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.

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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.


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.


The art of wine tasting and eating in the Napa Valley

March 22, 2012

By Wink Lorch
The Napa Valley has been renowned for its wine tourism offering for several decades. Even if for years many European wine producers have provided a welcoming caveau or weinstube where customers could taste their latest wines, it could be said justifiably that Napa invented wine tourism as an industry.

According to Wikipedia the valley receives around 4.5 million visitors each year. The proximity of Napa to San Francisco and other populous parts of the Bay area like Oakland is part of the reason for the high visitor numbers, but so is the gorgeous Napa Valley scenery, including the nearby beautiful Pacific coastline, responsible for creating the fog that is one of the biggest factors contributing to the high wine quality in the valley.

Pacific coast

The Pacific coast north of San Francisco ©Wink Lorch

As always, though, it’s the people that matter most in driving the wine tourism industry here, and the people behind the wineries of Napa, which now number over 400 (with more than 120 open to the public), are some of the most dedicated, diverse and driven that you could ever meet. The Napa Valley winery owners create diversity not only in their wines, but in their winery architecture, art installations, cultural and gastronomic events, and it is this kaleidoscope of wine, food and cultural activities that makes the valley somewhere that many people want to visit over and over again.

I was in Napa in February for the annual Professional Wine Writers Symposium, the second time I’ve attended (last time was in 2008). Although not really an occasion where there is much time to visit wineries, I managed two visits, one to Peju Province Winery, sponsor of the Fellowship that I won* to attend the symposium, and the other to Cakebread Cellars, as part of the symposium programme.

Peju winery

The entrance and tower at Peju ©Wink Lorch

The Peju Province welcome
Walking through the most beautiful sculptured archway from the car park and then joining Herta Peju to wander through the mesmerizing garden in front of the winery could not have been a better start to my visit. Peju was one of the early small scale wineries in the Napa Valley, founded in 1983 by Tony and Herta (known as HB) Peju, today joined by their daughters, and the winery has remained relatively small and exclusive, whilst always welcoming visitors.

Everything seems personal about a visit to Peju, whether you are a seasoned professional or on your first ever winery visit (as were two local Napa residents were that I met whilst there). The emphasis is on making you feel part of the winery, encouraging you one day to return.

The beautiful and distinctive pale pink tower, seen from the main Highway 29 through the Napa Valley, is set perfectly within the gardens and in sight of the vineyards. Going through into the tower from the main tasting area you find more beautiful works of art and sculptures, some pieces available to purchase. But, you also get to see a working boutique winery from the viewing gallery, with clear explanatory panels explaining the different stages of wine production.

With the exception of the unusual pale red, slightly sweet and highly popular ‘Provence’ blend, the range of wines is resolutely Napa Valley, with an emphasis on Bordeaux red varieties. All the vineyards are farmed sustainably with some converted to organics, and winemaking is handled by a highly experienced winemaker Sara Fowler. I particularly enjoyed their Cabernet Franc, and also a relatively new blend named Fifty Fifty from equal parts of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Herta Peju

HB Peju ©Wink Lorch

Peju is open every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving Days, and no appointments are needed for the basic tastings of the range, which Peju’s educators take tasters through. A range of further tours and tastingscan be reserved, including at certain times of the week an interesting educational winery tour with a tasting of the same wine from two different barrels. All details are on their comprehensive website that seems to reflect the attention to detail I saw everywhere at the winery.

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The Cakebread Cellars food and wine experience
Cakebread is a family owned winery close to Peju between Rutherford and St Helena, established in modern Napa’s early days in 1973. Today Bruce Cakebread is the CEO overseeing this mid-sized winery. Cakebread has a passion for wine and food parings, and for encouraging healthy eating, and has been a pioneer in offering culinary events since the 1980s, with a resident chef and culinary director, Brian Streeter overseeing the events alongside writing books, running classes etc.

