"And if the great terroirs wine had not all been discovered?" The only global wine inventory ever made - 3 years of travel to discover the 92 wine producing countries in the world - Yes 92 ! And share it with You
Welcome to Jordan. A magnificent territory, where for only a few decades, two estates have been reviving a wine industry that has disappeared for nearly 2000 years. A very interesting return to the front of the world wine stage.
MAFRAQ, A VITICULTURE COMING FROM THE NORTH
Although Jordan is not yet well known for its modern viticulture, which appeared less than 30 years ago, its wines already look promising. Like those of Saint-George estate (Zumot Company), located in the Mafraq region, 45 minutes north of Amman, along the Syrian border ; where the Zumot family was able to identify parcels of land suitable for growing vines, in order to plant 220 hectares in 1996.
Sandy-loam soils with old decomposed rocks, culminating at 620m above sea level, which we visited under a blazing sun. The stage was set. Despite the heat, the vines grow here with an impressive energy.
Omar Zumot, who has studied and practiced winemaking in France and who has been managing the cellar since the company’s conception, believes strongly in the potential of Jordanian wine. “The wine in Jordan dates back to 2000 years before Christ. It has just been completely lost for centuries“, he explained, smiling.
Continuation of the visit with a memorable tasting in the cellars of Saint-George winery, in Sahab, 30km north of Amman. We met Iva Boyuklieva, an oenologist from Bulgaria, as enthusiastic as pedagogue and who has been leading the winery for 11 years. “It’s not always easy to find your place in this universe when you’re a woman ; but working for Saint-George is a chance: a unique opportunity to be able to vinify about thirty grape varieties“, she said.
Continuous learning and a communicative passion for wine, which has trained us, barrel after barrel, to taste not far from forty wines!
A fantastic experience and the opportunity to see that varieties such as Merlot, Petit Verdot, Tempranillo and Cabernet Sauvignon can produce wines with great freshness in Jordan. We even met “the man who can take the wine from the barrel by doing kung fu”! So cool.
WHEN THE SNOW OF THE MOUNTAINS MEETS THE DESERT OF BASALTE
With more than 330 days of sunshine a year, dry summers and constant breezes, the Jordanian climate seems to be suitable for growing grapes ; under irrigation, of course.
JR Wines – aka Jordan River Wines – was the first winery established in Jordan in 1953 by the Haddad family (owner of the Eagle Distilleries Group), with the desire to revive the wine industry in the country. “Wine has been made in Jordan since biblical times. It was important for us to reconnect with this tradition, too long forgotten, by looking for terroirs favorable to viticulture“, Nasri Haddad, the technical director and oenologist of the group explained.
In 2004, JR Wines planted 120 hectares of vines, also on the Mafraq plateau, at 840 meters above sea level.
We learned that in Antiquity, a volcano – now extinct – has poured basaltic lava fields on the mountains, making this region one of the most fertile in Jordan. “Add to that the snow of the mountains in winter, which allows us to irrigate the vines, and you have there the keys to the success of viticulture in full renewal“, Nasri Haddad added. A small miracle of nature, in the middle of the desert.
There are some 45 grape varieties grown on the estate, mainly from France, Italy and Spain. Important research for the future of the Jordanian wine industry, where each parcel is carefully studied, in order to identify the grape varieties that will best adapt to this part of the world. The results are already very promising.
And the JR Wines estate continues to innovate, as it is about to send some of its wines to Spain (Merlot, Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon), to age them in temperature-controlled tanks filled with seawater (2). Just to see how Jordanian wines could behave with such ageing. Case to follow.
CONCLUDE ON A MANSAF, OR NOTHING
Have you ever lived a Mansaf (3)? Yes, I say lived, and not eaten, so the experience is unique. It is a national dish with thousands of flavors, consisting of lamb cooked in a fermented yogurt sauce and served with rice and almonds.
It is eaten standing, using only the right hand to grab the food, after making small balls of food between your fingers. We were lucky enough to be invited to share this incredible dish at Omar Zumot’s place, the director of Saint George. Pour a few glasses of Arak… and you’re in paradise!
Thank you to Saint-George and JR Wines for their warm welcome. And thank you to Alizée Raymond and her husband Guillaume for hosting us so kindly in Amman.
(1) Cereals such as barley or wheat, fruit trees and vines were probably cultivated in Petra. Presses dug in the rocks were found, probably dating from the period of Roman domination, when great importance was given to the wine. The Romans settled in Petra from the year 64 BC. It is believed that wine was produced there more than 2000 years ago.
(2) Program carried out via a joint venture with the Sea Aged Wine Group.
(3) The name Mansaf comes from the term “big plate” or “big dish”. It is usually prepared for the whole family. It can also be found in Palestine and Iraq.
“Palestine was rich in vineyards long before Europe, and wine was produced here in all parts of the country”. It was with these words, filled with joy and a deep love for this great welcoming land, that we were receive by Sari Khoury, winemaker and founder of the Philokalia estate, at the gates of Bethlehem.
THE OLIVE, THE VINEYARD AND THE WHEAT
I was looking forward to visiting Palestine. I have always wanted to visit here. This viticultural home full of promise fascinates me. A millenary terroir for the vine – less known than the Caucasus region, for example – but where wine and olive oil were already exported to Egypt 6000 years ago, for their recognized qualities. Which means that wine existed here before.
“The olive tree, the vine and the wheat have been domesticated for 7000 years in Palestine, especially in the Jordan Valley, where these plants did not grow naturally before“, according to Nasser Soumi, Palestinian artist and writer, who designs the labels of Philokalia.
The agricultural history of the country is great, as is the history of wine, full of forgotten native grape varieties, real treasures of the local wine heritage.
Today, there are a dozen small estates in Palestine, half of which would market their wines. We set our sights on the most promising of them.
PHILOKALIA, FROM DREAM TO REALITY
Revive the Palestinian vineyard through forgotten indigenous grape varieties. A very nice idea. This was originally the dream of two men : Nasser Soumi, recognized for his historical work on wine in Palestine, and Pascal Frissant, a French winemaker established in the Loire and Languedoc.
“They shared this dream for almost 30 years. It only remained to find the person who would want to carry this project at arm’s length. I decided to make it a reality in my hometown“, Sari Khoury explained with stars in his eyes.
Sari was born and raised in Palestine. He studied architecture in the United States, then in Paris, at the School of Ponts et Chaussées, before becoming a renowned architect, in his country and abroad.
If he puts on a winegrower’s hat for part of the year, it’s first of all for the love of wine and his country. “I like to explore the unknown with these forgotten grape varieties, and at the same time discover a little more of my own culture“. Although Sari has become a winemaker only recently (it’s his 3rd vintage), he knew exactly where he was heading from the start. He has chosen to call his project Philokalia, which translates into the love of beauty, the love of good. All a symbol.
WORKING WITH CONSCIENTIOUS FARMERS
The vineyards with which Sari works are located in the Bethlehem/Hebron region, between 870 and 930 meters above sea level, and seem to harbor an invaluable cultural heritage.
Recent genetic tests have revealed about 23 endemic varieties, just in this region, with more research to be done in the future.
Sari surrounded himself by only a handful of farmers, chosen for very specific reasons. For their techniques of ancestral viticultural culture, undocumented and transmitted orally, first of all, but also for the autochthonous varieties that they cultivate. “I develop my wines exclusively with native grapes, on old ungrafted vines“.
Sari also pays farmers in advance, to develop a long-term relationship of trust with them.
In a country with permanent instability, where land can be confiscated overnight and for no apparent reason, it is also a way to help one another and to view the future together in a positive light. “The sooner the financial aspect is settled, the sooner we can focus on the production and quality of the grapes“, Sari summarized.
Strolling through centuries-old vines, growing naturally in goblet on soils untouched by any treatment, in the middle of older olive trees, I realized how ingenious this ancestral system was.
