Côtes du Rhône: History, Geography and Geology 101

December 28th, 2014

Before visiting southeastern France, the only image I had was of Provence’s lush lavender fields and rolling hillsides.  Although I didn’t visit any lavender fields, I did experience several vineyards in the Côtes du Rhône subregions of Tavel and Châteauneuf-Du-Pape.  These two wine appelations have their unique claims to fame in the wine industry, but they share one very important element — their terroir — that wonderful word that encompasses everything from the ground-up and all the atmospheric, geographic and historic influences in-between. If you are a history/geography nerd like me, I hope you will find what I learned about the terrior of these regions as enlightening as I did.

Upon landing at the Marseilles-Province Airport (MRS) and taking a short one hour, forty-five minute bus ride, you witness firsthand the arid landscape of southeastern France. There’s a lot of sand, not too many trees and lots of rock and small brushes covering the hillsides. It’s like comparing south Florida to the Midwest United States, just a totally different, more diverse and spicey atmosphere than say Paris. “Côte” is French for hills or slope. Hence the Côtes du Rhône describe the rolling topography found along the Rhône River valley.  Côtes du Rhône is a wine-growing Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) for the Rhône wine region of France. So Chateauneuf du Pape and Tavel are sub- or special AOCs within the umbrella group of Côtes du Rhône wines that are found in the more southern part of the Rhône-valley area, around the cities of Orange and Avignon. Besides, the arid Mediterranean climate, there are two key terroir attributes of the Côtes du Rhône wine region that make it unique in comparison to the rest of the world – garriques and the soils.

IMG_1416Garriques refer to the aromatic plants that grow throughout the region as natural, wild, local brush.  These plants provide the staples to southern French cuisine and contribute to the distinct flavors found in Rhône wines.  Wild rosemary, sage, thyme, and bayleaf plants sprout in valleys, along slopes and atop the hills.

Côtes du Rhône’s special soils were created by the Rhône River not decades or centuries ago, but millennia!  The Rhône River originates in the Swiss Alps, upstream from Lake Geneva.  Millions of years ago, the Rhône Glacier carved an incredibly wide swath on its way south with rivers running deep within it.  The combination of ice grinding and waters flowing left behind a wealth of soil varities across the span of the present day Côtes du Rhône region. You have to try to envision that the Mediterranean Sea encircled the Alps millions of years ago.  Only the Caspian and Black Seas remain today. The ancient glacier left a land primed with  fertile vineyards composed of three soil types which are collectively referred to as “mother stone.”

LIMESTONE SHADOWLimestone is a sedimentary rock composed of skeletal fragments of marine organisms. The limestone of the Côtes du Rhône region is comprised of basilica and silica quartite. The limestone is sharp and dense like granite. Limestone’s mineral composition provides more sharp notes or tannins to red wines. Also, vines are forced to grow through cracks in the limestone which gives more more bitter and complex character to the resulting, battle-worn wines. However, the cracks are often filled with clay which assists in retaining much needed moisture during the region’s frequent droughts.


GALETS ROULES GALETS ROULES“Galet roulé or rolling stones are the second soil variety. These beautiful stones come in hues of red, orange, yellow and multitudes of brown shades. Typically quartzite, these are the remnants from when the glacier chewed-up the bedrock and spat it out in the form of rocks and clay. Galet roulé are rounded and smooth on all sides like river rocks having been rolled and washed over for millennia by the Rhône River. Galet roulé can also be translated as “pebbles,” but Americans would never use this term for such large stones. Some are even the size of small boulders.  A benefit of the galet roulé is its retention of heat during the day and gradual release of it through the night.  This keeps temperatures in the vineyard fairly constant and assists in a steady ripening of the grapes. The stones can also serve as a protective ground covering to help retain moisture in the soil during dry spans in the weather.


The third and final soil variety is sand.  The former Rhone riverbed is now dry and finely grained, white silica. In contrast to the other soils, the sand provides an unhindered foundation for roots to grow.  Without the struggle against rocks and galets, vines are relaxed and produce softer, more mellow wines.

