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Discovering the Delights of Saint-Chinian

February 4, 2015

The dramatic Montagne Noire forms the backdrop to the Saint-Chinian vineyards, and to its charming southern French towns and villages.

Wine communicator and retailer Paola Tich travelled there to learn more about the two distinctive styles of red Saint-Chinian wine, not forgetting its rosés and unusual white wines.

Saint-Chinian vineyard

Saint-Chinian vineyard in early spring near Berlou © Mick Rock/Cephas

On an early evening in September there’s an air of expectation among those of us gathering by the banks of the Canal du Midi at Capestang in Saint-Chinian. Holidaymakers pop their heads out from below decks on the moored barges to see if the action has started. Others (like us) nurse coffees at a nearby café, or linger around the outside of the tourist office, where the weekly “un verre au bord du canal” wine tasting is due to begin.

There’s quite a crowd by the time the tasting gets underway, a little later than its scheduled 6pm start. We learn that one of the producers, Oliver Pascal of Les Terrasses de Gabrielle, has slipped in his winery. But, with a large bandage and brave smile, he still manages to put on a good show.

Oliver’s AC Saint-Chinian Rouge is particularly interesting, as it gives centre stage to the wonderfully-name Lledoner Pelut or “Hairy Grenache” (it’s the leaves that are hairy, not the grape!), with Syrah and Mourvèdre playing walk on roles.

These canal-side tastings run from June to the end of September, on Wednesday and Friday evenings with a rotation of winemakers. If you like what you taste, you can buy bottles then and there.

French winery opening times

Check the opening times …

Like many parts of France (and indeed Europe), cellar doors where you can rock up at any time during scheduled weekday opening times, are rare. In Saint-Chinian, Laurent Miquel’s Cazal Viel winery is one of the exceptions.

You can visit quite a few vineyards by appointment though, such as Domaine de Pech-Ménel, run by two sisters Marie-Françoise and Elisabeth Poux. As well as trying their wines, it’s worth buying some of Elisabeth’s delicious thyme jelly, a local speciality that goes brilliantly with goat’s cheese.

During the summer, a number of producers organise activities such as guided vineyard walks and jazz concerts, the most ambitious being the annual La Randonnée de Bacchus. This is an 8km ramble through vineyards around the village of Berlou with seven étapes gourmandes (food stops) along the way.

A less energetic option is to base yourself in a vineyard. We stayed at the stunning Château Les Carrasses, a 19th century estate that provides luxury self-catering accommodation in a private club environment. During the peak season, it organises weekly tastings with a local winemaker (you don’t have to be a guest to attend) plus regular wine discovery days that go far beyond the château’s own wine production.

In the pipeline to join Château Les Carrasses as a luxury destination is the village – yes, village – of Assignan, which is being converted into an “exploded hotel” by Belgian couple Marc and Tine Verstraete. They are buying up houses in the almost-abandoned village with a plan to turn them into restaurants and rooms.

La Petite Table in Assignan © Paola Tich

La Petite Table in Assignan © Paola Tich

They’ve started with La Petite Table, a teeny, stylish wine bar and tapas room run by Tine’s son Fons de Muynck, a chef inspired by his time in South America. The purple-and-pink themed bar (it works – honestly!) focuses on local wines, not just those produced by Marc and Tine at their wine estate Château Castigno – a place definitely worth a visit by appointment. The wines are good, but it’s the funky château that really grabs attention.

Worth visiting is the scenic village of Roquebrun, a medieval jumble of stone houses nestling in the foothills of the rocky mountains and home to the Cave de Roquebrun, a well-respected wine cooperative of local growers. From there, it’s a stroll to the cool Cave Saint Martin, a wine bar specialising in biodynamic and minimal-intervention wines from around France, not just Saint-Chinian. The quality of the charcuterie (especially the Iberian ham) is another reason to go, as well as the view over the Orb from the wine bar’s terrace while you eat and drink. You can also buy wine, cheese, charcuterie and other gourmet treats to take away.

