I love the Santa Barbara County AVAs. Not only do they produce great wines, have lovely scenery, and a host of great winemakers and tasting rooms; they are easily accessible from the Los Angeles area.
On Tuesday, Dorianne and I were joined by Mary Stec and Richard Clark for a day trip to Santa Barbara County (LINK). We visited three wineries and had lunch at Industrial Eats in Buellton. Mary is a home chef and runs a cooking school & is a weight-loss coach (LINK)(LINK); Richard is the winemaker for the Conejo Valley Wine Co-op (LINK to previous post).
Our plan was to visit two wineries in the Santa Rita Hills AVA (LINK), have lunch, then visit two wineries in the northern section Stana Ynez Valley AVA (LINK), north of Los Olivos. The Santa Rita Hills are known for Burgundian varietals – Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; the northern Santa Ynez Valley is Rhône varietals – especially Syrah, but also Mouvedre, Roussanne, Marsanne, Viognier, and Cinsault.
A late start and a few other things shifted out plans a bit, but we made the most of a magnificent sunny day in the 80’s.
Our first stop was Babcock Winery (LINK) along Rt. 246 near Lompoc. Babcock has been around for a while and they make some excellent wines, with Pinot Noir leading the way. Our tasting room host Jamie showed the four of us through two different tastings, one featuring their estate fruit, the other wines sourced from elsewhere in the Santa Rita Hills AVA. Babcock’s new and updated tasting room is filled with their wines mixed with places to sit, antiques and other items, some of which are for sale.
Babcock’s strongest suit is their Pinot Noir. They produce several estate wines and a blend of several vineyards. All of them drink well and show excellent craftsmanship, balance, and quality. We purchased a bottle of their 2013 Radical Pinot Noir, which showed the most character (to us) and will age well. We will be laying this one down for a while. Their Cabernet Sauvignon is notable as well, as is their Backroads Red Blend. Babcock offers tours and you can have events there. It is a great winery to visit.
The next stop was lunch at the wonderful Industrial Eats (LINK) in the warehouse area of Buellton (of “Sideways” fame). This artisanal eatery also features a number of local wines on tap for $9 a glass, beer, cider, and more. You eat at common tables and can watch the pizza maker use the brick ovens.
As we were leaving the restaurant, we noted that the tasting room next door, Alma Rosa, showed the proprietors to be Thekla and Richard Sanford, well-known pioneers of the Santa Rita Hills. Richard is in the Vintner’s Hall of Fame. It turns out that I did not know that Alma Rosa was the Sanfords’ (relatively) new wine operation. So, our plans changed and in we went.
Alma Rosa Winery & Vineyards (LINK) has been around since 2005. Like most in the Santa Rita Hills AVA, they specialize in Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, also producing Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc, and a Pinot Noir-Vin Gris Rosé. They have two levels of tastings, so each couple had one of them. The wines here are uniformly well-crafted and each has unique characteristics. There are five Pinot Noirs (three are single vineyard/clone) and two each of the Chardonnays, Pinot Gris, and Pinot Blancs. We purchased some of the La Encantada Vineyard Pinot Gris and the Clone 667 La Encantada Vineyard Pinot Noir. We would have purchased more, but our wine locker is nearly full (really).
The tasting room staff included Rena, who is both knowledgeable about the wines and the process and very outgoing. This small wine tasting room is really lovely (and you can have food sent over from Industrial Eats to boot!).
Next, it was on up the 101 Freeway to Zaca Mesa Road near Los Olivos. Our destination was Andrew Murray Wines(LINK) and their new facility at the former Curtis Winery which was purchased and added to the Andrew Murray operation a few years ago. Long known as the producer of the best Syrahs along the Central Coast, Andrew Murray has expanded into some additional Rhône varietals plus a few others since taking over Curtis. Our tasting was a reminder that these are truly exceptional wines. Highlights of the tasting were, of course, the Syrahs, especially the 2013 Thompson Vineyard Syrah, and the 2014 Watch Hill Vineyard Syrah. Both had nicely balanced fruit and minerality, a beautiful bouquet, and a smooth finish.
