Castello di Brolio – the resurgence of a great Chianti estate

I seem to have become a bit obsessed by Italian wine of late and there is nothing wrong with that. The country has a great deal to offer, hundreds of indigenous grape varieties, dozens of wine producing areas, every imaginable style – some uniquely Italian – and everything from  honest, everyday wine to some of the grandest fine wine producers in the world.

In the last couple of years I have enjoyed many trips to Italy and tasted many good – and great – wines. However recently I was invited to a wonderful wine dinner and tasting in London as a guest of Baron Francesco Ricasoli, one of the grandest Italian producers of them all.

Brolio Castle and some of its vines.

The Ricasoli family are very old and emerged as feudal lords from Lombardy in the times of Charlemagne. They settled in Tuscany in the area now known as Chianti – perhaps it was then too as the name is thought to be that of an Etruscan family – more specifically what is now the Chianti Classico. The family took ownership of Brolio Castle in 1141 and have been there ever since, which makes them officially the oldest winery in Italy  – quite an achievement when you consider that the castle marked the border between Florence and Siena. I found it extraordinary to be having dinner and chatting away with a man whose direct ancestors would have had dealings with the Medici family and be involved in the intrigue and violent politics of Florence in the Renaissance.

From a wine point of view though his most important ancestor, in modern times anyway, was Bettino Ricasoli, 2nd Baron Ricasoli. Born in 1809, Bettino eventually became the Tuscan Minister of the Interior and was instrumental in pushing for the union of Tuscany with the Kingdom of Sardinia (Piemonte) that took place in 1860 and established the Kingdom of Italy. He went on to serve two terms as Prime Minister of the newly unified Italy.

As if that was not enough for one lifetime, Bettino also made an enormous contribution to the history of Chianti.

Wine map of Tuscany showing the location of Brolio Castle – click for a larger view.

The wine had been around for centuries, indeed Henry VIII was known to drink it, but originally it was only made in the area called the Chianti Hills just to the north of Siena. Indeed the Grand Duke of Tuscany, Cosimo III de’Medici, issued an edict creating the boundaries of the region which today broadly correspond with those of modern Chianti Classico. Brolio is at the heart of this region, in Gaiole in Chianti some 10 km north east of Siena.

The idea of what constituted a Chianti wine seemed to be somewhat fluid in those days. Indeed there is some evidence, as with Rioja, that it was a white wine in the past. It was not until Bettino had finished his stint as Prime Minister that he was able to bring some clarity to what Chianti actually was. He had worked very hard at restoring the Brolio estate, replanting and experimenting with what grape varieties really suited the land and making the best expression of Chianti that he thought possible. In the end he settled on a blend of three grapes, Sangiovese, Canaiolo and Malvasia, or Sangioveto, Canajuolo and Malvagia as they were known back then and sometimes still are locally.

Just as an aside, in those days it was normal to grow lots of grapes together, to pick them together and to vinify them together too as a field blend. Such wines that included white grapes were much paler and lighter than most red wines of today. I was fortunate enough to taste a wine made in this fashion at Thomas Jefferson’s estate in Monticello, Virginia and it was a real eye opener to wines of the past.

So after decades of research and winemaking Bettino finally wrote down what he had learned and sent it in a letter to Professor Cesare Studiati at the University of Pisa in 1872:

‘…I verified the results of the early experiments, that is, that the wine receives most of its aroma from the Sangioveto (which is my particular aim) as well as a certain vigour in taste; the Canajuolo gives it a sweetness which tempers the harshness of the former without taking away any of its aroma, though it has an aroma all of its own; the Malvagia, which could probably be omitted for wines for laying down, tends to dilute the wine made from the first two grapes, but increases the taste and makes the wine lighter and more readily suitable for daily consumption…’

I find it fascinating that even then he knew the Malvasia diluted the wine – softening it to make it drinkable – and could be left out if you wanted to age the wine instead. Malvasia is no longer a permitted grape for Chianti – although it is still grown in the region for other wines – all the grapes used in Chianti must now be black.

Today the estate is the largest in Chianti Classico – 12000 hectares in total with 236 hectares of vines and olive trees and it might all seem rosy, but that is only because of a great deal of hard work and foresight.

The charming Baron Francesco Ricasoli.

In the 1960s the Ricasoli family sold their name, their brand, to Seagrams. They managed the vineyards and sold the wine to Seagram who marketed it around the world. It may seem strange today, but at the time it made total sense. Many fine wine regions were struggling, astonishingly both Chablis and Côte Rôtie almost disappeared at that time, and Chianti was going through a hard time too. The wines had lost their reputation for quality and many producers had lost confidence in their grapes and their land – this was the time when some Chianti makers saw their future in Cabernet and Merlot and the ‘Super-Tuscans’ were born.

The Seagrams deal saved them at the time, but undermined their history and reputation. Baron Francesco Ricasoli took over the family business in 1990 and decided to put that right. The first thing he did was extensive replanting to ensure the quality came right in the vineyard. Then when Seagrams sold out to Hardy’s in 1993 he was able to buy the family brand back. From then on the focus has been on quality and re-establishing the prestige of their brand.

Brolio Castle.

Francesco was not a winemaker by trade, but a professional photographer, so since 1990 has been operating outside his comfort zone in many ways – although frankly it doesn’t show. He is assured, charming, deeply knowledgeable about his land and I could have listened to him forever. He introduced his wines with modesty and was keen to emphasise that he had built a team to make this project work, but you could hear the pride in his voice when he told us that in 20 years Ricasoli went from being almost forgotten to being regarded once more as a great estate.

Key to the progress they have made with their wines is their zoning project. This is a study in collaboration with the Experimental Institute for the Study and Protection of the Soil in Florence, which is mapping each parcel of vineyards by soil and climate to ensure that the correct grapes varieties are planted where they should be and on the most suitable rootstock.

The tasting was held at Pied à Terre in Charlotte Street in London and the food was an exquisite backdrop to these wonderful wines.

The aperitif:

2015 Torricella
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

This was our aperitif and it was a  blend of 75% Chardonnay blended with 25% Sauvignon Blanc. The Chardonnay was aged for 9 months in used barriques and tonneaux on the lees. the sauvignon was aged on the lees in stainless steel for 9 months.

