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 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.

Wine and food where three countries meet

November 21, 2012

When you next plan a visit to Alsace, a must-visit wine region, then don’t forget that it is as simple as crossing the River Rhine to visit the Baden wine region too. What makes this doubly appealing is that both regions are among the most welcoming to wine tourists that you can find in their respective countries, France and Germany.

A third country, Switzerland is where you will find the perfect city start or finish to your visit in Basel or Bâle. With a delightful old town, Basel is not surprisingly well served by excellent restaurants serving food influenced by its neighbours. Living close by for many years Sue Style, food and wine author and contributor to Wine Travel Guides, provides an excellent guide to restaurants in Basel, as well as in Alsace and Baden.

Alsace wine region

Kaysersberg in Alsace with the Schlossberg vineyard above ©Mick Rock/Cephas

Alsace – gingerbread houses and rich, spicy whites
Nearly everyone you speak to in the wine business becomes a little wistful when you mention Alsace – it’s too long since I’ve been there is the common refrain. Once visited, forever smitten. Yes, Alsace is in eastern France, and the language is French, but it’s so unlike the rest of France. Very neat and tidy, super-welcoming and ultra-friendly, the influence from across its border is very marked.

The city of Strasbourg and town of Colmar are renowned for their attractive streets and buildings, but the small Alsace villages are gorgeous too, like a Disney film set, but so much better and a few centuries older! Behind the pretty gingerbread-like houses and narrow streets, stretching up to the forests are the vineyards, growing the seven permitted grape varieties (six white plus Pinot Noir for rosés and reds), all neatly written on the labels of more than 99% of Alsace wines, no ‘guess-the-grape’ as you have to do with so many French appellation labels.

Go into one of the many wine producers’ tasting rooms, and you will be offered wines at different quality/price levels from all the seven varieties, though some villages excel at two or three in particular according to the vineyards’ soil types. Get to know which grapes work best with the local foods and then you can really indulge in the welcoming Weinstuben (the local name for the typical Alsace wine bar or casual restaurant). For example, the racy Riesling works perfectly with the fresh-river trout, earthy Sylvaner with the onion tart, rich Pinot Gris with the many pork dishes; spicy Gewurztraminer with the smelly Munster cheese; and the dry Muscat is simply lovely to sip on its own.

Exploring the Kaiserstuhl – home to three Pinots
Between the attractive university town of Freiburg and the Rhine River is the southern section of the Baden wine region, named Kaiserstuhl-Tuniberg. The Kaiserstuhl is a low mountain range of ancient volcanic origin; since a rationalization of the vineyard plantings back in the 1970s, the vineyards now form a very distinct part of the landscape grown on wide terraces that follow the contours on the several old volcanic cones. Since visiting the active volcanic landscape of Etna on Sicily recently, the Kaiserstuhl landscape now begins to make much more sense to me.

Kaiserstuhl vineyards

High up in the Kaiserstuhl, looking towards Alsace ©Brett Jones

Just as the Alsace vineyards are one of the sunniest regions in France, lying in the shadow of the Vosges Mountains to the west, so this part of Baden is by far the warmest wine region of Germany. Here Pinot grapes thrive whether Pinot Blanc (Weissburgunder), Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder) or Pinot Noir (Blauburgunder) and some excellent, full-bodied wines are made from them, in the furthest style imaginable to the more familiar wines of Germany, such as the delicate, dry and medium dry Rieslings of the Mosel or Rheingau.

Needless to say, the region is full of welcoming guest-houses, hotels, restaurants and wine bars, not to mention the wine producers. Bring your best beard trimmer to fit in with the locals (here’s a comprehensive guide to beard trimmers if you’re looking for a nice travel-sized but quality trimmer). A Kaiserstuhl day-trip last summer is fully described on Brett Jones’ blog, but the highlights were a spectacular walk, beautifully sign-posted through the vineyards and part of a network of paths, a substantial countryside lunch and a visit to the excellent producer Weingut Karl H Johner, known for its Pinot Noirs.

Christmas Markets and Holiday Gifts
Alsace, as well as Germany and Switzerland, is renowned for its Christmas Markets, which are just getting into full-swing now, so you might want to hop over there for a quick visit in the next few weeks – there are no less than five markets in Colmar alone.

Swiss cheese bookBut, if you are planning your present buying from your armchair, I’d like to recommend strongly Sue Style’s book (left) for all lovers of Swiss Cheese. Beautifully designed, each major cheese variety has a profile of a producer with gorgeous photographs and moving stories of when Sue meets the cheese-makers. British food and wine writer Fiona Beckett has written an excellent review on her cheese blog.

And don’t forget that for friends planning to tour the vineyards of France next year, you can offer a Gift membership to Wine Travel Guides, giving full access to all the PDF guides for 12 months. Readers of this blog (and those who you share it with) may use the special code D2Blog12 for a discount of 30% off the usual price, bringing the price down to £20 (approximately €26 or $33), valid not only for gifts but for your own membership until 31 Jan 2013. Just enter the code in the box on the page. Take a look at the Strasbourg Guide which is available as a free sample PDF guide on the website.