If you really want to get away from it all, you can hole up in Le Hameau de Cauduro, an isolated mountain hamlet of eight cottages. Despite its two swimming pools and makeshift cinema, there are no shops here (the nearest are a 20-minute drive away). Winemakers will visit on certain Fridays during the summer to run tastings.

From another age - best go to the Maison du Vin © Paola Tich

From another age – best go to the Maison de Vins © Paola Tich

A trip to La Maison de Vins in the town of Saint-Chinian is essential if you are interested in learning more about the styles of Saint-Chinian wine that emerge from its two distinct soils – schist and limestone clay. Run by the wine producers’ syndicate, and set on one side of the classic tree-lined square, it has a wine dispenser machine so you can sample a variety of reds, whites and rosés.

The syndicate has also produced an “AOC Saint-Chinian” app with lots of well-written, useful information about the wines, the terroir, the producers and wine events. Designed to work offline, you can plan your wine visits in Saint-Chinian without the hassle and cost of constantly finding a connection.

Paola Tich visited the region as a guest of the Syndicat Cru Saint-Chinian – the winegrowers’ association of this Languedoc-Roussillon wine region.

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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, a shower with the <a style="text-decoration:none;" href="http://showerheadreview.net”>best shower head, 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


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.


Revisiting Hungary’s southern red star

August 26, 2011

By Wink Lorch

Once upon a time, all most of us knew of Hungary’s wines was the legendary sweet wine Tokaj, said to revive monarchs on their death beds, and Bull’s Blood, the red wine reputed to put hairs on everyone’s chest. Today, Tokaj and Bull’s Blood still exist, if somewhat battered, but the country is buzzing with other good wines emerging from several different regions, the absolute star for reds being Villány, in the south.

Villány wine cellars ©Virtual Tourist/shrimp56

When Hungary emerged from communism around 20 years ago, a flood of inexpensive whites rolled onto the UK’s supermarket shelves, so it felt odd that my first visit to Hungary in 1999 was an invitation to discover the country’s reds. However,  when our first stop was in Villány, both a region and a sweet little wine town, unlike any I’d seen before, I began to understand. Finally after 12 years, this year, I managed to return.

What is so striking about the town of Villány and the neighbouring villages in the region are the little whitewashed cellars, with bright-coloured doors and shutters, lining the streets in neat rows. Behind the doors, the traditional winegrowers combined press rooms with barrel storage, and latterly they have been converted into tasting rooms. Wine has a long history in the region, but it was the Germans who came here in the 18th century who first really established it as a fine area for reds.

Bock's restaurant in Villány ©Christian Schiller

Villány, together with neighbouring Siklós, best known for its white wines, claim to have created the first wine route in Hungary, and certainly I remember back in 1999 that the Attila Gere Winery, who now have a very smart hotel, already had a simple pension, where we stayed. Vying for position in both the quality of their accommodation and their wines is the Bock winery, run by Joszef Bock and his family, which incorporates a fine hotel and restaurant . This was the focus of our visit this summer.

The team at Bock took our group of wine educators out of the town to visit two of their historic vineyards, one above a plunging valley known as Devil’s Creek, and another, the historic vineyard Jammertal above the actual town of Villány. The word Jammertal means ‘wailing valley’ in German and refers to the cry let out by the Turks when they were defeated here in 1687 during the Ottoman wars. This is deemed to be not only a historic vineyard and cellar (now used only for storage), but also one of the best sites for red grapes in the Villány region.

The Villány region's Devil's Creek vineyards ©Brett Jones

The climate is mainly continental, but with some Mediterranean influences from the south, and the long sunshine hours make it ideal to ripen a range of red grapes. The region’s most famous variety is the widely planted Portugieser, making quite a juicy, sour-cherry style of red; the well-known Kékfrankos (Austria’s Blaufränkisch) is also grown giving some delicious blueberry flavours, but today the stars are Cabernet Franc (which ripens more reliably than Cabernet Sauvignon, also grown, but only in the sunniest sites) and Syrah, pioneered here by Joszef Block, is also doing well.

