JOHN BRUNTON’s FRIULI COLLI ORIENTALI WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

The Colli Orientali vineyards stretch across the eastern hills and plains of Friuli, spreading up from Corno di Rosazzo and the border with Slovenia,  past Cividale, a centre of civilisation founded by Julius Caesar, until the foothills of the Julian Prealps. This  intriguing, scenic region is a contrasting mix of tradition and modernity. Indigenous grapes produce distinctive wines that contrast with more well-known international varieties, and tasting the likes of Picolit, Friulano, Ribolla Gialla, Ramandolo, Schioppettino, Pignolo and Refosco del Peduncolo Rosso with proud local winemakers is an unforgettable experience. These mainly family-run cantinas could not be more welcoming, often with guest rooms and suggestions for pairing their vintages with Friulano cuisine. They have invested heavily in their cellars searching for quality, experimenting with new techniques, while in the vineyards, the pursuit for a sustainable biodiversity has led many to organic and biodynamic cultivation.

The perfect place for an initial experience is the sumptuous Palladian-style Villa Nachini-Cabassi that houses Consorzio Friuli Colli Orientali  the association representing a great majority of the region’s winemakers. There is an enoteca, wineshop, and gourmet restaurant, and now an innovative, interactive Tasting Academy has opened its doors, a chance to sample a wide selection of wines accompanied by expert advice.

Perfect to start planning a vineyard trip, alongside the following top selection.   

TOP WINEMAKERS TO DISCOVER

Aquila del Torre

Located north of historic Cividale, the Eagle’s Tower lives up to its name, as a rough road winds to the top of a steep hill overlooking a spectacular vista of vines. Throughout the ride, educational signs explain the biodiversity of the land, whose young, dynamic owners are committed environmentalists. It is the perfect destination for curious wine tourists as there is comfortable bed&breakfast accommodation, a modern tasting room to discover their excellent selection of organic and biodynamic wines, as well as  walking and cycling trips. The Ciani family bought the land here in 1996, cultivating 6 different grape types across 18 hectares, and the present viticoltore, Michele, is already the third generation.

He explains how the key to the quality of their wines, which are all marked AT,  ‘atypical’, are the characteristics of their vineyard amphitheatre, ‘located at 220-300 metres altitude, whose fertile marl and sandstone flysch soil receive lots of rain, with many different expositions to the sun, meaning each parcel of vines can produce different results. Plus the dramatic backdrop of the towering Julian Prealps, which protect the grapes from cold northern winds.’ In the cantina, Michele experiments; concrete ovoid vats, especially for the crisp, mineral Friulano and Sauvignon, and a mix of cement and old wood barrels for  Refosco del Peduncolo Rosso and Merlot.

Don’t miss their Picolit, its explosive fruitiness perfectly paired with a neighbouring farmer’s goat cheese.

Conte D’Attimis Maniago

It is impossible to ignore the immense heritage of Colli Orientali’s most historic estate  when visiting the rambling cantina and tasting room of Conte D’Attimis Maniago, whose family have been making wine here without a single break since 1585. This was once the family’s country villa, and the present Count Alberto lives on the property today, encircled by an enormous 82 hectare single vineyard that spreads out over the surrounding plains and hills. The estate manager is respected oenologue Francesco Spitalieri, who took over the post directly from his father, who made the Count’s wine for 40 years. Continuity is crucial here, and Federico recounts how, ‘‘it is as if I have been here all my life, from the early days of following my Papa when I was a small kid. We practice  sustainable agriculture and are very much traditional winemakers, reluctant to follow fashions. For us maintaining and improving the quality of our wine is always the first objective.’ The estate produces a massive 400,000 bottles, ranging from international wines like Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Cabernet, Merlot and even a surprising Pinot Nero, to the distinctive Friuli grapes of Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, Verduzzo, Picolit and Pignolo. This is also the place to discover the rare Tazzelenghe, which only really reveals its elegance and complexities in a verticle tasting. ‘we are very proud of our Tazzelenghe,’ says Federico, ‘ a singular wine that is out of the ordinary. There are only 10 estates left making this wine from a mere 10 hectares, so the tradition is very precious to us.’

Grillo Iole 

The Colli Orientali boast a significant range of distinctive, iconic wines. Today another local grape is becoming fashionable around the world, Schioppettino, an intense, surprising red wine which has its own village cru here in Prepotto, where a unique molecule in the grape gives a signature peppery aroma and taste. Anna Grillo goes as far to say that, ‘my dream is, maybe for my grandchildren, that our winery production will be 100% Schioppettino di Prepotto, a wine that is perfect with everything – salmon, pasta, a hearty main dish, or just on its own.’

Anna runs the 9 hectare estate and elegant bed&breakfast housed in an 18th century villa with her towering 23 year-old son Mattia, who gave up a promising basketball career to make wine. Though both are self-trained viticoltori, there is a consultant oenologist, and their wines are complex, technical blends of micro vinifications from their numerous small parcels of vines dotted around the cantina, right up to the nearby border with Slovenia. Each plot varies from hillside to plain, different soils, different expositions, so the cellar resembles a maze of tiny steel vats, the wines quietly fermenting and ageing, waiting to be blended together.

Dri

Ramandolo is one of Colli Orientali’s most internationally renowned Cru labels, a luscious, fruity golden wine. Yet Ramandolo takes its name not from a little-known indigenous grape but a rustic village in the foothills of the PreAlps. Sitting beneath a steep vine clad hill, the Dri winery is an imposing modern construction, replacing temporary barracks built for the homeless after the shattering 1976 earthquake that affected all Friuli and whose epicentre was just 8 kilometres away in Gemona. It was designed by Giovanni Dri, the cantina’s patriarch who first bottled the family’s wines in the 1970’s then  sold them in the famous bacari bars of nearby Venice. He still spends most of his days in their 9 hectare vineyard, allowing his daughter, Stefania, the freedom to oversee the cellar.

‘I studied winemaking,’ she reflects, ‘but that does not mean I brought anything new, as Ramandolo remains essentially a “vino di tradizione”. Harvests are naturally late in the year here with our continental microclimate, and frankly we have not been affected by global warming, with the harvest time remaining much as it has always been.’ Ramandolo is made with the Veduzzo Dorato grape, whose incredible tannins combine with the residual sugar of late maturation on the vine, to make a spectacular intense sweet wine. ‘I call our Verduzzo a “vino rosso mancato, un vino dolce che non e dolce”, not a dessert wine but perfect with gorgonzola or our home-cured charcuterie.’ And a convivial tasting at Dri also includes an extensive selection of their reds, olive oil and distinctive grappas that the family still distill themselves.

Livio Felluga

If one winemaker put the wines of Colli Orientali onto the world stage then it was Livio Felluga.  This pioneer passed away 5 years ago at the remarkable age of 102, succeeded today by his two sons, Andrea and Filippo, who together oversee the cellar and vineyards of a vast 170 hectare estate. Livio’s award-winning wines  that succeeded in reaching an appreciative global audience were undoubtedly his hallmark blends; elegant Terre Alte, balancing Friulano and Pinot Bianco with Sauvignon, and the dramatic Sossó, where supple Merlot offsets the more austere Pignolo and Refosco dal Peduncolo Rosso. Today, there is a subtle shift towards the philosophy of creating a superior Cru  using single grapes like Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio and Friulano from single vineyard plots, centred around the magnificent lands that surround the Abbazia di Rosazzo, the heart of Friuli winemaking for over a millennium.

Since 2009, the Felluga family has revived the Abbey’s historic vines, planting an arena of diverse vines around a futuristic open air installation – the Vigne Muzium. Now work has also begun to create a modern cantina in the old stables where the Abbey’s wines will finally be vinified on the property itself, and then barrel-aged in a magical 12th century cellar where monks made their first vintages.  

Ronc dai Luchis 

Visiting this historic estate, that has been in the hands of the same family for over 250 years, is like stepping back into Friuli’s rural past, when farming cereals, olive oil and raising animals were as important as winemaking. Today the old cow stables have been converted into a guesthouse, and Federico di Lucca is producing exceptional wines on a 10 hectare vineyard  that includes some incredible century-old Friulano vines, so big they resemble tree trunks. Tradition is the key word here. Federico is proud that apart from award winning vintages, he still sells 30% of production ‘sfuso’, in demijohns that a faithful local clientele bottle themselves at home. There is an ancient vaulted cellar beneath the farmhouse for tasting his selection of Pinot Grigio, Merlot, and a rare dry Verduzzo. But pride of place goes to the Refosco de Faedis, a unique  village grape. ‘Six winemakers around our village have formed an association to promote and assure the quality of our very own Refosco de Faedis,’ explains Federico during an impressive vertical tasting that goes back as far as a 2000 vintage.’Our wine is very different from the classic Refosco del Peduncolo Rosso, which can be supple and initially easy to drink. Ours is more austere, but that means incredible elegance and complexity when it is aged properly. For example, we only begin selling the 2015 vintage this year.’ Records dating back to the 16th century show that this Refosco was originally drunk sweet, using 100% ‘passito’ grapes, and Federico shows a small wooden case of drying raisins, as 7% is still passito today.

Scubla 

Roberto Scubla’s vineyard covers an idyllic hillside, renowned for producing some of the highest quality wines in Friuli. But this quiet, erudite man is by no means a natural-born winemaker. He graduated in biology at the end of the 1960’s, but reflecting the difficult economic situation at the time, Roberto chose  the safety of a job in the local bank. In his early 40’s though, ‘I decided to follow my dreams. I came from a family that had never owned land, but as a kid I spent summers in my uncle’s vineyard where a passion was born. So in 1991 I bought 12 hectares of vines and woodland on this unique hill, along with a house that was once a defence outpost for the Castello Di Rocca Bernardo that we have transformed from ruins into a cantina and tasting room. I think my biology studies helped me understand what to do in the vineyard, so although we inherited some vines over 60 years old, the great majority I preferred to replant, choosing which grape, which exposition, which ventilation from the winds. Everything that helps the grape grow healthy, the key to making a great wine.’

Spurning the rules and regulations demanded for official certification, Roberto and his long-time assistant Aleks Matincigh still follow both organic and biodynamic principles in vineyard and cellar. Scubla produces a surprising variety of white wines, including Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia, Riesling, a sparkling Chardonnay, and the quality is always exceptional, regularly winning international awards.

Jacuss

Sandro Iacussi is clearly a happy vignaiolo, enthusiastically opening bottles at his back garden table, proudly explaining how he and his brother Andrea run a small family-owned vineyard whose history in this sleepy village of Montina di Torreano dates back to 1506. Moreover, he is already working with his 21 year-old daughter, who is still studying oenology but has already put own personal touch to the latest Sauvignon vintage. He recalls how, ‘we were born in the fields of the countryside as “contadini”, farmers, where the aim was to cultivate to survive, to have enough to eat. That is the reality of Friuli. Wine has come into our lives as a plus. We have 11 hectares, all in little parcels around the village, and our cantina is a traditional mix of cement and oak barrel ageing.’ The brothers are committed to native grapes, producing a Schioppettino ‘that has the elegance, the finesse of a Pinot Noir’, while the little-known Tazzelenghe, ‘used to be a rustic wine, difficult to drink, which we now understand better, ageing if for 2 years in small barrels to increase suppleness.’ And Sandro shows a serious sense of humour as he pulls the cork of a Forment, his Friulano riserva, recounting how ‘I decided to steal the name of Hungary’s grape, Furmint, that makes their Tokaji in revenge for them making us change the name of our traditional Tocai wine to Friulano.’

Visintini

Hidden away in the vine laden hills of Corno di Rosazzo, the Visintini family occupy an imposing castello, marked by both a 12th century tower and  modern wine cellar. And on the lawn in front of the tasting room sits a suggestive terracotta amphora, hinting at the innovative wines produced here by Oliviero and his twin sisters, Cinzia and Palmira. Oliviero began to modernise what was a classic Friulano farm of animals, cereals and vines at the end of the 1990’s. And modernise he has, as today, this 30 hectare estate is the largest biodynamic vineyard in Friuli and one of the pioneers to seriously use amphorae, with 10 of them dominating the cellar.

Oliviero enthusiastically explains that ‘the amphora augments the nose of the wine and softens the tannins while maintaining freshness. I started working with them in 2013 after visiting many cantinas in Tuscany, tasting wines made with different types of amphora. When I found a specific producer working with terracotta that I liked, I began experimenting with Pignolo, Friulano and now Pinot Grigio. At the same time, for all our wines, we started making the vineyard organic in 2005 then since 2007 are following Biodynamic principles. Although 80% of the cantina’s production is white, including exceptional Friulano and Sauvignon, it is fascinating to taste the difference between a red Pignolo 2013 vintage made in the amphora and one traditionally aged in wood.

The aromas of the wood vintage are far more seductive but it is ultimately austere and will clearly need many more years ageing, while the amphora vintage seems closed initially but is wonderfully supple and fruity to drink.