On the surface, these three soils are very distinct.  However, it is important to note that different layers of each occur in varying depths and combinations across the landscape. So, what appears to be galet roulé on the surface may have a thick bed of sand laying one meter below. Within the Côtes du Rhône region, sub-region, and even parcel-by-parcel, the variations of these three soils, in addition to garrique bushes and climatic variations in rain and temperatures, create an endless array of influences upon every harvest and annual wine production.  There is no one typical terrior for the Côtes du Rhône region, just as there is no single, signature wine variety — thanks to the primordial Rhône Glacier/River.

Disclosure: I tasted the wines of Châteauneuf-Du-Pape and Tavel as a part of a sponsored press trip of the region, organized by FÉDÉRATION DES SYNDICATS DES PRODUCTEURS DE CHÂTEAUNEUF-DU-PAPE & Syndicat Viticole de l’Appellation Tavel, along with 12 other wine, gastronomy and tourism bloggers from several countries. My travel and accommodations were provided by the sponsors.

Kick-Off the Weekend at Water Tower Wines!

September 14th, 2014

Water Tower Wines 09.05.14My friend Laura and I kicked-off our weekend the other Friday with a Sonoma wine flight tasting at Water Tower Wines in Mt. Washington — an eastside suburb of Cincinnati. It was our first visit to Water Tower Wines after hearing about their Friday evening tastings on WVXU — our local National Public Radio station for YEARS! Water Tower offers a very casual atmosphere, age-diverse crowd of friendly fellow patrons, lovely guitar standards being played live in the “main sitting room,” two fabulous hosts, and some GREAT wines!

We tasted a total of three white (Chardonnays) and five reds. Neither Laura nor I are fans of Chardonnay, but we gave everything a chance. The first tasting — Folie a’ Deux  2012 — a Russian River Chardonnay was the best of the three (Laura agreed). Not too “oakey” which is usually my problem with Chardonnay. It was soft and delicate — plus, it was on sale for $15.99 (regularly $24.99)!

But let’s focus on our favorites — the REDS!  I’d have to say, it was a close race for first between the Eco Terreno Vine Three Vine Red Alexander Valley 2010 ($21.99) and the Wisdom Bwise Red Wine 2010 ($22.99).  In the end, the Eco Terreno with its blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot — a perfect combination — was the clear winner!  It definitely left me wanting more!  So with the Wisdom Bwise in second, that left the Buena Vista “The Count” Founders Red 2011 ($19.99) in third. I should note that Laura would likely switch the placing of these three reds. She really liked “The Count” and may have bumped it up to first or second with Wisdom coming next and then, my favorite, Eco Terreno. Goes to show how even smart women with “good taste” differ when it comes to wine! 

Two of the fellow patrons we met and talked with briefly (I think they were on a date, so Laura and I really didn’t want to disturb them — plus, we wanted to catch up on the past two weeks of our own lives) — anyway, they shared that a renovation to the building was coming soon.  As they informed us, the second story will either be closed to the public or removed and a whole new, one-story space added which will transform the existing space. This is great news as the building, furniture did feel a bit tired and could use some updating.  It was interesting to taste and sit amongst the expansive wine selections which are stored and displayed throughout this Queen Anne home-turned wine store.  All in all, Water Tower Wines is a very cozy, friendly spot to sip some wine with a friend and possibly meet a new friend or two!

Whether you’re an Eastsider or not, come support this locally-owned, Cincinnati jewel.  Attend a future tasting, get your weekend started off right, and discover some great new, wine-favorites for yourself!


BYOB Shopping

September 1st, 2014

Me the “Shot Girl” with dear friend Annette at the 2013 BYOB in Logrono, Spain

I can’t even remember how I stumbled across the web site and learned about the festival. I think it was the result of a crude Google search for “Swiss wines” + “Ohio River Valley.” All I know for sure is that after last year’s BYOB party and my wine-etiquette faux-pas, I wanted to make certain I brought a bottle of WINE this year! You see, living in Cincinnati — so close to Kentucky — several DWCC friends had mentioned in previous years that I should bring a bottle of Kentucky Bourbon to BYOB night. So, last year that’s exactly what I did! I felt a little like a bottle-girl walking up to people and asking if they’d like me to pour them a shot, but long-time, DWCC good friends like Annette Schiller were very excited to sample my Kentucky brew!  However, most people politely responded with a “not right now, maybe later — after I’ve enjoyed some WINE!” Then, there were a very few people who just gave me strange looks that seemed to say, “You DO know this is a WINE event, don’t you?!?”