This was a terrific wine with a lovely, beguiling, balance of richness and texture with freshness, acidity and minerality. I have had a few wines over the years that blend these two grape varieties together and they always seem good to me, so I often wonder why more people don’t don’t do it. This example is very fine – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £17 per bottle from:
Fareham Wine Cellar and Slurp.

Served with Roasted quail, baby beetroots and wild mushrooms:

2013 Casalferro
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

A single vineyard Super-Tuscan wine that has been produced since 1993. It was originally pure Sangiovese, but is now 100% Merlot. The vineyard is south facing and the soil is chalky clay. The different blocks were aged for between 18 and 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux before blending.

I am not always a fan of Merlot, but this was delicious stuff. The colour was deep, vibrant and plummy, while the lifted nose offered mocha, chocolate, plums and coffee with a touch of earth and even a whiff of the Mediterranean. The palate was smooth, creamy almost with light grainy tannins, vanilla, rose hips, plums and a dusting of cocoa. The flavours really build in the mouth and it is very long. It was a great match – 92/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £40 per bottle from:
Tannico and Just in Cases.

2006 Casalferro
Barone Ricasoli
IGT Toscana

This was the last vintage that blended 30% Merlot and 70% Sangiovese together, from 2007 Casalferro has been pure Merlot. The wine was aged for 18 months in French oak barriques.

Beginning to show its age with a tawny rim and a briny, balsamic dominated aroma together with leather, earth, dried fruits and strong coffee. The palate was very soft, yet savoury and earthy with something almost medicinal about it. The tannins and the fruit were smooth and velvety and the acidity, presumably from the Sangiovese, kept it youthful and bright. This was magnificent with the quail meat, especially the crispy roast quail legs – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £40 per bottle from:
Hedonism Wines.

Served with venison, celeriac, watercress, sprouts and chestnuts:

2013 Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This wine, now labelled as Gran Selezione – the first eligible vintage was 2010, is the Grand Vin of the estate. Gran Selezione is an attempt to firm up the quality credentials of top Chianti Classico. Historically the Riserva wines were the pinnacle of production, but normal Chianti Classico could be aged longer in wood and be labelled as a Reserve, so nothing really set the wines apart as being great quality.

Gran Selezione wines must be made from estate grown fruit, not bought in. The minimum alcohol must be 13% compared to 12.5% for Riserva. The wine must be aged for 30 months, compared to 24 months for Riserva. There is some controversy around the adoption of this new system, but I can see the point of it.

This 90% Sangiovese, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Petit Verdot blend is made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 20% new.

The nose offered bright plums and pomegranates together with rich earth and mocha notes. The palate was supple, youthful, joyous and delicious with fine grain tannins, sweet red fruit and a harmonious feel. I could drink it now, but it really needs time – 94/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £40 per bottle from:
Waitrose Cellar, Tannico and Millésima.

2008 Chianti Classico
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This 80% Sangiovese, 10% Cabernet Sauvignon and 10% Merlot blend is made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 28 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 20% new.

2008 is not considered a great vintage, but Francesco is very fond of it and wanted to share it with us. I am glad he did, I thought it was terrific.

The age is beginning to show here with more toffee, caramel and balsamic, soy sauce and general umami note The palate was very supple, very smooth with nice freshness, dried fig fruit, mushrooms, smoky coffee and caramel flavours. The finish was long, savoury and saline with a touch of mocha and cedar too. A beautiful wine ageing gracefully – 93/100 points.

2003 Chianti Classico
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

One of the hottest vintages to date, this was a blend of  Sangiovese with a little cabernet sauvignon. The wine was aged for 18 months in French oak barriques – 65% new.

The age shows here, but it is very good. the nose is earthy, mushroomy, truffles, meaty, dried figs and rich coffee, even a touch of stout on the nose. The palate is again very supple with sweet dried figs, almost no tannins and a meaty, savoury richness that makes it great with food – 93/100 points.

Served with the cheese course:

2013 Colledilà Chianti Classico Gran Selezione
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This wine is a site specific, pure Sangiovese Chianti Classico that is now labelled as a Gran Selezione. In effect it is a Cru from a vineyard on the estate that sits at 380 metres above sea level and faces south west. 

100% Sangiovese made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate on the Colledilà block, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 21 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux – 40% new.

I am not always wowed by the top wines of an estate, but this really seduced me. What’s more it was from a difficult vintage with lots of hail. It was fragrant, floral, perfumed with sweet red fruit, mocha and a touch f tobacco. The palate was smooth, supple, smoky with fine grain tannins, ripe red fruit and a beautifully fresh, lightly flesh and succulent mid weight to it. This was stunning wine and I would add that the label is utterly beautiful too – 95/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £50 per bottle from:
Hedonism and Millésima.

2010 Colledilà Chianti Classico
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

100% Sangiovese made from a very careful selection of the best fruit on the estate on the Colledilà block, fermented in stainless steel then aged for 18 months in French oak barriques and tonneaux.

Showing some lovely bottle age, this is much more savoury and meaty with dried fruit, walnuts and coffee aromas, even some toffee. The palate is wonderfully cohesive with an underlying freshness balancing the richness and binding it all together. The tannins are supple and there is a dried fruit and savoury, earthy flavours and a sense of purity about it that makes it sing. It was magnificent with the Comté – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £32 per bottle from:
Vintage Wine & Port.

Served with the petit fours:

2007 Vin Santo
Castello di Brolio
Barone Ricasoli
DOCg Chianti Classico

This blend of Malvasia and  Sangiovese is made from late harvested grapes that are then dried over the winter to concentrate the sugars further.  The juice is then fermented and the wine then aged for 4-5 years in French oak barriques.

This was the colour of Malt Whiskey and had a nose of cinder toffee, caramel, oranges, dried apricots together with a whiff of old books, leather, pipe tobacco and coffee. The palate is a wonderfully sumptuous blend of sweet and sour with chestnut, coffee, dried fig, maple syrup and concentrated apricot fruit. The finish is firm and surprisingly unsweet with great acidity and balance. The end is almost savoury and salty with reminders of Sherry, Sauternes and Madeira on the nose and plate – 93/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £33 per half litre from:
Hennings Wine.

