Tag Archives: grapes

The Ultimate Swiss Wine Road Trip: Part 2

 

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Visit Switzerland for the wine, but don’t skip the Matterhorn. All images by Lauren Mowery.

In continuation from yesterday’s post, and a repost of my original article in USA Today

VALAIS

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Dramatic vineyards aren’t solely the domain of Vaud. Given Valais is home to the ski resorts of Verbier and Zermatt, it is logical that the highest grapes cultivated in the country reside here, too. Not to mention some of the most remote, difficult-to-pick locations, often planted to tiny plots of obscure grapes, the sight of which leave you wondering about the sanity of the growers. Petite Arvine, Cornalin, and Chasselas, known locally as Fendant, are prevalent.

Wine isn’t the only prized product in the alpine region. Warm and creamy, Raclette du Valais carries its own designation of origin. Legend has it a Valais vintner conceived the concept on a cold day when he melted a slice of raw milk mountain cheese over a wood fire. As though melted cheese needed inventing.

Wineries

Domaine de Muses in Sierre (tasting by appointment)

Robert Taramarcaz’s wines deserve attention based on the merit of the juice alone. However, it didn’t hurt that one of Robert Parker’s top reviewers, David Schildknecht, reported back with praise for the vigneron’s Petite Arvine. While definitely a highlight from his wide range of wines, local grapes Heida and Humagne Rouge, plus Syrah and Merlot, merit tasting.

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Rouvinez in Sierre (Monday-Saturday, no appointment)

As one of the region’s larger producers, Rouvinez also sports the sleekest tasting room. At the bar, visitors can sample wines sourced across the family’s multiple estates, while catching a price break on bottles: Rouvinez makes some of the best 14 Franc Fendant and Gamay in the valley.

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Jean-René Germanier in Vetroz (Friday, Saturday; or tasting by appointment)

Cornalin. You’ve never heard of it and won’t find your neighborhood retail shop stocking it next month, but this Swiss grape, in the hands of Jean-René Germanier and his nephew Gilles Besse, is worth tracking down. For those who doubt the mountainous country’s potential for full-bodied reds, this savory, plummy wine tastes even bigger than the 13.5% alcohol inside.

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Kellerei Chanton in Visp (Monday, Wednesday-Sunday; closed Tuesday)

In an era of vinous homogenization, the family behind Chanton pride themselves on preserving Switzerland’s diversity. No plot is too small, or too steep, no grape too obscure, for the chance to be turned into wine. Enthusiasts keeping scorecards on the number of varieties they’ve tasted, can add a dozen, like Gwass, Himbertscha, and Eyholzer Roter, in the tasting room.

Lodging

Alpes et Cetera If you don’t mind daily 25-minute drives, up and down hairpin-turn mountain roads, book this unique property. The young owners, both formerly in the architecture business, built eight cozy chalets, each decorated in a different theme highlighting an aspect of Valais culture.

Don’t Miss

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Dinner at Château de Villa in Sierre. You’ll want to follow the aroma of fire-roasted fromage as soon as you arrive, but spend an hour in the vinothèque, or wine tasting bar, first. The thorough retail and by-the-glass selection covers the most important producers to the scarcest grapes. Inside the restaurant, let veteran waiters guide you through the distinct Raclette of each Valais village. Yes, that means multiple plates of hot cheese for dinner. But you get potatoes, gherkins, and pickled onions, too.

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Zermatt. If you came as far as Valais, you’d be remiss not to spend two days hiking around the spectacular Matterhorn. Bed down at the cozy, upscale Cervo Hotel; their restaurant features a host of Swiss wines to accompany the contemporary country fare.

BÜNDNER HERRSCHAFT, GRAÜBUNDENGraubundenHotelWeissKreuzWindowViewIn this picturesque slice of the Rhine Valley, producers cultivate an overwhelming 45 grapes, although visitors should focus on just two – one an international star, the other a local oddity.

Pinot Noir (aka Blaüburgunder) producers refer to their enclave as Little Burgundy for good reason. They make nuanced, elegant, age-worthy wines that win international honors, but limited production that is domestically consumed, keeps this corner of fine wine country in relative obscurity. But you wouldn’t know it walking the quartet of towns Malans, Jenins, Maienfeld (Heidi’s home), and Fläsch; each one is stacked with cellars, the streets supplied with maps and arrows to assist wine tourists. In addition to great Pinot Noir, Completer, a white grape first referenced in 1321, provides further wine geek bait. A handful of producers like Dontasch saved it from extinction to produce dry, high acid expressions that can evolve in the bottle for decades. Approximately five acres are cultivated, making it one of the rarest fine wines in the world.

