Mexico, the pioneer of the Americas

When discussing the wine of the Americas, we first think of the United States, Argentina or Chile. Even Brazil or Uruguay. But certainly not Mexico which ironically is the oldest wine destination of the Americas! As early as 1554, it was in this country of tequila and sombreros that the first vines appeared, grown under the leadership of the Spanish conquest. Today, there are great wines made here –  especially on the red side.
So we went to northern Mexico, to the Valley of Guadalupe, where the Jesuits began to plant vines for the development of their sacramental wine.

L'Escuelita @ San Antonio de la Minas

L’Escuelita @ San Antonio de la Minas


The Guadalupe Valley, a picturesque beauty

After leaving Tarija, we arrived in the village of San Antonio de las Minas after a 4-hour drive.   Outside, the thermometer read 40 ° C. The sky was a blinding blue and the place of a dazzling beauty with colors of fire and blood in the lands, surrounded by mountains. It has not rained here in ages. But still, the positive energy that emanated from this semi-desert region was almost palpable. Welcome to the Guadalupe Valley, in the heart of the Mexican vineyards; where 90% of the quality wines in the country are produced (1).

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Three major wineries carve the lion’s share: L.A. CETTO, the Mexican giant (1 million cases per year alone!), Santo Tomás and Monte Xanic (<20 000 cases/year each). Far behind – and this is where we found the most interesting and exciting part of the Mexican vineyards – some producers of small and medium sizes compete for creativity and talent to produce wines of great quality. And overall, it should be noted that the level of knowledge in terms of viticulture and oenology in the valley is remarkable.

“The wine here is not a business as in California; it is above all small projects”, Thomas Egli, one of the great winemakers of the valley, pointed out.

Thomas Egli

Thomas Egli


Some great discoveries : Calixa Chardonnay 2013 from Monte Xanic ; Seleccion de Barricas 2012 (a clever blend of Carignan, Grenache, Tempranillo and Zinfandel) and Cumulus 2010 (old Grenache vines, Carignan and Tempranillo), both from Las Nubes ; Serafiel 2012 (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Syrah) and Kerubiel 2005 (Syrah, Cinsault and Grenache), both from Adobe Guadalupe ; or the cuvée Mogor-Badan 2009 from El Mogor, a delicious Bordeaux-blend.

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Oenotourism, spearhead of the local wine economy

A positive surprise when arriving in the Valley of Guadalupe – after the beauty of the place – it is the wine tourism dynamism. It is both a local and collective initiative which deserves to be highlighted, especially when considering the difficulties for Mexican wines to be recognized as a (real) growth driver by the Government (2).
A wine route consisting of signs, maps and information points is present throughout the valley; indicating the location of each winery. A newly built museum traces the wine history of the country and provides visitors with a multitude of activity tools.

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Architectural projects, one more creative and visionary than the other, are popping up everywhere ; like at Vena Cava where the roof structures are nothing but overturned boat hulls ; or at Encuentro Guadalupe where you can sleep in mountainside cabins. Host tables are numerous and of high standards ; even some food trucks are parked in the vineyard. Bed & Breakfast are legion. The environmental and organic approach here is very strong… In short, there is a real lesson of oenotourism that should inspire many.

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And best of all, at Quinta Monasterio, the SPA welcomes you for a relaxing time with wellness products exclusively made from the winery grapes. We tested it for you: the place is bewitching.

Hugo Acosta, the “guru” of the Valley

Sometimes we meet men of vision, ambitious or a little crazy ; some capable of producing great wines where nobody would give them reason to do so, others able to drive  a participatory and educational movement for the well being of the community. We had the chance to meet a man who has all these qualities (yes, being a little crazy is undeniably a quality). We met with Hugo Acosta, one of the pioneers of modern viticulture in Mexico, affectionately known by his colleagues the “guru” of the Valley ; in recognition of his work. He is primarily listening to the soil, creating projects on a human scale and in connection with nature. Each of its five projects has its own identity and positively show Mexican wine in its unique way.

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Casa de Piedra, created in 1997, where blending is put forward, with Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. Depending on the vintage, the proportion of the two varieties change, to highlight the location. One approaches the concept of “single vineyard”.
Paralelo, where we search to express the personality of the terroir. The same Merlot/Cabernet Sauvignon base (with a touch of Petite Sirah, Zinfandel and Barbera) for two different red wines: “Ensamble Colina” on clay soils along the hill and “Ensamble Arenal” on flat sandy soils. At the heart of the debate is both terroirs shown in parallel regarding sunlight, soil type, exposure and response to the wind.
Firmamento, which reflects the vintage and the terroir at a “T” time. Five varietals – Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache and Cinsault – are assembled annually in equal proportions for a unique blend, 5 Estrellas; the blend doesn’t change depending on the weather and thus the quality of the grapes.

Casa de Piedra

Casa de Piedra


Aborigen, Hugo Acosta family project, founded in 2000, meaning “the man who comes from the earth”, represents the commitment of man to his environment, recognizing the intervention of man as an additional element to the context, through a series of oenological experiments.
Finally the Escuelita, a great project enabling amateurs to achieve their dreams by learning how to make their own wine from A to Z, without investing in any equipment. A simple concept: students, paired into teams of two people each, buy half a ton of grapes of their choice. The courses are then provided from harvesting to bottling. Students leave at the end with their own cuvée – with a custom label as a bonus. Not only does the concept work, it creates vocations : since the creation of the school in the late 90s, several students founded their own wineries in the Valley. An incubator for young winemakers!

