said it constantly, with or without reason, adding it into any sentence that I could or just attaching it onto the end of phrases.) After lunch, we had fruit digestives made in his friend’s grandfather’s basement out of various fruits and grappa. It tasted like cold medicine and jet fuel had a baby, but it didn’t take long for me to grow accustomed to the flavor (and the buzz).

The sun was shining and the wind was dancing off the sea. Adrian took me all over the town, showing me only local things that I never would have discovered on my own. We walked along the sea at low tide, which was more like no tide, leaving vast expanses of green algae covered ocean floors and boats beached along them with their anchors still in the ground. Adrian said the sea changed every 45 minutes. Sometimes the water would be level with the road for a week and then be miles of beach for the next.

I’m like a child, skipping around like a curious 5 year old, asking every question that pops into my head on any given moment. “What’s that?” “Do you eat these?” “How do you say this?” “When do you eat this?” “But what are they?” “What’s this plant called?” “What is growing on this rock?” “What do you call algae?” “Why is there so much green here?” “Does the algae get tangled on you when you swim? I hate that.” “Do you swim?” “When does it get hot here?” “Does it ever snow?” “Do young people vote?” “What exactly does the King do?” Adrian seemed to find this amusing and answered every question patiently with a delighted grin.

We walked to the ruins of a look out tower and climbed up, sitting on the rocks of what used to be a wall with the water splashing up against the stones below, while a man fished beside us. Walking through the town, we pass houses covered in shells (an old Galician architecture meant to protect the buildings from the coast’s weather conditions), and through a beautiful, old cemetery. It was covered in tiger lilies and after telling Adrian they were my favorite flower, he plucked one straight off a grave and put it in my hair. Certain that we were now going to some sort of doomed after life for that, I ran out. We climbed up a hill covered in a pinecone forest, which reminded me of home, up to a look out at the top. With Adrian’s help, I climbed to the top of the boulders and sat up there for awhile, out of breath and awe struck, overlooking the seaside town. The wind danced through my hair peacefully and I wondered how I could have come through Spain never knowing that this little town existed.

Once down on level ground again, we walked to a small winery. Albarino vines covered the Galician landscape like ivy roof tops, standing straight up, taller than me, and arching over one another to form a canopy above our heads. There were grassy floors dusted with flower petals and ponds covered in lily pads. An old man rolled an ancient looking, open barrel six times the size of him into one of the ponds to wash it, sending the lily pads soaring out on the waves. It had to be without a doubt, the most romantic setting that I had ever come across and I wanted to bottle it so that I could take it out for the perfect moment.

Aside from Albarino, there was another wine Cambados was known for … an underground, unproduced, unsold wine – Black wine. It was never labeled and it technically did not exist. Home made and home served, it was only served out of people’s garages. A piece of fennel in somebody’s doorpost meant that they had wine and to come on in. We sat in one such garage, complete with folding tables, and the man of the house grilled up spicy peppers for us in garlic and olive oil- complimentary with your massive mug of black wine. It was for all intensive purposes similar to a very dry, harsh, red wine but it was deep, deep purple – almost black – hence the name. It stained your mouth purple for days and if you got it under your fingernails, your fingertips would be stained for weeks. Local old men played cards at the long plastic fold out table we sat at and it was just another regular afternoon in Galicia.

Later, we met some of Adrian’s friends at an outdoor café in a square full of aggressive youngsters playing football. We drank a café liquor and I was becoming increasingly hazy at this point after all of this intense Galician alcohol. Adrian’s friends were interesting to say the least. There was Goyo, who was by all intensive purposes black inside, obsessed with American rap and NBA. Nebraska looked American but he was Galician through and through. The only English he knew came from video games so he would say things like “Destruction!” or “Carnage!“ I am told he was the town badass that used to have long blonde wavy hair down his back and hold the wildest parties known, but he is clean cut now and sporting a Nebraska sweatshirt which I thought a very odd American state to make it’s way here out of all the rest. And thus, I deemed him Nebraska. Adrian played guitar and sang in his low growl of a voice and we all laughed and sang for hours.

The next day it was raining. It rains everyday in Galicia, but in Galicia, they say that rain is art. If you haven’t seen Santiago in the rain, then you haven’t really seen it. All of the colors change. Personally, I preferred the colors in the sunshine, but I was down for the artistic view.

We go across the sea to the Island, which Adrian pronounces “Iceland,” (the silent s is not a concept yet accepted here.) We ate Pulpo (octopus) in a small corner street bar that up until 30 years ago had been the island doctor’s office. The people here still refer to the place as the “Consulta.” It is the best octopus in Spain (Galica hoards all the best seafood in the world and only exports out the crap) and I am told that the creatures have to be punched and beaten in order to soften them before cooking. You used to see all of the local fishermen smacking the live pulpa against the ground and docks after they came in for the day, but now a week in the fridge achieves the same job. Still, you must scare the octopus right before cooking it to ensure the utmost tenderness. Cooks torture the creature by dipping it in and out of the boiling water several times before submersing it. It all seems very cruel, but the pepporcini and oil covered sea creature is so delicately delicious that I cannot protest.

We eat calamari too (unlike any I have ever had), drink Albarino - unlabeled like all wine in Galicia, it just comes in a naked wine bottle, and watch the Spanish news on TV. The King has decided that he no longer wishes to rule- bored with his current responsibilities, so he has left the throne open and hopefully claimed by his son. The news station flashes to a clip of Obama, whom they call the most powerful man in the world, doing pushups in a suit on a basketball court and sinking lay ups. I am instantly embarrassed to be associated with this nation. It looks like we do absolutely nothing. Not even the President has any worries.

That night 2 American couch surfers, currently teaching English in the south of Spain are joining us and I am so excited to have comrades. Trevor from Wisconsin is outrageous and fluent in Galician. Tall and blonde and skinny, he eats more than the three of us combined and remains rail thin. Fallen, also super thin, is beautiful. She is Trevor’s roommate and originally from Texas. Dark hair and dark skin, she could easily be Spanish herself.