Wineries

Weingut Donatsch in Malans (Tavern open Wednesday-Sunday; closed Monday, Tuesday. Tours by appointment).

“Everything I’ve bottled has at one point, been in my hand” explained Martin, the effusive, English-speaking younger half of the Donatsch family father-son winemaking team. Their winery and wine tavern are located in the center of Malans; beneath the property and city streets, runs a labyrinth of tunnels still in use. His dad Thomas is a pioneer among Swiss vintners as the first to experiment with classic Burgundian winemaking methods, notably with wooden barrels he received from La Tâche as a gift. Both the Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are in high demand due to big points scored with critics, but their Completer is the true rare treasure for collectors.

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Obrecht in Jenins (tastings by appointment)

Fifth generation winemaker Christian Obrecht partners with his viticulturalist wife Francisca, at their small, biodynamic winery. Their main vineyards range in age from 35-55 years old, and he works primarily with old Swiss Pinot Noir clones because, as he explained, “Burgundy clones are too drinkable” for his taste. See if you agree.

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Weingut Fromm in Malans (tastings by appointment)

Perhaps better known internationally for their recently-sold properties in Marlborough and Tuscany, the family now focuses all their energy on their Swiss enterprise. Walter Fromm runs the show, focusing on Pinot Noir; the lineup includes a village-level wine, and four vineyard-specific bottlings to showcase the influence of soil.

Lodging

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Hotel Weiss Kreuz in Malans is a perfect base for exploring surrounding wine country. The boutique inn seamlessly blends old-world detail with chic style.

Can’t Miss

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Lunch on the terrace at Restaurant Alter Torkel overlooking the mountain-framed vineyards.

Book a half or full day wine country tour with Wine Tours Switzerland. Owner Gian Carlo Casparis speaks a handful of languages, is the only outfit in the region, and is well-connected.

 

 

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Wine is Too Cheap, and Other Lessons from a South African Harvest (Part 1)

Looking at its narrow frame and spindly rungs, lashed to the top of a seemingly skyscraper-high steel tank by a single, knotted rope, I was briefly prompted into panic. But winemaker Andries Burger’s comment echoed in my head: “the two French girls we had last season did everything the men did. They carried buckets up those ladders.” With my right leg trembling, I fought the instinct to remain grounded and clambered to the top, balancing the metal handle of my plastic container of nitrogen addition (to keep yeast happy and functioning), awkwardly in the crook of my elbow.  It would be a small, short-lived victory. By the end of the day, ladders posed no more challenge than climbing into a car. I had a new problem: how to punch down Pinot Noir grapes without falling into the tank (and suffocating from CO2).Winemaking is a physically demanding job. Particularly during harvest when hours are long and grapes are waiting; days can start as early as five in the morning and continue well past the last rays of light for months. As a writer on the topic, I felt understanding the finer details of the process, set within the broader framework of the wine industry as I already knew it, would make me a better, more insightful journalist, and possibly more sympathetic to the challenges and choices winemakers face.
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Riesling grapes waiting to be sorted.

To sample the experience, I elected to join Paul Cluver in Elgin, South Africa for an unpaid, two-week internship during the recent 2015 vintage. My participation was part of a larger initiative aimed at encouraging women to work in the wine industry, the brainchild of Kathy Jordan of Jordan Wine Estate in Stellenbosch.
The “women in wine” mentoring program elicited applications both from around the world and locally, in conjunction with the support of Jancis Robinson (the world’s most notable woman wine journalist), to join harvest with a member winery of PIWOSA (Premium Independent Wineries of South Africa, a collection of likeminded producers pooling their marketing dollars and power.) Applicants needed to hold either a winemaking degree or the WSET Diploma. I carry the latter.My résumé was selected by a winery nestled in the cool-climate Elgin Valley. Burger, the longtime winemaker, earned a reputation for producing elegant Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, along with one of the finest sought after Rieslings in the country. Not being available in the New York market, I banked on the Cluver reputation by flying to the southern hemisphere to work at a winery without having first tasted its wines.

Tall and burly with vivid blue eyes, I figured Burger for the winemaker as I exited Cape Town airport. We drove off in his bucky (South African for truck) and 45-minutes later arrived for lunch at the local Elgin farm stall/bakery/pie shop Peregrine. Eager to jump into the rhythm of the country’s meat-hearty diet, I opted for a taste of the native game and ordered springbok pie (antelope-gazelle, ubiquitous around southwestern Africa).

