Bosnia and Herzegovina, the sleepy beauty of the Balkans

Welcome to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a wine country with crazy charm, which, if I believe my little finger, should soon become a talking point ?

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Known as one of the last European refuges of the vine after the Ice Age, the vineyard of Bosnia and Herzegovina developed on the basis of indigenous grape varieties that had survived this glacial period(1). Hardly touched by the war of 1992-1995, the vineyard shrunk from 6000 hectares before the war, to 3570 hectares today ; concentrated mainly in the region of Mostar, along the Neretva valley.

When weddings rhyme with wine

Vilinka Winery is the story of an adorable family who embarked on the wine adventure in 2008 with 3 hectares of vines planted in the Vilinka region of southern Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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The Eres family initially specialized in the organization of weddings – with a company creating wedding dresses and a reception building built at the foot of the mountains – their idea to create a vineyard capable of supplying wine during the weddings was brilliant. Because people do not joke around when it comes to wedding parties in this country: count between 500 and 700 guests on average for dinner! “If you forget to invite someone to your wedding, close to you or not, family or simple co-worker, this person will come to your house within a year to bring you a gift. It is better to invite everyone in one go! “, Velimir enjoyed to share with us.

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Velimir, who is self-taught, learned all about viticulture and oenology from books. He planted his vineyard on a plateau at 400m above sea level, on white pebble soils. An exceptional terroir for the local grape varieties Žilavka, in white (pronounced “Jilavka”) and Blatina, in red; beautifully maintained by Velimir. Production is almost exclusively sold on the spot. A wedding was planned when I arrived. Everyone was busy preparing.

About fifteen pigs were being roasted on the spit and the delicious smell of grilled pork spread quickly throughout the village.

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At nightfall, the guests were there and the music was in full swing. Everyone danced, feasted… and drunk Vilinka wines. The party was a huge success.

The vineyard of broken rocks

The region of Mostar is an extraordinary terroir for the cultivation of vines, with its temperate Mediterranean climate and its white soils, composed of poor fossil rocks, favorable for the production of great wines, in both white and red.

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The result is a deep, mineral and stretched signature in all the good wines of the country – especially on Trnjak (red) and Žilavka (white) grape varieties. The only problem is that the stones are so compact on the surface of the soils that it is impossible to plant vines with traditional machines: they can not penetrate the soil… Nuić estate, created in 2004 in the village of Crnopod, in southern Herzegovina, found the solution, inventing a machine capable of smaching stone!

The work of a Titan, because it is necessary to break the innumerable rocks present in the soil into pieces before being able to plant any vines.

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“The wine-growing history of Bosnia and Herzegovina dates back to BC and was then already predominantly in this region. It was up to us to reconnect with the tradition by taming its magnificent soils of “unique white crushed stones, which make the richness of our wines “, Ivan Planinic from Nuić estate, explained. Fascinating, after so many countries explored, to discover new planting techniques, as well as new indigenous grape varieties – showing Bosnia-Herzegovina’s identity in terms of wine and cultural wealth.

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The world of wine is definitely full of surprises. An infinite playground and my garden of predilection ; for which I thank nature every day.

Brkić, a model of success

Between a micro-production of top quality wines (15,000 bottles produced per year), an organic philosophy – even biodynamic on certain wines – and an exclusive focus on two indigenous grape varieties, Žilavka (white) and Blatina (red), the Brkić estate is a must see in Bosnia Herzegovina.

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Located 20km south of Mostar, in the town of Čitluk, the estate has been in existence since 1979 and has been handed down from father to son for three generations.

After the death of his father Pasko, who had planted the vineyard between 300 and 400 meters above sea level, Josip Brkić took over the estate in search of the right balance between acidity, tannins and texture. Fifteen years ago, he converted the vineyards and the cellar to biodynamic practices. “I later discovered that wine is more than a product: it is a living organism”. It was with his three boys that we discovered the vineyard and tasted the wines.

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The succession ? Too early to say. Josip was pleased to open one of their rare 30 bottles of sparkling wine in traditional method, 100% Žilavka. A “trial” done in 2014 (a rainy and capricious vintage), and I must confess… very conclusive.

The Monastery of Tvrdoš

We concluded our trip by visiting the Monastery of Tvrdoš, an Orthodox monastery founded in the 15th century and dedicated to the Assumption of the Virgin Mary.

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It is located on the right bank of the Trebišnjica River, four kilometers west of Trebinje, in the extreme south of Bosnia and Herzegovina, only a few kilometers from Croatia (Dubrovnik) and Montenegro. Nowadays, with 150 hectares of vines spread over 3 sites and an annual production of 350,000 bottles, the Monastery of Tvrdoš is one of the major players in the country and exports its wines to more than 20 countries. Its particularity: the wine is made by the monks of the domain. Open to the public, its long underground cellars, where the barrels are stored, are open all year round.

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The cuvée “Tvrdoš 2013” (100% Vranac) – which represents 60% of the estate’s production – is a pleasant wine with notes of intense black fruit, licorice and garrigue. On the palate, a taste of cherry, plum and coffee. A nice surprise.

The Bosnian vineyards have undeniable potential. It is really encouraging. Moreover, as Professor Marko Ivanković, Director of the Federal Agro-Mediterranean Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina, rightly pointed out during our meeting, “the quality of wines has evolved considerably over the last fifteen years, after the privatization of the vineyards”.

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They even target a plantation of 10,000 hectares in total within fifteen to twenty years, if the country joins the European Union.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Vilinka Vinery, Vinogradi Nuić, Brkić and the Monastery of Tvrdoš for their warm welcome. Thank you to Marko Ivanković, Professor Marko Ivanković, Director of the Federal Agro-Mediterranean Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina, in Mostar for his time. Thank you to Ivica Glamuzina, from Vinogradi Nuić, for organizing this meeting with Professor Ivanković. Finally, thank you to Ante Bacic, from Les Robes de l’Est, for his valuable winery recommendations.

 

(1) The three emblematic grape varieties of Bosnia and Herzegovina being Žilavka in white; Trnjak and Blatina in red.

Cyprus, an island full of (wine) treasures

Legend has it that Cyprus was called “the island of love” after Aphrodite was born from foam at the point where the sea throws itself on the rocks of the coast of Paphos… The reality, in fact, is just as idyllic on the wine side.

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Located on the easternmost part of the Mediterranean Sea, in the Levantine basin(1), the island is full of wine treasures : a history rich in traditions, indigenous varieties as varied as interesting, and the production of Commandaria, the oldest wine still in production. There was nothing more needed to sharpen our curiosity.

A plurimillenary wine tradition

Welcome to Cyprus, an island of just 1.3 million inhabitants, with around 60 estates(2) spread over 7900 hectares of vineyards, producing about 81000 hl per year(3).

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Our focus was on four essential wine producers, along with Manon Perramond, a young (and talented) photographer who accompanied the Wine Explorers at this new destination.

“Did you know that the wine-growing history of Cyprus is 5000 years old ?!”… It was with these words that we were receive with an enthusiastic energy by Mrs. Loannides, who was smiling from ear to ear. She and her husband – an 85-year-old doctor, still active – are winegrowers and the owners of the Ayia Mavri estate in central Cyprus.

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A wonderful meeting, full of humanity and positivism, where passion was more palpable than ever. Like her husband, she speaks about wine with stars in the eyes. Started in 1983, the estate produces 50,000 bottles and has been nicknamed “the sweet vineyard” by the locals, thanks to its specialization in the production of world-class sweet wines. They even have some Xynisteri vines (a delicious white indigenous grape) 100 years old… To be discovered urgently!

An island under the sign of the sun

On the way to our second visit, we were surprised to discover a lot of water heaters on the roofs of the buildings of the island.

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“The weather is so beautiful all year round that people provide their hot water needs with the sun”, Mrs. Sofroniou, from the Ministry of Energy, Trade, Industry and Tourism of Cyprus, who accompanied us during the visits, explained. “We do not use electricity from April to October, only solar panels, to supply our homes with hot water”.

Rendez-vous at Vlassides estate, a very pretty property of 18 hectares, located on the plateau of Koilani, at 700m above sea level, in the center of the island – established by Sophocle Vlassides in 1998.

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At the time, Sophocle already had the vision to transform the small shop of his grandfather to produce “garage wine”. He studied oenology at the University of Davis, California. In 2012, the success was there and the team moved to a new, more modern cellar, with a cave dug 9 meters into the rock, to preserve the freshness of the wines. As you will have realized, it is hot in Cyprus.

We visited the vineyard at 8am… at 27°C. Panos Magalios, the assistant oenologist, explained to us that Vlassides produces 120,000 bottles a year, mainly from the grape varieties Xynisteri, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc. In recent years, the estate has experimented with some indigenous Cypriot varieties such as Maratheftiko and Yiannoudi (red), and Promara and Morokanella (white).