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Five delicious reds tasted from these projects: Vino de Piedra Tinto 2011 from Casa de Piedra ; Ensamble Arenal “ba II“ 2010 and Ensamble Colina “ba I“ 2009, from Paralelo ;5 Estrellas 2009, from Firmamento and Acrata Tinta del Valle 2007 (a dominant Grenache with a touch of Petite Sirah).

A vineyard in danger which must be taken care off

The dust in the air, covering cars, houses and vineyards with a daily fine layer of earth is a  visible problem – yet no one in the Valley of Guadalupe mentions this, since it is part of daily life here. That’s impressive. We are continuously breathing it.

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Then a question arose: can this dust affect the “taste” of wine? Upon closer investigation we noticed that a layer of dust is present on the grapes before the harvest and that these grapes are pressed directly after being harvested… Curious and concerned by the phenomenon, Hugo Acosta has promised us to investigate this during the next vintage, adding a few pounds of earth to one of his tanks; just to see how far this “dust effect” could influence the flavor and appearance of the final product. To be followed (very) closely!
Also from a climatic point of view, lets not forget that we are in the desert here. The fresh water, between 30 and 150 m deep, is rare. And groundwater is low. It is even rumored that the proximity to the ocean brings a certain salinity to the white wines…

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“We do not have enough water”, Thomas Egli explained. It rains on average 250 mm per year. “In 2014, only 100 mm fell and 40% of the crop of the valley was lost”. In such conditions, it is difficult to envision how the wine production of the valley could grow in the future. It seems to have reached its critical size.

And with the exception of L.A. CETTO which export some wines to Europe, finding Mexican wines on our shelves is almost impossible. The production is too small to really consider exporting. So please just come and enjoy the charm of the Valley and its wines – it is the perfect opportunity for an oenologic and epicurean vacation for families or as a romantic getaway!

A timeless moment at El Mogor

At El Mogor, the most French of the Mexican wineries, Nathalia Badan welcomed us with a huge smile and impeccable French. Because even though Nathalia was born in the valley, her origins are French. Her brother has always had boundless admiration for the wines of Bordeaux; which was the inspiration for Mogor-Badan, their unique wine, a beautiful blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot.

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Nathalia is a bit like the “Mama“ of the valley, always keeping a watchful eye on the workers and listening to the people. Environmentally she has implemented an ingenious principle of soil enrichment by livestock. The animals are moved around regularly in small enclosures, thus naturally plowing a mix of dung and earth which enrich the soil. El Mogor is not only a vineyard, it is above all one of the largest farms in the region, with an organic garden, oranges, lemons, cows, chickens and pigs. Every Saturday there is a market on the farm. People come from all over the region to look for homemade jams and other fresh produce.

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Pablo Rujas, the cowboy of the farm, guided our visit. He may be an oenologist ,yet playing lasso and taking care of the cows from the back of his horse remains his favorite activity. “The dust is also a problem for livestock. I regularly have to moisturize the eyes of the animals”. Intrigued by the cowboy experience, Ludo spent the day with Pablo to understand and experience this extraordinary job. Lasso session required!

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Our Mexican trip ended on a bright Sunday with an official petanque tournament organized by the Mexican Petanque Federation of Ensenada. An invitation which I could not refuse… I am addicted to playing petanque. And luckily for me, Hugo Acosta was seeking a partner! We played by the sea, under the sun and in good spirits; failing not without some regret at the gates of the quarter finals.
During that time and from the ocean, Ludo was looking at us from a few hundred meters away on his surfboard.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Jean Lemaignen for his valuable recommendations, to Casa de Piedra, Adobe Guadalupe, Monte Xanic, El Mogor, Las Nubes and especially Hugo d’Acosta, Thomas Egli and Nathalia Badan for their hospitality and generosity.

(1) Viticulture in Mexico is also practiced in the states of Coahuila, Querétaro, Aguascalientes and Zacatecas, but most of the production is concentrated mainly in the Valle de Guadalupe, in the Baja California. It was also in Mexico that the practice of grafting European Vitisvinifera on American rootstocks  was implemented for the first time. A practice that became popular throughout Europe and the rest of the world after the ravages of phylloxera which wiped out 80% of European vineyards during the nineteenth century.
(2) Mexican taxes on wine are about 50% of the final price (once added VAT).

John Barbier, the Colorado cook-vintner

“I have never followed a recipe in my life, I’m a man of instinct” 

Born on May 28, 1972 in Arpajon in France, nothing predestined John Barbier to become a winemaker in remote plains of Colorado. And yet… Here is the portrait of an American success story as we like them: a man as manic as discreet, as demanding as generous, primarily Epicurean and vinifying by conviction, to the delight of our palates.

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WINE Explorers : Can you tell us about your unusual career?

John BARBIER : My name is a tribute to John Wayne, my father loved him. In a way the United States and I were made to live together! After my studies in the restoration sector, I joined the army as butler of the General of Bourges. After that, I put my bag on my back, and headed towards Australia and Asia. I have always wanted to travel, to explore the planet. I did everything: from being a waiter in Adelaide, to cooking in the bush, to being a touristic guide. I had to earn my daily bread. This was followed by a period of two and a half years where I furrowed the Caribbean and Bermuda serving on a cruise ship.

WE : How did you start Maison la Belle Vie winery ?

