John Brunton’s Mechelen Art City Trail

The quiet, serene Flemish city of Mechelen is the perfect destination for art, culture and food lovers seeking a secret, under-the-radar haven that is genuinely unspoilt, where there is no need to compete with crowds of tourists when visiting museums or while taking a precious, solitary moment to contemplate a centuries-old religious painting in a secluded corner of an ancient church.

The city has a glorious past stretching back through the Renaissance to Age of Enlightenment, and it is a pleasure to stroll through its cobbled backstreets tracking down a medieval Beguinage, or wander along the banks of the winding Dyle river, stopping to listen to the magical peal of carillon bells. This is a contemporary Art City too, with avant-garde galleries showcasing the local creative scene, and notable pioneering urban initiatives converting historic buildings into modern museums, art and film centres, always with a lively bar or restaurant as this is also somewhere where the locals really know how to enjoy themselves, and entertain travellers that head here off the beaten track.

Must See
St Rumbold’s Tower & Cathedral

No matter where you are walking through Mechelen, there is always the statuesque tower of Saint Rumbolt’s cathedral, defining the city as it majestically rises up above the skyline.

©Visit Mechelen

The soaring vaulted interiors of the cathedral boast a significant collection of old masters, particularly Lucas Faydherbe’s Baroque high altar, paintings by Anthony van Dyck and a curious, enigmatic Black Madonna.

Before leaving, though, most visitors head for the narrow, steep winding staircase that slowly climbs its way up to the top of the Unesco World Heritage tower. The reward is an unparalleled view from the 97 metre high skywalk over Mechelen and the surrounding countryside and often the chance to hear the chimes of Saint Rumbold’s famous carillon bells. Just be aware there is no lift, only 524 stairs each way, fortunately with plenty of stages for stop offs.

Kazerne Dossin
During the Nazi occupation of Mechelen during World War Two, the Dossin military barracks were converted into a transit camp for the deportation of Jews, gypsies and homosexuals to concentration camps.

Today, the barracks are the site of an holocaust memorial, while across the road stands a monumental museum and documentation centre inaugurated in 2012. A stark, austere concrete pentagon, this landmark building addresses not just historical persecution during World War Two in Belgium and Northern France with an intense and educative exhibition of their permanent collection, but also holds temporary shows dedicated to human rights abuses across the globe.

A tour through the four floors is an emotional experience, especially when you witness the reactions of the many visiting school groups, but you end the visit with a unique eye-witness view of what life was like in this wartime era. The visit ends with panoramic views from the open rooftop terrace, a perfect moment for quiet personal reflection.

Hidden Gems
Het Kunstuur
In the age of immersive art exhibitions, virtual and enhanced reality guides, the creators of Mechelen’s Het Kunstuur – The Culture Hour – have succeeded in coming up with a new, highly original idea.


This small, intimate gallery has a regularly-changing programme presenting temporary exhibitions that feature just 20 paintings. The aim is to publicise and promote local Flemish artists, and the visitor is asked to join an obligatory hour long tour. At first everything begins as in a normal museum with everyone putting on an audio guide, but as the group passes from salon to salon, at some point the lights go out, artworks are individually illuminated, and the voiceover explaining each artwork, usually a well-known Flemish personality, suddenly comes to life as a speaking, moving computer-generated avatar.

After the experience most people adjourn right opposite to Het Kunstuur’s funky cafe.

Museum Hof van Busleyden

©Visit Mechelen

To get a feeling for the glory days of Mechelen’s proud history, take a tour of the museum housed in this splendid red-brick palace. It dates back to the 15th century, when the city was immensely wealthy through the cloth trade and the official capital of the Low Countries, ruled by the Dukes of Burgundy, and encompassing parts of modern Belgium, Luxembourg and Holland. The palace once welcomed princes, emperors, and Renaissance intellectuals like Erasmus and Sir Thomas More. Today the building is dedicated to the history of the city. Much of the permanent collection will only be on show towards the end of 2023 when a huge renovation programme is completed, but until the summer, don’t miss the temporary Hidden Gems exhibition.

The palace basement has been emptied to create an open space venue filled with 100 objects illustrating 700 years of Mechelen history – medieval religious paintings, traditional carnival giants, contemporary sculptures, 20th century artworks.

Het Predikheren
In another example of how this city creatively uses its urban heritage architecture, the municipal library is housed in a beautifully restored Baroque monastery.

Het Predikheren refers to the Preachers monastic movement, another name for the Dominican Order, who built a church here in the mid 17th century. The religious complex was closed down during the French Revolution, then used as both a military hospital and troop barracks before being abandoned for 50n years before its present transformation into a contemporary library and cultural hub. Right from the day the doors opened, Het Predikheren has taken a unique place in the town’s life that extends far beyond its collection of books.

This is a vibrant meeting place that attracts curious travellers as well as locals, with a casual bar and cafe that extends out into a cloistered terrace alongside a gourmet restaurant, while the space also hosts art exhibitions, dance and music performances.

Local Foodies
De Vleeshalle Foodmarket

A majestic bulls head marks the entrance to Mechelen’s historic 1881 Meat Hall. Though no longer a butcher’s market, the immense building has today is reborn as a vibrant emporium for cosmopolitan food stalls that has become a firm favourite with locals for a tasty, reasonably-priced lunch. Be sure to arrive at midday as the comfy sofas and chairs surrounding the stalls fill up quickly each day.

Hardly surprising when you can choose from local specialities – oysters, shrimp croquettes, and of course frites – to chefs cooking exotic dishes from Mexico, the Mediterranean, Morocco, South Africa, and even homebaked Irish pies. For drinks, choose from from barista coffee, fruit smoothies, Belgian craft ales and organic wines. After your meal, take the staircase up above the bustling ground floor to discover sustainable boutiques and cool coworking spaces.


The name Schockaert is synonymous with cheese in Mechelen. Founded more that a century ago by the great grandfather of Sophie and Ann Schockaert, the flagship cheesemongers of these two sisters occupies the ground floor of an ancient merchants house right on Mechelen’s main shopping drag, IJzerenleen, and stocks a tempting array of some 220 different cheeses. Originally this was a classic dairy, selling eggs and milk, delivering around town on a horse and cart, but today, they also stock traditional Flemish charcuterie.

Most of the cheeses are organic, and the Schockaert’s have long-standing relationships with many farmers in the surrounding region. Two local specialities not to be missed are Brouwerskaas, where a Mechelen-brewed beer is added to the milk curd, and Mechelier, a cows cheese whose skin is rubbed with a potent Trippel ale.

Saturday Grote Markt

©Visit Mechelen

Every Saturday morning you will find Mechelen townsfolk passing through its bustling weekly market on the Grote Markt, the city’s landmark square lined with elaborate medieval and Baroque mansions, a towering Gothic cathedral in the background, one side taken up entirely by the palatial 16th century town hall and belfry. The market stalls are piled high with a cornucopia of locally-farmed products like endives, sprouts asparagus, and at poultry stands be sure to look out for the Mechelse Koekoek, the famous Mechelen chicken known as a ‘cuckoo’ for its distinctive black and white feathers that you will find on gastronomic restaurant menus all over Flanders. And the Grote Markt is surrounded by lively bars, the perfect place to grab a sunny pavement table try a glass of the signature Gouden Carolus beer made at the local Het Anker brewery.

Green Space
Dyle Towpath
Traditional towpaths run along the bank of a waterway, used in the past by horses to pull cargo barges, transformed today into bike and hiking paths.

©Visit Mechelen

But visitors to Mechelen always get a surprise the first time they see the River Dyle’s futuristic towpath as it literally floats above the water. For the perfect green experience, start out with a walk through the 19th century Kruidtuin, originally the Botanical Gardens, today a verdant public park of lakes and flower gardens, an outdoor venue for a big summer music festival.

©Visit Mechelen

From the park cross the Fontein Bridge onto the floating ramp that follows the river into the town centre. Dipping under the ancient Hoog bridge and past a juxtaposition of contemporary and historical buildings, cross over the pedestrian Lamot Bridge into what was once the old fish market and then enjoy a drink on the waterside terrace of the town’s most genuine Brown Cafe, De Gouden Vis.

Out of Town
Either put on your walking boots for a 4 kilometre hike or hire a bike at Mechelen’s train station to follow the picturesque towpath along the bank of the Vaart waterway as far as the sleepy rural hamlet of Battel.

You can’t miss a sign for the unique Batteliek craft brewery, housed in what was once the local church. All the Batteliek ales, fruit juices and craft gin are made right here, and while the decor follows a fun, surreal Monty Pythonesque theme, state-of-the-art vats are massed at the end, and the kitchen serves up a tasty mix of pizzas and burgers, cheesecake and brownies.

Open barely a year, they have created 15 different beers, with 7 on tap, and enthusiasts can sign up to a brewing workshop while more ambitious gypsy brewers are allowed in to create their own small-batch recipes. While locals love the classic Belgian pilsner, don’t miss more brews like an unusual pastry stout or a coffee porter.

Food & drink
Lux 28
A newcomer on Mechelen’s entertainment scene, the Lux complex opened in October 2021 in an opulent colonnaded 1831 mansion.

Today there is the arthouse Cinema Lumière on the ground floor, while up above is Lux 28, a cool bar that has the feel of a private club, a secret address for local cinema-lovers, occasionally discovered by curious tourists. Apart from serving craft beers, wine and cocktails, accompanied by sharing tapas, this is also a venue devoted to exhibitions by local artists, with plans to host small concerts

The Chick

The Chick is a wining and dining venue that surprises from start to finish. Hidden away in a 16th centre building adjacent to the iconic St Rumbold’s tower, this is a restaurant with no written menu and enthusiastic foodies place their faith in the chef as the kitchen prepares only surprise set menus.

The creative cuisine uses local produce like Namur escargots, North Sea hake and plump lobster cooked in a savoury risotto, complemented by a wide-ranging cosmopolitan wine list. A steep flight of steps heads down to a cosy vaulted wine bar, while cheeses are aged in an ancient medieval cellar.

Het Anker Brasserie

Mechelen’s venerable independent brewery offers a beer tour for visitors, a discreet hotel to stay in, tastings of its ales and the whiskey it distills on the premises.

©Visit Mechelen

And to sample classics of local cuisine there is also the cosy brasserie restaurant, which proposes both dishes cooked with Het Anker’s beers, a beer pairing menu, and both bread and cheeses that are made with beer! Not to be missed are the Flemish beef stew braised in Gouden Carolus Classic beer served with frites and ‘chicons’, braised endives, or Mechelen’s famous ‘Coucou’ chicken, in a creamy sauce with asparagus and potato croquettes.

Arty Stay
Martin’s Patershof

Hidden away on a quiet backstreet just off the Dyle river stands a towering red-brick neo-Gothic church, where surprisingly taxis stop to drop-off savvy travellers who are checking into the most unique place to stay in Mechelen. Now made over a luxury boutique hotel, guests can choose a comfortable room in their modern annexe or splash out on one of the sumptuous suites in the main church building, complete with stained glass windows, carved stone pillars and arched vaults. The biggest surprise comes when you enter the majestic breakfast hall with its opulent altarpiece and religious paintings.

John Brunton’s Bruges Art City Trail

©Jan Termont


It is difficult to imagine a Flemish Art City as seductive as Bruges. Travellers from around the world are drawn here by its irresistible combination of scenic canals crisscrossed by ancient stone bridges, wonderfully preserved medieval houses and mansions linked by cobbled lanes that at times resemble a romantic maze of dolls houses, alongside spectacular public buildings, monuments, belfry and churches that have long been recognised as UNESCO World Heritage.

The city’s rich artistic heritage dates back to its golden era as one of Europe’s richest towns beginning in the Middle Ages, where promoting art and culture went hand in hand with amassing fortunes through trade. But this is also just one face of the city compared to what can be discovered if the visitor takes the time to look behind the picturesque facade and spend a couple of days in the city. Modern architecture is symbolised by the stunning red Concert Hall, but this is just the tip of the iceberg of the eye-catching urban renewal going on throughout the city. To discover these contemporary hotspots around the city, just download and follow the tourist office’s innovative new Route App, Oooh! Bruges. For eating out, beyond the popular cuisine of mussels and frites, Bruges boasts one of the most vibrant gastronomic scenes in Flanders, from Michelin-starred fine dining to funky diners creating contemporary takes on traditional dishes.


While the early rooms take the breath away with masterpieces by Jan van Eyck, Memling and Bosch, there is a genuine momentum to the tour as visitors pass from the unforgettable scenes painted by Pieter Breughel the Younger through the Renaissance and Baroque eras, upto modern 20th century gems by Magritte, Delvaux, Ensor and Rik Wouters, as well as a unique collection of the surreal printed works of Marcel Broodthaers.

Apart from regular temporary exhibitions there are ambitious long-term plans for the year 2025 with the city planning to open BRUSK, an artistic hotspot for young artists, a new innovative exhibition hall, while at the same time making the museum site ecologically sustainable.

Church of Our Lady

As you enter the majestic Church of Our Lady it initially resembles a rather austere, bare Gothic church. An ancient painting depicting the interior hangs at the entrance of the nave and nothing seems to have changed over the centuries. But the tension builds as first you pass early examples of Flemish primitive paintings, then the impressive medieval tombs of Mary of Burgundy and her father, Charles the Bold, before you approach the subdued corner holding the precious white marble statue of the Madonna and Child created by Michelangelo in 1504.

It was the only work of the master that left Italy during his lifetime, bought by a wealthy Bruges merchant. Twice the priceless sculpture has disappeared, taken by Napoleon and installed in Paris, then stolen for Hitler’s personal collection, heading for Nazi Germany before the intervention of the Allied Army’s Monument Men team. So once you come face to face with this Renaissance masterpiece it is quite an emotional experience, and although there are always people who go as close as they can to snap photos on their mobile phones, many prefer to sit a discrete distance away, to take their time to better appreciate the intensity and power of this immaculate creation.

Hidden Gems
Concertgebouw Brugge

©Jan Darthet

Built to commemorate the coronation of Bruges as European Capital of Culture back in 2002, this stunning concert hall remains the landmark symbol of modern, contemporary Bruges contrasting with the medieval heritage of the city. While the ultimate way to appreciate this unique concert hall is to attend one of its almost nightly performances, there is also a brilliant backstage tour, the Concertgebouw Circuit that operates most days. Going up and down narrow stairs normally reserved for the staff, you pass what look like carillon bells but are actually avant-garde loudspeakers. There are permanent and temporary exhibitions hanging on the wall, you can sit down and enjoy videos of concert performances, watch a conceptual film on sound, climb high into the roof to peek in on the main hall with a birds-eye view even if a concert or rehearsal is going on.

©Jan Darthet

Then you arrive at the area known as the Sound Factory, where children are enchanted as they touch metal tubes to make musical sounds, or enter the psychedelic Omni room and punch a mushroom-like device to compose a tune using your own choice of instrument. Music is everywhere, even when you reach the open rooftop with a set of carillon bells that you can chime yourself.

The Adornes Estate
Walking along the narrow cobbled lanes running out of the centre of Bruges, you pass the whitewashed walls that hide the idyllic gardens and cottages of the 17th century Elisabeth Zorghe Almshouse – a Godshuis. Then a strange redbrick medieval church tower with a wooden cupola catches your eye that is clearly older than many of the city’s buildings.


Dating back to 1429 this the Jerusalem Chapel, built by the wealthy Adornes family, imitating the Holy Land’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre. 17 generations later, the same family still own the whole domaine which includes a museum, almshouses, gardens and even a welcoming lounge where visitors can serve themselves a cup of tea or coffee.

Wandering through this peaceful private domaine conjures up images of Crusader Knights in the Holy Land and medieval tournaments the Adornes family used to organise, a tradition that continues today with ancient archery guilds based along the street. And if the guest salon with its tartan sofas seem more Scottish than Flemish that is explained in the museum, detailing how the 15th century Anselm Adornes became as powerful a landowner in Scotland as in Bruges.

Gruuthuse Museum

Entering the noble archway that stands on the bank of the Dijver and coming face to face with the opulent palace created in the 15th century by Louis of Gruuthuse it is difficult to imagine that all this wealth and splendour was financed by the family monopoly of the trade of ‘gruut’ a magic recipe of herbs to flavour beer before brewers discovered how to use hops. The ‘gruut’ was stored here in a warehouse, leading them to change their name to ‘gruuthouse’. Today, walking through the maze of rooms that spread over the palace’s three floors gives the feeling of a privileged snapshot of the sumptuous lives of the nobility in Bruges. Like the great merchants of Venice with their opulent palazzi, the Gruuthuse family used their wealth to promote culture and art in Bruges, and a tour of the house stretches from the 15th to 19th centuries, past lavish Flemish tapestries and delicate lace, Gothic stained glass, porcelain and ceramics, musical instruments and period furniture.

Wednesday Market

Bruges boasts one of the grandest town squares in Flanders, marked by a flamboyant Neo-Gothic government building and the iconic 13th century Belfry that rises almost 100 metres above the city skyline. The square is always vibrant, lined by bustling bars and cafes, but the Grote Markt really comes alive every Wednesday morning when all of Bruges seems to converge here for the weekly market.

Stalls are piled high with a cornucopia of local seasonal produce; fruit and vegetables direct from nearby farms, cheeses, aged ham and smoky sausages, noisy North Sea fishmongers, flowers bursting with colour.

And it is difficult to avoid the temptation to join the line outside the ‘frituur’ – chip stand – for a portion of piping hot frites topped with a dollop of mayonnaise.

Local Foodies
Bourgogne des Flandres
Right in the heart of historic Bruges, with a waterside terrace opposite the Groeninge museum, this venerable brewery was founded back in 1765, named in honour of the era when the Dukes of Burgundy ruled over the city. Still brewed onsite, Bourgogne des Flandres is a unique beer that blends of two very different ales; a Lambic which adds sourness, and the sweeter Brown Ox.

The informative brewery tour, unaccompanied but with an audio guide, includes the chance to chat and ask questions of the brewers themselves while they are working, and afterwards everyone heads for the bar with 7 beers on tap with a simple but tasty menu of Bruges cheeses and charcuterie.

Brew Master, Thomas Vandelanotte, explains that “we are also an experimental brewhouse, always trying new recipes out and making small batches that we try out on the customers that come on the visit, and who knows, they may become one of our future signature ales.”

