John Brunton’s Bordeaux Agroforestry Trail

Introduction

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

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

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

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

Château d’Esther 

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

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

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

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

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

Vignobles Bardet

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

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

Château des Annereaux

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

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

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

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

Château Bournac

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

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

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

Château d’Arche 

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

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

Château Passe Craby 

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

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

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

Château de Piote 

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

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

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

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

Château Carsin

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

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

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

Château La Peyruche

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

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

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

John Brunton’s Bordeaux Wine Tourism Trail

Introduction

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

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

Château Monconseil Gazin 

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

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

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

Château Lagarde

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

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

Château de Reignac 

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

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

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

Les Caves de Rauzan

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

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

Château Paloumey

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

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

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

Château de la Vieille Chapelle 

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

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

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

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

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

Château Boutinet 

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

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

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

Château d’Arsac 

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

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

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

 Château Bardins 

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

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

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

Where to eat

L’Auberge Saint-Jean

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

Le Jardin

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

Where to stay

Château La France

Just outside the wine making town of Fronsac, this magnificent 18th century chateau is surrounded by an immense vineyard, visible from miles around by its giant 12 metre high silver cockerel statue, Le Coq.

Cottages by the cellar have been tastefully transformed into cosy B&B accommodation, with a spa and jacuzzi, wine tasting and casual dining area. For a really special occasion, it is possible to rent the entire château itself.

What to do

Rétro Tour Bordeaux

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

John Brunton’s Moscato d’Asti Wine Trail

INTRODUCTION

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

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

GHIGA

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

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

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

GANCIA

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

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

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

BEPPE BOCCHINO WINERY

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

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

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

TERESA SORIA

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

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

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

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

CAPETTA 

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

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

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

TORELLI VINI

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

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

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

TRE SECOLI

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

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

PIANBELLO

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

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

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

CAVALLERO VINI

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

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

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

CANTINA LA TORRE DI CASTEL ROCCHERO

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

Where to Stay

Relais San Maurizio

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

Casa in Collina

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

Where to Eat

Casa Crippa

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

Ristorantino Ca’ d’Basan

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

Ca’ di ’Ven

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

John Brunton’s Chianti Classico Wine Trail

INTRODUCTION

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

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

QUERCIABELLA

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

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

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

ISTINE

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

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

CIGLIANO DI SOPRA

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

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

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

FATTORIA VITICCIO

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

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

BADIA A COLTIBUONO

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

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

FATTORIA POMONA 

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

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

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

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

FONTODI 

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

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

CASTELLO DI MONSANTO

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

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

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

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

Where to eat

Casa Chianti Classico

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

Officina della Bistecca

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

A Casa Mia

Ristoro Lucarelli

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

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

Where to stay

Fattoria La Loggia

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

Borgo San Felice

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

Palazzo Leopoldo

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

John Brunton’s GÉRARD BERTRAND LANGUEDOC WINE TRAIL


INTRODUCTION

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

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

Château l’Hospitalet 

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

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

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

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

Château de Villemajou 

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

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

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

Château La Soujeole

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

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

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

Clos du Temple 

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

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

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

Domaine de l’Aigle 

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

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

Clos d’Ora

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

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

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

Château La Sauvageonne

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

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

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

Where to eat

La Petite Fringale

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

Les Halles de Narbonne

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

O Vieux Tonneaux

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

What to do

Abbaye Saine-Marie de Lagrasse

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

Carcassonne

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

Le Salin de Gruissan

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

John Brunton’s ASOLO PROSECCO WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

Hidden away in the Veneto region, just an hours drive from the city of Venice, lie the Asolo hills, one of Italy’s best kept secrets. Romantic Asolo itself stands perched on high, known as the City of a Hundred Horizons, looking out over an idyllic panorama that stretches from the towering outline of Monte Grappa to the Montello hills and the fertile plains of Italy’s sacred river, the Piave. This bucolic countryside remains refreshingly unspoilt, while from its necklace of undulating, vine-clad hills grow grapes that have produced quality wines for centuries. But today the magic word here for wine is quite simply Prosecco, the world’s favourite bubbly. Asolo’s privileged vineyards are precious pearls in the vast panorama of Prosecco production, a unique ‘terroir’ that produces a ‘gastronomic’ wine perfect for an aperitivo and throughout a meal. And while Asolo Prosecco is mostly made as an elegant spumante using the Metodo Charmat technique, where bubbles are created during the wine’s second fermentation in steel tanks, there is also a firm tradition of Col Fondo, the historic artisan process of a natural second fermentation in the bottle, with no sugar added, resulting in a cloudy but definitely original frizzante wine.

When you stop off for a cellar tasting hosted by a welcoming winemaker, you will find that apart from bubbly Prosecco, there are other wines to try too; fresh, crisp whites, an unexpectedly intense red Recantina, and elegant Bordeaux-style blends of Cabernet and Merlot. Many vignaioli here also offer comfy agriturismo accommodation for a longer stay, while for wine and food pairings over a meal, the choice ranges from a plate of salami and cheese in a rustic osteria to hearty home cooked pastas  in a family-run trattoria, or sophisticated restaurants creatively interpreting ancient recipes like ‘sopa coada’, an intense consommé with succulent pigeon, and irresistible tiramisù, invented in nearby Treviso. For a first taste of Asolo Prosecco, below are 10 cantine to visit dotted around the hills of Asolo and the Montello. 