The vine, with its protective foliage, adapts perfectly to the arid climatic conditions of Palestine, where it is impossible to irrigate. In the end, some grapes will be more ripe than others during the harvest.
And it is this natural balance between the over-ripeness of some grapes on one side and the acidity of some greener grapes on the other, which will give the wine its complexity, texture and unique character. Beautiful.
THE BLACK JARRES OF BETHLEHEM
Entering the garage of Sari’s family house in Bethlehem, where he built the cellar of the Philokalia estate and in which a few hundred liters of wine sleeps, gave me immense happiness. Everything here is thought of with simplicity and ingenuity.
“My goal is to work using black jars for both the fermentation and the aging of the native Palestinian grape varieties I use, in order to preserve the balance between these wines and the local cuisine, too spicy for barrel-aged wines“.
I wondered, however : why use black jars? “In the past, wine and olive oil were kept in black jars like these. It’s made from the same earth and the same material as the classic jars.
Except that the temparature during its production differs from the classic jars: instead of 800°C, it rises up to 1100°C, which significantly reduces the porosity of the jar and gives it an excellent seal, offering the wine natural protection against oxidation“.
The results are incredible. No doubt, Philokalia is on the right track and puts Palestine more than ever on the world wine map!
Palestine is a wonderful land, full of hope, humanity and promise, notably with wine.
The potential for great wines is undeniable, especially if they are made from indigenous grape varieties, whose names are for the moment a carefully kept secret. This is normal. Palestine, we will be back soon. For your welcome and your good wines.
Thank you to Sari Khoury and his family for their warm welcome. Thank you also to Nasser Soumi for welcoming me to his home in Paris to tell me more about the history of wine in Palestine. Finally, thank you to Clément Marcorelles, for having so kindly put me in touch with Sari Khoury a few years ago. The world is beautiful and we are all brothers, with the same rights.
Welcome to Israel, land of wine since ancient times. A vineyard in full change over the past twenty-five years, where dozens of small cellars emerge, producing a few thousand bottles each, alongside a handful of giants, which dominate the industry.
FROM THE SHADOW TO THE LIGHT
The Israeli vineyard dates back far. In the middle of the seventh century, the Muslim conquest marked a brutal stop for viticulture, for more than 1,200 years. It was only from the end of the 19th century, in 1882 to be exact, that the culture of the vineyard restarted under the impulse of a Frenchman, the Baron Edmond de Rothschild (château Lafite).
Divided into five regions – with Galilee to the north, the Judean Hills, surrounding the city of Jerusalem, Samson, located between the Judean hills and the coastal plain, the Negev to the south (semi-arid desert region) and the plain of Sharon, near the Mediterranean coast – the wine industry in Israel has developed a lot in terms of quality since the 80s. Previously, there were only about fifteen players. Currently, it is estimated that around 250 wineries exist in Israel. Although 5 large producers still dominate the Israeli wine landscape, accounting for more than 80% of the total production.
RECANATI WINERY, THE BEAUTIFUL ASCENT
Founded in 2000 by Lenny Recanati and Uri Shaked, the Recanati estate is one of those soaring vineyards that in just a few years has managed to make a name for itself on the international market.
The winery, located an hour north of Tel Aviv, works with 90 hectares of vineyards under contract across the country, on some of the most beautiful terroirs, such as the Golan Heights and the Judean Hills. Recognized for working with Mediterranean grape varieties such as PetiteSirah, Marselan and Carignan, Recanati also relies on international varieties such as CabernetSauvignon, SauvignonBlanc, Chardonnay and CheninBlanc, which appeared in Israel in the 1970s-80s.
In the company of Gil Shatsberg, the chief-winemaker and vice-President of the estate, we visited a new plot of 3 hectares, planted by Recanati a year ago in the north of the country, less than 1km from the Lebanese border and only 15 km from the sea.
A beautiful place at 650m altitude, with a cool breeze coming from the sea and where Recanati planted the local varieties Argaman (red) and Marawi (white). We are already longing to taste the result of this new production!
TZORA VINEYARDS, THE ART OF BLENDING
Established in 1996 in the Judean Hills, west of Jerusalem, Tzora Vineyards is a key estate of Israel. Located at an altitude of 700 meters, this 20-hectare vineyard is surprising.
I felt a great energy from the soil there, consisting of very old fossil stones. It has been divided into meso-climates. A methodical process which has allowed the recognizion of different soils on the same site, in order to plant the right varieties in the right place : Syrah, CabernetSauvignon, Merlot, PetitVerdot, SauvignonBlanc and Chardonnay (there is even a touch of Gewürztraminer).
“I believe in international grape blends“, Eran Pick MW, the winemaker and estate manager, who excels in this exercise, confessed.
A meticulous art in collaboration with the French consultant Jean-Claude Berrouet (formerly Petrus’ technical director). The result : beautiful and elegant wines with a lot of freshness, depth and balance, even for white wines. Superb!
A NEW WAVE OF WINEMAKERS
We talked about it in the preamble, the Israeli vineyard has seen many talents emerging in recent years. Small ventures for the most part, which do not lack ideas.
As at Kadma, a family estate as small as it is charming, established in 2010 in Kfar Uriah, in the foothills of Judea. It is currently the only winery in Israel to use large clay jars in the wine production process, made in Georgia (not to be confused with Georgian amphoras, named qvevri, which are buried in the ground).
A lovely winery which is the result of extensive research, in collaboration with Professor Amos Hadas (author of Vine and Wine in the Archeology of Ancient Israel) and Dr. Arkadi Papikian, a recognized Israeli wine producer.
“The fermentation in these clay jars gives the wine unique aromas and flavors“, Lina Slutzkin, the founder and owner of Kadma explained: resin, tobacco, black fruit and exotic woods. Fresh and juicy wines that go well with local grilled meat. The Israeli vineyard has not finished surprising us.
The goal now is to understand what will be the next stage in the development of this booming wine industry of incredible potential. Investing in native grape varieties, to give more identity to the local vineyard, could be one of the keys.
“As far as I know, the main objective is to educate young Israelis to love wine, so that the industry has a solid future to rely on“, Itay Gleitman, journalist at Haaretz said. To follow closely.
Thank you to Recanati, Tzora Vineyards and Kadma, for their warm welcome. Finally, thanks to Haaretz journalist Itay Gleitman for this valuable information about the Israeli vineyard.
From the ruins of Byblos (one of the oldest cities in the world continuously inhabited), through the enigmatic cedar forest, Beirut’s thrilling nightlife, or the picturesque charm of mountain villages. Not to mention the vineyards, from north to south, lovingly shaped by the hand of man, I literally fell in love with Lebanon.
Discovery of one of the oldest vineyard cultures, with indisputable terroirs and many native grape varieties. A country that has proudly risen after many wars and now produces 8.5 million bottles a year from 2,000 hectares. A “small” but recognized vineyard, 90% of which is concentrated in the Bekaa Valley. And in addition, one of the most beautiful ones in the Mediterranean… or even in the world.
The indigenous grape varieties, the future of the Lebanese vineyard
Thanks to the vine cultivation in Lebanon for ages (since around 7000 BC), indigenous grape varieties are innumerable in the country.
Legend has it that Noah, whose tomb is in the mosque of Kerak (Bekaa), stopped on Mount Sannine and planted vines there. However, due to a lack of preservation of these grape varieties, “we are still experimenting with wine”, Fabrice Guiberteau, from Château Kefraya, who is actively working to revive many missing grape varieties, said.
Two white grape varieties, however, Merwah and Obeidi, traditionally used in the production of arak (an aniseed wine brandy), seem to play their part.
“These grapes have incredible aromatic profiles and deserve to be vinified. They represent the identity and the future of the Lebanese vineyard”, Maher Harb, from Sept Winery explained.
These delicious grapes, can be found for example in the top white wine cuvée of Château Musar. “Here, the wines spend up to 7 years in bottles before going on the market for our top cuvées”, Gaston Hochar, one of the two sons of Serge Hochar, who took over the torch, confided us.
