Good Bed and Breakfasts in French wine regions

July 31, 2012

Be adventurous! Choose a B &B
©Brett Jones

Until recently in many French wine regions there was a rather slim choice of places to stay, often limited to one very expensive hotel, perhaps a few very basic ones, and a clutch of self-catering gîtes where a minimum stay was required. But, the past few years has seen a welcome change with the arrival of increasing numbers of good chambres d’hôtes – the French expression for Bed & Breakfast accommodation.

I’ll be honest in saying that I used to be rather scared of the prospect of staying in a chambres d’hôtes: would the bed be comfortable; the shower hot? Could I arrive back late after a meal elsewhere? And most of all, would I be required to make conversation with the owners? After all, chambres d’hôtes translates as ‘guest rooms’.

Having experienced the decline in quality of, in particular, the French family-run hotels (with honourable exceptions of course), due usually to lack of funds to update them with better beds, showers etc., I confess to having increasingly stayed in anonymous, well-priced motels for one or two-night stays near the vineyards. But recently, I’ve taken the plunge to experiment more with staying in the B & Bs, and been really pleasantly surprised.

Very personal decor, Le Cèdre Bleu
©Brett Jones

Points to consider before booking a French B&B

  • Although this is a commercial establishment, you are in someone’s own house. Be considerate and don’t expect the owners to be ‘staff’ as in a hotel.
  • Credit cards may not be accepted in which case you will need cash. Check before arrival.
  • TV, phone and internet connections in each room are not necessarily provided – some B&Bs make a point of not providing them to give a more ‘authentic’ experience. Do check in advance if that’s important to you.
  • Breakfast will not necessarily be what you are used to and will be taken communally, often on one table. B&Bs are unlikely to offer a full buffet as you would find in a hotel. Some offer simply what they would eat at home i.e. bread, perhaps croissants, and a choice of coffee and tea. Others offer the finest breakfast of home-made and local products that you can imagine. Expect anything and ask in advance of you want something specific provided.
  • Unless you are staying somewhere that specifically offers tables d’hôtes (a communal evening meal taken sometimes with the family, or with other guests), do not expect any other catering other than breakfast. Be prepared for it to be forbidden to eat in your room, and for the nearest restaurant to be some drive away if you are in the countryside.
  • It’s very unlikely there will be a bar, though a few enlightened places offer an ‘honesty’ bar where you write down what you take.

Breakfast plate at Le Savagnin
©Brett Jones

The great advantages of staying in a B&B

  • Above all, your hosts are either locals or people who have moved to the region, usually because they have fallen in love with the area and need a way to make an income. They are usually wonderful sources of local information, whether it be good nearby restaurants, wineries to visit or hikes, just bear in mind that these are biased, personal recommendations.
  • Every B&B is different and reflects the personality of the house and its owner. Many have delightful and thoughtful touches, that might be simply artful or downright considerate.
  • There will often be a garden, which is usually available for guests, and maybe a terrace, barbecue and swimming pool too. Be considerate about these, as the owners may restrict time of usage so that their own family get some personal time.
  • If you are in a B&B owned by a wine producer, then there will undoubtedly be special perks, like a free visit and tour around the winery, a special tasting and so on. If you are staying more than a night, you are sure to get to see more than the normal visitor to the winery. And, you may be able to appreciate what it is like to have a night stroll in the middle of a vineyard under a starry sky. Personally I love nothing better than this to get ‘inside’ the atmosphere of a bottle of wine.

A selection of Jura B&Bs
As many readers will know, I am a specialist in the Jura wine region, and write the wine travel guides to the Jura. I generally stay at least one night when I visit and it is also a convenient stopping place en route between London and my home in the French Alps. So this is a region where I have most personal experience of B&Bs from staying in them, and also requesting an ‘inspection’ (not nearly as reliable as staying in them, of course, but reviewers can’t afford to stay everywhere).

Until a few years ago, Arbois had only very basic B&Bs. On a research trip I spent a couple of nights in a very centrally-placed B&B with just one bedroom, that’s really a small apartment with a kitchen, in quite an historic house, owned by a delightful English couple. Everything worked, but it was a rather old soft bed and I was glad I was on my own. The equally central Closerie les Capucines, on the other hand, is an old house restored to create a modern and luxurious B&B, with prices to match. I’ve only visited, not stayed there, but reviews seem consistently good.