Also notable were the 2014 Estate Grown Cinsault, and the 2013 Curtis Vineyard Mourvèdre. Both were very well crafted and balanced with minerality and fruit that alternately competed for your attention. We bought some of the Cinsault. And finally, the 2015 Espérance Rosè, a light and crisp rosé made of nearly 100%Cinsault. It results in a surprising rich and flavorful rosé reminiscent of the wines of the Tavel A.O.P. (LINK to previous post)in the Rhône Valley. This is one of the best rosés I have had in some time. Richard and I took a case of this beauty home. Well – it was on sale and I will find the space!
That was our day – we headed home with wine in the trunk and some great memories that will be rekindled each time we open a bottle.
And a reminder – our amazing Wine Tour of the southern Rhône Valley and Provence (including Tavel) still has some space left. Visit (LINK – Deluxe Wine Tours) to get all the information and to register.
Each year at the Garagistè Festival, there are two seminars held as part of the VIP package for the Saturday events. This year’s seminars were “Exploring the Aroma Wheel” with Madeline Puckette of WineFolly.com (LINK) and “Techniques of the Garagistè: The Secret of Stems,” with Mikael Sigouin, Ryan Pease, and Stewart McLennan.
“Exploring the Aroma Wheel” explored how to discover the various aromas of wine and how to go a bit deeper than the normal surface sniff of the glass. Madeline Puckette is a very good presenter and the seminar was interactive. Each table had 8 covered and numbered coffee cups, each containing a different scent. We were to begin by sniffing each cup and noting what we thought the aroma was. Then, we were provided two glasses, one with Pinot Noir, the other Cabernet Sauvignon. We were asked to sniff the glasses (some instructions were given) and to list three fruit aromas and three non-fruit aromas that we noted in each.
Then, we were asked to sniff one or two of the cups again, and then sniff the wines. The experience of most people was that the aroma of the wine changed after sniffing one or two of the cups (the cups had odors like chocolate, mint, vanilla, smoke, etc.). Ms. Puckette noted that sniffing the aroma in the cup tended to eliminate that odor from the wine for the person sniffing; that changed the aromatic experience of the wine. The workshop was a good experience, and yes, we did get to drink the wine.
“Techniques of the Garagistè: The Secret of Stems” featured three Paso Robles winemakers: Mikael Sigouin of Kaena Wine Company (LINK), Ryan Pease of Paix Sur Terre (LINK), and Stewart McLennan of Golden Triangle (LINK). Each of these winemakers uses stems and whole clusters in making some or all of their wines. The idea is to bring more of the sense of the terroir to the wines and to broaden the flavor profile beyond the fruit itself.
The wines were:
Kaena: 2013 Grenache – Terra Alta Vineyard
Paix Dur Terre: 2013 “The Other One,” 100% Mourvedre
Golden Triangle: 2013 50% Cabernet Sauvignon 50% Syrah
Each was very different in character, although all were the result of whole cluster fermentation. It was very interesting to hear what each winemaker seeks to get from the process and how this process is impractical for large-scale producers.
After the seminars, a lunch was served and then the VIP ticket holders had first shot at the Grand Tasting, with over 70 Garagistè winemakers, producers making under 1500 total cases each year.
We will explore the Grand Tasting in the next post.
This past Saturday, Dorianne and I returned to Châteauneuf-du-Pape (LINK) for lunch and a tasting at a wine cave – a retail wine store. It was a beautiful day, and we drove through the lovely Provençal countryside, with its vineyards, orchards, scenic homes and farms, and lush vegetation. Our friendly GPS took us along about 5 kilometers of single-lane road through vineyard after vineyard before we entered the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the most storied Appellation (LINK) of this part of France.
Lunch was at Restaurant Le Pistou (LINK) on a little side street off of the main town square. We sat outside and expected a light lunch, but the servings were very large – gambas salad for Dorianne, and grand gambas with salad and vegetables for me. As you can see, the plates were sizeable. We washed this down with the house white – a Châteauneuf-du-Pape. Before this trip, I did not know that whites were made here – but they are, compromising about 6% of the total production. The whites of Châteauneuf-du-Pape stand alongside the storied reds as excellent wines.
