It’s not just coffee in Seattle – there’s wine too!

March 22, 2009

By Wink Lorch

One of the exciting things about visiting the wine regions of Oregon and Washington State is how different the experience is between the states. Conveniently grouped together with Idaho as the Pacific Northwest, I don’t think that the majority of Oregon wines and Washington wines – or for that matter Oregon wine regions and Washington wine regions – have anything in common except perhaps that they are nothing like their California counterparts.


The wine regions of Washington State are nearly all east of the Cascade Mountains in semi-desert areas, traditionally apple-growing country, where irrigation is essential. It is often very cold and dry in the winter, and very hot and dry in the summer, but the great advantage is the high number of sunlight hours in the vines’ growing season. For the USA (with the exception of Alaska) this is as far north that you can get, at around 46° Latitude.

With a long growing season, it’s a climate that happens to suit Bordeaux grape varieties and Merlot in particular, something that was discovered long before the variety became fashionable in California. Fortunately, Washington wine growers have always been quite adventurous in their choice of grape varieties, definitely not slaves to fashion. In January, I tasted a range of both red and white wines from Washington and found a great variety of styles with good quality though the reds definitely have the edge.

In the past 20 years, winery numbers have exploded and Washington State is the second largest wine producing state in the USA after California. Anyone who read the post I wrote on my last visit to Oregon may perhaps guess that, like many people, I visited Washington on the same trip; that was 19 years ago and I haven’t yet found the opportunity to return. We started in Seattle, already a vibrant city and close to there we visited the most-established wineries, Château Saint Michelle and Columbia both of whom had decided it was easier to set up their wineries close to the city, even though they had to bring the grapes across the Cascade mountains. We were given a private tour of Columbia winery by one of the partners, Master of Wine David Lake. Insisting that we did a barrel tasting he ushered us up a ladder to the high-level barrel store – and when I asked where I could spit out the wines, he pointed over the edge – it was the highest spit I’d ever done … ah, happy wine travelling memories!

When we did cross the Cascade mountains to tour the vineyards and visit a couple of the very few wineries over there at the time, we were really excited to drive by Snoqualmie Falls, which at the time was famous for the TV series Twin Peaks. Today wine tour companies offer combined visits to wineries and the Falls – that’s how far the tourism offering has come.

Seattle, home to Starbucks, MSN, Amazon and Boeing among others, is a thriving, multi-cultural and entrepreneurial city. The easy access to plenty of outdoor pursuits (both water/coastal and mountain activities) makes it an attractive place to live, so with a population eager for a range of weekend activities it’s not surprising that wine tourism close to home is high on the list as a leisure pursuit. Today there are around 40 tasting rooms just in the Seattle area, but you can also take a half-day drive over the Cascades to the Yakima Valley or perhaps more interesting, to Walla Walla.

Gary Werner, director of the Washington Wine Commission, a former wine writer based in London, described Walla Walla to me as becoming a little like Healdsburg in Sonoma – an attractive town with 18th century buildings and a growing restaurant offering. Though still not many, a few winery restaurants have been established and accommodation out of Seattle is becoming much more available.

Whilst waiting for Wine Travel Guides to expand in that direction, you can plan a wine tour on the Washington Wine Commission’s website which has details of the wineries open to visitors and the facilities they offer. It’s another place on my list.

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Camel Valley Vineyards in Cornwall, England

March 17, 2009

10041-camel-valley-vineyards-19-feb-091Workaholic that I am, it seemed only right that before allowing myself a weekend off in the countryside, in an area that I’d never visited in my life, I should perhaps tour a vineyard on the Friday afternoon. But, the thing is, the weekend off was in England, more specifically in Cornwall in the far south-west.

