Spicy Chicken Salad with Guacamole and a South African Rosé for #winePW

With Cinco de Mayo in mind, the May wine pairing weekend (#winePW) topic was South of the Border. The choice of topics by Christy Majors, this month’s host of #winePW, couldn’t have been any better. You will find an introductory post about this month’s paring on Cindy’s blog, Confessions of a Culinary Diva.

We love preparing and eating Mexican food and have several favorite Mexican food cookbooks. Diana Kennedy’s Mexican Regional Cooking was my first Mexican cookbook, and always the cookbook I consult first when thinking about cooking Mexican food.

Mexican cookbooks
We also have two cookbooks by Rick Bayless, Authentic Mexican and Mexican Everyday. Both are excellent and we cook from them often.

Because our weekends have been busy in the past month, we needed to find a recipe that didn’t require lots of time. As much as I was hungry for cochinita pibil, there was just not time for it this month. Another factor is the unseasonably warm weather we’ve been having, which has already put us into summer mode in terms of eating lighter.

We chose Grilled Chicken Salad with Rustic Guacamole, Romaine and Queso Añejo from Mexican Everyday by Rick Bayless. The salad was delicious, very spicy and didn’t take too long to prepare. Perfect for our South of the Border wine pairing weekend.

The introduction of this recipe in the cookbook perfectly describes it:

“Here’s an offering to entice folks out of the “grilled chicken Caesar” rut. True, it starts with grilled chicken, but chicken that is redolent of roasted garlic, green chile, cilantro and lime, chicken that dances the cumbia with guacamole, crisp romaine and nutty aged cheese.”

Now for a wine to pair with this spicy chicken salad. We considered a white wine initially, figuring a dry white wine would be a good match. Ultimately though, we decided to pour a rosé…we just love dry rosé so much and drink it very often during the summer months (though I am not opposed to drinking rosé during cooler months as well!) We chose our last bottle of 2013 Waterkloof Circumstance Cape Coral.

The Food

The recipe calls for a spicy dressing that is prepared from chilis and garlic cooked in oil and then pureed along with cilantro, lime juice, salt and pepper to taste. The dressing is used to marinate the chicken breasts before grilling them, to spice up a chunky guacamole and grilled onion mixture as well as a dressing for the lettuce.

The ingredients
I used two serrano chilis and one jalapeño. The jalapeño was not hot at all, tasting more like a green bell pepper than a chili. The two serrano chilis were spicy however, and in spite of their spiciness, I did not remove the ribs or seeds from the halved chilis before sautéing them along with the garlic and jalapeño. As a result, the dressing was very spicy, just how we like it. To make a dressing that is less spicy, simply remove the ribs and seeds before you sauté them.

Next, I combined the softened chiles, garlic and the oil with cilantro, lime juice and salt and pepper in the bowl of a small food processor. I processed the mixture until it was smooth. It was delicious.

We marinated the three skinless, boneless chicken breasts (Mary’s Free Range Chicken is the only chicken I buy) in a bit of the dressing for the length of time it took to prepare the grill and for the fire to burn down.

The recipe called for a white onion to be grilled, but because there were beautiful, red spring onions in the Farmer’s Market I used them instead.

While Pete grilled the onions and the chicken breasts, I prepared the lettuce. In addition to the chopped romaine, I used a bit of baby arugula — just for interest.

Once the onions were grilled, I chopped them and added them to the diced avocados along with a few teaspoons of the spicy dressing. This makes the rustic guacamole, which you can leave chunky or smash if you like the texture a bit more creamy.

Spicy chicken salad with guacamole
We let the chicken breasts rest a few minutes before dicing them, and assembling the salad. I added a few tablespoons of the dressing along with a bit more olive oil to lightly dress the greens. Then each plate got a dollop of guacamole, some diced chicken on a bed of greens and a dusting of grated Mexican queso añejo cheese.

The Wine

We dug into our wine cellar and pulled out one of our very favorite rosés — one made in South Africa. Waterkloof Wine Estate is a biodynamically-certified wine farm located in Somerset West, in the southeastern portion of Stellenbosch. We first tasted this rosé during a winery visit last July. At that time, we fell in love with the beautiful setting of the winery and their commitment to biodynamic farming principles, which we wrote about in a prior post. We will post shortly about our wine tasting with Waterkloof winemaker Nadia Barnard and the delicious lunch we enjoyed at their spectacular restaurant. It seems like we always have that food and wine thing going on!

Waterkloof Circumstance Cape Coral2013 Waterkloof Circumstance Cape Coralpale coppery-salmon color in the glass with generous aromas of ripe berries, spice and earth. Similar berry flavors combine with delicate earthy flavors and just a grating of citrus zest. The finish is fairly long lasting with flavor and bright  acidity. ABV 13.5%.

To Pete, this wine sings with the flavors he associates with Mourvèdre. Aromas are evident as soon as the wine is poured into the glass and the flavors exhibit a level of complexity that mostly comes only from a rosé made using several varieties. It really is a special wine.

The grapes were hand harvested and gently whole bunch pressed. Fermentation, using natural yeast, was long and slow in large wooden fermenters which allows the complex flavors you taste in the glass to develop. We loved the wine the first time we tasted it last July, and still do today.

The Pairing

Wow! The Grilled Chicken Salad with Rustic Guacamole, Romaine and Queso Añejo was deliciously spicy, peppery and creamy thanks to the guacamole. The chicken had nice smoky, charred flavors and a zestiness thanks to the marinade. The combination of romaine and baby arugula made for an interesting contrast of flavor and texture.

Spicy chicken salad and Waterkloof rosé
I was a bit concerned that the heat of the dish would overwhelm the rosé, but that was not the case. The spicy flavors of the chicken salad actually brought out even more berry flavors in the rosé — truly an amazing combination. Even though the rosé is completely dry, it did seem to cool down the heat from the salad just a bit.

Really a delicious combination and a good choice for any evening when time is short. We grilled three chicken breasts, which means we had two left over which we sliced and used to make sandwiches for lunches  the following few days. I love to cook once and eat several times!

Benefit number two from this recipe was left over spicy salad dressing. We used the spicy dressing the next evening to marinate halibut before grilling it. Oh my gosh, it was so good — worth a post on its own.

And finally, benefit number three is that we have now enjoyed our last bottle of 2013 Waterkloof Cape Coral and one of our favorite wine purveyors now has the 2014 in stock  so our cellar has been replenished. We will be enjoying the 2014 Waterkloof Circumstance Cape Coral rosé all summer long!

For more South of the Border recipe and wine pairing ideas, check out the posts of the rest of our wine pairing weekend bloggers. The list looks delicious!

We will be chatting about all of these great combinations, and more, on Saturday morning (May 9) at 8am PST. I know it’s early, but grab a cup of coffee and join the conversation by following #winePW on Twitter.


Camilla from Culinary Adventures with Cam has prepared “Dry-Rubbed Tri Tip Roast with Halter Ranch ‘s 2011 Cotes de Paso”
Cindy from Grape Experiences “Wine and Dine for #winePW: Matanegra Vendimia Seleccionada 2010 and Queso Fundido”
David from Cooking Chat is pairing “Spanish Wine for Pork Tacos”
Jennifer from Vino Travels mixes it up with “Mexican meets Italian: Fish Tacos with Stemmari Sparkling Grillo”
Lori from Dracaena Wines “Mexican Musings on #WinePW”
Martin from Enofylz Wine Blog “Chicken Pipian Verde, Mexican Quinoa and the Devil’s Collection White”
Michelle from Rockin Red Blog “Celebrating Cinco de Mayo with #WinePW”
Sarah from Curious Cuisiniere presents “Carnitas and the Basics of Mexican Food & Wine Pairing”
Wendy from A Day in the Life on a Farm is bring us Veggie Quesadillas with and old vine Nisia from Spain
Confessions of a Culinary Diva is pairing wines from Baja California

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Montes: Dry Farming in the Colchagua Valley, Chile

Montes winery was founded with the goal of producing truly premium quality Chilean wine for export. At a time when Chilean winemakers were producing wines mostly for local consumption, the two original founders, Aurelio Montes, Sr. and Douglas Murray, had bigger plans. The year was 1987 and by the following year Montes and Murray were joined by Alfredo Vidaurre and Pedro Grand and the winery was founded.

Montes vineyard map

Image from monteswines.com

Montes was among the first to plant grapes in foothills of the Apalta Mountains in the western Colchagua Valley. They planted the granite soils to Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, and Merlot vines grown from French clones. The wines were aged in new French oak.

Syrah soon followed, the first to be planted in the Colchagua Valley. Others were skeptical that Syrah could succeed here. As a nod to that skepticism, the Montes bottling from their steepest vineyards is called Folly.

The 1987 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignon is the wine that started it all for the winery. Over the past 25 years the reputation of Montes has increased as has the reputation of Chilean wine in general. Today, Montes’ wines are exported to more than 100 countries around the world.

Farming sustainably has been a priority at Montes since its beginning. According to owner and winemaker Aurelio Montes, Sr., “80% of good wine comes from the vineyards and only 20% from the cellar.” By using integrated management programs to monitor diseases and pests, natural predators can be used when possible to minimize the use of pesticides.

Erosion and compaction in the vineyards are controlled with the use of ground cover. Grazing animals, sheep and llamas, help keep weeds under control and reduce the need to use herbicides. Water use is closely monitored and studies have been undertaken to determine the effects of limited water application on fruit development. As a result of these studies, Montes has determined the optimal water needs for their vineyards based on soil type, location and variety. According to the winery, “Findings have been dramatic, illustrating that less irrigation results in lower yields of higher quality grapes.”

So, most vineyards are sparingly irrigated using drip irrigation. Some vineyards are dry-farmed, meaning they are watered only when Mother Nature does not provide enough moisture to sustain the grapevines. The result: better quality fruit and a significant amount of water is being saved in the vineyard. During the 2013-2014 season, the winery was able to decrease water usage in the vineyards by 65%.

Certified Sustainable Wine of Chili seal

Seal from sustentavid.org

Montes first earned National Wine Industry Sustainability Code Certification in 2011. Today they are in the process of completing certification for all three areas of the code: vineyards, winery, and social development.

We recently had the opportunity to taste three wines produced by Montes and to chat with winemaker Aurelio Montes, Sr. via Twitter during #SommChat. The virtual tasting was organized by Feast PR, who sent us the samples for tasting. All three wines are produced from vineyards following Montes’ dry farming practices.

Montes Alpha 2012 Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 Montes Alpha Cabernet Sauvignondark ruby in the glass with aromas of dark fruit, spice and a hint of bell pepper. Flavors are similar with dark fruit dominating with just back notes of green pepper for interest. Tannins are smooth an well integrated. ABV 14%.

This is a wine that should appeal to a wide spectrum of wine lovers. It has nice fruit flavors and ample tannins without being overly tannic. The flavorful dark fruit component is not at all over ripe and the subtle herbaceous notes of bell pepper make for an interesting glass of wine. It is easily recognizable as Cabernet Sauvignon.

This Cabernet would be delicious with a pot roast, beef stroganoff or even pizza or a hamburger. It will be easy to enjoy after your meal is complete as well.

The fruit is harvested from the Montes’ Marchigüe and Apalta estates in the Colchagua Valley. Most of the fruit is grown on the Apalta estate; there Cabernet Sauvignon thrives on the flatland and lower slopes of the hills where soils are deepest. Marchigüe is flatter with lower hills and shallow soils.

The final blend includes 10% of Cabernet’s favorite blending partner, Merlot. 50% of the wine is aged for 12 months in first, second and third-use French oak barrels. Decanting for 30 minutes is recommended.

Montes Alpha 2012 Syrah2012 Montes Alpha Syrah inky dark ruby in the glass with generous aromas of dark fruit, a bit of smoke and a hint of licorice. Dark complex fruit flavors of ripe blackberries and plums combine with grippy tannins for a wine with lots of body and texture. Smoky flavors add to the complexity in this delicious, extroverted wine. 14.8%

Fire up the grill and give the red meat of your choice a spicy dry rub and you’ll have a match for this bold, flavorful Syrah. It would be delicious with smoked ribs too.

The fruit for this wine also comes from the from Montes’ Marchigüe and Apalta estates in the Colchagua Valley. The final blend of 90 % Syrah, 7% Cabernet Sauvignon and 3% Viognier is aged in 55% French oak aging for 12 months in first, second and third-use barrels. Decant for at least 30 minutes prior to serving.

Montes Alpha 2012 Carmenere2012 Montes Alpha Carmenèrevery dark ruby in the glass with complex aromas of dark fruit, black pepper and herbaceous green peppers. Dark berry fruit flavors combine with hints of green peppers and black pepper spice. Ample tannins provide texture and interest. This medium-bodied wine has a finish that is very long with both flavor and tannins. ABV 14.5%

I love Carmenère because it can exhibit that interesting combination of complex dark fruit flavors and spice with herbaceous green pepper flavors in the background. My favorite examples of this variety exhibit only back notes of green pepper flavors, which is the case with this Montes Alpha Carmenère. It was my favorite wine of the group.

The Carmenère for this bottling is grown on Montes’ El Arcángel estate in the Marchigüe sector of the Colchagua Valley. The estate is characterized by diverse, shallow granitic soils and relatively flat topography including low hills. Yield is a modest 2.8 ton/acre and leaf thinning is used to ensure even ripening and reduced pyrazines which are responsible for Carmenère’s characteristic herbaceous flavors.

The final blend includes 10% Cabernet Sauvignon with 55% French oak aging for 12 months in first, second and third-use barrels. Decanting for one hour is recommended.

This group of wines from Montes provides plenty of flavor for a reasonable price. I found prices online ranging from $15 to $23, making these wines a serious consideration for weekday dining.

One final note. Angels figure prominently in the winery, in the form of statues, and on the bottle labels for a very good reason. Original partner, Douglas Murray, survived two near-fatal automobile accidents and as a result his faith in angels is very strong. Angels have become, according to the winery, ” a symbol of the winery’s philosophy – a commitment to be a positive force and influence.”

Thanks to Aurelio Montes, Sr. for so ably and enthusiastically answering our questions during #SommChat. We enjoyed the conversation as much as we enjoyed the wine!

Nice job of organizing by Feast PR, we appreciate the opportunity to participate in this tasting of Montes Alpha wines.


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Lodi Wines for Earth Day and Everyday

We celebrated Earth Day this year by participating in a online tasting of wine and cheese— naturally. The Earth Day tasting featured four wines produced in accordance with Lodi RulesTM for Sustainable Winegrowing and provided a great opportunity to learn about Lodi RulesTM .

The lineup
Lodi RulesTM is the first third-party-certified sustainable winegrowing program in California. That’s a mouthful. The effort started in 1991 when the Lodi Winegrape Commission was established. Informal meetings of growers resulted in integrated pest management practices in the vineyards — that is efforts to control vineyard pests using their natural predators. Ideas as simple as introducing owl nesting boxes in the vineyards to draw owls into the vineyards and thereby control the numbers of grapevine root-munching gophers. Those early efforts also became the basis for the California Sustainable Winegrowing Program.

In 2005 the original set of standards were published and endorsed by Protected HarvestTM , a non-profit organization that certifies sustainable farming standards. That same year 1455 acres were certified by six Lodi farming families. It was the first such certification for the use of sustainable farming practices to grow wine grapes in California.

Lodi Rules Certified GreenThe first wines using the Lodi RulesTM Certified Green seal were bottled with the 2007 vintage. In 2013 the Lodi RulesTM standards underwent significant revision resulting in the current comprehensive approach to farming that includes the goals of improving water and air quality, soil health and employee training and safety initiatives.

According to Stuart Spencer, owner and winemaker at St. Amant Winery and Program Manager at Lodi Winegrape Commission, as Lodi RulesTM celebrates its 10th anniversary, over 100 growers have certified 30,000 acres in California (21,000 acres are located within the Lodi AVA). It requires a significant commitment in terms of time and financial resources to earn Lodi RulesTM certification. Hats off to those viticulturists who have done so.

The Earth Day wine tasting was hosted by LoCA and each wine was paired with a cheese selected by Cindy Della Monica, cheesemonger and owner of Cheese Central in Downtown Lodi. We were invited to join the live video tasting, led by Stuart and Cindy, and received the wine and cheese as tasting samples.

Pairing 1

Acquiesce Picpoul Blanc and cheese2014 Acquiesce Picopul Blanclight yellow in the glass, but with delicate floral and melon aromas. Flavors of summer melons combine with a dusty minerality and citrus pith for great complexity and a clean, fresh finish. Delicate background flavors of white flowers contribute to the bouquet of flavors. ABV 12.5%. $24.

Acquiesce Winery owner and winemaker Susan Tipton has only 100 vines of Picpoul Blanc planted in her vineyard. Her original plan was to use the Picpoul as a blending grape. That quickly changed once she tasted the finished wine; it was simply too delicious not to be bottled as a varietal wine.

With the exception of a Grenache rosé, Susan makes exclusively white wines. She recently had 6.5 acres of Zinfandel removed to make way for additional Picpoul Blanc, Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Grenache Noir.

Also coming in the spring of 2016, Susan will be planting two varieties new not only to California, but the US — Clairette Blanc and Bourboulenc. There is much more to look forward to from this adventurous winemaker!

You will need to look carefully on the back label to see the Lodi RulesTM Certified Green seal; the artful bottle and label designs make it a challenge to include the seal on the label.

Cypress Grove Midnight Moonivory in color and with a very firm texture, this mild goat cheese is tangy with nutty with hints of herbs. The rind on this cheese is waxed, so peel it off before you eat the cheese.

The combination of Acquiesce Picopul Blanc and the Midnight Moon cheese really popped, concentrating the flavors of both. The melon flavors in the wine developed nicely as did the nutty quality of the cheese.

Pairing 2

Oak Farm Vineyards Sauvignon Bland and cheese2014 Oak Farm Vineyards Sauvignon Blanc nearly colorless in the glass with delicate tropical fruit aromas and flavors that finish with lingering citrus and a hint of dried hay. This wine is flavorful, light and crisp. Perfect for a warm afternoon. ABV 13.55%. $19.

The Sauvignon Blanc for this wine comes from the Mohr Fry Ranch located within Lodi’s Mokelumne River AVA. The ranch is farmed by Jerry Fry and his son Bruce, fourth and fifth-generation Lodi farmers who were among the first farmers to earn Lodi RulesTM certification for their vineyards.

