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Visiting Constantia, where South African wine began

February 16, 2011

South Africa is the only major wine producing country that can state an actual date when wine was first made there – recorded by Van Riebeek as  the 2nd February 1659. The country’s first real wine region established at the end of that century was Constantia just outside Cape Town. Today, after a revival starting in the 1980s and gathering force post-apartheid, the small Constantia Valley is turning out fine wines and some tasty wine tourism offerings too.

For anyone visiting South Africa with only a little time to discover the wine regions, Constantia is superbly positioned. Just a short drive from Cape Town on the other side of Table Mountain, it is at the start of the Cape Peninsula, close to attractions such as Hout Bay, Simon’s Town and the Table Mountain National Park, through which you drive to reach Cape Point, the south-western tip of Africa.

Klein Constantia

Klein Constantia vineyards with view to False Bay ©Mick Rock/Cephas

The vineyards benefit from this wonderful position too, and the Constantia wine region is known as one of the coolest regions in the Cape winelands. Many of the vineyards are on steep slopes, sheltered, but at the same time benefitting from cooling breezes coming from both False Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The soils, as in most of the Cape, are ancient and special too. The founder of the vineyards in Constantia, Governor Simon van der Stel ordered soil samples to be taken before he chose decomposed granite soil in which to plant the first Constantia vineyard in 1685.

The famous sweet wine of Constantia
The history of Constantia is incomplete without a mention of the legendary Vin de Constance, simply named Constantia back in the 19th century.  This sweet Muscat wine was appreciated throughout the Royal courts of Europe and notably by Napoleon. It was regularly cited in literature, enjoying fame as one of the greatest sweet wines of the world, with fabulous health-giving properties regularly cited. Sadly Constantia wine disappeared as did most of the vineyards by the end of the 19th century through disease and financial ruin, but the story has a happy ending.

Cape Dutch architecture at Klein Constantia

The manor house at Klein Constantia

In 1980 the now derelict farm called Klein Constantia, part of the original first Constantia farm was bought by the Jooste family and restoration of the property including the vineyards was undertaken. The family revived the tradition of making fine sweet Muscat wine and so Vin de Constance was born with its first vintage being 1986. Highly regarded, today’s vintages are not fortified as the old Constantia was, but instead made from part-shrivelled, nobly rotted grapes. I have tasted several vintages over the years, and the current 2005 Vin de Constance is a beautiful, elegant example that will last many years.

A compact wine route with elegant wines and dining
Great sweet wine is only one of the delights produced in Constantia. At most of the eight wineries in the Constantia Valley, the focus is on white wines, with Sauvignon Blanc being the most planted and successful variety. The relatively cool climate is ideal to produce stoney and limey characters in the Sauvignons with good, crisp examples in the valley made by among others Steenberg, Groot Constantia and Klein Constantia. The latter are also justly known for their delicious Riesling, a rarity in South Africa, but one which is well worth seeking out.

I found some lovely Semillon whites here too, especially from Constantia Uitsig, and decent Chardonnay is also produced in the valley, especially by the Groot Constantia winery, one of the other parts of the original Constantia farm from the 17th century. Eagle’s Nest winery are experimenting successfully with Viognier, planting it on the north-facing, warmer slopes.

Reds are not forgotten with most wineries focussing on Cabernet Sauvignon (an almost Bordeaux-like version from Klein Constantia), Merlot (Steenberg produces an elegant one) or Bordeaux blends like the excellent, long-established Klein Constantia Marlbrook or some very oaky, but promising new wines from Constantia Glen.  Again, Eagle’s Nest was an exception making a lovely, rich Shiraz from vineyards on steep, rocky slopes.

Bistro at Steenberg South Africa

Bistro 1682 at Steenberg

After all that tasting, you’ll need to eat, and no less than four of the Constantia wineries have their own restaurants, all with high reputations. We had the chance to eat a tasty lunch at Steenberg’s delightfully casual Bistrot 1682 next to their tasting room; they also have a smart restaurant named Catharina’s at their spa hotel. Years ago on an early visit to the Cape, I ate at the lovely Constantia Uitsig with its characteristic Cape Dutch building, now I discover they have a hotel and three restaurants – the Valley has really turned into a gourmet paradise. Buitenverwachting and Groot Constantia both have highly respected restaurants too.

Bays, penguins, views and the tip of Africa
A bottle of Buiten Blanc, a white blend from Buitenverwachting was waiting for us in the fridge of our room in the Hout Bay Hideaway, a lovely English-owned guest house we stayed in for a couple of nights off wine travels. The quirky little town of Hout Bay boasts what was the very first waterfront development in South Africa including the touristy, but full of history Wharfside Grill tasty seafood restaurant. Even if you don’t choose to stop in Hout Bay, a drive over the spectacular Chapman’s Peak Drive is a must for the views, and one of the ways to link Cape Town with the Constantia Valley or with Simon’s Town.

