JOHN BRUNTON’S COLLI BOLOGNESI WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION


The grandiose medieval city of Bologna sits at the foot of the Apennine Mountains, and just a handful of kilometres outside the city walls, the urban landscape rapidly disappears, replaced by wild natural scenery of steep hills and rocky ridges, hilltop hamlets and ancient abbeys, and above all, a glorious patchwork of vineyard slopes that produce the unmistakable wines of the Colli Bolognesi. The Bologna Hills are a genuine hidden secret for wine lovers, little-known even by most Italians themselves. And there is none of the monoculture of grapes that so marks regions like Tuscany and Piedmont, as the Colli explode with an exuberant  natural biodiversity of woods and forests, meadows and farming land, alongside the vineyards which tend to be  dotted across the countryside in small parcels. The vines here have been cultivated since the start of civilisation, first by the Etruscans, then the Romans, and winemakers today excel with the region’s famed and versatile autochthonous grape, Pignoletto – also known as Grechetto gentile – transforming it into a wonderfully light Frizzante, a bubbly Spumante, or an  elegant still white wine. And nowhere in Italy is a wine so intimately tied to the local cuisine as Pignoletto with the rich terroir cuisine of Bologna. Not for nothing is Bologna known as La Grassa, and a sparkling Pignoletto is quite simply  the perfect pairing to handmade tagliatelle smothered with a luscious ragù Bolognese, deep-fried gnocchi, irresistible mortadella and prosciutto.

But Pignoletto is just the beginning of this wine journey, as the Colli’s mainly small, artisan vignaioli have also mastered the art of blending Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot for their signature Bologna Rosso. The distinctive Barbera grape is also made both a still and sparkling red wine. While these wines are beloved and eagerly purchased by a loyal local market, there is also now emerging a wave of unconventional, inventive winemaking bubbling under the surface, experimenting with amphorae and biodynamic cultivation, zero sulphite and orange wines. And the Colli Bolognesi are also a paradise for hospitable wine tourism as many estates offer not just tasting and tours, but affordable, comfortable places to stay and eat, an authentic Agriturismo experience. Start discovering this surprising region with a trip around ten of the top wineries to visit.   

Podere Riosto

The drive up to this sprawling estate is the perfect introduction to the unique landscape of the Colli Bolognesi, where geometric vines line vertiginous slopes, patched between contrasting lush valleys and remarkable rocky ridges known as calanchi. The owner of the 70 hectare property, Alessandro Galletti, unabashedly claims it is geologically unique, ‘ with sandy granite soil now covered by green vegetation dating back to when this was all under water, and bare clay bluffs, the same you will find in Montalcino or Barolo. Perfect for making great wines.’

Now 81 years old, he may leave much of the running of the business to his dynamic daughter, Cristiana, but looking out from the terrace of the family home, he recalls how, ‘after the Second World War, these hills were nothing more than a battlefield, like Monte Cassino. And we still dig up bombs today when cultivating the fields. Serious wine production of our 16 hectare vineyard began in 1991, and in 2007 I built a modern cellar of steel vats, small French barrels and Slovanian casks across the hill.’ Today, the cantina also houses an immensely successful agriturismo, including a romantic open-air restaurant in the middle of the vineyard, and Alessandro admits that  ‘it is the agriturismo that allows us to survive, producing 50% of our income, and attracting 15,000 visitors a year, who all become new local customers and spread the word about our wines.’ While his flagship wines are Bologna Rosso, still and fizzy Pignoletto, be sure to taste his intriguing Fantini, produced both as a sparking rosé and red. This is an exceptionally rare native grape, that Alessandro claims is only grown on Podere Riosto. Working with a researcher, he spent 7 years studying Fantini before it was officially accepted as N°435 of Italy’s autochthonous grapes

Tenuta Bonzara

It can be quite an adventure finding this hidden winery, lost in the Bologna hills, beginning as you cross the narrow one-way Ponte Oca, the Goose Bridge. Climbing high on a narrow route through forests stacked with towering larches and pine trees, the road eventually comes out at a lofty plateau marked by a massive farmhouse with an idyllic panorama  over vineyards tumbling down into a valley that only rises anew into craggy peaks. While the farmhouse dates back to the 1600’s, the present cantina was built in 1963, when the grandfather of the present youthful winemakers, Silvia and Angelo Lambertini, decided to buy an abandoned 100 hectare estate, immediately planting 15 hectares of vines. Neither Silvia nor her brother Angelo studied oenology, and only took over recently after the premature death of their father. 

But their enthusiasm for the future of this quintessential family enterprise is infectious as they outline their future plans. ‘We are still starting out, with our mother and the family oenologue here to advise and guide us. Maybe we will look at organic farming later, for now we must concentrate on increasing exports, make greater emphasis on native grapes, and develop wine tourism and events as the Tenuta is famous as a wedding venue.’ Slowly imposing their own personality,  their first wine is called #1.0, a curious 100% Negretto, showing the potential of a grape that is usually only used as a ‘taglio’ to fortify and  give colour to Barbera. It is light, fresh, a delightful, drinkable summer wine. With some of their older vines growing at altitudes over 500 metres, they tend to harvest later, producing a complex Pignoletto with a glorious straw yellow colour. And although their signature red remains the classic Bologna Rosso blend, they also produce single grape cuvées of Cabernet and Merlot.

Montevecchio Isolani

It is quite an emotional experience tasting wines produced on this historic estate sitting at an old oak table in the ancient vaulted cellar beneath a magnificent 15th century palazzo. Ownership of this 100 hectare property has not changed since 1456, and today’s descendants, the two brothers, Gualtiero and Francesco Cavazza Isolani, still live upstairs with their families in the palatial mansion. Gualtiero has overseen the vineyards since 1972, ‘when my Papà took me aside and said; the grapes and the wines are yours to look after’. Popping open a bottle of his latest experiment, a fizzy  Pignoletto, non-filtered and naturally fermented in the bottle, this jovial, aristocratic figure exudes an enthusiastic passion for his wines, insisting that, ‘I believe in tasting wines at room temperature, both red and white. Put a bottle in a modern fridge and it can get so cold as to be undrinkable.’

And he has firm views about his winemaking, recounting how, ‘I have gone back to using our traditional cement cisterns. They date to the 1960’s, but were vitrified in the 70’s and 80’s, and may look like antiques but are perfect for ageing my reds. I certainly don’t see the need to change my techniques, to use oaky barrels of experiment with amphorae. And remember, we have been certified organic since 2015. My brother and I agreed to go organic with hardly any discussion, a miracle as usually we are never in agreement about anything!’ Gualtiero becomes more pensive when tasting his elegant red wines, subtle blends of Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon that can easily age 10-15 years. In fact, he declares philosophically that, ‘what is the only thing you can leave your children? For me it is wine. I make it because I love it, and hopefully I make something of quality, that my children can enjoy by opening a few bottles long after I have departed.’

La Mancina

The sign outside Francesca Zanetti’s rustic cantina says ‘Vignaioli Independenti’ and as soon as she starts explaining her winemaking philosophy you know you are dealing with a feisty independent spirit, fully-convinced of her own ideas.

After working as the village schoolteacher, she entered the cantina in 1996, with no oenology training but a fierce passion for wine. ‘I had to force my Nonno to accept me, and back then it was not easy for a woman,’ she recalls. Her cantina looks right out over rolling hills covered with the family vineyard, and she enthuses about the potential of this particular corner of the Colli Bolognesi, ‘because here in the Terre di Montebudello we merit the recognition of  our own Cru.’ Francesca has made a name for herself with the region’s signature Pignoletto grape. ‘In Bologna they call me Signora Pignoletto,’ she declares. ’This is a unique grape that I love, that I adore. I am mad about Pignoletto, but as a still wine rather than sparkling. It is tannic, impossible to work with, but with the exposure we have on our hill slopes, the results can be spectacular. Of course, for my loyal local customers I still make all the Pignoletto Frizzante and Spumante they demand. But to be honest, the only reason that there is so much sparkling Pignoletto here is because of Bolognese cuisine, which needs a bubbly wine to cleanse the palate, ‘pulisce la bocca’ as we say.’ Every few years, Francesca experiments to create a new wine, a different sort of cuvée, like a fizzy natural fermentation made not from Pignoletto but from Barbera.

Then there is her unique Cabernet and Merlot blend where the grapes are hand squeezed then macerated, fermented and aged for 18 months in a wooden barrel. And for the next one, ‘well’, she says enthusiastically, ‘why not an Orange wine made with our Barbera grapes.’

Tizzano

Turning off the road through imposing metal gates into the Tizzano estate,  a white gravel route meanders through an idyllic countryside landscape of vineyards, fields of cereals and woods that resemble a secluded kingdom.

No exaggeration as Tizzano spreads over a vast 230 acres. The present owner, Luca Visconti di Modrone, lives partly in Milan, where his family is one of the oldest noble families, and part here in this rambling redbrick manor that resembles a private village; palazzo, shady French-style arcades, chapel, stables, old animal stalls converted into barrel-ageing rooms, barns that now house a modern winery using traditional cement tanks alongside steel vats and wooden casks. Tasting the estates wide selection of vintages with this courteous aristocrat, he is visibly proud of the quality of his wines. ’At Tizzano and in much of the Colli Bolognesi, vine cultivation was historically much less important than cereals. But today the vineyard takes precedence, so we effectively replanted our entire 25 hectares of vines, creating one single vineyard in the perfect geographical location to make great wines, replacing the previous mismatch of small plots all over the place.’ For the future, the Count is clear that, ‘we aim both to valorise our indigenous grapes, while also increasing our exports rather than relying on local sales.’ But he admits that, ‘we are fortunate, though, to have such a  loyal local clientele, with 30% of sales direct here from the tenuta.

Outsiders rarely understand how proud we are here in the Colli Bolognesi of our own particular wines. They perfectly match our rich cuisine – tagliatelle al ragù, deep-fried polenta, thick slices of mortadella and crusty bread. Many people even add a dash of fizzy Barbera into a bowl of tortellini in brodo.’

Corte d’Aibo

Driving past the picturesque village of Montebudello, a tiny road weaves through vineyards and low lying hills into the Corte d’Aibo estate, a winery like no other in the Colli Bolognesi. The first thing to catch your eyes is a stunning modern glass, steel and wood cantina, something you would expect to see more in Tuscany or Piedmonte. Miraculously constructed throughout the Covid lockdown, it is a testament to the commitment of Corte d’Aibo to this region. Founded back in 1988 by an idealistic cooperative of 9 like-minded friends, mostly from nearby Modena,  everyone who owns a share of the estate works here too, a guiding principle. Their 20 hectares of vines have been organic since the first day, and Demeter certified biodynamic since 2010, almost unheard of in this region. They are also located in the middle of a protected National Park. Today there is a plush Agriturismo with an eco swimming pool that is actually a small freshwater lake, gourmet restaurant, and boutique selling not just their wines, but honey, balsamic vinegar, homemade jams, and bio cosmetics. The new cantina is surrounded by lush wild flowers and vegetables planted in giant wooden casks, perfect for a romantic  sunset aperitif.

Downstairs in the cellar is a state-of-the-art installation of sunken and standing terracotta amphorae alongside lines of oak barrels. And the wines made here are certainly distinctive, as winemaker Mario Pirondini, also makes use of cement tanks to age some reds. So prepare for a marathon, eclectic tasting, passing from zero-sulphite cuvées, orange wine, a surprising blend of Pignoletto and Malvasia, a still Barbera rather than the expected sparkling. And these are not winemakers jumping on the amphorae bandwagon, as is often the case today, as Corte d’Aibo started using them in 2010, and have 22 amphorae today. A serious investment for any winery.

Lodi Corazza

The busy highway into Bologna runs right past the Lodi Corazza cantina, though walk through to the back and the urban landscape is immediately replaced by bucolic vineyards climbing up into the hills. This is how close the Colli Bolognesi are to Bologna. And the family have records of the Tenuta selling wines to faithful customers in the nearby city going back to 1726.

While the family patriarch, 90 year-old Corrado, quietly sips a glass of his favourite Barbera, the present winemakers, his son and daughter Cesare and Silvia, declare how, ‘We are proud that this is an historic cantina as we were born here, live here today as our parents do, and we are still farmers as much as vignaioli.’ While Cesare heads out on the tractor it is Silvia who oversees an unorthodox cellar, dominated by cement tanks. ‘The quality and reputation of our wines, has been born with cement cisterns that we have no intention of changing even though some people visiting the cantina think it is more of a museum and ask out where the modern vats are. The wine simply does not change when it is ageing in the cement, untouched by fluctuations in  outside  temperatures. And we have some wonderful vintage oval tanks, which are even better than round barrels to ensure that the wine is always in movement.’  While their excellent range of sparkling Pignoletto include both a Metodo Classico and natural fermentation, Silvia insists that ‘the ultimate interpretation of a Pignoletto is a still wine – complex, elegant – rather than a light drinkable bubbly. For me, our great wines are the still Pignoletto Superiore and Classico Superiore.’

And recently she has pushed the frontiers by producing the very surprising Dissidente cuvée. ‘Again this is a pure Pignoletto but the result is a genuine orange wine, even though the grape is white. Harvested late, the wine is left to macerate in an open barrel. We have been making this since 2017, and exhibit at Orange Wine festivals around Europe.’

Tenuta Santa Croce

The Chiarli family own one of the largest and most influential wine groups in the Emilia-Romagna region, operating from their historic base in Modena since 1860. And it says something about their commitment to the Colli Bolognesi that they have purchased and built up a single winery, Tenuta Santa Croce, dedicated to the distinctive wines from here. Their 30 hectare vineyard sits on the slopes beneath the iconic Abbazia di Monteveglia, and the state-of-the-art winery and tasting rooms they have created is overseen by a representative of the latest generation, Giorgio Chiarli, along with his brothers Carlo and Stefano.

Giorgio typifies the family’s no-nonsense, business-like approach when he relates how,  ‘we bought this estate 20 years ago to valorise, to prioritise, the Pignoletto grape. It makes up 80% of our production here –  Spumante Brut Nature with zero sugar added, blending 90% Pignoletto with 10% Chardonnay, a classic Frizzante, using Metodo Charmat but also a Metodo Famigliare, where the wine is bottled, then fermented on the lees with no filtration. And  we make two still wines, a Superiore, where the Pignoletto is blended with 10% Riesling, and a 100% Pignoletto Classico Superiore, taken from a tiny terroir that for us is the essence of the grape’s potential, a genuine Cru.’ The identity of Chiarli has always been closely tied to their region of Emilia Romagna, dedicated not just to Pignoletto here in the Bologna Hills, but other indigenous grapes like Sangiovese di Romagna and their flagship Lambrusco di Modena. And Giorgio stresses that, ‘this commitment has been a deliberate choice, because in the 1990’s we could easily have taken a money-making direction by bottling millions and millions of bottles of Prosecco.’  And the Chiarli commitment to the Colli Bolognesi extends to a personal level as well, as just recently, Giorgio chose to have his wedding at the nearby Abbazia di Monteveglia, looking down right over Tenuta Santa Croce vines. 

Cantina Francesco Bellei

Sandro Cavicchioli is one of Italy’s most renowned sparkling winemakers, an expert oenologue who decided 11  years ago to sell the estate bearing his name to the leading international wine group, Gruppo Italiano Vini. But rather than disappearing to enjoy his windfall, Sandro has stayed on as chief winemaker of Cantina Cavicchioli, now an umbrella Cantina Sociale covering an astonishing 4,000 hectares of smallholders spread across the whole of Emilia Romagna. There are 455 hectares of Pignoletto alone, producing some 3 million bottles. Tasting his signature Metodo Classico and Ancestrale bubbly, Sandro explains that he is a winemaker enjoying the best of both worlds, ‘because I also founded  Cantina Francesco Bellei, with my son Carlo, whose vintages we are tasting now, a garage winery where I am creating some unique sparkling interpretations of Pignoletto from a small organic vineyard. Unlike the Glera grape of Prosecco,  Grechetto Gentile is tough and tannic, full of potential for ageing, and even our first naturally fermented vintages in 2009 are exceptional today.’

Outside his private winery, the great majority of the Pignoletto that Carlo makes is grown on flat plains rather than the famous Bologna Hills. ‘The belief used to be that the Colli produced the good wines while we in the plains made inferior wines,’ he states provocatively. ‘But the reality today is the reverse, because while the Colli producers still concentrate on selling their wines around Bologna itself, we in the pianura sell Pignoletto across the world, establishing a global identity for the wine. Much of this is to do with global warming, as on the plains it used to be difficult to make a wine of even 8 or 9 degrees. But today our wines are at least 2 degrees higher, increasing quality and  meaning we can finally make what I call ‘vini veri’.’

Tenuta La Riva

Alberto Zini is very different from most of his contemporary Colli Bolognesi winemakers. He has no background as a vignaiolo, abandoning a successful engineering business to start a new life back in 2013. And his wines are equally different, as he has dedicated himself to making exceptional bubbly Pignoletto, using not the usual Frizzante or Spumante methods but by Metodo Classico, determined to rival even French champagne.  ‘I wanted to return to my agricultural roots as both my father and grandfather were farmers before I became an entrepreneur,’ he recounts.

‘So in auction, I bought this property and changed my whole life. Look around you outside the cantina, the location is simply spectacular, and I just fell in love with this natural amphitheatre of  sloping hills lined with vineyards, mountains and bare rocky outcrops, our distinctive calanchi. From the first day I decided, no Metodo Charmat, no making my bubbly in steel vats the way everyone here does. I want my wines to stand out from the rest, and I have always adored Metodo Classico; fermentation in the bottle, on the lees, ageing for up to 60 months.’ Alberto is also single-minded in that 80% of his vines are white grapes, with a massive 70% sold as sparkling. And 2021 will be the first year the 13 hectare vineyard is Certified Organic.

Apart from his flagship Metodo Classico range, which also includes surprising Trebbiano and Chardonnay cuvées, he yields to tradition with an excellent Pignoletto Frizzante, naturally fermented in the bottle, but insists that, ‘all my wines,  still and sparkling, are aged at least 24 months in the bottle as I refuse to sell young. Simply because I know my wine is better when it has been properly aged, and I want my customers to appreciate the wine at its best.’    

Eat

Trattoria del Borgo

Hidden away in the medieval burg of Monteveglio, a feast of salami, prosciutto and formaggi adorn the ancient marble bar, while the menu offers the adventurous foodie  the chance to savour Bolognese specialities like grilled gnocchi, traditional tigelle fried scones topped with creamy mountain lard and squacquerone cheese. 

Trattoria dai Mugnai

Housed in an ancient red-brick grain mill, don’t miss the deep-fried polenta smothered with prosciutto, thinly sliced truffles and chunky porcini mushrooms, followed by traditional ragù bolognese, slow-cooked for at least 7 hours, with either tagliatelle or gramigna pasta.

