A few highlights from our 2011 European wine travel experiences

February 7, 2012
The winemaestro, Brett Jones

Wine travel companion, wine blogger and photographer Brett Jones

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

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

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

Chinon soil types

Soil samples for each different Chinon ©Brett Jones

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

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

Quinta de Aveleda garden

Aveleda's goat tower ©Wink Lorch

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

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

Vinologia Porto

Bar dedicated to Port ©Wink Lorch

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

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

Carso in Friuli

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

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

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

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

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

Tasting the stars in Champagne

December 29, 2011

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

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

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

Champagne Tarlant

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

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

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

Cathédrale Notre Dame, Reims

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

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

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

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

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

Reims brasserie

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

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

Champagne Krug

Winter snow at Krug ©Wink Lorch

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

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

The history, art, food and wine of Chianti

November 22, 2011

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

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

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

Chianti Classico landscape

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

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

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

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

Tuscan wine estate

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

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

Tuscan castle

Castello di Brolio ©Caroline Henry

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

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

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

Beef heaven

The kitchen at Solociccia ©Caroline Henry

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

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

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

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

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

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

Original wine touring experiences and great food in South Africa

October 27, 2011

Words by Wink Lorch, Pictures by Brett Jones

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

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

Warwick wine tour

Safari ready at Warwick ©Brett Jones

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

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

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

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

Fairview Goat Tower South Africa

Fine billy on the tower ©Brett Jones

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

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

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

Stellenbosch view

Evening view from Jordan's Restaurant ©Brett Jones

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

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

Revisiting Hungary’s southern red star

August 26, 2011

By Wink Lorch

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

Villány wine cellars ©Virtual Tourist/shrimp56

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

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

Bock's restaurant in Villány ©Christian Schiller

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malatinszky tasting room ©Wink Lorch

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

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

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

Authentic wines and hearty cooking in Bucelas outside Lisbon

July 27, 2011

Portugal is a major wine producing country with a growing number of quality wineries who are opening their doors to visitors. With amazing scenery, a range of wine styles, often made from indigenous grape varieties, and proud winegrowers, always keen to share their inside knowledge of their region, now is the time to discover the country.

This guest post is written by wine communicator Louise Hurren, who lives in the south of France in the heart of the vineyards. We are delighted that Louise offered to share some experiences and photos from a recent wine tour she enjoyed in Portugal.

I’m a city girl at heart: on my visits to Lisbon I’ve made the most of its restaurants and bars, and have filled my proverbial boots with Portugal’s well-made, value-for-money wines and tasty (albeit pork-heavy) cuisine.

However, there’s good reason to leave the bright lights behind. Recently, I spent a long weekend scoping out three wine-growing areas that are less than an hour from the city.

The official Bucelas wine route ©Louise Hurren

I did my homework before I set off. I knew that the Vinho Regional Lisboa area incorporates nine DOC regions, and that the three tiny DOCs closest to Lisbon – Bucelas, Carcavelos and Colares – previously enjoyed a high reputation.

Sadly, competition from other areas and urban sprawl have taken their toll on these small wine regions, but nevertheless, each DOC still has its share of producers making characterful, authentic wines, and some top dining and tasting destinations: you just have to make the effort to go find them. I spent a full day visiting Bucelas; Colares and Carcavelos are side trips and will be the subject of a later post.

Wines of Bucelas
Sheltered from the Tagus estuary by a range of hills, Bucelas is a small vineyard region centred around the tiny town of the same name. I drove there from Lisbon (approx. 25 km) in around half an hour, heading north out of the city but it is possible to get there by public transport at a push.

This white-only DOC celebrated its centenary in 2011. At one time, Bucelas wines were fortified; the Duke of Wellington helped raise their profile in Britain following the Peninsular Wars, and in Victorian times, they were quaffed as Portuguese Hock. By the 1980s, only one company was making Bucelas wines, but recently several producers have invested here, in recognition of its interesting grape varieties which retain high levels of natural acidity, despite the warm maritime climate. Bucelas’ crisp, dry, still and sparkling wines are made from a minimum of 75% Arinto (Esgana Cão and Rabo de Ovelha are the other permitted varieties).