The whole evening was a memorable experience of good company, excellent food and magnificent wines. If you want to see what Chianti can be, do try one of the wines from Castello di Brolio Barone Ricasoli, they are quite a revelation.

The wines that I have written about here are the pinnacle of Barone Ricasoli’s production. If you want to dip a toe in the water and try their wines without quite such a large price tag, then they make many other wines including their superb Barone Ricasoli Brolio Chianti Classico Riserva, their excellent Brolio Chianti Classico  – also here – and the Waitrose in Partnership Chianti Classico, which is very good and great value for money.

Barone Ricasoli wines are imported into the UK by John E Fells.

Barone Ricasoli wines are imported into the US by Domaine Select & Liber Selections,

Wine of the Week – a lovely sparkling wine

Christmas is coming, quite fast it feels, so I am tasting a lot of wine with an eye to festive drinking.

I don’t know about you, but I really like a good bit of fizz at Christmas as I can drink it with all sorts of different foods, or none. Of late I have been tasting some rather wonderful English sparkling wines and I will tell you about some of them soon, but in the meantime I tasted a surprisingly good English sparkling wine recently that is easily available and good value for money too, so I have made it my Wine of the Week – even though there is absolutely nothing to celebrate given the dire world situation today.

denbies-chalk-valleyChalk Valley Brut
Denbies Wine Estate
Dorking
Surrey
England

English sparkling wine is all the rage at the moment and rightly so as they can be very good indeed. However, they aren’t all as good as the best ones, so you do have to be careful. This wine is a special cuvée made for Aldi by Denbies Estate in Dorking. I have enjoyed visiting Denbies in the past, it is a lovely place to visit with a couple very nice restaurants, a casual one and a more formal proper restaurant. However, I have often been wary of their wines in the past as I didn’t always find them particularly exciting. If this wine is anything to go by though, then I might have been doing them an injustice. I am sure that their sparkling wines used to taste very green and lean, which can be a problem in our climate, but is most certainly not the case here.

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Denise Wine Estate, Dorking, Surrey – photo courtesy of the estate.

The wine is made by the traditional method and is a blend of 54% Seyval Blanc, 34% Pinot Noir, 8% Chardonnay 8% and 4% Pinot Blanc, all aged on the lees for 18 months.

My first clue that this might be rather good, was the rich, golden buttery colour. The nose is like freshly baked rolls and seaside rockpools together with some apple and apricot compote.
The palate is astonishingly rich and weighty with a fine mousse, a remarkable sweetness of ripe apricot, orange and apple fruit as well as a little sweet spice and creaminess, although the wine is dry. I was really thrilled by this wine, it is very drinkable and enjoyable – 88/100 points.
This is a good sparkling wine which gives you a good idea about English fizz and is easily available in the UK at a very good price.
 Available in the UK from Aldi for £14.99 per bottle – £ 89.94 per case of 6 bottles including free delivery.

Wine of the Week 44 – a classy and classic Bordeaux-like blend from South Africa

Vineyards in Stellenbosch, near False Bay.

Vineyards in Stellenbosch, near False Bay.

I have been visiting South Africa semi regularly now for well over 10 years and over that time the wines have continued to improve and become even more exciting. Very few places can touch South Africa’s Western Cape – the main centre of wine production – for sheer diversity, whether it is in soils, altitude or aspect. This allows them to grow an extraordinary array of different grape varieties and they put this to good use by producing an incredible variety of wines, often from quite a small area.

The Cape is very beautiful too, which makes it a real joy to visit. What’s more the wine regions are all pretty compact and most of the estates are within an hour or 2 of Cape Town airport. I love visiting the place, the beauty of the place never fails to get to me. Many of the wineries are old with the charming Cape Dutch architecture. Even the modern ones are lovely places to visit, as they are usually very well geared up to receive visitors and most have good restaurants too, like the excellent Terroir at Kleine Zalze. But even if they don’t it doesn’t matter as Stellenbosch, Somerset West, Paarl and Franschhoek are all full of lovely places to eat excellent food and drink good wine.

As far as wine is concerned, the place produces such variety that it is hard to say what is best, but I have been seriously impressed with many South African Sauvignon Blancs recently, especially this one and this one, they really are world class and can often give great value for money too – like this one here.

As for reds I am struggling to single out trends, as so many styles from the Cape are good. I still admire this Cabernet Franc from KWV, which was a former Wine of the Week. The Chocolate Box blend from Boekenhoutskloof is also hugely impressive and enjoyable and there is much else to enjoy, including some superb and enjoyable examples of Pinotage and this lovely Sangiovese.

However, last night I showed a very exciting South African Bordeaux-blend at a tasting. I have tasted the wine many times before from previous vintages and it never fails to impress, as well as to offer great value for mine, so I made it my Wine of the Week.

South Africa map QS 2015 watermarked

Wine map of South Africa’s Western Cape – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Bordeaux blends, wines made from a blend of the grapes that are famously used in Bordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec (Cot) are a very traditional South African style and something of a speciality of the Stellenbosch area, so are well worth trying. This one is from the venerable Meerlust Estate, which has belonged to the Myburgh family since 1756, but was actually founded in 1693. Situated very near the sea in False Bay, southern Stellenbosch, the site benefits from cool ocean breezes and mists that temper the extreme heat of summer and must have made the place a logical place to build.

The name Meerlust apparently means ‘pleasure of the sea’, but I do not know in what language – as far as I can detect it is neither German, the original owner was German, Dutch or Afrikaans. I can get sea in the meer bit (mer), but cannot help feeling that lust implies something more than pleasure!

Whatever the name means though, it was a fortunate site to choose for wine too, as the cool conditions allow Meerlust to produce excellent Pinot Noir and Chardonnay too. However their main focus has always been their Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends – Meerlust Rubicon is their Grand Vin – as well as some single varietal wines. My Wine of the Week is in effect their second wine made from younger vines and declassified vats, but it is still very good indeed.

