Tasting at Harvest Time

September is a wonderful time of year to go wine tasting.  Wine is necessarily grown in warm climates, and by September the heat has slackened a bit so it’s more comfortable to pass through the vineyards.  And even better you’re there to watch the process of transforming agriculture into art: harvesting grapes, pressing them and turning them into wine.  There’s something romantic about watching grapes being picked, placed in baskets and walked over to nearby trucks that will soon be piled high heading to the press pads.

lhermiteLéon-Augustin L’Hermitte, the Grape Harvest, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

September is a terrible time to go wine tasting.  There is a constant threat of rain.  The roads that were never too easy to travel at the best of times are packed with trucks that are heading, full of grapes, to the wineries.  Even worse, you get to be a witness to the transformation of art into industry, turning nature’s bounty into a factory product.  If you get there on the right day, you might still be able to see vines with great clusters hanging from them.  A day later and the vines are bare.  And all you can see as you watch the grapes being harvested are ill-treated migrant farm workers.

img_2561The crush at Saintsbury winery

Okay, you must be asking, which is it?  Is harvest time a good time to go to Wine Country or not.  And the answer, of course, is both.  (If you’re going wine tasting in Australia, Chile, Argentina or South Africa, harvest is likely to be in February or March, but let’s keep this simple.)

For personal and business reasons, we often travel in September and our voyages almost always include wine tasting.  This works better in especially hot years; the 2014 harvest in Northern California began in July in some vineyards.  Thank you, global warming.  August is the usual time to pick grapes in much of Italy.  So we have experienced all the positives and negatives of the vendange, as the French would put it.

The biggest question is how does the time of year affect the wine tasting experience.  If you’re traveling in an area where the wineries you’d like to visit are large, well-funded and likely to derive significant revenue from vinotourism, your wine tasting experience should be only minimally affected.  They have lots of bottles on hand and the tasting room employees are servers, unlikely to be in the fields filling baskets.  But you may not find all the wines you’d like to taste because they have all been previously consumed.  Worst of all, you may find that some wineries are closed, because they have sold out the previous year’s wines and haven’t made this year’s yet.  We encountered this in California’s Central Coast at Linne Calodo and Booker wineries in 2011.  So call before you go.

In areas where the wineries are all or mostly small family affairs, you are indeed more likely to find the doors locked while moms, dads, kids and cousins are out in the vineyards bringing in the crops.   This recently occurred when we were out tasting in Beaujolais.  “Desolé, monsieur” a somewhat grimy teenager would shrug.  The only choice left to us was to taste the wines served in the local cooperatives.  These are open in all seasons and you do get a good education about the grapes and winemaking practices of the area.  Unfortunately, the wines most of them pour are good but hardly representative of the quality that attracted you to that region of Wine Country to begin with.

Should you go wine tasting at harvest time?  Yes, you should, because you should experience all the seasons that pass through Wine Country.  Each month has its attractions and drawbacks, so there’s no perfect time of year.  All the same, if you are new to the fun of wine tasting, it might be better to hold off on being a “part” of the crush until you know better what you are likely to get.

Grapes You’ve Never Tasted

Let’s face it: in terms of the grapes we drink these days, we’ve all become pretty boring and pretty French.  The majority of what we drink and the majority of what we sip when we go wine tasting are derived from four regions of France.  There are the Bordeaux grapes, in particular Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.  Burgundy provides us Chardonnay and Pinot Noir; the Rhone Valley chips in Syrah and Grenache and the Loire Valley adds Sauvignon Blanc.  Go wine tasting virtually anywhere in America or Australia and that’s what the wineries will pour for you.

Oh, yes, it’s quite different in Italy where you’ll get their grapes, in particular Sangiovese, Nebbiolo, and Nero d’Avola in the reds.  There are hundreds of local varietals that rarely find their way into export crates.  Spain, too, has its own specialties, Tempranillo being the best known.  But sometimes in your travels, both in Europe and North America you’ll come across a varietal you’ve never tasted.  Hell, you’ve never even heard of it. How do you know if you like it?  How do you know if the wine made from those grapes is well made or just plonk?

