The history, wines and oils of Les Baux de Provence

November 14, 2013

Despite its diminutive name, Les Alpilles, literally meaning the Little Alps is a rich and diverse area which makes it a popular tourist destination. During the summer, it may be one to avoid if traffic and crowds are not what you are after, but during the winter the area is calmer, and although some restaurants and shops are closed for the season, it is a small price to pay in order to enjoy the region in peace and calm. Wine writer and French resident Liz Gabay MW pays a visit and gives us this account.

Les Baux en Provence map
Les Alpilles are a range of jagged limestone hills, rising to 387m, which run west to east for around 25km, and 10km north to south. On the eastern side, the Durance River separates the region from the hills of the Luberon before flowing westwards, north of Les Alpilles. Between the river and the hills, lies a large fertile region, criss-crossed with streams and irrigation canals and filled with orchards and market gardens. North-west of Les Alpilles, the Durance joins the Rhône which then flows past the western edge of the hills. To the south the hills slope down to the now-drained marshes of Les Baux and the Rhône delta. The vineyards are located on the foothills of Les Alpilles, scattered between olive groves, Mediterranean scrub and forest.

Wines with strong characters
The vineyards of Les Alpilles are to be found in a circle surrounding the hills, and due to the very varied terroir (in all senses of the word – soils, aspect and micro-climate) the wines, labelled as AOC Les Baux-de-Provence or IGP Les Alpilles, have the potential to develop strong regional character within the appellations – I say potential, because outside of a serious blind tasting of all the wines, the subtleties of each region combined with winemaking variations, make it difficult to always spot these variations.

Les Baux vineyard

Mas Sainte Berthe vineyard with the fortified citadel of Les Baux in the background ©Mick Rock/www.Cephas.com

The majority of the wines produced are red, made from varying percentages of Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache and an assortment of Provencal grapes. Most reds have a pronounced rich, concentrated black fruit and berry character with firm tannins. Rosé wines are often full-bodied, slightly darker in colour than many of their Provencal counterparts and more Rhône-style, as well as better suited to accompany a meal. White wines only received the Les Baux appellation in 2012, and many vineyards still offer IGP Les Alpilles wines from a range of grape varieties. Those with a higher percentage of Roussane tend to be more Rhône-like, those with more Rolle and Ugni Blanc closer to Provencal whites. The Les Baux AOC is also the very first appellation in France to stipulate that all wines must be organic.

The stuff of legends
Water sources play an important part in the local agriculture. Derivations of the Gallo-roman word for water ’eig’ are found in the place names of Aix to the south-east, Eyguières, Eyragues and Eygalieres in the region of Les Baux, and Aigues-Mortes to the south-west. Fresh-water springs attracted the Celts, Ligurians, Greeks and Romans and the area is rich in archaeological remains. In the middle of Les Alpilles lies the archaeological site of Glanum, a Roman town including roads, houses, baths, temples and the foundations of a Fumarium or wine-smoking room. The site also boasts a small café where you can eat Roman style food. The wine estate Domaine Dalmeran lies on the original Roman via Domitia which linked Glanum to Beaucaire on its way to Spain; Roman wells and buildings can still be seen.

Mas de la Dame Provence

The vineyard of Mas de la Dame with the limestone rock of the Alpilles behind ©Mick Rock/www.Cephas,com

To the south of Glanum lies the hilltop village and castle of Les Baux (‘baou’ in the Provencal language means cliff), whose history is the stuff of legends: Fearsome rulers who made their enemies walk through the window to their death on the plains below, troubadours, strategic marriages to many of Europe’s ruling houses, wealth, splendour and finally destruction. By the 18th century the castle and village were abandoned, but restoration began in the late-19th century, when artists and writers were attracted to the region by the climate, clear sunlight and the possibility to live cheaply. The first to come were Van Gogh (who painted the farm Mas de la Dame) and Daudet (who wrote ‘Letters from my Windmill’ in Fontvieille) in the 1880s; during the Second World War artistic refugees fled south from Paris and in the 1950s, René Dürrbach, painter, sculptor and friend to Picasso, moved to the region, buying Domaine de Trévallon in 1960.

Olives on a tree

Olives ready for picking ©Liz Gabay

Exploring the region
Visiting the vineyards is relatively easy, if you follow the road which encircles Les Alpilles. Starting in the north-west, between Orgon and Saint Rémy are Valdition, Romanin, Terres Blanches and Hauvette. West of Saint-Rémy-de-Provence, facing the Rhône valley, you will find Dalmeran and Trévallon and to the south, Estoublon (with château, restaurant and shop), Mas Sainte Berthe, Mas de la Dame, Gourgonnier, and Lauzières. Many vineyards also make and sell their own olive oil, and it is also possible to visit olive oil producers. Moulin Castelas offers olive oil tastings with a range of oils from light fresh and fruity with hints of artichoke and pepper made from green olives, to dark rich and strongly flavoured oils made with black olives. The harvest is early November with the new oil ready for sale by December.

