JOHN BRUNTON’S BORDEAUX NEW GENERATION WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

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

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

Domaine Les Carmels

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

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

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

Château La Peyre

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

Clos Fontaine

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

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

Château Haut-Rian

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

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

Château La Grande Clotte

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

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

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

Château Doisy Daëne

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

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

Château Teynac

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

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

Château Le Clos du Notaire

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

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

Château Castagnac

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


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

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

 Château Thieuley

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

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

where to eat

Winemaker brunch

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

Symbiose

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

Lard et Bouchon

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

what to do

Wine tasting workshop

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

Aerial vineyard tour

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

where to stay

Château Lafaurie Peyraguey

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

JOHN BRUNTON’S BORDEAUX DRY WHITES WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

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

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

Château Moulin de Launay

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

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

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

Château Sainte-Marie

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

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

Château Lestrille

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

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

Château Fontenille

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

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

Château Puyanché

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

Château Guiraud

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

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

Maison Dourthe

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

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

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

Château La Louvière

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


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

Vieux Château Gaubert

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

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

Château Clarke

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

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

where to eat

Le Manège

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

Bar de la Marine

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

Château picnic

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

what to do

Sauve-Majeure Abbey

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

Vineyard bike trip

VTT dans le Sauternais.

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

where to stay

Les Sources de Caudalie

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

JOHN BRUNTON’S SALICE SALENTINO WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION


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

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

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

Masseria Li Veli

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

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

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

Cantele

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

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

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

Conti Zecca

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

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

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

Leone de Castris

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

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

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

Apollonio Vini

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

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

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

Cantine Cosimo Taurino

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

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

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

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

Castello Monaci


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

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

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

Cantine Due Palme

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

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

Cantina Vecchia Torre

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

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

Cantine Paololeo

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

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

Cantina San Donaci

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

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

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

Vinicola Al Bano

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

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

Where to eat

Malcandrino

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

Palazzo BN

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

L’Orecchietta

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

What to do

Porto Cesareo Marine Park

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

Lecce

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

Where to stay

Masseria Ogliarolo

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

JOHN BRUNTON’S BEAUMES DE VENISE WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

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

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

Domaine de Piéblanc

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

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

La Ferme Saint-Martin

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

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

Rhonéa

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

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

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

Domaine des Bernardins

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

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

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

Domaine de Durban

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

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

Xavier Vins  

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

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

Domaine de Fenouillet

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

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

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

Domaine des Garances

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

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

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

Maison Gabriel Meffre 

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

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

Domaine Saint Amant

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

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

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

Where to eat

Bistro de Lafare

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

Le Dolium

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

Auberge St Roch

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

Where to stay

Le Clos Saint Saourde

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

JOHN BRUNTON’S FLANDERS BEER, CHEESE & JENEVER TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

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

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

De Struise Brewery

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

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

Leroy Brewery 

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

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

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

Brewery De Plukker

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

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

Belhop

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

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

St Bernardus

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

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

Beauvoordse Walhoeve

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

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

De Gebrande Winning

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

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

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

Wilderen Brewery and Distillery

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

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

Vanderlinden Distillery

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

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

De Achelse Kluis

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

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

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

Catharinadal

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

Where to eat

In de Vrede

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

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

De Goeste

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

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

Where to stay 

B&B De Rentmeesterhoeve

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

JOHN BRUNTON’S FLANDERS WINE ROUTE

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

Domaine d’Hellekapelle

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

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

Monteberg

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

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

Domaine Entre Deux Monts

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

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

Optimbulles

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

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

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

Domaine Helshoven 

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

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

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

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

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

Domaine Aldeneyck

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

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

Gloire de Duras

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

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

Where to eat

Restaurant Sparhof

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

‘t Huis zonder naam

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

Where to stay 

Hof van Stayen

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

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

JOHN BRUNTON’s FRIULI COLLI ORIENTALI WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