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Zebras and an ostrich sharing a feeding bowl in the sanctuary. Likely a tenuous friendship.

My accommodations (like many of the winery employees, as well as the entire Cluver clan) sat two kilometers deep into the family farm, a sprawling property of apple and pear orchards, and vineyards, defined partially by mountain borders. The Cluvers carved out space for a wildlife sanctuary (home to two zebras and two ostriches, comically fed from jumbo bowls) and built a challenging mountain biking course to tempt ripped athletes in colorful Lycra from around the world. A natural amphitheater set within towering ghost gum trees drew a large domestic audience for monthly summer concerts.

I was assigned a modest cottage, an old laborer’s dwelling that sat at the base of several vineyards (the same Pinot grapes I’d be fighting with later in the week). A rondavel formed the attached bedroom. It had a conical thatched roof like those that capped traditional dwellings in the bush or luxury safari properties mimicking the experience for well-heeled tourists. My temporary home fell midway on the spectrum between the two (I had hot, running water, but lacked a dedicated gin and tonic butler.)

That first night, I collapsed on the bed; I hadn’t lain down in nearly thirty hours since departing New York. Peering into the shadows of the cone-shaped ceiling, I wondered if I might find a bird (or a bat) nesting in its cavity. Outside, the wind surged and retreated, beating at the hut’s walls like the pounding of ocean surf against an intruding rock. At that point, the reality of my location finally switched from dream state to “on.” I was alone, in the dark, on a wine farm, in Africa. Mercifully, sunlight washes clean the dramas of the nocturnal mind and I awoke fresh for the start of my first day.

Mornings at the winery started just past seven. One facet of the harvest experience I would escape was grape picking. Hand harvesting of bunches occurred in the chilled air of night. Local workers were trucked out to designated rows at ten o’clock P.M. where they snipped with shears and headlamps until dawn.  It looked difficult; exhausting. But the grapes, ranging from Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, to Pinot Noir, remained cool, plump, and taut for pressing the following morning, while the workers avoided the grueling daytime heat.

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The ladies found me hilarious for a number of unfavorable reasons.

The days took on a fairly predictable, labor-intensive routine. After the dawn delivery of fruit (the pickers would head home to snooze until dusk), grapes were hand-sorted to pull out rotten, infected, shriveled, or generally defective specimens. Pictures posted near the table reminded workers what flaws to identify. The female team, composed of permanent and seasonal employees, always sorted. Never the men, who made up the core team of cellar workers. The ladies chatted and laughed about the daily soap opera viewed the night before (so they said). Speaking Afrikaans, their dialogue was inscrutable, but they seemed amused at teaching me words so they could snicker at my atrocious pronunciation.

After the sorting table, grapes went through the de-stemmer (unless left intact for whole bunch pressing, e.g., Chardonnay). White grapes then went to the Vaslin press, and red grapes went into tanks to start cold maceration. The rest of the day was spent monitoring the progress of presses, cleaning, tasting and recording the development of ongoing fermentations, cleaning, punching down red grapes (the act of puncturing the thick “cap” of grape skins and solid matter that float to the top of a tank so as to integrate it back into the juice below), cleaning, making additions with buckets on ladders (like the aforementioned nitrogen), transferring wine between tanks, cleaning, and then washing down equipment, followed by cleaning, cleaning, and cleaning. I started to believe winemaking was 50 percent cleaning. (Another winemaker I met estimates it at 75 percent).

We spent lunch as a family, or at least I felt like I carried the Cluver surname given the warmth they extended and interest they took in my city life back in New York. Burger actually is family: he married Inge Cluver, the eldest daughter of Dr. Paul Cluver (the patriarch and a former neurosurgeon), who works in the office alongside her brother Paul (the managing director), Karin (production director), Inge (financial manager), and sister Liesl (marketing director). For a family that lives a short stroll away from each other, and works an even shorter distance apart, they maintained a remarkable harmony.

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Night picking by headlamp to avoid the heat of the day, for both worker and grapes.

Repast discussions toggled between updates on the vineyards to updates on the orchards. The other hot topic: installation of a new solar panel system. South Africans have endured a year of “load shedding,” a polite term for the equivalent of rolling power blackouts scheduled (and sometimes not) around the country, instituted by the mismanaged, national power company to deal with an aging, overloaded grid. With many more years of blackouts projected, the Cluvers had the foresight (and wherewithal) to reduce their carbon footprint as much as to protect their investments.

