Scott & Manuela’s European Winetasting Experience (and Winemaking)

Fellow OC wine enthusiasts, you bared with me a few issues back as I relayed my anniversary/wine tasting experience in Northern California. Perhaps I can keep your interest as I tell you of Manuela’s and my six-week trip tip through France, Switzerland, Germany, Czech Republic and, of course, Manuela’s home country of Italy. It was there that I not only sampled great wine, I got a chance to make it—the old fashioned way!

But that is to come later.

We started off on a river cruise up the Rhône River, from Avignon to Lyon, France, with two other wine-drinking couples. If you are familiar with this region you know we passed through the Rhône Valley appellation. Along the way, we tasted some very good wines such as the Rhône blends, similar to our GSM’s, as well as some Pinots and Syrahs. Among the whites, we found the Viogniers to be excellent. The wines here in France tended to be earthy, dry and subtle in flavor. Very drinkable now but worthy of aging some. Then there is the famous Champagne! We shared quite a bit of that product, I can tell you. My personal favorite was Drappier, Corte d’Or, Brut.

What was to be a highlight of the trip was a stop in the Châteauneuf-du-Pape. We attended a tasting set up by the cruise line. The wines were inexpensive and, to my taste, reflected that. Most of the Americans there did not favor these wines. Not giving up, however, the guys sought out a better experience while the wives went shopping!  In fact, we found the best wine tasting shop – appropriately named “Best Wine Shop.” We enjoyed thoroughly the one-on-one experience with the shop owner and ultimately shipped a case of wine back to the US!  Closer to Lyon, we encountered Burgundy and Beaujolais wines from further north. These were excellent wines that included Gamay, Pinot, Merlot, Chardonnay and a few names I could not possibly pronounce. Not as earthy as the Rhône wines, but excellent to our California pallets. In fact, I would say, they save the best for themselves and export the lesser quality wines abroad!  And these wines were not expensive.

Departing the ship in Lyon, we drove to just past Lausanne, Switzerland, staying at an Airbnb in the home of a winemaker on the mountain slope overlooking Lake Geneva. It was beautiful!   Take a look at the shot from our dining room window. We ate fondue and raclette but also enjoyed some very nice Swiss wine. The grapes grown here were predominately white varietals, but there were some good reds as well. I don’t think I’ve run across Swiss wine in our wine shops. My guess, they just don’t make enough. Although the hillsides were overwhelmingly covered by vines. My friends and I had no qualms about drinking the local product! Of particular note was the 2020 Heida made by Yvonne & Yvo Mathier. I hope to find that here in California.

At the end of our stay in Switzerland, our friends returned home, but Manuela and I drove over the Great St. Bernard Pass and down into the Piemonte region of Italy – where Manuela was born – for a three-week stay in Chiaverano, Italy, near Ivrea. Yeah, you will need to Google those names.  Here we were immersed in Northern Italian wines from Piemonte, Asti and, of course, Tuscany. Some of my personal favorite wines come from these regions such as Nebbiolo, Barbera, Dolcetto, Montepulciano and little-known, Erbaluce (grown predominately around Ivrea). Sixty-eight percent of these wines are red, and for good reason:  It’s the weather and terroir.

While drinking great wine from the regions we visit is always a pleasure, the true joy  of this trip – and the reason behind my writing this article – was the chance to join one of Manuela’s relatives, Pierluigi, in the winemaking process!   Timing for our trip was just right, and being a home winemaker myself, that when I got invited to see the crush and participate, I was all in.  As is common with the decades-old homes of the area, Pierluigi’s comes equipped with a wine cellar, where he has been making wine all his life.

This was the real thing … well, the real old-world thing. We put several kilograms of grapes and stems in an old wine press. As you can see from the photo, I was an “instrumental” part of the process. When all was done, we opened one of his 40-year-old bottles of wine. OK, it wasn’t that good at that point, but it sure was exciting to know we were drinking something that old and very special.

Toward the end of our three weeks in Italy, my brother and his wife joined us for a few days of Alpine experience, her first. But soon we were flying from Milan to Prague, Czech Republic. The city of Prague is on my personal top ten places that I have been fortunate enough to visit in my lifetime. It has a rich heritage and beautiful buildings, bridges and structures nearly everywhere in its massive old city. And yes, Czech Republic makes wine!  Almost exclusively white wine, but there are a small percentage of reds. And the varietals include many you know and some you most likely do not.

After a few days in Prague, we commenced another river cruise that primarily sailed west along the Main River through southern Germany, part of the Rhine River and finally the Moselle River.  We had stops in wonderful old world cities such as Nurenberg, Bamberg, Wurzburg, Heidelberg, Cochem and Trier. More local wine, predominately white, was to be had everywhere along these rivers. The dry Gewürztraminers and Viogniers were great. Reds were a bit more challenging to our taste. Ultimately we ended our trip with four days in Paris. I treated my brother, his wife, and a former colleague and his wife to a dinner cruise on the Seine River in Paris. We had great local cuisine and fine white wines. In return, he treated us at a very high-end, old world (established in the 1600’s he says) Parisian restaurant that was outstanding. All told, our six weeks in Europe was one for the books!

– W. Scott Harral, Contributing Writer