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“We need to experiment more to see which grape varieties are best suited to the heat, as well as to the high humidity present during summer time”, Panos said.

Kyperounda, one of the highest vineyards in Europe

During the discovery of Kyperounda winery, we were accompanied by Minas Mina, a fantastic and passionate Cypriot winemaker! Built at the end of the 1990s, Kyperounda belongs to more than 40 shareholders, whose control and management are placed in the hands of the Photos Photiades group.

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The estate was built on three levels, in order to use gravity to move the grape juice in the gentlest way possible.
The cellar, located in the region of Pitsilia, 75 km from Nicosia and 50 km from Limassol, is magnificent. With an altitude of 1,400 meters above sea level (one of the highest in Europe), the schist and loess soils (very poor), are fantastic for the production of deep and precise wines. Add to this low yields and cool nights – unique in the region – this combination makes the Kyperounda estate one of the jewels of Cyprus viticulture…

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A special mention for its Commandaria (100% Xynisteri). A unique type of sweet wine exclusively found in Cyprus, developed at the foot of the Troodos Mountains. This is the oldest wine in the world still in production, and is made from the grape varieties Xynisteri (white) and/or Mavro (red), whose clusters are dried in the sun to concentrate the grape berries into sugar. The juice from pressing is then fermented naturally in stainless steel vats (even sometimes in terracotta jars), then fortified(4) to reach an alcohol level of about 15%. The wine is then brought to the cellars of Limassol, where it is aged in oak barrels for a minimum of two years. The result : concentrated sweet wines with an amber color and a perfume of resin, pine, dried fruit and nuts. A delight…

Yiannoudin, (red) favorite grape

We ended our stay by visiting Tsiakkas winery, in the village of Pelendri, in the south of the island.

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Perched at an altitude of 1000m, it is probably one of the most beautiful vineyards in Cyprus, with its northern exposition and amphitheater shape. Costas Tsiakkas, the owner of the estate and a former businessman (he was a banker in a previous life), started in 1988 with only 5,000 bottles. Today, with a production of 150,000 bottles, his success is impressive.

His secret? The search for unrecognized or forgotten indigenous grape varieties. “I like to focus on local grape varieties : they are more resistant to diseases and are the future of Cypriot winemaking, both in terms of taste and identity”.

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Here we discovered Yiannoudin, a red grape with very fine skin and berries, and concentrated juice. And a special mention for the cuvée Yiannoudin 2014, a generous red wine full of depth and freshness, with notes of wild black fruit, leather, spices and cigar. We loved it!

We departed from Cyprus with stars in our eyes… A (wine) destination of great interest. And a country full of authentic people and wine treasures. Our last meal on the beach, a plate of Halloumi (the traditional cheese) and a glass of Ouzo.

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Another facet of the rich local gastronomic heritage.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Vlassides, Ayia Mavri, Kyperounda Winery and Tsiakkas Winery for their warm welcome. Thanks also to the Trade Office of the Embassy of Cyprus in Paris and to the Ministry of Energy, Trade, Industry and Tourism of Cyprus for having organized and supported this visit in such a beautiful way. Finally, thanks to the young and talented photographer Manon Perramond for participating in the trip.

 

(1) The Levantine Basin is a subdivision of the eastern basin of the Mediterranean Sea and corresponds to its easternmost part (Southern Turkey, Cyprus, Middle East).
(2) The island has about 60 commercial domains, as well as many small domestic plantations intended for private consumption.
(3) Production 2016 – source : Cypriot Ministry of Energy, Trade, Industry and Tourism.
(4) Following fermentation, the wine is fortified, either with a wine brandy containing 95% alcohol by volume or a distilled wine containing 70% by volume of alcohol.

The Croatian viticulture, in the pantheon of the great ones

One could sum up the richness of the Croatian vineyards with these two sentences: “its vine cultivation goes back as far as the first inhabitants who settled here”. Adding that “the list of indigenous grape varieties is as long as the Croatian coast”. It sets the scenary.

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However, it was not until the early 1990s – and Croatia’s independence – that many individuals could reclaim land previously requisitioned by the state(1). Over the past two decades, Croatia has regained its reputation, producing both extraordinary and varied wines.
From Continental Croatia (north), to Dalmatia (south), via Slavonia (along the Hungarian, Serbian and Bosnian borders) and Istria (west), each of the four Croatian wine regions deserves a stop. Story of a journey full of unforgettable discoveries.

Continental Croatia, land of great white and sparkling wines

Welcome to the coolest region of Croatia, with its scenery of steep hills with rounded summits, rural villages and carefully maintained vineyards, producing excellent white, sparkling… and even ice wines!

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Visiting Cmrečnjak estate, in the village of Štrigova. A unique terroir with a maximum altitude of 340m and clay soils, ideal for the cultivation of grape varieties such as Posipel (Furmint), Silvanac zeleni (Sylvaner) or Grasevina (Welschriesling). Marko Cmrečnjak, 4th generation of winegrowers, is proud to follow in his father’s footsteps and “could not imagine another job in life”. His cuvée “Ledena Vino 2012“, a 100% Grasevina ice wine, is fantastic!

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Not far from Zagreb, in the village of Jastrebarsko (Plešivica region), we discovered the Sember family, a great producer of sparkling wines in traditional methods.

“Thanks to a cooler continental climate, limestone soils and a 6-hectare well-exposed vineyard on hillsides, we have the optimum conditions for the production of fine bubbles”, Nikola, the eldest son, explained. A project of sparkling wine made in amphorae is currently being tested.

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We tried the “orange” wine in fermentation, in the amphorae buried in the garden. Promising.

Coups de cœur for the Teran and the Malvazija istarska

Istria. Such a beauty… In the north-west of Croatia, discover this wild region with crazy charm, still preserved, where we had the happiness to discover the grape varieties Teran and Malvazija istarska.

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Here, the typical “terra rossa” red soils of the region (loaded with iron), combined with a unique micro climate and strict green harvests (maximum yields of 1.5kg per vine for the best estates), offer wines as greedy as they are deep.

It was at Coronica estate, in the extreme northwest of the Istrian peninsula, where we fell under the spell of the Teran. A red grape variety with fine skin and bulky berries, difficult to work with.

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“It is important to harvest teran with 20% resinous grapes to add complexity to the wine”, Moreno Coronica, a winemaker as charming as he is talented, explained. Result : deep and straight wines, with superb tannins and insolent freshness. Made for aging.

A few kilometers away, in the coastal village of Višnjan, the Radovan family, with 9 hectares of vines, showcases Malvazija istarska, a white grape with aromas of almond kernel, apricot, ripe white fruits and wild flowers.

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“Here, nature is beautiful: the sea wind blows on the vineyard in the morning, refreshing the air, and the land wind blows in the evening, softening the atmosphere”, Franko, the father, enthused. Their cuvée “Malvazija Istarska 2015” is a pure delight!

Léo Gracin, the rock star of the Babič

It is in Primošten, at the grandmother’s house of our friend (and formidable guide) Barbara Bacic, that we met Léo Gracin, one of the great figures of Croatian viticulture.

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Winemaker of talent, Léo is also a Doctor of oenology, a professor at the University of Zagreb and a consultant for the finest Croatian estates. His casual look and his permanent smile make him a character as friendly as he is charismatic. Léo owns one hectare of vineyard in the Bucavac Primošten appellation, in Dalmatia, which is going to become the first Croatian wine-growing region classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The fragmented topography of the site, the hard rock soils, the obligation to work by hand, the plots all being isolated from each other, the ban on irrigation and the incredible difficulty of working in this vineyard (44°C in summer, forcing the workers to start their days at 4am and ending them at 11am…), probably make it one of the most atypical vineyards that we have ever discovered.

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Discovering the babič, a Croatian red grape originally from Primošten and wonderfully vinified by Leo. Its sweetened version, called Prošek(3), a Dalmatian specialty, is of great complexity and pairs fantastically with local cheeses.

Stina Vino, an extreme vineyard

Croatia has 1185 islands and islets. Some of them are home to some of the most beautiful vineyards in the world. Welcome to the island of Brač, 50 minutes by ferry south of Split, famous for its white stone (Stina). A small multi-century wine-growing paradise, which has seen the apparition of very interesting indigenous grape varieties, such as Plavac mali, in red.

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Visit of Stina Vino, a gorgeous estate, with 70 hectares of vines spread over two sites. One of them is undoubtedly one of the most extreme vineyards visited during the project. Literally carved into the rock, this parcel is culminated at 650 meters above sea level and dives into the sea, with slopes having 65% of inclination! In other words, to work there requires above all the art of the tightrope walker… Risking to (slightly) descend in a row of vines myself, I failed not falling…

The second plot – 45 hectares in one piece – is located between 420 and 520m above sea level. The brightness of the sun reflecting on these very special white stone soils, gave the vineyard a lunar aspect.