Meerlust, photo courtesy of the winery.

Meerlust, photo courtesy of the winery.

Meerlust-Red2012 Meerlust Red
W.O. Stellenbosch
Western Cape, South Africa
A blend of 37% Cabernet Sauvignon, 31% Merlot, 23% Cabernet Franc and 9% Petit Verdot aged in 55% new French oak.

Frankly this is more like a classic Claret from my youth than most Claret nowadays. The nose is fragrant and scented with very attractive leafy herbaceous notes, not green though. Just behind this there is plenty of vibrant fruit too, cassis, plums and a touch of blackberry. However the fruit is delicate and more European in style, rather than lifted, rich and sweetly ripe, as drinkers often expect from the new world. There is also a little touch of leather, cedar, pencil shavings, mocha and espresso bean, that all give a nice feeling of complexity and elegant sophistication.
The palate is medium-bodied and fresh tasting with some nice cleansing acidity balancing the succulent ripe fruit that gives cassis, dried and fresh, a touch of creamy vanilla, mocha again and some attractive leather too. The tannins are lovely and ripe, with a nice fine-grain texture giving just a little touch of astringency to the finish, which gives the wine some nice focus and definition – structure is the official word. The freshness really dominates the finish, which adds to that sense of focus and poise in the wine, while the finish is extraordinarily long. I love this wine and think it would happily grace a dinner party table as well as being great value for more frequent drinking. Perfect with Sunday roast, game, meat and semi-hard cheese – 91/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £11 a bottle from The Wine Society, WinerackN.D.John, Lea and Sandeman, South African Wines Online, Slurp and Exel Wines – more stockist information is here.
Meerlust wines are distributed in the US through Maisons Marques & Domaines.

If you like classic Bordeaux wines you will certainly enjoy this, but even if you have never tried a Claret it is still a delicious wine that will find favour with almost anyone who enjoys Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot.

Bordeaux – much more than just wine

In the world of wine we talk about Bordeaux all the time, we all know what we mean by the word. Strangely though I take it for granted and never think about what we do not mean by it. And we do not really mean the city of Bordeaux at all. I have been to Bordeaux quite a few times over the years, but have hardly ever seen the city itself.

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The Garonne in Bordeaux

No, by Bordeaux we generally mean the wines of Bordeaux and the vineyard areas around the city where the grapes are grown and these wines are made. So I was delighted to be invited to spend some time in Bordeaux recently getting to know the city a little and some of the delights that it has to offer the visitor.

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Bordeaux’s beautiful La Porte Cailhau.

Of course wine looms large in Bordeaux and is hard to avoid, especially – I suppose – as we were guests of Olivier Dauga the larger than life consultant wine maker, style guru and former rugby player. Yes Olivier wanted us to taste his wines and to understand his views on winemaking, but he also wanted us to experience his Bordeaux, his friends as well as the restaurants and bars that he loves.

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The ever colourful Olivier Dauga – I started to wonder if he always matched the paintings?

It was to be a wine visit with no vineyards, wineries or bottling lines. In fact the only vines I saw all trip were the ones that decorate Bordeaux Airport. I had met Olivier before, in London, at a tasting of his Ukranian wines and knew that he was a very interesting winemaker and well worth talking to, so I was really looking forward to the trip.

Our little group was put up in the lovely Maison Fredon, an arty boutique hotel in the Rue Porte de la Monnaie. It is housed in a beautiful old house and only has 5 rooms, but each one has a distinct personality and is furnished in a different and quirky style. The hotel is the latest venture of Olivier’s friend Jean-Pierre Xiradakis who has been one of the stars of the local restaurant scene ever since he created La Tupina – just over the road from the hotel – in 1968.

La Tupina from my window.

La Tupina from my window.

La Tupina is a lovely relaxed restaurant that specialises in the flavoursome traditional food of Bordeaux and the Sud-Ouest. This includes foie gras prepared in many different ways and a wonderful array of grilled and spit roast meats.

Spit roast chicken being cooked at la Tupina - photo courtesy of La Tupina.

Spit roast chicken being cooked at la Tupina – photo courtesy of La Tupina.

Apparently when Jean-Pierre started here the area was pretty run down and considered to be far from the centre. Now he has made the area quite the place to go to for good food. In fact Jean-Pierre calls Rue Porte de la Monnaie the ‘Rue Gourmande‘ as over the years he has created quite a few interesting bars and restaurants here that includes the informal wine bar / bistrot Cave Bar de la Monnaie and Kuzina the Greek influenced fish restaurant – after all Jean-Pierre’s surname is Xiradakis! As if that wasn’t enough the Café Tupina is a lovely neighbourhood bar while the delightful Au Comestible is a casual restaurant and fine grocery store – Jean-Pierre is right, this street really is foodie heaven.

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Rue Porte de la Monnaie.

Jean-Pierre showing us how to cook asparagus.

Jean-Pierre showing us how to cook asparagus.

La Tupina.

La Tupina.

The next morning we were up and ready to explore the city with a stroll around the old ramparts and the lively Marché des Capucins, the historic food market of Bordeaux. The place is a delight to stroll around with fabulous fish stalls, butchers, charcuterie stalls, bakers, cheese stalls, greengrocers, basque food specialists  – and, as is normal in civilised countries, the odd bar to provide liquid refreshment.

Marché des Capucins.

Marché des Capucins.

Bordeaux is a terrific city to wander around, the centre is small and so none of the distances seem daunting and there is always something to catch the eye and bring the lovely narrow streets to life, whether its interesting shops, churches, peaceful squares or lively cafés.

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Place Saint-Pierre.

Repairing the cobble stones.

Repairing Bordeaux’s cobble stones.

Our wanderings were not just random by the way, we were touring the city centre and stopped off here and there for a tasting of some of Olivier’s wines. Our first such pit-stop was at one of the city’s many fabulous wine shops, La C.U.V. or Cave Utile en Ville or Urban Wine Shop is a great place to while away a little time looking at the array of bottles from all corners of France and beyond. The original branch is situated in 7 Place Maucaillou, very near the market, the little place has that village-like feel of a place where people actually live and work. So successful have these self confessed inquisitive terroirs lovers been that they have opened a second shop in Place Nansouty, which just goes to show – that contrary to what people think – the French consumer is open to trying and buying wines from places other than their own region and country. In fact one of the things that particularly delighted me about Bordeaux was the vibrant wine shop and wine bar scene with the differences between the two often being blurred.