Trevor falls with a wicked flu of some sort or food poising, but it’s impossible to tell from what since he’s eaten everything. Fallen, Adrian and I go to a music festival called “Green Corn” full of dauntless looking individuals. Anarchist hippies with dread locks, and piercings everywhere, all in dark browns and army greens. In Spain, they call hippies “para floutas,” translating to dog flutes because they are always with flutes and dogs, which I find hilariously brilliant. No one neuters their dogs here, so they are everywhere- some with overfull utters that drag on the ground. We dress up in Panda suits – full head to toe, ears and all, panda suits – because I guess that’s a thing here and stay up all night with the music.

Aside from the actual performer’s on stage, back at the tents – all of Adrian’s friends sit cross-legged in circles and lay sprawled out in the grass as they play a various symphony of instruments and sing songs all night long. I fall in love with a Spanish girl’s voice who plays guitar and harmonica and has my dream singing voice. She is by all visual appearances, a homely looking, 14 year old, American girl who has been homeschooled her entire life, but she is nothing like that at all. She can’t speak English but she can sing it, so when she does attempt to speak, she only speaks in beautiful, poetic words.

The sky is splattered with stars everywhere, like the artist standing in front of a blank canvas dipping his brushes into paint and swinging them side to side sending paint flying across the whiteness before him; they keep appearing more rapidly than the moment before. After all the singing and dancing that my little Panda self can take, I finally crawl into the tent around 6am and fall asleep instantly. (Side note: it is not a rough morning until you wake up sweating, face down in a tent on top of rocks as a dirt covered Panda.) Everyone is still drinking, banging on cans and sticks and playing guitar, singing in the rising sun. And since we have about 5 more hours here, there is nothing to do but join in.

Note: I am NOT a morning person.

Note: I am NOT a morning person.

Adrian and Fallen drop me off drunk at the bus station and help me find my bus. With an address written on my hand, a dead phone and mud-ridden ankles, I attempt to make my way to nowhere in Particular.

Convertibles, Country sides, & Castles with Adam

This hostel was pristine compared to the last. I had begun to think I had the 8 person bed room to myself after being there the entire day, but as luck would have it, my bunk mates came in at midnight and they all spoke English. Two 29 year olds from Denmark- Sophie and Aska, and a Pennsylvania bred American - Adam.

Sophie was beautiful and tall. Very, very tall. (In fact, all three of them towered over me and I spent my entire time with them jumping around like a child to reach their level for attention). She was a medical student in the great socialist Denmark where education was free and money was never a motive,  and had lived in Spain for 3 months a few years ago. Aska (pronounced Oscar without the r) worked in some sort of International Economics studying underdeveloped societies and he was hilarious. The type of person who is instantanly best friends with every single person he meets, whether he speaks their language or not. He was quite fluent in Spanish, but even if he met a distant language, he got by with dance moves, wit and charm that he had seemed to master universally.

And then there was Adam – a Cornel student getting his Masters in Viticulture and working in the Finger Lakes vineyards. (Seriously … the luck??) As soon as I discovered that he was in wine as well (which was approximately 3.5 minutes upon their entering of the room), and had an appointment with a winery the next morning in Rioja, I asked him if he wanted to take me along. He laughed and I looked down at him seriously from the windowsill where I sat cross legged with my lap top, “I am 100% serious,” I said, and so it was decided.

Adam was weird, but harmless and interesting and nice enough. A Viticulturist and an Ornithologist (which is the study of birds he told me after I informed him I didn’t know what that was), who drove a black Mercedes convertible he had borrowed from a buddy in Madrid. He was by all worldly standards, “hot,” tall and tan with crystal blue eyes, but by all definitions a total science geek stuck in an athlete’s body. He was the type of person who immediately offered you all of the facts on a particular comment or observation you might have made. An endless bank of random knowledge, travel and Cornel stuffed brains.

“I’m sorry, but rules are: top down,” He said as we got in the car with his finger on the button to open the roof.

“I’m sorry, but you clearly don’t know me yet. Top obviously down. Snow, rain or hail,” I responded sliding in the other side.

We were off and Adam looked like a child overcome with giddy pleasure as he drove. It was indeed, pretty amazing – the Rioja countryside and back roads with vineyards as far as you could see. Upon certain twists and turns of the road, we would look at each other and burst out laughing because this was just too cool.

“What are those!?” He asked, more to himself than to me, slowing down and pulling off the road into a gravel path in a vineyard. I looked at the vines next to me, wondering if he could tell what type they were just by looking at them. They looked pretty normal to me but I didn't know; maybe this particular patch had stumped him. My hand on the door handle, ready to get out and inspect, Adam reached around and grabbed Binoculars from the middle consol. (Yes, this kid carried binoculars and a heavy duty pair at that, because “you never know when you’re gonna see cool stuff,” he told me). As I was wondering why on earth he needed binoculars, when we could just get out and look at the vines, he positioned them up towards the sky.

“So cool,” He said under his breath. I followed his trajectory to two very ordinary looking, black birds circling above us and then sat rather gape jawed and dumbstruck as he pondered them, reversed, and then carried on down the road as if everyone did that.

“Sooo … you like birds …” I mused.

“Yea. Like I said, I was an Ornithologist,” He responded

Okay then. “A Viticulturist. An Ornothologist. And a Mercedes convertible. I have yet what to make of you, Adam Kane.”

He smiled, which was good, because as I later found, sometimes he laughed at my jokes and other times, my wit blew right past him, completely lost like a passing sound he hadn’t picked up and he remained blank faced like I hadn’t spoken at all. Which was also another absurd impossibility, because Adam Kane had bionic hearing. Seriously, he thought it was normal but it wasn’t. He could detect a swarm of bees or a faint bird cry from a mile away (I can hear him now correcting that fact that it was indeed not even a half mile away, but more like .1 miles). He simply refused to believe I couldn’t hear these sounds as well, and I wouldn’t believe that he did until we followed this mystical hearing to the actual source and I saw it with my own eyes. Once we found it, I would look straight from it up to him, studying him like he did with his birds trying to classify this strange breed. He seemed not to notice that I was watching him as he watched whatever it was that he was particularly engrossed in at the moment.

Overcome with the landscape, the wind in our hair, and the energy of the afternoon, we thought we may have taken a wrong turn so Adam pulled off on a side road to look up directions and call the winery.

“I hear birds …” I teased in a sing song voice as we sat on the side of a silent road by a very neglected horse covered in hay.

“Just common Sparrows,” He replied simply without taking his eyes from his phone.