Le Savagnin B&B in the village of Pupillin
©Brett Jones

In the tiny village of Pupillin are three relatively basic B&Bs which are very useful if you want to eat at Le Grapiot, the village’s excellent restaurant and/or stay somewhere quiet out of a town. I’ve stayed in two and for me there was something about Le Savagnin that had the edge on Le Part des Anges, but it’s all a matter of taste. For a wide choice, search the B&Bs on Gîtes de France – it’s best to choose places with three or four ‘corns’ for decent quality.

The town of Poligny has recently gained an unusual B&B, Les Jardins sur Glantine, owned and run by the owners of a tiny, relatively new wine producer Les Chais du Vieux Bourg. This is fast becoming the wine insider’s accommodation of choice, with its two luxurious suites. But bear in mind that each suite of two bedrooms has only one bathroom, so check that you will be on your own in the suite or be prepared to share! It’s ideal for a small group and you will get to taste their unusual wines over a very well-cooked meal.

Lons-le-Saunier in particular has a pretty poor choice of hotels for being the ‘capital’ of the Jura department and recently we tested out a B&B Le Cèdre Bleu just on the edge of town, on the road that leads up to the village of Montaigu where one of my favourite producers, Domaine Pignier is based. In a big house, our bedroom was huge, with a tiny bathroom, all spotless. Breakfast was basic but with a huge array of home-made jams. This is what it is all about, personality, which you may love or hate. But, it’s well worth taking the risk for somewhere different, as long as you not someone that expects big fluffy towels for €60 per room per night including breakfast.

Wine Travel Guides lists a few selected, good quality B&Bs in many of our guides under Places to Stay. We have a policy not to list those with only one bedroom and in France, five bedrooms is the maximum allowed to be classified as a chambres d’hôtes. In some regions, such as Bordeaux, you will find several wine-producing châteaux offering chambres d’hôtes in the actual château – don’t worry, you don’t have to work in the vineyards for your bed, and many offer very good value.

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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.


The history, art, food and wine of Chianti

November 22, 2011

Tuscany is known to be one of the most beautiful places in Italy. Many a writer, film maker and tourist passing through the region have been charmed by the countryside where cute villages, monasteries and castles blend in perfectly in the rolling hills. At its heart is the beautiful Chianti Classico district, home to red wines from Sangiovese and a host of welcoming wineries.

This guest post is written by wine consultant and sommelier Caroline Henry, who visited Chianti in October on a sponsored trip following the European Wine Bloggers Conference. It was Caroline’s first trip to the region and we are delighted that she could share her impressions here.

The Chianti region is situated between Florence and Siena. The hillsides are a patchwork of oak, cypress, chestnut and pine forests, intermingled with vineyards and olive groves, splendid in their blazing autumn glory under the pleasant Tuscan sun. The region has a long and rich history dating back to the Etruscan and Roman times. In the Middle Ages, the area became the theatre for the fierce battles between the city-states of Siena and Florence. Around the same time it became a stronghold for the church which meant that several monasteries, fortresses and castles emerged all over the region. During the Renaissance, in times of peace, several of these buildings were converted to stately homes and villas and became wine and olive oil estates.

Chianti Classico landscape

Castello di Ama with a typical Chianti Classico vineyard landscape ©Mick Rock, Cephas

Whilst visiting Chianti Classico, we learned that 13th century Chianti was a white wine blend of Malvasia and Trebbiano. However, over the centuries Chianti developed into a red wine based on the Sangiovese grape. Sangiovese often shows flavours of fresh black fruit – black currant, cherries and blackberry – with a hint of sweet liquorice and is characterised by a high acidity and chewy tannins which will soften with aging. Chianti Classico wines are from grapes grown on the original sites defined as far back a the 17th century and renowned as the best vineyard sites in the area. The Chianti Classico district compromises about 70,000 hectares (ha) of which only 10,000ha are vineyards and 8,000ha olive groves.

Chianti Classico Heartland
We spent three days in the heartland of Chianti Classico between Gaiole and Greve starting our trip at the Santa Maria al Prato convent in Radda. Originally a Franciscan Monastery dating from the 14th century, it today hosts the ’Welcome Centre’ of the Chianti Classico Wine Consortium. It also has plenty of information on the different wineries to visit in the area and the history of Chianti. In 2012 a contemporary art centre will open on the 2nd floor with collections from all over the world.