Of course you can taste strange grapes in some out-of-the-way places on an overseas visit, but increasingly this is also a possibility in more familiar areas.  For example, David Coffaro Vineyard and Winery sells all sorts of odd varietals, like 100% Aglianico.  Grgich Hills offers some wines that Mike Grgich has been producing in Croatia, like Pošip and Plavac Mali.  You’re more likely to enjoy the wines than pronounce them.  Tablas Creek Vineyard in Paso Robles has a Tannat.  Tannat anyone?

You should remember that even among the best  known grapes, there was a time you hadn’t tasted them either.  You were probably pretty young and your taste buds not very experienced, but still, how did you react?  Steve well remembers the first time he tasted Shiraz, and alternative name for Syrah and very popular these days.  But at that time, Shiraz was limited to Australian wines, primarily from the Barossa region.  His first reaction was, “This wine has gone bad.”  Then he realized that it wasn’t sour or distasteful and, in fact, it was quite good.  So that’s the primary advice: Keep an open mind.  And mouth, for that matter.

We recently traveled in Southwest France and discovered wines from the area between Albi and Gaillac, known by the name of the former town.  The primary grapes in Gaillacs are Duras and Braucol.  Never heard of them?  Neither had we.  (Braucol, according to Wikipedia, is a local name for Fer.  That doesn’t help much, because we haven’t heard of Fer either.)  So the first thing we did (and we recommend that you do) was to think about what the wine tasted like and smelled like.  Gaillac, based on a sampling of six or so bottles, is relatively light bodied, fruity, with a similarity to a Cabernet Sauvignon from somewhere other than Medoc or Napa.  Think a lesser area of Bordeaux, like Cote de Bourg.  The idea is not to be a wine geek, but to orient your taste buds and relate what you’re tasting with what you’ve tasted before.


Now that you’ve thought about what a wine made from previously unknown grapes is like, give some thought to why the wine is different from what you’ve ever tasted before.  This doesn’t have to be a deep exercise in oenology; wine snobbery is not required.  Just trust your mouth.  If you like this new wine or even if you don’t, try to articulate why, without reference to anything else you already know.  Words like deep, round, acid, flat, fruity, flowery, and mellow should come to mind.  In other words, you should be using a normal vocabulary.  By putting your taste into words, you’ll have a much better understanding of what make a unique wine (to your experience) unique.

In the long run, you are most likely to continue to buy the wines made from grapes you’re already familiar with.  There is, after all, a reason that they are the most popular in the world.  But the core of wine tasting is discovery, so keep trying wines with funny names, made from grapes you never tasted before.

Clos de Vougeot

One of the pleasures of going to Wine country and visiting wineries is the chance it gives you to think to yourself, “Imagine if I owned this joint!”  A lesser pleasure among all those of wine tasting, but a pleasure nonetheless.  Nowhere in the world are such imaginings so fertile as in France and nowhere in France are they better than at the Clos de Vougeot in the Côte de Nuit of Burgundy.  Pronounce that Kloh de VOO-zhoh.

A clos is an enclosed field, or in this case and enclosed vineyard.  Yes, there’s a wall around it but the vineyard is enormous, the second largest of the grand cru vineyards in the Côte d’Or.  (Corton is larger.)  There is a hierarchy of vineyards and thus wines in Burgundy and grand cru is the highest level.  As beautiful as it may be, the reason to visit is not the vineyard but the building sitting in the middle of it.

clos-de-vougeotPhoto courtesy of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin

The chateau of Clos de Vougeot has a history, in fact quite a lot of it.  It was erected in the 12th century by Cistercian monks.  The name originates from the nearby abbey of Citeaux, which is the mother house of the Cistercian order (known as Trappists in the United States and elsewhere).  It was one of the most influential monasteries in medieval Christendom.  It was eventually abandoned, restored in the 19th century, damaged in World War II and once again restored after the war.  That latter task was carried out by the members of the Confrérie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, a definitely snobby club of rich and famous Frenchmen.  Today the Confrérie has, according to its web site, 12,000 members.  It’s still rich and snobby but no longer exclusively French.

