Everyone, meet Rodolphe de Pins, current winemaker-owner at Chateau de Montfaucon, a southern Rhone estate that's been around for just about a Millenium. Davis-educated, world-traveled, and totally down-to-earth, de Pins is in the process of rejuvenating his family's ancient estate and turning out some really excellent wines. In the process, he's beautifully marrying new methods with old locations and philosophies, as evidenced in his outfitting the estate's 500-year-old winery with new equipment and barrels. The result is a totally functional and appealingly harmonious coming-together of old and new, all situated just beneath his family's 1000-year-old chateau on the hill. What's old is new, but better As we approached the village of Montfaucon for our appointment JC exclaimed "wow! do you think the family owns that castle on the hill?" "No way," I said emphatically. "Castles like that are all national monuments now." Hmm. Definitely not the first time I've been wrong, and boy was I wrong: The de Pins family most certainly still owns the chateau, which has been in their lineage for about 300 years. The place itself is closer to a thousand years old, erected originally to guard the border between the Royaume de France to the west and the Holy Roman-German Empire to the east, and later to guard the passage of trade on the adjacent Rhone River. Quickly, a little history trivia: the region to the west has long been Protestant while that to the east Catholic, hence the popes making nearby city Avignon the papal seat for about a century during the Middle Ages. So as you can imagine, this made for lots of potential conflicts over the years and, clearly, the need for an imposing castle/fortress to guard the boundary. The castle of Montfaucon was one of a series of such castles built along the Rhone river to guard the boundary. Much later, Rodolphe's grandmother, a Countess, convinced the invading Germans not to blow it up before they retreated from France after one of the world wars. Rodolphe has named one of his wines in her honor, as a way of thanking her for her savvy negotiating skills. Even more fascinating, Rodolphe's parents still live in the castle, which we had the pleasure of touring shortly after our arrival. Wow! It's old! Here are some snaps of us on the roof, looking out at the surrouding countryside. The chateau is old-school indeed, complete with ramparts and gargoyles like this one. Nearby are the villages of Tavel and Lirac, and across the river is the Chateauneuf du Pape appellation, where the region's most famous wines are made. This proximity bodes well for Montfaucon's wines! Vineyards alive! Rudy, as Rodolphe's Davis classmates called him, also took us into the fields for a closer look at the vines. I was immediately aware of how alive the fields were - Rudy uses a natural grass cover crop and doesn't use any incecticides or pesticides - because there were grasshoppers and other insects literally jumping all over. There was a low hum from all the bugs, and they kept running into me - I would hear little a little snap and feel a subtle jolt on my sleeve and realize a bug and I had just had a collision - literally. Rudy explained that he thinks of the vineyard as an organism that's alive in many ways - the bugs just being one example of that. If he were to excessively spray his vines he would lose something in the process, he believes. Not completely organic - Rudy said he likes to reserve the right to use the necessary means to combat diverse environmental problems if and as they arise - Montfaucon's vineyards all the same reflected this healthy philosophy of "less is more." There are a total of 11 Rhone grape varieties grown on the estate's 100 hectares, including (for the reds) Grenache, Syrah, Mourvedre, Cinsault, Carignan, Counoise, and (for the whites) Viognier, Clairette, Marsanne, Bourboulenc and Picpoul. Each variety brings a unique element to the estate's several wines, and this blending is a hallmark of wines from the region, which are almost always made from a blend of at least several grapes and sometimes as many as thirteen. Here we are in the estate's barrel room, where wine was being made 500 years ago on the castle farm, which was auto-sufficient since there was no organized market at that time. Besides producing all of the residents' food and other necessities, the farm produced their wine - bien sur! Can you imagine waiting out a siege without sufficient stocks of wine? I mean, puhleeze. What a drag. Inside you can see the old winery's ancient press and a trough (pictured) where the juice would flow after pressing. Just next to these old pieces is the estate's recent vintages in barrels. What was most interesting to me about the cave was its temperature - a balmy 20 degrees Celsuis, or about 68 degrees Farenheit - which Rudy said was quite typical for Rhone barrel caves. This warm temperature helps the wine evolve while in barrel, although Rudy is worried about the effects of global warming on his cave. Without artificial cooling systems the temperatures keep creeping up, which won't be good for the good stuff. This wasn't the first time the effects of global warming were brought up during my visits, yikes. The best way to taste = over an excellent lunch Now, what you really want to hear about: the wines. Rudy was really generous with his wine, allowing us to taste more than a half dozen during the course of the day and over a really lovely French country lunch. Besides the fantastic tuna and dill tart we sampled, we had some really nice wines, including the 2005 Comptesse Madeleine, a white named in honor of his savvy grandmother. Made from usual Rhone suspects Viognier, Marsanne, Clairette, Bourbelenc and Picpoul, the wine had lovely aromas