What Do Finns Bring Back From Vacation?

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In Scandinavian countries, alcohol is HIGHLY taxed.   Not surprisingly, they are always ready to take advantage of a deal on alcohol.  He says that he’s never seen anything like the Swedes with an open bar.  Yes, I realize that I’m overgeneralizing a bit here.

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Alcohol is not taxed at the same high rate on the cruises and ferries in the Baltic. As a result, Booze cruises are popular and people take advantage of ferries to lower tax countries to buy alcohol. While waiting for our ferry from Helsinki to Tallinn, we saw people disembarking with their souvenirs.

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If you’re travelling in the Nordics and want to drink. You might want to plan ahead and take advantage of the deals from duty-free. The natives do. DSC_0371 DSC_0372 DSC_0373 DSC_0374 DSC_0377

 

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But What Do I Know? My Favorite Posts Of 2012

I listed the top viewed posts of 2012, but thought I would post a list of my favorite posts of 2012 too.

  1. Duomo’s Rooftop, A Sculpture Garden In The Sky – I just like the pictures.
  2. Dubai’s River, It’s Other Waterfront – I liked how different Dubai was from Geneva and loved its mix of cultures.  While you can see cool skyscrapers lots of places, there aren’t many where you can see the old wood dhows and the people from all over the world who trade on Dubai’s waterfront.
  3. Millennium Trilogy Walking Tour Of Stieg Larsson’s Stockholm – Part Two – I loved The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest (Men Who Hate Women in Swedish).  When we went to Stockholm, I toured the sites mentioned in the books.  Most of them were in the super-cool Sodermalm neighborhood.
  4. Mohawks Welcome But Not Required At The Groezrock Festival– We love live music and a European Music Festival is something to experience.  This one had a great lineup and was well worth the resulting fatigue (better described as exhaustion).
  5. The Toblerone Line, One Sweet Barrier– We looked all over Switzerland for this puppy.  Once we found it, we couldn’t stop seeing it places (Reichenbach Falls, near Thun, etc.).
  6. Why I Love Running– One of my favorite things.
  7. Weingut Otto Laubsenstein – Fantastic people + fantastic wine = unforgettable time.
  8. It Wasn’t Premeditated, Our Hike Up Rochers-de-Naye – A reader suggestion and one of the best views in Switzerland.  If you’re not up for hours of hiking straight uphill, you can always take the train there.
  9. The Shock Of Your Life – Culture Shock – I tried to keep it real.
  10. Les Contamines – Although we’ve done a lot of skiing, this was one of our favorite days because we spent it with wonderful fr

How They Put The Bubbles In Champagne, The Champagne Method

In the 1662 the English scientist and physician Christopher Merret described how adding sugar to a finished wine created a second fermentation in a paper presented Royal Society.  Not surprisingly, when I visited Champagne, they didn’t mention English contributions to the local brew.  Here’s how they told it…

Once upon a time, the French Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon discovered the secret of putting bubbles into wine, inventing Champagne.   Although he didn’t, the French Benedictine monk made important contributions to Champagne’s production.  In Champagne, the art of mixing the produce of different vineyards to achieve the perfect blend is of the utmost importance.  Ol’ Dom was the first to do this.

In the 19th century, Champagne was sweeter; they added sugar helped disguise flaws and/or poor quality.  In 1846, Perrier-Jouët decided not to sweeten his Champagne and it was a hit.  Modern Champagne had arrived.  Just how do they get the bubbles inside?  The “champagne method.”  Many other sparkling wines, including Prosecco, use other methods of putting the bubbles in.  There is just something special about champagne and it might have something to do with this process.

Like regular wine, champagne starts out with crushed, fermented grapes.  In Champagne, they use grapes from different vineyards to produce a neutral, acidic wine.  Strong flavor would interfere with the development and final flavor.  The acidity is needed for the second fermentation and extended aging.  Who knew chemistry could be so tasty?

