URUGUAY WINE TRAILS:CANELONES

CANELONES

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

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

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

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

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



URUGUAY WINE TRAILS: THE RIVER PLATE AND BEYOND

 

A JOURNEY TO DISCOVER THE ROOTS OF URUGUAY WINES

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

COLONIA AND CARMELO

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

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

MONTEVIDEO and RIVERA

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


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

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

  

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

THE WINETATTOO VISITS VALPOLICELLA

                            VALPOLICELLA’S JOURNEY FROM TRADITION TO INNOVATION

 

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

 

                 

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

Valentina Cubi

The Cantina

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

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

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

Traditional drying of Amarone grapes

 

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

 

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

 

Sebastiano in the barrel-ageing cellar

 

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

WINETATTOO IN TOULOUSE, BORDEAUX, THE SOMME…AND MALAYSIA

The Winetattoo has been checking the best wine bars, tapas, bistros and sights in The Pink City of Toulouse, published this summer in The Guardian – click here for the Guide

Place de la Capitole

Place du Capitole

Au Pere Louis

Au Pere Louis

Toulousain Cassoulet

Toulousain Cassoulet

Then there is a grand tour of Bordeaux – the city that has become one of Europe’s weekend hotspots, the world-famous chateaux around Pauillac, and the vineyards of Sauternes and Graves. The story will come later but here is a slideshow of snapshots

Flying over the vineyards

Flying over the vineyards

And finally an idyllic journey in the north of France in the Somme region with its breathtaking bay, stretching between the seaside towns of St Valery and Le Crotoy. No wine but spectacular landscapes and delicious cuisine. Here is the ling to my Guardian Guide

The Somme estuary

The Somme estuary

White cliffs of Ault

White cliffs of Ault

Horseriding on the beach of the bay of the Somme

Horseriding on the beach of the bay of the Somme

The next travels are farther afield……..off to Malaysia where I am President of the Jury of a new Fay Khoo Food and Drink Writing Award, and will also soon publish a foodie story on street food and Michelin stars in Hong Kong………………….

HAMBURG

A Magical Musical Tour of the City of Hamburg

The Winetattoo goes on A Magical Musical Tour of Hamburg

Hamburg right now can claim to be Europe’s most musical city, from the live music bars of the Reeperbahn where the Beatles started playing in the early 1960’s…….hamburg blog-12

to the state-of-the-art Elbephilhamonie sitting on the bank of the Elbe riverhamburg b&w-10hamburg blog-26

But there is a lot more awaiting the visitor in this surprising, welcoming port that seems more Scandinavian than German.The cuisine ranges from the humble but delicious Curry Wurst and traditional Fish Sandwich with herrings and a cold beerhamburg blog-46hamburg blog-22

To a fabulous dish of smoked eel on scrambled egg at the Fischereihafen restaurant or smoked fish breakfast at the elegant Louis Jacob Hotel
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And then there is the exquisite 3 Star Michelin cuisine of Kevin Fehling at his exclusive 20 seat restaurant The Table
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And while the immense Unesco World Heritage docks of this historic Hanseatic port may seem sombre during the day…………
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the city comes to life at night through till early morning Sunday morning market at the Old Fishmarket where the entertainment is provided by noisy street traders and rockabilly groups playing dance music through till midday
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and when it comes to drinking, Hamburg the best hipster barista cafe at Elbgold, brilliant craft beer pubs like Altes Madchen, cool cocktail lounges such as The Walrus and wine bars serving surprising vintages from Germany’s vineyards…..
Lots of Tourism info available at www.hamburg-travel.com while bloggers can check www.cometohamburg.com
cheers!!
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TASTING THE WINES OF SLOVENIA

