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Temecula Winery Undaunted by Explosion

Plus, Sir Richard Branson buys a piece of South African wine history, and Hungary establishes new rules for Tokaji

Posted: May 1, 2014

• On April 18, Mount Palomar winery in Southern California’s Temecula Valley got an unpleasant early-morning surprise when a propane tank in the winery’s deli kitchen exploded, destroying the kitchen and taking out a portion of the tasting room. Glass shards were strewn all over the winery’s outdoor patio in a blast radius that looked to be around 20 feet. No injuries were reported. The winery production area, housed in a separate building, suffered no damage. The cause of the fire, believed to be a gas leak in the kitchen, is still under investigation. Peggy Evans, executive director of the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association, said she was surprised to learn that while the explosion “happened on Friday, the undamaged portion of the tasting room was open for business again on Saturday morning.” The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection has estimated that the explosion caused around $2 million in damages. Mount Palomar is one of the oldest wineries in the Temecula Valley.

Sir Richard Branson, the wine-loving billionaire who brought us all things Virgin (Records, Airways, even Galactic), has added a 121-acre piece of South African winemaking history to his collection. Virgin Limited Edition—the arm of the empire responsible for luxury travel destinations such as the private Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands and The Lodge in Verbier, Switzerland, to name a few—has recently acquired Mont Rochelle Hotel & Vineyard, in Franschhoek, South Africa. The purchase price was not disclosed. It represents the first winery destination in the Virgin portfolio, but the fourth destination in Africa. The history of Mont Rochelle goes back as far as 1688, but it was in 2001 that Mont Rochelle became a piece of Cape wine industry history, when Telecel owner Miko Rwayitare, now deceased, purchased the property, making it South Africa’s first wholly black-owned winery. “We are proud to confirm the imminent sale of Mont Rochelle Hotel & Mountain Vineyard," said Albert Gatare, a family member of the late Rwayitare, via a press release. "It is with warmth that Sir Richard Branson is welcomed as the new owner of this gem in the crown of Franschhoek. With both his and Virgin Limited Edition’s ambitious plans for the future of Mont Rochelle, the family of the late Miko Rwayitare is certain that Miko's vision of creating a small slice of heaven on earth will be realized.” The 22-bedroom hotel will be closed for renovations, with re-opening projected for this August.

• The famous dessert wines of Tokaji have undergone a reset as to what constitutes an Aszú, with an eye on maintaining the world's oldest wine-quality classification system, established in 1730. The Hegyközség, the governing body responsible for setting standards and limits in Aszú production, has raised the bar by mandating that going forward with the 2013 vintage, the minimum sugar content for Aszú will be 120 grams per liter. In other words, there will no longer be a 3 puttonyos or 4 puttonyos Aszú, only 5 puttonyos (120 g/l), 6 puttonyos (150 g/l) and the most extreme Aszú Eszencia, which weighs in at 180 g/l. Note that these are minimum levels and that in truly extraordinary vintages the sugar levels in Eszencia can reach up to 900 grams per liter and take as long as seven years to ferment to 2 percent alcohol by volume. It seems that Tokaji has embraced the maxim that quality can be inversely linked to yields. In the case of their most revered wine (it’s mentioned in the national anthem), the yields can make any winery accountant mad: In some cases it takes as much as 110 pounds of grapes to make 1 liter of wine, the same amount that typically yields 38 liters of table wine. So with such a nexus of rarity, history and uniqueness, there is little wonder that Hungary has tightened the standards for Aszú production, further preserving a wine that can already age for centuries.

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