The First Wine Tasting
Here we had our first formal tasting of some of the wines that Olivier makes in his role as consultant winemaker. I had spoken to him a little before this and I was very impressed by what he sought to do. It is his intention to respect the wishes of the owner in terms of style and to faithfully reflect the terroir of the estate. He does not seek to impose his own winemaking style on the wines at all and there was a great deal of difference across the wines that he is responsible for. Often you can tell if the same winemaker has made a range of wines, but in these it was nigh on impossible to detect a common style. There was a common thread though, which was fruit and delicacy – none of these were blockbusters, but none were dusty either – which is pretty much exactly the style of wine that Olivier told me he approves of. Simply put he seems to believe that wine should be approachable and enjoyable – and I certainly think those are laudable aims.

This first tasting was all red wines and, with one exception, they were all from Bordeaux. If you are looking for good quality and value red Bordeaux then you could do a lot worse than try any of these:

2010 Château Les Gravières de la Brandille, Bordeaux Supérieur
65% Merlot, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Cabernet Franc. I really liked this unoaked, juicy claret and think it would make many friends who want a good medium bodied dry red that has ample fruit and supple tannins. 86/100 points.
2010 of course was a great Bordeaux year of course, but so was 2009 and you can buy the 2009 in the UK from Stone, Vine & Sun @ £9.75. 

2010 Château Roques Mauriac Cuvée Classique, Bordeaux Supérieur
40% Merlot, 40% Cabernet Franc and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Another unoaked clare that I enjoyed, it has a freshness and fleshy quality to the fruit that makes it very drinkable and pleasurable, especially as the tannins are very soft. 86/100 points.
I am told that it is available in the UK from Virgin Wines @ £9.49.

2011 Château de Rivereau, Côtes de Bourg
70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon – although Olivier did say there was a drop of cabernet franc here too. This has a little time in oak and it showed with some coffee tinges and fruit cake spice just adding a little complexity to the supple fruit and attractive, clean chalky tannins. 86/100 points.

2011 Château de La Jaubertie, Bergerac
This estate is of course not in Bordeaux, but nearby Bergerac, but this area makes wines in a similar style and offers superb value for money. Jaubertie is famously owned by the Ryman family of stationery fame. 60% Merlot, 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, 10% Malbec with 20% fermented in barrel and the whole wine was aged on the lees for 6 months with 10% aged in new American oak for 6 months. I thought this was a nice wine, direct honest and juicy with a slight oak spice tinge and a delicate herbal green edge to the black fruit. Nicely balanced, very drinkable and utterly classic, but well made – 86/100 points.

2011 Château La Pirouette, Cru Bourgeois Médoc
50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 25% aged 12 months in new oak barrels. The extra class and complexity showed here. There was a precision to the wine and a structure to it that made it very clean and taut, but still had good fruit and lovely balance. 88/100 points.

Amélie Durand with her red wine.

Amélie Durand with her Cuvée Amélie red wine in La C.U.V.

BTCA032010 Château Doms Cuvée Amélie, Graves
80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Merlot, 5% Petit Verdot, 25% aged in oak barrels, one third new. This is the top cuvée from the estate and is named in honour of the owner’s mother, while the estate is run and the wine is made – with Olivier’s help – by the owner’s daughter, Amélie. She was there to present her wines to us and what’s more she drove me to the airport the next day when I had been left behind!
I like Amélie’s wines, very much indeed. They have an elegance and a finesse that pleased me, as well as good concentration and balance. The fruit was fleshy and plump while the oak spice was nicely integrated giving mocha notes and complexity. There was a nice cut of acidity too and the tannins were ripe and not astringent – 90/100 points.

The Second Wine Tasting
Having done the reds we set off once more for a stroll through Bordeaux’s attractive cobbled streets to sample some of Olivier’s white wines along with some excellent local seafood at Le Rince Doigt, a casual little place that calls itself a guinguette , guinguette à fruits de mer in fact and it aims to be a seaside seafood bar in the middle of the city. To give that relaxed holiday feel  the whole place was dressed up as though we actually were on the beach, with sandy floors and deck chairs and the simple menu was wonderful with oysters, moules frites, moules farcies, spicy cod fritters and much more.

The indoor beach at Le Rince Doigt and yes that is John Salvi!

The indoor beach at Le Rince Doigt and yes that is John Salvi eyeing the table football!

So we settled on to our indoor beach and the white wines started flowing – sometimes my work is just too hard. I really like white Bordeaux wines, I think they are very underrated – like white Rioja – and can be some of the best – and best value – dry white wines around. These were my favourites here:

2012 Château Les Combes, Bordeaux Blanc – although the estate is in Lussac-St. Émilion
90% Sauvignon Blanc and 10% Sémillon – no oak, but 3 months on the lees.
A lovely beautifully balanced and aromatic dry white bursting with elderflower aromas, green fruit, lemon, lime and salad herbs, the lees ageing has introduced a nice layer of complexity too. A very good dry white, much more interesting than budget Sancerre – 86/100 points.
Available in the UK from Stone, Vine & Sun @ £9.75. 

2012 Château Marzin, Bordeaux Blanc
Sauvignon Gris and Sauvignon Blanc.
I liked this bright dry white with its crisp green fruit aromas and slightly fatter smoky palate that reduces the impact of the acidity – 85/100 points.

2012 Château Piote, Bordeaux Blanc – although the estate is in Lussac-St. Émilion
70% Sémillon and 30% Colombard.
Virginie Aubrion makes some lovely organic wines and this relatively unusual white blend is very attractive with real herbal characters, even some lavender, and a nice touch of weight on the palate – 85/100 points.