JB : I arrived in the US in 1996. I decided to try my luck there, because traveling opened my mind and gave me a thousand dreams. I chose to work in Aspen (Colorado), a beautiful ski resort. Restaurant work has always fascinated me and I quickly wanted to open my own business for the challenge ahead. I had the opportunity to open my first restaurant in Glenwood Spring in northern Colorado. It immediately turned out well and I opened a second one nearby, in Grand Junction. Maison la Belle Vie came into being naturally and in the continuity of my two other businesses.

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WE : Is wine always related to gastronomy for you?

JB : I grew up on a farm and I love local produce, the history behind it. I also love the French know-how and all that goes with it. Food and wine have been two great friends since forever. My family taught me about life and respect. Being at the table is a very important moment for me, where a good meal is consistent with a good wine, but also with the place and time. Cuisine is a mix between savoir-vivre and how one receives people.

WE : Do you still have time to cook?

JB : I cook when I have friends at home. I take time for them and it’s a real pleasure. I love creating dishes according to the season and especially depending on what I find in my garden. Knowing how to combine the elements of a dish together is an ongoing challenge. Besides, I have never followed a recipe in my life, I’m a man of instinct.

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WE : Why do you defend the concept of “oenotourism“ so fervently? 

JB : For me, oenotourism is all the little extras added to the wine tasting. This is essential today to differentiate one from others in a market as competitive as the wine industry.
My vineyard is small but very welcoming. My guests feel at home and never want to leave. We offer them a charcuterie platter with local ham and sausages, good cheese, traditional baguette, antipasti… We recreate a friendly mindset that people have lost and which everyone wants . We even do dinners on the farm, with very simple and friendly food and wine pairings, in a warm atmosphere. To get back to basics for a more serene life during an evening is very important for our customers who like to say “this is real life.”

We also organize weddings half of the year, often up to two per weekend as the demand is high.

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WE : What do you think of Colorado wines?

JB : The wine industry in Colorado is young. We began producing wine in the early 80’s. After many adjustments and experiments, wines have gradually improved. We have made a lot of progress over the last 10 years, especially with red wines. They are delicious. Today we have reached one hundred wineries throughout the state.
We now have programs that help us to develop and to become more competitive. This teaches us not only to make wine but also to grow grapes in altitude: we are at 1600m above sea level and we must adapt! We cannot plant anything we want, only what the earth wants to offer us.

However, the State of Colorado has seen the financial potential of the wine industry and that’s why a research center was created in order to help us in terms of viticulture but also in the development and marketing of our wines.

WE : What do you hate most?

JB : Snobbery!

WE : Your motto?

JB : Do what we love. Do not drink moonshine wines. Do not keep the most beautiful glasses and dishes only for special occasions.

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WE : Do you have a favourite wine?

JB : Hmmm…my favourite wine. I particularly enjoy wines from B & E Vineyard in Paso Robles(1), especially their 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon. On the French side, I adore a good Gigondas. And even though I’m not very focused on white wines, I like to open a Condrieu from time to time.

WE : What do you like most?

JB : Sharing a good meal and my favourite wines with friends.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

(1) For more information on B&E Vineyard : http://www.bevineyard.com

The hidden face of the United States

Thinking outside the box…
That was our goal before starting our tour of the American vineyards. Many have taken us for oddballs when we decided not to go to California, the State super star of the country which accounts for 90% of the country’s wine production(1).
Except that here… each of the 51 states of the United States produces wine, including Alaska and Hawaii! A multitude of discoveries in perspective. So we rented a car for a month and drove from Washington to Texas, passing through Idaho, Utah, Colorado and New Mexico.

Road trip des WINE Explorers - USA

Road trip des WINE Explorers – USA


An alternative way to discover one of the giants of the wine sector, the 4th biggest wine country in the world, with 22 million hectoliters produced in 2013(1). En route for a road trip of 8,400 km.

Washington, US n°2

Washington is the second largest wine producer in the USA (24,000 ha for 800+ wineries), before New York (15,000 ha) and Oregon (6,700 ha). What to explore… Car rental in hand, we started with the suburb of Seattle. It was pouring, the sky was black. Depressing. Here there are no vineyards on the horizon (the vines are situated far south of the State), but we visited two wineries which was of interest for their differences. The first one is ultra media and trust big Parker notes, the second is family owned and much more discreet.

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So we started with Quilceda Creek, where we tried our luck even though I knew they don’t receive visitors. “We sell everything on allocation or directly to high-end stores. No tasting is possible here, I’m sorry “, explained John D. Ware, one of the co-owners, who agreed to meet us and to show us the winery. But how can we evaluate a winery without tasting its production? Aware of our disappointment, John offered us a bottle of their Quilceda Creek “CVR” 2012 ($80), in order to face the gray outside. We appreciated the gift. Especially as we discovered a very nice red wine (mostly Cabernet Sauvignon), smooth, with notes of spices and nice black fruit. Our morale regained colours.

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Direction Efeste, our second winery to visit, for a practical session on the sorting table with the workers. It’s was so good to put our hands in the grape berries as soon as we got the chance! Here the smell of fresh grape juice filled the room and delighted the nostrils. Enough to wet our appetites before tasting the wines ; like their delicious Emmy 2011, a Rhone GSM blend(2) with a nose of pepper, licorice and plum and velvety palate of black fruit, violet and cocoa. A treat! ($45).

