Wine and food where three countries meet

November 21, 2012

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

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

Alsace wine region

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

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

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

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

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

Kaiserstuhl vineyards

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wine Travel in Istria, Croatia

August 31, 2010

By Sue Style

Plenty of people have found good reasons to travel in both Croatia and Slovenia – think unspoiled Adriatic coastlines, well-preserved Roman sites, medieval hilltop villages, rugged alpine scenery and wild mountain walks. Now there’s another reason to add to these: both offer terrific wine travel possibilities. Since Croatian and Slovenian wines seldom stray far beyond their own borders, if you live in Europe, it’s a good idea is to drive down there so you can bring home your vinous discoveries.

Map of Istria

Courtesy of Wines of Croatia

We started our wine tour with Istria in Croatia. In a few weeks, we’ll post another covering our discoveries in Slovenia’s Primorska (‘coastal’) region just to the north. Distances are small and the roads good. The best times to visit, says Ingrid Badurina, masterminder of Zagreb’s excellent Wine Gourmet Festival, are spring (for gentle warmth and wild asparagus) or autumn (ditto, plus truffles).

Not far from Rovinj, a deliciously atmospheric port painted in faded pastel shades that evokes a pre-1960s Portofino, is winegrower Ivica Matosevic, near Kruncici (pronounced ‘crunchy-chi’, with a Yorkshire accent). A young winemaker – his first harvest was in 2006 – Matosevic is fascinated by Malvasia, Istria’s principal grape. His PhD from Udine University just across in Italy studied the influence of terroir on this distinctive local variety. Most Istrian Malvasia is designed for early bottling and prompt, joyous quaffing; Matosevic has other ideas too. True to tradition he makes a single varietal Malvasia to be drunk in its infancy, but he also blends it with Sauvignon and Chardonnay or ages it several months in small acacia barrels. Intuitively it’s an association that makes perfect sense: get your nose into a glass of Malvasia and you’ll be knocked back by wafts of acacia blossom.

Over a seafood feast at Restaurant Viking on the Limsky Kanal, a long fjord-like inlet famed for its oyster beds, Matosevic reminded us of Istria’s frequently shifting borders and the diverse influences that have shaped it over centuries. “My grandfather was born in Austria”, he explained, “and my father in Italy. I was born in Yugoslavia and my son in Croatia – and all that without ever moving!”

Motovun Istria

Autumnal vineyards near Motovun © Goran Šebelić, istria-gourmet.com

Further north is Motovun, a medieval hilltop village whose fountains and town gates are graced with elegantly sculpted bas-reliefs of Venetian lions – Venice ruled Istria and parts of Slovenia for the best part of two centuries from 1205. A good place to stay here would be the family-owned Hotel Kastel. Situated on the cool, quiet town square it has its own pool, spa, restaurant and 33 delightful rooms, some of them looking out onto the ramparts and the famed truffle oak forests below. To sample the fresh tubers, shaved over gnocchi or fuzi (typically Istrian bow-shaped pasta), you’ll need to come in October or November when the hotel runs special truffle days.

Continuing in a northerly direction, the San Rocco, a 12-room (+ 2-suite) boutique hotel in Brtonigla, would make another excellent base. Its simple stone farmhouse core has been sympathetically converted and extended over the years and it has all the elements required for a few days’ R&R: indoor and outdoor pools, sauna, spa, olive oil or truffle massages on the lawn, and some deft, stylish cooking from chef Zoran Kobanov, who privileges local ingredients like shellfish, truffles, pork and game. Ask sommelier-owner Tullio Fernetich about a private tasting of local wines in their beautifully appointed tasting room.

Istria MalvasiaClose to San Rocco near Momjan is Marino Markezic’s 20-hectare Kabola vineyard. Over plates of locally cured prsut (prosciutto) and truffle-infused hard cheese, we sampled a classic grapey Malvasia. Then we moved to a firmer, barrique-aged riserva and graduated finally to a deep golden one which had spent half a year on the skins in amphorae (the amphora vogue has trickled down from Italy’s Collio region via Slovenia to Istria), another year in large Slavonian barrels and a final eight months in bottle.