The visit of the cellar, dug in the rock under the domain, was a real spectacle in itself. Long alleys, as far as the eye can see, filled with wine treasures!
Sept Winery : never stop dreaming…
One Sunday, last October, I discovered with happiness Sept Winery, the estate of my friend Maher Harb, a young winemaker on the Lebanese scene and already so talented.
With one hectare of vines at the moment, planted by Maher in the village of Nehla, in northern Lebanon (Batroun region), to reconnect with his roots. Portrait of a self-taught man who struggles to breathe new life into Lebanese viticulture – and who, objectively speaking, all friendship and emotional judgment put aside – most certainly represents the future of wine in Lebanon.
In 2009, while he was a consultant in Paris in the banking sector, he saw himself in the reflection of the window of the metro line 13, clumped by the crowd, in his suit, like a sardine trapped in a box.
The electroshock. He left everything and returned to his country: with the desire to reconnect with nature. At the end of 2011, he planted 1 hectare of vines (mainly Grenache, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon) in extreme winter weather conditions.
No choice at the time : he just received his vines and had to plant them before leaving for two years to Saudi Arabia, in order to save some money to realize his dream of becoming a winemaker. In 2014, he traveled around the world of wine with the OIV MSc (the master of the OIV(1)) and returned in 2016, full of ideas with a lighter spirit, for his first vintage.
I tasted his wines. Incredible. Full of fruit, freshness (remarkable for Lebanon) and already very promissing… It just shows you must never stop dreaming.
Château Kefraya, on the Yammouneh seismic fault
For many years, I have been waiting impatiently to visit Château Kefraya. Why? Because it is one of the major wine estates of Lebanon. Because its 300 hectares of terraced vineyards, 1000 meters above the Mediterranean Sea, on the foothills of Mount Barouk, in the Bekaa Valley, have always made me dream.
Because I had the opportunity to taste the wines of the estate several times in the past. And I must admit that vintage after vintage, the wines become more and more elegant.
But as you know, tasting a wine at home and understanding it deeply by visiting the estate itself are two very different things. And I was even more impressed to discover, feel and touch this large mosaic of soils : clay-limestone, sandy and gravelly soils, combined with an exceptional solar exposure, all without any irrigation.
“The vineyards of Château Kefraya are located on the Yammouneh fault (the Great African Break in Lebanon), in the extreme south of the Bekaa, resulting in unique weather in Lebanon, with 1000mm of rain a year and more moderate temperatures than elsewhere in the country”, Fabrice Guiberteau, the winemaker of the estate explained. Probably one of the most beautiful terroirs in the world. Everything to make great wines.
The Bekaa, a breathtaking panorama
Looking for the “best view of the Bekaa Valley”?! We found it for you! At the top of the Château Qanafar, a property of 17 hectares planted at 1200m altitude, you can admire the beauty of the Bekaa Valley as a whole.
An incredible landscape and a beautiful way to understand the uniqueness of this wine region. Eddy Naim, the oenologist, who took over the work from his father in 2011, explained how the construction of the current winery (still in progress) had begun.
“We invested everything we had for the construction of this place, because we wanted the best for our production. We started small. In a garage in the city center.
Then we had to extend, because we got a little bigger. We rented a second small garage next to the first one. Then production increased again and we had to rent a third one… Then a fourth!
Finally, it was a critical size and we decided to create our own winery“. We stopped at the old cellar. Amazing to see the evolution of the estate in just a few years. Conclusion: if you ever create your winery, never start too big. Be patient, like Eddy, otherwise you could burn your wings.
And best of all, the wines of Château Qanafar are delicious. Like the 2013 Syrah… An explosion of gluttony!
Conclusion with Château Marsyas
We ended our stay in Lebanon by visiting the Château Marsyas. Quoted by Pliny the Elder, “Marsyas” is the ancient name of the Bekaa valley, located on the foothills of Mount Lebanon.
Perched at an altitude of 900m, the domain is the initiative of the Johnny R. Saadé family, also owner of Bargylus, in Syria (which we hope to have the pleasure to visit one day!).
The red soils that we see here show the presence of iron and white stones forming a very nice clay-limestone profile, favorable to the vine, on which Cabernet sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot in red, as well as Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay in white are planted.
The cuvée Château Marsyas Blanc 2014 (Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay), a wine full of freshness, with citrus and ripe white fruit aromas was a nice discovery.
It is impossible to close this Lebanese chapter without mentioning Vinifest, the annual Lebanese wine fair, held at the Beirut racecourse every year at the end of October. Three evenings of festivities around wine, where each guest has the possibility, for a very reasonable entrance ticket (<$ 30), to be able to taste all the Lebanese wines present ; a vast majority of wineries.
An incredible organization, a large and conquered public, talented winemakers and the testimony of a real craze for wine in Lebanon! A question now animates me : when will I be able to return to Lebanon? I already miss the country…
Thank you to ChâteauMusar, Sept Winery, ChâteauKefraya, ChâteauQanafar and Château Marsyas for their warm welcome. Special thanks to Fabrice Guiberteau from ChâteauKefraya, for his invaluable help during our stay. Finally, a huge thank you to Maher Harb, from SeptWinery, for having accompanied us throughout this trip and for having shared so deeply the love that he has for his country.
(1) OIV : International Organisation of Vine and Wine
What a beautiful discovery the Luxembourg vineyard was! Postcard landscapes, beautiful parcels of vines planted on the hillside, charming vine growers. And to top it off, a very nice production of white (and red) wines! We were seduced.
Of course, Luxembourg is a small producing country, with 6 million liters of wine produced in 2016(1) (0.03% of the world production), but it is full of nuggets. With 1,280 hectares and 42 km long, the Luxembourg vineyard extends from Schengen to Wasserbillig, mainly along the Moselle. Visit of one of the northernmost and oldest wine regions in Europe.
A vineyard first made for white wines
On the way to Luxembourg, our friend Geoffrey Avé joined us to film a bit of the Luxembourg vineyards.
We visited the family estate Bastian Mathis et Fille, a beautiful property of 18.5 hectares in the town of Remich (nicknamed the Pearl of the Moselle), along with Anouk Bastian, the owner of the place. “Luxembourg is a little treasure, you just have to know how to find it”, she told us, smiling.
Because we must face the facts: hidden between the vineyards of Alsace and the German Moselle, the Grand Duchy vineyard is struggling to make a name. Wrongly.
It has a great terroir, with calcareous soils in the north and clay marls in the south. Which, combined with the freshness of northern Europe, present a perfect equation for the production of great white wines, especially from Riesling, Auxerrois and Pinot Blanc grape varieties.
The Bastian Mathis et Fille estate produces innovative and very precise wines, such as a combination of Riesling, Auxerrois and Gewurztraminer, a blend of two vintages (2015-2016), for more complexity.
An initiative to highlight, for a gourmet wine. We loved it!
Different styles of wines, different approaches, but always with irrefutable proof that Luxembourg plays in the big leagues. We met with Abi Duhr, a Luxembourgish vintner of character and owner of the Château Pauqué – in his family for 350 years – Abi is a true artist.
A lovely person, as intriguing as attaching, producing among the greatest white wines of the country (and elsewhere). Abi completely impacted our spirits and made us travel the time of an unforgettable tasting. “I have a weakness for the Auxerrois grape variety, it ages like a Grand Chablis”, he confided.
Abi has given acclaim back to this little too neglected grape variety. A great moment of sharing and some beautiful emotions on the wine side, after having tasted 24 white wines, one more interesting than the next.
We even touched the stars with an old vines Riesling. An invitation to meditation.
Luxembourg, from surprises to discoveries
The good thing about the vineyards of Luxembourg is that although we only talk about their white wines, they also produce incredible sparkling wines and a few red wines that are worth a visit. Example with two great successes.
