Hiking through the volcanic vineyards of Lanzarote

August 23, 2015

By Wink Lorch

The vineyards of Lanzarote in the Canary Islands are among a select band of wine regions that can truly be called volcanic. In summer the bright green vines emerge startlingly from the pitch black volcanic soil. It makes an arresting view and the way the vines are grown is intriguing.

La Geria Lanzarote

Vineyard on the volcanic black soils of La Geria ©Brett Jones

Lanzarote lies in the Atlantic around 125km from the coast of Morocco, with its largest concentration of vineyards set in a bowl beneath the Fire Mountains, a group of volcanoes that erupted in the 18th century. The story of farmers’ persistence to plant vines there in such an inhospitable place is as extraordinary as the landscape today.

Most of the vines are grown in volcanic pits as deep as three meters (nine feet). The method of digging these pits, each taking between one and three vines, was devised when residents, exiled by extreme volcanic activity for six years from 1730 to 1736, returned and tried to find a way to farm again in a dramatically altered landscape.

The pits offer vital protection from the northerly trade winds and each one is reinforced with semi-circular protective walls built from the volcanic clinker. The distinctive walls help to stop the volcanic soil sliding down and burying the vines, even so, twice a year, when pruning and after harvest, workers have to clear out extra picón, the gritty volcanic lava, to prevent it from burying the vines. Working the vines was and remains extremely labour intensive – in the past camels were used on the island to transport tools and to bring in the harvest.

WineRun Lanzarote

Once used for labour in the vineyards, a camel joins us on the WineRun ©Brett Jones

Running, hiking and exploring the island

Last month my partner Brett and I, along with a few hundred other people, participated in the hiking ‘class’ of WineRun Lanzarote, following a 12.7km route through these scenic vineyards. We made regular stops to taste the wines (out of plastic goblets) and to clear out our shoes of the picón that seeped its way in, like sand.

For keen runners (there are options of a 22km run or the 12km route) and hikers, who enjoy group events, this is a well-organized and convivial event that has taken place in mid-June for over a decade. A lively and bustling food and wine festival takes place on the eve of the event and during the day itself, complete with live music.

If you visit the island at any other time, there are marked hiking routes through the vineyards and much else to explore beyond the beach. Lanzarote has around 300 now-dormant volcanoes that create a type of lunar landscape. Eight hundred species of flora and fauna are said to have emerged since the big eruptions of the 18th century and the island has been designated as a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve since 1993.

Tourism is by far the most important industry of the island, which in the past lived from fishing, salt mines and agriculture, and the majority of tourists visit the island for the sun, sand and beach culture, get your beach body easily guys, just check this out: http://www.startifacts.com. Our long weekend press trip, arranged by the Lanzarote section of the Spanish tourist board and timed for the WineRun weekend, was specifically designed to show us that there is another side to the island, mainly inspired by the volcanic landscape.

Timanfaya Fire Mountains

Timanfaya National Park, home of the Fire Mountains ©Brett Jones

We were taken to several fascinating sites, created or inspired by a man of vision, Lanzarote-born artist and architect César Manrique, who died in 1992. It was he who encouraged planning laws to be passed to restrict buildings only to low-rise and insisted that all were painted either white or black. Manrique created sculptures to fit in with the volcanic landscape and also built fascinating tourist sites: caves (Cueva de los Verdes) and a music and theatre auditorium (Jameos del Agua) in the volcanic tunnels; a stunning viewpoint, the Mirador del Rio, in the northern part of the island, and a restaurant and visitors’ centre in the Timanfaya National Park, complete with a sculpture of the devil that is the island’s symbol (islanders believed that volcanic activity was the work of the devil). A guided driving tour through the park that encloses the Fire Mountains was a real highlight of our trip.

Lanzarote vineyards

Each vine is grown in its own pit with a protective wall ©Wink Lorch

La Geria wine route

Most of Lanzarote’s 2,000 hectares (3,000 acres) of vineyards and its 18 wineries are in the La Geria zone, below the Timanfaya National Park. The island climate is sub-tropical with little difference between day and night temperatures. There is very low rainfall, but the picón acts as a sponge, retaining the evening humidity. Vintage volumes vary widely according to how much rainfall there is, but yields are very low indeed, averaging 1.5 tons per hectare.

The island grows five main grape varieties, dominated by a form of Malvasía named Malvasía Volcánica or Malvasía de Lanzarote. The three other chief whites are Listán Blanco, Diego and Moscatel de Alexandria, some of the latter vines are up to 200 years old for the phylloxera pest has never reached the island. For rosés and reds Listán Negro is the main grape.

The five wineries on the official wine route are easy to reach by car (rental or taxi) from either the capital Arrecife or Puerto del Carmen, the most popular beach resort of the region. We visited three of the most important bodegas, La Geria, El Grifo and Los Bermejos, and also drank very drinkable wines from two others – Rubicón (no relation to the California winery) and Vega de Yuko.

