Finca ca n’Estella Winery – Penedès, Spain

The second stop on our small group wine tour out of Barcelona was at Finca ca n’Estella Winery.  Owned by the Rabetllat i Vidal family since 1964, the winery is currently led by the third generation.  The house on the property dates back to 1847 when the owner was Joan Estella.  Also on the property are 150-year-old olive trees (yes, they make olive oil in addition to wine).  Our tour guide noted that the wines of the Rabetllat i Vidal family have won 120 awards since 2002.

Olive Tree

The Penedès region of Spain is well known for producing the sparkling wine Cava.  Our tour guide indicated that 90% of the Cava produced in Spain comes from Penedès.  She explained that Cava is made using the same method as champagne (that is, the second fermentation takes place in the bottle as opposed to in a tank) and nine different varieties of grapes can be used.  We learned that the aging requirements are 9 months to be called Cava, at least 15 months to be called a Riserva, and at least 30 months to be called a Gran Riserva.

Given the region’s acclaim for sparkling wine, our tasting included three Cavas; although I am told there are high quality still wines produced as well.  One member of our tour group had a glass of Merlot, and she said it was excellent.  We tried two Cavas made from Chardonnay, Macabeo, and Xarel-lo grapes but with different lengths of aging.  The longer aging process added a delicious complexity to the wine.  The last Cava was 100% Xarel-lo, a unique and fabulous wine we all enjoyed.

We started the tasting outside in the courtyard and ended the tasting on an upstairs terrace overlooking the beautiful property.  Light snacks of chocolate and a pastry were served.  The pastry’s taste and texture reminded me of “elephant ears” that were made at a local bakery when I was growing up. They are crunchy and flaky and delicious.  

The star of this tasting, though, was definitely the Cava, which showcased the family’s wine-making tradition and skill.  The view of the courtyard and surrounding property (below) only enhanced this fantastic winery experience.

Oller del Mas – Manresa, Spain

When our small group tour bus started up the long road to Oller del Mas, we noticed a well-dressed man standing outside of his car.  We learned the winery was having a private event, a communion celebration, and the man was the father of the child being celebrated.  His car had broken down, so we offered him a ride in the bus.  He gratefully climbed aboard and at the winery made quite the grand entrance.

The reasons for choosing this venue for a celebration became instantly obvious.  We walked up to a medieval castle dating back to the tenth century with amazing views.  Our tour guide explained that the same family has had the winery since 964 with ownership passing to the eldest son; currently on the 36th generation.

The Oller del Mas vineyards, part of the Pla de Bages wine area (about an hour outside of Barcelona), are organic with clay soils.  Our tour guide indicated harvest is typically September to mid October.  We tried one white wine and three red wines, and received an education on some grapes not well known in the US.  Picapoll negre, for example, our tour guide explained, is a grape that was thought to be extinct but this winery discovered its continued existence.

We started our wine tasting with the white wine paired with cheese outside of the castle.  We proceeded into the castle for a light lunch paired with the red wines, each a well-balanced blend of grapes.  Our group sat at a long table overlooking a beautiful landscape.  As we drank the fantastic wines, we learned a little about our fellow group members.  They mostly hailed from various locations in the US; a trio of pharmacists, a gym owner, a singer, retired teachers. 

After eating, drinking, and chatting, we headed to another outdoor area of the castle.  The views were even more astonishing with lush vineyards, unique soil colors, and a mountain (Montserrat).

Just before leaving, we walked through the vineyards.  I paused for a moment to take it all in.  It was a cloudy day but I hadn’t missed the sun.  The amazing setting and fabulous wines shared with friendly companions made for a day full of warmth and light.

Chianti, Italy

As we traveled out of the bustling city of Florence and up a series of hills, my significant other and I were glad we had not opted to drive ourselves around the Chianti region.  Narrow, weaving roadways, which were expertly maneuvered by our tour guide, gave way to beautiful views of the Tuscan countryside… 

Chianti is home most notably to the Sangiovese grape and, when following a strict set of rules, the Chianti Classico wine (you have probably seen the black rooster on the bottle).  Chianti Classico used to be made primarily with Sangiovese and also white grapes.  Since 2006, however, the rules no longer allow the blending of white grapes.  Chianti Classico is at least 80% Sangiovese and must age for at least 12 months before release (there are different categories depending on the length of the aging).  Other rules apply.