After the initial fermentation, they add a wine and sugar mixture known as “liqueur de triage” to base wine (which is known as the cuvée) before a second fermentation.  They cap it up for the secondary fermentation; this extra fermentation naturally produces the bubbles.   Carbon dioxide (aka bubbles) is a byproduct.

Bottles are stored on riding racks, which turn them almost upside down so residue settles in the bottles neck.  Even though it’s not in the neck, you can see what the residue (known as lees) looks likes in the picture above.

Bottles are marked with lines so that they can be turned regularly.  They are turned incrementally to avoid disrupting the champagne in the bottle.  I saw Magnums wrapped in plastic to prevent their breaking and shattering surrounding bottles.  Apparently, an exploding bottle of champagne has a dangerous amount of force.  You wouldn’t want the entire stockpile below to be damaged, would you?

After 15 months, the bottle necks are quick-frozen, freezing the residue in the neck. When they remove the cap, the frozen sediment shoots out.  This process is known as disgorgement.

While I’ve mentioned adding mixtures at a couple of points, I haven’t fully detailed its importance.  Champagne is known for blending and it is part of what sets this region apart (Bordeaux is also known for blending).  There, master benders are revered.  It takes tons of knowledge and balls of steel to hold back stock, mix multiple vintages and blend it in with newer vintages.   Cheers!

I Got A Kick From Champagne

“Burgundy makes you think off silly things, Bordeaux makes you talk of them and Champagne makes you do them. Think of silly things, Bordeaux makes you talk of them and Champagne makes you do them.”

Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin, French gastronome, (1755-1826)

After visits to BurgundyAlsaceCôtes du Rhône, and Bordeaux, how could we not visit this wine French wine region?  Champagne is located in in north-eastern France. Although it is doable as a (long) day trip from Paris (the region starts 120 kilometers/75 miles from the city) , I did it as part of a visit to the World War I battlefield of Verdun.   There were people on some of my tours that were out from Paris for the day.  Trust me when I tell you that with a driver taking them from one producer of Champagne to another, they were having a very, um, fun educational experience.

Champagne has 4 main cities: Reims, Troyes, Chalons en Champagne and Epernay.  Most of the guidebooks recommend either Reims or the smaller Epernay.  I wanted to visit the famous (and UNESCO World Heritage Site) cathedral at Reims, so I chose to go there.  If I’d had more time, I would have done the Champagne Tourist Route.  It covers more than 500 km between Reims, Epernay and the Côte des Bar, and has around 80 welcome centers.  Growers offer tours in personalized settings, but you need to be better organized than I was and arrange them in advance.  Squeezing it in at the last minute meant that I could only tour producers like Tattinger and Pomeroy.

Let me explain.  Like Burgundy, Champagne’s vineyards are classified as Grand Cru, Premier Cru or Deuxième Cru.  However, in Champagne this does not give an indication of the vineyard’s quality or potential.  It functions more as a means to establish the price a grower gets for his harvest.   The producer or skill of the wine-maker in Champagne means that it is possible to have an outstanding performer in a second classed village and a moderate grower in a higher classed Grand Cru (just like Bordeaux, but different from Burgundy).  Confused yet?


How Thirsty Are You? French Wine Bottles From The Petite To The Gargantuan

Before our travels, I had no idea that wine came in so many different sized bottles.  Most of our visitors didn’t either.  While you can find different sizes in other areas of the globe, these are the most common in France.

  • Demi (0.375 liters) – meaning “half” in French, this is also known as a “halfbottle”.

  • Standard (.750 liters) – I think most of us know what this one looks like.  Many of us may have even had the opportunity to drink from one at some point.  It holds about 6 glasses of wine, less if you have larger glasses.
  • Magnum (1.5 liters)– I’ll admit it, this one first came to my attention through rap songs.  Essentially, this is two bottles.