Oak Farm Vineyards has an interesting history of its own. The ranch was originally purchased by William DeVries in 1860. He was known for his love of trees, and the property is home to many beautiful old oak trees, in addition to the grand home he built in 1876.

A beautiful old redwood barn graces the property, standing proudly beside the new wine production and wine tasting facility built by the Panella family, current owners and caretakers. If you’ve not visited the property, you should. The wines, which are elegantly crafted by winemaker Chad Joseph, are delicious and the setting among the vines is beautiful and peaceful.

Cypress Grove Humbolt Fog Grandewhite and crumbly in texture with a vegetable-ash rind and layer, this tart, flavorful cheese is also a bit herbaceous and citrusy. The flavors are very complex and long lasting. This cheese just melts in your mouth. The rind is edible and delicious.

I think of Humbolt Fog as birthday cake cheese, because that’s what a wedge of this cheese reminds me of. The vegetable ash “icing” and “filling” create a layer cake look that reminds me of a slice of birthday cake.

When paired with the wine, once again the flavors of the wine just pop. Tropical fruit flavors in the wine are elaborated and herbaceous notes in the cheese develop. Really delicious.

Pairing 3

St. Amant Barbera and cheese2013 St. Amant Barberatranslucent ruby in the glass with generous aromas and flavors of blackberries, tobacco and earth. A bit of cherry fruit flavor adds complexity along with well-integrated tannins in this medium-bodied wine with a fairly long finish. This wine manages to be very flavorful without being too ripe. ABV 14.5%. $18.

This wine receives just a bit of oak aging, ten months in 20% new American oak, to produce an extremely food-friendly wine. Stuart told us among his favorite food pairings is Bagna Cauda. Now there’s a pairing worth exploring.

The Spencer family “saved” this vineyard from being used entirely to produce Gallo Hearty Burgundy. They were convinced in 1998 by winegrower Ted Levantini to at least make a few barrels to see how it came out. Well, according to St. Amant Winery, “The 2013 marks our 16th vintage from this 42-year-old vineyard NE of Lodi.” I guess you could say the Spencers are happy with the result (as are their customers).

Fiscalini Farms San Joaquin Golda firm yellow cheese with a mild nuttiness and toasty flavors. I love the crunchy texture of the protein crystals this cheese. As this cow’s milk cheese warms, the flavors really develop.

The pairing of St. Amant Barbera and the San Joaquin Gold is spot on. The fruity flavors of the Barbera and the nutty flavors of the San Joaquin Gold compliment each other nicely. The grip of the cheese stands up to the nicely-integrated tannins in the Barbera.

Pairing 4

Michael David Inkblot and cheese2012 Michael David Winery Inkblot Tannatinky-dark ruby with violet edges in the glass. Generous aromas of coconut, toast and ripe dark fruit aromas are followed by very ripe dark fruit flavors and grippy tannins. This wine is a bit sweet and a bit hot on the finish which is long lasting. ABV 15.3%. $35.

There is nothing light weight about this 100% Tannat, starting with the heft of the bottle. I think lifting the bottle could count as weight training! This is a bold, ripe wine that will be enjoyed by those looking for a big wine with lots of texture. This wine needs food to stand up to the bold flavors and ample, grippy tannins. But that’s why you drink Tannat, right — for the tannins?

We were asked during the BrandLive tasting what we saw on the Inkblot label. Well, I see two sea horses clinking their mugs of Tannat together with the wine splashing up out of the mugs. It is a very clever label design. What do you see?

Central Coast Creamery Seascapevery firm white cheese with delicate herbal, earthy and minerally flavors. This cheese is produced from a combination of cow’s and goat’s milk, giving it mild but complex flavors. Don’t eat the rind.

Cindy told us she struggled with this wine and cheese pairing because of the bold flavors of the Tannat. The wine is so full flavored and so tannic that it overpowers the cheese. To my taste, this Tannat needs a grilled Tri-Tip with a spicy dry rub. Save the cheese pairing for one of the other wines in the group.

Thanks to LoCA for sponsoring the wine and cheese tasting and for providing the tasting samples. Charles Communications Associates organized the Brandlive tasting, and did a great job as always. Stuart and Cindy provided an hour of engaging conversation highlighting the variety of interesting and delicious wines being produced in Lodi as well as all of the cheese details.

Cindy’s cheese shop, Cheese Central, is located in Downtown Lodi among the other shops and tasting rooms along N. School Street. She stocks between 80 and 100 cheeses and will assist you in choosing the perfect cheese for you – by tasting them, of course. This is a perfect time of year for a walking tour of Downtown Lodi.


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New White Wines from Markus Wine Co. and Borra Vineyards: Ready for summer sipping

When Markus Niggli talks about his wines, you need to be prepared to pay close attention. He will recite harvest dates, º Brix, pH and TA levels so quickly it will make your head spin. He loves making wine and taking about wine.

Markus is making some wonderfully complex, unique and always-changing white wines for his Markus Wine Co., a subventure of Borra Vineyards, while continuing to make all of the delicious white and red wines for Borra Vineyards.

His winemaking point of view is informed by his European heritage. Markus grew up in Switzerland. He travels to Europe regularly, tasting wine as he goes; always curious, always thinking about how he can translate the flavors he tastes in the wines that he makes.

One such wine tasting experience years ago in Switzerland inspired his first Markus Wine Co. bottling last year. The wine was a Kerner, aged in oak. At the time Markus thought if he could ever find Kerner grapes, he would love to make a similar wine.

As luck would have it, Lodi is home to Kerner, and many other German and Austrian varieties — at Mokelumne Glen Vineyards. Markus has been working with Bob and Mary Lou Koth for several years now and last year Markus debuted his 2013 Nimmo, a Kerner, Gewürztraminer, Riesling and Bacchus blend aged in oak. A very unique wine made to bottle age.

Markus recently released three white wines under his Markus Wine Co. label and one under the Borra Vineyards label — all of which we were fortunate to taste.

Before we dive into the wines, just a bit about the Markus Wine Co. labels. They all tell a story of place…hometown, inspiration, collaboration. The label designs represent a collaboration between Markus and the artists. The front labels are designd by University of the Pacific Visual Arts students, Sheng Moua and Anneka Weinert, along with Michael E. Leonard, Visiting Lecturer at Pacific. The artists have translated Markus’ inspiration for making these wines into the images you see on the bottles.

The back labels document all of the wine production details and specifications. No detail escapes Markus’ notice, and so all of those details are there on the back label for the interested wine lover to devour. Markus puts considerable thought into what goes on the bottle as well as what goes into the bottle.

New release white wines:

2014 markus nativo2014 Marcus Wine Co. Nativopale yellow in the glass with aromas and flavors of melon and tropical fruit. You’ll notice a bit of sweetness, and some weight in the mouth that is balanced with nice acidity for a clean finish. ABV 13.1%. 120 cases produced. $18.99

markus nativo back labelThis 75% Kerner, 19% Riesling, 6% Bacchus blend is stainless steel fermented using native yeast. The label, referred to as the zip code label, includes the postal code for Markus’ hometown of Weesen, Switzerland as well as the first initial of Markus’ name and both of his brothers. Label design by student Sheng Moua.


2014 markus nuvola2014 Markus Wine Co. Nuvolalight yellow in the glass with aromas and flavors of ripe peaches combined with allspice and white pepper. The finish is zesty and juicy with a lingering minerality. The combination of flavors in this 100% Gewürztraminer are completely unique and will keep you savoring this wine, thinking about the combination of flavors. ABV13.2%. 75 cases produced. $18.99

markus nuvola back label

Once again, native yeast fermentation using stainless steel vessels transforms this 100% Gewürztraminer with minimal intervention in the winery.

Nuvola translates to cloud and represents the inspiration for this wine that Markus drew from viewing modern artwork in Rome. The label was created by student Anneka Weinert who translated Markus’ inspiration into this beautiful design.


2014 markus joey insieme2014 Markus Joey Insiemevery light yellow in the glass with generous aromas of white flowers and tropical fruit. Floral and tropical fruit flavors are similar to the aromas and very long lasting. The wine has a bit of weight to it and a clean citrus-pith finish. ABV 12.8%. 65 cases produced. $18.99

markus joey back labelThis blend of 95% Torrontes and 5% Riesling is a collaboration between friends and winemakers. The Torrontes is local, from the Silvaspoons Vineyard in the Alta Mesa AVA of Lodi, the Riesling is harvested from the Cain Vineyards in North Carolina.

This wine represents the first Markus Wine Co. collaboration between the winemakers. Insieme translates to together and represents the blending of two grape varieties and the efforts of both winemakers.

If you study the wine’s front label you will see Markus looking westward and Joey Medaloni of Lewisville, North Carolina looking eastward.  The label was created by Michael E. Leonard.

2014 Borra Vineyards Vermentino2014 Borra Vineyards Vermentinolight yellow in the glass with delicate aromatics. The flavors are a bit tropical with lean minerality and juicy acidity. Delicate and refreshing at the same time. ABV 12.8%. 65 cases produced. $22.

This bottling is a first for Borra Vineyards, resulting from the first harvest of Vermentino from Borra’s Gill Creek Ranch located in the Clements Hills AVA southeast of Lodi.

This 100% Vermentino bottling was fermented in stainless steel, but to mix things up a bit, it was aged in American oak for 4 months. If it’s a hit with customers, you will see it in future vintages.

Once again a nice group of wines from Markus Wine Co. and Borra Vineyards … and just in time for summer. These wines are perfect for a warm afternoon and will take you into the evening, pairing well with salads, creamy pasta dishes or mild cheese and charcuterie. We are happy to have sampled them.

From the Borra Vineyards website:

1301 E. Armstrong Road
Lodi, California 95242

Phone: 209-368-2446
Fax: 209-369-5116

Tasting Room
Open Friday-Monday
Noon to 5:00 p.m.
And by Appointment
(Click here for directions)

Tasting Fee is $5 per person and includes a souvenir wine glass. For groups of 8 or more please call ahead for reservations.


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Creamy Mushroom Pasta with Spring Peas and Westrey Pinot Noir for #winePW 11

Our homework for the April Wine Pairing Weekend (#winePW) was to choose our favorite springtime flavor, then pair a wine with it. What a delicious assignment, courtesy of Wendy Klik. You can find the details on Wendy’s blog, A Day in the Life on the Farm.

I chose my inspiration for this food and wine pairing from a stroll through our Farmer’s Market. During the winter, I don’t visit the Farmer’s Market as regularly as I do during the rest of the year. Our market is open only on Sundays during the winter and the number of vendors is somewhat reduced, so I took this opportunity to return to the Farmer’s Market to see what was available.

Winter greens were everywhere, along with cruciferous vegetables, beets and other root vegetables. All of these vegetables looked delicious, but didn’t cry out spring time to me. What did shout spring time to me was my favorite spring delicacy … peas. I was so happy to spot several farmers selling those fat, green pea pods. I knew immediately that was my spring flavor. I found the best looking selection of peas then sorted through a large pile of the green lovelies, choosing the fattest pods, all the while thinking about how I might prepare them.

Mushrooms, I thought, would make a nice pairing with spring peas. Usually there is a farmer who sells a wonderful assortment of mushrooms along with his fruits and vegetables, but unfortunately he was not at the market. Instead, I looked to one of our locally-owned grocery stores and found a very nice selection of fresh shiitake and oyster mushrooms.

Remembering a recipe for creamy pasta with morels and peas that I have, I also picked-up a package of dried morels, some shallots, dried pasta and heavy cream. I knew something delicious would be the result.

So, what wine to pair with a creamy pasta dish including sautéed mushrooms, cream and fresh peas? The rich, fattiness of the cream suggests a crisp white wine would be a natural pairing. In fact, a blog post I read over a year ago suggesting just that pairing was the inspiration for this pasta dish.

We decided to go in a different direction with our choice of wine, however. Mushrooms and Pinot Noir are always a natural pairing for us, and as we were having a friend over for dinner that prefers red wine to white wine, we decided to go with a Pinot Noir.

The Food

This pasta dish is a snap to prepare. (Insert snap pea joke here!) The most tedious part was shelling the peas, always a labor of love that results in green thumbnails. Next, I started heating water to cook the pasta.

In the mean time I soaked several of the dried morels in hot water (I later filtered and reserved the water to add to the sauce), rough chopped the fresh mushrooms and diced the shallots.

I quickly blanched the shelled peas, then cooled them in an ice bath to stop them cooking. I love spring peas just barely cooked so the flavors are still fresh and the texture a bit firm.

Next I sautéed the shallots in butter just until they were translucent. Finally, I added the chopped fresh shiitake and oyster mushrooms along with the morels which had been drained and chopped. After a quick sauté and a bit of salt and pepper, I added heavy cream and the reserved morel soaking liquid stirring well to combine all of the ingredients.

The last few ingredients included the drained pasta and a generous grating of Parmigiano-Reggiano. I just heated the mixture through, checked the seasoning again and then at the very end stirred in the peas.

This satisfying, rich dish has the earthy flavors of mushrooms punctuated with little explosions of pea flavor. The sautéed shallot flavors in the background and the richness of the heavy cream complete the dish. It’s comfort food at its very best.

Mushroom and spring pea pasta
The Wine

Recently, we purchased several Willamette Valley Pinot Noirs, as well as Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, from Westrey Wine Company in McMinnville, Oregon. We had been introduced to Westrey wines via an online wine tasting that included Westrey’s Willamette Valley Reserve Chardonnay, which we subsequently wrote about. We were so impressed with that brilliant Chardonnay that we were curious to try some of Amy Wesselman and David Autrey’s other wines.

We ordered three Pinot Noirs from Westrey, and decided to open the oldest one of the three to accompany our mushroom and spring pea pasta. We decanted the bottle an hour prior to dinner.

2010 Westrey Willamette Valley Reserve Pinot Noir2010 Westrey Willamette Valley Reserve Pinot Noirtranslucent ruby-garnet in the glass with earthy, cedar, berry-bramble aromas. Very complex flavors of cherries and cranberries combine with earthy brambles. Spice flavors include black pepper, cedar and cigar box. The tannins are very smooth, accompanied by nice acidity for a moderately long finish with both flavor and tannins. The combination of complex flavors and a relatively light body is a combination I find irresistible in a red wine. ABV 13.4%

This Reserve wine is a blend of Pinot Noir from three vineyards; 40% La Cantera, 20% Buckhaven and 40% Oracle (from four separate lots). Each lot was fermented separately with both indigenous and commercial yeast from Burgundy. After fermenting to dryness, then pressing, the wine was moved to barrels where malolactic fermentation was completed. Aging in 30% new wood and 10% one-year old, with 60% coming from neutral wood insures the fruit character of this wine shines through.

Amy and David own the Oracle vineyard, which is located in the Dundee Hills AVA. The vineyard has an interesting history that you should definitely read about.

The Pairing

The relatively light body and complex flavors of the Westrey Willamette Valley Reserve Pinot Noir paired beautifully with the mushroomy, creamy goodness of the pasta and the bright acidity balanced the richness of the cream very nicely. The little explosions of green pea goodness were sweet and flavorful. If I were going to modify this recipe at all, it would be to add more peas. They are so delicious, I don’t think it would be possible to have too many. No modification to the Pinot Noir necessary!

Pasta and Pinot Noir
The left-over pasta made a yummy lunch the next day and the Westrey Reserve Pinot Noir held over beautifully until that evening, even gaining in complexity. We look forward to opening the two remaining bottles of Westrey Pinot Noir. Even though David told us they will age well for several years, it is unlikely we will have the discipline to age them.

Just take a look at what this wonderful group came up with to meet Wendy’s challenge to them.  We may never find ourselves in this dilemma again!!

Spring Pea Risotto with Picpoul de Pinet by Curious Cuisiniere

Spring-Kissed Seafood Chowder with Pelerin 2011 Les Tournesols by Cooking Adventures with Camilla

Wine and Dine: Las Lilas Vinho Verde 2013 and Chilled Cucumber with Mint Soup by Grape Experiences.

Red Wine with Asparagus and Mushrooms by Cooking Chat

Spring Hopes: Asparagus and Rosé by Food Wine Click

Leap into Spring with Pasta Primavera by Vino Travels

Spring Fling with Greek Pizza and Wine by Confessions of a Culinary Diva

Spring Flavors with Hungarian Pinot Grigio by A Day in the Life on the Farm

Welcoming Spring with #WinePW by Rockin Red Blog

Winter’s Hill Pinot Blanc and Warm Arugula, Bacon and Asparagus Salad by Tasting Pour

Roasted Halibut with Potatoes and Lemon and a Tablas Creek Cotes de Tablas by Enofylz Wine Blog

Beets and Wine Pairing by Girls Gotta Drink

Grab a cup of coffee and join us for a Twitter chat on Saturday morning April 11 at 8 PST when we will be talking spring time flavors. Follow #winePW and join the conversation.

Thanks for joining us for the 11th edition of #winePW. Please join us again next month when our host is Christy from Confessions of a Culinary Diva. Christy is challenging us to come up with Wine Pairings with Mexican Cuisine. Should be fun.


Posted in #winePW, Tasting Notes, Wine Pairing | Tagged , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Waterkloof Wine Estate: a spectacular biodynamic South African wine farm

It was quite by chance that we came to visit Waterkloof Wine Estate located above Somerset West, an hour’s drive east of Cape Town. I had not heard of the wine farm until several years ago when we received a comment on one of our blog posts about South African wines. Louis Boutinot, Waterkloof Export Manager and son of the farm’s owner Paul, commented on the post and suggested we consider visiting Waterkloof Wine Estate should we ever visit South Africa.

Waterkloof Restaurant and Winery
I did a bit of research and discovered that not only are the vineyards farmed biodynamically, they even use horses in the vineyard. Aside from the spectacular natural beauty and the beauty of the winery building, the biodynamic farming practices were a serious draw for me. I knew immediately I wanted to visit the wine farm during our visit to Cape Town.

Our tour of Waterkloof Wine Estate began in earnest as farm manager Christiaan Loots led us on a short walk up the Schapenberg — sheep mountain. A stiff wind blew in from False Bay, one strong enough to knock you off balance if you didn’t keep your feet firmly planted on the granitic soil.