©Magna Casta

Parking in the centre of town, I stumbled on a building site that is set to become the Bucelas Museu do Vinho (wine museum). It’s scheduled to open in the first quarter of 2012: meanwhile, just across the road is the Enoteca Caves Velhas, a wine shop run one of the DOC’s largest and oldest producers. Here, I got quickly acquainted with the Bucelas DOC, thanks to the friendly English- and French-speaking staff, paying a mere €2.50 to taste a selection of wines, including their own Bucellas brand (note the spelling with 2 ‘ls’), a mineral, fresh and lemony, 90% Arinto blend; their 100% Bucellas Arinto; the single estate Quinta do Boição (late-picked Arinto aged in new oak), and the nutty, sherry-like Bucelas Garrafeira.

Included in the tasting was a visit to the rather musty, dusty and dilapidated cellars next door (maybe the Enoteca should donate the contents of its cellars to the museum, where they could be properly presented). Plates of local cheese and ham are also available, should you feel the need to nibble.

Quinta da Romeira ©Louise Hurren

From the Enoteca, I drove a couple of kilometres out of town to check out Quinta da Romeira, a leading light of the DOC appellation. Steeped in history (it dates back to 1703), the Duke of Wellington used this quinta as his base during the Peninsular War campaign. The man had good taste: I was very taken with the deep pink walls and white woodwork covered with bright red bougainvillea blooms. There are four elegantly-appointed rooms available for overnight stays, a wine shop and 78 hectares of (mostly white) vines (14 ha of Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are also grown). From the 46ha dedicated to Arinto, various polished and reasonably-priced Bucelas wines are made.

I’m not the world’s biggest bubbly fan, but Romeira’s sparkling white Bruto Vinho Espumante 2006 (wood-fermented, with lees stirring) was surprisingly elegant: it’s made via método clássico (ie. second fermentation in the bottle) and sells in their shop for €7.5. My favourite was the award-winning Morgado de Santa Catherina: rich and ripe, with a creamy texture and good acidity, it’s a steal at only €6; others are priced around €3–4. The stainless steel-fermented Prova Régia Premium is, as its name suggests, fit for a king, and be sure to try their sweet white (VR Lisboa) wine made from botrytis-affected grapes.

Quinta da Murta ©Louise Hurren

From here, it was on to Quinta da Murta, a modern estate a couple of kilometres north of Bucelas, that features a six-bedroom house with private pool, which should be available for rental from 2012, and a recently-built, temperature-controlled winery, surrounded by 13ha of (mainly white) vines. Producer Mário Soares Franco is a fluent and chatty English speaker, and assisted by winemaker Hugo Mendes, he runs the estate and welcomes groups (the guided tour takes 45 minutes). Phoning ahead is advisable even for individual visits.

Most of the estate’s white grapes go into making the Quinta da Murta Bucelas, which is Arinto-dominant with just a drop of Rabo de Ovelha; I tried both the steel- and oak-fermented versions. They use their Touriga Nacional to make a red Quinta da Murta Tinto, full of raspberry flavour and firm tannins.

Hearty home-cooked lunch
After all that tasting, I badly needed some sustenance. Heading back into the centre of Bucelas, I liked the look of the wonderfully authentic Barrete Saloio restaurant. This spacious, blue-and-white tiled former hostelry (it takes its name from the traditional headgear worn by local farmers) serves hearty, home-cooked dishes that are typical of the Lisboa region.

The kindly owner suggested a mixed plate of starter-specialities that included farinheira (a game and flour sausage with an unusual texture – a welcome contrast to the ubiquitous pork) and queijo fresco (fresh goat milk cheese, eaten sprinkled with salt and spread on bread). Amongst the main courses, the traditional black pudding stew served with favas à saloio (country-style beans) is undoubtedly one of the most authentic and filling options, but I opted for some grilled fresh fish and a simple salad, paying around €15 for lunch, excluding wine.

Useful Information:
If you plan a tour around the wine regions of Portugal, do invest in Charles Metcalfe and Kathryn McWhirter’s Wine and Food Lover’s Guide to Portugal.

Wines of Portugal – Information on all the wines and wine regions.

Quinta da Romeira Tel: +351 219 687 380

Quinta da Murta Tel: +351 210 155 190

Barrete Saloio Tel: +351 219 694 004

The River of Riesling, Grüner and Apricots

June 30, 2011

By Wink Lorch

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

Marille (apricots) in all their forms ©Brett Jones

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

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

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

Terraced vineyards in Dürnstein ©Brett Jones

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

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

Heinz with the vineyard map ©Wink Lorch

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

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

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

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

The Danube car ferry ©Wink Lorch

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

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

Wachau vineyard walk above the Danube ©Wink Lorch

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

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

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

Marillenlikör, perhaps not for breakfast ©Brett Jones

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

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

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