African penguins

Penguins at Boulders Beach

Simon’s Town is famous for the nearby Boulders Beach where a colony of rare African Penguins have settled over the last two decades. The creatures are surprisingly happy to be watched and photographed by the many visitors in this protected area. To explore the magnificent array of flora and fauna on the Cape, one way is to drive through the Table Mountain National Park which will take you to Cape Point, and to the Cape of Good Hope too if you have the time. These experiences are simply unforgettable.

Constantia and its wines have come a long way in the 325 years since that first vineyard was planted. Whereas I love the bigger and better known Cape wine region of Stellenbosch too, I would strongly recommend anyone travelling to South Africa to spend a few days exploring the wineries of Constantia and the fabulous natural attributes of the Cape Peninsula.

Cape of Good Hope

View from Cape Point to the Cape of Good Hope

For anyone visiting the region this month, look out for the Constantia Fresh Festival, celebrating Sauvignon Blanc and white blends on 25th – 26th February. Note that our trip was partly supported by Wines of South Africa.

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Learning about terroir on a visit to Chablis

January 19, 2011

There’s no better way to learn about Chablis than by visiting the wine region, even if to be truthful, I could really say that about understanding most wines. Chablis is not only a famous wine and wine region, but also a wonderful, compact little town and district to see terroir in action, and to understand in just a short time the wine designations Petit, Village, Premier Cru and Grand Cru.

Chablis in the snow

Chablis Grands Crus vineyards ©Mick Rock/Cephas

That’s the theory. I had planned a day visiting Chablis with Anja and Georges of World Wine Tour 2010 and arranged in the early afternoon to visit the famous Grand Cru slope to see why it was so special. But this was not to be, for on this cold day in early December with snow threatened, the rain poured down and a tour of the vineyards was not possible.

All was not lost, for we were given a fantastic introduction to the wines in Danielle-Etienne Defaix’ wine shop in the middle of this little wine town. With Cécile there to guide us, she explained about the climate and soils, and the hierarchy of the appellations very clearly in English (and when she’s not there, Ken, a Canadian is there to help) with maps and suitable tasting wines to add to the lesson.

Chablis tasting room

Defaix Caveau in Chablis

It was wonderful to re-discover that intense green-yellow coloured wine which almost epitomizes the tasting terms ‘mineral’, ‘steely’ or even ‘stony’. Whereas at most Chablis producers, you will taste wines that are just a couple of years old, at Defaix they opened two Premiers Crus from 2001, both matured in stainless steel on the lees for nearly two years and then in bottle for several years before release. Oak maturation is shunned by many producers in Chablis except, for some, for their Grands Crus.

Running around the corner through the rain, we arrived to visit the glorious 9th century cellars of L’Obédiencerie, home to Domaine Michel Laroche, one of the largest estates in Chablis with 100 hectares (about 250 acres), and currently in conversion to organic methods. This large company has interests elsewhere in France and abroad, and are also big proponents of screwcaps (unusual anywhere in France), but their quintessential Chablis wines are of very high quality ranging from their flagship Chablis St-Martin through the richer Premier Cru Les Fourchaumes right up to their excellent Grands Crus Chablis.

Domaine Laroche Chablis

The 9th century l'Obédiencerie cellars of Domaine Laroche ©Mick Rock/Cephas

Laroche has a shop/wine bar in the main Chablis street, open normal hours for tastings, but to tour the buildings and cellars of Obédiencerie you need to make an advance appointment. Laroche Grands Crus are matured partly in oak barrels, though only a proportion is new, and the wines express a lovely austerity along with classic flintiness. Top of the range is a very special selection from Grand Cru Blanchot named Réserve de l’Obédience, and I recently had the chance to taste the stunning, still very youthful 2008 in London. This is a wine that develops for many years, lasting well over a decade, as was proved to me by a fascinating and gorgeous 1996 very generously opened for us by Michel Laroche.

Chablis has a plethora of small producers that you can visit outside the town in the surrounding villages, all fairly close to one another nestled in the vineyards. Writer Rosemary George MW, who has been a regular visitor for well over 20 years selects her favourites who welcome visitors in our travel guide. Even if you remain only in the compact wine town of Chablis itself, you will find several producers’ caveaux (shops) where you can taste and buy.

Simmonet Febvre

Old corking machine in Simmonet-Febvre's caveau

We visited Simmonet-Febvre, an old Chablis producer, purchased a few years ago by the well known Burgundy négociant Louis Latour. They are the only producer here to make Crémant de Bourgogne sparkling wine, which was fun to taste, and they also produce a range of Chablis from the lowest Appellation Petit Chablis up to the Grands Crus. I enjoyed their wines, especially their Premier Cru Forchaume, tasted in their welcoming shop, and I think this may be one to watch for the future.