Radda, the capital of Chianti Classico, is a beautiful medieval walled town with a rich culinary history. A must try gastronomic specialty is Ribollita – a hearty soup made from left over bread, canelli beans and inexpensive vegetables such as black cabbage, carrots, onions and spinach.

Tuscan wine estate

The abbey of the good harvest at Badia a Coltibuono ©Peter Harvey

Next we visited the Badia a Coltibuono wine estate, a converted Abbey originally built by the Vallombrosan monks. The monks were known for having revolutionized the local agricultural practices and were among the first to plant Sangiovese here. The Abbey was secularized when Napoleon annexed Tuscany in 1810 and was acquired by Michele Giuntini. In the spirit of the monastery the Stucchi Prinetti family, current owners and ancestors of Guintini, have transformed the wine estate into a sustainable modern centre for food and wine appreciation. Besides the winery, Badia a Coltibuono also includes an Agriturismo, a cooking school offering one day and residential traditional Tuscan cooking classes and restaurant featuring live jazz or classical music during the summer.

Tuscan castle

Castello di Brolio ©Caroline Henry

Historic castles and Modern Art
On the second day we visited the Castello di Brolio, an iconic castle in the history of Chianti. Built in the 11th century it was restructured by Baron Bettino Ricasoli, a prominent politician and the creator of the first known ‘Chianti recipe’ in 1872, proscribing 70% Sangiovese, 15% Canaiolo and 15% Malvasia Bianca. Today’s Chianti Classico wines are 80-100% Sangiovese and white varieties are no longer allowed. The castle has a small museum which hosts a centuries old collection of arms and armour of the Ricasoli family and gives a good insight in the political and agronomical work of Bettino Ricasoli. The castle grounds are stunning and in summer visitors can enjoy traditional Chianti fare and the Barone’s wines in the large garden of the Osteria dell Castello. Situated a little down the hill is the Barone Ricasoli tasting room and wine shop.

Another wonderful place to visit is the Castello di Ama in Gaiole. The winery was established in 1972 and was taken over by Marco Pallanti in 1995. Of the 250ha which make up Castello di Ama 90ha are planted with vines (predominantly Sangiovese) and there are 40ha of olive groves. In 2000 Lorenza and Marco Pallanti started the ’Castello di Ama per l’Arte Contemporanea’ project in which they invite a prominent artist to live on the property for several months and create a permanent artistic installation. These artworks are dotted around the buildings and the land of Castello di Amo and are part of the guided winery visit.

After indulging in modern art we were transported back to the Middle Ages visiting Vignamaggio Wine Estate. The oldest part of the Villa of Vignamaggio dates back to the 14th century, and legend has it that Leonardo da Vinci’s famous Mona Lisa was born here in 1479. It was also the place where a large part of Kenneth Branagh’s Much Ado about Nothing was filmed. The estate has been in the hands of the Gherardi family since the 16th century and they produce excellent Chianti Classico, Super Tuscans, Vin Santo and olive oil. The beautiful villa is also an Agriturismo and offers a wine tourism programme which includes guided walks, tastings and wine dinners.

Beef heaven

The kitchen at Solociccia ©Caroline Henry

Culinary Traditions
We ended the day with a fabulous  ‘Whole Steer Dinner’ at Solociccia in Panzano. Solociccia is the brain child of butcher-poet Dario Cecchini, also owner of the Antica Macelleria Cecchini, his butcher shop across the street. Dario’s aim is to respect the animal by using every part in the best possible way. At Solociccia guests eat a set menu of ’butcher foods’ at a communal table in a convivial atmosphere. The menu consists of six meat courses served with seasonal vegetables and the traditional Tuscan white beans with olive oil and bread. After that there is cake and coffee. A quarter litre of house wine and a grappa are also included in the amazing value menu price of €30.

On our last day we first visited Caparsa, a small winery near Radda. It is owned by artisan winemaker Paolo Cianferoni who farms organically and makes wine in a ’natural’ way. Caparsa offers a 45 minute guided cellar and wine tasting tour which can be booked via their website.

