Oatley Vineyard, Somerset

If you dream of living life in a rural idyll, surrounded by wildlife and sipping wine made by your own hands, then a trip to Oatley Vineyard in Somerset will give you a taste of that life. The vineyard lies at the end of a long, narrow lane, that with each twist teases and invites you towards a hidden wonderland.

Trellis postOatley Leonora'sWild hedgerow

Oatley Vineyard is home to Iain and Jane Awty, who in 1985 decided to give up life in the rat-race and build their own vineyard. They spent a year searching for the perfect site and what a site it is. The vineyard is just under a hectare in size and is part of the land where they live. It is surrounded by green hills and the whole area is abuzz with wildlife.

Iain and Jane both have degrees in chemistry, and this scientific knowledge is obvious as Iain takes us around the vineyard. Their approach to the vineyard and winemaking is scientific but they also display a real passion for their product. And it must be this passion that keeps them going through all the hard work of running a vineyard in a marginal climate. If your dream of owning a vineyard is a romantic one where the grapes grow themselves, throngs of workers come along and hand-pick them before the wine ages in barrels ready to be quaffed by you and your friends, then it is probably best to keep it a dream. Owning a vineyard is incredibly hard work; although the rewards can be fantastic. There’s the planting, pruning, trimming, mending, mowing, spraying all before you even get to the back breaking work of harvest. And Iain and Jane have been doing this pretty much on their own for over 25 years. And that work never stops; as we walk amongst the vines every now and then Iain stops and breaks off a few leaves or inspects a trunk and he curses that he’s left his secateurs behind.

They also have a clear passion for the environment and treat the land with respect. As we stood talking, several common darters swooped in and around the vines while butterflies and other insects danced and fluttered around us. A buzzard was also spotted sweeping through the sky. And at the top of the rows of vines, you will find a wonderful hedgerow bursting with different berries, which they encourage to stop the birds wanting to eat the grapes. I don’t think I have ever been in a vineyard that has felt so alive before and this can only be a testament to the work that Iain and Jane do (and also the things they don’t do).

Oatley tasting

The vineyard is home to two varieties, Madeline Angevine and Kernling, but from these two grapes comes a fantastic range of wines.  Madeline Angevine is a cool climate, early ripening white grape from the Loire, which has become popular in England. Kernling is also a cool climate, white variety, with wonderful aromatic qualities.

  • Jane’s 2013 is made from Madeline Angevine – wonderfully light and zesty with a bright acidity.
  • Leonora’s 2011 is made from 85% Kernling and 15% Madeline Angevine. This wine is also low in sulphites. Fuller bodied than the Jane’s with aromatic stone and citrus fruits. Great with fish.
  • Elizabeth’s 2012 is made from a blend of the two varieties (65% Madeline Angevine / 35% Kernling). Wonderful body with touches of honey and a great acidity.

Following some experimentation there are also two barrel matured wines available:

  • Barrel Matured Jane’s 2013 – 6 weeks in French oak. The oak is very delicate but gives the wine a bit more body than the non-oaked version. It also feels a touch more serious.
  • Barrel Matured Leonora’s 2011 – only 309 bottles made and each has been numbered by hand. A delicious wine and my favourite. Lovely body, the oak is more apparent than on the Jane’s but it enrobes the perfumed fruit rather than swamping it. Fab.

All of these wines are naturally low in alcohol (between 11.5-12% abv). The majority of the wines are sold through the cellar door, with a few local shops and restaurants also holding stock, so a visit is your best opportunity to buy a bottle or twelve.

As we were sitting in the shade tasting the wines more wildlife appeared in the form of two baby pheasants that were incredibly tame (and a bit scatty) and the vineyard’s cat who obviously loves a bit of attention from visitors. This is a wonderful vineyard to visit and as you sit there tasting the wines it is hard to believe how close it is to the motorway and civilisation. So go and visit and forget about the rat-race for a couple of hours. Close your eyes, listen to the music of the birds and insects and imagine that you’ve fulfilled your dream and you’re sat in your own vineyard sipping your own wines.

Recommended for: those who dream about running their own vineyard, English wine lovers, wildlife enthusiasts. The vineyard is a dog-friendly site.

Tours:

The vineyard is open 1100-1800 on Fridays and Saturdays from April to mid-September. They are also open Bank Holiday weekends. Please check the website for any closures. If you wish to visit on any other days please contact Iain and Jane via twitter, email or telephone.