Sirch 

The story of the Sirch brothers, Luca and Pierpaolo, begins back in the 1980’s when wine from a small 4 hectare vineyard was produced solely to supply the family’s Bar Italia in the centre of Cividale. In 1998, the brothers took over the estate with the aim of increasing both quality and quantity, an immediate success that has seen production rise from 5,000 bottles in 2002 to some 600,000 today. Luca explains how they have always kept faith in their principles, ‘to make what I believe are modern, uncomplex wines – mineral, crisp, elegant – and not overpowering or too intense. His range of whites remains the flagship, not just  Friulano, Sauvignon and Chardonnay, but Ribolla Gialla and Pinot Grigio. ‘Ribolla Gialla is very important today for the identity of Colli Orientali, he declares. ‘In 2004, we made our first 1,000 bottles and they sold out almost immediately. Today it is 40-50,000 and they are still the first to sell.’ For Pinot Grigio, Sirch has entered an ambitious partnership with an American distributor. Luca travelled all over Colli Orientali to rent 30 hectares of vines just for export to the USA, where Pinot Grigio remains most people’s favourite white wine. ‘We still have what I call  pharaonic projects for a new cellar, enoteca, restaurant and b&b, but everything has been put on hold during the Covid pandemic. But one project has still gone ahead,  my ambition of creating a genuine Cru wine here in Colli Orientali. The name is Cladrecis, a unique parcel of land at 320 metres altitude above Prepotto. We have bought 50 hectares of woodland, with 10 hectares now cultivated as a vineyard, where there is the opportunity to make a high quality Chardonnay and an Alto-Adige style Pinot Nero, as well, of course, as a Schioppettino di Prepotto.’

Vignaioli Specogna

There are few cantinas in Friuli that can compare with the warmth and hospitality winelovers receive when they arrive at Vignaioli Spegogna.

Run by Cristian and Michele Spegogna, these two passionate brothers are the third generation of a family that has made its mark internationally for their distinctive Colli Orientali wines. Sitting in the cosy wood-beamed tasting room, a bottle is not uncorked until the wooden table groans with artisan salami, prosciutto and cheeses, the perfect pairing to a serious tasting that stretches across numerous varietals and vintages. The estate has progressed from a small sustainable farm founded in 1963 to todays 25 hectares of prime vineyards around Rocca Bernarda and Abbazia di Rosazzo. Cristian explains how, ‘we produce 120,000 bottles today, concentrating on our signature wines; Friulano and Sauvignon, Merlot, Pignolo and Picolit. And we take biodiversity very seriously as the estate includes woodlands, honey production, olive groves and replanted fruit trees. You can experiment all you like in the cellar, but  the quality of the wine comes from the vineyard. where there must be an equilibrium with nature through biodiversity.’ One wine above all others personifies this cantina, Pinot Grigio Ramato, which Cristian proudly relates was produced from the earliest days of his grandfather. ‘Colli Orientali is the heart of Ramato, a tradition of macerating grape juice with its skins to produce a unique pinky, orange colour. Lets be clear though, this an a historic tradition and nothing to do with the present fad of macerating to create Orange wine.’ The degustation always ends with a glass of Picolit, a flagship of the cantina, because ‘it is the wine of friendship, and no one can leave before we drink a glass of our Picolit together.’

where to stay

There are a host of friendly winemaker Agriturismo and Bed&Breakfast accommodation all over the Colli Orientali. A great place to base yourself is Azienda Agricola Perusini, who offer self-catering guestrooms,  a chic restaurant and tastings of their own wines.

where to eat

Friuli’s cuisine is as characterful as its wines, so expect to discover original dishes, from delicious frico, fried cheese, ‘jota’, an umami stew of sauerkraut, bacon and beans, bless pasta with nettles and asparagus or sweet gnocchi stuffed with prunes.

And there is always the perfect wine to pair with each dish. Trattoria da Mario in Prepotto is perfect for traditional dishes and an extensive wine list, while just outside the vineyards, explore gourmet hideaways like Sale e Pepe in the magical Natisone Valley  

what to do

Cividale del Friuli is a remarkable city to discover, its roots spreading back to the Romans, Celts and fierce Longobardi tribes. Don’t miss the tempting antiques market on the last Sunday of each month.

JOHN BRUNTON’S ROYAL MANSOUR MARRAKECH FOOD LAB TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

Marrakech ranks as one of the world’s ultimate foodie destinations, be it sitting down for a gourmet tasting menu in a sumptuous palace hotel, whose haute-cuisine restaurants are invariably overseen by an international  celebrity chef, or feasting off traditional Moroccan specialties cooked up at the hundreds of tantalising stalls around the ancient Medina’s immense Jemaa El-Fna square. But the line between fine dining and street food has become blurred for some time now, especially during this new era of pandemic travel when time almost seems to stand still. It is the perfect moment for reflection, to step back and ask the question; what kind of gastronomy will travellers be looking for in this new uncertain world? In Paris, London and New York, food lovers are now used to ordering simple Click&Collect meals prepared by the restaurants of stellar gourmet chefs.

Here in Marrakech, it is the city’s most prestigious, most luxurious address, the Royal Mansour, that has launched a pioneering initiative. The Food Lab is a unique competition, throwing down the gauntlet to the hotel’s predominantly local Moroccan kitchen staff to create exciting new dishes from a melting pot of local and global food trends.

The 100-strong brigade of the Royal Mansour already work under the supervision and inspiration of two of the world’s most renowned Three Star Michelin chefs, Yannick Alleno from France and Italy’s Massimiliano Alajmo. But the hotel’s innovative director, Jean-Claude Messant, admits that, ‘there is a challenge to keep staff motivated, creative and busy during a pandemic.’ His solution is the Food Lab, an unconventional competition open to everyone working in the kitchens, calling for recipes with ‘freshness, colour, taste, pleasure, audacity’, with the ultimate prize of the top three dishes being featured on the hotel’s menu. He explains how, ‘it was essential to demand creativity, to ask everyone to think out of the box, beyond the constraints of classic Escoffier-style training, instead taking inspiration from World Food and Street Food, where you maybe only need to spend 15 minutes perfecting a dish rather a meticulous 8 hours.’ And this really seems the right time to offer something different for discerning diners. Monsieur Messant is adamant that, ‘the new generation of food-loving traveller just wants to eat well. That is all. The crucial word is now ‘gourmand’ – tasty – and no longer gourmet or gastronomic. He wants to be tempted by Chinese and Indian dishes, raw fish prepared Japanese or Peruvian style, Middle Eastern vegetarian, exotic takes on pizza; to be surprised by new tastes, new spices, new ingredients. That is the challenge we laid down in the Food Lab, and the response and results have been simply sensational.’

A total of 28 kitchen teams worked the best part of a month during the quieter moment of lockdown, creating 56 cosmopolitan, eclectic dishes for the 6-man jury of the Food Lab. Revisiting the food heritage of the likes of Mexico and Vietnam, Senegal and India, Zanzibar and Japan, then adding in a certain Moroccan touch, it is difficult to imagine many of these trainee chefs had not even travelled outside the Morocco. But the competition gave them the freedom for a virtual global foodie tour to seek inspiration. 

Below, discover the stories of ten tastes of the competition. The first three will soon be enjoyed by guests at the Royal Mansour, but all the Food Lab’s dazzling dishes merit applause.

TOP TEN DISHES

Bành Xéo

You find many French influences in Vietnamese street food, dating back to the  colonial days of Indochine, with surprising local favourites like a baguette stuffed with luncheon meat, Banh Flan crème caramel, and Bành Xéo, the local take on crepes. Zahira Lasri and and Mariam Hammoudi, are experienced chefs, currently in Massimiliano Alajmo’s Italian-influenced Sesamo restaurant, and have worked together in many of the Royal Mansour’s restaurants since they arrived direct  from Marrakech’s Ecole de Cuisine.

Zahira has travelled to Italy for training in Alajmo’s Three Star Michelin restaurant just outside Venice, while Mariam has visited France to test the cuisine there. ‘But we both really love Asian cuisine, even if we have never been there,’ says Zahira with a smile, ‘and Bành Xéo sounded like something different, interesting to taste and also a good dish for people with lactose problems. Rather than classic French crepes, ours are crispy rice pancakes which we fill with plump shrimp, soya shoots, pickles and herbs. For the guests of a hotel like the Royal Mansour, presentation is critical, and for that we were inspired by our local market where rural women come in to sell Jben, every Moroccan’s favourite creamy fresh cheese delicately wrapped in palm leaves, that looks so good you are desperate to eat it!’. Not content with creating one dish, this adventurous pair also proposed Tokoyaki, delicious octopus balls flavoured with spring onion, ginger and a fragrant sweet sauce, which will also find its place on one of the hotel’s restaurant menus.

Pani Puri

The uncontested star of Indian street food are the delicious snacks known as Pani Puri. Round, hollowed-out balls of deep-fried, crisp dough are filled with a mysterious savoury mix, with each street vendor proudly guarding his own secret recipe to attract loyal customers.

Quite a challenge to recreate this for one of the Royal Mansour’s dining rooms, but one that caught the imagination of Frenchman Guillaume Laratte and Moroccan Meriem Inaam. Guillaume has experience of working with not just the Royal Mansour’s Yannick Alléno, but Three Star Michelin chefs Alain Ducasse and Gordon Ramsey in Paris, London and New York. ‘But I have never travelled to India,’ he admits, ‘and my chef friends are always talking about the amazing cuisine there. So the Food Lab was to occasion to try something new. Although Pani Puri is essentially street food we wanted to create a version that could be served in the hotel, so it needed to be elegant and appetising.

We decided to resist the allure of chili and instead created 3 dipping sauces for the deep-fried bread balls – tamarind, minty yogurt and coriander sweetened with palm sugar.’

Falafel Sandwich

Jaouad Boulaayat is joint Chef de Cuisine of the Royal Mansour’s prestigious Grande Table Marocaine, one of the country’s leading restaurants dedicated to Moroccan gastronomy. But his first working experience was in one of Marrakech’s Lebanese restaurants, where he discovered the subtle recipes of Levantine cuisine, inspiring him for the Food Lab to transform an iconic mezze into a surprising Falafel Sandwich.

‘I have always been excited and intrigued by any kind of Oriental cuisine,’ recounts Chef Jaouad, ‘and this dish combines the flavour and heritage of Lebanon’s iconic falafel with our traditional Moroccan batbout bread, accompanied by the Middle Eastern flavours of babaganoush and tahini, grilled pine nuts, and garlicky tzatziki to awaken the palate.’ Assisted by Mohamed Ben Doudou, a young Demi Chef de Partie in Room Service, who has worked with Jaouad since he was a trainee, the pair explain how ‘we both jumped at the challenge of this competition, firstly to share our own experiences and ideas, and also in the hope that if our dish becomes part of the hotel’s menu, that may give us the chance to travel overseas to both show other people our Moroccan cuisine and discover new ideas and influences.’

Pho Gà

When it comes to tempting Comfort Food nothing quite compares to a nourishing dish of chicken noodle soup, known in Vietnamese cuisine as Pho Gà. You will see rickety stalls on every street corner from Hanoi to Saigon, with a pot of bubbling chicken broth balancing atop a red-hot charcoal brazier, ladled into a bowl brimming with delicate rice noodles, fragrant herbs and spices. Customers usually perch on tiny pavement stools, but it will be very different when Abdelhadi Mamri and Fatima Khabir’s version of Pho Gà is served in the Royal Mansour’s chic Le Jardin restaurant. Abdelhadi has the important position of overseeing the preparation of meals for the Royal Mansour’s staff. ‘I love Asian food,’ he enthuses, ‘even cooking  it at home. Fatima and I found the recipe for Pho Gà in the hotel’s library but decided to adapt it for Morocco. The base is still an 8 hour slow-cooked chicken broth, with shitake mushrooms, cabbage and rice noodles. But for the spices, apart from the Asian ingredients of basil, mint, ginger and lemongrass, we add in Moroccan cardamon, star anise, coriander seeds, cinnamon and cloves. Well, not only did my family love it, but the Food Lab jury approved too, so we are very proud.

Tostones Rellenos

While many of the 56 members of the Royal Mansour’s kitchen brigade who took part in the Food Lab competition found inspiration in the virtual world of global cuisine on show on the internet, Chef Amine Abdelai has worked here since the day the hotel opened and is more old-school in his methods. ‘Our Executive chef, Jerôme Videau, has the most amazing collection of cook books from around the world, ‘ he enthuses, ‘a real library where I love to come to seek inspiration for new recipes.’ Amine is aided and assisted by Abderrazak Anzaoui, who is just starting out as a young Commis straight our of college, and the two have both travelled extensively around their native Morocco. ‘We love the varieties and uniqueness of our regional cuisine,’ they declare, ‘so for this project we chose the country of Mexico for inspiration because it also has many regional specialities. We took a traditional recipe from there and revisited in with our Moroccan touch to add freshness, gourmandise, tastiness and simplicity. This meant adding in coconut milk, marinating with lime and using espelette, a less forceful chilly than Mexican ones, and to substitute local green bananas for Latin American plantains. To be one of the three winners is a great honour, and who knows, when the world finally goes back to some kind of normality, one day the Royal Mansour might send the two of us to Mexico to look for ideas for new recipes!’  

Ice Cream Pastilla

Aziz Bouzkri and Soukaina At Said both work in the pâtisserie section of the Royal Mansour, essentially catering for room service right now while travel restrictions continue.

‘Before confinement,’ relates Aziz, ‘I worked in the Grande Table Marocaine preparing traditional Moroccan desserts, and for the competition I wanted  to try something different, combining the use of our traditional flaky pastilla pastry with the freshness of homemade ice-cream.

Rather than use classic vanilla flavour, we opted for a neutral milk ice-cream to let our ingredients come to the fore; dried apricots and raisins, almonds.’ Soukaina adds with a satisfied smile that, ‘we worked together for a month to come up with the dish, and although in the kitchen we always have to have total respect for hygiene regulations and social distancing, I think for the whole time we actually managed to forget about the pandemic, the lockdowns, and just concentrate on such an exciting, creative project.’

