Harvest 2014 : A worthwhile compromise

Yes, it has been an inexcusably long time since my last post, and yes, I hate it just as much as anyone when bloggers post their excuses for their extended absences, but really, I have a good excuse. Or two, in fact.

Harvest 2014 and a Master’s thesis.

harvest hands_MFEWine-stained hands finishing up a Master’s thesis

I defended my Master’s thesis, “Targeted and Untargeted Analysis of Premature Oxidation in White Burgundy Wines Issued from Different Vinification Strategies,” in French, last week in the midst of 2014’s incredibly abundant harvest.

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View from the vineyards at Saint Jean du Barroux

In the AOC Ventoux, where I’m working for the winery Saint Jean du Barroux, 2014 was an atypical vintage. The grapes were bloated due to an abnormal excess of rain throughout the growing season, producing a record-high average bunch weight for the appellation. During maturity checks before harvest began, I noted enormous bunches, which in certain zones of the vineyard were having a hard time achieving ripeness – there were colossal bunches bursting with pink and green grapes interspersed with more reasonably-sized bunches that were already ripe. Philippe Gimel, the owner and winemaker of Saint Jean du Barroux, subscribes to the motto that winemaking is all about compromises. But the tactical approach we put into action turned out to be a win-win on three fronts. We began harvest by going through the most heavily loaded plots to harvest only the biggest, least ripe bunches, which we pressed to make a fresh, bright rosé. Meanwhile, the vine, her load significantly lightened, could focus her energy on ripening the remaining bunches to perfection, and could do so with a greatly reduced risk of disease. High yield and big bunches mean that the grapes are crowded up against each other, trapping moisture and reducing the potential for airflow – a perfect storm for the propagation of rot.

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View from the winery at Saint Jean du Barroux

After a whirlwind three weeks, the compromise seems to have paid off. Now the winery is bursting with wine, almost all of the alcoholic fermentations now completed and all but two tanks of red pressed and racked. Now we’ll be able to sit back and enjoy the fruits of our labor – watching the evolution of these new, promising wines and deciding on blends. The theme of compromise will always remain at the forefront, as this is key in winemaking : compromise between quality and quantity, effort and patience, acidity and tannin, knowledge and know-how, power and delicacy, and of course, art and science.

2014-10-16 18.05.58Saint Jean du Barroux’s Pierre Noire presented at the post-graduation tasting for the Master International Vintage class of 2014

The Magic of Domaine de la Romanée-Conti

It was a lucky break. Thanks to their collaboration with the lab where I did my master’s thesis (see their most recent publication in PLOS One here) , I was recently invited to visit the world renowned Domaine de la Romanée-Conti (known in the industry as DRC) in Burgundy. This winery, famous for its eponymous Romanée-Conti wine, which comes from grapes grown in the small (1,8140 ha) vineyard (“climat”) of the same name in the village of Vosne-Romanée. This wine is one of the most cherished in the world, and comes with a pricetag that is accordingly extravagant (NPR ran a story just a couple of days ago about a book written about a 2010 plot to blackmail the winery).

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DRC courtyard in Vosne-Romanée with its vineyard backdrop.

The history of this famed winery began around the year 900 AD, with the founding of the priory of Saint-Vivant, which acquired the vineyards of Romanée-Conti in 1131. The monastery controlled the vines until 1584, when the land was purchased by Claude Cousin, the first in a long line of family-owners of this property (only 2 different families in 430 years), which continues today with Aubert de Villaine, and his nephew, Bertrand, our guide this morning, incredibly generous with both his knowledge and his wine.

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Bertrand de Villaine explains how the Corton is blended from three different parcels.

He led us into their recently expanded cellars, where he led us through a barrel tasting of the 2013 red wines from each of their 7 red appellations : Corton, Echézeaux, Grands-Echézeaux, Romanée-St-Vivant, Richebourg, La Tâche and Romanée-Conti. Each of them were phenomenal, still very young, of course (some just finishing or having just finished malolactic fermentation), but a wine cannot age well if it doesn’t begin with all of the fundamentals in place. This was a concept that I knew well, but did not understand on a visceral level until I tasted these wines. Each one different from the others, they were all unique and fabulous in their own way, each characterized by its particular magnificent balance. Bertrand explained that they assure this balance by waiting until the grapes are perfectly ripe before harvesting. Their neighbors might be out harvesting a few days, even a few weeks before this moment of perfection for fear of losing yield due to an upcoming rainstorm, for instance, but DRC will wait, no matter what. Of course with the prices of their wines, they are in a better position to take this risk than many producers, but it is a major risk none the less and results in a relatively high variability in the quantity of wine that they produce, but with an incredible consistency in the quality, which is, without fail, exceptional.