Bock’s Cabernet Francs as well as other good examples from Villány have a real deep fruity character, and what I particularly like are those that haven’t spent too much time in new oak and offer that Loire-like green capsicum or even lead pencil character. Bock’s finest wines are blends and I adored his 2006 Capella, a ‘Bordeaux blend’ of 60% Cabernet Franc 30% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot, aged for two years in new oak. Bock is the German word for goat, and Capella is the so-called 5th star or goat star, the rather garish label has a large red goat adorning it.

We had a wonderful meal at the Bock restaurant, which has a big terrace outside the winery where, depending on the time of day, you can choose simply to have a wine tasting, or indulge in a meal. If the weather is not fine, then the tasting area inside is extremely pleasant. Hotel rooms were comfortable and practical, and there is a small pool and spa area – this would make a fine base from which to tour the area. Bock also own a wonderful wine shop and friendly bistro in downtown Budapest, the Bock Bisztro, where we also enjoyed an excellent meal before driving down to Villány.

Malatinszky tasting room ©Wink Lorch

Whilst in Villány, we also enjoyed a visit to Csaba Malatinszky’s tasting room and bistro right in the middle of the town. An ex-sommelier from Budapest, he very much focuses on wines to match food, and from his range I enjoyed, in particular, a lovely 2009 white blend from Siklós, named Serena  made from Chardonnay, Riesling and Muscat Ottonel, which matched a range of Mediterranean-influenced snacks on toast, and his red blend named Tenkes from Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc with a touch of Kékfrankos. My favourite was the less expensive of his Cabernet Francs, without too much of that new oak influence.

There is no question that Villány-Siklós is perfect for an independent wine tour by car. However, if you only have a short time in Hungary, I can recommend the highly regarded day tours organised by Carolyn and Gabor Bánfalvi of Taste Hungary. Carolyn is an American journalist based in Budapest who one day in the future I hope will write our Wine Travel Guides to Hungary. Having enjoyed a Budapest market tour with her husband Gabor, I can vouch for their approach combining fun with dedication to great food and wine!

Disclaimer: my thanks go to Hungarian wine specialists in the UK, Mephisto Wines, and to Bock and Malatinszky wineries, who paid for our internal travel arrangements and provided our accommodation.


The River of Riesling, Grüner and Apricots

June 30, 2011

By Wink Lorch

It was the apricots, appearing in a multitude of different forms, that surprised me. I had long been wanting to explore the Wachau, in a gorgeous situation on the Danube river, and Austria’s finest wine region for high quality dry, white wines from Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. Yet as ever, when you finally visit somewhere you know only virtually, there is always something unexpected in store.

Marille (apricots) in all their forms ©Brett Jones

On our first morning we drove alongside the river from Spitz, where we were staying, to explore the very sweet and colourful village of Dürnstein, perhaps the most famous of the Wachau wine region, very busy in summer, but calm mid-week in October. I was expecting wine bars and wine producers, but everywhere in shops and restaurants, there were references to Marille, a German word I’d never heard before.

It turns out that Marille is the word used in Austria, South Tirol and Bavaria for apricots, and recognising the traditions of growing apricots particularly in this region, Wachauer Marille is a protected appellation, with 250ha of apricot trees grown here. Shops sell the apricots bottled and made into a really wide range of products including jam, compote, fiery schnapps and sweet liqueurs – a yellow theme pervades. On menus, Marille appears in many guises including as dumplings or the delicious Marillenpalatschinke – apricot pancakes.

Understanding Wachau wines
A little away from the centre of Dürnstein is Domäne Wachau, the regional wine cooperative. One of the most respected wine cooperatives, not just in Austria but in Europe, it accounts for about one-third of the output of Wachau wines and is one of the largest wineries in Austria. If you come to the Wachau, this is an ideal first visit for three reasons: in its great location on the site of an old abbey winery you will find an excellent winery shop open every day all year, a beautiful Baroque palace and cellar, and you should receive a very thorough introduction to the wines of Wachau. Oh, yes, and there’s a superb range of nervy, dry white, food-friendly wines too!