As we stood in the midst of native fynbos vegetation, a collection of surprisingly diverse, shrubby plants whose species on the farm number in the hundreds, Christiaan explained this diverse fynbos vegetation is typical native vegetation of the Cape. “This is what the Cape should look like.” Christiaan told us. There is an effort underway to connect pockets of natural fynbos to each other all around the cape in order to preserve its diversity and the animal life it supports. Though I could’t see them, I heard many birds singing from within the fynbos.

Fynbos diversity on the farm is a result of an early project clearing the land of invasive tree species, followed by burning. This harsh treatment brought the native fynbos back to into balance, taking advantage of the massive natural seed bank it harbors.

Some of the cleared land became vineyards, but a large portion is now covered in native fynbos vegetation and will remain so. Clearly Christiaan feels a sense of responsibility and pride in preserving this native vegetation. This beautiful, natural area is now used to host hikes and horseback rides of the area — a natural pairing with Waterkloof wines!

View of False Bay
From this vantage point at 315 meters above sea level we were able to enjoy the spectacular view of False Bay, only 5 km in the distance. Christiaan pointed out several crosses carved into granite rocks in the area. The crosses identify the locations used by early Dutch East India Company cartographers as they made the original maps of the area. Clearly we were not the first to appreciate the view from this vantage point.

As we stood admiring the Waterkloof vineyards and the ocean views, Christiaan told us that winery owner Paul Boutinot searched for 10 years, world wide, before finding this location for his winery. The Brit had a very specific site in mind, one that would lend itself to biodynamic farming practices and hold the potential to produce world-class wines. In 2004 Boutinot purchased the 120 hectare estate.

The Site

The road we followed earlier to reach the winery building traces a ravine with hills on either side and took us past farm buildings and rows of mulch and compost. At one point we were even behind a flock of sheep, our first indication of just how unique this farm visit would be. The ravine eventually opened into a wide bowl and the road curved to the left following the contour of the hills, delivering us to the spectacular Waterkloof Wine Estate building. This modern glass and concrete building houses the offices, wine cellar, cellar door (tasting room) and Waterkloof’s award-winning restaurant.

The almost constant wind figures prominently in what makes this site so perfect. The cool sea breezes keep temperatures significantly cooler than other regions of Stellenbosch, extending the growing season and preserving natural acidity in the grapes. The wind also deters pests and keeps vine shoot growth in check. There is little need for shoot thinning and care must be taken to trellis the vines early in the growing season to avoid shoot damage.

When talking about trellising, Christiaan was quick to mention some of the older plantings of Chenin Blanc and Mourvèdre on the farm are bush vines, which he much prefers. The circular growth pattern, with even exposure to sunlight, even ripening and uptake of soil nutrients are all benefits of bush vines. Not all grape varieties can be successfully trained in this manner, so some must be trellised. In addition, the hillside vineyards have a southern exposure, which in the Southern Hemisphere is cooler than a northern exposure.

The fynbos restoration project has served to insulate Waterkloof’s vineyards from those nearby. The fynbos diversity brings with it a large number of predator insects that in turn keep vineyard pests under control naturally. Since the fynbos restoration, Christiaan has seen a significant decrease in mealy bug infestations in the vineyard.

The rocky, granitic soils that characterize the vineyards provide good drainage and are highly prized. The 20 hectares of vineyards that were planted prior to the 2004 purchase had been farmed conventionally. Christiaan found a vineyard with seriously compacted soils, containing little or no organic matter, and significant pest infestations.

The biodynamic practices that Christiaan has used at Waterkloof for the past 10 years have completely transformed the vineyards, which he demonstrated as we walked into a vineyard block of Sauvignon Blanc. What we saw was a vineyard filled with a wide variety of ground cover that included clover (a Nitrogen binder) and dandelions which accumulate silica. The soil was very soft to walk on. Christiaan was easily able to grab a hand full of dirt; it was light and almost fluffy. And the soil was full of tiny roots from the diverse ground cover.

Farming Practices

When we asked Christiaan about his experience with biodynamic farming practices, he said he knew nothing about it when he joined Waterkloof. At the very beginning he and Paul traveled to biodynamic vineyards in France so he could see the process in action. He read many books and talked to other biodynamic farmers. Jean Malberbe, a local biodynamics pioneer became his mentor.

Christiaan admits to being skeptical of the biodynamic process initially, but the results have made him a believer. Most recently the area was hit by a massive storm in November 2013. Other farms in the area had significant mildew issues and as a result, decreased production in 2014. For the 2014 vintage, Waterkloof increased production as much as one ton per block. Christiaan attributes this increase in production to the improved immunity of the vines, which is directly derived from soil immunity.

So, how are soil and vine immunity improved? It’s a process, and every step in the process is connected to the next. Christiaan uses only compost and compost teas (an extract of compost steeped in water) prepared on the farm to fertilize the vines. No synthetic fertilizer is used. Christiaan described biodynamics as “sustainable cost-effective farming”, indicating he uses every resource the farm provides him.

When Waterkloof began it’s biodynamic practices, Christiaan had four tractors on the farm and a big diesel fuel bill. Now, to farm the vineyard, the vineyard workers use horses. Seven Percheron horses are used to farm the vineyards by block, each horse and worker team is responsible for 8 hectares. The teams plow and mow the vineyards, spread compost, spray compost tea and harvest the grapes.

He still has two farm tractors and one is used in the cellar. The tractors are only used in the vineyard when it’s too windy for the horses to spray the vineyards. Yes, this is a seriously windy site.

Cows and sheep on the farm provide essential resources. The herd of sheep we saw as we were driving up to Waterkloof was heading out to graze in the vineyards. The herd is moved around the various vineyard blocks to graze the ground cover. Their droppings fertilize the vineyard and their hooves break up the soil.

Woody plant material is collected from all over the farm. Several times a week the farm receives milk whey from the cheese-making process at Healey’s Cheese, which is also owned by Paul Boutinot. This liquid is rich in lactobacilli, not to mention phosphorous and potassium, and is sprayed on the woody material.

Over time this partially decomposed mulch is used as bedding for the cows and sheep. The woody material binds the nutrients in the animal’s urine. As the bedding becomes soiled it is removed from the barn. The mixture is turned and layered with compostable material and ash from the restaurant. Even pigeon droppings cleaned from the gutters of the winery building go into the mix along with droppings from the rabbit cages. “That’s the thing about biodynamics, you just use whatever you have.” said Christiaan. No resource on the farm goes to waste. All of this material is added together and turned regularly.

We saw and smelled the cow and sheep barns. Stinky, as you would expect, thanks to the manure and the anaerobic environment. Next, Christiaan showed us a pile of bedding that had been removed from the stable the week before. It contained the additional compostable materials and had already been turned, and though we didn’t dig through it, it had a distinctly mushroomy aroma.

The final compost, which included no soil, smelled just like dirt. There was absolutely no ammonia odor, and the dark, aerobic mixture was alive with earthworms – an indication of superior compost according to Christiaan. In addition to having a high nutrient content, the compost is alive with beneficial bacteria and fungi. Quite a transformation, one that can take from 22 to 50 days to complete.

Earthworm casts, in addition to creating a superior composting product, are used to make a tea which aids in the transformation of the anaerobic manure mixture into an aerobic high-nutrient fertilizer.

Bio-fertilizerBio-fertilizer is also made using cow and rabbit manure, milk whey, molasses, rumen and basalt rock added to water. “Whatever I can put my hands on, basically.” is how Christiaan described the ingredients. The mixture is then fermented anaerobically in a barrel for several months. At the end of the process the anaerobic mixture is combined with the aerobic earthworm tea which transforms the mixture to an aerobic, high nutrient fertilizer.

Using all of these methods, Christiaan is able to make all of the compost and compost teas needed to enrich the soil and vines on the farm. Biodynamic preparations amplify the benefits of these organic farming methods.

Biodynamic Practices

Christian maintains a cow pat pit along with a myriad of biodynamic preparations, all of which have specific uses. This is the part that doubters of the biodynamic process sometimes make light of. Admittedly filling a cow horn with the manure of a lactating cow, burying it over winter, then harvesting the preparation is a bit out there. But this preparation, called preparation 500, has a very high microbial count and adds vitality and life forces wherever it is used.

In addition to being used to aid in compost production, a very dilute mixture of these preparations sprayed on a biodynamically managed vineyard will break down any organic material in the vineyard.

The concepts of vitality and life forces are also a part of biodynamic principles. Christiaan explained the importance of the energy that can be harnessed from flowing water. Biodynamic preparations when added to water can be enlivened by manually stirring the liquid to create a vortex, then breaking the vortex and creating chaos in the water. In addition to oxygenating the water, life forces and energy are added from the flowing water.

Large scale flow form
Therefore,  biodynamic practices use the energy created by running water and harness that energy to enliven every liquid biodynamic preparation that is made before spraying it on crops. Rather than do this by hand, Christiaan has set up a flow form which allows him to enliven a large volume of liquid biodynamic preparation at one time.

Fortunately, there is a natural spring on the farm, which is the source of the water used to make the biodynamic preparations and teas. Christiaan told us the farm’s name, Waterkloof, means water valley describing both the spring and the ravine that runs through the farm.

Christiaan always applies biodynamic preparation 500 to the vineyards according to the phase of the moon and the moon’s relationship to the constellations. We are all familiar with the effects of the lunar cycle on tides, for instance. The lunar cycle has a similar effect on plants too. Sprays are always applied on a descending moon when the forces pull toward the center of the earth. This helps pull the microorganisms into the earth so they can facilitate the release of nutrients to the vines’ roots.

Other vineyard tasks are completed according to the moon and constellations as well. Christiaan always sows cover crops during a descending moon to aid in germination. The timing is similar for vineyard pruning in order to minimize sap loss from the vines.

The optimal time for harvesting is during an ascending moon when the pull is away from the earth; this concentrates flavors, sugar and tannins in the grape berries. Christiaan told us there is rarely a conflict between physiologic ripeness and proper moon phase for harvest but also indicated the timing is not absolute.

Compost tea is spayed between the vineyard rows to facilitate decomposition of the vineyard cuttings during winter. A few months later, in September, the green compost (ground cover) may be plowed into the soil along with all of the microbes from the compost teas. After the vines leaf out the canopy is sprayed with compost tea, covering the leaves with microorganisms that will prevent mildew landing on the leaves from taking hold.

Vineyard blocks are not plowed every year. Christiaan uses a combination of plowing, mowing and grazing to manage the cover crops. He has found that every other to every two years is the optimal interval for plowing. This allows the cover crop to produce sufficient roots to facilitate nitrogen uptake by the vines, but does not allow roots to grow too long and tenacious.

Farming practices are rarely repeated in exactly the same way every year. Introducing variety in tilling and grazing routines changes the composition of cover crops, which in turn can disrupt pests. It’s best to keep pests off balance so they do not get a foothold.

Above all, following biodynamic farming principles requires attention to your surroundings: the vineyard, the animals, the phases of the moon and the constellations. As Christiaan puts it, “By looking so closely at your surroundings, you become part of it.”

The Take Aways

The principles of biodynamic farming were first outlined by Austrian writer and social activist Rudolf Steiner in the 1920s. Since that time many others from around the world have contributed to the knowledge and understanding of biodynamic practices; Eugenio Gras, Maria Thun and Peter Proctor are just a few of the names Christiaan mentioned as he explained biodynamic practices to us.

After 10 years of following biodynamic practices in the vineyard, Christiaan is very close to repairing the effects conventional farming — he has achieved perhaps 70% of his goal. Even the soil in the vineyard blocks that were formerly covered with fynbos and invasive tree species needed rehabilitation.

Over time, Chardonnay has been pulled out and Chenin Blanc, Mourvèdre and Syrah have been planted. Vineyard plantings have increased from 20 hectares to 56.

Christiaan told us it is normal for vineyard yields to decrease initially with a conversion from conventional to organic farming practices. After about 3 years yields begin to increase. Though yields won’t reach pre-organic levels, the quality of the fruit is immaculate and may bring a higher price per ton, both of which more than make up for the reduced yield.

As Waterkloof Wine Estate celebrates their 10th anniversary with the 2015 vintage, they are also able to celebrate the significant achievement of Demeter Biodynamic Certification.

Waterkloof cratesLouis has told us the 2015 harvest shaped up quite nicely. The Waterkloof vineyards experienced very early flowering and a cool growing season. Harvest began early and resulted in “quite an intense harvest with everything ripening one after the other and no time for us to breathe.” as Louis put it. Merlot and Cabernet Franc were the first to be harvested, followed by Cabernet Sauvignon and the Rhone varieties. He anticipates “wines with lots of complexity, lovely acidity and quite low alcohol (12.5 – 13.5 ABV).” I can hardly wait.

A huge thanks to Louis for that original comment on our blog post. Without that, we would never have had the opportunity to meet Christiaan and learn about the biodynamic farming practices at Waterkloof. Many thanks to Christiaan for his time and enthusiasm; surely there is no better ambassador for biodynamic farming principles. Talking to a biodynamic farmer is the absolute best way to learn about the practices. If you ever have the opportunity, take it.

Waterkloof vineyards and winery building
Following our farm tour, we sat down with Waterkloof Cellar Master Nadia Barnard to taste and talk Waterkloof wines. That discussion, and our delightful lunch at the Waterkloof restaurant, in our next post.

It really could not have been a more perfect day.


Posted in Africa, Vacations and Trips, Winery Profiles | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Crozes Hermitage and Braised Lamb with Puréed Root Vegetables for #winePW 10

I can’t believe another month has flown by and that it is time once again for Wine Pairing Weekend. Our March pairing is co-joined with Open That Bottle Night, which happens every year on the last Saturday in February. Basically OTBN is an “excuse” to open that special bottle of wine you’ve been holding, or to try a wine you’ve been curious about. It’s up to you to make your own fun. You can read about the origin of OTBN in this article by Dorothy Gaiter one of the founders of the celebration.

Our assignment for Wine Pairing Weekend was to choose a wine for OTBN and then plan a meal to pair with that wine.  Sounded like a fun idea, and it was.

We looked through our wine cellar to see what looked interesting. We’ve been enjoying Napa Cabernet and wines from Bordeaux recently, but we haven’t had a wine from the Rhône Valley recently, so that was our focus. We chose a 2006 Domaine Philippe & Vincent Jaboulet Crozes Hermitage. Yes, it’s a mouthful, and a delicious mouthful at that.

Next we moved on to the menu. We wanted to do a braise, something that would fill the house with wonderful aromas but not require standing at the cooktop all afternoon. We chose to modify a delicious-sounding recipe for Braised Lamb Shanks and Root Vegetable Puree. It took a bit of preparation, but then braised in the oven for several hours.

The Food

Lamb shanks are problematic for me. I don’t like the way they look in the butcher counter or on my plate when they’ve finished cooking. I do however love lamb, so I always substitute another cut of lamb in any recipe for lamb shanks I’ve made. It has always worked out well. My favorite cuts are a round bone chop or shoulder chop. They generally don’t have too much fat, and I cube the meat then follow the recipe with that substitution.

This recipe for lamb shanks was new for me, but is very similar to a recipe I have from my mother that is one of my favorites. Because I chose not to use lamb shanks in this recipe, my version of this dish was a bit more rustic. The recipe calls for removing the lamb shanks from the braising liquid after they are cooked then straining the liquid. Because I had cubes of lamb, it was not possible to strain the braising liquid. I left all of the sautéed vegetables in the liquid and it worked out just perfectly.

For some reason I rarely think to puree a mixture of root vegetables, usually its just sweet potatoes or white potatoes on their own. It was the combination of vegetables that drew me to this recipe and I’m glad I tried it. I used a hand blender rather than a food processor as the recipe suggested. This method involved much less clean up and produced a silky consistency.

Dinner is served

To add color and textural contrast I also prepared broccolini, just lightly steamed. It was simple and delicious.

The Wine

Jaboulet family’s winemaking history reaches back to 1834 in the Rhône Valley. For 30 years Philippe was director of production for the family’s Domaines Paul Jaboulet Aîné.  After the sale of the family business in 2006, Philippe and and his son Vincent struck out on their own establishing Domaine Philippe & Vincent Jaboulet.

In addition to retaining a portion of the family vineyards in Crozes Hermitage and Hermitage, they purchased a cellar and surrounding vineyards in the village of Mercurol and a vineyard in Cornas. Grape varieties include Syrah, Marsanne and Roussanne.

2006 Domaine Philippe & Vincent Jaboulet Crozes Hermitage2006 Domaine Philippe & Vincent Jaboulet Crozes Hermitagetranslucent ruby-garnet in the glass with aromas of leather and earth. Mature dark fruit flavors mingle with leather, cedar and a bit of red fruit. Tannins are fine and smooth in a light to medium bodied wine with nice acidity. The flavors reflect time in the bottle, and are well worth waiting for. ABV 13%.

translucent ruby-garnet colorThis wine is a perfect example of the rewards of bottle-aging wine. Fruit flavors have changed, becoming darker and are complimented by leather and wonderful cedar flavors. The tannins have become silky yet provide structure along with the juicy acidity. I love these aged flavors in a red wine, and the color has taken on a garnet hue. This lovely Syrah was worth waiting for.


The Pairing

Divine. After braising for over two hours, the lamb was tender and the braising liquid had concentrated and thickened. The flavors were rich, meaty and earthy thanks to the combination of sautéed bacon, onions, leeks, celery, carrots and red wine.

The puréed root vegetables were silky, smooth and sweet. The recipe called for both butter and heavy cream which were partially responsible for the silky texture. Both the carrots and ruby yams provided sweetness and the parsnips added a hint of greenness. If parsnips are not your favorite root vegetable (that would be me), adding them to others can make them more enjoyable.

Braised lamb and Crozes Hermitage
The silky texture and sweetness of the puréed root vegetables added richness and creaminess to the braising liquid and the lamb. I was very surprised this combination worked so well. My usual inclination would be to prepare spaetzle or mashed potatoes with a braised dish. I know that combination is delicious, but so was this and the flavor combination was much more complex.

2006 Domaine Philippe & Vincent Jaboulet Crozes Hermitage decanted

We were happy to have chosen a wine with smooth tannins to accompany the silky texture of the root vegetables. In the end, this pairing was all about texture – the smooth texture of the vegetables and the silky tannins in the wine.