But it is in the region of Walla Walla (4h driving south) where most of Washington’s vineyards are located, because it’s warm and dry. We took the road as we were expected on site by Gilles Nicault, a passionate (and exciting) French winemaker established in the region for 20 years now.

Gilles Nicault

Gilles Nicault


Gilles is the permanent winemaker at Long Shadows Vintners, a unique and ultra-premium collection in Washington, created by Allen Shoup (former director of
Château Ste Michelle) and gathering 9 winemakers of international renown. It includes famous names like Armin Diel, John Duval, Randy Dunn, Michel Rolland and the Folonari brothers. Choice of yeasts, ageing period, selection of cooperages… every winemaker has his secrets and Gilles, a good conductor, develops wines with respect for everyone’s wishes. “We must constantly challenge ourselves in order to better reflect the personality of each wine expert in their respective vintages. It is very pleasant”. He decided to take us to see the vineyard more closely, to feel the atmosphere of the harvest. After an hour’s drive we reached the heights of the Snake River, one of the two largest rivers of the State.

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A big surprise awaited us. Ahead of us appeared what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful vineyards in the world: green rows of vines that literally plunge into the canyon below the river, all on a blue sky background. A postcard that I even added on my computer screen background.
Except that here… on the other side of the Columbia River, just a few hundred meters away, the seen is different. Out of sight is a sandy desert – an Indian reserve requisitioned by the government in the 30s, now neglected and a place that the Americans don’t know what to do with because it is highly polluted and dangerous. What is this place?

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“Here is the nuclear site where the two bombs that fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945 were created”. We were speechless. I stood there, febrile, meditating long minutes in the face of such horror. How can the world “offer” us such startling contrasts ?!
Are the river and the canyon sufficient barriers to protect the vineyard? Not sure… However wine is the healthiest and the most hygienic of beverages, Pastor said. And those we tasted here were delicious; like the cuvées Sequel 2011 ($60) and Chester-Kidder 2011 ($50), two beautiful wines made for ageing. So let’s enjoy them safely.

Some other beautiful red discoveries: the cuvée Estate Barbera 2012 ($29) from Woodward Canyon Vineyard and the GSM 2011 ($33) from Forgeron Cellars.

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Idaho, the campaign of yesteryear

When we think of Idaho, we imagine the snowy mountains and ski resorts. But at Caldwell, in the south of the State, they have been making wine since 1865! Of course this wine production is very small (50 wineries for 485 ha), but the vineyards have charm. We found there a touch of rural country side which sometimes lack in the American wine landscape. As with Ron Bitner, Doctor of Biology and soil connoisseur who likes to hang out on his 10-hectares property, Bitner Vineyards, to admire the beneficial insect species which colonize the vineyard. “Here each insect plays a major role in protecting the plant and replaces the use of pesticides. It’s not magic, it’s simply an ecosystem”, he likes to point out rightly. A couple that doesn’t lack humor since his wife, Mary, has created a label with an original name: Menopause Merlot. A provocative but charming red wine, full of red fruit and energy.

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Not far from there, at Fujishin Family Cellars, we visited a family of Japanese origin. They have a range of wines which is as impressive as it is diverse: Riesling, Viognier, Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Petite Sirah, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon… “In Idaho people drink beer  first and then whiskey, so we try to offer a diverse range of wines for everyone to find his favourite”, according Martin, the owner. Spotlight on their Amatino 2010, a blend of Syrah (92%), Viognier (5%) and Petite Sirah (3%), priced at $22 a bottle.

Utah, the (impossible) challenge: making wine in the land of Mormon

We are not here to talk about religion, of course. Everyone is free to have his own thoughts and opinions and to choose religion, atheism, or even agnosticism(3). Except that… try to imagine for a moment selling your wine in a State where the majority of the people – because they are Mormons, or should I say from “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints” – must abstain from alcohol(4)! You better saw off the branch on which you sit.

Native Wines - Mt. Pleasant, UT

Native Wines – Mt. Pleasant, UT


We were seduced and touched by the few irreducible winemakers we met. Because fruit wines apart (like The Hive Winery in Layton, producing fruit wines to taste urgently), you just need the fingers of one hand to count the number of winemakers in Utah. Michael Knight, from Kiler Grove is one of them. His peculiarity : he produces and sells his wines in Salt Lake while his vineyard is in California… 12 hours from there. Atypical? “Alas, no, it’s very common in the US and is practiced in many States, by many wineries”, Michael confided.   Two reasons: the prices of grapes per kilo are unbeatable in California and the climate allows consistent quality year after year. Difficult to speak of “identity ” or “terroir” in the wines after that.
However, two wineries have their own vineyards in Utah. And not just anywhere: in the red mountains of Moab, where cult films like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, Mission Impossible 2 or the racing vessels in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace were filmed. A firing landscape.

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We arrived at nightfall at Spanish Valley, a very nice family domain, where we were invited to stay for the night. In the evening’s program: food and wine pairings with the best pizza in town. I must admit that the duets vegetable pizza/Riesling 2012 and Neapolitan pizza/Cabernet Sauvignon 2012 made this evening perfect! The next day we took the direction of Castle Creek, 20 km away, where we found a production of fresh and fruity wines, such as their 100% Muscat Lily Rose 2012 ($11). A nice vineyard, simple and modest, which sells a part of its production to the tourists visiting the area.

