Champagne Tarlant, Oeuilly, Vallée de la Marne, France

Wine: There is a strong sense of place reflected in their sophisticated wines. Place in the sense there is a distinct Tarlant style (exquisite!) and also actual place because they press and age each of their 57 plots separately. There is such a precision in the work that I think is clearly reflected in the wines. It starts with the 57 plots and their different soils (chalk, limestone, sand or chalky clay, aka "sparnacien"), then their locations. For example, the "Louis Cuvee" is from the "Les Crayons" plot, which is chalk soil, flat and right by the Marne River or the "Royal Cuvee" from the "Mocque Tonneau" plot on a sunny, steep slope of limestone. They are 90% organic/biodynamic. Then there is the winemaking: Separate vinification of each plot, a lot of barrel fermenting and aging, no malolactic fermentation, lees stirring, gravity-clarification (no filtering), minimum of 5 years of aging and zero to minimal dosage. They are also experimenting with amphora aging, which they began 6 years ago but have not yet released. Benoit (the winemaker) and his team believe the clay will better express the soil of the plots they are aging in the amphorae. 

Tasting of 5 wines: 1. ZERO Brut Nature 1/3 chardonnay, 1/3 pinot noir, 1/3 meunier: Stainless steel and oak aging, mostly 2008 grapes, zero dosage (lime, grapefruit, rhubarb, green apple, yeast). 2. Brut Reserve 1/3 chardonnay, 1/3 pinot noir, 1/3 meunier: Stainless steel and oak aging, mostly 2009 grapes, 5.8g dosage (apple, pear, red fruits, strawberry). 3. Rosé Brut 50% chardonnay, 44% pinot noir, 6% meunier: 2008 & 2009, oak aging, 6g dosage (red fruits, cherry, spices). 4. Cuvée Louis 1996-2000 50% chardonnay, 50% pinot noir: "Les Crayons" plot with chalk soil, 65-year-old vines, oak fermentation, zero dosage (honey, yellow apple, roasted peach, creme brulée, complex and wonderful). 5. 2004 "L'Aerienne" 70% chardonnay, 30% pinot noir: Fermented in oak with native "spontaneous" yeasts, zero dosage (lemon creme, brioche, lemon zest, rhubarb tart, rounder and delicious). 

My take: Family-run for more than 300 years, there is a sense of tradition but also a feeling of innovation and openness to ideas. The cellars are some of the most beautiful I have seen! An essential visit in the Valle de la Marne and in Champagne in general for a great lesson in terroir-driven champagne production and exquisite wines to show for it! More on Champagne Tarlant


Champagne Doyard, Vertus, Cote des Blancs, France

Wine: What pure and elegant wines! Charles Doyard is the 12th generation to grow grapes and the 4th to make wine at Doyard. His guiding principle is to make great wines that pair beautifully with food, but they also have bubbles! When Charles came back home to start working with his father in 2006, his first step was to work diligently in their 11 hectares of vineyards to revitalize the soil. He is practicing as much organic farming as he can but being pragmatic and leaving himself the option to use chemicals when necessary (such as in very rainy years to fight the mildew). Charles believes wines are made in the vineyard. 80% of their chardonnay is cordon-trained rather than chablis-trained (as much of the chardonnay in Champagne is--note the photos below to see the difference--it's cool!). This brings more concentration and more acidity to the grapes. Notable things they are doing in the winery: Using a Coquard hydraulic press, using the absolute minimum amount of SO2 to avoid malolactic fermentation (sometimes it happens partially), aging the wines 8 months before bottling for the 2nd fermentation, aging on the lees a minimum of 3 years and often closer to 5, and doing the least dosage possible - anywhere from zero to 4 at the most. 

Tasting of 5 wines: 1. Cuvée Vendémiaire 1er Cru Brut 100% Chardonnay: Base wine is 2011, 40% barrel & 60% stainless, 15% malolactic fermentation, 4g dosage (lemon, green apple, lemon tart, reminded me of Chablis yum.). 2. Revolution Grand Cru 100% Chardonnay: Zero dosage, 7 years in bottle on lees, 50% barrel/50% stainless, partial malo (white flowers, saline, rhubarb, lemon). 3. 2009 Grand Cru Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut: 100% barrel, no malo, .6g dosage (elegant, rounder at first taste then refreshing acid and then long finish of lemon creme, like a Chablis Grand Cru with bubbles). 4. Clos de l'Abbaye 2011 1er Cru Extra Brut 100% Chardonnay: 60-yr-old-vines, no malo, 100% barrel, 3g dosage (biscuit, saline, butter, lemon zest, amer as in "amer biere," i.e. bitter in a good way). 5. Oeil de Perdrix 2013 Grand Cru Rosé Extra Brut: 75% Pinot Noir/25% Chardonnay, pinot noir in barrel, 2g dosage. A press rosé--not blending of still red wine as is common in the region (quelle finesse! rhubarb jam, cherry tart, pie crust, strawberry). 

