August 22, 2017

Europe '17 - Brezza Ristorante in Barolo

The only problem with spending a single Wednesday night in Barolo is that most of the restaurants are closed. The few that are open were filled up. Crisis.

The view from the deck at Ristorante Brezza in Barolo
Then I remembered write ups I'd read of the Langhe region that mentioned the restaurant at the Hotel Brezza in the town of Barolo. It wasn't on the short list we had received but it was open, the weather was nice, and after a slight delay getting noticed, we were able to sit al fresco for what ended up a wonderful, traditional Piemonte meal.

This was perfect Italy, as if you were in someone's home with a second floor deck looking over an indescribably beautiful scene. I ordered the simple tasting menu of salumi, tajarin, braised beef and a selection of desserts. The food was comforting, the service very attentive but perfectly discreet, we sat and took in the evening with a handful of other groups, just enough to make it lively.

The list had old vintage treasures but we kept it current
We paired things with the 2011 Brezza Barolo Castellero from a vineyard we passed coming into town. Sandier soils here, I've found conflicting reports of whether this is an earlier drinking site or better to age, I thought this bottle was maturing aromatically, ruby colored and very red fruited, still structured and delicious if not super complex. Classic Barolo in a classic setting.

Europe '17 - Incredible Visit to G.D. Vajra in Barolo

From Provence we took a couple of days to relax on the sea at Nice, exploring the old town and finding some incredible beaches to read and then float in the salty Mediterranean.

We didn't plan too much of the trip in advance, but our son had originally demanded that we make it to Nice. So that was our southern destination. The question - how to get back to Paris.

We could of course largely retrace our route to this point, or we could do what my dad would always do - make a loop. And it just so happened a loop here would mean swinging into Italy and then through part of Switzerland - not to mention the Jura mountains and Burgundy - to get us back to the airport home.

Of course we chose Italy, and for all the fun we had in France along with a few nights in London, I think the one night in Italy was the best of the trip. Again, we must return.

If you wanted to design a perfect vines meet medieval castle fantasyland, you'd probably end up with Barolo. I had heard the Piedmont of Italy was perhaps the most beautiful wine country anyway but I was simply blown away but what I experience. The views, the beautiful contours of the land, practically every hill topped with an incredible town or village, it was almost too much. The emotion of the terroir indeed.

Stained glass the cellar at Vajra

We drove a few hours from Nice along the Ligurian coast, then turning inland to quite mountainous terrain before the land opened to spotty hills and a carpet of vines. Before I knew it, we hit the town of Barolo just in time for our 4pm appointment at G.D. Vajra.

We were met by Eleonora, who toured us through the production area and then down to the cellar, talking in great detail about the winemaking process and the intricacies of Barolo terroirs. 

From the stairs down to the underground cask cellar, with garden!

Then we walked across the parking lot to the office and tasting area, where we had a formal sit down tasting of several wines. Finally I had a moment to take notes as we went, so a bit more detail here.

Vajra produces several wines in addition to the Nebbiolo and other traditional area grapes. They were the first to plant Riesling in the Barolo region, and even make Pinot Nero. I'm a traditionalist but not dogmatic. Usually these other grape varieties wouldn't excite me much here, and perhaps they'd indicate a highly modern approach in the winery. Not here at Vajra, where large format botti are the norm and even the more international grapes show true delicacy and terroir.

The tasting set up at Vajra, simple, elegant

The 2016 Riesling was newly bottled and fresh, bright with a little petrol. This is lovely. Then the 2014 Pinot Nero, which Giuseppe Vajra - who popped by from time to time - described with good reason that this tastes like Pinot Noir from Barolo, with the power structure of this terroir. I'm happy to have a bottle of this at home to try at some point to check in again on this anomaly.

Now to more traditional things. The 2014 Barbera Superiore is all power and black cherries right now, rich and needing time to show more finesse. But what a wine.

An experimental, old style Nebbiolo from Vajra

Then an experimental cuvee, the 2015 JC Clare Langhe Nebbiolo, all natural with no added SO2 following the ancient vinification methods of this region. Light color, earthy with subtle fruit, a little wild but good, I also brought a bottle back courtesy of Giuseppe to try later this summer.

