Category Archives: Wine Tasting

Thaddeus goes on French Champagne binge

Thaddeus was one lucky guy last month, traversing France like a oenophile on a mission! He ate, drank and was merry for all of us and jotted some notes to share–and to make us jealous!
Here’s his trek through Champagne–both the region and the sparkling stuff:

My journey began on Oct. 15 when I arrived in Reims, France. I rented a car and drove to a lovely little B&B in the heart of Reims. The next day I drove to the village of Vertus home on Duval Leroy Champagne and tasted through various champagnes that were outstanding, Duval Leory has always been one of my favorite Champagne houses over the years.

The House of Krug in my opinion, is the best juice ever made! We tasted through vintages from 1998 to 2007 and all were amazing. The 2000 vintage was exceptional with such lively acidity that jumped out of the glass.

The next day was a magical one, starting at GH Mumm, where there 25 million bottles underground and eight different styles of Champagnes made. Some 50% of its wines are exported to  the U.S. Mumm has an underground museum that chronologically takes you through the art of making Champagne from the very early days. The visit concluded with a GH Mumm two-Star Michelin Chef preparing a legendary lunch in the vineyard at the windmill, overlooking the vineyard. Much thanks to GH Mumm, Agnes and our tour guide Claudette Legrand.
Then there is the 200-year-old Champagne house Perrier Jouêt. WOW!it is located in the heart of Epenany on Champagne Boulevard. The visit began with Ivan, a young historian who was extremely knowledgeable about the historical background of Perrier Jouêt, and how the art work is relevant to the history of this great estate. The tour and tasting were incredible, and the evening concluded with a five-star dinner  with my long time friend Agnes Jones. The Champagnes we tasted during the visit and dinner were simply outstanding starting with there Grand Burt, which is its largest seller. The vintage Belle Epoque Rose and Brut the creamy texture on the palate with the lively acidity were remarkable.
The end of all ends were the Belle Epoque Blanc de Blanc. This Champagne sets the bench mark for what a great Champagne should taste like. In short, it was perfect.
Next I traveled to Nicolas Feuillattte, the largest producer of Champagne on my visit. It is part of 85 different co-ops of about 400 champagnes. The tour was conducted my Alex and she was very knowledgeable about how this huge operation works so efficiently. The tasting was conducted by David Henault, who has produced 12 different Champagnes for Nicolas over the past six years and is responsible for 100 different Champagnes for the co-op.
He took me through the various Champagnes, of which the Blue label brut reserve is its No. 1-selling champagne. David makes a rose and Brut that’s aged in oak barrels. The cuveé 225 Brut and rose are truly outstanding and show the depths of his wine-making ability.
The tasting didn’t stop there. I was fortunate enough to taste thie high-end ’04 and ’95 Palmes  dí Or Rose and brut. Wow! This is the best terrior-specific 100% Pinot Rose I’ve ever tasted and the Palmes di OR was simply amazing.


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Mac’s back with another great pinot noir from Vision Cellars

When I got my Vision Cellars wine shipment recently, I immediately jumped into a glass of the 2010 Sonoma County pinot noir, a grape winemaker Mac McDonald is looking to perfect into one of California’s best versions of the wine. In the 15 years that he’s been at it for his own winery, he’s won awards and accolades for the bright flavors and natural acidity he’s bottling. The 2010 Sonoma County version is no exception — and I wish I had not been so anxious to dig into it. Who knows what a few years in the cellar might have done to it.

It brought back the sweet memories of our sunny afternoon picnic — Mac’s fabulous at the grill too! — with Mac and his wife Lil last summer. Mac insists his father, a guy named Sue, was among the best moonshiners in all of Texas in The Day. He tells the story with pride and a bit of humor, laced with quips that only a true Southerner can come up with. And he fits the small-town boy part as well as he spins the yarns in his usual overalls and straw hat attire.

He also claims that his first taste of wine at the ripe of old age of 12 was a 1952 burgundy that put him on the path to winemaking. “I never tasted anything so good and I knew then that I wanted to make a wine as fine as that,” he said last summer.

That was in 1955 and why only a few short years later he went west to California and learned his craft from one of the best: the Wagner family, makers of the wine that put me on the path to wine drinking, Caymus. “Mr. Wagner was kind enough to help a black man with no winemaking experience at all become a winemaker,” he said.

He buys the best grapes he can find from some of California’s most notable growers, Garys’ Vineyard and Rosella’s Vineyard in Santa Lucia Highlands. Check out his website at for a list of wines. Wine club members only get access to Ms. Lil’s Vineyard, which Mac, naturally, named after his wife of 45 years.