Saint Rémy-de-Provence is a great base from which to explore the region. A beautiful town in its own right, with abundant architectural evidence of its prosperous history, it is close enough to Avignon to be a commuter town, pretty enough to attract a large number of tourists and stylish enough to boast a number famous residents. The town is vibrant, if not cheap.

French chocolates

Small part of the choice in Joël Durand’s chocolate shop ©Liz Gabay

Wednesday mornings see a magnificent market, which spreads throughout the town turning it into a vibrant, throbbing shopping centre. Indulge in cakes from the exquisite patisserie Marshal Mitchell, savour the perfectly aged cheeses in a tasting with Monique Mayer (both on Place Joseph Hilaire), or treat yourself to the amazing array of chocolates, including one flavoured with black olives, from Joël Durand (Boulevard Victor Hugo). Restaurants to suit all tastes and budgets can be found in and around Saint Rémy from Michelin starred (Baumanière, Ma Maison…) to pizza places. Do look out for local specialities from the Camargue – wild rice and gamey beef in particular.

Contact details for all the wineries can be found on Les Baux’ appellation website that is in French, and for more details along with some extra information on the surrounding region, take a look at the Wine Travel Guide to Aix-en-Provence and Les Baux.

 Look out for Liz Gabay’s new blog, about to go live.


Discovering wine and remembering war on the Gallipoli Peninsula

April 23, 2013

By Brett Jones

The Gallipoli Peninsula, to the south west of Istanbul, is located in Turkish Thrace, the European part of Turkey, with the Aegean Sea to the west and the Dardanelles to the east. In 1980 the Gallipoli Peninsula Historic National Park was founded, encompassing 35,000 hectares of countryside, to protect the military and natural history of the region. Although there have been vineyards for grape production on the hills of this rural region of Turkey since long ago it is only in the last few years that serious wine production has been developed.

Western Turkey map

Last year the Digital Wine Communications Conference (EWBC) was held in Izmir, Turkey, during which we discussed the origins of wine, tasted a surprisingly wide selection of wines from both Turkey and neighbouring countries, and met with a wonderful group of like-minded wine people. Beforehand I joined a group for a rather unusual winery tour to Thrace, a couple of hours’ drive west of Istanbul, with the chance to visit two recently established wineries, Suvla and Galî.

ANZAC cemetery

The Anzac war cemetery ©Brett Jones

A personal history
I had a particular interest in visiting this eastern corner of Europe where many battles had been fought and wars waged: 3,000 years ago it was the scene of the Trojan War, and in the First World War the ill-fated Dardanelles campaign.

My grandfather had fought here in 1915, surviving but so appalled by what he’d seen and endured that he never told me anything about his time there. It was also an awful experience for the Australian and New Zealand forces who eagerly joined up to help and support the Empire,  the first time that troops from so far away wanted to be involved in such a conflict.

The ANZACS, as they became known, acquitted themselves so well in such a badly planned and executed campaign that they became highly respected by their Turkish enemies, and vice versa. Indeed, with the passage of time (it is now nearly 100 years, and three generations, since the Allied Forces lost this campaign) the remembrance services on the peninsula, especially at Anzac Cove, have become very well attended by friend and foe, now all of them friends.

Anzac Day is a national day of remembrance in Australia and New Zealand on 25th April to commemorate those who died here and in other military operations. The battle was also the making of Kemal Ataturk who proved to be a great general and later became the father of modern Turkey.

Modern Wine Culture
In spite of a wealth of unusual, indigenous Turkish grape varieties the principal wineries here have concentrated on planting mainly classic, international vines.

First we visited the winery of Galî in Evrese, overlooking the Gulf of Soros. Both the winery and the wine cellar were constructed using local stones, which naturally regulate the humidity and temperature. This architectural set-up also allows for the wines to be produced in the gravity-flow method, without using any pumps.

Gali vineyard

Gali’s vineyard overlooking the Sea of Marmara ©Brett Jones

Galî was founded in 2005 when Hakan Kavur and his wife, Nilgün,  bought 48 hectares of land and planted half with vines, a mix of 78% Merlot, 14% Cabernet Franc and 8% Cabernet Sauvignon. Hakan, who had retired as an engineer in Switzerland, studied wine in Bordeaux and decided to make two reds modelled on the Bordeaux château style.

Their first vintage release was 2009 on sale from 2011. Big, rich and juicy, the three high quality reds we tasted were a tad over laden with new oak tannins, but future vintages will have less wood influence and promise well.

Owners of Gali, Turkey

Hakan and Nilgün Kavur of Gali ©Brett Jones

We drove 13km into the countryside where we walked in their vineyards overlooking the shimmering Aegean Sea to the west and the beautiful Sea of Marmara in the east – endorsing the benign maritime climate. We enjoyed a home-made lunch in the family home after an aperitif in one of the WWII bunkers nearby! Better to store wine there rather than bombs… and that’s just what the Kavurs plan to do in the next couple of years.

