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

 

 

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.

Wasted Opportunity

Something very strange happened to me recently and I thought I would report on it in the hope that it gets back to the people responsible and that they have a rethink. I am fully aware of my modest position in the world of wine, so none of this is about me thinking – ‘don’t they know who I am!’

Although I would point out that Quentin Sadler’s Wine Page is number 7 in the Top 10 UK Wine Blogs!

I have just returned from holiday in Portugal which is a country whose wines I hold in pretty high regard. The fact that the delights of Portuguese wines passes most UK wine consumers by is a great shame and deprives them of much pleasure and great value for money. I will write about some of the wines I experienced soon.

However I wanted to record a particular incident as I think it says much about attitudes that can be found all over Europe, but it seems to be especially prevalent in Iberia.

I do not often mix wine trips and holiday as for me they are two very different things. However, I was visiting a new bit Portugal and as I have a particular fondness and interest for sparkling wine I was keen to visit the Quinta dos Loridos which was not too far away and produces what some claim to be the country’s best sparkling wines.

To that end I sent them an email explaining who I was and that I would like to visit the winery and taste their wines with a view to reporting about them on my own blog and the highly respected Iberian wine website Catavino.com. – I was therefore rather taken aback by the reply:

Thank you for contacting us.

Our cellars are under renovations so at the moment we are not making any visits there. The only visitable place is Buddha Eden Garden. However we do have wine tastings, below are the information about them.

All wine tastings have to be schedule one or two days before. Wine tastings are made from Monday to Friday between 10a.m. and 4.30p.m. (except between 1p.m. and 2p.m.). They have a cost of 3€ per person and wine. If you chose to taste 2 wines we offer the taste of the Moscatel 99 for 6€ a person. We can add cashew and almonds for 1€ extra or cheese and crackers for 3€ extra.

Best Regards

Now, obviously the renovations were unfortunate and nothing could be done about that, but here I am a member of the Circle of Wine Writers and FIGEV, the European equivalent, and I was just fobbed off with an unwelcoming standard reply. I wrote back, explaining again, but received no answer at all.

Being somewhat stubborn I hoped it was all a misunderstanding and once in Portugal I went there anyway and it was an interesting, if frustrating, experience. The winery and estate is clearly marked with roadsigns and is very beautiful. They have made a great deal of effort to make the estate a destination for tourists with their beautifully done Buddha Eden Garden resembling some of the things you find in American theme parks – there was even a little train to take the visitors around and an attractive café.

However I am a wine writer, not a garden man – even if they are really well done – and this is a wine estate. As entry to the Buddha Garden is free I assume it is a way to get people in to the winery and more importantly the winery shop. The shop was good, it was very big and offered a large range and had the feel of a winery shop in the new world. However there were no wines on tasting – either for free or in return for money. As a consequence the whole place felt dull and sleepy.

When I presented my card and explained who I was and that I wanted to taste their sparkling wines I was informed in a very offhand manner that all tastings should be booked in advance and they could not help me. Now what struck me about that was that surely their wines should be the focus, they should be proud of what they produce and want visitors to taste them and buy them. If they had been giving tastings, whether free or for a small charge, then the place could have been buzzing. As it was the place was deadly quiet and the few customers I saw left empty handed. Handled in the right way every visitor would have bought something.

I am absolutely certain too that most visitors to the region would be unable or unwilling to arrange a tasting in advance – who wants to be tied down like that when on holiday? Obviously the professional visit that I had been asking for needed to be arranged in advance, although actually many of my best winery visits have been organised on the spur of the moment.

The beautiful Quinta dos Loridos

It seems such a shame when I think about all the winery shops in South Africa, New York State, Virginia or California that I have seen, all eager for you to try and to buy, all proud of their products and wanting to spread the word about their wines to as wide an audience as possible. Quinta dos Loridos was so promising, they had a lovely building and a car park full of people, but completely wasted their efforts as far as I could see. The whole thing, emails and visit was very irritating and although I wanted a proper trade visit and to be treated with a little respect as a bona fide wine professional, I would have been equally irritated if I was a normal tourist turning up at a well signposted winery only to be told that I could not taste any wines, but was welcome to buy them.

The bustling and award winning tasting room and shop at Heron Hill Winey in New York's Finger Lakes region - photo courtesy of Heron Hill

It seems to me that they have wasted all their efforts to make it a place that people visit if visitors are leaving empty handed, as they were. I understand that very small family wineries might find visits hard to cope with, but this place is part of a big company. I urge them and other wineries in Iberia that I have come across to visit some of the bustling, lively and attractive winery shops around the world  – like the award winning tasting room at Heron Hill Winery in New York’s Finger Lakes in the photo above – and to see that they are wasting a terrific showcase for their wines.

Hell, they could even employ me as a consultant to help turn that shop into a lively and inviting place…

My money where my mouth is – creating a wine range

It is quite a long time since I sold wine for a living, but I am well aware that I am often critical of how others retail wine – especially the supermarkets. With that in mind together with some nostalgic thoughts for the shop managing days of my youth, I was thrilled to be asked to create a wine range for a brand new wine shop. It is one thing to say how it ought to be, to rant and criticise, but quite another to do it yourself.

Of course as soon as I was asked to take this on all my clear-cut certainties went out of the window and I started worrying if I was doing it right and I had to keep reminding myself that the wine was not all for me, it must have wines that other people will enjoy too. If that means stocking Pinot Grigio, then so be it, but let’s make it one that is not totally bland!

My aim was to create a wine range that had something for everyone, offered good quality, great value for money and was exciting into the bargain. Of course what constitutes exciting can vary enormously, some wines are exciting by merely being whacky and unusual, some by being really great examples of what they are and some just by being amazing value.

We opened last week and I spent most of Saturday there talking to customers about the wine range and selling some too, which was a very satisfying feeling. It is early days, but from the reactions I was receiving it looks as though the good people of Stoke Newington liked the range that I put together – I must own up to being quite proud of it myself.

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The Little Wine Shop Around the Corner

For a long time I have been close to despair about the wines a great many UK consumers buy, where they buy them and how they are offered for sale. Nowadays the majority of wine is bought from supermarkets and in the main the ranges are pretty dull and reflect what sells rather than a desire to lead and excite the customer.

Well, perhaps there is the beginnings of hope that this could change. The demise of Thresher/First Quench two years ago was both a blow to the independent wine sector and a huge opportunity, which coupled with Oddbin’s double collapse could well transform the landscape of wine retailing in this country.

Thresher’s end meant that there were hundreds of places all around the country that were no longer served by a dedicated wine shop – of any quality. This was then exacerbated by Oddbins also going under which left Majestic as the sole multiple independent. However, many of the people who worked in these stores had a real passion for wine which it seems they want to share with the British wine buying public.

A huge number of truly independent wine shops are opening up to fill the gap left by the former multiples and it seems that many of them are run by former Thresher people. These vary in size from small groups, like the new Wine Rack to one off stand alone stores. Some of them are fine wine specialists, some specialise in specific regions, some have an interesting angle and some are good traditional general wine shops.

There might be something wonderfully perverse and British in dozens of people working for a company that falls in ruins around them and when they come out the other side think – I know what I’ll do, I’ll open a wine shop. Hope over experience? Let’s hope not.

I will report further on some more of these places soon, but thought I would start with my new local wine shop. One of the owners used to work for Threshers Wine Rack and the original plan had been to revitalise one of their sites, but life brought them to Worcester Park in Surrey where there had never been a Thresher or a Wine Rack, so they had to start from scratch.

Arét & Mislav Kapetanović

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