Montelvini

The sign outside the entrance of this family winery proudly states 1881, and Alberto Serena, who runs the company today with his sister Sarah, are the fifth generation. The business is still based here in Venegazzu, right by the house where the family originally lived. Explaining the history of the region, Alberto recounts how, ‘this zone around the Montello was historically known for its red wines – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carmenere and Cabernet, while the vineyards surrounding Asolo were recognised as making high quality white wines back in the 17th century. The white grapes planted then were autochthonous Bianchetta Trevigiana, Perera and of course Malvasia which was brought from Cyprus by Queen Caterina Corner when she was exiled in Asolo during the 15th century. Glera began to be planted only in the  1960’s when Prosecco started to become popular, but at that time, most people would not even have known that Asolo produced a bubbly. Then in 2009,  the region was transformed into Asolo DOCG, and production soared from barely a million bottles to today’s 20 million. The potential of Asolo Prosecco is that we can make a more dry bubbly, hence our signature Extra Brut, more structured, soft on the palate and with marked minerality and salinity, what we like to call ‘sapidità’, the distinctive flavour of our soil, a word you will hear every Asolo winemaker using when describing his Prosecco.’ Though one of the larger wineries, Montelvini is certainly innovative. Alberto is especially proud of his traditional Col Fondo, despite the misgivings of the rest of his family, ‘because making a bottle-fermentated, light frizzante on the lees with no sugar, hardly any sulphite, is a complex process.’ Their FM333 cuvée is a rare single vineyard cru from the Montello hills, while in Asolo itself, this autumn will see the first harvest from an ancient reclaimed vineyard right in the historic centre of town.

Bresolin

In the heart of the Asolo hills, a winding road climbs high above the  town of Maser. Eventually it comes out at a modern farmhouse which houses the cellar, tasting room and soon a panoramic vineyard terrace to promote the surprising wines of this young estate.

This is the story of three brothers, Enrico, Matteo and Davide, who entered the cantina when they were just teenagers convinced they would start making wine here. Enrico insists that, ‘the three of us have always been in total agreement. We always wanted to work together in the vineyard and cellar, having a fun experience while producing a quality product. From the first day, we immediately wanted to be certified organic, because we work all day in the vines so could not imagine using chemicals there, and what heritage for our children  would we be leaving in the soil. And we are convinced that if we harvest a healthy organic grape, then it will naturally produce a better quality wine.’

While their classic range of Brut, Extra Brut and Extra Dry Prosecco provide the backbone of sales, they are also interested in tempting their customers with experimental cuvées, testing a terracotta amphora, while leaving their Col Fondo to age for a year once bottled. The brothers are part of a small group of 16 local winemakers, Col Fondo Agricolo, who insist on using the traditional metal cap instead of a cork. ‘ And we faithfully continue the tradition whereby customers  can come to the cantina and fill their  demijohns to make their own Col Fondo. We add a little yeast to the fermented Prosecco, fill the demijohn which they take home, bottle themselves and wait for the second fermentation in the bottle. Two months later they can open a bottle of their very own Frizzante Col Fondo.’

Martignago Vignaioli

Simone Morlin is visibly proud as he declares that, ‘we use the term Vignaiolo – artisan winemaker –  as this means I can still make wines that please me, because as a Vignaiolo I am only selling around 50,000 bottles and not 1,000,000 like some industrial wineries.’ Located in the  village of Maser, this family-run Azienda Agricola bears the name of Simone’s father-in-law, who transformed a farm of dairy cows, cereals and grapes that were sold direct to the local cooperative, into a serious vineyard. Guests are welcomed to stay in their family-friendly agriturismo, a rambling manor house which contrasts with the modern, minimalist winery at the back, where some 70% of the production from their  8 hectare vineyard is sold during tastings with wine loving tourists.

This vignaiolo is not shy to speak his mind, especially when describing the unique character of his Prosecco. ‘The authentic DNA of Asolo Prosecco is its saltiness and we should not be shy or afraid to say this. It may sound like a provocation to say we make a salty Prosecco here, but is is our difference. It is not a defect, it is what makes my Prosecco distinct and different from others. And I love it.’ While 50% of his vines grow Glera grapes for Prosecco, the 10 wines he produces include Merlot and Pinot Bianco, a sparkling Rosé, and closest to his heart, Col Fondo Agricola, old-fashioned and cloudy, a bottle-fermented Prosecco, topped in the traditional way with a metal cap rather than a cork, so classified as a Frizzante. ‘Col Fondo is utterly territorial, a reflection of the region and soils where the grapes grow. You can say that a bubbly glass is a photograph of our vineyards. There is no sugar, zero dosage, so it is just the grape, aided by a brief ageing in small cement vats, which was once considered outdated, but today is becoming increasingly popular again.’

Dal Bello

Whether it is tasting his wines, taking a tour of the cellar or heading to the vineyards in his four-wheel jeep, a meeting with Antonio Dal Bello inevitably turns into a whirlwind adventure. He is Mr Asolo incarnate, the region’s pioneer winemaker and cheerleader, who quite simply wins over everyone with his sheer enthusiasm and pride for Asolo wines, be they Prosecco, red, white, rosé or his excellent Bordelese blend, which Antonio insists on calling Rosso Asolo. His reasoning is crystal clear; ‘my faith comes from the certainty that the soil here, nostra terra, gives a great result whatever is planted – cherries, apples, olives and of course grapes. For hundreds of years, our grapes have produced great wines. Long before Asolo Prosecco Superiore DOCG was created in 2009, and lets proudly use the correct name, we were barely a handful of viticoltori who were committed to these vineyards. But I insisted that the very first bottle I produced, back in 1993, placed the name Asolo in big on the label. And I am proud of that. We made a 1,000 bottles, and we were selling the territory. My father said I was mad, but today every Dal Bello bottle – and we produce 1 million a year – still has the name of our territory on it.’ While Dal Bello has made huge investments in a modern cantina to create the first industrial winery in Asolo, they also purchase grapes from smallholders from 5 neighbouring hamlets, whom Antonio describes as ‘part of our family of sustainable farmers’.