We left this kind couple who are so passionate about their wine to drive further down the Peninsula to visit another exciting winery in Eceabat, by the Cannakale Strait , the Dardanelles.

After working in a variety of different enterprises, including the IT business,  Selim Zafer Ellialti decided to make wine. Seriously make wine.  In 2003, while he worked as general manager at Microsoft, responsible for the Middle East and Africa region, he and his wife, Pinar, created Suvla Wines. First they planted 44 hectares of vines, in their new Bozokbağ vineyards, mainly of international red and white varieties but some indigenous types as well.

Originally Selim sold their grapes to a big Turkish wine company but in 2009 they opened their modern winery, converted from an old textile factory, which is fronted by a smart shop and a tasting area that wouldn’t be out of place in the New World. They sell their own cold-pressed olive oil as well as other speciality local foods. In the tasting bar, one can have snacks with pairings with their wines, and meals are available by reservation for groups.

Suvla Wines Turkey

Suvla Wine’s tasting room and shop ©Brett Jones

Mainly from international varieties, Suvla produces a comprehensive range of wines, which are sought after by their Turkish clientele, though their wines from local varieties are increasing and perhaps more of interest for exports. Again, some of the wines showed a bit too much oak, but it worked particularly well with both the Syrah Reserve 2010, full of berries and spices, and their special Bordeaux blend named SUR.

We did learn that there is a good reason for why wines tasted here and elsewhere in Turkey were to our palates over-oaked – only new oak barrels can be imported into Turkey, so it will take few years for the barrels to lose their aggressive tannins.

Map of Gallipoli

Anzac Cove
As we wanted to be at Anzac Cove before sunset we didn’t have time to visit the brand new Gallipoli Kabatepe Simulation Centre, which has replaced the old war museum. The centre has 11 gallery rooms, each equipped with advanced high-tech simulation equipment.  The story of the 1915 Gallipoli naval and land campaigns is told from both Turkish and ANZAC points of view, and is well worth visiting.

At Anzac Cove our small group quietly walked around, each of us trying to come to terms with the awfulness of war, the suffering and the madness. We were all moved, each with our own thoughts.

Anzac cove

The memorial at Anzac Cove ©Brett Jones

With two exciting Turkish wineries to visit in this region packed with so much history, ancient and modern it had been a fascinating day, a special experience. I often thought of my grandfather, who would have seen Gallipoli in quite a different light, and am proud of his bravery and of all the other soldiers.

Visitors to the Gallipoli Peninsula can visit Suvla’s tasting room during normal working hours or call ahead for an appointment for a special tasting or meal for groups. Gali can only be visited by appointment.

If you would like to learn more about the military venture I do recommend Gallipoli by Les Carlyon, a great account of the events, the battles, and the hardships of the British and ANZAC troops.

With thanks to the team at Vrazon, organisers of EWBC and to Wines of Turkey who sponsored the visit to Gallipoli.


A California road less travelled

December 18, 2012

The huge State of California is known for its diverse wine tourism offering north and south of San Francisco. Louise Hurren looks back at experiences of a weekend’s wine tour last summer when she headed to Mendocino, a few hours north of the city.

Louise is a wine communicator who lives in southern France. She spends much of her time in the Languedoc vineyards, working with winegrowers to help them raise their profile.

Finding ourselves in San Francisco in August with a rental car and time to kill, my partner and I decided to hit the wine trail. We’d visited Sonoma and Napa before, so this time we resolved to go off the beaten track. We weren’t keen to drive too far or spend crazy money, either. A wine-savvy friend had recommended Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley area, so we motored out of town across the Golden Gate bridge and onto Highway 101, heading north.

Anderson Valley map

It took us just under four hours to drive up the Pacific coast to the town of Mendocino itself (or Mendo, as the locals call it). Right by the sea – think crashing waves, flocks of pelicans, dramatic cloud formations and eye-popping sunsets – the town is quite lovely, but I wasn’t prepared for the cooler, foggy weather; it pays to pack a decent jacket and perhaps a sweater, even in the height of summer.

With a population of just under 900 (obviously numbers swell in the summer) and a decidedly green, tree-hugging feel, the town of Mendocino is a friendly place and ideal for wine buffs in search of a starting point from which to explore the Anderson Valley and its vinous delights. We quickly discovered the only wine shop – imaginatively called The Wine Shop – located on Main Street, where owner Mark poured and chatted with enthusiasm.

We settled in at the Sweetwater Spa and Inn (I loved our charming room in a former water tower almost as much as the adjoining, hippy-style hot tub spa area that we were allowed to use free of charge), before heading out for dinner. Right next door to our lodgings, the upmarket Café Beaujolais wasn’t cheap but the food was well-prepared, the service was attentive, and they had a surprisingly good selection of wines from around the world, by the glass, from as little as $9, going up to $30.