Sucrine Salad with Ketiakh

Karim Ben Baba and Mouna Al Yachiri travelled far to find the inspiration for their Food Lab dish, across to the West coast of Africa, where ketiakh is a treasured ingredient in the cuisine of Senegal. ‘I am very interested in the principles of natural, sustainable conservation,’ recalls Karim, ‘and when a Senegalese friend told me about ketiakh, preserved sardines or anchovies, I wanted to create a dish using them.’ The idea of leaving fish to dry in the sun, to rot almost, was created by the Romans with their Garum anchovy sauce, and it is the same principle used today in Senegal where ketiakh  is a staple ingredient with rice and sago. Karim and Mouna were enchanted by the empathy of this dish – the connection between the fisherman who catches the sardines for his wife, whereby she salts and sun dries them, he debones and cleans them, and then she prepares the dish.

‘But we decided to revisit the ingredient by creating a light, fresh dish, using crispy sucrine salad, locally-caught sardines, and a touch of Morocco with orange, persimmon and cinnamon.’

Croustillette Savoyarde

Romain Correze arrived at the Royal Mansour from France just before the pandemic started. Though he may not have seen much of Marrakech, life in the kitchens has been busy, testing new creations, where he and Chaima Mouharare both work as pastry chefs.

They made the conscious decision to propose something completely different than their speciality pâtisseries. ‘I have no experience of street food,’ admits Romain, ‘and am not even from the Alps in Savoie where our recipe comes from. But we wanted to experiment. Under the hot sun of Marrakech, it was a gamble to propose such a  hearty, wintery dish, but everyone seems to like it. Although there are several key ingredients, in the street food spirit, everything can be put together quickly, as long as everything is perfectly prepared; a thin crispy puff pastry bread is filled with sautéed and puréed potatoes, tasty onion jam, smoked beef bacon, fried shallots and creamy melted Reblochon cheese. We thought about adapting the recipe for sweet ingredients, our speciality, but this tastes too delicious!’

Steamed Nori Fish East-West

The culinary heritage of Japan has been inspiring for many of the Food Lab recipes, but chefs Youssef Ait Belkas and Ali Timouni went one step further by combining the fresh, line-caught fish from the coast of Morocco with Japan’s emblematic nori seaweed that has become a global trend for chefs searching to recreate the elusive deliciousness of ‘umami’ flavour. Youssef recalls that he had never even heard of nori before working in the Royal Mansour’s kitchens, ‘and it is an ingredient that can add a totally new dimension to this recipe where we unite  two of the great cultures of cuisine, Morocco and Japan.’ Their dish creates an osmosis between local seabass, the West, and flakes of nori seaweed from the East. ‘The best, simplest way to eat fish is steamed,’ explains Youssef, ‘so the seabass is wrapped in nori leaves, but from Marrakech’s market, we add in lemon confit for acidity and sundried tomatoes for freshness.’

Waffles with Spices

Belgian cuisine has long lived in the shadow of French gastronomy, but it is responsible for giving the world several of its favourite dishes; crispy, irresistible frites, delicious steamed mussels, ‘moules  marinières’, while the humble waffle, ‘gaufre’, has been turned into an art form by Belgian chefs.

Jaouad Oualadi, assistant Chef Pâtisserie for all the Royal Mansour’s restaurants, along with Lamya El Jazy, a specialist in Moroccan pastries, decided to relook the waffle for the Food Lab competition, explaining that, ‘Belgian waffles are already a popular street food here in Marrakech but we wanted to recreate the traditional recipe from Liège. Their technique involves using a brioche dough instead of a liquid batter, creating two different doughs, one a classic chocolate base, the other totally Moroccan, a smooth praline using local almonds and Argan oil. ‘I think this will surprise foodlovers,’ says Jaouad, ‘when they see what looks like a traditional waffle which then surprises with the flavours of Marrakech.’


JOHN BRUNTON’S DICTADOR TWO MASTER’S TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

Imagine Dictador’s rarest vintage rum, distilled in Colombia from prize sugar cane honey and aged for over 40 years at the edge of the rainforest, cooled by maritime breezes from the azure waters of the Caribbean Sea, then sealed in a cask to begin a final journey as far as Europe and North America for an ultimate maturing under the watchful eyes of some of the world’s most renowned cellar masters. These are Dictador’s hand-picked Partner Masters,  all expert blenders and agers in their own fields, be it the finest single malt or bourbon, luscious Sauternes or bubbly champagne, elegant cognac or Bordeaux wine.

The world of luxury spirits has never witnessed as audacious a project as this, where Dictador’s master blender, Hernan Parra, boldly passes his precious creations to likeminded craftsmen from other wines and spirits, far away on another continent, in unfamiliar cellars, ageing in unknown barrels. The result is a series of  limited edition bottles, not just signed but bearing the fingerprint of each of the 2 Masters. Expect nothing less than masterpieces; not only precious to collect and display, but above all, for the unforgettable moment when opened and shared,  dazzling with incomparable aromas and tastes. 

Dictador’s cellar master is Hernan Parra, the third generation of his family to oversee this venerable 1913 distillery, a man with a vision to create a new ultra-premium category of rum. He recounts how, “we found ourselves at Dictador with a stock of exceptional vintage rum from the times of my father and grandfather and had to make a decision to create something unique that was one step ahead of everyone else.  Like all spirit producers we often buy old barrels to age our rum and the initial idea was to buy a series of prestigious barrels from across the world to finish our rum here in Colombia. But then I said; what are we going to lose if we send our rum out to be finished by other cellar masters?” Positive replies swiftly arrived back from the world’s top blenders and agers, delighting Hernan, who describes how, “when the barrel leaves our cellars I give it my blessing. It will never come back and the second masters have total carte blanche to mature, to blend as they want. In fact, at first, it was the second masters who were a little nervous, but I just said; go ahead, you have total freedom. But be sure to taste our vintages and not to drink it all before ageing!” Señor Parra certainly has no doubt that the final 2 Masters bottle is better than the rum that left Colombia, “because I send my finest rum to some of the world’s finest cellar masters and obviously they improve it by creating extra layers to the spirit. So today, collectors, connoisseurs and investors from the world of luxury spirits will genuinely discover a unique rum.”

Hernan Parra began touring the distilleries of the world as a teenager, accompanying his father on tasting trips. Travelling today to meet the second masters in their own cellars opened his eyes. “What is amazing is not the differences between all the masters but the similarities. We all have the same issues and problems and this has been a great opportunity to discuss.  It is just that we are working with different raw materials. And 2 Masters gave us all the chance to work just with rum, which I am certain is the future of the spirits world.” A new collaboration with Portugal’s iconic port houses, Niepoort, is just coming to fruition with the upcoming launch of a series of vintage Dictador rums uniquely finished in Niepoort’s  traditional oak shipping barrels. Other projects for the future are looking towards spirit masters from Mexico, Australia, Japan.

Now take the journey below to meet in person, the renowned cellar masters from Europe and America in person who have accepted the challenge to finish the ageing of Dictador’s vintage rum.

HERVE JOSTIN

Epernay is the winemaking capital of the world’s most famous bubbly, and the grand Avenue du Champagne is lined by famous name cellars as Moët & Chandon and Perrier-Jouët. But hidden down a quiet street is a more discrete Maison, Leclerc Briant, steeped in history as it approaches its 150th anniversary, and a pioneer today for organic innovation, excellence and creativity, the perfect partner for Dictador.

The cellar master and winemaker here, Hervé Justin, resembles a medieval alchemist, surrounded not just by  barrels and steel vats, but experimental terracotta ovoid amphorae, magical blown-glass jars filled with PInot Noir or Chardonnay, a titanium barrel, and a  unique steel cask coated inside with gold.

Dictador’s rum is stored at the bottom of a vertiginous 35 metre staircase in a humid, chalky cellar, and Hervé reminisces how, “I jumped at the chance to age rum, a living eau-de-vie, using our biodynamic philosophy. Rum is malleable, capable of understanding and adapting to its surroundings, and I want to see how it interacts with our champagne. We buy barrels that are 2-6 years old, which we use just for 6 years, then resell to whisky and artisan brewers who are all interested in the effects of using an old champagne barrel. I chose very lightly charred casks for Dictador’s rum, to extend our own particular  biodynamic winemaking approach to the ageing of rum. I see a real transfer of energy from our champagne, adding what I would call ‘élégance Champenoise’, a certain lightness  to the rum’s own potency, structure and complexity.”

MICKAËL BOUILLY 

Gently swirling a glass of Dictador 2 Masters rum, the elegant fifth-generation owner of  distinguished haute couture cognac house, Maison Hardy, recalls that, “I have to admit it was a surprise at first to see a Colombian blender with his casks here in my cellar in Cognac, but then I said why not.” Bénédicte Hardy is a celebrated figure in the world of luxury spirits, but admits that, “I guess I am a dinosaur with cognac as I don’t think it should be aged in any other barrels than our own. But for us to finish another spirit like rum, well that was a different challenge . I thought it was a unique idea, never done before, and Dictador are innovative and understand global markets. So putting their rum in the hands of Hardy’s cellar master Mickaël Bouilly could only be good for both of us.”

Explaining his role, Michaël eloquently describes how, “in the life of a great spirit there are all the people involved in producing the raw material – grapes in the case of cognac, sugar cane for rum. Then there is the distillation, and for me, things begin to get interesting after three years in the barrel. That is when my work really begins to influence the taste, the aroma, the colour.” And this quiet, reserved master blender suddenly becomes passionate when describing his ageing; “I found myself inspired by the four seasons. Spring is not too tannic, light like the first bud of flowers, while summer has more body, more wood. Then autumn becomes aromatic, the flowers in full bloom, hints of burnt almond, until winter is more about the toasted wood, a long persistent taste with coffee and chocolate.”

ZOLTAN KOVACS ADORJAN

Hungary’s sleepy village of Mád, pronounced Maad, is surrounded by bucolic rolling vineyards in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains that produce the world’s oldest and most famous sweet wine. Known as the Wine of Kings, Tokaji – historically called Tokay in English – has been made since the 16th century, beloved by Louis XIV, Emperor Franz Josef and Queen Victoria. It predates Bordeaux’s famous Grand Cru Classé 1855 by more than a century, and today,  Royal Tokaji is the winery leading a renaissance  of this famous amber nectar.

Zoltan Kovács Adorján is the winemaker in charge of both  vineyard cultivation and the cellar, and he enthuses that, “from the moment I met the team from Dictador it was immediately clear we were on the same wavelength, the same vibration, perfect for a collaboration. It was a special moment when Hernan Parra  came all the way to Mád to visit our winery and barrel-ageing cellars. He shipped the rare rum vintages he wanted us to work on, and from then on it was my decision how to age, which cask to choose. A wonderful sense of freedom. We had just bottled our flagship 2016 Aszú sweet wine, a terrific vintage bursting with fruit and unctuous aromas, and I decided to choose from these just-emptied casks for Dictador, in particular, a 12 year-old 300 litre cask handcrafted by our artisan cooper from local Zemplén wood.

I preferred an older barrel so that the main influence on the raw rum would be the wine rather than the wood. Today, at the end of the ageing, I can see my influence has been to increase the elegance, roundness, sense of balance, adding subtle nuances of honey and papaya”

CYRIL LAUDET

Armagnac can lay claim to being the world’s oldest distilled spirit, whose history stretches back 700 years. And nothing symbolises these traditions more than the majestic Château Laballe, where Cyril Laudet is the eighth-generation of the oldest armagnac family still producing this magical amber liquid. He only uses his own grapes from the vineyard surrounding the chateau, distills himself with a splendid wood-fired alambic, and ages over 500 casks made from local Gascon Black Oak, in an ancient 300 year-old cellar.

Cyril immediately recognised the synergy between Laballe and Dictador – both combining tradition, excellence and innovation. Moreover, his ancestor who founded the dynasty was a spice merchant, who originally made his fortune in the Caribbean before returning to his native Gascony to buy an armagnac estate. The family were pioneers shipping their armagnac to New York in the 1920’s, and today are ageing rum that was distilled in the tropics of Colombia. “After receiving Hernan Parra’s 1976 single cask selection,¨

Cyril recounts, “I wanted to leave Dictador’s precious rum to age in our distinctively humid cellar, encircled by armagnac barrels so it could be literally impregnated by our spirit. My choice of casks subtly influence the vintage rum, with a young armagnac’s oaky barrique adding fruity freshness to the finish, while suppleness comes from a venerable artisan 50 year-old barrel whose tannin has all but gone, replaced by the nutty, earthiness of what we in Armagnac country call ‘rancio’.”

CALLUM FRASER

“The license to distill at Glenfarclas dates back to 1836,” declares Callum Fraser proudly, “and we are very serious about following tradition rather than experimenting or changing for changes sake. This is Scotland’s oldest independent, family-run distillery, sitting here in the shadow of Ben Remis mountain.

“Six generations of the Grant family have been making Glenfarclas whisky, and we stick to our own rules when it comes to distilling and ageing, with no playing about. But we are also open to creative collaborations, and the similar independence and heritage we share with Dictador’s Parra family gave us the  synergy to be flexible and try a new project like 2 Masters.” Callum has been working in Scotland’s whisky business for over 30 years, recently lauded in 2020 as both Distiller and Distillery Manager  of the year. And he is the ultimate hands-on cellar master, living on site, “so no excuse being late in the morning,” he says with a wide grin.