And family is at the heart of his latest ambitious project, the purchase of the farmhouse where his grandfather was born, together with a stunning vineyard right below the town of Asolo itself. ‘My grandfather never owned anything, he was a mezzadro, a landless sharecropper farmer, but this now will become the ultimate showroom for Dal Bello wines.’

Tenuta Amadio

Monfumo is one of the most unspoilt and biodiverse corners of the Asolo Hills, perfectly illustrated by the view from the wine tasting terrace of Tenuta Rech’s dazzling new state-of-the-art cellar. Sipping a glass of their signature Prosecco Extra Brut, sharply mineral but with a marked sapidity, Asolo’s hallmark saltiness, you look out over a natural amphitheatre of neatly planted vines covering undulating hills, then thick woods, olive groves and fruit trees with the brooding profile of Monte Grappa in the background. Although the estate dates back to 1850, it has been completely revolutionised  by the present fifth generation brother and sister, Simone and Silvia Rech.

Simone explains that when, ‘we took over the Tenuta in 2012 when the vineyard was all but abandoned, so most had to be replanted. Then in 2015, we took the big investment to build this new cantina where we can create our own range of Prosecco by the classic spumante system of Metodo Martinotti-Charmat using autoclave tanks.’ Simone certainly has firm ideas on the wines he wants to make, especially proud of a surprising Col Fondo which uses the local native grape, Bianchetta, instead of Prosecco’s Glera. His fresh way of thinking also extends to their 20 hectare vineyard, which is not certified organic, but run along ambient sustainability principles, ‘because these hillsides bordering the Padana plains are simply not ideal for bureaucratic organic cultivation. It is just too damp with consistent rainfall plus humidity at night. So rather than the  innumerable tractor treatments demanded by certified organic regulations  I am more the next generation winemaker who believes in modern technology to precisely monitor the weather and diseases. And I promise you, that goes further than organic. With advance warning we do not need to treat the our whole 20 hectares each time, just the part where it is necessary.’

Ghisolana

The best place to taste Ghisolana’s wines is by booking a meal or stay at the Dall’Est family’s rustic Agriturismo al Capitello, just down the road from Tenuta Armadio.

This is where you will meet a genuine ‘contadino’, rural family, who run the guesthouse, cook the meals and make the wines. There is the rough and ready patriarch, Ernesto, out in the vines all day and grilling steaks for the restaurant at the weekend, the young son Enrico, who has studied to be a chef and creates surprising dishes in the kitchen, Mamma Antonella who runs the b&b  along with her vibrant daughter, Lisa, the public face of Ghisolana, conducting tastings with tourists. And who can disagree when she says, ‘we chose the name, Ghisolana for the cantina because Gabriele d’Annunzio used this name for his muse Eleonora Duse. It means simple and authentic, and that is what we are.’ Their 5 hectare estate is planted almost entirely with Glera grapes, ‘so are basically 100% Asolo Prosecco – Brut, Extra Dry, Col Fondo –  because the grape and soil are perfect for a bubbly, and that is why people come here.’ That is clear once you take in the stunning view from the Agriturismo, a dramatic panorama of their principal vineyard and Monte Grappa.

A black&white photo on the wall depicts the same scene back in the 1950’s, a retro snapshot of idyllic rural life, and Ernesto declares, ‘that is the ambiance I want to create here, so tourists can understand what life used to be like and still is for us living here. We have been certified organic vignaioli since the beginning and for me this is a return to the world of our ancestors before chemical treatments. This is what I remember from my youth, a genuine kilometre-zero where everything we ate and drank came form the farm.’

Villa Sandi

Behind a large wooden desk in a spacious though subdued office, the ‘Presidente’ as everyone refers to Giancarlo Moretti Polegato, sits at the heart of the Villa Sandi empire he has created over the last thirty years; one of the ten largest family wineries in Italy that spans the whole  Prosecco universe, exporting to some 126 countries across the globe. Their headquarters and iconic Villa Veneta are right here in Tenuta Crocetta del Montello in the heart of the Asolo Prosecco region, and the Presidente becomes passionate when talking about their production. ‘People describe Asolo as a jewel in Prosecco’s crown, but today it produces some 20 million bottles, more than the whole of Franciacorta. We believe it has great potential for many reasons. Asolo is a name known around the world that can give brand recognition. We may not be certified organic, but we are the first winemaker to sign up for Biodiversity Friend, originally created for the fruit growing industry whereby cultivation is sustainable using as much renewable energy as possible. And all smallholders who sell grapes to us must follow the same principles while their work in the vineyard is closely overseen by our own agronomists.’

Villa Sandi’s winemaker, Stefano Gava, stresses that freshness is what makes their Asolo Prosecco stand out, with more body than the bubbly from nearby Valdobiaddene because of the red clay soil, rich in iron, here in Montello. While Stefano can’t wait to begin making an Asolo Rosé Prosecco if it is approved – a sure fire success in his mind – he will not be producing a Villa Sandi Col Fondo, claiming that the ‘ancestral’ method of bottle  fermentation, ‘creates an imperfect product that I am not interested in making. I may enjoy drinking it with friends, but it is not  reliable. And remember; all wine ends up as vinegar if it were not for the intervention of the winemaker in the cellar.’