Domaine Alice Hartmann, an estate located in Wormeldange and created in 1850, proved to us (as if it was still needed) that Luxembourg is a leading player with its crémants. Under the direction of André Klein, this 15-hectare estate has some of the most beautiful terroirs in the country, on the slopes of the Koeppchen, all around the chapel overlooking the valley.
Alice Hartmann‘s sparkling wine cuvée, 100% Chardonnay, aged three years in barrels, then five years in bottle, is a pure delight.
Domaine Henri Ruppert, in the municipality of Schengen (world famous for the treaty on the abolition of controls at European borders that was signed there in 1985), is now famous for its Pinot Noir.
Henri Ruppert, 8th generation of passionate winemakers on the estate (which dates back to 1680), works with 18 hectares. His red wines made from the Pinot Noir grape variety are models of finesse and delicacy.
“A good wine is not the result of chance, it is planned. Its quality depends entirely on the vine that gives it life, with the production of ripe and healthy grapes”, Henri rightly summarized.
Ahn, charming village par excellence
We fell in love with Ahn, probably the prettiest village in Luxembourg. At least the one which has impressed us the most.
At the estate Madame Aly Duhr, a family property of 13 hectares, the two brothers, Max and Ben, develop wines of a more contemporary and innovative style for the country, with longer aging in barrels. As a result, beautiful wines, at the antipodes of those produced by their uncle Abi Duhr (Château Pauqué), and which mark their own signature in the Luxembourg wine landscape.
5th generation on the estate, Max and Ben lost their dad very early and wanted to take over as soon as age allowed them.
Walking through the vineyard, Max showed us their oldest plot of 0.5 ha: Riesling planted in 1972. The harvest is expected to be early but beautiful this year.
Luxembourg is a wonderful wine country and I highly recommend a visit. “A small jewel full of resources and with nearly 400 wine farms”, enthuses my friend Dominique Rizzi, a renowned sommelier, in charge of the wines of the European Court of Justice.
Only 4 hours drive from Paris, let yourself be charmed for a weekend, for example.
Thank you to Bastian Mathis et Fille, Château Pauqué, Alice Hartmann, Henri Ruppert and Madame Aly Duhr, for their warm welcome. Thank you also to Dominique Rizzi, figure of the luxembourgish and international sommellerie, for her lighting on the vineyard of Luxembourg. Finally, a big thank you to André Klein, from Alice Hartmann, for his precious help in our research.
Wine in Italy is much more than a drink. Much more than a lifestyle. It is a priesthood. From Veneto to Sicily, all regions produce wine, without exception. Its viticulture goes back to the oldest antiquity: the Romans and before them the Etruscans, already cultivated vines. The Greeks even gave the territory the nickname of Œnotria, meaning the land of wine.
With 690,000 hectares planted and no less than 9.2% of the world’s wine surface, let’s embark for an overview of the world’s largest producer since 2015(1).
Sardinia, the island where the Su’entu blows
Turning back the paths of Italy, starting with Sardinia, we met Stephano and Imma Flores, a lovely Sardinian-Catalan couple, on an epic ferry trip departing from the port of Barcelona.
A meeting as beautiful as fortuitous, which gave us the pleasure of being welcomed by the family of Stephano during three days, in the small coastal village of Marceddi, west of Sardinia. After having literally installed our motorhome in their garden, we were offered – among other local specialties – to enjoy delicious octopus spaghetti and cockle penne.
Fate would have even wanted us to stay during the feasts of the Madonna (mid-August). A sacred annual procession for Marceddi, during which a procession of hundreds of bikers and pilgrims follow the statue of the Madonna throughout the village, ending at the church. Then a weekend of festivities starts.
A superb introduction to the subject, before heading to the vineyards, further south.
We had an appointment at Su’entu estate, south of the island, where we met Salvatore Pilloni, the founder, and his daughter Roberta. A charming family property, which covers 50 hectares, 32 of which are planted with vines. “Su’entu” means “wind” in local dialect.
Because at the top of the vineyard wind blows continuously throughout the year, bringing a unique freshness to the grapes of the estate, in this hot region of the Mediterranean. In the evening, the humidity suddenly dropped on the property, where we spent the night. A coat was more than welcome.
Discovery of the autochthonous red varietal Bovale, a grape that has been forgotten because considered rustic. Personally, we loved it, with its aromas of black fruit, cedar and blackberry. “Before the Phylloxera crisis (late nineteenth century), Italy had more than a thousand different grape varieties.
Today, there are still hundreds”, Roberta explained to us. Adding : “it is fundamental to preserve our heritage, which is both our strength and our identity”.
Cantina del Vesuvio, at the foot of the volcano
Discovering the Cantina del Vesuvio, a 12-hectare property planted on the volcanic soils of the Vesuvius.
Probably the best way to discover the wines of the “Lacryma Christi” appellation, a D.O.C. mainly producing wines from the indigenous varieties Caprettone (white) and Piedirosso (red), on the slopes of the Vesuvius. “Wine has been produced here since ancient Roman times ; its first mention going back to the 5th century BC”, Maurizio Russo, the owner said.
Halfway between Naples and Pompeii, the Cantina del Vesuvio is a must see in the region. Maurizio’s family has been producing wine since 1948, four years after the last eruption of Vesuvius!
The gray dust soils that cover the vineyard are unique and bring to the wines of the domain a real typicity. Their blend of Piedirosso and Aglianico, a red wine with a strong character, was a perfect accompaniment during lunch time with home-made lasagna.
And if you want to continue the experience, Maurizio’s family offers cooking classes at home, around traditional Italian dishes that you will prepare together and then enjoy, with your family, friends or with your beloved, while drinking the wines of the estate.
A beautiful moment.
Do you know the DOC Tarquinia?!
Halfway between Rome and Grosseto, the DOC Tarquinia is one of the most interesting viticultural areas of the Lazio region. A new one for us, in a country that has no less than 300 000 vineyards, two-thirds of which have a planted area of less than 2 hectares.
Visiting Muscari Tomajoli estate, a nice example of the dynamism of the Tarquinia DOC. This family winery of 2 hectares is located only a few kilometers from the Mediterranean sea. Accessing the vineyard with our camper was a challenge, as we had to drive for 1km of narrow and winding roads in the forest, before arriving on the property.
Planted in 2007 by Marco (the son) and Sergio (the father, who tragically passed away since), the estate produces wines built for gastronomy. Impressive. Five grape varieties make the vineyard’s reputation: Montepulciano, Petit verdot, Alicante bouschet, Barbera and Vermentino.
A nice discovery that we were happy to have been able to share with two friends, what a weekend! Generous donors during our participatory fundraising campaign last year, Philippe and Gaëlle dreamt of visiting the Italian vineyard aboard our motorhome. It’s done now! A very nice moment of sharing, gastronomy, petanque, laughter and friendship. That’s also the Wine Explorers adventure.
Tuscany, as we had never drunk it before
We had promised ourselves not to visit Tuscany during the project (a beautiful region but a bit too famous for our readers), unless we found a vineyard against the current of the appellation.
We did it. Welcome to Podere San Cristoforo estate. This biodynamic certified vineyard has 45 hectares in total. Fifteen are planted with vineyards, two with olive trees and twenty with cereals. Created in 1999, the estate is led by Lorenzo Zonin (owner and oenologist), Davide Elisei (director and agronomist) and Alessandro Dalle Carbonare (oenologist). The trio produces wines that are the opposite of other local wines.
The secret of this vineyard? An exceptional terroir. The constant presence of marine breezes that keep the grapes in a perfectly healthy state and mitigate the high summer temperatures, combined with soils of Aeolian sediments (stony soils rich in clay).
“A microclimate that gives a balsamic perception in wines,” Alessandro explained. Result : wines as precise and generous as they are fresh and complex. Pure happiness … Sangiovese, Petit Verdot (a dream terroir for this variety), Syrah, Vermentino and Trebbiano.