Be sure to check out these special pairings from my fellow #winePW bloggers!

Culinary Adventures with Camilla paired Roasted Flank Steak with Goat Cheese and Caperberries + La Marea 2012 Mourvèdre

Tasting Pour is sharing Chenin to Sheepie? Brava Cava! #Winewpw #OTBN

Curious Cuisiniere paired Entrecote Bordelaise (Steak: Bordeaux Style) with Red Oak Vineyard Meritage

A Day in the Life on the Farm served up Michigan Red with City Chicken

Girls Gotta Drink is sharing A Priorat Wine Masterpiece: 1974 Scala Dei

Vino Travels paired Fattoria dei Barbi Brunello and Pappardelle with Bolognese

Grape Experiences is sharing Wine and Dine: 2012 Van Duzer Willamette Valley Pinot Noir and Chicken Breasts and Zucchini with Marjoram

Wild 4 Washington Wine paired A Special Oregon Pinot Noir with Eastern North Carolina Inspired Ribs

Rockin Red Blog is sharing Celebrating #OTBN on #WinePW

Cooking Chat paired Avocado Chimichurri Beef Tenderloin with a Reininger Carmenere

ENOFYLZ Wine Blog is sharing Friends, Food and Wine; An #OTBN To Remember #winePW.

If you are catching this post early enough, you can join our live Twitter Chat on Saturday, March 14, at 8 a.m. PT, via the Twitter hashtag #winePW. If you’ve come to us after March 14, consider joining us for #winePW 11 focused on wine pairings for early spring vegetables hosted by A Day in the Life on the Farm on Saturday, April 11.

Thanks to David for hosting this month’s #winePW and for the pairing idea. It was a fun pairing for us.


Posted in #winePW, Tasting Notes | Tagged , , , , | 13 Comments

Domaine de Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem: no longer a hidden gem to us

The Chapoutier name has been associated with winemaking in the Rhône Valley for over two hundred years, beginning in Tain l’Hermitage in the north of the valley. Over time Maison M. Chapoutier acquired vineyards in the highly-regarded Hermitage, Côte Rôtie and Chateauneuf du Pape, among others in the valley.

In 1990 Michel Chapoutier took over winemaking and management responsibilities. Gradually he has increased the quality of wine production by decreasing yields in the vineyards, discontinuing the use of sprays and chemicals and moving to organic and biodynamic farming practices.

In 1999 Michel Chapoutier turned his interest to Roussillon with the purchase of Domaine de Bila-Haut in Latour de France. The Roussillon portion of the enormous south of France Languedoc-Roussillon region is the portion closest to Spain. The climate here is truly Mediterranean with cold winters and very warm summers that provide a long, sunny growing season.

Map of Roussillon

Map from winesofroussillon.com

Latour de France is a hilly region above the Agly River. Soils are a winemaker’s dream; a combination of limestone, gneiss, decomposed granite and shist. Translation for those of us who are not winemakers: complex, well-draining soil that retains heat and is not very fertile. Vines must struggle to put down roots in this arid region, but these complex soils result in concentrated flavors and minerality in the wines.

The 79-acre vineyard which is the source for the Occultum Lapidem bottling is about 60 years old and is planted to Syrah, Grenache and Carignan. These old vines have put down deep roots, allowing them to withstand very strong winds known as the Mistral. These drying winds can be beneficial however, creating a cooler climate and extending the growing season.

The Mistral also acts to reduce pests within the vineyard allowing Chapoutier to manage the vineyards at Domaine de Bila-Haut just as he does in the Rhône — by following biodynamic practices, though the vineyards are not certified biodynamic.

All of these details are lovely to know, but really the burning question is, “What does the wine taste like?” Happily, we can answer that question because we were fortunate to receive a bottle as a tasting sample.

2013 Domaine de Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem2013 Domaine de Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidemmedium ruby-violet colored in the glass with earthy, black pepper and fruit aromas. Savory herbal flavors of black tea and dried, crushed marjoram combine with earthy, dark fruit flavors for a flavor profile that is constantly changing. Add hints of smokiness, nice acidity, great tannin structure to the lingering fruit and herbal flavors of this wine and you have a finish that is medium long. ABV 14%. $30 for a 750ml bottle, $65 for a magnum.

The savory quality of this wine is its distinguishing characteristic for us. The combination of dried, crushed herbs combined with dark fruit flavors is quite unique and delicious. This wine is medium bodied with lots of flavor and great tannin structure.

In case you are wondering, yes the pattern of raised dots on the label is Braille. All M. Chapoutier wine labels have included Braille since 1996. They were the first to use this labeling method and the wine bottle is similarly labeled at its base.

This wine is delicious on its own. We opened the bottle as we began preparing our dinner to accompany this wine. The Occultum Lapidem gained complexity with time in the glass, as we did not decant this wine.

We prepared a pizza with olive oil, fresh mozzarella, grilled red onions and pancetta. It was simple, yet flavorful and delicious. It paired perfectly with this savory wine.

2013 Domaine de Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem and food


We managed to achieve the perfect food and wine pairing — one that enhanced both the flavor of the wine and the food. This Domaine de Bila-Haut Occultum Lapidem is so versatile it would pair with lots of dishes. Braised pork or beef would be delicious. Grilled lamb or pasta with meat sauce or pasta primavera would be wonderful pairings.


Occultum Lapidem translates to “hidden gem” in Latin. The name is acknowledgement of this vineyard of the same name, the best and oldest vineyard on the Bila-Haut estate. Happily this gem of a wine is no longer hidden to us. It deserves to be discovered and enjoyed.

Thank you to Creative Palate Communications for connecting us with this delicious wine.


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2012 Borra Vineyards Old Vine Barbera: remembering their beginning

Borra Vineyards does not bottle Barbera as a varietal wine every year, but clearly the variety is special to Steve Borra. It was the first wine Borra bottled when he established his winery in 1975. Back then Borra was the first boutique winery established in Lodi.

The Home Ranch Carrú Vineyard is now over forty years old and surrounds Borra’s Lodi tasting room. Winemaker Markus Niggli uses only free-run juice in the production of this 100% Barbera and fermentation takes place using native yeast. The wine spent 22 months in the cellar and was bottled in August 2014. We were fortunate to receive a bottle as a tasting sample.

2012 Borra Vineyards Old Vine Barbera2012 Borra Vineyards Old Vine Barbera translucent ruby in the glass with hints of black pepper and vanilla aromas. The flavors are a bit salty with cherry and  bright red fruit, black pepper and a hint of smoke. The combination of tongue-tingling acidity, silky tannins and juicy fruit flavors produces a light to medium bodied red wine that is long on flavor. ABV 14.4%. $25. Only 285 cases produced.

The translucent ruby color of this wine might lead you to expect a wine with subtle flavors. We did not find that to be the case. This wine has depth of flavor and a lighter body to boot. The flavors in this Barbera make you want to smack you lips. It’s impossible to drink this wine quietly, it’s so juicy and delicious.

The combination of lighter body, great acidity and bright fruit flavors make it easy to sip on its own, but we found it also makes a great companion to a meal.

2012 Borra Vineyards Old Vine Barbera with dinnerUnseasonably warm weather coupled with the opportunity to taste this Barbera inspired us to fire up the grill for the first time this year. We thought grilled steaks might be too heavy a choice for this pairing, so we opted for grilling pork chops. I lightly seasoned the pork chops with salt, pepper and marjoram, then Pete grilled them to perfection.

Along with grilled chops we enjoyed a potato-fennel gratin and green beans with butter and slivered almonds. Delicious.

The bright fruit flavors and brilliant acidity of the Borra Vineyards Old Vine Barbera complimented the smoky, rich, fatty goodness of the grilled meat and the potato gratin perfectly. Everyone played well together and we thoroughly enjoyed the pairing.

This taut Barbera is yet another example of the well-made wines being crafted by Markus Niggli at Borra Vineyards. Expect the unexpected in Markus’s wines. Producing a Barbera from free-run juice using native yeast fermentation is just one example of his measured winemaking approach.

He also uses varieties like Kerner, Gewürztraminer, Rieslaner, and Riesling. Under his label Markus Wine Co. you will find Nimmo — a Kerner, Gewürztraminer, Riesling, Bacchus blend that is aged in oak. It will challenge your taste buds with unfamiliar and delicious flavors.

Thanks to Borra Vineyards for the opportunity to taste this juicy, delicious Barbera. It reminded me of why I love the variety so much.


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Six Wines from the Snake River Valley, Idaho: an introduction to the wines of Idaho

We recently had the opportunity to taste six wines from four wineries located in the Boise area. One of the regular tasters at the Thursday night wine tastings we attend at a local wineshop regularly visits the Boise area; her brother and sister-in-law live there. During a recent trip they did a bit of wine tasting and brought back the selection of wines we tasted. It was a great introduction to the wines of the area.

In spite of the fact that wine grapes were planted in Idaho well before either of Idaho’s better-known winemaking neighbors, Washington and Oregon, winemaking in Idaho is just beginning to hit its stride. Idaho appears to have all the necessary prerequisites for quality winemaking: good dirt, good climate and talented winemakers. On top of that, Idaho has lots of land with plenty of room for growth.

According to the Idaho Wine Commission, wine grapes were first planted in the state in 1864 in Lewiston, Idaho. In 1872 grapes were planted in the Clearwater Valley east of Lewiston where German and French immigrant winemakers produced wines that received recognition at expositions around the country.

But Prohibition came early to Idaho, in 1916. By 1920, Prohibition was the law of the land with ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment to the US Constitution and implementation of the Volstead Act. Both brought wine production in Idaho to a screeching halt.

Even though Prohibition was repealed in 1933, it wasn’t until 1970 that vineyards were again being planted for winemaking. The focus of plantings in this second wave of viticulture was the southwest portion of Idaho, in the Snake River Valley.

This concentration of vineyards in the western portion of the Snake River Valley led to the authorization of the Snake River Valley AVA in 2007. The AVA is comprised of over 8,000 square miles and follows the Snake River from Twin Falls to Hells Canyon. Portions of the AVA reach into southeastern Oregon.

Snake River Valley AVA Map

Image courtesy of www.everyvine.com

Vineyards are planted at elevations from just over 1500 to 3000 feet above sea level within the AVA, but the valley is surrounded by mountains, some as tall as 7000 feet above sea level. Higher elevation means freeing-cold winters and a shorter, but intense, growing season with very warm, even hot, summer temperatures. Along with the summer heat comes significant diurnal temperature variations of 30 – 40ºF. Winemakers love big temperature swings from day to night; it allows grapes to fully ripen, yet maintain good acidity.

Idaho’s growing wine industry is evidenced by petitions for two additional AVAs  which are pending with the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau. The Lewis-Clark Valley AVA would include the cities of Lewiston and Clarkson in the area that was Idaho’s first home to viticulture. The second petition is for Eagle Foothills AVA in the foothills north of Eagle, Idaho. If approved, the Eagle Foothills AVA would be a sub-AVA of the Snake River Valley AVA.

Well, good dirt also makes winemakers very happy and Idaho has plenty of that too. Four million years ago the area designated as the Snake River Valley AVA was covered by Lake Idaho. Volcanic activity and massive flooding have also occurred in the area. Left behind in the dry lake bed is a collection of diverse soil types including, “predominantly sand, mud silts, loess, and volcanic detritus on top of sedimentary bedrock” according to Appellation America.

Just a quick word about water and then we will move on to the wines. The Snake River Valley receives very little in the form of rain, only about 12 inches per year. It sits very far inland from the West Coast and is separated from Pacific storms by several mountain ranges that act as barriers to precipitation. What little precipitation the area receives usually accumulates during the winter months. This means vines must struggle in a dry environment, always a good thing as it tends to produce a smaller crop with concentrated flavors; of course winemakers may control that struggle with irrigation.

Now, on to the wines.

2014 Coiled Rizza2014 Coiled Wines Rizzalight yellow in the glass with abundant small to medium-sized bubbles. Sweet red apple aromas are followed by similar flavors of juicy, sweet red apples. The finish is long on flavor and a bit sweet. ABV 13%. $28

Coiled Wines Riazza crown capBecause this wine does not spend time aging on the lees, the primary flavors are all fruit. It is fresh and lively and reminds me somewhat of Prosecco. It is closed with a crown cap which means it’s easy to open, making it a perfect choice for a picnic or brunch or to enjoy before dinner.

According to Coiled Wines winemaker, Leslie Preston, this is the first sparkling wine made in Idaho “in the method of Champagne.” The base wine, 100% Riesling, was fermented to dryness. Then the base wine was sweetened and put into bottles. Each bottle then received a dose of yeast and was capped.

With the addition of sugar and yeast, the magic of the second fermentation in the bottle begins. This fermentation produces alcohol and carbon dioxide which is trapped in the bottle and forced into the wine creating all of those lovely bubbles.

The second fermentation was complete in 7 weeks, the yeast sediment was settled and disgorged, then the bottles were capped. Each of the 4000 bottles was handled one by one. It’s a labor of love. As the winemaker puts it, “I have put it all out there on this wine. It is my personal love letter to Riesling. I hope you enjoy it in good company and good health!”

2013 Cinder Dry Viognier2013 Cinder Wines Dry Viognier light yellow in the glass with aromas of pears and dry stones. Similar pear flavors along with a hint of pineapple and stony minerality combine with a roundness in the mouth. Aromatic and flavorful with pleasant mineral qualities. ABV 14.1%. $18

Winemaker Melanie Krause admits to a “love affair with Snake River Valley Viognier.” In addition to using Viognier is white blends, she produces Viognier in both an off-dry and dry-style varietal wine. Krause harvests the Viognier for this dry Viognier a couple of weeks earlier than she does for her off-dry Viognier. Whole clusters were gently pressed followed by a cool 3-week fermentation. The wine was bottled in January for maximum retention of aromas.

2012 Cinder Tempranillo2012 Cinder Wines Tempranillomedium ruby in the glass with aromas of smoke and red fruit. Flavors of blueberries and black raspberries combine with hints of smoke and caramel along with smooth tannins. ABV 13.9%. $29

This Tempranillo is a lighter style than most, and not all tasters appreciated it. I liked it quite a lot however. It gained complexity in aroma and flavor with time in the glass.

A small portion of this wine was fermented using native yeast and the final blend includes 10% Mourvèdre. 21-month aging took place in second and third-fill French and American Oak.

2011 Split Rail Winery Petit Verdot2011 Split Rail Winery Petit Verdotvery dark ruby in the glass with dark fruit and smoky aromas. Flavors of very ripe, rich dark fruit, tar and vanilla combine with a bit of sweetness and ample tannins. ABV 14.2%. $28.

This wine has plenty of flavor from both fruit and wood aging. Pair it with a grilled rib-eye. It can stand up to the smoky flavors and fattiness of a grilled steak. Only 120 cases produced.

Petit Verdot is most often used as a blending grape. This early budding and late ripening variety lends color, flavor and structure and is often a component of Bordeaux blends. PV has an enthusiastic following as a varietal wine though, and its flavors are generally not described as petite (or petit).

2012 Syringa Primitivo2012 Syringa Winery Primitivo garnet color in the glass with dark fruit aromas. Tart red fruit and blackberry flavors, black tea, a bit of sweet vanilla combine with fairly smooth tannins. The finish is a bit sweet with dark fruit and is medium in length. ABV 14.2%. $25.

Whether you call it Zinfandel, Tribidrag or Primitivo this variety always produces generous fruit flavors and this wine is no exception.

The winery takes its name from the Idaho state flower, the Syringa, which appears on the bottle.



Image from Split Rail Winery website

2012 Split Rail Winery Claretmedium ruby in the glass with dark fruit aromas that are just a bit herbaceous. Rich, complex, ripe dark fruit flavors combine with smooth tannins and a touch of sweetness. A touch of earth comes out in the finish which is moderately long. $29. Only 65 cases produced.

Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot are blended together to produce flavors you will find very familiar. There is a fair amount of wood influence in this wine and when we took a vote for favorite wine of the evening, this Claret took the prize. I may have been the only one who raised her hand for another wine. Variety is the spice of life!

Each one of these wineries has an interesting story to tell about how the families came to make wine in Idaho and how they chose the names of their wineries. They are all small, family owned and operated wineries. I encourage you to visit their websites. You will also learn more about the complex and interesting geology of the region as well. Yes, I’ll say it again, winemakers love dirt and this AVA seems to have more than its fair share of interesting dirt!

All four wineries have tasting rooms in Garden City not far from Boise. Located in what is coming to be called Garden City’s Wine District, Cinder and Coiled are in the 44th Street Wineries complex and Split Rail and Syringa are located just a short walk away at District 44 Wineries and Tasting Room.

Total production of these wineries is relatively small, and demand is growing. Some wines sell out quickly. There were other wines that Leslie, Paul and Robin wanted to share with us but were unable to purchase because they were unavailable. Current vineyard plantings in Idaho total about 1300 acres, with 51 wineries sharing that harvest. Total annual production is only about 200,000 cases.

We enjoyed this introduction to the wines of Idaho and thank Leslie, Paul and Robin for their time and “research”. It’s always fun to taste wine from lesser-know regions and then watch and continue to taste the wines as the region develops. This kind of tasting also presents interesting ideas for wine travel…just a thought.


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HALL Wines: Two Artistic Napa Valley Cabernets

We continued talking wine education with PROTOCOL wine studio, and several of their guests, while sipping two delicious HALL Wines on a recent Tuesday evening. PROTOCOL wine studio provides wine education via Twitter on Tuesday evenings (search #WineStudio on Twitter) and in their classroom in San Diego.

HALL Cabernets

HALL Wines’ Artistic Labels

Guests on this recent Tuesday evening included San Francisco Wine School instructor Fred Swan, and Thea Dwell who is a wine/travel blogger and student of the San Francisco Wine School.

After several evenings discussing wine education in general, this evening we talked about wine education that is a bit more focused by region. San Francisco Wine School offers classes specializing in California wine appellations (California Wine Appellation Specialist® CWAS). The curriculum is constantly updated to reflect changes to American Viticultural Areas (AVAs). This program is a natural for anyone working in the California wine market and offers an in depth look at all of California’s AVAs.

If your interest is in learning more about the wines of France, consider the French Wine Scholar (FWS) program. You will have a chance to dive into the better know regions of Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne. In addition, you will learn about other French regions like Provence and Alsace.