Amerigo 1934

Part foodie delicatessen and cantina, part vintage trattoria, it is no surprise that Michelin decided to bestow one of its precious stars on this unique locale on the high street of picturesque Savigno.

Some signature dishes have been on the menu for 30 years, so try succulent rabbit roasted with balsamic vinegar, pan-fried calzagatti, polenta, with pickled vegetables and the best tortellini in brodo. They offer accommodation too.

Where to Stay

Agriturismo Borgo delle Vigne

A classic Colli Bolognesi agriturismo, with simple but comfy rooms, beautiful vineyard landscapes, a friendly cucina casalinga taverna, and the chance to taste the estate’s vintages with legendary 91 year-old winemaker, Carlo Gaggioli

JOHN BRUNTON’S BORDEAUX MODERN REDS WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

There is an exciting discovery trip to be made right now into the surprising world of a band of innovative Bordeaux winemakers who are crossing once sacred boundaries to produce a whole new age of modern red wines. They are scattered all over the region, from the grand chateaux of the Médoc and Saint-Emilion to Blaye and Bourg, to little-known vineyards in far flung corners of the Bordelais. Many have already moved beyond organic cultivation to embrace biodynamic methods and the unpredictable zero sulphates world of natural wines.

In the cellar, it is no longer rare to see terracotta amphorae and ceramic jars alongside oak casks, while raw cement cisterns and ovoids are suddenly finding favour again compared the uniformity of stainless steel vats. These new vintages no longer need to be put away in the cellar to slowly age to perfection, whose fruit bursts our as soon as you open the bottle, perfect to be drunk immediately. Few parts of the world have such an firmly established image of their famous red wines than the châteaux of Bordeaux. And today is the perfect moment to build on this unique reputation and offer the modern wine lover not just a traditional Bordeaux blend, but something new and different. Below are top selection of wineries to track down.

Château Le Geai 

Henri Duporge makes red wines like none other in Bordeaux. His vineyard surrounds the rambling 19th century Château Le  Geai, where  Henri’s garage wine cellar occupies the ground floor. Finding the Château can be an adventure till it suddenly pops up on the horizon, hidden at the end of a rough road lined by thick woods.

This fervent vigneron resembles a medieval alchemist, roaming around a cellar teeming with steel vats, oak barrels and numerous amphorae. And while understanding Henri’s winemaking is not always easy, all is quickly forgotten when you start tasting his marvellously expressive wines. He grows exclusively red grapes, not just the classic Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, but Côt and the rare Carménère Noir, all certified organic and biodynamic, with no added sulphites. While Bordeaux wines are historically about blends, Henri takes the opposite stance, saying,  ‘I like working with a single grape because you are dealing directly with the terroir. Take Carménère, which is capricious and produces tiny volumes. But when I planted these vines 20 years ago there was only 10 hectares left in all the Bordelais. It makes a wine you either love or hate – loud and noisy, difficult to taste when young, leaving a texture in your mouth  that is green, vegetal, peppery. But it can age forever, so after 10 years you might just start to like it.’

In the cellar, Henri challenges normal techniques, ‘I ferment for long periods, sometimes over a year in amphorae, then age even longer. And I control the fermentation’s evolution by listening to what I call ‘glougloutage’ – immersing and macerating the grape pulp in the amphorae along with the wine, and then keeping track of its glougloutage bubbling.’ If his wines are not surprising enough, then taste the home-brewed craft beer and a delicious hydromel, meade made from fermented honey.

Vignobles Bayle-Carreau

With its idyllic vineyard terraces running down to the bank of the Gironde river, visitors for tasting and wine pairing classes at the imposing Château Eyquem can arrive by boat, car and bike. This is the jewel in the crown of Vignobles Bayle-Carreau whose 130 hectare estate stretches across 6 châteaux in the Côtes-de-Bourg and Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux appellations. Each château retains its independence and personality with its own cellar master and the winery is renowned for its red wines, which account 95% of production. Up until the end of the 1990’s, 100% of their production was sold in Normandy,  an audacious strategy by the estate’s then patriarch, Claude Carrou, who devoted himself to a neglected part of France to promote his wines. But Claude passed away this year aged 92, and today a new generation has decided to make its mark.

His grandchildren, the cousins Charlotte and Cyril, decided, ‘it was the moment to offer something new. As our vineyards are known for red wines it was natural any new development should come there. Le Petit Claude is 95% Merlot  made to be drunk young, an affordable, uncomplicated, fun wine. Then there is Château Sainte-Clotilde sans soufre #01, a fruity, zero sulphite blend of Malbec, Cabernet Franc and Merlot, where we have also modernised the bottle shape and the label. The concept here is to create a new cuvee each year, depending on the harvest, so that may well be using a single grape variety.’ And their latest project is conversion to certified organic, beginning with their vineyard at Château Sainte-Clotilde. 

La Dame de Onze Heures

Vincent Rapin is a very singular winemaker, cultivating a single hectare of vines, which produces a single red wine. And his Saint-Emilion Grand Cru is unlike any other that you will taste. Predominantly Merlot, from 60 year-old vines, this explosive fruit-laden cuvée gets better each year it is aged, a wine you need to be patient with. This former rock musician bassist has  no consultant winemaker and keeps intervention in the cellar down to a minimum, explaining that, ‘after beginning very classically by ageing in small oak barrels, I was less and less happy, so slowly moved to large casks, then terracotta amphorae and now oval ceramic jars made in Limoges. We only make 5,000 bottles, all is sold each year, and I am much happier with my wine!’

Vincent comes alive with bubbly, smiling enthusiasm when talking about his wine, his cellar, but above all, his vineyard, a rare example in Bordeaux that is certified both organic and biodynamic. Proudly gesticulating in the midst of jungle-like vines, he recalls how, ‘‘I decided a long time ago that 80% of the work vignerons do in the vineyard is a load of rubbish, and moreover does not even treat the vine kindly. Here, we let this wonderful plant live as it should naturally. Most importantly that means absolutely no ploughing which literally kills the soil, leaving the weeds, letting the local wildlife reclaim their garden, and no cutting back of the leaves but rather leaving a natural canopy, like putting on a hat during a heatwave. Look around, my vineyard is a total mess, but it is a beautiful mess that I am proud of, and you taste the result in the wine from the incredible grapes we harvest.’

Château Pré La Lande 

Like many new generation vignerons that make a career change to winemaking, Michel Baucé knows exactly what kind of wines he wants to make. He bought this 14 hectare domaine in 2003 and has totally revolutionised it, converting to certified organic and biodynamic. He dug up the vineyard’s white grapes, replacing them by red, essentially Merlot and Cabernet Franc, producing just 4 cuvées, all natural wines with no sulphite added. His reasoning was obvious, ‘because in 2003 it was difficult to sell white wines here so I decided to concentrate 100% on red by creating wines that stand out from the rest. From 2014 I was one of the first in Bordeaux to buy an amphora and have worked with them ever since.’

He admits, though, that they almost fell into organic farming by accident. ‘I remember the salesman coming to take our order of chemical treatments and with 2 young kids and the a vineyard encircling our house, well I just said no, we will try another way. Our neighbours thought we were mad because 20 years ago few people in the Gironde was thinking like us, with the proportion of organic vineyards in Bordeaux at something ridiculous like 0.3%. Well today it is over 18% and rising steadily’ His vineyard lies in the Sainte-Foy appellation, at the edge of the Bordelais, with Bergerac just 5 kilometres away. So for Michel it was crucial to create a clear identity for his Château, staying within the Bordeaux appellation but creating modern reds for  modern consumers, especially overseas.  And he has succeeded, as today 80% goes for export ‘ because these markets are more open and enthusiastic for organic and natural wines that are pure, intense and all about the fruit’.

Vignobles Jean Médeville & Fils

The château that the Médeville family call home, is just at the gates of the medieval town of Cadillac, surrounded by vineyards. But Château Fayau is just one of their 11 estates, that traverse the left and right banks of the Garonne river, covering a extensive 200 hectares of vines.

All the winemaking and ageing is done here in Fayau’s rambling cellars, which despite the giant industrial cisterns outside, retains a quaint, quirky ambiance. Things have certainly changed since the winery’s foundation in 1826, when there was only 12 hectares, and today, the 7th generation brothers, Jean and Marc, produce a million bottles a year. With such large production, change inevitable comes slowly. But the brothers are converting one château vineyard to organic, using a herd of 400 grazing sheep to replace chemical pesticides, and in 2019, they launched a very different red wine, Elementary.

This surprising Graves is pure Cabernet Sauvignon, with no sulphites and 100% ecological packaging. ‘It is a fruity, drinkable wine for the future,’ insists Jean Medeville, the estate’s oenologue. ‘In our first year we have produced 10,000 bottles of Elementary and will double production next year. This is the vision we have for the wine of tomorrow, and if we had our way, we would be doing a whole range of accessible, easy drinking wines like this, as we possess both the terroir and cellar technique. Just look around the world and you can see people wanting wines that can be drunk young, fresh, on the fruit. But are they consumers of traditional Bordeaux château blends, who are used to complex, austere wines made to age?  And though it may surprise, for Elementary we were actually inspired by the origins of the Claret so beloved by the British in the 19th century, a light drinkable bistrot wine with no pretentions.’

Famille Bouey 

Winemakers in the Médoc since 1832, Famille Bouey, currently run by twin brothers Patrick and Jacques, is also an influential negociant, a global wine merchant selling some 10 million bottles a year. But the brothers remain committed to producing their own vintages from 6 Médoc châteaux, guided by  one of France’s most renowned consulting oenologues, Stéphane Derenoncourt. Patrick Bouey’s son, Yann, who recently joined the Maison, explains how they have recently released a revolutionary new line of red wines. ‘We had been thinking about taking new directions for a long time, but everything crystallised during the Covid lockdowns, which we managed to transform into an opportunity. So we have created some 30 new wines, ranging from a single grape Malbec to a rosé inspired by the colours of Pantone paints. But above all, we are going to be known for our zero sulphite range. There are already five new wines and the underlying philosophy is to make a quality ‘sans sulphite’ that is reliable, stable and can be aged. To do this, we analyse every cuvee of each of our chateaux to decide which can be selected without adding sulphites. For the moment that is 5-10% of the production.

And the proof is in the tasting as all these new cuvees answer our questions.’ Stéphane Derencourt is a new generation oenologue committed to terroir, to each specific vineyard plot, perfect to launch a series of premium parcel wines. ‘With his unique geosensory approach,’ enthuses Patrick Bouey, ‘he brings out the best in each terroir, creating wines that are insistently modern, moving on from the classic Bordeaux vintages everyone has been drinking for the last 30 years.’

Château Brillette 

This discrete, historic château, in the heart of Moulis-en-Médoc, is steeped in tradition, until recently producing just two high quality reds, appreciated by a faithful clientele, set in their ways and expecting a certain kind of wine. But since 2017 a wind of change has blown through this exceptional estate, made of a single 45 hectare vineyard encircling the chateau, since the appointment of Lucille Dijkstra, a recently qualified oenologist fiercely committed to ecology.

She comes from the South West of France and in her distinctive sing-song accent recounts how, ‘I was immediately interested in reducing our carbon footprint, and during my first year I lowered the weight of our bottles, changed the glue, the paper for labels, shortened corks. For biodiversity we planted 1500 trees, studied bats, birds and nurtured bees for honey. And I stopped the use of all pesticides.

Then in 2018 it was time to make a new wine, Brin de Brillette. This is  fruity, easy to drink, aged in oak and steel vats. The label is made from hay, no back label to lessen paper, a shorter cork with no artificial colouring, and no metal capsule but natural wax made from the resin of pine trees from the nearby forests of the Landes. And we are certified Vegan too!’ While the signature Château Brillette remains unchanged, very traditional, oak aged, Lucille is looking at making Haut Brillette, the entry level wine, more accessible by concentrating on fruity suppleness rather than a complex structure. Coming straight to the point she declares that ‘I don’t want this wine hidden away in the cellar for years on end. We want to address a younger, wine lover consumer, who really is not yet aware of our wines, a product that will attract cavistes, wine bars, open-minded sommeliers, bistronomique chefs.’

Château Anthonic 

Compared to many of the Médoc’s classical, perfectly-manicured vineyards, a quick tour around the vines surrounding Château Anthonic, in the heart of the Moulis appellation, unveils a very different landscape of small plots almost anarchically broken up by hedges, ditches, woods and fruit trees. This is the reality of the very personal philosophy of agroforestry followed by impassioned vigneron, Jean-Baptiste Cordonnier. He created one of Bordeaux’s pioneering organic wineries here back in 1999, but insists that,’ organic is just the entrance door for a whole world of other things I am doing.’ Jean-Baptiste has led a 20 year crusade to revive biodiversity,  growing crops between the vines to regenerate the soil, giving life back to attract the essential insects, funghi and bacteria.

‘The result,’ he claims, ‘is a soil that is more naturally fertile, more resistant, while the healthier vine grows grapes that make a better wine; more fruity, vibrant, a higher acidity and yes even with global warming, lower alcohol levels. A different equilibrium.’ He also believes in deciding his blends when tasting the grapes, just before the harvest, deciding already which parcel is right for which cuvee, rather than wait till after fermentation. He only makes two reds, ‘but I think they are already very modern. The entry range Les Aigles is vinified and aged in raw concrete vats, letting the wine breathe, and then bottled very early to preserve fruitiness and allow it to be  enjoyed  straight away. While the signature Chateau Anthonic may seem like a more traditional Moulis, and can definitely be left to age for a few years, but we are making it more supple and drinkable by slowly replacing the amount of classic barrel ageing with terracotta amphorae.’

Where to eat

La Terrasse Rouge

A short drive from Saint-Emilion, fun modern cuisine like tuna tataki or carpaccio of heritage tomatoes, served in a stunning contemporary space. Rooftop dining above the Château La Dominique’s wine cellar, looking out over a stunning  panorama of vineyards.

Vins Urbains

Cosy Bordeaux Cave à Vin that complements an innovative selection from Bordeaux with little-known organic, biodynamic and natural wines from the rest of France. Don’t miss the signature white truffle croque-monsieur.

Les 4 Baigneurs

Idyllic terrace with a view over the Dordogne river, the creative cuisine of chef Laure da Gama is the perfect pairing to accompany local Côtes-de-Bourg wines. The owners also run a B&B in the village.

Where to stay

Coup 2 Foudres

The family asked their barrel-maker to create two exceptional giant casks large enough to comfortably sleep in, including shower and all mod-cons. A unique glamping experience right in the middle of the vines.

What to do

Médoc train ride

Let the train take the strain by picking up the picturesque local line from Bordeaux Saint-Jean station to Pointe de Graves, that chugs through the mythical Médoc vineyards, stopping off at winemaking villages like Pauillac, Moulis and Margaux, where you can taste wine and not worry about drinking and driving.


Ballon trip

The medieval village of Saint-Emilion is one of the most picturesque spots in the Bordelais, surrounded by rolling hills covered by vineyards. Viewing this from the heights of a hot-air balloon is an unforgettable experience.

JOHN BRUNTON’S CRÉMANT DE BORDEAUX WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

Bordeaux wines are globally renowned, its famous châteaux producing remarkable reds, distinguished whites and luscious sweet wines. What may not immediately come to mind are bottles of bubbly, sparkling  white and rosé. Yet these light, wonderfully drinkable Crémants de Bordeaux are already playing a vital role in changing the image of France’s most famous wine region. Although the Crémant appellation is one of the youngest in Bordeaux (1990), the production of sparkling wines in the region is a century-old tradition.  For the curious wine tourist, tracking down different crémants opens the door not just to one region like Médoc or Graves, but lets you explore all vineyards that traverse the Bordelais, because today, everyone is making their own crémant, from a Grand Cru Classé 1855 to a smallholder cultivating a tiny vineyard. Today’s Crémant de Bordeaux offers not just quality and outstanding value for money, but a new spirit of democratisation. Bordeaux’s bubbly is made in the same age old traditional method made famous initially in Champagne, but  it can be enjoyed as aperitif or in a creative cocktail, and why not paired with oysters and fish freshly-caught in the bay of Arcachon, or even an elegant gastronomic rosé or zero dosage Brut served with a juicy entrecôte steak.

With Crémant the old rules of wine no longer need to apply, and to discover some of the diverse winemakers of this new-look Bordeaux, plan a trip around the following suggestions.

Lateyron

Just outside the vine clad hills surrounding Saint-Emilion, a visit to the tasting room of Château Tour Calon is the perfect introduction to the sparkling world of Crémant de Bordeaux. Some 700,000 bottles of bubbly are stored in a subterranean maze of cellars and tunnels, quarried out of the stone to build the grand mansions of Bordeaux, and stretching for some 2 kilometres till they come out at a secret entrance right in out vineyards. This is the home of the historic Lateyron family, who have been cultivating vines  since 1897.

They may own three châteaux producing high quality, predominantly organic reds, but their reputation rests firmly on their own flagship line of Lateyron Crémant, alongside the skill and expertise to transform the wine of other vignerons using the classic ‘méthode traditionelle ’. This is the work of the ‘élaborateur’, who ‘elaborates’ still wine into sparkling following the age-old process of double fermentation, storing on the lees, turning, disgorging and ageing. So while Lateyron produce 100,000 of their own crémants, they are also making another 500,000 for other winemakers.

Corinne Lateyron is the family winemaker and recounts how, ‘‘I studied oenology here in Bordeaux, then spent time first in Champagne specialising in sparkling then in California because it was the only place where the cellar master was a woman. Our family have always had a reputation for making crémants and even in the 1930’s,  Pomerol vignerons would turn up with a barrel and ask my grandfather to make it into a sparkling.’ While the label and style of the family’s own crémant is essentially traditional, concentrating on quality rather than following fashions, Corinne is considering launching an organic cuvée, and enthuses about her flagship Abel, a Brut Nature that is, ’an elegant blend of Sémillon grapes with a little Cabernet Franc, zero dosage of sugar, and frankly tastes like a great Burgundy or a Pessac-Léognan’.

Château Rioublanc 

When Edouard Carretero bought the romantic Château Rioublanc 58 years ago there was farmland and forest, but scarcely 3 hectares of vines. At 87, he still lives in the château, with a garden full of rose bushes, fruit trees and free-range chickens running around, while his son Philippe, along with grandson Pierre, manages what has become a formidable 55 hectare vineyard. And while they may not be located in one of the prestigious appellations, Château Rioublanc’s renown comes from being one of the pioneering Bordeaux domaines to convert to certified organic back in 2009. Although today, two thirds of the vineyard produces red wine, sparkling  crémant has always been made here, though as Paul explains, ‘it was initially in very small quantities, popular for Christmas and festivities with our loyal client base, essentially in the north of France, where my grandfather had historically established the base of nearly all our sales.’ But that is all changing today, as, ‘in the last two years, our sparkling wine production has almost tripled to over 30,000 bottles with increased interest coming from export markets. In fact, right now we can hardly keep up with orders from new markets in the UK, USA, Norway and Japan. 

