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Beaune in the heart of Burgundy

September 29, 2011

Not all wine regions have a clear focal point, but in Burgundy, there is no doubt that all roads lead to Beaune, the historic capital of the region and today a vibrant small town devoted to wine and gastronomy. Buzzing under the summer sun, or silent under winter snows, at any season for many wine lovers Beaune has become a place of pilgrimage.

Produce market at Beaune, Burgundy

The food market in Beaune is a food lover's paradise ©Wink Lorch

There are two places I have always made my own pilgrimage to when visiting Beaune: the Hospices de Beaune has been in existence for over 550 years, and is correctly named l’Hôtel Dieu; and right opposite, Athenaeum, a quite amazing wine book shop, founded just 21 years ago, in 1989. On my last visit in December with World Wine Tour 2010 I was finally able to add a third legend to the list, Ma Cuisine, a tucked-away restaurant that is only open on four days a week, and requires booking well in advance.

Les Hospices de Beaune – a hospital for the poor
Wine lovers know the Hospices de Beaune in particular for its famous wine auction held each November. The auction sells the barrels of the latest vintage of wines from some of the Burgundy wine region’s best-known Grand and Premier Cru vineyards, which many years ago were donated to the Hospices to fund its good works.

The buildings of the Hospices, built in 1452 using Flemish-inspired architecture as a hospital for the poor, are stunningly beautiful with their distinctive and colourful tiled roofs, but venture inside and you discover a sense of peace, humility, history and unexpected treasures too. The buildings were used as a general hospital until 1971 and for the past 40 years have been a much admired tourist attraction, well worth a visit.

Hospices de Beaune kitchen

Invalid's rabbit stew - classic Burgundian cuisine ©Wink Lorch

It is so atmospheric walking through from the inner courtyard into the main hall lined with beautiful dark wood bed ‘stalls’ where the poor and sick were cared for. A mock up kitchen makes you believe they were well fed, and the beautiful pharmacy gives a hint of the sort of potions they were given to make them better.

The original funding for the beautiful Hopsices buildings and indeed the amazing furniture and works of art, came from Nicolas Rolin, chancellor for the Dukes of Burgundy, who decided to assuage his guilt of living a profligate life, by using some of his wealth in this way. The works of art in the Hospices have been regularly added to by legacies and donations and there are some wonderful pieces, including amazingly intricate tapestries.

If you can’t get there soon, then for a closer look at the Hospices take a look at the series of videos (in French) from the regional online magazine Bourgogne Live:

Making the most of Beaune’s gastronomic delights
The choice of restaurants in Beaune is large, and it definitely pays to plan in advance to make sure you eat at somewhere authentic, rather than at one of the overtly tourist restaurants that you will stumble across once you are in the town. Our Côte de Beaune guide includes four restaurants in Beaune itself, and one that had been recommended to me countless times by not only our writers, but by wine producers and UK Burgundy importers is Ma Cuisine.

Beaune Premier Cru 2006

When in Beaune ... ©Brett Jones

Having eaten at many restaurants in Beaune over the years, when I ate at Ma Cuisine, I realized what I had been missing. Small and simple, tucked along a quiet road just inside the old town walls, the emphasis here is on simple, tasty local food, designed to show off your choice of wine from the massive list. If you have money to spend and love Burgundy, you will have a hard time choosing the wine, but help is at hand, and even if you are on a relatively meagre budget, there is a Burgundy wine for everyone here. You simply have to go, but make sure you phone ahead and choose the right day. If Ma Cuisine is closed or full, then another original choice we have enjoyed recently is Le Comptoir des Tontons, with a delightfully laid-back atmosphere, good local, mainly organic food and a decent selection of Burgundy wines at fair prices.

Wine books and gifts galore
It’s best to put aside a good hour for a browse around the wonderful Athenaeum shop right opposite the Hospices and open all day every day, even through lunchtime and on Sundays. Athenaeum started life as a specialist wine book shop; today, much extended, it offers an unrivalled selection of wine books in French, English and other languages, not just covering Burgundy, but the world. As well as a very good French wine map section, the wine accessory department ranges from serious wine glasses and decanters, to greetings cards and a plethora of items you never knew you wanted. There is a fair kitchen department too and last year, I did my Christmas shopping there.