For serious fans of Italian wines there is the Italian Wine Professional (IWP) Program. It is possible with both of these programs to take individual classes, or complete the entire program, sit for the exam and become certified. Take your pick depending what your goals are.

Online versions of these classes are available as well. Because tasting the wines of a region is a large part of learning about that region the school also provides distance learners with a list of wines to reinforce your learning. Wine homework!

As we talked wine education, we were joined by Jeff Dreyfuss, Visitor Center Associate Manager with HALL Wines. Jeff provided us with background information on HALL Wines and the two Cabernets that were provided to us as tasting samples.

The focus of HALL Wines is the Bordeaux varieties of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. With wineries and tasting rooms in St. Helena and Rutherford, and vineyards located throughout the Napa Valley and beyond, winery owners Craig and Kathryn Hall are well situated to fulfill this goal. Not only that, vineyards are farmed organically (certified too)  and their St. Helena winery is the first in California to earn LEED Gold Certification™. Both are noteworthy accomplishments.

2011 HALL Jack’s Masterpiece Cabernet2011 HALL Jack’s Masterpiece Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignondark ruby in the glass with aromas that are quintessentially Cabernet to me, a combination of red fruit, black tea and earth. Complex red and dark fruit flavors combine with leathery, earthy flavors. A bit of vanilla lingers with smooth tannins and fruit flavors. Tannins are well integrated into the flavors and the finish is medium to long. ABV 14.9%

2011 was a cooler vintage in Napa, and this very elegant Cabernet is a delicious example of the vintage. 4% Petit Verdot was blended with the Cabernet Sauvignon. I enjoyed sipping the Jack’s Masterpiece on its own, and it paired nicely with our dinner of spaghetti with meat sauce. The sauce was cooked slowly over four hours; such a nice combination.

The name of this wine, Jack’s Masterpiece, refers to the artwork that decorates the label. It was created by Jack, the son of former HALL winemaker and current winery President Mike Reynolds. Jack created the painting for his father when he was only 18 months of age. Every year Mike steps back into the cellar to create this signature blend and he chose this very special painting to appear on the label.

2012 HALL Eighteen Seventy-Three Cabernet2012 HALL Eighteen Seventy-Three Napa Valley Cabernet Sauvignon inky dark violet-ruby in the glass with aromas of dark fruit and hints of licorice. Generous dark fruit flavors, chocolate and earth combine with slightly grippy tannins. This wine is medium bodied and has a moderately long finish with both flavor and tannins. ABV 15.4%

This wine is big, chewy and complex with bigger aromas and flavors and more tannins. It is delicious now, and has great aging potential as well. The obvious pairing for me is a grilled ribeye. Fat. Meat. Smoke. Delicious. Just a splash of Merlot (3%) was blended with the Cabernet Sauvignon.

Eighteen Seventy-Three, is a nod to the historical significance of the St. Helena property. In that year, Captain William Peterson established one of the early Napa Valley wineries on the property.

Aging of HALL wines takes place in all French oak, from a variety of coopers and typically in at least 50% new oak. Barrel aging lasts from 16 to 22 months, with 6 to 12 months of bottle aging before release.

Talking wine while drinking wine — well, that really is a pairing that’s hard to beat. Thanks to PROTOCOL wine studio and especially to HALL Wines for the opportunity to taste these two special Cabs. After tasting them, I have to say the art is in the bottle as well as on the bottle. Well done.


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Hungarian Romance for #winePW 9: Chicken Paprikas and Hungarian Furmint

The theme for the February Wine Pairing Weekend (#winePW), naturally enough, is “It’s All About Romance – Food + Wine Pairings.” So, how do we define a romantic food and wine pairing? For us, it’s something indulgent, rich and spicy. It wasn’t too difficult for us to decide on the food pairing actually. The inspiration for this pairing came from a wine tasting we enjoyed back in June.

At that time, we participated in an online tasting of wines from Hungary. One of the wines we tasted was a dry Furmint produced by Erzsébet Pince. It was crisp, a bit spicy with stone fruit flavors and nice minerality. We both loved the wine. This was our first experience with the variety as a dry wine, and we discussed at the time that it could be a nice pairing with Chicken Paprikas.

Back in June though, the weather was way too warm to consider preparing such a rich dish. Now however it’s cool, and we’ve even had a bit of rain, so it’s the perfect time (and temperature) to prepare Chicken Paprikas.

The Food

If you search for Chicken Paprikas (or Paprikash if you prefer) recipes you will find a long list to choose from. There seem to be as many versions of this comforting dish as there are cooks. The recipe I use is one that reminds me of a dish I enjoyed years ago in a Hungarian restaurant in San Francisco. It is simple to prepare, uses only a few ingredients but is big in flavor.


Many Chicken Paprikas recipes call for only sweet paprika, this recipe uses both. I also add a bit more hot Hungarian paprika than the recipe calls for. We like the additional heat combined with the rich sour cream flavors. And be certain to use only imported Hungarian paprika. It’s the star of the dish and must be flavorful.

Because I prefer to have lots of thick gravy as part of the dish I add extra butter and flour to produce enough thick gravy to suit me, and I add extra sour cream too. This recipe is a total indulgence.

Extra gravy is required because I wouldn’t think of preparing Chicken Paprikas without also making German spaetzle, those delicious little German egg noodles. I remember my grandmother making them. She scraped the dough off the edge of a wooden board into boiling water. Then she scooped them out of the water with a strainer and smothered them in butter (which she also made herself). Grandma often made them when the meal included a gravy, which is why they are so perfect with Chicken Paprikas.

As you might imaging, my grandmother did not have a written recipe for spaetzle. It was in her head and she just mixed eggs, flour and milk together. So, I have tried several recipes over the years and finally found one that gives me the consistency that seems familiar. Grandma never added herbs or black pepper to her spaetzle either, but both are delicious additions, which I sometimes make. Oh, and I always double this recipe, because they’re so darn delicious.

The Chicken Paprikas dinner

The Wine

Fortunately the importer and distributor of the Erzsébet Pince is located in California. We looked through the website and ordered both the 2010 and 2011 Erzsébet Pince Király dűlő. We tasted the 2011 during the prior tasting and were curious to taste the difference an additional year of bottle aging might have made. We received the wines in just a few days’ time.

Erzsébet Pince Király dűlő Furmint

Furmint is a white grape indigenous to the Tokaj region of Hungary where it is widely planted. Though many of us are unfamiliar with this variety, according to Robinson et al in Wine Grapes, it is a half-sibling to Riesling, Chardonnay and Gamay Noir.

Winemaking has a long history in Hungary and vineyards there were first classified in the 1720s as first, second, third class vineyards. This pre-dates the Bordeaux classification by more than 100 years.

2010 Erzsébet Pince Király dűlő Furmint


2010 Erzsébet Pince Király dűlő Furmintmedium yellow in the glass with delicate pear aromas. Citrus, pear, apple and dry-stone minerality all combine with nice acidity for a complex flavor. The finish is fairly long with minerality and a hint of baking spice. ABV 12.5%




2011 Erzsébet Pince Király dűlő Furmint


2011 Erzsébet Pince Király dűlő Furmintlighter yellow in the glass with spice and pear aromas. Tart pineapple, citrus and stony minerality combine with tongue-tingling acidity for very fresh combination of flavors. This wine is bright, energetic and lively. ABV 13%



Both of these wines are 100% Furmint, harvested from Király dűlő (the King’s vineyard). This single-vineyard designate is produced from a vineyard classified as first class with beneficial south-facing slopes and is made in a low-intervention style. The grapes were gently pressed, using a tradition press, and fermented in second and third-fill Hungarian oak barrels.

Erzsébet Pince, which translates to Elizabeth Cellar, is located in the Mád district of Tokaj, up in the northeastern portion of Hungary. The Prácser family farms 30 acres of indigenous Tokaj varieties including Furmint, Kabar, Sárgamuskotály, Hárslevelű, and Kövérszőlő. Total annual production is less than 8,000 bottles.

Websites for both the winery and the importer/distributor contain very interesting history of the winery and Hungarian wine production. It is worth reading, and makes me thankful that Katy found and imported these very special wines.

The Pairing

In a word…divine! The chicken paprikas was spicy, buttery and rich. Paprika is the most wonderful spice and it dominates the flavors in this dish. The heat and spice is tempered somewhat by the sour cream which also adds body and fatty goodness. The spaetzle is there to soak up the liquid goodness of the sauce and I could hardly stop eating it.

Chicken Paprikas and spaetzle
The wines were both delicious with the chicken paprikas. I couldn’t pick a favorite. The 2010 had more complex flavors than the 2011 which was brighter and fresher. Different, but both delicious.

The 2010 has less appreciable acid, so this wine is easier to just sip on its own. The brilliant acid of the 2011 makes it a perfect partner for this dish or any fatty, buttery meal. Both bottles were equally empty at the end of the evening, always an indicator that we liked both wines equally.

As is the case with many white wines, both held up nicely over the next couple of nights as we enjoyed them with leftovers. Our Hungarian romance continued for several evenings.


It’s All About Romance Wine Pairing Weekend # 9 Bloggers are listed below: please be sure to check out what my fellow bloggers have come up with for the February Wine Pairing Weekend!

Join the #winePW conversation: Follow the #winePW conversation on Twitter throughout the weekend and beyond. If you’re reading this early enough, you can join us  on Saturday, February 14, from 8 to 9 am Pacific Standard Time.

You can also visit our group Pinterest board to pin some great pairing ideas for later! Stay tuned for the March Wine Pairing Weekend, which will be on Saturday, March 14, 2015

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Champagne: one bottle, two gifts

An artistically wrapped present can be two gifts in one. The first gift is a visual one, the beauty of the wrapping and the enjoyment of opening it; the second, of course – the contents of the package. That is how I think of a bottle of Champagne.

Opening a bottle of Champagne requires a very different technique from opening a bottle of still wine; and it’s all because of the bubbles, created by a second fermentation in the bottle.

Champagne must be produced in the Champagne region of France, from specific grape varieties grown there, using a detailed production process called Méthode Champenoise.

Champagne begins as a still wine. After pressing and initial fermentation, separate lots of base wines may be blended in a process called assemblage. This is where the production of Champagne diverges.

A mixture of sugar and yeast, called liquor de tirage, is added to the base wine which then goes into a heavy glass bottle with an indented punt in its base. The bottle is closed with a crown cap. Then the magic begins.

The second fermentation starts when the yeast begin to digest the additional sugar, producing alcohol and carbon dioxide. Thanks to the heavy bottle and the secure crown cap closure, the carbon dioxide cannot escape and is forced into solution — into the wine that is.

Champagne then spends a minimum of 15 months (for non-vintage) or 3 years (for vintage) aging on its side. This extended contact with the lees (dead yeast cells) contributes flavor complexity through a process called autolysis. This extended aging also produces very small bubbles – one of the things that makes Champagne so special.

Champagne aging on its side
When aging is complete, the yeast sediment is removed. Bottles are moved to racks called pupitres where the bottles are held at a 45º angle – with the crown cap down. During a manual process called remuage the bottles are lightly shaken and turned, gradually moving the  sediment toward the neck of the bottle. This process may take over a month to complete. Alternately, a mechanized riddling process can complete the task in a matter of days.

With the yeast sediment moved to the neck of the bottle, the crown cap is removed and the sediment expressed from the bottle by the pressure within.

The wine lost during disgorgement is replaced with liquor d’expedition or dosage, which contains a variable amount of sugar. This determines the sweetness of the Champagne.

With the dosage added, a cork is inserted into the bottle and secured with a wire basket called a muselet. After any additional aging is completed, both the cork and muselet are covered with a decorative foil and the bottle is labeled. Voilà Champagne!

Now, to open your present. . . first, be certain the bottle is completely chilled, has not been agitated and is dry.

To remove the foil covering the muselet, pull the small tab allowing the foil to tear smoothly along the perforation.

With one hand, pull down the twisted stem of the muselet. With your other hand place a napkin over the muselet, and then place your thumb on top to keep the muselet firmly in place. Give the twisted stem six firm twists in a counterclockwise direction. Count them – it’s always six. Loosen the muselet from around the cork while keeping your thumb firmly in place.

Firmly grasp the muselet and the cork with one hand and the base of the bottle with the other. Holding the muselet and the cork stationary, turn the base of the bottle. You will feel the cork gradually begin to loosen in the neck of the bottle. Gently guide the cork from the neck of the bottle keeping downward pressure on the cork. If you have properly removed the cork, you will hear only a slight “sigh” as the cork is released from the bottle.

You’ve done it. Now pour yourself a glass of Champagne and enjoy its true gifts – the aromas, flavors and texture. And those tiny bubbles.

Take a moment to notice the capsule underneath the muselet. They vary in color and are often decorated with an image or lettering —yet another part of the gift to enjoy.


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The Swartland: a brief tour of this expansive South African wine region

Research pay off. It’s what brought us to visit the Swartland wine region in South Africa. In addition to visiting the better known region of Stellenbosch and the very scenic Franschhoek, we wanted to visit an out of the way wine region. I discovered several articles about a group of winemakers in the Swartland making wine using minimal intervention in the winery, from specific cultivars with the goal of producing wines reflective of the Swartland terroir.

The Swartland Revolution posterNames like Eben Sadie, Chris and Andrea Mullineux, Adi Badenhorst and Callie Louw kept popping up. I discovered they are all members of Swartland Independent Producers (SIP), who according to their website are “a group of like-minded wine-growers in the Swartland region of the Western Cape.” All winemakers in this group have agreed to a strict winemaking protocol including the use of only indigenous yeast for fermentation, no acidification and no addition of tannins.

In order to produce “wines that are truly reflective of the Swartland” new wood aging is limited (only European wood is allowed with less than 25% new wood) and only certain grape varieties may be used (they must be at least 90% of the blend).

The Swartland

The Swartland covers a large region to the north, west and southwest of Tulbagh  stretching to the Atlantic coast. This large, relatively open area is warmer and planted to wheat, vineyards and olive trees. Very tall mountain ranges do not dominate the landscape as is Franschhoek and Tulbagh, though there is a change in elevation due to rolling hills and lower mountains.

South African Wine Map

Map courtesy of Wines of South Africa

Expansive is how I would describe the region; it seems wide open, as if you could see forever. To put this into perspective, winemaker Adi Badenhorst told us the Swartland region is so large you could drive for one and and a half hours north of his farm in the Paardeberg area and still be in the Swartland.

We were told two stories as to how the Swartland was named. The first has to do with indigenous vegetation, called Renosterbos or rhino bush, that turns black during the summer months. Thus, the early Dutch settlers called the area “Het Zwarte Land”, the black land. The second story derives from a more recent time and involves the extensive wheat fields that, after harvest, are burned leaving the land blackened. Not a happy thought.

Soil types are varied in the region and are derived from Malmsbury shales, Bokkeveld shale and Cape granite.

Decomposed granite soils are associated with Paardeberg mountain and the shale and schist soils with Kasteelberg mountain. Deep, well-drained reddish-brown soils near Malmsbury are also highly regarded.

Chenin blanc, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay are the major white wine grape varieties planted in the Swartland. The most-planted red varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Pinotage. Red wine varieties represent about 60% of plantings.

These more common cultivars are not the focus of SIP members however. It’s the Rhone varieties plus Chenin Blanc and of course Pinotage that are of most interest to these producers. Also, interesting varieties like Tinta Barocca and Palomino are used. These are the varieties that this group feels best reflect the Swartland terroir.

Our wine tasting experience in the Swartland took on a very different feel from that of Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and even Tulbagh which all felt very fancy compared to the Swartland. There was no formal tasting room in either of the wineries we visited. We stood beside stacked barrels, wandered among the fermenters and even talked wine with the winemakers. It was such a memorable visit.

If you read our post about wine tasting in Tulbagh, you know this post is a continuation of that day of tasting. We contacted Luhambo Tours, who specializes in wine tasting tours, prior to our travel to South Africa. Our first day of wine tasting took us to Franschhoek and Stellenbosch. Graham drove us on that first day of wine tasting and Cedric, the owner of Luhambo Tours, drove us on the second day to Tulbagh and the Swartland. We had a great experience with Luhambo Tours. Both Graham and Cedric are wine lovers themselves and shared with us their detailed knowledge of South African history and its wine regions.

Mullineux Family Wines

Our first stop was Mullineux Family Wines located in Riebeek Kasteel, a charming little town at the foot of Kasteelberg (castle mountain). The wine cellar is located right in town, very close to the historic Royal Hotel, and if you look the correct direction down Main Street you will see Kasteelberg smack in front of you.

The tasting area is located in a corner of the small, working wine cellar which is filled with wine barrels of varying size (including a couple of egg-shaped fermenters). Space not occupied with wine barrels is filled with cases of wine. Office space is carved out of another corner.

We wound our way through the barrels to the tasting area and a beautiful wooden bar where we tasted a selection of the Mullineux Family Wines and their Kloof Street range of wines.

Winemakers Chris and Andrea Mullineux don’t own any vineyards, but have long term leases on select vineyards in the Swartland. They’re big into dirt and coaxing out of the variable soil types every unique quality and flavor they can. Grapes from schist, shale, decomposed granite and the red, iron-rich soil near Malmsbury are all represented in their wines.

We began the tasting with 2013 Kloof Street Old Vine Chenin Blanc, 2012 Mullineux White Blend, 2012 Kloof Street Swartland Rouge, 2012 Mullineux Syrah and finished with the 2013 Mullineux Straw Wine. Quite a selection.

The Kloof Street Old Vine Chenin Blanc was clean and crisp with citrusy flavors and a hint of citrus blossom. The Mullineux White Blend is a combo of 76% Chenin Blanc, 16% Clairette Blanche, 8% Viognier, is barrel fermented and goes through malolactic fermentation. Flavors are honeyed, rich and complex.

The Kloof Street Swartland Rouge is a blend of Syrah, Cinsault and Carignan planted in a variety of soil types. Juicy dark fruit, nice acidity and a light body. 2012 Mullineux Syrah is harvested from six vineyards planted on variable soil types. Only a bit of new French oak used in aging. Just pure dark fruit, earth and a touch of cedar in a medium-bodied wine. Both red wines have great tannin structure, depth of flavor, nice acidity without being heavy bodied.