My take: A comprehensive and fascinating tour! Charles is open and engaging and so clearly communicates both the process and his/his family's philosophy. A special experience with such elegant wines! They have a small hotel on site as well. More on Champagne Doyard

Champagne Ployez-Jacquemart, Ludes, Montagne de Reims, France

Wine: I love these wines--there is just so much going on in them! The style in general is rich and more concentrated yet incredibly fresh. Laurence Ployez is the 3rd generation vigneron in this family domaine. She uses only the 1st pressing for all of their champagnes and doses around 3-4 grams. There is a network of amazing tunnels beneath the domaine where the bottles sit for lees aging for a minimum of 3 years and up to 10+ years for the vintage wines. One level of tunnels sits 25 meters below ground and underneath another set of tunnels. Walking through the tunnels feels like walking back in time as you come across each stack of bottles and see the signs indicating the harvest year or cuvée number. 

Tasting of 4 wines: 1. Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs NV--but mostly 2006 harvest (citrus, brioche, fresh-baked bread, melon, apple). 2. Extra Brut Blanc de Blancs 2005 (hard cheese, salty, brulée, orange brioche, citrus). 3. Extra Brut 2005 1/3 chardonnay/1/3 pinot noir/1/3 meunier (wild strawberry, caramel, brioche, white mushrooms, round). 4. d'Harbonville 1998 Brut 100% chardonnay (fermented in oak, Chassagne-Montrachet with bubbles, mind-bogglingly good - tasted the 1999 too and it was even better). 

My take: Champagne is magic and this place proves it. Their caves are full of history and atmosphere. The wine making is impeccable. The tour is an excellent primer on the champagne method and is really fun too (the tunnels!).  A must in Champagne! More on Ployez-Jacquemart

Champagne Roger Manceaux, Rilly-La-Montagne, Montagne de Reims, France

Wine: Fourth generation grower-producer, Patrick Manceaux farms 12 hectares in premier cru and grand cru villages in and around Rilly-La-Montagne in the Montagne de Reims area of Champagne. He makes blanc de blancs, rosé and blanc de noirs and the styles range from delicate and fresh 100% chardonnay to fuller-bodied, more robust blends of 60% pinot noir and 40% chardonnay (plus a demi-sec for dessert or foie gras). He makes 90,000 bottles from his own grapes, which takes 70% of his grapes; the other 30% he sells to 2 well-known champagne houses.

Tasting of 5 wines: 1. Brut Cuvée Reserve 45% Pinot Noir/30% Chardonnay/25% Meunier, 9g sugar (red fruits & biscuits). 2. Brut Rosé 55% Pinot Noir/35% Meunier/10% Chardonnay, 9g sugar (ripe strawberry, raspberry, white pepper). 3. Brut Grande Reserve 50% Chardonnay/50% Pinot Noir 7g sugar (lemon, red fruits, biscuits). 4. 2009 Brut Millesime 50% Pinot Noir Grand Cru/50% Chardonnay 1er Cru, 45-60 yr-old vines (honey, red fruits, brioche, lemon cream). 5. Heritage 2006 60% Pinot Noir/40% Chardonnay, Oak-aged (floral, tropical, brioche, orange brulee, round). 

My take: Education-packed tour! Patrick is transparent, enthusiastic and patient with question-asking. If you really want to understand how champagne is made, this is your tour. The Manceaux champagnes are lovely and fruity and classic. You can also stay at their grand house (the most beautiful house in town!) that adjoins the winery. More on Roger Manceaux and staying at Le Palais Champenois.

Herdade do Mouchão, Alentejo, Portugal

Wine: The oldest winery in the Alentejo, Mouchão is as traditional as it gets, down to being run by the same family since its founding as a winery in 1901. The Reynolds family came to Alentejo to get into the cork business, then moved to olive growing/pressing (which they still do) and finally to wine making. There are stunning cork oak trees in the middle of the vineyards, from which cork is harvested every 9 years.