DSC_0238Barrel of 2013 Romanée-Conti 

Each of the 7 wines had its particular personality, all of them like someone you hit it off with right off the bat. But it is true that the Romanée-Conti is the one you fall in love with at first sight. Not in a stunningly-gorgeous-knock-your-socks-off-from-across-the-room kind of way (though maybe with a few years of maturity she becomes so), but in a far more subtle, delicate way. Such that your first sip seems so incredibly satisfying, but then trails off leaving hints of so much more to be discovered, and so you find yourself chasing her, praying, begging for her to reveal just a bit more. And she keeps tempting you in this way until your glass is empty, but you are not angry that she’s gone, but rather you have never felt more content in your life.

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Bottle storage of 2011 Romanée-Conti and La Tâche

In the bottle cellar we were introduced to another incredible beauty, this one a blond. Bertrand served us a 2007 Bâtard-Montrachet chardonnay, the only wine they make that is not sold (they do sell one white wine, a Montrachet), as they produce only 1-2 barrels (300-600 bottles) each year that are used exclusively for private tastings, special events, and the family’s personal consumption. It was glorious. I will not even attempt to describe this wine because words will not do it proper justice. I must simply counsel you to pray to someday have the chance to encounter such a bottle, as I have done thanks to the generosity and scientific curiosity of Aubert and Bertrand de Villaine.

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2007 Bâtard-Montrachet

I took 5 pages of notes during the visit, wanting to absorb everything that Bertrand told us, not miss a single detail. But I know, and I knew as I was doing so, that there is no secret recipe. I could tell you that they use 100% new, untoasted oak barrels. I could tell you that for the Romanée-Conti and a part of Richebourg and Montrachet they use a plow horse, named Mickey, to work in the vines. And that alternatively, they have a custom-built tractor that is the weight of a horse in order to avoid undo pressure on the soil and root systems. You could probably replicate their work exactly, but I fear that it would be in vain. There is something special, magical about this place. This is the indefinable in the world of wine. The sum that is greater than its parts*. There is an element here that no one can explain it, and I hope that no one tries. Sometimes we just need to let ourselves be captivated.

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Barrel cellar at DRC

*Yes, for the record, because I am sure that you are wondering, for me personally the prices paid for these bottles far exceed even the whole that exceeds the sum of the parts, but such is a luxury economy, and we must just be happy to embrace the rare opportunity to savor these wines in another context that does not involve thousands and thousands of dollars of expense, as I was so lucky to do here.

DWCC 2013 Highlights

After my incredible opportunity to attend the 2013 Digital Wine Communications Conference (DWCC) in Logroño, Rioja, Spain, I had too many great exchanges and experiences to capture them all. I’m still catching my breath a bit from a whirlwind October filled with DWCC, visits to wineries all over the west of Spain, a trip to Dijon to settle up my internship plans, a half-marathon,and some personal excitement of family and loved ones visiting, but in the meantime, here are some photo highlights of the DWCC, for a glimpse into the life of a wine blogger :

The first event was hosted by Dinastia Vivanco, who invited us to the winery for a tour, lunch, and visit to their incredible museum, which houses artifacts collected by Pedro Vivanco Paracuello.  I was impressed by the variety of artifacts and the quality of the displays and curation- would have loved to have a bit more time to explore, but this was the beginning of a rapid-fire weekend! And I can’t complain too much, as although the visit was quick, it also included tastings of their wines in each of the 5 sections of the museum (each devoted to a distinct aspect of wine and culture – from its origins to artifacts related to opening, serving and drinking the final product).