The tour is free.

For further information:

Oatley Vineyard, Cannington, Bridgwater, Somerset, TA5 2NL. Email: wine@oatleyvineyard.co.uk Telephone: 01278 671340

Website: http://www.oatleyvineyard.co.uk/Site/Home.html

Rathfinny, Alfriston, England

Ever since I heard about Rathfinny a couple of years ago I have been impatiently waiting to visit. The announcement of England’s biggest vineyard that would produce a million bottles of wine a year was big news not only in the trade press but also the general press. Although English sparkling wine has been growing in popularity and winning awards all over the world there has never been the capacity to really take on the big names of Champagne.  Now England was finally going to be able to compete with its rivals over the channel in both quality and production levels. But building a vineyard from scratch takes time – especially when you have to plant enough vines to produce those million bottles a year. So it had all gone a bit quiet on the Rathfinny front as the vines were being planted, trellises constructed and winery built.  That was until this summer when they announced that they would be running tours around the fledgling vineyard. And being the impatient person that I am I managed to get a place on the first afternoon tea tour that they were running.

Rathfinny is in the wonderful chocolate box village of Alfriston in East Sussex, roughly 16 miles from Brighton. You start the tour at The Gun Room which is on the village green opposite St. Andrews Church, the ‘Cathedral of the South Downs.’ From here you are transported, via minibus, to the vineyard and winery which is about 5 minutes away.  The vineyard is still very much a work in progress and when I visited the main, sweeping driveway up to the estate was still under construction but you could see how grand it will be when it is finished.

Alfriston signSt Andrews Church

Rathfinny is the brain child of Mark Driver, a former hedge-fund manager who had a passion for wine and dreamt of having his own vineyard. Most people with this dream would be content with a couple of acres, making enough wine each year to earn a living and having a few bottles spare to enjoy with friends. Driver, with plans to have 160 hectares of vines planted by 2020 had a whole different dream. As you are driven up to the winery the attention to detail and the clarity of design is clear to see.

We were taken around the vineyard by Richard James, Rathfinny’s Landscape and Environment Officer, and I was blown away by how much thought and consideration had gone into creating the estate. Every miniscule detail has been analysed, experiments have been conducted, experts consulted and the result is the stunning undulating landscape covered with row upon row of vines. Consideration for the environment has been a huge factor and wildlife and wild flowers are encouraged. They are also the first industrial site in the UK to have a ‘Biobubble’ which recycles the water from estate, they have fitted solar panels which will provide most of their electricity and the roof of the winery is covered in wild flowers.

Vines - Rathfinny EstateYoung vines - Rahtfinny Estate

After the tour of the vineyard we were taken into the winery which is yet to experience its first harvest so is immaculate. Although it is hard to imagine this place ever having anything out of place. The towering steel tanks stand side by side waiting for their first taste of the grape must that will become the first wine bottled on the estate. And here I should point out that Rathfinny is still a very young vineyard and it is unlikely to be selling wine commercially for several years – so you will not be able to taste any of the wines yet.  But this does not take away from the experience. Our guide Richard was so passionate about Rathfinny and knowledgeable about the processes they had gone through that you could almost imagine the future angel’s share drifting through the winery.

Rathfinny Afternoon teaCakes and sandwiches

From the winery we entered the tasting room to have our afternoon tea.  The room has a large veranda that over looks the vineyard with breath-taking views out across the downs.  The sandwiches and cakes were outstanding and very moreish and we were offered a choice of teas and coffees. All that was missing was a glass of sparkling wine but that just means that I’ll have to return when they do start to serve their own wines. Afterwards we returned to The Gun Room with a tip to try the nearby Wingrove House who we were told have a great selection of gins but unfortunately we had a long journey back to the West country ahead of us. Maybe next time.

Rathfinny is wonderful.  It is the perfect blend of wine lovers paradise and corporate wine business.  I was worried that due to its size it might lack some of the magic that makes visiting vineyards such a pleasant pastime but I needn’t have worried. Rathfinny has been built as a winery and first and foremost is there to produce wine and as such wine tourism may never become a key focus of the estate. Currently they are only open for a limited number of days a year (between April and October) so you need to book your tour now if you wish to visit this year. Although I would hate to see it turn into one of those estates where bus loads of visitors tramp through the vineyard, listening begrudgingly to the tour guide as they wait impatiently for their first glass of wine, I hope that it eventually opens up a bit more to the prospect of wine tourism.