They produce 6 still wines, 2 fortified and 2 brandies and are famous for their namesake wine made from alicante bouschet, a grape that is a cross between petit bouschet and grenache. Alicante bouschet, though cultivated in France, thrives in the clay soils of Mouchão and in the arid climate of the Alentejo to produce rich, lush, fruity wines with a tannic edge from the grape's thick skins.  

All wines are hand-harvested. For their reds, they do not de-stem. The grapes are transferred to indoor "lagares," large square pits usually made of cement, but at Mouchão it's marble since there are quarries right down the road in Estremoz. In the lagares, the grapes are foot-trodden for about a week during maceration and fermentation. Grapes are then pressed in the original 1901 presses! For the whites, they de-stem and then ferment at low temps in stainless steel to preserve freshness and aromas, a key step since it is very hot in Alentejo (temps can exceed 100 F for weeks on end during the summer). 

Tasting of 5 wines : 1. Dom Rafael 2015 Branco blend of antão vaz, arinto, perrum & fernão pires (citrus, tropical, light & fresh). 2. Dom Rafael 2013 Tinto blend of alicante bouschet, trincadeira & aragonez (damson plum jam, wood spice). 3. Ponte das Canas 2012 Tinto blend of alicante bouschet, touriga nacional, touriga franca & shiraz (black fruits, dark chocolate, subtle cigar box). 4. Mouchão 2011 (ripe blackberry, herbs de provence, tobacco, meaty). 5. Vinho Licoroso 2011 (only alicante bouschet - like a spicy port!).

My take: A visit to this estate combines everything I love about wine: Fascinating history, geology lesson, climate issues, cool people, a beautiful setting and great wine that is "of a place." In the cellar, you can see a barrel marked "cooprativa" from when the winery was taken over and converted to a collective farm by the new government after the 1974 leftist military coup (25th of April / Carnation Revolution). The property was finally returned to the Reynolds/Richardsons many years later. Simply wonderful! More about Herdade do Mouchão.

Lost Draw Cellars, Texas High Plains AVA, Texas, USA

Wine: When I asked several producers and winery staff what other winery I should visit, hands down the answer was Lost Draw. Andy Timmons, who started as a peanut and cotton farmer, founded Lost Draw in 2013. He is revered among the top TX producers as he has been growing their grapes for 10 years in the High Plains AVA (where a big portion of the best TX grapes are grown because they mature well in the hot, sunny climate, but they also retain enough acidity to balance the ripeness due to the higher elevations and cool nights). Andy works with winemaker Kim McPherson, who runs his own winery and whose father is one of the founders of the modern TX wine industry, to make his wines. And they are delightful. 

Tasting of 6 wines: 1. 2014 Roussanne (citrus, stone fruits, bright and crisp--surprising for the usually rich roussanne!) 2. 2013 French Colombard (green apple, citrus) 3. 2014 Viognier (ripe peach, tropical) 4. 2015 Cinsault (strawberry jam, white pepper, beaujolais-style) 5. 2014 Tempranillo (cherry, raspberry, earthy) 6. 2014 KindRed: Sangiovese, dolcetto, barbera, montepulciano (strawberry, plum, herbs).

My take: Highly recommended. You can geek out on the delicious LD single varietal wines (and get to know those grapes' characteristics) or enjoy how grapes play off of one another in their blends. The tasting room is in Fredericksburg. CJ runs a laid-back experience that can be as fun or informative as you'd like. More on Lost Draw

William Chris Wines, Texas Hill Country AVA, Texas, USA

Wine: Texas spirit with European style. What a fun place with great wines! Grapes that do well in the hot areas of France and Italy are what Bill and Chris are growing and working with growers in Hill Country AVA and High Plains AVA to make their wines. They take both a classic approach like their 100% Sangiovese and their Artist Blend or Enchanté but also a playful course with their Pet-Nat (sparkling rosé) and their Enoch's Stomp or Mary Ruth (white blends). Groups with diverse wine tastes will easily find their happy place here.