BTBG062012 Château Doms, Graves
60% Sémillon and 40% Sauvignon Blanc.
Amélie’s white wine was my absolute favourite here and really is fine. It is unoaked, but still has lovely weight and creamy texture backed up by fresh, crisp acidity, this really punches above its weight. Right now it is fresh and lean with crisp mineral acidity with the texture just adding some plushness and creaminess. It will age well becoming richer and creamier – 90/100 points.

The Cheese Course
Rather than have dessert we took some of our favourite bottles with us and strolled down to the Fromagerie Deruelle which is an amazing cheese shop in Bordeaux’s Rue du Pas-Saint-Georges. I always love cheese shops, they are truly fascinating places to spend some time – the only problem is they always cause me spend far too much money. Deruelle is one of the very, very best cheese shops that I have ever visited with all the cheeses perfectly stored, all clearly labelled and beautifully presented.

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Part of the display at Fromagerie Deruelle.

More of the display at Fromagerie Deruelle.

More of the display at Fromagerie Deruelle.

Here were treated to a taste of 3 different cheeses to try with a white wine, a rosé and a red wine. The cheeses were:
Palet Frais – a fresh goat cheese from Lot et Garonne.
L’Estive – a (semi) hard sheep cheese from the Basque country.
Fourme de Montbrison – is a hard cow’s-milk cheese made in the Rhône-Alpes and Auvergne.

In my opinion the 2012 Château Les Combes white was the best with the cheeses as it went perfectly with the first and second cheese, the Fourme seemed to overpower everything really, so needed a really big red wine with lots of fruit.

Our cheese tasting.

Our cheese tasting.

The End of the Line
So we were now approaching the end of this wine trip with no winery visits and we finished in one of this lovely city’s trendy wine bars – La Ligne Rouge. Right by the beautiful La Porte Cailhau, La Ligne Rouge is a great place where you can browse the shelves from around the world and buy a bottle to take home or drink there with some cheese or charcuterie. They specialise in artisanal wines, often organic or biodynamic and have a terrific range from across France, especially Roussillon and the Languedoc – Bordeaux wines would seem to be in a minority in their range. Surprisingly they list more wines that come from places other than France and have a great selection from Spain, Austria, Chile, Argentina and much more, so next time you are in Bordeaux drop into this lovely shop…bar…shop – whatever, it’s a great place.

Olivier at La Ligne Rouge.

Olivier at La Ligne Rouge.

This was a wine trip with a real difference and I enjoyed it very much. It was very interesting seeing a totally different side to Bordeaux and experiencing for myself what a terrific place it is to stay, to walk around, to eat in and to drink in.

You could do a lot worse than visit Bordeaux for your next break.

Austria part 1: passionate wine makers

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Neusiedlersee from the vineyards.

A little while ago I was lucky enough to have a fabulous trip around most of Austria’s wine regions. I was pretty excited about it as I had long wanted to get a real look at this resurgent wine producing country.

Personally I have always been drawn to the Austrian /  Central European culture and have always enjoyed the food and the beer and liked the look of this part of the world. So, I was looking forward to getting better acquainted with it as well as seeing the wine regions and meeting many of the important winemakers.

For reasons of economy I flew in through Bratislava, which is very close to Vienna and was for hundreds of years the Imperial Austrian city of Pressburg or Preßburg. I didn’t have time for a meal, unusually for me I didn’t have the inclination either as I knew my plans for later that evening in Vienna, so I grabbed a sandwich and a beer at the airport.

I was already somewhere interesting when something as a simple ham and cheese sandwich bore no relation to its counterparts at home. It came on black bread with smoky Black Forest ham, rich cream cheese, loads of pickles and was delicious. The beer too was far better than such a simple thing as a lager would normally be in my life, it had a rich hoppy character and a depth of flavour that would astonish most members of CAMRA.

Arriving in Vienna for the first time in 27 years I strolled around this grand city trying out some of the wonderful coffee houses and cafés for which the place is justly famous. It seemed as though almost every building housed a cake shop – do they really eat that much cake I wondered? Watching the Viennese at play over the course of the evening it seemed that they really did – and later I joined them myself.

Dinner that night was a sort of pilgrimage for me. All my life I have been excited by schnitzels – I know it sounds strange, it even looks odd to me now I have actually typed the words, which is akin to saying them out loud. Hell, it’s cheaper than therapy! I am always drawn to schnitzel on a menu though, even if there is finer fare to be had. I have this theory that schnitzel is the best dish in the world – no not a theory, a belief! So I went to the place where the schnitzel began.

The Wiener Schnitzel is a classic dish, but it seems that no one can actually find much of a history for it. I remember reading that General Joseph Radetzky von Radetz – he of the march / waltz fame – was supposed to have brought it back to Austria after campaigning in Lombardy and Milan. A Milanese Cutlet / Cotoletta alla Milanese is superficially similar and the Austrians were supposed to have refined it by bashing the meat out to tenderise it and make it very thin. Sadly it seems that this is a myth though and no one knows exactly where it came from or when.

Wiener Schnitzel at Figlmüller with a €2 piece for comparison.

Wiener Schnitzel at Figlmüller alongside a €2 to compare the sizes.

In Vienna there is a restaurant called Figlmüller that not only claims to have invented the schnitzel, but to have done so as recently as 1905. I find that extraordinary as 1905 is only just beyond living memory, my grandfather was 20 and my own parents births were only 22 years away. How can something so famous and so universal be that recent? Anyway I went and had a most excellent Wiener Schnitzel washed down with a rather splendid beer and copious amounts of Grüner Veltliner from the restaurants’ own vineyards.

For desert I visited the Café Sacher inthe world famous Hotel Sacher, which makes probably the most famous chocolate cake in the world. I felt that at least once in my life I should try the original in the actual place that gave the world the sachertorte. The café is rather lovely with genuine old world charm, open till midnight and serves a stunning red Zweigelt Beerenauslese, from Weingut Kracher in Burgenland, which is absolutely perfect with a slice of sachertorte – a better match than coffee actually.

Having immersed myself in the most famous, possibly clichéd, but certainly delicious, aspects of Austria’s gastronomic culture, the next morning I felt ready to explore her wines.

Austria's wine regions - click for a larger view.

Austria’s wine regions – click for a larger view.