Vineyards that most intrepid wine tourists in England visit tend to be closer to London in the south-east. The counties of Surrey, Hampshire, Sussex and Kent have the bulk of vineyards, and there a few interesting ones also in the Thames Valley, due west of the city. Quite a few years ago, the larger English vineyards realised that beyond making a wine that really tasted good, the next most important thing was to provide a good visitor experience, both to raise the profile of their wine and sell at the cellar door – that’s what wine tourism is all about isn’t it? As mentioned in our post about the wine bar Terroirs, one day we’ll have an Around London wine travel guide and include some of these vineyards.

English wine has come a long way in the past 25 years and there is some seriously good wine available, most particularly sparkling wine. I’d tasted Camel Valley sparkling wine a couple of times and it has won a plethora of awards in wine competitions not only in the UK, but beyond too. The Camel Valley winery happens to be situated in just the area of Cornwall that I wanted to spend the weekend, nicely placed between the Eden Project and the coastal town of Padstow, where Rick Stein’s Seafood restaurant is based.

Cornwall is full of minuscule one-track lanes and Camel Valley, just a few miles from Bodmin Moor (famous for its wild landscape and remoteness), is reached along one such narrow lane. But, turning into their pretty entrance, nicely planted with spring bulbs, and seeing the tractor working in-between the rows of winter vines, we could have been coming into any small New World boutique winery. Visitor parking is clearly marked (including a designated shady area for cars with dogs that are not allowed to visit …) and a pretty path leads down to a small barn-like building that is the tasting room and shop.

Sam Lindo in his vineyard

Sam Lindo in his vineyard

Sam Lindo (UK Winemaker of the Year in 2007), son of the owners Bob and Annie Lindo, who first planted the vineyard 20 years ago, showed us around. The Lindos were sheep farmers and knew nothing about vine-growing or making wine when they started. The land is on a south-facing slope with the Camel River below, and it is well-drained, ideal for vines, but pretty hard to grow grass (“not so great for sheep”, said Sam). Alongside the river is the Camel Trail, a path for walkers and cyclists with direct access into the vineyard. As an aside, Cornwall is a great county for encouraging all things environmentally friendly – a substantial discount on the entry fee to the Eden Project, is offered to those who arrive on foot or by bike.

In their 16 acres of vineyards Camel Valley grows Pinot Noir along with three grapes particularly suited to the English climate – Seyval Blanc, Reichensteiner and Bacchus. Their success means that they also buy in grapes from across southern England. Having originally started with both white and red still wine production, today 50% of their production goes into making sparkling wine and this may well increase. All sparkling wine is made in the Traditional (Champagne) method and they have invested in automatic remuage equipment (giro-pallets). The production process is explained to visitors who join the daily tour of the vineyards and winery (April – September only at 2.30pm); better still is to aim to visit on a Wednesday at 5pm when they run what they term a ‘grand tour and tasting’ with a more in-depth visit followed by an explanatory tutored tasting. Sam comments that their tours are “very open – we don’t like to hide how things are done”.

10068-camel-valley-vineyards-19-feb-091The tasting room and shop is staffed by knowledgeable and friendly people who offer a free tasting to casual visitors. In summer, you can buy a glass, or a bottle to share on the lovely terrace with your picnic. I particularly enjoyed their fresh grapefuity Bacchus Dry 2007 – almost a Sauvignon Blanc-style, and their sparkling ‘Cornwall Brut’ 2006, which has become the mainstay of their range, was excellent, worthy of all the awards. It’s nothing like Champagne, being made from Seyval, Huxelrebe and Reichensteiner, but it has a creamy mousse with lovely fresh grassy, fruit and excellent length. Her Majesty the Queen serves it on certain occasions, by the way.

If you’re heading to the far south-west of England, in my view the Eden Project is an essential visit, but for all wine lovers, I’d say don’t fail to call in to Camel Valley too. And, by the way, they also have cottages to rent – visit their excellent website for full details of all they offer.

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The Weekly Twitter Quiz #10 – Château de La Brède, Graves

March 11, 2009

Travelling in wine regions is not all about wine; certainly in Europe, it’s easy to add in some cultural elements to a wine tour. Many wine regions have interesting ecclesiastical relics, old forts and art museums as well as châteaux with stories that may be nothing to do with wine. This week’s answer to the Twitter quiz is one of the latter.