It is indeed a challenge to be winemaker in Utah. Because in addition to requiring a great dose of courage and passion, people must above all be able to make living and many wineries have simply been abandoned, due to a lack of funds. This is the case of Native Wines, in Mt. Pleasant. Its owner takes it philosophically. He has since reconverted into being a guitar teacher. “Ten years ago I couldn’t survive, because of a lack of clients. And now I have more students than I had clients before”, he likes to tell.

Round Mountain, UT

Round Mountain, UT


Same situation at Round Moutains, in Moab, where two retirees launched themselves into wine for their love of the product. “We had to stop in 2008 because of the taxes and the exorbitant price of the license. And the stock that we still have can’t be sold since this would be illegal. So we offer these bottles to friends”, they explained to us sighing.
It is clear that wine is not always welcome in some parts of the world. Yes I know, you can’t please everyone…
On the way to Colorado our bitterness were consoled by the surrounding landscape.  What a sight.

Colorado, altitude and friendly wines

The continuation of our American road trip now gained altitude: Colorado is on a plateau. And it is at 1600 m above sea level, around the town of Palisade, that we decided to stop. A temperate climate, dry and sunny (300 days of sunshine per year) helps the development of the vine and allows thirty wineries(5) to express the full potential of demanding varieties like Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

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At Mesa Park Vineyards, we were welcomed by Brad and Brooke Webb, a young couple who decided to embark on the adventure in 2009, with the help of Brooke’s parents. “A new challenge for a new life”, said Brooke with a smile. This year the weather was particularly capricious and they had to buy grapes from other Colorado producers. Whatever. “It’s part of the game. We must listen to nature and stay humble”. The 2012 Merlot ($25) and the 2011 Cabernet Sauvignon ($20) are well made. Brad cooked Mexican food and we dined watching SOMM, a documentary depicting the journey of four candidates at the prestigious Master Sommelier exam. A beautiful evening.

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The next day during breakfast, Brad suggested that we should visit Maison la Belle Vie, where his French friend John Barber has been making wine since the 90’s. “I call him!“. One hour later the Frenchy – as they call him here – awaited us gay as a pinch and overexcited like a new electric battery! John is connected on 1000 volts. No wonder, that weekend he had to manage two weddings.  John is a keen supporter of oenotoursim and he does everything to make the customer feel good at Maison la Belle Vie (a winery that couldn’t wear better name).

Maison la Belle Vie

Maison la Belle Vie


His time is valuable but who cares, we were now his guests. “Here we make light and fruity wines with a good acidity, to pair with the French cheeses and meats that our customers crave. I want people to enjoy being here”. Evidence with three lovely wines:
Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2011 ($30), Syrah Reserve 2012 ($32) and Red Blend 2011, a blend of Merlot, Petit Verdot and Syrah. John is a phenomenon… Portrait coming soon.

New Mexico, a touch of Italy in the desert

Driving is fun, especially in this part of the world. And although we had already easily swallowed some 4,000 km, the road ahead was still long. Because even though New Mexico has about fifty domains scattered throughout the territory(6), it is South of the state where we have decided to surrender. I never imagined so much beauty and landscape diversity.

Landscapes, NM
We wanted to go to Luna Rossa Winery, in Deming. An Italian success story. Paolo D’Andrea, 4th generation of winemakers in Friuli, left the country in 1986 to come here to teach  Hispanic workers how to prune vines. Do not forget that we were only a few kilometers from Mexico and that here – more than anywhere else in the country – all workers are Hispanic. In 2001 he had the opportunity to create, with his wife Sylvia, his 120 hectare estate. Paolo is a purist. “For all the great Italian varietals planted here, we age the wines a minimum of 5 years in barrels and 4 years resting in bottle before releasing the wine on the market. Otherwise people don’t have the patience to wait and drink our wines without understanding them”. A rare and great initiative that provides deep and complex wines; like the spectacular Barbera Reserve 2006 ($50).

Luna Rossa Winery

Luna Rossa Winery


Once a month Paolo gets out the pizza truck, equipped with a fire wood sytem, for a festive evening at the winery. And lucky for us we came on the right day! As per usual there were crowds. “The base of the pizza is the essential ingredient. I import everything from Italy. That’s what made us so successful”. Over 250 pizzas prepared for the dinner… goal achieved. In closing and after having celebrated the event worthily, Paolo invited us to sleep in his holiday motorhome, located on the edge of the vineyard, in order to save us from a night in a motel. “You are the guardians of the field tonight”, he said laughing.

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Texas, the State that saved France from phylloxera

Bigger than France, historically conservative and dominated by Republicans, Texas primarily appeared to me as the homeland of rodeo, western and country. Well… not only that! It wasn’t counting on a booming wine industry from the 1650s initiated by Spanish settlers(7), and now has forty winemakers, mostly located in the vicinity of Austin.

Furthermore, we owe a debt of gratitude to Thomas Volney Munson, a Texan scientist, who suggested in 1880 to his French friend Pierre Viala – while the French vineyards were about to be ravaged by Phylloxera – to send Texan rootstocks, resistant to the insect to France. The decision was made and the vineyards were saved! Thomas was made a Knight of Agricultural Merit, the highest honor awarded to a foreign person by France. Thank you Mr Munson for helping to safeguard our heritage.