A cornucopia of food and wine experiences in the Hudson Valley

October 24, 2012

For visitors to New York, a whole world of wine and food is opened up to you by knowing just the right people. Wendy Crispell is today a wine and food educator, consultant and writer, based in New York City, but in the past she was a restaurateur up in the Hudson Valley. Here, Wendy shares her discoveries of this valley, only an hour and half from the city.

New York winesAs a food and wine professional I have considered myself lucky to live spending my time between the great bounty of flavours known as the HV and NYC, a treasure trove of culinary delights. The recent buy local movement has finally brought these two loves together both in my glass and in my shopping basket with artisan cheeses, wines and some of the most beautiful produce from the Hudson available in boutique shops, restaurants and farm markets in New York City.

Most visitors to NYC aren’t aware of the cornucopia of culinary wonder awaiting them just a short  drive north. Not only is the HV a spot rich in food and wine history, it’s a region undergoing a renaissance in the production of artisan foods, some of which are gaining a stellar reputation far from the fields and farms they hail from. With its sweeping views of the river and steep cliffs carved from stone it’s also a destination for a weekend visit to one of the charming inns dotting the area.

Traditions past and present
While experimentation, climate shift and research have enabled vitis vinifera vines such as Cabernet Franc, Gamay, Tocai and others to stake their claim here, the new breed of winemakers popping up all over the valley are embracing not only these classic grape varieties but also the tradition of growing the easier-to-ripen French hybrid grapes. Wines made from these hybrids are even garnering a cult following among wine lovers with Seyval Blanc and Baco Noir of particular interest.  Many of the locally grown berries and tree fruits are being transformed into glorious cordials, fruit wines and dry ciders, while in the past the trend was towards overly sweet, dull offerings.

Planning a visit
With over 40 wineries in the HV, planning a visit to the area can be a daunting task. Depending on your interests, an itinerary can be created with the help of Hudson Valley Wine Country, an online resource that includes details of the three wine trails in the region: the Dutchess, Shawangunk and Hudson Berkshire trails.

Tasting room at Tuthilltown Spirits ©Tuthilltown.com

On the East side of the river a sumptuous feast at one of the Culinary Institute of America’s five restaurants can be added. On the West, farm trails include ’pick your own’ options, as well as some of the best views at which to sit and sip for those looking to soak in the beauty of the surroundings. For spirits fans, boutique producers are located on both sides of the river with Tuthilltown on the West side producing an award-winning selection of Bourbon, Whiskey and Vodka. On the East side, Harvest Spirits is producing amazing applejack and a peach brandy that knocks my socks off! Both distillers use local products and offer tastings.

Wineries of interest on the East
Carlo and Dominique DeVito realized their dream by creating the Hudson Chatham Winery in 2007. Carlo, a self-proclaimed Baco Noir nut, is producing a Baco Noir using 60-year-old vines and a passion that shows in the quality of this wine. Flavours of ripe red cherries, leather and an earthy, dry finish are reminiscent of reds produced in the cool climate regions of Europe, yet distinctly HV. Aromas of forest floor and dried autumn leaves seem to dominate many of the reds from this region and Carlo’s Baco is no exception, it’s deliciously delightful.

One of the newest players in the HV wine renaissance is Ben Peacock of Tousey Winery, a bit further down the Hudson. Tousey, once known only for producing an artisan raw honey, jumped into the mix a few years back with a currant cordial crafted from estate berries and sweetened with the honey produced from hives tended on site. Decadent and unique this sinful treat was only the beginning for this small estate that now grows Pinot Noir and Riesling. And, Tousey’s 2010 Cabernet Franc made from locally sourced fruit is testament to just what this young winemaker may be capable of in the future.

Hudson Valley cheese

Selection of goats and cow cheese at Sprout Creek Farm ©Sprout Creek Farm

Planning a bit of a whey time
Do you like cheese with your wine? HV cheesemakers are producing some world class cheese. From lavish ‘triple crèmes’ to aged mountain wonders these cheese mavens are worth a visit for any caseophile! For information on tastings and tours visit the New York State Cheesemakers Guild online. For hard core cheese lovers a stay in the cottage at Sprout Creek Farm may be a wonderfully stinky adventure. Year round educational programmes in cheesemaking and agriculture are offered for children and adults.

Benmarl in Hudson Valley

Benmarl’s vineyard high above the Hudson River ©Mick Rock, Cephas

Out on the West side
Matt Spaccarelli of Benmarl is upholding a tradition of creative thinking started by founder Mark Miller. In addition to the Baco Noir that this estate is known for, Cabernet Franc and Seyval Blanc are made with estate fruit. As you wander the grounds you may encounter a pair of Babydoll Sheep who help to manage the vineyard weeds and fertilization. At Whitecliff Winery the Migliore family have transformed what was a once dirt field into an artisan gem. Their Awosting White, a blend of Vignoles and Seyval is an interesting off dry wine bursting with apricot and peach flavours. Currently Awosting is making appearances in some of NYC’s finest eateries including Gramercy Tavern where it is the first NY wine made from hybrid grapes ever offered by the glass.