Case Paolin

The sturdy, rustic 300 year-old farmhouse and cantina of the Pozzobon family is a different world from many of Asolo’s modern wineries. And it is not for nothing that they call themselves Vignaioli di Natur, as they were the first pioneering cantina to be certified organic in the Asolo wine region. The quality of their wines certainly stands out, with three brothers successfully complementing each other in the winery; Adelino in the cellar, Diego outside in the vineyards, and Mirko, a respected oenologue. Describing their decision to turn organic, Adelino says, ‘it was not with the idea of producing a better wine, but because we thought using chemicals was dangerous and we were determined to avoid illnesses for our workers in the vines. It was certainly not for commercial reasons, to get the stickers to sell more bottles, but rather the best way to cultivate our vines. Bio does not mean higher quality but I think we have shown you can do bio and make quality wines. And this has I stimulated us to always try to be ahead of every one. So logically we are now considering biodynamic winemaking.’

Adelino also speaks eloquently on how consumers always want to drink Prosecco young, in its first year, rather than reaching its full potential by ageing. ‘This is especially so for our Col Fondo, where we use our oldest vines because you need the highest quality wine for bottle fermentation. Although Prosecco as we now know it, was born as a spumante using the technical Charmat method, frizzante wine existed long, long before with a natural second fermentation in the bottle. And we are determined to make our local tradition known not just in Italy but all around the world. We recommend agitating the wine by turning the bottle upside down to ensure a uniformity in each glass with no residue at the bottom of the bottle. But this means drinking a cloudy wine, and accepting that will take time.’

Leterre

The sleepy village of Covolo di Pedrobba sits on fertile sandy plains at the foot of Monte Tomba and the snow-capped peaks of the pre-Alps. The river Piave runs alongside this family cantina, where an enthusiastic passion for wine is personified by the 30 year-old owner, Federica Andrighetto. During a tasting, she loves to recount how, ‘I studied art at university but already at the age of 22 I was spending all my time in the cantina, embarking on this crazy adventure of running of our winery, with no formal oenology training.

We inherited these vineyards from my grandfather, Luigi. You can see his picture up on the cantina wall from his regiment in World War One when this region was the site of  terrible battles. My father, Antonio, planted our proper vineyard, and started making wine. Today we bottle ourselves, and if you ask my ambition it is not to become a big commercial winery, to buy more hectares and produce more, but just to progress to the point where I can bottle all my wine myself, to stop selling in bulk to other cantine, and stay a small boutique winery.’ Federica makes 10 different wines – red, rosé, white and bubbly – from a 5 hectare estate made up of numerous small plots dotted around the cantina.

Pride of place is the vineyard producing her Dry Asolo Prosecco, perfectly manicured like a garden, the edges bordered with olive and cherry trees. ‘I chose to make a sweeter Prosecco, the Dry, as it is perfect for celebrations throughout the year, at Xmas, for weddings, christenings and birthdays.’ She loves to host wine lovers at the cantina, and the family also own the grand Villa Bellati, whose friendly trattoria is the prefect place to try Veneto specialities paired with Leterre wines.

Tenuta Baron

This idyllic winery of ten enclosed hectares dates back to 1700 when this was the estate of Venetian nobility whose palatial summer villa was surrounded by vineyards and olive groves. Today it has become Tenuta Baron, bearing the name of local furniture manufacturer, Nico Baron, who bought the property in 1981, renovated the villa into a potential luxury wine resort, and built a modern cellar.  Since 2013  he has handed over the daily running to two dynamic young friends, his son Giacomo and Andrea  Sbrissa, who are creating a very modern, inventive approach to marketing their wines. The Tenuta runs the popular Bonsai Japanese restaurant in Asolo, perfect for pairing raw fish with Prosecco, plus a new project to revive  the ancient Osteria alla Baracca in Monfumo. But the biggest change has come at the winery itself, creating a modern designer tasting room. On Friday and Saturday, around 150 people arrive for a fun aperitvo tasting that runs through till just before midnight, where wines are paired with local specialities like sopressa salami and bastardo cheese.

Andrea outlines a philosophy that has evolved because, ‘our vineyard is split up into 12 very different plots, with varying soils, altitude and exposure, so we like to think of them as individual crus that we vinify separately and then decide which are best suited for which wine.’ With no Extra Brut or Col Fondo, the Tenuta promotes its  Extra Dry, ‘which is more aromatic because we blend  local grapes – Bianchetta, Verdiso and Perera – for the 15% that does not have to be Glera.’ Outside of Asolo Prosecco, it is worth trying their bubbly Rosé delle Stelle, made with Raboso, Verduzzo Trevigiano and Merlot, along with a crisp white Incrocio Manzoni and more complex wood-aged Chardonnay. 

Where to stay

Albergo al Sole

With to-die-for views overlooking Asolo, this plush family-run boutique hotel has been luxuriously renovated and is a perfect base both to plan wine tasting trips and to explore one of Italy’s most romantic towns.

Col Delle Rane

Surrounded by rolling hills and vineyards,  with a relaxing pool, ‘Frog Hill’ is one of the many winemaker agriturismi in the region offering affordable, comfortable accommodation with the chance to taste the estate’s organic wine and olive oil.

Where to eat

Ristorante Da Celeste

Overseen for 50 years by legendary restaurateur, Celeste Tonon, this temple of Veneto gastronomy is a favourite with winemakers. The cuisine follows the local seasons, so depending when you visit, try the asparagus risotto, grilled late-harvest radicchio, juicy roast capretto, guinea-fowl topped with a savoury peverada sauce. 