“Hernan chose 8 casks of vintage rum for us, so from our warehouses, where we store near to 100,000 barrels, I chose 8 different barrels to complement his selection, ranging from 8 to 50 years old.” He admits that, “I may be a whisky man through and through, but like my wine and rum too, though I can find rum a little sweet.” The effect of ageing in his Hogshead Sherry casks, has been to add a certain freshness and fruitiness to Hernan Parra’s precious 1974 vintage, with emotive tasting notes that conjure up not just vintage leather and cigars but summer fruit compote and a touch of orange.

THIBAUT DESPAGNE AND JEROME COSSON

France’s Bordeaux region produces not merely some of the world’s most renowned wines, but also its most varied, and when Hernan Parra began his search here for the perfect partners in his 2 Masters project, he chose two very different domaines. Château d’Arche stands out not only for producing a sublime Sauternes, France’s iconic sweet white wine, but also as one of the  elite 87 châteaux that bear the prestigious label ‘Grand Cru Classé 1855’, selected for their exceptional quality at the request of Emperor Napoleon III for the Exposition Universelle in Paris. The history of Château d’Arche dates back to 1733, and their Sauternes is traditionally made from late harvested grapes affected by Noble Rot.

The ageing then takes place in their stunning new eco-responsible cellar, where winemaker Jérôme Cosson selects a mix of both new and old French oak barrels to add a subtle finish to Dictador’s rare 1978 rum, originally stored in American oak bourbon casks.

Across the other side of Bordeaux, Thibaut Despagne’s Château Mont Pérat is in the historic winemaking village of Entre-Deux-Mers. He explains that “although we are 100 miles from the coast, this is called ‘the land between two seas’ because of a unique oceanic climate blowing maritime winds that impregnate our barrels over the years and are now ageing Dictador’s rum from the other side of the earth, 8,000  kilometres away in Colombia.”


He also notes how “the white wine barrels originally holding dry but aromatic Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, gave freshness, a delicate flowery touch that aerated the rum, making it more lively, with a little tension, while the  tannins in the red Merlot casks toned down denseness and sweetness, adding a certain stability.”

DREW MAYVILLE

One of America’s most renowned blenders, Drew Mayville has been in the spirits business for 42 years and oversees numerous distilleries. He is based in Kentucky, and fel thatt the perfect place to bring Dictador’s Colombian rum was rustic Bardstown, the unofficial Bourbon Capital of the World, where Barton 1792 has been distilling over 140 years.

Drew explains that although tradition is important here, with Barton proudly named after the year Kentucky joined the United States, “we are also a distillery that is known for experimentation and I leapt at this chance to collaborate with Hernan Parra.The attraction of working with Dictador was the freedom to do what I want.  Quite simply they do not dictate. I received a series of samples of different vintage rums, and they let me choose which to age, a great gesture of confidence in me on their part. I chose two,  mixed my own blend, then selected three very different types of barrels; wheated bourbon, rye-bourbon and straight rye. Each have a very different effect on the rum, hopefully  creating some very original choices for connoisseurs and collectors.”

The result is a balanced spirit where the rum shines while reflecting the nuances of our Kentucky bourbon without being overpowered by it, adding complexity and contrasts to the original vintage rum. “I have had so much fun collaborating with another cellar master over in South America,” insists Drew, “and I even suggested that next time Dictador should extend the idea to 3 Masters! Hernan just gave me a wry smile, maybe because this kind of experimentation often throws up more questions than answers. But that is how we can all increase our knowledge.”

                                                 Ends

JOHN BRUNTON’S VENTOUX WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

The towering Mont Ventoux, known as the mythical Géant de Provence, is often whipped by the gusting Mistral, but today a new wind is blowing through the whole Ventoux wine region. This is one of the more dynamic, under-the-radar Southern Rhône appellations, long dominated by village Caves Coopératives, buying up smallholder harvests and producing cheap and cheerful wines. Now the sleeping giant is waking up, with a new generation of independent vignerons alongside more future-thinking Coopératives, crafting wines that are making the world take notice; intense fruitiness and bursting with  freshness, high acidity, increasingly sustainable, organic,  biodynamic.

And there is enormous potential for experimental blending and ageing, as one of the quirky rules of the appellation is that all wines must an ‘assemblage’, a mix of grapes. So expect to see the varied influences of Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault in the reds, Clairette, Bourboulenc, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc for the whites. Winemakers offer far more than cellar tastings and tours, from hosting their own b&b, renting electric bikes to explore the vignoble, while foodies can enjoy creative wine pairing in gourmet restaurants or just a delicious chilled Ventoux Rosé accompanying a vineyard picnic. Visitors to estates are always welcome, and after checking the AOC Ventoux website, here are ten top address to tracking down. 

TOP TEN WINEMAKERS TO DISCOVER

Chateau Croix des Pins

Jean-Pierre Valade may be born around here but he is not a typical Ventoux vigneron. The locals affectionately refer to him as Monsieur Champenoise, as he is an internationally-acclaimed oenologue specialised in champagne and other bubbly. “I continue to hold sparkling wine consultancies for vineyards around the world,” he explains, “ but I decided in my mid 40’s that it was time to make my own wine. The Ventoux ticked all the boxes, particularly the expectation that this will be one of the wines of the future. I was looking above all for ‘fraîcheur’, freshness, fruitiness and acidity, and these are the Ventoux signatures.” Croix des Pins was already one of the pioneer organic vineyards, “but it was in a pretty bad state when we bought in back in 2009,” he recalls, “so 80% has been replanted. The 16th century château was virtually a ruin, and it took 3 years to renovate, but this is a perfect region for wine tourism, so we have created a purpose-built cellar, tasting room, guest rooms and a restaurant.” Jean-Pierre commissioned a distinctive painting to demystify wine tasting, claiming that “people often find tasting too intimidating, feeling they should say the same as an expert using terms like ‘cherry’ or ‘fig’.

I advise following your own personal emotions,  concepts like ‘hope’ ‘energetic’ or ‘powerful’.” Apart from an excellent selection of Ventoux white and red cuvées, mostly aged in raw concrete vats, he could not resist making a natural sparkling wine, La Tête à l’Envers.”

Château Pesquié

Driving up to through the ornate gardens and fountains of this grand 18th century château takes the breath away, while wine enthusiasts will be equally impressed by the modern tasting room and state-of-the-art cellar filled with ovoid cement vats, raw concrete tanks and 600 litre wooden barrels stacked up to the ceiling. Two dynamic  third-generation brothers, Frédéric and Alexandre Chaudière, run what is the largest independent Ventoux vineyard; 95 hectares, all certified organic. No mean achievement. Visitors can enjoy tastings and cellar tours, picnics in the château’s gardens, a summer food market of local producers, concerts, walks or cycling through the vineyards, the chance to join in at harvest or learn how to blend wine.

As Alexandre dips a delicate glass pipette into a barrel to taste the latest blend of Roussanne, Clairette, Viognier and Grenache Blanc, Frédéric  recalls how, “our first commercial bottle of wine was just 30 years ago, back when most vignerons sold their grapes to the local Coopérative. Today, we are now 130-150 independent vignerons, and I sense an increasing pride among us to be Ventoux flag carriers.” His ambition is to establish the Ventoux as the top terroir in the South Rhône. “It may take a while, but the potential is here; rich soils, varied elevations and expositions, expressive grapes, and the influence of the Mont Ventoux itself, with its wild winds, hot days and cool nights” 

Domaine de Fondrèche

Sébastien Vincent is a very determined vigneron; organic, biodynamic, a trailblazer for affordable, quality natural wines.

Walking through the vines that encircle his cellar, he looks up at the looming mass of the Mont Ventoux, declaring, “what influences our wines are the incredible changes of temperature in a single day, and that is due quite simply to Le Géant.” With no background, he decided to become a winemaker, studied oenology and bought the domaine at the tender age of 22, albeit with family support. His wines are innovative, almost explosive, and back in the tasting room, sipping his 2015 Persia Blanc, an elegant blend of Roussanne and Clairette, Sébastien points at three jars filled with different soil, labelled red, white, rosé.

“I grow my reds – Grenache, Syrah, Mourverdre, Cinsault – on a vineyard of stony silex ground, while a second separate parcel is sandy soil for rose grapes and a third parcel of chalky limestone for whites. Each variety is vinified separately and the fun starts when I begin to blend.” His real passion emerges when the conversation turns to his natural wines, saying, ““contrary to what many people think, you actually have to work much harder to make a good Vin Nature – the grape must be healthy, the cellar must be spotlessly clean. 

But the results are outstanding. Taste my N cuvée and I can tell you it is impossible to have the same intensity of fruit if I had have added sulphur. It is as simple as that.”

Saint Jean du Barroux

You just need to look at the distinctive logo of Philippe Gimel’s domaine to grasp the underlying philosophy of this very determined winemaker. It shows a graphic, jagged mountain range that represents the two iconic peaks of the region – Mont Ventoux and La Dentelle de Montmirail. Philippe is convinced that geology is the secret behind a great vineyard, and he was on a quest for many years to find the perfect unknown, affordable terroir that he believed could produce memorable wines. “The Ventoux was quite simply the perfect place to make my style of Grenache and Syrah,”he reminisces. It is almost impossible to get this impish vigneron to either sit still or stop talking. His passion and enthusiasm are contagious, be it tasting the exceptional range of wines, taking a cellar tour, a jumble of raw cement and steel vats, old wooden casks and an old Noblot cement cube, or wandering through the vineyard, where he sifts the red sandy soil through his fingers, pointing out fragrant herbs growing wild alongside the vines.

Although he is certified organic, Philippe says with a smile that, “when you buy a vineyard in the Ventoux you buy into the region’s historic polyculture, getting woods with truffles and fields of cultivated fruit trees. So the natural biodiversity is already spectacular.  

Vignerons du Mont Ventoux

The concept of the Cave Coopérative is deeply imbedded in French rural life, providing a vital source of revenue for smallholder farmer-vignerons. The Ventoux region is particularly marked by its biodiversity and polyculture, where farmers cultivate olive oil, cereals, cherry trees, almonds and apples, along with small parcels of vines. Most lack the finance to invest in a wine cellar, preferring to sell  harvested grapes direct to the Coopérative. The Cave tends to dominate the entrance to its local village, and VMV, as it is known, is no exception outside Bédoin, the bustling burg at the foot of Mont Ventoux, starting point of a mythical endurance test of the Tour de France cycle race.

Be under no illusion, as this is industrial-scale wine production, buying grapes from 109 Coopérateurs, official members of the Cave, covering a staggering 1,000 hectares. But VMV has moved with the times, offering not just popular Bag-in-Box wines for summer tourists, but a premium range whose quality surprises.  Before the arrival of the first independent winemakers here in the 1970’s, all winemakers sold their grapes to the Coopérative. Even today, the region’s 16 remaining Caves still account for 70% of Ventoux production.

One of the smaller Coopératives, TerraVentoux, is making a name for itself with an innovative selection of organic, biodynamic, vegan and even natural wines. Unheard of for the usually conservative Cave Coopérative.

 Domaine Dambrun

The discrete Domaine Dambrun is  hidden away down a maze of narrow country lanes. But wine lovers that track down this high quality, boutique estate will get a surprise when they discover the vigneron is one of France’s most famed sports commentators. Patrick Chêne is well-known to Tour de France cycling fans, having covered 20 editions. But he has reinvented himself as a winemaker, and moreover one who is hands on. Talking to Patrick you would imagine he has been making wine all his life, and anyone who listened to his sports commentary will recognise his enthusiasm and authority, but also his humility. ‘We bought this lovely Provençal house in 2014,” he relates, “and for the first vintage, I made the wine in our small garage. No joke. Since then I can proudly say we have created the vineyard, and built a cellar. I have always been totally committed to the environment and we are certified organic, but now I am converting to biodynamic. My wines are made to age. I keep them for 2 years before commercialising and I want vintages that can age for 15- 20 years. Saying that, I am also looking for ‘buvabilité’, drinkability; elegant wines that people will enjoy tasting, want a second glass, and then to open a second bottle.

Grandes Serres

To taste the wines of Grandes Serres you have to cross into the neighbouring Gigondas Appellation where Samuel Montgermont has created a cellar he likens to, “an Experimental Centre, my craft winery where a group of us, more impassioned wine enthusiasts than technical oenologues, vinify grapes, age and blend, forever trying out new things; natural wines, a cuvee of bubbly Clairette, ageing in terracotta amphorae, assembling different terroirs.”

Samuel is not a typical vigneron, as this dynamic young lawyer turned winemaker has interests throughout the Southern Rhone. He is what the French call a ‘negociant de vin’, a term he argues is outdated and misunderstood, “I prefer to think of myself as a ‘vinificateur’, a wine maker, and Grandes Serres is my ‘Maison’, that includes wines from my own vineyards, grapes that I have bought, then vinified and aged, as well as ‘vin en vrac’, bulk wine, that I blend and bottle myself.”

From his range of Ventoux wines, he is particularly proud of the Grand Puy selection, made from a single vineyard owned by the Constantin family. “They came to me when their Cave Coopérative closed down,” recalls Samuel, ‘ and like many young vignerons they cannot yet afford their own cellar. So we are in partnership; they see how I make and blend the wine once it is harvested, I follow the work they do in the vines, converting to certified organic.”

Chêne Bleu

Just finding Chêne Bleu is an adventure, climbing past the medieval village of  Crestet, disappearing on rough trails into deep, shadowy forests, past herds of grazing sheep and grizzled locals hunting for rare truffles. Then suddenly a stunning vista reveals a perfectly-cultivated vineyard with a splendid château.