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River Serein, Chablis

Bridge over the Serein, Chablis ©Mick Rock/Cephas

As well as being rainy, Chablis was extremely quiet in December but the little town comes to life from about March onwards. Not very far from Paris, this is a wonderful place for white wine lovers to spend a couple of days or even just one day as we did en route to Beaune (note the car journey to Beaune is nearly one and a half hours, something people often forget when visiting Burgundy). A visit here also provides as a great introductory lesson into the Burgundy appellation hierarchy – it gets even more complicated once you reach the Côte de Nuits and Côte de Beaune.

Daniel-Etienne Defaix owns a simple, modern hotel, Aux Lys de Chablis on the outskirts of town and Michel Laroche offers a more upmarket small hotel, the Vieux Moulin in a converted mill in the centre. We stayed at the welcoming Hostellerie des Clos, which was comfortable and also well placed. It is home to a Michelin-starred restaurant with chef Michel Vignaud, and the sommelier is happy to advise on visits to growers in the area. The owners also run the welcoming and straightforward Bistrot des Grands Crus just down the road, where we were able to enjoy a late, simple meal on the evening before our busy day of visits.

Georges and Anja of World Wine Tour 2010 were travelling around the wine regions of the world throughout the year, collecting donations of fine bottles for an auction, which will take place on May 26th 2011 in aid of the Lao Rehabilitation Foundation. They have some wonderful donations and expect to raise a significant amount of money for their chosen charity. I joined them for their week in Champagne and Burgundy and helped them with their European wine travel itinerary.


The unexpected great wine capital in Austria

December 27, 2010

In over 30 years working in wine, I’ve had the chance to travel to most major wine regions of the world, but in October I finally managed to fill a gap in my wine travel experiences and visit the vineyards of Austria. Inspired by the fact that the European Wine Bloggers Conference (EWBC) 2010 was being held in Vienna, Brett and I decided to attend the conference and extend the trip a little to explore some of Austria’s best wine regions.

Snow in the west, vineyards in the east

I have tried a few Austrian wines regularly in London, enjoying particularly their luscious sweet whites, and over the years I have become increasingly impressed by their Riesling and Grüner Veltliner dry whites as well as some interesting reds from local grape varieties, Blaufränkisch, Blauer Zweigelt and St. Laurent. In this trip, I wanted to get to grips with the regions and the geography, to actually visit the wine producers and vineyards, and to taste the wine in Austria’s own restaurants, the only way to really learn about a country’s wines.

At the conference, we were given an excellent introduction to Austrian wines by the ebullient head of their promotional body and main sponsor of the EWBC conference, Wines from Austria. Willi Klinger told us the perfect way, especially for me as a wine and ski lover, to think about Austria’s geography: “Snow in the west and vineyards in the east”. Luckily for wine travellers, Vienna, Austria’s beautiful capital city, lies also in the east, with vineyards actually within the city boundaries, and good connections to most of the important wine regions.

Vienna, City of Wine

In 2009, as a guest of the Great Wine Capitals organisation at their AGM in Bordeaux, I learnt their definition of a Great Wine Capital, but in Vienna, I felt that here was another great wine capital, even though Vienna is not part of the group, and may well never be – the group’s entry criteria is quite stringent. Vienna recently began styling itself as ‘The City of Wine’ and it has certainly proved itself to me as an ideal city for a wine travel lover to visit.

View from vineyards to the city of Vienna

Vienna is particularly famous for its Heuriger – traditional wine taverns mainly in the northern suburbs where you will find most of the city’s vineyards (a not insubstantial 600+ hectares). Heuriger are owned by wine producers and Austria gives them a special licence to open only for a certain number of days in the year, usually restricting them to selling only their own wine, plus some simple regional food dishes. The locals visit them especially to taste the latest vintage (known as Heuriger wine) in the months leading up to the end of the year, but actually the taverns are open on and off all year.

With EWBC we had a great meal and tasting of Vienna wine at the delightful Mayer am Pfarrplatz Heuriger. The tasting was of wines from the WienWein group of six small Viennese wine producers who have linked up to market their wines together.  I made a point of tasting a Vienna wine speciality Gemischter Satz, a designation for white wines from one single vineyard, growing a ‘field blend’, a large range of grape varieties that are all vinified together, each grape providing the wine with a different characteristic. The result is typically dry, fresh and aromatic with a plethora of different flavours. I really enjoyed the delicious Rotes Haus 2009 Gemischter Satz from Weingut Mayer, which we had also tasted at the Austrian Undiscovered Stars tasting presented by Wines of Austria and UK on-line retailer Naked Wines – we bloggers chose this wine as our favourite for Naked Wines to import.

Austrian wine regions along the waterways

Wachau on the Danube

Wachau vineyard path ©Wink Lorch

What also makes Vienna such a great wine capital is its proximity to Austria’s major wine regions. You can easily take a day trip to several by road or public transport from the city; you can even cruise on a Danube boat trip to the vineyards.