Antica Trattoria Agnoletti

Housed in an 18th century villa, two brothers and their sister have brought back to life this historic restaurant. Renowned for tasty, open-fire grilled meats – succulent TBone, lamb chops and  veal steaks – and in autumn a paradise for mushroom-lovers, from porcini and chanterelle to strange-looking but delicious ‘barboni’.

Osteria al Bacaro

Tucked beneath a narrow medieval arcade the heart of Asolo, this cosy wood beamed 130 year-old osteria is perfect either for a glass of Prosecco and cichetti or a hearty meal of local specialities like pasta e fagioli or trippa alla Veneta. 

What to do

Asolo Antiques Market

Every second Sunday of the month the ancient streets and squares of Asolo are transformed into a giant Mercatino, an irresistible antiques market  with scores of stalls displaying jewellery, silverware, painting, furniture and porcelain.

Museo Gypsotheca Antonio Canova

Birthplace of the world’s most renowned Neoclassical sculptor, Possagno is home to the  fascinating Gypsotecha, displaying Antonio Canova’s original 18th century plaster cast models including his masterpiece, The Three Graces.

Villa di Maser

This spectacular Unesco World Heritage Site was flawlessly designed in 1560 by Renaissance architect, Andrea Palladio, and decorated with breathtaking trompe-l’oeil frescoes by Paolo Veronese. Surrounded by vineyards, there are tastings of the villa’s wine in the splendid Bacchus Room.

JOHN BRUNTON’S COLLIO WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

Just an hour’s drive north east of Venice, in the heart of the rugged Friuli countryside, the rolling vine-clad hills of the picturesque Collio region, with a remarkable clay and sandstone soil,  produce some of Italy’s greatest white wines and surprising reds too. This wine trail runs for 50 kilometres from Dolegna del Collio, past the unofficial wine capital of Cormòns, as far as Oslavia and Gorizia, sitting right on the frontier with Slovenia. It is the perfect destination for enthusiastic wine travellers, who are warmly welcomed in friendly family-run cantine, many of whom now offer comfy b&b accommodation, while tastings with the local vignaiolo are invariably accompanied by delicious artisan cheeses, salami and smoked ham. What really surprises in the Collio are the contrasts, with  each winemaker following his own ideas, his own passions.

While some of the family-run cantine have grown into ultra-modern wineries producing over 300,000 bottles, at the other spectrum there are committed artisans who  are content to make their living  with 10-20,000 bottles. While some viticolotori concentrate on international grape varieties, like Sauvignon and Pinot Grigio many see the future as the Collio’s own native grapes; Ribolla Gialla, Malvasia and Friulano. In the cantina, techniques range from stainless steel vats to wood barrels or amphora, and while some embrace grape skin maceration to produce distinctive orange wines, now a worldwide movement that found its first expression right here in the Collio, others prefer to make more traditional vintages, often looking to blend grape varieties together for the region’s signature Collio Bianco line. And while certified organic cultivation is still taking roots, you will discover a firm commitment for biodiversity and sustainable agriculture along with a low carbon footprint. The distinctive local cuisine is hearty mitteleuropean rather than classic Italian, tasty seasonal fare that is perfect for food and wine pairings; plump gnocchi and susina plums with a fruity Friulano, a rich goulash stew and full-bodied Merlot, crunchy red radicchio and quail eggs with Ribolla Gialla, traditional apple strudel and Picolit, a luscious dessert wine. And all budgets are catered to, from an elegant Michelin-starred dining room to a wood-beamed osteria or rustic agriturismo farmhouse. The website of the Consorzio Collio is a mine of information for wine lovers,  and as you prepare to hit the road, here are a selection of stop-offs for the perfect vineyard trip.

TOP WINEMAKERS TO DISCOVER

Pascolo

Alessandro Pascolo says he believes in the simple life, and he certainly seems to have created something special for himself and his young family in this idyllic corner of the Collio. 50 years ago, his grandfather, Angelo, who worked in the furniture industry in Udine, invested in 13 hectares of vines and woods surrounding an ancient farmhouse just below the village of Ruttars, which sits at the top of one the the Collio’s highest hills. Alessandro still cultivates his grandfather’s original 6 hectares of vines surrounding the cantina, the vineyards steeply tumbling down against a dramatic backdrop of snowcapped mountains.

He produces a modest 25,000 bottles a year, of which 30% is sold at the winery, because ’it is very important for us to sell directly to our consumers, to explain our passion, our work. So we are always open for tasting visits and this way people can genuinely appreciate our wines.’ And Alessandro is very clear about what kind of wines he want to make – don’t expect to see international grapes like Chardonnay as he is totally committed to native varieties like Ribolla Gialla, Friulano and Malvasia.  ‘In our cellar you will find essentially steel vats, with few wooden barrels. Rather than creating blends, what interests me are single variety vintages to express the maximum identity of each grape and our unique ‘territory’. I want clean, fresh wines, with acidity, mineralogy, salinity. This is what our soft clay ponca soil brings – the secret of Collio’s quality – and this is what is important rather than technique in the cellar. If you cultivate your grape perfectly, harvest at the perfect moment, then frankly the winemaker should be invisible in the cellar and just let the grape do its work.’ And to appreciate the potential of these exceptional wines, be sure to try his new Riserva range, aged for at least 3 years.

Radikon

Saša Radikon and his sister Ivana are the the third generation of vignaioli at this unique cantina set in the tiny winemaker village of Oslavia. Saša is a gentle giant of man and recounts how his grandfather started off in the 1960’s with a few cows, cultivated fields and a small vineyard.