and flavors of apricot, peach, green melon, flowers, baking spices and orange marmalade on the finish. My favorite wine of the day was the 2003 Cotes du Rhone red, which at about $10 in the US is a total steal. It has aromas and flavors of bright cherry and is just beautifully balanced and pleasant to drink. It's a wine that, I think, will be pleasing even to staunch Pinot Noir drinkers, who tend to look for finesse and mellow tannin in their reds. I wasn't surprised, then, to learn that Rudy's favorite cooper is Burgundy's Francois Freres, which is known for producing "gentle" wines. Rudy says it's been sold out in the San Francisco area for some time but that more is on the way this fall. Eeeeexcellent. Montfaucon's flagship wine is a cuvee called Baron Louis, named in honor of another relative who refurbished the castle during the 19th century to its current excellent state. It's made from a blend of Grenache, Syrah, Cinsault, Carignane, Mourvedre and Counoise. The 2005 was really pretty, with notes of red and black berry fruits, dark plum, char, corn, cinnamon, potato, cocoa powder and pomegranate. It also had a - good although it might not sound pleasant! - barnyard aroma I find often in wines from the Rhone. Altogether I think the wine beautifully captures the essence of the area and is a real pleasure to drink. The 1995 Baron Louis confirmed all this, and was particularly special to quaff since it was Rudy's first vintage after taking over the family estate. I was tickled to find the same aroma and flavor of Jolly Rancher Cinnamon stick in it I encountered in the 2005; evidence, I believe, of a special terroir here at Montfaucon. After a decade the wine was still fresh and - not surprisingly - beautifully balanced with acid, tannin and fruit harmoniously cohabiting in my glass. Notes of aniseed, crushed roses, coffee and toffee rounded out the experience and left JC and me completely sated. Then, in the true French way, Rudy's companion Mari brought out still more food - this time in the form of goat cheese of six different ages. Here's a pic of JC just moments before she had a Pretty Woman moment cutting the cheese. Like the escargot that Julia Roberts catapulted across the resto in that film, JC sent a wedge of the VERY hard to cut 6-month-old frommage to the far side of the table. We all sort of held our breaths for a few moments after that happened, unsure of how to proceed, but alas the awkward moment passed and we continued on our merry eating and drinking way. When Rudy did the exact same thing shortly thereafter we knew we should all be at ease. We were in La France, after all, and, as when in Rome, we had just done as they do here: catapulted some old cheese across the table, laughed, and tipped up our glasses once again. What more could one want? A castle on a hill, perhaps. --- Courtney Cochran, aka Your Personal Sommelier, provides personalized wine services to adventurous wine collectors, purveyors and enthusiasts, making wine accessible and fun for those who think outside the mainstream wine box. Visit her site at www.CourtneyCochran.com
Stormhoek winery is just three years old, yet they have managed to stir up the old school wine marketing world with an edgy blog, and sponsorship of geek dinners. Hundreds of their fans around the world have posted about their Stormhoek adventures and photos, and the wine has garnered a bit of a cult following -- and we are the first (and for the moment) only retailer on the West Coast to stock the wine. One recent development with winery is that its 2005 Pinotage won a trophy at The London International Wine and Spirits Competition for the Best Pinotage produced in South Africa. The Pinotage is $9.99, against many wines selling for twice the price. It is ripe with intense berries and balancing oak. Here is an audio clip of Tom Simoneau's, The Wine Guy on KSRO reviewing the wine. The Sauvignon, also $9.99 is ripe, citrusy, reminiscent of good New Zealand Sauvignons. Zippy, with lemony fruit and firm acidity. The winery has also offered to send their "Puppy Gets It", signed limited edition lithographs from Hugh MacLeod at www.gapingvoid.com. Those people interested in the lithograph should visit Stormhoek’s blog and tell them that K&L sent you.
Woodenhead is back! My favorite Pinot Noir producers in California have just released several new bottlings. Nikolai Stez and Zina Bower both have day jobs. Woodenhead is their passion, and you can taste it in every drop. These wines are very small production, and they will sell quickly. I thought the 2003 vintage was some of the best Pinot Noir I’ve ever had, but these three wines are out of this world. If you haven’t tried Woodenhead yet, you must. 2004 Woodenhead Russian River Pinot Noir ($34.99) This is a combination of several different vineyards, including Buena Tierra , which combines to create a medium bodied, slightly juicy dark cherry and blackberry characteristics. It has a hint of oak with fantastic structure and focus. This wine will age for several years, but I bet you can’t wait that long. 2004 Woodenhead “Buena Tierra Vineyard” Russian River Pinot Noir ($43.99) This single vineyard is the pretty sister to the other two wines. Quiet, light bodied with intense flavors, hints of pepper and a long finish, this wine is my favorite of the three. Though I love them all. They doubled production in 2004. It’s still fewer than 150 cases! 2004 Woodenhead “Morning Dew Ranch” Anderson Valley Pinot Noir ($44.99) This is the big daddy. Strong raspberry forward fruit, with a bit of cinnamon and clove. This is the first vintage from a vineyard owned by Burt Williams, formerly of Williams Selyem. See you in the City... —Michael Jordan
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