Bodega Paganos was a beautiful property set in the valley surrounded by the Iberian mountain range. Bright, leafy vines stretched out from the white, rocky earth and surrounded the stone fortress that stood between them – built from the “Mother Rock” that lie way below the earth, which they tunneled out to make their aging caves. It was a 5th century winery with an all-star wine maker named Marcus who had been voted 3rd best in his trade by Wine Enthusiast Magazine. Our host, Alberto, was without a doubt the nicest person in the entire world. The tour was meant to be in Spanish (Adam was fluent in Spanish of course. That year and a half he spent living in Peru studying plants or birds or whatever it was he did) and I was ready to smile and nod and suffer through it, just grateful to be there, but Alberto insisted on English for me.

He took us out into the vines and talked about all of their biodynamic processes with Adam. There were a lot of viticulture terms in broken English and Spanish and a lot of smiling and nodding on my part. Paganos’ vineyard cycle was planned entirely around the moon’s and each date out of the year was marked accordingly for the best leaf days, flower days, and tasting days. Because Paganos did not use chemicals or fast acting enhancements, the vines had to be cared for as if they were infants, each day of the year. Paganos produced four small quantity/high quality wines that were each named after their respective vineyards and yielded their own distinct personalities accordingly. They also made a larger production wine, which by Rioja standards of 8 million bottles a year, was fairly small at a mere half million.

Inside the winery, Albertos, showed us the equipment and took us through their version of the wine making process. I was amazed to learn that for the four top quality wines that they produced, each grape cluster was de-stemmed by hand, one by one, grape by grape, to assure the utmost quality and preserve the grape’s integrity. Instead of the common Bladder Press that I was familiar with in America, Bodega Paganos uses a Basket Press to extract the juice. Alberto explains to us the difference with an analogy of a teabag. The Bladder Press, he says, is like pressing your spoon to the teabag against the wall of your mug in the hot water to extract as much flavor as fast as possible. The Basket Press is like dipping your teabag in and out of the hot water by its string, oozing flavor into the water slowly but softly. This he said, was more time consuming but gave the wine a soft elegance that could not be achieved otherwise. They also still crushed some of their grapes by foot in huge barrels that subsequently served as the aging barrels for the first fermentation process. The secondary fermentation (Malolactic) was done in French and American oak barrels and in an entirely natural process that took from December to June to be completed. (The previous vintage was still in the barrel awaiting Malolactic completeion).

Paganos also made a wine that went through Malolactic Fermentation in what i believe is called an obom (an egg shaped barrel that pumped the wine in a certain flow used by the French for their whites; such as Chablis) and was 1 of 2 in the world to use this process for a red wine. Only 800 bottles were produced that sold for 1000 euros each. Albertos tasted three of the top wines with us outside against the vineyard and mountainous backdrop. They were divine (tasting notes at the bottom). He talked about each personality of the wine and told us that in Rioja, even his 2 and 3-year-old nephews study viticulture in school. He left us with a library of reading materials and invited us to a huge dinner and tasting on Wednesday night with the top California wine gurus. Instantly, a litany of curses against myself rang through my head for planning, for the first time in my journey, my next 3 stops, and transportation in between - all prepaid. I contemplated seriously about canceling my train and the next 3 after and just eating the cost in order to attend this dinner. (Later, upon meeting Adrian, I would end up unplanning all of these plans anyway.)

With a page full of places to see and eat from Albertos, Adam and I left to venture out to more of the Rioja countryside. The ride was heavenly, interrupted with spurts of knowledge and awe from Adam, like “Oh! Kestrel.” “Mini falcon. Super cool,” he would explain to me when I asked what the hell a Kestrel was. Or, the occasional screeching of breaks followed by, “Oh look! There’s a Quail.” Now thoroughly amused by my most recent case study, I began to play a game with Adam, pointing out every bird I saw. “What’s that?” “Magpie.” “That one!” “Piper.” But I couldn’t stump him so eventually I stopped playing.

We arrived at a small stone town and looked like two Beverly hills kids driving around in Daddy’s Mercedes Convertible. One old man stopped and stared, following us as we crept over the cobble stones. He said something aloud to those around him, which Adam translated as “Oh my God…” as he watched us. The town was otherwise abandoned and we parked to walk around.

“Do you smoke?” I asked him, pulling out a cigarette.

“No. Not since Peru.” He said.

 “Neither do I,” I answered, lighting the cigarette dangling between my lips. He laughed in an amused yet mocking way, which was exactly the response I had anticipated.

“Only when traveling alone in foreign countries,” I smiled, blowing the smoke out around us.

We ate pinchos at the only café opened in town and Adam made friends with locals and talked to them in Spanish for what felt like forever about castles and vines (I think). We explored a dark and cold empty church and snuck through a locked iron gate down into the basement. Unfortunately, it was just for storage. No catacombs. I tried to carve my name into a stone railing where others had but Adam grabbed my wrist when I pulled out the pocket knife and protested defacing a 600 year old church, so I didn’t. We drove about 5km down the road in search of this castle he wanted to see and stopped to ask a vineyard worker where it was. He told us to cross over the main road and follow the tractor up through the windy dirt paths, so we did. We drove up the narrow dusty trails with vines tickling the tires of the car on either side until we got to the top of a steep hill.

The castle was from the 8th century and completely abandoned. Without a soul in sight or ear shot, we climbed to the top of the hill and went inside. It seemed to be merely an open space covered in overgrown weeds and surrounded by stone but Adam found a place where he could climb the walls to the very top. (Adam was a rock climber. And a surfer. And a collegiate swimmer. Among other things. Obviously.) I made him get down immediately and lift me up first because I was too short to reach the foot holding and refused to allow him this adventure without me. Kicking my shoes to the side and tying my skirt up, I climbed to the top, through holes in the wall and then up again the other side until we got to the top. The view was absolutely breath taking. Mountains faded in the distance around us, enclosing the valley with thousands of miles of vineyards rolling up and over each hill and around every road and every bend. Not a patch went untouched by them. The bright sun glistened off the river below us, whose protection, Adam informed me, was the Castle’s mission back in 700AD; and the wind howled through my hair and whipped my skirt in violent fits around my legs. We were on the top of the world. We screamed as loud as we could and waited as it echoed off the mountains and throughout the entire valley. We sat in a comfortable silence for awhile just taking it all in and I thought I could most likely stay up here for my entire life, just sitting atop these old stone ruins overgrown with weeds and wild flowers, with my bare feet dangling over the edge miles above ground, and the wind caressing my face.