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A real postcard. The result: magnificent wines, concentrated and of great freshness ; like the red cuvée “Plavac mali remek djelo 2011“.

The island of Korčula and its treasures of indigenous grape varieties

Once upon a time there was the Grk, a white grape variety from the village of Lumbarda, on the island of Korčula – and the specialty of Frano Bire.

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“Grk”, in Croatian, means “bitter”. In reality, the wine is dry, with beautiful tension. Cultivated on the sandy soils of Lumbarda, where it ripens best, it develops beautiful aromas, like notes of pine.

“The Grk grape has only female flowers. To ensure its pollination, it must be co-planted with another grape variety with male flowers, usually the Plavac mali”, Frano Bire, a very sympathetic vine grower, owner and winemaker of Bire Winery, explained. Great wines, full of emotion, to discover on the spot… micro-production obliges.

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On the other side of the island, we met with Luka Krajančić, a native of Korčula. “I am only a small part of a local history of 2,500 years”.

Painter, poet, philosopher, winegrower… Luka has always been a Pošip lover, another white grape from Korčula Island – and just as interesting.

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Appearing 100 years ago on the island (spontaneous crossing of two other local varieties: Bratkovina x Zlatarice), this highly aromatic variety (mainly with an exotic fruit profile), with a great acidity level that balances a relatively high alcohol content, encounters great success. With no less than 6 different Pošip styles – from the stainless steel tank, to the barrel, to an ageing on the lees, a sweet wine version or one with 100 days maceration on the skins – Luka is definitely the “King of Pošip”.

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The great Croatian estates – as well as the native grape varieties – are legion. I already look forward to coming back, to continue exploring this incomparable wine (and cultural) heritage.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

Thank you to CMREČNJAK, Sember, Radovan, Coronica, Stina, Krajančić, Bire estates and to Léo Gracin, for their warm welcome. Thank you to our friends Ante & Barbara BACIC, from Les Robes de l’Est, for their valuable recommendations of wineries, and especially Barbara for having accompanied and guided us on the ground. Finally, thanks to Mr Željko Suhadolnik (Editor-in-Chief of Svijet u čaši) and to Mr Ivan Dropuljić (Director of Zagreb fair VINOcom), for having join us during our visit to Sember.

(1) At the end of the Second World War, Tito’s communism took place, the country then focused more on quantity than on quality.
(2) Teran – originally from Slovenia and also produced in Italy – is also known as Cagnina, Refosk, Refosca of Istria, Refosco del carso, Refosco dal peduncolo rosso, Rabiosa nera, Crodarina or Magnacan.
(3) Prošek is a traditional sweet wine produced exclusively in Dalmatia from grapes dried in the sun. This method, often called “passerillage”, makes it possible to dehydrate the bunches, giving a maximum concentration of sugar. The Prošek usually bears between 15 and 17 degrees of alc.

Slovenia… the (little) European nugget

This was our first departure on board of the Wine Explorers’ new house-office-mobile, a brand new G700GJ campervan offered by Pilote, the French market leader.

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I looked forward to test this vehicle, fully equipped for the project : two offices, four beds, a kitchen, a huge fridge and a bathroom… what else could one want ?!
En route for 1200 km, heading south-east of Europe. After two days of driving, as a reward for the journey, a wonderful spectacle awaited us. The Monte Forno, the last rampart between the northern tip of Italy, Austria to our back and Slovenia proudly standing in front of us.

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With only 85km left before arriving in Slovenia, we couldn’t wait!

One of the most interesting vineyards in the world

Coup de cœur for the Slovenian vineyards, the preserved green treasure of Europe, where German, Slavic and Roman cultures have been intermingled for millennia. Only a drop of water in the world’s wine-growing ocean with 22,300 hectares planted (0.5% of the European vineyard), the country produces some of the best wines in the world. Its 2,400-year-old wine tradition, its unique climate (protection by the Alps from the north and the oceanic influence in the west), its complex soils (opoka, schist, granite…) and its multitude of seductive autochthonous grape varieties, made Slovenia one of the most interesting wine cultures that we have discovered so far.

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“The Slovenian wine market is growing very rapidly. With the help of some of the biggest names of Slovenian winegrowers, such as Marjan Simšič, our country is increasingly recognized as a wine country”, Saso Papp, CEO and co-founder of vinoo.co explained. “We are the only country with the word LOVE in its name – sLOVEnija”, he proudly added. A whole symbol.

The country has three main wine regions: Primorska, in the west (along the Mediterranean) and the Drava (Podravje) and Save (Posavje) valleys in the west. We chose to start with the wine-growing sub-region of Goriška Brda, in the west (1000 hectares of vineyards), nicknamed “Tuscany of Slovenia” for its undulating landscape.

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A small corner of paradise and a must stop for any wine lover. Its very particular location, 50 km from the Alps and 20 km from the sea, which makes it a fantastic region for the cultivation of vines.

Bjana Estate, the effervescent story of Miran Sirk

Miran Sirk and his wife, Petra, are the proud owners of Bjana Estate, a small 6.5-hectare estate in the Brda wine region, specializing in sparkling wines produced in traditional method. Their story is as beautiful as it is touching.
Until the early 1950s, Miran’s father owned a hundred hectares of vines. But after the Second World War, the vineyard and the house were requisitioned by the State and divided, as in most areas, under the regime of the Federal People’s Republic of Yugoslavia.

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The family then only had a small piece of their own house, and little land. In 1976, it was the coup de grace. An earthquake destroyed the whole house, as well as other surrounding dwellings. The vineyard project was buried and along with it, the young Miran’s winemaking dreams.

In 1991, after the creation of Slovenia and the independence celebrated, Miran only had one dream in mind : to rebuild the house and the family estate, in order to produce great sparkling wines. He had to start from scratch. He replanted the vineyard in the same year, but couldn’t rebuild the house and the cellar before 2007, lacking money… A crazy bet and the work of a titan, during which, from 1991 to 2009, Miran worked as trade inspector in the casinos, traveling a lot and accumulating days of 16h, to earn enough money to pay for the construction.

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Today, thanks to his idea of planting a vineyard exposed to the north – in order to reduce the effect of the sun in this warm Mediterranean region – Miran produces, without a shadow of a doubt, world-class sparkling wines. And his “Cuvée Prestige” (70% Chardonnay, 30% Rebula), aged 56 months on the lees in bottles (!), has literally blown us away… Respect.

Marjan Simčič – Mr. Opoka

Another fantastic winemaker from Goriška Brda, and a great favorite of Wine Explorers, the emblematic Marjan Simčič, whom I like to call “Mr. Opoka”, or “the rock star of Rebula“.

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Every time I think about this visit and this encounter, I get goosebumps. Rarely have I had the opportunity to taste white wines with such intensity and depth. Wines of meditation, combining power and elegance, density and lightness, length and precision. Memorable.

Marjan and his family own 18 hectares of vineyard – some vines more than 55 years old – with parcels on both the Slovenian and Italian borders ; historical-geographic-political conflicts oblige. Marjan discovered different types of soils, one of them having obtained world-wide reputation for its unique character as a “terroir”: opoka.

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“The soils of Brda, deposited by ancient oceans on the surface of the hills, are fascinating. Wind, rain and sun have crushed, washed and heated them for thousands of years. The result: opoka, a soil rich in minerals which makes it possible to produce unique wines with a recognizable terroir“, Marjan, the 5th generation of winegrowers on the estate since 1860, explained.

Here, the dominant and most famous variety is the white Rebula(1), which accounts for about 25% of the wines produced in the region ; offering generous and inimitable wines. But that’s not all. This winemaker, who has magic in his fingers, also produces among the most beautiful cuvées of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc that we have never tasted… (yes!).

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We finished the visit by admiring a beautiful sunset in one of its vineyards, right next to the Italian border. A moment out of time.

Vinakoper, land of Refosk

Next followed a change of region with Istria, in the south-east of Slovenia. And a change of scenery with Vinakoper, a 570-hectare estate created in 1947. A very successful example of a “fairly massive” producer, who has managed to concentrate exclusively on quality and who deserves to be visited.

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The key to success : a vineyard spread over 10 micro-locations around the town of Koper, one more beautiful than the next, from ground level up to 320 meters above sea level. Preserved and virgin sites of any dwelling, along the Gulf of Trieste, offering a microclimate unique to the region. We admired one of the vineyards, a plot of 64 hectares on the Debeli Rtič peninsula, literally plunging into the sea. Wild asparagus grow here on the edge of the forest. We improvised a picking and ate some green asparagus on the spot. A delight.

Overall, the wine range positively surprised us, with iconic wines around the red grape varieties Refosk (the most popular red varietal in Slovenia) and Cipro (an Istrian early ripening indigenous grape variety with only 6.6 hectares of vines in the whole world!).