Recommended for: couples, English wine lovers, those looking for a touch of luxury.

Tours:

Winemakers tour with lunch £55, selected Fridays and Saturdays, April-October

Tour with afternoon tea £35, selected Fridays and Saturdays, April-October*

For further information:

Rathfinny Estate, Alfriston, East Sussex. Telephone: 01323 871031 Email: info@rathfinnyestate.com

Website: http://rathfinnyestate.com/

To book tours:

The Gun Room, The Tye, Alfriston, East Sussex. Telephone: 01323 870022 Email: gunroom@rathfinnyestate.com

*prices correct as of 13th July 2014.

Domaine Carneros, Napa, CA

If you are looking to visit a winery that has a bit of class, that can transport you to the rolling hills of Champagne and of course where you can taste fantastic sparkling wines sat on a sun-drenched terrace then look no further than Domaine Carneros.  Now we all know that we can’t call sparkling wines ‘Champagne’ unless they are made in the Champagne region of France but this is probably the closest you will get to experiencing Champagne without having to swap the sunny climate of California for the at best temperamental climate of northern France.

Situated just outside the town of Napa, Domaine Carneros is perched up on a small hill surveying the rows of vines that surround it.  The stunning château is based on the 18th century Château de la Marquetterie in Champagne, home of Champagne Taittinger, and has been a Napa landmark since its completion in 1989.  Domaine Carneros was founded by the Taittinger family with Claude Taittinger settling on the site in Carneros in 1987 as a worthy place to grow grapes and make wine that would be comparable to their world renowned Champagnes.

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They offer a variety of tastings from the three times a day $40 ‘Daily tour’ to the extravagant $500 per couple ‘Sparkling Suite’ option.  We opted for the $40 daily tour which involved a tour of the château and tasting several wines.  The tour began outside with an introduction to the vines and viticulture of Domaine Carneros.  They have 316 acres of vines growing Chardonnay and Pinot Noir and are certified organic.  Although when we visited it was an unusually hot March day, thanks to the Bay breezes and fog the Carneros AVA is actually one of the coolest grape growing areas (zone 1 for the Winkler scale geeks amongst us) and therefore perfect for growing the grapes needed to produce high quality sparkling wines.

We then moved inside to the tasting room where we were told a bit more about how the wines are made, the wine making team and most importantly we tasted some wines.  From there we went to a viewing area above the bottling line of the winery and our tour guide took us through some of the processes involved in preparing the bottles for sale.  Again this is a bit geeky but I could happily watch the disgorging process for hours.  There’s something quite hypnotic about it.  We tried some more wines in this area, including one that is only available from the winery.  We also got to taste some of the non-sparkling wines that Domaine Carneros produce from Pinot Noir.

Our tour guide was knowledgeable and enthusiastic not only about Domaine Carneros and sparkling wine but also the rest of the Napa wine area.  He was very good at covering questions from the most basic to the more technical.

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Set on such a pretty site with the elegant château as a backdrop the tour is educational and a great introduction to the wines of Domaine Carneros.  However it all felt a little sterile – no angel’s share, viewing the winery behind glass from the tasting room.  This shouldn’t put you off though as a visit to Domaine Carneros is all about luxury and indulgence  and sitting on the glorious terrace on a warm day sipping a chilled glass or two of bubbly.

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Recommended for: those wanting to learn about the process of making sparkling wine and those wanting to enjoy a touch of luxury.

Daily tours are at 1100, 1300 and 1500 and cost $40 per person plus tax (correct as of 18/05/2014).   Speciality tastings are also available on request.

Domaine Carneros 1240 Duhig Road, Napa, CA94559 tel no. 800-716-2788.  For further information about Domaine Carneros and to book visits go to http://www.domainecarneros.com/

Kaz Winery, Kenwood, Sonoma

We visited Kaz Winery in March 2014 as part of the fantastic ‘Taste of Sonoma’ event (more on that in a post coming soon).  I chose Kaz as our first vineyard visit based purely on the fact that Kaz was my childhood nickname!  In an area with so many wineries to choose from you have to base your decision on something.

Kaz Winery is a very small winery set just off the Sonoma Highway.  With average production levels of a 1000 cases per year it is a pleasant relief from the super wineries that form a standard part of the tourist fare in Napa.  The family owned vineyard has been 100% organic since it was planted in 1987.  The ‘Kaz’ of Kaz Winery is Richard Kasmier and his passion and enthusiasm for the wines is infectious.  The rest of the family help out with tastings, designing the brilliant, eye-catching labels, and working in the winery and vineyard.  The whole winery and vineyard is covered with quirky sculptures, images and art and has a mystical, bohemian feel about it.  It kind of felt like when you arrive in San Francisco after a week in LA.

