Loire Valley – a short travel guide

With Summer just over the horizon I thought you might enjoy another one of my travel articles, this time it’s about Anjou-Saumur and Touraine in the Loire Valley.

Angers and the Loire from the ramparts of Angers Castle.

The Loire Valley encapsulates everything I think of when daydreaming about France. As Ratty said, ‘there is nothing – absolutely nothing, half so worth doing as – simply messing about in boats!’ As a confirmed landlubber of course I stretch the principle somewhat to include messing around near boats. Life always seems more pleasurable and peaceful near a river and the Loire is one of the most tranquil and picturesque rivers that I have ever seen. It meanders through gorgeous places and seems to cast a spell over all of them. Buildings that would seem quite ordinary elsewhere, exude an enticing charm. Luckily a great many of them are cafés and restaurants whose gardens and terraces provide tranquil views of the Loire or one of its many tributaries.

Chinon with Chinon Castle above. This where Joan of Arc met the dauphin of France.

Wine map of the Loire Valley – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Think of the Loire Valley and it isn’t long before castles spring to mind, there are over 80 châteaux here and they are key to the region’s image. In fact they were the main reason that Unesco gave the Loire Valley World Heritage status in 2000. They range from true medieval defensive structures like the wonderful castles at Angers and Chinon to the more flamboyant 17th Century confections, such as the Château de Cheverny that was Hergés inspiration for Marlinspike Hall in his Tintin books.

Château de Cheverny.

Make sure you see the Château de Chenonceau, it is simply breathtaking. This exquisite building acts as a bridge that spans the River Cher not far from Vouvray, amazingly it marked the border between Vichy and Occupied France and was the scene of much clandestine border crossing during the war. The gardens, complete with a maze, are equally lovely and they have a couple of restaurants and a wine cellar if you need some refreshment. Equally sublime is the early renaissance Château Azay-le-Rideau near Chinon, and it must not be missed.

The exquisite Château de Chenonceau.

The beautiful Chateau-Azay-le-Rudeau.

 

The imposing main gate of Angers Castle.

Strolling through the narrow lanes and bustling squares of Anger’s old town is time well spent, and make sure you take a tour round the castle that dominates this attractive city. Once home to Catherine de Medici and where the future Duke of Wellington received his military education, the harsh defensive exterior does not prepare you for the haven of peace inside. It is a delightful place complete with rampart walk, gardens, orchards and even a small vineyard. Most famously though, it houses the incredible Apocalypse Tapestry which really is one of the jewels of early French culture. As you might imagine, Angers is heaving with eateries, but Mets & Vins is both a stylish restaurant and excellent wine shop. It has no wine list, instead you browse the shelves and see what takes your fancy.

La Croisette, try the Sandre for a taste of local tradition, or (strangely) some of the best calamares I have ever tasted.

Leaving Angers, head south to where the Maine and Loire rivers meet. The river is wide here and there are lots of islands which add to that sense of tranquility. Savennières is a good place to explore before finding lunch in a traditional Guinguette, which is a casual riverside restaurant, often looking like a riverside beach bar. My favourite is La Croisette which is on the river bank on an island in the Loire, make sure you try the local speciality of Sandre, a fish known as Pike-Perch in English.

From here it’s fun to follow the Layon river as it winds through the beautiful villages of Anjou and the Coteaux du Layon. The village of Saint-Lambert-du-Lattay houses the Vine and Wine Museum of Anjou-Saumur which is well worth a visit. If hunger strikes then head for La Table de la Bergerie. This delightful modern restaurant is set amongst vines in the middle of the countryside, making it a magical place to sit outside and enjoy your aperitif.

Louresse-Rochemenier.

The evocative cellars at the wonderful Domaine de Bablut in Anjou.

Nearby is the village of Louresse-Rochemenier, which is fascinating with its troglodyte dwellings cut into the tuffeau cliff face. In the past this stone was excavated and used to build the châteaux and wealthy towns of the region. In turn, the local poor moved in to the holes left behind and they were lived in until the 1930s. Many such caves are also used as cellars as they provide perfect conditions to age wines.

The charmingly eccentric Château de Brissac.

Another view of the Château de Brissac.

Next, head up to Brissac-Quincé on the banks of the Aubance, this attractive town has the remarkable Château de Brissac at its heart and it’s a delight in every way. The gardens are beautiful, while the building is now a fascinating museum and boasts that it is the ‘tallest castle’ in France as it is has sections from the 17th century built on top of a medieval castle.

Vines at Château de Saumur, photo courtesy of Bouvet-Ladubay.

Returning to the River Loire itself, Saumur is a must see town on the south bank of the river. Everything is built out of the local honey coloured tuffeau stone and many of the buildings are magnificent, especially the City Hall and the imposing Château de Saumur. Saumur is a great food town too, with an amazing array of places to eat, try Le Gambetta or Le Carrousel for a treat, or one of the many bistrots by the river. In addition, try not to leave town before you have experienced Gérard Girardeau’s superb charcuterie and wine shop, it really is one of the very best.

Vines in Souzay-Champigny.

A little way south east is the village of Souzay-Champigny. Champigny itself is a few kilometres south and lends its name to the Saumur-Champigny appellation which produces some of the best red wines of the Loire. It’s a sleepy little place, but worth a visit for more of those troglodyte houses.

Carry on east and you come to the Touraine area, whose vineyards include Bourgueil, Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil and Chinon. Bourgueil is pretty and a joy to explore, with a 10th century abbey that is now a museum, a busy street market on Tuesday and a gastronomic market held in the medieval market hall every Saturday. If you have worked up appetite, La Rose de Pindare is a delightful restaurant serving local food and wine in the centre of the village.

That giant bottle outside the Church.

Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil is a very small place that is mainly worth visiting for the wine, but it does boast a giant wine bottle outside the church, it serves as a fountain, and the excellent Saint Nicolas Gourmand restaurant just across the road.

Not far away Chinon is one of the major towns of the Loire and a terrific place to visit. In fact the castle alone makes it worthwhile. This sits above the town and although it was the home of Richard I of England – who together with Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine is buried at the nearby Fontevraud Abbey, which is stunning and even boasts a fine restaurant – it was also where Joan of Arc had her first meeting with the French Dauphin and there is a museum dedicated to her. Rabelais was once the mayor and Chinon still feels medieval with its narrow streets, gothic buildings and timber frame houses. The markets are on Thursdays and Sundays and there are restaurants galore, but I always choose Les Annees 30 and have never been disappointed. La Cave Voltaire is a superb wine shop that doubles up as a bar offering cheese and charcuterie, the focus is on organic and natural wines from small producers.

The Loire Valley is a hedonists’ paradise, with superb food and produce. There are 6 appellation controlée cheeses in the Loire and they are all made from goats milk, Valençay, Crottin de Chevignol, Chabichou du Poutou, Pouligny St. Pierre, Selles-sur-Cher and Sainte-Maure de Touraine. Legend has it that when the invading Arabs were defeated at the Battle of Tours in 732 they left their goats behind. Whether that is true or not the cheeses are perfect with the local wines.

Charcuterie is important here too, especially rillettes, a soft, fatty paté that tastes delicious. It is usually made from pork, but goose, duck, rabbit and even fish versions are available and while it is normally eaten with bread and cornichons, rillettes are sometimes served with a local unleavened bread called fouaces.

If all this makes you feel spoilt for choice, then don’t worry. There is beauty and there are delights wherever you look in the Loire Valley, the important thing is just to get there.

 

Contacts:

Restaurant Mets & Vins
44 Boulevard Ayrault, 49100 Angers, France
Phone: +33 2 41 87 03 35

La Croisette
rue de la Boire 49170 Béhuard
Phone: +33 02 41 23 19 53

Vine and Wine Museum of Anjou-Saumur
Musée de la vigne et du vin d’Anjou
Cellier de la Coudraye
Place des Vignerons
49750 Saint-Lambert-du-Lattay
Tél: +33 02 41 78 42 75

La Table de la Bergerie
La Bergerie
49380 Champ sur Layon
Tél:. +33 02 41 78 30 62

Restaurant le Gambetta
12 Rue Gambetta
49400 Saumur
Tel: +33 02 41 67 66 66

Restaurant Le Carrousel
15 r Colonel  Michon
49400 Saumur
Tel: +33  02 41 51 00 40

Gérard Girardeau
53 Rue Saint-Nicolas
49400 Saumur
Tel: +33 02 41 51 30 33

La Rose de Pindare
4 Place Hublin
37140 Bourgueil
Tel: +33 2 47 97 70 50

Saint Nicolas Gourmand
Avenue Saint Vincent 28
37140 Saint Nicolas de Bourgueil
Tel: +33 2 47 97 77 37

Les Annees 30
78 rue Voltaire
37500 Chinon
Tel: +33 2 47 93 37 18

La Cave Voltaire
13 Rue Voltaire
37500 Chinon
Tel: +33 02 47 93 37 68

 

 

Tuscany – a short travel guide

The weather is getting better and many of us are turning our thoughts to travel. Every now and again I write wine travel articles for my friends at the excellent 3D Wines Experience wine club and they print them in their Uncorked Magazine. Well, I thought that some of my readers here would enjoy them too, so I will publish them on here in a slow trickle.

