1. d’Arenberg - so many choices!

    With Barossa behind us, we turned our attention to McLaren Vale.

    Our first early morning stop — the iconic d’Arenberg.  Scott Ninnis of Premium Wine Tours had given us a warning though — we needed to get an early start on d’Arenberg because of the numbers involved.  The numbers, we would soon discover, were the number of choices we would have in terms of tasting selections and the number of visitors that would join us, even at the early hour.

    We were first in the cellar door and although a touch early, the wonderful staff greeted us with smiles, handshakes and empty glasses to be used … and did we use them!

    A bit of background —

    Established in 1912, d’Arenberg is known worldwide for its outstanding wine, but it took almost 60 years to get there.  

    Joseph Osborn bought the 25 hectares of land that now houses d’Arenberg in 1912.  He did not establish d’Arenberg though.  He established Milton Vineyards.  Milton Vineyards was producing and selling its fruit to other producers when Joseph’s son Frank, increased the vineyard size to 78 hectares and opened a cellar for  Milton Vineyards in 1928.


    In 1943, Frank’s son Francis d’Arenberg Osborn, affectionately known at “d’Arry”, joined is ill father to run the family wine business.  He was 16 at the time. 14 years later, d’Arry took over the business full time.  

    In 1959, d’Arry launched his own label and what would become an iconic Australian institution — d’Arenberg.  The label honors d’Arry’s mother Frances Helena d’Arenberg.  The d’Arenberg wines gained immediate cult status and by the 1970’s had received national and international acclaim.

    In 1984, d’Arry’s son Chester took over the family business and remains in the seat today.

    D’Arenberg is now known the world over for its fantastic wine and memorable wine names such as Dead ArmStump JumpThe Hermit Crab and The Laughing Magpie.  

    Our visit —

    As I mentioned, we were first in the door and took a spot at the far end of the tasting bar so we could watch the entire room.  Being from the States, I am quite aware of the iconic wines just mentioned, but what awaited me were new and interesting labels that I was oh-so-happy to become acquainted with!

    With names like The Fruit BatThe Swinging MalaysianThe Noble Botryotinia Fuckeliana (our personal favorite) and The Love Grass (only available at the Cellar Door), we were more that happy to jump right in!  And, for at least a good 30 minutes, we had the place all to ourselves.

    Mark was our wonderful host behind the bar and we did need a guide.  What will amaze you when get your first glance at the d’Arenberg tasting menu is in the sheer size — 56 wines, 56!!  The list cannot be conquered — at least not all at once.  So, you saddle up to the tasting bar and ask to be “wowed.”  And, Mark, was certainly up to the challenge.

    We did not taste all 56 but we did taste quite a few, it was our first stop after all.  I think it is the only stop that my wife recalls that day!

    Some of our favorites included The Broken Fishplate, a light bright Sauvignon Blanc full of very good acidity; The Last Ditch, a tart Viognier with good acidity but a creamy finish; The Peppermint Paddock, a wonderful deep purple Sparkling Chambourcin; The Sticks & Stones, a wonderful Tempranillo, Shiraz, Tinta Cao, and Souzao blend; The Wild Pixie, a beautiful blend of Shiraz and Roussanne; and, of course, the Dead Arm Shiraz.

    Shipping to the States is not an issue as d’Arenberg has a distributor in California.  I can confirm that you get your wine.  However, you cannot get all 56 wines from the distributor, but the choice is outstanding and we took advantage of the cheaper shipping ;-)  We also smuggled a few cellar door exclusives back to Shanghai.  This is worth the trip … I’ll be back.

    McLaren Vale is wondrous and there is not a better way to begin your day than with the fine folks at d’Arenberg!  Our choice to start there early was wise, as it did not take long to fill up, even at a relatively early wine drinking hour!  So, go early and enjoy.

    Cheers!!

     

  2. Tscharke’s — unforgettable!

    The Grand Crew Wine Tasting Group is a set of friends back in Michigan that enjoy their wine and like to get together every so often to taste some vino.  I am a long distant member of this set. 


    Today is June 1st and the “Grand Wine Crew” is tasting Australian Wine tonight — in Michigan.  I, of course, am in Shanghai.  I miss my hometown wine tastings.  


    So, in abstentia, I present to them a fantastic winery and winemaker that they may have never heard of from the Barossa — Tscharke.

    Tscharke’s Place— the beautiful Cellar Door

    In my last post I mentioned that there are three things that would keep me at a cellar door for a number of hours; good wine, good food and good people.  On our visit to Tscharke’s we hung around for about two hours, past closing in fact.  We were provided great wine, great conversation and full access to winemaker Damien Tscharke — during harvest!  Who’s hungry when a talented and passionate winemaker will spend some time with you?!?!??!  Not me.