  • Double Magnum (4.5 liters) –After exceeding the size of a Magnum, the sizes often have the names of biblical kings and other biblical figures.  A double magnum is also known as  “Jeroboam.”  Being twice a magnum, this holds 4 bottles.
  • Rehoboam (4.5 liters) – This one holds 6 bottles.
  • Methuselah (6 liters) – this is known as “Imperial” in Burgundy, this bad boy holds 8 bottles.

  • Salmanazar (9 liters) – a slightly different shape of the same size is known as Mordechai.  Why buy a case (12 bottles for you teetotalers) when you could buy a Mordechai?

  • Balthazar (12 liters) – Okay, if you want to get technical this guy was a wise man and not a king.  It holds 16 bottles, now that’s a party.
  • Nebuchadnezzar (15 liters)  – Also a wise man, not to be confused with a “wise guy.”  It holds 20 bottles.  When we saw it for the first time, we joked about buying one for aging when a child was born and saving it for their wedding.   It seems that large.
  • Melchior (20 liters) – I didn’t even know this existed.

We saw some unusual shaped bottles here and there.

  • Châteauneuf-du-Pape makes a wavy bottle after one of the ancient ones found in its cellars.
  • Before the standardization of sizes, we saw many tucked away in cellars or on display in non-standard sizes.  They used bottle bolds like the one below.

For extra credit, the dimple in the bottom of a wine bottle is known as a “punt,” easy to remember for fans of American football.

Bon weekend everyone!

I Have Spent More On Highway Tolls Than Shopping In France

Yes.  That title, although said, is true.  Let me explain.

While some highways and bridges in the US need of repair, our highway system is pretty extensive.  For the most part, it’s cheap or free.  Switzerland got a late start building their highway system.  They haven’t even finished it yet.  In typical Swiss fashion, it is extraordinarily engineered and well maintained.  Their infrastructure is impressive; our visitors are always amazed by the tunnels.  Some of it is also rigged to blow.    Foreigners who drive through Switzerland complain about having to pay for vignettes, stickers that allow the vehicle to travel on Swiss highways.  You purchase them at the border (or at the post office) for 40 CHF and they are good all year.

Not surprisingly, they do things a bit differently in France.  Here are some of the main differences:

Highways in France require paying tolls.  Lots of them.  I can’t remember exactly how much we spent in tolls heading from Geneva to the south of France and back, but it was well over 100 Euro and probably more like 200 Euro.  It was too painful to tabulate and made Switzerland’s 40 CHF vignette look like a bargain.

Highways in France are privatized.  Therefore, if your car happened to break down on one,  your auto service cannot come get you.  Only certain specified highway-approved tow trucks are allowed to come get your car.  I learned this little tidbit of information the hard way.  In case you were wondering, you must always pay the toll when exiting the highway… even when your car exits on the back of a truck.

Rest areas in France are a little different than in North Carolina.  They serve real food… and wine.  I was busy worrying about my car and chatting with the police, the tow truck driver, etc., so I didn’t partake (not that I had to worry about driving in the near future).  It looked pretty tasty.

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Description unavailable (Photo credit: Alain Bachellier)

On some highways in France, they have wildlife overpasses (also known as wildlife crossings) for animals to cross the highway.  A practice in habitat conservation, it connects habitats, countering fragmentation.  They also help prevent animals from entering onto the highway, avoiding the resulting accidents.   Below is a photo of one of them.  Sorry I couldn’t take one, but I was busy driving.  It’s handy to avoid the scene above…or worse.

Français : Autoroute A19 – Ouvrage dédié au pa...

Français : Autoroute A19 – Ouvrage dédié au passage de la faune (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

St. Emilion, Where They Make The Nectar Of The Gods

 

I don’t want to bore you with stories of another medieval hill town or tales of wine, but on our ladies road trip, we fell in love with Saint-Emilion and I can’t help but wax rhapsodic about it.  It is a gorgeous medieval hill town made of limestone quarried locally.