Today the estate is monoculture of grapes with a vineyard  stretching over 19 hectares, producing 70,000 bottles, essentially of what the world now knows as Orange wine, whose colour, distinctive flavour and aroma come from lengthy maceration of grape skins. His father, Stanko, was the pioneer of this movement at the beginning of the 1990’s along with Josko Gravner whose cantina is just down the road. While Gravner took the path of using amphora for macerating, the Radikons have always favoured wood barrels. It is easy to drive straight past this discrete cantina as there is no sign on the roadside, ‘if we put a sign up there would be people stopping by all the time’ say Saša with a smile, ‘and that interrupts out winemaking work, so we only do tastings by appointment.’ 

The tasting room offers drop dead views over hillside vineyards, and a visit down to the cellar really gives you the feel of how Radikon’s unique wines are made. It is filled with huge old Slavonian barrels, which Sasa and Ivana mount to punch down the macerating grape skins. One part of a wall is left exposed to reveal the unique geological formation of the Collio. ‘What you see here is Ponca, a soft crumbly clay that may be poor quality and with little nutrition but which is incredibly rich in minerals,  giving our wines a unique character and quality.’ Orange wines tend to divide winelovers into two distant opposing  camps, and Radikon’s wines are exported the world over, but as Saša opens bottle after bottle, it is impossible not to be impressed; the Ribolla has incredible red and orange hues, aromas and body, reflecting 3 months maceration, 4 years cask aged then 2 years bottle-ageing, while their Merlot, after similar maceration and lengthy ageing, is like none other I have tasted. A memorable experience.

Varying cellar techniques in Collio

Muzic

The Muzic cantina is just down the road from Radikon in the neighbouring commune of San Floriano, but it could be in another world when you taste and discuss their highly distinctive, individual wines. Most of their 24 hectare vineyard tumbles down the cantina’s steep hillside, with spectacular views as far as Gorizia, and the daily running of the estate is shared by Fabijan and Elija Muzic, two dynamic twenty-something brothers. Fabijan speaks with such incredible passion about his region and its distinctive native grapes, that it would be easy to describe him as Mr Autochthona. ‘Although we propose a selection of wines with international grapes like Chardonnay and Sauvignon, some 70% of our production comes from 3 white autochthonous grapes of our unique territorio: Ribolla Gialla, Friulano and Malvasia.

When we are planting new vines we never buy clones from nurseries but create our own from the vineyard itself so there is no outside influence. We are working to create our own yeast from the vineyard and also plan to have our barrels made from local wood, which has to be better than the easy choice of buying French oak. This a traditionalist winery, where we try and give each grape its own personality. So our cellar is essentially stainless steels vats, including small tanks for experimental microvinications.  Don’t look for amphorae or cement eggs, and don’t expect to taste any orange wines, which for me, express first and foremost the maceration rather than the specific grape variety. When tasting orange wines I honestly have no idea what the grape is, be it  Malvasia or Friulano. But that does not mean I do not respect neighbouring vignaioli who may make orange, natural, organic and biodynamic wines. And on a Sunday, when I go the the local osteria after Mass, well I want to enjoy a glass with everyone as long as we all taste and respect each others wines.’

Collio’s Ponca soil

Livon

From the family home in the village of Dolegnano, where  their main cellars are still based, the Livon family have built a genuine wine empire that produces some one million bottles, stretching across the Friuli vineyards of Collio, Colli Orientali, Grave di Friuli and on to Tuscany’s Radda in Chianti.

Livon’s heart and soul is located where they first began, specifically on the highly-prized vines that cling to the steep slopes below Ruttars. And the perfect place to taste a selection of their elegant refined wines is on the panoramic terrace of the family ‘acetaio’, a barrel-ageing cellar for wine and balsamic vinegar. Selecting a bottle of their signature Braide Alte, Matteo Livon, the third generation running the winery, recognises the priceless heritage the family received from his grandfather. ‘Nonno had the foresight to realise that Ruttars was the optimum location in Collio to create vineyards that would produce quality wines. He was a visionary whose last words to his sons were – never sell our land. And we have always believed in the potential of the soil here, the altitude, the cooling winds.’  Braide Alte is certainly an exceptional white wine  blend, which Matteo explains, ‘is the ultimate expression of Livon’s winemaking philosophy.

A small single Ruttars vineyard, around 1 hectare, was created in the 1990’s,   planted with Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Picolit and Moscato Giallo. There are 4 individual harvests for each grape spreading over more than a month, with barrel-ageing of some 13,000 bottles.’ And now a new generation of wines will mark the future of Livon, with a young oenologue advising Matteo, the innovative Giovanni Gessio, and ambitious plans for, ‘a new cantina, a cellar where we want to create a series of options for our winemaking, spanning stainless steel, cement and amphora.’

Tenuta Borgo Conventi

This historic Collio cantina and its magnificent 19th century mansion,  is personified by its respected oenologue, Paolo  Corso, who has been overseeing the winemaking here for over 30 years. He is the beating heart of today’s modern, dynamic wines and an historical reference for a tenuta that has gone through many changes under his supervision. Paolo recounts how, ‘The founder of this winery, Giovanni Vescovo, was a visionary who was instrumental in the establishment of Collio’s DOC status, one of the earliest in Italy. He started in 1975 with one hectare producing 10,000 bottles and today the estate spreads over 30 hectares, producing some 300.000 bottles.’ Vescovo sold the winery in 2002, and today it has recently become part of the Villa Sandi group, one of Italy’s major Prosecco producers, who are committed to promoting and supporting Borgo Conventi’s identity, including new wine launches like a Pinot Nero and an excellent white blend, Luna di Ponca, dedicated to the Collio’s distinctive Ponca soil.

