A California road less travelled

December 18, 2012

The huge State of California is known for its diverse wine tourism offering north and south of San Francisco. Louise Hurren looks back at experiences of a weekend’s wine tour last summer when she headed to Mendocino, a few hours north of the city.

Louise is a wine communicator who lives in southern France. She spends much of her time in the Languedoc vineyards, working with winegrowers to help them raise their profile.

Finding ourselves in San Francisco in August with a rental car and time to kill, my partner and I decided to hit the wine trail. We’d visited Sonoma and Napa before, so this time we resolved to go off the beaten track. We weren’t keen to drive too far or spend crazy money, either. A wine-savvy friend had recommended Mendocino County’s Anderson Valley area, so we motored out of town across the Golden Gate bridge and onto Highway 101, heading north.

Anderson Valley map

It took us just under four hours to drive up the Pacific coast to the town of Mendocino itself (or Mendo, as the locals call it). Right by the sea – think crashing waves, flocks of pelicans, dramatic cloud formations and eye-popping sunsets – the town is quite lovely, but I wasn’t prepared for the cooler, foggy weather; it pays to pack a decent jacket and perhaps a sweater, even in the height of summer.

With a population of just under 900 (obviously numbers swell in the summer) and a decidedly green, tree-hugging feel, the town of Mendocino is a friendly place and ideal for wine buffs in search of a starting point from which to explore the Anderson Valley and its vinous delights. We quickly discovered the only wine shop – imaginatively called The Wine Shop – located on Main Street, where owner Mark poured and chatted with enthusiasm.

We settled in at the Sweetwater Spa and Inn (I loved our charming room in a former water tower almost as much as the adjoining, hippy-style hot tub spa area that we were allowed to use free of charge), before heading out for dinner. Right next door to our lodgings, the upmarket Café Beaujolais wasn’t cheap but the food was well-prepared, the service was attentive, and they had a surprisingly good selection of wines from around the world, by the glass, from as little as $9, going up to $30.

Tasting in the Anderson Valley
The next morning we set off to explore the Anderson Valley. A leisurely drive east along tree-lined Route 128 took us through a series of shady twists and turns, but once out of the mighty Redwoods, vineyards stretched left and right against a backdrop of rolling, sun-scorched hills. Compared to the Napa Valley and its many upscale, designer-furnished tasting rooms, the homely towns and 20-odd lower-key wineries dotted along this road were a welcome contrast.

Mendocino vineyards in Anderson Valley

Vineyards near Philo ©Anderson Valley Winegrowers Association

Over our two-day trip we pulled over at a variety of names (Handley Cellars, Navarro, Brutocao, Bink, Drew, Lula) and were rarely disappointed. Smiley, knowledgeable staff offered tastings for free (a welcome change as many Cali wineries charge), and picnicking in the grounds with a glass of wine was actively encouraged. Buying freshly-made sandwiches at roadside delis kept costs down and meant more to spend on special bottles and souvenirs. All the wineries visited sold a multitude of items, from chocolate to condiments, corkscrews to cook books.

Anderson Valley tasting room

Open every day ©Louise Hurren

The wines ranged from the heavily-oaked, fruitier, rounder style typical of California to a more restrained, elegant, Old World profile, with those tasted at Brutocao Cellars in Philo a case in point. The winery’s penchant for Italian grape varieties reflects their heritage, and their Zinfandel Port (yes, that’s what it’s called) and Coro Mendocino wines are not to be missed. Brutocao is one of a dozen producers who make these special Coro Mendocino wines, a designation for premium wines from a Mendo-grown blend of grapes, predominantly Zinfandel with other, mainly Mediterranean varieties.

Just after the town of Philo we stopped at The Madrones, a collection of smart tasting rooms and the Sun & Cricket home wares boutique, complete with tasty cheese counter, and chic rooms to rent, set around peaceful gardens. Kicking back on the grass with chilled glasses of Bink’s Sauvignon Blanc, we stretched our legs before heading on to our next overnight stop at Boonville, at Anderson Valley’s easterly end.

Therapy in groovy Boonville
Impressed by a funky-looking website, we checked into the retro-chic Boonville Hotel for a night’s pampering and were warmly welcomed. A complimentary glass of local sparkling wine and a plate of oysters hit the spot before we explored the charmingly over-grown gardens, where towering tomato plants, sunflowers and nasturtiums created a riot of colour amongst the rough-hewn wooden furniture.

California highway signBoonville (population 1,370) has a number of strong points. Firstly, there’s the shopping. There’s only so much wine you can taste in a day, so when a break was needed, we indulged in retail therapy. At the Farmhouse Mercantile store I picked up a gorgeous, leather-bound note book perfect for jotting down my tasting notes; some hand-sewn place mats, and was sorely tempted by some of the retro-style jewellery (I passed on the goats’ milk paint and Earth Mother calico smocks). Neighbouring boutiques on the town’s Main Street, actually Highway 128, sell unique, bourgeois-bohemian home wares and the coffee shops are a delight. We indulged in a gourmet break at La Paysanne coffee shop  – their homemade cardamom ice cream is outstanding.

Then there’s the plethora of nearby tasting rooms. We walked along Boonville’s main drag and sampled wines at Zina Hyde Cunningham, Londer, Philo Ridge and Foursight Wines, before strolling merrily back to dine at our hotel’s Table 128 restaurant; after a long day’s spitting, it was a pleasure to swallow.

Finally, from Boonville it’s only 17 miles to Ukiah (turn left a quarter of a mile out of town onto the 253 Country Road) home to the biodynamically-farmed vineyards of Paul Dolan, but that visit must be the subject of another blog post. From Ukiah we motored leisurely south, down through Sonoma and the Napa Valley, and back to our San Francisco starting point, suitably refreshed by the authentic, thoughtfully-crafted wines we’d had the pleasure of discovering.

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

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