French financier, Xavier Rollet, bought the property back in 1993, with a particular philosophy of ageing and pricing that makes his Ventoux very seductive for international wine investors, a highly-priced Super Rhône to rival Super Tuscans, with the top-level Abelard, an intense, concentrated Grenache Syrah blend, aged for 8 years before going on sale. 

Today Chêne Bleu is still very much a family affair personified by his daughter Danielle, enthusing how, “I fell head over heels in love with this unique place and the wine,  and had to come and live here. The biodiversity is just off the clouds, and climate change means our grapes are ripening earlier, the alcohol level is higher, but still with an important backbone of acidity that ensures the signature freshness of Ventoux wines. This is a fascinating time to visit the region as there is a new era of independent vignerons creating quality, sustainable wines. Today, variety is the strength of the Ventoux, a patchwork of different winemakers, different altitudes, different terroirs.”

Château Valcombe

Wine tourism in the Ventoux can have surprising results. Just ask Luc Guénard, who received a surprise  tasting visit a few years ago by celebrity actress Keira Knightley and her musician husband, James Righton. They had a property just nearby and Luc ended up renting 3 hectares of her vines and making Cinq Puits, a special 95% Grenache cuvée together with them.

“Although Keira works for Chanel and probably wears stilettos, I bought her a  pair of vineyard safety boots for her birthday,” recounts Luc smiling, “and they really help during the harvest, even the nitty gritty work of cleaning inside the wine tanks.” Luc got to know the Ventoux when working as an aerospace engineer in Toulouse. “ I fell in love with this region, and when I decided to make my own wine, I found out about Valcombe when playing cards in the local bistrot. The old guys told me that the land was for sale, and they said this was the first Ventoux domaine to sell a bottle for more than 100 francs. So I reckoned it had to have potential!” He has turned the vineyard organic, harvests 100% by hand, and believes, “we make ‘confidential wines’, maybe priced higher than average but with high level distribution, like the mythical food hall of  Au Bon Marché. That is how we can raise the profile of Ventoux around the world”

Domaine des Anges

The Domaine des Anges was the first independent winery in the Ventoux. This idyllic vineyard covering the hillside beneath the chapel of Notre-Dame des Anges, holds other surprises, as the pioneering owner was an Englishman, who then sold to an Irishman, Gay McGuinness, who today leaves the running of the estate to local winemaker, Florent Chave. This is typical of the cosmopolitan influences in the Ventoux, where you may well come upon a Scottish, Norwegian or German vigneron. Florent is clearly influenced by the heritage of the region, recounting that, “there was once a Roman fort here, meaning wine was already produced 2,000 years ago.

So for me, it means a lot to be able to age our prestigious Grenache Cuvée Séraphin in terracotta amphorae, the traditional method back then.” Scot James King is a man who also takes his Grenache seriously.

Owner of the wonderfully romantic Château Unang, he claims “the Ventoux was perfect for what I wanted to achieve for both my Grenache reds and whites; acidity, freshness, altitude and exposure.”

A few miles down the road stands  Vintur a very modern winery, overseen by jovial cellar master, James Wood, a nomadic English winemaker with experience in South Africa and New Zealand. Expect to taste surprising, experimental whites and reds, as well as a zero-dosage brut bubbly, using the local Boubelenc grape.

where to stay

Hotel Crillon Le Brave

Luxury hideaway in stunning hilltop 17th century castle. Wellness spa, gourmet restaurant and stunning views of the Ventoux.

B&B Lily & Paul

Genial hosts Denis and Blondine run a comfortable chambres d’hôte and foodie restaurant in Bédoin village at the foot of Mont Ventoux.

Cabanons Jour & Nuit

Innovative glamping in cosy wooden cabins, hidden away in the wild Provençal ‘garrigue’ scrubland..

where to eat

Chez Serge

For the perfect pairing of local cuisine and wine, Serge Ghoukassian proposes tempting truffle dishes with over 50 Ventoux wines.

Auberge de la Camarette

Seasonal, locavore cuisine served in romantic 17th century farmhouse, with guest rooms, cooking courses and tastings of their own wine.


Chateau de Mazan

Choose between this Château hotel’s bistronomique restaurant and the fining dining salon that has just been awarded a prestigious Michelin star. 

what to do

Mont Ventoux

This unique 2,000 metre mountain must be climbed! Cyclists can choose between pedal power and electric, while trekking up on foot is unforgettable.

Distillerie Arôma’plantes

In the summer, the Ventoux turns purple with fragrant lavender. See a traditional alambic distill  freshly-harvested lavender for essential oils, aromatic soap and cosmetics. 

Château du Barroux

Majestic castle dating back to 12th century. Slowly under renovation with views are spectacular.


JOHN BRUNTON’S ARMAGNAC TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

Armagnac is a genuine product of rural France, affectionately known as La France Profonde; the bucolic rolling hills of Gascony,  Bordeaux and Toulouse. Despite a history stretching back some 700 years as one of the world’s oldest distilled spirits, Armagnac remains a mysterious secret to many, with barely 300 producers, ranging from aristocratic owners of historic châteaux to cheerful red-faced farmers who stash away their precious barrels like a marriage dowry, while concentrating on the daily business of raising ducks and cattle, tending vines and fruit trees, cultivating cereals. A biodiversity that makes this region unique. The big global brands  dominating the world’s spirits markets are delightfully absent in Armagnac, meaning that instead of  a conformist, reliable style of eau-de-vie, Armagnac is delightfully individualist, idiosyncratic.

Each bottle varies not just from region or producer, but from one barrel to another, depending on the choice of grapes and quality of the wine, its distilling, wood ageing, and finally the crucial role of the cellar master in the blending.

But to really understand Armagnac you need to come visit the region, and meet the people making this unique spirit. The welcome awaiting visitors for a tasting is exceptional, whether it is in a sumptuous castle or rustic farmhouse. To understand all the detailed background of elusive, complex Armagnac,  have a read first of the informative official website, then make an itinerary to visit some of the following ten recommendations.

TOP TEN ARMAGNAC PRODUCERS TO DISCOVER

Domaine d’Espérance

This romantic manor house, encircled by neat lines of graphic vines, is owned by one of Gascony’s most historic families, descendants no less of the famed Comte D’Artagnan. The present-day Countess, Claire de Montesquieu, is the hands-on producer, from sticking on labels to tasting and blending. The rustic wood-beamed tasting room is dominated by an ancient copper alambic, and while swirling and gently sniffing a glass of one of her rare vintages, she explains that, “our armagnac comes solely from the wine we make from the family’s vineyard. The higher the quality of the wine to distill, the better the armagnac, and that is our secret for making what I call an haute-couture armagnac.” And she insists that, “I am very strict with my principles of not adding anything to my armagnac –  no caramel for the colour, no water to dilute the alcohol. No compromises.”

Her ageing cellar is spectacular, piled high to the rafters with 400 litre barrels, and Claire proudly relates how, “each of my Gascon oak barrels tells its own story, and that is why many of my clients prefer to buy a whole one, even making a pilgrimage to bottle their own armagnac.”

Armagnac Castarède

The Castarède entrance is clearly marked by a towering lone parasol pine, with a route running through vineyards, eventually coming out at a grand château. The châtelaine is another dynamic lady, Florence Castarède,  6th generation of one of the oldest Armagnac houses, operating since 1832. “My grandfather bought the château 40 years ago, a 17th century domaine that once had over 2,000 hectares of vines. Today there are still 16 hectares dedicated solely to the grapes we use to distill our armagnac;  Colombard, Folle Blanche, Ugni-blanc, Baco and Plant de Graisse.”

For Florence, the magic of armagnac begins with the ageing process, passionately describing how “first we decide on the level of toasting of the wood, then aerating the eau-de-vie, changing barrels from new oak to older casks, when or if to add water – ‘les petites eaux’ – a mixture of distilled water and armagnac, sometimes necessary to reduce the level of alcohol, and finally, the moment to stop the ageing and transfer the armagnac to a glass demijohn.”

The process of aerating armagnac

She has an exceptional collection of her grandfather’s vintages, with some as old as 1893, and is committed to demystifying armagnac.

For special tastings, there is an ornate trolley packed with 50 tiny bottles, each a different vintage that she searches through like a chef selecting ingredients, saying, “people need to try small bottles of 20 year old, 30 year old and 40 year-old to really understand the differences.” 

Domaine de Laguille

There might not be chickens and ducks running around the farmyard but Domaine de Laguille is clearly a more rural, artisan world than some of Armagnac’s elegant chateaux. Guy Vignoli and his wife, Colette, live on the property, and their rustic half-timbered barns and animal stables have been converted into barrel-ageing cellars.

A classic Gascon farmer, Guy used to raise cattle, but today concentrates on producing not just a high quality selection of Armagnacs, but a surprising range of wines. “I am a proud Vigneron Indépendant,” clarifies Guy, “because our wine production is very important to provide a treasury to invest in the future of armagnac.”

Guy enjoys experimenting with older, used casks, but only he knows what is stored in his cellar where barrels are seemingly piled higgledy-piggledy, with cobwebs everywhere, a dusty, sandy earth floor, and mouldy fungi growing on the wall, all classic consequences when small quantities of armagnac evaporate during ageing. But he says with a glint in his eye that “if someone comes in and asks for a bottle of a particular vintage, then I just disappear into the cellar, draw direct from the cask then bottle and label by hand.”

Château de Lacquy  

Gilles de Boisséson likes to taste his armagnac direct from the barrel, delicately drawing the precious amber liquid with a long glass ‘pipette’. Each cask is meticulously marked with the year and type of grape, so you can discern the subtle differences between Folle Blanche, Colombard and Baco. No  Ugni-blanc though, as Gilles feels “it is not suited to our sandy soil here.” Everything about Château de Lacquy takes your breath away; the cellar is filled with 500 casks, crafted from Gascon oak, the estate extends over 400 hectares of cereals, vegetables and vines, while the distinguished château has been in the family since 1711, historically the oldest producer of armagnac. Gilles is the 10th generation, an affable country squire who talks passionately about armagnac. “I always love it when American visitors tell me that the French export their cognac but keep armagnac for themselves,” he recounts. “People must understand that if you have a bad wine then you have a bad basis for distillation, producing an aggressive eau-de-vie. This is why whiskey and cognac are double distilled, reaching 70° or even 90° degrees to get rid of impurities. The tradition here of using our specially designed still, an Alambic Armagnaçais, is that there is only a single, gentle continuous distillation, producing a clear eau-de-vie that is already perfect at 50-52°.” 

Château Laubade  

Laubade is a distinctive, unorthodox Armagnac house, beginning with its 1870 château, a brightly-painted half-timbered mansion that looks more seaside Normandy than rural Gascon. It is surrounded by a massive 103 hectare single vineyard, solely producing the wine distilled for their armagnac.

The present owners, the Lesgourgues family, bought the estate in 1974, and are serious patrons of the arts. Everywhere you look there are eye-catching artworks, sculptures and installations, displayed in the distilling room and barrel-ageing cellars, the gardens, vineyards, and sumptuous salons inside the château. Watching the freshly-distilled eau-de-vie trickle out of their immense purpose-designed gas-fired alambic, Denis Lesgourgues recounts how  “my grandfather fell in love with the chateau and bought it on impulse, and when my father took over he transformed Laudabe into a single-minded producer of high quality armagnac.” The barrel collection here is astonishing, some 2,800 ‘pieces’ of 400 litre casks, enough stock for 15 years. And what really takes the breath away is Laubade’s Paradis of ancient vintages, a beautiful private cellar filled with antiques and artworks, mysterious glass bonbons filled with golden elixirs, some going back to 1888, preciously saved for exclusive assemblages and precious vintages.

Armagnac Delord

Prosper Delord founded his family business in 1892, and today, the fourth generation brothers, Jérôme and Sylvain, have created one of the most innovative armagnac houses. A sepia portrait of the moustachioed Prosper hangs in the tasting room, but nostalgia is replaced by modernity as soon as Jérôme takes guests on a tour of the cellars and towering state-of-the-art wine cisterns, decorated with massive murals of provocative street art graffiti.

In the distilling chai stand four imposing alambics, two traditional Armagnaçaises and two Charentaises, the double distillation pot used to make cognac. It is rare for an armagnac producer to use a cognac-style alambic, but Jérôme insists that, “we try to take the best from both systems of single and double distillation. In general, the Charentaise is perfect for our range of young armagnacs – VS and VSOP – while for XO blends and vintages, it is more likely to be a single Armagnacaise distillation.”

Delord are pioneers in promoting younger spirits aged 1-4 years, “because we want armagnac to be accessible for everyone, easy to drink, reasonably priced” recounts Jerome. “These young armagnacs and our traditional ‘Blanche or White Armagnac’, a clear, fruity eau-de-vie not aged in wood, are perfect in cocktails and long drinks, a very different way for a younger generation to discover our venerable 700 year-old spirit.”

Domaine Tariquet

A visit to Tariquet resembles nothing else in the Armagnac region. A vast family enterprise cultivates a 1,125  hectare vineyard, the largest in France, run by two unassuming but highly driven forty-something brothers, Armin and Rémy Grassa. Their family bought Château Tariquet in 1912, an historic site where armagnac was produced since 1683. “In 1972, at just 18 years of age, my father Yves and his sister Maïté, were handed total control of the domaine, a huge responsibility and opportunity that they leaped at,” recounts Armin. “Two crucial decisions were made; to enlarge the production and quality of wine, and create a stock of armagnac. In 1982 our first bottled wine was sold and so the Côtes de Gascogne revolution began – a quality, well-priced, refreshing wine, using the grapes traditionally grown to distill as armagnac. No one thought it would take off as it did.” Today, Tariquet produce around 10 million bottles of wine a year, while if armagnac production stopped tomorrow, their 7 cellars are filled to last the next 23 years. “We stock some 5,000 barrels, because we believe in the future of armagnac,” states Armin proudly.