Cinque Terre, a paradise for the senses
Cinque Terre, in the north of Italy (midway between Florence and Turin), is simply a work of art… A wild, lost and preserved place, where I would dream to come and stop by one day, to write a book or two.
A wine region as beautiful as it is fascinating, entirely shaped by the hand of man in the Middle Ages, planting vines on terraces. Forget about machines! Here, everything is done by hand. Only a few monorails were recently installed here and there, to transport the heavy equipment, as well as the grapes during the harvest. Or to carry a curious explorer on occasion!
Discovering the (micro) estate Azienda Agricola Andrea Pecunia, a vineyard of 0.5 hectares with 3,000 vines spread over 24 small terraces!…
The work of a titan, for a production of up to 1,800 bottles per year. Simply amazing. We loved Andrea Pecunia wines, 100% natural, with a special mention for its blend of Bosco and Albarolla. Respect to this viticulture of the extreme.
Silvio Morando, the art of vinifying Grignolino
We wanted you to discover a fantastic winemaker (and friend) from Piedmont : Silvio Morando. A winemaker with a big heart, kneaded with talent, with a strong temperament, who does not have his tongue in his pocket and who likes to call himself “the anarchist”.
So many reasons why we love him so much! In addition to producing some of the best Barbera del Monferrato wines in the area, Silvio likes to play off the beaten path of Piedmont wines. For example, by blending a white grape (Cortese) and a red one (Syrah) to make a rosé. Or, by having many international red grapes in one of his cuvées (a heresy in Piedmont, where traditionally a wine comes from a single grape variety). I just love it.
Best of all, Silvio specializes in Grignolino del Monferrato, named after an appellation and an Italian red grape from Piedmont.
Characterized by aromas of small red berries, a nice acidity and sustained tannins, this grape variety produces delicious and very refreshing wines. We were in full harvest and clusters were beautiful. At lunchtime, Silvio served us a Grignolino del Monferrato at cold temperature. “That’s the way to drink this wine”, he explained. A pure delight with local antipasti, or a pepper pizza!
Thank you to Su’entu, Cantina del Vesuvio, Muscari Tomajoli, Podere San Cristoforo, Azienda Agricola Andrea Pecunia and Azienda Agricola Silvio Morando for their warm welcome. And a big thank you to Stephano and Imma Flores for this incredible moment in Sardinia.
(1) In 2015, Italy became the world’s leading producer of wine, ahead of France, with 5.09 billion liters (source: OIV, 2017).
With 837 km of coastline(1), sumptuous forests (oak, pine, carob), cities one more beautiful than the next (Porto, Lisbon, Madeira, Sintra) and a generally temperate climate with an Atlantic influence, Portugal is a country that you can only fall in love with.
Currently the 11th largest producer of wine, the Portuguese vineyard covers 190,000 hectares of vines(2) and represents some 600 million liters of wine (2.24% of the world production). Let’s embark together on a journey from north to south – between the 42° and the 36° parallels north – aboard our motorhome, also ready for adventure.
The vineyard of the Upper Douro valley, a student’s dream
Known all around the world for its Port wines – of which France is the world’s largest consumer by volume by the way – the Upper Douro produces two appellations of origin, Port and Douro (for still wines).
Why did we stop here you might ask. Because since I entered the world of wine ten years ago, I dreamt of discovering the magic of the first delimited and regulated wine-growing region in the world, classified as a world heritage site by the UNESCO since 2001, with its steep terraced vineyards, plunging into the water of the Douro.
So if you are in the area, stop at Vila Nova de Gaia, just in front of Porto. In addition to its old pedestrian streets, its small hidden restaurants and its colorful port, visiting a cellar is unavoidable here.
Indeed, the large estates of the Douro – the quinta – have always had a cellar in Vila Nova de Gaia for the aging of their wines. Its strategic position, along the river, has been the main route of the wine trade since the 17th century, under the impetus of the British.
We visited the Ferreira wine cellar, the only Porto winery to remain in Portuguese hands since it was founded in 1751. Built on the foundations of a former convent, Ferreira is one of the most special cellars to visit. A bewitching smell of wet wood, mixed with that of very sweet wine, reigned in the atmosphere throughout our visit. A nice addition to the pleasure of tasting the white and red Port wines of the domain.
There are many ways to discover the Upper Douro region: by road, like us, by train, by boat, or even by helicopter. Arriving from the north, we stopped on the right bank of the river, between Regua and Pinhão, at Quinta do Crasto.
A magnificent property of 135 hectares overlooking the Douro, 74 of which are planted with vines. Dating back to 1615, Quinta do Crasto enjoys exceptional conditions for the production of fine wines (and extra virgin olive oils).
The tasting of the wines had shown us that the region is not only a land of Porto, but also a great terroir for the production of elegant, solar and well-structured red wines.
Bucelas, prince of Portuguese wine
Going down to the south, we stopped in Bucelas, near Lisbon. Here, the vineyard is nicknamed the “prince of Portuguese wine” and is famous for its production of dry white wine from the Arinto grape variety.
A grape cultivated and developed locally by the Romans for more than 2,000 years. It was also the only white wine in Portugal for many centuries.
Welcome to Quinta Da Murta, a small paradise of 27 hectares, lost in the hills of Bucelas. “The land of Bucelas is unique, with its limestone and marl soils and a hill facing south-east, ideal for the production of fresh and tense wines”, Franck Bodin, the owner of the estate, explained. Quinta Da Murta favors biodynamic and natural winemaking, using indigenous yeasts. The grass grows naturally between the rows of vines.
And only the manure of the neighbor’s horse is used to improve the health of the vines. The Arinto wine of the estate, crispy and fresh, was delicious. You can even book the venue for your wedding.
The Setúbal peninsula, a promising oeno-touristic destination
We could not visit Portugal without going along its coastline. Nothing better than a sea breath full of iodine, mixed with the caress of the sun and a glass of wine in hand, to recharge your batteries!
We decided on visiting the peninsula of Setúbal(3). This region, whose vineyard has gained renown in recent decades, also has a unique nature, with the Arrábida and Marinho Luis Saldanha National Parks, as well as the Sado Natural Reserve. All the ingredients to make it a favorite oeno-touristic destination.
Grape seeds dating from the eighth century BC. J.-C. have even been found there, attesting to the ancestral culture of wine in the valley.
We discovered Serras de Grândola, a family estate of 6.5 hectares, just 13 km from the beaches.
Here, Jacinta, the oenologist, and Manuel, her husband, combine wine and tourism to the delight of visitors. “Slightly hilly soils made of sand are perfectly suited to the production of white grapes”, Jacinta explained. Their Verdelho, a delicate white wine aged in stainless steel vats on its lees, is a delight.
Then discover the six rooms of the complex, for a change of scenery guaranteed. No neighbors for miles around, the place is perfect for a moment of relaxation out of time.
Quinta dos Vales, “the winemaker experience“
Welcome to Estombar, in the south of Portugal where we met with Karl Heinz Stock, founder of Quinta dos Vales.
Former banker in real estate, of German origin, Karl completely changed his life a few years ago, becoming a recognized artist, with his sculptures of generous curves and bright colors. In 2006, he had the idea of combining art and wine and planted a vineyard of 20 hectares on his property ; where many of his art pieces are exhibited. A very nice idea! Quinta dos Vales was born.
But the concept does not stop there. “We all have to be proactive and stay ahead of the market, so I have been working on a new project”, Karl said. A concept he named The Winemaker Experience.
The idea : to give the possibility to any person having no prior knowledge of wine to produce his own wine by attending classes throughout the year… living on the estate, in his own individual residence!
“The concept is for any budding winemaker whose dream is to wake up in the morning with a view of his vines, in an atmosphere that only a vineyard can offer, and to relax at the end of the day, with a glass (or two) of his own wine ».
The concept has just been created. To follow.