 TimsRiverWineGlassPhotoSo to redeem my poor performance last year, I thought it would be quite appropriate to locate a wine associated with “Switzerland” County Indiana (not that there’s anything actually “Swiss” about it) to bring to this year’s BYOB event. My Google search landed me on http://swisswinefestival.org/Wine-And-Beer-Wine-Pavilion.aspx. I could not believe such a festival existed! What luck! Furthermore, Vevay, Indiana in Switzerland County located along the Ohio River was founded in 1813 by John James Dufour, Jr. who emigrated from Vevey, Switzerland — which is located less than 10 minutes north of Montreux the site of this year’s DWCC on Lake Geneva! Monsieur Dufour settled and began cultivating grapes and producing wines in his new home. It’s said that Vevay is home to the first commercial winery in the U.S. Facts I CAN verify are that Vevay is the county seat of Switzerland County and had a 2010 population of only 1,683 inhabitants.


Although his smile made me think his shorts might be a bit too tight…he did make me crave a pretzel to go with my Gewürztraminer!


Tucked-away in the hot, back corner of the tent was Winzerwald Winery!

Hot Tent

One big, hot & humid tent filled with a lot of people who like sweet, berry “wines!”


Winzerwald’s friendly staff.


My “Holy Grail” of the Indiana Swiss Wine Festival!

With this discovery, it became mandatory that Tim and I attend the festival and experience Indiana’s rich “Swiss” heritage to find our BYOB wines! After $5 for parking, $5/each for entry into the festival, and $15/each for entry into the wine pavilion — we were set to taste what southeast Indiana had to offer. In brief, we had to taste a lot of bad (in our opinion) wines before finding Winzerwald Winery’s booth which was located in the far back corner. The nutcracker on the labels and Christmas tree bottle shape which held “holiday-themed” wine “flavors” made me a little trepidatious, but I was determined to leave with my BYOB wine!  ONE bottle — that’s all I needed out of the hundreds available under that hot and humid wine pavilion tent! Actually, one very friendly, fellow-female, festival attendee tried to help by sharing with me that, “the peach wine over there is REALLY good!” I was on a mission! After much diligence, I tasted Winzerwald’s Gewürztraminer and was very nicely surprised.  Its semi-dry floral notes were refreshing and tasty upon impact and left a good lingering aftertaste. Finally! I had found my bottle! Plus, the staff were very friendly — even aiming a floor fan directly at me while I was tasting to help me stay reasonably comfortable. It’s not the greatest Gewürztraminer I’ve ever experienced, but quite respectable and, more importantly, it’s not Bourbon! And, just in case you’re curious, the cost was $16.97.


Relieved and oh-so happy to find my 2014 BYOB!

http://www.winzerwaldwinery.com/ is located about two and a half hours southwest of Cincinnati — about an hour due west of Louisville, Kentucky — in Bristow, Indiana. The winery is positioned in the Indiana Uplands American viticultural area (AVA) in the heart of the http://www.stateparks.com/hoosier.html. The 4,800-square mile AVA was just established in February 2013 and covers all or portions of 19 counties in south-central Indiana. The establishment of this AVA also modifies the boundary of the existing 26,000-square mile “Ohio River Valley” AVA to eliminate any overlap. Winzerwald is one of eight other wineries currently located in this AVA. Winzerwald describes themselves as a Midwest “German-Style Winery.”  PROST!!!

Travel 101: Make Time for Non-Wine Moments

December 31st, 2013

Believe it or not, when I travel there’s more to the trip than just drinking wine! Case in point, our visit to the Côa Museum (Museu do Côa) (www.arte-coa.pt) which we saw on our way to Quinta da Léda.

The Côa Valley is situated between the Côa and Douro rivers and served as a central meeting place for early man due to its rich resources which could support multiple tribes traveling to share knowledge, trade goods and find mates in order to survive and prosper. The Côa Museum is one of UNESCO’s World Heritage sites and is the world’s largest known open air paleolithic rock art site — being the home of more than 70 different sites displaying rock carvings spanning a period of 25,000 years. A majority of the works are Upper Paleolithic engravings, followed by those belonging to the Iron Age, Historic times and Late Pre-history, respectively.