Terraced vineyards in Dürnstein ©Brett Jones

We were lucky to meet the dynamic manager and Master of Wine Roman Horvarth together with experienced cellarmaster and oenologist Heinz Fischengruber. There are two main lessons to be learnt in the Wachau. Firstly, about the climate that varies in particular between the cooler vineyards in the west, more influenced by the far-off Atlantic, and those significantly warmer vineyards in the east towards the town of Krems, which have influence from the Pannonian plain with warm winds funnelled up the Danube river. Within this, there are a multitude of microclimates due to the varying steepness, terraces and aspects of the vineyards, and varied soil types too.

The second important lesson is that back in the 1980s a group of Wachau wine producers created a new appellation named Vinea Wachau, which included a code of practice and three designations for their main production of dry white wines from either Grüner Veltliner or Riesling, based on alcohol content. Steinfeder is for light-weight, fruity wines up to 11.5%; Federspiel, the most important category, for mid-weight wines; and finally Smaragd, named after the lizards that bask in the sun on the stone walls supporting the steep terraces, for rich and powerful wines, usually from late-picked grapes, and only released after May 1st following the vintage

Heinz with the vineyard map ©Wink Lorch

As a large cooperative, Domäne Wachau has several wine ranges. The mid-range named Terassen (from grapes grown on the steep terraced vineyards) exists for Steinfeder, Federspiel and Smaragd in both Grüner and Riesling, and provides excellent representatives of each style. For greater individuality the higher quality, single vineyard wines (mainly at Federspiel and Smaragd levels) show the wide range of great vineyard sites in which members of this wine cooperative have holdings. They include many classic vineyard names of Wachau including from west to east along the valley 1000 Eimer Berg (in the village of Spitz), Achleiten (in Weissenkirchen) and Loibenberg (in Dürnstein).

The cooperative has invested quite heavily into wine tourism and frankly admits that this is very cost intensive, but is convinced that for its worldwide reputation it is worth it. The shop, where you can taste of course, is well worth a visit, and if you can arrange a tour of their cellars and beautiful restored palace as well, this is something really special.

A river runs through it
The Wachau region, designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 2000, is around 1000km from the source of the Danube, one of Europe’s most important rivers, and about 1400km from its end in the Black Sea. With a history back to Roman times (the Danube was the northern limit of the Roman empire) the vineyards are on the steep sides of the river, in parts on both sides, and also up the side valley running west from the village of Spitz, where we visited the excellent family winery Weingut Johann Donabaum (one of six producers with the last name Donabaum!).

Since he took over from his father, Johann Donabaum has put the estate on the map, expanding the vineyard holdings and improving wine quality greatly. Typical of the region, he grows 60% Grüner Veltliner, 35% Riesling and 5% of mix of other grapes (we tasted a good grapey, dry Muscateller and a medium sweet, spicy Neuburger). At present he uses no wood for maturation, but may do in future for his Smaragd wines. Tasting in a lovely cellar tasting room, we loved the wines as they are, especially the Riesling Offenberg Smaragd, grown here on a slate soil, to me reminiscent of German Rheingau Rieslings.

The Danube car ferry ©Wink Lorch

One way of understanding the geography of the Wachau is to take a leisurely drive criss-crossing the river Danube. There is a bridge at the western end at Melk, the best route into the region driving the 90 minutes from Vienna, and another in the east at Mautern, but there are delightful, slow car ferries pulled by overhead cables – at the villages of Spitz, Weissenkirchen and Dürnstein – and it’s well worth at least one journey on the ferry.