We concluded our tour of Chianti Classico at the Castello d’Albola wine estate and the beautiful Villa Marangole with its magnificent views from the large terrace. The villa is available for holiday rentals and it sleeps up to 12 people. Two kilometres up the hill lies the Castello d’Albola, a 15th century fortress which today houses the winery, tasting room and cellars of the Castello d’Albola wines with daily guided tasting tours of their wines and olive oil.

Chianti has a rich culinary history and the various Chianti Classico producers we met emphasized that the wines are made to be enjoyed with local food – it enriches the experience as the different flavours really enhance each other. It is a Tuscan tradition to drink Vin Santo at the end of a meal when guests are visiting. Vin Santo is an elegant dessert wine made from dried Malvasia and Trebbiano grapes, which are then slowly fermented and aged for at least  three years in small casks. It has rich flavours of apricot, peach and nuts and is often accompanied by some biscotti. A glass of Vin Santo and a biscotti are the perfect way to end a great meal among friends, and it was the perfect way to end our trip.

Caroline would like to thank the Consorzio Vino Chianti Classico  for their generous sponsorship of this trip and the European Wine Bloggers Conference for making it possible.

For more information, take a look at our very comprehensive Wine Travel Guide Between San Gimignano and Siena written by wine writer Michele Shah, who lives in Florence. Gift Membership to the website giving one-year access to download all the latest PDF Guides makes an unusual present. Until the end of the year we are pleased to offer a 30% discount off annual membership to readers of this blog who use the code D2BLG1111.


Original wine touring experiences and great food in South Africa

October 27, 2011

Words by Wink Lorch, Pictures by Brett Jones

For anyone who is used only to travelling in European wine regions, a visit to the winelands of South Africa is simply a revelation. Increasingly the country offers an example to other wine producing wine countries as to how comprehensive and varied, and frankly downright welcoming and unforgettable, the wine travel experience can be.

Whereas there are compact areas to tour like Constantia, Swartland, Robertson or Hermanus that can be covered in a day or two, the offering from the larger Stellenbosch and Paarl regions is simply so huge that it is seriously hard to choose which of the many wineries to visit. On our wine tour of South Africa last January, part press trip and partly on our own, a couple of wine tourism offerings really stood out for their originality.

Warwick wine tour

Safari ready at Warwick ©Brett Jones

The Big Five Wine Safari
Warwick Estate is one of the many Stellenbosch wine farms that lies in a drop dead gorgeous location, surrounded by its vineyards with views to the dramatic mountains of the Western Cape. Owned by the Ratcliffe family since 1964, the farm was named Warwick by a previous owner of the estate who had been a general of the Warwickshire Regiment in the Anglo-Boer War. The farm has a red wine focus with its two most famous wines being blends: the highly acclaimed Trilogy, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, made in Bordeaux style to age; and the more approachable Three Cape Ladies from Cabernet Sauvignon and Pinotage with a splash of Merlot and Syrah, depending on the year.

As at nearly all wine estates here, there is a bright tasting room and shop, complete with wine accessories, books, T shirts, aprons and more. Warwick also offer various, smart, but relaxed picnic areas for lunch in the grounds, where you may indulge in their delicious gourmet picnic baskets, best reserved in advance. The other innovation at Warwick is the Big Five Wine Safari (not run in May-August, the rainy season). The web page states “not for the faint hearted” but in our press group we were not warned, and some of us girls did our fair share of yelling as the safari Land-Rover took us up and down their spectacular vineyards at some quite hairy angles. It was worth it though for the amazing wide views from the top, and it is a great education to be right up there in the vineyards discovering the different grape varieties and soils. This is how Warwick explain their Big Five:

  • Cabernet Sauvignon – Lion
    Cabernet Sauvignon is the king of red grapes and the lion is the king of the jungle, like a young lion fighting for dominance in the pride Cabernet Sauvignon is aggressive when young but softens with age.
  • Cabernet Franc – Elephant
    Like an elephant Cabernet Franc has a very thick skin. Elephants love to wallow in mud and Cabernet Franc has a very earthy flavour profile. Single variety Cabernet Francs are very rare so when you try one you always remember it, the elephant also has a very good memory.
  • Merlot – Leopard
    Merlot is a very shy and elusive grape just like the leopard. Merlot is very difficult to spot in a blend, and the leopard is the hardest of the big 5 to spot.
  • Sauvignon Blanc – Rhino
    The Rhino is the easiest animal to identify in the wild because of its distinctive nose, Sauvignon Blanc is the easiest grape variety to indentify blind also because of its nose. Rhino horn is also an aphrodisiac but Professor Black Sauvignon Blanc is a better and more environmentally friendly aphrodisiac.
  • Pinotage – Buffalo
    The buffalo is a very aggressive and unpredictable animal; Pinotage is also unpredictable and has very aggressive tannins.