Le Caves Saint Charles (LINK) was highly recommended in Tripadvisor.com (LINK), which we used as a means of sorting through the dozens and dozens of caves du vin in the town of Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We wanted to ensure that we were tasting really good wines. After deciding, we made an appointment via email to meet the owner, Guy Brèmond, for 3:30 pm. We were a bit late, having had some trouble locating the cave – our GPS being little help – and in finding a place to park. When we arrived at the cave, which is at the top of the highest hill in town, only overlooked by the nearby ruins of the original Château of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, it was locked up. We knocked on the door to no avail. We called the number, and did connect. It turned out that Guy was later than we were, having been stuck in traffic in Marseilles earlier. After a few minutes, we were in the temperature controlled cave, which is under the home of the owner.
The actual cave structure of Le Caves Saint Charles dates from the 13th Century. There is another section underneath that dates from the 12th Century that is going to be renovated in the coming year. The cave in use has four rooms carved out of the rock with stone walls and vaulted ceilings – a lobby area, the tasting area, a small storage area and an area converted into a modern kitchen. There are bottles of wine in wooden boxes from the 45 producers that Guy represents throughout the cave rooms. We started in the tasting area.
Guy Brèmond is a Master Sommelier and a very personable and outgoing man. Once we established that Dorianne and I knew something about wine, although not that much about Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we were off and tasting. He spoke in depth about the philosophy and history of the appellation, and about the way the wines are made and the misconceptions that many have about Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We tasted 8 wines, two whites and six reds. The reds were made in three different styles, or methods.
The 90 minutes or so that we were at Le Caves Saint Charles with Guy Brèmond went by quickly. I kept having the feeling that this was a really special experience, and it was. The depth of his knowledge of wine in general and Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines specifically, combined with his enthusiasm, was a bit hypnotic. I will share now that we did purchase a mixed case of wine at the end of our visit to have shipped to California; but we were intending to do that when we arrived, if the wines were good. Guy is a very good businessman, but there was no pressure to purchase beyond what may naturally arise when you are in a fabulous environment, tasting exceptional wines, with an enthusiastic and knowledgeable host.
Now to the wines – to be tasted in huge stemmed glasses, by the way:
We began with two whites. As I said, I was surprised to find whites here, as I have never seen them in the U.S., nor read about them. We had tried a Mont-RedonChâteauneuf-du-Pape white shortly after arriving here in Provence and found it delicious.
First, we tasted a 2012 Domaine de Nalys Blanc (LINK)(LINK), a blend of 40-56% Grenache blanc, 14-34% Clairette, 13-27% Bourboulenc, 3-10% Roussanne, 1-5% Picardan, 1-3% Picpoul. The white wines of Châteauneuf-du-Pape are, like the reds, complex. This wine gives you a lot to experience on the nose, in the mouth, and through the finish. There is green fruit, minerality (always), some floral notes on the nose; apple, pear, and hints of earth and anise on the tongue; with a smooth lingering finish that returns to the mineral notes from the bouquet. This wine would be exceptional with lighter cheeses and seafood – oysters and shellfish in particular. We bought 3 bottles at 31€ and change.
Next, we went to the 2013 Domaine de la Janasse Châteauneuf-du-Pape Blanc (LINK)(LINK), a blend of 40% Grenache Banc, 40% Clairette, and 20% Rousanne. This is a beautiful wine from one of the most highly regarded producers in Châteauneuf-du-Pape. A wine that is very drinkable now, but should age well. The nose is peach and floral, but with that ever-present minerality; mouthfeel is rich and viscous with hints of vanilla; long, smooth finish. We bought 3 of these, too, at 34€ and change. (That’s half a case so far.) I think that we will continue to explore the whites of Châteauneuf-du-Pape; in fact, I am certain of it.