The museum itself is a blank, stone canvas — very modern and reflective of the rock walls upon which the thousands of aurochs, horses, sheep and eventually man himself were carved. It’s art and history brought together. We had such a short time for our visit, but our guide did a remarkable job in sharing information and, more importantly, making us question and consider what these early “artists” might have been trying to convey in their carvings. It gave all of us a profound look at the history of early man and left us wanting to see more.


The Florida State undergraduate Art History major in me was soaking-up every second of this visit. Jean Auel’s Clan of the Cave Bear series is one of my all time favorite reads. At the Côa Museum, I felt like I’d stepped back into Ayla’s (the series’ main character) time — it was such a short, but amazing visit. If you are traveling anywhere in the vicinity of Vila Nova de Foz Côa, make time to visit the museum and be sure to allot yourself a few hours to also hike and see a few of the carvings in their natural, in-situ settings.

Disclosure: I tasted the wines of the Douro River Valley as a part of a sponsored press trip of the region, organized by Greengrape (www.greengrape.pt), along with 12 other wine, gastronomy and tourism bloggers from several countries. My travel and accommodations were provided by the sponsor.

Quinta da Léda

December 30th, 2013

Our last stop in the Douro Valley was a visit and lunch at Quinta da Léda (www.sograpevinhos.eu) in the Douro Superior which is the most eastern of the three Douro Valley sub-regions and closest to Portugal’s border with Spain.

The winery is set way back from the main road down a very winding, but paved drive with steep drop-offs, no guardrails and sharp switch-back turns. Empty and unused pombals spot the hillsides where they long ago served as fancy, tiled-roofed circular homes for pigeons — a component of a traditional Portuguese dish. It was a bit of a nausiating bus ride, but we were greeted by a very friendly group of winemakers. Quinta da Léda has two winemakers to keep a high standard of flavor and style in their wines. One winemaker was older and one younger — not that their difference in ages was pointed-out as part of the tour, but I would imagine it plays an important role in creating a balance of new ideas and time-honored traditions when making their quality wine. Quinta da Léda used to be 50% Port and 50% Douro wines. This past year, they produced their own grapes and purchased some from surrounding farmers to result in about 30% Port and 70% Douro wines. The winery’s opening is easily remembered — 9/11/2001.

Upon our arrival, we were served a sparkling wine and some nibbly-bits which consisted of the most flavorful and delicious almonds. After a brief welcome, we enjoyed our refreshments and the view from da Léda’s outside terrace. The terrain of this part of the Duoro Valley is quite arid. As I looked out from the terrace, I could imagine a cowboy riding his horse over the hillside in pursuit of a band of gruffy outlaws. They said it gets quite hot in the summer months — too hot to stand out like we were doing to enjoy the view for every long. More comfortable weather and few, if any, tourists = two perks of a fall visit to the Douro!

The quinta or winery facility is built into a hillside. The architect took advantage of the topography, so that gravity could feed the grapes from the surface collection hoppers down a series of floors to stainless steel storage containers for final shipping and storage off-site. After harvesting, trucks hauling carts full of grapes pull under a type of open, but covered car-port area where the grapes are dumped into a collection hopper and then gravity fed into vats for punch-over processing or stompers for punch-down processing.

We took a flight of stairs down one level to take a look at these two different processing methods. The punch-down process is more violent and can not be used when the grape skins are thin due to the mechanical arms which “stomp” down the grapes. The day we were visiting, the grapes being handled were thin-skinned due to a season filled with lots of rain, so the punch-over process was demonstrated. A type of wine “sprinkler” system was turned on that pumped grape juice from the bottom of the vats and sprayed it out on top. The grape skins float to the top during this punch-over process resulting in a much more gentle way of separating or extracting liquid from the grapes. The winemakers use presses to squeeze out the remnants of the grapes to collect the last bit of wine. This most-concentrated wine is placed in barrels and used like salt and pepper for final flavoring and seasoning.