We drove back to Logrono, stopping at random picturesque views or bird sightings and then met back up with Sophie and Aska in town. We spent the night eating pinchos and drinking everything, going from tapas bar to tapas bar down the lively streets. I bought some snails (live ones; pets) off a tiny Asian man selling them as if they were flowers perched there on his tree branch, as he walked through the local outdoor bars. Then, not knowing what to do with them, I bought them all and set them free in a garden. The four of us followed some Logrono locals that had become Aska’s new best friends to a Karaoke bar down the street and sang duet after duet in English while the local Spaniards clapped, smiling ear to ear at every Backstreet Boys, Bob Dylan, and Bruce Springsteen song. I contemplated canceling my train again. I’m pretty sure I told everyone that I was going to. But I didn’t. My train left out of Logrono the next morning and I willed fervently for that one perfect day and night in Rioja to be forever preserved amongst the sea of new memories that I was headed straight into. 



TASTING NOTES: Bodega Paganos

2009 Sierra Cantabria ~ Deep purple hue. Classic Rioja spicy nose that lends into vanilla with time. Smooth, fresh mouth feel. A lot of grip without any bitterness to it and tannic structure without tannic feel. No over drying finish. 

2007 El Puntido ~ More complex notes. Dark red fruit and black currents. You can taste the oak. A nose full of white flowers after it opens up; Albertos says that it smells exactly like the white flowers of the olive tree blossoms in the area. Despite being a 2007, you can still feel how fresh it is. Complex, with a minerality characteristic to it, it is very well balanced with rounded tannins and covers the entire palate. 

2008 La Nieta ~  This wine has less oak and so much fruit - red fruits. It is bolder and powerful but also soft and elegant. It is not rugged at all like some other Spanish wines. 2008 was a great year in la Rioja. It has a finish that seems to last forever and a "high note" that Adam detects in the back of the palate. 

Saint Emilion Wine

Located 45 minutes from Bordeaux’s city center was St. Emilion – a beautiful and luscious wine region known for it’s red blends of Merlot and Cabernet Franc. Chateaus spread along in between vineyards of every shape and size. I visited Chateau Soutard who literally had cannons posted up for battle surrounding their vineyards ready to shoot ice out of the sky if it attacked and turn it into rain before it could touch the precious vines. Another, Cardinal Villemaurine, located right down the road still used horses to till their soil, expanses of untouched earth below to age their wine, and outdated equipment built into the walls to ferment it.

Chateau Soutard was an expansive and lavishly renovated winery, completed in modern redesign in 2006. Some top French insurance company had purchased it and outdone themselves entirely. I was in an English speaking tour – 2 Ohio residents, a couple from Toronto and a couple from England. The tour guide was young and good-looking – Jacques something or other, but his French accent was thick and his English was quite hard to understand. He would pause awkwardly after each paragraph and just look at us expectantly, like we were supposed to do something. But none of us ever did. I felt for him – it was a tough crowd. After a few very long, silent moments, he would motion us to follow him. Most of what he told us about the wine making process, I already knew, but I jotted down a few differences.

Chateau Soutard grew 80% Merlot and 25% Cabernet Franc with little Cabernet Sauvignon and Malbec scattered sparsely. The earth was made up of limestone with a sandy covered clay overtop. We went through the “old” and “historic” wine cellar, which Jacques claimed had been renovated to look exactly as it had 6 generations ago. I found that hard to believe. By the looks of the place, it was designed as a wedding venue or concert hall (a baby grand piano graced the center) and the 10 by 10 glass elevator that we got into was furnished with glossy benches and satin cushions. We rode the 21st century elevator to the underground cellar which looked entirely too new as well. It was all very wine cave meets 5 star Marriott in Time Square.

The underground limestone tasting cave was too perfect and you could tell it had just been dug out a few years ago, unlike the ancient quarries that ran underneath the rest of the city. Caged rooms held thousands of unlabeled magnum bottles which they used to age the wine because in them, the aging process was more slow and delicate. An oval, translucent table, glowing white from the center of the room, served as a bar and was meant for better inspection of the wine’s color. Jacques said that judging the color with these UV rays would allow us to detect the precise vintage of the wine. We tasted a 2004 and 2007 Grand Cru Classic (tasting notes at the bottom) and here, I did learn some interesting facts new to me about the process.

All of the wine made here was unfiltered and the light from the tables pierced the color in the glass revealing the floating sediment. Jacques said that only in the last 15 years, wineries have started to filter it all out but it was better to allow it to remain in the wine. He told us that the best vintages of Bordeaux in the last 14 years were 2000, 2003, 2005, 2009 and 2010. The St. Emilion wines could be aged for 25 to 30 years. But wines from Medoc (a neighboring region) could be held onto as long as 50. As the years went by for one holding onto a particular bottle, some of the wine would escape from the glass. If someone had purchased say, a bottle of 1979 wine and still had it unopened, they could bring the bottle back to the Chateau and have it topped off and re-corked from the Chateau’s stock cellars, which held spares of every vintage.

An American scientist from Ohio asked Jacques about the present cold, wet weather (a question that I was so tired of hearing that I almost answered it myself for the intrigued doctor) and Jacques told him that out of the whole year, these two weeks were the most important of all. The last time they had four very bad years in a row was 1960 and these years usually tend to work in cycles. After 2011, 2012, and 2013 all turned out to be bad years, they were expecting 2014 to unfortunately be bad as well. Saint Emilion had only harvested 40% of a regular season in 2013 and Bordeaux had only yielded 20% - a very bad year, indeed. I started to zone out from the weather conversation until I heard Jacques tell the scientist about their ice cannons. Should any frost decide to fall at an inopportune time, the cannons were aimed and ready to turn it to rain before it could reach the crops. That was it. Where the hell was I?

After the tour, I chatted with Jacques and found out that he had only been at Soutard for a month and was previously a wine maker in Virgina. He, like all Europeans I had met who visited America, seemed desperate to get back. He said that he much preferred the creativity allowed in American wine making because there weren’t nearly as many laws pertaining to the process as there were in France. I gave him my card and told him to go bother Boordy Vineyards if he wanted to move back.