“Wine may have brought Tariquet visibility, but our historic role remains that of an armagnac producer. It is our heart. Wine is immediate while armagnac is for the future. Wine is innovative while armagnac is traditional.”

Armagnac Darroze

If you have ever wondered why in any fine dining restaurant there is always a selection of exceptional vintage armagnacs, then a trip to Marc Darroze  will provide the answers. Darroze proudly calls itself a ‘négociant’. so Armagnac’s most famous ‘Maison’ does not own a vineyard , but diligently purchases wine to distil and age, and also unearths hidden treasures of ancient armagnac stashed away by smallholders. The founder, Jean Darroze, a well-known local restaurateur in the 1950’s, discovered many farmer vignerons had a stock of valuable armagnac casks, their way of saving for a rainy day rather than putting money in the bank.

Marc Darroze is his grandson, who reminisces how, “grand-père began by buying barrels to serve by the glass, meticulously naming the farm, the village, the grapes. Then my father, Francis, began selling our armagnac to restaurants all over the world. The chefs loved our philosophy, our respect for the terroir. We showed that each cask of armagnac is different, even if it comes from the same grape and vineyard, the same harvest, the same alambic.” Marc has transformed the Maison, which now proposes organic armagnac, a  range of prestigious Grands Assemblages, a unique range of single grape Blanche Armagnac and much more.

He plans to open his own distillery soon. “But we must preserve our traditions,” he says nostalgically, “so I still ask our winemakers to distill one cask to hide away, because this was the beginning of our story.”

Château de Pellehaut 

Don’t be surprised if a tasting tour of Château de Pellehaut continues on after the cellars to see their herd of 60 Blonde d’Aquitaine cows, as the environmentally- conscious brothers who run the estate, Mathieu and Martin Béraut are just as proud of the cows as their exceptional armagnacs and innovative wine range.

Mathieu proudly relates how, “there are records of our family being active in the local commune over 400 years ago, and my father, Gaston, bought this 18th century château in the 1970’s. It covered 280 hectares of fully-functioning polyculture; farming. vineyard and armagnac. That has been the Gascon tradition for centuries, explaining our incredible biodiversity. But sadly estates like ours have become the exception rather than the rule today. The formula was simple and we have never changed – plant vines on the best land, grow cereals on fertile fields to feed cattle while the rest leave as woods.” Wine is also very important here, as the family launched their first commercial bottles in 1985, and have extended the original 65 hectare vineyard to some 300 hectares. When tasting, be sure to try the ‘brut de fût’ selection much loved by modern connoisseurs, often single cask, single grape bottles with no water reduction, so be ready for a jolt of 50° alcohol rather than the softer, smoother 40° of an aged blend or older vintage. 

Domaine Saint-Martin

No period is more emotive in Armagnac than the months of November till March, reserved for distilling the wine from the year’s grape harvest into a crystal clear eau-de-vie that will metamorphose into golden nectar after years of barrel maturing. While some producers own their own alambics, many rely on the traditional mobile still to turn up for a  few days to produce the annual armagnac. Marc Saint-Martin is one of the last ‘bouilleur de cru’, trundling round over 70 domaines with his two ancient wood-fired alambics. Visit his rustic domaine, and you will meet a man who is also an independent winemaker and armagnac producer. His Alambic Armagnaçais sits on display in the tasting room, looking like a Victorian steam engine with its tall copper boilers linked by numerous pipes, balancing on a set of wheels.

And the work as an ambulant distiller is hardly glamorous, with the alambic unceremoniously pulled by tractor from one cellar to the other, with the vigneron obliged to supply and stoke the wood while Marc supervises the non-stop distillation, 24 hours a day without sleep, until there is no more wine left, and the armagnac can head off to the cask.   

where to stay

L’Agapé

Beautifully restored farmhouse popular with both pilgrims following the route of Saint-Jacques-de-Compostelle and armagnac-lovers on a tasting holiday.

Domaine de Paguy

Friendly owners of grand manor house offer b&b accommodation, swimming pool and cellar tasting of their armagnac, wines and Floc de Gascogne.

where to eat

La Falène Bleue 

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Classic village bistrot surprises with mix of traditional dishes and creative tastes like organic trout with pumpkin and lemongrass broth.

La Bastide Gasconne

Time for a splash-out? Enjoy  gourmet cuisine inspired by famous 3 Star Michelin chef, Michel Guérard, at surprisingly affordable prices. 

Loft Cafe

Rub shoulders with vignerons and armagnac producers, feast off kilometre-zero local products from organic veggies and cheeses to artisan foie gras.

what to do

Notre-Dame des Cyclistes

Outside picturesque Labastide d’Armagnac, this 12th century Knights Templar chapel museum is a pilgrimage for amateur and Tour de France cyclists  

Fezas Foie Gras

There will always be controversy about foie gras production, but visiting an artisan farm with the ducks waddling around at liberty paints a different picture. And the Fezas family also propose a whole lot of other delicious gourmet conserves.

Flaran Abbey

This well-preserved 12th century Cistercian abbey also displays a private art collection with Cezanne, Monet, Picasso and Renoir 

JOHN BRUNTON’S CENTRE-LOIRE WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

Drive out of Paris and just two hours later you find yourself at the edge of the   scenic Centre-Loire region, ready to begin a wine adventure that opens the door to friendly vignerons, eager for you to taste the latest wines, rustic bistrots serving hearty traditional cuisine, and quaint bed and breakfasts. And apart from beguiling vineyard landscapes, you will drive through ancient medieval villages, past romantic castles and historic abbeys, thickly-wooded forests and idyllic lakes.

Two grapes and two wines immediately come to mind when people talk about the Centre-Loire: Sauvignon Blanc and Pinot Noir, Sancerre and Pouilly-Fumé. Both are renowned and loved across the world, but  explore this beautiful region a little deeper and you discover little-known Appellations like Châteaumeillant and Reuilly, heritage grapes such as Chasselas and Pinot Beurrot, and charismatic artisan vignerons, always looking to improve the quality of their wines, through organic and biodynamic cultivation, testing the latest innovations in the cellar. Visiting a winemaker could not be easier as most are  open to the public and free of charge, though it is always best to give a call first.

TOP TEN WINEMAKERS TO DISCOVER

Domaines Mardon et Tabordet 

A visit to Hélène Mardon’s Quincy winery offers the chance to taste the wines of two Appellations together, as the vignerons of Quincy and adjoining Reuilly often collaborate closely. Accompanying Hélène down the steep steps of her ancient cellar, is Luc Tabordet, her cellar master since 2004 and today also running his own estate in Reuilly. Luc  continues to oversee production of Hélène’s wines, and both are vinified here, so visitors get to taste her excellent Quincy, an Appellation that only permits whites, complemented by Luc’s organic Reuilly wines. 

Hélène’s range runs from a crisp, traditional Sauvignon to a Vieilles Vignes cuvée, whose vines are over 70 years old, while hidden away in the corner of the cellar is what she calls her ‘jar’, a clay amphora, producing 630 bottles that resemble the current new trend of zero-sulphite natural wines. The sandy, alluvial soil alongside the Cher river, allows Luc to produce both a fruity, structured Pinot Noir and the distinctive Reuilly Rosé,  made with the Pinot Gris grape, – as the French would say a ‘gastronomic’ Rosé rather than an easy-drinking summer quaff.

Domaine du Coudray 

Vincent Nivet resembles a roguish gentleman farmer-vigneron, and quickly becomes passionate when talking about his wines;  organic cultivation, experimenting in the cellar, macerating his grape skins during fermentation to produce a tannic Rosé that resembles the latest mode for Orange wines.  Winemaking is only one part of Vincent’s story, though,  as when you go to taste the Domaine’s Reuilly and Quincy vintages, the venue is actually an imposing manor house farm, complete with ruined medieval castle. Their land stretches over 400 hectares, growing cereal seeds. So alongside five different wines, there are also packets of  pink and green lentils, sweet corn and white beans.

While Vincent is a Reuilly newcomer, it is important to also visit a more historical winemaker in Reuilly village itself. Denis Jamain’s family have made wine around Reuilly village since 1935, and the certified organic and biodynamic estate extends over 22 hectares. His reds are a revelation, not just Les Chênes Rouges, his potent barrique cuvée but even Les Pierres Plates, aged in steel vats, a delightful old-time style Pinot Noir.

Domaine des Caves du Prieuré

Crézancy is one of the less well-known Sancerre villages, a sleepy maze of hamlets linked by narrow lanes. Greeted by  Gilles Guillerault in his cosy wood-beamed tasting room, he  proudly explains that, “here you are in Reigny, Sancerre’s oldest vigneron hamlet, dating from the ancient 1523 Cistercian priory that gives its name to our domaine.”

His great passion is the new developments for vinification in the cellar, answering everyone’s questions; from stainless steel to wood barrel ageing, classic large cement tanks or smaller egg-shaped vats, traditional terracotta or modern resin amphorae. ”I have always been attracted by concrete,” he explains, “because it is not neutral, and like wood, allows the wine to breath, evolve and change. The big attraction of these ovid cement vats is their unique perfect shape  means that during fermentation, the wine is always in movement, like in a vortex.  So there is no need for batonnage stirring the settled lees, which you have to do when you use amphorae.” And when tasting his different Sauvignon and Pinot Noir cuvées, you quickly notice the different techniques used.

Domaine Stéphanie et Jean-Philippe Agisson

Sancerre’s vine-clad hills are populated by a tightly-knit community of generations of the same families. So it is rare when an outsider arrives, and rarer when his wines are respected by fellow vignerons. But that is exactly what you discover when you visit the garage-style stone winery of Jean-Philippe Agisson. Cultivating a single hectare, he produces just 3,000 bottles, and visits are by appointment only as both Jean-Philippe and his wife Stéphanie, have full-time jobs till they can add to the small parcels she inherited, and concentrate solely on a financially- sustainable domaine. Self-trained and not even from a wine region, he worked for 14 years, first as cellar master at Sancerre’s historic Domaine Alphonse Mellot, and now over in Pouilly for pioneering Domaine Didier Dagueneau.

Jean-Philippe has  firm views about his wines, which recall Sancerre’s classic characteristics. “I am fed up with this  insistence on organic,” he declares.  “I do my own organic and don’t need a meaningless logo on my label. And I am not looking to make  Burgundy style wines, as my aim is simply a traditional, typical Sancerre Pinot Noir and Sauvignon Blanc.”

Domaine Teiller

If one family-run vineyard typifies the exceptional welcome wine lovers receive when they make the effort to travel to the Centre-Loire, then Domaine Teiller is the perfect example. The Domaine is located in the heart of bustling Menetou-Salon, the village that gives its name to a 600 hectare Appellation that has only recently turned from being neighbouring Sancerre’s poor cousin into the dynamic younger sibling. Patricia and her husband Olivier run the estate that her grandfather founded in the early 1950’s, and visitors feel like part of the family as they are taken through an excellent explanation of organic and increasingly biodynamic wine-making techniques, and a short vineyard tour can also be arranged. Their vineyard spreads over numerous parcels, some of which are blended, others made into a special cuvée that refers to one of Menetou’s 10 communes, a little like a Burgundy clos.

The whites tend to be aromatic and floral, not classic Sauvignon, while the Pinot Noir are finely crafted, elegant wines. Don’t be surprised if Patricia asks to taste the reds first, as she feels their Sauvignons are too aromatic to taste before the more subtle reds.

Domaine Roux

Discovering Châteaumeillant’s  little-known wines is an adventure, as the town and its surrounding vineyards are a good drive from any of the other Centre-Loire vineyards. Until recently, family vignerons concentrated on producing grapes, with the local cooperative making the wine. That has changed since official Appellation recognition in 2010, with young winemakers with dynamic ideas arriving to run their own domaines, often with no vineyard background. That is why the route to taste the wines of Albin Roux leads to the grand city of Bourges, where he has created a unique tasting room to showcase his Châteaumeillant and Quincy vintages. His home sits alongside the famous Bourges marshes, actually floating vegetables gardens, a labyrinth of tiny canals and allotments.


So sitting in his cosy tasting room, the view overlooks the gardens, and in summer guests sit outside, sometimes pairing wines with subtle Asian dishes prepared by Albin’s Vietnamese wife. He is still making his first vintages, but the barrique blend of Gamay and Pinot Noir is ageing well, and although Châteaumeillant does not includes whites, the P’Tit Gris Rosé is a refreshing summer wine.

Domaine Poupat 

Talking and tasting with affable Philippe Poupat is like stepping back in time. He is an old-style artisan vigneron, as happy and proud to talk about the attractions of his beloved region as explaining the excellent wines his family have been making since 1650. And they are a perfect introduction to the unfamiliar Coteaux du Giennois Appellation, where some 40 wineries cover 200 hectares, between the attractive towns of Briare and Gien. Philippe vividly evokes the days of the Middle Ages when monks cultivated an incredible 1500 hectares of vines around here, and his immense cellar resembles a concrete bunker filled with a jumble of stainless steel and fibre vats, new and old barrels, steel and cement cisterns. It was  part of a Victorian industrial complex for button-making, whose paternal benevolence included producing wine for the work force as well housing and schools. Philippe produces both young wines aged in steel vats with more complex barrel-aged vintages, and while his crisp whites are honest classic Sauvignon, the reds are diverse blends of Gamay and Pinot Noir. Something for everyone’s taste. 