This level of the quinta was quite unique. Normally, every other winery tour I’ve been on took you through a series of windowless, cavern-like spaces filled with huge stainless steel vats. Unlike other wineries, Quinta da Léda has huge, screenless windows on three sides of the facility. The massive shutters were open wide to let in sunshine and fresh air which was a huge advantage for workers who spend long hours pumping and punching the grapes — especially during the hot summer months. With the gorgeous views just outside, the windows were very much like landscape paintings hung along an art gallery wall. So the quinta’s design served both functionally and aesthetically in many ways.

Our tour continued on down another flight of stairs to the next area so that the workers could get back to filling the punch-over vats. The pumps were super loud and filled the whole building like a busy manufacturing plant. I had recently taken a tour of the DHL shipping facility at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport back home and the series of steel walkways and stairs was very reminiscent of that tour. The whole space was open, so we could see the quinta’s activities on all three floors.

Our tour ended at the bottom level of the quinta with a lovely lunch served right beneath all the wine-making activity we had just witnessed. We were greeted with large cups of warm pumpkin soup. Above us, were the bottoms of the stainless steel vats with spouts ready for efficient conveyance directly into trucks for their transport to cooler storage locations off-site which were much more conducive to quality winemaking and final bottling.

A long table was elegantly laid out for us to enjoy traditional Portuguese foods. I particularly enjoyed the salad course with fresh greens, apples, pomegranate seeds along with peppers, beets, green beans and mushrooms. Everything went very well with all the wines, although the Casa Ferreirinha 2010 Callabriga Douro a very flavorful red which reflected the dry, arid surrounding landscape was my favorite. We were sad to end our time so soon at Quinta da Léda, but we had to bid farewell to everyone and board the bus for our long, six plus hour ride to Logroño, Spain and the 2013 Digital Wine Communications Conference!

Disclosure: I tasted the wines of the Douro River Valley as a part of a sponsored press trip of the region, organized by Greengrape (www.greengrape.pt), along with 12 other wine, gastronomy and tourism bloggers from several countries. My travel and accommodations were provided by the sponsor.

Douro: True Beauty Radiates in Darkness and Light

December 30th, 2013

Train TimTrain GroupOur small group of wine bloggers had transferred trains only once after nightfall. Practically every other passenger from the crowds we had started-off with at São Bento railway station in Porto had reached their final destinations and left us. Train rides always make me feel like I’ve experienced time travel — and it’s always a trip back in time — never into the future?!? This feeling is heightened when I have to sit in a backwards-facing seat.

My journey from Porto along the Douro River was no exception. It felt like the end of the line as we all disembarked at the desolate Aregos train station. The station’s small depot was dimly lit with a handful of small industrial-looking lamps – resembling the reproductions available at Restoration Hardware. The only sounds were some barking dogs far off in the distance. We walked into the dark along a side gravel path through a picket fence. A few steps later, we were on a small country road and saw a middle-aged gentleman illuminated only by the tail lights of his fancy SUV. A chill was in the air as he directed us to pile into his car or the van behind us. Five of us followed him and climbed into the warm SUV. We started up the winding hillside away from the railroad tracks and river valley. It was all a bit unsettling. I mean, we wine bloggers have traveled numerous times together to places unknown, meeting strangers, trying new foods and tasting wine grape varieties of which we’d never before heard. We certainly are not a shy group – and always up for anything, but the time-travel train ride, late arrival in the dark, this stranger driving us to who knows where — it was all a bit odd.

After a couple minutes, my friend riding in the passenger seat asked our driver, “Who are you?” “I’m Tony Smith, owner of Quinta de Covela (www.covela.pt) and your host.” It all sounded like a line out of the movie “Clue,” but I exhaled an inaudible sigh of relief and angst was replaced by excitement for what Tony had in store for us – just around the next dark bend in the road…

Okay, so that’s all a bit dramatic. But seriously, it happened just like that! It was an amazing beginning to our Douro Valley press trip. It felt like 2am when we arrived at the train station, but I think it was more like 7 or 8pm — you know how early the sun sets in fall especially on overcast, rainy evenings.

