Swiss Wine Tour, Graübunden

The wines of Switzerland are not well known. As you can guess they don’t produce very much of it and most of it is consumed within Switzerland. Exports are calculated at only 2% and you are likely to find that 2% are in neighbouring Germany.

I have close friends who moved to Zurich, Switzerland in 2010 and I have been fortunate enough to visit them each year. I visit the local wine shops to study the producers, varietals and different regions of Swiss wine. Their shelf labels are especially helpful giving the names of the varietal(s) since they are not always shown on the bottles. A grape that causes confusion is Chasselas since it can have several regional names eg. Fendant (in Valais), Perlan (Geneva).

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In all the years I have been visiting Switzerland, I had never been on a wine tour. I started looking months in advance and found only a few options. The most populated wine regions are the Valais and Vaud, located in the south west of the country, near Lake Geneva. I kept digging online and found http://www.wine-tours.ch. I was impressed with the website, the qualifications of its operator, Gian Carlo, and they offer a full day educational tour that sounded perfect for a wine nerd like myself! I was also intrigued that the tour takes place in the region of Graübunden, in the eastern part of the country (which I had never hear of) and 75% of their vine plantings are Pinot Noir.

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With some planning, we found a way for my friend Katarina to join me for the day (she’s a busy girl as a ‘Haus Frau’ of four). We took the train from the Zurich HB to Sargans which was only one hour away. Gian Carlo from Wine Tours Switzerland, met us at the station with his vehicle and took us on a driving tour of the region, describing the terroir. What boggles my mind is how this part of Switzerland could grow so much Pinot Noir?
IMG_20151014_093348IMG_20151014_102035Graübunden is a micro-climate and it is not as high in elevation as you would expect, 500m above sea level. The Romans occupied the land and made wine here 2,000 years ago. Today, there are 420ha lying on calcarious soil and loose schist. The Rhine river runs through the region and sits at the base of the mountains, leaving room for west facing vineyards. Then further to the east are the alps that border Austria. Westerly winds are blocked my these alps creating a dry, warm wind that benefits Graübunden. It prevents rot on the grapes and prolongs the growing season. This wind is call a Föhn. My friend Katarina said its a running joke that if anything goes wrong, blame it on the Föhn!

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Our agenda for the day would take us through the villages of Maienfeld, Jenins, Fläsch and Malaus (combined population of 6,000), a visit to two wineries and a stop for lunch.

The first winery was Davaz in Fläscher, the largest producer in Graübunden. Owned by two brothers plus they own a winery in Tuscany. Davaz makes a large portfolio of Swiss wines and we were treated to a sampling of eight of them, everyone of them outstanding! Gian Carlo presented the wines with a plate of local meat and mountain cheese. He sourced the sausage from a local producer, Alpen Hirt. On the label is a date, and if you type this date into his website you will be given information about the cow you are eating, her name, how many calves she had, where she grazed in the summer etc……. so cool! We tasted Riesling Silvaner, Pinot Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Shiller and two vintages of Pinot Noir (recommend to age for 5 years).
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When we saw the name Shiller on a label we were puzzled because we never heard of it before. Schiller is a blend of red and white grapes from the same parcel of land an often comes out pink in colour.

Our stop for lunch was at the Weinstube Alter Torkel in Jenins and the food was perfect; salad, risotto, wine and coffee. It was nice that Gian Carlo joined us. We really enjoyed his sense of humour and hearing about his career in wine, restaurants and how he came back to his home village in Graübunden to start his wine tour business.
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Our last winery visit was at Obrecht, a small, husband and wife, biodynamic winery (6.5ha). Christian Obrecht is the 5th generation winemaker/owner. They produce sparkling wine, distilled spirits (Marc) and dry wines, including a notable a local variety called Completer and Trocla Nera, which is Romansh for Pinot Noir. Graübunden is in a trilingual part of Switzerland speaking Italian, Romansh and Swiss German.
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Katarina and I did not go home empty handed! We bought six bottles, gained knowledge and an appreciation of this ‘undiscovered’ part of Switzerland producing quality wines. The day with Gian Carlo and his tour company was above and beyond expectations, we could not have been more pleased!