Fall Creek Vineyards

Fall Creek Vineyards


One can understand the resistance of Texan rootstocks even better when looking at the local climate. To the East of the State (where the vineyards are located), the area is subtropical. It is very hot, humid and cyclones are numerous because of the influence of the Gulf of Mexico. The lakes are mostly dry in summer and the harvest is very early (starting around July 15th). Nevertheless frost can occur during spring and devastate the first buds, like at Flat Creek Vineyards, where the majority of the grapes were destroyed early in May last year due to heavy frost. A setback, yet at least not enough to worry Rick and Madelyn Naber, the owners, who still produce very nice wines, such as Four Horsemen 2011 ($45) and Tempranillo 2011 ($45). Two other sympatic wineries to visit: West Cave, where the owners, having made their fortune in another industry, invested all their money in their dream: a vineyard of 11 hectares. Started from scratch in 1990, they are known nowadays for their  very down to earth philosophy. Made evident with their Spectrum White 2012 ($35) and Ruby Cabernet 2013 ($27). Finally, Fall Creek Winery, with their delicious GSM 2012 ($30), a generous and elegant wine.

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Ironically, our American wine marathon ended with California, not for a winery tour (next time, I promise!), but to return our rental car in San Diego, before crossing the Mexican border. This opportunity let us to discover that California is also a paradise for “RV Resorts “, otherwise known as “luxury campsites“. Caravaning is king in the United States, especially in California. More than one in ten homes would be attracted by this activity. And larger motorhomes look like real homes on wheels. We visited one of them, Sunbeam Lake R.V. Resort, to share a drink with some regulars who just arrived for the next six months of winter to better understand the phenomenon.

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“Everyone knows everyone and we don’t mind a moment”. Glass of Riesling in hand, we heard the stories of each vacationer. Some even came from the East Coast and Canada. Santé !

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

Thank you to Gilles Nicault, Zachary Weber, the Stripeika family, Brad & Brooke Webb, Paolo & Sylvia D’Andrea and to our dear French friends Anne Caron and Fréderic Leclercq for having hosted and welcomed us with open arms.

 

(1) Source : Sud de France
(2) GSM : Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre; the three main red grape varieties used in the southern Rhone Valley.(3) Agnosticism (or religion of the query) is an attitude of mind considering the truth of certain proposals concerning the existence of God (or gods) as unknowable. Agnostics refuse to decide.
(4) This is what we call the Word of Wisdom: a health law among Mormons which consist to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, coffee and tea.
(5) For more information about the Colorado wines: http://www.coloradowine.com
(6) For more information about the wines of New Mexico: http://nmwine.com/wineries/wineries-map/
(7) For more information about the wines of Texas: https://www.texaswinetrail.com

NB : The “51st state”, in post-1959 American political discourse, is a phrase that refers to areas or locales that are – seriously or facetiously – considered candidates for U.S. statehood, joining the 50 states that already make up the United States of America. It is used here in a positive, humorous and friendly way ; to highlight the fact that great wines can be produced anywhere in the country. 

Canada, a land of great wines to discover urgently…

This is a country that I was waiting to visit with some impatience!
Canada has always fascinated me; its culture, its size, its landscapes, the hospitality of its people. And I must say that I wasn’t the only one stamping impatiently : Ludovic, my faithful traveling sidekick, was born in Pointe-Claire (in the province of Quebec) and spent the first eight years of his life in the Montreal suburb. These formative years was a part of his life which Ludo was eager to share with me. Especially because two of his three sisters live there today! A family story.

Painted Rock - British Columbia

Painted Rock – British Columbia


For any wine lover, Canada is essentially synonymous with ice wine… but not only that! From east to west the whole country has shown that it is also a land of great dry wines, as evidenced by the whites of Quebec and the reds of Ontario and British Columbia. En route to a 3-week trip to the land of loggers and maple syrup, which took us from discoveries to nice surprises and from wine encounters to strong friendships.

Quebec, a boutique vineyard that plays in the big leagues

Do you know the wines of Quebec and its fantastic people?

Vignoble de la Chapelle Ste Agnès - Quebec

Vignoble de la Chapelle Ste Agnès – Quebec


Quebec represents 125 producers in an area of 234 hectares of vineyards and some 2 million bottles sold each year. Among them, 73 farmers came together with a shared passion to grow and spread this industry which is said to be refined from vintage to vintage, through the Association des vignerons du Québec (AVQ), established in 1987. And every winemaker welcomes you with open arms. “Here, you are all at home”,  Jean Joly, the owner of Vignoble du Marathonien loved to point out.

The enthusiasm for wine in Quebec goes far beyond the vineyard : it is a passion, a real pride, almost a patriotic enthusiasm. From the Institute of Tourism and Hospitality of Quebec (ITHQ), where we had the pleasure to present the project to student sommeliers , to the very friendly Harvest Festival of Magog(1), to the Société des Alcools du Québec (SAQ)(2), through which we had the pleasure of visiting a wine shop, and all the local Media – such as the TVA information channel, which wanted to interview two French globetrotters – they all celebrate Quebec wine with contagious enthusiasm. And we got the virus!

Les Pervenches - Quebec

Les Pervenches – Quebec


Quebec wine is about ice wine, but not only that…

Although it is native from Europe (late 18th century in Austria and Germany), the largest ice wine production in the world is found in Canada(3) – particularly in Ontario. The climate is suitable for production since the grapes for making ice wine are ideally harvested between -8 ° C and -12 ° C (beyond this temperature the sugar crystallizes due to the cold and the juice no longer flows).
The principle is simple: after the fall of the leaves, grapes – mainly Vidal(4) ; sometimes Seyval Blanc(5) – are waiting for the arrival of frost. When sufficient frost is announced (below 7 ° C) the harvest can take place, between late December and late February, often at night and in nets to avoid losses. The production of this precious nectar is so small that each berry counts!