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The wines are made from a selection of grapes that are not the standard varieties in California.  Petit Sirah, Petit Verdot, Lenoir and Tannat can be found alongside the more traditional Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Merlot.  We tried a selection of wines including the 2011 ‘P no R’ (great acidity, full of strawberries and red fruit), 2009 ‘Kazza Roja’ (a deep, complex, blend of Petit Sirah and Petit Verdot) and the 2013 ‘Slide’ Chardonnay (no added sulphite, fresh and crisp).  We also tried their wonderful Red port which was full of blackcurrant and dried fruit and was quite moreish; it was a shame we had other wineries to visit or I would have quite happily sat drinking this the rest of the day.

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The vineyard and winery may be small but it has a wonderful magical feel about it.  The highlight of my visit, other than the great wines and enthusiastic staff, was being able to choose my own label for the bottle of wine we purchased and sticking it on the bottle – it felt like we were a tiny part of the process.  Kaz Winery is a great place to visit to try something outside of the standard Sonoma/Napa tourist machine.  You could also meet the man who makes the wines as Kaz himself is there 2 or 3 times a week pouring the wines for visitors.

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Recommended for those who want to try something a bit different.

Kaz Winery is open Fri-Mon 1100-1700.  Address: 233 Adobe Canyon Road, Kenwood, CA 95452.  The tasting room fee is a bargain at $5 per person for five wines or ports (correct May 2014).  Further information on visiting Kaz Winery can be found at www.kazwinery.com

Denbies Estate, Surrey

On a very miserable Bank holiday weekend what better thing to do than head to a vineyard in Surrey and drink wine.  So we headed to Denbies in Dorking and did just that and I was quite surprised when we arrived, not just at the size of the estate, but also by the amount of visitors that like us had ventured out in the rain to experience the delights of an English vineyard.

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We had booked both the winery and vineyard tours and started with a twenty minute film in the striking 360̊ cinema.  This was a great introduction to the reason why this part of the country has been so popular with enterprising wine makers. The vines were planted in 1986 on this site because of its special attributes – the chalk soil, favourable climate, south facing slopes and the protection granted from Box Hill.  There are now 265 acres planted with fifteen varieties including Riesling, Bacchus, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and the first English planting of Sauvignon Blanc.  After the film we were transported on a people mover through the winery with a recorded voice giving us information on how the wines are made – a little bit Disney but an effective way of moving high visitor numbers through the site, even if it did lack the personal touch.

At the end of the winery tour we were guided to the tasting room were the wine and food had already been laid out.  There are three options available – standard wine tasting, sparkling wine tasting or the food and wine matching (all comprise of three wines).

We opted for the food and wine tasting as it promised local specialities matched with the wines.  We tried three still wines; Flint Valley NV with salmon, Surrey Gold NV with a local sheep’s cheese and chutney and Rose Hill 2011 with fresh fig.  The Flint Valley a blend of Seyval Blanc and Reichensteiner was fresh, zesty, aromatic and youthful a perfect aperitif well matched with the salmon.  Next we had the Surrey Gold – their top seller.  This is a blend of Müller-Thurgau, Bacchus and Ortega, it was fruity and light but I felt it was missing something.  The guide was telling us all the flavours and aromas that were in the glass but I struggled to find much – this may have been due to the cold temperature of both the wine and the cellar – a little disappointing for their biggest seller.  Finally we tried the Rose Hill with a local sheep’s cheese and tomato chutney – a truly delicious match.  The wine is a lovely, balanced, fruity rosé that would make a perfect summer aperitif.

After the tasting we headed for the vineyard train and a 45 minute jaunt through the estate.  The estate is home to several miles of public pathways and the route the train took was very busy with families enjoying the fresh air, dog walkers and even the odd trail runner.  Our guide stopped the train at two key vantage points – one overlooking the recently planted Sauvignon Blanc and Box Hill and the other with views of Leith Hill at the site of the old mansion.

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The original house built by Thomas Cubitt, sadly no longer there.

Our tour guide was full of fascinating facts about the estate and the surrounding area (I won’t spoil the surprise, you’ll need to visit if you want to find these out!) and made it a very enjoyable and more personal part of the tour.