Wine and food pairingIn particular Cakebread work with locally-based food purveyors such as Steve Sando of Rancho Gordo beans whose so-called ‘heirloom beans’ grown by Steve from seeds sourced in Mexico (where his purchases enable bean farming families to make a living) formed the basis of four delicious wine and food pairings. What fun we had ‘gassing’ about these matches! And, fun is what the Cakebread family want tasting their wines to be.

Our fun continued with a superb lunch of two courses based around locally raised ducks from one of only 14 duck farms in the whole of the USA. There followed a range of delicious cheeses from the Point Reyes Farmstead in nearby Petaluma including an unpasteurised blue, aged for longer than the minimum 60 days required by USA rules for non-pasteurised cheese.

The food did not detract from an excellent range of red wines enjoyed at both the food and wine pairing tasting and the lunch, all showing a balance of fruit and structure necessary to match with food. And, despite being brought up in the successful family business, Bruce showed that wonderful character of humility, always ready to learn and discuss new things, so typical of Napa Valley wine producers.

Cakebread is only open by appointment, but offers a range of enticing visits including the chance for wine and food pairing on certain days of the week. All details on their website.

Food heaven but traffic hell
With the high visitor numbers coming to the Napa Valley, there is one extremely positive bi-product and one negative. The positive is the sheer number of excellent restaurants in and close to the key towns of the valley, especially in St Helena. I was hugely impressed by meals at Brassica, Tra Vigne and Farmstead, and find it hard to imagine experiencing a bad meal in the valley.

The negative is the sheer weight of traffic in Napa. If you are planning a visit, then try to avoid the peak summer months, but even out of summer, try to avoid weekends if you can. And, finally, even if you are visiting wineries on Highway 29, then at the beginning and end of your journey drive instead on the much quieter, and frankly prettier Silverado Trail, running parallel to the east.

To find out more about visiting the Napa Valley there is a wealth of information on the Napa Valley Vintners Association website and on the independent Wine Country Getaways website.

* My thanks to Peju who sponsored my Fellowship to attend the symposium. Also thanks to the Napa Valley Vintners Association and to the gorgeous Meadowood Resort who jointly host the symposium and where I was lucky enough to stay.


A few highlights from our 2011 European wine travel experiences

February 7, 2012
The winemaestro, Brett Jones

Wine travel companion, wine blogger and photographer Brett Jones

The pleasures of travelling in wine regions never cease, and there were some stand-out experiences in 2011 that were unexpected, wholly satisfying or simply joyful. Below are a few highlights of our travels last year that have not been covered on this blog elsewhere.

With more than a month gone in 2012 already, here is wishing all of you fantastic wine travel experiences during the rest of the year. The best wine tours, whether in a group or on your own need plenty of preparation. Especially in Europe, when in doubt, always make an advanced appointment to visit a wine producer.

A tasting with Bernard Baudry in Chinon
In the midst of a trip researching wineries suitable to visit by a large group coming to the Loire valley, my sister with whom we were staying near Tours, asked a favour that was wholly impossible to refuse. Would we call into Bernard Baudry in Chinon to collect some wines that a friend had ordered? I’ve known Bernard Baudry’s wines for many years as I used to include one of his Chinons in the tasting selection for teaching the Wine & Spirit Education Trust Diploma class on the Loire. Wines selected for these courses need to be classic examples of their style, appellation and grape and Baudry’s Chinons are exemplary. Baudry also features as one of Jim Budd’s selections of wine producers to visit in our West of Tours guide. Finally, I had the chance to visit the domaine.

Chinon soil types

Soil samples for each different Chinon ©Brett Jones

Bernard Baudry in his quiet way, could not have been more welcoming. For us it was the end of a long day, but his enthusiasm and willingness to explain the background to all his wines provided us with a perfect educational tasting. We loved his unusual white Chinon 2009 from Chenin Blanc fermented in various barrel sizes; we adored his Chinon Les Grézeaux 2009, the quintessential Cabernet Franc redolent of pencil shavings and red fruit flavours on the nose with perfect balance on the palate; and then enjoyed experiencing some older wines too including the deliciously deep coloured and flavoursome Chinon Croix Boisées 2008. Bernard speaks little English and usually it is his son Matthieu who takes English visitors through the tasting. Like most wine estates of this appellation, the Baudrys have several vineyards on different soils, and in the tasting room the various soil types are displayed in jars, always helpful!