    A bit about Tscharke

    Damien Tscharke is a 6th generation winemaker for this Barossa producer.  Yep, 150 years of history at this beautiful and “modern” winery.  

    Damien

    Comprised of three vineyards in two sub-appellations of Barossa, Seppeltsfield and Maranga, Tscharke embraces new grape varieties not all that common in the Valley.  If you know anything about my “wine-persona” — you would realize that I love that!!  

    The three vineyards and their grape varieties are:

    Gnadenfrei — Shiraz, Tempranillo and Touriga Nacional

    Stonewall — Cabernet Sauvignon, Mataro, Shiraz, Montepulciano, Grenache, Albarino, Graciano and Savagnin

    Greenock Creek — Touriga Nacional, Shiraz, Zinfandel, and Cabernet Sauvignon

    As a “card carrying member” of the Wine Century Club, you can imagine my giddiness when I took a look at the wine list and got to talk to Damien about the decision process behind planting some of these grape varieties.

    Tscharke’s use of varieties not necessarily indigenous to the Valley is refreshing.  There is a sense of experimentation and confidence when Damien speaks of the grapes grown in his vineyards.  He is not settled on the old standard and is looking to grow what will grow well in the Barossa.  He actually reminds me of another winemaker in Michigan — Charlie Edson at Bel Lago.  

    Our visit

    Truth be told, Tscharke was unknown to me upon my arrival to the Barossa.  Much thanks to Scott Ninnis at Premium Wine Tours for making the introduction.  We arrived late afternoon with the intention to make one additional stop — which we did not get to — and do not regret it.

    Damien was our host and poured for us at our table.  Generous in his time and very willing to pass along information, he was truly a delight to speak with.  We tasted and enjoyed everything available on the list. My faves were the Albarino (a delightfully oily version of this Spanish standard), the two Tempranillos (loved the comparison), the Montepulciano and of course, one of my favorite varietals — the Touriga Nacional (a staple variety in Portugal).

    Once through the list, it was time for a tour of the facility.  Yep, its harvest time in the Valley and Damien, the winemaker, is going to give me a tour?!?  He did.  There are no words…  literally.  So, I will explain the tour in pictures:

    Many thanks on this visit go to Scott Ninnis for the introduction to this wonderful winery.  To my lovely and talented wife for her work behind the camera and continued support.  And, to Damien Tscharke; for his time, knowledge and wonderful wine.  As I told Damien, I would like to come back and work a harvest with him and I do plan to do just that at some point in the near future!

    Tscharke was a great way to end our “oh too short time” in the Barossa.  It could not have ended on a better note.  Still, more to come though, as I have yet to tell you about McLaren Vale!

    Cheers!!

     

  3. Wine Country Tours — Hunter Valley’s best option!

    Flight.  Check, Shanghai to Sydney.  Hotel.  Check, it’s a bar too, all the better. Schedule. Check, one day to tour Sydney and one day for wine— Hunter Valley wine. But, wait, Hunter Valley is just “a short two hours” outside Sydney. What to do?  Call Richard Everett, that is what you do!

    Wine Country Tours

    Richard Everett is Wine Country Tours.  With 37 years in the wine industry, both as a wine maker and on the business side, Richard is the perfect host to take one from Sydney into the Hunter Valley wine country.

    It was early on a Wednesday morning and after a “tall black” I was ready. Richard promised me — a ‘brother in wine’ — a true adventure. Each of Richard’s tours is tailored to the specific client. My visit was tailored to the wine geek that I am — be prepared for the finer points of winemaking. 

    Our ride out was very enjoyable. Richard is well-versed not only on the business of wine but also business in general. My wife works for an automotive company and so, naturally, our conversation centered around the car industry as we drove toward Hunter Valley.  

    As the Valley approached, our first destination was Peppers Retreat for coffee, tea and a light snack.  

    After a relaxing and delicious break from the ride, it was time to tour the Valley. I would be a liar if I said I wasn’t already in heaven. It would only get better from here.

    Hunter Valley

    Hunter Valley is located in the State of New South Wales in southeast Australia. The Valley is home to wine as well as cattle, fruit and vegetable farmers. It is also home to Australia’s mining industry. The climate is sub-tropical with the oceanic influences off the Pacific.  

    With over 11,000 acres of the Valley dedicated to wine grapes, the wine industry is now a major industry for the Valley residents. White varietals are more prevalent than red. The region is known for its Semillon, Shiraz, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Verdelho. More tourists visit Hunter Valley than Barossa or McLaren Vale annually.