What we are seeing is a clear demand for organic crémant, while the launch of our Brut Nature, which has a zero dosage of both sugar and sulphites, has also been a huge success.’ While the family follows the crémant tradition of hand-picked harvesting and selecting their own grape blends –  Sémillon and Colombard for the Brut Nature, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon for the fresh, fruity rosé –  like the great majority of Bordeaux vignerons, they then use an expert ‘prestataire’ for the ‘élaboration’ of their still wine into sparkling. This means entrusting their production to a specialist oenologue in Saint-Emilion, whose own cellar transforms, bottles and ages what becomes Château Rioublanc’s crémant.

Cave Louis Vallon 

This innovative and dynamic Cave Coopérative has played a major role in the development of crémant de Bordeaux ever since the creation of the official appellation in 1990. And today some 4 million bottles are produced in their dazzling state-of-the-art winery, a staggering 50% of all Bordeaux’s crémants. Although Louis Vallon produces red and white wines, its reputation rests as Bordeaux’s leading ‘producteur élaborateur’, controlling all elements and stages of their crémant production from the vineyard through to the winery.

The Cave is made up of 130 members, known as ‘coopérateurs’, cultivating 1,200 hectares of vines, essentially in the Entre-deux-Mers region, whose abundant plains and fertile soils are perfect for vines producing high volumes of grapes with high acidity and low concentration. What the Coopérative’s Président, Dominique Furlan, describes as ‘the perfect recipe for a crémant. In Bordeaux,’ he explains, ‘we can make use of our Merlot grape that other crémant producers do not grow, and this is perfect for rosé and blanc de noir, adding a unique fruitiness’.

This thoughtful, innovative vigneron is a typical ‘coopérateur’, the son of Italian immigrants who came here as agricultural labourers, slowly buying plots of vines until he now cultivates 12 hectares. He is convinced that, ‘in both France and overseas, we are seeing a huge demand for crémant, following the success of Prosecco. But traditional crémant regions, like Burgundy and Alsace, simply do not have the capacity to increase production. Well we in Bordeaux have that capacity and are ready to take their place.’ And visitors for a tasting at Louis Vallon are certainly spoilt for choice, with 6 cuvées to discover, as well as a brut and rosé Pet’Nat, the funky natural fermentation bubbly that is suddenly attracting a new younger consumer.

Château de Bonhoste 

Located in the bucolic countryside just outside the Entre-deux-Mers region, this rambling 19th century manor has been home to six generations of the tightly-knit Fournier family. Beginning in the 1980’s, Bernard and Colette transformed what was a rustic cattle farm cultivating cereals and a few vines into a modern 50 hectare winery, run today by their two children, Sylvaine and Yannick. Bernard began producing crémant straightaway in the 1990’s when the appellation was created ‘and at first it was an anecdotal, seasonal wine, something fun for our loyal customers,’ recalls Yannick. ‘But in the last 5 years production has really taken off and although we only make two cuvées, a brut and a rosé, this years production of 20,000 bottles is already 10% of the chateau’s total output, with increased demand not just here in France but overseas, especially after celebrity chef Gordon RamsAy asked us to create a special label crémant for the launch of his Brasserie ‘Le Bordeaux’.

Tasting their crémants is just the tip of the iceberg of the fun wine tourism activities proposed at the pioneering Château Bonhoste. The first step 30 years ago, when they opened a tasting room, was to put a sign on the busy road running past the winery, ensuring a steady stream of curious new customers. Then for 17 years the Fourniers have organised an annual Farmers Market, attracting 1,000 visitors to showcase both their wines and local specialities from farms and artisans. They charge no fee for camping vans to park outside the cellar, with free access to toilets and showers.

And in 2014, they commissioned a Bordeaux barrel maker to construct two enormous wooden casks that are used as a unique glamping bed & breakfast right in the heart of the vineyards.

Château des Tourtes

Ready and waiting for an idyllic wine tasting picnic in the vineyards, a row of retro-style electric bikes  line up outside the wine cellars of Château les Tourtes, one of many oenotourism initiatives thought up by the owners of this lively domaine; wine blending workshops, gourmet pairing classes, cellar tours. The Château of Doves winery run by two dynamic sisters, Marie-Pierre and Emmanuelle, who describe themselves as ’Artistes du Vin’. They certainly never stop having ideas on how to create and sell their wines, insisting that , ‘in Bordeaux we really need to bring back the fun, the smiles of making wine.’ The sisters abandoned different careers to return in 1997 to manage the family estate in the heart of Côtes de Blaye. ‘Our parents always made crémant,’ remembers Marie-Pierre, ‘though let’s not forget that we had the right to call it Méthode Champenoise at the time.’   She believes that crémant can  become a flagship for Bordeaux, because, ‘our sparkling wine is made across the whole Bordelais, from Médoc to Blaye, Graves to Saint-Emilion, and market studies show that the future of global wine markets is definitely bubbly! For sure everyone is surfing on the consumer wave created by Prosecco, but with premium-priced Champagne leaving the door open, it is the moment for Bordeaux to promote its quality, affordable sparkling wine.’ For the moment Château des Tourtes produces just two crémants, a brut and an intriguing 100% Malbec rosé, but the sisters are always coming up with new ideas, so with crémant demand increasing, they are always looking to develop new wines, ‘because winemakers here need promote Bordeaux, and show  wines that can be young and fun.’

Célène 

It is quite a surprise to learn that beneath the modern winery of Célène, there lies an 18th century cellar running over 3 kilometres where some 2 million bottles of crémant are stored. This winery is one of Bordeaux’s historic elaborators of  crémant, dating back to 1947. But it has been revolutionised by new owners who have thrust it into the vanguard of contemporary sparkling wine.

Working with oenologue, Frédéric Costella, it is the dynamic, 32 year-old Céline Lannoye, whose vision is driving Célène. Her family already own several prestigious châteaux, so why crémant? ‘When I first visited in 2015,  I found the whole process of transforming still wine into sparkling totally fascinating. But I also realised that crémant is seriously underestimated here. Yes Bordeaux has superb terroir for making great red wines, but that terroir can also make superb crémants. Today, I am totally convinced about the future of crémant, especially adding in the prestige of the name Bordeaux which counts enormously overseas. Then there is the possibility of producing different kinds of crémants; different blends, single grape, different dosage, ageing, the use of sulphites. That is what makes our work so exciting.’ Céline’s passion is in the blending of the original still wine, while admitting that, ‘it can be a frustrating process, as the wines you are deciding how to blend, will only  be tasted as a crémant three years later.  People often don’t realise just how long the process is.’ Her final word of advice is that, ‘the quality of the crémant depends absolutely on the quality of the ‘vin de base’, the original still wine. I cannot emphasise this more.’ So be prepared for a lengthy tasting of 10 different crémants, and Céline is always thinking up new cuvées. 

Château Haut-Garriga

Sitting under a shady tree of the lush garden in front of his cellar, Maxime Barreau enthusiastically starts popping open his range of bubbly crémants. Although he looks after the family’s 75 hectare vineyard pretty much on his own – with a little help from Papa – he is a relaxed, smiling vigneron, even if at just 32 years of age, he is the 6th generation, inheriting a 200 year old history of winemaking. ‘Like many wineries in Entre-deux-Mers, we were mixed farming until the 1960’s, though now it is just grapes along with 15 hectares of woodland. I could cut down the trees and plant more vines, but right now I’m happy to keep the forest to preserve our biodiversity, and I am even thinking of reducing the vineyard and planting something new. Not cereals like my forefathers but hops, as there is a big demand from craft breweries and it has the same spirit as a vineyard. He echoes the thoughts of many Bordeaux winemakers, saying that ‘crémant has changed from being an occasional seasonal product, into a small but significant part of our range. And I am certain the market will increase because it has become a viable alternative to Champagne.’ Maxime uses his favourite 80 year-old Sémillon vines for the brut cuvée, while the rosé is 100% Cabernet Franc, and he is planting Colombard to make a blend in 2-3 years time.

He is never short of new ideas, planning to convert to organic cultivation next year, experimenting with a Pet’Nat natural sparkling that literally explodes on opening, ‘a little unpredictable, so not yet ready to go on sale’, he says with a smile. And don’t leave without trying his funky Orange Wine cuvée, made from 40 day macerated Sémillon grapes, and currently selling out. 

Château Degas

Just outside the bustling town of Saint-Germain-du-Puch, surrounded by the vineyards of Graves-de-Vayres, this picturesque château may have no connection with the famous painter, Edgar Degas, but it is home to a vibrant matriarchal family of winemakers who are forging a very individual path in the world of Bordeaux wines.

Since 2018, two sisters, Eugénie and Diane, known locally as Les Filles Degas, The Degas Girls, manage the family’s sprawling 87 hectare vineyard spreading over 6 local châteaux. As far as crémant is concerned they are very much New Kids on the Block, making a single cuvée that was only launched in 2021. Eugénie is the winemaker, as bubbly as her crémant, and recounts how, ‘I was determined to make a sparkling wine and it was just a question of agreeing with my sister exactly what kind we both wanted, which is never easy. But it was a fun process; buying lots of crémants, sitting down for a mammoth blind tasting, and fortunately we both came out choosing a pure Sémillon and not a blend. And when we make a decision we stick with it.’ The sisters are certainly a breath of fresh air with their positive attitude, creating a hugely successful Bar à Vin in the gardens of Château Degas, with live concerts, wine and tapas. Their grandmother lives down the road in Château Moulin de la Souloire, where her sprawling gardens are a botanical marvel of exotic plants and flowers, lakes and green houses, and this has become the perfect venue for bigger promotional events like their annual Wine and Food festival. Not surprisingly, their first crémant vintage quickly sold out and now they want to add to their Sémillon vines to increase volume and launch both a blend and a rosé.

Where to eat

Le Bar à Vin

The name says it all, as the mythical Art Deco bar is the absolute place to discover Bordeaux wines, showcasing by the glass around 35 rotating producers from the 8,500 Bordeaux Châteaux  – from bubbly crémant to Sauternes to Pomerol. Accompanied by delicious plates of cheese, ham and saucisson.

Le Cloîtres des Cordeliers

The medieval village of Saint-Emilion is full of surprises but nothing prepares you for the romantic cloisters of this 13th century Franciscan convent,  perfect for a sunset aperitif of bubbly crémant produced in the ancient cellars down below, accompanied by a picnic basket or a tasty selection of local charcuterie.

Where to stay

Moxy Bordeaux

Latest hotspot to stay in downtown Bordeaux, the hip Moxy is fun and casual with modern functional rooms, lively bar in the evening.

What to do

Cité du Vin

One of the world’s ultimate wine experiences, where amateur or professional winelovers are taken on a virtual reality  journey  across the world’s different vineyards with digital holograms and 3-D movies, sensorial challenges and a real-life tasting on the panoramic rooftop bar.

Bordeaux river cruise

Take a lazy boat ride along either the Garonne or Gironde rivers, sipping a sunset glass of bubbly crémant on board or stopping at grand châteaux by the water’s edge for a cellar visit and tasting

JOHN BRUNTON’S BORDEAUX NEW GENERATION WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

While many winemaking families of the prestigious châteaux of Bordeaux can claim a history stretching back centuries, travelling around today, wine lovers are increasingly likely to come upon one of the new generation of vignerons who have chosen to start a new adventure in the vineyards of Bordeaux. Sometimes this is the latest in the family line who after trying an alternative career cannot resist the allure of their vineyard home, others who convert midlife, abandon successful jobs and open a new page as a debutant winemaker, full of enthusiasm.  And an influential proportion are women, eager to make their mark on the Bordeaux wine scene.  

These are contemporary vignerons, without all the weight of history and tradition, who are embracing new ideas when making and then marketing their wines, ready to produce wines that are not just organic but biodynamic or zero sulphite, who look beyond the classic cellar of oak barrels and stainless steel vats, to innovative new vinification and ageing methods using terracotta or ceramic amphorae,  even returning to retro cement cisterns but no longer coated with epoxy. The results  mean there is a new generation of wines to discover, and here are ten of these top new winemakers to track down.

Domaine Les Carmels

A long winding drive through forests, pastures and parcels of vineyards ends at a path lined with cypress trees, climbing to a plateau marked by a modern wooden cellar and rustic chalet. This is the hidden kingdom of Sophie and Yorick, idealistic young vignerons who realised a dream of creating their own Domaine in 2010, the same year of the first vintage of the new Cadillac Côtes de Bordeaux appellation. The couple manage full time jobs alongside running the winery, meaning  they can afford to keep to their principles and not compromise. ‘We were so proud in that first year to make 2,500 bottles,’ recounts Sophie nostalgically. ‘Today it has risen to 20,000 bottles, though 60% of the harvest is sold to our supportive Cave Coopérative. We prefer selling grapes to them rather than putting all our effort into making a wine that just gets pumped into a lorry and taken off to a négociant.’

They make just two wines,  Les Vendanges, an elegant blend of Merlot and Cabernet Franc, and Les Caprices, a distinctive zero sulphite pure Merlot, made to be drunk straightaway. Sophie emphasises that, ‘I have a message to young winemakers who want to start out on their own. Have a good look around here because while properties in the famous appellations may cost millions, some parts of the Bordelais are among the lowest cost vineyards in France. In 2010, our 15 hectares cost us the grand sum of €140,000. There were 5 hectares of vines, but biodiversity  was vital for us, so there are also 5 hectares of meadows, where we will grow cereals, and 5 hectares of forest, because people still don’t understand that monoculture just weakens your soil in the long term. ’

On the topic of organic cultivation, she just smiles, saying, ‘ we have been certified since the beginning, because organic is our way of life.’

Château La Peyre

Don’t expect to see a grand Entre-deux-Mers château when visiting artisan winemaker, Fabien Lapeyre. With a little luck, your GPS will track down his hangar-like garage cellar, piled high with barrels, samples, test tubes, vats and boxes. Only downstairs is there some order where half a dozen terracotta amphorae stand like a clump of mushrooms shooting up after the rain. He was one of the first Bordeaux vignerons to use amphorae, back in 2015, creating an outstanding cuvée offering roundness and less astringent tannins for a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Malbec. And now states mischievously that, ‘I think my next step may be to move away from metal vats and bring back cement cisterns, because wine is a bit like people and I personally would rather sleep in cement than stainless steel’. In-between opening his numerous different wines, Fabien has strong opinions, stating that ’I sometimes think that in Bordeaux we have lost the soul of being a real vigneron – getting your hands dirty, tramping through the vineyards in muddy boots. We also have forgotten the personality and characteristics of the terroir. Instead of always wanting to increase the size of the vineyard I am looking to reduce it,  pulling up vines to plant maybe wheat, barley, tobacco to combat monoculture and increase biodiversity.’ While Fabien’s parents still help him out on the estate, he has instituted nothing less than a ‘terroirist’ revolution here; certified organic next year, provocatively planting an hectare of Syrah, using a horse to work the soil,launching a range of 6 single variety wines, replanting Bordeaux’s historic Carménère, and insisting that, ‘our traditional grapes that have disappeared, like Castets and Saint-Macaire, should be replanted as they could flourish due to Global Warming, a much better option rather than bringing in varieties or hybrids from other regions or even other countries.’

Clos Fontaine

Although the Thienpont family’s history goes back to the 1920’s, when the founder of the dynasty arrived in Bordeaux from Flanders to become one of the region’s most important wine merchants, the present generation, Jan and Florian only returned to manage the family estates in 2013.

Opening bottles in their cluttered tasting room, Jan is rightly proud of the excellent wines they are producing, smiling as he explains how, ‘neither of us studied oenology but we grew up around the vineyard and all our boyhood friends are vignerons so we don’t lack advice! Moreover we only produce reds and they are much easier to make than whites! I ran a transport business in Africa, Florian was a chef and food consultant, but knew we would come back one day to take over.’ They took quick, decisive action to create today’s estate, ‘because economically speaking, we could not survive with Clos Fontaine’s 20 hectares in the Francs Côtes de Bordeaux appellation, so we purchased Château Bouty and Château Robin, both in the neighbouring Castillon Côtes de Bordeaux appellation, with each château characterised by very different soils.’ And it is terroir that best describes their distinctive artisan wines. ‘We are the furthest appellations from Bordeaux, so our wines are more continental than oceanic.’  It is the variety of their wines that really surprises, some aged in stainless steel vats, others in raw concrete cisterns, classic Bordeaux blends contrasting with a 100% Merlot. ‘If I am meant to represent the new generation,’  says Jan pensively, ‘then I reckon I am probably worse than most of the older generation as I don’t have a website and don’t even think about the likes of Instagram. All our energy goes into producing the wine.’

Château Haut-Rian

Situated just outside the beautiful medieval village of Rions, this 80 hectare vineyard stretches across the rolling hills of the picturesque Cadillac appellation, and was created just 30 years ago by a couple who chose to move away from their respective winemaking families in Alsace and Champagne, to settle in Bordeaux. Today, Michel and Isabelle Dietrich have handed the estate over to their  bouncy, curly-haired daughter, Pauline. She chose to study oenology in Montpellier because of its unconventional view of wine, ‘and although I am very proud to continue the work of my parents, I know which direction I want to take. While committed to the region’s historic grape variety, Sémillon, crucial for the blend of our Bordeaux Blanc, we are also experimenting with monocépage and zero sulphite cuvées, while my husband and I have bought a small 7 hectare vineyard, Les Vignes de Coulous, that is already certified organic. It is learning process to transform all of Château Haut-Rian’s vineyard. So if all goes plan, the Château will become certified organic, and then we continue the experiment by turning Coulous biodynamic.’ 

She has also moved away from selling their wine in bulk, insisting that, ‘you have to learn how to sell your wine direct if you want to survive today. When I took over, I went straight to Paris to visit wine sellers, arriving on my bike with the basket filled with Petit Verdot vine plants as presents.’ Pauline has created a young, dynamic team, people who have often converted from other professions, passionate not just about wine but nature, the environment and biodiversity. ‘I am convinced that wine should be like bread, reasonably priced so everyone can enjoy it without fear of opening an expensive bottle, thinking they should hide it away in the cellar. That is not our spirit.’

Château La Grande Clotte

Lussac-Saint-Emilion adjoins some of the world’s most famous châteaux – Petrus, Cheval Blanc, Angelus – so not the obvious place to buy your own first vineyard. But Julie and Mathieu Mercier are a very determined couple. Both oenologists graduating from Bordeaux, they immediately set off travelling to make wine in Chile and Napa Valley before running a high profile winery in British Colombia’s Okanaga Valley. ‘They just gave us the keys of this 32 hectare estate, ‘ recalls Julie, ‘and let us get on with it. It was a terrifying but amazing experience, giving us the courage to come back to France to buy our own domaine.  This is a wonderful vineyard and château, and we received crucial financial aid from the government to encourage young people in agriculture. 