Pernand Vergelesses, Burgundy wine village

Pernand-Vergelesses, just outside Beaune ©Brett Jones

I’m taking it as read that you are unlikely, as a wine lover, to visit Beaune without setting aside some time to taste wine. Apart from Athenaeum that has a fine selection of wines, there are several decent wine shops in the town listed on our guide, and these are the places to go to buy old vintages. Even if Beaune is the heart of the Burgundy wine region, it is best to avoid the over-touristy tasting places in the town, instead arrange in advance to visit a few wine producers in the villages outside Beaune, in the heart of the vineyards. Be aware that more than anywhere, most wine producers in Burgundy require advanced appointments, and for the finest producers, a personal introduction from an importer or specialist wine retailer is often needed.

Much more information on other shops, restaurants, places to stay and recommended wine producers to visit can be found on our Côte de Beaune travel guide. All information on the website is free to view, there is a small charge to download the PDF versions of the guides.

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High time to visit an English Vineyard

May 26, 2011

Whether you are British or a visitor, if ever there was a time to visit an English or Welsh vineyard, it should be now. English Wine Week runs from Saturday May 28 – Sunday June 5 2011, with a host of events and activities, but if you can’t make that there’s a long summer ahead and these vineyards aren’t going to disappear fast, for right now they are on a real roll.

Ridgeview Sparkling Wines

Ridgeview Estate on the South Downs ©Mick Rock, Cephas

Any wine lover based in the UK should have noticed with a smile the positive press coverage for English wine recently, arriving in a great surge of support. It’s come partly linked to a ‘consume local’ attitude, partly due to Royal Wedding fever, but most particularly because the top English sparkling wines are winning in all the major wine competitions, and are regularly featuring at State events.

But, have you ever visited an English vineyard? If not, then take the plunge, it requires a lot less preparation than going out of the country, and as I imagine most of my readers are English speaking, don’t forget that you can be certain here that the wine producers do speak English!

Journalist Susanna Forbes, owner of the Drink Britain website, who has visited many English vineyards over the past couple of years, explained to me that a little planning is useful, as many offer tours only by reservations, though most have winery shops open daily. She points out that with so many changes and developments going on in the industry it’s a very exciting time to visit, to see the vineyards and wineries at first hand, and to taste with the wine producers themselves, or even with their friends who often help out with visitors.

Learning about English Wines
The most comprehensive on-line resource for learning about English wines is the ‘official’ English Wine Producers website, which lists contact details of more than 150 vineyards (not all open for visitors) with more detailed profiles for a dozen or so ‘member’ wineries. The site also gives details and statistics about the history and development of the industry as well as listing places to buy the wines. Vineyards in the little country of Wales tend to be included under the ‘English’ banner for convenience, even if labels clearly state Wales. The confusing term ‘British wine’ is for ‘wine’ made from imported grape concentrate – not to be recommended!

Camel Valley

Buy a vine ©Brett Jones

The statistics show that by 2009 there were 1,324 hectares of vineyards (with considerable plantings since) up from just 196ha in 1976 and 876ha in 1989. For you Brits and Americans, that’s more than 3,000 acres in ‘old money’, as a comparison, a little less than Otago in New Zealand or about 10% of Alsace plantings. The most planted grape varieties today are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir reflecting the dramatic success story of sparkling wines in England, but this is a relatively new phenomenon; Bacchus, Seyval and Reichensteiner are the mainstay for the fresh dry and medium-dry white wines, and there are smaller plantings of a range of other varieties for both whites and the few reds that are made.

Planning visits to the vineyards
The Drink Britain website includes news stories about English wines and British drinks in general. Its unique feature is the detailed and extremely well laid-out visiting information on a good number of English and Welsh vineyards open for visits. Susanna’s intention is to expand the site little by little with help from the wineries in providing information, but keeping a strict journalistic distance in how she presents both the wineries and wines. In the meantime, it’s already an excellent source of information, very clearly presented. Drink Britain also covers visits to producers of other drinks including beers, ciders, whiskies, and even soft drinks.

Sharpham in Devon

Arrive at Sharpham in Devon by boat ©Sharpham

From the range of vineyards Susanna profiles in Drink Britain, I’ve chosen six of the best to visit for a lovely day out:
Two giant attractions: Denbies in Surrey, close to London, provides perhaps the ultimate English wine tourist attraction visit, and has much to offer for a day out with increasingly good wines too including some fresh rosés from Pinot, Dornfelder or Rondo. Chapel Down winery in Kent is a long established, successful winery that has set a standard for many years. In a completely gorgeous part of south-east England, it has a well-stocked shop and award-winning restaurant – a very consistent quality of wines too, especially their dry, grassy Bacchus.