Around 5,400 hectares of vineyards and many small châteaux surround it.   Saint-Emilion has all the accoutrements you expect in a cute french hill town, inviting squares, cute shops, cobblestones, music wafting through the air, flowers, fountains, light blue shutters that look great against the limestone…you get the idea.  If I haven’t already convinced you to endure one more hill town post, that it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site probably won’t sway you either.

Saint-Emilion  has been located on the pilgrimage route to Santiago de Compostela since the 11th century.  As a result, many churches, monasteries and hospices were built there.  We’d heard that the bell tower of the St. Emilion Monolithic Church had the best view of the city and it was worth making the climb up the ancient winding stairs to the top of the tower.  We paid a Euro or two each and grabbed the key from the Office of  Tourism across the way.

The bell tower was built between the 12th and 15th centuries.  Not long after that, people started carving their names and dates into it.  I’m a sucker for ancient graffiti.  I loved searching for it and reading it. The best part though was the view. Heaven.

Unfortunately our, ahem, transportation challenges (broken clutch) prevented us from having more time to tour Saint-Emilion.  I’d hoped to see the vast limestone catacombs located under the city that contain Europe’s largest underground church.  They are supposed to be amazing.

Fortunately, we still had time to check out the romanesque church and cloister, shop for antiques (you know I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to poke around this cute store), have a nice meal, listen to some street musicians, stroll the streets and catch one heck of a sunset.  Not too shabby.

 

More Than Just Champagne Wishes And Caviar Dreams Bordeaux’s Chateaux As Investments

More than just “champagne wishes and caviar dreams,” wineries today can be investments, part of a portfolio.  This is often the case in Bordeaux.

In Bordeaux, wineries are known as Chateau.  They may only use the grapes from their vineyards to produce wine.  As such, their size limits their production.  The volume produced is further limited by the rules related to the appellation or AOC.  This ceiling on Bordeaux’s production cannot be significantly raised, yet wine has become an increasingly popular beverage around the world.   This keeps prices, particularly for recognized and higher end labels, and making them a good investment.

Until then, enjoy these shots of Chateaux In Bordeaux.

A Most Excellent Day Touring Bordeaux Wineries

Although we could have driven from one Bordeaux winery to another, we did a tour.  We did this for several reasons.

  • I firmly believe that if you are going to drink, for goodness sake don’t drive.  I didn’t mind driving across France, but would have hated driving around Bordeaux if it meant missing out on this once in a lifetime experience.
  • Bordeaux is massive with thousands of wineries.  It’s hard to know which ones to visit.  We were pleased with both the quality and variety of wineries chosen by our guide in the know.
  • We planned this road trip days in advance.  With such short notice, it would have been difficult to make all the arrangements ourselves.

Jurgen, our guide/ designated driver chose three vastly different wineries for us to visit in Bordeaux.   First, we visited Chateau Laniote in St. Emilion.  It is a family run winery run by a delightful couple.  She’s a oneologist (a wine scientist) and he’s the resident magician and jack of all trades.  Their wine was tasty and a good value.  I’m always interested in how family businesses operate and wish we could have stayed longer to talk with them.   Unfortunately for us, they were busy racking the wine (siphoning it from one container to the next in order to leave the sediment behind).  Fortunately for us, we had other lovely vineyards to visit.  After we left, our guide told us he was a Baron.   I don’t know that I’ve ever met a Baron or Baroness before.  I hope as nice and hard-working as these guys.

Our next visit was to Chateau Gruaud Larose (above).  We had a nice guide who explained some of the unique things about their winery.

  • It is located in the St Julian appellation, which is known for producing full-bodied and elegant wines.
  • They make both a first label (higher quality/more expensive) and second label (which uses grapes from younger vines and other cuvées).   The second label is Sarget du Château Gruaud-Larose.

  • They are state of the art and have embraced technology in their efforts to produce the best wine possible.  They have a weather station that is replete with a machine to break up hail, a hail gun…sort of.  It is in the distance, near the furthest building in the picture above.
  • They have a fancy-schmancy grape sorter.  It uses high-precision cameras to electronically select only perfect, ripe grapes.