Vignoble du Marathonien - Quebec

Vignoble du Marathonien – Quebec


In Quebec the method is somewhat different from the rest of the country: the grapes are harvested normally and then suspended in nets until the arrival of  frost. This method – which raises (ethical) debates between Ontario and Quebec … – doesn’t change the taste of the final wine and even produce some of the finest sweet wines in the world.

Evidence for this statement was provided with these five wines which we had the chance to taste: Vignoble du Marathonien (2009), Vignoble de l’Orpailleur (2011), Vignoble de la Chapelle Ste Agnès (2010), Domaine des Côtes d’Ardoises (2012) and Domaine de Lavoie (2012).

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Aromas of delicious candied fruit and great balance between high levels of sugar and high acidity offer spectacular wines which are a pure delight for the senses…

But it seems that the future of Quebec lies also in the production of other wines. Because as rightly pointed out by Charles-Henri de Coussergues – pioneer of modern winemaking in Quebec and owner of the Vignoble de l’Orpailleur : “the problem here is the harshness of winter, we have to do in 7-8 months what is done in France in 12 months. And as the grapes maturation cycles are shorter, it is the white grape varieties that give the best results”. It is often even necessary to cover the vines during winter using geotextiles to prevent it from perishing – expensive and time-consuming work.

Japanese beetles

Japanese beetles


We’ve found a few nuggets for you:
Saint-Pépin 2013 from Château de Cartes, a surprising dry white – its owner, Stéphane Lamarre, roast the seeds of this unusual vine(6) before adding them to the tank, “to raise the wine with a nutty taste”. ($20)
Le Couchant 2013 from Les Pervenches, this very tasty 100% Chardonnay vintage demonstrates brilliantly that well mastered vitis vinifera can adapt to this harsh climate. ($32)
Vendanges Tardives 2012 from Vignoble du Marathonien, another great sweet wine, 100% Vidal, which reminded me on the nose of the parfume of quince pate of my childhood ; with aromas of dried fruit and candied apricot on the palate. ($28 for 500ml)
Paille from Clos Saragnat, a nonconformist wine, like its producer, Christian Barthomeuf, a talented winemaker who married Vidal and Geisenheim(7) in a single cuvée aged two years on the lees… an incredible wine with notes of pastry and a velvet mouth.
-and a red wine that is to be highlighted…the Haute-Combe 2012 from Domaine des Côtes d’Ardoises : an unfiltered blend of Gamay, De Chaunac(8) et Chelois(9). A crisp wine, fresh and delicious. ($18)

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And then there are the Quebec ciders… Gastronomic ciders, delicate, with great finesse, like the ice and fire ciders(10) from Union LibreNot to mention the beautiful whites from Léon Courville (Domaine Les Brome) and the bubbles of Jean Paul Scieur (Le Cep d’Argent) that we enjoyed at our conference at the ITHQ.
Go ahead and buy! These productions are small, even confidential. And vine predators such as raccoons, Japanese beetles, deer or bears, love grapes and can also wreak havoc.

Ontario, Canadian Giant

With 6900 hectares of vineyards, a production of 23.4 million liters and a total turnover of 395 million Canadian dollars in 2014(11), Ontario is by far the largest and best-known wine region of Canada. We decided to focus our visits around Niagara-on-the-Lake, a promising area located an hour and a half East of Toronto. Next time we are going to Prince Edward County (further North) : another great place for wine.

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We went to the city of St. Catharines, where we were expected at Henry of Pelham winery. We were received with a glass of sparkling wine (please!) : perfect – since we were celebrating visiting our 100th winery of the project. Cheers! Their Catharine Rosé BrutNV cuvée (70% Pinot Noir, 30% Chardonnay) is delicious and full of freshness. We enjoyed the moment with Paul Speck, the president of the family estate. The estate consist of 120 hectares cultivated mainly with international varieties, including Baco Noir(12), a forgotten grape variety which gives interesting wines with hints of blackberry, plum and spices, like the Reserve Baco Noir 2011 from the winery ($25). And best of all, Baco Noir is one of the varieties richest  in resvératrolle in the world. Resvera… what? You know, that famous polyphenol with beneficial health effects. More reason to love it.

Henry of Pelham - Ontario

Henry of Pelham – Ontario


Then we did a quick detour to visit two of the biggest producers in the country, to see a little more closely what these Canadian giants look like: Jackson-Triggs, with 800,000 cases produced annually and Inniskillin, one of the leading ice wine producers, which surprised us with its incredible Asian attendance: full buses of Japanese, Chinese and Koreans who come here to drink sweet wines and then leave the place with dozens of bags and gift boxes under the arms. There is a future for ice wine in Asia, it is a certainty.

We ended our journey at Ontario Lailey Vineyard, one of the (very) few estates in the country to use Canadian oak barrels for aging its wines. The barrels come from the Canadian Oak Cooperage in Ontario, the  last cooperage factory in the country.

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Derek Barnett, the winemaker of the domain, offered us a beautiful and educational comparative tasting of three wines – Chardonnay 2012, Pinot Noir 2010 and Syrah 2012 – to understand the nuances of ageing in Canadian barrels on one side and ageing in French oak barrels on the other side. With hindsight, it seems that the Canadian oak is more discreet aromatically, with very subtle tannins and wines that need more time to open. This is an interesting contribution to the ageing process which clearly highlight the fruitiness of the wine.