Touring the Vineyards
The start of my trip was billed as a vineyard rally through Leithaberg and Neusiedlersee. Of course with my new found instant knowledge I knew that Leithaberg was a Districtus Austriae Controllatus / D.A.C wine region near Eisenstadt that covered the lower reaches of the Leithaberg mountain and faced south east towards the beautiful lake called Neusiedlersee.

Despite sounding mysterious, the vineyard rally turned out to be simplicity itself, no hard hat or special training was required. We were taken to two different spots in the surrounding vineyards to meet some winemakers and taste their wines.

Our first stop was right in the middle of the vines with barely a building insight – other than church towers in the far, far distance. The weather was warm with clear blue skies and the spot stunningly beautiful with that feeling of total peace that I associate more with vineyards than anywhere else. Spying a falcon in flight just added to the feeling of being somewhere special.

Leo Sommer

Leo Sommer

Weingut Sommer
There we were met by the impossibly youthful looking Leo Sommer who was representing Weingut Sommer, the winery his family have run since 1698. Leo had set up a tasting for us right where the slope stopped at the foot of a rocky ridge. Looking one way I saw the vineyards sloping gently down towards the lake that shimmered enticingly in the distance. In the other direction the land became much steeper with fewer vineyards.

Looking towards the lake.

Looking towards the lake.

The Sommers farm 30 hectares here and they aim to capture the essence of the place in their wines. The summer here is hot and dry, with ripening helped by the warm winds blowing in from Hungary’s Pannonian plain. The nearby lake though manages to temper and balance that heat in the height of summer, while helping to keep the autumn cold at bay during the later part of the ripening season. This is the important Altweibersommer or Indian Summer that allows them to harvest very late in this area.

Looking away from the lake towards the ridge - the van is where we had our tasting.

Looking away from the lake you can see how the slope changes. We had our tasting by the van.

Looking away from the lake you can see how the slope changes. We had our tasting by the van.

A close up of the same scene.

White Leithaberg D.A.C. wines can be made from Pinot Blanc  / Weißburgunder, Chardonnay, Neuburger, Grüner Veltliner or a blend of any of these and we tasted two of the Sommer’s Grüner Veltliners. One had some oak with lees stirring, while the other was all stainless steel, yet they both summed this place up to my mind. To different degrees they both had a richly textured ripeness leading to a taut, stony mineral finish and when looking around this glorious sun drenched landscape with its sandy loam and slate soils, it struck me – this was precisely what these slopes should produce.

In many ways standing here felt as though I was in a little protected pocket by other less forgiving climates – much like Alsace or Central Otago. The more I thought about that when we visited all the different regions the more I realised that is exactly what the Austrian wine regions are – mountains and more extreme weather dominate the rest of the country – we often glimpsed snow-capped ridges , so these places in the far east of Austria are an oasis of temperate growing conditions.

Our next port of call reinforced this view. This time we were nearer the lake, right at the bottom of the gentle slope before the flat land that surrounds the Neusiedlersee and our hosts were Martin Palser and Birgit Braunstein, a married couple who just happen to both be winemakers and each runs their own winery.

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Birgit Braunstein & Martin Palser

Martin Palser 
Down here it seems there is much more limestone and Martin grows Chardonnay on this soil, which makes his take on the Leithaberg D.A.C. very different from Leo Sommer’s wines. His 2011 Chardonnay Reserve impressed me very much with its lovely balance, very Burgundian character and pronounced minerality – I know, I know – and Martin told us that this minerality was the character of the place and was more important than grape variety in his opinion.

Looking towards the lake.

Looking towards the lake.

Birgit Braunstein
Then Martin handed over to his wife who presented two red wines made from the region’s signature black grape – Blaufränkisch. Red Leithaberg D.A.C. wines must contain at least 85% of this with up to 15% of St. Laurent, Zweigelt or Pinot Noir. I have enjoyed Blaufränkisch before – even as Lemberger in New York’s Finger Lakes, but none have impressed me quite as much as these two made by Brigit Braunstein. Her 2009 Blaufränkisch Reserve Leithaberg D.A.C. was beautifully fruity and balanced with gorgeously ripe fruit together with elegant spice, the delicious cherry-like acidity that I associate with the grape – and a streak of pure minerality. Somehow the wine managed to keep quiet about the 18 months it had spent in new oak and was superbly integrated.

Standing on their terrace looking across the vineyards to the lake I was struck by the place, conditions and landscape and how they seemed to echo the wines that I had just tasted. The breezes blew the otherwise searing heat away – “air conditioning for the vines” as Martin put it – and these are ripe, cool climate wines. They are keen on biodiversity here and the fields were a colourful riot of cherry trees, wildflowers, grasses and herbs as covercrop between and around the vines, while the sandy loam soil, slate and limestone that it all grows in is key here. The defining characteristic of Leithaberg D.A.C. seems to be the minerality and I felt that it was all around me as well as being in the glass.

All in all it was an excellent beginning to the day, I felt peaceful, invigorated, more experienced and better informed and it wasn’t yet 11 o’clock.

Weingut Birgit Eichinger
Funny things wine trips. You live in close proximity to people you barely see the rest of your life, you lose all track of time and get dragged from one place to the next at breakneck speed with barely a backward glance – until you start writing anyway. You get given far more meals in a day than is strictly required – and sadly get to like them. What does stand out though, what makes all the suffering (really?) worthwhile is when we visit somewhere that touches the heart and a good few of the visits on this Austrian trip did just that, but one of the most memorable was to Weingut Birgit Eichinger.

Brigit Eichinger

Brigit Eichinger

There aren’t many women winemakers in Austria, so Brigit Eichinger is pretty unnusual – strangely the only other one we met was also called Birgit, Birgit Braunstein – what’s more Birgit Eichinger and her builder husband Christian have only been running their estate since 1992 when they started with 3.5 hectares. The winery was built in 1994 and they have been adding vineyards when they can and today they farm some 15 hectares in Strass.

Strass is in Kamptal which in turn is part of Niederösterreich, which is in many ways the heartland of Austrian wine as it includes the famous regions of Wachau, Kremstal and Wagram amongst many others and so certainly defines my view of Austrian wine – the whites anyway.