Up close and personal with the goats
Keeping on the animal theme, just up the road into the Paarl wine district, not far from the town of Paarl, is Fairview Winery. It is known for a big range of wines from in particular Rhône Valley grape varieties, and also for its goats’ cheese produced from a herd of 800 goats, a few of which you will see enjoying its quirky goat tower! Fairview is owned by the highly respected Back family, who have farmed here since 1937, with their first Fairview wine label in 1974 and a cheese factory created in 1985. Fairview welcomes 200,000 visitors to their tasting room every year, and like their wine range it has expanded greatly since I first visited this lovely winery and cheesemaker in 1998.

Fairview Goat Tower South Africa

Fine billy on the tower ©Brett Jones

Although you cannot do a cellar tour here, the choice of tastings available is very good, with education being the key. The main Fairview tasting room today has wooden pods with well trained staff to take you through six selected wines, with cheeses being available at separate pods – a more expensive, but still excellent value option allows you to enjoy a sit-down tutored tasting in a dedicated, more formal room next door. The whole atmosphere is both buzzing and relaxed, and the range of wines remains as it has always been, innovative and good quality at every price level from the Goats do Roam range with its amusing labels and stories, to the interesting Spice Route range and the most serious Single Vineyard Fairview labels such as my favourite Beacon Shiraz.

The on-site Goatshed restaurant continues the relaxed feel offering a casual bistro atmosphere for daytime snacks or lunch. There is an emphasis on fresh Mediterranean-style food, with plenty of bright-coloured vegetables, great bread and of course, a chance to sample the goats’ cheeses once again.

Wine tasting room at SimonsigFine dining with a view
Some of South Africa’s finest restaurants are in the wine regions, and the quality of meals we were able to enjoy in the more serious winery restaurants in South Africa’s winelands was astoundingly good. We were lucky enough to sample excellent meals at the Cuvée Restaurant of Simonsig, the Bodega Restaurant of Dornier, Terroir Restaurant at Kleine Zalze and the Jordan Wines Restaurant, all in Stellenbosch, as well as at La Motte in Franschhoek. At all these restaurants you can enjoy wines by the glass or by the bottle, with very good food. Each restaurant was enjoyable and impressive in a different way, but all were constructed to make the most of the local architectural heritage and the landscape, with views from the terraces and large windows, and with menus concocted to make the best of the wines. Most of all, for those who enjoy fine food and wine, I think that any of these could be indulged in for a really special dressed-up occasion, or simply on a much more relaxed holiday visit, perhaps after visiting some of their excellent tasting rooms.

Stellenbosch view

Evening view from Jordan's Restaurant ©Brett Jones

For more information about visiting South Africa’s winelands, start your research with the Stellenbosch Wine Routes and the Franschhoek Wine Valley websites.

My thanks go to the wine producers and restaurants who kindly hosted us. Our trip was partly with a group from the Circle of Wine Writers and was part-sponsored by Wines of South Africa.


Beaune in the heart of Burgundy

September 29, 2011

Not all wine regions have a clear focal point, but in Burgundy, there is no doubt that all roads lead to Beaune, the historic capital of the region and today a vibrant small town devoted to wine and gastronomy. Buzzing under the summer sun, or silent under winter snows, at any season for many wine lovers Beaune has become a place of pilgrimage.

Produce market at Beaune, Burgundy

The food market in Beaune is a food lover's paradise ©Wink Lorch

There are two places I have always made my own pilgrimage to when visiting Beaune: the Hospices de Beaune has been in existence for over 550 years, and is correctly named l’Hôtel Dieu; and right opposite, Athenaeum, a quite amazing wine book shop, founded just 21 years ago, in 1989. On my last visit in December with World Wine Tour 2010 I was finally able to add a third legend to the list, Ma Cuisine, a tucked-away restaurant that is only open on four days a week, and requires booking well in advance.

