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Beautiful Bordeaux

Beautiful Bordeaux!

Grand Vins de Bordeaux, a fabulous wine store to explore!

Grand Vins de Bordeaux, a fabulous wine store to explore!

Despite the explosion of New World wines out there, no one country or region has managed to snatch the title of “World’s Most Emminent Wine Region” that Bordeaux holds tightly in its grasp. It is the red wines of Bordeaux, (formerly called “Claret” by the poms for centuries), that have set the standards for quality wine the world over.

That’s not to say that all of them are exciting … there are the vin ordinaires for the princely sum of a few euros, and only the backpackers are thankful for those … But the true Bordeaux red rewards those with patience, and offers a challenge not for the feint-hearted. Opening these wines too early is a waste, as is opening them in the middle of their maturity, or too late.

Big Bordeaux are tannic and tight for the first 5 or 6 years, holding back the blackcurrant or plum flavours of the signature Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. Then strangely, they seem to slump – becoming flat and lifeless for the next few years, before taking on a new depth of complexity, aromas and fruit.

Probably Bordeaux’ biggest enemy is itself. It’s out of control in terms of … err, control.

Chateaux in the Blaye Bourg region, Bordeaux, France

Chateaux in the Blaye Bourg region, Bordeaux, France

In an area of 123,000ha under vine, there are 10,200 growers, 35,000 Chateaux, 400 Distributors and 100 Brokers. One out of every six people in Bordeaux work in the wine industry.

Stats (at time of my visit – late 2006) held that 790,000 bottles are produced every year to reach a market value of €3,000,000,000. 90% of these are red – Merlot, Cab Franc, Cab Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, and 10% white – Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscadelle, Ugni Blanc, Colombard.

Harvest in Bordeaux is determined by chemical analysis. What they’re looking for from grapes is 220 g/ltr sugar, 12.5 Baume – min level as per AOC. Bordeaux reds must be fermented dry, and the use of tartaric acid addition is prohibited.

Vineyards in the Blaye Bourg region, Bordeaux, France

Vineyards in the Blaye Bourg region, Bordeaux, France

There are a whopping 57 appellations within this region, telling growers what to grow, how to grow it, how much to grow …

In 2007, a new appellation “Côtes de Bordeaux” was introduced. This encompasses an area of the right bank of the Garonne river, from Saint Maixant and Cadillac to the city of Bordeaux, and in short paves the way for lower value wines to use oak chips during production. All these sub-regions are located on the right bank, and all currently produce easy-gowing, fruit-driven, primarily Merlot-based wines, 85% of which are reportedly consumed locally.

Bordeaux wines reflect terroir

Beautiful Bordeaux city

Beautiful Bordeaux city

They’re not allowed to irrigate in Bordeaux. Underground water supplies keep them alive, but also provide sediment to feed the vines – which helps the grapes and resulting wines take on the characters of the soils, which are actually quite poor.

Bordeaux wines are named after their location. So you won’t see the names of the grapes used in a wine on the label.

They divide the Bordeaux region between the left and right banks of the Gironde Estuary, which continues divided between the Garonne and Dordogne tributaries.

On the hilly right bank the soil is primarily clay and limestone – suitable for fruit-forward, lower tannin Merlot. These cooler soils slow down the ripening stage (avoiding August heat and rain), and budburst (avoiding April frosts).

The right bank encompasses Côtes de Blaye and Bourg to the north, and St Emilion, Pomerol, Lalande-de-Pomerol, Fronsac, Canon-Fronsac, Côtes de Castillon and Francs divided from Entre-deux-Mers by the Dordogne.

Roman ruins @ Palais Gallien, Bordeaux.  Once on the outskirts of the city, now in the suburbs!

Roman ruins @ Palais Gallien, Bordeaux. Once on the outskirts of the city, now in the suburbs!

The left bank is more sandy, and has pebbles to absorb heat during the day, for distribution during the nights. It is a continuation of the sedimentary Acquitaine Basin; lowlands boundaried by Gironde Arch, the Pyrenean mountain chain, and the Bay of Biscal. This is big, tannic Cabernet Sauvignon territory, producing wines with pronounced blackcurrant and cassis flavours.

The left bank is home to five major communes of Saint-Estephe, Pauillac, Saint-Julien, Margaux and Graves. Located here are the five esteemed First Growth Chateaux: Chateau Latour, Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, Chateau Mouton-Rothschild, Chateau Margaux and Chateau Haut-Brion. Further north we find the Médoc, and in the hinterland we find the Haut-Médoc. Alas, poor Médoc doesn’t get a mention on Grand Cru labels, however Haut-Médoc does.