The village of Weissenkirchen is home to some of the finest wine producers in the Wachau. As in much of the region, many are open to visitors only by appointment. We had an appointment at the winery owned by the understated Roman Jäger, who at certain times of the year operates a Heurige wine bar. Jäger owns plots in some of the prime vineyard sites. I was developing a taste for wines from the Achleiten vineyard, and here was a full, spicy and peppery Grüner Smaragd 2009 that was delicious. To understand the scale here, Jäger owns 3 parcels of vines in this vineyard, about 1ha (2.5 acres) in all, out of a total 20ha for the Achleiten vineyard.

Wachau vineyard walk above the Danube ©Wink Lorch

We also took the opportunity to take a walk up through the vineyards on the edge of Weissenkirchen, high above the river. There are well-marked vineyard walks throughout the Wachau, ideal to take a picnic, or to work off a good lunch.

Fine Wines and Gastronomy
Food and wine matching is almost inevitable everywhere in the Wachau, whether in a simple café like the Altes Presshaus (old press house) in Dürnstein, with soups and snacks, offered with decent wines by the 1/8 litre; or in the typical Austrian wine region Heurige (we enjoyed two evenings at the Lagler Heurige, walking distance from our hotel in Spitz); or at the gastronomic level, such as offered by the restaurant owned by Weingut Jamek in Joching, who also have an upmarket hotel. How lovely it was to find a wide range of wines by the glass and by the bottle at reasonable prices at whatever type of eating establishment we chose, and how well the dry Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners matched the wide range of food.

At the very traditional Gasthof Prankl in Spitz one evening we drank a gorgeous, minerally Grüner Felderspiel 09 from the well-respected Spitz grower Franz Hirtzberger, available for 28€ a bottle and working brilliantly with my medallions of pork with Veltliner crust and mushroom risotto. At the Jamek restaurant, I gave a toast to the late Graf Matuschka of Schloss Vollrads in Germany, from whom I learnt that wines should be matched to the strongest flavour in the meal, usually the sauce. Here, we compared a glass of Ried Klaus Riesling Federspiel with a Smaragd from the same vineyard, both 2009. Initially surprising, the former was ideal with Brett’s Steakburger with noodles and mushrooms sauce, but could not cope with my zander (fish) and paprika cabbage; of course, the reverse was true with the Smaragd, which as the bigger wine could deal with the paprika – lesson confirmed.

Marillenlikör, perhaps not for breakfast ©Brett Jones

The Hotel Ulrike where we stayed was a simple family one, of which the Wachau has plenty – it reminded me of a good Logis de France style of hotel. Home-made Marillen jam was on offer with breakfast of course, and when we talked with our helpful hostess about the Marillen, she immediately asked if we had a little longer to enjoy breakfast, and when we said we could, she rustled up a gorgeous plate of warm apricots, wrapped in bacon – a great start to the day.

Thanks to our hosts, in particular at Domäne Wachau, who also supported the European Wine Bloggers Conference, which encouraged us to Austria in the first place, and to Julia Sevenich, who gave us excellent recommendations and help to plan our two days in the Wachau, especially an introduction to the wonderful grower Rudi Pichler, where we enjoyed a special visit and tasting beyond the scope of this article.


Rediscovering the Anjou wine region

April 19, 2011

By Wink Lorch

Not long after I first started working with wine, I spent a few weeks during harvest in a small, sleepy wine town named Martigné-Briand in the Loire Valley, south of Angers. Just a few miles east of the now famous sweet wine district of Layon, the Layon wines hardly registered with me at the time, and as for wine tourists, well in those days they were simply the French, out shopping for wines. Today, life has moved on and there are plenty of reasons for wine lovers to explore this region.

Anjou wine route

This way ©Mick Rock/Cephas

The relatively flat vineyards around Martigné-Briand were in the 1980s planted mainly with Grolleau destined for large volumes of medium-sweet rosé d’Anjou, back then very popular in the UK, the Netherlands and beyond. Today, rosé d’Anjou is still made, but Catherine Motheron, daughter of the wine producers I stayed with, Jean and Chantal Motheron (then simply known by their négociant name, Mottron), has moved with the times, focussing especially on Chardonnay, Anjou reds, Cabernet d’Anjou and dry Rosé de Loire for her good value Domaine de Flines wines, widely exported. As for the little town, it is restoring the château (that I don’t remember even existing!) and it has a minor celebrity in natural wine producer, Olivier Cousin of Domaine Cousin-Leduc.