As Paolo says, ‘Most of our team have been here more than 30 years, quietly running the winery like gardeners carefully keeping the garden perfect, waiting for the arrival of dynamic new owners like Villa Sandi who are committed to potential of the estate.’ Paolo’s vision of oenolgy has created some very distinctive wines here. Against current trends, he uses very little maceration, preferring to ensure freshness, and bemoans how ‘increasing global warming creates intense grape maturation that almost makes it too easy for Collio winemakers to make what everyone loves calling ‘important’ high alcohol vintages.’  This thoughtful winemaker also adds that, ’on a personal level I feel Friuli is a difficult region to implement organic cultivation. The climate is problematic with too much rainfall, meaning to comply to organic rules there are too many treatments with high carbon footprint every time you take the tractor out.’

Casa delle Rose

Lucio Bernot is a delightfully eccentric, welcoming winemaker, ever ready to set up a table in his picturesque vineyards for wine lovers to taste his latest vintages accompanied by a hearty plate of local prosciutto and cheeses. Pulling the cork of a chilled bottle of his excellent Malvasia, he states that,‘I am proud that our tenuta has been able to welcome oenotourists to stay since 2006, and I only wish more wineries would open guest rooms, not to sell their own wine, but to sell our Collio region to tourists. This is better than any advertising or publicity to promote our wines.’ A tiny backroad behind Ruttars village brings you out to a rather grand 16th villa encircled by sloping vineyards,  that contrasts with a very modern wine cellar.

The Casa delle Rose dates back to just 1993 when Lucio  and his mother made their first vintage. ‘I was only 14 then, but started work straight away in the cantina. We began with mainly international grapes, but since I took over in 2008 I have followed my own philosophy. We only cultivate 2.5 hectares, producing 12,000 bottles but I have moved firmly to our local autochthonous grapes. First I dug up mamma’s favourite Chardonnay to plant Malvasia, while this year it is Ribolla Gialla, and then Friulano.’ Lucio’s wines are uncomplicated  and eminently drinkable. He explains that, ‘I am happy with my small vineyard and most importantly, happy with the quality of the wines we produce. You will find they are all around 13° alcohol because I am against the historic trend here to create so-called ‘important wines’ – important just because they are over 14° alcohol. That is not my way of thinking as I am looking for freshness and mineralogy rather than potent, full-bodied vintages.’

Carlo di Pradis

This quintessential family-run tenuta sits in the idyllic hamlet of Pradis,  atop a vine clad hill overlooking Cormons in one direction and Slovenia on the other. There are only 8 houses in Pradis and each one is a winery.

‘Welcome to the wine republic of Pradis’ says David Buzzinelli, as he recounts how his grandfather bought this farmhouse just after the Second World War. Like many people in this border zone between Italy and Slovenia, David and his family speak Slovene at home and he reveals that their name was ‘Italianized’ from Bužinel during the era of Mussolini. David and his brother Boris inherited the estate in 1992, when he was just 21. Today they run a 15 hectare vineyard, and their modern cellar houses essentially steel vats, with little wood-ageing, reflecting how David has very clear ideas about the wines he wants to make.  ‘In 2010 we decided to make only white wines in our Collio vineyards, and although we follow responsible, sustainable agriculture, because the vineyard surrounding our house is like our garden, I am not convinced about the necessity of certified organic.’ The cantina presents a small, quality selection of single variety, whites but no bubbly Ribolla Gialla, another band wagon David does not intend to jump on. However, when he opens a 2001 vintage of their Collio blend, you can see his pride in the quality of colour, aroma and expression the wine still retains after 20 years. Unlike many of his neighbours, he has not created an agriturismo to host wine tourists, but says he is waiting for his 16 year old daughter to decide if she want to run that business later on. Likewise a tasting room is on his to do-list, but visitors are still warmly welcomed to try wines in the farm’s unofficial ‘tavernetta’, originally created for serving meals to grape-pickers doing the harvest.

Castello di Spessa

Driving along the highway between Cormons and Gorizia, you can’t miss the majestic Spessa castle as it dominates the bucolic vineyard landscape with its distinctive red-brick turrets and towers.

But it also stands out as a world-class wine resort. Spessa’s 100 hectare vineyard  spreads from the Collio across to Isonzo, and the Castello has been transformed into a showcase for the wines produced here, offering a total immersion for wine lovers A Vinum Spa uses exclusive vinotherapy beauty products created from the Castello’s wines, and tastings can even take place during treatments and massages. Part of the castle’s magnificent gardens have been transformed into a sprawling 18 hole golf course, with a fun osteria clubhouse for relaxing afterwards. For wining and dining, there is the gourmet Tavernetta restaurant,  a casual bistrot, as well as the possibility for a tasting either in the castle’s plush salons or down in the medieval cellars which today are used for barrel ageing. And then there are 45 rooms and suites for a romantic winelover holiday.

Loretto Pali bought Castello di Spessa back in 1987, as a means to diversify his business empire which was based on making designer furniture. His wife Barbara admits that originally, ‘it was a business decision rather than because of a love of wine. But over the years, Loretto has become passionate about the world of wine. When we first bought the Castello it was seriously run down and over 25 years we have renovated and transformed every single part of the property. Today we live with our 7 year-old daughter in one wing of the building and the atmosphere with staff and guests is very much of one big family. The winemaking is overseen by Enrico Paternoster, a Trentino oenologue, who surprises with  the likes of a fruity Pinot Nero or an elegant 2016 Metodo Classico bubbly, aged for 40 months on the lees. Not what you would expect in Collio.