When we drove up and saw the sun set over the vines, well it had to be for us, perfect to make wine, perfect for our wine tourism projects.’ Today, they are converting to organic, with Mathieu overseeing the cellar while Julie prefers the vineyard where she gets to drive the tractor. They have two charming guestrooms, a chic tasting room, and blending ateliers where you go away having created your own wine. While their flagship wines are classic Bordeaux blends, Julie stresses that, ’in today’s competitive world, a vigneron cannot just go into a wine boutique and say here is my Lussac-Saint-Emilion. Frankly they are not excited.

People no longer buy an appellation they buy the story of the winemakers, so we create original wines to catch attention; from our tannic L’Envolée, made to age from 80 year-old vines, to L’Essentiel, a fruity, easy to drink Merlot and Malbec blend. I even pop it into the fridge for 10 minutes which is heresy here in Lussac.’

Château Doisy Daëne

An imposing portrait of the late winemaker, Pierre Dubourdieu, swirling a glass of white wine, dominates the entrance to the cellar of this historic château, overseen today by his grandsonson Jean-Jacques. The Dubourdieus have been vignerons in the Barsac, Sauternes and Graves since 1774, and Jean-Jacques, stands out from many of his contemporaries, accompanied by a certain weight of expectation. He recalls that, ‘my childhood playground was hanging around my father in the cellar, where we made my first cuvée at the age 12. That is probably why I never studied oenology and chose marketing instead, learning how to sell other people’s wines. But now I am more attached to our family roots than ever before, and selling a bottle of our wine is telling our family story, not some fashionable modern trend. Because being part of the so-called New Generation is also building on the traditions of the 6 generations before you, while the soil, the terroir, is forever, and the vine you plant will grow for at least 50-60 years.’

Carefully  pouring  a luscious glass of the Château’s 1943 vintage, he declares that, ‘a great Barsac is made to be drunk a century later, and that can never happen with a modern ‘sans sulfites’ wine.’ Apart from running the family’s six châteaux, Jean-Jacques enjoys the role of joint President of the Sauternes Syndicat Viticole, and is proud of the region’s pioneering initiatives for wine tourism. ‘Attracting winelovers here is the future, as they will become your loyal customers.  We are planning to build a B&B guesthouse, and I always advise visitors to take one of our electric bikes to Le Ciron, where the mist rises up where two rivers meet, helping form the unique botrytis, the Noble Rot that is the secret of Sauternes.’  

Château Teynac

Standing in the impressive ageing room  of Château Teynac’s spotless cellar, delicately siphoning off a pipette from the barrel,  Eléonore Pairault proudly tastes the 2020 Saint-Julien vintage, brimming with fruit and potential. She is also full of the news that her family’s wine has just been selected to join the exclusive cellar of Président Macron’s Elysée palace. Yet a couple of years ago, Eléonore was pursuing a very different career path in the aeronautical industry before deciding to  pursue the life of a Bordeaux vigneronne by returning home to her parents winery. She still follows her initial passion though, working with the blossoming new industry of using drones as an innovative aide for vineyard cultivation.

This is by no means a typical Medoc estate, as Eleanore’s parents, Fabienne and Philippe, also abandoned a Parisian lifestyle and high-profile jobs back in 1990 to embark on a wine adventure, purchasing Teynac and Chateau Corconnac, then the neighbouring Château Les Ormes, to  create a formidable domaine that stretches over 20 hectares of vines, producing 100,000 bottles a year. The family have succeeded by following a very clear, distinctive philosophy. After choosing a consultant oenologue, all their efforts these last 30 years have been concentrated, firstly on the vineyard, to ensure high quality grapes, creating a modern cellar, and then renovating the buildings and tasting room of the elegant Château Teynac, perfectly located in the middle of the prestigious winemakers village of Saint-Julien-Beychevelle. While global sales of their wines have been always entrusted to a small group of négociants, the situation for the future is taking a new direction, as Eléonore, is concentrating on increasing social media and website presence, alongside optimising the château’s wine tourism potential, declaring that ‘we have always been a discrete domaine, and now is the time to a higher awareness.’

Château Le Clos du Notaire

Amélie Osmond and Victor Mischler are proof that you do not need to wait till the approach of middle age to change your life. They have transformed this historic château into a modern winery and tourism destination since buying the property in 2015. Holding court in their modern tasting room, Amélie recounts how, ‘‘at 28 I had already worked for 10 years in the stressful world of interior design, while Victor began his carpentry apprenticeship just 14 years old. We both wanted to work for ourselves, Victor preferably outdoors, so perfect for looking after the vineyard, while I was interested in learning about winemaking in the cellar and the marketing of our wines. So we  enrolled at Bordeaux to study oenology and agronomy, then fell in love with the still undiscovered Côtes-de-Bourg. Not just the vineyards and wines, but the long, fascinating history of Bourg’s commercial port on the Dordogne river. And this Château seduced us immediately with its fabulous location overlooking the river. There was terrific potential for wine tourism, so we converted old outhouses into two family gîtes and built a pool overlooking the vines.’

Le Clos du Notaire certainly has a quirky history, built 200 years ago on the site of a 14th century abbey, purchased by a local solicitor in the early 1800’s, hence the name, The Lawyer’s Vineyard. For Amélie it was immediately obvious to launch a premium cuvée, La Cravate, marketed almost exclusively to lawyers, and then to break into the wine bar market, came the offbeat Borderline range,  with easy drinking single grape varieties and a sans sulfites cuvée aged in amphorae. ‘And I always make it clear that I don’t make zero sulphite wines to jump on a fashionable bandwagon but because I saw what a difference it makes  to the intensity of colour, fruitiness and aromas.’

Château Castagnac

The farmhouse and cellar of Château Castagnac is dominated by a cluster of towering outdoor stainless steel wine vats that were installed by Bernard Couderc in the 1990’s when he sold most of his wine direct to merchants in Bordeaux.


Today it is his dynamic daughter Lydia, the fifth generation, who is giving a completely new image to an estate that was founded back in 1865. This working mother, whose high-spirited children, Margot and Raphaël, are always running around the cellar, has a plan to build a new, modern cellar, bringing all the vats inside, and intends to sell the majority of her wine directly rather than through merchants. She admits that, ‘I left a high-powered career in the energy business to come home 5 years ago, with no diplomas in oenology. But I am working with an innovative young cellar master, and direct sales have already increased from 10% to 50%.  Our vineyards cover the Fronsac appellation, Bordeaux and Bordeaux Supérieur, and I have initiated a lot of changes! Most importantly is a move from 2019 towards zero sulphites.

We now have a series of very successful wines that have no added sulphites; drinkable, fruity, with distinctive, modern labels inspired by comic strips. We have even tried ageing a zero sulphite in oak barrels, Barrique Rebelle, no easy task but producing a wonderfully intense, deeply coloured cuvée. And rather than continuing with classic Bordeaux blends,  these new wines are all single grape.’ Looking at her little daughter, proudly holding a bottle, Lydia says with a smile that, ‘my Papa never put any pressure on me to take over the domaine, and I will never seek to influence Margot and Raphaël, even if you can see that Margot’s bottle already has her name on the label.’

 Château Thieuley

Francis Courselle was well-known for establishing one of the most influential châteaux in the Entre-deux-Mers appellation, but he probably had little idea of the impact his two daughters, Marie and Sylvie, would make when they took over the reins of the property.  Both sisters studied oenology and agronomy, though today, Sylvie concentrates more on the commercial side while Marie oversees the winemaking. Marie recounts that, ‘we had always known from young that we would take over our father’s winery – maybe even before he knew it. Although we both went our separate ways after our diplomas, travelling and making wine in California, Australia, Spain, Italy, Languedoc and Burgundy, it was always our plan to come back to Château Thieuley. When I first arrived here I was passionate about wine. Today I am passionate about the grape, as a healthy grape is what makes a great wine.’

Though not officially organic or biodynamic, their vineyards are bordered by prairies of multi-coloured wild flowers, while olive groves, truffle oaks, fig trees, shelters for insects and bees, increase biodiversity. The Courselle family has always been avant-gardiste, and Marie is defiant that, ‘there may have been a decline in the demand for Bordeaux white wines – the glass of ‘un petit blanc’ replaced by first Pastis, today the dreaded Spritz – but we have never ceded to the temptation to plant more red, keeping our 76 hectare estate firmly 50/50 red and white, and our Entre-deux-Mers are always made to age at least 2-3 years.’ What they have done though is to adapt to the market demands for innovation by launching an easy drinking bistrot wine, Le Petit Courselle, and the funky Temps de Lune, where everything from harvest to bottling follows the lunar calendar.

where to eat

Winemaker brunch

This historic Entre-deux-Mers Château de Chevilette organises casual winemaker brunches with owners, Jacques and Florence Borel, where a selection of wines are paired with cold cuts, cheeses and dessert, along with cellar and vineyard tour.

Symbiose

To experience hip Bordeaux dining then reserve a table at Symbiose, where a  creative menu of sustainable local produce – octopus carpaccio, foie gras with plum chutney – is paired either with wine or their signature cocktails.

Lard et Bouchon

Hidden beneath one of Saint-Emilion’s gothic mansions, this 14th century cellar is transformed into a romantic candle-lit restaurant serving hearty terroir dishes like  succulent duck magret or chunky cod with chorizo, complemented by a sensational wine list from neighbouring vineyards.

what to do

Wine tasting workshop

Any wine lover discovering the region’s vineyards should take the time to join a tasting workshop in Bordeaux’s famed Wine School. There are courses for everyone, from beginners to enthusiastic amateur experts, sensorial or blending, pairing with chocolate or cheeses.  

Aerial vineyard tour

In the heart of the Graves vineyards, Bertrand Amart, passionate pilot and owner of Château Vénus, organises a unique experience flying over vineyards and châteaux in his fleet of small planes. Simply unforgettable. 

where to stay

Château Lafaurie Peyraguey

Just down the road from Château d’Yquem, there are few places as prestigious and luxurious to stay than this splendidly renovated 400 year-old château, surrounded by Premier Grand Cru Classé Sauternes vineyards, serving Michelin starred cuisine in their René Lalique restaurant.

JOHN BRUNTON’S BORDEAUX DRY WHITES WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

For a region that is personified the world over for its famous red wines, it can come as a surprise to discover that just over a century ago, up to 80% of the wine made in Bordeaux was actually white. While today that proportion may have dramatically fallen to 9%, travelling across the Bordelais, you discover almost everywhere a dynamic enthusiasm among vignerons to produce a new generation of quality dry white wines.

While the historic appellations of Graves and Pessac-Léognan may still lead the way, the domaines in Entre-deux-Mers are now producing some sensational vintages, while all over, from the grand châteaux of the Médoc to under-the-radar regions like Francs Côtes de Bordeaux and Cadillac, improved vineyard and cellar techniques are producing both outstanding blends of Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc, and innovative single grape, even single vineyard cuvées. Here are ten wineries to discover the latest trends in Bordeaux Blanc Sec.

Château Moulin de Launay

When it comes to white wines it is tempting to look no further than Ludovic Greffier, a passionate  fifth generation winemaker of an historic 200 year-old vineyard that produces exclusively white wines. Not what you would expect in Bordeaux.

‘It all began with my grandfather Claude,’ he relates. ‘In the 1920’s, Bordeaux vignerons were abandoning their staple white wines, pulling up vines to replant everything  with red grapes. Well Claude refused to sacrifice a single vine and my father continued the tradition.’ He is convinced ‘there is a renaissance right now in the demand for Bordeaux whites – a growing market among women and younger consumers, with increased potential for food pairing, such as white wines with cheese.’ The heart of his 56 hectare vineyard is within the boundaries of Entre-deux-Mers, and Ludovic’s signature wines take the appellation’s insistence on blending grapes to the extreme.

‘Many producers here limit themselves to blending Sémillon and Sauvignon, while I prefer to use all the five varieties that are available. Then I have a premium range of Entre-deux-Mers, called Le Cinq, and rather than ageing in wooden barrels, I use the system of hanging wooden staves in our stainless steel vats that gives a slightly silky, oak touch to the wine. Because I want my wine to be a pleasure to drink, something to be shared and that has quality but is reasonably priced to make wine lovers open another bottle.’ And while this is not an organic winery, its wines are certified Vegan.’Why?’ asks Ludo with a smile, ‘because I did not need to do anything special, and it opens up a new market for my wines, changing the image of the domaine as being more eco-aware.’

Château Sainte-Marie

The bustling village of La-Sauve-Majeure is marked by the dramatic, towering ruins of its medieval abbey, and centuries ago, the abbey’s monks used to live and make wine for Mass on the site of Château Sainte-Marie. Today it is a modern, dynamic Entre-deux-Mers winery. 

The current vigneron, Stephane Dupuch, is another of Bordeaux’s larger-than-life characters, a bon-vivant, bear of a man, who immediately puts visitors at ease, urging them to ’forget about our name, this is more of a farmhouse than a château, and this refined  tasting room is actually where the cows used to be milked.’ Stéphane’s family have an historic commitment to producing high quality Bordeaux Blanc Sec, with half of their 66 hectare estate planted with white grapes, some upto 100 years old. While remembering the words of his father, that ‘a great Entre-deux-Mers is perfect to leave in the cellar for ageing’, Stéphane is far more pragmatic in his approach. ‘Drinkability is the key word today, keeping alcohol down to 12-12.5 to ensure freshness and acidity, the perfect expression of our wines oceanic, slightly saline personality.’ Although he admits that his agricultural background was old-fashioned interventionist, ‘today, kick-starting eco-responsibility is vital and we are currently converting to Certified Organic, while trying to keep the estate polyculture by growing cereals, maybe breeding cattle again, to move away from years of damaging monoculture.’ So instead of planting more vines here, Stéphane’s passion for white wines will continue over in the Médoc, where he has purchased Château Peyrodon in the the smallest Cru Bourgeois, ‘perfect terroir for producing ‘un grand vin blanc’, blending Sauvignon, Sauvignon Gris and Sémillon.’

Château Lestrille

Located in the picturesque village of Saint-Germain-du-Puch, the winemaking heart of Entre-deux-Mers, Château Lestrille has been in Estelle Roumage’s family for 120 years. She is a fifth generation vigneronne, who has seen many recent changes in how the estate functions. First her father, after he took over 40 years ago, stopped selling their production in bulk to Bordeaux merchants, and concentrated on bottling himself under their own Chateau Lestrille label, selling the wine principally in France. Since she joined him in 2001, Estelle initially concentrated on developing the export market, which today amounts over 50% of sales. Then in addition to their classic Entre-deux-Mers and a Bordeaux blanc sec, she oversaw the launch of a second line, La Petite Lestrille, created specifically for overseas restaurants and bars, sold in screw top, bag-in-box and even KeyKeg to sell wine on tap. Not what you would normally expect for a Bordeaux wine, but a great success nevertheless.

While her colourful village tasting room and boutique, right opposite the Château, is always filled for blending ateliers and food and wine pairings, she has launched Les Aperos du Chateau, early evening festivities that include not just Arcachon oysters accomanied by a chilled glass of  Entre-deux-Mers, but live music, and food trucks. 

Château Fontenille

‘On aime bien s’amuser ici – we like having fun here’ says ruddy-faced vigneron, Stéphane Defraine with a big grin, as he begins pulling the corks of half a dozen wines lined up in the cosy tasting room of his rustic château. His classic high quality whites, the lively, intense Entre-deux-Mers and Bordeaux Blanc Sec, are consistently highly-rated by international guides, regularly winning awards. But alongside this, be prepared to try his alternative, funky La Coucoute range; Je Suis Gris, an Entre-deux-Mers made solely with Sauvignon Gris, Contre-Pied, a zero sulphite natural fermentation bubbly, and the mysterious Rubis Cub, quite simply a ruby-coloured wine that somehow tastes like a white, using Merlot grapes picked well before maturity, then vinify as if making a dry white.’ If we want to talk to today’s modern consumer’ says Stephane as if it is the most obvious thing in the world, ‘then we have to go outside the outdated structures of the appellation and offer new surprises.’ And his own history is certainly not that of the typical Bordeaux vigneron he seems today. Stéphane describes himself proudly as a self-made man, ‘ I left my native Brussels when I was 18 and arrived in Saint-Emilion where I initially worked on a farm – driving tractors! I worked for different vineyards, studying part time, and eventually founded a  vineyard management company.

Then in 1989 I had the chance to buy this estate. I could not resist. We have traced back  the history of Château Fontenille to the 12th century, and have increased the vineyard from 15 to 56 hectares, at the same time, converting to organic.’ And today, he is helped by his daughter, Macha, who returned to the winery last year, ensuring a continuity for the Château.

Château Puyanché

Located in the under-the-radar Francs Côtes de Bordeaux appellation, to the east of Saint-Emilion, Jo and Bernadette Arbo’s Château Puyanché is actually a cosy vigneron’s cottage where the wine cellar was once the cow stall. And welcoming couple are equally down to earth, with tastings taking place around an ancient bar decorated with a black and white portrait of a French soldier, the great grandfather of Bernadette who founded the family vineyard before perishing in the First World War. She and her husband took over in 1988, cultivating 12 hectares whose grapes went straight to the local Cave Cooperative. Today, their different parcels stretch over 51 hectares, under Château Puyanché, renowned for its Bordeaux blanc sec, and Château Godard-Bellevue, producing high quality reds. And while 50% of red is still sold in bulk, Jo and Bernadette proudly stating that ‘all of our white wines are sold under the Château’s label. Francs is the smallest appellation in Bordeaux with just 45 producers in three neighbouring communes, so our wines have a strong single identity.’  Jo’s cellar is a traditional mix of barrels and stainless steel vats, and his only nod to experimentation are a series of plastic ovoids where he tries out new techniques. He is not above using wooden staves for oakiness for the Chinese market, or ovoids for a special cuvée for the Japanese, explaining that, ‘you always have to sell your wine as you can. There have been big changes for Bordeaux Blanc recently. Today everyone wants ‘fraîcheur’, freshness achieved by harvesting early for less mature grapes. We stand more against the tide, proud of our traditional personality, creating a gastronomic wine that has volume, is bold and generous.’

Château Guiraud

The stately Château Guiraud is one of the elite Premier Grand Cru Classé 1855, a stunning estate renowned for its luscious Sauternes. Down in the vaulted cellar of this grandiose 18th century château, Luc Planty proudly cradles a bottle of the original 1855 vintage taken from a stunning collection of precious dusty bottles. But today, Guiraud is about a lot more than Sauternes.