Only around an hour north, further up the Danube, is the spectacularly beautiful Wachau wine district, a UNESCO world heritage site, famous for its superb dry whites from Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. I will write more about our 2-day visit there in a future post. Also part of the greater wine region Lower Austria and only just further east is Kremstal and the large, up-and-coming Weinviertel wine district making a name for its wines from Grüner Veltliner, which some EWBC participants took a hand in harvesting for an afternoon.

A great playground for the Viennese is the large Lake Neusiedl to the south of the city under an hour away. Part of Burgenland, we didn’t get to visit the great sweet wine vineyards near the lake on this trip, but we were able to explore the Leithaberg, Mittelburgenland and Südburgenland districts slightly beyond, famous in particular for their red wines as well as their friendly hospitality. I will expand further in a future post, but for the impatient wine lovers amongst you, do read this excellent post about Blaufränkisch from a fellow wine blogging traveller Tim Lemke.

Eating and drinking beyond the Heuriger

Back in Vienna, we found the city offered wine lovers much more than just its Heuriger, with a profusion of wine bars including an excellent chain incorporated in the Wein & Co wine shops. We frequented a branch, by the Naschmarkt food market, which has a wonderful selection of wines from both Austria (all styles available from really top producers) and from around the world. The wine bar allows you to select any bottle of wine from the shop for a 6 euro mark-up – a great deal, and they serve good, simple food platters and have knowledgeable, attentive staff too.

Weibels restaurant

Weibels, Vienna ©Brett Jones

And then, there are the Viennese restaurants, with superb wine lists, proudly showcasing their own country’s wines, though including others too. We ate one night with a group of wine bloggers, needing a change from Austrian food, at Dots Lounge, a Japanese, ‘experimental sushi’ restaurant and were spoilt for choice on their wine list, and by the way, many Austrian wines go brilliantly with Asian cuisine. The wine list was excellent too at an ultra traditional Austrian restaurant, not far from the superb St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Weibels Wirtshaus where Brett and I enjoyed our final lunch in the city. Notably, both restaurants include a link on their websites to their wine list, something I rarely find on London restaurant websites.

Vienna measures up for me ©Brett Jones

Apart from its wine offerings, I was enchanted by the city of Vienna and it is already on my list of cities where I want to revisit to explore its beautiful buildings and museums. Now that I realise that it so much of a great wine capital too, with easy access to not only fine Austrian wines and foods, but also to its wine regions, I won’t fail to return soon.

One day I would love to include Wine Travel Guides to Austria on the main website, and I have already found just the right person to write them, Julia Sevenich, an American wine writer and educator, and long term resident of Austria, who helped enormously with planning our trip. For now, take a look at her enjoyable series of articles, The Austrian Wine Adventure Tour on Haidu.net.

Many thanks to Gabriella and Ryan of Catavino plus Robert of The Wine Conversation, the hard-working organisers of EWBC, and to all the sponsors, especially Wines of Austria for encouraging us to make this much overdue trip!


Exploring Primorska – between the Gulf of Trieste and the Julian Alps

November 16, 2010

By Sue Style

A visit to Primorska, the coastal wine region of Slovenia, can be combined seamlessly with a wine tour in neighbouring Istria in Croatia. Once you arrive across the border, you can pause for a cappuccino on the waterfront in Piran, spread out along a tiny tongue of land tipped with an ancient lighthouse and embracing a graceful bay.

After a brief incursion into Italy, skirting round Trieste, you reach the tiny Slovenian enclave of Goriska Brda (‘Gorizia’s hills’), whose vineyards nuzzle up against those of Italy’s Collio. You can look across into the Italian vineyards from the tower of Marjan Simcic’s winery. Typically for this small region, Simcic has vines on both sides of the border: of the estate’s 18 hectares of vineyards, six are in Italy, the rest in Slovenia.

Simcic Vineyards in Slovenia

Simcic's vineyards ©Simcic

Primorska’s perfect winegrowing climate – gusts of warm air from the Gulf of Trieste to the south and cool draughts from the Julian Alps to the north – gives concentrated, full-bodied wines capable of great ageing. As in Istria, whites predominate but up here Malvasia gives way to Rebula (Ribolla Gialla in Collio) and Sauvignonasse (aka Tocai Friuliano). Simcic’s superb Rebulas – some of them are offered by the glass at one of Britain’s top restaurants, the Fat Duck in Bray – range from a fine single varietal wine through the more complex Teodor Belo blend combined with Pinot Grigio and Sauvignonasse, to their award-winning Leonardo, a deep golden passito aged 30 months in oak barrels that won a gold medal (again) in Decanter magazine’s 2010 World Wine Awards. Another lovely wine, elegant and balanced, is their Sauvignon Blanc, whose ‘pronounced aromas of apple compote and passion fruit’ convinced the jury that a second gold medal was in order. And not content with their success with white varieties, Simcic’s elegant Pinot Noir 2007 has just been named Best Old World red by the same magazine.