    Richard and I toured a bit, visiting some of the more popular wineries for a “look-see” and some photo ops but our real destination was a winery with 154 years of history:  Tyrrell’s

    Richard’s relationship with Tyrrell’s is top notch— he knows most, if not all the employees and has, from what I can tell, unfettered access to the vineyard.  Our first stop were the 130+ year old vines that line the driveway to the Cellar Door and Winery.  

    Next, we visited the winery. I was lucky enough to visit during the harvest and Richard gave me the full tour from grape on the vine, de-stemming process, fermenting juice, steel tank process all the way to the outstanding barrel rooms inside and below Tyrrell’s.

    Naturally, all this education and touring made me quite thirsty. Finally, time to taste.  You don’t just “belly up to the cellar door bar” with Richard. No, I got my very own tasting room inside one of the old residents of the Tyrrell family. Wine geek love.

    Sixteen (yes, as in 16) of Tyrrell’s finest were set out before me. The tasting was designed to further educate the wine geek in me as opposed to the usual “sip and spit” experience.  

    Richard broke down the wines into groupings to lead me through a “tasting experience” that I will not forget. We tasted thru a flight of Semillon to experience the young and wonderfully aged varietal.  We tasted through Chardonnays that were and were not left on the skins. The difference a short time on white skins can be incredible.  

    We tasted Shriaz from different soils to experience the subtle differences that develop based upon the use and history of the soil.  My favorite tasting, however, was of three Shiraz wines from three different vineyards that are spread across the southern part of Australia.  This tasting was designed to test my palate and experience the very different terroir of the three locations.  

    Throughout our tasting, Richard emphasized that when tasting, I should take my time.  Let the wine touch all the areas of my mouth to ensure I get the full experience of the wine.  And only then describe the wine, again taking my time. Additionally, he asked me, for every wine, to think of a food pairing, place or experience to connect with each wine—as a way of enhancing the wine-memory and to allow me to more easily reference the experience and the wine when going back through my notes.  I do not always do this and found the constant reminder to do so — through 16 wines — a great tool for my future use in my wine tasting notes.

    After 16 wines, lunch seemed appropriate.  So, we headed for Hungerford Hill and their fantastic cafe/restaurant Muse.  

    Refreshed and replenished with a fantastic scallop lunch, it was time for more tasting.  Richard told me he was going to “extol the virtues” of Hungerford’s “high altitude” wines. These Hungerford grapes are grown at an altitude of 4600 feet in the Snowy Mountains. The five wines (Charddys, Shiraz, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon) were intense, pure and had a distinct clarity to them.  They were outstanding.

    Richard provides an unforgettable experience through Wine Country Tours even for a wine geek like me.  You can find Wine Country Tours at their website or on Facebook.   

    If you are headed to the Hunter Valley and want a complete wine experience — go with Richard and Wine Country Tours— and, I promise you that it will be unforgettable!

    Cheers!

     

  4. Premium Wine Tours — the only way to go in Barossa and McLaren Vale

    With Hunter Valley behind me, it was time to move west!

    I made a very quick stop in Melbourne to pick up my better half and head out to Adelaide to establish our “base camp” for treks to Barossa and McLaren Vale.


    Being a newbie to Oz, we needed some guidance for the Valley and the Vale, so we called Scott Ninnis at Premium Wine Tours… and are we glad we did!

    If you are visiting Oz for wine touring, it is important to know a few things: the drunk driving laws in Oz are tough—especially around the wineries; the steering wheel in Aussie cars is on the right side; and, you will get around the Valley and the Vale better with a guide who knows his way around.

    Scott is a former professional basketball player in Oz with a passion for wine.  His knowledge of the area cellar doors and vineyards is outstanding.  He offers great flexibility in tour schedules and was very accomodating to this wine guy as to which cellar doors I wanted to visit.  Scott escorted us from our place in Adelaide through the Valley and the Vale in his luxury auto with enough room for four.  No buses, vans or large groups with Scott— which, for us, was fantastic!


    In the next few blogs I will show you some of the wonderful cellar doors and people that Scott introduced us too.


    You can find Scott on Facebook, on Twitter and through Trip Advisor where you can see that others rave about him too!


    If you are headed to south Oz for some wineing in and around Adelaide, you must get a hold of Scott and let him show you this wonderful part of the wine world.

    Cheers!!!

     

  5. Henschke — a classic!

    Barossa was in sight!


    After some careful planning with Scott at Premium Wine Tours, we made our way from Adelaide to the Barossa.


    With a fairly limited time schedule (we did have to get back to the kids and all), Scott and I had designed an itinerary to see some wineries I am familiar with and then a few that I was not so knowledgeable about.


    We started with an iconic name in the Barossa—

    To get to Henschke from Adelaide, we had to drive through to the other side of the Barossa — which was actually, in hindsight, a great move.  It squeezed our time a bit but it allowed us to see much more of the area that we might have otherwise.  We visited during harvest and the land in the Barossa is bone dry and yellow with the exception of the vines— and the vines are everywhere as one might imagine.