Tony drove us down a gravel drive and stopped at a very modern, suburban-looking, two-car garage. We got out of the SUV and beyond the garage, it was again pitch black, but we could see house lights in the distance and you got a sense that one step too far off the driveway might send you into a long, spiraling and painful fall all the way back down into the Douro River. After we were informed that this was the spot of our overnight accommodations, we claimed our luggage and headed into the house through the garage. The villa was actually more like a chic mixture of small, boutique hotel and B&B out in the middle of nowhere. Ours was one of three villas at Quinta de Covela that had been designed by José Paulo dos Santos, one of Portugal’s most admired contemporary architects. Down a narrow hall lined on one side with dark stained wood closets were four doors which led into our hotel rooms. The spaces were of a very modern, minimalist concrete and wood design – just my style.

We unpacked and freshened-up a bit and then were transported to Quinta de Covela again via Tony and his SUV. We arrived well before the other group of bloggers, giving us a rare opportunity to spend some time getting to know Tony and how he came to be at Covela. With little probing, but a lot of earnest interest on our part, Tony shared about his previous life in publishing at Conde Nast. Although this career proved very successful, Tony wanted to achieve something more. After talking for awhile, Tony revealed that his father had started a plumbing (if I recall correctly) business that he turned into a life-long profession. Tony spoke of how his father put great value in an honest day’s work and building something from nothing with your own hands. His father left a lasting impression on Tony – in that he wanted to make something, build something of value and impact. Call it a midlife crisis, change of heart, legacy-longing….whatever! Like many of us pondering our “next chapter in life,” Tony went through his own version of this and decided that he was interested in owning and operating a winery – someplace, but where? After considering all options, the Douro made it to his short list. Finding Quinta de Covela available for purchase in 2011, ended his search.

At Quinta de Covela, Tony and his partner have turned around an idle and neglected vineyard that had fallen into bad times. He invited back the former winemaker, Rui Cunha, who wanted to see the winery live on and flourish. Tony, the Renaissance Man that he is, has recreated Covela, with the help of others, out of something that had once been. He returned the vineyard to production employing ten or so young locals and, in return, feeding the local economy through using the special talents and services of trades-people.

All this we learned from Tony in the time we spent with him prior to his welcome toast to the whole group and then again as we sat together at dinner later that night. It was the type of warm, open and honest conversation that feeds the soul. I don’t mean to be all sentimental-mushy-gross. It truly was an evening both memorable and meaningful. We didn’t discuss pop music, mundane celebrities, stupid divisive politics, rather, we listened to a story of one man warmed by a fire in Covela’s stone central building while dogs lay sleeping at our feet and darkness blanketed all around us – keeping what lay beyond a mystery. That was my introduction to the Douro Valley!

morning view from hotelWalk to breakfastIn the morning, the sun rose to reveal our first glances of the Douro Valley’s physical beauty. The morning mist hung over the river and we were enveloped in peaceful quiet – except for the occasional barking dog. We walked this time the short distance from our overnight villa, past sleepy orchards and vineyards, and down Covela’s rustic drive. Our appetites ready for a hearty breakfast and the start of our first full day as visitors to this amazing region, its people and its wines!

stone benchCovela DrivewayDisclosure: I tasted the wines of the Douro River Valley as a part of a sponsored press trip of the region, organized by Greengrape (http://www.greengrape.pt/), along with 12 other wine, gastronomy and tourism bloggers from several countries. My travel and accommodations were provided by the sponsor.

Oporto, Oporto! Where for art thou, Oporto?

December 29th, 2013

Oporto, or Porto, is the second largest city in Portugal. It’s located on the coast about a two and a half hour train ride north from Lisbon. It’s a very walkable city — which we learned by taking part in a Taste of Porto Food Tour (www.tasteportofoodtours.com). Our energetic guide André provided the perfect introduction to this wonderful city. Our tour group consisted of only six wine bloggers, a perfect size to get acquainted with Oporto and one another.

We began our tour at the most northern stop — Loja dos Pastéis de Chaves. Pastéis is a buttery, flakey pastry with options of sweet or savory fillings. We were served smaller than normal portion sizes to make room for all the other tastings planned during the tour. One pastéis was filled with chocolate and the other with mushrooms and onions. Several napkins were required and I’m sure they had to run the vacuum after we all left — we were all covered in pastry crumbs.