We finished this delightful tasting with the 2013 Mullineux Straw Wine which was dark yellow in the glass, viscous, full of apricot aromas and flavors, intensely sweet but with a clean finish. The Chenin Blanc is harvested at usual ripeness (23º Brix) and then set out to dry. The drying process concentrates flavor and sugar, but because the grapes were harvested with good acidity, that is preserved as well. This is a very special wine.

Visiting in the winery

On our way out of the wine cellar we visited with Nicola, sales and marketing manager for the winery and briefly met Andrea. We learned she is originally from California and attended UC Davis. What a small world.

After a quick lunch in Riebeek Kasteel we set out for our final wine tasting stop of the day.


A. A. Badenhorst Family Wines

This wine farm visit was quite an adventure, as was finding it. Cedric had never been to Badenhorst before, so somehow we took the scenic route (read the long way around). It was a bit bumpy and dusty, some of the roads were unpaved, but Cedric asked directions from a local man who said to just follow him. We made it just fine. It was actually really fun bouncing along on dirt roads through farmland and vineyards.

Our tasting at A. A. Badenhorst was even more informal than at Mullineaux. We were greeted by an enormous Great Dane (one of two large black dogs that wandered the property, later we met the Bouvier des Flandres) and a collection of chickens. Eventually owner and winemaker Adi Badenhorst realized we had arrived and greeted us. By that time we had wandered through the crush pad and into the very informal tasting area, but wait, what’s that espresso machine doing there? All I can say is this is the most unique and fun wine tasting I have ever experienced.

Tasting area at Badenhorst Wines
Unconventional. Eclectic. Understated. Brilliant. All of these descriptions fit the wine tasting experience at A. A. Badenhorst, as well as the wines. Adi Badenhorst comes from a farming background. His grandfather was farm manager at Groot Constantia, (the wine farm’s history dates back to 1685 with the original land grant to Simon van der Stel, the first Governor of the Cape) and his father managed a neighboring wine farm. Adi was winemaker at Rustenberg in Stellenbosch (which he modestly described as working for a guy in Stellenbosch) for nearly 10 years before purchasing Kalmoesfontein farm in Swartland.

When Adi and his cousin purchased Kalmoesfontein in 2007 the 60-hectare property was in disrepair. That included the wine cellar which hadn’t been used in years. But the Paardeberg-area property is home to gnarly, dry-farmed bush vine vineyards. Among the varieties are Shiraz, Cinsault, Grenache and Chenin Blanc. In fact, Adi told us the oldest Grenache vines in South Africa are planted on the property. He estimated they were planted in about 1948.

The home, wine cellar and farm buildings have all be renovated. The wine cellar is filled with barrels and tanks. He told us a story of purchasing second-hand stainless steel tanks. I suspect he got a very good deal, but discovered they leaked. No worries, all of the leaks were patched and the tanks are working just fine.

Adi told us he seeks to take as many decisions with regard to when to pick and what to blend together out of the winemaking process as possible. He picks on freshness (oh, and the vineyards must look happy) co-ferments almost everything and then sees what the vineyard has produced. Producing wine according to numbers, using a formula for a predictable, constant outcome does not appear to interest him. Freshness is important to him, and authenticity.

When not co-fermented, all lots are blended together, “even if they’re a bit dodgy”, as Badenhorst puts it. He went on to add, “It’s more about the imperfections than making a perfect wine.” Then he told us they keep the best wine for themselves anyway, and sell everything else. I half believe him.

He’s a fan of very large-format wooden and concrete fermentation vessels; particularly concrete as it provides temperature stabilization during fermentation. All fermentations rely on natural yeast, with no additions except for small amounts of sulfur.

And the dirt is about as complex and varied as the grape varieties in his blends: a mixture of three distinct types of granite along with underlying clay, weathered granite and shale. Badenhorst uses primarily estate fruit in the production of his wines with the addition of grapes from two nearby farms.

Adi BadenhorstAdi talked and joked as he gave us a tour of the wine cellar and poured wine. We started with the 2013 Secateurs Chenin Blanc. As we walked through the cellar, Adi stopped to draw a 2013 White Blend from the tank that was bright, textured and mineral-laden; a blend of Chenin Blanc, Marsanne, Roussanne and countless others he told us.

A. A. Badenhorst Funky White was next; it has nutty aromas, but very crisp and bright flavors. It’s unlike anything I’ve tasted. Adi told us this limited-production wine is made in the style of Jura’s vin jaune, spending 7 years in cask. As with vin jaune, it is not fortified but develops underneath a layer of flor-like yeast. Did I mention how unique this wine is? Adi told us somms are crazy for this wine.

In addition we tasted an unlabeled white blend of Marsanne and Grenache Blanc from the 2013 vintage made for the Cape Winemakers Guild auction in 2015. Next up 2014 Secateurs Rosé of Cinsault, Shiraz and Grenache which had delightful berry and spice flavors, confirming that rosé made from a blend of grape varieties is hard to beat. We finished the tasting with the 2010 Badenhorst Red Blend (Shiraz, Grenache, Cinsault and Tinta Barocca) which was juicy and delicious.

Though many of these wines tasted like they have brilliant acidity, Adi noted most have fairly low acidity, rather it’s the granite soils that impart a characteristic minerality that makes them taste so.

Wine is not the only libation that has caught Badenhorst’s attention. Also being made at Kalmoesfontein farm are gin, tonic and Caperitif – a uniquely South African vermouth that has been unavailable for many years. He also makes a bit of “proper” Sherry and fortified Muscat d’Alexandrie too.

The expansive landscape drew Badenhorst to the Swartland, certainly the ancient bush vines played a part, but he clearly loves the farm and its old buildings. In one of the few serious conversations we had with him Adi talked about the humility reflected in the old buildings. He seems to have no need for fancy new things. He does however need to have fun, which is exactly what he is doing with A. A. Badenhorst Family Wines.

View of the Swartland
Both Mullineux Family Wines and A. A. Badenhorst Family Wines are exported to the U.S. Look for them. You won’t be disappointed. The flavors of the cultivars and the soil are front and center.

This day of wine tasting left all of us with big smiles on our faces. We couldn’t have asked for a better experience. There is much more to explore in the wine world of the Swartland, and this introduction left us wanting to do a further exploration. Something for our next visit.

We had one final wine adventure before leaving South Africa though. The following day we traveled out along False Bay to Somerset West for a tour of a very special wine farm. We will share that visit with you in our next post.

In the meantime, please enjoy the slideshow of our wine tasting in the Swartland.


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The Steven Kent Winery: Focused on Bordeaux Varieties

We were recently introduced to the wines of The Steven Kent Winery located in the Livermore Valley via an online Twitter tasting (#WineStudio) Tuesday evenings  with PROTOCOL wine studio. During the online discussion, we talked wine education and tasted two Steven Kent wines.  First the education talk, then we will move on to the wine.

The Steven Kent Wines
The potential ways to further your wine education are countless. Some begin with magazine subscriptions, books and wine tastings. That’s enough for many wine lovers. Some, though, move on to formal wine education, either just for fun or as preparation for a career in the wine biz.

Which path you choose to further your wine education depends upon your goals, where you live and your budget. We were joined by Adam Lapierre MW of the San Francisco Wine School (SFWS) and Adam Chase DWS, owner Grape Experience Wine & Spirit School. The two discussed a veritable alphabet soup of wine certifications available via classroom and online settings.

A nice summary of the educational options (and the meaning of all  those initials behind wine folks’ names) is available on the San Francisco Wine School website.

Also joining the conversation was Tracey Hoff, VP Sales & Marketing with The Steven Kent Winery. Tracey has completed the Certified Specialist of Wine (CSW from the Society of Wine Educators) as well as Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). She believes in continuing education. That applies to the tasting room associates at Steven Kent Winery as well. The group recently completed the CWAS (California Wine Appellation Specialist®) course at the SFWS.

Tracey feels the program gave the tasting room associates a great historical perspective on California wine as well as in depth knowledge of the Livermore Valley. A tasting room experience is often the first impression a potential customer has of a winery. Well-educated and engaged wine tasting staff members are more able to provide customers with a positive tasting experience and effectively represent the establishment’s wines.

Steven Kent Mirassou, a 6th generation winemaker, established his Livermore winery in 1996. Grapes are sourced from five unique vineyard sites in the Livermore Valley. Multiple clones of Cabernet Sauvignon, as well as Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec are included in the vineyard plantings. Not to forget the white Bordeaux varieties, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillion are represented as well.

Interestingly, in addition to blended wines, The Steven Kent Winery releases a 100% varietal bottling of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, and Malbec. Sounds like an interesting (and educational) list of wines to taste.

And speaking of wines, The Steven Kent Winery provided us with two samples for tasting as we talked wine credentials. Steven Kent Mirassou established The Steven Kent Winery with one goal in mind: to produce Cabernet Sauvignon in the Livermore Valley that rivals the best Cabernet made anywhere.

2011 The Steven Kent Cabernet Sauvignon2011 The Steven Kent Winery Cabernet Sauvignon — medium ruby in the glass with generous aromas of blackberries and red fruit. Flavors of plums and blackberries combine with just a hint of herbs and a bit of earth providing interest and complexity. Moderate tannins are well integrated into the flavors of the wine, which has a medium body and moderately long finish. A bit of cedar spice lingers on the palate. ABV 13.5%

This wine provides all of the familiar flavors I love about Cabernet Sauvignon. It’s easy to drink on its own thanks to well-integrated tannins, but has ample flavor, nice acidity and modest alcohol – all of which make it a great food wine too.

2011 was a challenging vintage, with cooler than normal temperatures and rain at the beginning of harvest in the Livermore Valley (and beyond). In the hands of a skilled winemaker, though this vintage has produced some very elegant Cabernet, and this is one such example.

This Cabernet is a blend of 88% Cabernet Sauvignon, 5% Petit Verdot, 5% Merlot, 2% Cabernet Franc harvested from the Ghielmetti Estate Vineyard and Home Ranch Vineyard. Each lot was vinified separately and blended, then bottle aged for 6 months before release.

Oak aging took place for 24 months in mostly French oak, with just a bit of American oak. About 60% of the oak was new. This wine carries the oak aging very well.

2011 The Steven Kent Petit Verdot2011 The Steven Kent Winery Petit Verdotinky dark ruby-violet in the glass with aromas of blueberries and hints of toast and vanilla. Flavors and textures are bold. Earthy dark fruit flavors, black currant preserves and backnotes of vanilla combine with significant tannins for a long, flavorful finish. ABV 13.5%

This rich, textured wine has so much flavor, it cries out for food. A grilled steak would make a perfect dining partner for this wine. The fatty, smoky meat flavors will not trample the fruit flavors of the wine, and I would expect the wine to cut through the fatty goodness of the steak. Oh, I’m making myself hungry.

Only 142 cases of this Small-Lot Offering were produced. The Petit Verdot was harvested from Block 3 of the Ghielmetti Estate Vineyard. Fermentation took place in open-top fermenters and aging in 60% to 70% new French and American oak followed. Only the 6 barrels were selected from the larger lot to produce this Small Lot 100% Petit Verdot.

Online discussion noted that sadly not much varietal Petit Verdot is produced. This is a delicious example of Petit Verdot, and one that I would like to come back to in a couple of years’ time. I think it would be interesting to see how this wine evolves with time in the bottle.

A quick review of the San Francisco Wine School and Grape Experience Wine & Spirit School websites will provide you with a long list of wine education programs and formats. For those living near classroom locations, in-person classes are an option. Those living farther away have online education as an option.

If you live close to the Livermore Valley, or are planning a vacation around wine tasting, you could further your wine education with the well-informed tasting room staff at The Steven Kent Winery. I’m sure it won’t seem at all like going to school!

Thanks to PROTOCOL wine studio for furthering our wine education, it was a fun and informative discussion. And to The Steven Kent Winery we extend our thanks for providing the tasting samples. Tasting wine really is essential to learning about it.


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Tulbagh: a lesser-known South African wine region worthy of exploration

Sometimes I can’t believe my good fortune. In preparation for our trip to South Africa to explore its wine regions, we of course did some homework on the region. I began collecting articles about South African wine regions and its winemakers. I kept coming across articles about a group of winemakers doing things a bit differently, following a hands-off approach to winemaking and sourcing older vineyards in the Swartland.

The more I read about the protocol, the individual winemakers and the region the more I wanted to visit. We thought a tour of this more remote region would be a nice contrast to Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, both well-travelled South African wine regions, which we also planned to visit.

The Swartland is a good distance from Cape Town where we were staying, over an hour’s drive, so I wasn’t sure it would be possible or practical to visit the region. We had already been in contact with Luhambo Tours and arranged a day of wine tasting in Franschhoek and Stellenbosch, so we were hoping Luhambo could take us to the Swartland as well.

A quick email to Cedric at Luhambo Tours answered that question: of course it’s possible! Cedric informed us it would be a longer day than usual because of the driving time to and from the Swartland, but he was more than happy to take us. He had not toured some of the wineries in the area before, but was curious to do so. Being the wine lover that he is, I think he was really glad to venture out to this less-traveled wine region. We provided Cedric with a list of wineries, whom he contacted to arrange our visit.

Not every winery was open on the day we planned our visit, but no matter. Cedric suggested also including Tulbagh, a nearby region also with outstanding wineries, so that’s what we did.

Going back to that I can’t believe my good fortune. . . an interest the Swartland is what drew us to this part of the South African wine region, which then led us to Tulbagh. If not for Cedric’s suggestion, we would not have discovered this beautiful valley and its very special wine farms. The wine gods definitely smiled down on us this day!

We started the day with divine sparkling wine in Tulbagh, including a tour of the cellar, and ended with a tour and tasting at what is surely one of the Swartland’s most unique wineries — and our tour there was led by its brilliant owner and winemaker.

It was a long day and there is much to share. For that reason, we are posting our visit to Tulbagh now, then we will follow with our visit to the Swartland in a couple of days.

We left the hotel by 7:30 in the morning which meant we were able to watch the sun rise as it broke through the clouds. Beautiful! The drive to Tulbagh took us through open farmland, orchards, pastures, vineyards and wheat fields all framed by, you guessed it, more spectacular mountains. Even in the middle of winter this region is stunningly beautiful.

Tulbagh – the Wine District

We knew nothing about the Tulbagh wine district before our visit. It is located in the Coastal Region of the Western Cape (in spite of the fact that it has little direct influence from coastal weather). The Tulbagh district is a valley that is surrounded on three sides by a ring of mountains, the Obiekwaberg, Groot Winterhoek and Witsenberg mountains. Soil types within the valley are variable, with sandier soils lying on the valley floor and stony soils approaching the mountain slopes.

South African Wine Map

Map courtesy of Wines of South Africa

Unique to the valley is a “cold trap” caused by the surrounding mountains which traps cold night air. Though summer temperatures are warm, some parts of the district are cooler and wetter (areas in the rain shadow of the mountains) with significant diurnal variation. This diurnal temperature variation is something winemakers love as it helps to develop natural acidity in the grapes. Winters are very cold, with snow sometimes reaching to the foot of the surrounding mountains.

The town of Tulbagh was named after Ryk (Rijk) Tulbagh who was Governor of the Cape Dutch Colony between 1751 and 1771. Before being settled by Dutch immigrant farmers in 1699 the valley was home to San and Khoikhoi people.

We drove through the picturesque town of Tulbagh, whose Church Street is known, according to a Tulbagh tourist brochure, for having “the largest concentration of Provencial monuments in one street in South Africa.” Many of the buildings have been restored since the town was severely damaged in 1969 by an earthquake, the largest in South African history, which measured 6.3 in the Richter scale. It certainly is a picturesque town.

We tasted wine at three wine farms just outside the town of Tulbagh. Cedric wisely started the tastings with sparkling wine.

The House of Krone at Twee Jonge Gezellen Wine Estates

Twee Jonge Gezellen, which we were told by Lindi who guided us through our tasting and cellar tour, translates to two young bachelors. Twelve generations ago, sometime around 1710 the two bachelor brothers gained possession of the farm and married sisters. Since that time the farm has transferred from generation to generation of the same family. Until 2012, when the farm was sold to the South African wine distribution and marketing firm Vinimark, Twe Jonge Gezellen was the second oldest family-owned farm in South Africa.

The Krone family  (Nicolas Sr.) was responsible for introducing cold fermentation to winemaking in the 1950s, at the time a radical winemaking technique.  Another first was night harvesting of grapes. Both techniques, along with relatively early harvests, were aimed at preserving natural acidity in the grapes. In 1987 he produced his first sparkling wine and that same year built the first underground sparkling wine cellar in South Africa.

Always with an eye toward quality wine production, Krone did not release that first vintage until 1991. All sparkling wines are produced using Méthode Cap Classique (MCC), with secondary fermentation in the bottle just as with Champagne.

Lindi expects attention to quality not to change, but with new ownership she does expect production volume to grow significantly. Current annual production is about 450,000 bottles, but the goal is 1,000,000. Grapes are currently being brought in from Robertson wine region, but new vineyards are being purchased and planted in order to gain full control of grape  production.

It is sad to see a family lose ownership of its farm after so many generations, but on the positive side, I hope the change in ownership means these delightful sparkling wines will soon be available in the U.S.

We tasted three MCC wines all with a rich, round mouth feel, pinpoint bubbles and crisp acidity. 2011 Krone Borealis Brut, produced from Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, offered generous toasty, apple and citrus flavors. 2011 Krone Rosé Cuvée Brut (60% Pinot Noir, 40% Chardonnay) had a delicate rose color, was a bit yeasty and tasted like a bowl of mixed berries. Nicolas Charles Krone Marcque 1 presented yeasty and honeyed aromas and flavors with clean finish and lots of very fine bubbles. This MCC is a blend of vintages and has spent an amazing 8 years on the lees.

All three wines are produced from free-run juice only.  Secondary fermentation takes place in the bottle and aging in the underground cellar. We noticed many bottles resting on their sides, aging on the lees. A portion of the wines had been placed into riddling racks, in the process of remuage. All the riddling is done by hand.  We even noticed a poster diagraming the 21-day process.

Lindi told us all bottles are also hand labeled. The farm is proud to have 4th generation workers employed in the winemaking process. Providing local employment is important goal for the farm.  This was our first time in a sparkling wine cellar. It was a beautiful sight to behold.