Our first winery stop was at Castellinuzza e Piuca near the village of Lamole.  We were served a light lunch as we sampled their three fabulous wines.  The woman who met with us indicated they are a fourth generation farm and her husband and brother-in-law are the winemakers.  They make a “traditional” Chianti, using white and red grapes (the wine cannot be called Chianti Classico due to the white grapes) and two Chianti Classico wines.  We also walked down to some of their vineyards and saw their new Sangiovese plants (see photo below).

Our second winery stop was at Casaloste located in Panzano in Chianti.  We were grouped with two other couples for our wine tasting and were expertly guided through the wines by a winery staff member.  She regaled the group with stories about the winery and the wines.  Her energy and enthusiasm were contagious, and the wines were fantastic.  

Our tasting guide highlighted the various rules and strict quality control for Chianti Classico.  She mentioned that their current vintage was removed from the barrels and is waiting in stainless steel tanks for bottling but they are unable to bottle until there is an inspection, tasting, and certification of this wine as being “Chianti Classico.” 

Our tasting guide also shared that the winery is owned by a husband and wife team.  We learned the husband wanted to be a winemaker so he earned his masters degree in winemaking.  The family relocated from Naples City to Tuscany to start their vineyard.  In addition to Sangiovese-based wine, including three Chianti Classico wines of various aging, he makes a Merlot-based wine (with a little Sangiovese).  When asked the reason he chose Merlot specifically, we were told “because he likes to drink Merlot.”  Fair enough.  Our tasting guide also shared that making wines outside the strict rules of Chianti Classico allows for more of the winemaker’s creativity to shine through, which this winemaker enjoys.

A beautiful setting, friendly, knowledgeable hosts, excellent wines, and someone else driving along the narrow hilly roads all made for a very memorable winery experience.

Wine Salon of the Czech Republic – Valtice, Czech Republic

Our final wine stop for the day was at Salon vín České Republiky, the Wine Salon of the Czech Republic, located in the cellar of a Baroque chateau in the town of Valtice.  The Czech Republic has an annual national wine competition in which wines made exclusively from grapes from the Moravian and Bohemian wine regions are entered.  The top 100 wines, selected by a tasting committee, earn the Gold Medal of the Wine Salon and are exhibited in the Salon for the year.

The public can purchase tickets to enter the Salon for 90 minutes or 150 minutes (guided tastings with a sommelier can also be purchased) to try as few or as many wines as they would like within the timeframe.  Bottles of these wines can be purchased as well.

We bought 90-minute tickets and quickly made our way into the Salon. The cavernous basement has displays of wines grouped by varietal with all of the whites first and then the reds.  Information about each wine is on a nearby placard.  You just grab a bottle yourself and pour.

There were so many options it was almost overwhelming to figure out how to proceed.  Where do we start?  We can’t try everything in 90 minutes, right?  How do we choose?  How do we pace ourselves?  How do we not become intoxicated?  From what our tour guide said, tourists don’t typically worry about that last question – she has brought several people here who stumbled their way out.  But I wanted to clearly remember this experience.

Determined to have some sort of plan, we made our way through by selecting a couple of wines of each varietal, usually from different sub-regions to make a comparison.  For example, we tried Chardonnay from the wine sub-regions of Znojemská and Velkopavlovická.  We also tried the oldest wine of the top 100 – a 2008 Rulandské šedé  (Pinot gris) from Velkopavlovická.