A garden in Vinho Verde country
North of Porto, the second city of Portugal is the region of Vinho Verde, with a climate highly influenced by the Atlantic Ocean and known in particular for light white wines, perfect with seafood or as aperitifs. On a press visit there courtesy of the Vinho Verde regional association, I tasted some good and even excellent wines and enjoyed interesting visits. Among the visits, I particularly enjoyed biodynamic producer Afros, who as well as lovely whites,  makes fascinating sparkling and red Vinhos Verdes; Reguengo de Melgaço up on the Spanish border with delicious fuller-bodied wines from the Alvarinho grape and a small country hotel on-site; and the high tech and welcoming winery Quinta da Gomariz, with a range of very enjoyable and accessible wines. However, none of these three producers could be said to be geared up for independent wine tourists, only usually receiving groups of wine lovers or professionals by advanced arrangement.

Quinta de Aveleda garden

Aveleda's goat tower ©Wink Lorch

However, we also visited Aveleda, producers of the brand Casal Garcia, as well as of several quality estate Vinhos Verdes from their Quinta da Aveleda vineyards, especially one named Follies from 50% Louriero and 50% Alvarinho. Follies is named for the several architectural follies the Quinta possesses in its beautiful gardens, which won a Best of Wine Tourism Award in 2011. Less than an hour’s drive from Porto, Aveleda has a good shop selling the company’s wines along with some local foods, open every weekday. They receive 12,000 visitors per annum and many come as part of a group for whom they can arrange tutored tastings and meals. Best of all, groups can visit the stunning and peaceful gardens, full of old trees as well as fountains and follies. One of the follies is a goat tower, and they say that Charles Back, owner of Fairview got the idea from here to build Fairview’s famous goat tower.

An unusual wine bar and some lovely ports
On the evening before my trip to Vinho Verde, I arranged to meet Oscar Quevedo, of the family-owned Port producer Quevedo. Oscar is an avid blogger (his blog was nominated for the best winery blog in 2010) and he joined the family company after a spell working in finance. Oscar uses social media most successfully to share the story of his family winery around the world, however, I had never tasted his range of Ports. With a couple of wine educators and writers, all part of the Vinho Verde trip, Oscar suggested we met in a special port wine bar in Porto named Vinologia ‘La Maison des Portos’ owned by Frenchman, Jean-Philippe Duhard.

Vinologia Porto

Bar dedicated to Port ©Wink Lorch

Vinologia only sells Ports, but it has a huge selection, with over 200 available by the glass. Plates of cheese, dried fruits and nuts, or luscious chocolate desserts are available to accompany your Port selection. A fluent English speaker Jean-Philippe can even tutor a tasting for groups. It’s a wonderful little place. Oscar Quevedo served us five Ports to taste starting from the white, through a gorgeous, nutty Special Reserve Tawny, a vibrant and lively Colheita 1992,  Reserve ruby and finally the youthful but excellent Quinta Vale d’Agodinho Vintage 2008. My three colleagues were more experienced than me in tasting Ports, and were really impressed with the quality from Quevedo. It is rare to find small family wineries in the Port region as five of the 70 Port Houses control 83% of production in the region. My thanks and Saύde for their welcome and generosity to Oscar and Jean-Philippe.

An intriguing wine producing hamlet near Trieste
After the European Wine Bloggers Conference 2011, held in Brescia, Italy, we were able to attend a three day press trip to the north-eastern wine region of Friuli-Venezia-Giulia. I had been to Collio in Friuli before and a little beyond, but one completely new region to me was the Carso DOC on the Istrian peninsula south of Trieste, bordering Slovenia. We spent a morning and lunch visiting three small wine producers all located in the hamlet of Prepotto, near Duino Aurisina. I had never heard of the village, knew little about Carso, and then we discovered a grape variety that I’d never heard of either, Vitovska, that produces some fresh-tasting, stoney whites.