Les Hospices de Beaune – a hospital for the poor
Wine lovers know the Hospices de Beaune in particular for its famous wine auction held each November. The auction sells the barrels of the latest vintage of wines from some of the Burgundy wine region’s best-known Grand and Premier Cru vineyards, which many years ago were donated to the Hospices to fund its good works.

The buildings of the Hospices, built in 1452 using Flemish-inspired architecture as a hospital for the poor, are stunningly beautiful with their distinctive and colourful tiled roofs, but venture inside and you discover a sense of peace, humility, history and unexpected treasures too. The buildings were used as a general hospital until 1971 and for the past 40 years have been a much admired tourist attraction, well worth a visit.

Hospices de Beaune kitchen

Invalid's rabbit stew - classic Burgundian cuisine ©Wink Lorch

It is so atmospheric walking through from the inner courtyard into the main hall lined with beautiful dark wood bed ‘stalls’ where the poor and sick were cared for. A mock up kitchen makes you believe they were well fed, and the beautiful pharmacy gives a hint of the sort of potions they were given to make them better.

The original funding for the beautiful Hopsices buildings and indeed the amazing furniture and works of art, came from Nicolas Rolin, chancellor for the Dukes of Burgundy, who decided to assuage his guilt of living a profligate life, by using some of his wealth in this way. The works of art in the Hospices have been regularly added to by legacies and donations and there are some wonderful pieces, including amazingly intricate tapestries.

If you can’t get there soon, then for a closer look at the Hospices take a look at the series of videos (in French) from the regional online magazine Bourgogne Live:

Making the most of Beaune’s gastronomic delights
The choice of restaurants in Beaune is large, and it definitely pays to plan in advance to make sure you eat at somewhere authentic, rather than at one of the overtly tourist restaurants that you will stumble across once you are in the town. Our Côte de Beaune guide includes four restaurants in Beaune itself, and one that had been recommended to me countless times by not only our writers, but by wine producers and UK Burgundy importers is Ma Cuisine.

Beaune Premier Cru 2006

When in Beaune ... ©Brett Jones

Having eaten at many restaurants in Beaune over the years, when I ate at Ma Cuisine, I realized what I had been missing. Small and simple, tucked along a quiet road just inside the old town walls, the emphasis here is on simple, tasty local food, designed to show off your choice of wine from the massive list. If you have money to spend and love Burgundy, you will have a hard time choosing the wine, but help is at hand, and even if you are on a relatively meagre budget, there is a Burgundy wine for everyone here. You simply have to go, but make sure you phone ahead and choose the right day. If Ma Cuisine is closed or full, then another original choice we have enjoyed recently is Le Comptoir des Tontons, with a delightfully laid-back atmosphere, good local, mainly organic food and a decent selection of Burgundy wines at fair prices.

Wine books and gifts galore
It’s best to put aside a good hour for a browse around the wonderful Athenaeum shop right opposite the Hospices and open all day every day, even through lunchtime and on Sundays. Athenaeum started life as a specialist wine book shop; today, much extended, it offers an unrivalled selection of wine books in French, English and other languages, not just covering Burgundy, but the world. As well as a very good French wine map section, the wine accessory department ranges from serious wine glasses and decanters, to greetings cards and a plethora of items you never knew you wanted. There is a fair kitchen department too and last year, I did my Christmas shopping there.

Pernand Vergelesses, Burgundy wine village

Pernand-Vergelesses, just outside Beaune ©Brett Jones

I’m taking it as read that you are unlikely, as a wine lover, to visit Beaune without setting aside some time to taste wine. Apart from Athenaeum that has a fine selection of wines, there are several decent wine shops in the town listed on our guide, and these are the places to go to buy old vintages. Even if Beaune is the heart of the Burgundy wine region, it is best to avoid the over-touristy tasting places in the town, instead arrange in advance to visit a few wine producers in the villages outside Beaune, in the heart of the vineyards. Be aware that more than anywhere, most wine producers in Burgundy require advanced appointments, and for the finest producers, a personal introduction from an importer or specialist wine retailer is often needed.

Much more information on other shops, restaurants, places to stay and recommended wine producers to visit can be found on our Côte de Beaune travel guide. All information on the website is free to view, there is a small charge to download the PDF versions of the guides.


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