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“Slovenia still lacks gratitude, even though wine has been produced here since the Roman era. Thanks to indigenous grape varieties such as Refosk, a variety with incredible potential and in which we firmly believe, it seems possible to make a difference and to assert Slovenia as a wine country with its own identity”, Gregor Bandel, the sales and marketing Director, explained.

Suklje, the revival of traditional viticulture

We finished our Slovenian stay at the Suklje estate, only a few kilometers from the Croatian border.

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A small and charming 7-hectare vineyard in the south-west of the country, in the mountainous region of Metlika. Here, there are no less than five generations of passionate winegrowers who have succeeded one another to make this estate one of the jewels of the region.

In 1994, a great turning point was initiated by Joze, the father, with the first bottling and an undeniable qualitative turn. Until then, the wine was sold in bulk, a common practice under the Yugoslav air. Matija, the 5th generation of vine growers, took over the reins of the vineyard, planted partly with Blaufränkisch (Modra frankinja), Laški rizling, Kerner and Sauvignon blanc ; under the watchful eye of his father. Katja, her sister, and her husband Guillaume Antalick, both doctors in oenology, also consult the vineyard.

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The Suklje family is actually turning the vineyard towards local and responsible oenotourism, offering exclusively fresh local products at the vineyard table (where you eat wonderfully well). A wine bar project has also been set up in Ljubljana, the capital(2). It is an initiative of Matija, Katja & Guillaume. We wish them all the best in this great adventure!

Let’s conclude this most rewarding journey with a humorous touch. We discovered an ingenious and original way of “re-filling” bottles of wine for the weekend! Practical and economical, the wine pump seems to be a success. Well done Vinakoper for this great initiative.

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Slovenia, we will be back soon. I promise. Your vineyard is a treasure.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

 

 

Thank you to Bajna, Marjan Simčič, Vinakoper and Suklje estates for their warm welcome. And a huge thank you to our friends Ante & Barbara BACIC, from Les Robes de l’Est, for their valuable help and winery recommendations.


(1)
The Rebula, aka ‘Ribolla or Ribuela is a white grape variety originating in Greece but which has been cultivated in Slovenia for at least 750 years.
(2) For more information on the Suklje wine bar in Ljubljana: https://www.facebook.com/winebarsuklje/

Do you know Vietnamese wine?

Wine in Vietnam ?! Unthinkable, I was told at the time of preparing for the project. And yet, there are no fewer than twenty estates… and a few million bottles produced every year (1). I decided to go there, with the invaluable help of Raymond Ringhoff, CEO of Vietnam Wine Tours – the only company in the country specializing in wine tourism.
Direction Dalat, the biggest region of production, in the north of the country.

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Getting off the plane, I was awaited by Mr Huang The Hung, a lovely local guide, who was going to join me on this journey to help me with translation and winery visits. Indispensable in Vietnam.

Dalat, the headquarters of the Vietnamese production

From the airport, it took us no less than four hours to drive to Dalat, 180km inland. The city is perched at 1700 meters above sea level. Walking along the winding and damaged roads, the succession of wild landscapes through which we passed was breathtaking. Rice fields, forests, rivers, mountains, coffee plantations.

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I was so happy. Even the dampness in the air, which literally sticks ones clothes to ones skin, couldn’t alter the wonder that animated me.

The end of the road was reached by nightfall. Suddenly, thousands of white dots began to shine in the dark, following us along the road. It seemed like we were in a Japanese cartoon. As if a colony of fireflies had taken up residence in the mountain… The moment was magical. Quasi mystical. But what is it, then? These are the heating lamps used to grow flowers in greenhouses in the region, my guide explained. Dalat, with its more temperate climate, is renowned for its floral cultures. I laughed at so much naivety on my part.

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The next day, we visited Dalat Beco, one of the country’s flagship estates, which was set up in 2000. With 670,000 bottles produced each year, Dalat Beco‘s team confided in me that they are part of the medium-sized Vietnamese estates. One grape variety dominates the vineyards here: Cardinal. Its particularity: it is vinified in white as well as in red!

Visiting the bottling site, I was curious about not seeing any vineyards around the estate and questioned my hosts. “There was a vineyard a few miles from here: a failure, because of the altitude. Everything is now produced at the coast, three hours from here. The grapes are transported by truck to Dalat”, they explained.

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Purchases are made exclusively from farmers. Why not relocate the production in this case? Simply because “the altitude of Dalat ensures optimum conditions for the fermentation and the ageing of the wines”.
In this part of the world with an extreme climate, up to three harvests are done per year. Consequently, the vine never rests and its life expectancy does not exceed 8 years (one can grow vines for up to 15 years if grafted onto a rootstock). As in Bali, one can thus make wine all year round, simply by spacing the periods of pruning on different plots. This allows the wineries to have cooler and non-vintage wines.

Ladora Winery, based on the “wine from grapes” initiative

Before 1976 – and the independence of Vietnam – a production of liqueur and fruit wine, managed by the French excisted.

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It was not until 1998, however, that the first grape plantations appeared, under the impetus of Ladora Winery. In 1999, Vietnam’s first “wine from grapes” was born (in a tropical environment, grapes can be harvested from the second year).

The estate is both imposing and impressive, with its immense stainless steel tanks installed indoors and outdoors, and produce more than 2.5 million bottles per year. Upon entering the winery, it is compulsory to wear a white coat, a hygienic hat and protective footwear : Ladora Winery strictly applies the standards of European production. And I felt it in the wines, which are more homogeneous than elsewhere.

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A Skype session was organized with the management of the group, Ladofoods (also a producer of cashew nuts), based in Ho Chi Minh City, the capital. A fun and original situation. Here I was, having a discussion on a big screen with Sir Nguyen Hun Thuy (General Manager) and Nguyen Tran Quang (Senior Advisor of the BOD). I learned that Château Dalat, created in 2013, is the premium brand of the group. It includes international grape varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay. A clear commitment to quality. And a step forward towards a more modern viticulture.

A vineyard at sea level

Whether Dalat Beco, Ladora Winery or any other winery of Dalat, the vineyards are all located in the coastal area of Ning Thuan, 130km away, at sea level.

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Only this part of Vietnam seems to give convincing results for vine cultivation. It is also the hottest region in the country. Today, while visiting some vineyards of Ning Thuan, it was “only” 30°C in the air. Temperatures easily reach 36°C at this time of the year.

I learned that Ning Thuan was very busy until the 2000s. The opening of new, more attractive regions, emptied the coast of its tourists. As a result, this partially abandoned region, with deserted beaches has a ghostly atmosphere. Strange. Whatever, the vineyards that faced us were beautiful.

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Ladora Winery has planted 20 hectares of Vitis vinifera for its great cuvées. The rest of the parcels, planted with Cardinal grapes, correspond to contracts with local farmers.

I met with the owners of My Hoa, one of the few family micro-estates in Vietnam, started in 2000. This craft production, made at the back of the house, is unpretentious but of great charm. Here, the wine ferments quietly in small plastic tanks. The family is as discreet as they are lovely. « We are far from the big productions of the country. » They have 2 hectares of vines, mostly planted with Cardinal and with a little NH01-48, an unnamed white local hybrid.

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The vineyard is planted with a pergola system, 1.5 meters from the ground, allowing work to be done at the height of man.

We tasted the white wine, made 100% from the grape variety NH01-48. The beverage was served fresh, with ice cubes. Why not. The mouth was sweet and had a sour taste, but went well with the boiled chicken served during lunch, to my surprise. I tasted the red wine with a little rice alcohol added. A harsh and unusual taste for the taste buds of a Westerner. “That’s how men drink it here”, Miss Hoa explained to me, laughing.

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The estate seems to experience great success: to satisfy the demand, the Hoa family plans to plant another hectare of vines next year, behind the house, in place of the current rice field. Like what, the taste of any wine is the world is always suited to local taste buds. And this must be respected.

We finished the meal – and the journey in Vietnam – with the discovery of Vú sữa (also called Chrysophyllum cainit), a green fruit in the shape of an apple, with a milky appearance inside, and whose pulpit, delicious and juicy, has a taste of almonds and ripe white fruit.

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A delight ! To be discovered exclusively in this country.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Dalat BecoLadora Winery and My Hoa for their warm welcome. Thank you to Raymond Ringhoff, CEO of Vietnam Wine Tours, for having helped, guided and advised me in the organization of this great trip. Finally, thank you to my friend Denis Gastin for introducing me to Raymond.

(1) Although it is complicated to have the exact figures of viticulture in Vietnam, it is estimated that there are about 20 estates, for an annual production exceeding 10 million bottles.

Cambodia, the newcomer on the Asian wine map

Having left Burma early in the morning and after a full day of traveling with three planes (Heho-Mandalay, Mandalay-Bangkok, Bangkok-Siem Reap), I was very excited about landing in Cambodia. I heard that there is a small vineyard lost in the Battambang countryside and I planned to get my hands on it!