On the way back we stopped at the Niagara Falls.  I have conjured up such a picturesque postcard of this place in my imagination… In reality it was a shock to see so much beauty transformed into a tourist attraction park with a clearly stated goal: to make profit detrimental to this wild beauty.

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I stood there to meditate facing these huge waterfalls  cascading into the lake in an endless roar, speechless in front of this gift of nature.

British Columbia, a wine region not to underestimate

True to the image of Canada and to our delight, British Columbia is extremely dynamic when it comes to promoting its wines. Our first step in the province brought us to Vancouver, at the time of the “Colour BC VQA Fall Release“ event, which the British Columbia Wine Institute warmly invited us to attend. It was a great opportunity to meet many producers and to discover their wines. We learned for example that the province has 215 domains in five sub-regions: Vancouver Island, Fraser Valley, Similkameen Valley, Gulf Islands and Okanagan Valley.

Osyoos Larose - British Columbia

Osyoos Larose – British Columbia


It was in the latter sub-region that we were expected at the Osyoos Larose winery. After eight hours by bus up the mountain we arrived in a small corner of paradise: the Okanagan Valley. Nature, lakes, mountains… an idyllic and ideal place for making great wines. We visited the vineyards on quadbikes in the company of the managers, Julie Rapet & Mathieu Mercier, a young couple of French winemakers. We traveled through the rows of vines and we tasted randomly selected grapes to control maturities: harvest was only a few days away! The grapes tasted delicious and  on our way back we met some malicious black-tailed deers eyeing the grapes with lust. Upon returning from our walk we tasted the wines. The Grand Vin 2010, a Bordeaux blend (Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet franc and Malbec) aged for 18 months in barrel was impressive.

The next day we left for Painted Rock, a vineyard nestled on a ledge at the side of the Skaha Lake, worthy of a postcard. Each plot is treated with great care. We improvised a tough climb up the mountain that overlooks the vineyard along with Tyson Archer, the manager, to gain height and better understand the implementation and sunshine of the domain. Having sweated profusely, we finally arrived at the top. What a scenery…

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We toasted to the beauty of the place with the flagship wine of the house, the Red Icon 2012 ($55), another high class Bordeaux-blend. In the evening we dined with Tyson and his companion. He cooked on the grill a wild salmon with a red flesh as we never saw before. So tasty ! The turntable in the lounge playing a frenzied jazz tune. Time just stopped.

We ended our stay at the domain Le Vieux Pin, experts in the art of making Syrah (and northern Rhone varietals in general – Condrieu, Marsanne and Rousanne). Their Equinoxe Syrah 2011 ($85) is divine.  It has hints of violets and black pepper and reminded me of how delicate Syrah can be.

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Canada has made us dream and wine-growing potential is definitely there. And although the country is still a (very) small producer of wine on a global scale, we must not forget that with 4.5 million hectoliters drunk in 2012(13) Canadians are at the gates of the top 10 wine-consuming countries in the world. Canada is not only a country of great wines – both dry and sweet – but also a land of connoisseurs.
Witness the spectacular selection offered by the SAQ cellars in Quebec, home to the largest selection of wine and spirits in the world, with over 20,000 references in their catalog.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA


Thank you to all winemakers, journalists, agents and friends who have received us during our stay; and a special thought to Annabelle and Elodie Pollet and the Chevrier family for hosting two itinerant travelers.

NB : Nova Scotia & the other Atlantic Provinces will be done next time we come back. They also produce great wines that deserve a lot of attention.

 

(1) For more information: Harvest Festival of Magog (Quebec), each beginning of September; a major event initiated by Jean-Paul Scieur, owner of Le Cep d’Argent.
(2) SAQ: the Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ) is a Crown corporation created in 1921 and has a mandate to trade in alcoholic beverages throughout the territory of Quebec.
(3) Since 2013 Canada owns the words “vin de glace” and “ice wine”.
(4) The Vidal is a white hybrid grape, crossing of Trebbiano and Rayon d’Or (Seibel 4986), created in 1930 by Jean Louis Vidal and very resistant to cold.
(5) The Seyval is a cross of Seibel 5656 x Seibel 4986. The grape is allowed in many departments in France, as well as in Britain, Canada and the United States.
(6) Saint-Pépin is a white hybrid grape variety of Elmer Swenson 114 and Seyval and able to withstand temperatures up to -32 ° C.
(7) Geisenheim is best known as the Rondo. This hybrid grape of Czech origin is a black grape crossing of Zarya Severa x St. Laurent completed in 1964.
(8) De Chaunac is a red hybrid, derived from Seibel 5163 * Seibel 793 and most often used in blends. It is found in Canada, the United States (New York) and France (Ardèche).
(9) Chelois is a black French hybrid, crossing of varieties Seibel 5163 x Seibel 5593. In 1955, the Chelois covered 906 hectares in France. Today there are only a few strains. It is authorized in the United States (New York, 63 hectares) and Canada.
(10) Fire cider is obtained by the fermentation of apple juice that has only heat, reaching a concentration of sugar before fermentation is at least 28 ° Brix and an actual alcoholic strength of more than 9%.
(11)  Source : Wine Country Ontario
 (12) Baco Noir is a French hybrid grown primarily in Canada (since its early maturity) and the United States. Not to be confused with his cousin the white Baco : a little more than 2,100 hectares are cultivated in France for the production of Armagnac.
(13) OIV 2013 (projection).