Belica in SloveniaBelica (pronounced Belitsa) in the hilltop village of Medana just above Simcic, is a haven of peace and warmth built in typically Slovenian style – whitewashed with slender white columns, balustrades and red tile roofs – and the lodgings here make a good billet for Primorska explorations. It’s owned and run by the indefatigable Zlatko and Mary Mavric, who somehow find time along with their duties as attentive hosts to make their own wine, press their own olive oil, cook up home-made jams and preserves, cure some superbly fragrant prsut and salami, and distil an impressive range of clear fruit brandies. The brandies come in a flavour for every occasion (or as they would have it, for every ailment) including one flavoured with lovage which – assures Zlatko – is guaranteed to revive flagging libido.

Close by in Plesivo is Kabaj Morel, a sunny, sunflower-yellow domacija (literally ‘homestead’) where expatriate Frenchman Jean-Michel Morel and his Slovenian wife Katja run a lively wine bar and restaurant (plus six simple, stylish rooms). Jean-Michel is a fan of clay amphorae for his stunning Malvasia/Rebula/Sauvignonasse combination (Gary Rhodes has selected some for his restaurant empire), and he also makes a balanced Merlot-rich Bordeaux blend. Both are perfect partners for Katja’s updated, upmarket take on traditional Brda dishes – gnocchi with prsut and fennel sauce, home-made sausages with white polenta.

A visit to Primorska would be incomplete without a look at what the Lavrencic brothers are doing at Sutor, co-owned by Primoz Lavrencic, who combines winemaking with teaching at the nearby university, and his brother Mitja, the postmaster. Their first vintage was in 1991 but the vineyards were acquired in the 1930s by the Lavrencic great-grandparents. They own prime sites in this southern end of the Vipava valley, a region basking in subalpine sunshine and ventilated by the Burja, a violent northeast wind that rattles down the valley scattering any rooftop tiles not weighted down with heavy stones and shutting down the motorways.

Mitja Lavrencic Slovenia winegrower

Mitja Lavrencic of Sutor winery

Of Sutor’s 7.5 hectares, 70% is planted with white varieties (Chardonnay, Malvasia, Rebula, Sauvignon Blanc and Welschriesling) and the rest red (Merlot, Pinot Noir and Refosco) – “everyone talks about red wine, but they drink white,” observes Primoz. This may be true, but plenty of people are also talking about Sutor whites. His distinctive Chardonnay combines elegance and power with a discreet hint of oak, and the Burja blend (named after the infamous wind whose effects are graphically depicted in the bent-over-double trees shown on the label) of Rebula, Malvasia and Welschriesling has bright fruit, a smokey whiff and good acidity. Before your leave this spectacularly beautiful valley, with its hills and distant mountains, ruined castles, Gothic churches and picturesque villages, be sure to taste Lavrencic’s newest baby – a cherry red, smooth and scented Pinot Noir. It’s a wine to talk about, and drink, and treasure.

Belica
Medana 32, 5212 Dobrovo, Goriska Brda, Slovenia
Tel. +386 5 304 21 04 Email: info@belica.net

Kabaj
Slovrenc 4, 5212 Dobrovo, Goriska Brda
Tel. +386 5 395 9560 Email: kabaj.morel@siol.net

Marjan Simcic
Ceglo 3b, 5212 Dobrovo, Slovenia
Tel. +386 (5) 39 59 200 Email: info@simcic.si

Sutor
Podraga 30-31, 5272 Podnanos, Slovenia
Tel. + 386 (5) 36 69 367 Email: primoz.lavrencic@p-ng.si


Wine days out in the French Alps

October 18, 2010

By Wink Lorch

Skiing in winter, walking or biking in summer, gazing at the fabulous scenery at any time, most visitors to the French Alps come to appreciate the mountains. But, for a wine lover it’s well worth taking a day out of your schedule to explore the interesting Savoie wine areas, and sample the unusual wines produced in the small wineries dotted along the valleys. The wines you will taste are usually far better than you will be offered in an Alpine resort hotel or chalet.

Savoie lakes, mountains and vineyards

Lac Saint André, near Chambéry © Brett Jones

From the towns of Chambéry, Aix-les-Bains or Albertville, or even if you are up in one of the ski resorts (many within an hour’s drive), a day trip to the vineyards is more than feasible. The Savoie vineyards are quite scattered, but the most concentrated area is around Chambéry, at the foot of Mont Granier in the crus of Apremont and Abymes, and between Chambéry and Albertville in the valley called the Combe de Savoie, with a beautiful stretch of vineyards on the south-facing foothills of the Bauges mountains.