    The Henschke family has been making wine in Oz since 1862.  Each generation has built on the the reputation and experience of the forebears of the business.  Today, fifth generation Stephen Henschke is the primary winemaker and has been at the post since 1979.  He and his wife Prue, a viticulturalist herself, oversee the operation.  Their son Johann is the eldest son of Stephen and Prue and looks to be the sixth generation Henschke to take over the family business in the near future.

    Henschke operates four vineyards from three regions in Australia.  The four are Eden Valley, Mount Edelston, Lenswood and the iconic Hill of Grace.

    The drive up to the Henschke property is spectacular.  The winery was buzzing with harvest activity and I was prepared for a grand cellar door experience.  And then, surprisingly, I ducked down to walk through the Henshke cellar door entrance to —

       

    — a remarkably small, quaint and rustic cellar door with pictures of the generations of the Henschke family adorning the walls.  This is the cellar door of the “grand” Henschke brand?  Yep— and it is wonderful!

    We were the first customers of the day and tasted through all that was offered — why would we pace ourselves!  All of the wines were wonderful and not to bore you with all of my tasting notes, some of my faves were:

    • 2011 Tilly’s Vineyard — a white blend of Semillon, Sauv Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Gris and Chard— a good drinker that would be really versatile with a wide range of food pairings;
    • 2012 Coralinga Vineyard — a very well balanced Sauv Blanc;
    • 2010 Henry’s Seven — a blend of mostly Shiraz combined with Grenache, Viognier and Mourvedre — a  really nice smooth and spicy red blend;
    • 2009 Keyneton Euphonium — a Shiraz blend with Cab Sauv, Merlot and Cab Franc — this beautiful blend is well balance with great body and smooth tannins;  and
    • 2009 Joseph Hill — a well balanced refined Gewurztraminer — lightly floral on the nose with nice spice on the palate

    Unfortunately, none of the iconic ‘Hill of Grace’ is offered for tasting, but I did ask!

    I loved our visit to Henschke and glad that we made the trip.  The ride out from Adelaide is beautiful and it was a great start to a day of Barossa wine tasting.

    Henschke has one of the better wine websites and I invite you to check it out to learn more about this wonderful family and their wine.  And if you are in the Barossa area— definitely stop on by!

    Oh, the Twitter thing…

    I tweet if you did not know— @WineMonologues — and the night before our trip out, I tweeted that we were starting our morning at Henschke (@henschkewines).  Josh — the winemaker at Henschke — and very active social media guy, replied “to have a wonderful time”.  

    When our tasting was finished I asked if Josh was busy and that I just wanted to say a quick hello? A silly question being that they were in the middle of harvest.  The silly answer was “let me check”.  Things were looking up!

    About five minutes later, in walked Josh bearing a gift…

    … Charddy that had just been pressed.  It was great for Josh to stop by — it made a memorable trip to Henschke unforgettable.  Many thanks to Josh!

    Follow Josh and Henschke on Instagram too at ‘henschke’

    Cheers!!

     

  6. Saltram — a great find!

    We reached mid-day in our journey through the Barossa and it was time for some food to go with our wine.  Scott with Premium Wine Tours had scheduled a sit down at Saltram.  We arrived, sipped, ate, sipped and laughed — for two hours!

    There are three things that will keep me at a cellar door for two hours: great wine, great food and fantastic people.  Saltram more than delivered on all 3!

    A bit about Saltram

    Established in 1859, it is hard to imagine the Barossa wine history without the Saltram name. Two families have dominated the history of Saltram. The Salter family controlled the vineyards from inception until 1937. The Dolan family took over in the 1950’s and ran the show until 2007.

    Today, Shavaughn Wells is the Saltram winemaker. A 1998 grad of Adelaide University’s famous Roseworthy Campus, Shavaughn mastered her craft throughout Australia before landing at Saltram in 2005 where she worked alongside Barossa legend Nigel Dolan before she took the reins.

    Saltram draws fruit from its own 45 hectare vineyard that surrounds the winery and Cellar Door in Barossa as well as from other vineyards in the region. Their great reputation is based in their red wines. They rely on their striking Shiraz and Cabernet Sauvignons, but also grow Malbec, Petit Verdot, Barbera, Tempranillo and Sangiovese. On the white side, they present very fine Riesling, Chardonnay, Semillon and, the up and coming Fiano.  To finish, the Tawny Port at Saltram is “wicked-awesome”.

      

    The Saltram wine offerings come from nine different labels representing different blends, production methods and vineyards.  They are: ‘The Journal’, ‘Single Vineyard’, ‘No. 1’, ‘Winemaker’s Selection’, Mamre Brook’, ‘1859’ ‘Pepperjack’, ‘Metala’ and ‘Mr. Pickwick’s’, the Tawny Port.