I must add here that the above is not an exhaustive list of all vignobles Bordelais but quite frankly this page is getting too long, and I haven’t talked about Cellar Door visiting yet … such is the complexity of Bordeaux!


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What is Chianti Classico?

Back in the early 1700’s, the original region known simply as “Chianti” centred around the towns of Radda, Greve, Gaiole and Castellina, in central Italy.  These these days Chianti has grown considerably and now consists of several subzones:

ItalySantAntimo2Chianti Rufina – east of Florence
Chianti Colli Fiorentini – north east Florence
Chianti Classico – between Florence & Siena
Chianti Colli Senesi – north to north west of Siena
Chianti Colli Aretini – east of Classico region
Chianti Montelbano – north west of Florence
Chianti Montespertoli – west of Florence
Chianti Colline Pisane – south of Pisa

ItalySantAntimo1Nestled in the Tuscan hills between Florence and Siena is the most reknowned, largest subzone, and probably the heart of the region – Chianti Classico.

Vineyards here are located at varying altitudes, ranging from around 250m to over 500m above sea level. It’s quite a challenge at this level to ripen red grapes to appropriate sugar and tannin levels.

That’s not the only problem they face either – downy mildew can be a killer for tight Sangiovese bunches when it rains during vintage.

It was surprising to me to find during my visit to the region, that Chianti Classico is not one huge expanse of vines rolling over the hilly landscape.   In fact, 75% of the environment is still woods, and you’ll come across as many olive groves as vineyards. The region resonates peasant village life from bygone eras, and cheesy romance films.

Siena0055Tiny Castellos sit atop hills – each with a maze of narrow streets lined with picture-book Tuscan houses. Yes, they really do exist – complete with terracotta pots of red flowers, tiny central squares dominated by an ornate church, and even the quintessential cat sleeping on the window ledge.

Today there are over 600 wineries in Chianti Classico. And one of the vineyards, west of Figline Valdarno, belongs to Sting, … so the locals say …

So, what exactly IS Chianti?

ItalyDalbola7It’s important that you know that not every Chianti is a Chianti Classico. Chianti as a style of wine can be, and is, made in other regions of Tuscany, in fact most of central Italy makes it, from all kinds of grapes.

However a Chianti Classico must come from the Chianti Classico region, is made from 75 to 100% Sangiovese grapes, and bears the pink neck tag as proof of its origin.

The original formula is attributed to Baron Ricasole- once Italy’s Prime Minister – in the 1870’s. He determined two different styles. The first was a drink-early style, which originally included white grapes the likes of Malvasia and Trebbiano to provide more up-front fruit for this style. The other was a high quality, well structured wine that could age for decades.

Over time the proportion of white grapes used in the cheaper quality wine started getting out of hand. Not only that, but red wines imported from other Italian wine regions began creeping into the mix. Chianti became insipid, unstable and boring.

The DOC, when setting up the Chianti region in the 1960’s, decided to limit the use of white grapes in Chianti to between 10 and 30%.

This wasn’t enough for serious Chianti producers near Florence [notably the Antinori family], who – by the mid 1970’s -began to produce their own style of Chianti – using primarily Sangiovese and a little Cabernet Sauvignon.

This new wine was much more refined, had better aging capacity, and exhibited higher quality character than any of the other Tuscans. However, as they hadn’t stuck to the DOC rules, they had to sell their wine as a Vino da Tavola [table wine]!

Thus Chianti Classico Reserva was born – a style which now carries the DOCG qualification, and is made from low-yeilding Sangiovese, aged in oak and able to be cellared around ten years plus.

If you want to read more about visiting this area, I have another couple of posts on this subject in the “Italy” folder of this blog.  If you’re a real wine buff, you’ll want to see this place.  If budget permits (mine certainly didn’t!) I strongly suggest hiring a car from Florence; venture down to Sienna and stay a few days to sleep and take in the Piazza before looking around.


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Posted by on August 9, 2013 in Italy, Wine Touring


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Visiting Cellar Door: Catalunya


Catalans consider themselves as such before they consider themselves Spaniards. They are fiercely proud of their region, and many speak Catalan language.

The picturesque, bustling city of Barcelona provides a ready market for their various styles of wine – not only to the locals but the the hoards of visitors that cram Las Ramblas to soak up the almost palpable atmosphere of excitement and all-year-round entertainment this wonderful city has to offer.