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White Truffle Festival & Hunt!! Alba, Italy

The Alba White Truffle festival is a month long event running from mid October to mid November. Lucky for me there is also a focus on the wine regions of Piedmonte, which we discovered just five minutes after leaving our AirBnB. Every Friday evening of the festival there are close to a dozen wine producers out on the streets of Alba pouring sparkling wines, Dolcetto, Barbera, Barbaresco and Barolos. Once we found out the tastings were complimentary we had to pinch ourselves and ask ‘how did happen upon this magical, wonderful place’? The streets weren’t too crowded so it was easy to have a conversation with the producers and other tourists.
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I booked a truffle hunt for the following morning and found a wonderful company on the Internet. I would highly recommend  www.italianna.com. Our meeting with the truffle hunter was on a Saturday at 9:30am in the town of La Morra. We met our guide and his hunting dog, Daisy ‎and made our way into the La Morra forest.
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Daisy is a special truffle hunting breed from Emilia Romagna. She is full of energy and happiest when she is outside and hunting truffles.  In October the region is in the ‘cross-over season’ when the hunt for black and white truffles over lap. The white truffle is very rare and especially scarce this year (2015). The summer was too sunny with not enough rain. Therefore the prices are sky high, going for 450 euros per 100 grams!

We were not made any promises that we would even find a truffle but were still delighted to spend 1.5hrs in the La Morra forest learning about the skills and the life of the truffle hunter and his dog.

The dogs are always a female because they have more focus and concentration then the males. They often hunt in the night and do multiple treks throughout the day, getting only 4 or 5 hours of sleep. Daisy is a very valuable dog and was trained as a pup with a toy ball stuffed with a truffle.

Truffles grow close to roots of trees so the hunter keeps a close eye on Daisy if she starts to dig near a root. The hunter said he knows if Daisy has found a truffle because her tail starts to wag. He then has to lunge to grab her away from her dig, so she doesn’t damage the truffle. We were lucky that we got to witness this FIVE times!! Every time she found a truffle the hunter would say “Brava Daisy, Brava”, then give her a treat and a kiss. We figured the 5 black truffles she found had a value of 100 euros. It was a good morning!
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Back in the town of Alba where Jiska and I are staying, we went to the truffle market and fair. The fair had rows of display cases ‎showing black and white truffles, ready for sale from their hunter. In addition there were wine producers, cheese and salami makers and a wine bar (where we spent most of our time). You can purchase a glass of wine for 3 or 4 euros or a bottle from one of the finest producers in the region.
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Out on the narrow streets of Alba we found a medieval fair in the evening. There were many food and drink stands plus activities for kids and adults. Jiska and I spent WAY too much time at this addicting game (in the photos below game) where you try to loop a ring that hangs off a fishing pole, ‎onto the neck of a wine bottle. We were unsuccessful, but I have been making plans to construct this set up in my Vancouver apartment!

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Marchesi di Barolo, Barolo

Marchesi di Barolo winery is the oldest winery in the region and the Abbonna family are in its 5th generation of operation. I first had these wines in Ontario at the Italian wine show. Their single vineyard Cru Cannubi left an impression with me, full of power and built for aging.

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I sent an email to the winery requesting a visit with a tour and tasting. Every correspondence from Marchesi di Barolo was kind and enthusiastic for our visit. I was surprised to learn they have a restaurant and we were were able to choose a multi-course menu of Piedmonte dishes paired with their wines.

The tour took us through their cellars that housed a variety of different vessels for fermentation and aging. I was amazed by the size of the 185hl oak casks and learning that their bottling facility is located 1km away and the wine is transported by an underground pipeline!

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We were hosted by Ilaria who set us up with a tasting comparison of three cru Barolos from the 2011 vintage: Coste di Rose, Cannubi, Sarmassa. She selected these three out of a possible six to best demonstrate the differences in their terroir. The cru wines are all vinified the same, with one third in barrique and two thirds in large oak cask. Barolo is in a microclimate. Vineyards are planted over the hilly region and is protected by mountains in the north and south. The soils are a mixture of clay, limestone marl, blueish marl, tuff, sandstone and sand. The three cru wines had different aromas and personalities that changed their expressions over the course of our tasting.

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With our teeth turning a slight black/purple, we were escorted to an elegant dining room for our four course lunch. Every bite was a delight!! I was especially blown away with the Albese style raw meat. I have not been a tartar fan in the past but this was a palate changing experience. So delicious with a beautiful texture. To follow was Risotto cooked in Barolo with sausage of Bra, then the main couse, Brasato al barolo (Veal cooked in Barolo wine).

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Our entire visit was a delight with many discoveries!!!

La Spinetta Winey Visit (Barbaresco)

I have been planning an experience of a lifetime, a visit to the Piedmonte region for the white truffle festival and touring the wine regions Barolo and Barbaresco.