This very unique tasting experience was enhanced by the dimly lit, brick-lined cellar setting.  It was an excellent way to try a wide variety of Czech wines from different sub-regions.  Among our favorites were a Cabernet Sauvignon and an Alibernet (crossing of Alicante Bouschet and Cabernet Sauvignon) from the Mikulovská sub-region.  I easily could have spent more than 90 minutes trying all of these fabulous wines…

Mikulov, Czech Republic

The next stop on our Mikulovská wine sub-region tour was the town of Mikulov. As we got out of our tour guide’s car, we noticed large plastic jugs of liquid labeled “Burčák” across the street. We learned that burčák, sold around harvest time, is a young wine that has only been fermenting for a few days, which makes it sweet and low in alcohol. The Moravians apparently claim that drinking several liters helps to ensure good health. One noted risk, however, is that burčák can explode if it is contained too tightly due to the fermentation that is still occurring. So store your burčák wisely – or, better yet, drink it quickly, as it tastes best within the first day or two.

Prior to stopping at a winery in Mikulov, we wandered around the town square and then over the to the Chateau. Mikulov’s first written records date back to 1173, and historical monuments can be seen around the town’s landscape. Photos below show the town square, the path leading up to the Mikulov Chateau, the Chateau itself, and a view of the “Jewish Ghetto” (starting in the mid-15th century, the area adjacent to the Chateau hill was inhabited by Jewish citizens) and the Goat Tower (a two-story fort built in the 15th century to help protect the town). Quite the beautiful, historical setting.


Our winery stop in town was at Rodinné Vinařství Mikulov (Mikulov Family Winery). The winery was closed in preparation for an annual festival but they kindly granted us an appointment for a tasting. The tasting was hosted by a friend of the family, who himself is a wine consultant. Sips of great wines were intertwined with his tales of the history of the winery and Czech winemaking.

This small-production winery makes about 20,000 bottles per year. The winemaker, Kateřina, is one of the few female winemakers in the Czech Republic. The winery is housed in a building that was originally a slaughterhouse. The winemaker bought it ten years ago by offering half the asking price – it apparently took the seller a while to agree (understandably perhaps) but he eventually capitulated. The family is currently harvesting their 8th vintage.

One fun tidbit the wine consultant shared is that rosé wine is often referred to as “pool wine” in Czech. He explained that rosé is good to drink when swimming (a little twist on the American idea of rosé as a “summer wine”). In addition, it was not typically sold at times other than the summer until the country adopted an American holiday that popularized the wine for two weeks in February (leading up to, you guessed it, the 14th). Sure enough, I incidentally came across a blog on “Valentine’s Day in Prague – 11 Spots to Check Out.”

The winery has a beautiful outdoor area and after the tasting we sipped the last of our wine out on the terrace. The combination of the setting, the wine, and the wine education led to an excellent winery experience.

Mikulovská Wine Sub-Region – Czech Republic

Most of the grape growing and winemaking in the Czech Republic is in the region of Moravia (Morava in Czech), so my significant other and I headed by train from Prague to Brno (capital of Moravia). Moravia has four wine sub-regions – Znojemská, Velkopavlovická, Mikulovská, and Slovácká. We were fortunate to take a two-day tour to visit the latter two sub-regions. Day one was Mikulovská.

The first Moravian vineyards were said to be founded on the slopes of the Pálava Hills limestone formation, a dominant feature of the Mikulovská sub-region. The landscape of this area is exceptional, as can be seen by the view from our first stop on the tour at Sonberk Winery. We pulled into the parking lot, and I got out of the car and turned around… and was amazed by the breathtaking beauty.

Sonberk was founded in 2003 and the sleek, modern tasting building was built in 2008 but the vines date back to the 13th century. Their production is about 150,000 bottles per year. We learned that Sonberk was the first Czech winery awarded the highest prize at the Decanter World Wine Awards in London.

Sonberk’s winning wine was a dry Pálava, so it was fitting that we were first introduced to this grape here. Pálava, created in the Czech Republic and named after that limestone formation, is a cross between Müller Thurgau and Gewürztraminer and comes in both dry and sweet varieties. Sonberk had sold out of their dry version, so we tasted a sweet Pálava, which was refreshing on this hot, sunny day.

The staff member at the winery did not speak much English so we were glad to have our tour guide interpreting for us. Our guide explained to us that she was speaking Slovak and the winery staff member was speaking Czech but the languages are close enough to be understood. But once the tasting was initiated not much explanation was required – as we tried great wines outside in this stunning setting, few words needed to be spoken.