View of the village of Briones from Dinastia Vivanco vineyardsView of the village of Briones from the vineyards of Dinastia Vivanco

Densitometers_Dinastia_Vivanco_MuseumDensitometers in Dinastia Vivanco Museum

ancient_amphore_dinastia_vivancoOne of the oldest pieces in the Dinastia Vivanco Museum

Back at the Rioja Forum in Logroño, the fabulous venue for the conference, we rarely saw a moment with our glasses half empty.  The tastings that were organized were impressive and varied, and a great opportunity to quickly get a taste of the wines from Rioja, Iberia, and beyond.

aged_riojas_DWCC13Aged Riojas tasting, including Riojas of the ‘old’ and ‘new’ styles dating from 1970-2001.

1959_Vina_Soledad_DWCC13The surprise finish to the Riojas tasting – a 1959 Viña Soledad Rioja white – a spectacular discovery (that was apparently served to President Eisenhower on a visit to Rioja)! Maintains great mouthfeel – round but wide awake, with slight nuttiness of aged wine on finish.


IMG_0623 Ancient Colheitas tasting – my favorite tasting of the conference – Colehita Ports from Kopke from 1983, 1974, 1966, 1957 and the 1940 special edition. 

2013-10-25 13.49.30-1More port. Couldn’t get enough.

Kopke_1940_colheita_special_editionPackaging of the 1940 special edition. Amazing. The others were also great but this was perfectly balanced, with a bit of peaty spiciness, caramel-drizzled pineapple. I wrote in my tasting notes “When I drink these wines I feel like I am drinking history.”


vermouth_mixingA mix-your-own Vermouth tasting.  Very interesting insight into a beverage I knew almost nothing about. And we got to keep the ingredients (base wine – sweet fortified Muscat, and aromas – bitter orange, sweet orange, chinchona bark, gentian, and cinnamon) 

IMG_0629Grand tasting of native Iberian varieties led by two of the three authors of Wine Grapes (winegrapes.org) Julia Harding and José Vouillamoz (Jancis Robinson was not present in person, though did make a video appearance to announce the location of next year’s conference – in Montreux, Switzerland!)

Not all of the sessions involved tastings however.  Some were even a bit tense, such as the keynote session that paired up scientifically-minded entrepreneur Clark Smith (most recently talked about for his book Postmodern Winemaking – postmodernwinemaking.com but also for his wine-score prediction company Enologix – enologix.com ) and  Finnish wine personality Arto Koskelo ( koskeloonwine.com ) in what was meant to be a bit of a head-to-head.  I am saving my commentary on the matter for a separate post.  Expect it soon.

Sunday was filled with visits to various wineries.  My tour went to Bodegas Bilbainas (bodegasbilbainas.com) and Bodegas Palacio (bodegaspalacio.com).

bodegas_bilbainasBodegas Bilbainas Winery

cobwebs_bilbainas ancient_vat_bilbainasImages from the ancient cellar at Bodegas Bilbainas

Bodegas_Palacio_murals Palacio_mural_tank_doorOld Cement tanks painted with murals at Bodegas Palacio

ancient_cellar_palacioAncient cellar at Bodegas Palacio

Cosme_Palacio_verticalVertical tasting of signature wine Cosme Palacio (one of first to be produced in “New Rioja” style with the 1986 vintage – with council from Michel Rolland at the beginning – using new French oak barrels, long macerations to assure full extraction of color) with winemaker and marketing manager. We tasted the 1995, 2000, 2005, and 2010 vintages.

Glorioso_Gran_Reserva_1978_Bodegas_PalacioLunch was served with Palacio’s other wines, including their entry-level Milleflores (carbonic maceration), a wonderful white called Cosme Palacio 1894 made from barrel-fermented Viura (the Rioja name for what is called Macabeo elsewhere in Spain) and Malvasia, the Glorioso Reserva 2008, and this, the Glorioso Reserva 1978, still potent with alcohol, spices, and red fruits. 1978 was one of the exceptional vintages of the 1970s, and happens to be the current winemaker’s birth year as well. 

To finish, some glorious views from the town of Laguardia :

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When a river runs through it… it sparkles?

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Saumur, located right on the Loire River, is a city in France known for its horses (the Cadre Noir is based at the National Riding School in Saumur, along the lines of the Spanish Riding School in Vienna) and its wine.  Saumur-Champigny is (amongst connaisseurs, at least), one of the better known appellations of the Loire Valley, but Saumur is also home to a large number of sparkling wine houses, most notably making wines in the appellations of Crémant de Loire and Saumur Brut.   