Tasting in the Anderson Valley
The next morning we set off to explore the Anderson Valley. A leisurely drive east along tree-lined Route 128 took us through a series of shady twists and turns, but once out of the mighty Redwoods, vineyards stretched left and right against a backdrop of rolling, sun-scorched hills. Compared to the Napa Valley and its many upscale, designer-furnished tasting rooms, the homely towns and 20-odd lower-key wineries dotted along this road were a welcome contrast.

Mendocino vineyards in Anderson Valley

Vineyards near Philo ©Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association

Over our two-day trip we pulled over at a variety of names (Handley Cellars, Navarro, Brutocao, Bink, Drew, Lula) and were rarely disappointed. Smiley, knowledgeable staff offered tastings for free (a welcome change as many Cali wineries charge), and picnicking in the grounds with a glass of wine was actively encouraged. Buying freshly-made sandwiches at roadside delis kept costs down and meant more to spend on special bottles and souvenirs. All the wineries visited sold a multitude of items, from chocolate to condiments, corkscrews to cook books.

Anderson Valley tasting room

Open every day ©Louise Hurren

The wines ranged from the heavily-oaked, fruitier, rounder style typical of California to a more restrained, elegant, Old World profile, with those tasted at Brutocao Cellars in Philo a case in point. The winery’s penchant for Italian grape varieties reflects their heritage, and their Zinfandel Port (yes, that’s what it’s called) and Coro Mendocino wines are not to be missed. Brutocao is one of a dozen producers who make these special Coro Mendocino wines, a designation for premium wines from a Mendo-grown blend of grapes, predominantly Zinfandel with other, mainly Mediterranean varieties.

Just after the town of Philo we stopped at The Madrones, a collection of smart tasting rooms and the Sun & Cricket home wares boutique, complete with tasty cheese counter, and chic rooms to rent, set around peaceful gardens. Kicking back on the grass with chilled glasses of Bink’s Sauvignon Blanc, we stretched our legs before heading on to our next overnight stop at Boonville, at Anderson Valley’s easterly end.

Therapy in groovy Boonville
Impressed by a funky-looking website, we checked into the retro-chic Boonville Hotel for a night’s pampering and were warmly welcomed. A complimentary glass of local sparkling wine and a plate of oysters hit the spot before we explored the charmingly over-grown gardens, where towering tomato plants, sunflowers and nasturtiums created a riot of colour amongst the rough-hewn wooden furniture.

California highway signBoonville (population 1,370) has a number of strong points. Firstly, there’s the shopping. There’s only so much wine you can taste in a day, so when a break was needed, we indulged in retail therapy. At the Farmhouse Mercantile store I picked up a gorgeous, leather-bound note book perfect for jotting down my tasting notes; some hand-sewn place mats, and was sorely tempted by some of the retro-style jewellery (I passed on the goats’ milk paint and Earth Mother calico smocks). Neighbouring boutiques on the town’s Main Street, actually Highway 128, sell unique, bourgeois-bohemian home wares and the coffee shops are a delight. We indulged in a gourmet break at La Paysanne coffee shop  – their homemade cardamom ice cream is outstanding.

Then there’s the plethora of nearby tasting rooms. We walked along Boonville’s main drag and sampled wines at Zina Hyde Cunningham, Londer, Philo Ridge and Foursight Wines, before strolling merrily back to dine at our hotel’s Table 128 restaurant; after a long day’s spitting, it was a pleasure to swallow.

Finally, from Boonville it’s only 17 miles to Ukiah (turn left a quarter of a mile out of town onto the 253 Country Road) home to the biodynamically-farmed vineyards of Paul Dolan, but that visit must be the subject of another blog post. From Ukiah we motored leisurely south, down through Sonoma and the Napa Valley, and back to our San Francisco starting point, suitably refreshed by the authentic, thoughtfully-crafted wines we’d had the pleasure of discovering.


Wine and food where three countries meet

November 21, 2012

When you next plan a visit to Alsace, a must-visit wine region, then don’t forget that it is as simple as crossing the River Rhine to visit the Baden wine region too. What makes this doubly appealing is that both regions are among the most welcoming to wine tourists that you can find in their respective countries, France and Germany.

A third country, Switzerland is where you will find the perfect city start or finish to your visit in Basel or Bâle. With a delightful old town, Basel is not surprisingly well served by excellent restaurants serving food influenced by its neighbours. Living close by for many years Sue Style, food and wine author and contributor to Wine Travel Guides, provides an excellent guide to restaurants in Basel, as well as in Alsace and Baden.

Alsace wine region

Kaysersberg in Alsace with the Schlossberg vineyard above ©Mick Rock/Cephas

Alsace – gingerbread houses and rich, spicy whites
Nearly everyone you speak to in the wine business becomes a little wistful when you mention Alsace – it’s too long since I’ve been there is the common refrain. Once visited, forever smitten. Yes, Alsace is in eastern France, and the language is French, but it’s so unlike the rest of France. Very neat and tidy, super-welcoming and ultra-friendly, the influence from across its border is very marked.