Domaine de Bel Air 

The ebullient Pierre Hervé is an ‘I had a dream’ vigneron. Originally from Brittany, he  was determined to plant his own vineyard, and  the paradise he found is here in the little-known Coteaux de Tannay, far from the more famous wine-producing regions of the Centre-Loire.

It is only after a long drive through rolling hills, thick wooded forest, fields of farmland and grazing Charolais cattle, that you come up the small parcels of vines cultivated by the 6 vignerons that make up Tannay’s 40 hectares. Pierre bought an old farm in 1989, planting on abandoned grazing land that was probably a vineyard a century ago before phylloxera. “It was already organic you could say,” he recounts, “as chemicals had never been used on the land and I certainly was not about to start. I only planted Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but harvesting from different parcels, this gives me 4 different whites and 3 reds.” Pierre sells directly to the public, with wine enthusiasts visiting his idyllic farm for a jovial tasting held in the family kitchen. Be sure to ask him to take you down to his beautiful 18th century cellar, where the wine is aged.

Domaine du Bouchot 

It is an impressive sight crossing the mighty Loire river with its sloping hillsides covered with neat crisscross vineyards, arriving at Domaine du Bouchot, just outside Pouilly.  The owner, Antoine Gouffier is a bundle of energy and enthusiasm, hardly surprising as he only bought this 10 hectare winery in 2019.

Antoine is already moving this pioneer organic vineyard to certified biodynamic, experiments with both cement ovids and clay amphora, even producing an excellent Orange wine, almost heresy in conservative Pouilly. “Anything you try to do differently  here,” he laments, “the authorities will say it is not allowed. But that is not going to stop me!.” 

Pouilly-Fumé is one of the world’s most well-known wines, a distinctive, fragrant Sauvignon, whose ‘fume’ name derives from local soils producing a mineral, flinty aroma. Yet only 3 out of the 140 vignerons cultivating this massive 1300 hectare vignoble are officially organic. Today, though,  ‘converting to organic’ is  the new mantra for young and old winemakers. Be sure to ask Antoine to open a bottle of his ‘Mon Village’, a rare chance to taste Pouilly’s heritage Chasselas grape, rarely cultivated today, perfect for a hot summer day.

Domaine des Puits de Compostelle 

Although wine has been been produced on the gentle slopes surrounding La Charité-sur-Loire for a millenium, this remains an under-the-radar vineyard. Only15 viticulteurs work a total of 50 hectares, a mix of local families, young vignerons buying their first affordable land, and in the last 20 years, a number of high-profile Sancerre and Pouilly producers. Emmanuel Roquette abandoned a career as a consultant oenologist, working in locations as diverse as Minervois, Morocco and Saint-Emilion, to  purchase his first parcels of vines in 1999.

He now has 2 hectares,  producing Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and the little known Pinot Beurot, actually a Burgundian term for Pinot Gris. His cellar adjoins the family home in the wooded hamlet of Mauvrain,  and Emmanuel explains how, “ currently I am hoping to increase quality by introducing  cement vats rather than stainless steel or fibre. But overall, my philosophy is always to limit interventions as much as possible.” The Domaine’s evocative name was inspired when he  discovered that the Compostelle pilgrim’s route between the great abbeys of Vezelay and La Charité passed right through the vineyard.” And it was this long religious history and unfulfilled potential that initially attracted Sancerre’s  Alphonse Mellot to invest and plant here. Today, their highly-regarded Les Pénitents range represent a third of the Côteaux’s production. 

where to stay 

Le Panoramic

The Panoramic offers matchless vineyard views and tempting pool, ideal visiting Sancerre and nearby Menetou,  Pouilly, La Charité and Gien,

La Fontaine du Tonneau

Perfect for visiting Reuilly and Quincy, comfy b&b rooms plus fun Glamping alternative – sleeping outdoors in a giant wine barrel.

where to eat

Le Chat

Snug roadside bistrot where chef Laurent Chareau creates  dishes like succulent scallops, chorizo and parsnip puree, worthy of a Parisian Michelin-starred restaurant 

La Mère Poule

Funky 1970’s decor are complemented by hearty terroir dishes like traditional frogs legs in buttered parsley

La Banque

Newly-opened La Banque offers something very different in Sancerre, a hip movida-style enoteca in an ex-bank. Stunning 300 label wine list,  experimental cocktails and artisan ales.

what to do 

Château de la Verrerie

Relatively crowd-free compared to famed châteaux further up the Loire, the romantic Verrerie is a hidden lakeside jewel of the Renaissance.

La Loire

Experience the mighty river at quaint Saint-Satur; families paddle at the Loire’s edge, then feast off delicious comfort food at al fresco Le Ligerien’s; deep-fried Loire whitebait and omelettes oozing melted goats cheese.

La Bête Noire Sancerroise

Crottin de Chavignol goats cheese is the perfect accompaniment to a chilled glass of Sancerre, but better than trying in a bistrot, visit this genuine goats farm of 200 goats.

                                                 Ends

URUGUAY WINE TRAILS:MALDONADO

EN ROUTE THROUGH ATLANTIDA TO MALDONADO

Carrying on up the coast from Montevideo towards the region of Maldonado, the muddy brown waters of the immense estuary of the River Plate eventually gives way to the deep blue sea and crashing waves of the Atlantic Ocean, creating a unique climate for cultivating grapes. This is very much the promised land for new ventures, with intense new planting and the use of the latest cellar techniques, funded by serious investment from neighbouring South American countries rather than the sweat and toil of Italian immigrants. And while Tannat may still be the benchmark for quality, it is Portugal and Spain’s white Albarino grape that flourishes the best in Maldonado’s soil and climate.

The perfect place to begin a search for the roots of this region’s wine heritage is Vinedo de los Vientos the historic winery of Pablo Fallabrino. This is genuine wine tourism, a face-to-face tasting with Pablo himself, a tour of his sustainable vineyard, and delicious dishes cooked by his wife, Mariana. The vineyard is located in Atlantida, officially still part of Canelones, but the salty winds whipping in from the Atlantic beaches, give hints of the character of Maldonado.

From the Italian winemaking region of Monferrato, Piedmonte, Pablo’s grandfather arrived here a century ago in 1920. The family planted vines and built up one of Uruguay’s biggest bulk wineries. When Pablo inherited the original 30 hectare family estate just by the coast he proceed to plant 12 hectares but with a weird and wonderful selection of grapes; Nebbiolo, Arneis, Barbera, Dolcetto. “These are Piedmont grapes,” he exclaims, “planted as a hommage to my grandfather and because they grow perfectly in this part of Uruguay.” Using no sulphites, natural yeasts, no fermentation and little maceration, Pablo explains that, “I am an anarchic winemaker, an outsider who never studied oenology. So I have no preconceptions, just making wine with the one essential element, the grapes.” The results may not be for everyone, but they make for a sensational tasting session – Notos, a raw, vibrant Nebbiolo, with no ageing just immediate bottling, a bubbly PetNat blending Arneis and Chardonnay, Anarkia, a 100% Natural Tannat, unlike any other Tannat you will taste in Uruguay.

Pablo’s neighbour is Bodega Bracco Bosca a small 11 hectare vineyard recently brought back to life by another ‘figura’ of the Uruguay wine scene, Fabiana Bracco. Wine influencer, promoter, publicist and media personality, Fabiana took over the family vineyard when her father passed away, and has rapidly transformed it into a niche boutique brand selling 70% of production overseas, to 18 different countries. Make the effort to visit and you discover an idyllic setting, rolling hills surrounded by swaying eucalyptus trees, the Laguna del Cisne eco-zone, and the Atlantic Ocean just ten minutes drive away. Her hipster cellar mixes modern technology with eye-catching street art murals, a rock&roll sommelier conducts tastings, and while the Petit Verdot is a delightful surprise, pride of place goes to the fruity, fresh Moscatel, another of Uruguay’s signature grapes.

Nothing quite prepares you for the spectacular first view of Maldonado’s latest and most revolutionary eco-friendly winery, Vina Eden. The rolling hills and plains of the pampas rise up steeply at the village of Pueblo Eden, and sitting atop Cerro Negro, an 800 foot rocky outcrop is a futuristic, almost surreal metal and glass winery. Rising up three levels to maximise the force of gravity during vinification, Vina Eden also features two wind turbines which provide power for the bodega and local village, while crisscrossed with the neat parcels of vines down below are graphic screens of solar energy panels. The huge investment for this groundbreaking project comes from Brazilian entrepreneur Mauricio Zlatkin. Innovation extends to the cellar too, where Tulip-shaped cement tanks for ageing, not coated as is usual with epoxy, dominate the winemaking process. And quality is high, with just 60,000 bottles produced each year from the7 hectares that have been planted since 2009. I tasted a surprising Pinot Noir rose, crisp and fruity, along with the smooth unoaked Tannat Cemento, but it is the zero-dosage Brut Nature Method Champenoise that stands out during a tasting.

While Vina Eden is inland from Uruguay’s famed glamour beach resort of Punta del Este, you need to go further up the coast as far as the latest fashionable seaside hideaway, Jose Ignacio, to discover another new creative and innovative winery, Bodega Oceanica Jose Ignacio, a project that encompasses art and architecture as much as wine. Marcelo and Natalia Conserva made a second start to their lives after successful business careers to build a dramatic rusty-red metallic gravity-led cellar, commissioned immense sculptures by local Uruguayan artists for both their vineyards and olive groves, while even the wine boxes are collage-like works of art. 22 of their 30 hectare property produces award-winning olive oil, while the 7 hectares of vines are predominantly Albarino and Pinot Noir. Their multinational Flying Winemaker, Hans Vinding Diers, is based in Patagonia, and while supervising the 2020 harvest, tells me that, “we are making clean, precise wines that speak of this unique ocean terroir – easy to drink, not needing to be aged, with a saline, maritime character.”

The winery that defines Maldonado and for many defines modern Uruguay winemaking is Bodega Garzon. It is certainly a unique state-of-the-art project that has already been elected top winery in South America. While the two driving forces creating and inspiring Garzon wines are Uruguayan – agronomist Eduardo Felix and cellar manager German Bruzzone – the financing and unique concept of Garzon comes from Argentinian, Alejandro Bulgheroni , who owns 15 wineries across the globe, from Mendoza and Napa to Bordeaux and Tuscany. Garzon was a dusty rural pueblo before he invested in 1,000 hectares, recognising the tremendous potential of Maldonado to produce high quality wines. It is no coincidence that the rolling vine-clad hills are known as Uruguay’s Tuscany, and the 240 hectare vineyard he has planted so far already produce some 2 million bottles. I follow Eduardo round the vineyrad as he scuttles between tiny parcels of immaculate vines, sipping Uruguay’s other favourite drink, Mate, from his metallic mug, vacuum flask wedged in his elbow. He was the winemaker who first planted Albarino in Uruguay, and is rightly proud of their Petit Clos Albarino, harvested at night, fermented in cement tanks then aged in a unique cigar-shaped Vicard barrel. An exceptional wine.

Winelovers can easily spend a whole day enjoying Bodega Garzon, from hiking and picnicking in the vineyards, creating your own blend with an oenologist or a cooking lesson with the Bodega’s gourmet restaurant chef, Ricki Motta. The cuisine here is under the watchful eye of Argentina’s world renowned chef, Francis Mallmann, who has his own restaurant and hotel in Garzon village. My last memory of this Uruguay wine trip was a memorable wine pairing lunch looking out over the vineyard with my Garzon and Inavi hosts. Wonderful wines, delicious food, great company – every reason to plan a return trip as soon as the world returns to some kind of post-Covid normality.

URUGUAY WINE TRAILS:CANELONES

CANELONES

Barely 50 kilometres outside Montevideo lies the region that is the historic heart of the Uruguay wine industry. The pastoral plains and fertile hills of Canelones accounts for  over 60% of the nation’s production, including some of the best Tannats, with some 80 wineries, many of them offering tastings, accommodation and restaurants for enthusiastic wine tourists.

The perfect place to start a tour is at the discrete, respected Bodega Marichal, one of the historic Canelones vineyards. Juan Andres Marichal’s family roots go back to France, where an ancestor serving in Napoleon’s army settled in the Canary Isles from where his great grandparents emigrated to Uruguay in the early 1900’s – in fact many winemakers around here come from the Canaries. He is the fourth generation, and this is still very much a family affair with 91 year-old grandmother Tesita, tending the flower gardens, his parents living on the estate and an auntie making the best empanadas I have ever tasted to accompany tastings. And the wines are surprising, from a gourmet Rose to a robust Pinot Noir blend, but above all, the Tannats, where Juan Andres still make a lot of use of the cellar’s original 1938 cement tanks, not even coated with epoxy, producing light, modern wines, not too heavy on tannins, not over macerated.

A fifteen minute drives takes me to the gates of Establecimiento Junico, home of the Deicas family, a big business vineyard covering some 200 hectares, whose brands range from Uruguay’s most well known name, Don Pascual, to the fine wines under Familia Deicas and the more recent Bizarra label, a funky experimental project that includes testing a one hectare certified organic vineyard, a rarity in Uruguay. Bizarra is the initiative of the latest generation of the family, oenologist Santiago Deicas, who bubbles with enthusiasm as we taste his Viognier, macerated as a genuine Orange wine, and a truly Natural, no-sulphite Tannat aged in a terracotta amphora. Winelovers enjoy a memorable day here, visiting the 18th century vaulted barrel cellar, built by Jesuit priests, and feasting off the cuisine of Santi’s chef sister, Mechi, whose brasserie menu spans creative and vegetarian dishes alongside the juicy steaks of a traditional Uruguayan asado barbecue. 