Czech Republic

Wine in the Czech Republic? When I learned I would have the good fortune of attending an international conference in the capital city of Prague, I did what I usually do when visiting a new place – I checked out the wine scene. The people of the Czech Republic are the largest consumers of beer in the world, so I wasn’t very hopeful that I would find a wine region to explore.  I was surprised and very pleased to learn there are in fact two wine regions in the Czech Republic with over 850 registered wineries.

Winemaking in the Czech Republic dates back about 2000 years; the first vine growers were thought to be Celts. These days, modern environmentally-friendly techniques are used to make 34 varieties of white wine and 26 varieties of red wine.

The vast majority of vineyards (96%) are located in Moravia (Morava in Czech), which has four sub-regions. The remaining 4% can be found within two sub-regions in Bohemia (Čechy), the home to the city of Prague. The most widely planted grapes in the Czech Republic are Grüner Veltliner, Müller Thurgau, Riesling, and Welsch-Riesling (whites), and Saint Laurent and Blaufränkisch (reds).

My significant other and I wanted the full Czech wine experience, which definitely meant a trip to Moravia. Our extremely helpful and accommodating travel agent, Rachel Blankfield (www.madtravels.org), booked us a two-day private tour to follow the conference. Posts about this awesome adventure to follow.

Prior to traveling to Moravia we toured around Prague and were amazed to find vineyards within the iconic Prague Castle complex. We learned this is the Vineyard of St. Vaclav, located on the eastern edge of the castle. The grapes have been there since 2008 and most are of the Pinot Noir and Riesling varieties.

We happened to be in Prague the weekend of Prosecco Fest, a celebration of the Italian sparkling wine at Prague Castle. How often do you get to attend a wine event in another country? So we braved the festival despite the threat of rain, and we were lucky that the gray skies never did open up.

This was such an amazing setting for a tasting – sitting in front of grape vines, overlooking a beautiful city (view is below) – and by far one of the most unique places I have sipped wine. I just tried to drink it all in…

 

Grange of Prince Edward – Prince Edward County, Ontario

wine tourism

It had been about seven years since my significant other and I had been to the up-and-coming wine area of Prince Edward County (referred to as “The County” locally), located on the north shore of Lake Ontario. The County became the fourth Designated Viticultural Area in Ontario Canada in 2007. Many of the wineries are small, family-run operations. We greatly enjoyed our last visit largely due to the conversations we had with the winemakers and owners in the tasting rooms. We were pleased to learn that the County continues to offer many winery experiences led directly by the winemaker/owner.

We entered the large, well-lit tasting room at Grange of Prince Edward and were immediately greeted by a friendly woman, who explained the tasting options. As we started our tasting, another woman came by and began speaking with us – asking where we are from, what brings us to the County (we always answer “wine” seemingly in unison), etc. Then she told us her story…

She was Maggie Granger, who makes the wine along with her mother, Caroline Granger. She explained that her mother decided to grow grapes on the family farm and went to school to learn winemaking. Although Maggie helped on the farm growing up, she said she hadn’t intended to take on the family business. She went to a university in Montreal to study liberal arts specifically to “not do farming.”

She said what brought her back was the Montreal wine culture. The County didn’t have much of a wine culture when she went off to school and so she wasn’t really excited about wine until she ventured off to Montreal. She returned to the County and began making wine, learning from her mother. Now their 100% estate-grown wines are a joint venture.

This was one of our best winery experiences in the County. The wine was very good (our favorite Cabernet Franc of the trip) but the positive experience was largely due to Maggie. She not only told a great story but she did so with such enthusiasm that we were caught up in it.

Telling a story evokes our emotions. And enthusiasm is infectious – when someone is truly enthusiastic about a product, others become enthusiastic about it. Decisions, such as about whether or not to make a purchase, are largely emotional so evoking positive, enthusiastic emotions is important in a customer service interaction.

On our last day in the County, we had just enough time for a glass of wine at one winery before we headed to the airport in Toronto. We wondered aloud where to go and instantly (and again in unison) chose Grange. An excellent winery experience not only leads to purchases in the moment but return visits with additional purchases. We were enthusiastically greeted by Maggie again.