Only in his early thirties, Luc and his wife Clémentine, have built on the foundation of his pioneering father Xavier, to make this a model modern winery adapting to today’s consumer. A chapel has been converted into a gourmet restaurant, there is a unique conservatory of vine varieties and a stunning permaculture ‘garden of biodiversity’, planted with vegetables and flowers including 500 varieties of heritage tomatoes. And plans for the future include either B&B accommodation, or a boutique hotel. ‘Wine tourism is our shop window and we must take the chance to share our wine, our philosophy, our history, with as many visitors as possible,’ says Luc.’ But the Château is also pioneering when it comes to its wines. This was the first Grand Cru Classé to convert to organic, way back in 2001, and since the 1970’s it has been producing a high quality Blanc Sec. Luc points to an elegant bottle of their signature G cuveé, explaining that, ‘we have always produced just one single Blanc Sec, a premium quality barrel-aged blend of Sauvignon and Sémillon. We are even considering a one-off special vintage highlighting the ‘Grand Terroir de Sauternes’ by using only grapes that would normally be reserved for the Grand Cru Classé. I honestly believe there is the potential here to produce a great white wine that can rival even those of Burgundy.’

Maison Dourthe

The Dourthe family created their venerable ‘Maison’ in 1840, when the first Monsieur Dourthe began to distribute Bordeaux wines to his hotels and restaurants, the origins of the present-day negociant wine merchant. Today, present owners, Patrick Jestin and his son Valentin, have established one of the region’s most respected names as both merchants and  wine makers. The vineyard part of their business covers 500 hectares from 8 châteaux, and they are respected as one of the pioneer  developers of Bordeaux Blanc Sec since the launch of their flagship Dourthe N°1 Blanc over twenty years ago. ‘My father, Patrick, and the oenologue, Denis Dubourdieu, whom you can describe as Bordeaux’s Pope of white wine,’ recounts Valentin, ‘began a professional and personal friendship in the 1980’s that was devoted to producing the perfect Sauvignon Blanc.’

For Dourthe N°1, the Maison does not vinify, but buys wine in bulk from 10 different vignerons, mainly from Entre-deux-Mers, Côtes de Bourg and Blaye, who have never changed from the day the project began in 1988. That first vintage produced 200,000 bottles of 100% Sauvignon, the first time a negociant launched his own wine.

Today we produce 500,000 bottles, all aged here in our cellars.’ Following this success, Dourthe entered the premium white wine market, with a Graves from Château Rahoul and Château La Garde’s Pessac-Léognan. ‘Both châteaux produce very different wines,’ stresses Valentin. ‘La Garde is predominantly Sauvignon from chalky limestone, while Rahoul blends in over 50% of Sémillon grapes planted on sandier soil. With this perfect terroir and impeccable grapes, these are the wines we hope will provide a clear identity for consumers all over the world for Bordeaux blanc sec, just like the whites of Burgundy and New Zealand.’

Château La Louvière

Jacques Lurton says with a wry smile that, “you can say that white wine is in our family DNA. Beginning when my father, André Lurton, inherited Château Bonnet in the 1950’s and committed himself to building up the Entre-deux-Mers appellation, then establishing Pessac-Léognan’s own Appellation in 1987,  through to present times when I returned to manage our estates in 2019 after returning from advising New World wineries as a flying winemaker, bringing back with me the latest techniques and philosophies for making modern white wine.’


Jacques is holding court in the magnificent 18th century Château La Louvière, its majestic image reflected in a lake, lavish salons restored to perfection, and a modern tasting room where visitors can try wines from the family’s immense 600 hectares of vineyards divided among 7 different châteaux. He is clearly a winemaker committed to create innovative white wines. In the cellar he experiments with amphorae and glass vats, making a biodynamic Sauvignon from his small vineyard at Château Couhins-Lurton. In 2019 he launched the Diane range of single vineyard, single grape variety whites. Then there is a sulphite-free Cabernet Sauvignon and an Orange wine waiting to be bottled. ‘I want to prove to people that Bordeaux can surprise, can propose new wines,’ he declares, ‘rather than the classic image of dusty châteaux  and old-fashioned style.’ He also has strong opinions about organic cultivation, explaining that, ‘we are not certified because I want to go beyond organic. A bottle displaying the famous organic sticker does not mean you have done everything, and does not mean automatically it is a good wine. So we have our created own Eco-Project, which includes using recycled paper for labels, adding to biodiversity by planting orchards and  beehives, reducing the weight of wine bottles which has saved 450 tonnes of carbon footprint a year.’

Vieux Château Gaubert

In the distinguished Graves appellation, the heart of Bordeaux white wine,  the rural village of Portets is dominated by the magnificent 18th century Vieux Château Gaubert. But it was not always like that. When Dominique Haverlan realised his childhood dream of buying the property in 1987, the château had been abandoned for decades and was literally collapsing. He has spent the last 30 years restoring it to its former glory, recognised as part of France’s official Patrimoine National, and building up an ambitious wine business producing one million bottles a year. And at the same time as rebuilding the château he has single-handedly replanted the 25 hectare vineyard surrounding the property, fashioning a range of wines that reflect his own personality. So you may be seduced by  his less oaky, fresh and aromatic Blanc Sec or prefer a longer barrel ageing, that produces a more elegant and powerful wine.

Dominique was recently joined in the business by his son Romain, a qualified agricultural engineer and oenologue, who admits he ‘gained a lot of winemaking experience just growing up alongside my father here in the Chateau. Although 90% of our production may be red, I personally love to vinify whites, especially the subtle blend of grapes we use here; Sauvignon, Sauvignon Gris, Sémillon and Muscadelle. The only problem is finding the right market to sell them to. I think it will make a big difference when we can finally open up Vieux Château Gaubert to the public, to begin looking at the potential of wine tourism to increase awareness of our Blanc Sec.’

Château Clarke

The vines around Château Clarke have been continuously cultivated by monks since the Middle Ages until purchased by Irishman Toby Clarke in 1771. It returned to French hands in 1892 when the Château produced the Médoc’s first ever white wine, Le Merle Blanc, whose name and label has never changed. Today, this mythical Rive Gauche property is part of the Edmond de Rothschild Heritage portfolio, alongside premium vineyards in Chile, South Africa, Spain and New Zealand. The owners remain very attached to Château Clarke, visiting frequently, and resident oenologue, Fabrice Darmaillacq, emphases their commitment to Merle Blanc.

‘Look around at building works going on all over the château, where a new chai will be dedicated solely to Merle Blanc.  We believe totally in the future of Bordeaux Blanc Sec here in the Medoc, where there is the potential to rival the renowned châteaux of the Graves region. More and more Medoc chateau owners are moving towards a small but quality production of dry white, and our Merle Blanc is the precursor. There may be only 100 hectares of white wine under production in the Médoc today but what is important is the increasing quality. Our aim is to produce a wine that can be drunk young, but is also wonderful when it is allowed to age. The best of both worlds if you like. It can be an aperitif for modern consumers, while retaining its historic clientele of wine lovers willing to put their bottle away to quietly age. It is accessible from the day you buy it, but has the potential to age and increase in quality.

where to eat

Le Manège

This picturesque restaurant in the gardens of Château Léognan serves generous cuisine created by chef, Geoffrey Debrach complemented by their excellent range of wines.

Bar de la Marine

Bordeaux’s foodie superstar, chef Frédéric Coiffé, has brilliantly transformed this classic bistrot by opening up the lush back garden into an old-fashioned ‘guinguette’, serving huge sharing plates of cheeses and charcuterie, sizzling squid, steaks and veggies cooked a la plancha.

Château picnic

Spend the morning exploring the vineyards of the surrounding Pessac-Léognan appellation, then lay out a welcoming picnic provided by the the winemakers in the shady park of Château Bardins, accompanied naturally by a selection of their wines.

what to do

Sauve-Majeure Abbey

In the heart of the Entre-deux-Mers region, this ruined 11th century abbey is a masterpiece of Romanesque art, recognised as a Unesco World Heritage site on the pilgrim’s route to Saint James of Compostela.

Vineyard bike trip

VTT dans le Sauternais.

Bordeaux is brilliant for spending the day cycling through the vineyards, with numerous dedicated bike tracks. But how to decide where to go? Gironde Tourisme offers a series of dedicated cyclo-itineraries with detailed routes, from the Médoc to Saint-Emilion to Sauternes.

where to stay

Les Sources de Caudalie

To totally spoil yourself, book a pampering stay adjoining the historic Château Haut Lafitte at their luxury vinotherapy spa, showcasing the renowned wellness treatments of Caudalie, with a 2 Michelin-starred gourmet restaurant.

JOHN BRUNTON’S SALICE SALENTINO WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION


The Salice Salentino winemaking region lies in the heart of Puglia , fertile plains covered with vineyards, that flourish from both intense sunshine and cooling salty breezes from the turquoise waters of the Adriatic on one side, the Ionian Sea on the other. Local vignaioli here proudly tell visitors that the production of Italian wine has its roots right here, some three thousand years ago, from grapes brought by Phoenicians, when Puglia was part of Magna Grecia. And today, age-old traditions remain firmly imbedded with unique bush vines, statuesque Apulian alberelli, and a unique selection of native grapes.

Puglia boasts some 100 varieties of autochthonous grapes, the South of Italy an incredible 300 varieties, so for the enthusiastic winelover this becomes a wonderful journey of discovery, far removed from the well-know world of international varieties like Chardonnay and Cabernet. Here, pride of place goes to the distinctive, versatile Negroamaro, producing not just intense, elegant red wines, but a fruity rosé, a bubbly brut spumante.

And be prepared to also discover the lesser-known Susamaniello, Malvasia Nera, Aleatico and the rare Bianco d’Alessano. The official Salice Salentino denomination has existed now for almost 50 years, during which winemaking here has experienced a total revolution, no longer concentrating on producing bulk wine, historically used to fortify the lighter wines of the rest of Italy, but using advanced technology in the cellar and sustainable cultivation in the vineyard, to produce high quality, award-winning vintages. There are some 45 producers in the Salice Salentino, ranging from independent viticoltori to historic Cantine Sociali, representing hundreds of smallholders, but wherever you stop off for a tasting there is a warm welcome waiting from these generous, hospitable people. Traditional Pugliese cuisine means each meal is a foodie feast, while the countryside is dotted with beautifully-renovated masserie, country mansions perfect to base yourself during a wine tasting tour. Here are a dozen wineries to track down.

Masseria Li Veli

There are few traditional masserie – Puglia’s striking fortified farm estates –  that marks the landscape as Li Veli, surrounded by vineyards as far as the eye can see. This majestic mansion dates back to the 1600’s, while wine has been made in the cellars since 1895. It has been splendidly renovated by the Falvo family, who  arrived in Puglia 20 years ago having created one of Tuscany’s most  respected estates,  Avignonesi, in Montepulciano. The ruined masseria’s vineyard had been abandoned for over 50 years, so the family completely replanted all 47 hectares, renovated the structure of the masseria with a modern state-of-the-art cellar, and today, the property is  overseen by oenologue Alfredo Falvo and his brother Eduardo, both now firmly based in Puglia.

Alfredo enthusiastically declares that, ‘this is a fascinating region for a winemaker. The soil is sandy, fertile limestone, fresh winds from the Adriatic dry the grapes, and the flat plains absorb humidity which is perfect for wines with high acidity, elegance and easy to drink. Our family bought this property for the potential to make great wines with native grapes.

We immediately distanced ourselves from the local tradition of blends to make single variety wines – Negroamaro, Susamaniello, Malvasia Nera, Primitivo and the wonderful white grapes of Verdeca and Fiano.’ The wines of this family have always been marked by innovation, and in Salice Salentino they have planted a significant number of Negroamaro bush vines in the antiquated Octaganol shape, dating back to Roman times. In the cellar, they have changed the family philosophy away from small oak barrels towards much larger casks, and are testing a series of nine amphorae that have just arrived from their native Tuscany. ‘Our immediate aim,’ says Alfredo, ‘is to reach out to a global market that is not yet aware that Puglia is capable of producing high quality wines’.

Cantele

The Cantele winery stands out in the Salice Salentino countryside, an almost futuristic interpretation of a Pugliese masseria.

And  Gianni Cantele’s winemaking philosophy also stands out from his neighbours as he proudly pours  a selection of his outstanding wines in their minimalist tasting salon. ‘I genuinely believe that Negroamaro is the future of this region’ he states forthrightly. ‘But lets be clear, I am firmly against the new trend for sweeter red wines aimed at what you can call The Candy Generation. At the moment our Negroamaro vineyards are clearly in the shadow of the now popular Primitivo. But rather than copy Primitivo and produce something similar, we should highlight the unique personality of Negroamaro, to bring it to life again. We are not under any pretensions though, as it is not an easy grape’. This is a family with very different roots from other local viticoltore, originally from the north of Italy, who ended up settling in Lecce in 1950, a rare example of immigration in the opposite direction of the classic south to north.

Gianni Cantele is the third generation, beginning with his grandfather, originally from the Veneto, who made his mark buying bulk wine in Puglia to transport north to fortify weaker local wines. Then his father began by bottling for other estates before buying his own vineyard in 2000, and today, Gianni produces wines from their original 50 hectares as well as grapes bought in from an additional 150 hectares. ‘I am also enthusiastic about single grape wines showcasing the potential of our other native grapes – Susumanielo and Malvasia Bianca. And for the region’s signature Salice Salentino cuvée, we are committed to the traditional blend using the autochthonous Malvasia Nera with Negroamaro, rather than the recently-allowed French varieties like Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet, which I believe are not really suited for our soil and climate.’ 

Conti Zecca

Sitting down for an inspired tasting with Clemente Zecca, it quickly becomes apparent that this historic tenuta is embarking on a dynamic new path. One of the few noble families to both survive and prosper since the 16th century, Clemente’s father and three uncles oversee an immense 320 hectare winemaking estate. Clemente will be the next Conte Zecca, and after just 3 years working here, he has clear ideas for the future. Opening a bottle of their signature  Nero, he explains that, ‘we have two very distinct flagship lines; our long established Vini d’Enologo, showcasing the techniques of modern winemaking, and the new generation Vini di Vignaioli, the incarnation our terroir. The intense, barrel-aged Nero personifies the Vini d’Enologo, blended from 70% Negroamaro and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, an international grape the family have cultivated for more than 30 years. A Super Puglia wine developed with the same spirit as Super Tuscans,  perfect for a certain moment in history.

Today, though, perceptions have moved on, with more emphasis on autochthonous grapes, specific soils and exposition, to create more contemporary wines, such as Liranu, from our Vignaiolo range. So this supple, elegant 90% Negroamaro, aged in vetrified cement tanks, comes solely from a 5 hectare single vineyard plot.And it does not need to be aged for a long time. I honestly believe these wines merit the prestigious French term Cru, because  our entire estate has been mapped out, soil tested, to identify the characteristics of every single vineyard,  every plot.’

Changes are also going on in the cellar, where alongside classic oak barrels, a cluster of terracotta amphorae sprout up like mushrooms. ‘We are experimenting with zero sulphite, while the amphorae are for an Orange wine made from Malvasia Bianca, as we are always looking to promote our unique native grapes’.

Leone de Castris

Driving through Salice Salentino, the town is dominated by the enormous Leone De Castris cantina. With its ancient 17th century tower and old-fashioned offices filled more with files and paintings than modern computers,  you feel in a time warp until you discover at the back a splendid Museo del Vino, wine resort and restaurant, as well as an immense modern winery where 2,5 million bottles are produced from the family’s 300 hectare vineyard.

This noble family have been making wine here since 1645, and the present patriarch, Piernicola, declares that, ‘we can say that today’s famed Salice Salentino wine was born right here, long before bureaucratic terms like DOC, DOP or IGP. It was my Nonno, who created the unique blend of 95% Negroamaro with Malvasia Nera inspired by grapes harvested in 1954. It was only sold by us, right up to 1970, when the official DOC denomination was born and other cantinas began  making their own vintages. For me, there is a clear parallel with the story of Franco Biondi Santi, creating the legendary Brunello di Montalcino.’ And Piernicola  believes that Negroamaro is still not used to its full potential by many contemporary winemakers, stressing its unique versatility as a red, rosé or spumante. De Castris have certainly made an historic contribution with their Five Roses rosé, made from Negroamaro and sold the world over. 

‘This was another idea of Nonno, named after his five children, and created in 1943 when the Second World War was still raging in Italy. He created this very special rosé wine and wanted to bottle it, but there was simply no glass available. So the American forces stationed nearby in Brindisi, who loved the wine, sent their empty beer bottles – and there were a  lot – which he cleaned, recycled and added a metal cap. Italy’s first bottled rosé. 70 years later it is still one of our most popular wines.’

Apollonio Vini

This 150 year-old winery spreads across the Negroamaro lands of Salice Salentino to the Primitivo vineyards of neighbouring Copertino.

Their award-winning wines have  an international reputation for excellence, and one of the main reasons becomes clear the moment you enter their ageing cellar, a soaring cathedral of wooden barrels. The family oenologue, Massimiliano Apollonio, could be described as Puglia’s Wood King, explaining that, ‘wood is fundamental for me for the ageing of our wines. Not just for the ‘profumo’ but for colour and stability.’ He experiments with different woods for different cuvées – French, American, Slavic, Hungarian and Austrian – even visiting the coopers to choose the trees for his barrels.

Massimiliano is totally committed to Puglia’s native grapes from traditional alberello vines, exclaiming that, ‘these majestic bush vines have been here for 3,000 years, brought by the Greeks when Puglia was part of Magna Grecia, and frankly they merit recognition by Unesco World Heritage.The alberello is a vine that lets nature do its own work. Yes, it is free standing, undisciplined, so cultivation demands expensive manual labour in return for small yields. So it seems uneconomic. But that is ultimately not true. While the modern trained vine probably lasts 25-30 years, the alberello lasts 100 years. It also allows nature to do its own work to protect the grape, so there are naturally smaller numbers of grape bunches, while thick leaves growing above the grapes provide a natural canopy, protecting from the sun meaning slower maturation, and much less stress for the grape, so ultimately much higher quality.’ And this passionate winemaker has a dream, ‘to produce a 100% sustainable wine that will be immortal, able to age forever. It will be a rosé made from Negroamaro, hand picked from alberello vines, bottled in recycled glass, cork made from sugar cane, ageing in the sea in a nearby marine park, with absolutely zero carbon footprint’.

Cantine Cosimo Taurino

This historic tenuta bears the name of a winemaker who almost singlehandedly put Salice Salentino’s Negroamaro on the world wine map.

Today the 100 hectare estate is run by his daughter Rosanna and her husband Antonio, who have faithfully continued the work and philosophy of her late father, the legendary Cosimo Taurino. This family have been making wine for 7 generations,  but most of it was traditionally transported in bulk to northern Italy. Then in 1970, Cosimo started bottling his own wine, dedicating his life to Negroamaro.