By far the most famous of thier wines is cava – Spains answer to France’s champagne.

Around 90-95% of Spanish Cava is made here in the Penedès DO to a similar traditional method as Champagne, usually from the grape varietals Parellada [preferably] or a nuetral Macabeo, with increasng amounts of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir varietals imported from France.

There’s also plenty of reds to try here from the likes of Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon and Garnacha Tinta [Grenache].

As if Barcelona itself is not enough of a drawcard – with its magnificent Gaudi delights, street performers on Las Ramblas and La Sagrada Familia – you may be surprised to know that some of Spain’s most famous export brands are not far away.

By far the easiest way to see some bodegas in action is to jump on the train from Barcelona Sants station to Vilafranca del Penedès. Here you can find the wine museum, boasting a wide selection of antiquities to do with wine.  Cost of entry into the museum at time of writing this page is only a few Euro per person, and this includes tastings as well as your souvenir wine glass. Pretty good value. You’ll find the museum at Pl Jaume I. Check with the tourist offices in Barcelona for opening times first, as they vary during Summer and Winter.

Torres vineyardsAlso in Vilafranca is Bodegas Torres. This wine giant family have been operating in the area since the 17th century, however it wasn’t until 1870 that Don Jaime Torres established the company, on returning from making his fortune in oil and shipping in America.

These days the fifth generation of the family still runs the place, however it’s a long way from what would have been primitive beginnings. The staff here are obviously happy in their work, because they’re incredibly welcoming and helpful.

A tour of the vineyards and bodega usually starts with a 15 minute video about the company, followed by a mini-train ride around the property, passing through the vineyards, a guided tour through the caves [cellars] where the wines are stored meticulously for aging, and a look at the bodega operations along the way.

The tour is available in English, and is free, including the tasting at the end!   There’s also a phenomenal wine/gift shop. The downside is: the taxi fare from the train station to the Torres Bodegas will set you back around €9 each way.  Mind you, the taxi’s are clean, modern and airconditioned – the drivers very friendly, knowledgeable and they’ll try to speak to you in English.  All you need to say is ‘Bodegas Torres‘ … they’ll know where to take you.  No, there’s no bus.

To soak up the Cava story is even easier. Get back on the train and get off at Sant Sadurni d’Anoia. There right next to the station is the caves of Freixenet.

Freixenet claim to be the 9th largest wine company in the world; certainly most people will be familiar with their sparkling wines.

Again entry to Freixenet’s cavas is free, tours are in English, and you get to ride in a little train around the facility and climb deep underground to see their caves in action. There’s also a preliminary video to acquaint you with their company, the region and Cava.

The staff are incredibly friendly and accomodating – the tour really is a pleasure. Of course there’s the obligatory tasting a the end, and a gift shop so you can pick up the freshest stock on the way out.   You won’t need a booking – just drop in. But don’t get impatient if you have to wait a little while for others to come if you are alone or just a few of you.  If you have a group, they’re happy to take a forward booking. Check with the tourist office in Barcelona.

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Posted by on August 26, 2012 in Wine Touring


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Visiting Cellar Door: The Czech Republic

I’ll bet you’re surprised that there actually IS a wine region in the Czech Republic.  Bet your life there is – and it’s one of the most stunningly unique and historic wine regions I have ever seen.

I first visited the wine region in southern Moravia in the deep winter of 2006.  New-found friends drove me from Olomouc to Mikulov – just before the Austrian border, stopping at deserted cellars along the way.  The vision of ice-covered vineyards appearing like spectres remains one of my favourite memories of Cellar Door roaming.

Not far from Mikulov, is Valtice, where in the majestically restored Chateau Valtice, you’ll find the Národní vinařské centrum (National Wine Centre).  This majestic chateau belonged to the Liechtenstein family from the 1100’s until the communists siezed it post WWII.  The real Baron von Liechtenstein used to stage his jousting tournaments here, and the floors on the first floor are still covered with original Afghani hunting rugs.  At the National Wine Centre, you are able to taste the finest wines of the Czech Republic all in one place in the cellars of the old chateau.

If that’s not historic enough for you, head over to Palava, a short distance from Valtice.  Palava is a rocky outcrop of pure, hard, and white limestone of Upper Jurassic origin.  Needless to say, they produce some fine white wines here.

Hectares of vines spread around Palava’s gentle slopes, and the hills themselves are crowned with no less than two castle ruins.  If I remember correctly, they date back to 11th and 15th centuries.