Speaking of a beautiful sight to behold, Saronsberg Winery’s modern facility certainly fits the description. The enormous tasting room sits in the middle of the building and reaches up two stories. It is filled with paintings and sculpture, has large windows to the barrel room and outside looking across the reflecting pond to Saronsberg Mountain beyond. You can guess how the winery was named, right?

Saronsberg and Twee Jonge Gezellen wine farm are located just a stone’s throw away from each other. In addition to sharing spectacular views of Saronsberg Mountain the two are linked by history. In 2002 two portions of the original Twee Jonge Gezellen farm, Welgegund and Waveren, were purchased and became Saronsberg vineyards. Tragically, shortly after purchase portions of the vineyards were destroyed in a wild fire making replanting necessary.

In spite of the set-back, Saronsberg had their first harvest in 2004 and haven’t looked back since. The two vineyard sites are very different. Welgegund sits at the foot of Saronsberg Mountain, and portions of the vineyard are too steep to be farmed. The mountain-side location brings cooler temperatures, a bit more precipitation and varied clay loam soil with gravel and stones. This vineyard provides the primary source for the Provenance range of wines, which are described as more floral and elegant, and is also blended into the Saronsberg range.

Waveren is located more on the valley floor and is warmer and drier. The grapes grown here develop darker color with concentrated flavors and tannins. These grapes provide the base for the Saronsberg range of wines.

Shiraz comprises the largest planting, along with Grenache, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Nouvelle, Chenin Blanc, Semillon and Muscat de Frontignan. A variety of clones are planted on variable rootstock depending on the soil composition of the vineyard. The result of all of these vineyard choices is a significant diversity of flavors to use in blending the most flavorful wines possible.

Saronsberg began collecting wine awards with their first vintage and Saronsberg winemaker Dewaldt Heyns was admitted to the prestigious Cape Winemakers Guild in 2007.

In all we tasted seven wines from the very broad list of 15 wines. From the Saronsberg range: 2014 Sauvignon Blanc, 2012 Viognier, 2012 Shiraz, 2011 Full Circle and 2008 Seismic. The Sauvignon Blanc is tropical with just a bit of hay and great acidity. The Viognier is barrel-fermented and aged producing added layers of flavor. The Shiraz is smoky, complex and concentrated with significant tannins. I would love to come back to this wine in a few years. The Full Circle is a Rhone blend with great depth of flavor and a very long finish. The Seismic is a delightful Cabernet Sauvignon blend with minty dark fruit flavors and great tannin structure.

The 2012 Shiraz and 2011 Rooi (a Bordeaux blend) from the Provenance range were both flavorful and easy to like. The Rooi presents all of the flavors familiar in a Bordeaux blend.

With the tasting complete, Cedric politely dragged us from the beautiful tasting room and view of Saronsberg mountain and on to our next destination.


Rijk’s Private Cellar is located smack in the center of the valley, just north of the town of Tulbagh. As you might have guessed, the wine farm is named for Rijk Tulbagh. The farm was established in 1996, with the first plantings in 1997. The first vintage was produced in 2000.

Current plantings have been reduced to Chenin Blanc, Pinotage, Shiraz, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Viognier according to their website. Other varieties that did not perform up to standard have been removed.

The soil in this part of the valley is comprised of “low potential vertical shale soils”; that is 300 mm of topsoil on a thin layer of clay followed by vertical shale, thanks to a “tectonic collision 540 million years ago.” All of this means the soil has good drainage, but that thin layer of clay helps retain moisture.

The wine list at Rijk’s is streamlined, Chenin Blanc, Pinotage and Shiraz each produced in three ranges. We were guided through the tasting by Elaine, who explained to us that all Rijk’s wines are barrel aged. She also mentioned Rijk’s Chenin Blanc production is moving from just still wine to MCC.

The Touch of Oak range is fruit forward with just a bit of oak influence for complexity. With the Private Cellar range wood aging extends to two years with bottle aging for several years after that before release. Rijk’s Reserve is blended from the 10 best barrels of the Private Cellar range.

In all, we tasted seven wines from Rijk’s: 2011 Chenin Blanc Touch of Oak, 2009 Chenin Blanc Private Cellar, 2011 Pinotage Touch of Oak, 2010 Pinotage Private Cellar, 2011 Shiraz Touch of Oak, 2008 Shiraz Private Cellar and 2007 Estate The Master.

Chenin Blanc is planted extensively in South Africa and both of these wines showed lovely tropical fruit flavors. The Touch of Oak matures mostly in stainless steel, with only 30% aged in neutral French and Hungarian oak.  The Private Cellar is aged 70% in French and Hungarian oak providing more body and complexity.

Both Pinotages were delicious. The Touch of Oak exhibited a pleasing combination of red fruit, spice and dusty gravel. The 2010 Private Cellar was more fruit forward, with additional spice flavors, more texture. Drink the Touch of Oak now, hold the Private Cellar a bit before drinking. Elaine  mentioned more Pinotage is being planted. Oh goodie!

The Shiraz was a bit smoky and spicy with great red and dark fruit flavors. The Private Cellars showed more, but not too much, wood-influenced flavors and both had wonderfully grippy tannins. Both are delicious, age worthy and would be delicious with a grilled rib eye steak.

To finish the tasting, Elaine treated us to a taste of  the 2007 Estate The Master a nice example of the complex flavors that can be produced in a blended red wine. Syrah, Mourvedre, Pinotage, Carignan, Trincadeira and Viognier are all vinified separately in open top fermenters, then aged for 20 months in French oak before blending. Great tannin structure, but still smooth and silky.

For me the two Pinotages were the highlight of the tasting, both were lovely. We had an absolutely delightful time tasting these wines and talking with Elaine who really lights up a room. She knows every detail of each of these wines.

A significant proportion of Rijk’s wine production is exported, though the U.S. market is one that Rijk’s is just entering.

I have to say Cedric’s choice of wineries was spot on. We had a nice introduction to the range of wines produced in Tulbagh. It was great to begin our exploration with a historic property and fabulous sparkling wines at Krone/Twee Jonge Gezellen then move to two ‘younger’ producers of very nice red and white wines.

On the road again

On the road again

These three wineries would have been more than enough to please me on any day of wine tasting, but there was more wine goodness to come. Next we headed to the Swartland and the charming little town of Riebeek-Kasteel. You can read about that in our next post.

In the meantime, please enjoy our slideshow of Tulbagh.


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Aaldering Vineyards and Wines: Three South African Red Wines

It’s amazing how the world can, at the same time, seem so large and then amazingly small. As we looked at the duration of our flights between California and South Africa prior to our trip last year (20 hours 45 minutes, not including layover time) the world seemed very large to me. Then, a Twitter exchange followed by an email connected us with a wine farm in South Africa. Suddenly the world seemed much smaller.

Aaldering Vineyards and Wines is an Estate winery located in Devon Valley, a ward within the Stellenbosch district is South Africa. It’s history is relatively recent compared to some wine farms in South Africa, having been established in 2004 with the purchase of 24 hectares. Aaldering’s first vintage was 2007, which they released in 2010.

As of June 2014 Aaldering has attained Estate Wine registration status – meaning the estate’s vineyards are registered as a unit for the production of estate wine the South African wine industry’s Wine and Spirits Board and all production and bottling takes place on the estate.

The Wine and Spirits Board established South Africa’s Wine of Origin certification requirements in 1973 to assure quality, the origin of grapes and the grape variety. Every bottle of wine certified under the Wine of Origin (or W.O.) requirements will bear a W.O. seal which guarantees the origin, variety and vintage.

Because place matters, Areas of Origin or production units are defined by single vineyard, estate, ward, district and region. All Areas of Origin are, of course, defined by law with attention to soil, climate and ecological factors likely to influence the production of wine.

In 1998 a voluntary environmental sustainability initiative was begun within the South African wine industry. The Integrated Production of Wine (IPW) complies with international environmental sustainability guidelines, and audits participating farms or wine cellars.

WO IPW sealWith the 2010 vintage harvest, a new seal indicating compliance with both WO and IPW was introduced. You will see the Integrity and Sustainability Certified seal on wines produced in accordance with both certification programs.

Aaldering Vineyard and Wine’s production is certified by both WO and IPW. In addition, according the Aaldering website:

“We’re proud to be part of the elite ‘Enviro Wines’ group. This puts us amongst the top-class of IPW (Integrated Production of Wine) accredited wine producers. The cellar that scores exceptionally high on sustainability on both Farm and Winery practices are invited to join the elite group, to date only 10 wineries in South Africa are awarded this status.”

Devon Valley is known largely, though not exclusively, for red wine production. Aaldering vineyard soils consist of Hutton and Clovelly soil types which are derived from granite. The 24 hectare estate is planted to Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz and of course Pinotage.

With that background on Aaldering Vineyards and Wines,  let’s explore their wine.  Thanks to the magic of Twitter and email, the wine delivery guy arrived on our doorstep with three bottles as tasting samples.

2009 Aaldering Shiraz2009 Aaldering Shirazdark ruby in the glass with smoky aromas. Dark fruit flavors of blackberries, currents and ripe blueberries are supported by moderate, fairly smooth tannins. This wine has plenty of texture, nice acidity and a moderately long finish. It has abundant ripe fruit flavor without being over ripe. ABV 13.5%

This wine makes me want to light the grill, cook a rib-eye steak medium-rare, add a baked potato with butter and sour cream and pour myself another glass of this Shiraz. My mouth is watering.

2009 Aaldering Cabernet Sauvignon Merlot2009 Aaldering Cabernet Sauvignon Merlotdark ruby in the glass with delicate aromas of jalapeño and black pepper. The flavors are vaguely vegetal along with red raspberries, plums and blackberries. Black pepper and cedar spices are present in the background along with slightly grippy tannins. There is plenty of structure, great acidity and depth of flavor. ABV 14.5%

Cabernet and Merlot play well together, and this 65% Cabernet Sauvignon 35% Merlot blend is a perfect example of that cooperation. This delicious wine would be perfect for a braised beef roast with potatoes, carrots and parsnips. I would add red wine to the braise, but not this red wine because I would rather drink it than cook with it!

2009 Aaldering Pinotage2009 Aaldering Pinotagedark ruby in the glass with generous aromas of ripe plums and caramel. Ripe dark fruit flavors of plums and black cherries combine with juicy acidity and moderate tannins. In spite of the structure and rich flavors this wine is not heavy bodied. Flavors continue to develop with time in the glass. Take your time this wine. ABV 15%

Dark. Ripe. Generous. This wine would be delicious with lamb stew, herbed spätzle and wilted greens. We tasted Pinotage several times during our trip to South Africa and found it is made in a range of styles from lighter to more robust. This wine leans toward the robust style we enjoyed.  We will definitely continue our exploration of South African Pinotage.

All of these wines aged for  24 months in 30% to 40% new French oak, so oak flavors compliment rather than over power the fruit flavors in the wine.

Aaldering Vineyard and Wines is a South African winery to watch. This family-owned wine farm has chosen to produce estate wines in an environmentally responsible manner, with delicious result. Since their first release in 2010 of the 2007 vintage, volume has grown from 40,000 bottles to their maximum capacity of 120,000 bottles with the 2014 vintage.

Aaldering Vineyards & Wines

Also located on the wine farm are three luxury lodges. We noticed many South African wine farms also offer lodging. Just imagine a glass of Pinotage, views of the vineyards and the mountains beyond.  I can’t imagine anything more relaxing than spending a few nights among the vines on a working wine farm in South Africa!

Happily, Aaldering Vineyard and Wines has distribution in the U.S., so you can taste their wines without the 20-hour flight. We thank them for the tasting samples. Tasting notes are our own.


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Decopas Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec: Time for Happy Hour!

We recently tasted two Argentinian wines that are new to the U.S. market. We received them as samples and were impressed with their freshness, delicious flavors and affordability.

“At the end of each work day in Argentina, colleagues, family and friends will typically turn to “¿Decopas?” — Buenos Aires slang for “By the glass?” It’s also a joyous invitation that signals the start of Happy Hour. This is the inspiration behind Decopas, a festive new range of wines making its U.S. debut this fall.”

With that introduction from Creative Palate Communications, and after enjoying the detail of the artwork on the wine labels from Decopas, we were excited to taste these two new wines from the Mendoza region of Argentina

2013 Decopas Sauvignon Blanc2013 Decopas Sauvignon Blanclight yellow in the glass with generous aromas and flavors of lime, crisp apple and dried hay. It’s light in the mouth with fresh, juicy acidity making it easy to like. ABV 12%

If you blind-tasted this wine you would know it was Sauvignon Blanc. It has plenty of flavor without being overly herbaceous. It’s well-balanced with ample acidity and will pair with a variety of foods — think salads, creamy pasta dishes or spicy food. This wine will shine at a party due to it’s versatility and due to its fresh flavors and light body.


2013 Decopas Malbec2013 Decopas Malbecinky violet-purple in the glass. Flavors and aromas of ripe blackberries and plums along with a seasoning of black pepper are easy to enjoy and are supported by smooth tannins. A hint of smoke adds nice complexity. ABV 13.5%

This wine makes me hungry for pizza, a lamb burger or pasta in tomato sauce. It would be a great choice for a weekend lunch, it has lots of flavor but at only 13.5% ABV, you won’t need a siesta after lunch. It will work just as well with dinner and be a great partner for grilled pork or beef.


As we tasted and talked about the Decopas Sauvignon Blanc and Malbec, and their detailed labels, we were transported back to Buenos Aires and the wonderful time we spent on vacation there several years ago. We stayed in the Recoleta neighborhood of Buenos Aires. The neighborhood was easy to navigate on foot, and there seemed to be a wonderful family-owned restaurant on every street corner. Everyone we met was so welcoming.

One day we spent the afternoon walking the San Telmo neighborhood, one of the oldest in Buenos Aires. The cobblestone streets were filled with street performers, artists and dancers. We watched tango dancers in the street. There seemed to be as many or more Porteños (those living in Buenos Aires) enjoying the day as there were tourists.

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The artwork on the label of these wines is playful, lively and fun. Either or both of these wines would be perfect for a get-together with friends after work, or perhaps a tango-themed party, or even a we survived the holidays party. And one more note: the screw top closure on these wines means they’re perfect for a picnic.

Use your imagination and have fun with these delicious wines to create your own memories. They will pair nicely with a variety of food, and at around $12 per bottle, they won’t break the bank.  Anytime is a good time for happy hour with Decopas!

We received these wines as tasting samples, but all opinions are our own.


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Saké and Cheese — A Natural Pairing

We recently sat in on a saké and cheese pairing hosted by Charles Communications Associates. The online tasting featured saké made in Forest Grove, Oregon by SakéOne as well as saké imported from Japan by SakéOne. Each of the four sakés was paired with a different cheese provided by Marin French Cheese Company, Laura Chenel and Rogue Creamery. As we discovered during the tasting, saké makes a great partner for cheese.

Sake tasting lineup

Jesse Pugach, Advanced Saké Professional & Saké Specialist at Southern Wines & Spirits, and Liza Kaplansky of Laura Chenel/Marin French Cheese Company in Northern California hosted the discussion. With saké samples from SakéOne received and chilled, and cheese samples plated, we were ready to taste and talk saké and cheese. Here are the combinations we tasted with a description of each and then what we thought of the pairing.

Momokawa Organic Junmai GinjoMomokawa Organic Junmai Ginjonearly colorless in the glass with delicate aromas of ripe, sweet pears and white flowers. Vanilla and floral flavors follow with a bit of lemon zest and medium weight in the mouth. The finish is clean and crisp. ABV 14.5%. SRP: $14. Serve chilled.

This saké is produced from organic rice grown in California that has been milled to 60%, producing a saké with increased aromatics. It is produced by SakéOne in Forest Grove, Oregon.

Marin French Petite Breakfast Brie —  the texture is a bit spongy, as opposed to creamy and almost liquid like an aged brie. It has a sweet aroma with tart and creamy flavors along with a bit of sweetness and saltiness on the finish. This cheese just melts in your mouth. Delicious. I would enjoy eating this cheese for breakfast or any time of the day.

Marin French Petite Breakfast Brie is the first cheese made by Marin French Cheese after it was established in 1865. At the time there was an egg shortage in San Francisco and this cheese was produced to fill that void on breakfast menus. That’s how the cheese got its name.

It’s a fresh brie, meaning that unlike most brie it is not aged. You will not find the usual skin on this cow’s milk cheese because it is fresh. The small wheels simply undergo brining and drying before distribution. It is produced in small 4 oz wheels, hence petite in its name.

Momokawa Organic Junmai Ginjo and cheese


The pairing: delicate saké flavors combine with delicate cheese flavors and neither overpowers the other. The floral flavors of the saké are enhanced with the pairing as is the salty finish of the cheese.

This combination would be best for those who don’t appreciate strong cheese flavors or those with little experience tasting saké. Both are delicate.



Momokawa Organic Nigori Momokawa Organic Nigorimilky white in the glass with clean, tart fermented aromas. The flavors are very neutral, just a bit of pear but with more texture, weight and sweetness. The finish lingers. ABV 16%. SRP: $14. Serve chilled and shake well before pouring.

The cloudy, milky color and granular texture of the saké is unique to Nigori saké (Nigori translates to cloudy). As part of the brewing process after fermentation, saké is pressed to remove rice solids from the liquid. With Nigori saké, a coarser mesh is used which allows more of the rice particles to remain with the liquid. That accounts for the tiny particles that adhere to the glass and for the increased sweetness of this saké produced by SakéOne.

The color and texture were a bit off-putting at first. This sake showed much better to our taste when paired with cheese than it did on its own. It may be a bit of an acquired taste.

Laura Chenel’s Chévrethis white, creamy, tart goat cheese is only slightly crumbly and has the delicate earthy flavors I associate with goat cheese. This cheese has a fair amount of moisture in it, giving it a richer, rounder mouthfeel and flavor than some goat cheeses. It is creamy and firm at the same time. It has all of the flavors I love in goat cheese. Once again, this is a fresh cheese, so no rind has developed on the cheese.

This is the cheese that started it all for Laura Chenel. In 1979 she was the first to sell artisanal goat cheese in the US. It was Alice Waters, who first served Laura Chenel’s goat cheese (sliced and breaded before being baked) on a salad at her restaurant, Chez Panisse in Berkeley, and introduced the food world to this delicious domestic goat cheese. Now we take it for granted, but back in the 1970s it was something of a rarity.