    Our Visit

    We arrived thirsty and hungry to the Saltram Cellar Door and were greeted by the talented Helen Porton.  Helen’s kind demeanor, wine knowledge and serving style (which I will get to in a minute) made our stay at Saltram unforgettable.

    Before we ate, we decided to quench our thirst and cleanse our palates with a trip through the rose and white wines on the tasting list.  We enjoyed all that we had but truly loved the Pepperjack Rose and the Winemaker’s Selection Fiano.  

    Refreshed and palate cleansed, it was time for lunch.  

    Saltram Restaurant is located next to the tasting bar.  The wood fired ovens fill the building with delightful aroma of fresh baked bread and outstanding pizzas. The fresh bread was a delight next to the terrific charcuterie plate that we shared with two glasses of Riesling. Simple and devine. The wonderful meats and cheese hit the spot and prepared us to the round of reds we were to taste.

    Back to Helen …  and her unique style of serving wine samples to customers …

    All of the red wines we tasted were marvelous.  From the Pepperjack Shiraz to the Metala Black Shiraz.  From the Winemaker Select Cabernet Sauvignon to the Select Shiraz/Temperanillo.


    But, my fave of the afternoon was the 2010 Mamre Brook Shiraz.

    It kept me deep in thought as I analyzed and analyzed this beauty of a wine.  Deep and dark, the nose is an exquisite bouquet of deep red berries and spices.  The palate was, for me, almost mid-blowing with wave after wave of flavors including blackberry, raspeberry, chocolate, cinnamon and on and on.

    We finished our time with Helen by an order to be shipped home — yep, could not resist.  And with Scott from Premium Wine Tours by our side, we got a discount!  Yet another reason to visit Saltram with Scott.

    If you are going to visit Barossa - you must go to one of the most historically relevant wineries in the Barossa — Saltram!  Stop on by for lunch or dinner and ask for Helen — you will not be disappointed.

    Cheers!!

     

  7. Oz— the Great and not so powerful

    Our time here on this area of the globe is limited.  Upon our arrival almost two years ago, one of the things on my “bucket list” was to visit Australia and see it’s wine country.  I thought it would be a simple trip “down under” from Shanghai to south Australia for a weekend visit— silly American that I was. Turns out it is a 10 hour flight from Shanghai to Sydney.

    "Tick-tock" "tick-tock", our time seems to be running out. About a month ago, my lovely wife pushed and prodded me to go. She was headed down on business and she implored me to meet her. She had asked before and I have declined because of the three little people and large dog that live with us and my responsibility to them.  "Tick-tock"… this time I agreed. We cleared it with the little people and, lucky us, have fantastic friends who agreed to oversee them and all of their activities and needs. Flights were booked… hotels arranged… wine guides were hired… and I am happy to say that last Sunday I returned from "down under" a very happy wine guy!

    In true whirlwind fashion, I arrived in Sydney on Tuesday morning off the ‘red-eye’ and spent a day touring the city. Wednesday, I joined winemaker Richard Everett for a fantastic in depth tour of Hunter Valley and its best wines. Thursday I flew to Melbourne, visited for about three hours, picked up my wife, and then back on a plane to Adelaide. Friday we joined Scott Ninnis for a fabulous tour of The Barossa and McLaren Vale over two days.  We dragged ourselves to the airport early Sunday morning for our flights back to Shanghai where we were warmly greeted by our three little people and large dog.

    In Hunter Valley I visited the cellar doors of:

    • Tyrrell’s Wines (for an extensive tasting experience) and 
    • Hungerford Hill

    In The Barossa we visited:

    • Henschke
    • Yalumba
    • Saltram and 
    • Tscharke’s

    In McLaren Vale we visited:

    • d’Arenberg
    • Chapel Hill
    • Leconfield
    • Coriole
    • Samuel’s Gorge 
    • III Associates and
    • Settlement Wines

    We discovered that the Aussie winemakers are making a diverse selection of varietals, from the hometown Shiraz to Charddy to Riesling and then venturing out to the likes of Albarino, Montepulciano, and Fiano. To my great pleasure and enjoyment, the Shiraz coming from Australia is also much more refined and dynamic than the over the top fruit bombs of the past.

    I am still putting my notes together from this truly amazing journey and will be blogging soon about some of the places visited, people met and wines tasted.  I hope to introduce you to some names and vineyards that you may never have heard of but certainly should know.

    I am truly indebted to my wife for the nudge to make this trip because it was something I will never forget.

    Cheers!!