Site matters here as there is no one single terroir. Many of the vineyards have loess over gravel and loam, but others have sandstone, slate and schist, so as in Alsace matching the grape variety to the site makes real differences to the wine. There is even volcanic rock on the Heiligenstein slope from where Birgit produces a stunning, spicy, pure and intensely mineral Riesling.

To qualify as Kamptal D.A.C. a wine must be made from Grüner Veltliner or Riesling, so Birgit’s deliciously floral and exotic Roter Veltliner – also known as the Roter Muskateller and no relation to Grüner at all – and her Chardonnay are simply labelled as coming from the wider area of Niederösterreich.

The view from Weingut Birgit Eichinger

The view from Weingut Birgit Eichinger

The landscape here is spectacularly beautiful – actually everywhere we went was – with the terraced vineyards cascading down the slopes towards the small town of Strass where Birgit’s winery sits at the foot of the Gaisberg slope.

All the wines were superb and I know that many of us would have purchased a few bottles if we had had the space in our luggage. The Rieslings and Grüner Veltliners in particular showed their class with a concentration and yet lightness of touch that gave them a feeling of tension and sophistication that certainly brought a smile to my face.

Birgit’s beautiful wines are available in the UK from John Armit Wines and in the US through Weygandt-Metzler Importing for other teritories check here.

The whole trip was a delight – apart from being locked out of my hotel room and two of my colleagues missing their flights – and my enthusiasm for the country and its wines has been totally rekindled. I will write about some of the other places I visited and wines I tasted in Austria soon.

If Austrian wines have passed you by then you really do owe it to yourself to give them a go. There is a great deal of pleasure to be had by exploring the wines of Austria.

Louis Jadot at The Criterion

The delights to come – © Quentin Sadler 2012

At their best the wines of Burgundy are without peer, but the region produces such a relatively small amount of wine with high world demand that they can be very expensive indeed and even then can frequently disappoint. When they are good though they really let you know it.

It is interesting that the wines of Burgundy do get to you over time. I well remember that twenty odd years ago their beguiling beauty passed me by. Not any more.

As good as many others are, no where on earth uses Chardonnay to make such exquisitely poised and balanced white wines with tension between the richness and freshness. The red wines of Burgundy though are more tricky to get your head around. I think this is because they defy the wine norms of our time. We are used to big wines, full-bodied wines are widely favoured over other styles, yet Pinot Noir grown in the coolish climate of Burgundy simply does not produce truly full-bodied wines. They are generally lighter and more savoury than most other famous types of red wines and I think they really do need food to show at their best.

I have been fortunate to visit Burgundy a good few times over the years and am slowly acquiring a good working knowledge of the place and its wines. In addition I have been involved with Louis Jadot, one of the great producers of Burgundy on and off for some 25 years. In a region which is usually a patchwork of very small vineyards and producers it is very hard to get an overview of the place from this array of tiny farmer-winemakers. So a producer like Louis Jadot who is the largest landowner in the Côte d’Or really serves a useful purpose in providing a wide range of Burgundy wines.

There are other famous districts of Burgundy, Chablis, Mercurey and Pouilly-Fuissé amongst them, but it is really the Côte d’Or that sets the tone and provides much of the region’s fame. It is home to some of the most famous and sought after wines in the world including Meursault, Pommard, Gevrey-Chambertin and Nuits-St-Georges.

At first glance the Côte d’Or would appear to be so small that the wines it makes must surely all be pretty similar – after all it is sometimes less than half a kilometre wide. However, this is the place that really demonstrates the French concept of ‘terroir‘. The soils and conditions really matter here and make for the differences between the wines, although nuances might be a better word than differences as they are slight. The limestone ridge or escarpment that is the Côte d’Or consists of layers of different limestones, some more porous than others, as well as marls made up of clay, sand and gravel.

That makes sit sound as though it is all uniform, but it really isn’t. The limestones have weathered and decomposed at different speeds and are pierced by small rivers and dry valleys making for great variation as to which limestones dominate different parts. The topsoil also varies, as some are flinty and some a more chalky scree and the collapsing of the limestone ridge leaves different types and depths of topsoil.

Another variable is aspect, there are fissures, gaps, ravines and valleys in the limestone which change the direction a little, so some vineyards face more directly south than others – these will generally produce bigger wines as the grapes get more sun and so have more sugar which produces more alcohol and extract in the finished wine.

The other day I was asked to put on a fine red Burgundy tasting in The Criterion Restaurant in London’s Piccadilly. I had never been there before and what a place it is. Founded in 1874 hard by the Eros statue in Piccadilly Circus the restaurant is a sumptuous confection of such exuberance that to my uneducated eye seems a heady combination fin de Siècle and art nouveau styles. The shiny gold mosaic tiles made me feel I was inside a Klimt painting and the general ambience made it seem possible that Oscar and Bosie would walk through the door at any moment.

The glorious interior of The Criterion during my tasting – © Quentin Sadler 2012

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Looking Back at Angers

Last week I was on a rather lovely trip to the Loire Vally in France. Unusually though I didn’t just get to see vineyards and wineries, but a little bit of the surrounding area too – which could be seen as self indulgence, but I think that seeing the place, people and culture around a wine can often help with understanding what makes a wine region tick. Strolling around the French city of Angers in the middle of a working day felt like a lovely adventure – even a little naughty. It was as if it was stolen time that I should have spent doing something more productive – but what the heck.

The city feels quite small, which can be very attractive as you can see it all in a short time without having to cherry pick as you would in somewhere the size of London or Paris. The River Maine flows through the middle of the city and you get lovely glimpses of it from the ramparts of the astonishing Château d’Angers. Once home to Catherine de Medici, this is not your typical Loire Valley Château, but a huge mediaeval fortress whose harsh defensive exterior does not prepare you at all for the haven of peace inside. It is a delightful place for a stroll complete with rampart walk, gardens, orchards and even a small vineyard. Most famously though it houses the Apocalypse Tapestry – well worth a look as it really is one of the jewels of early French culture – strangely enough this castle was also the place where, as a young man the future Duke of Wellington received his military training.

Angers Castle

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