Château de la Brède, south of Bordeaux

Château de la Brède, south of Bordeaux

Jane Anson, who lives in Bordeaux, selected Château de La Brède, as one of the key non-wine attractions in her guide on the southern Graves and Sauternes. For many centuries owned by the family of the philosopher Montesquieu she describes it as follows:

One of the few moated castles in the area, and extraordinarily well preserved, the château is also surrounded by English-style gardens. Expect plenty of proud displays of Montesquieu’s musings.

My Twitter followers are a clever bunch. Richard who was last week’s winner got the correct answer right away but reveals he studied philosophy – Doug of AbleGrape was there too but then he always finds the answer on his very own specialist search engine. So, my first real congratulations and choice of PDF guide must go to Dave Mcallister of Redwood, California who was very persistent and came up with an equally right answer – Château Peyredoulle in Blaye, which it seems belonged to the family of Italian philosopher and humanist Pic de la Mirandole. Further congratulations are also due to Mark Manning of Seattle who was convinced the answer must be the illustrious Château d’Yquem in Sauternes due to its links with the French writer and philosopher Montaigne. The French love philosophy – ever heard them discussing the philosophy of wine? So, no surprise there are plenty of connections.

Jane Anson keeps everyone up-to-date on what’s happening in the region with her new Bordeaux blog and has just updated the eight micro-region guides to Bordeaux for Wine Travel Guides. Why do we have eight? Well, it’s a huge region and if you are just planning a visit for a couple of days, you might only want one or two guides – that’s the great thing about on-line guides, you can just print a few pages of just what you need, and what’s more, being on-line they should be bang up to date. Move over guide books, on-line guides are here to stay.

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Twitter Quiz #10 – Win a Wine Travel Guide PDF

March 11, 2009

Into double figures, where does the year go? Have you planned your next wine tour yet? Here’s your chance to win a micro-region guide from our choice of 45 wine regions in France (46 if you include the free guide available when you register), 2 in Tuscany and 2 in Rioja (see this independent review from a Rioja fan). I am trying to alternate the quiz questions between those that are resolutely for wine geeks (last week’s perhaps) and those that require sleuthing wearing more of a travel hat. Inspiration often comes from the guides, sometimes from my own experiences. So, read on for today’s little challenge.

Weekly Twitter Quiz #10 – Question
At which Bordeaux château would you likely have a philosophical discussion?

You must follow me on twitter to compete. The first correct answer that is replied to @WineTravel wins the prize.

I will announce the answer and name the winner on Twitter first and then on a new post here with the answer and some extended explanation.

The Weekly Twitter Quiz #9 – Satigny in Geneva

March 5, 2009
Vineyards near Geneva with the Jura mountains

Vineyards near Geneva on the foothills of the Jura mountains

If you’ve ever flown in or out of Geneva airport in Switzerland, you will have most likely flown over the gentle, rolling vineyards of the village Satigny, which has the largest vineyard area of any Swiss village, around 480 hectares or just over 1,000 acres. The French-speaking canton of Geneva is the third largest in Switzerland for vineyards after Valais and Vaud and there are some increasingly interesting wines to be found there from a vast range of grape varieties.

On my last visit there, we visited the wonderfully-named Domaine du Paradis, a producer growing over 20 different grape varieties in 40 hectares of vineyards in Satigny and the surrounding villages.

Roger Burgdorfer of Domaine du Paradis

Roger Burgdorfer of Domaine du Paradis

Owner of Domaine du Paradis Roger Burgdorfer and his partner-winemaker Didier Cornut share a wacky sense of humour which is reflected in their highly decorated tasting room and on their wine labels. The wines, though, show a serious level of quality and originality, with an eminently drinkable Pinot Blanc, an outstanding oak-aged Viognier named Le Pont de Soupirs Blanc; and in reds not only a good example from the local curiosities Garanoir and Gamaret blended with Merlot called Le Noir Divin, but also a surprising star from Zinfandel.