Two award winners: Camel Valley continues from strength to strength since I wrote about it two years ago after my visit to Cornwall. The dedicated sparkling wine producer Ridgeview Estate on the South Downs in Sussex gains many plaudits and rightfully too; you can visit their shop or join their weekly tour on Saturdays if you want to tour and learn about how they make their world-class bubblies. Both wineries are also happy to cater to groups if arranged in advance.

Two really authentic places: An interesting visit to Biddenden in Kent could be combined with Chapel Down for a complete contrast. Also long established in this lovely countryside, Biddenden is known for aromatic whites especially from the rare Ortega grape. Cider and apple juice are made too. And, if you are travelling to the west country, you could add in a visit to Sharpham near Totnes on the famous Dart river in Devon. You’ll find a café there and a cheese-maker next door. Try the Madeleine Angevine whites and unusual Beenleigh red.

Especially foreigners should note that distances in this small country can be larger than you imagine, our vineyards are quite spread out: schedule only one or two visits in a day. Book tours ahead and leave time for a walk. Many of the English vineyards offer sign-posted trails through their vineyards in lovely surroundings. If you are from outside the UK, you will receive the Best of British welcomes, and if you are a native you ought to discover a truly local experience, complete with the passion that should surround any good wine tourism experience.

Guide to English winesFurther resources
There are two totally independent books worth mentioning if you want to take your research further. Stephen Skelton MW, founder of the Tenterden Vineyard at Chapel Down has published the third edition of his detailed and comprehensive UK Vineyards guide 2010, which gives a fascinating account. And, from the Wine Behind the Label team, you will find the beautifully produced Guide to the Wines of England & Wales, with well-written introductory pages and useful glossaries, as well as fine profiles of the most important wineries.

And finally, if you have ever dreamed of starting a vineyard in England, your first port of call must be Plumpton College in Sussex, who has trained most of today’s English vineyard owners and winemakers. Their alumni can be find across the world too.

English Wine Producers who coordinate the English Wine Week events, are shortly to launch a brand new map of the vineyards of England in the Wales. It will be available from the end of June, free of charge by contacting them via their website.


Rediscovering the Anjou wine region

April 19, 2011

By Wink Lorch

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

Anjou wine route

This way ©Mick Rock/Cephas

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

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

Domaine Soucherie

Open for visitors in the Layon Valley ©Brett Jones

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

Marie-Annick Guegniard

Marie-Annick Guégniard ©Brett Jones

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

La Grand Maison d'Arthenay

Sue and Micaela ©Brett Jones

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

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

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

Jean Lurçat tapestry

The Conquest of Space by Jean Lurçat ©Musées Angers


Visiting the vineyards of Central Otago way down south

March 21, 2011

 

Although there are knock-on effects, thankfully the wine regions of New Zealand were left unscathed by the Christchurch earthquake on 22nd February, which caused so much destruction and sad loss of life in and around the city. One month later, Christchurch, the South Island and indeed the country are recovering fast and very much open to visitors. To remind people not to forget New Zealand as a fabulous travel destination, we are delighted to join in this celebration of the country in the Blog For New Zealand initiative – look out for many articles and posts 21-23 March 2011 tagged with #Blog4NZ.

 

Experienced UK wine educator, judge and writer Angela Reddin knows New Zealand well, and in particular Otago where she made wine in 2004 with Felton Road. We are delighted that she has written this post for us.

Cornish Point Felton Road

Lenticular cloud over Cornish Point Vineyard ©Angela Reddin

Although I have seen many beautiful places, visited awesome and breathtaking landscapes and met fabulous people, nowhere has lassoed my heart as has New Zealand, a country that always draws me back with ease.

My focus is Otago. A region way, way down on the South Island, famous as being both the hottest and coldest region in New Zealand. Next stop is Antarctica. Central Otago, like Oregon in the USA and the Yarra Valley in Australia, was once a gold rush area in the 1800s. And, all three of these regions are now making ‘gold’ through their production of world class wines, with a focus on Pinot Noir.

CromwellSweet cherries, apricots and
Pinot Noir

Apricots, cherries (especially cherries), plums, peaches, pears and apples all grow to perfection in this low humidity, windy climate. Cromwell was famous for fruit production before the region became famous for growing grapes. As you head into the town you are confronted on this flat landscape with a monumental reminder to this history of fruit farming.