As we move to the reds, I should point out of few things (this will be a rather long post). As we taste, there is a lot of conversation going on. Dorianne is full of questions. I ask a few myself. Guy Brèmond is expounding on each wine, each producer, their philosophy, their practices, the market, his business, and more. It is quite lively and very interesting.
There are a number of misconceptions that are very common when it comes to Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines:
Many people do not know about the white wines, as their small production limits their distribution.
Many believe that all Châteauneuf-du-Pape reds come from thirteen varietals. There are, depending upon who you speak to, anywhere from 14 to 18 varietals in the appellation. Some do not count the white varietals other than Granache Blanc. Others count only some of them. So there are, essentially 13 varietals of red, but some of the white varietals may be blended into the red wines. The appellation currently allows 18 varietals under a Châteauneuf-du-Pape label.
Many believe that all Chateauneuf-Du-Pape reds must be blends. This is not true. For example, you can have a 100% Granache, which we have tasted (not at the Cave). Most reds are a blend of three to five varietals. The basis for almost all Châteauneuf-du-Pape reds is the classic GSM Blend – Granache, Syrah, and Mourvedre.
Why so many varietals in a small appellation? Guy says that it was because when the appellation was developed and the rules created in 1923 (amended in 1936 and 2009), all of the varietals under cultivation at the time were included. This “democratic” move forestalled the inevitable infighting that might have jeopardized the pact.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is part of the Côtes du Rhône, or the Rhône Valley Area. It has 3161 hectares, or 7811 acres under cultivation. Total production is 2,686,841 gallons, or about 21,000 cases per year. 94% is red and about 6% is white. (LINK)
So on to the reds. We tasted six, from three different philosophies of making Châteauneuf-du-Pape red wines, as described by The Wine Cellar Insider website (LINK):
The Traditional, Modern & Neoclassical styles – “Much of the difference between traditional and modern, is the ripeness of the grapes, effective yields, amount of stems used and most importantly, the percentage of new oak barrels used in aging the wine. Producers making wines in a more traditional style do not use oak, preferring to age the wine in older, neutral, massive barrels, cement lined vats or foudres that are widely used in the region. They do not destem the grapes. In other words, they follow the traditional practices of the region. There are numerous high quality traditional Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines made all over the appellation today” (LINK). So the use of smaller oak barrels designed to impart its characteristics onto the wine is a hallmark of the Modern Method. The Neoclassical Method is a hybrid of the other two, some oak barrels are used, but only for a portion of the harvest.
Our first two red wines are from the Modern Method:
First, a 2012 Clos Saint Jean “Vieilles Vignes” Châteauneuf-du-Pape (LINK), a blend of 85% Grenache with the remainder a mix of Mourvedre and Syrah (Guy says that Syrah is used only for “cosmetic purposes” – to provide a richer color). This is a big wine, full-bodied, with deep red fruit and minerality on the nose and the palate. A wine that will age well, I think. If this is typical of the Modern Method, it is very much like a California or New World wine – bold, high alcohol, fruit forward. In my research, I noticed that Robert Parker generally gave higher marks to Modern Method wines.
The next Modern Method wine is a 2012 Domaine Roger Perrin Chateauneuf-du-Pape(LINK) the website lists an average blend of 70-75% Grenache, 15-20% Syrah, 10-15% Mourvedre, 2-5% Cinsault or Clairette and 1-2% Counoise or Vaccarese. Another big, fruit-forward wine. Dark red fruit, a bit of mushroom on the nose, minerality throughout. Very similar to the Clos Saint Jean, but with a bit more finesse.
The next three wines are from the Traditional Method:
First, a 2010 Domaine du Pegau Châteauneuf-du-Pape Cuvee Reservee (LINK), a blend of 80% Grenache, 6% Syrah, 4% Mourvedre and 10% other varietals. This is an amazing wine – you can immediately see the difference between this method and the Modern Method – something that would carry through with the rest of the wines tasted. It is more mineral than fruit, more elegant than bold, with a beautifully balanced structure of tannins. This is my style of wine. But we did not buy this one.