Diksmuids Boterhuis

Open since 1933, the name of this inviting delicatessen actually refers to the butter made by the founders at their dairy in the nearby town of Diksmuide. The Butter House has changed over the last century, and is run today by the third generation Isabelle Verhelle, a Master Cheesemonger who gave up her high-powered job managing an hotel to run the family business. They no longer just sell butter, and Isabelle’s range of cheeses changes each week depending on the season, with roughly 300 different varieties, showcasing specialities made by local farmers, like Brugge Gold, a creamy cows cheese from nearby Damme, Oudlander, a goats cheese made by the coast at De Haan, aged Old Brugge and a tangy Belgian Blue from Ghent.

She also works with artisan butchers who produce her famous salami-style sausages. And be sure to ask if she has made her famous cod fish salad as loyal customers say it is better than anything you find at the fish shop.

Green Space
Beguinage and Minnewaterpark

Founded nearly 8 centuries ago, the ‘Princely Beguinage Ten Wijngaarde’ to give this Unesco World Heritage site its official name, is a bucolic green oasis in the historical heart of Bruges, perfect for a break from museum sightseeing.

In spring, the simple cottages of the Benedictine nuns who still reside here look out over verdant lawns that are transformed into a giant flower bed of blooming daffodils. From the Beguinage cross the tiny canal bridge to immediately enter the Minnewaterpark, the perfect spot for a romantic stroll, lunch in a castle restaurant or casual waterside picnic by the Minnewater itself, the Lake of Love.

TopLeft©Jan Darthet

The park stretches all the way to the city ramparts and is especially popular in summer as a venue for outdoor concerts.

Out of Town

It is no exaggeration to say that the countryside begins right at the ancient ramparts that encircle the city of Bruges. Hire a bike and follow the cycle paths that begin at the Minnewaterpark and soon you are on your way past waterways, windmills and green meadows towards the ancient town of Damme, once the port of Bruges back in the 12th century.

The 10 kilometre ride runs along the bank of the picturesque Damse Vaart canal that continues all the way to the Dutch border.

Damme is an idyllic village, famous for its bookshops, a giant paddle steamer moored on the quayside and above all its craft microbreweries and cosy gourmet restaurants like the Michelin-starred De Zuidkant, where foodies come from afar for the speciality local dish – ‘paling in’t groen’, succulent eels cooked in a rich parsley sauce.

One of the Michelin-starred restaurants overseen by stellar Flemish chef Gert De Mangeleer, L.E.S.S. may have an odd name – Love, Eat, Share, Smile – but this funky diner succeeds brilliantly in its aim to present accessible gastronomy. The ambiance is cool and casual, with the hottest seats at the kitchen counter watching the brigade of chefs at work.

The menu is created with sharing dishes in mind, be it slices of a Holstein Tomahawk steak, glazed eel, Dan Dan noodles or a Peruvian-style device made with North Sea fish. While the products are essentially local, the influences in De Mangeleer’s cuisine is resolutely global, with influences from his travels to South America and Asia.

Goesepitte 43
Visitors rarely discover this discrete restaurant by chance, an insider address hidden down a narrow backstreet near the Saint Saviour cathedral. Chef Jan Supply creates an affordable gastronomy menu, strong on seasonal vegetables and North Sea seafood.

In the kitchen he often uses a Mibrasa charcoal oven which is especially effective grilling endives, cabbage and leeks as well as his signature dry aged steaks. Excellent wine list, including several Belgian vineyards, and as the minimalist contemporary dining room only seats 20, it is best to reserve in advance.

Books and Brunch
Tucked away in a quiet corner of town just opposite the 16th century St Trudo almshouse, this cosy bookshop cantina has been welcoming foodies and bibliophiles for the last ten years since friendly owners Jos and Tabitha Deroo first opened up. There are some 5,000 second hand books lining the walls, including an English corner and sections devoted to travel, cooking and kids books, but Jos admits that ,”while the books draw people in, it is the food that keeps everyone coming back.

We propose a menu that includes organic, vegetarian, vegan and gluten free dishes so everyone can feel welcome here ” They serve continuously from breakfast through till late afternoon, with a clientele that mixes local families and students with cosmopolitan tourists.

Difficult to resist the salmon bagel or Belgian waffles with maple syrup and bacon, while the Dame Blanche desert is to die for. In addition to barista coffee and herbal teas, they serve craft gin and tonic, Trappist ales and homemade lemonade.

Hotel Portinari

Perfectly located by the Concertgebouw, this friendly hotel is named after the renowned 15th century Bruges cultural patron, Tommaso Portinari, and all their decor follows an artistic theme. Each room features an iconic painting, such as Magritte’s bowler hat and apple portrait, with surrealist creations in the lobby, funky graffiti murals in the breakfast room, while in a nostalgic touch, the lift is plastered with old black and white postcards of the city.

And just next door is the healthy diner, Nomad, which specialises in locavore dishes with kilometre zero carbon footprint.

John Brunton’s Leuven Art City Trail


Picturesque Leuven may be only half an hour by train from the bustling metropolis of Brussels, but it is a genuine hidden secret as far as tourism is concerned, with barely a souvenir shop to be found.

It may have missed out on the chance to be a capital city to Brussels back in the 13th century but the establishment of one of the world’s oldest universities here in 1425 has made it an important centre of learning for science and the arts. Resembling a Flemish version of Oxford and Cambridge, the city’s ancient university colleges remain for the most part closed off to the public, hidden behind their red brick walls, but there is an ambitious plan to open for visits to celebrate the 600th anniversary in 2025. What are not hidden to the public are the 50,000 students who make their temporary home here each year, creating both a lively nightlife scene and a vibrant calendar of contemporary art, music and dance. All this contrasts with the intense sense of history that permeates Leuven, from its grand Gothic architecture to Old Masters from the era of Flemish Primitivism.

Must See

© Rudi Van Beek

Grote Markt
The first thing that every visitor to Leuven does is head straight to its incomparable Grand Square, site of two landmark buildings that both in their way, symbolise this surprising city. While much of Leuven’s architectural heritage was severely damaged during both World Wars, the 15th century Gothic town hall escaped almost unscathed, leaving intact its fairytale turrets and ornamental façade decorated with some 236 intricate statues. The sumptuous interiors are also impressive and while the tourist office already organises regular visits there are plans to turn it into a full-time visitor experience. Right opposite stands the monumental Saint Peter’s Church, whose origins go back a thousand years. While the present building is in the same Gothic style as the town hall, much was rebuilt after
bombing at the end of World War Two.

The artworks though survived damage, a treasure trove of Flemish Primitivism, including an exquisite 1442 sculpture of the Madonna and Child by Nicolaas de Bruyne and a masterpiece interpretation of the Last Supper by Dieric Bouts.

There is an Augmented Reality guide of the artworks, and from October 2023 the exhibition “DIERIC BOUTS. Creator of Images” will showcase paintings by Bouts lent by collections around the world..

M Leuven
It is no understatement to describe Leuven’s cutting edge M Museum as a work of art in itself.

©Robin Van Acker

Right in the midst of a busy shopping street, passers-by find themselves standing opposite a Neoclassical colonnaded entrance arch which is just a front for a futuristic three-floored building of sharp zigzag lines, white Italian travetine stone and glass, created in 2009 by leading Belgian architect, Stéphane Beel. This juxtaposition is a recurring theme throughout the museum which makes extensive use of its massive 58,000 piece collection, spanning medieval paintings to avant-garde sculptures, continually confronting and questioning the visitor.

A kitsch Japanese maneki-neko waving cat stands next to an a religious statue of Saint Anthony of Padua, a minimalist geometric abstract painting hangs alongside a romantic 18th century Old Master by Flemish painter Pieter Jozef Verhaghen. And there are always challenging temporary exhibitions running throughout the year. Be sure to carry on to the rooftop where there are great views over the city.

Hidden Gems
Street Art

Street art in Leuven is serious affair, a long term municipal programme to encourage young local artists rather than the more anarchic graffiti you see decorating the walls of other art cities. Taking a walk to track down surprising street art is the perfect way to discover Leuven on foot, either following the Tourist Office’s detailed map or downloading a recent App dedicated to these colourful murals. There are over 200 creations spread out over the whole city, with 70 eye-catching works concentrated in the historic centre.

Everyone has their own favourite street art mural, but two pieces are definitely worth tracking down; ‘The Red Line’, painted by neighbourhood school students, and the wonderfully surreal Verwarr(m)ing radiator by Leuven’s favourite graphic artist, Bisser, who has now become known on the international street art stage.



Ten minutes from the town hall and St Peter’s church, walking down the busy Naamsestraat you can’t miss the giant PopArt-style letters STUK dominating the façade of a Neogothic redbruick building. This is the home of Leuven’s agenda-setting House for Dance, Image and Sound
known to everyone by its Flemish acronym, STUK, the city’s flagship venue for a vibrant cultural scene that extends to dance and music, exhibitions, installations, theatre and film.

©Joeri Thiry

There is a friendly cafe inside and in any one week you could catch a contemporary dance performance, electronic music concert, a surrealist video installation, a techno clubbing night. Right now the STUK is coming to end of a major renovation, and locals and tourists alike await its grand reopening, scheduled for the summer.

Small Beguinage


A must-see near the top of the list for most visitors to Leuven is the sprawling Great Beguinage, a community of buildings founded in the 13th century for female religious orders and lay workers that became almost a small town itself, a maze of courtyards, gardens and redbrick houses, mostly inhabited today by university students. But curious visitors should also make the effort to head right over to the other side of town to a neighbourhood around the landmark Stella Artois brewery that is currently undergoing a lively urban regeneration to discover the little-visited Small Beguinage, that also dates back 800 years.

A single cobbled alleyway of tiny whitewashed cottages with evocative names like Nazareth runs off the Gothic St Gertrude Church, while a gatehouse suddenly opens out onto St Gertrude’s ancient abbey, a park and the grassy bank of the Dyle river.


Every Belgian city has a mouthwatering selection of chocolatiers, but the most famous artisan chocolate maker in Leuven has also made name for itself for its provocative creations.


In a tiny boutique on the main shopping drag running from the station into the town centre, Bittersweet is part showroom, part laboratory for the handmade artistic designs that push the boundaries of taste, colours and shapes.

A surreal-looking yellow praline resembling a Lego brick is called Heroin, while other popular chocolates are named Skull, Espresso Yourself, Robotski, Corn Porn and Brainfood. Customers seduced by these original ideas for the humble praline can also sign up for a hands-on chocolate making course in the back of the boutique.

Local Foodies
De Coureur

©Nastya Kovalenko

Bart and Ine Delvaux became enthusiastic home brewers of craft ales when living in Chicago, and on returning home to Flanders made a decision to change career and open their own microbrewery in the suburbs of Leuven. It took a year to convert an old car workshop into a funky taproom, hidden behind a colourful graffiti-covered door. Since 2020, Bart has created over 50 different small batch brews – American IPA, sour gueuze, a chocolaty stout, blonde tripel – only served on tap so beer fans have to make a pilgrimage to De Coureur to taste them.

There are always 9 or 10 on tap, and apart from selling tasty sausages made by the local butcher, customers are allowed to bring in their own food for an impromptu picnic or order in from a delivery app.

Green Space
Botanical Garden

©Monique Van Endert

The origins of Leuven’s historic botanical gardens dates back as far as 1738 when the University’s Professor of Medicine began to grow plants and herbs for his research. Today, while the curators of the gardens still cultivate an impressive array of exotic plants, colourful flowers and fragrant herbs, in practice, this peaceful oasis of green space has become the unofficial town park, popular for picnics with locals and tourists alike. Guests walk in through a grand walled arch and wander past ornamental ponds, a tiny lake, educative plots of herbs, the steamy tropical jungle interiors of the greenhouse and temporary art and sculpture exhibitions held in the Orangery.

©Monique Van Endert

The gardens are especially beautiful in March when daffodils bloom, followed by cherry blossoms in April, then wisteria covering the wall of the Orangery explodes into deep shades of purple in May.

Saturday Market
While Leuven’s main food market is held every Friday morning on the huge expanse of the Ladeuzeplein square in front of the University Library, travellers in-the-know will wait to do their shopping till the next day, when a very different kind of casual market sets up its stalls on Mathieu de Layensplein, in the Brusselsestraat and side streets around.around St Peter’s church.

This is a favourite meeting place for locals, either to browse the stands or sit out on one of the many cafe terraces. Bargain-hunters head for the artisan crafts, antiques and bric-a-brac specialists interspersed between bakery and cheese sellers, colourful flower vendors and some tempting food trucks. Difficult to resist a cornet of piping-hot frites smothered with mayonnaise or a warming bowl of ‘escargots’, another surprising local speciality that are actually sea snails or whelks cooked in a tasty broth rather than the more well-known garlicky French-style snails.

Out of Town
Park Abbey

A quick ten minute bus or bike ride from Leuven’s centre brings you into the countryside and the breathtaking Park Abbey. Founded in the Middle Ages by French Norbertin monks, the present buildings are primarily 17th century, surrounded by a sprawling estate of lakes and forests, vegetable gardens and orchards, meadows where a herd of the Abbey’s cows graze. Just 5 monks live here today as the city council has taken over the maintenance of the many buildings, which since last year are now both open to the public and functioning as they were back in medieval times. While families picnic and ramble by the waterside, a tour of the Abbey takes you through silent cloisters decorated with ancient stained glass windows, the monk’s grand refectory, the ceiling decorated with stucco figures so realistic they could be 3 dimensional, the Abbot’s luxurious residence and an ancient library. Contemporary art exhibitions are held regularly as well as polyphonic concerts.

But in parallel to this, a dynamic brewer has set up a craft microbrewery in the abbey, farmers cultivate organic vegetables and make delicious cheeses from the cows milk, a bee keeper produces honey, fruit juices are made from the apple orchard, there is a cafe and brasserie.

This warm, welcoming restaurant offers a seductive contrast of gourmet fine dining cuisine in a relaxed, casual ambiance.

Guests are greeted like long lost friends by hosts Bart and Dorotee, making everyone immediately feel at home before chef Bart disappears into his cuisine while Dorotee flits from table to table enthusiastically explaining the evenings wine pairings. For the full experience, order a tasting menu where the chef produces surprising dishes reflecting his commitment to seasonal products, local cheesemakers and sustainable North Sea fishing. Depending on the changing monthly menu, you could enjoy green asparagus with pork belly, razor clams and cockles or home-smoked eel with radish and caviar.

De Klimop
Perfectly located right opposite Leuven’s train station, kick off of a tour of the town with feast of traditional Flemish recipes at this grand old-fashioned brasserie. While certain favourites are always on the menu – stoofvlees, beef slow cooked in a rich beer sauce, puff pastry vol-au-vent filed with succulent sweetbreads – always check the seasonal specials.

In spring, plump white asparagus with a creamy hollandaise sauce, mussels from the North Sea, and venison, wild boar and hare in the winter game season. The dining room quickly fills up from noon onwards with loyal locals obviously here for the serious home cooking, with the ebullient owner, Pieter Konijn, delightfully explaining to bemused tourists that his name translates as Peter Rabbit.

Cafe Commerce

©Layla Aerts

With its huge student population, Leuven seems to have a bar or cafe on every street corner. The most popular hangout is the grand Oude Markt square where every side is lined only with bars, clubs and restaurants, partying most nights till the early morning. But to experience the perfect slice of local life head to the historic Cafe Commerce which looks out on the city’s iconic University Library. Pretty much unchanged since it opened in 1864, this is a classic Brown Cafe with bare wooden tables; a flashback into the past with no Spotify playlist, no wifi, locals chatting about politics and sport, reading the newspaper or book.

The food is simple, cheap and hearty – homemade soup, spaghetti bolognese, sandwich américain. And the kitchen serves till 10pm while with bar pulls up the shutters at 2 in the morning.

Martin’s Kloosterhotel

Perfectly blending in with Leuven’s medieval redbrick university colleges, the Klooster hotel’s comfortable rooms spread across a modern building and ancient convent cloisters that date back 500 years with turrets, oak beams and lattice windows. There is a cosy bar, while breakfast is served in a sunny glass conservatory looking out over a verdant garden.

John Brunton’s Bordeaux Women Winemakers Trail


Travelling across the diverse Bordeaux appellations to meet women wine makers for this Trail has been a revelation. It is crystal clear that the outdated image of the world of wine being dominated by a male mentality is  far removed from today’s reality, where women are a forceful and successful presence.

Not just those who took the responsibility to run family estates or changed career to start their own winery, but throughout the business; from cellar masters, vineyard workers and highly-skilled tractor drivers to creative marketing and commercial input, expert buyers for Bordeaux’s famed wine merchants, respected oenologues and highly skilled laboratory technicians to environmental experts on organic cultivation, biodiversity and agro-ecology. But this is not something that has happened overnight and each of the vigneronnes who tell their story below offer a fascinating insight into the long, often complex journey they have taken to achieve the same recognition and acceptance that used to be automatically bestowed on their male counterparts. Now it is an equal world for everyone working in the Bordeaux châteaux and vineyards. 

Marie-Hélène Levêque, Château de Chantegrive 

As Hélène and Françoise Levêque stroll through the Italianate gardens outside their cellar it is like watching a defilé of historic women in Bordeaux winemaking. Back in 1967, Françoise and her husband sold the family stamp collection to purchase a tiny 2 hectare vineyard on the border of the Graves and Pessac-Léognan appellations. She became France’s first woman president of a Syndicat du Vin, while the estate has expanded to 100 hectares. Hélène recalls how “my mother shook up all the old-fashioned vignerons by turning the Syndicat into an efficient marketing organisation to promote the region’s wines.  At 86 she is still living here, helping me with tastings and administration.” Hélène had a career as a hospital nurse before coming back to the family domaine where ”I am fortunate to be advised by a wonderful oenologue, Hubert de Boüard. He is open and listens to me, respecting my ideas, which is not what I have always encountered in the very male world of the wine cellar where vigneronnes are rarely listened to. I think men do not really like being employed by women, being told what to do by women. It was the same when I was a nurse working alongside male doctors, though I should stress that  male winemakers have always been very welcoming.”

She has recently bought an adjoining château with 15 hectares of vines and a  cellar filled with cement tanks and enthuses that “it seems the perfect opportunity to try a different winemaking style.

I always try to be open to change. Here in the Graves we have many women successfully running wineries, and although I am happy when my wines win awards at new vigneronne competitions like Concours Mondial des Féminalise, I just don’t have the time to join official organisations promoting women winemakers. All my efforts have to be concentrated here at Chantegrive.”

