One of the major side benefits of being a wine enthusiast is visiting the regions that spawn our favorite beverage. Beside the truth in the old saw “grapes like to grow in beautiful places,” we can get up close and personal with the vineyards, tasting rooms, people and wineries. The food’s usually stellar, too, btw.
A while back, my friend Bill Abrahamson sent out an email extolling the virtues of an area he had just visited. So I decided to ask others to write about “an oh-wow experience at a particular vineyard or AVA … it can be about terroir, or beauty, or something mystical/ethereal, or all of the above, whatever makes it feel special.”
The answers have been fabulous, heartfelt, articulate and imbued with passion. Rather than hack them down to have them all fit in one post, I’ll be doing them four at a time, lightly edited. These hit four different countries; next week’s post will have a decidedly French accent
Bill Abrahamson, Top Ten/Northgate stores, Twin Cities
“California’s Central Coast is home to some of the state’s most fascinating wine regions. The juxtaposition of the Pacific Ocean with its air-conditioning powers, the mountain ranges folding in both north-south and east-west orientation along with limestone soils that were once ancient sea beds, lifted up by millennia of violent plate movements provide geeks like me with endless opportunities for exploration.
“In one of the newest AVAs in the region, Ballard Canyon, I was presented with one of the most compelling examples of terrior I have ever seen. Standing on a ridge above the city of Los Olivos looking southwest, one can take in almost all of the viticultural region.
“The cool and constant 20-mph breeze coming from the gap in the east-west-running mountain range pulls cool ocean air through the cities of Lompoc, Buellton, Solvang and beyond, to the hot Mojave Desert to the east; 15 to 20 inches of broken-up topsoil lay on top of a few hundred feet of broken-up limestone. The sun sends intense rays down onto these vineyards as they are at the same latitude as North Africa (thank goodness for the ocean).
“The growers in Ballard Canyon have put their faith in syrah and roussanne, not the most commercially viable varietals on the market today, but the results so far scream “right grapes in the right place!” Refreshing these days that you find people putting passion ahead of economics. The wineries of Ballard Canyon are building it, and the people will come around eventually.”
Victoria Norvell, Lucia’s restaurant and Stinson wine store, both Minneapolis
“How is it possible to pick just one memorable wine experience? The most subjective and complicated beverage on the planet? Yet all wine lovers probably have that moment, where everything just merges to form a magical important experience. For me, it was in 2004, when Lucia [Watson, chef/owner of the restaurant] and I made a trip to the Loire Valley in central France. We booked a five-day visit with stops all along the Loire River, an incredible landscape filled with wineries and castles.
“Turning into an ancient courtyard, we arrived at Domaine Allias in Vouvray (left), where we were greeted by an elegant older woman. Expecting our visit, she led us into the tasting room, where she had organized six bottles of the chenin blanc they specialize in. All the while she ran from tasting room, across the courtyard (in heels) to the kitchen to check a roasting chicken, as we continued tasting.
“Afterward, we were given a tour of the cellar. What an experience! An underground cave with the most amazing smell of apples and wet cement. You could feel the organic aliveness of this cellar. Hanging stalactites of mold hung from the ceiling. But it didn’t feel dirty or unkempt. The cellar was like a living, breathing organism, all for the greater good of the wine making. This made sense to me, but I had never seen anything like it before.
“One particular wall had dugouts for a bottle from each year going back to the 1800s. The only years missing were two during WWII. The hospitality of Madame Alias and her pride in the clean, crisp and complex flavors of well-made organic chenin, the smell of roasting chicken, and the mystery of an old family cave made this memorable.
“An amazing tour, with lessons in both organics and history.”
Bill Hooper, winemaker at Paetra, Oregon:
“The town of Forst is located directly on the German Wine Road (Deutsche Weinstraße) in the Pfalz region. You won’t find the dramatic steepness of the Mosel or Mittelrhein vineyards here, but rather the sunny charms of a quaint village tucked into the gently climbing slope of green vines and flowering fruit trees more familiar to visitors of Burgundy or Alsace.
“What sets the vineyards of Forst apart isn’t the scenery, though, but the soil. Thanks to a large volcanic pocket in the forested mountains above the town, the vineyards here are littered with basalt, an extremely rare (in Germany), mineral-rich igneous rock that quickly weathers into clay (I can also say from personal experience that it is among the most pain-in-the-ass soils in which to plow or dig). It acts like a super-food for vines and has great nutrient and water-holding capacity, which is very beneficial in this dry southwest corner of the country.
“The Forst vineyards are rightly planted almost exclusively to riesling, and it is on this soil where riesling gives her most exotic performance. This is not the Granny-Smith apple and steel of the Mosel, but a spicy, aromatic extrovert ([Importer] Terry Theise aptly refers to these wines as ‘Cajun.’) The wines are fuller-bodied, lower in acidity, and most often quite dry. The heavier soils produce thicker skins that contain more aromatic compounds and also provide a sort of armor against botrytis, allowing the bunches to hang intact well into the autumn.
“The most famous (and at 200€ per square meter, the most expensive) vineyard in Germany is the Kirchenstück, which along with the Jesuitengarten has the heaviest basalt soils, and the wines are the biggest and fullest-bodied in these two vineyards. Ungeheuer is higher up and closer to the forest and has more sandstone and chalk mixed in, resulting in slightly lighter, more lively wines. The Pechstein vineyard borders the town of Wachenheim and the Muschelkalk (shell-rich limestone) vineyards within, and a blend of these two soils makes for the most elegant of the Forst wines. The greatest producers of these wines are Bürklin-Wolf, Bassermann-Jordan, von Winning and Georg Mosbacher.
“That these wines are so prized in Germany makes them more scarce abroad, but any and all of them are worth seeking out. They are among the great and most delicious wines of the world, are remarkably age-worthy, and an important chapter in the story of riesling.”
Chuck Kanski, Solo Vino, St. Paul
I’m fortunate that my career (passion) has allowed me to visit some wonderful places in this world. Often I’m at a winery that I’ve been drinking and supporting for years. Sometimes I feel that I’ve been there before and I’m just now returning home. Like many of us, regarding travel, great to go but can’t wait to get back home. To sleep in my own bed, drink coffee from my favorite mug.
“In only one place in all of my travels have I felt like I WAS at home … Austria! Just landing at the airport and seeing people who ‘looked like me’ (I’m Eastern European). Austrian cuisine also brought back memories of dinners that my grandma cooked. And everyone that I met seemed to have a LONGER story than me.
“The wine to me was also something I wasn’t prepared for. Gruner veltliner, to me, is the ‘great rabbit hole’ of white wine … how one grape varietal can express itself in such a range of styles, a truly remarkable wine. The more I taste gruner, the more excited I become. I never feel like I really understand it or even want to. I just get excited about what it wants to tell me next. And like the people that I’ve been fortunate to meet in Austria, it tells me a very long story!”