Tasting in the volcanic hills above Lake Balaton

September 27, 2012

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

Lake Balaton vineyards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Balaton relief map

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

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

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

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

Lake Balaton wine tasting

Entrance to Laposa winery, by Lake Balaton ©Liz Gabay

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

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

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

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

Musician entertains the diners in a casual restaurant ©Liz Gabay

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

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

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.

A few highlights from our 2011 European wine travel experiences

February 7, 2012
The winemaestro, Brett Jones

Wine travel companion, wine blogger and photographer Brett Jones

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

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

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

Chinon soil types

Soil samples for each different Chinon ©Brett Jones

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

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

Quinta de Aveleda garden

Aveleda's goat tower ©Wink Lorch

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

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

Vinologia Porto

Bar dedicated to Port ©Wink Lorch

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

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

Carso in Friuli

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

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

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

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

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

Tasting the stars in Champagne

December 29, 2011

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

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

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

Champagne Tarlant

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

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

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

Cathédrale Notre Dame, Reims

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

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

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

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

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

Reims brasserie

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

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

Champagne Krug

Winter snow at Krug ©Wink Lorch

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

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

The history, art, food and wine of Chianti

November 22, 2011

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

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

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

Chianti Classico landscape

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

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

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

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

Tuscan wine estate

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

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

Tuscan castle

Castello di Brolio ©Caroline Henry

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

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

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

Beef heaven

The kitchen at Solociccia ©Caroline Henry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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