Bérangère Quellien, Château Lusseau

Driving through the vineyards of the Graves appellation, just after Ayguemorte, a small side road plunges into thick forest, eventually coming to an end right in front of the gates of Château Lusseau. The present building dates back to around 1800, surrounded by a single 7 hectare vineyard that has been certified organic since 2010. The estate was bought by Bérangère Quellien’s great grandfather in 1870 and she is the third generation winemaker. 

“Here we are women working together with other women,” she says with a mischievous smile. “Myself, Delphine in the vineyard and cellar, our oenologue is a women, even our mascot Great Dane, Prada, is female. Marie-Neige, my mother is 82 now,  living here in the château, and we call her La Dame de Lusseau, still charming visitors when she conducts wine tastings.” 

Bérangère rules over a wonderfully chaotic garage cellar where she produces a mix of classic blended Graves wines contrasting with La Bérue Déglinguée a funky 100% Merlot, picked extra ripe, macerated, not aged in wood and sporting arty labels and an unconventional Burgundy-style bottle. The chai is filled with old barrels, stainless steel vats and cement tanks, a functioning 1926 hydraulic grape press, while dozens of paintings by her father and grandfather decorate the walls. She recalls how, “I grew up with parents who were both doctors and vignerons, working 7 days a week all their life.  When I decided to come home and run the vineyard, I wanted to valorise my parents efforts, to stop selling our wonderful wine in bulk, to become certified organic as soon as possible. And more recently, I am working to protect biodiversity using agroforestry by planting trees and hedges.

I am determined to break Bordeaux codes of winemaking, to show everyone that we can do someone different here, something innovative. So maybe you can say that rather than a feminist I am rebel.”

Angélique Armand, Château La Rame 

The tiny hamlet of Rame sits high above the Garonne river looking down on the vineyards of the small appellation of Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, while across the river sits Sauternes and Barsac. They are all part of Bordeaux’s “Liquoreux Land”, appellations prized for their intense and rich  sweet wines.

The very determined owner and winemaker, Angélique Armand, spent 15 years working with her father before taking over, and admits they see wine differently. “He still advises during barrel tastings and for blending, but when we disagree I use a food/wine analogy; his is a generation that loves to eat daube de boeuf, blanquette, cassoulet, whereas today we want ceviche, sushi, veggies. And it is the same with sweet wines – he wants something heavy, explosive where one glass is enough, where I am looking for finesse, elegance, even acidity. And my wine, well, after one glass you end up drinking the whole bottle. That way liquoreux wines can survive in the future.” And her philosophy has been vital for the survival of this 50 hectare estate. “My first move was to stop selling in bulk to merchants and take control ourselves of sales and distribution, especially targeting overseas markets. Here in Sainte-Croix-du-Mont we have a unique terroir where vines grow on ancient oyster fossils, but we don’t have the historic renown of a Sauternes château. So I follow the strategy of exporting to countries like the UK where consumers judge you on the quality of your wine and not your famous name.”

Though self-trained, she  oversees the vine, cellar and blending,  convinced that, “women are maybe better at making a great sweet white wine because we understand the subtlety and complexity that is necessary, because women are more determined, more demanding, ready to take time to be a total perfectionist. Although my father always used to say I was too slow in the cellar!.”

Sandrine Piva, Château des Seigneurs de Pommyers 

Driving through the bucolic country lanes of Entre-deux-Mers it is easy to miss this magical medieval château tucked well back off the road between fields and vineyards.

It is actually a sprawling fortified village surrounded by ramparts and military towers, with a chapel, dovecote and mill, built by  English King Edward I. But when Jean-Luc Piva bought it in 1989 the buildings were all but abandoned. Today the estate is run by his daughter Sandrine, with a 23 hectare certified organic vineyard and a brand new state-of-the-art cellar.  She is quite a feisty lady, who started here as a salaried employee after training as an accountant.

“I have no diploma in agriculture or oenology, so it took time working on the estate before I was ready to take over, after many years being helped and guided by my father. But I actually think it was an advantage not to have studied winemaking, being told exactly what you must do all the time. I am someone very open to people’s opinions, very curious.” Her father recently passed away and after realising his dream of the new cellar, she is now determined in the future to capitalise on the enormous potential of the château for festivals and seminars, marriages and chambre d’hotes.

Enthusiastically opening bottles of their large range of organic wines, she recalls how, “as a vigneronne, my relations with male vineyard workers were not easy at first. But over the years, not only have I won their respect, but many of the older generation  have retired and the new younger generation are much more open to working for a woman. It is just a question of time, being patient and proving yourself as a capable winemaker. You have to be transparent, to prove that you are hands-on running the winery, not hidden away in the office.” 

Claire Buffeteau, Vignobles Buffeteau

Spanning two château properties in the heart of Entre-deux-Mers, Claire Buffeteau proudly states that their 30 hectare vineyard “is a history of women, beginning with my great grandmother who first made the wine here in the 1920’s.” Claire’s father was an oenologist and wine buyer until deciding in 1998 to devote himself totally to the estate while she grew up in Bordeaux, studying medicine.” Just before graduating I decided I was not really cut out to be doctor. My father had just expanded the estate, needed someone at his side, so 8 years ago I joined the winery and we are now finally entering the period of a handover. I have just made my first cuvée,  ready for the challenge to take over. And I know already what changes I want to look at: reorganise our work methods to have more advanced planning, I don’t want to increase the vineyard, but rather look at the idea of reducing the number of vines, and then to see what a biodynamic approach  can offer, as well as the potential of no sulphite wines.”

Claire admits that she has been confronted with some difficult situations as a woman, “for example, when another vigneron comes here and calls me ‘the secretary’, or ‘daddy’s little girl’, which certainly does not please me. Then I pestered my father to teach me everything about driving tractors, but for 6 months nothing ever happened. Then my boyfriend joined our team, and surprise surprise,  he was taught in one week! Well I can assure you that a woman can drive a tractor just as well as a man.” Claire also echoes the thought of several other women winemakers, that, “maybe we do things slower, but only because we are more careful, more perfectionist than men.”

Bérangère Tesseron, Chateau Larrivaux

Just across the boundary from the Saint-Estèphe appellation, Château Larrivaux is an enchanting property, where the same family has been making wine since 1581, always overseen by women.

Since 2005 that woman has been Bérangère Tesseron who trained as a lawyer specialising in the wine business before succeeding her mother and aunt at the château.

She oversees a rambling 80 hectares estate bursting with a natural biodiversity that extends across parkland, woods, fields, quarries and 15 hectare vineyard producing 90,000 bottles of elegant Haut-Médoc a year. “I did not go to a winemaking school,” she admits, “so the technical parts of the work are something that I literally had to learn every day. Fortunately I am not a conflictual person who has to have the last word, so I can ignore people who treat me as an idiot, and prefer to bide my time. You can’t arrive in the cellar aged 24 and start making decisions if you don’t  have winery experience. Today, though, I am happy both driving the tractor or pruning in winter, and tasting and blending in the cellar. In fact, I see myself more as a gardener and the château’s vineyard is my vegetable garden, where I personally take care of each vine.” When Berangere’s mother and aunt ran the estate all the wine was sold directly to merchants while the technical director, Christophe Barbeyron, was basically left to run things as he wanted. “it took a while to forge a relationship with Christophe, but we got through the early problems and he is still here today 17 years later.

We make a great duo, and he says the château is like his own vineyard. Of course I have my little tactics, like during tastings, saying ‘well I know nothing of course’, which annoys my husband. But it is just part of my  daily diplomacy.”

Corinne Chevrier, Château Bel-Air La Royère 

The daughter of a Cognac vigneron and distiller, Corinne Chevrier left her native region for the rural Blaye appellation where she runs a highly innovative 14 hectare organic vineyard. Opening bottles in her tasting room, she is an infectious  bundle of energy and enthusiasm, recounting how, “when I started to run the château on my own in 2012,  well I didn’t even know how to drive a tractor. Up till then, I was seen as just “the wife”. Fortunately people around here knew and accepted me, and today there are more and more women working in the wine business, from female tractor drivers, to oenologists to vineyard workers.


Here the team is 90% female, though it is because of practical considerations not because I think of myself as a feminist.” But she is definitely someone in love with the world of wine, “because I am always innovative, always questioning, not afraid to follow the latest fashion, nor to create my own fashion that others will then fashion.” Apart from her classic Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux range, Corinne has experimented with a Sauvignon orange wine, invested in terracotta amphorae, planted a parcel of the ancient Bordeaux grape Castets, and even created a special Rosé cuvée in honour of the Ukraine refugee family she hosted for 6 months. “I love being a vigneronne because each year is like starting afresh – one year it is wood-aged style, today cement and amphorae, now light wine with less alcohol. And then there is my favourite Malbec grape, which I champion above all else. It has now been upgraded from an ‘accessory’ to  a principal grape in the blending for Blaye wines, and for me this is like the illegitimate child having his aristocratic title restored. So I decided the grape merited cuvées that are 100% Malbec, provocatively  bottled Burgundy-style to stand out.”

Isabelle Chéty, Château Mercier 

Sitting at the long wooden table of Château Mercier’s homely tasting room, Isabelle Chety enthusiastically recounts how her parents were pioneers of wine tourism in the Côtes de Bourg and Blaye region. She and her brother, who together run the substantial 50 hectare estate today, are the 13th generation, and she proudly holds an ancient portrait of a long gone ancestor, Alida, whom she just named her recently-born daughter after.

But Isabelle has made a very strong personal mark on the wines being made here today. “I only came back to join my brother when I was 35, and straightaway  I asked my father to leave running the estate to us. I always follow my passion as I am someone who accepts confrontation. When I was young, I grew up being “ la fille de’ my father, viewed like that by uncles, cousins, my grandparents. That was why I left, and today that is why I create my own style of wine.”

Her innovative cuvées certainly stand out, from her beloved collection of 33 amphorae ageing a Merlot from a vineyard with ruins of a Gallo-Roman villa, to Atmosphère,  a Bordeaux blend without sulphites, or a rare Côtes de Bourg white. Isabelle experienced a whole different life before coming back home, travelling across the globe in the challenging world of luxury hotels and restaurants. She eloquently recounts how, “when you are born into a winemaking family you are both privileged and spoilt. Living in a natural environment, raised by happy parents who follow their passion, eat and drink well, enjoy relative financial security. But this was all too easy for me, so I headed off at 19 to travel the world.” Today though, sitting round the family dining table, enthusiastically talking recipes with her mother, new wine ideas with her brother, she has clearly found her place back in the family winery.

Florence Prudhomme, Château Saincrit

When you first meet Florence Prudhomme it can come as a surprise that in a former life she was a high-powered female executive in charge of a Bordeaux factory that produced 7 million bottles a year of anisette.

Today she is casually dressed in jeans and waistcoat, coming out of her wine cellar followed closely by her faithful dog, Estey. Château Saincrit is a rustic domaine just by the banks of the Dordogne river, producing both classic Bordeaux Supérieur wines and  surprising new cuvées, one without sulphites, another aged only in stainless steel.

The manor house is a comfy family home surrounded by vineyards with an idyllic wooden terrace on the highest point where Florence brings wine tourism guests for tastings and food pairings. She recounts how, ‘I bought the château 20 years ago because I wanted to change my life, to reconnect with nature after living for years in big city Bordeaux. I started small, but took advantage of the friendly winemaking community here by learning to taste alongside my fellow vignerons who are always getting together to discuss their wines. I discovered a real sense of community, which increased when a group of friends founded a woman’s wine association, Les Bordeaux Amazone, to make a statement that women can join forces to sell each others wine without any competition between us. And I am not sure it is like that for men.”

Today, she is intent on becoming more autonomous rather than relying on hired workers who do not always want to let her impose her own ideas. “Having worked with a large male factory workforce I have no complexes of being a female winemaker, but as I was not born into this life, did not study oenology, I  can still have problems getting what I want from my workforce. However, let us be clear, that is because I come from a different world and not because I am a woman.”


Ecluse 52

Driving through the Sauternes and Graves vineyards to where the sleepy Garonne canal flows into the grand river to discover this bustling bistrot along a tree-lined bank moored with barges and pleasure boats.

Chef Dara creates tasty dishes that interpret traditional recipes with a fun creative twist like grilled octopus with a tangy chorizo sauce or foie gras served with poached pear and onion jam.


The latest Bordeaux foodie hotspot, hip Ganache offers a seductive mix of classic and creative cuisine, inventive cocktails and their very own artisan ‘chocolatier’, producing chocolate truffles and pralines, cakes and tempting desserts for the restaurant menu. 


Château de la Tour

Just outside the medieval town of Cadillac, this friendly family-run hotel is a great base for days out wine tasting and sightseeing.

Lovely park and swimming pool, with a dynamic Vietnamese woman chef who offers both subtle  fusion inspired dishes and Bordeaux classics like oysters from Arcachon and a juicy entrecôte steak. 

John Brunton’s Bordeaux Social Initiatives Wine Trail


The Bordeaux wine scene is about to enter a pioneering era with the inaugural year of a new initiative for corporate  responsibility that bears the name ‘Bordeaux Cultivons Demain’. This sets down a guide for environmental, economic and social responses in today’s climate, for everyone from small vignerons to grand châteaux, wine merchants to Caves Coopératives, And those choosing to adhere will be independently audited, eventually leading to the awarding of an official label. But this is just the concretisation, the tip of the iceberg, of a new responsible mentality has been taking root in Bordeaux for many years, be it for protecting biodiversity or worker’s welfare, combating climate change, diminishing not just pesticides but carbon footprint, respecting the soil, flowers, pollinators, bats and birds.

And this concerted ecological impetus has already seen a phenomenal increase in the percentage of Bordeaux vineyards with at least one certified environmental approach – be it organic, biodynamic, High Environmental Value or Terra Vitis – from 35% in 2014 to 75% in 2021. Today, just look at any châteaux winery website and there are new sections dedicated to ecology, biodiversity or agroforestry initiatives, then look around at  the walls of  tasting rooms and there are now a row of serious industry certifications alongside the usual gold medal diplomas from wine competitions. This Trail takes a tour of the 7 of the pioneers of this new philosophy, each one with a different story to tell. 

Château de la Rivière 

This stunning Renaissance château, which dates back some 800 years, is a landmark stop for wine lovers visiting the Bordelais, both for its palatial interiors and wines aged in stunning subterranean grottoes that stretch for 25 kilometres below the castle. Situated in the heart of the Fronsac appellation, overlooking a 65 hectares vineyard and the Dordogne river, the domaine had been overseen for 25 years by its genial director and oenologue, Xavier Buffo, who has long been at the vanguard of implementing social and environmental initiatives.

The château’s 20,000 annual visitors are given an educational explanation of projects like Natura 2000 that safeguard bats, the perfect natural insect repellent, as there 8 rare species nesting in the cellar caves, as well as the protection of biodiversity   through planting hedgerows, fruit trees and leaving swathes of their woodlands wild to attract vital pollinators like wild bees. But his greatest efforts have concentrated on aiding the local community. “I wanted a project that could  involve local villages, businesses and neighbouring wine makers,” explains Xavier, “while at the same time giving widespread publicity to La Rivière.


The solution was Le Confluent d’Arts, our very own festival. The first one was in 2017, headlined by a famous-name musician to attract attention, numerous local bands and singers, street theatre even inside the chateau itself, food trucks and a wine bar showcasing all the winemakers in our commune. We ask schools to participate with a project to decorate the château, and around 60 locals volunteers  help run the festival. It is genuine community effort, drawing 6,500 people”

Château de la Dauphine 

This perfectly preserved 17th century château dates back to 1750 when it was one of the homes of the wife of King Louis XV, hence its name.

Today La Dauphine is surrounded by a 66 hectare certified organic vineyard, producing elegant Fronsac wines, making use of a creative mix of raw concrete tanks and terracotta amphorae. The estate’s director, Stéphanie Barousse, enthuses about their signature, highly original project that perfectly illustrates the three pillars of Bordeaux Cultivons Demain; Environment, Social, Economic.

”We have revived the ancient  tradition of “transhumance”, bringing a flock of 200 sheep down from the Pyrénées, along with their shepherd. They stay in our vineyards from October to May, eating all the vineyard weeds while leaving their natural, ecological manure for fertiliser, while to reduce carbon footprint, we do not use the tractor. From the social side, well the sheep certainly bring a smile to our workers faces, it brings us in touch with local villages who all want to see the sheep in action, while it permits the shepherd economically to work the whole year rather than taking an alternative second winter job. And then there is economic. Obviously we no longer need to buy manure to fertilise the soil, while the breeder saves money as these are young sheep that neither give milk nor reproduce yet, so it stops them being an economic burden. We work with five breeders and this pilot year has been such a success that next year it will be 400 sheep and 8-10 neighbouring châteaux have told us that they would like to participate too.” The château is closely involved with surrounding villages,  trying to recruit young locals as workers while organising regular school visits, alongside a host of simple but important daily actions; raising chicken to save food waste, building bee hives, and improving vineyard working conditions by providing effective earplugs and protective glasses. 

Vignobles Rousseau 

Imbetween  Saint-Emilion and Lussac, the Rousseau family’s modern cellar vinifies and ages wines from 5 different chateaux, spanning Pomerol, Lalande Pomerol and Lussac alongside a large production of Bordeaux Superior, totalling some 400,000 bottles in all. The cosy tasting room resembles most Bordeaux châteaux, with a wall proudly covered with official-looking certificates, but instead of announcing wine competition medals, as is usually the case, these are all recognition of initiatives related to Corporate Social Responsibility.

Winemaker Laurent Rousseau proudly shows of his qualifications for the sustainable measures of  Terra Vitis and HVE, High Environmental Value, as well as Professional Equality and Diversity in the Workplace and one rarely seen in wineries, for  Food and Safety. He explains that, “these initiatives have had a very positive effect on my business. The Food and Safety certificate has literally opened up the United Sates, where I now sell a large part of my 300,000 bottles of Bordeaux Supérior, because an importer there can place them in a major supermarket chain that insists on this regulation.”

The winery is a pioneer in the treatment of its dirty water effluence, used to irrigate a huge plot of bamboo, creating compost and encouraging biodiversity. And on a purely human scale, Laurent has a long history with the local community aiding reinsertion of handicapped people into working life. “The concept,” he explains, “is that handicapped people, mental or physical, from a local centre, are given the chance to be useful in our workplace, allowing them to finally discover some self-respect. So they work in the vine, pruning and harvesting, while in the cellar they help with packaging and labelling. They do what they can, when they can. While one of my workers might take 300 minutes to label 600 bottles, it can take four of them all day. No matter, they have their place in our workforce.”