After I left, I drove in circles trying to find Cardinal Villemaurine, which ended up being located right down the street from Soutard. I had just come from a vineyard with it’s own private fleet of cannons and these guys were out in their fields following 2 giant white horses in between the vineyard rows, tilling the soil with their hooves. I glanced behind me and could still see Soutard. This could not be right.

But it was. This 4th generation family Chateau was the real deal. About 1/20th the size of Soutard above ground, its expanses of underground quarries seemed to be never ending. We must have walked under the vines, the streets, and maybe even the city. I wondered if the roots ever broke through the ceilings of these limestone caves or if they just felt their way around them and down into the walls.

This Chateau had two brands: Cardinal Villemaurine – coming from many of their fields throughout the region, and Clos Villemaurine – coming from the clos on the property with the horses. They were Grand Cru, which meant they had to abide by 3 major guidelines. One: the alcohol content of their wine must be between 12.5% and 13.5%. Two: They must only use oak for aging their wines. And three: the wine must be aged for at least 12 months in barrel. Villemaurine aged their wine for 24 months and it was splendid (tasting notes at the bottom). They use small oak barrels to yield stronger oak flavors and large, burgundian barrels to keep more fruity flavors and then blend the two of them after 18 months for an elegant balance. The wine then returns to barrel to complete the remainder of the 24 month aging process. Like all of the French wineries I have visited, all of the bottles remain unlabeled, stored underground. They are "dressed" as needed when shipping orders come in. The tiny Vietnamease, French woman showed me a room containing all of the 2012 wine, still in barrel. The last blending would be next week and it would be in bottle by July, awaiting release in January of 2015.

The city of St. Emilion was amazing and so interesting. An entire city built out of limestone. They had dug into the earth to find it, leaving 200km of quarries under the city abandoned and unused. Many, many years later, the people realized that they had the perfect conditions for aging wine down there. So the beautiful Merlot and Cabernet Franc wines of St. Emilion lie under the earth, hidden from the city above and covered by the present generations of vines, burrowing their roots deep into the limestone below where their ancestor’s lived. I walked through the city and saw all of the negative space in the limestone caves below turned into its positive counterparts in each building. The rain finally stopped and the sun came out with a vengeance. I walked the streets around nooks and crannies of stone and fell in love. I decided that I simply couldn’t leave yet to go to the next region, so I didn’t.



Chateau Soutard ~

2004 Grand Cru Classic~  65% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, & 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Deep purple hue with a lot of sediment. Aromas of vanilla and cherries that later yeilded as more distinctively, white chocolate, raspberry mouse. Fruit bomb flavor. 

2007 Grand Cru Classic~  65% Merlot, 30% Cabernet Franc, & 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Oddly enough, the aroma of this wine instantly made me think of charcuterie and basil. Almost like parmasean cheese. The taste reminded me of spice and pizza which was surprising and strange. I am told the spice comes from the limestone. This wine has high tannins and a very complex flavor. Later, the aromas open up to more fruit. Jacques tells us that it is best to open this bottle and let it breathe 2 hours prior to drinking. If it is a very old vintage - 30 minutes prior and if a very young vintage - 5 hours prior. 

Cardinal Villemaurine~

2011 Cardinal Villemaurine ~ 70% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Franc, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon. Aroma is reminiscent of Port like chocolate covered raspberries. Dry with red fruity and oaky flavors and light tannins. Very smooth.

2011 Clos Villemaurine ~ 80% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Franc. Old vines from Clos behind Chateau. Strawberry and cherry on the nose with stronger tannins. 50% aged in new French oak, and 50% in two year old French oak, which gives the wine more structure. Much more characterisitc of a Cabernet Franc despite being primarily Merlot based. 

Meursault with Nicolas

DISCLAIMER: Lengthy with a predisposition to attract wine geeks, and possibly bore others. 

NOTE: If you ever find yourself in Bourgogne, France, you must go to Meursault; and if you ever find yourself in Meursault, you must find Nicolas of Domaine Michelot. 

As I had previously learned that it was best to call ahead before visiting family wineries, I decided to do so that morning. I was headed to Meursault, infamous for it’s brilliant white wines, and by random chance decided to call Domaine Michelot. A French man answered the phone and he did not speak English, but quickly returned with his son who did. I told him that I was a writer from the States traveling through France to find the best wine to feature in my book. (....)

He asked what time I would like to come in and I proposed noon.

He laughed and said, “No. That is lunch.”

Um, okay … “2:00?” I asked.

“Fine. See you then.” He hung up.

Meursault was beautiful. Rolling planes of luscious green vines raced alongside my car daring me to outrun them. Small stone cottages popped their heads up from behind hills and plains, and tiny, clustered villages rose from the ground out of nowhere. The town of Meursault could hardly be called that. Quaint and remote, it was comprised of narrow dirt roads and sharp corners, leading you to believe you could possibly get lost and then popping you out on the other side right after. The buildings, all dressed in large grey stone, seemed to only have the freedom to express their individuality through shutter and door color, which ranged from teal, to red, purple to yellow … however creative one could be. 

At the fringes of the town lay Domaine Michelot, much more confident and independent than her surrounding brothers and sisters. With her Spanish tile roofing, white washed stone walls, and pink accents (doors and shutters only), she stood proud with a respectable, yet humble defiance … if there ever was such a thing.

As I pulled up in between the skyward stretched vines and their Domaine, I could see a woman in the garage working on what looked to be a bottling line. She could see me but neglected interest. I walked around, awkwardly, searching for an entrance, but to no avail. So, I stood by my car and gazed outward at the unending green lushness, soaking in the temporary warmth of the sun as the vines did before it was overtaken

Coming up from the field, a French man grunted at me and beckoned me inside. After a few very silent moments with the man and the woman, the clinking of bottles and the exhausted efforts of the machine, the son, Nicolas, walked around the corner. He wasn’t much taller than me, but strong and stocky; he had an explosive, mushroom cloud of dark hair that stuck straight up and out in every direction, giving him a good 6 inches on me. I noticed his hair before I noticed him and had to bite my lip to force my laughter into a polite smile. It was the most outrageous, best thing I had ever seen. He had a friendly, toothy grin and a mere smattering of freckles that danced along his nose and cheeks, betraying his Italian-looking appearance. I liked him instantly

He walked me through the upstairs room and explained to me, in very rough, broken English, that the woman was not bottling, but labeling. The bottling was done a long time before the labeling and the bottles were aged in the cellar until that time. Nicolas was a 6th generation member of the Michelot family. As the weather currently still had a personality disorder, dodging between downpours and sunshine, Nicolas said that he was very happy to have a break from the vineyard work to welcome the American journalist (I didn’t quite know how to correct that in French, so I didn’t...). I asked him if this weather was typical of Meursault in May and he shook his head with wide eyes and told me this was March weather. However, this year in March, they had June weather, so they were hoping it would all balance out somehow. He explained to me the concern about the weather, although I knew it all too well, and told me that in 2013, they only had a 50% harvest due to a cold, rainy spring. It was begining to seem that 2013 was a bad year for most places. 