The ‘Sweet’ cherry season starts around 20th November, the official date of the start of summer being 1st December. Two of the most sought after varieties are known as ‘Sweetheart’ and ‘Sweet Valentine’ and picking is avid just before the 14th February.

The Vineyard at Wooing Tree ©Angela Reddin

One family owned winery, who planted on the flatlands next to the town of Cromwell in 2002 had to remove many trees to get the vines established. In respect to a local tradition they refrained from removing a well loved landmark known as the Wooing Tree. When the new owners of the land heard the story of this tree and the fact that a number of the locals had been conceived under it, they wisely planted the vineyard around it and, actually named the winery The Wooing Tree after this beautiful tree. With a picnic area and restaurant alongside their tasting room, this destination is now a popular wedding venue.

If apricots could thrive, it was felt this could well be an indicator for wonderful Pinot Noir, which is also very suited to the short, hot dry summers in Central Otago. Protected by the Southern Alps from the deluge of rain that make Milford Sound the second wettest place on the planet, the wine growing region of Central Otago is very, very dry in the summer and the vines need irrigation when they are establishing. The north-west winds dominate and keep the region’s vines relatively free from some of the fungal diseases that can attack the grapes.

It may have a whole list of other things going for it from extreme sports (think bungee-jumping, waterboarding or helicopter skiing) to pristine countryside (remember Lord of the Rings?), but for some of us, today the most famous claim regarding Central is for the wonderful, exhilarating, lip-smacking world class wines that are produced here. The potential of what can be achieved has drawn a host of young gun winemakers to the region, most of whom have rooted themselves very happily and are drawing ever more attention for their sumptuous offerings.

Tips on exploring the wine region
If you are visiting wineries on your own, transport is essential and note that distances can be longer than you might at first think in this vineyard region, being a series of valleys nestling between mountain ranges and spectacular gorges. As an alternative, you can take some excellent packaged wine tours that can also include gourmet food and a knowledgeable guide.

Wherever you choose to stay in the region you will be spoilt for choice with a full range of options from luxury lodges and hotels to B&Bs and backpacker beds. Queenstown and Arrowtown are both good places to base yourself with vibrant restaurant scenes. Queenstown is one of the most jazzy spots anywhere in the world; in the historical gold-mining village of Arrowtown visit the Lake District Museum for a very good historical local overview and do not miss eating at Saffron, a wonderful restaurant at which you will often find the local winemakers. Lake Wanaka or Cromwell offer fantastic alternative bases.

There is no life and love without wine. But, many of the wineries in this area are small, indeed very small, and may not have visitor facilities. Those that do, offer a truly exceptional experience, some with terrific restaurant facilities making use of local produce to perfection by very talented chefs.

 

Carrick vineyard from the air ©Carrick Winery

Wineries to visit
A must visit for cellar door facilities and its restaurant should be Carrick Winery with awesome views and just exceptional food. Another world class winery with restaurant facilities is Amisfield Winery and Bistro. Situated on the Lake Hayes Road in Lowburn, just after the Arrowtown turnoff, it is just 15 minutes’ drive from Queenstown, with stunning views of the Remarkables mountain range. Anyone for the Rugby World Cup? A ‘Trust the Chef’ menu could take all the worries of what to eat away from your tired brain and into the very safe hands of the restaurant team. The wines are also wonderfully expressive of this very classy winemaking region.

About half an hour from Queenstown, just beyond the famous A.J. Hackett’s bungee jump bridge over the Shotover River in Gibbston Valley you will find the Peregrine Winery. One for the architectural visualists amongst you, its roof is shaped to resemble the wing of a Peregrine in flight, and it is rooted into the landscape in a way that is intrinsically part of the surrounding vistas. Peregrine has good cellar door facilities open from 10am to 5 pm.

Lake Wanaka

Rippon Vineyard by Lake Wanaka ©Cephas

Wanaka is probably the most stunningly visual place to stay in New Zealand, with hanging glaciers, beautiful lake front accommodation and the rest of Central at your toes! Rippon Vineyard, one of the most scenic and most photographed vineyards anywhere in the world, also hosts a biennial music festival, and there will be a special Quake Relief concert in aid of the Red Cross on April 2nd. Of course, while you are there, do try these beautifully expressive, top class wines crafted by second generation winemaker Nick Mills.