Bodega La Geria Lanzarote

Bodega La Geria is very well geared up for visitors ©Brett Jones

Bodegas La Geria is the most visited and well geared up for casual visitors or groups. There is a huge shop/tasting room built in the original winery, established at the end of the 19th century, and a small restaurant. The winery holds a public harvest celebration in mid-August, which features camels bringing in the grapes and a grape stomping session for the children. The range of wines is clean and fresh, with the higher level Manto Malvasía Seco, from very old vines typical of the better Malvasía Seco offerings – fresh, spicy and grapey with a herbal character.

Bodegas El Grifo is the largest winery on the island and the oldest in the Canaries, dating back to 1775. In the old winery a nicely curated wine museum has been established. About 20% of El Grifo’s production is red and rosé and we had the chance to drink both. We felt that, particularly with the red (we drank a very pleasant version from La Geria too), the island is hiding a star – light fresh juicy reds with a hint of a metallic edge, presumably influenced by the volcanic soils and just right served relatively cool for summer drinking.

El Grifo Canari

At El Grifo we also tasted a fortified Moscatel, matured in a solera system as is traditional on the island. From a solera dating back to 1881 it was intensely sweet and spicy with 15% alcohol, but was overshadowed by what came next. Cleverly El Grifo makes a wine named Canari in homage to Shakespeare’s reference to Canary Sack, even though the original would have come from Tenerife. From Malvasía, it is fortified and aged in a ‘fixed’ solera from three top vintages, in this case 1956, 1970 and 1997. It was not as sweet as the Moscatel, 17% alcohol and with much better balance and excellent length – a treat.

150612.375 Bodega El Bermejo, Lanzarote

Bodegas Los Bermejos was founded in 2001 and is now the second-largest winery on the island – our short visit indicated this might be the one with most quality potential and wines are exported to the US. The winery offers an organic line and told us that 8 – 10% of the island’s vineyards are now organic and it expects that figure to grow. We tasted a sparkling Malvasía Brut Nature with a rounded, soft mousse and a fresh sour lemon character and also enjoyed the Bermejo still Malvasía Seco over a meal.

The cuisine we experienced was not very inspiring, catering to a mass tourist audience, but an honourable exception were the ‘black potatoes’ we ate in the Timanfaya restaurant, cooked with the heat of the mountain. We felt sure that had we been travelling independently and self-catering we would have found great fish in particular.

Mirador del Rio Lanzarote

A table with a view at the Mirador del Rio ©Brett Jones

Apart from exploring the volcanoes, the wineries and hiking, the island has several major sports facilities and upmarket options for relaxation. In the north of the island is a dedicated sports hotel named Club La Santa, open all year round and welcoming anyone from top-rate athletes to sport-loving families. Closer to the vineyards, the smaller more upmarket town of Puerto Calero, just along the coast from Puerto del Carmen seemed a good place to be based and the Costa Calero hotel with its thalassotherapy and spa is a smart hotel option.

Lanzarote offers a magical and spectacular landscape, made so partly by the vineyards themselves. Thanks to the efforts of the WineRun organisers among many, a big effort is made to preserve this landscape. For whatever reason you visit, you won’t go short of highly drinkable volcanic wines, all sourced from the island itself.

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.

The history, wines and oils of Les Baux de Provence

November 14, 2013

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

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

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

Les Baux vineyard

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

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

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

Mas de la Dame Provence

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

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

Olives on a tree

Olives ready for picking ©Liz Gabay

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

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

French chocolates

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

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

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

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

Discovering wine and remembering war on the Gallipoli Peninsula

April 23, 2013

By Brett Jones

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

Western Turkey map

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

ANZAC cemetery

The Anzac war cemetery ©Brett Jones

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gali vineyard

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

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

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

Owners of Gali, Turkey

Hakan and Nilgün Kavur of Gali ©Brett Jones

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

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

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

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

Suvla Wines Turkey

Suvla Wine’s tasting room and shop ©Brett Jones

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

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

Map of Gallipoli

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

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

Anzac cove

The memorial at Anzac Cove ©Brett Jones

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

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

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

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

A California road less travelled

December 18, 2012

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

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

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

Anderson Valley map

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

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

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

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

Mendocino vineyards in Anderson Valley

Vineyards near Philo ©Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association

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

Anderson Valley tasting room

Open every day ©Louise Hurren

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tasting in the volcanic hills above Lake Balaton

September 27, 2012

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

Lake Balaton vineyards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balaton relief map

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

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

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

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

Lake Balaton wine tasting

Entrance to Laposa winery, by Lake Balaton ©Liz Gabay

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

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

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

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

Musician entertains the diners in a casual restaurant ©Liz Gabay

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

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

The art of wine tasting and eating in the Napa Valley

March 22, 2012

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

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

Pacific coast

The Pacific coast north of San Francisco ©Wink Lorch

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

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

Peju winery

The entrance and tower at Peju ©Wink Lorch

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

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

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

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

Herta Peju

HB Peju ©Wink Lorch

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


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.

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