At Bouvet-Ladubay we were lucky enough to have a course on how to taste sparkling wines, with the well-known regional enology consultant Jean-Michel Monnier.  The specificity of sparkling wines require special treatment to fully appreciate them in a ‘professional’ style tasting (otherwise, please, I beg you, just keep enjoying your champagne like you always have! that’s the point, right?).

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We discussed different types of glasses and their merits (those shown above, and these newer models are definitively the best), and the very real importance (for once) of specific glasses because champagne flutes are laser-treated to create little imperfections in the bottom on which the bubbles can form!

Swirl? Nope, for once there’s no need since the bubbles carry with them all the volatile aroma molecules as they rise in your glass and then release them at the surface.

DSC_0680(here we see the sometimes-disasterous effects of the enormous pressure build-up inside a bottle of bubbly.  the bottle in the center of this storage rack at Langlois-Chateau during the aging process)

DSC_0667(View from vineyards of Langlois-Chateau – with city of Saumur and its Chateau in the background)

In sparkling wine the most important aromas to watch out for are the primary aromas, coming from the fruit and the terroir – so fruityness, herbacity, floral, minerality (I really should make a vow not to employ this term until I find a satisfying working definition, but here it is).  The secondary aromas come from fermentation (that’s why they’re considered secondary – its an added layer to what the grapes supply on their own), and are expressed by yeasty, brioche-y, nutty, buttery, lactic aromas.  Finally, there is even a tertiary bouquet, which comes from the aging of these wines (either in barrel [initial fermentation], or in bottle on the lees and later in the final bottle – see the process for making champagne outlined here) – oaky, toasty or vanilla aromas from the wood, or more subdued, complex versions of the secondary fermentation aromas (coming here from the autolysis of the yeast cells after fermentation has finished).

DSC_0660(Langlois-Chateau)

 

DSC_0658(Langlois-Chateau)

An Urban Approach to Terroir

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Château Haut-Brion, unique amongst the Bordeaux giants categorized as Premier Grand Cru Classé for its proximity to the city, has built its centuries old tradition around its urbanity.  Located smack in the middle of the commune of Talence, effectively a suburb of Bordeaux, the vineyards of Château Haut-Brion (and its second label Château le Mission Haut-Brion) cover around 50 hectares of land.

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As a consequence of its urban location, the possibilities for expansion are extremely limited, even nonexistent.  Historically, they managed to expand the vineyard through the acquisition of a neighboring estate.  They demolished the chateau, but given that the foundation had existed for centuries, the soil underneath was not desirable for planting a vineyard.  Instead, they dug up the foundation as well as a neighboring section of road (under which, apparently, the soil had been significantly less impacted), and they exchanged the soil from the two.  This type of modification must certainly have impacted the pedology of the site, as the replacement of a mansion’s foundation would alter the soil profile to a considerable depth.  Haut-Brion is, however, very conscious of their terroir, having carried out extensive pedological studies to classify the different soils present on the property.  Their goals in doing so, however, we much more in line with what is a stereotypically “new world” vision of terroir than that of many French vignerons who adopt a more “traditional” description.  Haut-Brion used the results of these studies to help decide which varietals, clones, and rootstocks to plant where, and they work each year to harvest accordingly, in ‘lots’ more or less homogenous in terms of soil type, varietal, rootstock, and vine age.  But the viticulturalist’s goal here is not to harvest lots with diffferent “goûts de terroir” {taste of place”}, which he asserts does not exist. Rather, he suggests, the terroir participates (in concert with the other elements such as the varietal and rootstock) to determine only the maturity of the grapes, and it is the differing degrees of maturity at harvest that ultimately distinguish the wines.  He maintains that at Haut-Brion they are unable to differentiate amongst their various terroirs if all of the grapes are harvested at the same level of maturity, and thus it is on the mastery of ripening that they focus their energy.

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Such an approach, cut-and-dried, “scientific” in nature, seems to reflect their urban identity.  But perhaps also a commitment to consistency in their wines, so highly valued in a product in this pricerange.  The vignerons who subscribe to the concept of “goût de terroir” are those who value a bit of surprise and mystery in their wines, something that is seen as risky rather than virtuous in a luxury wine.  But then again, there are always exceptions to such generalizations..