A WINE TRIP INTO SLOVENIA

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At the 2016 edition of Vinitaly, a comprehensive tasting of Slovenian wines was organised by Vino Magazine. I have known the editor of Vino Magazine, Barbi Mocivnik, since we were both of the jury of Vinitaly, but unfortunately I was overseas when she presented ‘Slovenia Wine Stars An Outside View’ in Vinitaly’s prestigious Tasting Ex platform. But being part based in Venice, I travel often to the vineyards in Friuli, and she proposed the chance to sample the entire selection of Slovenian Wine Stars, not in a formal, professional tasting, but at the Castello Zemono, accompanied by the unique cuisine of chef Tomaz Kavcic.
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I must humbly admit that although I am a regular visitor to the vineyards of Italy’s Collio and Colli Orientali, I have never organised a serious trip into Slovenia, apart from the occasional drive across the frontier to nearby Brda to follow the development of the orange wines made by Aleks Klinec. So Barbara’s offer was the perfect opportunity for an eye-opening tour of her Vipavska region, followed by a unique tasting of a dozen exceptional wines.
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We began with a 2012 Bjana Brut Rose NV accompanied by plump scampi, cooked tempura-style. The Rose went well with the scampi, but I actually preferred the 2010 Bjana Brut Zero we tried in Barbi’s office before the lunch. I was very interested to taste the Dveri-Pax 2015 Sipon, as I am a big fan of Hungarian furmint, and this sharp, clean wine lived up to expectations and we also tasted the equally excellent Gueril Zelen 2014 while Tomaz served a multicoloured plate of Istrian anchovies.
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Discovering wines made with indigenous grapes like sipon and zelen, and tasting them in the winemaking region itself, is always exciting, and I thought these were a stronger and more original representation of Slovenia’s potential than the following Verus Sauvignon 2015 and Goriska Brda Chardonnay 2011, which I felt were more ‘international’, especially the effect of oak ageing for the chardonnay. While Tomaz dazzled us with a succulent scallop cooked in clay atop a purple carrot puree, we progressed through three outstanding whites. I was delighted to try a Slovenian Malvasia – Vinakoper Istrski rubini Malvasia 2012 – subtely different from the Friuli Malvasia I know well – Marjan Simcic’s Opoka Rebula 2010, matched his increasingly renowned reputation, while the standout vintage was the blend of riesling, malvasia and ribulo of the Burja Belo 2012. Surprisingly, the dish paired with the Burja Belo was Tomaz’s modern interpretation of traditional Slovenian cooking; a subtle veal cheek tartare accompanied by a delicious beef ‘brodo’.
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The chef kept his biggest surprise – for me anyway – for the main course, bear cheek wrapped in a thin slice of lardo, on a hot stone, which was the perfect accompaniment of the three red wines of the Slovenian Wien Stars. I am always wary of how winemakers approach the pinot noir grape, but the 2008 Movia Modri pinot had developed very well during the aging process and was at the perfect moment to taste, while the Santomas Grande Cuvee 2009, aged in new barrique barrels, was a very intense refosco, which I would like to try a second time, perhaps not after tasting such a wide range of different wines. And the wine that surprised me most was Marof Modre frankinja 2011, a wonderful blau frankish, a grape that I can admit to never having tasted before.
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When I write about wines, the actual tasting is only a small part of understanding and appreciating, and this experience at Castello Zemono has now made me determined to return to Slovenia to meet the actual winemakers in their cellars and vineyards, and discover the different regions where the vines grow, their cuisine and culture. So, cheers with a final glass of Brut Rose……
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WINETATTOO NEWS FOR 2015 – A TASTE OF PARIS BRASSERIES AND A NEW WINE BOOK COMING SOON

brasserie plateau de fruits de mer

brasserie plateau de fruits de mer

 

For the last 4 months I have been travelling through the vineyards of France and Italy working on a new book of wine routes that will be published later in 2015. All the details and timing of publication will be revealed soon……..when I have the permission of the publisher who is keeping everything secret for the moment. On these trips I have discovered brilliant wines and winemakers in regions as diverse and Puglia in the south of Italy and Alto Adige, up in the Italian Tyrol, to new producers in Alsace and makers of some of France’s greatest red wines in the Rhone valley……