We finished the day with a meal in the restaurant – excellent quality food, especially the cakes, I can’t recommend it enough.  There is also an extensive gift shop where alongside the Denbies wine you can purchase a plethora of local foods and souvenirs.  There is also the opportunity to try further wines that you may not have tried on the tour.  I sampled and purchased the Bacchus and Ortega – the Bacchus is an excellent example of what this grape is capable of in English vineyards.

For further details about visiting the vineyard and their wines please visit www.denbies.co.uk or call 01306 876616.

(Originally published on www.learningtodrink.com)

Three Choirs Vineyard, Newent

With the increasing popularity of English wines (particularly the sparkling kind), Three Choirs Vineyards are leading the way in choice, expertise and quality.

On a crisp November afternoon I visited the vineyard in Newent, Gloucestershire, and was surprised by the scale of the enterprise.  Alongside the vineyard, there is also a restaurant, tasting facilities and luxury guestrooms.  This is a company that really understands the opportunities of wine tourism.

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Our guide for the tour was Martin, the wine making director, who had the difficult task of addressing an audience that combined everyone from amateur to master of wine.  The vineyard opened in 1975 in an area that on a cold November day looks an unlikely place to successfully grow grapes but with a south-facing aspect, low-rainfall and a warm climate the vineyard has the perfect conditions.  Three Choirs also had the sensible idea of spreading the risk by growing 16 different varieties which flower and ripen at different times of the year, allowing for the quirkiness of English weather.  Amongst the grapes grown at Three Choirs are Riesling, Siegerrebe (a cross between Madeleine Angevine and Gewurtztraminer) and Reichensteiner.  The Germanic grapes are well suited to the climate and provide Three Choirs with an exceptional choice of products.  To those that haven’t tried it yet I can recommend the Siegerrebe, with its aromatic similarities to Gewurztraminer, it goes well with Chinese cuisine.

The grapes are grown on sandy soil which is held in place by the grass grown between the rows.  There are also rows of trees planted around the vineyard that act as wind breakers to protect the vines and grapes from winds coming off the Welsh mountains and the vines are grown in a high trellis system to help protect them from ground frost.

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Martin informed the group that this year had been a difficult harvest due to the lack of rain this year!  ‘Really,’ we all chorused, where had he been during the downpours that washed-out most of July and August?  But apparently this small corner of England had received less rainfall than the South East and its well known vineyards and this had meant that the grapes hadn’t swollen up as required leading to a light harvest.

In the winery, Martin explained that cool English temperatures were a benefit when it came to processing the grapes as it protected them from oxidization.

Three Choirs are respectful of the wines they make and understand when oak is appropriate and when it would over-power the traditionally fruity, aromatic English flavours and aromas.  They use a mix of French and American oak.

We finished our tour with a tasting session in their new purpose built tasting facility.

Wines we tasted:

Estate Reserve Pinot Noir 2010 £16

New Release English Varietal Wine 2011 £7.50

Brut Classic Cuvee (NV) £11

The Classic Cuvee was light and fruity in a similar style to cava and a bargain at £11 a bottle.  The New Release 2011 (released on the third Thursday of November) is a blend of Madeleine Angevine and Huxelrebe.  It was floral, with citrus and melon notes, a delicious, youthful aperitif.  The pinot noir, due to the cool weather, was light and fruity, full of strawberry and red fruit flavours.

I would recommend a visit to the Vineyard to anyone wanting to gain more of an understanding of the English wine industry while having the opportunity to taste some delicious wines.

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Visit Three Choirs website – www.three-choirs-vineyards.co.uk

(Originally posted on www.learningtodrink.com)

Barone Ricasoli, Castello di Brolio

The Ricasoli family have owned the Castello di Brolio since 1141 and claim amongst their clan the Iron Baron, Bettino Ricasoli, former Prime Minister of Italy and wine experimenter.  So on another very hot day in the Siena countryside we headed up to the castle (no thanks to sat nav!) to learn about the wine, the history and the man who invented the standard formula for Chianti.

The castle has been at the centre of many disputes and wars, mainly between the Sienese and the Florentines.  Most recently it was taken over by the Germans during World War II and still shows the scars of the artillery attacks by the alliance.  The castle has signs of being rebuilt over the years with different colour stones and styles of architecture.  For example one part that is grey brick was built in the 1500’s, another which is red brick was built between 1850-60.  The chapel at the heart of the castle has been built, destroyed and rebuilt many times over the last seven hundred years and is still used for special occasions and as the family burial site.