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Where is it? What does it look like ? Why having planted vines in Cambodia? So many questions that I looked forward to finding answers to… Onwards for a most incredible exploration off the beaten track.

A well hidden vineyard

Do you believe in good luck? Personally, I do. Whenever I found myself back against the wall during this great adventure, I always had the good fortune of meeting someone who got me back on track. For that, I am grateful every morning.

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My Cambodian star was Visooth Lohitnavy (owner of the GranMonte estate in Thailand whom I met three weeks earlier). He met with Mr. Chan Thaychheoung, the owner of the famous Cambodian estate, a few years ago and offered to put us in touch. What luck!

After a brief exchange in summarized, but effective English, here I was, disembarked in Siem Reap only knowing that I had to take a bus the next day to Battambang. That’s all. I did not know where or what time to take the bus. The staff at the guest house in which I stayed for the night did not speak English. I was sent to the neighboring laundry, where the owner seemed to be in the habit of referring travelers. “It costs $6 to Battambang, with a bus leaving at 10am”.

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The next day, a mini bus picked me up. It was filled with a dozen friendly travelers. I learned that we all paid a different price, between $5 and $7. Anyway… We headed towards the railway station at the exit of the city – because buses are prohibited in Siem Reap. After 200 km, in somewhat chaotic traffic under a lead sun and 4h30 of road travel later, I arrived with an almost 2h delay to a “bus stop”, which was nothing but a small shop literally lost in the middle of nowhere.
I hoped that I was in the right place and that my hosts will have had the patience to wait for me.

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Outside, a dozen Cambodians craned on the side of the road, carrying placards at arm’s length, all promoting their Guest Houses. A little further away, Mr. Chan Thaychheoung and his son Chan Senghong were waiting for me with big smiles. What a welcome ! We did not know one another yet, but I already loved this family. They emited such positive energy.
So the wine adventure finally began. And begins with a memorable dinner.

Chan Thay Chhoeung Winery, the only one

Mr Chan Thaychheoung has such a touching story. Loving wine since the age of 21, he decided at the time to buy twenty vines, which he tried to grow in his garden. Failure. Putting his dream aside, he became a farmer, and like many other producers in the region, he grew oranges. But the competition was tough.

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So he began to think : he wanted to grow different fruit from those of the other Cambodian farmers. He then remembered his unsuccessful attempt to grow grapes in his youth. He decided to go against the current by growing grapes – something unique in this country.

Mr Chan Thaychheoung started out cautiously with 9 plants of the red Black Queen variety. Just to see… He succeeded with his first vintage in 2004, with a few bottles produced for friends and family. This was a revelation. Chan Thay Chhoeung Winery was born. In stride, he planted 3 hectares of Black Queen and a few vines of Shiraz, a grape variety which he particularly likes. A significant cost and a risky bet : he invested all his savings.

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A tireless worker, he gradually enlarged his vineyard, always reinvesting every penny of his limited capital. In 2013, he bought Shiraz plants from Israel and planted 3 additional hectares. Today he has 10 hectares.
At the moment the equipment is modest. The wine is vinified in glass bottles. It doesn’t matter, Rome was not built in one day. They have just invested in 3 stainless steel tanks made in China for next year, with a total production capacity of 7,000L. Step by step.

Fruit juice, education and pedagogy

This year, the rainy season was very intense and the harvest was not good enough.

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As a result no wine was produced and instead organic grape juice made from 100% Syrah, which delights the taste buds and which I enjoyed a lot, was produced.

We also tasted the wine production of last year. An atypical wine, also from the Syrah grape variety and far from European standards. But which within context and accompanied by a few ice cubes (it is a custom here), refreshes the palate and pairs very well with the local dishes made from fermented vegetables.

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Mr Chan Thaychheoung showed me with great pride the educational garden he created in front of his house. A true open-air museum, where the Cambodians come to admire the vine, a plant which was unknown to them before.

“It is important that we educate local people by showing them what a vine looks like and how a grape bunch grows”. A real success, where each of the visiting tourists seemed really enthusiastic, always having a glass of straw syrah juice.

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And there’s something for everyone here. We even met a group of curious monks who came to discover this new attraction, which is as playful as it is essential. Congratulations!

Bambou Train & Angkor: two must-sees

A bit of fun this weekend before leaving for Vietnam, aboard the “bamboo train”, a must-see attraction in the Battambang area which I was pleased to discover with the Chan family. It is a kind of motorized railway made up of a bamboo platform, which in the ’70s made it possible for the personnel responsible for maintaining the railway lines to get around, and then in the 80s to bring soldiers and their allies to the front.

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What gives it its charm and undeniable attractiveness to tourists from around the world, is it being a single rail for two directions of traffic. Suddenly, when meeting another train arriving from the opposite direction, the train stops and is dismounted to let the other train pass. And at a maximum speed of 50km/h, it jolts a lot. Best to keep a hand on ones hat.

Another unmistakable and most spectacular place is Angkor, in Siem Reap, with its temples, classified as a world heritage by UNESCO. Rise at dawn (the purchase counters open at 5am and are taken by assault), for an unforgettable and magical experience.

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Seeing the sun rising over the temple of Angkor Wat – the largest temple in the complex – is a unique moment. The gigantic columns of this edifice sculpted on all sides is a mystic sight to behold. The world is so beautiful when viewed from this angle…

Cambodia (still) presents many difficulties for wine making : extreme temperatures, a rainy season in summer accompanied by high and constant humidity. Not to mention a lack of access to advanced equipment. Whatever. The Chan family has the guts to make wine here, and everything is sold on the spot, and in addition to this, people come back. Every wine can find a shoe that fits.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Mr Chan Thaychheoung and his family for their extraordinary hospitality and for opening their house to me with such kindness. Thank you to his son, Chan Senghong, for being such a good guide and the great opportunity to discover the magic of Battambang. Finally, thanks to Visooth Lohitnavy (owner of the GranMonte estate in Thailand), for his valuable con

Burma, the two vineyards on the other side of the world

We continued our Asian trip by visiting the inescapable and fascinating Burma, a wonderful country of picturesque beauty. Nestled in the mountains, on the shores of Inle Lake, the only two Burmese wineries are hidden – as discreet as it is intriguing.

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En route to a colourful journey, accompanied by my friend and oenologist Amélie Mornex, who has true passion for Asian viticulture.

Mandalay and its positive energy

We arrived in Mandalay, the capital, under a crushing sun, a lot of dust and among omnipresent poverty : I had the impression of having taken a 50 years leap back in time. Only 30% of the households here are connected to electricity (2). Despite this, the people that we met all had a big smile on their lips and a palpable joie de vivre in their eyes. It was heartwarming.

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We paced the streets of the city astride a bike with two seats back to back and driven by a local guide. Amelie in front, facing the direction of the road, and I in the back, facing the traffic. A very convenient way to admire the landscape.

Nothing could be more agreeable than dining along the river Irrawaddy, where boats, canoes and other makeshift boats unload thousands of canvas bags filled with food, in an unceasing and steady flow, in a fashion as organized as an ant-hill. We met a couple of German tourists who arrived from Munich and we decided to share a dinner together at sunset. The place was beautiful, devoid of anything artificial. Many families live here in precarious wooden shelters, barefoot in the sand, dust and rubbish.

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Facing us, the laundry dried on bamboo palisades. Children were playing in the sand. The younger ones had their bottocks in the air,a few pigs grazing among them, looking for something to eat in the trash. Some inhabitants were soaping up in the river, it was time for us to take a shower too.

The next day at dawn, we departed by plane to Hého, 230km to the south: it was the easiest way to reach the two vineyards, considering the condition of the roads (it would take a day by bus to get there). We left at 6am. It was still dark outside and the spectacle in the streets of the city was something to behold, it had an almost mystical element to it: dozens of bare feet monks, draped in violet tunics, were in search of food offerings for their one and only meal of the day(3). A highly respected ancestral ritual in Burma.

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Aythaya, the Burmese pioneer

It was cool outside when we got off the plane. Quite nice. We were 1200 meters above sea level on the slopes of the Taunggyi Mountains.
It is here that Berth Morsbach, a German who specializes in tropical crops, created Aythaya (Myanmar Estate) in 1998, the first winery of Burma. A major challenge, he remembers, in a country with no wine culture and hostile weather conditions… The place is beautiful!

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With its ecological bungalows facing a vineyard as flowery as it is impeccable and its restaurant mixing delicious traditional dishes and world class cuisine, Myanmar Estate is a privileged place of the high Burmese bureaucracy.

Hans Leiendecker, the director and oenologist of the estate – also German and a graduate of the prestigious University of Geisenheim – gave an exciting explanation of the different production sites.