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Imbetween I had time to write a story for Business Traveller of my favourite brasseries in Paris, and there is no better time to visit one of these legendary institutions for either a huge seafood plateau or a steaming plate of choucroute heaped with smoked pork and sausages. I can’t share the link for the article as Business Traveller operate a PayWall protection, but here is the link for a tantilizing food, art deco and art nouveau picture Portfolio of five of the best – Au Pied de Cochon, Flo, Charlot, La Coupole and Chez Jenny…………http://www.thewinetattoo.com/portfolio/five-legendary-paris-brasseries/

but everyone has their own favourite and I did not have the space to include the likes of Brasserie Lipp and Le Balzar, Julien or the majestic Bofinger. Bon Appetit and more news soon on the wine book plus regular posts of Twitter – @thewinetattoo

 

News from Venice – How to row Venetian style and the Voga Longa marathon rowing race

You will see below my article from Easyjet’s magazine explaining how after 20 years in Venice I finally learned how to row Venetian-style, standing up but not quite like a gondolier.

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On 8 June Venice hosts the 40th edition of the Vogalonga, a marathon rowing race of almost a 1,000 boats around Venice and the islands of its lagoon. I have been invited to join a Dragon Boat from the Thames Dragon Boat Club in London, and I will be sending Twitter posts  of this unique spectacle throughout the 30 kilometres on @thewinetattoo

The Challenge: Learn to row Voga Veneta*

* That’s the traditional Venetian style of rowing standing up


Words by John Brunton / Photography By John Brunton 
The Challenge: Learn to row Voga Veneta*

“What on earth am I doing here?” is all I can think as I desperately try to keep my balance standing up at the front of a long, narrow rowing boat in the middle of one of Venice’s busiest canals. Wobbling as I attempt to avoid falling into the freezing depths, with water taxis speeding down one side and a vast vaporetto (water bus) chugging towards me, I hardly notice the grand palaces that line each side. Instead, I concentrate on gliding the long oar through the choppy waves. Somehow, we manage to edge in the right direction, avoiding disaster – for the moment.

If you’ve ever looked at a gondolier and wondered what it would be like to try the traditional Venetian standing-up style of rowing, known as Voga Veneta, I can tell you – it’s not as easy as it looks.

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There are some things in life that you just never get round to doing. I have lived in Venice for 20 years now, and to my shame and endless teasing by local friends, had never tried – let alone mastered – this ancient skill. The city has a dozen active Voga Veneta rowing clubs, with brilliant courses for beginners, but there always seemed to be an easy excuse: bad weather, not enough time, not fit enough. Yet whenever I sat out on the waterside of my local bar in Cannaregio, I felt a twinge of regret as a sleek wooden sandolo (traditional, flat-bottomed boat) glided silently past, effortlessly propelled by two upright rowers. “Shouldn’t I be able to do that too?” I’d ask myself, before ordering another glass of Prosecco.

But this year, I vowed, things would be different – no more excuses.

So, when the chance came up to learn Voga Veneta, I grabbed the oar with both hands. I even had a goal in mind: participating in the ultimate rowing competition, the Vogalonga, which takes place in Venice every summer.

People have been practising the Voga Veneta since the founding of Venice in the fifth century, when the technique was perfected for a standing oarsman to propel a long flat boat through the shallow waters of the lagoon and  the narrow canals of La Serenissima.