Who doesn’t like Sagratino? Not Marco Arnaldo

It was a beautifully sunny and brisk afternoon when we visited the sprawling Caprai vineyards in Montefalco in late January. It was only days before a once-every-two-decades snowstorm halted movement across Italy but we could still stand outside at the base of the vineyards in as winemaker extraordinaire Marco Arnaldo took us on our first journey into what makes the Sagrantino grape, and Umbrian wines overall, special.

He should know. He manages the 41-year-old family business and has been at the forefront of cutting edge research into new Sagrantino clones, in what he calls the “fruitful collaboration,” with the University of Milan, since 1988. What he has spearheaded is every grape’s dream: a spot on the top indigenous varietals in Italy.

This was the still the beginning of our adventure in Italy for the International Wine

Marco spoiled us with this fabulous Sagrantino that he has perfected early on in our Umbrian adventure.

and Tourism Conference and Marco spoiled us with the 25 Anni, a Sagrantino so named in celebration of the estate’s 25th anniversary in 1996 for its first vintage, 1993.

We didn’t realize then that 25 Anni was a pure-varietal Sagrantino that is as dark and perfect of an native grape as you could find in Umbria, and specifically in Montefalco. It’s deep ruby to purple in color and screams of blackberry and dark plum aromas with a smooth vanilla undertone. Thaddeus raved about the grape – and Marco’s wine rendition of it – for weeks after the trip. “On the palate, the tannins were like a vice grip with that dark fruit and just the slightest hint of pepper,” he said. “It’s a light pepper, not even quite white, but just enough to let you know it’s there.”

With such a strong tannin finish, this was a wine that could hold its own on its own. Marco said it should be aged for 10 to 15 years, but easily can withstand 20 years.

We were also big fans of the Lungarotti 2007, a fine expression itself of the grape that has given Umbria yet another reason to shine.

Have to give a shout out to the Arnaldo-Caprai extra virgin olive oil I’ve been craving for oh so many months now. It was the greatest addition to a number of mid winter meals, particularly the soups we learned how to make in Italy!

Terre del Principe’s passion with pallagrello and pizza

When Manuela Piancastelli first took a group of bloggers through the Terre del Principe in Campania recently she called it a “newer” winery.

“It’s only 500 years old,” she said as she opened the floor and led us down the dark stairs to a cellar her and her husband – the dreamer – Peppe Mancini stumbled upon when looking for the perfect place to age their wine.

This dank place dates back 10 centuries.  Do the math: That’s 1,000 years.

There were a scant 86 barrels in the cellar, dutifully labeled, and some 300 bottles with labels wrapped in plastic to save them from the humidity, which reached 80%. You would think the place would reek of mold, but the smell really wasn’t a nose buster. And the artifacts of aged-old wine de-stemmers, spooky corners and scales of steps led to great picture taking.

Terre del Principe makes seven distinctive wines, mostly from only three indigenous grapes specific to the region: Pallagrello Bianco, Pallagrello Nero and Casavecchia. These were mostly new grapes to us and piqued our taste buds and interests.

Moreover, the taste sensation of pairing them with what has to be the best homemade mozzarella and ricotta cheeses and melt-in-your-mouth pizzas this side of paradise no doubt added to the experience. And if there’s anything we’ve learned while traversing through Umbria is that wine is not just a beverage, but a way of living.

The winemaker is Luigi Moio, who Manuela calls “the brains” of their winemaking operation. Luigi, who is a professor of oenology at the University of Naples, unearthed these three grapes that have led to yet another source of wine in a country that has more than its fair share of fabulous vino.

The best of the bunch were the Ambrusco 2009, a 100% Pallagrello Nero that showed a rich ruby color with hints of dark fruit, black leather, cherry plum and just a touch of tobacco on the nose. It ended with a very fine acidity and tannin structure.

The Fontanavigna was a bright, clean refreshing take of 100% Pallagrello Bianco that paired remarkably well with that mouthwatering mozzarella and smooth-as-silk ricotta – made on the premises by a man whose name we never learned but whose face we will never forget.

The Il Sasso di Riccardo, a Passito di Casavechhia, wrapped up the tasting as a semi-sweet red wine that the guy with no head – look at the pictures, we never learned his name either – makes cheese specifically to be paired with this wine. The wine starts sweet, but once touched with spicy and strong cheese, so strong that Manuela would not let us even near it till lunch was ending, takes on a new life and finishes dry. 

On an aside, the pizza wasn’t what we Chicagoans consider “pizza” per se, but it might rank as one of the best slices of dough, tomato sauce and cheese that was ever put together. Luckily for us in the Windy City, the chef, Franco Pepe, will be opening a pizzeria with a partner in our town this year.

Now if we could only get that Ambrusco over here then too….