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 VENTOUX WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

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

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

TOP TEN WINEMAKERS TO DISCOVER

Chateau Croix des Pins

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

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

Château Pesquié

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

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

Domaine de Fondrèche

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

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

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

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

Saint Jean du Barroux

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

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

Vignerons du Mont Ventoux

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

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

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

 Domaine Dambrun

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

Grandes Serres

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

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

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

Chêne Bleu

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

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

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

Château Valcombe

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

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

Domaine des Anges

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

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

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

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

where to stay

Hotel Crillon Le Brave

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

B&B Lily & Paul

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

Cabanons Jour & Nuit

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

where to eat

Chez Serge

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

Auberge de la Camarette

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


Chateau de Mazan

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

what to do

Mont Ventoux

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

Distillerie Arôma’plantes

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

Château du Barroux

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


JOHN BRUNTON’S CENTRE-LOIRE WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

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

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

TOP TEN WINEMAKERS TO DISCOVER

Domaines Mardon et Tabordet 

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

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

Domaine du Coudray 

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

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

Domaine des Caves du Prieuré

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

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

Domaine Stéphanie et Jean-Philippe Agisson

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

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

Domaine Teiller

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

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

Domaine Roux

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


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

Domaine Poupat 

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

Domaine de Bel Air 

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

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

Domaine du Bouchot 

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

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

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

Domaine des Puits de Compostelle 

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

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

where to stay 

Le Panoramic

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

La Fontaine du Tonneau

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

where to eat

Le Chat

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

La Mère Poule

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

La Banque

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

what to do 

Château de la Verrerie

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

La Loire

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

La Bête Noire Sancerroise

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

                                                 Ends