A very different experience awaits at the neighbouring Vinos de Lucca , the rambling farmhouse and seemingly-chaotic garage cellar of Reinaldo de Lucca. Forget about organised, sophisticated wine tourism. Here you come face to face for a tasting with the wonderfully knowledgeable, grumpy and opinionated Reinaldo, alongside Agostina, his charming, feisty and equally opinionated daughter. It is a rollercoaster ride, sampling totally unexpected wines for Uruguay; Nero d’Avola and Aglianico, grapes originally from the family’s heritage in the south of Italy, the French Cote du Rhone varietals, Marsanne and Syrah, that draw on Renaldo’s experience studying oenology at the famed Montpellier University, and rich, velvety  Tannats, expertly aged in traditional oak barrels, while Agostina experiments with a fresh, fruity Natural cuvee. Reinaldo tells me that “the soul of my wine is in the vineyard. You can have all the latest technology and gadgets in the cellar but that is no guarantee you will make a good wine.” 

A solemn black and white photograph of the Pisano family, who arrived in Uruguay at the beginning of the 20th century,  takes pride of place in the homey tasting room at Bodega Pisano. Planting their first vines in 1914, the winery dates back to 1924, and today is run by three fourth generation brothers – all big personalities, producing equally big, quality wines. Tastings are a long, expansive and bon vivant experience, but visits are restricted to wine professionals, a shame as enthusiastic winelovers would enjoy the experience of this genuine artisan bodega. The family shy away from the trend of  the  single vineyard ‘cru’ concept, preferring to vinify dozens of parcels separately before blending, which creates intense, complex wines, especially their Tannats. Just when you think you have tried all the Pisano wines, the latest family oenologist, Gabriel, brings out his own creations, under his new Vina Progreso label. A modern-day Flying Winemaker, Gabriel buys in grapes and vinifies in murky corners of other bodega’s cellars. “I have created what I call a Bodega Experimental, with absolutely no rules,” he explains, “so, for example, I can make a Sangiovese, something unheard of here, while my unoaked Tannat is called Barrell-Less.” Primarily making sulphite-free wines, using natural yeasts, it is still a surprise to taste his Black Sparkling, a Methode Champenoise made with Tannat grapes, probably the only one of its type in the world.



URUGUAY WINE TRAILS: THE RIVER PLATE AND BEYOND

 

A JOURNEY TO DISCOVER THE ROOTS OF URUGUAY WINES

A 2500 kilometre journey across the length and breadth of Uruguay; the hidden secret of South America, that surprises visitors with remarkable wines, incredibly welcoming winemakers, stunning landscapes of pampas, palm trees, vineyards and wild ocean coastline. Tasting the nation’s signature Tannat red wine, introduced by Basque immigrants 150 years ago, and the crisp, fruity white Albarino, brought this time by new arrivals from Galicia, I travelled through the main winemaking regions – Colonia and Carmelo, Montevideo and  Canelones, Maldonado and a hair-raising small aircraft flight across to Rivera by the border with Brazil. Wineries are generally small, family affairs, where winelovers are warmly received, with many vineyards offering comfortable accommodation, fine dining and casual restaurants, alongside extensive tastings and cellar visits. In the vineyard, sustainable cultivation is the order of the day, while in the cellar,  tradition sits comfortably alongside innovation, ageing in traditional oak barrel, cement and steel, even amphorae. And I was not expecting such a wide variety of grapes………Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet but also Tempranillo, Nero d’Avola, Touriga Nacional and Nebbiolo……..Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Viognier but also Moscatel, Traminer, Riesling and Arneis. The first part of the Wine Trail covers Colonia, Carmelo and Montevideo

COLONIA AND CARMELO

A swift ferry from Buenos Aires across the majestic River Plate transports me to Uruguay’s oldest settlement, the charming 17th century colonial town of Colonia del Sacramento. A lazy hour’s drive through flat pampas leads to the main wine-making district around sleepy  Carmelo, where everyone you meet seems to be of Italian origin. Two ancient bodegas sit side by side, Campotinto and Alcamen de la Capilla, the perfect introduction to wine tourism in Uruguay. While the 19th century cantinas look similar, they could not be more different. Campotinto today only dates back to 2013, when Señor Vigano, an Argentine whose grandparents came from near Fiesole, decided to recreate a corner of Tuscany in Uruguay, encompassing vineyard, luxurious posada lodging, restaurant and pool, plus a rustic farmhouse for wine tastings. Newly-planted and spreading over just 4 hectares, Campotinto are beginning to make some interesting barrel-aged and  Tannat  as well as a fun bubbly Medio y Medio, blending Uni Blanc and Moscatel de Hamburgo. Wealthy winelovers can even buy a tiny plot allowing Campotinto’s oenologue to create their own personal vintage. There is a much more old-fashioned ambiance across the road, where five generations of the Cordano family have been making simple, honest wines. They created this ‘alcamen’, general store, in 1855 as a meeting point for Italian immigrants making a new home here. Unchanged today, it is perfect for a tasting accompanied by cheeses, salami and olives produced by neighbouring farms.

And no visit to the Carmelo region is complete without a stay at Narbona, a luxurious 5 room wine lodge where tradition and modernity effortlessly merge: vinifaction takes place in a state-of-the art winery with large casks and barriques,  using new and used wood,  while tastings are held in the original 1909 cantina surrounded by wheels of slowly ageing parmigiano cheese and artisan-cured prosciutto. While wine may be Narbona’s flagship, this is fully functioning farm, producing olive oil, yogurt and jams, homemade gelato and arguably Uruguays best dulce de leche, a sticky-sweet treacly caramel. While the red wines, including the Luz de Luna Tannat and an excellent Pinot Noir, are best discovered in the subterranean cellar, for the Sauvignon Blanc and other whites, guests can enjoy a special treat by taking a selection to taste out on a boat at a nearby yacht club that sails out into the immense waters of the River Plate just as the sun is setting.

MONTEVIDEO and RIVERA

I discovered that some of the country’s best wineries can be visited while based right in the heart of  Uruguay’s fascinating capital city. Montevideo boasts everything from the Sofitel Carrasco, an opulent palace hotel right on the seafront, to the funky Casa Sarandi bed&breakfast for those looking for a bohemian, insider’s experience. I missed out on a tour of the unique boutique winery, Artesana, whose two women winemakers produce Uruguay’s only Zinfandel, but made up for it with a whole day at Bodega Bouza, founded by a family who follow the philosophy of  “we only do things if we can do it well”. Three generations of the Bouza family, whose roots are from Galicia in Spain, still work together today, from the 91 year-old grandfather making cheese for the restaurant, to the father who originally founded a pasta business, and the two sons Jose Manuel and Juan Pablo who run the estancia on day-to-day business under the crucial guidance of one of Uruguay’s top oenologues, Eduardo Boido. This was where I first tasted an unoaked tannat, fresh, fruity and very different from the more mellow, barrel-aged vintages, while lunch at their gourmet restaurant was the moment to discover an outstanding Riesling and Albarino, and a Tempranillo made from a single parcel of vines.


Rather than a taxi, it was a twin-engine Cessna that flew me from Montevideo’s airport right across to the country to the Rivera region that nestles on the border with Brazil. A long, amazing aerial journey with incredible vistas of Uruguay’s natural beauty brought me to another landmark winery,  Cerro Chapeu, overseen by guru oenologist, Dr Francisco Carrau, one of the pioneer founding families of the modern Uruguay wine industry.

The road to Cerro Chapeu follows a dusty red path – the  Camino de la Linea Divisorio, slipping numerous times back and forth across the Brazilian frontier. Seemingly in the wild middle of nowhere, it is a shock to discover such an exciting, modern winery, stretching over 40 hectares planted on sandy, volcanic soil. For sustainability, sheep are used for weeding instead of insecticides, Francisco built the first gravity-fed cellar in South America, and tells me that, “we are always doing trials here, be it using Native yeast, tasting grape juice must, fermenting techniques, and I don’t even know how many different grape varieties we grow – maybe 25!”

  

Cerro Chapeu’s tasting room is decorated, like almost every one in Uruguay, with proud black and white photos of immigrant relatives who arrived from Europe to create a wine industry. Francisco stands next to his forefathers who arrived here in 1929 during the Grand Depression, selling up the family vineyard in Catalonia that dated back to 1752, a date that still figures on their bottles. A Sauvignon left on the lees for 6 months, a crisp mineral Chardonnay and a surprising blend of Viognier with the little known Petit-Marseng preceded the arrival of a mouth-watering asado grill of rib-eye steak that was perfect to appreciate a vertical selection of barrel-aged Tannats, culminating in a wonderfully smoky, elegant  1992 vintage

THE WINETATTOO VISITS VALPOLICELLA

                            VALPOLICELLA’S JOURNEY FROM TRADITION TO INNOVATION

 

Valpolicella is one of the world’s most well-know Italian wines, produced in the picturesque Veneto region in wineries that encircle the romantic city of Verona. My destination is the tiny hamlet of Casterna, whose rolling hills lie between the two historic winemaking villages of Fumane and San Pietro in Cariano. This is the traditional heartland of Valpolicella, before its boundaries were stretched right to the other side of Verona to border on the equally famous vineyards of Soave. With its mineral, chalky soil, Casterna is the perfect location to grow the local grapes that give Valpolicella its remarkable characteristics – Molinara, Dindarella, Rondinella and above all, the noble Corvina Veronese.

 

                 

This is a wine that is like no other in Italy, starting with the fruity, easy to drink Classico and Superiore, to the more complex Ripasso, the unique Amarone, whose the grapes are dried for three months to increase intensity, to the luscious Recioto, a rare dessert wine appreciated since the days of the Roman Empire. Hidden away on a narrow lane, I arrive at the state-of-the-art cantina of Valentina Cubi, a winemaker who for me manages to combine  the key qualities of traditionalism and innovation at the same time. These are the two crucial elements needed to make a great Valpolicella.

Valentina Cubi

The Cantina

For the winelovers from around the world that come to her winery for a tasting tour and stay in the cosy bed&breakfast, meeting Signora Cubi for the first time can come as a surprise. She is a pioneer in the region for producing certified organic wine, is already working in her vineyards following Biodynamic principles, and is at the vanguard of a new generation of exciting female winemakers in Valpolicella. But you must be prepared to meet someone who actually looks like everyone’s favourite auntie, as she only turned her attention to the family’s small 10 hectare estate after retiring from a lifelong career as the local schoolteacher. “The vineyard is just outside the village I was born in,” she explains, “and together with my husband, Giancarlo, who is a supplier of technical winemaking equipment, we bought it in 1970 as an investment for the future. I had two tiny children, a full time job, so looking after the vineyard was not an option initially, and for 30 years we rented it out or sold our  grapes to larger wineries”

Valentina has taken me out to the edge of her vineyard, which is bordered on one side by the waters of Lake Garda and on the other by the pre-Alp peaks of the Monti Lessini. Wild flowers and weeds grow imbetween the perfectly pruned vines in typical organic fashion, and Valentina recalls how she was determined to put her imprint on her wines immediately after she took over control of the estate again. “From the first day I started  cutting down on pesticides, and  this was long before people started to talk about organic wine, especially here in Valpolicella. In 2005 we decided to bottle and market all our wine ourselves, launching the brand Valentina Cubi, and started to transform to organic production in 2007, achieving official certification in 2010. I can assure you organic winemaking is no easy process, cutting into profit margins, complicating production in the vineyard and cantina – but I was determined not to compromise on this.”

Although Valentina has no formal oenology education she makes up by having very explicit ideas on what kind of wine she wants to make.‘I think it is important’” she insists, “for Valpolicella to go back to the original characteristics that makes it such a wonderful, unique wine – fresh, fruity, drinkable. A wine where the level of alcohol is not overpowering, that is a simple pleasure to drink with a plate of salami and cheese.” That is certainly the characteristics I discovered in her three most representative wines – Valpolicella Classico and Superiore, as well as  Sin Cero, a stellar ‘natural’ cuvee that is completely sulphite-free. These are all aged in steel vats rather than wooden barrels, and while her  Ripasso and the elegant Amarone are oak-aged from 12 to 30 months, with a higher alcohol content, it is always the fruit, the grape that remains dominant in these more complex vintages. 

Traditional drying of Amarone grapes

 

All of this is very ‘contro corrente’ – against the tide – of present trends which sees many Valpolicella winemakers seemingly vying with each other to see who can produce the more powerful alcohol-laden vintage than the other. But trends often mask the reality, and Valentina’s wines have achieved critical acclaim in international wine fairs from Germany’s Prowein to France’s influential Millesieme Bio in Montpellier. Again, the Signora eloquently describes her philosophy, “One of the first decisions when I started the vineyard was above all, to make a wine for myself and not for other people. A wine that is an expression of our soil and the grapes that grow in Valpolicella, something that wine enthusiasts around the world should accept, and enjoy the specific characteristics of our  wine, rather than me making efforts to produce something that is tailored to other people’s tastes and preferences.”

 

The Valentina Cubi winery is  very much a family affair…….

 

Sebastiano in the barrel-ageing cellar

 

Her son-in-law, Sebastiano helps in the cellar, while her daughter, Paola, gives a hand with the many cosmopolitan wine tastings. And Valentina’s teenage grandson will soon be starting winemaking college, so the future seems well-assured for the cantina.