Domaine de L'Idylle, Savoie

François and Philippe Tiollier

Coming from Albertville, one of the nicest vineyard drives I know is between Fréterive and Montmélian. Earlier this year, I took a friend along this road to visit the welcoming Tiollier brothers of the lovely-named Domaine de l’Idylle in the village of Cruet. Ever-smiling François and Philippe divide the work in this domaine that produces both white and red wines, primarily from Jacquère and Altesse grapes for whites, and from Gamay, Pinot and Mondeuse for reds, but with an emphasis on the unusual Mondeuse which does particularly well in this part of Savoie. They have recently built a new underground cellar, linking up to the contrasting old one, which is still in use – if you visit, then do ask to take a look. My friend fell for their white wines in particular, both the fresh and simple Savoie Cruet from Jacquère and their always-good, slightly fuller Roussette de Savoie. I was happy to find that their Mondeuse La Saxicole was tasting as good as ever and invested in some from the 2007 vintage – this wine is made with slightly lower yields than normal and a little micro-oxygenation to soften the hard tannins, it develops well over about five years.

From there we drove to the Lac St-André at the foot of the vineyards of Apremont and Abymes and the looming mountain of Mont Granier. A large section of this dramatically-shaped mountain, at the north end of the Chartreuse range of mountains, collapsed in an horrendous land-slide in 1248 killing thousands of people and changing the terroir (something of eventual benefit to the vineyards). The small lake area is a great place to re-charge in-between tastings and you can stroll around the lake in about 20 minutes.

Mont Granier Savoie

Close up to Mont Granier ©Wink Lorch

Better still, what was a very basic restaurant by the lake was taken over a couple of years ago. The Saint-André restaurant is now an excellent place to enjoy a very decent meal and has a large terrace where you can see both lake and vineyards. My friend and I enjoyed lunch there in April, and Brett and I were equally pleased with our meal when we went the other day. Both times we were tempted by the excellent €33 three course menu – if you visit on a weekday, they do a €14 simple 2-course lunch too. The wine list supports the local growers as one would hope and there are a few half bottles. This last time we drank a lovely 2009 Pinot Noir from Domaine Blard, based in Apremont, who I have yet to visit; previously we enjoyed a Château de Monterminod Roussette de Savoie.

If you are tempted after lunch to visit an Apremont grower, I can highly recommend a drive up towards the Col du Mont Granier (if you drive all the way up to the pass, allow time for a 20 minutes walk to see a brilliant view). In the little village of La Palud, just beyond Chapareillan, you will find the rising star of this area, Domaine Giachino owned by another set of brothers, David and Frédéric Giachino. They converted to organic growing a few years ago and their wines get better and better every time I taste them, and include an exemplary, properly dry Apremont. The Giachinos also provide the cellar facilities and help with the winemaking for a friend and organic grower Jacques Maillet, whose vineyards are over in the Chautagne district. If you visit the Giachinos, you can usually taste some of Jacques’ wines too.

Savoie vineyards

Jongieux and the Marestel vineyard ©Brett Jones

For a different day out, you might like to explore the vineyards over in Jongieux, through the Tunnel du Chat on the other side of the Lac de Bourget, an area also endowed with several excellent restaurants. The view down to the Jongieux church and across to the Marestel vineyard slope above is one of my favourite vineyard/village views.

Jacquin wine cellar in Savoie

Tasting with Jean-François Jacquin

There are several good producers to visit here, and this summer we took friends to one of the first ever Savoie wine producers I got to know – Domaine Edmond Jacquin et fils. The sons look after it now, with the younger Jean-François increasingly in charge as brother Patrice has many other interests. They make lovely Gamay red and rosé, but it is their Roussette de Savoie and their even more intense Marestel, both from the Altesse grape, that shine here.

The day we visited was the day off for the Morainières restaurant in the middle of the Marestel vineyard slope, so we headed back through the tunnel to Atmosphères, somewhere we hadn’t eaten at for a while. It was better than ever in terms of food and service, and I was delighted to discover their list of Savoie wines had expanded too – a real showcase for the wines of the region, which I applaud.

Being lucky enough to have lived part of the year in the mountains of Haute Savoie for more than 15 years, I’m proud to have put together our Savoie wine travel guide on the main website and have just updated it with our recent discoveries. There you will find many more winery, restaurant and accommodation recommendations, along with a run-down on the different grape varieties, appellations, crus and a description of the main wine styles. Next time you visit the French Alps, do look out for some of the great Savoie wines and, if possible, schedule in a day out to meet some of my wonderful vigneron friends – it’s always best to make an appointment first, do tell them I sent you!