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Bettino Ricasoli, along with being the second Prime Minster of Italy was an avid geologist and viticulturist.  In his preserved rooms in the castle there are countless jars filled with stones, soil samples and his collection of silk worm cocoons – his plan if phylloxera had destroy the vineyards was to produce silk.  The family have continued his interest in viticultural research and along with the University of Florence have been working on zonation of the vineyards.  The 256 hectare site is now split into five different zones which have been re-planted with the appropriate vines – Monte Morello (limestone) has Sangiovese and Merlot, La Grotta (sandstone) is just Merlot.

They are also in the middle of experiments with clonal selection.  The family have been planting a variety of clones of Sangiovese di Brolio with the hope of improving the vine variety.  They had planted thirteen varieties in the experimental vineyard, but ten of those were attacked by a virus.  The remaining three have been sent to Rome to be approved by the authorities, but apparently this can take a very long time.

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After touring the castle, vineyards and production area we were finally allowed to sample some of the wine.  We tried:

Torricella 2011 (IGT) – 80% Chardonnay and 20% Sauvignon Blanc, 50% aged in tonneaux, the rest in stainless steel (6mths).  Light and refreshing with good levels of acidity, fragrant and floral with lemon, pineapple and apricots.  Great on a hot Siena day.

Brolio 2010 Chianti Classico DOCG – 80% Sangiovese, 15% Merlot, 5% Cabernet Sauvignon, aged nine months in old barriques and tonneaux – lots of black and red fruits – cherries, strawberries, medium body with refreshing acidity and slightly gripy tannins – a nice wine to have sitting under the stars on a warm Tuscan evening.

Casalferro 2001 (IGT) – small production and only made in the best years, 70% Sangiovese 30% Merlot, 18mths new French barriques – ruby coloured, full bodied, still with lots of black fruits, plenty of acidity and big tannins.  A definite food wine – our guide recommended having it with the local boar.

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After being dragged away from the shop where you can purchase local produce and try a larger variety of Ricasoli wines, we headed to the Osteria del Castello – a stunning restaurant under the shade of the castle and the surrounding woods.  I had the Panzanella followed by grilled pork shoulder with fennel and an incredible Mascarpone mousse for dessert.  My husband shared his veal marrowbone with a cat that very quickly became his best friend.  The food was the best we had on our holiday and the atmosphere so relaxing we could have stayed all day drinking wine and being serenaded by the wildlife.

This is a great tour in a stunning area with something for everyone (and a bargain at only 28 euros per person, basic tour).  For further details head to <a href=”http://www.ricasoli.it/”>http://www.ricasoli.it/</a>.

(Originally published on www.learningtodrink.com)

Champagne Pommery, Reims

Like Dijon, Reims has always been a stop-over destination for us when we head down to Italy.  We usually arrived late at night and left first thing in the morning.  Now, thanks to my wine studies, I have been lucky enough to spend more time in these beautiful cities and take in more of their history.  Reims, in the Champagne-Ardenne region of France, has a long and fascinating history from its part in the crowning of French royalty to the near destruction of its cathedral during the First World War, oh and of course it is home to many of the great Champagne houses.

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Pommery (now owned by Vranken) is based in Reims and along with Veuve Clicquot is another example of a strong-willed woman successfully taking on a business at a time when women did not run businesses.  Jeanne-Alexandrine Louise Pommery took over the business after the death of her husband in 1858 and under her guidance construction on the current site was started in 1868 and over the course of ten years Madame Pommery had eleven miles of cellars dug out of the chalk by hand.  The huge site was eventually completed in 1888.  She had a grand vision of what she wanted the brand to become and part of that was to encourage visitors into the cellars by making them more artistically interesting.

This is one of the original pieces of art – carved directly into the chalk, our guide told us that the artist nearly went blind as he had to work by candelight.

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Madame Pommery’s vision has continued today and the cellars are used as galleries displaying different pieces every year.  This years theme is recycling.

I’m not sure what this elephant has to do with wine or recycling – but it is certainly an interesting sight in the middle of the entrance hall and adored by the many children that visit the Pommery site.

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The lights below are used to light one of the long galleries in the cellars.  The artist collects glassware such as fishbowls from markets around France and puts them together to create these lovely alternative lightshades that give a little bit of magic to the gloomy cellar.