A short walk from Loja dos Pasteis de Chaves in direction of the river brought us to the Mercado do Balhão area and Café Christina. Café Christina opened in 1804 and is a perfect example of the cafés one can pop into all over Europe for a quick and cheap caffeine buzz! It was cafés such as this that the founder of Starbucks visited all over Europe and which led Americans away from cheap diner coffee into the cozy-cool, coffee house phenomena that we all know and love today. The coffee roasted on site was fantastic and fueled us for more walking.

On the way to our “lunch” stop, we passed by an unfortunately, all-too frequent sight in Oporto — a closed and empty storefront. André shared that this was a former, very popular café and that the entire Art Nouveau building was unoccupied. Many buildings in the heart of Oporto are suffering from this same situation. Owners are sitting on properties while the historic buildings begin to crumble from lack of maintenance and investment which only sends renovation costs skyrocketing. We did witness a few buildings being repaired and numerous Oporto city blocks were receiving beautiful new sidewalks and street pavers — clearly from a huge investment by the local government thanks to EU financing — or so we were told.
Lunch was served at Flor dos Congregados — a third generation, family-owned restaurant off an alley with the most fancy-pavers I’d ever seen. I have to add that this gem of a restaurant filled with Oporto history and charm — sits literally one block away from a huge McDonalds on the city’s Liberdade Square. I could imagine the number of tourists that missed an opportunity to experience the real Oporto by not venturing one extra block off the main square. At Flor dos Congregados, I was served a traditional codfish dish while others on the tour sampled a slow-roasted pork sandwich on fresh-baked bread.

We strolled westwards to Leitaria da Quinta do Paҫo for some eclairs. My gluten-free option was a glass dish of strawberries in the cream they used for the eclairs. One word – decadent! We needed to walk again, fast and for some distance this time to burn-off some major calories from this tasting!

We ended our food tour at Taberna do Largo which was owned by two women and best known for their wines and foods from local producers. Nibbly-bits or small bites — whatever you would call them, in Oporto they are petiscos (trincas is term used for larger “bites” or tapas). Our petiscos at do Largo included olives, chorizo sausages, cheeses and other incredible and fresh local foods. We passed plates, taking seconds and thirds of our favorites as we sampled delicious Portuguese wines. It was a feast that none of cared to end! We thanked André for his fabulous tour. After spending the morning with him, I felt oriented and ready to keep exploring…well, maybe after a short afternoon nap!

Disclosure: I participated in this Taste of Porto Food Tour as a part of a sponsored press trip of the region along with other wine, gastronomy and tourism bloggers from several countries.

Portugal vs Spain = No Contest!

December 28th, 2013

This past October marked my fourth consecutive year of ridiculous-luck in that I got to travel with my husband to visit an entirely new European wine region. 2013 was the year of the Iberian Peninsula!

Once I returned back home, my friends and co-workers asked, “So how was your trip?…Where did you go?…Was it wonderful?” My reply every time has been, “Hell yeah, it was wonderful!” — just being away from work and the daily grind is an absolute joy. Much, much more than a vacation away from the norm, this trip definitely had its high points and I must say the Douro River Valley was the tip-top pinnacle!

I’ve been telling everyone who will listen that if they have a chance to visit and have to pick between Portugal or Spain — CHOOSE PORTUGAL!!! I mean, Spain was nice with all its awesome tapas bars and Barcelona’s enormous size and architecture would give NYC a run for its money, so I’m glad I got to visit for a few days…but Portugal — there’s just no comparison. Hands down (and wine glasses down too) – I’d visit again in a heartbeat! Whether the urban-yet walkable city of Oporto or the rural setting of the Douro Valley, Portugal is a mixture of everything good — friendly people, rich history, beautiful architecture and country-sides, amazing variety of food and, of course, THE WINE! So, through a series of posts, I’ll be sharing with you a few of the highlights of my Portugal visit along with specific locations and recommendations for you to consider if you’re planning a trip sometime in the future (which again, I would HIGHLY recommend)!

Disclosure: I tasted the wines of the Douro River Valley as a part of a sponsored press trip of the region, organized by Greengrape (www.greengrape.pt), along with 12 other wine, gastronomy and tourism bloggers from several countries. My travel and accommodations were provided by the sponsor.