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I traveled with a friend of mine from Holland, Jiska, and made it into a girls long weekend. Jiska and I first met in Waterloo, Ontario when her and her family lived there for 1.5 years. We quickly found out we had the same interests in food, wine and travel.  Our first stop was at La Spinetta winery, located in the Barbaresco region, thirsty to discover more about the Nebbiolo grape!

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I discovered La Spinetta at a restaurant in Vancouver and loved the quality and the packaging. The label shows a sketch of a rhinoceros done by a German artist, Albrecht Dürer, in the 1500’s. This sketch was done without Dürer ever seeing the rhino in real life and was sketched from a description of its sighting in Lisbon, Portugal in 1515.

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La Spinetta started as a Moscato D’Asti producer which still counts for 40% of its current production. The winery is now in its 3rd generation and over the past 30 years the family has embraced change and innovation. They have purchased vineyards in multiple regions, producing whites and reds in Piedmonte and Tuscany.

IMG_20151016_163634I included a photo of Nebbiolo in the glass. It shows its textbook brick/orange colour around the rim.

We were treated to sampling from their large portfolio: Vermentino (Tuscany), Barbara D’Alba ’11 (Ca’ di Pain, Gallina), Barbaresco ’11 (Vigneto Bordini, Gallina), Vigneto Campe’ ’05 Barolo and Vigneto Garretti ’05 Barolo.

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Pauillac – Group tour 2015 & Bike Tour 2014

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Arrival in Pauillac, 2014

When you find yourself in any European country on a Sunday many things are not open and there isn’t much to do. I booked myself on a wine tour arranged by the tourist office that took me through the wine appellations of Margaux and Pauillac.

On the way to our first visit we stopped for a photo opportunity at Chateau Margaux. This is one of the five, 1st Growths from the 1855 Classification which has always been closed to the public. However, our tour guide informed our group that next year it will be welcoming visitors!!

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We continued north to Chateau Lynch-Bages in Pauillac. The name ‘Lynch’ comes from the owner of the Chateau and the word ‘Bages’ refers to its location, a hamlet of Pauillac. Lynch-Bages is a 5th Growth but is considered one of the top Chateau in Bordeaux. After tasting the wines I can see why.

PAUILLAC, 2014

One year ago my partner, Chris and I traveled to Pauillac for two days. I thought it would be more interesting to share that experience in this blog post. We were without a vehicle and were determined to keep it that way. We don’t feel comfortable with manual transmission or the traffic in France.

We rented bikes at a shop, nearby the Bordeaux St. Jean train station and comfortably loaded them onto our train to Pauillac. As longs as it is not raining, traveling by bike is the best way to see the Chateaux, and work off the extra calories from the french food and wine!! The appellation is located along the wider part of the Gironde estuary, it has a lovely seaside promenade and you can watch cruise ships go by. Other than that it is a very rural area with a quiet village centre. I would recommend the tourist office for local souvenirs and wine purchases.
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We biked the rolling hills of Pauillac, first making a stop for a pre-arranged tour at Chateau Pontet-Canet, which is biodynamic using clay amphora for aging wine. Pontet-Canet is another 5th Growth and is considered one of the top wines from Bordeaux.

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From Pontet-Canet we biked the country highways to get a glimpse of Mouton Rothschild, Lafite Rothschild and Louis Latour. These are the remaining three from the list of 1st Growths in the 1855 Classification. I made sure to taste a grape from a vine at each place – its the closest I will get to tasting anything from a current vintage since these Chateaux are closed to the public, and the wines are extremely expensive!

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The following day we had our tour appointment with Chateau Lynch-Bages before taking the train back to Bordeaux. Lynch-Bages has embraced the tourism industry and has renovated their estate and added a beautiful restaurant and bar, a homeware store, butcher and bakery. Our guide took us through their beautiful vinification museum, which was in operation since 1975. It is a large estate with limestone sub soils and beautiful gravel that you can see in the photo below. Their plantings are: 73% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot.

Vineyard at Lynch-BagesVinification museum

We tasted Lynch-Bages 2011 which was powerful but well integrated. Along side we tasted Ormes de Pez from the St. Estephe Chateau which they alsoown. It was not as intense, but approachable to drink in the next year or two.

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Chateau Haut Brion & Chateau La Mission Haut Brion, Pessac – Léognan

In any introductory wine course you will come across the name Chateau Haut Brion, one of the five 1st Growths from the 1855 Classification. I had the chance to  visit this Chateau, and it’s neighbouring property, La Mission Haut Brion.