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This giant ball is made of paper and is designed to absorb any moisture from the cellar – it doing so it becomes smaller and changes colour.  It has been in place since last Autumn.

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This display of wellies was part of last years exhibition but has proved so popular that they have kept it.  The boots have mechanisms in them that make them stomp giving the impression that they are walking on the spot.  Apparently children love them, but they have scared a few people!

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Without the art the cellars at Pommery are stunning – their cavernous size alone is something to admire.  The art makes them even more interesting and beautiful – if you are in the area they are not to be missed.  And if you are thirsty after walking through the cellars you can finish the tour with a glass or two or Pommery champagne.

Pommery visits and information available at – http://www.vrankenpommery.fr/

Domaine de la Barbinière,Vendée

When my grandparents said they were moving to the Vendée several years ago the first thing we all did was say ‘where?’ and quickly look it up on Google.  The first visit was a shock to the system as they live in a very rural area; there were stars at night, no sound of trucks and cars rumbling by, and some very strange animal noises that came from the nearby wood. But several visits later and we are all in love with the area and try to get down a much as possible.  We were first introduced to the local wines through the wines of Pissotte -some easy drinking reds and rosé wines that were pleasant on a warm summers evening.  In the local supermarkets there is a choice of Loire, Bordeaux, Burgundy, various Cremants and a very small selection of New World wines; but little in the way of local wines, hopefully with the creation of a the new AOC this will change.

The Vendée is in western France, just at the bottom of the western Loire Valley.  Within the Vendée area Pissotte and Mareuil are popular and well known areas of production and in 2011 they joined together with three other local areas; Brem, Vix and Chantonnay, to create AOC Fiefs Vendéens.  The AOC covers white (which must have 50% Chenin Blanc), rosé and red (Gamay and Pinot Noir together must constitute 50% of any blend) wines.  And luckily there was an AOC Fiefs Vendéens – Chantonnay vineyard very close to where we were staying – Domaine de la Barbinière.

Dom Bar

The vineyard was started by Philippe Orion in 1978 and is now run by his sons Vincent and Alban.  Vincent who has spent sometime in New Zealand has developed a great appreciation for the use of oak and likes to experiment with the wines, while Alban runs the vineyard.  Over 75 acres they grow eight grape varieties; Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carbernet Franc and Negrette.  They try to spray as little as possible, plant grass between the vines and do as much by hand as possible, including hand picking, which must be hard work as their 75 acres are spread around Chantonnay, with the furthest being 15km away from the winery.  Vincent said that they are still two weeks away from harvest and were lucky that they did not suffer from the hail that has devastated some of the wine regions of France this year.  It can really cook in the Vendée but luckily as it is not far from the Atlantic coast there is a maritime influence in the vineyard which helps keep the temperatures down, which is especially good for the Pinot Noir which is planted on some late harvesting plots.

I asked how much cooperation is happening between the new AOC producers and Vincent shrugged and said not as much as he would like.  He also said that they have to rely mainly on tourists for sales as there is little interest in the local area which is a shame as they are missing out on a great local product.  With a bit of cooperation between the producers, the local tourist board and local retailers these wines could really start to take off.  The production levels aren’t huge so how much noise they could make on the international stage, or even within France, is debateable but they need to start shouting out loud about them in the Vendée.

Dom Bar 2

Wines we tasted:

Les Silex Blanc 2012 – a great value wine, well balanced, crisp with lovely lemon and apple aromas, 60% Chenin Blanc, 40% Chardonnay
Les Silex Rouge 2010 – lovely and fruity, could do with a bit more age to soften the tannins, great on a warm Vendée evening, 50% Cabernet Franc, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Pinot Noir, 5% Gamay
Éclipse Blanc 2010 – aged in oak, spicy citrus and honey flavours, slightly drying on the finish, 80% Chenin Blanc, 20% Chardonnay
Éclipse Rouge 2009 – full bodied, lots of black fruit, nicely spiced from its time in oak, gripy tannins, 50% Cabernet Franc, 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Pinot Noir
Le Bois Bouquet 2010 – lovely pale ruby colour, plenty of fresh raspberries and dark berries on the nose, 100% Pinot Noir
They also produce medium-sweet, sweet and sparkling wines which can be found at www.domainedelabarbiniere.com.