We went underground to the 15th century cellar and it was absolutely gorgeous. Renovated in a way to preserve how old and rustic it was, while still exquisitely showcasing clean, modern design. Further underground, it was not so clean, nor renovated; dark, yet completely authentic. The ceilings hung low and a pungent, damp stone surrounded us. There were bottles everywhere stacked up in corners on wooden and steel shelves. Massive old barrels were built into the stone walls in the first few rooms. We had to duck under archways and around corners as we followed the maze. I was going in completely blind as Nicolas lit each room as we entered. Around several corners, the biggest room stretched out with new French oak barrels, which betrayed the rest of the cave with their unstained casks and fresh forest smell. Nicolas did his best to answer my questions and explain to me their process through a means of French/New Zealand slang and charades. I mainly leaned on what I formerly knew. 

Following him from this room, we then entered a small cave. It was the old tasting room from several generations before. Dark and damp with mold covered, black stone walls and ceiling, Nicolas asked if it was okay if we tasted down here instead of the nicer upstairs tasting room for the public. It was 100% okay with me. The only light in the room came from an old handmade, wine bottle chandelier that hung above us. Complete with rust, cobwebs, green, yellow, and rose tinted bottles, his great grandfather had made it many years ago.

I sat at the small wooden table in front of Nicolas and noticed at least two dozen open bottles behind him. They all looked much the same with plain white labels stating only the vintage year and region, or scribbled in sharpie on the bottles with no labels at all.

Pouring the first wine into my glass and then his, Nicolas began to tell me about it. In search of the correct word and using his hands in attempts to portray it, he swung his right arm out toward me, sending his glass flying across the table and landing in a pool in my lap. I laughed, but wide eyed and frozen, Nicolas panicked trying to find something around the old cave to clean it up with.

I learned that Meursault was comprised of many different sects (large and small areas), each containing different soil and possessing different elevation levels. For this reason, there are so many types of white wine that can be made from Meursault and they are all named after the sect from which they come from, rather than the varietal (as in the U.S.). All of the subtleties, inflictions, notes, and artistic designs of these wines lie in the vineyards from which they grow. Therefore, a single wine cannot be characterized as a Chardonnay among a world of Chardonnays; so much as a person could be encompassed solely by the surname they were born with. Each has a personality, a story, a history, family, and a home from where it is rooted and developed.

Nicolas started us (and then restarted after the spill) with the Bourgogne Blanc Stel Vin 2012. A Chardonnay; this wine can be made from any region in Bourgogne (Burgandy), however, Domaine Michelot uses only grapes from Meursault, a region that yields the very best whites. This wine was very fresh and easy to drink. Open, with a tingling acidity in the front, a buttery warmth in the middle and a smooth melon finish. It was your everyday table white and nothing particularly special. 

We went on to the Meursault Sous la Velle 2012. Nicolas showed me the “jam cork” that they are now using, which is made from breaking down the cork and pressing it into a very compact material, eliminating larger air holes. Although young, this wine has a fuller body and a pineapple taste. Nicolas presses his first two fingers against his thumb and flexing his wrist back and forth to search for the words, says it has “more fat on the tongue.”

Nicolas poured for us a glass of 2012 and 2010 Narvaux, a sect colder than the others with a higher elevation. We tried the 2012 first. With a lot of minerality on the nose, this wine starts fresh and then becomes spicy, warming the mouth in the middle, and ending with a salty finish. The 2010, however, was entirely different and much fruitier. It was very refreshing with flavors of prickly peach and mandarin oranges. I was transported to Baltimore on the brink of summer, sitting outside on Thames Street by the water.

The Meursault Charmes 1 er Cru 2012, which I expected to be good, had almost a vegetable quality to the nose and taste. Celery salt jumped to mind but that’s just because it’s one of those frequent and “appropriate” descriptors that weasel their way into filling the space while you are trying to place the smell. It wasn’t quite that; although, it was reminiscent of the celery aftertaste, the stringy part. It had a spicy finish that didn’t quite fit either. Nicolas tells me that this wine is very young and you are not to open it for 5 years.

“When too young, all taste same,” he explains as he dumps the rest into the pitch pot.

Nicolas poured us the Meursault Clos St. Felix 2011, whose grapes came from the Clos directly behind this Domaine, where I had looked out upon on my way in. He explained to me that “Clos” simply means a lot of vines that are enclosed with a stone wall. The sun warms the wall during the day, allowing the stones to hold that heat and warm the vines through the night. For this reason, they grow the quickest and are the first parcel picked during harvest. St. Felix has a compact limestone and clay soil with gravel overlay, “like a river,” Nicolas says. He points to the black, rock walls of the cave and says, “same.” The Clos St. Felix had a vanilla and perfume nose like spring flowers, and was much fruitier to the taste than the previous wines we had tried.

The Meursault Grands Charrons 2010, was one of the more interesting wines that I tried. Immediately, upon swirling and smelling the wine, you could pick up flint and salt on the nose. Nicolas called this “yod,” the first smell you get after just opening an oyster. He mimics shucking an oyster and then opening both hands, smells them as if he were inhaling the oyster. For the most part, this I how we communicated. He said it also was the smell of being served a plate of fresh seafood. It tasted entirely different than it smelled. There was high acidity on the front, but an unexpected honey in the mouth, followed by a citrus finish. It didn’t make any sense and I liked it for that reason.