     

  8. Bel Lago— a surprise and delight

    This past summer I was able to get back home to Michigan.  I was lucky enough to have time to visit one of my favorite places— Northern Michigan and specifically Elk Rapids.  These visits “up north” usually allow me the opportunity to visit the wineries of Leelenau and Old Mission Peninsulas, some of my favorites in the State.  In July, I visited some of my faves: Black Star Farms, 2Lads Winery, Brys Estate, Mawby, Circa and Bel Lago. Here are some of my thoughts in a series of posts about my visits.  If you have never been to these wonderful wineries and have the opportunity, please visit their tasting rooms.  If you are not able to make the trip, I would recommend ordering from them for shipment if possible, or try to find their wines in your local wine shops.


    The last stop on our two day excursion was Bel Lago.  And while it was not intended to be the last stop, ala our visit to Brys Estate, it ended up being the last stop of the day and trip.
    When I set out for Bel Lago, I had two things on my mind:  (1) the tasting room menu and (2) Tempesta, Bel Lago’s fantastic select harvest red wine.  I planned to leave with at least one bottle if not two.  One for me and one for my fellow wino, Kurt Hornick, who was with me when we first tasted it at a Michigan tasting not so long ago.  I over-achieved on my first task but failed in spectacular fashion at my second.  Ah, not to worry, when I fail spectacularly, I do mean spectacularly!
    Bel Lago
    In Italian, “Bel Lago” means “Beautiful Lake.”  Located on the west side to Lake Leelanau on the Leelanau Penninsula, the name certainly fits the location and the vineyard.  
    Bel Lago Vineyard and Winery was founded in 1987 by Domenic, Ruth and Amy Iezzoni and Charlie Edson.  Bel Lago is a family run and family oriented winery. The quaint tasting room and very friendly staff at Bel Lago makes you feel like you are at home.  It was as if my wife and I had gone to share a bottle with our neighbors.  There is a very “hometown” feel to Bel Lago and I mean that in the best sense of “home”.  When in Leelanau, stop by Bel Lago and meet the neighbors!
    Bel Lago is also, to me, Charlie Edson.  
    image
    Without question, there are many individuals that collectively make up Bel Lago, but Charlie is the “backbone.”  Charlie is a kind of “mad scientist” when it comes to making wine.  He has a large number of grape clones that he identifies by number; rather, than name.  His experiments are all designed in the pursuit of excellent wine.  
    In 2010, I wrote about Bel Lago’s Auxerrois wine.  I emailed Charlie with some questions about the Auxerrois.  I never expected to receive the outstanding and delightfully detailed response that landed in my inbox.  I was smitten.  Charlie had undoubtedly taken precious time out of his busy day to educate and enlighten me.  I have never forgotten that gesture.  Since then, I’ve met and talked with Charlie at many Michigan wine events.  Like your buddy next door, he’s always willing and ready to talk wine.
    The Visit
    My wife and I arrived to the Bel Lago tasting room in the early afternoon.  It was a weekday, so lucky us, the parking lot was empty and we had the tasting room to ourselves!  Time to make ourselves at home. 
    image
    We saddled up to the bar and got started.  First, we enjoyed the white side of the wine list, including the Auxerrois. Then, as I readied myself for the red side of the wine list, I took a peek at the shelves of wine for my bottles of Tempesta to find the cupboard bare.  
    SOLD OUT
    Damn!  And, yes, I said it out loud.  
    My disappointment evident,  Charlie was immediately summoned (my wife mentioning I was a wine-blogger may have something to do with the summons, actually).  As we waited for Charlie, who was labeling bottles downstairs (now I felt guilty), we continued through the red side of the wine list and two more customers entered.  They began their journey through the red side — not fans of white they said— as Charlie emerged.  I introduced myself to Charlie — as I was sure he would not remember me — and thanked him again for his help with my Auxerrois blog post.  
    We chatted a bit about the Auxerrois and the wines we had tasted when it was suggested that I was disappointed that there was no Tempesta for me to take home.  Admittedly, I knew this was a possibility as Tempesta is not produced in every year.  It is only produced in excellent vintages. Charlie apologized (as he should!) that he had no bottle for us. Would, per chance, we want to taste a barrel sample of the 2010 he had downstairs?  Hmmm, I don’t know?  Is the Pope Catholic came to mind but, instead, I said “If it isn’t too much trouble, sure.” Charlie then turned to the two other visitors and asked them if they wanted a taste and I answered “yes” for them, reassuring them that it would probably be the best red they tasted here.  