TOP WINEMAKERS TO DISCOVER

Aquila del Torre

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

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

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

Conte D’Attimis Maniago

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

Grillo Iole 

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

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

Dri

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

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

Livio Felluga

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

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

Ronc dai Luchis 

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

Scubla 

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

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

Jacuss

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

Visintini

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

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

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

Sirch 

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

Vignaioli Specogna

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

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

where to stay

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

where to eat

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

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

what to do

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

JOHN BRUNTON’S ROYAL MANSOUR MARRAKECH FOOD LAB TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

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

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

TOP TEN DISHES

Bành Xéo

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

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

Pani Puri

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

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

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

Falafel Sandwich

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

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

Pho Gà

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

Tostones Rellenos

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

Ice Cream Pastilla

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

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

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

Sucrine Salad with Ketiakh

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

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

Croustillette Savoyarde

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

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

Steamed Nori Fish East-West

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

Waffles with Spices

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

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


JOHN BRUNTON’S DICTADOR TWO MASTER’S TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

Hernan Parra began touring the distilleries of the world as a teenager, accompanying his father on tasting trips. Travelling today to meet the second masters in their own cellars opened his eyes. “What is amazing is not the differences between all the masters but the similarities. We all have the same issues and problems and this has been a great opportunity to discuss.  It is just that we are working with different raw materials. And 2 Masters gave us all the chance to work just with rum, which I am certain is the future of the spirits world.” 

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

HERVE JOSTIN

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

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

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

MICKAËL BOUILLY 

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

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

ZOLTAN KOVACS ADORJAN

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

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

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

CYRIL LAUDET

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

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

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

CALLUM FRASER

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

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

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

THIBAUT DESPAGNE AND JEROME COSSON

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

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

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


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

DIRK NIEPOORT

You could describe the amiable Dirk Niepoort as the King of Porto, as he is the fifth generation of an originally Dutch family that have been making some of the world’s finest ports here since 1842.

Equally at home in Porto’s picturesque vineyards or his ancient vaulted cellars stacked with some 4,000 casks, Dirk says with big grin that, “When people in Porto were talking about the Two Masters project someone said I was the only lunatic capable of doing it properly. Well, I tasted Hernan Parra’s rum at Germany’s ProWein Trade Fair and the deal was done.” Dirk was intrigued to see just how Dictador’s Colombian rum behaves when aged in port barrels, made essentially from Portuguese wood. He explains how, “it was important to choose a selection of very different casks to see the difference before proceeding to the final blend. All our barrels are around 100 years old, and we began with one that was ageing a young 2017 vintage port. The trick was to empty the port out and not clean it, filling it with the rum immediately. Then we tried a 10 year old White port barrel along with much older vintage. Then, finally, a barrel of 1997 Tawny port, which for me seems the best for ageing rum and could be well interesting for a second project, which I am already discussing with Hernan” 

And the result? Dirk certainly looks pleased when he describes how the blend he created is, “austere and lean yet elegant. A remarkable finish that compensates for the typical sweetness of rum.” 

DREW MAYVILLE

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

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

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

                                                 Ends

JOHN BRUNTON’S VENTOUX WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

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

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

TOP TEN WINEMAKERS TO DISCOVER

Chateau Croix des Pins

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

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

Château Pesquié

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

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

Domaine de Fondrèche

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

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

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

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

Saint Jean du Barroux

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

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

Vignerons du Mont Ventoux

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

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

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

 Domaine Dambrun

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

Grandes Serres

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

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

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

Chêne Bleu

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

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

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

Château Valcombe

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

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

Domaine des Anges

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

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

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

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

where to stay

Hotel Crillon Le Brave

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

B&B Lily & Paul

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

Cabanons Jour & Nuit

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

where to eat

Chez Serge

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

Auberge de la Camarette

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


Chateau de Mazan

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

what to do

Mont Ventoux

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

Distillerie Arôma’plantes

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

Château du Barroux

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