JOHN BRUNTON’S SALICE SALENTINO WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION


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

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

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

Masseria Li Veli

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

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

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

Cantele

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

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

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

Conti Zecca

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

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

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

Leone de Castris

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

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

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

Apollonio Vini

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

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

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

Cantine Cosimo Taurino

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

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

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

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

Castello Monaci


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

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

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

Cantine Due Palme

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

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

Cantina Vecchia Torre

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

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

Cantine Paololeo

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

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

Cantina San Donaci

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

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

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

Vinicola Al Bano

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

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

Where to eat

Malcandrino

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

Palazzo BN

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

L’Orecchietta

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

What to do

Porto Cesareo Marine Park

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

Lecce

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

Where to stay

Masseria Ogliarolo

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

JOHN BRUNTON’S BEAUMES DE VENISE WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

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

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

Domaine de Piéblanc

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

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

La Ferme Saint-Martin

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

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

Rhonéa

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

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

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

Domaine des Bernardins

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

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

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

Domaine de Durban

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

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

Xavier Vins  

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

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

Domaine de Fenouillet

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

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

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

Domaine des Garances

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

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

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

Maison Gabriel Meffre 

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

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

Domaine Saint Amant

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

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

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

Where to eat

Bistro de Lafare

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

Le Dolium

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

Auberge St Roch

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

Where to stay

Le Clos Saint Saourde

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

JOHN BRUNTON’S FLANDERS WINE ROUTE

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

Domaine d’Hellekapelle

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

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

Monteberg

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

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

Domaine Entre Deux Monts

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

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

Optimbulles

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

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

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

Domaine Helshoven 

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

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

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

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

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

Domaine Aldeneyck

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

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

Gloire de Duras

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

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

Where to eat

Restaurant Sparhof

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

‘t Huis zonder naam

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

Where to stay 

Hof van Stayen

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

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

JOHN BRUNTON’s FRIULI COLLI ORIENTALI WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

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

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

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

TOP WINEMAKERS TO DISCOVER

Aquila del Torre

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

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

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

Conte D’Attimis Maniago

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

Grillo Iole 

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

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

Dri

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

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

Livio Felluga

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

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

Ronc dai Luchis 

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

Scubla 

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

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

Jacuss

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

Visintini

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

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

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

Sirch 

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

Vignaioli Specogna

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

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

where to stay

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

where to eat

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

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

what to do

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

JOHN BRUNTON’S VENTOUX WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

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

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

TOP TEN WINEMAKERS TO DISCOVER

Chateau Croix des Pins

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

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

Château Pesquié

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

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

Domaine de Fondrèche

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

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

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

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

Saint Jean du Barroux

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

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

Vignerons du Mont Ventoux

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

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

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

 Domaine Dambrun

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

Grandes Serres

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

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

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

Chêne Bleu

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

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

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

Château Valcombe

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

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

Domaine des Anges

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

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

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

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

where to stay

Hotel Crillon Le Brave

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

B&B Lily & Paul

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

Cabanons Jour & Nuit

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

where to eat

Chez Serge

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

Auberge de la Camarette

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


Chateau de Mazan

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

what to do

Mont Ventoux

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

Distillerie Arôma’plantes

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

Château du Barroux

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


JOHN BRUNTON’S CENTRE-LOIRE WINE TRAIL

INTRODUCTION

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

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

TOP TEN WINEMAKERS TO DISCOVER

Domaines Mardon et Tabordet 

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

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

Domaine du Coudray 

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

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

Domaine des Caves du Prieuré

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

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

Domaine Stéphanie et Jean-Philippe Agisson

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

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

Domaine Teiller

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

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

Domaine Roux

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


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

Domaine Poupat 

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

Domaine de Bel Air 

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

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

Domaine du Bouchot 

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

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

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

Domaine des Puits de Compostelle 

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

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

where to stay 

Le Panoramic

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

La Fontaine du Tonneau

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

where to eat

Le Chat

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

La Mère Poule

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

La Banque

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

what to do 

Château de la Verrerie

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

La Loire

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

La Bête Noire Sancerroise

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

                                                 Ends