Winemaking goes back much further than that.  They say the Celts brought viticulture to Palava, but there’s no tangible evidence. There is, however, archaelogical evidence that Roman legions brought the practice here in the first century AD.  And they weren’t the first inhabitants.  The Věstonická Venuše found here dates back over 25,000 years BC.  It’s the oldest ceramic statue in the world.

Yep, this place is a wonderland of exploration and ancient history.  I feel so lucky to have stumbled across it.

I loved the place so much, I went back in 2007 and lived there for 3 years.  I was also honoured to lecture at the NVC in wine marketing and tourism in 2008/09.

There’s little industry consolidation in Moravia, and in its 16,000 hectares of vines, you will find 10,000 producers.They were very appreciative of the information I shared with them.  It was the most rewarding work I’ve ever done in my wine career.


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Visiting Cellar Door: Le Cantine di Greve-in-Chianti

Chianti Classico’s vineyards, wineries and cellar doors are spread over a wide region, and if you’re visiting on a budgetted amount of time or money, it’s hard to see more than a few of them.

Chianti can range from an inexpensive, drink-early style, to serious ‘Super-Tuscans‘ [incidentally, the locals tell you they didn’t come up with this name – it’s the idea of a US journalist which just stuck], and if you want to experience a cross-section of these wines, it can be a long search.

Fortunately there’s a solution. In the heart of Chianti Classico is a village called Greve-in-Chianti – where you’ll find Le Cantine di Greve-in-Chianti. If ever there was a mecca for Chianti lovers, this would have to be it.   To get theretake a SITA bus from Florence – right across the road from Santa Maria Nouvella Stazione (Florence’s main station).  It will cost you only a few euro each way, and you’ll be dropped in the centre of Greve within an hour.

When you get to Greve, it seems you are dropped in the middle of nowhere, but just follow your feet to the centre square – or ask someone where Le Cantine is.

Le Cantine is owned by the local butcher, Falorni, who stills carves up cuts in the centre square. The Falorni family opened La Cantine in 2000 in a 1890’s building, which has a fantastic history in itself.  From 1898 to 1902, the cellar was constructed to coincide with the railway, by the Leproni Bocconi family. In 1919, it was bought by Vittorio Emmanuel II, along with a Count’s title and an estate, for his son to Bella Rosina.

In the early 1940‘s it was sold once again to the Gancia brothers from Milan, who continued to use it to ship out Chianti until the 1960′s, when it came into the hands of an Italo-American family, the Paterno‘s. During the time the Paterno’s owned the cellar, 95% of the Chianti passing through it was destined for the US.

In 1979 the cellar closed … and so did the railway. It lay in waste for the net 20 years, until the Falorni family bought and transformed it into Le Cantine.

Now serving as a museum and wine cellar, you can taste every Tuscan wine in the one place, as well as a small section from outside the region, and thanks to Manager Marco Baldini’s relationship with local growers, Le Cantine is able to source wines not always available elsewhere.

Current vintages are on hand, and vertical tastings can be arranged if you want. But the real drawcard of this place is the Enoround.

Without getting too technical, the Enoround [for which they proudly own the patent] is like a carousel, where bottles of sumptuous Chianti are placed in a distribution set-up that replaces air-space in the opened bottles with nitrogen.

The opened bottles can thus stay alive for around 20 days. What this effectively means is that they can open serious Chianti for you to taste, without you having to fork out for the whole bottle!  All you do is buy a debit card, which you place into a slot on the Enoround, select the wine you want to try and place your glass under the spout!

Marco’s pride and joy is a specially stocked Enoround “L’isola dei Tesori” [Treasure Island], which he sets up only in September each year, and offers some pretty impressive wines that you may only get to try once in a lifetime – including the likes of:

  • Brunello di Montalcino ‘Soldera’ 1999  – a medium-bodied, traditional 100% Sangiovese designed to age around 50 years; or
  • Bolgheri ‘Sassicaia’ 2003, which you won’t find on the shelf in Le Cantine … Marco keeps it hidden in his office! This 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 15% Cabernet Franc, aged in french oak, rolls fresh cassis, capsicum and herbaceousness around your pallet.
  • And, of course, a Chianti Classico from the legendary father of Chianti, Castello di Brolio 1997 [Barone Ricasole]. 100% Sangiovese, with surprisingly fresh fruit up front, a long, spicey finish, all rounded off with fine, drying tannins.

As if the wines themselves are not drawcard enough, at Le Cantine you’ll find a myriad of ancient books on wine and olive oil production, over 2,000 styles of bottle openers, winery and vineyard equipment from eras passed … you name it, it’s there!