Though Malvasia is Istria’s pride and joy, Markezic is also devoted to Teran (according to the Oxford companion a sub-variety of Refosk/Refosco), the tough local red variety which he likens – with disarming candour – to the Istrian male: “There’s not much good about him – but people love him anyway!” On the evidence of Markezic’s Teran, this awkward, apparently unlovable, highly acidic variety does seem to respond – presumably like the Istrian male – to a firm hand (in the vineyards) and plenty of TLC (in the cellar).

Istria Wine Route

© Cliff Rames, Wines of Croatia

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Our final stop in Istria was at Gianfranco Kozlovic’s 25-hectare estate, with distant views of the ruined castle of Momjan. Kozlovic has refreshingly simple views on wine: “I want to produce wines of varietal character, pleasing, with long-lasting flavour – but not a whole philosophy lesson. Wine shouldn’t burden you with expectations.” The star of Kozlovic’s cellar is Santa Lucia, a beautifully structured, fruit-filled Malvasia from a recently acquired but old-established vineyard where some 50 year-old vines survive.

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Places to Stay and Eat in Istria

Hotel Kastel
Trg Andrea Antico 7, 52424 Motovun, Croatia
Tel: + 385 52 681 607, info@hotel-kastel-motovun.hr

Hotel San Rocco
Via Media 2, 52474 Brtonigla, Croatia
Tel. +385 52 725 000, info@san-rocco.hr

Restaurant Viking
Limski Kanal 1, 52488 Sv. Lovrec, Croatia
Tel. +385 52 448 119, viking@pu.t-com.hr

Wine Producers to visit in Istria

Matosevic
Kruncici 2, 52448 Sv. Lovrec, Croatia
Tel. +385 52 448 558, vina@matosevic.com

Kabola
Kanedolo 90, 52460 Momjan, Croatia
Tel.: +385 52 779 208, mmarkezic@inet.hr

Koslovic
Vale 78, 52460 Momjan, Croatia
Tel. +385 52 779 177, kozlovic@pu.htnet.hr

For more information on Croatian wines, follow Wines of Croatia on Facebook.


Getting up close and personal with Priorat

July 6, 2009

By Sue Style

Beady-eyed wine travellers can hardly have missed the meteoric rise of Priorat’s blockbusting, terroir-driven red wines, characterised by their intensity, complexity, longevity and eye-watering prices. But how many of you have travelled in the comarca or county of Priorat, about an hour southwest of Barcelona? It’s a stunning area, well worth a detour – well, make that a special trip.

Scala Dei at the foot of the Sierre de Montsant © Mick Rock/Cephas

Scala Dei at the foot of the Sierra de Montsant © Mick Rock/Cephas

Hilltop villages alternate with steeply stacked vineyards, terraced olive groves and medieval monasteries. All shelter beneath the majestic, jagged, dramatically stratified Sierra de Montsant, set in its own National Park. The terrain is fiercely challenging and dauntingly steep, vines grow in the distinctive, brownish-black llicorella shale that glints and shimmers in the merciless summer sun.

There are two appellations here, DOC Priorat and the larger DO Montsant, which almost entirely surrounds it. The Priorat appellation was created in 1954, but vines have grown here since the 12th century when Carthusian monks established their monastery Scala Dei – God’s staircase – at the foot of the Sierra de Montsant. In 2000 the region was promoted to DOC, one of only two DOCs in Spain (the other is Rioja), with around 1700 hectares of vineyards planted predominantly with old Garnacha and Cariñena (a.k.a. Grenache and Carignan) vines, plus some Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot.

The Montsant appellation emerged from under the umbrella of DO Tarragona to establish itself in its own right only in 2001, with around 2000 hectares of vines. Garnacha and Cariñena predominate, with a little Tempranillo (known here as Ull de Llebre, ‘eye of the hare’); Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot are also approved.