Although we tried many of the different Meursault region wines, Nicolas focused on a few in particular to show how different they were – Charmes, Genevriere, & Perrieres. He described the differences to me in a way that made perfect sense to him but probably won’t to the rest of us. Charmes produced a more charming, fine, and fresh wine, while Genevriere lent to more of a generous one, and Perrieres was simply “straight.”

We compared the 2009, 2008, 2007, & 2003 Charmes. (A private vertical tasting by the winemaker and I was in heaven!) Nicolas told me that 2009 was an easy year with beautiful weather the entire season and an early September harvest. Nicolas said this wine smelled like “a forest after big rain, with mushroom.” I didn’t know about all that. To me, the aroma was reminiscent of dried fruit and the taste a more candied apricot or prune. But he was the expert and I liked his descriptions. They seemed to be just as off the wall as mine tended to be.

With a nose of Brioche, patisserie, and almond, the Charmes 2008, had a much fruitier taste, like ripe peaches. This wine was lovely - fully open and ready to drink. The Charmes 2007, however, strangely seemed younger than the 2008. With more acidity, it was harsher and not as well integrated. There was brief nuttiness on the nose and oak on the tongue, but it lent quickly to a citrus and salty finish.

Pouring the Charmes 2003, Nicolas told me that this was a very warm and dry year – too much so, that they had to harvest in August because the grapes grew too fast. Nicolas said, “you can smell the sun, the maturity.” It did have a burnt characteristic to the nose and mouth, but it smelled like salty ocean air to me, and tasted like salted caramels.

I liked to think of these wines as living things and give them personalities unique to themselves. I imagined them all to be siblings, born from the same family, growing up in the same town (Charmes or Perrieres), but in different time periods. They all had a similar foundation, but a different life. Growing up with the influence of their specific spot in time, as well as, experiencing different hands and circumstances along the way, they each yield an individual outcome. No two years and regions developing in the same way.

Genevrieres was the most forgiving of the families (sects) within Meursault. There was more soil in this region and thus produced a more generous wine. We tasted the Genevrieres 2009. The aroma of this wine was doing all sorts of things; I smelled herbs, flowers, and a slight licorice that was uncommon to me among white wines. It had something for everyone and the combination was not off putting as one might suspect. The mouth was filled with smooth flavors of dried fruits and nuts and had a long finish. One might call Genevrieres a skilled people pleaser; too reluctant to stand out overwhelmingly, she has a subtle way of relating to everyone she meets.

The straight shooter and fighter of the group was Perrieres. The vines in this sect grow out of volcanic rock above a quarry. Nicolas poured us the Meursault Perrieres 1 er Cru 2007. “It smells just like that place,” he says, “you can walk under Perrieres vines, drinking a glass of Perrieres.” I had never heard of anything like that before and was fascinated by the idea of a tunnel below the roots of the vines. This wine had very stubborn minerality on the nose and front, but if patient, finished softer and sweeter than expected.

Being the last bottle and 2 hours into this tasting, I thanked Nicolas and motioned that I would go now. He hesitated and drawing his finger, insisted that I wait for one last bottle, a “surprise.” He left the cave and returned several minutes later with a different looking, older, and unlabeled bottle bearing no indication of what it was. Blowing the dust off it, he looked up at me with a playful grin.

Discovering that the cork was all wet and no good upon opening it, he explained to me that, usually, every 15 years they take bottles like this one and transfer the liquid to newer bottles and re-cork them with current corks, in order to preserve them. This one, however, may have been skipped.

Pouring us each a full glass, he announced, "Le Limozin," and pushed it over to me. “Say vintage,” he said, watching me with amusement.

It was a deep golden hue, and I knew that it was going to be funky. I couldn’t help but think of a co-worker back at Boordy that would go crazy over this wine. At first, it smelled like dried fruits and toast, but it began to constantly change by the minute.

Dried fruits, toast, foie gras, bread, pâté on toast, mushrooms, salt. It was all of that. One of the most interesting wines I had ever tasted, between aromas and flavors, it was a complete meal. To me it was, quintessentially, sitting somewhere on the sea and eating some sort of duck pâté on buttered toast points, and couldn’t be anything but.

Nicolas beckoned for me to return with the year of this wine.

“2000?” I guessed, not wanting to seem presumptuous that he would open anything older for a stranger.

He shook his head, “Earlier,” he said, with his nose in the glass and his eyes on me.

“1990?” I said, skeptical and feeling that it was even older than that.

“1982,” he said as if it were no big deal. 

“Wow. When you said special, I didn’t know I was that special!” I said with a grin.

He shrugged and with a smile said, “When it raining, I open ’82.”

I laughed. “Do you sell this?”

Nicolas shook his head, “No, no, we drink this.”

It turned out there were stacks and stacks in rooms that stretched out along the underground tunnels from years dating back over all 6 generations, that the family saved to simply drink together. This wine, Nicolas explained, would not be drunk with food. This wine was only drunk here, at Domaine Michelot, with the Michelots.

After finding out that I was headed to the south the next day, Nicolas gave me the contact information of a friend of his in Bandol, and thus the gypsy wishers were blown from winery to winery from then on; the present contact sending me on to the next and so forth. Hooked blissfully on a path designed and unfolded by fate, I smiled, knowing that this was exactly how it would go. 

The Champagne Houses of Reims

When in Champagne, drink the Golden Nectar. When raining in Champagne, drink copious amounts below the earth, and come up bubbly. 

Most of you probably know that Champagne is indigenous to the city of Reims and surrounding region and that, technically, you are not allowed to call anything made outside of this region Champagne. (What we have been drinking all these years is merely "sparkling wine".) What you may not know is that deep in the earth, underground the city, stretches 150 miles of Champagne caves, housing over 200 million bottles. These caves date back to Roman times, 2000 years ago in the 3rd and 4th centuries. When Galo Romans were looking for building materials, they found a soft, chalk-like stone in the earth of Reims that they could carve out by hand, transport, crush, and mix with water to form a type of cement. They took what they needed and left deep holes everywhere in the city afterward. The tops of these holes are now tiny windows from the city below to the city above. 

The chalk walls and the depth of the caves keep them at 8 -12 degrees celsius, depending on the depth of the level, which is perfect for aging Champagne. The caves have not only been used for centuries to make and house Champagne, but were ways for the monks to transport wine underground to different religious buildings, a bomb shelter for soldiers during the war, and an underground refuge for the people of Reims to live, shop, and eat during the Germain invasion (at which time, the making of Champagne had been put on pause.)