The city of Strasbourg and town of Colmar are renowned for their attractive streets and buildings, but the small Alsace villages are gorgeous too, like a Disney film set, but so much better and a few centuries older! Behind the pretty gingerbread-like houses and narrow streets, stretching up to the forests are the vineyards, growing the seven permitted grape varieties (six white plus Pinot Noir for rosés and reds), all neatly written on the labels of more than 99% of Alsace wines, no ‘guess-the-grape’ as you have to do with so many French appellation labels.

Go into one of the many wine producers’ tasting rooms, and you will be offered wines at different quality/price levels from all the seven varieties, though some villages excel at two or three in particular according to the vineyards’ soil types. Get to know which grapes work best with the local foods and then you can really indulge in the welcoming Weinstuben (the local name for the typical Alsace wine bar or casual restaurant). For example, the racy Riesling works perfectly with the fresh-river trout, earthy Sylvaner with the onion tart, rich Pinot Gris with the many pork dishes; spicy Gewurztraminer with the smelly Munster cheese; and the dry Muscat is simply lovely to sip on its own.

Exploring the Kaiserstuhl – home to three Pinots
Between the attractive university town of Freiburg and the Rhine River is the southern section of the Baden wine region, named Kaiserstuhl-Tuniberg. The Kaiserstuhl is a low mountain range of ancient volcanic origin; since a rationalization of the vineyard plantings back in the 1970s, the vineyards now form a very distinct part of the landscape grown on wide terraces that follow the contours on the several old volcanic cones. Since visiting the active volcanic landscape of Etna on Sicily recently, the Kaiserstuhl landscape now begins to make much more sense to me.

Kaiserstuhl vineyards

High up in the Kaiserstuhl, looking towards Alsace ©Brett Jones

Just as the Alsace vineyards are one of the sunniest regions in France, lying in the shadow of the Vosges Mountains to the west, so this part of Baden is by far the warmest wine region of Germany. Here Pinot grapes thrive whether Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder), Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder) or Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder) and some excellent, full-bodied wines are made from them, in the furthest style imaginable to the more familiar wines of Germany, such as the delicate, dry and medium dry Rieslings of the Mosel or Rheingau.

Needless to say, the region is full of welcoming guest-houses, hotels, restaurants and wine bars, not to mention the wine producers. A Kaiserstuhl day-trip last summer is fully described on Brett Jones’ blog, but the highlights were a spectacular walk, beautifully sign-posted through the vineyards and part of a network of paths, a substantial countryside lunch and a visit to the excellent producer Weingut Karl H Johner, known for its Pinot Noirs.

Christmas Markets and Holiday Gifts
Alsace, as well as Germany and Switzerland, is renowned for its Christmas Markets, which are just getting into full-swing now, so you might want to hop over there for a quick visit in the next few weeks – there are no less than five markets in Colmar alone.

Swiss cheese bookBut, if you are planning your present buying from your armchair, I’d like to recommend strongly Sue Style’s book (left) for all lovers of Swiss Cheese. Beautifully designed, each major cheese variety has a profile of a producer with gorgeous photographs and moving stories of when Sue meets the cheese-makers. British food and wine writer Fiona Beckett has written an excellent review on her cheese blog.

And don’t forget that for friends planning to tour the vineyards of France next year, you can offer a Gift membership to Wine Travel Guides, giving full access to all the PDF guides for 12 months. Readers of this blog (and those who you share it with) may use the special code D2Blog12 for a discount of 30% off the usual price, bringing the price down to £20 (approximately €26 or $33), valid not only for gifts but for your own membership until 31 Jan 2013. Just enter the code in the box on the page. Take a look at the Strasbourg Guide which is available as a free sample PDF guide on the website.


A cornucopia of food and wine experiences in the Hudson Valley

October 24, 2012

For visitors to New York, a whole world of wine and food is opened up to you by knowing just the right people. Wendy Crispell is today a wine and food educator, consultant and writer, based in New York City, but in the past she was a restaurateur up in the Hudson Valley. Here, Wendy shares her discoveries of this valley, only an hour and half from the city.

New York winesAs a food and wine professional I have considered myself lucky to live spending my time between the great bounty of flavours known as the HV and NYC, a treasure trove of culinary delights. The recent buy local movement has finally brought these two loves together both in my glass and in my shopping basket with artisan cheeses, wines and some of the most beautiful produce from the Hudson available in boutique shops, restaurants and farm markets in New York City.

Most visitors to NYC aren’t aware of the cornucopia of culinary wonder awaiting them just a short  drive north. Not only is the HV a spot rich in food and wine history, it’s a region undergoing a renaissance in the production of artisan foods, some of which are gaining a stellar reputation far from the fields and farms they hail from. With its sweeping views of the river and steep cliffs carved from stone it’s also a destination for a weekend visit to one of the charming inns dotting the area.