The energy at dinner was different. The cellar staff and winemaking team gathered for evening family meal (exclusive of the women who cleaned and sorted). Offerings cooked or purchased by the daytime staff, were simple and hearty — sausages, chicken, hot dogs, and salami sandwiches. Most nights, dinner only provided a break in the work before the men returned to the floor to finish the last press and then, of course, clean.

Continued tomorrow in Part 2: The life of a cellar worker.

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Harvest ink.

 

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The 2014 Long Island Harvest Through the Lens of Macari Vineyards

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All photos by Carl Timpone

In case you missed my column Unscrewed, here’s a second chance to read about the 2014 Long Island harvest.

For the New York wine industry, nervous anticipation of fall isn’t about the return of fireside cocktails, knee-high leather boots, and felt fedora hats, or tacit permission to eat like a grizzly headed into hibernation. Autumn equals harvest, and depending on the quality of the growing season, which runs right up until the minute each cluster of plump berries is separated from its life-giving vine, that can be a joyous or heartbreaking occasion; a single, severe storm at or before picking can decimate a year’s worth of toil.

As the last grapes of the season were collected, I consulted the family and winemaker at New York’s Winery of the Year (awarded by the New York Food & Wine Classic), Macari Vineyards, for a report on the vintage and the future of Long Island’s 2014 wines. Prognosis: Expect deliciousness.

Winemaker Kelly Urbanik-Koch gave a resoundingly positive weather account: “We experienced a relatively cool and dry summer. We usually receive rain in September and October, and summer humidity is frequently an issue, but this year, humidity was mercifully lacking, resulting in little to no disease pressure in the vineyards.” Urbanik-Koch is one of few female winemakers in the region. She’s also young, at 34, making her a refreshing anomaly in the older, male-dominated Long Island wine industry.

The Macari family has owned and worked the 500-acre waterfront farm in the North Fork since 1963, although the winery wasn’t established until 1996. Joseph Macari Sr. planted the vineyards with his son Joe Macari Jr., fulfilling a lifelong dream that began in a Depression-era basement in Corona, Queens, where he made his first batch of wine.

A shining example of the term “family business,” Macari Vineyards is now run by three generations, including Joe Sr., now 87 years old, and each contributes to its success. Joe Jr. manages the vineyard and cellar teams, while his wife, Alexandra, oversees the tasting rooms and wine club and gives feedback on blending decisions. Their four children — Joe Macari (yep, a third Joe, and also a vineyard manager), Thomas Macari, Edward Macari, and Gabriella Macari — all keep the gears greased, especially during the intense, backbreaking hours required by harvest.

Gabriella, who oversees distribution and marketing, expects the 2014 wines to be elegant and expressive with intense and complex flavors due to a slow and steady ripening season. She said their biggest challenge of the year was being restricted in the amount of experimentation they normally do: “With such gorgeous fruit, we weren’t limited by nature, but rather time. All those healthy grapes kept us too busy pressing to think about anything else. It’s a good problem, but it made for a very laborious year.”

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Adding to the strenuous nature of vineyard work is the Macari philosophy of farming along biodynamic principles, a practice Joe Jr. incorporated long before the concept gained mainstream awareness. “We are by no means certified biodynamic and do not follow it rigidly, but we believe small implications have helped our vines tremendously,” says Gabriella. The family tends a herd of cattle that contributes manure to the composting program. They also keep bees and sell a small amount of honey to local restaurants, the remainder given as gifts to fortunate friends.

Continuing unintentionally ahead of the trend curve, the Macaris produce a low-alcohol Chardonnay they release right after harvest called Early Wine; it sells out quickly every year. (Low-alcohol wines have been a growing category around the country.)

However, it’s Long Island’s classic grape, Cabernet Franc (if there is a designated “classic” yet), that has the family excited about the new vintage.

When young, Cab Franc expresses North Fork terroir with savory herbaceous notes mixed with bright red fruits and refreshing acidity. With age, olive and dried herb notes can develop, while high-quality wines retain balance and acidity, have length, and develop silky tannins, like the Macari 1997.

“We opened our ’97 Cab Franc for a tasting last March at Astor Center and it blew me away,” says Gabriella. “The wine could have held on a couple more years. It’s proof that our wines have world-class longevity, and it is motivation for my family to keep producing the grape as a single varietal.”

For those eager to sample the vintage without waiting for the 2014 Cab Franc, not likely available until late 2017, Macari just released the Early Wine last week. The wine can be purchased in one of its two tasting rooms or on its website.

Fortunately for most Long Island vintners and their fans, 2014 was an excellent vintage. If the best wines age as well as the 1997, made in an average year, then expect remarkable results.

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