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Chateau d’Yquem: Fastidiousness in a Bottle

DSC_0591(Château d’Yquem)

On our recent study trip to Bordeaux, my class had the pleasure of visiting the prestigious producer of Sauternes, Château d’Yquem.  In fact, prestigious may not be a strong enough word, as Château d’Yquem is the only domaine in Sauternes classified as “Premier Cru Supérieur” in the Bordeaux wine classification of 1855 (the system which continues to dictate the classification today, more than 150 years later).  They are also the only producer of Sauternes who do not produce a second label, a sort of all-or-nothing approach that means that years of less-than-ideal weather conditions, they simply do not produce their wine, as they would otherwise risk declassification.  And in fact, 2012 was just horrible enough that we will never see a bottle of the precious golden liquid from this vintage.  They will still produce the wine (though the putrid conditions this year left them with only 216 barrels, as compared with about 900 in 2011) but it will be sold to négociants (wine traders who buy bulk wine, blend it, and then put their own labels on), who are forbidden from putting the name Château d’Yquem anywhere near the finished product.  So the 2012 Château d’Yquem will be lost in the shuffle of 2012 Sauternes, cleverly disguised so as not to tarnish the reputation of the esteemed château.

DSC_0556(Château d’Yquem in the rain, in a reflection of the disastrous weather conditions of 2012)

But despite its lack of existence this year, the meticulous process for making Château d’Yquem remains astounding.  Their nearly 40 year-round vineyard employees (17 of whom are women) are each responsible, year in and year out, for performing a series of 50 pruning maneuvers on the same parcel.  This way each worker develops a rapport with the plot, and can provide the most comprehensive, fastidious care possible.  All of this in preparation for the harvest season, which can only commence after the appearance of the illustrious noble rot (botrytis cinerea), which requires very particular weather conditions (foggy, moist mornings and bright, clear afternoons) and results in a beautiful dehydration and concentration of the grapes (of which 80% are semillon and 20% are sauvignon blanc).   These botyrized grapes are harvested in a series of passes through the vineyard (which could occur over a period of days, weeks, or even months), first selecting only the botyrized grapes and then passing through to collect the non-affected grapes which, even still, have ripened to obtain a sugar content of 20° potential alcohol (this means that if fermented to completion, this juice could attain up to 20% alcohol – and even more for the botyrized grapes – of course this is not the intent, but rather to ferment partially with remaining sugar at the end).  Furthermore, at each pass through the vineyard, there is a triple selection, grape by grape.  First by the harvester him- or herself, then when the small collection baskets are transferred into larger bins for transport to the winery, and finally upon arrival at the winery, just before pressing.

DSC_0566(Re-composed image showing all of the stages of botyrization of grapes.  Harvest occurs grape-by-grape either of the shriveled, fully dehydrated grapes, or of the plumper, non-infected grapes, depending on the interest of the particular pass through the vineyard)

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Grapes are harvested not by parcell, but by ripeness, so on a given day the lot that is harvested could include grapes from across the property.  In this way grapes from the four different soil types of Château d’Yquem, clay, sand, gravel, and limestone are assimilated into one single wine, to which the company attributes the complexity of the wine.

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And what does all of this borderline-obsessive TLC and terroir-mingling give in a wine?  We were able to taste the 2006, which was described to us as not the greatest year, but still gives a good idea of what those of us who can’t afford a 500€ bottle of wine are missing.

First impression? Eggnog! Maybe it was the coming holiday season, but when I plunged my nose in the glass before swirling the liquid gold inside, the aromas of nutmeg-y creaminess jumped right out of the chalice in my hands.  But upon swirling in a bit of oxygen – the gas responsible not only for our lives, but also the lives of our wines – honey, dried apricots, figs, and even notes of tropical fruits such as mango, pineapple and passionfruit.  Thanks to its well-balanced acidity, the wine enters the mouth fresh and clean, evoking more citrus-y, summer-y fruits, which evolve toward more candied versions and then are rounded out by a bit of oak on the finish.  The oak isn’t overwhelming, but gently supportive, carrying the wine on its journey through the mouth as if in a basket.

But is it worth the price?  This will forever remain the question, and a valid one at that, for wines at this price point.