My first piece for 3D Wines was about Tuscany and while it isn’t comprehensive it does cover a good swathe of lovely places in Tuscany’s, so I hope that it comes in handy for some of you.

Wine map of Tuscany – click for a larger view.

Tuscany has been attracting visitors for hundreds of years. It has everything from sun, sea and sand to some of the most romantic towns and cities in the world. It is a place that you can visit time and again and yet always find something new to excite you.

Tuscany is home to many famous wines, but Chianti remains its beating heart. The term Chianti was first used to define the hilly area area around Radda, Gaiole and Castellina and is thought to have been the name of an Etruscan family. This is the heartland of Chianti, where it all began and today it’s the core of the Chianti Classico D.O.C.g., but the whole Chianti area is worth exploring.

Castellina in Chianti.

Castellina
Castellina in Chianti is small and still has the feel of a mediaeval walled town. It is a joy to wander along the charming main street – Via Ferruccio – and the Via della Volte, an amazing vaulted, passage now home to shops and restaurants. The main square – Piazza del Comune – is dominated by the Rocca di Castellina castle which houses the Museum of Etruscan Archeology. This is a real gem and if it whets your appetite to learn more about this ancient culture, there is the stunning Etruscan tomb of Montecalvario a few minutes walk away.

It can be very hot here, so some amazing, homemade ice cream from the Antica Deliza Gelateria is highly recommended and almost reason enough to come to Castellina – do try the lemon and sage. If you need something more substantial the Antica Trattoria la Torre serves very good traditional food and is right in the main square.

Hotel Colle Etrusco Salviolpi.

Ristorante Albergaccio di Castellina.

Just outside the town is the Hotel Colle Etrusco Salviolpi an old country house turned into a welcoming B&B hotel complete with swimming pool, while the nearby Ristorante Albergaccio di Castellina provides high class Tuscan food and a wine list to match.

The rolling hills of the Colli Senesi.

Siena
Chianti Colli Senesi, as you might imagine is produced in the hills around Sienna. Once Florence’s equal as a city state, Siena ultimately lost out politically to its rival in the north, but in every other respect is by far the winner. Siena was never the centre of Renaissance intrigue, or Italy’s capital and so it remains small, with just 53,000 people its population is barely a seventh of Florence. This amazing, compact city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site whose buildings are almost all the same colour – terra di Siena or ‘Siena earth’ which makes it seem very beautiful.

Piazza del Campo Siena.

Do spend some time in the Piazza del Campo, this huge piazza is used as the racetrack for the Palio horse race twice a year and is lined with cafés, restaurants, gelaterias and market stalls. Make sure that you climb the Torre del Mangia, the bell tower overlooking the Piazza, heavy going in the heat, but the view is worth it as the whole city opens up before you.

The Duomo, or Siena Cathedral, is not only stunning in itself as it contains bas-reliefs by Donatello, but the site also includes the Museo dell’Opera dell Duomo which houses masterpieces such as Duccio’s Maestà. Once you have absorbed all the art another panoramic view awaits you from the terrace of the Il Facciatone tower.

Every Wednesday there is a lively market around the Fortezza Mediceana, where food, wine, antiques, animals and clothes are all for sale and it is a great place to watch the locals going about their lives.

Torre del Mangia Siena.

As you might imagine Siena is bursting with places to eat and it is hard to make a mistake, but my favourite is the Grotta di Santa Caterina di Bagoda which has been run by former Palio jockey Pierino Fagnani since 1973. This place is wonderfully atmospheric and fun with a great wine list and a very traditional menu. Try Pici – a thick hand rolled spaghetti which is only made in Siena and often served with a rich wild boar sauce. This would also be a good place to try some Panforte for dessert, with a glass of Vin Santo perhaps?

Looking down on the Piazza del Campo Siena.

Staying in Siena isn’t always easy as the hotels are usually very old, small and lack air-conditioning, while many of them are up several floors with no lift. The Hotel Duomo is pretty central, air-conditioned and has wonderful views from most rooms, but like many hotels in Siena it does lack parking. If you are seeking something more luxurious then the 5 star Grand Hotel Continental Siena occupies a magnificent 17th century Palazzo once owned by Pope Alexander VII. What’s more their Enoteca SaporDivino is a superb wine bar in the cellar that has to be experienced.

Florence.

The Duomo in Florence, beautiful by day and night.

A colourful procession in Florence.

Further afield – Firenze
I suppose that Florence must be at the heart of many trips to Tuscany, so I should mention some of my favourite delights to be found there. Harry’s Bar was opened on the banks of the Arno in 1952 by a friend of Giuseppe Cipriani who created the original in Venice and it appears to be unchanged. It is so elegant and cosmopolitan that as you sip your Bellini you half expect Clark Gable to appear arm in arm with Marilyn Monroe.

More traditional fare is available at the nearby Cantinetta Antinori which is housed on the ground floor of the ancient Antinori family palazzo. This beautiful place offers a small menu of classical Tuscan cuisine together with an enormous list of wines made by Antinori and their friends throughout the world. You can even try all their Super-Tuscans by the glass.

Trattoria Marione

Both of those are delightful and swanky and perfect if your wallet is full, but if you are after some good food and charming local colour on a tighter budget then the wonderfully bustling Trattoria Marione is nearby in the Via della Spade. The check table cloths, Chianti flasks on the tables and salamis hanging over the bar might make you think it’s a tourist trap, but I have only ever known locals to be in there and they always seem to be happily tucking into wonderful traditional Tuscan food in abundance – try the tagliatelle sul Cinghiale – tagliatelle with wild boar.

Florence is also known for its colourful Fiaschetteria or Vinerie, traditional wine bars that are often no more than a hole in the wall. The upmarket Enoteche are a more salubrious update on the theme, often quite smart and serving an array of wine together with stuzzichini, snacks or appetisers of Crostini, Salami and Affettati – mixed cured meats.

Piazza Napoleone, Lucca.

Walking Lucca’s walls.

Lucca
Far from being filthy, Lucca is a delightful walled town a little north east of Pisa. You can walk all around the walls and see the town before you venture in to the maze of winding streets, some of which look as though they are stuck in the Renaissance, while others like Via Fillungo boast an impressive array of luxury shops – as with Florence jewellery and leather goods are the things to buy here. The oval shaped Piazza Anfiteatro was once the ancient town’s Roman amphitheatre. This is a beautiful space and it is wonderful to soak up all the history for a while in one of the many bars.

Lucca from the air – you can clearly see the walls and fortifications – click for a larger view

Lucca boasts one of my favourite family run restaurants. The Trattoria da Leo has been in the Via Tegrimi since 1974 and is a delightful place to enjoy delicious, simple Tuscan food and while away an hour or two. It is an unpretentious, but totally genuine place that lists just two wines, both red – Vino Toscano at 12.5˚ in either quarter or half litre carafes or the local Vino Colline Lucchesi in bottles.

If you find yourself in need of intellectual stimulation, Puccini was born in Lucca and his house in the Corte San Lorenzo is now a wonderful museum. After which you surely deserve an ice-cream and luckily the Gelateria Santini Sergio is nearby and has been making superb gelato on the premises since 1916 – do try the chocolate and orange.

Just go there
There is so much to enjoy in Tuscany that nothing can really do it justice other than going there and seeing these places as well as Pisa, San Gimignano, San Miniato, Livorno, Pistoia, Elba, Montepulciano, Montalcino and all those other little towns you would stop in along the way and remember for ever more.

Not only is everywhere a feast for the eyes, but every corner of Tuscany is home to something that you can actually feast on. Internationally famous wines, local wines, superb olive oils, honey, hams, cheeses, salamis, mushrooms, meats, herbs, breads and sweets abound – no wonder I am so drawn to the place.