For centuries, the Voga was an integral part of daily life. Then motorised boats arrived, turning Venice’s world upside down, and rowing was relegated to a poor man’s pursuit, while gondolas became strictly for tourists. All that changed in 1975, when a group of influential Venetians decided to do something to raise awareness about moto ondosa, the deadly waves created by motorboats, water buses and cruise liners that were slowly but steadily eroding the city’s foundations. Their idea was the Vogalonga, an annual non-competitive ‘race’, where anyone who rowed could take part, and motorised boats would be banned from Venice for the duration. A marathon-style course was set up, beginning in St Mark’s Basin and stretching for 30km across the lagoon, past the islands of Burano and Murano, before turning back to Venice for a triumphant last stretch along the Grand Canal. With no winner, it was just about getting people on the water. What started out in the inaugural event as 500 enthusiastic Venetians rowing their traditional boats has now ballooned into over 6,000 participants in 1,600 craft. Everything from kayaks and canoes to sleek Oxford and Cambridge-style racers, and gaudy Chinese dragon boats arrives from all over the world. While many now try to finish as fast as possible, Venetians still tend to take it slow, stopping off at the islands for lunch and a few glasses of wine, lazily coming into the Grand Canal by the end of the afternoon.

Vogalonga, Canal da Cannaregio

Vogalonga, Canal da Cannaregio

 

Vogalonga, Grand Canal

Vogalonga, Grand Canal



It would be easy to sign up for lessons at a nearby club, but I have so many Venetian friends who are Voga fanatics that I’ve asked three of them to be my teachers.

My first lesson is with Gigi Vianello, owner of the Mascaron, one of Venice’s oldest osterie (wine bars). Before even getting near the boat, Vianello insists on having lunch: baby artichokes from the nearby island of Sant’Erasmo, succulent masorini (wild duck) from Venice’s lagoon, and far too much Raboso, the favourite wine of Ernest Hemingway. As we head out, the Mascaron waiters look slightly concerned, rolling their eyes as if to say, ‘That’s the last time we’ll see him’. But Vianello, a giant of a man who resembles a bull in a china shop on dry
land becomes, like all Venetians, a different person when he steps into his boat: organised, attentive and immensely knowledgeable about manoeuvring through the city’s maze of canals. To understand the basics, he wants us far away from other boats and the wicked waves made by the motorised water taxis, or motoscafi, so we pass the Doge’s Palace, cross St Mark’s Basin and head out into the lagoon until we reach the island of San Clemente – once a quarantine refuge for Crusaders returning from the Holy Land and now the site of a soon-to-be opened luxury hotel. With no other boats here, there’s no one to see me look like an idiot, and the calm water is perfect for a first lesson.

My rowing maestro, Gigi Vianello

My rowing maestro, Gigi Vianello



We’re in a sanpierota, a big, heavy craft that my coach says is perfect for beginners as it’s very stable, so there’s little chance of me overbalancing and taking an unplanned dip in the lagoon – though he assures me that happens to everyone at some point. We start by popping in our fórcole: carved, open cradles that lock into the sides of the boat and hold the oars in place. Next, the rowing technique, which seems quite simple. Start with the oar out of the water, the thicker, ribbed side facing the sky, then lean forward while pushing the oar backwards through the water, before raising it and returning it to a position parallel with the body and doing it all again.

The forcole for the oars

The forcole for the oars

 

On the lagoon with Palladio's Chiesa Redentore behind

On the lagoon with Palladio’s Chiesa Redentore behind



“The crucial thing,” says Vianello, “is not to try too hard, because the harder you try to push, the more errors you’ll make.” Easier said than done, as every few strokes my oar pops out of the cradle. Soon, however, the movements begin to feel more natural. I can finally look ahead, rather than concentrating on my oar, to enjoy the spectacular wetlands rising out of the water as the tide goes down and, in the distance, the sunset silhouette of Palladio’s Redentore Church.

I’m in the front, where all I theoretically have to do is propel us forward, while Vianello is sitting at the rear, steering the boat. We end up rowing for about an hour, by which time he reckons I’ve grasped some of the basics. But just when I’m beginning to feel comfortable, we change places to see how I handle steering. Again, it sounds easy: “Use the oar as if you are slicing a knife through butter,” says Vianello, but this is a total disaster, as all I succeed in doing is directing us around in circles.