His two key cuvées were Notaperano, created in 1970, then Patriglione in 1975, both before the creation of the Salice Salentino DOC in 1976. Sitting in their rustic tasting room, Antonio explains that, ‘fifty years later, these two wines remain the flagship of our estate, where part of the grapes are dried on the vine, a ‘passimento’, and late harvested at the end of October, raising alcohol levels to over 15° without affecting the elegance that is so characteristic of Negroamaro.

The hand-picked grapes come almost exclusively from 70-80 year-old bush vines, and we have continued Cosimo’s philosophy to never launch our wines early, preferring to age them in our cellars for some 10 years. Right now we are selling the 2011 vintage of our Salice Salentino, which you can see was only bottled this year in 2021.’ Antonio also holds strong views about the present trend towards certified organic winemaking. ‘We are not organic and frankly I don’t believe in it. But look at our grapes coming in from the harvest. They could not be healthier. We select our bunches, discarding many, and no pesticides are used as we plough and hoe the soil to protect the vine. I call them natural wines, which is not exactly politically correct as we most certainly added a limited amount of sulphites. People need to understand that wine without sulphites quite simply does not exist. It is vinegar.’

Castello Monaci


It would be an understatement to describe this majestic medieval fortress, its lush gardens and grandiose ballroom as a landmark or a monument. Glamorous wedding-organisers the world over may know it as one of Italy’s most spectacular venues for nuptials, but  for local residents of the Salice Salentino, the 600 year-old Castle of the Monks is an ultimate symbol of the long history of winemaking and olive oil production in this part of Puglia. Taking its name from religious orders who once worshiped here, the Castello was home to French and Italian nobility until the present owners, the Provenzano family, arrived at the end of the 19th century. A single vineyard stretching across 150 hectares surrounds the castle, resembling a perfectly-manicured landscape garden, the vines neatly planted in the ordered Guyot system, favoured in France,  barely a traditional Apulian alberello in sight, with just smattering of plots of these ancient vines reserved for the premium Salice Salentino Riserva vintages.

While the original cellars have now been converted into a wine museum, an adjacent masseria is dedicated to modern winemaking, with not just 1,000 French oak barrels, but 4 state-of-the-art cement ovoids, ready for new experimental vintages. While the noble Provenzano family still live in the Castello and own the vineyards, they are in a partnership with Italy’s largest winery, Gruppo Italiano Vini, who run 15 famous cantinas across the whole country.

And here at Castello Monaci, their oenologue, Leonardo Sergio, has devoted the last twenty years to creating a range of authentic, quality Salice Salentino wines. 

Cantine Due Palme

Due Palme is a Cantina Sociale with a difference. Despite the name Two Palms,  it actually incorporates 6 different cooperatives, representing 1,000 members who cultivate 2,500 hectares, producing some 20 million bottles a year.  Their immense winery, a small city of soaring steel vats employing some 250 people, dominates the town of Cellino San Marco. Moreover, Due Palme was created by and is still overseen today, by a single man, the visionary, larger-than-life winemaker, Angelo Maci. President since the first day the cantina was born in 1989, re-elected at the end of each term, and at 78 years of age, he will almost certainly be succeeded by his daughter Melissa, while one of the latest oenologues is Angelo’s grandson.  This continuity is in stark contrast to many Cantine Sociali, where Presidents come and go, rarely with long term ambitions. Due Palme, however, has created a global reputation for its quality wines, with 60% of production exported, its premium vintages winning awards, including Italy’s sacred Holy Grail of the Gambero Rosso Guide’s Tre Bicchiere, while Signor Maci is always setting new goals,like bottling their entire production and give more emphasis to ecology by using recycled paper for their cartons and labels, limiting the use of plastic, reducing carbon emissions.

And several of their wines genuinely surprise, like Mille e Trenta, a crisp, elegant sparkling Negroamaro,  or the intense, wonderfully spicy Selvarorossa Terra, a 2011 Salice Salentino Riserva.

Cantina Vecchia Torre

This respected cooperative was founded in 1959, based today in a sprawling modern winery at the edge of Levarano. From its original 44 founding members, there are now 1100, and this is one of the rare Cantine Sociali with a long waiting list for new viticotori  to join. Why? Quite simply because financially, Vecchia Torre is a success story, meaning members know they will be well paid after carefully cultivating their vines and delivering the harvest, all closely  monitored by the team of agronomists and cellar masters under Ennio Cagnazzo, principal oenologue here for over 30 years. He, of course, is a socio too, and there is an unmistakable feeling that this is like one big family, with everyone working in the shop and cellar either soci or children of soci. Take a tour of the cantina and you enter a time tunnel, where the original underground cement cisterns have been converted into  barrel-ageing cellars and wine tasting salons.

Up above, the second -generation cement cisterns are carefully-preserved, each one gradually upgraded from raw concrete to the more modern epoxy coating. And a state-of-the art bottling plant has just been inaugurated. Like every cantina sociale, there is something for everyone here, from wine pumped directly into takeaway demijohns to bag-in-box, from an innovative single grape range to the traditional, potent, concentrated Negroamaro and Malvasia Nera blend of Salice Salentino Riserva. Prices are always competitive, quality assured. 

Cantine Paololeo

The bustling winemaker town of San Donaci is lined with cantine, enoteche, an historic Cantina Sociale, and the unprepossessing Paolo Leo Wine Shop. By the entrance, small steel vats are filled with wine and olive oil to be pumped into takeaway containers. At the back there is a tasting room, but also a sophisticated kitchen to prepare wine and food pairing sessions. The estate is run by Paolo Leo himself, a fifth generation viticoltore, and his bubbly wife, Roberta. They own a discrete 50 hectares of vines, but this is no quaint Mom&Pop business. Paolo Leo’s range run to an astonishing 48 labels, producing some 3.5 million bottles, with a large amount of grapes bought in from a small, complicit group of vignaioli. While the family winery dates back to the 1800’s, today’s ultra-modern winery was officially founded in 1989, bottling their wines as recently to 2000. Although the cantina is not certified organic, their cultivation is sustainable, complemented by a host of eco projects;  recycled paper for labels, alternatives to natural cork, lightening the weight of bottles and recycling glass afterwards into deco objects. Paolo and Roberta are committed to wine tourism, to the extent of buying a romantic but ruined Masseria just out of town, a future wine resort. But for the moment, their most original idea is the Adopt an Alborello programme.

‘This is to preserve the alberello which is crucial to the wine culture here in Salice Salentino, ‘explains Roberta. ‘So we have set aside 1500 plants that can never be abandoned or dug up. This way, passionate winelovers  own a numbered Apulian bush wine, a tradition of cultivation stretching back three thousand years. This type of vine faithfully reflects our soil, climate and native grapes. A whole concept of winemaking.’

Cantina San Donaci

A visit to this historic 1933 Cantina Sociale is like stepping back in time, with friendly ladies busily filling bottles with wine, a bright red retro three-wheel camionetta on display, and shelves lined with an impressive display of the latest vintages produced from the grapes of the 300 Soci, the cantina’s historic members.

San Donaci’s Cantina Sociale has long played a crucial role in the daily life and economic survival of Salice Salentino’s rural world, beginning when smallholder farmers grew grapes alongside cultivating olives, planting cereals and rising livestock. No one had the money to invest to make their own wine, so the Cantina Sociale came into being, a cooperative owned by the vignaioli, providing a regular income by buying grapes, and producing wine in both bulk and bottles. Today, ambitious winemakers make and bottle their own wines, many Cantine Sociali have fallen into bankruptcy, but under the dynamic direction of their President, Marco Pagano,  San Donaci has moved with the times, transforming itself into a niche boutique cantina, cultivating just 300 hectares of micro plot vineyards, many traditional bush vines of native grapes, aiming to produce quality wines, rather than a huge industrial winery. 

Underneath the boutique and modern winery lie the original 1930’s cement cisterns, transformed today into a mysterious maze of tiny barrel-ageing rooms, where the current oenologue, Andrea Scarafile, admits to finding as much inspiration for his winemaking as modern techniques.  

Vinicola Al Bano

Celebrity vineyards may range from those of Brad Pitt and Madonna to Antonio Banderas and Sting, but in reality, few of these megastars are really involved in the winemaking. That is not the case though for Salice Salentino’s very own celebrity vineyard, founded back the late 1960’s, way before it was fashionable, by local hero, Al Bano Carrisi, one of Italy’s most famous crooners, whose fame stretches to America, Russia and China, where fans also love his wines. Born right here in the village of Cerrino San Marco, where he still has his family villa, Al Bano, as everyone calls him, is a proud defender of Puglia and its wines, recounting how, ‘when I found success as an entertainer and started travelling the world, it was clear that my family missed me in our home village, so I made a promise to my father to stay faithful to my Pugliese roots. I started buying vineyards, and in 1972 we inaugurated the cantina.’ Today that small cantina is totally modernised and enlarged, producing 2 million bottles a year from an 100 hectare vineyard that encircles the property. Apart from a wine shop for tastings and a restaurant specialising in local cuisine, there is a sprawling village holiday resort, swimming pools, spa and an attraction park for kids.

The perfect combination of wine, food and warm Pugliese hospitality, that the maestro promises in his most famous song, Felicità, also the name of his signature Chardonnay.

Where to eat

Malcandrino

A romantic restaurant located in an ancient quarry and wine cellar, whose chef creates innovative dishes with Puglia’s wonderful local ingredients, from fig and almond risotto to spaghetti with plump prawns and savoury bottarga. 

Palazzo BN

Housed in the majestic marble offices of the former Banco di Napoli, this is a top fine dining address in Lecce. Choose between contemporary inventions and wonderful Puglia specials like grilled turcinieddhri, lamb offal, or bombette, minced beef wrapped in bacon and stuffed with melted cheese.

L’Orecchietta

Hang out with local vignaioli at this favourite lunch spot in the winemaking village of Guagnano, a canteen deli serving heart rural dishes like handmade orecchiette with broccoli and deep-fried pettole, dough balls with a rich tomato sauce.

What to do

Porto Cesareo Marine Park

While it is tempting to just relax on Porto Cesareo’s golden sandy beach and the turquoise Ionian Sea, take a boat excursion to hidden islets, sea caves and ancient underwater Graeco-Roman ruins of the pristine Marine Park accessible to the public.

Lecce

Lecce is Italy’s baroque jewel, a romantic labyrinth of ornate mansions and frescoed churches, grandiose cathedrals and castles, bustling markets and quirky museums.   

Where to stay

Masseria Ogliarolo

Perfect place to relax after a day wine tasting, this traditional masseria has comfortable rooms, olive and fruit groves, a lively trattoria and fabulous pool.

JOHN BRUNTON’S BEAUMES DE VENISE WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

The breathtaking Dentelles de Montmirail mountain range defines the Beaumes de Venise winemaking region, with beautiful terraced vineyards clinging to its rugged slopes, spreading down to the four picturesque villages of Lafare, La Roque-Alric, Suzette and Beaumes itself. Around a hundred innovative and dynamic independent vignerons work the rich and varied geological soils brought up towards the surface when the Dentelles rose from the earth, that bring so much of the character to the wines produced here, alongside hundreds of smallholders who still follow the age-old tradition of selling the grapes of their tiny plots to the local Cave Cooperative. While the Dentelles provide shelter from the Mistral winds, the vineyards coexist with a vibrant, protected biodiversity of olive trees, fruit orchards, woods and forests that harbour flora, fauna and insects, all crucial for  sustainable and organic cultivation. And the Beaumes wines are just as impressive as these idyllic landscapes. Vines were first planted here by Greek colonisers around 600BC, and the luscious, naturally sweet Muscat de Beaumes de Venise has a history of world-renown going back centuries. A deadly frost in 1956 that destroyed olive and fruit production for a generation led to the planting of the Southern Rhône’s characteristic red grapes; Grenache Noir, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Carignan, which today’s winemakers blend into exceptional fresh, fruity red wines that officially became part of the appellation 16 years ago. And in the future, there will surely be a Beaumes de Venise white, as a combination of the terroir and modern cellar techniques produce surprising results both for an aromatic dry Muscat and explosive blends of Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Marsanne and Roussane.

Most importantly, the friendly vignerons here give an enthusiastic welcome to visitors, offering not just the chance to taste wines but to explore and understand the vineyards, savour food pairings, and comfortable lodging in winery b&b’s. All of this is detailed on the  AOC Beaumes de Venise website, and below are ten top tips for a wine lover road trip. 

Domaine de Piéblanc

Vineyards in the Southern Rhône characteristically resemble a jigsaw of small parcels of vines, dotted around the countryside imbetween olive trees, wild garrigue heathland, lavender and farming land. Not the Domaine de Piéblanc, a spectacular 15 hectare vineyard that tumbles down the hillside just outside the village of Suzette. It immediately seduced Mathieu Ponson, a new generation winemaker, who recalls, ‘it was wow at first sight. The vineyard was everything I wanted; 300 metres altitude for freshness, certified organic,  a must for me,  hot days and cool nights because of the nearby Mont Ventoux, so perfect acidity. Wine is like real estate – location, location, location.’ Mathieu arrived here in 2015 to start a new life after selling his digital start-up company, declaring, ‘I may have no vigneron background but I know what kind of wines I want to make. So I found the right oenologue and vineyard consultant, set up a temporary cellar in the village of Beaumes and produced my first vintage in 2016. I guess I had no idea what I was doing though I actually think it is an advantage to be ignorant like me. I make less mistakes because I keep it simple.’

Piéblanc is in the part of the appellation reserved solely for red grape vines, with no Muscat, but that suits Mathieu fine because, ‘Syrah is the perfect expression of the terroir here.’ The big next step will be inaugurating his new cellar, where, ‘I can put all my ideas into practice. I love testing, be it terracotta amphorae, cement eggs, barrel toasting levels, grape varieties. I am not looking to make pompous wines for ageing in the cellar because what interests me is the fruit, the juiciness of the grape, so if I open a bottle of wine, then I want to finish it.’

La Ferme Saint-Martin

A meandering route lined with graceful cypress trees climbs high above the village of Suzette, eventually emerging outside an idyllic Provençal farmhouse whose terrace offers a spectacular panorama of vines, olive trees and perched villages, with the Barroux mountains in the distance. Tasting this domaine’s remarkable wines, it quickly becomes apparent that third generation vigneron, Thomas Jullien, while deeply attached to the farm and vineyard his great grandfather bought back in 1955, has instigated a host of surprising innovations. ‘I studied the basics of agronomy and wine making, but my real education was taking off on 2 six month trips in a camping van traversing the whole of France to visit some 300 different wineries.’ His vineyard is a pioneer of certified organic cultivation in Beaumes, while Thomas took the decision to make natural wines from 2005, and ‘today sulphites have been all but eliminated in our vintages as I am convinced that natural wines can be aged perfectly if the conditions of the cellar are good.’ While most vignerons are always looking to increase the size of their vineyard, ‘I have reduced the size of the domaine from 27 to 21 hectares to make it manageable so I can have a parallel life with my wife and our two young children, and  not devote every second to making wine.’ And he is also addressing the problem of global warming and high-alcohol wines by creating intense but accessible cuvées like Diapir, which blend grapes from his wonderful century-old Grenache vines with rare local varieties Terret Noir and Counoise, which mature later with less alcohol than the usual Syrah.

Thomas and his wife Sophie are also committed to wine tourism, with the Ferme hosting art exhibitions, blending ateliers and hypnosis tasting, accommodation in the family gite, and an ambitious programme of open air theatre, concerts and movie screening. All accompanied by their distinctive wines. 

Rhonéa

The days have passed when small vignerons could not survive economically without selling their grapes to the local Cave Coopérative, but while today it is generally independent winemakers providing  the creativity within France’s appellations, Beaumes de Venise is fortunate to have a Coopérative that was founded in 1925, but has moved with the times. Rhonéa wrote its own Environmental Charter in 1995 and targets 100% organic by 2030. It aims for quality, from the humble bag-in-box up to award-winning wines. And develops innovative wine tourism initiatives; tastings amongst the vines, wine and food pairing, traversing vineyards on horse, quads or electric bikes, food truck festivals, concerts. It is the most important Cave Cooperative in the Southern Rhône, covering Beaumes and neighbouring Vacqueyras, with some 300 vignerons members – the ‘cooperateurs’.

Emblazoned on their land rovers that take visitors on memorable tasting trips is ‘Artisans Vignerons’, because despite producing a massive 8 million bottles a year, most of Rhonéa’s coopérateurs are smallholders cultivating around 7 hectares of vines. There is a genuine family feel here, typified by its genial President, Claude Chabran. ‘My father was one of the pioneer coopérateurs,’ he relates, ‘and when I came home to the village after 20 years travelling the world as an engineer, it was perfectly natural to stay with the Cave, and I am pretty sure my son will feel the same.’ An inspiring crowdfunding project has seen Rhonéa  buying up vineyard plots from vignerons retiring or with no heir, then renting them out to young winemakers who cannot yet afford to buy their own domaine.

And a groundbreaking survey of the unique geological formation of the slopes of the Dentelles has allowed the Cave to create exceptional premium cuvées, blending parcels of Grenache and Syrah that reflect strikingly different types of soil; Triassic Terres Rouges formed 200 million years ago, Cretaceous Terres Blanches from 90 million years and 140 million years old Jurassic Terres Grises.  

Domaine des Bernardins

Driving through the village of Beaumes you can’t miss the striking sign for the Domaine des Bernardins, though many people stop off for a tasting and cellar visit without realising this is an historic reference point for the famed Muscat de Beaumes de Venise. This unique, naturally sweet Muscat grape has roots here going back 2,000 years; with Roman chronicler, Pliny, writing that ‘Muscat has been long cultivated in Beaumes, producing a remarkable wine.’ But it only received official recognition as an appellation in 1945, after a long and passionate crusade by then owner of Les Bernardins, Louis Castaud.

His estate, run today by his granddaughter Elizabeth, her English husband, Andrew, and their son, Romain,  is proudly traditional, seemingly untouched by contemporary trends, with a long history stretching back to the Middle Ages when Bernardin monks cultivated vines, cereals and fruits here. As Andrew, who oversees the winemaking, points out, ‘our Muscat is a wine for ageing, which may not be fashionable today but that is how we like drinking it at home. With age you appreciate how it evolves, losing much of the initial sweetness. Perfect with Stilton cheese.

Our winemaking is all about tradition, using only steel and raw cement vats, not wood. We respect the environment but don’t feel the need to seek organic certification, and look, the label is exactly the same today as the first appellation vintage in 1945. All winemakers here have their secret recipes, and we believe that using 25% Muscat Petit Grain Noir grapes in the blend creates our signature colour – old gold, amber pinky gold – a unique hue that subtely changes with age. That was how Louis first planted the vineyard, three lines of Muscat Petit Grain, one of Petit Grain Noir, and we see no reason to change.’ 