Château Phélan Ségur 

In the heart of the Médoc’s  Saint-Estèphe appellation, this imposing château is imbued with history since its vineyard was planted by Irish wine merchant Bernard O’Phelan in 1805. While Bordeaux oenologue Michel Rolland still consults on their wines, the day-to-day running of the château has long been overseen by Véronique Dausse and cellar master, Fabrice Bacquey, who for many years have instigated actions both to protect the estate’s biodiversity and develop agroforestry through the planting of hedges and trees.

In terms of social initiatives, Phélan Ségur have enthusiastically participated in Les Vignerons du Vivant, a projects to attract new people to work in the world of wine. After demonstrating simple but essential social skills – punctuality, politeness, respect – candidates must pass a three month trial period to see if they are ready to work and live as a vigneron, then stay for 12 months that combine an immersion in the daily life of the estate, complemented by a series of in-depth meetings with experts in environmental  fields ranging from biodynamics, working the soil and plants, sustainability, nourishing the vine.

Lolita Tyl, originally from Paris, completed the course, received both her certificate and was awarded a job at the château. She reflects that, “it was the perfect way to discover if I liked the life of a winemaker, while gaining knowledge and skill at the same time. For sure, not everyone can handle this kind of work, but I love it and want to stay on here. I enjoy working in the cellar, but my dream would be to become a ‘chef de culture’. That is what was great about the course – it opens your eyes to biodiversity and sustainability, you get to be mentored by amazing experts, and all that is very different from how you are taught at a normal oenology or agricultural school” And  Véronique enthusiastically adds that, “what this project creates is not just a job but a vocation, which is what we need in the wine making industry.”

Castel Frères Blanquefort Bordeaux 

The world of Bordeaux wine is by no means limited to grand châteaux,  independent vignerons and smallholder Caves Coopératives. There are also the historic ‘négociants’ wine merchants, who are responsible for producing and marketing millions of bottles of Bordeaux wine. The family-owned  Castel Frères operates both as a merchant and vigneron, but their vast operation in the industrial zone of Blanquefort is where the company has been active as a founder member of the committee formulating the Bordeaux Cultivons Demain guide.

Chai des Etablissements Castel à Blanquefort.

Some 300 people are employed at the plant, which can process 15 million bottles a year, stocking some 50,000 barrels, while over 200 winemakers  supply them with wine. Stéphane Mischler is responsible for these initiatives and outlines how, “we accompany our  vignerons right from the vineyard to the cellar. Accompany in the sense of the physical presence of our own oenologues giving advice, and as a company by persuading them to work in an environmentally-responsible manner. Concretely, we ask them to adhere to Terra Vitis certification, in our opinion, the only specifically vineyard cultivation certificate, in contrast to classic organic certification which covers to all elements of agriculture. Terra Vitis also addresses the important issues of water  consumption, carbon footprint, and social issues.” For the Blanquefort workforce, the company has set up 4 action groups to develop social ideas. Everyone is a volunteer, ranging from an office secretary, to a worker on the bottling line or a cellar man.

“We call  each one  a Tribu, named after a grape variety,” explains Stephane, “so Sauvignon  tackles the issue of training, while Merlot thinks up ideas to socialise with our suppliers, like inviting 70 of our vignerons for a convivial tasting in the barrel room.

Minolta DSC

And Petit Verdot looks at biodiversity in the workplace, which we are increasingly vegetalisizing; growing vines on the rooftop, creating insect boxes, developing a picnic area among the trees growing outside the factory.”

Château Lagrange 

When the Japanese whisky giant, Suntory, bought this signature Saint-Julien château in 2003, they began 40 years of investment and commitment. Today an immaculate 142 hectare vineyard is entirely harvested by hand while virtually each individual parcel is vinified in its own stainless steel vat before blending. The dynamic young director, Benjamin Vimal, testifies that Suntory is a company that has always respected its corporate social responsibilities. “But taking part in developing the Bordeaux Cultivons Demain guide has made me rethink many things, allowing  me to learn collectively from people running other wineries, such as one that is expert at managing the consumption of water.”

Reportage test d’exosquelette au Château Lagrange

Benjamin has prioritised the classic problem of chronic back pain of vineyard workers, describing how “we recommend physically warming up muscles in the morning, like a sportsman, and now propose Exoskeletal jackets, that may resemble Robocop but really support the bottom of your back. The vest costs us around €1000, but there is much less sick leave.” Lagrange is also one of the founding Médoc châteaux for the Ecole de la Vigne, the Vineyard School, project. Benjamin reiterates the problem cited in every vineyard, “that it is  always difficult to find people to work on a wine estate, and the School has been a very successful solution. We specifically targeted the local community, people who might never have thought about working at a wine château. A 2 year commitment offers the chance to learn skills, to get a certificate, and most importantly to get a job at the end.”

One of Benjamin’s present team, Julien Charbleytou, comes from the School’s programme. “I worked as a stone mason in Bordeaux and now I am a qualified tractor driver out in the vineyards. They even let me help out in the cellar as well, so who knows where I will end up in the future.”

Château Luchey Halde 

Most people living in Bordeaux have no idea there is a genuine château vineyard right inside the city limits, but then this is a winery unlike others for many reasons. The château was producing wine back in the 18th century, but was acquired by the military in 1920, who pulled up the vineyard. A century later, with the land still officially in the Pessac-Léognan appellation, local community pressure stopped plans for building redevelopment, and the estate was purchased by the Ecole Sciences Agro of Bordeaux. They replanted a 23 hectare vineyard, used today both as a living laboratory for their students and commercial winery.  Pierre Darriet has been the director since the beginning, and stresses that, “our vineyard is in the centre of the city, but we have only been here since 2000 and are the newcomers, arriving after the creation of a modern urban development. So our immediate aim was to communicate and interact with the local population.

Just look out of the window from the tasting room – the view is directly onto the vines where neighbours are always walking their dogs, jogging or hiking. Everyone has a genuine access through the vineyard. We email locals explaining our plans for sustainability, and put up warning flags well before we start doing vineyard treatments.

And we will soon create a vegetable garden providing quality food for surrounding kindergardens, and work alongside a local conservatory to protect the local breed of Landes ponies by putting aside 4 hectares for them to graze on. And let me stress, this is no greenwashing project created for photo-opportunities, as we plan a long-term association with the conservatory by adding goats, donkeys and sheep to our polyculture.” Pierre is clearly concerned about future environmental problems, and admits that “my biggest concern for the future the unsexy issue of controlling and diminishing our consumption of energy. So I am proud that we sell 40% of our production locally in the Gironde area. So no huge carbon footprint like exporting to USA or Japan.” 


Casa Gaïa

More than a restaurant, the Casa Gaïa is whole project devoted to sustainable, organic, seasonal cuisine; a genuine ‘locavore’ philosophy where the kitchen works directly with local farmers, fishermen, cheese and wine makers.

This relaxed cantina in the centre of Bordeaux  proposes an ever-changing menu with dishes like wood-roasted  locally-fished octopus served with a creamy chickpea purée.


One of the top new foodie addresses to open in Bordeaux, the relaxed ambiance of this casual diner belies the research the chef Romain Corbière has done to create dishes that can work perfectly as sharing plates and also are perfectly complemented but the sommelier’s wine pairing suggestions; stingray and caper salad with a fruity Bordeaux Blanc, a to-die-for chocolate dessert and a luscious glass of Loupiac.  


Le Château Roquefort

In the heart of the Entre-Deux-Mers vineyards and forests, this ancient fortified château dates back to the 13th century. But the present owners, the Bellanger family, could not be more modern when it comes to welcoming wine tourists to their home.  Apart from tastings, wine and food pairing experiences, cooking classes and a guided naturalist tour, you can stay overnight in their luxurious guest suite, La Maison de Léo.

John Brunton’s Bordeaux Agroforestry Trail


Many winemakers in Bordeaux are examining possibilities of how to go further in sustainable cultivation in their vineyards. And the answer increasingly seems to lie in the philosophy of agroforestry, bringing trees, shrubs and hedges closer together again to the vine, a bold step to look beyond a grape monoculture that for so long has dominated the landscapes of the world’s wine producing regions.

This really is a new evolution, transforming a vineyard by planting fruit trees alongside a line of vines, surrounding different parcels of the vineyard with hedgerows to protect the grape, position flowering shrubs and bushes imbetween two vines to attract a new a vibrant biodiversity of insects, birds, bees and even nature’s alternative to chemical pesticides, the predatory bat.

This return to an environment of active agro-ecology, with cereals planted in the vineyard, weeds left to grow wild, the ground no longer disturbed by mechanical ploughing, can all contribute to an energetic regeneration of  the soil while fortifying the vine at the same time. This new agriculture ecosystem can induce a lower carbon imprint, create microclimates that combat global warming, and encourage biodiversity.

How does it then effect the quality of the wine? Well these are early days, but below are some of the pioneering agroforestry Bordeaux vignerons to both visit and see the dramatic visual impact on the landscape and then enjoy a tasting of their wines. 

Château d’Esther 

A narrow country road leads through fields and vineyards and it is only when you turn off into the drive of Château d’Esther that you see the bank of the mighty Dordogne river. The front garden is filled with camper vans, people sitting outside enjoying an alfresco breakfast while chickens run wild.

This small 5 hectare vineyard is the perfect place to begin to understand just what agroforestry is all about. Thomas Bastian and his wife Eva, purchased the estate in 2001, completely changing career but with very firm ideas and ambitions on how they wanted to run their property. “When we bought the domaine everything was in ruins. Since then we replanted 70% of the vineyard and purchased an extra 7 hectares, where we have no intention of extending the monoculture of grapes. When we began, no one used the term agroforestry, but what shocked me was I found there was no life left in and around the vine, and we have spent 20 years trying to change that. So apart from immediately implementing both organic and biodynamic cultivation, we started  planting trees, hedgerows and cereals. Between each line of vines we plant sunflower and buckwheat, not for commercial reasons, as we do not even harvest, but to bring life back to the soil. There are 250 fruit trees in the midst of the vineyard, along with hedges surrounding each side.

And finally we have placed 170 wooden birds nests inside the vineyard.” When asked what is the point of all this he replies immediately that, “I have a common thread that determines everything I do; to encourage a renaissance of life. And I am talking about general  ‘floraison’, flowering, rather than the grape to make wine. Everything begins with insects and then birds, beginning from January to March when the shrubbery and hedges are in flower. Once these blooms die the insects need something else for nutrition and move on to the fruit trees which are in flower from mid March to mid June. So there is a migration from the hedge to the tree and that is when the birds arrive. They nest in the tree boxes we have placed, start their families and nourish them with insects. Then, when the fruit season is over it is the cereals planted imbetween the vines that continues this cycle of ‘floraison’. And of course it also attracts bees to pollinate, owls and bats, both useful predators. So finally we achieve a year-long ‘équilibre’, a natural balance, which ends with the maturation of the grape on the vine and then the harvest. What does this équilibre bring to me, the winemaker?  The answer comes from our customers who tell us that our wines give a certain joy that they cannot find elsewhere. That is enough for me.” 

And his work does not stop here, as Thomas and his team are forever picking up dead leaves and plants to make alchemy-like infusions  to fortify the vine every two weeks.

In fact, the back of the garden resembles a sorcerer’s laboratory, with bunches of leaves drying beneath the eaves and huge blue plastic vats filled with the leaves soaking in water, slowly brewing like tea.

Vignobles Bardet

Arriving at the cellars of Vignobles Bardet is quite breathtaking as it sits on an ancient quayside overlooking a dramatic bend in the fast-flowing waters of the Dordogne river. As he sits on the waters edge looking across at a shifting sand island, Philippe Bardet nostalgically explains his family’s long attachment both to the water and the vine. “You have to imagine that up to the 19th century there was a bustling port right here, specialised in the water transportation of wine as far as England. My family were vignerons, wine merchants and ‘gabares’, running sailing boats along the river and out to sea. But it was a world that was turned upside down by the arrival of train transport, and since then we concentrate solely on producing wine on our 50 hectare Saint-Émilion estates.”

Rather than going the route of certified organic cultivation, Philippe engages in what he calls agro-ecology, and is the founder of Bordeaux’s SME, a collective of over 1,000 likeminded vignerons. “In 1998 I started planting hedgerows to bring back biodiversity. For sure, for the first few years the vineyard looks terrible, yields diminish, but you just need patience. I don’t use compost, peat or chemical fertiliser, creating a healthy vineyard where soil is alive, regenerating itself, while the vines are even more resistant to the effects of global warming. And for the last 2 years I have stopped ploughing the soil to protect the biodiversity, though I have not followed the agroforestry trend of planting fruit trees. But this year is the first ever that we will be digging up certain parcels of vines, and instead of replanting the same monoculture we will replace the vine with bushes and trees.”

Château des Annereaux

Sitting in the heart of the prestigious Lalande-de-Pomerol Appellation, Château des Annereaux is  pioneer of sustainable, responsible winemaking.

A single vineyard covering 23 hectares, this château has been owned by the same extended family for some 600 years. Benjamin Hessel represents the present generation, a dynamic, pensive young winemaker who took over from his father, Dominique, who converted the estate to organic cultivation back in 2007. Benjamin though intends going further, insisting that “organic agriculture is just a first step because a vineyard monoculture is not enough on its own. For a genuine balance the vineyard must be surrounded by a genuine biodiversity, and I would call my philosophy agro-ecology.”

Benjamin is planting over 1.5 kilometres of new hedgerows, putting up wooden boxes imbetween the vines to provide a habitat for birds and bats, while cereals and vegetables are planted between each line of vines, “because there is no use bringing back birds if they have nothing to eat. We don’t harvest these plants as they are just there to regenerate the ecosystem. And our beehives are not here primarily to make honey, but to bring these crucial insects back into nature’s cycle to pollinate.

This year we have planted 5 parasol pines and another 100 fruit trees, whose cherries and apples will either be eaten by the birds or fall to the ground and feed the earth. In the vine I have stopped ploughing the soil to respect it more, with no more weeding, though not many people who drink wine know that all this comes at a price, as a domaine’s production drops by around 20% with organic cultivation.”

Château Bournac

This intriguing Médoc wine estate is run by two single-minded brothers, Guillaume and Thibaud Secret, a new generation of Bordeaux vignerons. They come from a family of crop farmers in northern France, who actually planted cereals here when they purchased the estate in the 1970’s. Although they quickly and successfully turned to planting vines, today the Secret brothers are actually looking to return to polyculture, buying new land but to plant sunflowers for their honey production.

Guillaume philosophically explains that, “if you cultivate something like vines and grapes then you must not deviate from that to be successful. So that is what we do for our wine. But recently it is what goes on around the vine that interests me; a landscape that must move on from monoculture. We already have a lot of forest and fruit orchards around the vineyard, but I now have a project to plant 800 metres of hedges which we hope will protect the vine from frost. This single hedgerow will divide 30 hectares of vines into two, so that fauna returns here for the biodiversity but nests in the hedge and not the vines.” But walking through a parcel of vines he cautions against thinking that agroforestry is the answer to all their problems, explaining that, “just look at these trees I planted right alongside a line of vines. I need to be careful that they do not become so tall they take away sunlight and use water that the vine needs.”

And although he is passionate about apiculture, he insists that the first priority behind encouraging wild flowers to grow without pesticides “is essentially to safeguard an environment that attracts all pollinators – bees, bumblebees, butterflies, certain birds and bats. Then, when the flowers come back, the bees can do their work, and I can make my honey.”

Château d’Arche 

Arche is one of the Cru Classé 1855, with a history of wine production going back to the 16th century. This large domaine encircles the picturesque village of Sauternes whose church steeple rises out of the vineyards. Oenologist and technical director of the estate, Mathieu Arroyo, is a local boy whose grandfather still has a plot of vines in the village. He presides over a state-of-the-art eco wine cellar, complete with vegetal roof, while Arche’s grand manor house is being converted into a luxury wine resort that will respect and blend into the surrounding environment. Mathieu came here from France’s wine research institution, INRAE, and is already converting the large 75 hectare estate to certified organic, alongside a host of agro-ecology ideas for the future. “We have planted 2 kilometres of hedgerows this year, a four-sided ‘clos végétal’ of shrubs and trees around our vineyard. Between vine lines I am creating a permaculture by planting the likes of potatoes and sunflower, and I actually intend to harvest and use what grows.

In winter, a shepherd brings his herd of 80 sheep into the vineyards, and we have 4 work horses who plough 10 hectares of the vineyard – a genuine project and not for promotional snaps.  And my most important initiative will be planting a one hectare plot of new-generation resistant grapes that need no treatments at all. I worked on these experimental grapes at INRAE but even today, no one dares to plant them. Well I will. The parcel will become a haven of peace, encircled by  aromatic shrubs of thyme, lavender, even juniper”

Château Passe Craby 

Passe Craby means Passage of the Deer in the local Fronsac patois, and Jérôme Boyé relates how nothing has really changed here since the family arrived in the 18th century, as just a couple of days previously he saw a deer running right outside the château. Jérôme is the 7th generation vigneron, still aided by his supposedly retired parents.

Their 30 hectares of vines are bordered by 5 hectares of forest and small lakes, and his father was an early advocate of agroforestry beginning to take action ten years ago,  increasing the size of the forest, planting hedges and  fruit trees; cherry, apple, apricot, pear, peach. “We keep our 3 kilometres of hedgerows at the same height as the vine,” explains Jérôme, “so there is no competition between them. Today, almost all our parcels of vines are surrounded by hedges, and we let everything grow wild between the vines. You see more game – deer and boars – but also far more species of birds, and I can feel that a different  biodiversity has established itself. People ask me if this affects the quality of the wine. Well, I honestly don’t know, but I think that what is important is that we are making an effort to respect the environment. We also have preserved the ponds and wetlands because of the kaleidoscope of biodiversity that gather there – a nightly concert of frogs croaking, insects, butterflies.

And we are also planting flowers to attract bees with 13 hives on the estate. The next step is to find a shepherd to work with, so that in winter his herd of sheep can keep the vineyard clean, but only until the first grapes appear, otherwise the sheep will just eat everything.”