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In total, 10 hectares are owned by Aythaya and the equivalent under contract, spread all over the country, up to 800km of the winery:
-some in the north, at 1200 meters above sea level, along the Kyan Hnyat River, a favorable area for red grape varieties;
– some in Loikaw, to the east, at 850 meters above sea level, where Bert had established the first basmati rice plantation in the country in 1986;
-some in Mektila and Yamethin, in the center of the country, where the largest production of table grapes from Burma is also to be found;
-and some at Mount Popa, 300 meters above sea level, an ancient volcano in the center of the country which exploded about 400 years BC with very fertile soils.

On this February morning, Sauvignon Blanc arrived at the estate in small boxes.

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The grapes were beautifu and destined to be used for the Shan Panya Brut cuvée, a refreshing and very aromatic sparkling wine ; perfect for an aperitif.

A most complex tropical viticulture

At Aythaya, Hans is well aware of the difficulties in producing Vitis vinifera in a tropical climate. This is why the grass is cut very flat here: to protect the vines from moisture. There is always a minimum of 20% humidity during the day and usually around 90% humidity at night. Result: in Burma you can have vine diseases – like powdery mildew – without even having rain! This year, for the first time, they even saw botrytis. “We’d better grow mushrooms”, Hans said laughing.

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For him, tropical countries will never be real wine-producing countries. Growing conditions are too complex and the cost of production is twice as high. “It is impossible to make organic wine for example, with twenty to twenty-two sprays per year needed, compared with seven to eight on average in Europe“. This is the other side of the coin. “If there are only two wineries in Myanmar, it is maybe because there is reason”, he added.
As for the local fauna, it is better to be vigilant. It is not uncommon to encounter black-necked spitting cobras, white-lipped pit vipers (green snakes that look like branches in the grass), or pythons, lost between the rows of vines.

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I suddenly realized that I was wearing flip-flops walking in the vineyard… Not very smart.

Red Mountain Estate

A very pretty estate at the top of a small hill overlooking Inle Lake and facing the Paung Paing mountain range, Red Mountain was created in 2003, under the expertise of the French oenologist François-Xavier Raynal – who established the vineyard and managed it until 2015.
Divided into two sites, the vineyard of 75 hectares has been the laboratory of many experiments. International varieties such as Petit Verdot, Macabeu, Alicante Bouschet, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and even Merlot were quickly abandoned due to the lack of mature grapes.

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Red Mountain is now focusing on Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat à petits grains, Chenin Blanc and Chardonnay in white ; Shiraz, Carignan, Pinot Noir and Tempranillo in red.

“We are focusing on one harvest per year, for a production of about 160,000 bottles”, according to the young and very sympathetic oenologist Naw Naw Aye, who took over the winemaking this year. An important challenge for her, because after a few years spent doing marketing at Red Moutain, Naw Naw is starting from scratch on the wine side. She has just returned from a one-year apprenticeship at the Suze la Rousse University (France), where she learned a few basics.

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Her teacher, Marie-Josée Richaud, came to Red Mountain for a month especially to encourage her pupil, whose first harvest was about to start a few days later. We wish her all the best in this great adventure!

Discovering Inle Lake

Since the two Burmese vineyards are located only a few minutes away from the famous Inle Lake, we took the opportunity to discover it, on board of a canoe.
Sailing the banks of the lake at sunset, we admired the fishing villages on stilts. On small, long, narrow boats, the fishermen have an acrobatic and a most original style: one leg wrapped around a paddle to advance with circular movements, the other leg on the prow to keep balance.

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A boat approached us. Two fishermen literally posed for us. In the end, they asked us for some money… I refused politely. The fishermen turned around without resentment, immediately heading to another tourist boat.

We concluded our wonderful stay in Burma at the beautiful ViewPoint Lodge & Fine Cuisines hotel, where we were welcomed by our friend Arno Di Biase. The place was idyllic: wooden bungalows on stilts, a spa, welcome cocktails on the terrace… here every little detail counts and makes the stay unforgettable.

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We enjoyed a last moment of relaxation at the SPA of the hotel, with an application of thanaka on the face, a cream obtained from bark of trees. It hydrates the skin and protects it from the sun. It was very pleasant and refreshing. Children, women and the elderly put thanaka on their faces every morning. You should try it too.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Aythaya (Myanmar Estate) and Red Moutain estate for their warm welcome. Thank you to Hans Leiendecker for having helped us on our travels in the country. Thank you to my friend Amélie Mornex for having accompanied me so well in this country that she knows like her pocket. And finally, thanks to Arno Di Biase, director of the ViewPoint Lodge & Fine Cuisines, for having hosted us in his beautiful establishment and for his valuable role as a guide in the streets of Nyaungshwe.

(1) There are apparently two to three new vineyard projects in the country, according to local sources, but no one is sure that this will succeed.
(2) To make some money, Burma sells some of its electricity to China and Thailand.
(3) Monks have until 11am to eat. Then they have to wait until the next day before taking their next meal.

The Thai vineyards: unforgettable and unclassifiable

As beautiful as it is fragile, as wild as it is welcoming, it exceeded all my expectations. Defying the laws of classical viticulture. Off the beaten track and reserving some wine treasures… The Thai vineyards are a really nice discovery!

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Thailand has a dozen wine estates, mainly in the Khao Yai region (in the north), which cover less than 4,000 hectares(1). Lets discover a fascinating wine world, consisting of a handful of passionate (and positively crazy) people.

Enthusiasm displayed despite major challenges

Having landed at dawn at Bangkok airport (4:30 am), I was pleasantly surprise by the professionalism of the Thai taxis: clearly posted prices, a unique queue and impeccable service. As soon as I arrived in the capital, a special atmosphere got hold of me.

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The joyful bazaar of the electric wires in the streets, the delicious smell of food in the air, the morning song of the birds and the still sleeping city gave me the impression of absolute plenitude.

I met with Mr. Pairach Intaput, the President of the Sommeliers’ Association of Thailand, at Bo Lan Restaurant – the ultimate Thai food refinement. Here I had the opportunity to learn that the wine history of the country – which started in 1995 with Château de Loei (now abandoned) and then with GranMonte in 1999 – is just beginning to emerge. “Since the promotion of wine is forbidden in Thailand, it is for the moment impossible to write a book on the subject. Moreover, the sommelier association has only officially been recognized since 2015: before, wine was assimilated to other strong beverages and responsible of alcoholism”, Mr. Intaput explained.

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Here, as in many humid and tropical climate countries, it is possible to do up to two harvests per year : with a dry season – where temperatures can easily exceed 40°C, and a rainy season – during which the vegetative cycle of the vine is severely tested.

For most conscientious winemakers, only the grapes produced during the dry season are harvested. Then, thanks to a product called Dormex – a plant growth regulator that is generally applied within 48 hours after harvest – uniform budbreak is promoted ; so that the plant can rest.

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“It’s not difficult to grow vines in Thailand. However, taking into consideration the atmospheric pressure and permanent humidity, it is (almost) impossible to make organic wines, as treatment against diseases such as mildew or gray rot is inevitable”, according to Mr. Intaput.

GranMonte, a beautiful family success story

After having met up with my friend Amélie Mornex – a French oenologist who loves making wine in Asia and who has been spending most of her time there for years – we headed to GranMonte, a two and a half hour drive north of Bangkok.

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The first impression upon arriving in front of this 15-hectare estate, at 350 meters above sea level, left me speechless. This vineyard was planted in 1999 on soils of clay, loess and limestone, rigorously cut into twenty blocks and have no less than twenty grape varieties coexisting… Among them, some international varieties such as Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chenin Blanc, Grenache and Viognier. As well as other more surprising varieties, such as Semillon, Verdelho and Durif(2)!

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We met with the adorable Lohitnavy family. Visooth, the dad – a former racing driver and editor of an automotive magazine – wanted to make a change in his life to make wine. Sakuna, the mom, runs the restaurants and cafe of the estate. Mimi, the younger daughter, is taking care of marketing and public relations. And Nikki, the eldest of the two sisters, is responsible for viticulture and winemaking.

It was with excitement that we rose the next day at dawn for a harvest session of Chenin Blanc! Scissors in hand (not easy but quite fun), we cut the bunches in good humor under beautiful sunshine. 

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The sanitary aspect of the grapes is superb, promising a beautiful vintage.

Nikki Lohitnavy, the revelation in terms of tropical viticulture

I say it without detour : who says never having drunk a “great wine” from a tropical viticulture has not yet drunk one of GranMonte’s wines…
I already see from here people rising to the niche on the notion of great wines, crying out for heresy. Not at all ! Firstly, what is a great wine? This is a very personal question… A question of emotion, joy, deep feeling, plenitude, gluttony, which I like to describe as a moment as intense and comforting as a night by the fire in the arms of a loved one.

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Meeting with Nikki Lohitnavy. “At the age of 10, I wanted to be a botanist”. Graduated in oenology from the prestigious university of Adelaide, Nikki first traveled the world to train perfecting her technique, especially in northern Brazil, where she learned how to tame vines in an extremely humid environment. In 2009, she did her first vintage at GranMonte. A real qualitative shift for the estate, according to the press. This is a revelation.