Next, a 2010 Château Fortia Châteauneuf-du-Pape Tradition (LINK), a blend of 65% Grenache, 20% Syrah and 15% Mourvedre. Aged in foudres (concrete tanks). This wine is pretty much everything that the Domaine du Pegau is, but it takes it to a higher level, but is very much its own wine. You get some barnyard on the nose, which begins to dissipate after a few minutes, but remains. I did not find it off-putting, but some may. There is ripe fruit in there, but it is subdued in a minerality – dirt, terroir – that permeates the wine. On the palate it is very nicely structured and balanced and the fruit began to come through. This is a wine that will age well and one that would benefit from decanting. We bought 3 of this one at 35€.
Next, a 2010 Beaurenard domain Cuvee Boisrenard Chateauneuf-du-Pape (LINK), a Grenache blend but the winery does not release specifics as far as I can tell – only that up to 13 varietals may be included in the wine. Parker 91, Wine Spectator 97 points. A long, smooth finish. The initial tasting bottle had been opened too long, Guy opened a new bottle and got us clean glasses. This one, too, could benefit from decanting a while. We probably would have bought some of this wine, too, but a case was our limit, and we couldn’t pass up the next wine.
Finally, a wine in the Neoclassical Method – meaning a mixture of traditional and modern. A Château Jas de Bressy Châteauneuf-du-Pape (LINK)(LINK), a blend of 80% Grenache; 15% Syrah and 5% Mourvèdre. This wine has lots of mushroom on the nose and a nice peppery sense as well. Fruit is secondary to the minerality on the palate, plus a sense of chocolate. The tannins were there to ensure a relatively long life for this wine. A very nice wine. We added three of these at 36€ and change to round out our case purchase.
After our tasting, we had a quick tour of the rest of Les Caves Saint Charles with Guy Brèmond. There is another small storage room in the cave and a modern kitchen also where gourmet dinners are prepared to pair with these amazing wines. Guy also takes his act on the road, bringing dinners to private homes in the U.S. with a Michelin-Star chef. You can find out more about this at his website (LINK). This experience has been the wine highlight of our six weeks in France. I am very grateful to have discovered so much about the joys of Provence, and the wines of this amazing region.
Last night, Dorianne and I joined Richard Clark and Mary Stec at Niroj Restaurant in Agoura Hills, CA. Since it was the eve of the Lunar New Year, I figured (correctly) that it would not be a big night for Kurdish food. The restaurant was not crowded, and we had a leisurely and delicious meal and some good wine.
I brought a bottle of 2009 Dover Canyon Che Vito Da Cano, a 70% Sangiovese, 30% Syrah Blend. This wine is smooth, fruit forward without being out of balance, and had a very nice finish with a hint of spice aftertaste. Delicious. The wine doesn’t even appear on their website, so I guess there is no more of it to be had. Dover Canyon Winery is a great stop if you are in the Paso Robles area.
Luqman Barwari, the owner, oversees NirojCuisine with a loving hand. A former executive at Amgen, he began the restaurant a couple of years ago to follow his passion for the food of his home culture. Niroj is, I believe, the only Kurdish Restaurant in the southwestern U.S. The food is beautifully prepared – very much like the variety of Middle Eastern cuisine. We shared a cold Mezze Platter of appetizers with the made-on-the-premisis soft bread, then the four of us shared two entrees – a lamb shank and a shrimp tawe – all excellent.
Then, for our second bottle, we ordered a Lebanese wine – a 2010 Massaya Silver Blend from the Bekaa Valley. This wine with its unusual blend of Southern French( 40% Cinsault, 30% Grenache, 15% Mourvedre) and Bordeaux (15% Cabernet Sauvignon) grapes benefits from the sunny climate of the Lebanon tempered by cool night-time temperatures as a result of the height of the vineyards. The wine was very smooth, with medium tannins and a nice blend of fruit and minerals on the palate.
Some house made Baklava ended the experience at Niroj Cuisine. I took a photo of the Lebanese and Turkish Wines on the menu.