Tasting of 9 100% TX wines: 1. 2015 Petillant-Naturel (naturally sparkling) Rosé: Saignée (or bleed off of juice from black grape pressing) of cinsault, petit verdot, malbec & mourvedre. No added sulfites. Delicious! 2. 2015 Cinsault Rosé: 85% whole cluster press, 15% saignée (strawberry, lemon and a bit of earthiness). 3. 2015 Vermentino: 30% oak fermentation/aged in stainless (citrus, mineral, nice texture from lees stirring/oak ferment). 4. East TX Enoch's Stomp Blanc du Bois: 100% TX Blanc du Bois (tropical & grassy, like a NZ sauvignon blanc!). 5. 2015 Mary Ruth: Malvasia, muscat, blanc du bois (orange blossom, citrus, floral). 6. 2014 Artist Blend: syrah, grenache, mourvedre, tannat (dark berries, spice, pepper, tobacco) 7. 2014 Klenk Vineyard Sangiovese: with a little cab sauvignon (ripe strawberry, herbs, rose, inky in a good way, Super Tuscan!). 8. 2014 High Plains Mourvedre: (cherry & spice). 9. Enchanté: merlot, cab sauv, malbec, petit verdot (black currant, cedar, Bordeaux!) 

My take: A beautiful property with delicious wines. Plenty of space to stretch out for a couple of hours inside the original farmhouse, outside on the large, covered deck or under a leafy oak tree. A name to watch in American wine for sure...more on William Chris. 

Lewis Wines, Texas Hill Country AVA, Texas, USA

Wine: I get an "Old World" (less flashy, neutral or subtle oak, terroir-driven, fruit not too ripe, some earthiness) vibe from Doug Lewis's wines. He is working with grapes known in France and Spain for centuries, such as tempranillo, cinsault, mourvedre, viognier, syrah, malbec and cab sauv and cab franc.

In 2014, Lewis planted some of the 100 acres on their Hill Country AVA estate with the Portuguese varietals touriga nacional, alicante bouschet, tinto cão (all red) and arinto (white). Plus tannat, a thick-skinned grape from southern France and widely planted in Uruguay that makes robust, smoky wines (BBQ!). It will be a few years before these vines will be ready to produce wine. I am excited Lewis decided to fully explore the terroir connection to Alentejo/Portugal this area so wondrously has. Cannot wait to try those wines!

Tasting of 6 wines, made from 100% of grapes from either Hill Country AVA or High Plains AVA. 1. Swim Spot: blanc du bois, muscat, viognier (spritzy, citrusy & light, like a vinho verde!) 2. High Plains Rosé: cinsault, mourvedre, cab sauv (tropical & melon) 3. Mourvedre Rosé: 100% mourvedre (strawberry) 4. 2012 TX Red: Mourvedre, syrah, cab franc (raspberry, black cherry, earthy, cinnamon) 5. 2012 Newsom Reserve: malbec, cab franc (dark fruit, cloves) 6. 2012 TX Tempranillo Reserve: Tempranillo, grenache, graciano (plum, chocolate, vanilla). 

My take: I loved it. Delightful wines and the huge, covered back porch is such a pretty place to taste and dream of a trip to Portugal (or Luckenbach!)...Reserve in the tasting room with Victoria, who knows her stuff (outside of TX wines too). A must during a day of vineyard visits along Hwy 290. More on Lewis Wines.

Quinta do Vallado, Douro Valley (Porto), Portugal

Wine: Delicious wines by a highly respected winery owned by the same family since the 1700s. Put on the map and fostered by Doña Antonia Adelaide Ferreira, a woman, running a winery in the 1800s. An entrepreneur, an advocate for keeping vineyards under local ownership and an early adopter of technology to protect against phylloxera, she helped establish Port and the Douro as the superior, renowned region it is today. Ferreirinha was a total badass

The basic wine tasting includes 5 wines: 1. Vallado White (rabigato, códega, viosinho, gouveio & arinto), 2. Vallado Red (touriga franca (25%), touriga nacional (25%), tinta roriz (25%), sousão (5%) and mixed old vines (field blend! 20%), 3. Touriga Nacional 100%, 4. Reserva Field Blend (vines more than 100 years old, 45 grape varieties--how cool is that--predominately tinta roriz, tinta amarela, touriga franca & tinta barroca), 5. 10 Year Tawny Port (Mix of old vines).

Food: There is a restaurant on the Quinta Do Vallado property in the boutique hotel. It's a fixed price menu and includes 4 scrumptious courses plus wine and port. Hell of a value especially for the quality! (This sums up eating and drinking in Portugal in general!)