Useful Addresses:

Antica Trattoria la Torre
Piazza del Comune15
53011 Castellina In Chianti
+39 (0) 57- 774-0236

Albergaccio di Castellina
Via Fiorentina, 63
53011 Castellina In Chianti
+39 (0) 57-774-1042

Grotta di Santa Caterina di Bagoda
Via della Galluzza, 26
53100 Siena
+39 (0) 57-728-2208

Harry’s Bar
22R Via Lungarno Amerigo Vespucci 
Firenze, Toscana 50123 
+39 (0) 55-239-6700
Cantinetta Antinori
Piazza Antinori 3
Firenze, Toscana 50123
+39 (0) 55-292-234

Trattoria Marione
Via della Spada 27R
Firenze, Toscana 50123
+39 (0) 55-247-56

Trattoria da Leo
Via Tegrimi 1
Lucca, Toscana 55100
+39 (0) 58-349-2236

 

Wine of the Week – a classy dry Riesling

Clare Valley vineyards in South Australia.

As anyone who reads these pages knows that I love Riesling. At its best Riesling produces some of the most delicious, light, beguiling, delicious and versatile white wines available.

I love all sorts of styles of Riesling from the light off-dry Mosel style to bone dry and mineral versions from many parts of Germany as well as Alsace and Austria. Australia too has a reputation for producing good Rieslings and I have enjoyed many different examples over the years – try this if you get a chance, and this as well.

However, I recently tried one that was absolutely superb and it is such great value too that I made it my Wine of the Week.

Map of South Eastern Australia, Clare Valley is north of Adelaide in South Australia – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

2016 Blind Spot Riesling
Clare Valley
South Australia

The Clare Valley is an old wine region, having been settled in the 1830s, you can tell because nearby Adelaide is named after the wife of King William IV – he ruled 1830-1837. Like many of the places called a valley in Australia, it isn’t really a valley so much as a series of gullies and gentle hills. During the growing season the days are warm, but there are cooling breezes and the nighttime temperature is cool. This helps keep the wines fresh and lively and that is why the two speciality grapes of the region – although many others thrive here too – are Merlot and Riesling, both grape varieties that don’t like too much heat.

The Blind Spot range is a sort of upmarket own label range made for the Wine Society by Mac Forbes who is one of the most exciting young winemakers in Australia today, the whole range is worth a look if you want to broaden your horizons.

This is everything that I want a Riesling to be. It is is bone dry, tangy, mineral, taut and refreshing. It has a pristine, pure quality to it and the palate is drenched with exotic lime, crisp and deliciously drinkable. It is light bodied, but full of flavour, so more akin to the finer and more ethereal Australian Rieslings like Hensche’s stunning Julius Riesling. It has high acid as you would expect, but the ripe lime balances it beautifully.

I loved this wine. It is very good quality and it so much better than the price tag would make you believe – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK from the Wine Society for £8.95 a bottle.

Enjoy this as an aperitif, it really makes you hungry, or with any light, delicate dishes, soft cheese, seafood, spaghetti alle vongole, Thai, Malaysian and Keralan cuisine, anything you dip in sweet chilli sauce, or just as a drink on its own. It will certainly be my house wine for the spring and summer.

Wine of the Week – delicious Greek treats

P1030596

Looking towards the sea from Rapsani’s vineyards.

I love Greek wine and wish they were more popular and easier to buy in the UK than they are. I really enjoy presenting Greek wines to wine societies and recently I talked a wine group into agreeing to a tasting of Greek wines. Despite being nervous at first the tasters really enjoyed them. All the wines showed really well and impressed the tasters. Of course a handful particularly stood out and proved to be widely popular in the room and I will mention three of those today and tell you about some of the others another time.

The first one was a superb dry white from the Island of Santorini made from the wonderful Assyrtiko grape. I showed a terrific, mineral example made by the Santo Wines cooperative, which you can buy mail order in the UK – click here . If you want to try a more easily available example, Marks & Spencer stock a lovely, affordable version made by the splendid Argyros Estate – click here for details. I have written about Santorini wines in more detail before – click here.

Amongst the reds I showed a couple of wines form the same region as a contrast and I loved them so much that together they are my joint Wine of the Week.

P1030691

The village name in the Greek alphabet as well as ours.

That wine region is called Rapsani and it is a very beautiful place in Thessaly near Mount Olympus. I visited a few years ago and it was wonderfully peaceful up there with stunning views of Mount Olympus to the north west and the Aegean Sea to the east. The vineyards sit at between 250 and 800 metres above sea level allowing for a staggered harvest giving very different characters and complexity to the wines. The soil higher up also put me in mind of Priorat, as there is a lot of schist, red, iron-rich schist in this case which warms up quickly and drains superbly.

Map of Greece's Wine Regions - click for a larger view

Map of Greece’s Wine Regions – click for a larger view

The wine has long enjoyed local fame and respect and historically the Rapsani cooperative was strong, however it fell on hard times and the Tsantali company took it over in 1991 and brought in much needed investment and know-how. For a long time they were the only producers here and remain the most important and widely seen label.

Traditionally Rapsani wines were a blend of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto and Tsantali keeps to that tradition by using one third of each grape in a field blend – so the grapes are fermented together, not blended. The latter two by the way only grow here while Xinomavro is used right across northern Greece. This makes Rapsani quite different as on its own Xinomavro has something of the dry structure of Nebbiolo about it, while the other two grapes add a feeling of more body and alcohol.

Rapsani Vineyards

Rapsani Vineyards

tsantali-rapsani2012 Rapsani
Evangelos Tsantalis
PDO Rapsani
Thessaly
Greece

A third each of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 6 months in 300 litre French oak casks, 30% new.

The grapes for this wine are harvested from the lower slopes of Rapsani, 250m above sea, and the extra heat shows in a slightly raisiny nose with richer dried cherry, some fresher, sweet raspberry aromas as well as the classic tomato stem of Xinomavro. There is sun dried tomato and tapenade too, which gives it a real savoury tang. The palate is medium bodied and very smooth with little touches of vanilla and caramel and lots of rich fruit. This is a terrific wine with just a an attractive touch of the rustic about it. It will appeal to Rioja drinkers and go perfectly with lamb and Mediterranean style food – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK from Agora Greek Delicacies and Evingtons Wines – for £8.50-£10 per bottle and from Amazon.co.uk for £28.58 per case of 3 bottles.
For US stockists – click here.

tsantali-rapsani-reserve2012 Rapsani Reserve
Evangelos Tsantalis
PDO Rapsani
Thessaly
Greece

A third each of Xinomavro, Krassato and Stavroto co-fermented and aged for 12 months in 300 litre French oak casks, 50% new.

The grapes come from further up, 250-500 metres above sea level, and the wine feels cooler and more elegant. It is also deeper, darker and more concentrated, with rich black fruit aromas, blackberry, cassis and plum, together with wafts of black pepper spice, coffee and leather. There is also a touch of that tomato stem and black olive umami / savoury character, even a touch of balsamic. The palate is concentrated, smooth and plush, with lots of fruit and spice and a lovely core of freshness to give balance and vitality. That savoury / umami note follows on to the palate as well, which makes the wine brilliant with food. A classy and elegant wine that wowed the room at my tasting – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK from Agora Greek Delicacies for £16.95 per bottle.
For US stockists – click here.

It always surprises people that I bang on about the delights of Greek wines so much, but they really can be very good indeed and well worth trying. The wines are classically European in style and structure, but because Greece has such wonderful indigenous grape varieties, they taste different and wonderfully exciting.

Try either of these with slow cooked lamb, or Kleftiko, and you will not be disappointed.

Wine of the Week – Txakoli and a final fling of summer

Ameztoi with Getaria in the background.

Ameztoi with Getaria in the background, photo courtesy of the winery.

I have just returned from a wonderful trip to Australia and New Zealand and will be telling you about some of my experiences over there in the future.

In the meantime, I have returned to some very warm weather and so sought out some lovely fresh white wine to enjoy with some seafood so that I could properly celebrate this last fling of summer.

The wine I found was a Txakoli – Chacolí in Castilian Spanish – which comes from the País Vasco, Spain’s Autonomous Basque Region. Txakoli is a wine style that I love and have written about before, but until recently it has been considered somewhat obscure. Well now it is becoming much better known and easier to find and I discovered that Marks & Spencer carry a rather a good one. In fact I liked it so much that I made it my Wine of the Week.