Domaine de Durban

Henri Leydier climbs off his tractor dressed in working boots, shorts and t-shirt, an old-fashioned, honest vigneron who is just as down-to-earth  once he starts enthusiastically explaining his wines in the cellar.  ‘Don’t expect to see fashionable terracotta amphorae or glass wineglobes in my cellar, as I prefer to trust to tradition, and I am very happy with the quality of my wines by using classic cement tanks for the reds, stainless steel vats for the Muscat, and a tiny selection from large tronconique casks and small barrels for our prestige reds.’ It is quite a drive through steep forests to reach the domaine, which lies right on the border with Gigondas, but a steady stream of faithful wine lovers trek out to this beautifully-renovated 11th century farmhouse and cellar, accounting for over 40% of sales. Henri’s grandfather purchased this isolated property in 1967, and he recounts how, ‘people in Beaumes said we were crazy to buy a property that was  not just miles from anywhere but whose vines were not maintained, while the apricot and olive trees were almost abandoned, and the house was half falling down. Well, now when visitors make it all the way here, they realise they are arriving in Paradise.’

The vineyard has grown from13 to 70 hectares, the majority Grenache and Syrah, producing a wonderful range of reds, but Henri insists that ‘Muscat remains the emblem of the domaine, renowned for its quality.  And we are also producing Fruits de Durban, a dry Muscat – aromatic and perfumed but with no sweetness – that I hope one day will be recognised as part of the appellation.’

Xavier Vins  

Looking out over Beaumes quaint town square it is difficult to resist being tempted into Xavier Vignon’s wine boutique. This bubbling, irrepressible character is the Southern Rhône’s leading wine consultant, but also a new generation rock & roll vigneron who has come under the spell of Beaumes de Venise.

He declares ‘I have always had a special affinity with the Dentelles vineyards, a total belief in the potential of the wines that can be produced here.’ After acting as consultant to numerous local wineries, Xavier has been making his own Beaumes wines since 2017 when ‘several vignerons I knew were retiring and I managed to buy 20 hectares for my own vineyard. Now I plan to create my own cellar where there will be no wooden barrels, cement tanks or steel vats. Instead it will be a Vinarium, where the wine is fermented and aged in the ultimate neutral element, glass, for an incomparable purity.’ To understand Xavier Vignon and his commitment to winemaking you need to understand his personal history, which begins in Northern France, far from the sun drenched vineyards of Beaumes de Venise. ‘I come from a long family of craftsmen stone cutters, entrenched in France’s Compagnons du Devoir, a lifetime association for skilled artisans. I should have been the 7th generation stone-cutter, but I made the momentous decision to opt out and embark on a dream to work in wine. I never even thought about owning my own vineyard because of the financial implications, but diplomas at the wine universities of Bordeaux, Reims and Montpellier set me on he road as a consulting oenologue,  making wine across the globe and France.’ And today, finally a genuine vigneron bombing around the countryside in his designer jeep, Xavier seduces everyone with his total enthusiasm of the possibilities for his Beaumes vineyards to produce exceptional wines.

Domaine de Fenouillet

Fenouillet’s rustic tasting room is hidden away in a shady courtyard in the heart of Beaumes village, and pride of place on the wall is an ornate 1902 Wine Concours Diploma for their Muscat de Beaumes de Venise.

And this is the perfect place for an A-Z explanation of this iconic but mysterious elixir. While the domaine produces a fine selection of Beaumes red wines and an interesting dry Muscat blending Viognier, Bourboulenc and Picpoul with Muscat Petit Grain, the friendly Saorde family have firm views on how to make Muscat de Beaumes de Venise, very different from the days of the 1902 Silver Medal. While traditions are still strictly followed – hand-picked harvesting, stopping fermentation for the ‘mutage’ when alcohol is added to fortify the wine – Fenouillet propose several different twists; a Rose, whose grapes are macerated  to achieve a subtle pinky colour, Selection Ancestrale, with old vine grapes barrel-aged for 6 months, and the surprising Muscat Rouge, 100% Petit Grain Noir grapes, vinified as a red wine, but still with Muscat’s signature natural sweetness. Like many of today’s domaines in Beaumes, Fenouillet was a long term member of the Cave Cooperative, just selling grapes, but then  broke away in 1989 to make their own wines as independent organic vignerons. This break with the past was made by fourth generation brothers, Patrick and Vincent, and just this year, they have handed over the reins to their twentysomething son and daughter, Justine and Valentin.

The dynamic young cousins are officially classified as Jeunes Agriculteurs, and are brimming with plans to modernise the winery and create new wine tourism opportunities.  

Domaine des Garances

Before 2002, this was another of the many Beaumes vineyards that sold their entire grape production directly to the Cave Coopérative. But today, all the wine that Sébastien Logvinenko makes from the 18 hectares is sold directly, mainly to people who cannot resist the roadside sign to his idyllic tasting room, overlooking a panorama of vines and olive groves.

Sitting outside while Sébastien uncorks a bottle, shaded by a lush canopy of vines, sitting at a rickety pastel table beside a wooden barrel and ancient grape press,  you could be on the terrace of a typical Provençal bistrot. This thoughtful vigneron may have roots back in the Ukraine, but he is very much a local boy and single-handedly runs the vineyard that was inherited by his wife, whose family have been in the village of Suzette since 1640. Sébastien oversaw the conversion of the estate to organic, and is tempted to create a zero-sulphite natural wine. He admits that, ‘ I love the period alone in the cellar when I am blending the wines, understanding the effects of our unique geology, from the Terres Blanches and Jurassic Terres Grises soils to ancient Triassic deposits. It is like cooking or a modern form of alchemy, and that is reflected in my wines.’

His production is predominantly red, with 4 different vintages, subtly different percentage blends between Grenache and Syrah, essentially vinified and aged in raw concrete tanks. Each one is named after the lieu-dit, the ‘given name’ of the vineyard plot; Rouyère, La Blache, Pierre and La Faysses, the local term for the distinctive stone terraces here, necessary for cultivating his magnificent parcels of high altitude vines.  

Maison Gabriel Meffre 

A visit to Maison Gabriel Meffre is the opportunity to discover what the négociant wine merchant can do when he decides to follow his own ideas to make a wine from a certain appellation. You will need to take a short drive outside of Beaumes de Venise to visit Meffre’s tasting room and cellar, located at domaine Château Longue Toque in the neighbouring Gigondas appellation. Apart from their Beaumes de Venise wines, you also taste anything from Châteauneuf-du-Pape to Côte Rôtie,  Costières de Nimes to Condrieu, such is the variety offered by the big scale winemaking and purchasing that defines a negociant capable of producing 15 million bottles a year. Meffre are well-known for their flagship line of premium wines, the Laurus selection, that are produced from specific parcels of vines that offer the best expression of an appellation’s terroir, encompassing soil, climate and people.

Beaumes de Venise is represented in Laurus both by a Muscat and a red, and the respected oenologue behind the concept, Véronique Torcolacci, who has overseen Meffre’s winemaking for the last 30 years, explains that, ‘we as a négotiant take on a new innovative role, following cultivation, advising on harvesting, following vinification, sometimes in the vignerons cellar, as is the case for the Muscat, sometimes vinifying and blending in our own cellar as for the red.’ Meffre encourage longterm and complicit relations with their vigneron partners, and for Muscat this has meant working with a single vineyard cultivator for more than 20 years, while the more recent Beaumes de Venise red is shared between two, both on the other side of the Dentelles from Gigondas. Véronique blends Syrah and Grenache with Carignan grapes to create what she calls ‘an opulent but elegant wine, because the Grenache never gets too complex and heavy due to the altitude of the vines, while the Carignan brings freshness and originality.’

Domaine Saint Amant

Many Beaumes de Venise wineries boast specular locations, but to really take your breath away, save Saint Amant till last. From the village of Suzette, a steep road winds up into dense oak tree woods, a favourite haunt of local truffle hunters, before emerging above an amphitheatre of terraced vines, lavender, olive and fruit trees before arriving at in the cellar and tasting room of Domaine Saint Amant.

This is the highest vineyard in the Dentelles at some 600 metres, but the owner and winemaker, Catherine, explains that it was not always like this. ‘When my father first bought the land in 1975 there was nothing here, just a wild shepherd’s hut where our family stayed while he built our house. Then 25 years ago, he met an oenologue who persuaded him this was the perfect terroir to make white wine – the opposite to the reds that everyone else in Beaumes was concentrating on. But my father loved a challenge, a gamble, so slowly he bought existing plots and planted white Viognier and Roussane, building up the estate to 14 hectares. Then in 1995 he built the cellar and produced his first vintage.’

Catherine was then in New York, working as an architect, but was intrigued when her father sent over a bottle. A brief holiday back here followed, that has lasted until today. As a red Beaumes de Venise is allowed to include 10% white grapes, Catherine makes a surprisingly fruity, easy to drink vintage where she harvests and ferments all her red and white grapes together, and next year will see a zero sulphite version. Visitors to the estate can enjoy regular art and sculpture exhibitions, while an even better option is to rent one of the two holiday gites. 

Where to eat

Bistro de Lafare

To rub shoulders with Beaumes vignerons just turn up at this cosy village bistrot. They may be playing game of pétanque, sipping a midday apéritif in the garden or enjoying the hearty cuisine of chef Maria. Surprising mix of dishes from boeuf à la Provençale, to Portuguese-style cod.  Excellent selection of vintages by local winemakers.

Le Dolium

Perfect address adjoining the Rhonéa Cave Coopérative to pair regional cuisine and wines. Affordable dishes of the day or irresistible gastronomic menu featuring courgette flowers stuffed with anchovies, homemade foie gras, roast pigeon, peaches braised in honey, perfect with a glass of Muscat de Beaumes de Venise.

Auberge St Roch

Creative young chef Boris Schrader delights diners with his inventive cuisine in the  friendly family bistrot with a surprising gourmet menu. Using local, seasonal ingredients, try the succulent duck breast with a sweetcorn mousse and hibiscus juice or a tangy tomato soup with smoked pork and baby red peppers stuffed with goats cheese.

Where to stay

Le Clos Saint Saourde

The perfect luxury hideaway after a long day of wine tasting, this Provençal farmhouse, at the edge of the vineyards just outside Beaumes village, offers fabulous troglodyte rooms, to-die-for pool and delicious breakfast of cheeses and hams from neighbouring farms.

JOHN BRUNTON’S FLANDERS BEER, CHEESE & JENEVER TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

Flanders has long been famous for its Trappist breweries, with monks in ancient monasteries mastering the alchemy of brewing ales from the end of the Middle Ages. But today there is a craft beer revolution across the globe, and traversing the rural countryside from West Flanders across to Limburg, you can visit not just traditional Trappists and innovative abbeys, but funky, experimental microbreweries producing American-style IPA or exotic coffee stouts, as well a brand new generation of hop farmers deciding to brew for themselves rather than just selling all their harvest to industrial breweries.

On the road you can also stop-off at artisan cheese and charcuterie makers, to discover that the food and wine pairing so loved in gourmet restaurants works just as well for beer pairing, even if it is just a fruity organic white beer enjoyed with a hearty picnic picked up direct from the farm. And if time permits, it is always worth tracking down one of the artisan distilleries that still produce jenever, the most famous spirit invented in the Low Countries. Dating back to the 14th century, complex copper alambics distill first a mash of cereal grains, then a secret recipe of aromatic herbs and botanicals. The key ingredient being the juniper berry, giving the distinctive aroma that became known the world over as gin. Visiting a distillery today is like stepping back in time, the process unchanged over the centuries.   

De Struise Brewery

Begin your beer tour in this revolutionary  microbrewery, in the heart of rural Flanders, just 20 kilometres from the North Sea resort of De Panne.  Time your trip well as De Struise, ‘The Ostrich’, is only open on weekends, though they have a fully-stocked boutique in the nearby village of Vleteren. Craft beer enthusiasts from across the globe make a pilgrimage here, and though there is barely a sign outside, after walking through a long corridor you suddenly enter a packed courtyard of what was once the local school, with towering fermenting vats, where some 24 different brews are on tap, at €2 a glass. ‘We only serve in small 8mm tasting glasses so everyone can still head home sober afterwards,’ says Urbain Coutteau, the rock and roll master brewer and founder  of De Struise.

Urbain has a colourful history, changing  careers from professional photographer to civil engineer in the Congo, then running an ostrich farm and holiday centre right here in the Flemish countryside, before starting experimenting with beer to serve the holidaymakers at the farm.’But everyone loved the beer, Pannepot, an intriguing, unclassable mix of strong ale and creamy stout,’ he recalls, ‘and when it got selected by the ultimate guide, RateBeer, as one of the world’s Top50 beers, everyone said that it was time to open a proper brewery. And then we were suddenly the World’s Best Brewery!’ Today he proposes a mind-boggling, ever-changing portfolio of some 150 weird and wonderful beers – pioneering cask-aged, spontaneous brews, intense cold-fermentation eisbocks. And this is a committed eco-brewery which boasts zero carbon footprint for those drinking on the premises! So have fun tasting the likes of Black Albert, Clash of the Titans, Black Damnation, Tora Tora, and an unforgettable vegan tomato beer, Bloody Mary Sex Magic.

Leroy Brewery 

Though just a few kilometres drive from De Struise, visiting the venerable Leroy is a very different experience. Operating two breweries in the village of Boezinge, just outside the First World War battlefield of Ypres, records show that beer has been brewed here since 1572, and Bruno Leroy is the 11th generation of the present owners.

He relates how, ‘we are neither a craft not commercial brewery, just happy to be independent, family run, and employing 30 people who are almost part of the family!’  His grandfather built the redbrick brewery in the 1920’s after the original was destroyed by the French Army during the Great War, with their family home was right on the premises, ‘and my father was actually born here.’ The family are very keen to encourage beer tourists to visit, and in 2021 they will open a centre for brewery tours and tastings.

The beer to try is  their signature Hommelbier, created in 1981 as a homage to the excellence of hops produced at nearby Poperinge. ‘It is a secret recipe using four different types of hops, just don’t expect one of these fashionable IPA style beers as we pride ourselves an making easy to drink ales.’

Brewery De Plukker

This brewery, ‘The Picker’, offers the unique possibility of understanding the product that is right at the heart of beer culture, the humble hop, as De Plukker is literally located on a Poperinge hop farm. Dressed in bright red overalls, Joris Cambie is clearly a happy man, swelling with pride as he shows visitors his Jack and the Beanstalk hops that climb up almost 6 metres at harvest time. ‘This is the only brewery in the world where everything from  hop to  beer is done right here on the farm,’ he proclaims. ‘Moreover we are the only organic hop growers in Belgium. My family have grown Poperinge hops for breweries for generations, probably since the Middle Ages, and organic cultivation was a natural choice for me, over 25 years ago. ’

His dream of making genuine organic beer on his own farm became real in 2011, when he teamed up with  brewer, Kris Langouche, and they converted the old hop drying barn. They proudly claim that carbon footprint is virtually zero, and the beers are simple but delicious. ‘We are not interested in brewing extreme IPA style, complex, over-strong craft beers,’ says Joris ‘Obviously our ales are hoppy, especially the special range using the freshly harvested flowers, the ‘green hop’, but we always seek drinkability. For me, the perfect beer is the one where you want to open a second bottle straight afterwards.’

Belhop

Just outside the historic bourg of Poperinge, renowned for growing hops, the ancient farm of the Boeraeve family is undergoing something of a revolution. Bard and his wife Anabel are fifth generation farmers, but the young couple only moved back home here three years ago, giving up the city life in Ghent. And they swiftly decided to increase the cultivation of hops by planting different aromatic varieties and to limit carbon footprint they only sell their harvest to nearby Belgian brewers.

Now they are opening up their farm for tourism with organised visits and foodie events. Part of an old cow stall was transformed into a traditional Flemish wood-beamed Brown Cafe to receive visitors, and Bard recounts that, ‘the natural next step was that we should be able to let them taste and buy our very own farm beer, so working with an old university friend in his craft brewery, we launched a classically hoppy brew, Saison Lokaal.’ Poperinge may be traditionally hop country, but Belhop recently became the first vineyard here. ‘We looked at some fields on a gentle slope that were difficult to farm cereals, so I told my Dad we should  cultivate something permanent, and we have hops, so it had to be vines. In 2020 we planted 1,000 Chardonnay vines that will soon increase to an hectare. The first vintage is expected for 2024, so a little patience is necessary before we can all have a glass’

St Bernardus

This has to be one of the perfect breweries for beer lovers to visit in West Flanders, offering a comprehensive tour and tasting, a tempting boutique, a comfy ten room guesthouse for a longer stay, and a recently opened panoramic rooftop bar, restaurant and open terrace that is nothing less than spectacular, with views over never-ending hop fields that almost become ablaze as the sun sets. St Bernadus is very much an independent brewery following its own path. Producing 18 million bottles a year it is too big to be described as a new generation craft brewery, but it is nowhere near the size of a commercial brewery. It is also neither a Trappist nor Abbey beer, even though it follows their principles of quality and purity. As they favour traditional, drinkable ales, don’t expect to discover hipster craft brews like IPA, gueuze or spontaneous lambics. They rarely launch new beers either, and the latest brew, Tokyo, their first canned beer, was over 10 years in planning.

The original St Bernadus site, which is just celebrating its 75th anniversary, has been carefully preserved, while ultra modern brewing annexes have been added on recently as the charismatic owner, Hans Depypere,  aims to make his beers more popular and relevant to a younger generation. And there is no better place to try them then up on the rooftop terrace, creatively paired with traditionally-inspired cuisine based on local ingredients.

Beauvoordse Walhoeve

Visitors to the Walhoeve farm and dairy are greeted by cheery Lyn Deeren,  a 7th generation cheesemaker in the heart of rural West Flanders. The sandy North Sea beaches and dunes of the Belgian coast may just be 10 kilometres away, but the dairy is set in the midst of bucolic rural countryside, with a herd of 180 Holsteins grazing in the pastures. While her brother Jan and his wife look after the animals, Lyn and her parents have transformed the dairy into a foodie’s Aladdin’s Cave, presenting their 30 different cheeses, yogurts, irresistible desserts and homemade ice creams.

Visitors sit out in the farm courtyard and order a picnic of 100% kilometre-zero produce – not just her cheeses but ham and salami from the local butcher, fruits and juices from a neighbouring orchard, regional craft beer and Flemish wine. This summer their artisan ice cream salon opens with a longer term project of organising guided tours of the dairy where you can see how cheeses are produced and aged, and even watch a bathtub of chocolate mousse being mixed by hand. It is a rare slice of life of traditional dairy farming.