    Needless to say— barrel sample or not— it was already wonderful.  Big, bold and lush, Tempesta, in whatever vintage, should be sought out and tried.  
    We had so much fun that Charlie offered another gem, in bottle, but not labeled, so it could not be sold— an ice wine made of…  Pinot Grigio… huh?  Yep, Pinot Grigio.  Of course I want to try this!  It was out of this world fantastic!  It was full of apricots and peaches — not the sweet kind, but dried apricots and dried peaches —  it was and is a wonderfully surprising ice wine.
    And, when I thought my day could not get better, it did.  ”Are you busy this afternoon?” Charlie asked.  As it happened, Charlie needed to taste his 2011 Pinot Noir and decide whether to make one Pinot Noir or two Pinot Noirs (one being a Reserve).  ”Would you like to join me for a tasting?”  
    Yes, the Pope is Catholic.
    With his cell phone number in hand, we left Bel Lago for lunch, excited for our return.
    The Tasting
    We arrived back to the tasting room around 5:30, a bit later than anticipated, but who was keeping track of the time?  Charlie and the crew had finished their bottling duties and looked tired.  My wife and I on the other hand were refreshed from lunch and some palate cleansing — ready, set go!
    Descending down to the barrel room, I could feel the excitement rising within me.  Was I really doing this?  Charlie handed us our tasting glasses and it was official, we were part of the tasting jury.  What a humbling experience.
    Charlie reminded us of the task at hand:  The Pinot Noirs.  But, hey, as long as we are here, let’s taste Chardonnay — just to see how it was doing?   You may recall that my wife is not a lover of the oaked Chardonnay.  She can smell the vanilla before you uncork the barrel.  She was visibly nervous as she did not want to insult our host.  She needn’t have worried.  ”Wow!”  said her eyes and she sipped again.  Staying quiet among the “real wine aficionados,” she was lurking in the back a bit.  Much unlike her usual opinionated self, she was a bit self conscious. She doesn’t “do wine” she says, her husband “does wine.”  
    It was good— very good!  Even my wife smiled with satisfaction.  And, after a glass she began to feel more at ease.  I think she never imagined that she would be doing barrel tastings in a barrel room with a winemaker let alone with a winemaker who actually wanted her opinion!
    Next, the Pinot Noir.  Two new glasses were issued to each of us (one for each barrel).  Armed, we approached our task:
    image
    We swirled, smelled, sipped, pondered and then it was time for comment.  My wife was first to notice that both were wonderful wines, but that there was a bitterness on the backend of what Charlie thought could be the Reserve wine. Without hesitation, Charlie wholeheartedly agreed with the assessment and then explained why that is exactly what he was getting in his tasting and that it, not to worry, was just fine!  
    My wife, stood a little taller after that, more confident that she had received an “A” for her first effort — which she did deserve.  I loved watching her.  She enjoys wine but hangs back a bit and Charlie made her feel so comfortable in the barrel room that it was like talking around the dinner table with family.
    There was discussion, not only of whether the wines could or should be bottled separately, but the whole business decision behind bottling one Pinot or two in any given year.  It was truly fascinating to listen to Charlie “think out loud” about how he would reach his decision.  A consensus was reached as to how the vintage would ultimately be bottled — Charlie still had final veto authority as the wine needed a little more time in barrel before bottling, but I think that he was comfortable with the decision reached that day by the group.
    What did we decide?  That is a secret among the small group that met that night in the Bel Lago tasting room.  Jen and I are more than giddy with anticipation to find out if our pick in the tasting room finds its way to the shelves for sale.
    But, if you see a label, suggesting that this is “a wine worth getting dressed up for” then you will know that Charlie ultimately agreed.
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    Cheers!!