My Nan came with us on the visit and it was nice to visit with someone who had not been on a vineyard tour before as she asked questions that perhaps I would forget to, or feel that I should already know the answers to; and I think it has given my Nan plenty to talk about and an appreciation of how much work goes into making her nightly tipple.

Also a big thanks to John Sherwin of French Wine Tours for organising the visit and taking time out of his busy schedule to join us – www.french-wine-tours.com

(Originally posted on www.learningtodrink.com)

Moët & Chandon, Épernay

Last month my husband was mad enough to run the Paris Marathon, finishing in a fantastic 4hrs 29mins. To celebrate, and recover, we headed to Champagne, just a short drive east of Paris.  We stayed in the wonderful Best Western Hotel de la Paix – I wouldn’t normally recommend a hotel but we have stayed in some truly awful places in Reims and I hope I can help you avoid them.  Also the restaurant at the hotel is outstanding with lovely fresh seafood, great wine and very friendly staff.

We decided (well I decided) that we wanted to visit some of the Champagne houses and after a morning spent at Pommery in Reims we headed to Épernay and Moët and Chandon.  Moët was founded in 1743 by Claude Moët and the house of Moët was created by his grandson Jean-Rémy Moët and remains to this day a symbol of luxury. According to Moët and Chandon a bottle of their champagne is opened every second somewhere in the world and with this in mind the tour guide took us down into their cellars which at 28km are the largest in the world.  The longest cellar is 300m and is at a depth of 30 metres.  This ensures that the wine is stored in perfect condition with the exact amount of humidity and a stable temperature.

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Moët has a long and close association with Napoleon Bonaparte; this is demonstrated in the name of the Impérial Gallery which was named in honour of Napoleon’s first visit to the cellars (he made five visits in total) and the Impérial Champagne was created in 1869 to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Napoleon’s birth.

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Jean-Rémy Moët (1758-1841) – created the house of Moët

Moët and Chandon produce several champagnes including the Brut Impérial which is aged for 2½ – 3 years and the Grand Vintage which is only produced in the best years and is aged for a minimum of 7 years.  There have been 70 Grand Vintages produced in the last 162 years, the most recent is the 2004.  Both of the Impérial and the Grand Vintage are blends of the three Champagne grapes but the Grand Vintage uses more Chardonnay than the Impérial (51% for the 2002 and 38% for the 2004 compared with 20-30% for the Impérial).  The Brut Impérial is a blend of an astonishing 100+ base wines, from a possible 700+, demonstrating the incredible ability of the Chef de Cave to continuously create a product that is recognisable to consumers around the world from such a huge choice of wines.  Moët and Chandon own 1200ha of vineyards and also purchase grapes from other growers to produce the millions of bottles they make a year (they declined to tell us the exact amount they make).

The most famous name associated with Champagne is of course Dom Pérignon and the tour guides at Moët aren’t shy about making sure the visiting tourists are aware of this connection.  Dom Pérignon is always a Vintage wine and is only created in the best of vintages, it is Moëts premium brand.  It is a blend of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay using wine from 17 Grand Cru, with a small percentage coming from Hautvilliers.  It is aged for a minimum of 7 years, the Rosé for 9 years and the Oenothéque for 12 years, although they are often aged for a lot longer, the 1990 Oenothéque Rosé was aged for 20 years.  They also use corks on the bottles rather than crown caps as they feel it is better at preserving the wine.

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This sign helps the cellar staff identify what is in each bottle – The top part is a ‘secret’ code that identifies the cuvee, the next is the vault number and finally the number of bottles stored there.

The obvious bonus of visiting the Champagne houses is that you get to sample a glass or two of their products.  We had:

Brut Impérial (dosage 9g/l, Pinot Noir 30-40%, Pinot Meunier 30-40% and Chardonnay 20-30%) – aromas of green apple, citrus and brioche and flavours of pear and apple.
Brut Impérial Rosé (dosage 9g/l, Pinot Noir (40-50%, 10% red wine, Pinot Meunier 30-40%, 10% red wine, Chardonnay 10-20%) – red fruits (strawberry, redcurrant) with a hint of floral aroma.

Both wines were bright, elegant and full of fruit, if I hadn’t already had three glasses at Pommery I would quite happily indulged in a few more glasses.  But as it turned out two glasses were more than enough and I spent most of the trip back to Calais giggling and singing along to cheesy soft rock.

For further information on visits to the Moët and Chandon cellars please go to http://www.moet.com/Visit-us/Visit-our-cellars

(Originally published on www.learningtodrink.com)

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