Carso in Friuli

Zidarich's cellar, dug deep into the earth, in Carso, Friuli ©Brett Jones

The pleasure of walking from one producer to the next in this tiny place, learning about how they had revived the region, dug out the amazing cellars, and are now making highly unusual, but delicious wines, to me epitomized the excitement of wine travel even for a seasoned wine traveller like me. The wines of producers Skerk, Kante and Zidarich are exported a little and well worth trying. I am also sure they would welcome you to visit this extraordinary place if you are planning a trip to Trieste or Friuli.

All our group were smitten by the Carso region, and among others two wine blogger colleagues have written comprehensive, excellent blog posts about our visit, Rock the Carso by Simon Wolf and  Wine Kings of the Carso by Paola Tich. My thanks to Pierpaolo Penco and the Friuli Venezia Giulia wine region for making this visit possible and hosting us.

Wine Travel Guides Membership
If you are planning a wine tour in France, Rioja or Tuscany in 2012, remember to check out our travel guides, and note that you can access all the latest versions of the PDF guides by buying annual membership. You can still use the promotional code D2BLG1111 for a 30% discount until 29th February 2012. Happy wine travels!

P.S. For the most unusual wine production ‘equipment’ I saw in 2011, watch this little video. This waterfall ‘dynamizes’ the water used for biodynamic preparations by Vinho Verde producer Afros.


Tasting the stars in Champagne

December 29, 2011

By Wink Lorch
Dom Pérignon at MoëtWe all love myths and star appeal – the Champagne region provides plenty of both. Take Dom Pérignon, the monk, rather than the wine… not only is his alleged ‘invention’ of Champagne discredited, but his lovely quote “Come quickly Brothers, I am drinking the stars” appears apocryphal too. No matter, a pilgrimage to see Dom Pérignon’s statue outside Moët & Chandon’s premises, along with other star-gazing is a must for the travel list of any lover of Champagne.

Today, it could not be easier to reach Reims, the capital of Champagne. The super-fast TGV (Train de Grande Vitesse – high-speed train) will whisk you from the Gare de l’Est in Paris in under an hour, or if you are coming by car, Reims is reached in just 2 ½ hours from Calais on the English channel. The other important town in Champagne, Epernay can be reached in 30 minutes by road from Reims, or there is a train service direct from Paris, and a connection at Reims. Within Reims, taxis are an easy option to visit the different Champagne Houses.

Epernay and a star of the Marne Valley
Epernay is much smaller than Reims, but dominated by the Champagne business. Above ground the town is fairly ordinary, with the exception of the very grand Avenue de Champagne where you will find many famous Champagne Houses including the largest of them all, Moët & Chandon. It’s below ground in a labyrinth of chalk cellars where the magic happens with the process of turning a fairly ordinary acidic white wine into something sublime and sparkling. Several Champagne Houses give comprehensive tours of their cellars, explaining the Champagne Method along the way, and certainly Moët’s tour is very thorough, if a little lacking in personality.

Champagne Tarlant

Champagne Tarlant in a lovely situation above the Marne Valley ©Brett Jones

For a personal take on the how the bubbles get into the bottle, it’s a wonderful experience to visit one of Champagne’s independent family run companies, so-called Growers, such as Champagne Tarlant, based in the village of Oueilly, just 16km (10 miles) west of Epernay along the Marne Valley. The family make a range of Champagnes, with a particular speciality of very dry, but beautifully balanced Brut Nature Zero. Either Micheline or daughter Mélanie welcome visitors into a lovely tasting room, and conduct tours twice a day (in English when required), or for groups by appointment.