From the straw on the vine trunks (to reduce the number of herbicidal sprays and to add organic matter to the soil), to the banana fibers used to tie the vines (for their eco-friendly aspect), Nikki is constantly experimenting. “I am currently experimenting with four new grape varieties: Sangiovese, Barbera, Touriga Nacional and Touriga Franca. My dream would be to have more room to test many other grape varieties, but land is very expensive here”.

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The technology and equipment used on the estate are not bad either. “We operate our vineyard with a precision agricultural system called ‘Smart Vineyard‘, which incorporates microclimatic monitoring to help us to achieve the best grape quality potential in this unconventional viticulture climate”.

Nikki literally opened my eyes, by showing me that with passion, a lot of know-how, hard work on vines and state-of-the-art equipment, it is possible to make fantastic wines in tropical viticulture.

Oenotourism, the key to success

Despite its recent wine history, Thailand is already very advanced in wine tourism. Bravo !
As in Silverlake (Pattaya), where around 800,000 visitors annually visit the estate (!). People are fond of visiting the different parts of the estate by minibus. A real “amusement park” experience, extended at lunchtime in the restaurant and in the evening in one of the very nice Hollywood style rooms of the resort.

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In a more “zen” style, at Village Farm & Winery, in the Khao Yai area, you can meditate in the middle of the vineyards for a weekend, enjoying the calmness of the rooms without television or internet.

On the “nature” side, Alcidini Winery, the smallest Thai vineyard with 8 hectares, welcomes visitors in its pedagogical field conducted with an organic philosophy. A real challenge in a such humid part of the world : no pesticides, the use of sheep to eat the grass between the rows of vines and buying cow manure from the neighboring farmer.

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Finally, on the “music” side, the annual Jazz & Wine festival organized at GranMonte, which we had the chance to attend and enjoy, is a must-see cultural event.

Beautiful and fragile nature to preserve

On the way back, we had the good fortune of making two epic nature stops. The perfect opportunity for me to narrate the beauty of the Thai biodiversity to you and, I hope to make you want to (re)visit it!
Elephant Stay : a site dedicated to the protection and preservation of elephants. They are trained for parades and military demonstrations (in memory of their use as strike force during wartime). We enjoyed watching the daily shower of these impressive mammals, who are as comfortable as fish in the water.

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Khao Yai National Park, highlight of the stay. With 80km of coastline from east to west, this UNESCO World Heritage site is the country’s second largest park and is one of the largest forests in Asia. You can even pitch a tent there for the night… for a most exotic nature revival experience.

WineExplorers’ cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to GranMonte, Alcidini, Village Farm Winery, Silverlake and PB Valley for their warm welcome.
Thank you to the organisation of the Khao Yai National Park, and especially to our lovely guide, Ms. Issaya Siriwachanawong, for having taken us off the beaten path. Finally, thanks to the team of Elephant Stay for having allowed us to admire the bath of the elephants: an unforgettable moment. And to my friend Amélie Mornex, who helped me a lot with pictures during this trip. 

(1) Thai vineyards are found in three regions ranging from 110 to 530 meters above sea level: Prachuap Khiri Khan (Hua Hin) and Pattaya in the center of the country and Khao Yai in the north.
(2) Durif is a French variety originating from the Dauphiné, a spontaneous crossing of Poutin and Syrah. Named petite syrah or petite sirah in California, it is also known by this name in Australia, New Zealand or South Africa. Finally, it is also known under the names of bas plant, dure, duret, dureza, duriff, dyurif, gros noir, Kek Durif, nérin, pareux noir, petit duret, petite serine, petite sirah, petite syrah, pinot de l’Ermitage, pinot de Romans, plant durif, plant fourchu, serine, serine des Mauves, sirane fourchue, sirane de Tain and syrah forchue.

India, between challenges and (beautiful) discoveries

Arriving from Paris with Saudia – an airline that I highly recommend by the way for the unmatched comfort of its economy class – I looked forward to stepping on Indian soil for the first time to discover its vineyards!

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As soon as I landed in Bombay, the atmosphere of the city electrified me. The smell of spices in the air, the overpowering heat, the incessant ballet of cars in the streets and the horn concerts, make the most populous city of India a unique place.
On the way to a colorful visit, in a country where viticulture only really started in the 1970s, and which today counts 90 wineries for about 20 million liters produced last year.

A booming viticulture, leaded by Sula Vineyards

It was with some members of the Asian Wines Producers Association (AWPA) – Denis Gastin (Founder, wine writer), Sumedh Mandla (President) and Visooth Lohitnavy (CEO of GranMonte, Thailand), as well as with Sumit Jaiswal (Marketing Manager, Grover Zampa, India) and Professor Charoen Charoenchai of Thailand, that I had the pleasure of traveling in India. A very nice team!

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After a 3-hours drive, we arrived in Nashik, in the northeast of Bombay, the country’s main wine-producing region with 40 estates. A plateau perched at 680 meters above sea level, known above all for its production of fruit and vegetables (n °1 in the cultivation of onions, for example).

Wine production in India is mainly divided between three wine-growing regions(1): Nasik and Pune on the west coast, two regions in Maharashtra State (80% of Indian vineyards) and Bangalore , in the south, in Karnataka State (10% of the vineyards).

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With 120,000 hectares of vines in 2015 and an area that has doubled in fifteen years, the Indian vineyard is booming.

We were expected at Sula, India’s leading wine producer, with 60% of the market share. Perhaps you have had the opportunity to taste one of their wines? You know, these labels with a logo so characteristic with the shape of a sun with a mustache! Although difficult to access (Indian roads are sometimes in poor condition and lack road signs), the success story of Sula forces admiration. With no fewer than 250,000 visitors a year, this precursor in oenotourism has understood everything. Its annual music festival – the Sulafest – with an international program (more than 120 artists performing over a period of three days), is a model of the genre. Not to mention the nice restaurant and the 35 rooms of the domain.

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On the wine side, however, I wondered. A large part of the Sula grapes (as with the majority of the Indian estates, as we shall see below) is bought from the farmers of the region. How, then, to ensure quality grapes? Especially with such an important production.
“The policy of Sula is strict,” we were told. “If the farmers do not bring the grapes on the right date, they have penalties: this prevents clusters from being harvested too early”. A necessary initiative for a good final result : the wines are well made.

Making wine in India is a challenge

Let us not forget that the cultivation of vines in India remains above all a challenge. The tropical climate of the country, with a dry season – where temperatures can easily exceed 40°C, and a rainy season – during which the vegetative cycle of the vine is severely tested, make it an extreme production site. There are two harvests per year (the most qualitative being in April, during the dry period).

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Two prunings are also required. The first just before the rain in May and the second, more precise, after the summer monsoons, for vine growth programmed from October to March.

In addition, wine taxation systems vary from one state of the country to another. A real paradox, illustrated by the Grover Zampa estate, wich have two production sites (Nashik and Bangalore) – each one with its own vineyards. In 2012, a merger took place between Grover (in Bangalore) and a wine company from Nashik, to avoid taxes on the price of bottles between the two states (more than 1/3 of the final sale price).
Moreover, protectionism on agricultural land forces producers to sublet land to neighboring farmers to expand and supply themselves with grapes. However, in order to control the quality of viticulture, estates take long-term leases on land belonging to local farmers (20 years, with a 15-year renewal option).

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Add to this the fact that India is not a country of wine tradition : its inhabitants consuming 9 milliliters per person per year (compared to 42 liters(2) in France). And to top it off, not only is alcohol prohibited in many states ; but in addition, advertising of wine is prohibited in India. All these factors could be discouraging.

However, this is not the case at all! The enthusiasm of the wineries visited is palpable and pleasing to see. And although it seems that globally the climate is more suitable for white wines, the quality is there and some Indian cuvées frankly deserve to be highlighted in all colors, sparkling wines included.

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Five delicious Indian wines discovered and which I highly recommend :
Insignia 2015, from Grover Zampa (“Coup de cœur Wine Explorers“ – 100% Syrah – Bangalore)
Sparkling Cuvée NM, from York (100% Chenin Blanc – Nasik)
Réserve Collection Viognier 2015, from Grover Zampa (Bangalore)
Sauvignon Blanc 2016, from York (Nasik)
Dindori Réserve Viognier 2016, from Sula

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Bangalore, a region of predilection for white wines

After waking up at dawn and 1h30 on a plane, direction Bangalore, to the south, we encountered a drastic change upon our exit from the plane! No more urban pollution and the hubbub of the city. We even heared the birds singing. The traffic was calm. Bitumen roads, wide and flat. And a lush vegetation.

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Welcome to the “silicone valley” of India, a region with dazzling economic prosperity. There, we visited Grover Zampa, the country’s second biggest winery and a great example of fine Indian wines. The first vines were planted in the mid-1980s (Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Chenin Blanc). And the estate is consulted by the French oenologist Michel Roland.