Cromwell has a whole host of wineries clustered on the Lake Dunstan Estate on McNulty Road, including the Central Otago Wine Company, affectionately known locally as CowCo. Winemaking legend and rock star lookalike Dean Shaw handles the juice with ease. Partner Sam Neill, film actor legend, who looks like himself, and owns the Two Paddocks brand, can often be found trying to help Dean. An appointment is needed to visit.

Also on the McNulty Road and not to be missed is Quartz Reef Winery, the lair of Rudi Bauer, an Austrian who so fell in love with the area (and his wife) that he settled himself in this land very happily. Although only in his 40s, he is known as the grand old winemaker of the region because he was the first qualified winemaker to work here. Beautiful sparkling wines, which he still tends to by hand only, lead the way to his equally terrific Pinots, both Noir and Gris. Cellar door opening times are 10 am to 3 pm or by appointment.

Cornish Point

Cornish Point from the air ©Angela Reddin

The Cornish Point Vineyard is owned by Felton Road Winery and makes an exotic and very beguiling single vineyard wine that sits wonderfully well in the Felton Road stable of thoroughbreds. Though it is very hard to choose the ‘do not miss’ winery in Central Otago, if I must, my recommendation has to be Felton Road Winery even if I am obviously biased. Sited in Bannockburn, this is quite possibly the best Pinor Noir producer in New Zealand and that puts this small winery firmly into the list of the world’s top class producers. You will need to call to make an appointment to visit from 2 – 5 pm, but be assured you will leave with a grin as wide as Lake Dunstan after tasting there. Also well worth visiting along the Felton Road itself Mount Difficulty, Olssens and Desert Heart.

Angela Reddin

Angela at work at Felton Road

The Felton Road team has made history through their incredibly generous commitment to assist the victims of the Christchurch Earthquake disaster. They offered all of their UK stock of sampler cases to the UK public from which every single pound paid would be sent straight to the earthquake appeal. Publicized through some of the top journalist websites and on Twitter and Facebook, the offer reaped an astonishing, fast response from the UK with every case sold within a matter of hours, raising over NZ$47,000. I snapped up the very last case and offered this, as well as a Magnum of Block 3 2001, to the Association of Wine Educators’ auction with Bid for Wine in aid of Wine Relief, the UK wine trade’s Comic Relief effort. This case was sold for £405 which meant it raised £665 between the two charities!

This beautiful land, its people and their wines call to me from afar. If you can, travel to this siren like country and experience the wonder that is New Zealand.

General information for the Independent Traveller:

Central Otago Pinot Noir is the official regional wine association and the site includes web links for all the region’s wineries.

Otagowine.com is a portal for the promotion and wine sales from the region and includes plenty of local resources including a map and member listing for wineries on the Central Otago Wine Trail.

Centralotagonz.com is the main local tourism portal.

Organized wine tours:

Queenstown Wine Trail offers well organised tours for beginners or connoisseurs with a number of winery visits, garden tours etc.

Appellation Central Wine Tours provides an excellent and very professional guided tour for smaller groups. Luxury vehicle, scenic tours with gourmet food and wine tastings.

Over the Top provides a very different way to visit the wineries. Helicopter visit to two wineries and a gourmet picnic high in the mountains.


Visiting Constantia, where South African wine began

February 16, 2011

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

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

Klein Constantia

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

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

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

Cape Dutch architecture at Klein Constantia

The manor house at Klein Constantia

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

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

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

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

Bistro at Steenberg South Africa

Bistro 1682 at Steenberg

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

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

African penguins

Penguins at Boulders Beach

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

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

Cape of Good Hope

View from Cape Point to the Cape of Good Hope

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


The unexpected great wine capital in Austria

December 27, 2010

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

Snow in the west, vineyards in the east

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

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

Vienna, City of Wine

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

View from vineyards to the city of Vienna

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

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

Austrian wine regions along the waterways

Wachau on the Danube

Wachau vineyard path ©Wink Lorch

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

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

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

Eating and drinking beyond the Heuriger

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

Weibels restaurant

Weibels, Vienna ©Brett Jones

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

Vienna measures up for me ©Brett Jones

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

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

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


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

November 16, 2010

By Sue Style

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

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

Simcic Vineyards in Slovenia

Simcic's vineyards ©Simcic

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

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

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

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

Mitja Lavrencic Slovenia winegrower

Mitja Lavrencic of Sutor winery

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

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

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

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

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


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