Momokawa Organic Nigori and cheeseThe pairing: textures are highlighted in this pairing. The firm texture of the goat cheese minimizes the textural uniqueness of the saké in this pairing. The wonderful earthy flavor and creaminess of the Chévre lends complexity to the flavors of the saké and contrasts nicely with its sweetness.

Hint: Liza suggested adding a dusting of grated lime zest over the Chévre to heighten the flavors of both the cheese and the saké.



Kasumi Tsuru Kimoto Extra DryKasumi Tsuru Kimoto Extra Drycolorless in the glass with delicate aromas of toasted almonds. Flavors are a bit earthy and mushroomy with a mouth filling roundness. As this saké warms in the glass the mushroom aromas and flavors develop fully. The finish is very clean and crisp with bracing acidity that is tongue tingling. This saké grabs your attention. ABV 16%. SRP: $27. Can be served cold, warm, or hot.

Kimoto saké has more richness, more umami and more depth of flavor due to the  lengthy production process. Kimoto is an ancient style of brewing saké. Most modern brewers add lactic acid to the fermenting rice. Kimoto is produced without the addition of lactic acid, by manually breaking up the rice to produce lactic acid naturally. Only a handful of breweries still use this ancient method which produces the distinctive aromas and complex flavors in this saké which is produced in Hyogo prefecture in Japan.

Laura Chenel’s Ash-rinded Buchettethis cheese ages from the outside and the texture of the cheese changes accordingly. It is soft and gooey toward the outside and firmer in the center. This cheese has strong earthy and stinky aromas (but in the best way possible). The flavors are pungent, tart and complex but also a bit sweet. It is a much more flavorful version of fresh goat cheese. It may not be the best choice for the goat cheese novice, but it is really delicious. I love the textural differences between the center and the outside of this cheese. This was my favorite cheese of the group.

With this cheese we move from the first cheese produced by Laura Chenel to her most recent production. Laura Chenel began producing this cheese in June of this year and it is an aged goat cheese. The exterior of the cheese is coated with vegetable ash (and edible, it’s delicious) which is a traditional coating for aged goat cheeses in France. The vegetable ash helps to balance the acidity and rich flavors that develop as a goat cheese ages.

Kasumi Tsuru Kimoto Extra Dry and cheese


The pairing: brilliant. The earthy flavors of the saké and the aged flavors of the goat cheese play off each other nicely. Both have bold flavors. The acidity of the saké is great with the creamy texture of the cheese. This was my favorite pairing of the group.

Your cheese-loving friends will go crazy for this pairing.



Yoshinogawa Winter Warrior Junmai GinjoYoshinogawa Winter Warrior Junmai Ginjocolorless in the glass and very aromatic. Ripe melon and tart pineapple aromas are followed by anise, melon and pineapple flavors. This saké is a bit lighter in the mouth, has just a hint of sweetness and great acidity. ABV 14%.  SRP: $27. Serve chilled.

Yoshinogawa is one of the oldest saké breweries in the world, it’s history reaches back nearly 500 years. This saké was produced in Japan as a collaboration between SakéOne and Yoshinogawa with American food and palates in mind, so that it would pair with bigger flavors. It is completely different than the dry, tight style of saké Yoshinogawa usually produces in Niigata prefecture.

Rogue Oregon Bluethis creamy blue veined cheese has pungent, earthy aromas. The flavors are bold, earthy and creamy with sharp blue cheese flavors. The texture of this cheese is smooth and is very typical of quality blue cheese. Delicious.

Produced in southern Oregon by Rogue Creamery, this creamery was established by Tom Vella who also established Vella Cheese Company in Sonoma. Rogue Creamery is know for its production of blue cheese and is producing very highly regarded blue cheese according to Liza.

Yoshinogawa Winter Warrior Junmai Ginjo and cheese


The pairing: highlights the contrast of sweet to salty/earthy, a classic pairing. Think blue cheese with honey comb or blue cheese with Sauternes. Did I already pick a favorite? Well, I loved this combo too.

Anyone who enjoys blue cheese and dessert wines will appreciate this combination.



The takeaways:

This tasting highlighted the potential for pairing food and saké. Cheese, because of the earthy flavors developed as a result of aging are natural partners for saké. The acidity of saké cuts through the creaminess of soft cheeses. Jesse and Liza suggest that saké pairs best with soft cheeses which tend to be creamier and have less acidity than hard, longer-aged cheeses. This sets up a nice contrast between the acidity of the saké and the fatty creaminess of the cheese.

In terms of pairings consider pairing similarly delicate flavors or contrasting sweet and salty/earthy flavors. The saké should be sweeter than the cheese or the saké will taste bitter. Apply the same considerations you would in pairing sweet wine with cheese.

This holiday season provides the perfect opportunity to introduce your friends to the delightful combination of saké and cheese. If you’re having a party, you can organize the saké and the cheese pairings. If you are going to a party take a saké and cheese pairing you enjoy. It’s simple, easy and your friends will thank you.

Thanks to Charles Communications Associates for organizing and inviting us to this online tasting. Thanks also to SakéOne for providing the saké samples and to Marin French Cheese Company and Rogue River Blue Cheese for providing the cheese samples. I know it can be a challenge to package cheese for shipping. All of the samples we received arrived in good condition.

Finally, thanks to Jesse and Liza for sharing your knowledge and enthusiasm of saké and cheese with us. What a great combination.


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Wine Tasting in Stellenbosch and Franschhoek, South Africa

Being the wine lovers that we are, we wouldn’t consider visiting South Africa without spending a few days wine tasting. We took advantage of two days touring Cape Town and the Cape peninsula on the Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) itinerary that was part of the Post-trip extension to the Ultimate Africa trip, and then decided to plan the remaining three days on our own.

We did a bit of research to determine which wine districts we wanted to visit and what we had time for. In addition to pestering wine friends who had visited the region, I found Wines of the New South Africa Tradition and Revolution by Tim James to be a great resource. I also began saving articles on South African wine as I found them, well in advance of our planning the trip.

Stellenbosch is the epicenter of winemaking in South Africa, so that district was definitely on our list. We had read about the stunning beauty of Franschhoek, so really wanted to visit there as well. Then, we wanted to mix things up a bit. Visit a more remote winemaking area or maybe some organic or biodynamic farms.

Winegrowing Areas South Africa

We decided on visiting the Stellenbosch, Franschhoek and Swartland districts. Then to get our biodynamic fix we planned a trip out to Waterkloof, a stunning farm in Somerset West. In all, we spent three days wine tasting is South Africa. Every wine region was just drop-dead gorgeous and the wines were amazing.

Craig, one of the members of our travel group, originally found Luhambo Tours using an internet search. Online reviews were consistently excellent, so we contacted them about organizing our wine tasting tours. It turned out to be a great choice.

Luhambo Tours has a number of wine tasting tours to offer or will organize a personalized tour for you, complete with pick-up and drop-off at your hotel door in Cape Town. In case you were wondering, Luhambo means journey in the Xhosa language.

Wine tasting with Luhambo Tours
Graham was our driver for the first day of touring to Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. He’s the one who took our picture in front of the Luhambo Tours van before our departure. We were all proudly wearing our United We Sip t-shirts (courtesy of Leslie, she’s the one in the middle-left. Thank you, Leslie.) and joined by Sanction, our OAT safari guide. Although Sanction did not accompany us on our wine tasting trip, he was with us in spirit. We met up with Sanction again that evening for our final dinner together.

We had a wonderful day touring and wine tasting with Graham. He was friendly and so knowledgeable about the history and winemaking of South Africa. Graham came to South Africa from Scotland with his family at the age of 3 and can’t imagine being anywhere else. Having worked a harvest or two in the region, he has lots of first-hand knowledge of winemaking in the Cape.


Our first stop was Kanonkop, home to outstanding red wines. The name of the farm is an interesting one. From the Kanonkop website:

“The name Kanonkop was derived from a kopje (hillock), from which a cannon was fired in the 17th Century to alert farmers in outlying areas that sailing ships plying the waters between Europe and the Far East had entered Table Bay for a stopover at Cape Town.”

Farmers could then haul their goods to the harbor for sale to the ships.

Kanonkop remains family owned, being handed down from father to son for four generations. The estate totals 125 hectares, with 100 hectares planted, and is located at the foot of Simonsberg Mountain (Simonsberg means Simon’s mountain in Afrikaans) in the Stellenbosch Region of the Cape. Both Simonsberg and Stellenbosch are named for Simon van der Stel, the first governor of the Cape (more about that later in this post).

Pinotage comprises 40% of plantings on the farm, with Cabernet Sauvignon adding 35%, Merlot 7.5% and a bit of Cabernet Franc. The Pinotage is some of the oldest in the Cape at about 50 years of age. They are bush vines that are largely dry-farmed. We passed large plantings of these lovely old bush vines as we drove through the farm to the tasting room.

Winemaking begins in open top concrete fermenters that are wider than they are deep allowing for maximum skin to juice contact. Only French oak (Nevers) barrels are used for aging.

Kanonkop Tasting Room (Cellar Door)
From the exterior the caller door (tasting room to us), and barrel room beyond, is very ordinary looking. The interior is is quite spectacular however. The tasting room is modern, beautifully lit with a rich wood ceiling. The barrel room extends beyond a glass wall in the tasting room. It was a really pleasant space in which to taste through the Kanonkop wines.

Kanonkop Wine Tasting Lineup
We tasted 5 wines, all delicious. The Kadette Pinotage Dry Rosé and the Kadette Cape Blend are the only non-estate wines in the group. In addition we tasted the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon and the 2011 Paul Sauer, Kanonkop’s flagship wine, which is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 18% Cabernet Franc, 12% Merlot that is aged 24 months in new French oak.

The 2012 Pinotage, made from fruit harvested from Kanonkop’s 58 year old bush vines, showed ample dark fruit, a bit of smoke and nice tannins. Great depth of flavor and well balanced. If all Pinotage tasted this good, no one would ever make a face as you pour them a glass of Pinotage.

Our next stop took us to the Franschhoek Valley with dramatic views of Simonsberg Mountain along the way and the Drakenstein Mountains which encircle the valley on three sides. The combination of green farmland and spectacular mountain vistas was stunning.

The Franschhoek Valley was settled under the direction of Simon van der Stel. At the time he and his scouts explored the area, shortly after his arrival in 1679, San and Khoi people inhabited the area. The picturesque valley was also home to herds of elephants, and its early name was Oliphantshoek, elephant’s corner.

One of van der Stel’s major tasks was to develop the Cape as a refueling station for Dutch East India Company ships passing between Europe and India. That meant developing farming in the region so that ships could be provided with meat, vegetables and wine.

With the revocation of the Edict of Nants by King Louis XIV in 1685, French protestants known as Huguenots suffered increased religious persecution in France. They began fleeing the country in increasing numbers.

Van der Stel saw the Huguenots, who were farmers and winemakers in addition to having similar religious beliefs, as a potential source of families to help settle and develop the Cape region. He requested that the Dutch East India Company provide passage for any suitably-skilled Huguenots to the Cape. So, between 1688 and 1689 about 175 Huguenots re-settled in the Cape region.

The Huguenots were given land to settle in what is today called Somerset West and Stellenbosch, but the majority settled in the beautiful valley that was at the time called Oliphantshoek. After settlement by the French it was re-named Franschhoek or French corner.

Huguenot Monument in Franschhoek
Today Franschhoek is a charming, but touristy, little town. At one end, with the mountains as a dramatic backdrop, is a beautiful monument to the Huguenot settlers.

A beautiful Dutch Reformed Church built in 1846 still stands on Huguenot Street and the Franschhoek City Hall built in 1935 in the Cape Dutch revival style is equally charming.

Mixed among these landmarks are countless shops, art galleries and restaurants. Many restaurants and wineries in the valley have French names as you would expect. The French language was eventually forbidden, however, in any communication with Dutch authorities.

We had just an hour to grab lunch and quickly walk through Franschhoek. Not nearly enough time to adequately explore the museum or the churchyard or wander the back streets, but we did have a delicious lunch, were able to find some beautiful gifts and enjoyed some decadent chocolates.

Grand Provence

This spectacular winery is located along the Main Road (that’s what it’s called before the name changes to Huguenot Street in the city) just before reaching Franschhoek. We stopped and tasted here before continuing on to Franschhoek for lunch and that quick tour.

Grand Provence Cellar Door
The drive up to the collection of Cape Dutch style buildings took us through the vineyards, some still wild prior to winter pruning and others neatly pruned. This winery oozes luxury at first glance. Immaculate white buildings stand surrounded by well manicured gardens, precisely trimmed hedges and spectacular outdoor sculptures. When’s the last time you noted a sign directing you to parking and the helipad outside a winery?

The modern cellar door was staffed by Andre the day we visited and he guided us through a tasting of Grand Provence’s red wines. Three of the four wines we tasted carry the Franschhoek Wine of Origin designation, meaning 100% of the fruit is grown within the boundaries of the Franschhoek production area.  For a detailed explanation of the Wine of Origin designation visit Wines of South Africa.

2011 Grand Provence Red is a limited release wine that is a blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot. It shown nice Merlot fruit flavors with the great structure of Cabernet Sauvignon. A hint of bell pepper and spice flavors add nice complexity.

Rounding out the tasting were the 2013 Pinot Noir and the 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon (both Franschhoek Wine of Origin) and the 2009 Shiraz which is produced from Stellenbosch-grown fruit. Grand Provence is one of only three wineries in the Franschhoek area producing Pinot Noir.

With our tasting complete (oh yes, there were chocolates too!) Graham politely encouraged us to move along. It would have been easy to linger, walking through the gardens, the art gallery, the restaurant or the gift shop, but we had more wine to taste, and more of the beautiful landscape to see.

On the way to our next wine tasting stop we made a detour through the town of Stellenbosch. Graham ably navigated the narrow streets of the picturesque town which is home to Stellenbosch University and its Department of Viticulture and Oenology. Education in viticulture and winemaking has been ongoing since the 1880s.

Dutch Reformed Church, Stellenbosch
During Simon van der Stel’s early exploration of the area surrounding Cape Town in 1679, he made camp on an island along the banks of the Eerste River. Van der Stel named the area Simon van der Stel se Bos (Simon van der Stel’s bush).

He was impressed by the broad valley and recognized its abundant water supply from the Eerste River made it the perfect area for farming. By 1683 farmers began settling the area which became known as Stellenbosch, Stel’s bush. The town was established in 1685.

Rust en Vrede

Rest and Peace is the translation of the winery name, and the setting could not have been more peaceful. The cellar door and winery are surrounded by the vineyards and framed by Helderberg Mountain. We were seated outdoors for the tasting with the beauty of the vineyards and the mountains providing a visual feast to accompany these substantial wines.

Rust en Vrede
This area just outside of Stellenbosch is a bit warmer, the surrounding mountains provide a bit of protection from cooling winds. As a result, the Rust en Vrede vineyards are planted to Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz and Merlot with production limited to red wines only.

The farm was established in 1694, but wine has not been made continuously since that time. Winemaking began in the 1970s after many decades of not producing wine.

We tasted four red wines, all extroverted, powerful, flavorful wines with great tannin structure and ABV in the range of 14.9% to 15.7%. The first three wines we tasted were the 2013 Estate Merlot, 2012 Estate Syrah and 2012 Estate Cabernet Sauvignon.

2011 Estate Blend is the biggest of the bunch. The blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Syrah and 10% Merlot is complex with riper fruit flavors along with licorice, caramel and vanilla. Tannins are substantial.

All of these wines are aged in French oak, with the length of aging increasing from 12 months for the Merlot to 18 months for the Estate Blend. The Estate blend also spends 18 months bottle-aging before release.

In 1998 Rust en Vrede was the first South African winery to have a wine included in Wine Spectator’s Top 100 wines, and have been included several time since, most recently in 2012.

Unbelievably, we had time for one final winery visit on our way back to Cape Town. We were in for yet another unique winery visit.


The drive into the winery is lined with palm trees, making the entrance very unique. I could hardly wait to see what we would find at the end of the drive. Along the way we saw horses grazing the pastures, a beautiful white barn and a family cemetery. The private residence in front of the tasting room and winery was so beautiful; yet another lovely example of Cape Dutch architecture which is at the same time elegant and unadorned.

Meerlust manor house
I had no idea at the time of our visit that Meerlust, which means “pleasure from the sea”, has been designated a National Monument. The farm was originally settled by German immigrants in 1693. The name is derived from the estate’s close proximity to the sea, it’s only 5 kilometers from False Bay, and the cooling breezes that blow in from the ocean.

We were greeted by two friendly winery dogs, who seemed very glad to see us. The cellar door contains an eclectic mix of poster art and furnishings. Yet another treat for the eyes as well as the tastebuds.

All of the wines at Meerlust are produced from estate fruit.

We began the tasting with the 2012 Chardonnay, 2012 Pinot Noir, 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon and 2011 RED, an “everyone in the pool” blend of 52% Merlot, 33% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Cabernet Franc, 5% Petit Verdot.

2010 Merlot has 7% Cabernet Franc added and I love that. This wine has green pepper on the nose with nice red and dark fruit flavors and great tannins. Love this combination of Merlot and Cab Franc. They definitely play well together.

2009 Rubicon is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Merlot, 9% Cabernet Franc, 1% Petit Verdot. It’s inky dark in the glass with deep, rich, dark fruit flavors, leather and green pepper vegetal notes. Tannins are significant and a bit grippy. Well put together with great structure.

All of these wines have a relatively modest ABV ranging from 13.08% to 14.5%, plenty of flavor and nice complexity from oak aging. Really delicious wines.

What a perfect day of wine tasting. I have certainly never visited a wine region more beautiful than Stellenbosch and Franschhoek. The views are just stunning, as were the wineries themselves. And there was something for every wine palate. Some of the wines showed cooler climate influences, others warmer climate characteristics. It was a brilliant choice of wineries. All of these wineries export their wines to the US. Look for them, you will not be disappointed.

Thank you Graham for the great introduction to Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.

Day two of our wine tasting adventure took us to Tulbagh and Swartland. Two new regions in the Cape to explore and learn about in our next post. In the meantime, please enjoy our slideshow of Stellenbosch and Franschhoek.


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