Château de Piote 

Driving up to the rambling farm buildings of Château de Piote you quickly realise this a unique winery. Sheep graze imbetween the vines, chickens, ducks, geese and peacocks wander around the grounds.

At midday a loud bell is rung announcing the communal lunch, where vineyard and farm workers sit around a long table alongside owner Virginie Aubrion and her son Corentin, who works full time on the estate. 

Corentin is a distinctive figure and describes how, “today we are looking at increasing the diversity of Piote by breeding cows and pigs, planting a vegetable garden, using a herd of 12 sheep for crop cover control in winter, and we also intend to start planting fruit trees, both in an orchard and inside the vineyard. So we have already achieved a degree of self-sufficiency, like ancestral farming.  Since 2012 we have had a programme to plant hedgerows, not just to increase biodiversity but to use the hedges and shrubs to protect the vines against frost and mildew. We are interested right now in purchasing the adjoining property, 15 hectares of woods and meadows. That land could then be planted with appellation grapes, but we would never do that, preferring natural diversity to vine monoculture. I was 5 when my parents brought the family here and I have grown up on the farm and in the vineyard. I genuinely believe we are constructing something responsible and respectful of nature.”

Virginie oversees their rock&roll garage wine cellar, a mix of old barrels, cement and steel vats, and a potpourri of different shaped terracotta amphorae that she often buys second-hand and then repairs. The wines are as unique as the domaine, certified organic and biodynamic, proudly proclaimed as ‘natural’ with barely any sulphites added.

Château Carsin

Imbetween the bucolic villages of Cadillac and Rions, Château Carsin has had a rollercoaster history since it was was purchased in 1990 by Finnish wine businessman Juha Berglund.

Running the estate today, his feisty daughter Nea was born the year he bought Carsin and she grew up spending summer holidays, then grape harvesting and now has settled here calling it her home, “ where I am accepted as a local, part of the family that is this wonderful winemaking community.” She recalls how, “the property was unliveable at first, with leaks everywhere, and wine had not been produced for over 15 years. So my father restored the buildings and created a modern cellar equipped with state-of-the-art tanks and machinery from Australia. The vineyard rapidly grew from 14 to 60 hectares and we were producing half a million bottles a year.  Well the world has changed a lot since then. Today we are back to a 18 hectare vineyard – as well as 6 hectares of fallow fields and woods.”

Inspired by an agroforestry course, Nea is now  busily planting trees and bushes with the clear aim of “enriching our biodiversity but also diversifying our production rather than just making wine. Changing a monoculture is not just about the landscape but your economic model too. So I want to make and commercialise jams, conserves, honey and pickles, bubbly organic fruit juices, balsamic vinegar, maybe a range of fruit beers. And with the extra production I want to be selling fruits and vegetables within the local community to restaurants and at markets.” Nea’s bubbly enthusiasm for biodiversity is infectious. She insists she has fun making her offbeat wines,  declaring that, “I am genuinely enthusiastic about nature, and in some ways, vineyards are actually unnatural, fashioned and formed by man. So it is important that the the vigneron pays more attention to what surrounds the vineyard, the landscape, flora, fauna and insects.”

Château La Peyruche

You do not discover Château La Peyruche by chance, as it is hidden away high above the bustling winemaker village of Langroin, at the end of a dusty dirt road that weaves through thick woodland before finally coming out in a panorama of vineyards, fruit trees and a grand 17th century castle and chapel. Bertrand Weisgerber and his son Charles bought the property in 2017, and are implementing an adventurous agroforestry programme. La Peyruche has never been just about  wine making as this was a genuine working farm growing cereals, breeding dairy cows, with extensive orchards whose fruits were sold directly in Bordeaux’s famous Capucine food market. Today the estate stretches over 50 hectares, whose  21 hectare vineyard is surrounded by a vast natural biodiversity of woods, meadows, a pond and fruit trees. Charles recounts how he and his father looked at vineyards in several different regions of France before settling on Chateau La Peyruche where “it was clear that the soil had suffered from decades of chemical treatments.

So initially,  rather than increasing the vineyard, we planted 300 trees, shrubs and hedgerows, immediately converting to organic cultivation.” They have attracted bees back to the land both to pollinate and produce honey, and have surprising plans for the local bat population!

“We discovered that there is are underground galleries of an ancient quarry beneath the château which is home to a large colony of bats. Our ambition to get the bats to come into the vineyard where they are the ultimate predator for insects. With their limited vision, bats need trees planted at a distance between 50-100 metres to be able to move around. So our plan is to plant a Bat Highway along hedgerows and trees leading from their nests in the cave to our vines, an ecological corridor. And don’t forget, every night a bat eats something like 3,000 insects.”

John Brunton’s Bordeaux Wine Tourism Trail


Bordeaux wines may be renowned across the globe, but increasingly, international wine lovers are planning trips right here in the picturesque vineyards and ancient château cellars where unique vintages have been made for over 2,000 years. And each experience is different. You can to choose to stay in a rustic vigneron’s bed&breakfast and join the winemaker at sunset as he pulls the cork of his latest vintage of Bordeaux Supérieur and slices up a tasty saucisson for a simple but delicious pairing. Or choose the pomp and splendour of the historic châteaux of the Médoc, where a wine expert will lead you through an extensive tasting of different years on one of the original Crus Classés 1855, followed by an exquisite gourmet meal in a gastronomic Michelin-starred restaurant.

These are just two examples of a hundred different possible adventures that Bordeaux offers today. Fly in a small plane with the winemaker piloting you above his vineyards, take part in a blending atelier to understand the qualities of different grapes, book a wellness session of vinotherapy, grape massages and beauty treatments, sleep in a luxurious medieval château or enjoy a fun glamping night in a converted giant barrel. Everyone’s journey starts in the city of Bordeaux, one for the most exhilarating world wine capitals, where a day spent in the futuristic Cité du Vin museum is the perfect introduction to the world of wine and the possibilities awaiting in the Bordeaux region. There are a host of organised tours to choose from, where experts will plan every step of your trip, from exploring the vineyards to tasting with cellar masters. But there is another way to make your own discoveries. Hire a car, be sure to make winery reservations in advance for a visit, and head off the beaten track following your very own Bordeaux wine trail, with a selection of some of the top addresses below. 

Château Monconseil Gazin 

The ivy-clad medieval gateway of this rambling 14th century château is the entrance to a whole new world of wine adventures thought up by the inventive fifth generation owners, Jean-Michel and Françoise Baudet. They have a 30 hectare vineyard producing annually over 150,000 bottles of Blaye Côtes de Bordeaux, and aim to sell as much as possible direct from their cellar,  coming up with a host of ideas to attract people here.

Inspired by his father, who was one of the first Blaye vignerons to offer cellar tasting, Jean-Michel recalls how, “wine enthusiasts today are always looking for something new. As well as tasting, they want to be entertained, educated and discover the countryside. So we began in 2000 with our Initiation aux Vendanges, where visitors join the wine harvest and enjoy a meal and tasting afterwards. Then we started hosting wine dinners in the château, ateliers for cheese pairing, blending workshops. And in 2018, we launched our own Escape Game, inspired by Emperor Charlemagne who fought a famous battle just nearby. We had a big empty cellar and barn, learnt about the Escape Game concept and thought – why not? The experience is bilingual, lasts an hour and is led by a Game Master – my wife Françoise. The theme of course is our Blaye wine, but with lots of enigmas that must remain secret.

Finally, this year we launched the Wine Olympics – the 12 Tasks of Bacchus – with two teams competing in crazy outdoor events like barrel rolling.”And Jean-Michel is philosophical when he advises other winemakers that, “the key to wine tourism success is that everyone must be welcomed with the same enthusiasm, because a client may buy just 2 bottles but then become a regular for 20 years, while the one who buys 24 bottles you may never see again.”

Château Lagarde

 Paul-Henry Nerbusson has arranged an elegant tasting room inside his grand 18th century château, but admits that, “to be honest, if a couple of wine lovers pass by then I am just as relaxed to invite them into my sitting room, decorated with my favourite artworks, to  open a bottle to share and explain our different cuvées. Here in the Blaye vineyards of Bordeaux, it is easy to produce a young, drinkable wine, but that  is not why I came here. Since I bought the estate 20 years ago my ambition has always been to make quality, aged wines, increasing the vineyard from 2 to 12 hectares, investing heavily in the cellar with new oak barrels, giant wooden ‘foudre’ casks, and terracotta amphorae for the special cuvées named after my children.” This attitude is typical of the personal touch he puts to a series of wine tourism initiatives. “We have a gîte on the estate where people can stay, organise art exhibitions and events in our luxuriant garden for up to 50 people. And recently I had the chance to buy a traditional ‘carrelet’, this is the name of the square net that is lowered down from the tiny wooden cabins along the bank of the Garonne river. Once in the water,  you just wait for the fish to swim in!

But I did not buy if for fishing, rather as the perfect location to taste our wines. It is a lovely 5 minute drive along the river from the château. We pack a picnic to accompany the wine – simple sharing plates of local cheese, charcuterie and fruits – and a wooden walkway takes you across the water into the cabin which stands on stilts. I think with wine you must make people dream to appreciate the bottle and watching the sun set over the river in the Carrelet is the ultimate dream.”

Château de Reignac 

Arriving at this historic domaine is an emotional experience as you drive down a romantic tree-lined avenue to come face to face with a magnificent 16th century château, surrounded by manicured lawns and an ornamental lake, then vines as far as the eye can see stretching over 77 hectares. Since 1990 it has been the home of Yves and Stéphanie Vetelot, who over the years have renovated the château, meticulously cultivated the vineyard and created a state-of-the-art, thousand-barrel cellar under the watchful eye of world-famous oenologist, Michel Rolland. Yves remembers Rolland telling him he had bought an unbelievable terroir, “and we have used wine tourism to the maximum to draw people to our château to fully understand what goes into our marvellous wines.”

So today, the château’s  delicate greenhouse, designed by Gustave Eiffel, is planted with a fragrant olfactive herb and plant garden, while an ancient dovecote has been transformed into a unique tasting room, where carafes mysteriously descend in a metal cage  from the roof, and wine experts seated in a circle begin a blind tasting.

In addition to vineyard tours, picnics and fun after-work aperitifs, there is a unique emphasis on child guests, taking place in fun wigwam tents with educators leading playful but responsible games explaining ecology, sustainable development and the environmental impact of wine. And today, with their children no longer living at home, privileged wine tourists can even rent the Vetelot château as an exclusive place to stay.

Les Caves de Rauzan

The Entre-deux-Mers region has some of the most active Caves Coopératives in the Bordelais, and Les Caves de Rauzan has distinguished itself from many of its neighbours with a wine tourism programme aimed at promoting biodiversity and sustainability. While the numbers may sound large – 300 vignerons cultivating 4,000 hectares, producing an equivalent of 28 million bottles – Rauzan is very much a friendly, community-orientated cooperative rather than an anonymous big business. While visitors can stop off any time for a free tasting at both their main cellar and two shops, every Friday there is a pop-up café outside the cellar offering an evening aperitif, while their historic event is La Récréation Gourmande, a 6-7 kilometre hike through the vineyards with stop-offs for wine tastings, oysters, musicians and a BBQ grill of classic entrecôte steaks. For the locals, no one misses this, and the Coopérative also actively promotes the charms of the picturesque village of Rauzan with its grand château and the subterranean Grottes Célestines.

But their most important new initiative is the Parcours de Diversité, taking the visitor on an educative walking tour through the different ecosystems within and surrounding the vineyard. It traverses the properties of  half a dozen different vignerons, with informative panels along the way explaining the local  biodiversity. The Cave produces essentially Entre-deux-Mers, Bordeaux, Bordeaux Supérieur and Crémant de Bordeaux, with every bottle proudly displaying a label declaring it as Sustainable Wine. 

Château Paloumey

Martine Cazeneuve and her family purchased Château Paloumey back in 1989, and she oversaw not just the replanting of the vineyard and restoration of the château, but the Médoc’s earliest initiatives to attract tourists.

Today, there are some 5,000 visitors a year, attending diverse events like Afterwork en Médoc, a popular evening aperitif with tastings, food trucks and music, Atelier Vendange to experience a slice of life in the day of a harvester, picking and eating the grape, tasting early fermentation from the vat, and of course a convivial lunch, contemporary art installations, tasting workshops and blending experiences. Martine’s son Pierre, is now the exuberant winemaker, and his  infectious enthusiasm is best experienced when he takes visitors round on his latest project, ‘Nature et Futur’.

“I would say this is a mix of Slow Tourism and Environmental Awareness,” he excitedly claims, “a theme to make people Look Up, inspired by Leonardo di Caprio’s ecology film, where we explain our eco-stance for the future for Paloumey. During a 45 minute walk through the property we show what we have already done. These are  concrete acts like experimenting across 4 hectares of the vineyard, where every 25 vine lines we have dug up two and planted different types of trees – maple, lindens, acacia, Holm oaks. In ten years time there will be a lines of trees completely changing the vignoble’s landscape. When the group comes back to the cellar I show how the roof is now covered with solar panels, enough for self-sufficiency during the day, and who knows maybe we will have enough one day to power electric tractors ourselves. I call it the winemaking of tomorrow”

Château de la Vieille Chapelle 

Embark on an adventure to find this hidden jewel, as a narrow road meanders through tiny villages, meadows and vineyards of the Fronsac region, with the car’s GPS apparently leading you to the middle of the Dordogne river.

Fortunately, this rambling domaine stops right at the water’s edge. Frédéric Mallier and his wife Fabienne spent 10 years travelling around France looking for the perfect domaine  to make wine responsibly and sustainably. Their dream has taken form here around an 11th century Roman chapel, its rustic outhouses converted into B&B rooms, and a single 7 hectare vineyard producing certified organic and biodynamic wine.

Frédéric explains that, “the estate actually stretches for 22 hectares, with large swathes of forests. For me mixed landscape is crucial for biodiversity, especially as I also make honey. We have a greenhouse to grow vegetables and a nursery for new vine shoots. 

I have planted over a 100 fruit trees, let the forest run wild, and sometimes using a horse to plough the vines.” He is adamant that, “without the B&B revenue we would never have been able to pass to  certified bio cultivation, because that automatically means an immediate loss of about 30% of your wine production. And no one can increase the price of their wines by 30% to compensate.”

His economic model is far removed from grape monoculture and to create income. Fabienne cooks meals for guests and offers Ayurveda energy massages, and most recently they are hosting a magical outdoor guinguette, Les Amuse-Gueules, promoting their wines, sharing platters of local organic cheeses, vegetables and charcuterie, a barbecue and jazz concerts. It is the perfect occasion to discover Frédéric’s highly original wines; natural cuvées like Amis & Associés made with a unique gigantic 170 year-old pre-phylloxera vine of the forgotten Bouchalés-Merlots grape, or Les Merlots de Baudet, made from a 1940 parcel of Merlot vinified and aged in raw concrete vats. 

Château Boutinet 

Driving through the picturesque countryside between the Fronsac and Cadillac Appellations you cannot miss the dramatic façade of the ruined castle of Boutinet.

Take the side road that leads to the château and you quickly discover that this grand 18th century building may be in ruins but it is far from abandoned. Carefully tended plots of vines surround the property, and the entrance is marked by a giant white yurt tent, while one wing of the Château has been restored as the home and wine cellar of vigneron Jérôme Depoizier and his wife Nathalie. She explains how, “we met at a winemaking school,  both of us ambitious to produce our own wine, our own label. When we bought Boutinet and its 12 hectare vineyard we realised that wine tourism was the one way to achieve this dream, to finance an initial project of 12,000 bottles of our very own bottles.”

Nathalie was already an experienced educator at Bordeaux’s Ecole du Vin, while Jérôme had followed in his father’s footsteps as a cellar master but had never owned his own vignoble. “The first project was Rando Tapas, a trek through our vineyard, experiencing the whole biodiversity of the estate, followed by a tasting and tapas. We call it Walk, Wine and Dine. Then, to be able to operate year round, we invested in this immense yurt, where we can do wine pairing with products from local farmers, and host events and dinners for 80 people. I also conduct my blending ateliers here as well as classes that  combine yoga and wine.” While the bulk of their harvest is still sold to the local Cave Coopérative in the neighbouring village of Villegouge, future plans to convert part of the château into a B&B should allow them to increase production of the wines Jérôme experiments with in their garage cellar.

Château d’Arsac 

Although the splendour of Château d’Arsac sits perfectly alongside the grand domaines of Margaux, its owner, Philippe Raoux is not a typical Bordeaux vigneron. Arsac may have a distinguished history stretching back to the 12th century, but when Philippe bought the estate in 1986, “everything was abandoned; the château in ruins, only 4 hectares of vines, and somehow the owners had let pass the opportunity to enter the Margaux Appellation when that was created in 1955.

So it has been a long journey, restoring this fabulous manor, recreating an 108 hectare vineyard. And in 1995, we finally took our rightful place in both the Margaux Appellation and Cru Bourgeois Exceptionel. Amazingly, we are the only winery in France to have been upgraded in this way.” But Arsac is not just exceptional for its wines, as Philippe has put it on the world’s art map too as a unique exhibition venue. He tells the story of how, “our adventure began in 1988,  when the curator of the fine arts collection of the Peter Stuyvesant Foundation asked us to host a huge exhibition of their works in the château and its grounds. It was a great success, but when it ended and they removed all the artworks, well I felt bare and almost robbed. So I decided to organise our own exhibition each year, alongside putting aside a budget of 1 franc per vine to fund our own permanent collection. Well, we have 600,000 pieds de vignes, so it gave me a budget of €100,000 a year, and today the collection consists of over 30 monumental sculptures exhibited in our Jardin des Sculptures, across the Château’s cellar, vineyards and park.”

In addition to this unique Art and Wine tour, visitors can now also experience Songs of Arsac, a musical sound and light extravaganza screened in the barrel-ageing cellar, recounting the 1,000 year history of the château. 

 Château Bardins 

In the heart of the Pessac-Léognan Appellation, this fairytale château is set in a romantic landscaped park that has been in the hands of Stella Puel’s family since 1898. Producing predominantly elegant, red organic wines, the 10 hectare vineyard is surrounded by a natural biodiversity of woods, meadows, orchards and marshy wetlands.

Stella is a fifth generation vigneronne and recounts how, “we have always welcomed visitors here since the day I took over 25 years ago, when I just wanted to be able to meet wine lovers personally over a tasting in the cellar. Today  this part of our business has expanded enormously, and our numerous projects are handled by my close collaborator, Pascale Laroche.