Treat yourself to a  spot of relaxation
Buttermilk Falls Inn and Spa is known not only for its herbal spa treatments but also for its winding paths filled with babbling brooks, lush gardens, a  ten-acre farm and a recent addition, Henry’s, a restaurant where the bounty of local flavours are transformed into culinary visions served along with local wine, beers and spirits. If you’re lucky you may encounter llamas, alpacas, goats or a chicken or two while hiking the inn’s grounds that are perched scenically above the Hudson River.

Hudson Valley goats

Young goats ©Wendy Crispell

Next time you plan a trip to NYC, add a couple of days onto your schedule to visit the HV, drink in the local flavour and take a bite out of a place filled with culinary diversity. I hope like me you will fall in love with all the wonderful things the region has to offer.

Planning your route in French wine regions

August 29, 2012

There are a many differences between touring independently around the wine country in France and touring in the New World, notably along the organized wine routes of South Africa, Australia, California or indeed anywhere in North America. One of the biggest challenges is actually how to find the winery you planned to visit, and second to that is working out how long it takes from one place to another, and trying to be on time.

French winery opening timesWhen you plan the timings for your own wine trip in France, you have to take into account that the vast majority of French wine producers, open and welcoming to visitors, still close for lunch. Whereas their attitude to closing the doors dead on time isn’t in most cases as draconian as it used to be, you may still feel the atmosphere start to get colder if you are still tasting wines at 12.30pm. If you get lost finding the producer where you planned to arrive at 11.30am and instead show up close to midday, then beware, there may be significant glances at the clock or even shaking of heads.

Planning with GPS codes and Google maps
This summer a few visitors to Wine Travel Guides have requested personalized itineraries, which we create after discussion with the client, providing a spreadsheet with timings and including links to personalized Google maps. It is Brett Jones, aka The Wine Maestro, who does the mapping work and, following a request for advice from a Gold member, he shared how he does this.

On the 48 guides to French wine regions you will find on the main website, each recommended wine producer, place to stay, eat or shop, and attraction has its own Google map which is generated from the GPS codes. It is true that these GPS codes cannot be guaranteed to be 100% accurate for wine producers located in the middle of the countryside, but we have done our best, and I reckon over 95% will get you very close indeed to the destination.

Jura wine village

Not all wine villages offer a wine producer map like Pupillin in the Jura ©Brett Jones

So, to plot a route, start with one of your chosen wine producers or your place to stay and open the Google map, clicking on the Google map link to take you onto Google’s own mapping site. You can then use Google’s own tools to plot other locations you wish to visit, by entering each of their GPS codes one by one. It’s a bit long-winded, but it does work!

Remember that even if the best laid plans might go wrong, for most people travel is much enhanced if you have a plan to begin with, and we give you the tools both to plan and to make the most of your wine trip in France and beyond.

Access to our comprehensive guides
It is some time since we’ve written on this blog about the guides on the main website. Due to lack of resources and other commitments the guides have not all been updated in the past two years, but despite this we are confident that the guides provide superb and detailed information, not available in one place elsewhere. Recently, I’ve received several complementary comments from buyers of the PDF guides. The recent Gold member who wanted help on mapping wrote: “The guides are amazingly full of detail.” And, someone who purchased individual PDF guides sent a note of thanks with: “The recommendations were fantastic, and really made a difference to our experience in Champagne.”

All the guides are free to view, but the inexpensive PDFs are useful if you want to print some pages, and Gold membership also allows you to view the whole of each guide at one time, saving clicking through all the page links. So, if you are planning to visit wine regions in France in the next 12 months, here is a generous offer for Gold membership giving access to download or print all 52 PDF guides. Use the code D2blog12 to buy membership for only £20 (approximately 26€ or US$32) about 30% off the normal price. This special discount is valid until 31 October 2012 and may also be used for Gift membership.

My thanks to Doug Pike for the use of the cartoon below, which should inspire you in your wine travels. Doug is author of the cartoon books Gone with the Wine and Less than a Full Deck.

Cartoon by Doug Pike

Good Bed and Breakfasts in French wine regions

July 31, 2012

Be adventurous! Choose a B &B
©Brett Jones

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

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

Having experienced the decline in quality of, in particular, the French family-run hotels (with honourable exceptions of course), due usually to lack of funds to update them with better beds, a shower with the <a style="text-decoration:none;" href="http://showerheadreview.net”>best shower head, etc., I confess to having increasingly stayed in anonymous, well-priced motels for one or two-night stays near the vineyards. But recently, I’ve taken the plunge to experiment more with staying in the B & Bs, and been really pleasantly surprised.

Very personal decor, Le Cèdre Bleu
©Brett Jones

Points to consider before booking a French B&B

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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