Wine map of Spain, see Montsant in the north east - click for a larger view

Wine map of Spain, see Getariako Txakolina on the Atlantic coast to the east of Bilbao – click for a larger view.

txacoli2015 Alaia Txakoli
Amesguren
PDO / DO Getariako Txakolina
País Vasco
Spain

There are three Txakoli DOs, but, much as I like some other Txakoli wines – especially the great Itasas Mendi 7 from DO Bizkaiko Txakolina near Bilbao, try it if you can – UK stockists are here, US stockists here – I am especially drawn to the Getariako Txakolina that is grown on the wild coastline around the beautiful fishing village of Getaria 30km west of San Sebastian. Getaria is a wonderful place almost totally dedicated to hedonism, bars and restaurants line the streets. Much of the cooking is done outside, so the smell of grilling fish is a constant and guaranteed to make you hungry. In many ways it works to go there on your way to San Sebastian as it prepares you for the delights to come.

Getaria harbour.

Getaria harbour.

Fish being cooked in Getaria.

Fish being cooked in Getaria.

One of the great pinxo bars in Getaria.

One of the great pintxo bars in Getaria, note the sea urchin and octopus.

If you are a hedonist and like food and wine, then San Sebastian – Donostia in Basque – is a place you must visit. It is teeming with bars and life, the best tapas in Spain – they call them pintxos – and loads of Michelin star restaurants too, if that is your thing.

Txakoli should really be poured from a great hight into a tumbler – get a Txakoli pourer if you can.

My Txakoli being poured in San Sebastian, note the Txakoli pourer.

My Txakoli being poured in San Sebastian, note the green Txakoli pourer in the end of the bottle, it helps to aerate the wine and they also use them for cider in the Basque country.

For more detail on Txakoli, read the piece that I wrote for Catavino a few years ago, by clicking here.

This particular wine is very clever sourcing by M&S, because the producer, Amesguren, are actually the people who make Ameztoi, which along with Txakolin Gorria, is considered the best producer of Getariako Txakolina. So we know the provenance of this wine is good and this wine has a better label than Ameztoi!

This wine is made from the local Hondarrabi Zuri – I wonder why nobody grows that anywhere else? – and has a light natural fizz from the fermentation, which makes it taste really fresh.

And that is the secret with this stuff, keeping it fresh, light and zesty. The nose is floral and citric and has a touch of the seashore and something saline about it. Then it just dances across your palate, light, fresh, zingy, spritz and yet with waves of flavour, lots of light flavour. Green apples, grapefruit, nettles, lime, blackcurrant leaf are all there, but in a sort of sketched in way, rather than in a fully formed picture. Instead this wine wins with a thrilling mineral and crisp acid finish that just whets your appetite for more – more of this, some seafood and anything else. What’s more it only has 10.5% alcohol, so won’t addle too many brain cells either.

A swankier pinxo bar in San Sebastian.

A swankier pintxo bar in San Sebastian.

Try it with grilled prawns, scallops, oysters, sea bream, sea bass, sushi, a Chinese takeaway or on its own, anyway you have it, it’s a lovely wine – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for £10 per bottle from Marks & Spencer – right now, September 2016 it is only £8 a bottle.
As far as I am aware, Alaia Txakoli is not available in the US, but Ameztoi is well distributed – for stockists click here.

La Cepa, perhaps the classic pinxo bar in San Sebastian.

La Cepa, perhaps the classic pintxo bar in San Sebastian.

 

The Chasselas Affair – wine travels in Switzerland

The beautiful vineyards of Lavaux.

The gorgeous vineyards of Lavaux.

Switzerland is famous for many things; banks, mountains, neutrality, lakes, cheese, chocolate and, erroneously courtesy of Orson Wells, cuckoo clocks. Not many people, in Britain anyway, seem to associate the Alpine country with wine. Not unless they, like me, are fans of Tintin and have read The Calculus Affair very carefully indeed. I have loved this book since I was 9 – for me it is the best in the series and I could probably act it out and quote it to you from memory –  and I always enjoy the scene where Captain Haddock rescues his bottle of ‘excellent Swiss wine’ from a collapsing house.

The beginning of one of the best sequences in The Calculus Affair - the best Tintin book.

The beginning of one of the best sequences in The Calculus Affair – the best Tintin book.

Perhaps that was why I have always wanted to visit Switzerland’s wine regions? Many years ago I ran quite a few Swiss wine tastings, which just made me all the more determined to get to visit the amazing looking vineyards that I saw in the photographs. Well my chance finally came last year when a group of wine writers and wine educators were invited to tour some of Switzerland’s wine regions for ourselves and then I was invited again a few weeks ago to be a judge at the Mondial du Chasselas wine competition.

Swiss wines are a bit of a mystery to most UK wine consumers, because almost none of it is exported. The Swiss are a thirsty lot and they drink 98% of their own wine and import much more. In fact they import two thirds of what they consume, so it is hardly surprising that so little Swiss wine leaves the country – Switzerland has a mere 0.2% of the world’s wine growing area and with just 15,000 hectares in the whole country. It’s half the size of France’s Burgundy region – itself far from a large producer.

So you can begin to see why, when the Swiss thirst is taken into consideration too, Swiss wines are often very expensive. The extreme landscapes that many of the vineyards inhabit add extra costs to the already high prices.

Switzerland has incredible variety in its wine making that makes it impossible to pin it down to any one style, white wines dominate, as you might expect from the climate, but there are many excellent reds too. What’s more they grow an amazing range of grape varieties, many of which are indigenous and hardly grown anywhere else.

My visit last year stuck to the southern parts, the French and Italian speaking areas of the country, with visits in the Vaud and Valais regions (French speaking) and then a trip to Italian speaking Ticino (pronounced Ti-chino). I will tell you about that another time.

Wine map of Switzerland, click for a larger view.

Wine map of Switzerland, click for a larger view.

Vaud: Lavaux
On both trips my first stop was in the Canton of Vaud and I am really glad of that because the scenery is quite magical. The sheer beauty took my breath away both times.

1907 paddle steamer on Lac Leman.

La Suisse, one of the paddle steamers on Lac Léman / Lake Geneva – she was built in 1907 and the moment I saw her I was determined to sail on her.

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La Suisse coming in to dock at Lausanne. I got my wish and travelled on her on my way to Aigle this year – it was a wonderful experience.

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The beautiful vine covered landscape.

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I took hundreds of photographs from the deck of La Suisse.

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Leaving La Suisse at Montreux.

My first ever winery visit in Switzerland was quite special. Domaine Bovy has belonged to the family since at least 1779, but it seems that the search for quality really only started in 1937 when Maurice Bovy started bottling the wines instead of selling them in bulk. Today the fifth generation, Bertrand and Eric, farm 11 hectares of the Lavaux sub-region. They also have a beautiful looking holiday apartment to let, which has got me thinking…

Eric Bovy in his family cellar, it's very cramped.

Eric Bovy in his family cellar, it’s very cramped – his grandfather painted the vats.

Lavaux is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and makes a claim to produce Switzerland’s finest wines. The vineyards here cover an amazing slope and terraces that go from 600 metres above sea level to 380, where the lake is. Just as in Burgundy the vineyard areas are divided up by the name of the village they surround, so the wines here are labelled as Lutry, Villette, Epesses, Saint-Saphorin, (the confusingly named) Chardonne and Montreux-Vevey. In addition Dézaley and Calamin are both Grand Cru, which means the wines must come from those sites and have higher sugar content than normal in the grapes at harvest. This aims to ensure the wines will be richer and rounder.

You can see what sets Dézaley apart, the steep slopes face due south, the sun reflects off the water into the vineyards and those stone walls absorb the heat - all of which helps achieve full ripeness.

You can see what sets Dézaley apart, the steep slopes face due south, the sun reflects off the water into the vineyards and those stone walls absorb the heat – all of which helps achieve full ripeness.

The soils are chalky limestone, which should suit Chardonnay perfectly, but around here the speciality is Chasselas. It possible that these vineyards produce the definitive style of this grape variety that is unloved pretty much anywhere except Switzerland.

In fact Chasselas accounts for 80% of production and if no other grape is mentioned on the label of a white wine from Lavaux, then it is made from Chasselas.

As I have mentioned, the grape is hardly famous from anywhere else, it makes Pouilly-sur-Loire, the poor relation to Pouilly-Fumé, and is used a little in Alsace and in Germany, where it is called Gutedel, but it is not very often taken seriously anywhere except Switzerland. From my experiences it seems to be common practice to put the wines through Malolactic Fermentation, which makes the Swiss examples less thin and acidic than you might expect. In fact a great many have a very pleasing creamy quality and mouthfeel that makes them a perfect partner to cheese – lucky that, we had a lot of cheese on this trip.