We visited the highly praised Château Pontet-Canet.  While Château Gruaud-Larose embraced technology, Château Pontet-Canet returned to traditional methods in their efforts to produce a high quality wine.

  • Bordeaux is notorious for its adherence to rigid classifications laid out in the 1800’s.  Château Pontet-Canet is classified as a Cinquième Crus (fifth growth).  Our guide, Jurgen, echoed the main criticism of this rigidity when he explained to us that it meant that a fifth growth level could be better than a second-growth because of how they operate their vineyard.
  • Even though it is a lowly fifth growth, it is located in the Pauillac area of Bordeaux, across the road from first growth Château Mouton Rothschild Other illustrious neighbors include: Château Lafite and Château Mouton.  Some of the world’s most highly respected and expensive wines.  Even at several hundred dollars a bottle, people still argue that it is underrated and a terrific value.

  • Once-derided, this winery’s quality has steadily risen, particularly after its  conversion to biodynamics.  This 2007 vintage is controversial because it resorted to chemicals to treat oidium and mildew,  a decision they now regret.   That being said, I tasted it and it was pretty darn good.

  • They use horses in the vineyards. Horses compact the soils less, and do not damage the vine’s roots like tractors.

  • They sort grapes by hand, worried that an automated sorter would damage the grapes or crush them unnecessarily early.  After the manual sorting, their grapes drop directly into tanks in the floor below.

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What Is Claret? The Question That Sparked A Tasty Adventure in Bordeaux

We’ve been watching British television and one of our favorite shows is “Grand Designs.”  The host, Kevin McCloud, kept referring to “claret.”  Being idiot Americans, we had no idea what sort of beverage it was (other than it was a deep purplish-red color).  Thanks to the magic of the internet, we learned it is “a red wine from Bordeaux, or wine of a similar character made elsewhere” (according to Merriam-Webster).  After that moment – and visiting France’s other wine regions (BurgundyCotes du RhoneAlsace, Champagne) – I wanted to go see what could make stoic Brits wax rhapsodic about this wine.  Luckily, it was pretty easy to convince Wildcat and Hokie to take an girl’s road trip.

A few hours into our trip, they might have started to regret it.  To get to Bordeaux from Geneva, you have to drive across all of France to the Atlantic.  We broke down in the middle of nowhere on our way (for more, check out their accounts here and here).  We arrived in Bordeaux just in time to get a good night’s sleep so that we could begin our “education” bright and early the next day.

Bordeaux is larger and more complex than France’s other wine regions.  It has  an astounding variety of different appellations (recognized types that correspond to demarcated zones that were established in 1855 by Napolean III) in part because the region is large.  It is also topographically and climatically diverse.  It’s soils are geologically complex and vary significantly from one appellation to the next.  Its location on the Atlantic coast and on rivers further inland (the Gironde River and its tributaries, the Garonne and Dordogne) creates dramatically different weather conditions across the region.

Bordeaux wines are all about blending.  Part science, part art, the results are pure magic.  The grapes in the blends should complement each other and make a complex, interesting, balanced and harmonious blend.  The goal is to make the blended wine better than the individual grapes that contribute to it.  In other words, the whole (the blended wine) should be more than the sum of its parts (the individual grapes).

The grapes most commonly used in blending Bordeaux wines are: MerlotCabernet Sauvignon and  Cabernet Franc.  The Merlot grapes give the wine color, roundness and suppleness.  The Cabernet Sauvignon grapes provide the tannins, the wine’s backbone and structure.  In young wines, it is very aromatic and provides increasing complexity as it ages.  The Cabernet Franc grapes add a gentleness, a counterpoint to the Sauvignon.

If you haven’t already guessed from the definition of “claret,” most of Bordeaux’s wines are red (around 85%).  Bordeaux is the world’s number one producer of both Cabernet and Merlot grape varieties.  Sante!