My take: This is a top-notch experience. The hotel is wonderful. The restaurant great. And the winery tour was fabulous; it's one of the best I've ever had. It took more than 2 hours including the tasting. I am fascinated by their embrace of modern techniques while also maintaining traditional ones and running these processes side-by-side. More on Quinta do Vallado

Quinta do Crasto, Douro Valley (Porto), Portugal

Wine: One of the best-known and respected producers in the Douro, the winery is in a spectacular setting. The drive (approaching from the north or also from Pinhao to the east) through villages and vineyards perched along the mountain valleys is stunning. The tasting includes 5 wines: White blend, red blend, superior red blend, Roquette & Cazes red blend (partnership with a French winemaker) and a ruby port. Tastings occur in the living room of the main house, which adds a very comfortable, homey feeling that is rare especially at a winery of this size. Blending is very common in Douro although many producers make single varietals now too. Crasto white: gouveio, viosinho and rabigato. Crasto red: Tinta roriz (tempranillo), touriga franca, touriga nacional, tinta barroca. Superior blend: Touriga Nacional, Touriga Franca, Tinta Roriz, Souzão, plus some field blend! R & C blend: 60% Touriga Nacional, 15% Touriga Franca and 25% Tinta Roriz. Ruby Port: (60+yr-vines) 60% Touriga Nacional, 15% Touriga Franca and 25% Tinta Roriz. 

My take:  It's near several other great producers so you can make a wonderful day of visiting and tasting. The oldest vineyards (75 to more than 100 years) at this estate have vines that are undergoing DNA testing to determine what the grapes are. They use these vineyards for "field blend" wines. I love that they are making fab wines without knowing for sure what the grapes are! More on Quinta do Crasto

Luis Pato Winery (Barraida DOC), Aveiro District, Portugal

Wine: The benchmark winery of Barraida. Excellent wines based on baga, the traditional local red grape, as well as other permitted DOC red/white grapes. Baga are small, thick-skinned and grow best in clay soils, which is what Barraida is famous for. The grapes make high tannin, high concentration and high acid wines with dark fruits, coffee, tobacco and smoke aromas/flavors. An analogue is cabernet sauvignon in Bordeaux, and Barraida also has a similar maritime climate. For the Vinhas Velhas (old vines) reds they make a first pass through the vineyards to pick grapes for their lovely "blanc de noir" sparkling wines. The remaining grapes get longer "hang time" to ripen and further concentrate. 

Tastings are really fun here as you get to try the current releases from specific vineyard sites and vintages plus library (older years) wines to get a sense of how the wines age for both whites and reds. White Vinhas Velhas are a blend of bical, cerceal and sercialinho and some single varietal bottlings of Maria Gomez (aromatic and similar to viognier, rousanne or torrontes). Luis now works with his daughter, Filipa, who also makes great wines!

My take: Highly recommended! I respect this region's devotion to its traditional grapes like baga, Maria Gomez (fernão pires), bical, cerceal and sercialinho. The tour is structured to be informative both to newcomers to wine and those who know more. In nice weather the tastings are held on a terrace overlooking a vineyard. The staff are very friendly and know their stuff. Despite being a famous, modern and large(ish) operation, the experience here still feels like you are visiting a smaller, family-run winery and has a relaxed, casual vibe. A good opportunity to get to know Portuguese varietals and how wines age since you get to taste back vintages. You could visit Luis Pato as part of a trip to colorful, seaside (canals!) Aveiro or Coimbra. Or on the way to Dão.  More on Luis Pato.

Quinta do Soalheiro, Moncão & Melgaço (Minho/Vinho Verdo), Portugal

Wine: I love these wines. Soalheiro was the first winery to make wines from the alvarinho grape in the region. They make 11 wines, mostly based on alvarinho. My favs are the Alvarinho Primeiras Vinhas and the Alvarinho Reserva (aged in French oak).  

Food: You can do a wine tour and tasting that includes their house-made sausage made with local pork called Bisara. They have a separate business just down the road called Quinta de Folga where they make sausage and grow a gorgeous organic garden. The sausage was some of the best I've ever tasted. 

My take: Highly recommended. This was a lovely experience. Down-to-earth, very friendly family. Beautiful facilities in a wonderful landscape. We played with the dog while we tasted the wines, ate the amazing sausage and treats from the garden. More on SoalheiroMore on Quinta de Folga