Of course, that famous regatta is only the showboating side of this rejuvenated pastime. Today, there are clubs all over the city, and they’re proving a great hit with young and old alike, both in Venice and in the countryside, where there are many more. Not only do they cost less to join than a gym, but the workout you get from an hour’s Voga is far more strenuous than jogging – once you get past the blisters. And, although the Vogalonga is the big event, there are also dozens of other, fiercely competitive, regattas. You don’t even need your own boat, as the clubs have stock for members to choose from and many, such as the Settimari (settemari.com), welcome tourists to come along and have a go.

Rowing solo

Rowing solo


But back to the final lesson of my challenge – and my biggest test yet – which comes with Giorgio Crovato, founding member of the Settemari rowing club and respected author on Venice. His boat is moored in the heart of the city, by the Misericordia Canal. This is where I live, so the stakes feel raised somehow. Fortunately, I start well, managing to avoid making a fool of myself as we negotiate the Misericordia and duck under low bridges, with local friends shouting encouragement from the busy fondamenta. I even hear Gino, a grumpy retired vaporetto captain, shouting that I’m rowing too slow as he can see crabs hanging onto my oar. Rowing in the heart of Venice is another ball game altogether. At times it’s so narrow you simply have to pull your oars in. Then, suddenly, Crovato shouts, “Da mi venti come un regatta,” challenging me to row fast for the next 20 strokes as if this were a race. This works until the oar pops out of the fórcola.

I’m about to curse my luck when, suddenly, the waterway opens out and we are smack in the middle of the Grand Canal. All ill feeling is forgotten. Nothing, in all my years of living in Venice, compares to this moment, standing up in this tiny boat rowing past the city’s splendid palaces and churches. Despite the busy traffic, even the vaporetto and transport boats have to give us priority. I’ll admit I don’t last long, but Crovato, the typically effusive Venetian, declares I am a natural. I’m not sure about that, but I realise now what I’ve been missing. The next step is to find a boat willing to take me for the Vogalonga. So… anyone looking for a crew member?

Armenian monks from San Lazzaro island in the Vogalonga - no place in their boat

Armenian monks from San Lazzaro island in the Vogalonga – no place in their boat

Dragon boat in the Vogalonga

Dragon boat in the Vogalonga

NEW EVENT FIRST PARIS BEER WEEK FEATURING CRAFT BEERS

A real surprise in the City of Light to compete with all the wine events –  there is now the first ever Paris Beer Festival, running from  24 May to 1 June, and the star of the show are artisan craft beers, including a host of new breweries in the French capital and surrounding suburbs.

La-Baleine

La Baleine is a small microbrewery situated in the 20th arrondissement, while up in the multi-ethnic La Goutte d’Or near Montmartre, they are inspired to brew exotic beers with chillies, dates and hibiscus

Brasserie-de-La-Goutte-d’OrCraft beers are really big news in the North of Italy, particularly around the town of Treviso – normally more known for as the home of Benetton, and there will be several events to taste the latest brews of the avant garde Birra 32EnoliaBirra-32

La-Moustache-BlancheOne event not to miss has to be at the specialist beer bar, La Moustache, whose logo is  a lot better than Guinness

Provence Wineroute – new Guardian article plus Provence Slideshow with extra adresses to discover

The Guardian has just published  my latest Top Ten Wineroute on Provence – www.theguardian.com/travel/2014/apr/17/provence-wine-route-top-10-guide – a journey that took me along the Cote d’Azur from Toulon, past the grand town of Hyeres, a favourite resort of Queen Victoria and the unspoilt island of Porquerolles, up as far as Saint Tropez and the spectacular vineyards of Ramatuelle that lie right at the edge of the Mediterranean. Then inland, through the wild landscapes of the Massif des Maures and the classic Provencal scenery of La Dracenie where vines grow alongside olive groves and fragrant fields of lavender. But there is a lot more than my Top Ten to see in this region, so here is a Slideshow that shows many of the other winemakers and bistros to discover – http://www.thewinetattoo.com/portfolio/provence-wineroute/

winetattoo provence