Domaine Bovy have vines in Epesses, Saint-Saphorin and Dézaley and I was fortunate enough to try their Pinot Noir and Merlot, which were both excellent, as was their Chorus Saint-Saphorin dessert wine made from 90% Gewürztraminer with 10% Pinot Gris.

I was also able to taste my very first Diolinoir, which is a cross between Robin Noir (aka Rouge de Diolly) and Pinot Noir. The grape was developed in 1970 as a blending grape to improve the colours of Swiss red wines, but I tasted quite a few varietal examples and liked them all. My notes say that the Bovy Optimus was ‘complex and fascinating’ – actually it is only 80% Diolinoir with 10% each of Gamaret and Garanoir – both of which are crosses of Gamay and Reichensteiner.

Good as the other wines were though, the real joy here though was the Dézaley Grand Cru Chasselas. I tasted both the fresh, yet concentrated and gently creamy 2013 as well as the mature, mineral and honeyed 2000 vintage (sealed with screw cap by the way) which was equally, if differently, delicious and went perfectly with gruyere cheese – and the view.

In a tasting a few days later we also tasted another Dézaley Grand Cru from Domaine Louis Bovard. It was his 2013 Médinette Dézaley Grand Cru Baronnie du Dézaley and it was quite wonderful, with very delicate characters, but a solid core of concentrated fruit and a long, stony mineral finish – as I say, I do like what they do with Chasselas here and have in fact shown this wine at some tastings once I got back to the UK.

Vaud: Chablais
This year I returned to Vaud, but this time to the sub-region of Chablais, which is slightly confusing from a wine point of view. Certainly my spell checker keeps wanting to make it Chablis. What’s more I have noticed that quite a few people of a certain age pronounce Chablis as Chablais (my spell checker made those 2 the same 8 times!), including my father, so I wonder if the wines were available in the UK in the 1950s and ’60s to cause the confusion?

Anyway, this year I was based in the lovely little town of Aigle and enjoyed three mornings of wine judging in the wonderful castle, followed by wine visits in the afternoon.

The stunning Chateau d'Aigle, where I went to work judging Chasselas wines.

The stunning Chateau d’Aigle, where I went to work judging Chasselas wines.

The view from the ramparts of Aigle castle.

The view from the ramparts of Aigle castle.

My favourite visit was to Clos du Rocher in the nearby village of Yvorne, which is another Grand Cru site. Again the vineyards were a delight, this time on more gentle slopes on the south eastern shore of the lake, so not as dramatic, but still very beautiful.

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The lovely Clos du Rocher.

A better view of Clos du Rocher's vineyards.

A better view of Clos du Rocher’s vineyards.

Again Chasselas was the star grape and me and my colleagues were treated to a fascinating tasting of their Clos du Rocher Grand Cru Yvonne, Chablais AC from the 2014 vintage – so delicious that I bought some – back to the 1982. All were still fresh and lively, although the older examples had developed a more golden colour and dried fruit and mushroom character. What’s more every vintage since 1990 was sealed with screwcap.

The beautiful, but very different vineyards of Chablais.

The beautiful, but very different vineyards of Chablais, looking towards Ollon (south east of Aigle) from the excellent Bernard Cavé Vins.

On the last day of judging, just before I took the train back to Geneva Airport, I visited Bernard Cavé Vins. The wines here were very modern, with beautiful packaging and attention to detail, but sadly I could not carry any more bottles back – quite a good thing really as Easyjet managed to break all the bottles in my case, and you were thinking this trip sounded glamorous up to that point weren’t you!

The concrete egg shaped tanks at Bernard Cavé Vins.

The concrete egg shaped tanks at Bernard Cavé Vins, he calls them amphoras.

All Bernard Cavé’s Chasselas wines were superb, notably the exquisite Clos du Crosex Grillé Cuvée des Immortels Reserve Aigle Grand Cru. Fermented in concrete eggs, this was textured, round and silky too. In the unlikely event that you tire of his Chasselas, his Marsanne – called Ermitage locally –  was stunningly rich, concentrated and fine – as well as downright delicious.

On my two trips to Vaud I was very impressed by a good many of the wines, but it was the Chasselas that really pleased me. The individual wines varied of course, but they had a drinkability that was impressive. They were never thin and overtly acidic, instead the acidity was balanced by some weight and they had a delicate creamy quality, good concentration and minerality. As I put it in one of my notes they were capable of being both ‘rich and breezy’, which makes them a lovely style of wine that I enjoy very much.

Valais
After our sojourn in Lavaux – we are back on last year’s press trip, we headed off to the Canton of Valais which is south and east of Lac Léman. The river Rhône empties into the lake, very near Aigle, but before that it bisects the Canton of Valais, turns through a 90 degree angle to the north west and for a while forms the boundary between the Vaud and Valais Cantons. Surprisingly it rises not that far from the source of the Rhine – amazing the difference one letter makes, I wonder if there is a linguistic relationship?

We stayed just outside the town of Sierre in a wonderful early twentieth century mansion called Château Mercier, it is surrounded by vineyards and quite beautiful. I loved my early morning walks through the vines.

Château Mercier, Sierre.

Château Mercier, Sierre, my room was in the turret on the far left.

The view from my early morning walk.

The view from my early morning walk.

The views as it got lighter.

The views as it got lighter.

While here we participated in the VINEA Swiss Wines Fair, when producers set up stalls in the centre of Sierre that enables people to go from on to the other tasting, drinking and buying wine – it is a lot of fun and a great experience.

Our first day was rounded off with another great experience, an evening of Raclette, my first one ever. It is a simple dish of melted cheese served with whole, firm boiled potatoes, pickles and ham and like most simple traditional fare it’s delicious. Our Raclette was quite special and consisted of five different cheeses from different different villages. Each one was progressively more mature and so stronger in taste. The cheeses were Orsières, Les Haudères, Vissoie, Simplon and Gomser 55.

The different cheeses waiting to be melted for Raclette.

The different cheeses waiting to be melted for Raclette.

While in Sierre we had various tastings that enabled us to taste all sorts of wines, even from other regions of Switzerland. Two of these were a bit odd and contrived. In one our hosts matched Pinot Noirs with perfumes that they thought went with each wine. The second took place in the Fondation Pierre Arnaud, which is an amazing gallery specialising in ethnic and surreal art. The curators had paired wines with objects from the collection, which was all very strange and subjective, but the wines were good and very interesting – as were some of the exhibits.

My highlights from these tastings were, for the whites:

2013 Petite Arvine Maître de Chais from Provins in Sion, Valais – Provins are Switzerland’s biggest producer, but this was a classy wine with lots of citrus fruit and a fleshy, creamy texture and a feeling of purity about it, like a mountain stream.

2013 Petite Arvine from Philippe & Véronyc Mettaz in Fully on the banks of the Rhône. These were my first two Petite Arvignes, I had never even heard of it in fact, but wow what a lovely grape it is. It has something of the freshness and vivaciousness of Grüner Veltliner and Albariño about it, but often with more salinity, so giving tension, and fruit (especially grapefruit), moderate acidity and a silky quality to the texture. I totally fell in love with this grape.

Petite Arvigne is an old indigenous vine from the Valais region, records show it has been farmed here since around 1600. While it is not really grown any where else, I have tasted one excellent French example from the Languedoc region made by Domaine la Grange de Quatre Sous (available hereand know that it is widely grown in the tiny Italian region of Valle d’Aoste, which is just over the border in Italy and also claims the grape as their own.

And the reds:

2012 Lampert’s Sélection Maienfelder Pinot Noir from Weingut Heidelberg in Maienfeld, Graubünden which is in the German speaking zone near Davos in Switzerland’s dramatic Rhine Valley. This is a very successful Pinot with good weight of fruit, a nice dusting of spice and appetising tannins. All in all it was very elegant and seductive with a refined and silky mouthfeel.

2011 Hohle Gasse Grand Cru Pinot Noir from Jauslin Weine in Muttenz near Basel. This was beautifully concentrated, rich and rounded with lots of sweet ripe fruit and fragrant spice – really delicious, elegant and fine.

2011 Pinot Noir Barrique Cuvée Pur Sang from Domaine de Chambleau near Neuchâtel on the north shore of Lac de Neuchâtel – which is a French speaking area. Again this was a sumptuous style of Pinot with rich fruit, tobacco and smoke as well as silky tannins and good weight – all three of these were world class.

Two Great Winery Visits
Whilst in Valais I experienced two extraordinary visits that were truly memorable.