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These estates are in the centre of the town of Pessac which makes for an easy Chateau to visit if you’re without a car. Taking  bus line #4, I was dropped off almost in front of the main gate. Walking through the rows of vines to get to the office reception, observing the stony and gravely soils with root stocks averaging 35 years of age. Haut Brion’s beginning dates back to 1525. The land was part of a dowry when Jean de Pontenac married the daughter of the mayor of Libourne and grew the estate.

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In 1935 the Chateau was acquired by Clarence Dillion from New York after a period of crisis. Dillion’s successor was his grand-daughter and have named their second label after her grandfather, Le Clarence de Haut Brion.

The Chateau has their own cooper on site which is a rarity. He makes 5 barrels a day and totals 1,000 per year. I was able to smell the freshness of the oak and see the small open fires in the centre of the barrels, used to give them a medium toast.

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The neighbouring property, La Mission Haut Brion was acquired by the Dillion family in 1983.  The Chateau has a pious history as a mission for the Pères Lazaristes who were bequeathed the property in 1664.There is a small chapel which gives it’s name to their 2nd wine, La Chapelle. The chapel is small, with original stained glass and a border around the perimeter scripting the top vintages of La Mission.

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In the barrel cellar at La Mission Haut Brion, I heard a very interesting history about the origin of canalés, the traditional bordelaise cakes . A common way to “fine” the wine and remove particles is to put egg whites in the wine, this acts as a magnet to these particles. Centuries ago, this left many, many egg yolks left over which were then used to make the traditional Bordealaise pastry, Canalés.

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The visit concluded with a tasIMG_20151009_111843ting of the 2007 vintages of Chateau Haut Brion and Chateau La Mission Haut Brion. I found both wines approachable with Haut Brion showing more body and structure. Both properties have the same winemaker and go through the same vinification. The only difference is the terroir.

Chateau Angélus, St. Emilion

Chateau Angélus, St. Emilion

IMG_20151008_165725I had the honour and privilege of a visit and tasting at Chateau Angélus in St. Emilion, one of four Chateaux in the Premier Grand Cru Claseé ‘A’ Classification. They were awarded this elevated classification in 2012, which is re-evaluated every 10 years. I would consider St. Emilion to be one of the more progressive appellations when it comes to French wine laws.

I was hosted by the Public Relations director Laurent. He was very at ease and made me feel comfortable and welcomed. He started the tour outside the main entrance of the Chateau which was constructed in 2012 – 2014 and explained the symbolism of the bells. Hundreds of years ago the bells would chime three times a day and this is when workers would stop and take time for prayer.  You see these bells at the top of their Chateau and of course on their wine label. In today’s age, guests are treated to a special greeting by the bells, including myself. Laurent had the ability to chime ‘O Canada’! It took me a moment to clue in that it was my anthem. I was in awe that I was standing at this prestigious Chateau and given such a reception. See youtube video link below.

One of the interest of mine is when I visit a winery is to learn about the multi-generational involvement of family, being wine making or management. Chateau Angélus has the success of eight generations with a youthful future ahead.

IMG_20151008_163034It was difficult to get the portrait of all eight generations in this photo, but I would like to bring attention to Stephanie Boüard de Laforest in the middle (wearing white). She is 33 and co-manages the winery with her father (bottom left). Her father went to Oenology school in Bordeaux and introduced Angélus to modern wine making technique, while respecting the past traditional practices of his Uncles (far right).

My visit to Chateau Angélus was during the 2015 harvest and extra help has been brought in from South Africa, Spain and other parts of France. After a careful hand selection of perfect berries, the winemakers implement their recipe for cold stabilization and fermentation, making use of oak fermenters, stainless steel or concrete vats. I had the pleasure of tasting some partially fermented merlot from one of the vats. It was electric on the palate from the CO2, dense and rich with colour in the glass.

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My visit with Laurent concluded with a tasting in a private salon of Chateau Bellevue 2012 and Chateau Angélus 2011. Bellevue is a part ownership located on the other side of the road, facing the main winery. The terroir is part of a large, south facing, natural amphitheater. The soils are a base of limestone with a mix of clay in the middle and sand at the base. Chateau Angélus vineyard is composed of 50% Merlot, 47% Cabernet Franc and 3% Cabernet Sauvignon. Laurent and I didn’t get into too many typical descriptors of the wine. Instead we savoured its balance, texture and enjoyed with gratitude.

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