De Gebrande Winning

Over in the province of Limburg, alongside the Dutch border, the picturesque grand square of Sint-Truiden is lined with bustling cafes, bars and bistrots, but to find its most famous restaurant you need to head out to the quiet backstreets at the edge of town. Here lies a shrine to beer and gastronomy that attracts foodies and beer connoisseurs from across the globe. Although only open for 7 years, it has already been awarded the title of World’s Best Beer Restaurant, and genial host and chef, Raf Stimorol, creates a modern take on traditional Flemish recipes using seasonal, essentially local ingredients, complemented by a variety of beers in the cooking.

There is a special beer pairing menu created by the chef himself, and if you are  still looking for something different, more unique, well there are a mere 600 labels on the beer list, all perfectly conserved in the ancient vaulted cellar  – Raf’s secret paradise.

So with dishes like succulent pork braised in rich Bourgogne de Flandres beer, line-fished turbot cooked with fresh hop flowers or crisp shrimp croquettes to dip in a creamy Orval sauce, The Burning Farm, really deserves to be called a Temple of Beerstronomy. Raf has a privileged relationship with many of the world’s most famous independent craft brewers, with some rare ales like the 40° Black Albert oak-aged Eisbock or Antidoot Sauvignac  that may seem expensively priced at over €40 a bottle, but as the chef says, ‘for beer geeks searching the internet they will be happy to track down the same bottles  at over €800!’

Wilderen Brewery and Distillery

The sleepy village of Wilderen, hidden away in the rolling hills and fruit orchards of the rural Haspengouw region, has literally been transformed these last years, into a vibrant  ‘smaak’ – taste – destination showcasing food, wine, beer, whiskey, even artisan ice-cream. All this was sparked by the 2011 reopening of the legendary Wilderen distillery. But this is much, much more than a distillery, as the 2,000 revellers that crowd through the door each weekend will testify. While the distillery dates back to 1743, it was already closed and abandoned since 1939, a total ruin when Mike Janssen bought it. He has lovingly restored the 19th century industrial distilling machinery into a ‘time machine’ museum, alongside a state of the art brewery and modern alambic for distilling.

While he still makes an old-fashioned jenever for tradition’s sake, his craft W Double You gin has been voted the world’s best gin, while there are also Omertà Rum and Wild Weasel Whiskey. On the beer front, Mike brews traditional, top-fermented ales like a fruity cherry kriek, white beers, malts and the whiskey-infused, Cuvée Clarysse. The soaring wood-beamed interiors of the old farm and barns have been transformed into welcoming chalet bar lounges, perfect when the weather stops everyone sitting in the beer garden.

Vanderlinden Distillery

Hasselt is one of the most famous places in Flanders for the production of jenever, the origin of modern gin. But today, many of the small artisan distilleries have been replaced by industrial production. That is until young local businessman, Olivier Vanderlinden, decided to take matters into his own hands to preserve these ancient traditions by founding a craft  distillery. An old shed at the back of the family house was filled with modern copper alambics, and  his first distilled  jenever, trickled out of the still some five years ago, made with a secret family recipe of fragrant herbs, botanicals and of course the crucial juniper berry. 

Aided by a team of 16 enthusiastic amateur tasters, Olivier distills a range of jenevers, including an organic one, and describes how, ‘I enjoy experimenting with different kinds of wood for ageing, using not just oak but cherry. I guess you can call us a boutique distillery right now, but I hope that in the future we will be able to increase sales and production so I can give up my office job and devote all my time to making jenever.’ Come for a tour and tasting and be sure not to miss another local speciality, known as Most Wijn, Malt Wine, which is much closer to a malt whiskey than any wine you have ever tasted. 

De Achelse Kluis

Heading into northern Limburg, beer and cheese lovers should stop at the village of Achel, home of another of the mythical abbeys that Flanders is so famous for.

The Achelse Kluis is a monumental Benedictine Abbey, founded by Westmalle monks in 1846, though the religious site – and beer brewing – dates back to 1648. The monks brewery was actually destroyed by the Germans during World War 1, and their famous Achel 8 only became available when they started brewing again in 2001. Today, although no longer officially Trappist, as the last monks have departed, the Abbey brewery continues to produce its very drinkable blonde and brown ales.

In Flanders there is a proud tradition of pairing the region’s beers with its cheeses, and everyone will tell you that nothing can compare to a plate of Achelse Blawe cheese with a glass of  creamy Achel Extra Bruin.

Catharinadal

This buttery, blue-marbled cheese is a serious competitor to either Stilton, Gorgonzola or Roquefort, and the place to taste it is Achelse’s Catherinadal Dairy where artisan cheesemakers, Peter and Bert Boonen, make small batch from the milk of their 100 cow herd.

Where to eat

In de Vrede

Bustling brasserie located right opposite the Trappist monastery that  brews one of the world’s most famous and mysterious beers, Westvleteren.

The cuisine is copious and  tasty – steak frites, big salads, braised pig’s cheeks – but everyone really comes to taste the unique Westvleteren beer.

De Goeste

Right on Poperinge’s picturesque town square, this kilometre-zero foodie homage to regional producers has just opened its doors.

The creative young chef creates delicious dishes like succulent scallops, crunchy salicornes and a creamy mushroom risotto, with pairing suggestions from Heuvelland wineries or local craft breweries

Where to stay 

B&B De Rentmeesterhoeve

The Bailiff’s Farm is actually a romantic manor house, hidden away in its own private grounds, surrounded by a moat and flower gardens. The wood-beamed interiors have been beautifully renovated by welcoming owner Ann Bekaert, who provides a sumptuous breakfast buffet of homemade products including freshly-laid eggs. 

JOHN BRUNTON’S FLANDERS WINE ROUTE

INTRODUCTION

The world of wine is dramatically changing today, with Europe’s cool climate countries establishing themselves as a new generation of serious wine tourism destinations. And Flanders is firmly in the vanguard of this movement, offering travellers, along with enthusiastic locals, the chance to visit dynamic wineries and their cellars, to sit out at picturesque vineyards, tasting surprising, high quality wines and at the same time sampling delicious local cuisine made from seasonal and often organic ingredients. 

Belgium remains one of the world’s smallest wine producing nations, and around half the vineyards are scattered across Flanders. It can be a surprise to learn that wine has been made here since medieval times, disappearing for centuries due to colder climes and the arrival of beer brewing.

But the new generation of wineries today are succeeding in making impressive vintages due to global warming, technical advances in the  cellar, and an open attitude to not just grow well-known grapes like Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, but to experiment with disease-resistant hybrid clones with unusual names like Solaris and Rondo. Two parts of Flanders are perfect for following a wine trail, and here is a top selection to visit from the rural countryside of Heuvelland in West Flanders across to the lush, fertile fields of Limburg, along the border with the Netherlands. 

Domaine d’Hellekapelle

In the midst of Heuvelland’s rolling hills, this innovative winery is divided into two very different locations. The tiny ‘Devil’s Chapel’ that gives the estate its name, is on the grounds of a sprawling 19th century redbrick farm, a wine tourism B&B resort, with an idyllic natural pond for swimming and sunbathing at the back, adjoining the first vineyard plot that owners Michel and Carine planted in 2009. After running their own garage and petrol station, they came here to start a new life as winemakers but with absolutely no experience. Yet today, they are inaugurating a dazzling new cellar just down the road from the farm, with a designer rooftop bar whose  terrace looks out over the family vineyards. Despite never using a wine consultant, Michel has always known what kind of wines he wanted to make.

‘Sometimes I wonder if I was a vigneron in an earlier life,’ he muses. ‘Even working in the garage, I always loved the grapes and wines of Burgundy, so it was natural for me to plant them here even though it was a bit of an experiment. But as Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are also the key grapes to make Champagne, I know each year that I can always make a sparkling cuvée too.’ With 2 hectares planted and production at 10,000 bottles year, Michel  manages to produce almost a dozen different vintages, from Chardonnay, Pinot Gris and Auxerrois to his beloved Pinot Noir, plus a bubbly and rosé. So there are lots of tasting possibilities for winelovers that discover their new rooftop bar, which Michel admits, ‘is just a dream come true for us.’

Monteberg

Before visiting the historic Monteberg vineyard, take a ride up the thickly forested route to the summit of Kemmelberg, marked by a poignant monument to French soldiers who fell here during the 1918 Battle of Ypres. The views are magnificent, but locals prefer to head to Monteberg’s wine bar terrace, where  the landscape changes to the bucolic graphic lines of vines, and a tasting of the latest vintage is paired with local cheeses and hams. The ‘Mountain Winery’ may sound rather grand when the beloved hills of Heuvelland only rise up 150 metres, but this was the first major vineyard in the region and remains the largest and a reference point for many young Flemish winemakers. Founded in 1996 by Jean-Pierre Six, the estate is now run by his two children, Ward and Katherine.

They recall how, ‘this adventure began as our father’s hobby, and locals said he was crazy to plant vines here in Heuvelland.’ Although the initial ambition was not a serious commercial concern, he was greatly encouraged by other Flemish winemakers at a time when wine in Belgium was not seriously recognised. ‘The first vineyard of 500 plants was literally planted in our front garden, and then everything has grown up around that. Today we have 10 hectares, producing 45-50,000 bottles, with zero export, everything sold in Belgium.’ Renowned for its sparkling wines, made from classic Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Monteberg have also planted new generation hybrid grapes like Solaris, Siegerebbe and Rondo Regent, which are increasingly popular today among Belgian winelovers.

Domaine Entre Deux Monts

There is always a steady stream of cars arriving at the modern cellars of Entre Deux Monts to taste the exciting vintages created by one of the most dynamic young vignerons in Flanders. Above an impressive barrel-ageing room downstairs, there is a serious wine tourism centre, with films, tastings, blending ateliers and a panoramic terrace overlooking the vines, while in summer, a pop-up tent restaurant in the garden serves wines, local craft beers and artisan foods. Martin Pacquert inherited farming land of cereals, tobacco and corn, and started to transform it into a wine estate in 2005 after studying oenology in Montpellier and Bordeaux. ‘I finished my wine studies working in France’s Entre-Deux-Mers vineyards, and thought it a fitting tribute to call my Flemish estate Entry Deux Monts as we are located on the Red and Black ‘mountains’  of Heuvelland.’

Martin started out planting a  3 hectare vineyard that today has grown to an impressive 20 hectares, producing some 120,000 bottles. He is very skilled with his sparkling wines, making a name for signature Brut vintages of bubbly, blending Chardonnay, Pinot Noir  and Kerner grapes. The process follows the classic Méthode Traditionelle made famous by Champagne; double fermentation, including ageing on the lees, turning, sediment disgorging, and adding very little if any sugar. Over 60% of his production is sparkling and Martin insists they are, ‘marked by freshness, purity and tension, a reflection of our cool Belgian climate. These are really juicy fruits with not too much acidity, so all you want is to drink another glass straightaway.’ 

Optimbulles

The bustling town of Borgloon is in the heart of Limburg’s famed fruit orchards, but passionate Maxime Guenis is determined that it will also be famous for its wines.

He is the perfect symbol for a new generation of Flemish vignerons; making pioneer natural wines by not adding sulphites, experimenting in the cellar with terracotta amphorae, oak casks and glass demijohns, while respecting biodiversity and ecology in the vineyard. His father Guido, a local police detective, began making garage wine back in 1991, the vineyard planted in the front garden, wine fermenting downstairs in the cellar. Maxime recounts how,  ‘when my father started you could count the number of Belgian winemakers on one hand. Now there are hundreds. For me, many are far too conventional, just wanting to copy the famed Burgundy style. It is a missed opportunity as we have so few rules in Belgium that everyone should be having fun and trying new things.’ Optimbulles’ vineyard is now on the outskirts of town, stretching to 3 hectares, and Maxime has installed his cellar in an old farmhouse where he produces a wonderfully varied mix of 7 sparkling wines, as well small quality batches of Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Pinot Noir. The total comes to 10,000 bottles, enough to encourage him to recently give up his job as an educator to concentrate 100% on winemaking.

A brave decision that Maxime justifies because ‘more and more people in Belgium are getting interested in natural wines, and we can sell out 100% of our production to this home market, which is good news for our carbon footprint. In other countries, many natural wine producers sell all over the world but I feel that defeats our eco philosophy, so if one day I get a call from someone in Japan, China or Russia offering to buy half our production, then I will just say no.’

Domaine Helshoven 

Another Limburg village where vineyards are beginning to rival to orchards is the picturesque hamlet of Helshoven, which gives its name to a wonderfully inventive winery. Walk through the discrete entrance and you find yourself in a rustic squared courtyard whose 18th century farmhouse and surrounding land have been turned into a paradise for wine tourism. There is a  bicycle café  for  cyclists exploring the peaceful countryside. Another restaurant offers wine-pairing  gourmet dining, while along the edge of a vineyard at the back, a half-a-dozen giant wooden barrels offer a unique lodging experience. All that before you embark on a marathon tasting of Helshoven’s astonishing range of vintages, the Brave New World of Flemish winemaking. Twenty years ago, economics professor and wine enthusiast Geert Houben planted some 20 different grape varieties here just to see what might work, from classic Chardonnay to the extreme of Merlot, to a host of then little-known hybrids.

His son Jeroen has taken up the challenge today, so this is the perfect place to discover just what kind of wines are made from little-known hybrid grapes like Souvignier Gris, Johanniter, Muscaris, Cabernet Cantor. What is more, the winery make not just a daring Orange wine, from skin-macerated grapes,  but what can only be called Beer Wines, a bridge between beer and wine cultures, where hops are added to the final fermentation of a Chardonnay, or where the wine is partly aged in lambic beer barrels. The result needs to be tasted to be understood, but they certainly make fascinating  food pairings. The wine labels are amusing and provocative, with names like Cheeky Devil, Hell’s Angel, The Godlike Monster, but Jeroen also remains true to the heritage of of local fruit farming, producing lambic ciders, sparkling apple, pear ice wine, and even their own gin!

Wijnkasteel Genoelselderen
It is difficult to imagine a more idyllic place to discover Flemish wines than this magnificent 18th century ‘wine château’, set in a romantic landscaped park of  rose gardens, ornamental lakes and vineyards, with tastings, wine ateliers, cellar tours and a homely bistrot for lunch and tea.

Close your eyes and you could be in Bordeaux’s Médoc, while the wines themselves, essentially made for ageing rather than to be drunk young, also mirror a traditional approach compared to more contemporary Flemish wineries. Although records show that there was vineyard here in the Middle Ages, that had long disappeared when retired businessman Jaap Van Rennes bought the property in 1991 and decided to indulge his passion for wine. Thirty years later, three generations of his family still live in the castle, all involved in running a major 22 hectare vineyard of principally Chardonnay and Pinot Noir.

His daughter Joyce, who oversees both the vineyard and cellar, qualified as a winemaker in France, and she recalls how, ‘when we started, Belgian wines were a curiosity that everyone thought were bound to fail. But 30 years has seen the market place change, the winelover changing too, and now there is definitely a place for Belgium at the world wine table.  Joyce refuses to follow the current Belgian trend to plant new generation resistant hybrid grapes, arguing that,  ‘I feel they are not yet producing the quality needed to make a good glass of wine. As simple as that. I prefer to be patient for developments that will allow traditional grapes to become naturally more resistant.’

Domaine Aldeneyck

Karel Henckens is clearly an impassioned winemaker, who has transformed his family’s grand country mansion into a cutting edge winery with a chic tasting room and lush shady gardens for wine tourists. The vineyards cover a spectacular landscape that runs down to the Meuse river, with Holland on the other side. It is part of a unique appellation, Meuse Valley Limburg, created in 2017 as the world’s first official wine region covering two countries, Belgium and the Netherlands. Coming from a family of traditional Limburg fruit farmers, Karel reconverted to wine, and from 1998 he spent 6-7 years slowly planting vines,  slowly building up from 1 hectare to the present 11 hectares that produces a serious 75,000 bottles a year. It is difficult to find another Flemish vineyard that can rival the elegance, complexity and finesse of Aldeneyck’s wines, which really live up to Karel’s philosophy of ‘cultivating dreams, harvesting passion.’

He is another great fan of France’s famed Burgundy and Alsace grapes, insisting, as he animatedly points out the stony ground surrounding each vine,  ‘that the grapes of Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and of course Pinot Noir make wines that are the perfect  reflection of our unique terroir; a mineral rich, pebbly gravel from the Meuse river. And look, we are 300 metres from the river bank with Holland on the other side. With an elevation of 30 metres, it is just enough to give us a microclimate, the river protecting us from frost.’ Don’t be surprised to see Alderneyck’s vintages on the wine list of Belgium’s flagship two and three star Michelin restaurants, ‘as these chefs and sommeliers have become our ambassadors, and that is far more important for me that winning medals in wine competitions to stick on your label.’

Gloire de Duras

Pieter Nijskens’  modern new wine cellar is located in the middle of an orchard, giving a clue to his origins. ‘I feel I am just a baby in the wine business’, he recounts. But for someone who comes from generations of fruit farmers, he has quickly adapted to the life of a vigneron.

Sipping his latest Riesling he proudly shows off the framed certificates of numerous awards his wines have swiftly gathered, explaining how he is slowly abandoning fruit farming for a new adventure making wine. ‘I began in 2015 with an hectare of vines, and immediately hired an oenologist to advise me. Even after the first harvest he said – don’t go the normal safe route and produce a sparkling from your blend of grapes, but try still white wines instead. I had planted Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois and Riesling. And the big surprise was the first vintage winning a silver medal in the Flemish wine competiton. Since then, well the medals have just kept coming each year, and I have kept planting, so now we cultivate 7 hectares, producing 30-35,000 bottles compared to 1500 in the first year. The estate stretches over 10 plots of vines, all surrounding the town of Sint-Truiden, and pride of place – the inspiration for the winery’s name, Gloire de Duras – is planted in his own village of Duras. It is a rare vineyard, hidden away in the gardens of the Château Duras, a genuine walled Clos that could be in Burgundy, whose microclimate produces a wonderfully aromatic, elegant Riesling. ‘I know this is the best Riesling Clos in Belgium as it is the only one,’ declares Pieter.

Where to eat

Restaurant Sparhof

Cheerful family bistrot serving hearty traditional dishes like marinated Ardennes pork paired with a wine list that features numerous local wineries from the surrounding Heuvelland appellation.

‘t Huis zonder naam

The House With No Name sits alongside the picturesque redbrick chapel of Helshoven, a romantic venue where an elegant dining room opens out onto beautiful gardens. Extensive wine list, creative cuisine mixing Italian influences with Belgian favourites like creamy vol-au-vent

Where to stay 

Hof van Stayen

Just at the entrance to Sint-Truiden, right by the local football stadium, 

this old farmhouse has recently been transformed into a futuristic luxury hotel, with pool, gardens and fun lobby bar with table football, ping pong and pool. 

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.