Wine Travel in Istria, Croatia

August 31, 2010

By Sue Style

Plenty of people have found good reasons to travel in both Croatia and Slovenia – think unspoiled Adriatic coastlines, well-preserved Roman sites, medieval hilltop villages, rugged alpine scenery and wild mountain walks. Now there’s another reason to add to these: both offer terrific wine travel possibilities. Since Croatian and Slovenian wines seldom stray far beyond their own borders, if you live in Europe, it’s a good idea is to drive down there so you can bring home your vinous discoveries.

Map of Istria

Courtesy of Wines of Croatia

We started our wine tour with Istria in Croatia. In a few weeks, we’ll post another covering our discoveries in Slovenia’s Primorska (‘coastal’) region just to the north. Distances are small and the roads good. The best times to visit, says Ingrid Badurina, masterminder of Zagreb’s excellent Wine Gourmet Festival, are spring (for gentle warmth and wild asparagus) or autumn (ditto, plus truffles).

Not far from Rovinj, a deliciously atmospheric port painted in faded pastel shades that evokes a pre-1960s Portofino, is winegrower Ivica Matosevic, near Kruncici (pronounced ‘crunchy-chi’, with a Yorkshire accent). A young winemaker – his first harvest was in 2006 – Matosevic is fascinated by Malvasia, Istria’s principal grape. His PhD from Udine University just across in Italy studied the influence of terroir on this distinctive local variety. Most Istrian Malvasia is designed for early bottling and prompt, joyous quaffing; Matosevic has other ideas too. True to tradition he makes a single varietal Malvasia to be drunk in its infancy, but he also blends it with Sauvignon and Chardonnay or ages it several months in small acacia barrels. Intuitively it’s an association that makes perfect sense: get your nose into a glass of Malvasia and you’ll be knocked back by wafts of acacia blossom.

Over a seafood feast at Restaurant Viking on the Limsky Kanal, a long fjord-like inlet famed for its oyster beds, Matosevic reminded us of Istria’s frequently shifting borders and the diverse influences that have shaped it over centuries. “My grandfather was born in Austria”, he explained, “and my father in Italy. I was born in Yugoslavia and my son in Croatia – and all that without ever moving!”

Motovun Istria

Autumnal vineyards near Motovun © Goran Šebelić, istria-gourmet.com

Further north is Motovun, a medieval hilltop village whose fountains and town gates are graced with elegantly sculpted bas-reliefs of Venetian lions – Venice ruled Istria and parts of Slovenia for the best part of two centuries from 1205. A good place to stay here would be the family-owned Hotel Kastel. Situated on the cool, quiet town square it has its own pool, spa, restaurant and 33 delightful rooms, some of them looking out onto the ramparts and the famed truffle oak forests below. To sample the fresh tubers, shaved over gnocchi or fuzi (typically Istrian bow-shaped pasta), you’ll need to come in October or November when the hotel runs special truffle days.

Continuing in a northerly direction, the San Rocco, a 12-room (+ 2-suite) boutique hotel in Brtonigla, would make another excellent base. Its simple stone farmhouse core has been sympathetically converted and extended over the years and it has all the elements required for a few days’ R&R: indoor and outdoor pools, sauna, spa, olive oil or truffle massages on the lawn, and some deft, stylish cooking from chef Zoran Kobanov, who privileges local ingredients like shellfish, truffles, pork and game. Ask sommelier-owner Tullio Fernetich about a private tasting of local wines in their beautifully appointed tasting room.

Istria MalvasiaClose to San Rocco near Momjan is Marino Markezic’s 20-hectare Kabola vineyard. Over plates of locally cured prsut (prosciutto) and truffle-infused hard cheese, we sampled a classic grapey Malvasia. Then we moved to a firmer, barrique-aged riserva and graduated finally to a deep golden one which had spent half a year on the skins in amphorae (the amphora vogue has trickled down from Italy’s Collio region via Slovenia to Istria), another year in large Slavonian barrels and a final eight months in bottle.

Though Malvasia is Istria’s pride and joy, Markezic is also devoted to Teran (according to the Oxford companion a sub-variety of Refosk/Refosco), the tough local red variety which he likens – with disarming candour – to the Istrian male: “There’s not much good about him – but people love him anyway!” On the evidence of Markezic’s Teran, this awkward, apparently unlovable, highly acidic variety does seem to respond – presumably like the Istrian male – to a firm hand (in the vineyards) and plenty of TLC (in the cellar).

Istria Wine Route

© Cliff Rames, Wines of Croatia

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Our final stop in Istria was at Gianfranco Kozlovic’s 25-hectare estate, with distant views of the ruined castle of Momjan. Kozlovic has refreshingly simple views on wine: “I want to produce wines of varietal character, pleasing, with long-lasting flavour – but not a whole philosophy lesson. Wine shouldn’t burden you with expectations.” The star of Kozlovic’s cellar is Santa Lucia, a beautifully structured, fruit-filled Malvasia from a recently acquired but old-established vineyard where some 50 year-old vines survive.