Robert Gilliard's Clos de la Cochetta - photo courttesy of the winery.

Robert Gilliard’s Clos de la Cochetta – photo courttesy of the winery.

The first one was to Robert Gilliard in Sion and I have never seen anything like it. Their vineyards line the bank of the Rhône river on incredibly steep slopes that are kept workable by dry stone walls, some of which are 65 feet high, the highest in the world I was told. To get to these we were driven up and up into the mountains before debussing at the entrance to a short, narrow tunnel. At the other end of the tunnel we found ourselves on one of the terraces formed by the stone walls we had seen earlier. The views were breathtaking and I could not get enough of them. In the distant past all the grapes had to be taken to the winery through the tunnel, then in the twentieth century a cable car system was adopted, while nowadays a lot of the work is done by helicopter, which gets the grapes to the winery while they are still fresh and in perfect condition.

The entrance to the tunnel.

The entrance to the tunnel.

The view that awaited us.

The view that awaited us.

The view the other way.

The view the other way.

We enjoyed a tasting and lunch here!

We enjoyed a tasting and lunch here!

The descent begins.

The descent begins.

Some of the stairways were scarier than others, none had railings!

Some of the stairways were scarier than others, none had railings!

Luckily I didn't have to use this one!

Luckily I didn’t have to use this one!

It was truly breathtaking - in every sense.

It was truly breathtaking – in every sense.

I could not get enough of these vineyards.

I could not get enough of these vineyards.

The vineyards were utterly gorgeous, which boded well for the wines – or so I hoped. Good vineyards produce good wines and this was no exception. Robert Gilliard obviously have great attention to detail, the vines are immaculate, the packaging of their wines is superb and the wines themselves were really delicious and well made.

We focussed on Robert Gilliard’s premium wines from these steep vineyards, they call the range Les Grands Murs:

Whites:
2013 Clos de Cochetta Fendant AC Valais – Chasselas is called Fendant in Valais – is a gently creamy, softly acidic, grapefruit and stone fruit flavoured wine with some salinity and minerality. It is vibrant, lightly textured, elegant and classy – I loved it.

2012 Clos de Cochetta Petite Arvine AC Valais was a little bit more acidic, more taut and less soft. It was beautifully aromatic, floral and citrus with some peachy fruit too. The finish was mineral, saline again and very focussed and pure – a great wine.

Red:
2012 Clos de Mont Diolinoir AC Valais – if we had carried on walking long the terraces from the Clos de Cochetta we would have come to the Clos de Mont, which is a hotter site which favours reds. This Diolinoir has no oak, which clearly suits the grape very well, as this gives lots of pleasure. It is brimming over with juicy blackberry fruit, a touch of spice and fresh, balancing acidity.

The second really memorable visit was to Cave la Romaine and Clos de Tsampéhro.

Arriving at Cave La Romaine, I love the way it is built into the vineyard with vines on its roof.

Arriving at Cave la Romaine, I love the way it is built into the vineyard with vines on its roof.

Joël Briguet owns Cave la Romaine, his family’s winery and in partnership with Christian Gellerstad, his old army buddy, Vincent Tenud and Emmanuel Charpin he also runs Clos de Tsampéhro, which aims to only produce the very best wines from blends of grapes. It shares facilities with Cave la Romaine, but has its own specifically planted vineyard on a three hectare site at about 600 metres above sea level.

The view from Cave la Romaine.

The view from Cave la Romaine.

More views from Cave la Romaine.

More views from Cave la Romaine.

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Clos de Tsampéhro – a south facing sun trap on a slope between the mountains and the Rhône – and more mountains.

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Clos de Tsampéhro – that’s the Rhone at the bottom of the vineyard.

The state of the art barrel room at Clos de Tsampéhro.

The state of the art barrel room at Clos de Tsampéhro.

So, it looked stunning, what about the wines? Would’t you know it, they are good too. They only make three wines, a sparkling, a white and a red and they are all blends, which is relatively unusual in Switzerland, where single varietals are much more normal:

Tsampéhro Brut – 40% Chardonnay, 35% Pinot Noir and 25% Petite Arvine, fermented in oak barrels and aged for 36 months on the lees. This is finely textured with a persistent and fine mousse, rich flavours and refreshing acidity that all makes it very elegant and very fine.

2011 Tsampéhro Blanche – 70% Heida and 30% Rèze, fermented in oak casks and aged on the lees for 18 months. A great wine, full of personality and charm, with wonderfully integrated oak giving nuances of vanilla and pine nuts, rich intense fruit with fig, plum and pineapple and a bracing cut of acidity.

Heida is the Swiss name for the Savagnin, of Jura fame – where it often makes the Sherry-like Vin Jaune. Rèze is an even lesser known grape that originates in Valais and strangely enough is traditionally used to make a Sherry-like wine, the traditional Valais speciality Vin des Glaciers.

2011 Tsampéhro Rouge – 45% Cornalin, 30% Merlot, 13% Cabernet Sauvignon and 12% Cabernet Franc, aged 24 months in French oak barrels. This is certainly a fine red, but right now the oak really dominates, although you can sense the concentrated fruit lurking beneath and it does slowly open up in the glass. I would love to taste it again in 5 years.

Cornalin is not to be confused with the Cornalin D’Aoste (Humagne Rouge), but is a grape known rather vaguely as Rouge du Pays – rather like Spain’s Tinta del Pais – until 1972, when it was awarded the Cornelian name as that grape had pretty much died out, so an Italian bottle labelled Cornalin D’Aoste and a Swiss wine labelled Cornelin are not made from the same grape, despite being only 30 miles or so apart – phew!

Impressed as I was by the Tsampéhro wines, I also greatly enjoyed the wines of Cave la Romaine:

Whites:

2013 Petite Arvine Castel d’Uvrier Cuvée des Empereurs Cave la Romaine, A.C. Valais, was one of my favourite examples of this delicious grape, Castel d’Uvrier is the vineyard in case you were wondering. I actually wrote that ‘this sings’ with grapefruit aromas and a slightly herbal, mineral and saline finish, ‘a joy’ – I think I liked it, I certainly drank a lot of it with lunch.

2013 Humagne Blanche Réserve Castel d’Uvrier Cuvée des Empereurs Cave la Romaine, A.C. Valais, Humagne Blanche is another grape that originates in Valais, records show it has been here since 1313 and today there are only 29 hectares of it left in the world. It is a richer grape than Chasselas and Petire Arvigne, with more neutral fruit, so suits oak very well and this was barrel fermented and aged for 6 months in 3 and 4 year old barrels. It did not undergo malolactic fermentation, which keeps the acidity fresh. The nose offers heather, honey, beeswax and herbs, while the palate is both fresh and rich with a Marsanne-like quality. That fresh acidity cuts through the herbal and oily richness making it beautifully balanced and delicious.

Red:

2011 Diolinoir Réserve Cuvée des Empereurs Cave la Romaine, A.C. Valais, again this was one of my favourite examples of this grape, it was very drinkable and I kept returning to it over lunch. In fact I liked it so much I bought the last magnum in existence and I am looking at it now!

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A last view from cave La Romaine.

I really enjoyed these two trips to Switzerland, my only previous visit to Switzerland had been a hurried affair while I was Interrailing in the early 1980s and so these chances to see much more of the country were really exciting. The sheer variety that I discovered in Switzerland was surprising. Lots of Chasselas for sure, but also lots of other unexpected white grape varieties, some of which I had never heard of before. There reds were a real discovery too, there were lots of delicious red wines, not just the ones that I have mentioned, I tasted good Gamays and marvellous Merlots as well as the more unusual indigenous grape varieties. I learned a lot about the regions and their grape varieties, but the best thing was seeing those magical vineyards, to take in the views, meeting the producers and tasting a wide range of the wines that Switzerland produces. I came away with a very positive view of Swiss wine, the quality seemed to be very high and the styles fascinating.

Next time someone offers you Swiss wine, grab the chance, there are so many good things to try.

A Romanian road trip

Like many of us, a huge part of the pleasure I take in wine is discovering new things. New regions and new grape varieties always excite for me. So when the chance came to go on a trip to Romania as a guest of the Romanian Winegrowers, with fellow wine educators and writers, I jumped at it.

From what I saw Romania is a very rural country and it often seemed like stepping back in time 40 years. Most of the places that we passed through seemed to provide little more than subsistence farming for the local people. Of course for an outsider there is a huge charm in that. Within seconds of stepping outside our hotel on the first morning I had seen my first horse and cart and almost every house had a clutch of chickens pecking away outside on the grassy verge. We travelled vast distances and most of the time we were on small country roads whose surface was not always of the best and even disappeared every now and again.