She is a sporty wine lover and offers a guided tour by bike that begins here,  carrying on past half a dozen Pessac-Léognan châteaux before returning for a tasting. We also have tours of the estate by foot, including orienteering games and a wine quiz, and if it rains, well everyone decamps to the cellar and continues with a digital game using iPads. Pascale also runs blending ateliers, with regular  art exhibitions in the cellar. And I organise musical events 3 or 4 times a year in the château, concerts that have featured French and international musicians, performing piano recitals, chamber music, lyric performances, jazz bands and slam poets. The venue is right  here in the living room of my home for a limited audience of 50 people, followed by a tasting afterwards.  So we may have a pianist here who the week before was performing in Carnegie Hall in New York. I think they know they are well treated when they hold a concert in Château Bardins.”

Where to eat

L’Auberge Saint-Jean

In a picture postcard location by a bend on the Dordogne river, this ancient stone auberge has been tastefully renovated  while the refined cuisine of chef Thomas l’Hérisson is recognised by a prestigious Michelin star. The other side of the bridge, stop off at Cabestan, where David Durand, one of the Dordogne’s last professional fishermen, sells jars of the Lamprey eel that he catches in the river,   cooked in a delicious rich red wine sauce, à la Bordelaise.

Le Jardin

This romantic Jardin is the garden restaurant of Château Petit Faurie de Soutard a 200 year-old winery just outside the village of Saint-Emilion. The sunny terrace overlooks both vineyards and a vegetable garden where chef Stéphane Casset grows ingredients for his recipes like tuna served with a green pepper gazpacho and grilled fennel

Where to stay

Château La France

Just outside the wine making town of Fronsac, this magnificent 18th century chateau is surrounded by an immense vineyard, visible from miles around by its giant 12 metre high silver cockerel statue, Le Coq. Cottages by the cellar have been tastefully transformed into cosy B&B accommodation, with a spa and jacuzzi, wine tasting and casual dining area. For a really special occasion, it is possible to rent the entire château itself.

What to do

Rétro Tour Bordeaux

For wine tourists looking for a quirky, highly original guided tour around the vineyards of Bordeaux, rather than heading off independently, it is impossible to beat Rétro Tour who drive adventurous visitors in the sidecar of their retro motorbikes, discovering the chateaux of the Médoc and Saint-Emilion.

John Brunton’s Moscato d’Asti Wine Trail


The wines from Piedmont’s Asti region, the fragrant and frizzante Moscato d’Asti and bubbly, dolce Asti spumante hold Italy’s highest Docg designation for quality and may be known all over the globe, but to really understand their elusive secrets, a wine lover needs to make a pilgrimage to this region’s picturesque hills whose vineyards were the first to receive Unesco World Heritage recognition. Bordered by the towering peaks of the Alps on one side and the maritime influences of the Ligurian Sea on the other, Asti vineyards cover one of Italy’s largest geographical denominations, spreading over the provinces of Cuneo, Asti and Alessandria, a wine and food paradise renowned for highly-prized white truffles and hazelnuts, the home of the Slow Food movement, the prestigious red wines of Barolo, Barbera and Barbaresco.

But this Trail visits ten friendly, welcoming winemakers who  cultivate the unique aromatic Moscato Bianco grape that has been grown here for since at least the Middle Ages, producing what is simply one of the world’s most popular wines. In Italy, the traditional Christmas panettone cake must be accompanied by a light, fruity glass of Moscato d’Asti, while weddings and birthdays are always celebrated with the pop of a bottle of Asti spumante. And this surprising wine pairs also pairs just as well with cheese, spicy and salty food. Although different varieties of the Moscato grape have been planted across the globe, the wine made here has an unbeatable combination of limestone and sandy soil, steep, sunny vineyard slopes known as a ‘sorì’, predominantly manual cultivation throughout the year, ending in an obligatory hand-picked harvest. Then in the cellar, there is a genuine synergy between traditional and modern techniques, from fermentation in high-tec autoclave tanks to the ancient custom of small batch bottling throughout the year to ensure that every bottle, throughout its year of production could not be fresher, fruitier more aromatic, no matter when you buy it. Tasting with today’s winemakers, though, you will also discover a new movement away from the historic concept that Asti must be drunk solely in the year it was made, as a new amendment to the winemaking rules will allow a Riserva vintage that can be aged for upto 3 years. Wine tourism is already well developed in this part of Piedmont, with the website of the Asti Consorzio a mine of information to organise vineyard visits and discover for yourself the secrets of these seductive, subtle wines.


Run by two young brothers, 33 year-old Enrico and 26 year-old Davide, this is a 100% family affair as the parents work alongside their sons in the vineyard, while 96 year-old Nonna Maria cooks for her grandsons.

Ghiga is the perfect cantina to request a cellar tour to really understand the  complex production of Moscato d’Asti. Enrico patiently explains to visitors how “we initially press the grapes, then keep the mosto,  a mush of the crushed grapes and juice, in steel tanks at 0° Centigrade. Then we ferment batch by batch, only as and when there is a demand for bottles, so each bottle is the freshest, fruitiest possible anytime of the year. Very different from a normal wine that is bottled once a year. To begin fermentation, the batch of mosto passes into an autoclave tank that raises the temperature to 20° Centigrade, starting fermentation as yeast is added. The autoclave activates the natural gas to create the bubbles for a light frizzante, and the mosto takes one week to ferment to around 5° alcohol when the fermentation is abruptly stopped with the temperature dropping down to zero again. Then it is ready to be bottled.”

While 70% of their harvest is sold to industrial wineries, the brothers are open-minded for the future, because “for the moment, it would take too much investment to make our own Asti spumante or  a Metodo Classico, but in the future why not. And we are exporting our Moscato d’Asti as much a possible, approaching emerging markets like Uganda and Ghana who are more curious and where there is less competition.” They are similarly pragmatic over converting to organic. “As a small winery the financial cost to go certified organic would be too great to bear. But we are just as pleased to join a newer more flexible certification The Green Experience, which does not allow pesticides and encourages innovative agroforestry initiatives like fixing birds nests in the vineyards to encourage increased biodiversity of birds, bees and especially bats which are the perfect natural predator, eating around 3,000 insects a night.”


The name Gancia and the Moscato d’Asti grape are inextricably linked by history, as this was the family that created the first-ever Italian bubbly Spumante wine back in 1865, long before anyone had ever heard of Prosecco. Inspired by a long stay in Champagne, where he learnt the mysterious secrets of  ‘Methode Champenoise’, Carlo Gancia returned in 1850 to the region around Canelli and ‘Moscato Champagne’ was born. Today, Canelli could easily be renamed Ganciaville, dominated by the majestic Castello Gancia on high and the immense cellars right in the town centre. After 5 generations, the family finally ceded control of Gancia in 2011 to Roustam Tariko, the international businessman owner of Russian Standard Vodka. His goal is to return to the origins and heritage of Gancia.   A regular visitor to the cantina, he has prioritised Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumante as the two foundation  pillars of the multinational drinks company that today produces over 25 million bottles each year.  And he believes in the traditions of Gancia, as the company remains committed to the traditional ‘dolce’ qualities of the Moscato d’Asti grape, especially for their historic Dolce Spumante. Although Gancia produce over 6 million bottles of Asti Spumante and Moscato d’Asti a year, they are essentially a ‘transformer’, similar to the famous Champagne houses, meaning they buy grapes produced on some 2,000 hectares of vines, closely following the work of smallholder cultivators, but do not actually  own their own vineyard.

Here in Canelli, their oenologist, Mario Borgogno, may have been with the company for 30 years, but he continues to experiment, and their recent Cuvée Asti 24 Mesi is an exceptional Metodo Classico with currently the 2012 vintage on sale to the public. No other cantina produces a wine like this. With their historic cellars soon to reopen to the public, this will be the chance to see the contrasting cathedral like cellars used for the Metodo Classico’s bottle fermentation and barrel ageing alongside the futuristic steel autoclave tanks holding the equivalent of 90,000 bottles of Spumante.

And then there is the famous Gancia museum,  an unparalleled historic collection of stylish, graphic advertising memorabilia that for a century promoted a unique Italian lifestyle.


Beppe Bocchino cultivates vineyards across the hills around Canelli that have been in his family’s hands for over two centuries. He founded today’s modern winery, bottling and commercialising their first vintages in the 1970’s, “a time when there were only two choices of life here; working in the vine or the Fiat factory in Torino.” Today the day-to-day running is in the hands of his children, Daniele and Annalisa, but Beppe remembers the days when the azienda was a working farm with animals and cereals. “You can say that I was born with Moscato, it is the grape and the wine that represents our cantina, our identity.

Although the wine is technically more perfect today, I remember nostalgically the days before the technology of the autoclave that took over our cellars from the 1980’s. Before we put the Moscato grapes in oak barrels and filtered the wine through jute sacks – the Sacchi Olandesi. Back then, the big producers like Martini Rosso would employ over 50 women just to wash the sacks, and not in hot water either!”  Today’s modern cantina has a breathtaking terrace for wine tastings, overlooking part of the first-ever vineyards to be classified as Unesco World Heritage, and as Annalisa  prepares a perfect tasting of traditional plin ravioli paired with their latest Moscato d’Asti, Daniele describes how, “ Moscato d’Asti is a difficult wine to make, be under no illusions, and it has become more technical over the years.

The winemaker is like a pastry chef who follows the exact instructions of a recipe, treating the grape like a baby that has to be watched over all the time. But this unique wine  has incredible global recognition, opening the door to the whole world for us winemakers.” Despite a modern cellar filled with shiny steel autoclave tanks, Daniele still uses the traditional ‘crutin’, a damp underground grotto perfect for ageing, and insists on having each year’s harvest ready and bottled by December, “because Moscato d’Asti is everyone’s favourite Christmas drink with a delicious panettone.”


It just takes a few minutes of conversation to realise that Emanuele Contini is an impassioned young winemaker. You need a head for heights driving up the steep lane leading up to his Azienda where builders are putting the finishing touches to a new wine cellar.

There is a vertiginous drop down into the vineyards, and Emanuele immediately points with pride across the valley to his cherished hillside plot, Vigna Monucco. “This is what we call here a Vigna Eroica, a south-facing steep slope that demands intense manual labour but yields grapes that produce an exceptional wine.” It is a genuine single vineyard, and for the moment, is the source of Emanuele’s only cuvée, that he started bottling in 2014, “because I am forced to sell the rest of my grape harvest direct to Martini Rosso to generate cash-flow to create my own wines. It makes me think that the old semi-feudal smallholder system of the Mezzadria has never really gone away  for all us viticoltori still obligated to sell our grapes.” Walking through the cellar, he recalls how, “my grandfather started the estate in 1949, making Moscato d’Asti with a mix of  the traditional Sacchi Olandesi jute sacks alongside what was then the latest technology, cement tanks. Here are the tanks, and I am delighted to still be using them. And we have not abandoned the Sacchi Olandesi either. We use them for the first filtration, immediately after the initial grape pressing. 

My Mamma is the resident expert for this as she grew up with his technique.  Originally the wine would be filtered every week through the autumn, then every month in winter then from April it was ready to be bottled.” He is convinced that Moscato d’Asti has a future as a quality aged wine, and he keeps 5% of his annual production in the cellar.

Opening vintages from 2021, 2017 and 2014 Emanuele admits the wine loses a little freshness, “but it becomes velvety, less bubbly, with a wonderful colour that subtly changes to straw yellow. Once wine lovers come here and taste these older vintages I am sure they will not end up going back to the younger, fresher wines.”


While Canelli may be the unofficial wine capital of Moscato d’Asti, the bustling market town of Santo Stefano Belbo is the beating heart of region, surrounded by steep vineyards where some of the most prized grapes grow. And driving into town, both sides of the road are lined by the immense modern cellars and towering steel vats of the Capetta winery. This is one of Italy’s most important independent family wineries, founded in 1953 and run today by second-generation Riccardo Capetta.

Holding court in the company boardroom, surrounded by dozens of awards from wine competitions around the world, he proudly recalls how “my father was  a peasant farmer, who decided to leave his vines behind and become what you can call a pioneer ‘transformer’ of wine. By that I mean the commercialisation on a large scale of our local wines, initially by demijohns and bulk sales, then bottling, then sophisticated commercial marketing, then export markets, while always investing in technology for the future.”

Today the cantina produces a staggering 5 Million bottles of Moscato d’Asti, which Signor Capetta describes as “the identity of our winery, a unique frizzante dolce wine. The strength of our azienda is absolutely this aromatic grape from the Asti terroir, producing a wine that allows us to enter markets the world over, and that includes countries that are already major wine producers in their own right like France, Spain, Portugal and of course the United States. Our popularity among consumers there has been created because their vineyards simply do not posses an aromatic grape that can rival Moscato d’Asti, our remarkable terroir, the rare mix of ancestral traditions and modern technology.” While admitting that Asti Spumante remains dominated by the global brands of Martini Rosso, Cinzano and Gancia, Capetta is committed to developing the dry Spumante, Asti Secco, because, “we have actually been surprised to discover how our grape can actually age very interestingly rather than always being consumed in the year of its  production as has always been the case. So we may well launch a vintage Secco in the future.”


Even before you arrive at the Torelli family cantina you know you are visiting a very special azienda as the vines that line the roadside are decorated with colourful panels from a comic strip.

They are extracts from an immensely successful ‘fumetto’, comic book, that winemaker Gianfranco Torelli has written alongside a well-known cartoonist that chronicles in a fun but educative narrative the story of how in 1992, this cantina became the first-ever certified organic winery in Italy. Number 000001. “We actually started in bio in 1985,” he recounts. “It was my initiative and fortunately my father backed me up enthusiastically compared with many other cantinas that descended into a war of the generations, with the elders thinking it was madness to abandon pesticides. Their mentality was totally based on increasing production as much as possible whatever the cost to the environment. From our early organic days we began in the vineyard, nature and cultivation, but now the issue is also sustainability and the cellar is as important as the vine. We are all using too much energy, so our cantina runs off our own solar panels.” While this is a fourth generation winery, many things have changed since the 1880’s as the family grew from Mezzadri sharecroppers to landowners today of a 14 hectare vineyard.

“My father Mario still works at my side,” he recounts, “ but while he survived by  selling wine and mosto in bulk to larger cantinas, today I will not part with a single grape from my vines.”  Giancarlo gets very excited describing the upcoming changes in the Denominazione to create a Canelli DOCG Moscato d’Asti, “though I hope it will be see the emergence of an artisan vigneron’s cru rather than another wine dominated the big industrial producers, which is what has happened with Asti Spumante. Most exciting is the creation a  Riserva line, with at least three years of ageing. I have all my vintages ready in the cellar,  going back at least to 2010.” Tasting a glass from 2012 , Giancarlo points out that while a Barolo gets lighter as it ages, the colour of a Moscato d’Asti becomes more intense, and while the perfumes may be less floral they become marked instead by intriguing dried  apricot and peach, almost like a Riesling.


Tre Secoli may mean three centuries but in reality this large Cantina Sociale, where 300 members cultivate some 1,000 hectares of vines, was created as recently as 2009,  a fusion between two neighbouring cooperatives with much longer histories. One is in the village of Monbaruzzo, specialising more in red wines, while five kilometres away across the vine clad hills of the Strevi region, lies Ricaldone, a  picturesque medieval village, whose winery is known as the Cantina dei Bianchi. Elio Pescarmona, a respected oenologist from Canelli, the capital of Moscato d’Asti, was appointed  director of Tre Secoli on the first day of its 2009 creation. A thoughtful, discrete winemaker, he is slowly moving the Cantina Sociale towards the production of quality bottled wine and away from selling in bulk to big producers like Martini Rosso. They now produce 500,000 bottles a year, largely Moscato d’Asti, but also an Asti Spumante Dolce and Extra Dry, and he says with a wry, proud smile that, “all the bulk we sell is mosto as we keep all the best grapes for ourselves”.

The cantina’s boutique is always buzzing with visitors, because, “wine tourism is important for us. We own an enoteca in the village, organise tastings, trips through the vineyards, and sell a great deal right here direct to the public, including faithful customers who still come with their glass demijohns then bottle their own wine at home after we have pumped them full.” Although the cantina makes Rosalina, a niche organic Moscato d’Asti, Elio explains that, “while many Soci would like to become certified organic, it is often because they know they will then earn more for the price of their grapes. So I tend to advise them not to do this if it is just for financial reasons, though I encourage them if they want to change for ecological reasons.” 


Although there is a new ultra-modern Pianbello winery in Santo Stefano Belbo, you have to take a narrow winding lane high up into the surrounding hills to the sleepy village of Loazzolo, to discover the principal cellar, surrounded by vineyards. This is where the Cirio family call home, and this tightly-knit clan are very proud of their humble rustic roots.

Pietro Cirio who runs Pianbello along with his brother and numerous nephews, nieces and cousins, emphatically insists that,” to understand Pianbello you need to know that we are a still very much ‘contadini’, even if we have grown significantly from the small 2 hectare plot of vines we had 50 years ago, when my Nonno Fiorentino survived with a mixed agriculture of vines, raising cattle and planting cereals.  All generations of our family work here together, where we have built up a 50 hectare property, and my 95 year-old Papa still lives right here next to the cantina.”

He admits that like many Asti wineries, economic considerations means they continue to sell part of the grape harvest to industrial wineries, “but I would be much happier marketing and bottling all my production if there was a bigger demand. I could produce twice as many bottles as I am at the moment.” While his three Moscato d’Asti cuvees range from a fruity, young wine to an elegant Moscato d’Asti di Canelli, Pietro holds out a lot of hope for his bubbly Asti Extra Dry, “as long as we can persuade bars and restaurants that it is the perfect aperitivo.”


The Cavallero family have been present in this part of Piedmont since the 1550’s, and it is a very different landscape from the vine-clad hills of Canelli and Santo Stefano Belbo. Here in the Alta Langa Astigiana, on the border with Liguria, the vineyards are rivalled by thick forest and intensive plantations of hazelnut trees to meet ever-growing demand from Nutella produced  in nearby Alba.