Gradis’ciutta

A tasting in the welcoming Gradis’ciutta cantina is an opportunity to see the past, present and future of Collio winemaking. Robert Princic proudly recounts  that, ‘we are a genuine MittelEuropa family that cross the borders of Italy, Slovenia and the former Habsburg empire.’

The winery is in the rural village of Giasbana, just outside Gorizia, and Robert recounts how his grandfather, Franz, began the long journey from being a contadino to viticoltore. ‘He was a mezzadro, a sharecropper for the local nobility until opting out of this semi-feudal system to be an independent subsistence farmer. My father, Doro, took over in 1972, started renting plots of vines. Although he made his own wine, it was sold in bulk and he never had a bottle with his own name. The day I graduated from my agriculture and oenology degree he did not even ask about the result but just said that now was time to come back to work in the cantina. So I took over in 1995 and the first bottled vintage with my own personality and identity was in 1997. Then we had 10 hectares, and today Gradis’ciutta stretches over 40 hectares, that I can proudly say are 100% certified organic, no easy achievement in Collio, and something I am committed to not just for the quality of the wine but the health of my workers who have suffered too long from the indiscriminate use of chemicals in the vineyards. 

This year we will open our own wine resort, Borgo Gradis’ciutta, the final piece in the jigsaw of my dreams and ambitions, a 16th century country mansion transformed into an elegant 12 room guesthouse.’ Tastings tend to concentrate on Robert’s flagship white wines, including Ribula, a unique frontier vintage whose grapes are grown on Slovenian vines across the border in Brda, but vinified here in Giasbana. But save some time for the intense Cabernet Franc and Merlot, which are a reminder that the Collio has a terrific potential for red wine too. 

Where to stay

Venica & Venica

The perfect way to discover Collio and its wines is to book a stay with a winemaker, and today travellers are spoilt for choice all over the region.

Pioneers of this ecotourism initiative were Gianni and Giorgio Venica, who opened their relaxing wine resort in 1985, with tasteful rooms and appartments in a country house, pool and tennis court, and tastings in the cellar with the family.

Casa Picech

Guests are really made to feel part of the Picech family, from Alessia’s splendid morning breakfast through to early evening wine tastings with Roberto. Fabulous vineyard views from the rooms and apartment. Bikes to hire.

Where to eat

L’Argine

Michelin-starred chef Antonia Klugman has created her own corner of paradise with a modern minimalist restaurant showcasing her creative cuisine. Don’t miss the wine pairing tasting menu with dishes like sage risotto or beef carpaccio stuffed with bone marrow and black cabbage.

La Subida

La Subida is a Collio institution where the welcoming Sirk family are renowned for their hospitality, be it luxurious guesthouse cabins, hearty Friulano specialities served in their rustic Osteria, or sublime gourmet creations like deer filet topped with trout eggs of chef Alessandro Gavagna in Trattoria al Cacciatore.

Al Cjant dal Rusignul

Artisan vignaiolo Ferrucio Scubin has created a cosy restaurant and comfortable guest rooms to welcome winelovers and showcase his Collio vintages accompanied by a cuisine that blends Friulano, Italian and MittelEuropa influences, with delicious dishes like wafer-thin prosciutto wrapped around creamy celeriac with a tangy horseradish sauce.

What to do

Cormòns

The unofficial capital of the Collio vineyards is the perfect place to taste Friulano, Ribolla Gialla and Malvasia  alongside local winemakers at lively locales like Enoteca di Cormòns and Il Cantiniere. Don’t miss the brilliant music festival, Jazz&Wine of Peace , and cantina visits during Enjoy Collio

Gorizia

Historic frontier city between Italy, the Habsburg Empire and ex-Yougoslavia,  literally divided in two like Berlin at the end of World War Two, Gorizia will take centre stage along with Nova Gorica in Slovenia in 2025 as a unique European Capital of Culture. Taste the cosmopolitan flavours of this unique region at the annual food festival, Gusti di Frontiera

JOHN BRUNTON’S COLLI BOLOGNESI WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION


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

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

Podere Riosto

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

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

Tenuta Bonzara

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

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

Montevecchio Isolani

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

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

La Mancina

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

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

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

Tizzano

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

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

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

Corte d’Aibo

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

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

Lodi Corazza

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

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

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

Tenuta Santa Croce

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

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

Cantina Francesco Bellei

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

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

Tenuta La Riva

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

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

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

Eat

Trattoria del Borgo

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

Trattoria dai Mugnai

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

Amerigo 1934

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

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

Where to Stay

Agriturismo Borgo delle Vigne

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

JOHN BRUNTON’S BORDEAUX MODERN REDS WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

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

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

Château Le Geai 

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

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

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

Vignobles Bayle-Carreau

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

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

La Dame de Onze Heures

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

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

Château Pré La Lande 

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

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

Vignobles Jean Médeville & Fils

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

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

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

Famille Bouey 

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

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

Château Brillette 

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

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

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

Château Anthonic 

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

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

Where to eat

La Terrasse Rouge

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

Vins Urbains

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

Les 4 Baigneurs

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

Where to stay

Coup 2 Foudres

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

What to do

Médoc train ride

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


Ballon trip

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

JOHN BRUNTON’S CRÉMANT DE BORDEAUX WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

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

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

Lateyron

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

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

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

Château Rioublanc 

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

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

Cave Louis Vallon 

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

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

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

Château de Bonhoste 

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

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

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

Château des Tourtes

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

Célène 

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

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

Château Haut-Garriga

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

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

Château Degas

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

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

Where to eat

Le Bar à Vin

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

Le Cloîtres des Cordeliers

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

Where to stay

Moxy Bordeaux

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

What to do

Cité du Vin

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

Bordeaux river cruise

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