Typical transport in the countryside.

Typical transport in the countryside.

Romanian traffic in the countryside - taken through the windscreen of our coach.

Romanian traffic in the countryside – taken through the windscreen of our coach.

Although we do not see that many Romanian wines  on UK supermarket shelves, although there are more than you realise, the country has great potential and actually has more vineyards than any other Eastern European country. What’s more because of their Latin roots, and unlike the neighbouring Bulgarians and Hungarians, Romanians actually drink a lot of wine as well as make it. In fact it is still normal for Romanians to make their own wine at home either from grapes they grow themselves, or buy from vineyards. Romania is roughly at the same latitude as France and the climate is continental, except for the grape growing area near the Black Sea, where the hot summers and cold winters are tempered by the maritime influence.

Sketch wine map of Romania – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Sketch wine map of Romania – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Cramele Recaș
The first visit was to the Recaș Cellar near Timișoara in the far west of the country. Recaș is run by Englishman Philip Cox who has lived in Romania since 1992 and he and some partners bought the local state cooperative in 1999. He had actually started out as the Romanian importer of Heineken, which was very successful. However he was unable to change the currency into something more useful, so hit upon a scheme of producing wine in Romania that he could export for hard currency.

Philip Cox, Commercial Director, Cramele Recaș.

Philip Cox, Commercial Director, Cramele Recaș.

Originally they started with 600 hectares and now farm around 1000, which makes them a very big player in Romania, where many of the producers are much smaller estates. Legend has it that Bacchus spent his childhood in this region and there is evidence of grape growing here going back to Roman times and vineyards were thriving here in 1447, so the area’s potential has long been recognised.

Philip aims to make clean, well made, fruit driven wines that sell and as such he provides a perfect introduction to modern Romanian wines. What’s more they are widely available in the UK under a plethora of labels; Bradshaw and Wine Atlas in Asda, Lautarul in Marks and Spencer, Sole in Waitrose and the widely seen Paparuda amongst many, many others.

All the Recaș wines are very drinkable and the visit gave me my first ever taste of some of Romania’s indigenous grapes. I enjoyed the citric Fetească Regală (Royal Maiden) and the first of many cherry and plum rich wines made from Fetească Neagră (Black Maiden).

They also produce some very good premium wines at Recaș and their Solo Quinta, a white blend based on Chardonnay (the 2014 also includes little dollops of Fetească Regală, Muscat Ottonel, Sauvignon Blanc and even Cabernet Franc) is a delicious and attractively aromatic white that well deserves its £12 price tag from Tanners.

Similarly I was impressed by their Cuvée Überland, which is a wine from a single vineyard site – German names are common round here, as long ago the Hapsburgs recruited Saxon settlers to guard this distant border of their empire. They left after the Second World War, but until then the area had been mainly German, or Schwab and the Überland hill was the most prized site for wine production. Made predominantly from Cabernet Sauvignon with some Merlot and Fetească Neagră, the ripe grapes are dried for 2-3 weeks on the vine to concentrate the sugars. The result is a deliciously intense wine that carries its 15% alcohol very well.

Time Warp
That night we stayed in a renovated Communist era hotel by the banks of the Danube in the small city of Drobeta-Turnu Severin. It was like going back in time to the 1970s when the Cold War was at its height. Despite being on the drinks menu, the concept of a gin and tonic seemed alien to them, luckily the local Timisoreana beer was very good indeed. Once we sat down in the restaurant, we were handed menus and were all happily choosing what we wanted to eat when the waiters started bring out our unordered food! The whole evening was so reminiscent of the 1970s that it felt like a live version of Rates of Exchange, Ray Bradbury’s comic masterpiece set in a fictional Eastern European country called Slaka.

Viticola Corcova

Vineyards at Corcova.

Vineyards at Corcova.

The next morning we visited Corcova in the Mehedinți region. This is a boutique winery 30 km or so from the Danube down in a valley, while its 60 hectares of vineyards occupy the nearby slopes. Like everyone else we visited, Corcova had entirely replanted all the vineyards they bought from the government, as the Communist era plantings were not considered to be good quality and they want to plant with higher density than was common in the 1940s.

The winery here is rather lovely as it was built in 1915 with amazing concrete tanks that are integral in the design and so cannot be removed, they have therefore renovated them and brought them back in to use. Rather astonishingly the tanks were installed and the winery was built by an Austrian firm, which just goes to show that commerce continued even when people were fighting ‘the war to end all wars’. These tanks are very thick, which controls the temperature perfectly without the need for refrigeration.

Robert Marshall (left) and Şerban Dâmboviceanu (right) of Corcova.

Robert Marshall (left) and Şerban Dâmboviceanu (right) of Corcova.

Around here, in the south west of the country, there is a slight Mediterranean influence, which helps with ripeness and enables them to have success with Syrah. Everything is very modern and impressive, with a commitment to work in the vineyard that echoed the property’s past. Back in 1907 the original owner had employed a winemaker from Alsace and today they have Laurent Pfeffer, a French wine maker with a somewhat Germanic name.

Everything is done here to produce subtle, but concentrated wines. Viticulture is very carefully done, but stops short of being organic and they only use the indigenous yeast for their fermentations.

The focus is on international grape varieties, although they also produce Fetească Neagră. I was completely bowled over by the wines, they are of a very high standard, especially their excellent, very elegant and restrained Chardonnay, Syrah and Cabernet-Merlot, while their late harvest Sauvignon was the best sweet wine we had in Romania. These are fine wines, so I cannot understand why UK agents are not beating a path to their door – they are missing a trick.

Domeniile Ştirbey

Vines at Ştirbey.

Vines overlooking the River Olt at Ştirbey.

30 km or so further east found us in the Dragasani region climbing a narrow ridge overlooking the River Olt. Here we were visiting the Ştirbey estate whose story goes back over 300 years and whose wines were considered to be some of the country’s finest in the nineteenth and first half of the twentieth centuries – they still have some fascinating advertising material from the 1910s and 1920s.

Baron Jakob Kripp of Prince Ştirbey.

Baron Jakob Kripp of Prince Ştirbey.

From 1873 to 1946 it enjoyed particular success under the control of Prince Barbu Ştirbey. His daughter, Princess Maria Stirbey, inherited the estate shortly before the new Communistic regime nationalised it and the family fled to Austria. Then in 1999 her granddaughter, Baroness Ileana Kripp, rediscovered the property and together with her Austrian lawyer husband, Baron Jakob Kripp, set about reclaiming her family’s long lost property. They were successful and by 2001 were producing wine, with the help of Oliver Bauer a modest and jovial winemaker from Germany. They are a charming couple who entertained us wonderfully and accompanied us to dinner in Bucharest the following evening.

Baroness Ileana Kripp of Prince Ştirbey.

Baroness Ileana Kripp of Prince Ştirbey.

The vineyards are immaculate and the views down the slopes to the river are breathtaking. It all comes together in excellent quality wines, mostly made from local grapes and some of which are stocked by The Wine Society and Oddbins. I enjoyed their aromatic, dry Tămâioasă Românească (a local Muscat) and their richly fruity red Negru de Dragasani Rezerva. Excitingly they are the only producer in the world to offer a single varietal Novak, and very good it is too. They also produce a field blend of Novak and Negru de Dragasani called Cuvée Genius Loci.

The real excitement though came from the Crâmpoşie grape which only grows in this part of Romania. Ştirbey put it to good use, making a delicately creamy still white called Crâmpoşie Selecționată and a very fine traditional method sparkling version called Prince Ştirbey Vin Spumant Extrabrut. It spends about two years on the lees, is riddled by hand and has no dosage at all – try it if you can, it is world class.

A big range of Prince Ştirbey wines is available through their German importer, Wein-Bastion.

Vinarte
On the way to Bucharest the next morning we stopped at the Vinarte winery. They were established in 1998 by buying vineyards and former cooperative facilities from the government. They farm 350 hectares or so spread over three estates in different parts of the country, but we were visiting the one at Samburești some 100 km north west of Bucharest.

The vineyard is 60 hectares and forms a sort of lieu-dit called Castel Bolovanu. It enjoys a south east facing slope at about 260-300 metres above sea level and whilst we stood there we could certainly feel the cool breezes.

9

Justin Uruco handing out cask samples.