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Posted by on May 16, 2012 in Italy, Wine Touring


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Visiting Cellar Door: Chianti’s Black Cock

There’s a legend I heard in Siena regarding the origin of the symbol of the Chianti Classico Consorzio [production and marketing consortium of wine producers from the Chianti Classico region].

It is believed that the word Chianti comes from the Latin word meaning ‘to fight’. The symbol of the Chianti Classico Consorzio is the black cock.

Legend has it that settlement of a long-term territorial dispute between Florence and Siena was sought so that the villagers between these cities could live in peace.

Each city decided that it would send out a rider on a horse at dawn on a particular day, and the place where the horses met along the road would determine the boundary of each city’s territory.

Siena sent officials to Florence to monitor the race, Florence sent their officials to Siena. Only problem was – how to determine the horses left at exactly the same time? There were no phones, internet …

They came up with the idea that the crow of the cock [rooster] in the morning would sound the beginning of the race.

Siena chose a fat, healthy white cock. In the days before the race, this rooster experienced celebrity status. He was pampered and fed constantly.

Florence chose a spindly black cock. They starved it for three days. Needless to say, by the morning of the race, the black rooster was edgy and up crowing well before sunrise. Siena’s fat white rooster was still asleep!

To this day, the black cock is the symbol of Chianti, and Florence is the capital of the region!

Read more about Chianti on other posts in this blog.


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Posted by on May 16, 2012 in Italy, Wine Touring


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Visiting Cellar Door: Provence

Wine tourism in Provence, in my experience, is a struggle.  I should have stayed in Nice.

There are no bus tours of the wine regions – at least none that the tourism office in Aix-en-Provence could tell us of.  I decided after much consideration – and counting of the pennies – to hire a car in Aix and drive to Avignon.  I met a French-speaking Canadian at the hostel in Aix, who was waiting for word about a Couch Surfing booking in Dijon.  Without any other plans, a private trip to Avignon seemed like as good an idea as any, so he agreed to come with me and be my interpreter.  That hire-car cost me more than I spent in the next two months in Europe … for a single day’s hire!

We picked up a brochure “Route de Vins” at the Aix-en-Provence Tourist Information Centre, which supposedly showed some larger estates in the Coteaux d’Aix-en-Provence region, but the tiny map included  didn’t name or number the highway you’re supposed to be on. And it was only in French.  Good start.

The car hire company in Aix gave us shockingly incorrect ‘waving of the hands’ directions to the Route des Vins region. No other map whatsoever was available.  [I did actually wonder, yes.]

There is very little signage leaving the city, in fact NONE indicating the Route de Vins, and it wasn’t long before we were lost. We actually fell across the correct route by accident when we came across one of the very few signs announcing  “Route de Vins” actually on the circuit.

People were scarce on the road and in the vineyards themselves. When we arrived at several of the cellar doors/wineries, they were closed for their 2-hour lunch. Or was it 3 hours?  We sat at one of them for over an hour – in fact 30 minutes past the “Back at 2pm” sign on the door.  No-one turned up.  I can easily understand how Phylloxera spread like wildfire in France … I wandered freely around the vineyards waiting and looking for someone to help us, and nobody stopped me.

Those cellar doors that we did find open appeared somewhat perplexed that we wanted to look around the vineyards and winery. The impression we took away with us was that they just thought people come to taste and buy wines, not to look around the facilities.

It was all worth it, though, when passing through Les Baux … just 20km south of Avignon. It was an area I came across in my studies, and had waited a long time to see. The vignerons there take great care of their environment, and Les Baux is famous for its organic and biodynamic wines – which constitute around 85% of production.

The Chaîne des Alpilles glistening in the sun made a magnificent backdrop to the vineyards of this rugged landscape.

Dividing the 30 estates of the Les Baux region equally, is the remains of an ancient Chateau (Des Baux) which has been occupied since prehistoric times. Although the drive up the hill is fraught with danger – with some serious rocky outcrops sticking out into the narrow road – it’s truly a magnificent find. Don’t miss it.

Incidentally, the cicadas you find everywhere in this region (including the Route de Vins signage) in all forms from hairpins to wall-mountable ceramics are believed to bring good luck. Grab one if you’re going to attempt chateau visiting!

And one more thing … if you’re backpacking, avoid the Hostel in Avignon like the plague … it might just be where you catch it …


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Posted by on May 9, 2012 in France, Wine Touring


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