The cantina is run by Lorenzo Cavallero and his 25 year-old son, Giacomo, a recently qualified oenologist, and they have been been giving a lot of thought about the future of Moscato d’Asti. “We have been conducting an ongoing analysis of Moscato d’Asti for the last 25 years, especially into the crucial Linalool molecule that gives Moscato d’Asti is unique aroma. And frankly, it is much less present today due to the effect of global warming. In the old days, when you opened a bottle of Moscato d’Asti the whole room was filled with its unique aromas and perfumes. But today you need to swirl and sniff the wine in the glass to get the same effect. So we are hoping to turn the clock back a little by planting high-altitude grapes. It is a radical solution; ripping up the Moscato d’Asti vines here around the cantina, which are at about 250 metres, replant them with red grapes which grow well on lower plains, and then replant new Moscato vineyards higher up at 500 metres to try and recapture its elusive aromas, freshness and fruitiness taking advantage of cooler temperatures and less sunlight.” Lorenzo pensively explains the ups and downs of being a Moscato ‘d’Asti winemaker, from the days they exported 100,000 Asti Spumante Dolce bottles to an American importer till the contact ended and the reality of today production of just 10,000 bottles of Moscato d’Asti.

“But it remains historically important for our cantina and has a special place in our hearts, because in 1978, my Papa was the first winemaker around here to stop selling his grapes, built his own cellar where the animal stables were, and vinified his wine. And that first wine  to be bottled was Moscato d’Asti.”


Driving through the bucolic countryside south of the Nizza Monferrato region, the horizon of vine clad hills is dramatically broken outside the village of Castel Rocchero by the dramatic 25 metre-high concrete wine tower of the local Cantina Sociale. The concept of these high-rise towers housing cement tanks for making wine was a popular trend in Italy dating back to the 1930’s, and although there are three still standing, this is the only one that continues to function on a daily basis since its construction began back in 1953.  This Cantina is an intriguing mix of tradition and modernity, because while the distinctive Torre has great historical importance as its heritage symbol, the dynamic community of 80 Soci who cultivate some 280 hectares of vines are decidedly planning for the future having just inaugurated  a smaller, modern wine tower, encased in glass  that is dedicated to wine tourism. There is a boutique on the ground floor, with a spectacular tasting room upstairs that opens out onto a panoramic terrace overlooking the vineyards of the cantina’s members. Wine lovers can drop by for the popular Friday afterwork apertivo, organise idyllic picnics beneath a shady oak tree in the middle of the vineyards, or head off on bike tours of the surrounding countryside. And while giant  modern steel vats stand alongside the tower, the cellar is covered with solar panels that make it virtually self sufficient in electricity. Many of the winery’s visitors want to go up to the top of the wine tower, despite the 108 steps, and it is certainly a memorable experience. A narrow spiral metal staircase winds up the Torre’s 4 floors, each with 14 cement tanks that are primarily used today for stocking the cantina’s red wines before bottling. The view when you get to the top, on a clear day as far as the Alps, is simply magnificent. 

Where to Stay

Relais San Maurizio

To splash out for a luxurious stay in the heart of Asti  nothing compares with this deluxe  500 monastery that offers a wellness spa, to-die-for swimming pool and gourmet cuisine in their Michelin starred restaurant 

Casa in Collina

Delightful family winemaker bed & breakfast, relaxing pool with spectacular vineyard views, delicious breakfast of homemade Piedmont specialities and the chance in the evening to try the wines  of friendly viticoltore,  Giancarlo Amerio.

Where to Eat

Casa Crippa

The red brick walls of Casa Crippa’s  underground cellar is lined with a stunning selection of hundreds of different wines including an unparalleled choice of Moscato d’Asti and Asti Spumante. The cuisine is exceptional with creative interpretations using fresh local ingredients like white truffles and porcini mushrooms.

Ristorantino Ca’ d’Basan

This discrete bistrot-style restaurant has a lovely outdoor dining terrace in summer, perfect to enjoy traditional Piedmont dishes like handmade plin ravioli, wispy tajarin pasta topped with a tasty wild boar ragù.And don’t miss the creamy bunet dessert, much more original than tiramisù

Ca’ di ’Ven

A great place to mix with local Asti winemakers, this casual bar and trattoria has just opened up right opposite the Cantina Sociale winery of Ricaldone, serving pizza, pasta and dishes of the day like vitello tonnato, carne battuta, the Piedmont take on steak tartare, or a rich brasato beef stew. 

John Brunton’s Chianti Classico Wine Trail


It is nearly ten years since I last toured and tasted my way through the vineyards producing Chianti Classico wine, and the changes I discovered today could not be more dramatic. From being the rare exception, wineries with certified organic cultivation now account for over 50%, and with so many in conversion, in 2 years the figure should rise to 70%.

While historic winemaking families like Antinori and Frescobaldi continue to hold an important place on the global marketplace, out in the vineyards there are more and more exciting younger winemakers, dynamic women vignaioli and independent, small cantine determined to valorise the emblematic Sangiovese grape rather than the international varieties that once marked the era of the Super Tuscans. While winemaking regions around Italy and the rest of Europe are finally  moving away from the mono cultivation of grapes to increase biodiversity and develop agroforestry rather than constantly planting row after row of new vines, driving around Chianti Classico it is immediately clear that a stunning natural biodiversity has always been here. Vineyards only make up 10% of the landscape, surrounded by swathes of dense forest, olive groves, cereal cultivation and tall cypress trees. The biggest change, though, is about to arrive; a revolutionary new classification, initially applicable for Gran Selezione wines, that will finally highlight the individual qualities, style and personality of each terroir in this diverse region. Using the bureaucratic term UGA, standing for Additional Geographical Units, this effectively divides Chianti Classico into 11 different zones, surrounding places like Radda, Gaiole, Lamole and Panzano. For the wine lover, this will quickly become known as a ‘village’ or ‘cru’, clearly marked on the label and identifying where his wine comes from. In terms of innovative wine tourism, Chianti Classico still leads the way compared to other Italian wine making regions; accommodation ranging from luxury vineyard resorts to traditional villas or rustic b&b’s, biking around the vineyards, wine tasting and cooking classes, with local dishes like a juicy Fiorentina T-bone steak or a steaming plate of tagliatelle smothered with fragrant truffle shavings, perfect to pair with a Chianti Classico. Plan a trip around the 8 wineries below to get a taste of all that is new in this ancient terroir, where wine has been made since the Etruscans and Romans, symbolised today by Chianti Classico’s iconic Black Rooster.


In the hills above Greve in Chianti, the hamlet of Ruffoli is no more than a couple of houses surrounded by forests and vineyards. This wild landscape of giant oak trees inspired wine loving businessman Pepito Castiglioni to buy what was then a ruined farmhouse surrounded by 2 hectares of vines back in 1974 and christen the estate Querciabella, Beautiful Oak. And from these small acorns has grown one of Tuscany’s most respected wineries, an innovative pioneer converting to certified organic cultivation more than 20 years ago, almost seen as heresy back then. 

Their Chianti Classico vineyard now extends to 70 hectares, stretching from Greve to Radda and Gaiole, and dynamic young South African winemaker, Manfred Ing, is excited at the prospect of identifying each wine’s geographical identity. “We have already been separately vinifying our different terroirs since 2010, and today’s consumer wants to know where his wine was grown. This will finally be achieved when we can put on the label the name of each particular cru, village or terroir, be it Panzano, Lamole, Greve, Radda. A big step for the future of Chianti Classico.” Tasting recent vintages with Manfred there is a marked contrast with many other Chianti Classico producers. Normally when you climb the pyramid from Chianti Classico to Riserva and then Gran Selezione, the wines tend to become, heavier, more potent. But here it is the opposite as the colour gets perceptibly lighter, the wines remain drinkable, fresh, full of crunchy fruits  and as Manfred says, “when I go to a blind tasting, before I even sip the wine I can normally recognise ours from the colour, the intensity of our 100% Sangiovese grapes.” The present owner, Pepito’s son Sebastiano, has also set a challenge to his winemaker. This  committed animal rights activist asked Manfred to eliminate all animal products from his winemaking, meaning that biodynamic certification, which should have been the logical progression for an advanced-thinking azienda like this, is logistically impossible.

So instead of using cows horns filled with manure and tisane treatments, “ we have opted for what I call Holistic Agriculture, plant-based biodynamics, sowing cover crops between the vines and using green manure.” A true Vegan wine. 


Just outside the hilltop town of Radda in Chianti, a road sign for Istine quickly brings you onto a long and winding dirt track that finally comes into an ancient stone group of farmhouses that resemble a tiny hamlet, isolated from the world and looking down on a stunning panorama of thick forests, rocky limestone, vines and olive trees. Angela Fonti’s family – granddad, father and uncle – bought the land in 1982, four hectares of vineyards and woods. They were smallholder farmers, ‘contadini’, who dreamed of their own vineyard, initially selling bulk wine and grapes to bigger cantine.

Today, Angela, a qualified oenologist, has taken over the estate, inspired by the cantina’s founders, but with firm ideas about how her wines should be, and converting to certified organic cultivation. The key thought she keeps repeating is “expression of the territory – not just the soil, but  climate, altitude, exposure to the sun, as well as the woods, the biodiversity that surrounds our vineyards. And that is symbolised by our Riserva wine.” But beyond that she has bravely followed her own trendsetting path since 2010, “to make what I call our Cru wines, each from what are essentially single, high altitude vineyards within the 24 hectares of the estate.” Lined up for the tasting are three very different Chianti Classico cuvées – Vigna Cavarchione, Vigna Casanova dell’Aia and Vigne Istine. Sipping the Vigne Istine it is certainly rustic, reflecting the untamed scenery surrounding the cantina where vines are bordered by wild orchids, buzzing bees and rambling bushes of juniper and blackberry.“Three different terroirs, all vinified the same way, concrete tanks and large barrels, but each has its own personality and traits,” she explains. “These wines are both a reflection of ourselves as vignaioli and of the terroir where the vineyard is, and I really feel that today,  people really want to know where their wines are made.”


A few minutes beyond the bustling town of San Casciano di Pesa, you arrive at the foot of a verdant hill, first passing the grand Villa Antinori, then the road climbing upto the fattoria of Cigliano di Sopra. Maddalena Fucile recounts how, “it has been in the hands of our family for 150 years, but like many Tuscan properties was constantly being divided up. Then my father decided in 2007 to buy back the entire estate and all our family moved here.

There are 10 hectares of olive trees, lemon trees, an ancient church and a  7 hectare vineyard surrounding the farmhouse.”  Maddalena studied oenology in Florence and in 2016, together with fellow student, Matteo Vaccari, embarked on an adventure when her father  gave them complete control to run the estate, “a clean slate to create our own history,” she enthuses. And they are certainly having fun, this bubbly pair of new-generation vignaioli. Matteo insists how, “from the first day we followed certified organic, sowing cover crops on every other vine line, protecting biodiversity with three natural water sources.” They  plan to plant trees to combat global warming, have stopped using copper as a treatment and limit carbon footprint by rarely ploughing the soil. And the wines are very promising.

Inheriting a small garage cellar with ancient grape press, steel vats, old barrels and fifty year-old cement vats, they have increased production from 1,000 bottles in 2017 to 23,000 today. “We make a drinkable IGT table wine to avoid selling in bulk,” says Maddalena, “a Chianti Classico, and what  we like to call a Cru, from a single vineyard of old vines, once tended by one of the estate’s ‘mezzadri’, labourers, Signor Branca, which we have christened Vigneto Branca. The ambition is for it to become either our Riserva or Gran Selezione.”


The wines and terroir of Chianti Classico attract aspiring winemakers from around the world with many tenute employing itinerant Brits, Aussies, Argentinians, Americans. But some people become seduced by the irresistible dream of owning their own vineyard here, like young Ukranian entrepreneur, Alexander Biba, who 7 years ago purchased the idyllic Fattoria Viticcio, a 37 hectare vineyard and luxury wine resort. “ When we bought Viticcio it was to make important wines, wines where you can both express yourself and this unique Tuscan terroir. So we moved the whole family to Florence and we are investing in the future; turning certified organic, buying new plots of vines, replanting and building a new cellar.” Continuity on the estate was ensured by retaining Daniel Innocente as the winemaker, who recounts how, “I was actually born right here in Viticcio’s farmhouse. My parents worked as metzarde on the estate. My guiding principle is to concentrate on the grape and the vine, but a new cellar is now under construction, drawing us in a new direction.There will be a series of raw concrete subterranean vats and I want to change the ageing of our Chianti, using the new tanks for ageing as well as fermentation.”

Viticcio was one of the pioneering 11 aziende to first present a prestigious Chianti Classico Gran Selezione cuvée in 2014, and Alexander remains a committed supporter of change for the future. “Like most winemakers here we made a quality Super Tuscan, but only because it was 100% Sangiovese grapes and could not be classified then as Chianti Classico. The moment Gran Selezione was created allowing 100% Sangiovese wines then it was an obvious decision that our Super Tuscan, Il Prunaio, should become Gran Selezione. And now with the prospect of a new village indication, then Super Tuscans may slowly disappear, which has to be good for the global image of Chianti Classico.”


First impressions take your breath away as your car emerges from dense forest into a clearing dominated by a monumental medieval abbey looking down from 700 metres across Tuscany to the Apennines. It resembles a backdrop of Lord of the Rings, and this vast estate has been in Roberto’s Stucchi’s family since 1846, after the abbey was deconsecrated by Napoleon. The thousand year-old Badia, its tranquil cloisters, and beautifully landscaped gardens are spectacular. This is wine tourism as its best as you can stay in a luxury room, enjoy a meal in the trattoria then take a cooking class, join tasting and blending ateliers, tuck into a hearty picnic after a hiking or biking wine tour. But there are surprises too. Grape cultivation was abandoned around the Badia in the 1980s, due to its high altitude and lack of sun, and todays vineyard and modern cellar are located some 20 minutes drive away, south of Gaiole. Roberto was an early innovator in sustainable agriculture when he took the estate into organic cultivation back in 2000, but he refuses to follow fashionable trends, so don’t expect to taste a Gran Selezione as he simply does not make one, “because I felt the concept lacked an ambition and an aim.”

Another surprise is that the wine travels from the cantina to the abbey’s labyrinth of ancient cellars to slowly barrel age, “because these dank, centuries-old vaults are simply perfect for ageing.”  Roberto also observes that, “since I have been making wine here there has been a 360° climate  transformation, quite literally from cold to hot. 50 years ago winemakers had to chaptalise with added sugar to raise the wine’s alcohol to 12°, now we struggle to keep the wine below 15°. Harvesting has moved forward from October/November to September, and one day, who knows, we may well plant vines right here by the abbey again.”


On the busy highway north of Sienna it is easy to drive straight past the sign for Monica Raspi’s tiny Fattoria Pomona. She cultivates just 6 hectares, producing a small selection of highly individual organic wines in her garage cellar, a wonderfully chaotic mix of ancient concrete tanks and old barrels, an amphora alongside a glass demijohn.

The walls are decorated with nostalgic images of her winemaking ancestors, vintage certificates of wine competitions, a1931 Chianti straw fiaschetta, something most Tuscan cantine hide away today. Not Monica. This feisty vignaiola has firm, sometimes provocative opinions about the Chianti Classico world.

Pouring a glass of her quintessential Chianti Classico Annata, she explains that, “this is my favourite wine, rather than the aged Riserva, and I am afraid you will discover that I don’t even make a Gran Selezione. The Annata 

is the genuine expression of my cantina, the terroir, a wine to drink over a meal with friends, not pompous or prestigious.” Talking about the future of Super Tuscans she pops the metal cap on her litre bottle of Piero Grosso, pure Sangiovese but made solely in steel vats. “Is this a Super Tuscan? You must be joking, but see how  wonderfully drinkable and democratic it is, light and low in alcohol. It would probably have given Robert Parker a heart attack.” Although Pomona was a 90 hectare estate when founded in 1890, it was all but abandoned by 2007 with the family ready to sell up. “I made the decision to give up my career as a vet and take over the winery,” she recalls. “I had no idea what I was letting myself in for, especially as we started to convert to bio almost immediately.” With no formal winemaking training, she is refreshing frank, recalling that, “initially I was almost scared of the vineyard, of the macho world of winemakers. But understanding organic cultivation has made me love the vines and now I spend almost all my time outside.”   


Giovanni Manetti began working at the age of 16, just after his father had purchased the Fontodi azienda, while  his brother, Marco, began revitalising the family’s historic production of terracotta tiles and amphora at nearby Impruneta –  tiles chosen for the roof of Florence cathedral, their amphorae today a feature of many Tuscan cellars, including a spectacular 40 here at Fontodi. The vineyard has grown from less than 10 hectares to 175, but in spirit, Giovanni remains a down to earth, independent vignaiolo. And the intimate family feel here is even more noticeable today with the presence of his children, Bernardo, an enthusiastic oeonologist, alongside the dynamic Margherita.

The estate is inextricably tied with the village of Panzano, extending across the highly prized Conca d’Oro amphitheatre of sloped vineyards, for some 300 hectares that also includes olive trees, barley, cereals, and a herd of Chianina cows. Giovanni recalls how, “we started working organically as far back as 1990, though we were only certified in 1995 for our olive oil, then 2001 for the wine and finally for our cows. I honestly believe that organic cultivation means you will make a better wine. As simple as that. And a wine that allows a much better expression of the terroir. So I am in favour of bio not to improve ecology, sustainability, to save the planet. But to make a better wine.” As Giovanni starts a tasting by opening bottles of Fontodi’s exceptional  Chianti Classico range, it is impossible to separate this chatty winemaker from his post as president of the Chianti Classico Consorzio, where he is overseeing the realisation of a lifetime ambition; an official ‘subdivision’ of Chianti Classico, allowing producers to indicate on labels the name of the village or district where the grapes were grown. “We have been talking about this since the 1980’s when I was a young revolutionary winemaker, and now I am finally the President of the Consorzio to actually enact the changes.”


This imposing 18th century castle, with landscaped gardens, and a maze of wine cellars, possesses a 72 hectare vineyard that since the 1960’s has been producing some of Chianti Classico’s most iconic wines.

The dynamism and commitment to excellence is embodied by the owner, Laura Bianchi, who is the first to admit that her father Fabrizio was the visionary to create this remarkable  winery. “I think you can say that we have actually been producing a Gran Selezione since 1962,  because we really are the only Chianti cantina with a single vineyard sold at the top our pyramid – Vigneto Il Poggio. My father always vinified, aged and bottled this separately, on a parcel at the highest point of the vineyard, made from 95% Sangiovese plus autochthonous grapes. Then in 2014 when Gran Selezione was created, well it was natural to choose Il Poggio for this.”