Although Vinarte is a large producer, at this site they only craft two premium wines, the Soare Cabernet Sauvignon and the second wine of the estate, Castel Bolocanu Cabernet Sauvignon. We tasted cask samples of the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon that had been aged in Romanian oak and in French oak barrels. It was marked how the Romanian oak delivered intense mocha and cherry chocolate characters, whilst the French was more delicate and restrained with subtle vanilla. The finished wines are a blend of the two. The chief winemaker here is a very nice Italian called Justin Uruco, who clearly knows his stuff as these are well crafted wines with excellent concentration.

Romanian Wine Laws
I had been peering at the labels all trip trying to understand the appellation system and Justin was able to explain it perfectly. Most of the wines we had seen had DOC / Denumire de Origine Controlată staus which specifies the geography of where a wine originates. So you might have a wine labelled as being a DOC Recaș or DOC Dealu Mare. There were other letters after the DOC as well though, as in Romania they not only control the geography, like an appellation, but the sugar in the grapes at harvest, similar to Germany’s Prädikatswein system and that is what these additional letters refer to.

DOC – CMD is made from fully ripe grapes, DOC – CT is from late harvest grapes and DOC – CIB is from late harvest grapes with noble rot.

Bucharest

The Palace of Parliament.

The Palace of Parliament.

That afternoon we briefly stopped on our way into Bucaharest to see the enormous Palace of Parliament. This is the second largest building on earth after The Pentagon and was originally named the People’s House (Casa Poporului) by Nicolae Ceaușescu. I know it is what most people have heard of in Bucharest, but I could see nothing impressive about it apart from its size and wish Bucharest was known instead for all the other, much nicer things that I saw later. When you realise that a whole section of the old city was demolished to make way for this eyesore it is especially sad that the Romanians have been lumbered with a hideous building on such a scale.

Downtown Bucharest, it wasn’t known as the Paris of the east for nothing.

Downtown Bucharest, it wasn’t known as the Paris of the east for nothing.

Later we strolled through Bucharest on our way to a restaurant for dinner and so were able to take in some of the sites of the old city. Parcul Cișmigiu (Cișmigiu Gardens) is a delightful city centre park complete with boating lake and a rather attractive looking café. There are run down areas too, but the old city centre is a delight of winding lanes and restaurant lined cobbled streets. A real highlight is the Hanul lui Manuc (Manuc’s Inn) which is a beautiful Ottoman inn that was built in 1808 – Romania was a part of the Ottoman Empire until 1878.

The amazing Manuc's Inn (Romanian: Hanul lui Manuc, an Ottoman inn and market complex dating from 1808.

The amazing Manuc’s Inn (Romanian: Hanul lui Manuc, an Ottoman inn and market complex dating from 1808.

The dinner at the Lacrimi si Sfinti restaurant was very good, traditional Romainan food, with starters of Telemea cheese, salată de icre (taramasalata made of carp roe – carp is rather wonderfully called crap in Romanian!), alată de vinete (smoked and roast aubergine dip), pârjoale (meatballs) and all manner of sausage, followed by lots of meat, potatoes and polenta, all washed down with local black beer and wine. We rounded off the evening with steins of rather good beer in the Caru’ cu Bere. This is a vast, beautiful, Germanic beer hall that was founded in 1879, so is as old as Romania itself. Touristy it might be, but it was great fun.

Some of the starters.

Some of the starters.

The meaty mains.

The meaty mains.

One thing that makes Romania a good country to visit is that because the people are not Slavs, Romanian – as its name implies – is a Romance language and it has much in common with Spanish, French, Italian and Catalan. In truth I found it much easier to make sense of it when written down rather than spoken, but that means that most of us wine types can read the shop signs and the wine labels without too much effort. Take a look at the map, I don’t think I could do that in any of the neighbouring countries!

S.E.R.V.E.
The next morning we headed off to the Dealu Mare region some 40 km north of Bucharest. S.E.R.V.E. (which stands for The European-Romanian Society for Exquisite Wines) was founded in 1994 by Frenchman Guy Tyrel de Poix. Sadly he died in 2011, but Mihaela Tyrel de Poix, his charming Romanian wife, has kept the winery going from strength to strength.

Mihaela Tyrel de Poix CEO of SERVE.

Mihaela Tyrel de Poix CEO of SERVE.

Most of their 142 hectares grow in the Dealu Mare region, but they also farm 42 hectares in Babadag near the Black Sea. Standing in the vineyards was quite an experience, they are on south facing slopes and although they don’t look high we had wound up and up from the valley floor and the cool wind was blowing directly onto us and the vines.

Vineyards at SERVE.

Vineyards at SERVE.

It was interesting standing up there looking around at the vines. Just as we had seen elsewhere, there were as many rubbed out and derelict vineyards as tended ones. This is for two reasons, firstly the rules for accession to the EU mean that all the hardy, productive hybrids have to be grubbed up by 2014 and secondly with the former mass market of the Soviet Union just a distant memory, quality not quantity is the way forward. So fewer vineyards, but on better sites and using better clones is the way Romania is going – and it shows.

S.E.R.V.E. produce two ranges, the entry level Vinul Cavalerului wines which sell chiefly on the Romanian market and the premium Terra Romana. Both were good, in fact I think the Vinul Cavalerului Pinot Noir, Riesling and Fetească Neagră were the best everyday wines I tasted on the trip.

The premium wines were good too. I especially enjoyed the the lees aged Terra Romana Fetească Albă (White Maiden) with a delicately creamy palate and citric acidity and the Terre Romana Cuvée Guy de Poix, which is a very fine Fetească Neagră that feels a little like Grenache, but more tannic. Some of their wines are available in Calais.

Halewood
Our final winery visit was to Halewood, whose importance cannot be underestimated. John Halewood was a well known wine trade figure in my youth, he created his company in 1978 and in 1987 started importing Romanian wines into the UK. It was a very successful venture and Halewood was for a long time the major name in Romanian wine. So much so that within ten years of that start they had created a Romanian subsidiary and were making their own wines for export. Today they have vineyards in Dealul Mare, Transylvania and near the Black Sea in Murfatlar.

Lorena Deaconu (left) Senior Winemaker at Halewood and Diana Niculescu (right) Export Manager at Halewood.

Lorena Deaconu (left) Senior Winemaker at Halewood and Diana Niculescu (right) Export Manager at Halewood.

In Dealul Mare they have a lovely manor house where we tasted a huge part of their massive range together with Lorena Deaconu, their bubbly and modest senior winemaker. All the wines were clean and sound and are widely available at very good prices, for instance these from Waitrose and this single vineyard Pinot Noir from The Wine Society. Lorena was very keen to show us her premium wines though and this is where the excitement was to be found. Their Neptunus Shiraz and Hyperion Cabernet were particularly impressive, but are sadly not yet available in the UK.

Rhein and Cie
A few years ago Halewood also bought Rhein and Cie, which is a specialist sparkling wine producer based in the small ski resort of Azuga in the the Carpathian Mountains. This is where we went next and it was a fitting finale to our trip. Rhein and Cie were founded in 1892 by a German called Rhein and have always focussed on making traditional method fizz, indeed the wonderful old posters they have in their museum call it Şampania Rhein!

Remuage still carried out the old fashioned was at Rhein & Co, part of Halewood.

Remuage still carried out the old fashioned was at Rhein & Co, part of Halewood.

Disgorging still carried out the old fashioned was at Rhein & Co.

Disgorging still carried out the old fashioned way at Rhein & Co.

The base wine is produced by Lorena at Halewood and then brought up to Azuga for the second fermentation, remuage and disgorging, all of which is done by hand. It is a beautiful winery, nestling in the snow covered mountains, so the whole experience was quite magical. The wines were impressive too, especially the Rhein & Cie Brut Rosé which is made from Pinot Noir grown in the Sebeș Alba / Alba Iulia region of Transylvania.

Azuga, Prahova a ski reswort where Rhein & Co are based and we spent out last night in Romania.

Azuga, Prahova a ski reswort where Rhein & Co are based and we spent out last night in Romania.

The magnificent Peleș Castle near Azuga in the Carpathian Mountains.

The magnificent Peleș Castle near Azuga in the Carpathian Mountains.

Conclusions
I loved this trip. Everything was excellent and I experienced many new things and saw some wonderful sights. The wines exceeded all my hopes, let alone my expectations. I didn’t taste anything that was bad and only a few wines that were not to my taste. In truth I have still not tasted enough or travelled widely enough in Romania to really get to grips with the differences between the regions and I realise that I only scratched the surface of what is available, but on this showing Romanian wine has a very bright future.