In response to all the excitement on the wine front, a new wave of wine-led tourism has spawned some great little country restaurants and rural B&Bs, many of them in historic houses which have been restored with Catalan flair and a nice respect for the fabric of these fine old buildings.

Perversely, Priorat (and to a lesser extent Montsant) can be a bit frustrating for the wine traveller. Many of Priorat’s wines (especially cult wines like L’Ermita, Clos Mogador, Clos Erasmus, Clos de l’Obac) are impossible to find, and the top wineries are open to visits by professionals only.

This is where the Fira del Vi, held in the regional capital of Falset, comes into its own. Held every year over the first weekend in May, it’s a showcase for both appellations, gathering under one roof a representative range of Priorat and Montsant growers and providing a unique opportunity to get up-close-and-personal with both the wines and their makers.

The Fira is a shop window only: you can’t buy here, only taste. Potential customers are directed either to the winery (some of which offer scheduled visits during the fair), or to one of the wine shops in town (try Vinateria Aguiló).

Apart from the fair itself, there are all kinds of wine-related fringe events in restaurants, shops and other venues in town and in the surrounding villages. Make a note in your diary for next year and build the fair into a week’s exploration of this superb, ruggedly beautiful area.

Siruanella Hotel and Restaurant © Sue Style

La Siuranella Hotel © Sue Style

PLACES TO STAY

  • Mas Figueres, Carretera T-300, Km. 2, Marçà
    Tel: +34 977 178 011
  • Cal Porrera, Escoles 4, Porrera
    Tel: +34 977 82 83 10
  • Cal Llop, De Dalt 21, Gratallops
    Tel: +34 977 83 95 02
  • La Siuranella, Rentadors, Siurana
    Tel: +34 977 82 11 44

PLACES TO EAT

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The Weekly Twitter Quiz #8 – Turckheim in Alsace

February 25, 2009
OBrand Grand Cru Vineyard above Turckheim

Brand Grand Cru above Turckheim

One of the must-see villages on the Alsace wine route, Turckheim is just to the west of the city of Colmar. Writer of the three Alsace wine region travel guides, Sue Style, who lives in the southern part of the region writes about the village: “One of the best preserved villages in Alsace, chock full of multi-coloured, higgledy-piggledy half-timbered houses and a night watchman who does the rounds each evening in summer. Some cheerful wine bars and a good hotel.”

The village makes a great base for a wine tour in Alsace: you can stay at the Hotel des Deux Clefs described by Sue as “Plushy, beamy, deliciously kitsch, family-owned inn in a classic half-timbered building built in 1540” and eat at the Auberge du Brand – “A solid address for Alsace classics (smoked pork knuckle with leeks, asparagus or wild mushroom ragout in season, tarte à l’oignon) and a good wine list strong on Turckheim producers (Zind-Humbrecht, Baur, Armand Hurst).” The restaurant is named after Turckheim’s famous Grand Cru Brand vineyard which is known for the quality of its Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris.

Zind-Humbrecht is of course a fantastic wine producer, making a wonderful range from its biodynamically-farmed vineyards. Olivier Humbrecht was the first French Master of Wine and I studied in London with him in the late 1980s – I failed in the end, but he passed, which is no mean feat for anyone, let alone a non-native English speaker.

This was a more cryptic quiz question than others, but was hoping that it would get the brains ticking and would not be easily found on AbleGrape or Google. Congratulations to keen wine student and website owner @SuppleWine of San Francisco, who correctly deduced the answer to be Turckheim after an initial attempt with nearby Kaysersberg, which is a high village ‘watching over the vineyards’. I deduce that @SuppleWine is an Alsace fan and await their message to confirm which PDF guide they choose as a prize.

Next week, the quiz will be on Thursday, not Wednesday so you have a whole 8 days for some advanced studies! In the meantime, do continue to follow me on Twitter and consider becoming a fan on the Wine Travel Guides Facebook page.

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