    (Source: thewinemonologues.com)

     

  9. "Brys-centric" at Brys Estate

    This past summer I was able to get back home to Michigan.  I was lucky enough to have time to visit one of my favorite places— Northern Michigan and specifically Elk Rapids.  These visits “up north” usually allow me the opportunity to visit the wineries of Leelenau and Old Mission Peninsulas, some of my favorites in the State.  In July, I visited some of my faves: Black Star Farms, 2Lads Winery, Brys Estate, Mawby, Circa and Bel Lago. Here are some of my thoughts in a series of posts about my visits.  If you have never been to these wonderful wineries and have the opportunity, please visit their tasting rooms.  If you are not able to make the trip, I would recommend ordering from them for shipment if possible, or try to find their wines in your local wine shops.


    Our last stop on our trip to Old Mission Peninsula was Brys Estate.  
    Located in the center of the Peninsula, just 10 miles up M-37 from Traverse City, this wonderful destination was a surprise to us as it was our first visit— and we left wondering why had we waited so long?!?!?
    The”Brystory”
    The dream of Walt & Eileen Brys, Brys Estate produces beautiful estate grown wine. Without a trip to Napa Valley in the ‘70’s though, Brys may never have been.  It was that visit that sparked a dream — that became a reality more than 20 years later.  
    Upon retiring in the late ’90s and living in Florida, Walt and Eileen decided that “retired life” was not, yet, for them. They decided to make a run at their dream of owning a vineyard.  They looked for land in Texas, California, Washington and New York, before returning to their home state of Michigan in 1999 to stake their claim.  They had heard that Old Mission and Leelanau Peninsula wineries were doing exciting things, so they made the trip up north.
    Upon their first visit to the 80 acre parcel that would become Brys Estate, they immediately fell in love.  The 2 year transformation from former Cherry orchard to vineyard was complete, when, in 2001, 40,000 vines were planted in stages among half the property.
    2004 was the first vintage for Brys and in May 2005, the Tasting Room was opened to offer customers their first tastes. Since opening, Brys wines have won 225 medals in National and International wine competitions.
    Brys now grows 8 different grape varietals on property: reds— Merlot, Pinot Noir and Cabernet Franc; whites— Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Pinot Blanc and Gewurtztraminer.
    Coenraad
    Coenraad Stassen is the talented vinter at Brys.  A native of South Africa, he grew up in the Western Cape, among the vines of the famous Cape Town Wine Region.
    A top graduate of the Cape Institute for Agricultural Training, Coenraad came to Old Mission Peninsula on an International Exchange Program through Ohio State University.  He made Traverse City his home and has helped guide Brys to national and international acclaim.
    The visit
    Our visit. Fantastic!
    We had plans to visit one or two more wineries on Leelanau after Brys, but never made it.  I put all the blame on Erick Outcalt!!
    Just a warning upon visiting the Brys Tasting Room; Erick will suck you in — he is charming, witty, “Brys-centric”, engaging and a fantastic host.  We spent two hours with him and loved every minute of it!  
    You have been warned 
    Erick led us through the entire wine list.  I am pretty sure that there was nothing we did not like (except Jen’s dislike for all oaked Charddys — which of course Brys offers).  We then visited the vaulted barrel and cask rooms and finished our visit with small plate dishes and dessert.  We will never forget it.
    The Estate grown wine of Brys is wonderful.  It was their Cab Franc that originally caught my attention a few years ago and it continues to keep me coming back. The Naked Chardonnay, Dry Riesling, Merlot and Gewurztraminer are now on our list too!
    We will definitely be back to Brys. We may even consider staying in the two bedroomguesthouse (a converted barn!) so that we can live, at least for a short time, among the vines!  If you have not visited the Brys Property— put it on your to-do list.  If you have not had a Brys wine — go get one! They are “Brys-tastic”!
    Cheers!

    (Source: thewinemonologues.com)

     

  10. Gone too soon— Circa Estate Winery

    This past summer I was able to get back home to Michigan.  I was lucky enough to have time to visit one of my favorite places— Northern Michigan and specifically Elk Rapids.  These visits “up north” usually allow me the opportunity to visit the wineries of Leelenau and Old Mission Peninsulas, some of my favorites in the State.  In July, I visited some of my faves: Black Star Farms, 2Lads Winery, Brys Estate, Mawby, Circa and Bel Lago. Here are some of my thoughts in a series of posts about my visits.  If you have never been to these wonderful wineries and have the opportunity, please visit their tasting rooms.  If you are not able to make the trip, I would recommend ordering from them for shipment if possible, or try to find their wines in your local wine shops.


    This is not the post I intended to make when I paid Circa a visit not so long ago. But it is a post I have to make now.  Circa is gone.  
    image
    Just this past Friday, news quietly came out on their Facebook page that said simply “Circa is currently closed”. On Saturday, Michigan by the Bottle reported that indeed, Circa had closed its doors for good.  
    David and Margaret Bell were Circa. The reasons for the closure are personal to them and they may, at some point reveal why. Regardless, they will be missed.
    The Bells did it their own way, from their fantastic wine, to their “tasting buttons” that encouraged people to trust their own palates, to their beautiful European style tasting room on Leelanau.
    image
    I met David a number of times and Margaret just a few. My wife has never forgetten the only time she met David. We were at the Grand Rapids International Wine and Food Festival a few years back. Jen is not a fan of oaked Chardonnay. I swear she can smell the vanilla and caramel before the bottle is opened sometimes. On this day, David introduced her to Circa’s “clean” charddy. Very reluctant to try it, even after David describe how the fermentation occurred in steel and not in oak, she balked. David offered to give her her tasting ticket back, if he was wrong, and she did not like Circa’s ‘naked’ chardonnay. “Holy shit” is what I believe she said after tasting the charddy… David smirked a bit as he put the tasting ticket away… for he knew, he had a fan. 
    image
    Circa will be missed.  I wish David and Margaret all the best in their future endeavors.  Jennifer already misses the Chardonnay.  
    Cheers

    (Source: thewinemonologues.com)