A Fluffy-Bubbly Celebration of Friends & Ten Years!

October 6th, 2013

September 27th marked my tenth anniversary as a certified Jazzercise instructor. I’m not much of a “membership” type of gal. I was never a Girl Scout, never part of a sorority, nor do I subscribe to any religious affiliation. So, the fact that I’ve been a devoted member of the Jazzercise “cult” for over a decade now – is quite a milestone for me.

I didn’t want to make a fuss out of my anniversary, so I thought the best way to celebrate it would be to share some lovely sparkling wine with my fellow Jazzercise girlfriends! So, I snuck out of my Associate Instructor, Lybra’s Saturday 9:30am class to set things up and surprise the girls.

RuffinoProseccoHere’s the back-story to what I did…Earlier this spring, I’d seen a picture in some local Cincinnati fashion magazine while waiting at my hair salon. The picture showed a flute of champaign with a fluff of cotton-candy on the rim for some girlie flair. I thought this would be the perfect drink – minus the champaign, adding in some great Prosecco instead (my sparking beverage of choice!). Thanks to the Party Source in Newport, KY — right across the beautiful Ohio River from my office in Cincinnati — I picked up two bottles of Ruffino Prosecco for $9.99 each! A TOTAL bargain! Ruffino has a great taste and is slightly on the sweeter side which I thought the majority of the girls would prefer to a dry or Brut sparkling wine. The Party Source also had boxes of 10 plastic flutes and I splurged and spent the extra buck to get the ones with the bottoms attached. If you’ve ever used the cheaper ones, you know how those bottoms constantly slip off — so tacky and frustrating!

Although the wine was easy, the cotton-candy required a bit of hunting. I first checked Super-Walmart in Fort Wright, KY — they had plenty of Halloween candy, but no cotton-candy. The check-out clerk said that the Subway in the store had sold cotton candy in the past, so I stopped in. Not being a fast-food patron, I was shocked to learn that some Subway franchises do offer cotton candy using their own equipment on the premises. Unfortunately, none was available, but the sweet Subway gal directed me to a corner store near where she lives in Downtown Covington. Not knowing how much I’d need, I bought 3 packages. (Hindsight, one package will suffice with plenty still leftover!).

So, while the girls were finishing up Jazzercise class, I put a fluff of cotton-candy inside and on the rim each of the flutes. Once class was over, we gathered everyone in our little office and popped open the Prosecco. That’s got to be one of my favorite sounds – so fun and festive! I poured the wine in each glass. The cotton-candy came in green, blue, pink and yellow colors — so each glass of wine took on a different fun color. The girls LOVED it!

We made a toast to Lybra for her belated birthday, to me and my 10th anniversary and to all of our awesome Downtown Jazzercisers for giving us the excuse to open a great bottle of sparkling wine and make a normal Saturday morning workout very, very special!

Gettin’ Rioja-Ready One More: Green Tea-Blueberry Smoothie

October 5th, 2013

It’s now less than two weeks until we leave for Spain. I’ve been enjoying the previous three juice smoothies that I’ve already posted about, but decided to try one more that sounded interesting and I had all the ingredients, so why not, right?!? Only thing, this recipe has ZERO vegetables! So, in terms of all the smoothies I’ve tried over the past few weeks, this one has the least nutritional offerings. I just wanted to get that disclaimer out there at the get-go. However, it does include the wonderful properties of green tea, blueberries and the protein-power of yogurt, so it ain’t all that bad!

I would have to say this is my least favorite smoothie taste-wise. It’s just really blah! Not bad, just blah! I can taste a hint of the green tea, but the blandness of the plain, non-fat yogurt come through. The texture also is sprinkled with the flaxseed — giving it a bit of a grit. Don’t think I’ll do this one again. Guess I’ll just drink the rest of the green tea straight-up that I brewed for the recipe!

Here’s the recipe (241 calories and 14g of protein):
1/2 cup frozen blueberries
1/2 cup frozen strawberries
1/2 cup chilled, unsweetened green tea
3/4 cup plain, non-fat yogurt
2 tbsp. ground flaxseed