Some parcels of Grover Zampa 180-hectares vineyard reach over 1,000 meters above sea level. As a result : temperated days (26 to 28°C) and cooler nights.

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The day before, we visited their vineyards in the region of Nasik (40 hectares). Since the wine range is identical in the two regions, it was possible to immediately and indisputably realize the difference in profile between the wines. The altitude of Bangalore – combined with clay-silty soils – offer tense wines, more aromatic and more complex, particularly noticeable in the whites.

It was the end of January and a plot of Sauvignon Blanc had just been harvested that morning. 70% of the harvesting was done by women. Hand sorting of the grapes followed – demanding control that benefits the production, with elegant wines on the whole.

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York Winery, a family story

On the other hand, more and more small family structures, such as York Winery, are emerging. York is a project initiated by the Indian Lilo Gurnani in 2003, at a time when he developed a passion for wine and began to read a lot on the subject. Born in Nasik, he wanted to follow the growing wine movement in his region. He named his domain YORK, taking the initials of his three children, Yogita, Ravi & Kailash. A whole symbol.

Today, two of them have taken over the reins. We met with Kailash Gurnani, one of the sons and director and chief oenologist of the estate (having studied at the University of Adelaide).

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“If our brand is recognized today, it is because we are a family business. This is our story and we are the faces behind it. That’s our marketing strategy”, he explained. Adding : “with a family management, we also ensure a better control over our wines”.

The Indian wine industry is therefore beautiful and well expanding. But also at the heart of many debates. What does the future hold for this young sector with so many constraints?

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“The wine industry is growing steadily at a rate of 10-15%, and this growth could be much greater if other states in India become accessible to sell wine”, according to Kailash. Out of 1.2 billion people, less then 100 million people in India can be tapped. Having said that, the current increase in wine tourism is very encouraging and men & women of all ages are enjoying wine.

In conclusion of this most rewarding journey, Denis Gastin and I visited the mountains of Nandi Hills, 30 km from Bangalore, to meditate a bit on the discoveries of the week. Some intrepid monkeys eventually came to keep us company.

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India intrigues me now more than ever and I wonder. In a country five times bigger than France, whose cultural diversity, landscapes, gastronomy, climate and language change on average every 100km, I know I will have to come back to discover and enjoy more of it, visiting other regions and other wineries. I am already delighted.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Sula Vineyards, Grover Zampa et York Winery for their warm welcome and this first unforgettable visit to India.
Thanks to my friend Denis Gastin and the AWPA (Asian Wine Producers Association), for their kind help in organizing this trip.

(1) Production is also emerging in Hyderabad (central Telangana State), as well as in the states of Andra Pradesh (south), and Himachal Pradesh (in the north). (Source : http://www.suddefrance-developpement.com)
(2) Vin & Société estimation

Austria, a vineyard of character with great charm

Coup de cœur for the Austrian vineyards, whose origin date back to the earliest Antiquity. A vineyard area both modest for its size – 44,000 hectares and thus about 0.6% of the world’s vineyard(1) – and great for its wines. Especially with regard to the grape varieties Riesling and Grüner Veltliner. A good excuse for us to stop at Domäne Wachau, along the Danube, to gain a better understanding of these two varieties.

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But also for the great red wines of Burgenland. We met with two exceptional winegrowers, in love with nature, with certain talent, a well-tempered character and an unparalleled kindness. Together with 9 other Austrian winegrowers, they created the “11 women & their wine” movement to further highlight women in the world of wine.
Discovery…

Domäne Wachau, at the top of the appellation

A high-ranking cooperative with around 250 winegrowers involved in nearly 400 hectares – each of them having shares in the company – Domäne Wachau has seduced us with its great white wine terroirs.

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The steepest plots of this estate located on the 48th northern parallel, proudly standing on the Danube heights at an altitude of 200 to 500 meters, have poor soils of gneiss, schist and quartz, giving the Riesling and Grüner Veltliner wines remarkable tension and minerality. “Everything is harvested by hand to be as precise as possible”, Roman Horvath MW, the director of the estate, explained.

We visited the vineyard with Heinz Frischengruber, the oenologist of the estate. These two men form a very sympathetic duo. “The Wachau is the coolest region in the country”, Heinz commented. That is why its great whites are also famous.

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He added, “welcome to one of the oldest cultural landscapes in Europe ; a gorge of only 33 km in length with unique landscapes and rare flora and fauna that made the Wachau a UNESCO World Heritage Site”.

Walking along the paths that border Singerriedel, one of the top vineyards of the valley(2), one realizes the difficulty of working certain plots. Preventing erosion is important and terrace work is often indispensable. Here, the main task during winter is to rebuild parts of collapsed walls. An eternal recommencement, year after year, that forces admiration.

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“Although most vineyards are planted on the right side of the Danube (southern exposure), more and more vine growers are planting on the other side ; looking for more finesse in their wines”, Heins added. Maybe a new turn for the region? To be followed closely.

Judith Beck, a biodynamic lesson

Welcome to Burgenland, the flattest state in the country, but also the hottest and therefore the earliest for the maturity of the grapes. Recognized for the quality of its red wines, it goes from the Slovakian border to the north, down to the Slovenian border to the south, and borders Hungary to the east.

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Here we met with Judith Beck. Smiling, she welcomed us during a tasting session and invited us to join the table. The tone and atmosphere were warm. Judith began her first vinification in 2001 alongside her father. She converted the entire vineyard to biodynamics in 2007 with the help of her husband, Uli.

For her, “Sankt Laurent and Blaufränkisch are two very interesting grape varieties, both are complex to vinify and complicated to work with, but of fabulous potential”. Her cuvée St Laurent Schafleiten 2013 is a fine example : a gourmet wine, juicy, full of black fruit and spices.

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For Judith and Uli, biodynamics is their foremost aim to produce authentic wines with individual aroma profiles while maintaining healthy soils and vines.

“We encourage the formation of humus, by regularly applying manure that we prepare ourselves and by cultivating grass between the rows. Herbal infusions (nettles, camomile, horsetail…) and biodynamic sprays such as horn manure and horn silica, used in accordance with the moon’s rhythms, naturally strengthen the resistance and physiological maturation of the grapes”, Judith added during the visit of the vineyard with some chickens frolicking freely around us.

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They are also part of the Pannobile association, a group of 9 wineries favoring the production of local grape varieties, respecting traditions and partaking in the collegial tasting of wines from the various estates. A great initiative.

Silvia Heinrich estate, the Blaufränkisch in all its splendor

Silvia Heirinch is for me, THE great lady of Blaufränkisch in Austria. In 2010, she took over the reins of J. Heinrich, the family estate of 36 hectares.

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Her first decision was to pull out all the white vines. She has always believed in the potential of the reds here and her production is a real success. The wines are pure, generous and built for ageing for the finest cuvées. With a vineyard consisting of 75% Blaufränkisch – alongside Zweigelt, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah – Sylvia is a jubilant winegrower. “We have a unique job : we can both imagine our product, shape it with our hands and at the same time taste it. Every year is a chance to be able to do something new”, she enthused.

We visited the Goldberg, a vineyard nicknamed “the Grand Cru of Reds”, perched at 210m altitude and less than a kilometer from the Hungarian border. Here, on this terroir of exception, some of the great wines of the estate are produced.

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And it is not without reason that this woman with multiple caps – mom in the evening, winemaker and oenologist during the day, but also on the road part of the year to promote her wines – was elected winemaker of the year in 2014. “Being a vintner is not working eight hours a day, it’s a way of life. Working with nature requires patience, serenity and much humility”.
Adding,”my parents did not want me to become a winegrower. It was not a woman’s job for them. My father was a good winegrower but didn’t have the passion. He eventually retired and that’s how I got my chance”.

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Last year, Silvia even built a cabin on her plot of the Golberg, a small haven of peace, where she comes to recharge her batteries during the sunny days.

Some very nice Austrian wines tasted during our journey:
Bambule! 2014, from Judith Beck (a natural wine, 100% Neuburger)
Riesling Smaragd Kellerberg 2014, from Domäne Wachau
Alte Reben 2011, from J.Heinrich (100% Blaufränkisch – “Coup de Cœur“ Wine Explorers)
St Laurent Schafleiten 2013, from Judith Beck
Elegy 2011, from J.Heinrich (50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Merlot)

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

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Thank you to Silvia Heinrich, Judith Beck and Domäne Wachau for their warm welcome. And a big thank you to Barbara Handl from Austrian Wine for having allowed these beautiful encounters.

 

(1) Source : OIV, 2016
(2) Domäne Wachau is the only producer in the whole Wachau wine-growing region to produce wine on all the famous Wachau vineyards, such as Loibenberg, Achleiten, Tausend-Eimer-Berg, Singerriedel or Kellerberg.