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Places to Stay and Eat in Istria

Hotel Kastel
Trg Andrea Antico 7, 52424 Motovun, Croatia
Tel: + 385 52 681 607, info@hotel-kastel-motovun.hr

Hotel San Rocco
Via Media 2, 52474 Brtonigla, Croatia
Tel. +385 52 725 000, info@san-rocco.hr

Restaurant Viking
Limski Kanal 1, 52488 Sv. Lovrec, Croatia
Tel. +385 52 448 119, viking@pu.t-com.hr

Wine Producers to visit in Istria

Matosevic
Kruncici 2, 52448 Sv. Lovrec, Croatia
Tel. +385 52 448 558, vina@matosevic.com

Kabola
Kanedolo 90, 52460 Momjan, Croatia
Tel.: +385 52 779 208, mmarkezic@inet.hr

Koslovic
Vale 78, 52460 Momjan, Croatia
Tel. +385 52 779 177, kozlovic@pu.htnet.hr

For more information on Croatian wines, follow Wines of Croatia on Facebook.


Visiting the Quieter Part of Burgundy

August 17, 2010

By Brett Jones

I always enjoy visiting Chalon-sur-Saône, a bustling city in Southern Burgundy, with a calm centre that straddles the river, the Cathedral Square on one side and Rue de Strasbourg, a street replete with restaurants, on the other bank.

300093 PANORAMA Cathedral, Chalons sur Saone, Burgundy 25 Mar 10

We recently visited Burgundy during the Grands Jours de Bourgogne where wine tastings are organised in different regions of the area. After the giddy heights of the major appellations it was refreshing to reach this gentler area, the Côte Chalonnaise, where the vineyards are interspersed with fields of cows, chickens and other animals in La Bresse.

300095 Rotisserie St Vincent, Chalons sur Saone, Burgundy 25 Mar 10

There is a good choice of restaurants and bars. Near the cathedral is the Rotisserie St-Vincent offering a classic, local menu.

300145 120 Wine Bar, Chalons sur Saone, Burgundy 25 Mar 10

For simpler fare you can try 120 Vins wine bar (say it in French: Cent Vingt pronounced Son Vin…).

300152 120 Wine Bar, Chalons sur Saone, Burgundy 25 Mar 10

You choose from a blackboard wine list, which not only specialises in the wines of the Côte Chalonnaise but other parts of France. When we were there we stayed local, choosing a Givry Clos des Vignes Rondes, Domaine François Lumpp 2008. It went well with a plate of local ham and cheese which was a pleasant respite after all our serious meals of the previous days!

The Rue de Strasbourg, on the other side of the river, is lined with restaurants from quite grand to simple.

300110 Le Bistrot, Chalons sur Saone, Burgundy 25 Mar 10

We have enjoyed lunch a couple of times at Le Bistrot were the owner cooks and his wife looks after the restaurant. Small, very informal with short, but perfectly formed menus. In the summer you can eat outside on the car-free street.

300125 Chocolatier Allex, Chalons sur Saone, Burgundy 25 Mar 10

In the centre of town you can indulge yourself in chocolate heaven at Allex Pâtissier-Chocolatier, whose window displays entice you to buy even if you are full up after a good meal!

400084 Rully, Burgundy 26 Mar 10

The next day we travelled to the wine village of Rully where we were intrigued by the number of large, indeed very large houses in this village. Appararently in the late 19th century with the arrival of the railways, a branch line was built from Chalon, and a number of wealthy burghers built country houses in Rully, to enjoy its mild climate.

400037 Lunch, La Grange, Rully, Burgundy 26 Mar 10400039 Lunch, La Grange, Rully, Burgundy 26 Mar 10

We ‘discovered’ a new restaurant in the heart of the wine town of Rully, La Grange.

View La Grange

Here in the converted stables of the Château Saint Michel, chef Ludovic Briday, who was at the famous Lameloise restaurant in Chagny just to the north, offers a choice of menus as well as à la carte. The wine list, as one would expect in the heart of wine country, is focussed on good local wines with a few by the glass, selected to complement the food.

400065 Dom la Breliere, Rully, Burgundy 26 Mar 10

Although La Grange is bang opposite Domaine Anne and Jean-François Delorme we decided to visit Domaine Brelière as I had just met the ebullient owners, Jean-Claude and Anna, at the regional tasting a couple of days earlier.

They own seven hectares of vines producing a selection of wines organically, including Crémant de Bourgogne as well as Premiers Crus, all of which can be tried in their charming small tasting room.

We enjoyed this visit to the Côte Chalonnaise, appreciating the softer, calmer aspect of one of the classic wine regions of France, and Wink used our visit as the basis to update and refresh our Wine Travel Guide to this area.

400072 Dom la Breliere, Rully, Burgundy 26 Mar 10

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