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 P.S. Oh, and just for the sake of thought-provocation, in whatever direction you choose… what I found to be quite an interesting quote from our guide during the visit (translated by me from French, very-nearly exactly):  “We don’t do biodynamics because they [the head-honchos] are scientists.  Thus we dont talk about the cycle of the moon.” 

 

Valley of many cellars… both technological and traditional

In a fascinating visit to the Valpolicella region of Italy, home to Valpolicella and Amarone wines, organized by Bolla Winery, I learned about this history of the area, tasted a range of wines coming from here, and got into deep philosophical discussions about technology, marketing, New World versus Old World approaches, limitations, and freedoms, and much, much more with Elio Novello, technical director of the winery.  Valpolicella means ‘valley of many cellars,’ but the history of the region is full of more than just great wine.

(‘Map’ of my discussion with Mr. Novello)

  (Pergola trellis system typical of this region)

(Guyot trellis system, largely adopted in Valpolicello around 20 years ago and now believed to produce lower quality grapes than the pergola system)

At Bolla, the emphasis is on the use of technology, but not at the expense of the natural.  The winery has a huge production, between 12 and 20 million bottles annually, so technology is applied intelligently as a means of reducing labor needs, and potential risk involved in human labor, to produce wine in the same way that it would be traditionally made.  For example, the winery employs a cross flow filtration system, which is a large, high-tech, expensive machine, but in fact uses no filtration material, instead relying on the natural sediments in the wine to, essentially, filter itself.  Another example is the use of an innovative method for pumping over, where they have specially designed tanks that use the pressure of the carbon dioxide naturally produced through fermentation to push down the cap of skins inside of the tank, submerging it in the fermenting must in order to extract compounds from the skins exactly as in a traditional pumpover, but without the need for pumps!

(Bottling lines at Bolla fill an entire room and pump out tens of thousands of bottles per day)

(Cross-flow filtration system – left – and electrodialysis machine for tartaric stabilization – right.  Both are fully controlled by a computer to reduce potential for human error)

I tasted their Soave Classico, a smooth, simple, highly drinkable white wine made from garganega and trebbiano (distinct from the Tuscan trebbiano) grapes, from the appropriately named town of Soave (though the name comes from Swedish heritage in the town, not the Italian word for smooth/sweet/gentle/soft, which actually is quite fitting for this particular wine).  I also tried four red wines all comprised of essentially the same grape varietals – corvina and corvenone with some other local varietals in the mix), but completely distinct as a result of terroir and/or production method.  The first was the Bardolino, a very simple, drinkable, low tannin, fresh red wine.  Then there was the Valpolicella, very different in style but only because of the different growing zone.  This wine had a bit more structure and body, owing to a bit of oak but also differences in terroir, and can hold up to a bit more aging than the Bardolino.  Next was the Ripasso, a particular style of wine made by refermenting normal valpolicella wine on the skins of Amarone wine.  This approach gives the wine a significant degree of complexity and body, though this particular specimine could use a few more months to integrate in the bottle, as the beautiful nose was not quite matched in the mouth.  Finally was the Amarone, a particular wine made after harvesting and drying the grapes in special conditions that allow for the development of botrytis inside (but not outside!!) the berries, dehydrating and changing their composition to the perfect degree, over a period of 1-3 months (but could be up to as many as 6!) before they are put into the tank for fermentation.  This yields a particular, complex, rich wine that is very special in this region.

(Bins for drying Amarone in a special warehouse on top of the hill where there is no fog and a consistent breeze, all prepped and waiting for harvest to begin)

(Dehydrated grapes as are used for Amarone production)

This type of winemaking approach, waiting at the whims of nature of the dehydration of grapes, may seem a stark contrast to the technologically advanced Bolla winery, but in fact lies at the heart of their philosophy, it seems.  The company is committed both to research and technology, but also, first and foremost, to creating a quality product for the consumer.  Something that can stand the test of time, not conforming to one fad or another, but rather a simple, straightforward, people-friendly wine that is, most importantly, enjoyable to consume.

(Wooden cask from 1884, the year after the winery was founded.  These casks =, in a nod to tradition, are still used today as the inside can be shaved every few years to expose fresh oak)

(Ancient Roman Monastery – one of the many relics of a rich, varied history in Valpolicella)

 

** Here’s a NYTimes article published today (Aug 17) about Soave, the white wine from the Valpolicella region