Traditions past and present
While experimentation, climate shift and research have enabled vitis vinifera vines such as Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Tocai and others to stake their claim here, the new breed of winemakers popping up all over the valley are embracing not only these classic grape varieties but also the tradition of growing the easier-to-ripen French hybrid grapes. Wines made from these hybrids are even garnering a cult following among wine lovers with Seyval Blanc and Baco Noir of particular interest.  Many of the locally grown berries and tree fruits are being transformed into glorious cordials, fruit wines and dry ciders, while in the past the trend was towards overly sweet, dull offerings.

Planning a visit
With over 40 wineries in the HV, planning a visit to the area can be a daunting task. Depending on your interests, an itinerary can be created with the help of Hudson Valley Wine Country, an online resource that includes details of the three wine trails in the region: the Dutchess, Shawangunk and Hudson Berkshire trails.

Tasting room at Tuthilltown Spirits ©Tuthilltown.com

On the East side of the river a sumptuous feast at one of the Culinary Institute of America’s five restaurants can be added. On the West, farm trails include ’pick your own’ options, as well as some of the best views at which to sit and sip for those looking to soak in the beauty of the surroundings. For spirits fans, boutique producers are located on both sides of the river with Tuthilltown on the West side producing an award-winning selection of Bourbon, Whiskey and Vodka. On the East side, Harvest Spirits is producing amazing applejack and a peach brandy that knocks my socks off! Both distillers use local products and offer tastings.

Wineries of interest on the East
Carlo and Dominique DeVito realized their dream by creating the Hudson Chatham Winery in 2007. Carlo, a self-proclaimed Baco Noir nut, is producing a Baco Noir using 60-year-old vines and a passion that shows in the quality of this wine. Flavours of ripe red cherries, leather and an earthy, dry finish are reminiscent of reds produced in the cool climate regions of Europe, yet distinctly HV. Aromas of forest floor and dried autumn leaves seem to dominate many of the reds from this region and Carlo’s Baco is no exception, it’s deliciously delightful.

One of the newest players in the HV wine renaissance is Ben Peacock of Tousey Winery, a bit further down the Hudson. Tousey, once known only for producing an artisan raw honey, jumped into the mix a few years back with a currant cordial crafted from estate berries and sweetened with the honey produced from hives tended on site. Decadent and unique this sinful treat was only the beginning for this small estate that now grows Pinot Noir and Riesling. And, Tousey’s 2010 Cabernet Franc made from locally sourced fruit is testament to just what this young winemaker may be capable of in the future.

Hudson Valley cheese

Selection of goats and cow cheese at Sprout Creek Farm ©Sprout Creek Farm

Planning a bit of a whey time
Do you like cheese with your wine? HV cheesemakers are producing some world class cheese. From lavish ‘triple crèmes’ to aged mountain wonders these cheese mavens are worth a visit for any caseophile! For information on tastings and tours visit the New York State Cheesemakers Guild online. For hard core cheese lovers a stay in the cottage at Sprout Creek Farm may be a wonderfully stinky adventure. Year round educational programmes in cheesemaking and agriculture are offered for children and adults.

Benmarl in Hudson Valley

Benmarl’s vineyard high above the Hudson River ©Mick Rock, Cephas

Out on the West side
Matt Spaccarelli of Benmarl is upholding a tradition of creative thinking started by founder Mark Miller. In addition to the Baco Noir that this estate is known for, Cabernet Franc and Seyval Blanc are made with estate fruit. As you wander the grounds you may encounter a pair of Babydoll Sheep who help to manage the vineyard weeds and fertilization. At Whitecliff Winery the Migliore family have transformed what was a once dirt field into an artisan gem. Their Awosting White, a blend of Vignoles and Seyval is an interesting off dry wine bursting with apricot and peach flavours. Currently Awosting is making appearances in some of NYC’s finest eateries including Gramercy Tavern where it is the first NY wine made from hybrid grapes ever offered by the glass.

Treat yourself to a  spot of relaxation
Buttermilk Falls Inn and Spa is known not only for its herbal spa treatments but also for its winding paths filled with babbling brooks, lush gardens, a  ten-acre farm and a recent addition, Henry’s, a restaurant where the bounty of local flavours are transformed into culinary visions served along with local wine, beers and spirits. If you’re lucky you may encounter llamas, alpacas, goats or a chicken or two while hiking the inn’s grounds that are perched scenically above the Hudson River.

Hudson Valley goats

Young goats ©Wendy Crispell

Next time you plan a trip to NYC, add a couple of days onto your schedule to visit the HV, drink in the local flavour and take a bite out of a place filled with culinary diversity. I hope like me you will fall in love with all the wonderful things the region has to offer.


Tasting in the volcanic hills above Lake Balaton

September 27, 2012

Liz Gabay is a British Master of Wine, wine writer, educator, judge and consultant. She lives with her family in Provence and wrote three of the Wine Travel Guides to Provence. A regular visitor to Hungary, Liz was invited there recently to give a masterclass. For once, she got the chance for some independent wine travel, you can read the rest of her story here.