So, what of the pretty Layon valley, famous for its autumn mists that encourage noble rot to form on the Chenin Blanc grapes? The luscious, but elegant wines from the Layon have gone from strength to strength, whether the very fine Bonnezeaux or Quarts de Chaumes, or the simpler Coteaux du Layon wines. The last generation of growers here realized that they had to make big quality improvements, starting in the vineyards with a focus on successive pickings of the grapes at the optimum time, and also through improved cellar techniques. Today these wineries are opening their doors to visitors too.

Domaine Soucherie

Open for visitors in the Layon Valley ©Brett Jones

Recently, Brett and I visited two Layon wine producers who welcome keen wine tourists. The very grand-looking Domaine de la Soucherie in Beaulieu-sur-Layon was taken over in 2007 and big investments were made into the estate, including the tourism facilities with a trendy tasting room to visit once you can drag yourself away from the gorgeous view over the vineyards. As in many Layon properties, they own vines across the Loire in the tiny appellation of Savennières where they make a classically dry, mineral Chenin from Clos de Perrières. They also offer an Anjou white (dry Chenin), an earthy Anjou red (Cabernet Franc with 10% Grolleau) as well as of course, classic, honeyed Coteaux du Layon and a delicious, intense Chaume. The domaine is open all day for visitors Monday to Saturday, without a break for lunch.

Marie-Annick Guegniard

Marie-Annick Guégniard ©Brett Jones

Just up the valley near Chaume-sur-Layon is the pretty Domaine de la Bergerie, owned by the dedicated Guégniard family. With a similar range of appellations to Soucherie, my favourites here included the delicious dry, rich Anjou Blanc Les Pierres Girard, and of course their Clos de la Bergerie Coteaux du Layon. Rather than the somewhat corporate visit with Soucherie, here one of the family is likely to host you in their new little tasting room, but they do prefer advanced notice of your visit. The Guégniards have done something quite revolutionary for this quiet vinous backwater in that with their son-in-law David Guitton, a chef, they have opened an excellent small restaurant La Table de la Bergerie, right on the property with a view to the vines. It’s a perfect place to have a leisurely, excellent lunch on your wine tour, or with the long days of summer, an evening meal would be lovely too.

La Grand Maison d'Arthenay

Sue and Micaela ©Brett Jones

You can base yourself very close to here if you stay with Sue and Micaela at La Grand Maison d’Arthenay, a restored old house in the vineyards with four comfortable rooms. You will have the advantage of staying with two English women who really know their wines, having studied and worked in the UK wine world before moving to base themselves in the Loire. They are more than happy to organise personalised wine tours.  Otherwise, if you prefer a town base, there is a growing choice in Angers, a classical provincial French town, famous for the Apocalypse tapestries in its fortress-like castle, and the amazing 20th century interpretations by Jean Lurçat in a museum close by.

Le Tasting Room - Loire ValleyIf you want to organise your own wine tour in the region, do take a look at our Around Angers travel guide, originally written by Loire wine specialist Jim Budd and recently updated by us. Or, if you have only a very short time, or perhaps no car at your disposal, then experienced wine educators Cathy Shore and Nigel Henton of Le Tasting Room can organise a tailor-made wine tour incorporating tasty meals with wines to match of course, in their house by the Loire just east of Angers. They can even meet you at the train station.

To me, the best thing of all about the Anjou region of the Loire, is that there is a huge choice of wine styles, from sparkling, through dry, medium and sweet whites, rosés and increasingly improved reds too. One other plus for the traveller is that this section of the very popular Loire Valley is less busy than further east where the very grand châteaux are located around Tours.

Jean Lurçat tapestry

The Conquest of Space by Jean Lurçat ©Musées Angers


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