Original wine touring experiences and great food in South Africa

October 27, 2011

Words by Wink Lorch, Pictures by Brett Jones

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

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

Warwick wine tour

Safari ready at Warwick ©Brett Jones

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

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

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

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

Fairview Goat Tower South Africa

Fine billy on the tower ©Brett Jones

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

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

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

Stellenbosch view

Evening view from Jordan's Restaurant ©Brett Jones

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

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


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.

Revisiting Hungary’s southern red star

August 26, 2011

By Wink Lorch

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

Villány wine cellars ©Virtual Tourist/shrimp56

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

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

Bock's restaurant in Villány ©Christian Schiller

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

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

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

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

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

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

Malatinszky tasting room ©Wink Lorch

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

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

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

Authentic wines and hearty cooking in Bucelas outside Lisbon

July 27, 2011

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

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

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

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

The official Bucelas wine route ©Louise Hurren

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

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

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

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

©Magna Casta

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

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

Quinta da Romeira ©Louise Hurren

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

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

Quinta da Murta ©Louise Hurren

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quinta da Romeira Tel: +351 219 687 380

Quinta da Murta Tel: +351 210 155 190

Barrete Saloio Tel: +351 219 694 004

The River of Riesling, Grüner and Apricots

June 30, 2011

By Wink Lorch

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

Marille (apricots) in all their forms ©Brett Jones

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

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

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

Terraced vineyards in Dürnstein ©Brett Jones

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

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

Heinz with the vineyard map ©Wink Lorch

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

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

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

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

The Danube car ferry ©Wink Lorch

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

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

Wachau vineyard walk above the Danube ©Wink Lorch

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

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

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

Marillenlikör, perhaps not for breakfast ©Brett Jones

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

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

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

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