Another interesting way to taste a range of Grower Champagnes (from family producers using their own grapes, rather than big companies who buy in much of their needs) is to call in to the relaxed Champagne bar and shop ‘C comme Champagne’ where you can taste a flight of different Champagne styles. On a recent quick visit to Epernay we enjoyed a delicious and good value meal at Bistrot 7, which is the more casual, less expensive restaurant in Hotel Les Berceaux, home to Patrick Michelon’s Michelin starred restaurant. Everything within Epernay is in walking distance.

Cathédrale Notre Dame, Reims

The circular window in Cathédrale Notre Dame, Reims ©Brett Jones

The many cathedrals of Reims
Another above/below ground experience can be enjoyed in Reims. A visit to the great gothic Cathédrale Notre Dame, this year celebrating its 800th anniversary, is a must especially for its beautiful circular stained-glass window near the entrance. If you’ve time try also to go to the Saint Rémi Basilica, formerly a royal abbey – both are UNESCO Heritage sites.

The famous crayères of Reims, the chalk pits rather than the very famous luxury hotel-restaurant Château Les Crayères, are also sometimes referred to as the underground cathedrals. Originally quarried by the Romans for roads, the caves were later opened up by the monks who realized they were perfect to store and age Champagne. The most impressive steps lead you down to visit Pommery’s cellars, which is open daily for visits (many Houses close on Sundays and for a month or more in mid-winter). Pommery also hosts art exhibitions in the cellars, which adds another dimension to the visit. A tasting is available (with a charge) at the end of the tour, and the shop sells their range of Champagnes and gift packs, along with accessories.

Another large Champagne House with some beautiful carvings in their crayères and open all year round to visitors (not weekends in winter) is Champagne Taittinger, still family owned. Parts of the cellars served as a hospital in World War I and today they house 3 million bottles, only a small proportion of Taittinger’s needs – the rest are in another modern cellar. Taittinger’s excellent range of Champagne is dominated by Chardonnay and culminates in the very highly respected prestige cuvée Comtes de Champagne. Do dress warmly if you visit any of the crayères, the average temperature is just 9°C and the humidity 95%.

For a trip out to the vineyards there are several Champagne producers who welcome visitors including the excellent Vilmart, known for its very complex oak-aged Champagnes, run deftly today by 5th generation Laurent Champs. Also close by and well worth a visit is J Dumangin et Fils, where Gilles Dumangin offers an excellent range to taste with perfect explanations in English. Do make an appointment to visit as these are small family concerns.

Reims brasserie

The dining room in the Café de Paris brasserie, Reims ©Wink Lorch

For a real buzzy Champagne atmosphere, visit one of Reims’ great brasseries for lunch. Favourites include Le Boulingrin, which is brilliant for people-watching and does excellent Plateau de Fruits de Mer (seafood platters) and the Café du Palais, full of Champagne trivia collected over the years.

Champagne Krug

Winter snow at Krug ©Wink Lorch

Reaching for the highest stars of all…
Many real Champagne aficionados are fans of either Bollinger or Krug, or both. Neither are large Houses and for both you really need an introduction to obtain an appointment to visit whether singly or in a group. Bollinger in Ay is particularly welcoming for really interested wine appreciation groups, and a tour includes their little museum and a look at their plots of ungrafted vines. A visit to Krug is equally unforgettable, almost like being welcomed into the family; the story of the House is explained in the most civilised manner in their smart reception area over a glass of Grande Cuvée. Having had the chance to visit both these fine Houses, I can assure you that these are genuine Champagne stars, with a dedication to making the finest product they can. They are well worth a visit if you can get the introduction.

For more ideas for planning your visit to Epernay, Reims or the Aube district of Champagne, do take a look at the Wine Travel Guides to Champagne written by Tom Stevenson and Michael Edwards.  Membership to the website giving one-year access to download all the latest PDF Guides would make an unusual present, or why not treat yourself? Our offer valid until the end of the year of a 30% discount off annual membership including Gift Membership is available to readers of this blog who use the promotional  code D2BLG1111 and now extended until 29th February 2012.


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