Lake Balaton vineyards

Vines at Badacsony on the north short of Lake Balaton ©Mick Rock/Cephas

This was not my first trip to the wine region around Lake Balaton in western Hungary, but this was the first when I would be independent with a car. I had arrived a day early before giving a masterclass at the VinCE wine festival being held in the Festetics Palace grounds in Keszthely: “book me a few visits with some interesting producers”, I  asked Agnes Nemeth – the editor in chief of VinCE magazine.

Before wine became a tourist attraction in its own right, Lake Balaton was the holiday location in Hungary. Sailing, bathing, horse-riding, walking, cycling, sightseeing around castles (Sümeg north of Badacsony) and nature reserves (south of Kesthely lies the swampy marshland which filters the muddy water of the river Zala before it flows into the lake), eating out at local vendéglő (inns) and relaxing in spas (Héviz to the north of Keszthely has the second largest thermal lake in the world), the area is full of activities.

At the western end of the lake is the grandest attraction at the Festetics Palace in the town of Keszthely, a remnant of the glories of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Prince Festetics was married to the ex-wife of the Prince of Monaco, and ancestor of the current Prince Albert, and together they held court and created a cultural circle – reflecting the fact that the town is equidistant between Budapest and Vienna.

Planning a Balaton wine tour
Unlike wine tours in say France, Germany, Italy, Spain or an Anglophone country, Hungarian is not the most natural of languages for the wine tourist. As this region is close to Austria, German is usually understood. However, a glossary of important wine words in Hungarian is useful – even if the pronunciation is not correct!

Winery = Borászat/pincészet cellar = pince wine = bor
grapes = borszőlő barrel = hordó Vintage = szüret
white = fehér red = piros rose = rózsa
sweet = édes dry = száraz Tannic = csersav

Guidebooks and official wine trails in the Lake Balaton area do not seem to exist, so some advance planning is helpful.

Hungarian wine regionsA brief historical background helps in appreciating the wines of Lake Balaton. In a very simplistic way Hungary was divided into sweet wines from Tokaj in the northeast, restrained reds from Eger in the north, big reds from the Villany and Szeksard in the south, sparkling wines from Etyek near Budapest, and white wines from Balaton.

During the nineteenth century Balaton was regarded as one sole wine region with no differentiation between the various terroirs. Today there are nine different sub-regions and the there is a growing trend for making wines with distinct regional character.

Under the Communists Lake Balaton was primarily a white wine producing region, concentrating on the high yielding variety Olaszrizling. Today, many producers still concentrate on white wines, which does seem a little strange considering the region is often compared to the Mediterranean with its hot summer temperatures, mild winters and warmth of the large shallow lake. Traditionally the wines were fermented and aged in old oak barrels and were described as ‘fiery’ – a rather unusual description for white wines and I was never sure whether this referred to some legendry high alcohol or the volcanic soil.

Balaton relief map

Relief map showing the volcanic hills on the north shore of Lake Balaton ©Liz Gabay

Exploring Badacsony
My trip concentrated on the north shore of the lake, around Badacsony hill (438m), the most westerly sub-region (apart from the very small area around Heviz). The hill is one of several extinct volcanoes, including the hill of Somló (also producing excellent wines and about an hour to the north), which formed under the Pannonian sea. In fact a relief map of the area looks more like a boil infested landscape.

Visiting a small range of vineyards perfectly illustrated the history of the region with their mix of traditional and international varieties

Folly’s Arboretum and Winery to the east of Badascony: in the late 19th century, Doctor Folly from Pécs in southern Hungary, bought some land by lake Balaton and planted trees from around the world. Today, the fifth generation of Folly’s run the Arboretum and very small vineyard. My favourite wines were their spicy and perfumed Szürkebarát (Pinot Gris) and a crisp fresh floral Buda Zold with lime-zest notes.

Lake Balaton wine tasting

Entrance to Laposa winery, by Lake Balaton ©Liz Gabay

Laposa is a medium sized family estate with a tasting room in a small cellar, lined with tables and chairs, with the family present both friendly and welcoming. I loved their wines’ almost steely mineral clean cut acidity, reflecting the basalt terroir. The Olaszrizling, combined this with aromatic citrus and floral notes, while the Rhine Riesling had attractive candied lemon fruit.

Szeremley is one of the largest estates on the north shore of Lake Balaton, founded after the fall of Communism. The wines are showcased through the estate restaurant, on a beautiful terrace shaded by vines overlooking the lake. The menu starts with a simple tasting of a few wines. Szeremley make a complete range from dry and sweet white wines to full bodied red. The dry white Zenit and the softly sweet Zeus have the same parentage (Ezerjo x Bouvier) but from different batches.

Amongst their white wines is one made from the variety Kéknyelű – an almost lost variety which was ‘saved’ by Szeremley and there are now 30ha of Kéknyelű grown in the region. Its greatest claim to fame seems to be that it needs another variety – usually Buda Zold – to fertilise and that it is difficult to grow. When young, it tastes quite neutral and acidic but when allowed to age it reveals real star quality. I tried an outstanding example from the mid-1960s, unfortunately not commercially available.