You can visit the chateau and pretend you’re one of the 12,000.  It’s worth doing on its own merits, just to see a 12th century castle in the heart of a great vineyard.  You can do a self-guided tour and watch a film or you can be shown around by one of their guides.  Based on our experience, the guided tour is worthwhile.  The cellars and the formal rooms bring on that imaginary ownership mentioned above.

Perhaps the most exciting part of a visit is knowing that you are at the epicenter of Burgundy winemaking.  Sadly, the one thing you can’t do at Clos de Vougeot is taste wine.  That is, you can’t taste wine.  But every year in spring and fall they hold a “tastevinage”, a grand wine tasting with a jury of 250 of the finest connoisseurs that can be assembled.  They’re famous wine-growers, great merchants, heads of viticultural unions, wine-brokers, oenologists, government officials from the government’s wine office, restaurant owners, enlightened amateurs.  Maybe you’re one of them, otherwise you’re not going.  Out of the tastevinage comes a seal of approval, the emblem of the Confrérie des Chevaliers des Tastevin that the selected winery can put on its bottles.

By the way, what is a tastevin?  It’s a wide, flat cup that sommeliers use to slurp a little bit of well-aerated wine before serving it to you.  Or at least sommeliers used to do that (maybe some still do) in restaurants that had sommeliers.  If you take the guided tour, they give you one.


Photo courtesy of Amazon.com


Artesa Winery

The first time we ever tasted wines at Artesa (http://www.artesawinery.com), it was a rather exclusive visit.  We needed a reservation and as we approached the property, we had to enter a code that they had given us.  A large gate opened slowly and then we drove up a long road to a mountain top.  Okay, maybe a hilltop, but it was pretty high up.

Today, the gate is left open during business hours.  The road and hilltop are still there but it is hardly exclusive.  In fact, in recent years the tasting room is quite busy, seemingly every day of the week and twice on weekends.  Aside from the wine, of which more later, the reason for Artesa’s popularity is the architecture of the winery and its view out over Carneros.  Oh, it’s a Napa palace all right and those aren’t always to our taste.  (See Not for Everyone.)  But in the case of Artesa, the winery itself make a visit worthwhile.

As you walk towards it from the parking lot, you’ll pass lovely terraced fountains but you won’t see the winery, just the hilltop.  Oh, wait, there’s something black jutting out of the hill over there.  And there’s a portal entering the hill.  You’ve arrived.


The modern interior is airy and spacious and has a lot more than a bar and a gift shop.  There are side rooms and reflecting pools, with paintings and sculpture everywhere.


The utter joy of visiting Artesa is the view, as you can see in the photo below.  The term “sweeping vista” hardly does it justice.  That little dot in the distance is Domaine Carneros, the champagne (oh, excuse me, sparkling wine) house and its impressive chateau.  At the horizon is the north end of San Francisco Bay.  And in front of it all are vines, lots of vines.


The actual wine tasting experience is a bit dodgier.  The tasting room space is quite large but it also can be quite crowded.  Because of the aforementioned beauty of the place, Artesa has become a tourist attraction as much as a wine lover’s destination.  So you may well be there with large groups or families with children.  We well remember one visit in which a baby was literally crawling between our legs as we sipped our wine near the child’s parents.  We do love little kids, but there are times and there are places.  (See Taking or not taking your kids to wine tasting.)

Before our first visit, we were familiar with some of Artesa’s wines, especially the Sauvignon Blanc.  A wine store had recommended this wine as an accompaniment for asparagus, which worked quite well.  We have also enjoyed their Merlot in the past.  To be honest, we weren’t as impressed in recent visits as we have been in the past.  That’s the beauty of wine tasting, though; maybe next time we’ll fall in love with Artesa’s wines again.