You can easily do a wine tour in Satigny and neighbouring villages directly from the city of Geneva as it’s only 20 minutes drive away. The village has good choices for eating with the large decent quality village restaurant named Auberge de Satigny and just down the road in the hamlet of Peney, the rather upmarket Auberge de Châteauvieux. On our visit, we met up with friends who were actually staying at Châteauvieux and they enjoyed an excellent evening meal in the restaurant.

Café de Peney

Café de Peney

For lunch on our visit we went to the Café de Peney under the same management. Being summer we could sit outside and enjoyed a relaxed meal with outstandingly presented food from good seasonal ingredients. The wine list too included a careful choice from the canton of Geneva and further afield in Switzerland and beyond.

Congratulations to Richard from Massachusetts who first guessed Sion in Valais, then Lavaux in Vaud (both major wine-growing areas, yes) and on the third attempt correctly guessed Satigny in Geneva, not an easy one.

Now, I can go and open a bottle of Le Noir Divin purchased on our visit. Follow me on Twitter for some more detailed impressions on the wine later this evening. And, if you are reading this on another day, you’ll find that my tweets include a wide range of comments on wine and travel related themes plus a few more snippets.

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The Weekly Twitter Quiz #9 – Win a PDF Wine Travel Guide

March 5, 2009

Last week’s quiz question was cryptic, this one requires some sleuthing I reckon. No more clues, for now. If you are new to the quiz, welcome! It’s your chance to have some fun researching an obscure fact related to wine and travel somewhere in the world and if you’re fast enough you will win a PDF guide from our choice of 50 on-line travel guides, designed so that you can plan your own wine tour in France, Italy or Spain. Question coming up:

Weekly Twitter Quiz #9 – Question
Which wine village in Switzerland has the most vineyards? In which canton?

You must follow me on twitter to compete. The first correct answer that is replied to @WineTravel wins the prize.

I will announce the answer and name the winner on Twitter first and then on a new post here with the answer and some extended explanation.

On a Screen Near You Soon: A Dreamy Wine Tour

March 1, 2009

For years I’ve known that when it comes to talking about wine, words can hardly do justice to the liquid itself: you need to taste and drink a wine for it to become alive. It’s true, words can describe a beautiful vineyard, a fascinating winemaking process, an atmospheric wine cellar or even some of the interesting people in the wine business, but words can only go so far. Visual images – photos and illustrations – often do a better job, if I’m honest. So, I really should keep quiet and get to the point.

Sunset near Cahors © Mick Rock/Cephas

Sunset near Cahors in the south-west of France © Mick Rock/Cephas

To illustrate each guide on Wine Travel Guides, I’ve chosen just one photo (because otherwise the PDF guides would be hard to print), and most of the pictures were taken by Mick Rock. Mick has been photographing everything to do with wine for over 20 years and he owns Cephas Picture Library, one of the world’s largest wine-specialist photo libraries. The library’s photos have appeared in some of the best known wine books and journals, published throughout the world. Mick’s library also provided the photos for the banner above.

Now, Mick has released a DVD called French Wine Odyssey – his personal selection of pictures from the wine world in France, many of which feature on Wine Travel Guides. The 24-minute DVD runs through a dreamy sequence of images that take you from Champagne to Bordeaux with stops in many of the more obscure wine regions of France. The pictures lead you deep into the cellars and out into the midst of the most spectacular vineyards; they even introduce you to a few characters of the French wine world. Mick has commissioned background music, which goes with the flow of his pictures.

The DVD is particularly good when viewed on a large wide screen – it would make an ideal backdrop for any wine bar, wine shop, restaurant or even in your own living room. You can preview a short excerpt, view thumbnails of all the pictures and find details of how to purchase the DVD or license it for commercial use from the Wine Odysseys website.

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