Quinta Do Francês, the nice story of the French of the Algarve
We ended our stay at the Algarve, the southernmost region of Portugal, to discover a French couple as passionate as they are charming. Fátima Santos and her husband Patrick Agostini, are the founders and owners of Quinta Do Francês, created from scratch in 2002 with 8 hectares of vines.
Patrick, the oenologist and winemaker of the estate, has a fascinating history. Being a doctor specialized in research against cancerous diseases, his specialization (rare in Europe) led him a few years ago to move his suitcases to Portugal with his wife. A country from which they never left. “It’s a country we both love for its calmness and joie de vivre, and where I come from”, Fátima told us.
Very quickly – and as passionate about wine as he was – Patrick decided to look for a plot to plant a vineyard. He found a valley with unique soils for the region: clay, limestone, sandstone and shale, perfect for the elaboration of great red wines.
With perseverance and learning, he became a talented winemaker… and at the same time succeeded in keeping his activity as a researcher in cancer diseases. Impressive! His iconic red wine, a blend of Trincadeira, Aragonês, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, is a delight. A wine made for aging many years.
Portugal is definitely a great player in the world of wine and is full of wines as generous as they are varied. So go (re)discover this vineyard with a thousand facets.
Without forgetting to lose yourself in the oak forests, these trees with a famous bark, which alone, produces the corks of 75% of the bottles of wine in the world using this material.
Thank you to Quinta do Crasto, Ferreira, Quinta Da Murta, Serras de Grândola, Quinta dos Vales and Quinta do Francês for their warm welcome.
(1) The Portuguese coast has 837 km of coast without the islands, but 1,793 km with Madeira and the Azores.
(2) Source OIV 2017 – Portugal had the world’s 11th vineyard in 2016 and the 5th in Europe with 190,000 hectares. The cultivated areas are in strong reductions as the country still had 231,000 ha of vines in 2012.
(3) The peninsula of Setúbal includes the Appellations of Origin Palmela and Setúbal and the designation of regional wines “Península de Setúbal”. The name “Setúbal” is reserved for Moscatel wines from Setúbal and Moscatel Roxo.
For 40 years, the Moroccan vineyard has been radically changing for the better. First, with a diversity of styles clearly displayed. Secondly, with the rehabilitation of forgotten vineyards. To our delight. Because do not forget that Morocco remains one of the cradles of the last wild vines. A Kingdom where the first wines were cultivated around the 6th century B.C., during the installations of the Phoenician and Greek counters.
Today, thirteen wineries give Morocco its nobility back, sharing nearly 7,000 hectares of vines, for about 50 million bottles produced per year(1). There are even three AOCs and six AOGs(2). Which delights our curiosity. From Meknes to Casablanca, an overview of a vineyard under the sign of sunshine.
The vineyard along the foothills of the Rif
We embarked with our campervan from Spain, aboard the ferry company FRS. It took us just one hour to cross from Tarifa to Tangier. And a little less than two hours to reach the region of Meknes, north, on a road network new and pleasant to drive on.
Our first visit took us to between Rabat and Fès, to Domaine Castel (Société de Vinification et de Commercialisation du Maroc), one of the major players in the country. Suddenly arriving at the foot of Mount Zerhoun, facing the foothills of the Rif, where acres of vineyards stretch out as far as the eye can see, we had no more doubt : we were well arrived ! The show was grandiose.
Despite the altitude (700m), it was already 32°C at 10am during our visit mid-August. “The temperatures raised to 46-48°C in July”, Paul D’Herbes, the oenologist of the estate, told us. We visited the vineyard of 500 hectares, a single parcel, mainly planted in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault, and worked in reasoned culture(3).
In total, the Castel estate covers 1,400 hectares. One of the specialties of the estate – which produces a wide range of wines – is the Vin Gris, a delicious wine with a pale pink color, very refreshing and obtained by direct pressing of Grenache and Cinsault grapes.
Les Celliers de Meknès, on the initiative of Morocco’s first AOC
Welcome to the Celliers de Meknès, along the foothills of the Atlas. With 2,400 hectares of vineyards, it is the main – and unavoidable – actor of the Moroccan viticulture since the 50s.
Thanks to the protection of the mountains, the region remains more temperate than others, with 34°C on average in summer, and strong climatic variations in winter. It is even not uncommon to see snow in January. A very specific terroir, with unique clay soils, that Brahim Zniber, founder of the Celliers de Meknes(4), has always wanted to highlight.
The Celliers de Meknès were thus the pioneers in the establishment of controlled origin appellations, with the creation in 2005 of the Coteaux de l’Atlas, the first Moroccan AOC. Then in 2012, with the first traditional method wine of the Kingdom and the creation of the AOC Crémant de l’Atlas.
“We are also converting 400 hectares to organic farming since this year”, Josselin Desprez De Gesincourt, the export manager, said. An initiative to highlight and which is part of the revival of the Moroccan vineyard. The wines of Château Roslane, the iconic property of the Celliers de Meknès, are very promising, especially in red (Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah). A very nice estate that can be visited and which will soon open a luxury hotel and a gourmet restaurant. A good excuse to come back.
The region of Rommani retrieves a name
Another beautiful discovery: the region of Rommani, in the province of Khemisset (halfway between Rabat and Fez). Probably one of the most promising terroirs of Morocco, with an average temperature of 5°C less than in Meknes.
Here we visited the Hacienda des Cigognes, the wine pioneer of Rommani. A domain initiated by the Moullablad family, established in the region since 1914. In the 90s, Abdeslam Moullablad and his son Karim, the current owner, replanted the vineyard on these former viticultural lands, thus giving life back to viticulture in the region.
The new cellar, under construction, already has sumptuous vaults, called “cathedrals”. A cellar shape in height, typical in Morocco, allowing a better ventilation of the buildings and playing the role of a natural thermal regulator. The tanks are mainly concrete, for a wine production focused on the fruit and with more freshness. The whole complex is very impressive. However, we will have to wait a few more months before seeing the first vintage in bottle… which we are already longing to taste!
For now, we discovered the 98 hectares of vines of the estate, spread over two sites and mainly planted with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Carignan and Tempranillo. The teams were in full harvest.
“In Morocco, it is the women who make the harvest, as well as the cutting and the other meticulous works of the vine”, Boris Bille (sommelier and founding member of the Association of the Sommeliers of Morocco(5)), expained to us during the visit.
With the great variety of women’s tunics, all more colorful than the others, the vineyards had a festive atmosphere.
Another spearhead of the AOC Côtes de Rommani: La Ferme Rouge. Created in 1908, the estate is now in the hands of the French winemaker Jacques Poulain. “La Ferme Rouge enjoys a unique location in the heart of the Zaer region: 450m above sea level and 45km from the ocean, the vineyard still benefits from a strong Atlantic influence. It is also protected to the west by the valleys of the wadi Korifla and south by the foothills of the Middle Atlas”, Jacques explained.
This estate of 300 hectares, planted in one piece, has a wealth of exceptional soils: ancient sands, schists, red and ferric clay, on clay-limestone subsoils. As for the wines, they are vinified and matured in an ultra modern winery. La Ferme Rouge has everything needed to make very nice wines.
Generous and gourmet red wines
Our stay ended 50 km north-east of Casablanca, at the Domaine des Ouled Taleb de Benslimane, operated by Thalvin company since 1968 and now in the hands of the Zniber family. This magnificent property, created in 1926, is the oldest winery still in operation in Morocco. Over the last few years, the estate has seen two talented French winemakers: Jacques Poulain (now at La Ferme Rouge) and Stéphane Mariot, director of the estate since 2011.
Thalvin is a great example of the potential of the Moroccan vineyard to produce generous and fruity red wines. Especially with the red grape Arinarnoa, a discovery for us.
This cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon produces gourmet wines with notes of blackberry and blueberry. This 240-hectare estate is also planted with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Here too, it’s harvest time. And the enthusiasm of the workers around us, as well as the excitement that reigned over the property, was a pleasure to see!
We could not conclude this visit without mentioning Aït Souala, the former state wine cellar, which we had the chance to visit ; the cellar stopped its activity with the vintage 2011.
An intense and emotional moment, in this ghostly place, which was, during the splendid period of the Moroccan vineyard (1970-1990), the the largest cooperative cellar in the world, with some 650,000 hL capacity.
Thank you to Castel (Société de Vinification et de Commercialisation du Maroc), Celliers de Meknès, La Ferme Rouge, Thalvin and Hacienda des Cigognes, for their warm welcome. A huge thank you to Driss Mouhib, Josselin Desprez De Gesincourt and Boris Bille for organizing this colorful Moroccan program. Finally, thank you to Karim Moullablad and the team of the Hacienda des Cigognes for these beautiful traditional hats that were offered to us. A friendly nod to the traditional hats of the workers in the vineyard.
(1) 2016 figures.
(2) Morocco has three appellations of controlled origin (AOC): Coteaux de l’Atlas, Côtes de Rommani and Crémant de l’Atlas ; six geographical designations of origin (AOG): Zaer, Zenata, Ben M’tir, Guerrouanne, Zemmour and Berkane.
(3) Rational culture is the application to viticulture of the concept of reasoned agriculture, ie global operations management approaches that aim, beyond compliance with regulations, to reinforce the positive impact of agricultural practices on the environment, also reducing their negative effects, without jeopardizing the economic profitability of farms.
(4) Brahim Zniber, who died in September 2016 at the age of 96, was a Moroccan businessman, farmer and winemaker, known as one of the pioneers of the revival of Moroccan viticulture. (5) Créée en 2012, l’Association des Sommeliers du Maroc (ASMA) permet au Royaume de se doter de la première association de sommeliers d’Afrique et d’intégrer l’élite de la sommellerie internationale. À sa tête, Michèle Chantôme, qui est également secrétaire de l’Association des Sommeliers Internationale (ASI).
(5) Created in 2012, the Association of Sommeliers of Morocco (ASMA) allowed the Kingdom to have the first association of sommeliers in Africa and to integrate the elite of international sommellerie. At its head, Michèle Chantôme, who is also secretary of the Association of International Sommeliers (ASI).
Should we still present Spain, the world’s largest vineyard in terms of size, with almost 1 million hectares(1)? The answer is : yes, of course ! Despite its imposing size (13% of the world’s vineyards) and its leading position (3rd place in the world rank of wine producers since 2014), Spain is always full of surprises and discoveries.
In a country with 1,250 grape varieties and more than 60 denominations of origin, no one could pretend to know everything. It is besides, according to me, the country par excellence where you can find the best quality/price ratio wines at less than 6 euros, especially in red. From north to south, let’s discover some winemakers who have surprised us, both by their originality and their typicality. Everyone has a story that deserves a visit.
Txakoli, emblematic wine of the Basque Country
Do you know txakoli?
Originally produced on the farms of the Basque Country in a traditional way, the txakoli (DO Getariako Txakolina) is above all a friendly and usually a white wine(2), produced from the local varieties Hondarribi Zuri (white) and Hondarribi Beltza (red). Its peculiarity : it is made from grapes harvested slightly green (which gives it some acidity). Also, txakoli wine is slightly carbonated (fizzing).
It is served in a traditional way by pouring long threads of wine from the bottle to the glass, see directly from the tank, as here at Ameztoi!
Be careful not to splash your feet… it takes a bit of practice…
The finest Spanish bubbles have a name
Welcome to the Raventós i Blanc estate, in Sant Sadurní d’Anoia, a region famous for Cava(3). Winegrowers since 1497, Raventós i Blanc has one of the longest documented wine traditions in the world.
We fell in love with this estate, which decided in the early 1870s during a market crisis, to no longer make still wine, and created the first cava. To differentiate itself from the wines of Champagne, the estate honors autochthonous grape varieties : Xarel-lo (used since 1888 by Manuel Raventos Doménech), Macabeo (introduced in the 1920s) and Parallada, which will all three become the basis for the production of cavas. Today, Pepe Raventós, who represents the 21st generation, assisted by his father Manuel, works the 90 hectares (divided into 44 parcels) without irrigation, using biodynamic methods, horses and other animals (pigs, sheep…).
A beautiful property, 200m above sea level, with fossil limestone and marine soils formed more than 16 million years ago.
Here sparkling wines are aged on the lees for 18 months to 5 years for the top cuvée. We are absolute fans : the estate undoubtedly produces some of the most beautiful sparkling wines in Spain… or even in the world. Indisputable proof that Spain can produce incredible bubbles.
For the anecdote, the Raventós family withdrew a short time ago from the Cava appellation, not without deep reflection and with a lot of courage, in order to define its own, more strict(4) rules.
Parés Balta, in the heart of the natural park of Foix
Discovering Parés Baltà estate, another green nugget from Penedès.
From the pollination of the vines by the bees of the estate during flowering, to the sheep grazing among the vines once the grape harvest is over (removing weeds and offering natural fertilization), the Parés Baltà estate is 100% ecological. Its great diversity of soils (limestone, clay, marine fossils), with vines between 170 and 800m above sea level, allows the development of very beautiful wines, such as the Cosmic cuvée, blend of Xarel-lo and Sauvignon blanc.
“Here, wine is exclusively a women’s business!”, Joan and Josep Cusiné Carol, brothers and current owners of the family estate, laughingly told us.
Indeed, the vinification is solely in the hands of Maria Elena Jimenez and Marta Casas, two talented oenologists… and their wives!
Visiting the vineyard with Gemma Muray, in charge of the oenotoursime, the opportunity was offered to me, on the heights of the natural park of Foix, to sabrage a bottle of sparkling wine with a sword. A big challenge, which I had already tried to achieve three years ago with my friend Jonathan, from Champagne Louis de Sacy, in Verzy. At the time, I completely failed.
This time, I did it! Thank you Gemma for the lesson. And cheers, a glass of the cuvée Cava Brut in hand!
Ton Rimbau, the winemaker who ages his wine in ceramics
Ton Rimbau, winemaker and founder of the Casa Rimbau estate, in Penedès, is one of the most charismatic characters I have encountered during the project…
Beyond organic and biodynamic viticulture, Ton Rimbau is a strong advocate of “permaculture”. A method of ancestral and natural culture, with the goal to keep the vines as if they were a forest, with the least possible amount of intervention. This system does not use pesticides or chemicals, as the ecosystem maintains a balance that allows plants to grow healthier and stronger. Spiders – whose vital role in Ton’s vineyard has earned them an effigy on bottle labels – also prevent the proliferation of plant pests, such as cetain types of moths. Finally, the weeds, after being flattened, form a protective layer for the soil, preventing UV from entering and affecting the quality of the soil. All a symbol!
And that is not all. Add to that the fact that wines are exclusively aged in ceramic bottles… And that the (superb) sparkling wine of the estate is aged under water for two years (!), in Ton’s garage. Here you have a more complete overview of the unique style of this unclassifiable character. To better understand the cuvées of the estate, exclusively white, Ton Rimbau invited us to consult the lunar calendar. Lucky for us, our visit fell on a “fruit day”. I am an absolute fan!
Enric Soler, the quintessence of Xarel-lo
We met with with EnricSoler, in the Penedès – one of my favorite regions of Spain, as you may have noticed – for a lesson in winemaking with the Xarel-lo grape variety.
Mainly known for cavas, Xarel-lo has only been vinified as a still wine for about ten years. “It’s a misunderstood variety, with extraordinary qualities, that can give great results as a still wine, when you know how to take care of it”, Enric explained.
Professor of oenology at the University of Barcelona, EnricSoler is a winemaker as we like them: discreet, always smiling, humble and so talented. When his grandfather passed away, he had the opportunity to take over his small vineyard, with 70-year-old Xarel.lo vines.