The history of these wines comes alive during a tour of the Castello’s cellars, which house a unique archive collection of ancient vintages, as since 1962, “my father had the foresight of putting aside 12% of each years production and commissioned three retired stone masons to dig a labyrinth of arched cellars below the castle to store this huge collection. Today collectors await the release of a small number of vintages each year, and it is certainly an emotional experience when Laura opens a perfectly preserved 1969 Il Poggio Riserva to taste over lunch.

As in many of the standard -bearers of Chianti Classico there is an irrepressible influence of the family here at Monsanto. The octogenarian  patriarch, Fabrizio, still lives in the castello, while Laura describes their multi-ethnic vineyard team as “a loyal band of immigrants who have settled on the estate with their families whom we have welcomed to live in houses dotted around the property. A rainbow mix of Romanians and Albanians, Indians and Afghans. Imagine that 20 Afghan children have been born here, and they all speak Tuscan!”

Where to eat

Casa Chianti Classico

This restored 18th century convent houses a museum dedicated to Chianti Classico, a wine shop and relaxed bistrot where you can dine in the shady cloistered courtyard or on a terrace overlooking rolling vine clad hills. Try the traditional bruschetta or pappa al pomodoro followed by pici pasta smothered in a hearty wild boar ragù.  

Officina della Bistecca

Dario Cecchini, Tuscany’s most famous butcher, has now opened a smart, foodie restaurant that does justice to the wonderful steaks he ages in his legendary shop across the road. Beef Carpaccio and tartar are the perfect starters before a massive Fiorentina, and since the Covid pandemic, Dario is producing his own Chianti too.

A Casa Mia

Ristoro Lucarelli

Be sure to reserve in this rustic 20 seater dining room where the friendly chef brings your steaming plate of pappardelle pasta with porcini mushrooms in a pan straight from the kitchen.

A young couple have just taken over this century-old trattoria, breathing life back by reopening as a general store for locals and serving tasting home-cooking dishes like trippa alla parmigiana and slow-cooked beef peposo stew.

Where to stay

Fattoria La Loggia

An artistic refuge hidden in midst of olive groves, vineyards and forest, this medieval farmhouse has a to-die-for pool, stunning contemporary art installations and the choice of elegant rooms or spacious appartments.

Borgo San Felice

The perfect choice for a relaxing stay, this ancient hamlet has been entirely converted into a luxury wine resort, complete with spa and pool, gourmet restaurant, while producing their own olive oil and an excellent Chianti Classico.

Palazzo Leopoldo

The labyrinthine mansion is right in the heart of Radda in Chianti, with comfortable rooms, small spa and jacuzzi, and above all, the perfect location for exploring Chianti Classico’s vineyards.



Many people during my tour of Gérard Bertand’s Languedoc wine estates asked me which of the domaines were my favourites, which of his spectacular cellars impressed me the most. Successful winemakers across the world are known for building dramatic cellars – the wine cathedral of Alvaro Palacios in Priorat, the eco-cellar of Angelo Gaja in Barbaresco – and a work of art like Bertrand’s Clos du Temple, certainly ranks alongside these. But for me there is one clear element that stands out regarding the transformation of the Languedoc’s wine scene brought about by Gérard Bertrand. And that is quite simply the revolution of converting almost one thousand hectares of vines to both certified organic cultivation, certified biodynamic winemaking and an active promotion of biodiversity.

And all this over 16 different estates that span the vast geographical landscape of the South of France’s Languedoc region, encompassing vastly different soils and climates, where very single vine is harvested by hand. In travels to vineyards across the world I cannot remember the number of times a winemaker with an estate of over 20 hectares saying to me with a philosophic shrug of the shoulder, “well organic and biodynamic are all very well for small domaines but it is just not possible to implement on a large winery, either practically or economically – or, yes I am a great fan of organic but just look at the climate in my region, becoming certified is simply not feasible with the rainfall we have, imagine how many treatments I would be making each year.” But after achieving the goal in 2020, of finally certifying all his 880 hectares of vineyards, a project that has taken 20 years of commitment, this will serve as an example to vignerons everywhere. And the result is clearly there in the quality, the perfection, of his boldly-named ‘Grand Vin’ wines, which today reach a global audience across some 171 countries. This Trail offers a taste of seven key domaines where there is always an unshakeable respect for nature. Take a journey of discovery from maritime to mountainous terroirs, through the the iconic Languedoc appellations of Corbières and La Clape, past Minervois and Limoux across to the wild volcanic landscapes of the Terrasses du Larzac.

Château l’Hospitalet 

Hospitalet is the ultimate symbol of the world of Gérard Bertrand. Purchased in 2002 this property dominates La Clape Appellation, extending over an immense 1,000 hectares, from mountainous limestone hills to the Mediterranean, whose maritime winds give wines here a characteristic salinity.

His 100 hectares of small parcels of vines are surrounded by a powerful biodiversity; the Languedoc’s fragrant ‘garrigue’ scrubland of thyme, rosemary, sage, lavender, fennel, yellow ginestra, daisies and violets. And oenologist Guillaume Barraud explains that the estate was primarily planted with international grapes when Bertrand bought it. He immediately decided to make a signature wine for the Massif de la Clape highlighting the local Bourboulenc grape. Narbonne rightly describes itself as the birthplace of French vineyards as its importance as a port meant that the first vines planted in France arrived here. Not just from Greece and Rome but in Bourboulenc’s case maybe from Persia and Mesapotamia. The cellar lies beneath the château, blasted out of the stone by dynamite and features an ageing room of some 3,000 French oak barrels. That is certainly the trademark feature of Bertrand’s wines, but there is also surprising experimentation; terracotta amphorae, glass wine globes concrete tanks and ovoids. “The amphorae are perfect for our latest adventure, an orange wine that we hope will be the first to be included in an official Appellation.”

Having tasted many orange wines, the Villa Soleilla is certainly surprising. With a short maceration period of just 2-3 weeks, it has a pale orange colour and is a wonderfully elegant yet fresh blend of Roussanne, Grenache Blanc and Vermentino. But L’Hospitalet is a lot more than a vignoble.

The Château has been transformed into a pioneering wine resort, offering tasteful accommodation, gourmet restaurant, spa,  beach club and outdoor activities from golf to biking and hiking. And the Château draws huge crowds each year for its international jazz festival and major art exhibitions.

Château de Villemajou 

Located in the heart of the rugged Corbières region, just outside the village of Boutenac which gives its name to the Appellation’s prestigious Cru, Château de Villemajou was the original Bertrand family vineyard, where Gérard experienced his first harvests, working alongside his father Georges, a pioneering independent vigneron. Since he  took over after the sudden death of his father in 1987, the estate has grown to a vast 200 hectares, stretching for some 14 kilometres around the château. Christophe Sournier, oversees the cultivation of the vines, and walking through the vineyard, explains how, “we are in the heart of the Massif des Corbières, influenced both by mountains and the sea, with strong winds that provide a natural protection agains diseases like mildew.

And the other crucial element is our  soil, what we call ‘galets roulés’, round pebbles that are lying above first a layer of limestone clay and then a layer of molasses that looks like soft sandstone and shale,  but is actually as hard as cement – you can see a cross-section right here below a vine. This mineral soil is very poor for agriculture but perfect for a vineyard because the vines push their roots to find water when the top soil becomes too arid.” The white wine blend uses classic Corbières varieties of Grenache Blanc, Roussanne and Marsanne, while the four different reds are made from Carignan, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Syrah. Many of the estate’s vines are old, some over a century, often the distinctive free-standing ‘gobelets’ bush vines, a symbol of the Corbières.

While Christophe is a locally born and bred vigneron, the cellar master, Arnaud Saulnier, comes from the north of France andchanged his life to retrain as an oenologist,  bringing a different kind of passion to the wine. So while oak barrels may dominate cellar, there are also experiments using both raw and vetrified cement tanks for maceration and vinification of the red grapes, as well as cement ovoids to age the top level La Forge cuvée.

Château La Soujeole

Although La Soujeole’s modern oak barrel and steel tank cellar dates back to 2015 when Gérard Bertrand took over the domaine, there is a long history of wine being made here since 1740 by nine generations of the same family. The last descendent, Monseigneur Bertrand de Soujeole is rector of the nearby Basilica of Carcassonne, and still lives in the château. Soujeole is located in Malepère, a tiny Appelation dating back only to 2007, producing only red and rosé wines in contrast to the whites of its more well known neighbour, Limoux. Planted with only Merlot and Cabernet Franc, the estate produces just a single blend of the two grapes which Christophe Medinilla, who oversees the vines and cellar here, describes as, “ a wine that is the embodiment of the Languedoc – intense, fruity, full-bodied, perfect with a traditional cassoulet or a rich wild boar stew.”

Christophe is of Andalousian descent, and before coming here worked in the Roussillon, where, “it was already obvious long ago that everyone should be working in organic cultivation, and I think you can say that before coming to La Soujeole, I practiced my own personal biodynamics, whereas here we all follow Demeter rules and regulations. Our domaine is a good example to demonstrate how each of Gérard’s estates practice their own particular biodynamics to reply to their specific needs.

Over in La Clape they benefit from strong winds so do not need to treat against mildew, but here we have more rain and less wind, so we always need to be ready to react to the danger of mildew striking. Each parcel of our vineyard  is vinified separately to keep the different expressions of soil and exposure. Then the key moment comes during the blending, where Gérard is always present and decisive, because at the end of the day it is he who decides what kind of wine he wants – ‘c’est lui qui crache le vin’ as we say around here.”  

Clos du Temple 

After climbing high above the picturesque village of Cabrières, the road enters what looks like a lost forested valley of oaks and pines, eventually coming out at the futuristic cellar of Clos du Temple, overseen by Benjamin Gaddis, a bubbly, enthusiastic winemaker, originally from Toulouse. This tiny 12 hectare vineyard has been cultivated at least since 1177 by the Order of the Knights Templar, crusaders who were known for choosing land on a high level, with good water supplies and filled with energy, almost like Chinese Feng Shui. And that is just the start of the ethereal vibrations here. The first decision was to make a single wine on the estate, a rosé blended from Cinsault, Grenache Noir, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Viognier. The cultivation was organic and biodynamic from the first day, dividing the vineyard up into 11 parcels of vines, mostly at least 40 years old with some upto 80 years, all vinified separately.  

Since 2018  the soil is worked using a mule, the rather noble BanzaÏ du Roc, with his muleteer, Jérome Diette, choosing to work behind the animal walking with a hand plough. “For us this is more than just a symbol but concretely reflects the fundamental concept of our biodynamics – connecting man, animal and the soil. Banzaï ploughs and lays biodynamic treatments across the whole estate, and we just use a tractor for copper treatments which would not be very healthy for the mule.” Benjamin then explains that “to complement the work in the vineyard, a whole new cellar concept has been created for this wine. Inspired by the world’s pioneer winemakers over 6,000 years ago, the cellar pays homage to the ancient Egyptians, with 11 pointed stainless steel tronconic  vats, one for each parcel,  encompassed by dramatic bauxite pyramids. For us this is a continuation of the harmony that begins in the vineyard, and the pyramid brings a unique energy to the wine.

The fermentation begins in these inox tanks, then the wine is aged in oak barriques before being returned to the pyramid to await the crucial blending. The result is a wine that has the taste of the terroir – mineral, flinty, fresh, saline and high acidity, each year an exceptional, highly individual vintage that has already garnered an award as the World’s Best Rosé.”

Domaine de l’Aigle 

Even the most modern GPS has problems locating the hidden Domaine de l’Aigle once the winding, narrow lane disappears into the rolling hills and valleys that surround the historical winemaking town of Limoux. While the Aigle’s cellar sits  beneath the pretty village of Roquetaillade-et-Conilhac and its medieval fortress castle, the estate itself ranges over 53 hectares, rising up to the signature Cabane de l’Aigle plot that sits at 500 metres. It is the first of many surprises that await wine enthusiasts that arrive for a  tasting with Thibault Haentjens, a pensive, discrete oenologist who has been running the domaine the last 11 years. Don’t expect to find vines growing Chenin or Maziac, the emblematic grapes used in the region’s celebrated bubbly Blanquette de Limoux. Instead there are essentially Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, with the reputation of Domaine de l’Aigle resting squarely on these still wines. And they are most impressive.

This traditional chai is all about ageing in small oak barrels, around one thousand of them in total, and the passion of Thibault is to conduct a tasting direct from the wood using a pipette, which is a stunning exhibition of the extreme variety that each parcel brings to the blend, be it for Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. Thibaut explains that, “although we produce single grape wines rather than the blends that are so much  Gérard’s trademark, what I say as I take people round on a barrel tasting is that we have so many varied parcels that the wine is still an assemblage.” That is certainly true when I try a selection of Pinot Noir barrels – some light, almost Gamayish; intense younger wines; supple, elegant older vines with more tannin like a Burgundy; Mediterranean style parcels intense in alcohol. “Ours are simply not typical Languedoc wines,” explains Thibault. “Just look around here from the Cabane – a 360° arena, one side the Mediterranean, the other the Atlantic, the Languedoc climate but the snow-capped peaks of the Pyrénées, different soils, different biodiversity, cultivated fields, other filled with sheep grazing. And hot days contrasting with cool nights, ensure wonderful freshness for the wine.” 

Clos d’Ora

Arriving at the beautiful village of Laville, a tiny side road heads off towards Clos d’Ora, a twisting and turning journey of around 3 kilometres that eventually becomes a rough track lined by ancient stone walls through which a small car barely passes. Then you suddenly come out at the foot of the vineyard in a landscape marked by wild flowers and herbs, olive trees and ancient oaks. Tucked away in the small Minervois La Linière Appellation, this was the second domaine that Gérard Bertrand purchased back in 1997, the only vigneron to imagine the immense potential of this terroir. It is difficult today to imagine what the landscape must have looked like then – rough scrubland, woods, barely an hectare of vines. He cut everything own, pulled up the vines and planted 8 parcels to create a 9 hectare single vineyard.

This genuine clos produces a single wine, an exceptional red blend of Syrah, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre.

It is no understatement to say that the domaine is personified by two irrepressible personalities, who carry out almost 90% of the work on the soil; Vanina the mule and Nicolas Fabrié , her muleteer, who enthuses how, “I have worked here with Vanina for 10 years now, since the start of the Clos d’Ora project. For me it is the perfect job. I love working with horses and mules, I love working the soil, preserving the vineyard’s biodiversity every day. What else could anyone ask for.” The young winemaker, Bastien Dutour, has only been here a year, and opening bottles for an exceptional vertical tasting going back to the first vintage in 2012, and he is clearly still  under the spell of Clos d’Ora’s zen cellar, designed following biodynamic principles, and a surprising mix of not just barrels and steel vats but cement tanks and futuristic ovoids. 

Château La Sauvageonne

Located in the heart of the lunar landscapes of the Terrasses du Larzac Appellation, this wild volcanic country is a very different face of the Languedoc, and the winemaker running the estate, Antonio Cortes, is a passionate, down-to-earth vigneron who began working at the Sauvageonne back in 1992, when the then owner, a rather eccentric Englishman, “really did not know anything about making wines.” The sprawling 75 hectare vineyard is split up into 70 parcels, some up to 6-7 kilometres apart, with two very distinctive volcanic soils; Permen Gris and Ruffe. You really need to get out of the cellar and into the vineyard to understand the very distinctive wines made here.

Antonio explains that, “the big schist stones of Permen Gris date back over 250 million years. People think the vineyard looks like a rock garden, as if we placed the stones around the vines as decor. But the opposite is true as the stones were here first and we planted the vines in them. This makes it very hard to walk through the vineyard, to do  treatments or during harvest, as you can easily slip and twist an ankle. At these high altitudes, it is perfect for our Grenache Blanc and Roussanne white grapes. You then enter the very different world of Ruffe red clay soil that creates a distinctive landscape of canyons that could be in Colorado.

We call them Les Terres Rouges, the Red Lands. It is a deceptive soil as it looks soft and sandy from afar but is actually compact and almost as hard as rocks. And here in the dry, dusty Ruffes, it is perfect for developing the tannins of our red grapes.” Their signature red blend of Syrah, Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre and Cinsault is an outstanding elegant wine, fruity yet potent. Then, as he sips the exceptional – and  eminently drinkable – La Villa rosé, Antonio enthuses that “this is a genuine Languedoc wine whose taste stays in your mouth afterwards, a wine by Gérard Bertrand marked by late maturation, intensity, a wine of the sun and summer heat.” 

Where to eat

La Petite Fringale

This old-fashioned village bistrot with a cool shady terrace beneath towering linden trees actually offers a cuisine with a very modern take on traditional dishes like tempura-fried artichokes with confit pigs trotter.. Note that guests have to order the fixed gastronomic menu and turn up on time otherwise they miss the first dishes.

Les Halles de Narbonne

Narbonne’s historic 19th century covered market is foodie paradise; wine bars, bistrots and tapas counters, fishmongers where you can feast off freshly-shucked  oysters and shrimps, butchers who also grill giant entrecôte steaks and spicy merguez sausages.

O Vieux Tonneaux

Peyriac-de-Mer is an idyllic fishing village looking out on a  tranquil lake. At O Vieux Tonneaux diners sit around cheery red-checked tablecloths awaiting generous dishes prepared by chef-owner Christelle Sarraud, ranging from bourride d’anguilles, using eels fished from the lake, to a gargantuan cassoulet, with duck confit, sausage and white beans, and thick chunks of cuttlefish and tasty chorizo.

What to do

Abbaye Saine-Marie de Lagrasse

Halfway between Carcassonne and the Mediterranean, the isolated hamlet of Lagrasse, one of France’s renowned ‘Plus Beaux Villages’ is dominated by its eponymous abbey. The village is surprisingly lively with Le Bastion, an avant-garde gourmet restaurant, a medieval wooden market, artisan boutiques and a literary cafe, while the 7th century Benedictine Abbey is an oasis of peace and meditation. 


This wonderfully-preserved fortress citadel is one of France’s most impressive monuments with a stunning Roman basilica and medieval cathedral. The walled city dominating the surrounding countryside, is surrounded by vineyards and recognised as an Unesco World Heritage Site.

Le Salin de Gruissan

Salt has been harvested here for over 2,000 years and a visit to the traditional salt flats and wetlands is always memorable as the water changes colour from pink to blue, while the heaped mountains of salt resemble an Alpine landscape. Try sea bass baked in salt on the water’s edge at the restaurant La Cambuse du Saunier