The Mediterranean climate lends itself to the growing of figs, apricots, vines…. and even Tuscan grape varieties. On the neighbouring hill of Szent Gyorgy there is a small vineyard of just 2ha, and called 2HA. This is evidently not a commercial winery. Török Csaba, the owner works in Budapest during the week, so visits are strictly by appointment. Not being reliant on commercial sales means that Török has been able to indulge his winemaking passions producing some excellent Sangiovese and Syrah wines. Not only has there been some tut-tutting about his not making white wine, but also his use of non-local varieties.

Musician entertains the diners in a casual restaurant ©Liz Gabay

Local foods
The local ingredient in the Balaton region is fogas (pike-perch) which is fished in the lake and served simply grilled or in fish stews. The traditional long horned Hungarian cattle grazing in fields between vineyards appear in local beef dishes, and there is pork too, appearing in rich stews or as big sausages spiced with paprika. Langos is a wonderful mid-tasting snack, fried pizza-style bread which I particularly like smothered with garlic butter. Soups are an absolute staple in Hungary, and I enjoyed a delicious sweet corn soup. Hungarian cheese is distinctive – variations on Halloumi style cheeses – young, smoked or mature often served fried.

During July and August many of the hotels and guest houses are full, but there is abundant accommodation in the area ranging from campsites to large modern hotels. I stayed at the Lotus Therme Hotel in Heviz. An all you can eat buffet breakfast and dinner, indoor and outdoor pools, spa, healthy and beauty treatment and a variety of sports maybe lacks local character but was very comfortable. Prices in guest houses start cheap – some as low as 8 euros a night – and they can be found on various accommodation booking sites.


Planning your route in French wine regions

August 29, 2012

There are a many differences between touring independently around the wine country in France and touring in the New World, notably along the organized wine routes of South Africa, Australia, California or indeed anywhere in North America. One of the biggest challenges is actually how to find the winery you planned to visit, and second to that is working out how long it takes from one place to another, and trying to be on time.

French winery opening timesWhen you plan the timings for your own wine trip in France, you have to take into account that the vast majority of French wine producers, open and welcoming to visitors, still close for lunch. Whereas their attitude to closing the doors dead on time isn’t in most cases as draconian as it used to be, you may still feel the atmosphere start to get colder if you are still tasting wines at 12.30pm. If you get lost finding the producer where you planned to arrive at 11.30am and instead show up close to midday, then beware, there may be significant glances at the clock or even shaking of heads.

Planning with GPS codes and Google maps
This summer a few visitors to Wine Travel Guides have requested personalized itineraries, which we create after discussion with the client, providing a spreadsheet with timings and including links to personalized Google maps. It is Brett Jones, aka The Wine Maestro, who does the mapping work and, following a request for advice from a Gold member, he shared how he does this.

On the 48 guides to French wine regions you will find on the main website, each recommended wine producer, place to stay, eat or shop, and attraction has its own Google map which is generated from the GPS codes. It is true that these GPS codes cannot be guaranteed to be 100% accurate for wine producers located in the middle of the countryside, but we have done our best, and I reckon over 95% will get you very close indeed to the destination.

Jura wine village

Not all wine villages offer a wine producer map like Pupillin in the Jura ©Brett Jones

So, to plot a route, start with one of your chosen wine producers or your place to stay and open the Google map, clicking on the Google map link to take you onto Google’s own mapping site. You can then use Google’s own tools to plot other locations you wish to visit, by entering each of their GPS codes one by one. It’s a bit long-winded, but it does work!

Remember that even if the best laid plans might go wrong, for most people travel is much enhanced if you have a plan to begin with, and we give you the tools both to plan and to make the most of your wine trip in France and beyond.

Access to our comprehensive guides
It is some time since we’ve written on this blog about the guides on the main website. Due to lack of resources and other commitments the guides have not all been updated in the past two years, but despite this we are confident that the guides provide superb and detailed information, not available in one place elsewhere. Recently, I’ve received several complementary comments from buyers of the PDF guides. The recent Gold member who wanted help on mapping wrote: “The guides are amazingly full of detail.” And, someone who purchased individual PDF guides sent a note of thanks with: “The recommendations were fantastic, and really made a difference to our experience in Champagne.”

All the guides are free to view, but the inexpensive PDFs are useful if you want to print some pages, and Gold membership also allows you to view the whole of each guide at one time, saving clicking through all the page links. So, if you are planning to visit wine regions in France in the next 12 months, here is a generous offer for Gold membership giving access to download or print all 52 PDF guides. Use the code D2blog12 to buy membership for only £20 (approximately 26€ or US$32) about 30% off the normal price. This special discount is valid until 31 October 2012 and may also be used for Gift membership.

My thanks to Doug Pike for the use of the cartoon below, which should inspire you in your wine travels. Doug is author of the cartoon books Gone with the Wine and Less than a Full Deck.

Cartoon by Doug Pike


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