A real treasure, which once in his hands, was bound to become a revelation. With 2 hectares cultivated biodynamically and with 3 different micro-cuvées (from soil of sand and clay, different altitudes and aging between stainless steel vats, concrete eggs and barrels) as original as it is delicious, Enric produces spectacular wines of complexity and elegance, which invites meditation.
Bodegas Moraza, a different approach of the Rioja
In Rioja Alta (north-central Spain) we visited the BodegasMoraza, a family estate of 18 hectares, full of charm.
Why a visit to this beautiful and famous Spanish region? Because the winemakers Julia Moraza and Patricio Brongo, goes against the current of what is being done in the region. “Our wines are made in stainless steel tanks, to keep the freshness and typicality of the terroir”, Julia explained. An alternative to encourage, in a sunny region where harvests are more and more precocious, year after year, with the risk of over-matured grapes.
A beautiful story, started six generations ago by Julia’s family, in the village of San Vicente de la Sosierra, a border area between the legendary kingdoms of Castile and Navarre.
Located at the foot of Mount Toloño, their vineyard, spread over eleven plots between 400 and 650m above sea level, is mainly composed of clay and limestone. An ideal playground for the native varieties of Rioja such as Tempranillo, Grenache and Graciano, or Viura, in white. Another face of Rioja… that conquered us!
Sanlúcar de Barrameda, paradise of manzanilla
To the question “what wine would you take to a desert island?”, I could answer: a bottle of manzanilla, among my three favorite wines. Served very fresh, this delicious dry white wine, with its aromas of fresh walnuts and its incredible salty taste, bewitches me every time.
Made from the Palomino grape variety, it is produced exclusively in the cellars of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, in the province of Cádiz. Why? Because the particular location of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, on the estuary of the Guadalquivir River, offers cool temperatures (very windy) and high humidity, conducive to the development of flora. This yeast develops in the form of a thick veil on the wine, aged in 3/4 filled barrels. The action of flora? It naturally protect the wine from any contact with the air, giving it a unique fresh and delicate aspect.
Let’s discover two wineries that excel in the production of manzanilla. Bodegas Hidalgo La Gitana, founded in 1792 by Don José Pantoja Hidalgo, has been managed by the same family for eight generations.
The estate uses grapes from its own vineyards, located in the plains of Balbaina and Miraflores, considered as the best terroirs of the appellation. “The criadera consists of a stack of barrels at several heights. The first level, on the floor, is named solera. The other levels are named first and second criadera…”, Fermin Hidalgo explained.
A very technical part, but essential to understand the evolution of the wine. Adding : “at the end of aging, the wine is withdrawn from the solera.
The quantity of wine removed is replaced by that of the two barrels above. And so on until the maximum height which is filled with young wine. This system enables, besides aging of the wine, good homogenization of the production between the vintages and each one of the barrels of the criadera”. Result : non-vintage wines, blends of many harvests. The Spaniards like to say that with this system, the old wine educates the young.
Visiting the cellars of the Bodegas Baron was another rare and unforgettable moment.
Located in the upper area of Sanlúcar de Barrameda, facing the mouth of the Guadalquivir River, the caves are directly exposed to the Atlantic breeze. Welcome to Bodegas Baron, where the Rodriguez Carrasco family has been making wine with the same family roots for 400 years. A very special iodine fragrance bathed the atmosphere, making it almost mystical.
Exactly what we needed to be in the right mood to taste manzanilla from the barrel. Unfiltered, the wine is served directly using a venencia, the traditional tool consisting of a cylindrical container attached to a long stem (formerly made of whalebone).
Welcome to Andorra, one of the smallest sovereign states in Europe, with an area of 468 km2. Bordered by Spain and France, its location in the Pyrenees makes it a country mainly composed of high mountains. Its capital, Andorra la Vella, is also the highest in Europe (1,023 meters above sea level).
It is a country as small as it is charming and which currently have four wine estates. We had the chance to visit two of them. This deserved an article. Because, by hijacking a famous quote by Alfred de Musset, I would say : “No matter the size of the vineyard, provided we have drunkenness”. And we got it.
Unique topography and climate in Europe
Arriving with our camper from the Regional Natural Park of Ariège Pyrenees, south, we started to climb the mountain in laces, which unfolded at our feet, towards Andorra. The time trial stage of the Tour de France between Saint-Girons and Foix had just ended. We encountered fun amateur cyclists descending, followed by dozens of motorhomes. The atmosphere was festive.
Located astride the 42nd parallel north, one might rightly think that Andorra enjoys a similar climate to that of the south of France, with which the country is bordering. Not at all. Possessing one of the highest vineyards in Europe, located between 1100 and 1200 meters above sea level, Andorra enjoys ideal climatic conditions. Between spring and summer – starting from flowering(1), until the harvest – the days are mild, warm in summer (31°C during our visit, mid-July).
But the nights are cool and rarely rise above 16-18°C (2). On the rainfall side, precipitation amounts to about 850 millimeters per year (the equivalent of Bordeaux) and are well distributed throughout the year.
Ideal conditions for the production of tobacco, the main agricultural activity of Andorra. And of course, a great terroir for the production of white wines.
Borda Sabaté, a vineyard accessible only by 4X4
Located in Sant Julià, near the Spanish border, the Borda Sabaté estate was planted in 2006, with the desire to be the pioneer of wine tourism in the Principality ; offering all year round various options to visit its vineyards (organized meals, picnics, seminars).
Two hectares of Riesling, Cornalin(3), Merlot and Syrah are planted on slopes and worked following an ecological and biodynamic agriculture, under the guidance of the Rhône-Alpes winemaker Alain Graillot, who consults the estate.
Because of the very steep gravel roads that lead to the vineyard, getting there is a real adventure, as impressive as it is risky, and only possible with a 4X4 vehicle. Upon reaching the summit (1200 meters), we admired the privileged view over the valley, at the top of the sunny side of the Muxella. Magnificent. As for the winery, no less spectacular, as it was built directly into the rock, in order to have a natural and constant freshness.
The work of a titan… and great passion. With (only) two wines and 3,500 bottles produced per year… it is better to visit the estate directly to have the chance to discover this beautiful production.
Casa Beal, the Gewurztraminer in all its splendor
Not far from here, we discovered the Casa Beal estate. We met with Joan Visa, a genius winemaker and a humble and endearing character.
Joan is a farmer, a profession handed down from generation to generation on the family estate (since 1170!), specializing in the production of tobacco. An ancient art consisting of growing tobacco plants first and then drying the leaves in a well-ventilated, hot and humid place for about 12 weeks.
In 2004, Joan wanted to plant a few vines, to diversify its activities. This was the revelation.
He planted 1.5 hectares, only with Gewurztraminer! And started to produce a unique cuvée, of which he barely makes 1200 bottles in the best years. A wine of extraordinary precision and that I am not ready to forget.
Because even if I’m not always a big fan of the powerful aromas of rose and lychee that are characteristic of wines made from the Gewurztraminer grape variety, I must admit that I fell in love with Joan’s wine, which is based on notes of honeysuckle, mountain flowers and chestnut honey. A pure moment of meditation, which provided proof, if it was necessary, that Andorra can produce great wines. So if you are in te vicinity, stop at Joan’s winery. He will be delighted to welcome you.
As you can understand, wine from Andorra is a rare product. And its price may be high compared to other parts of the world ; legitimated by high production costs. But sometimes, it is also what creates the charm and the magic of a wine.
Thank you to Borda Sabaté and Casa Beal for their warm welcome.
(1) The vegetative cycle is characterized by several stages. After the appearance of the first leaves and first clusters comes flowering, in June.
(2) Source : http://www.climatsetvoyages.com (3) Cornalin is a black grape vine originating from Switzerland and among the oldest autochthonous vines planted in Valais.