I stopped in Reims for percisely that reason - the Champagne. How many times in your life can you say you have drank actual "Champagne" from Champagne, France in Champagne, France. However, I clearly did not plan well seeing that it is, yet again, another Holiday weekend in France. That means that most of the more commonly known Champagne Houses - Krug, Ruinart, Pierre Moncuit, Veuve Clicquot - were all booked and have been for the past month. There were still some great ones that had openings. 

I was able to book two tours in English at Champagne Pommery and Taittinger, and attempted to sneak into Ruinart (they have guards everywhere - literally). It was raining and cold and I looked like the ultimate American tourist dressed like a soccer mom of 9, with skinny jeans, tennis shoes, a north face, AND a backpack (I can't even...). I had not anticipated such weather and frankly did not care much for what I looked like right now. 


My map said that Champagne Pommery, among others, was only an 8 minute drive from my place. Once away from the Cathedral and cobble stone area, the road looked much like any other road that you could find anywhere in the world. But at the end of it stood Champagne Pommery, overly gigantic and colorful, right on the edge of a major road. The slate blues and burnt pink hues of the castle struck me as odd and distasteful at first. As if, I were coming for Disney Land and not one of the oldest Champagne Houses in the world. 

Something felt very off about the whole thing. Like a Christmas store at a beach resort, or the remnants of the Enchanted Forest among a shopping center on Route 40. Come get your discounts at K-Mart but don't mind the giant king and sea creature lurking above the rooftops, reminding you of your childhood and a better time. (Sorry, that one was for the Marylanders). 

To it's left was Ruinart, which at least was modeled in the color sphere that I had expected them all to be. And to it's right, a dollhouse looking mansion stood, as if built out of gingerbread. Shapeless stone apartment complexes lay directly across from these expansive displays of luxury. The whole thing, from the outside, was just strange. 

Inside, with ticket booths and gates, I was still skeptical. But upon the first member of staff that I talked to, until the last, I became increasingly and pleasantly surprised. Despite the expansive touristic pull, this staff was genuinely a delight. I was 45 minutes early (I know, shocking), so I ordered a glass of Pomm's Summertime Brut *- a Blanc de Blanc (100% Chardonnay). The bartender graciously attempted English and did quite well explaining all the varieties that they offered. He also gave me a free glass of the Rose Appenage*, because he had accidentally poured one too many. He even went so far as to bring me over an English version of the history and tasting notes when he noticed me writing afterwards at a corner table. 

The quote on the inside flap from Madame Pommery made me forgo my initial impression, despite all of the exterior perceptions. Yes, sometimes, it is that easy. 

" I wanted this estate to be like an open book, facing the world and time. Leave your imprint on it, as I have left mine, for posterity. And let it be worthy of respect, I have wanted these walls to express each day for this Champagne, a wine that has now become a shared part of our souls and carries the memory of our art forever."

I knew then that would I would find underground would be something of unique beauty. If not only, for the reason that such love and devotion had gone into it. 

I know they said it was an English tour but the French woman who gave it sounded like she was still speaking French. I admired her effort but strained to catch maybe, every 5 words. She was dressed like a 1950's flight attendant with scarf and tilted hat and walked up and down the 116 steps of the cave with ease in heels. It was practically a private tour, aside from a group of four Belgians who scoffed heartily when hearing I was from the States and asked the tour be given in French. They were pleasant and welcome company during and after the tour. I hadn't realized how little genuine human interaction I had had in the last 3 days, if any. 

The caves were vast and dark; the air cold and damp. Millions of bottles lay down here covered in years of dust and debri, just waiting to be ready, waiting to be popped. I had no idea that Champagne aged for so long. The vintage Champagnes, only made during exceptional years, aged for 5 -8 years before the yeast was removed and the bottles were corked. The non-vintage for 3-4. The Grand Cru of Champagnes aged for even longer and could be cellared up to 15 years after purchased and before opening. 

Some extremely old vintages lay covered in caves waiting to be ordered and go for hundres of thousands of dollars. The only two bottles that Pommery would never sell were the last 1878 and 1874 bottle that remained. 


Taittinger, while a name not so old as the original families, has universally exploded and become the 3rd largest Champagne House to be known around the world. Due in a major part to it's exceptional market strategy and artistic expression, Taittinger has made his brand a household name. This original Champagne house before Taittinger owned it, however, is the third oldest in Reims. 

This tour was much larger than the previous one and given by a very lanky, very ginger, scottish boy (and I say boy for a lack of better term to describe his youth) in a suit, who walked exceptionally slow and stood absurdly straight, with his hands clasped behind his back at all times. He was very matter-of-fact and seemed quite uneasy with the large crowd, only relaxing momentarily with a small dry joke (that was actually quite funny) before immediately recovering his face. 

I was fascinated to discover that here, they turned all of their bottles by hand. While in a slanted, upside down position, there was a perfect clockwise/ counter-clockwise equation to turning the bottles in order to coax the yeast down into the neck of the bottle. Two of their most experienced turners, could finish over 8,000 bottles in an hour. 

Here I learned about the various uses of the caves over the centuries and how the tunnels that once connected all of them were now closed up. Now all separate and (somewhat) competing Champagne Houses, they wouldn't want the other team sneaking into each other's caves unnoticed. Made sence. Still, how incredible it would have been to be able to walk the underground tunnels of the city the way that the cloister monks did so many centuries ago. 

It's safe to say if this is my last post .... you know where to come look for me. 

Tasting Notes:

(bear in mind the head cold!)

*Pommery's Summertime Brut ~ Non-vintage. Blanc de Blanc. Made from a dozen selected Champagne vineyards. Light, crisp and refreshing with a tinge of bitterness in the mid palate. 

*Pommery's Rose Apanage ~ Non-vintage. Not made in the Saignee method, but by adding Pinot Noir wine. Salmon appearance, aromas of delicate pink rose petals. Light, crisp, fruity with a hint of sweetness. 

*Taittinger's Brut Reserve ~  40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir, 25% Pinot Meunier. Crystal, gold hue. Muted nose. Crisp and fresh taste with granny smith apples on the front and almost a brief nutty finish.  *Favorite*