Next, the Langhe Nebbiolo normale, also pale colored with grippy, steely freshness, this is young vines and all stainless steel aged.

The first Barolo was the Albe cuvee, meaning sunrises, a blend of three vineyard exposures very close to the winery, vinified separately and then blended to reflect the three exposures. Licorice, roasted chestnuts, lovely density but still lighter Barolo, this is readily available in Portland and a steal in legitimate, afforadable Barolo.

The line up of reds, truly inspiring wines
Next the Barolo Bricco Della Viole, or violets, from a top selection of this sprawling vineyard just east of the winery. So elegant, all red fruits, worsted tannins, we learned this western swath of Barolo gives more elegant wines.

In contrast, the Barolo Luigi Baudana from the more powerful east side of the appellation, vineyards from Castiglioni, more iron, meat, dark fruit and firm tannin, this is for the cellar but what a wine. This label I believe refers to a historical property the Vajra family purchased along the way. They keep tradition alive by using the historical name on the label.

Finally we enjoyed the 2016 Moscato d'Asti, all 4% alcohol with lovely sweetness but not cloying, the one wine I didn't spit. Ok, the Luigi Baudana as well.

I liked seeing my guy Vincent on the wall in the office

We left with great ideas for dinner that night, I left thinking of how nicely they received us, and on short notice, and how I might incorporate some of the little things they did to make our visit special with winery visitors I host here in Oregon.

August 08, 2017

Europe '17 - Bandol and Ch. Pradeaux

Finally, Provence. 

From the southern Rhone we spent the night in Aix en Provence, enjoying a late dinner of galetes, salad and cold rose. Then gelato on the main square, crowded with people near midnight.

The entrance to Ch. Pradeaux a few miles northwest of Bandol
In the morning we headed to Bandol, walking down the sea front in a light misty warm rain, then lunching under an umbrella at a terrific, nameless bistro off the main road.

Then, Pradeaux. I first came to love Bandol through Kermit Lynch and Domaine Tempier in the mid-'90s. Even though I found many other producers, Bastide Blanc, Le Galatin, Pibarnon...and Pradeaux.

Walking around the side of the main house, faded country grandeur

Imported to the US by Neal Rosenthal, Ch. Pradeaux is about the oldest of old school Bandol I know. Even Tempier had modernized in ways I don't taste at Pradeaux. That doesn't mean the wines are unclean. I mean they have no gloss, no apparent (negative) craft about them. They're what we used to call real wine.

Vines out front in the rocky, light brown soil

We pulled our car around back and got out to another chorus of cigale buzzing almost alarmingly loudly. The chateau is a lovely country home, with terrific detail now aging, but cool inside on a suddenly warm day.

In the small tasting room off the courtyard, we met Etienne, one of the sons of the family that owns Pradeaux and clearly very involved. I think his wife was pouring for us, and we spoke a bit as we could about the wine making. I honestly didn't understand too much.

Graceful palm at the courtyard entrance
I'm only familiar with the Bandol AOC wines but we had a lovely Vin de Pays du Mont Caume rouge from what did not taste like any international grapes. Then a recent vintage of Rose and Rouge from the second wine, Les Lys du Pradeaux. Both were lovely and fresh. 

Then, the '14 Rose Pradeaux which was mature but lovely in a lightly rusting kind of way. I bought one was turned out they sold the '13, which was a little more advanced than I like when we tried it in Nice a few days later.

Some younger looking vines, surely for the early to market cuvees
Finally, the '12 Ch. Pradeaux Rouge. I asked about Longue Garde but that was not to be. The Rouge was more approachable than I expected, or Les Lys is more substantial a second wine than I might have thought. Grippy tannin in the Rouge of course, but so stony and firm, I love this and must get some locally.

We didn't stay long, we had some distance to cover still, but how special to spend just a few hours in Bandol and experience the water front and then such a grand cru of Mourvèdre. We left thinking - as with most stops on the trip - we must return!