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.

Hungary, far more than world class sweet wines

“There is no Hungarian village without a cellar”.
This is a good summary of the wine culture in Hungary, anchored in history since ancient times and the conquest of the southern bank of the Danube by the Romans.

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Having suffered under Communism until the end of the 1990s – like many eastern European countries – the Hungarian vineyards are gradually restructuring, with a progressive return to quality wines. The country now has some 150,000 hectares of vines(1), spread over 22 wine regions.
From east to west, we focus on two of them : Tokaj and Etyek-Buda.

Tokaj, land of aszú and puttonyos

Arriving from Budapest, the road is a succession of green fields. Then, suddenly, small mountains in the form of domes, emerge on the horizon like mushrooms from the ground. On these hills, vines are planted on the hillsides.

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Welcome to Tokaj, the 3rd largest Hungarian appellation with 5,500 hectares planted(2). An ancient volcanic area on the foothills of the Carpathians, which has been classified as a World Heritage Site since 2002, where there were once more than 400 active volcanoes.

Here people speak “aszú“ and “puttonyos“. Stuck between the Tisza and Bodrog rivers, the Tokaj vineyard enjoys ideal conditions for the development of the famous Botrytis cinerea. The grapes touched by noble rot are harvested berry by berry (!), it is these units of measurement that determine the level of sugar and the concentration of the wines(3). These wines are aged at least three years in traditional stone cellars, where a black fungus, Cladosporium Cellare, develops on the walls, helping the wine to age.

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We visited with admiration the natural 1km tunnels that form the cellar of Château Dereszla, where no less than 1,000 barrels lovingly look after a part of Tokaj’s liquid gold, at a constant humidity of 90%.

Some great Hungarian sweet wines from the Furmint variety tasted during our journey:
Tokaji Muskotaly Réserve 2003, from Château Dereszla (“Coup de Cœur“ Wine Explorers)
Tokaji Aszú 2006, from Samuel Tinon
Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008, from Demeter Zoltán
Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008, from Grof Degenfeld
Tokaji Aszuescencia 2003, from Erzsébet Pince

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A vineyard in full mutation turned towards dry white wines

The Tokaj region is not only a great region of sweet wines. On the contrary, the production of high quality dry white wines is booming. “The production of the last Aszu wines goes back to 2010 in the region. Since then, climatic conditions have impeded the production of sweet wines ; or sometimes only a production of extremely small quantities were possible. And small estates that only make sweet wines are currently in danger”, László Kalocsai, director of Château Dereszla explained, during an exciting tasting of dry white took from different tanks (for the assemblages).

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Moreover, the region remains the poorest in Hungary(4) with 4/5 of the vineyard managed by farmers who have less than one hectare of vines and can’t make a living from it. A government program has been put in place to develop tourism in the Tokaj region. With a budget of € 300 million, which extends from 2013 to 2020, it is assumed that priority will be given to small family estates(5).

Some very nice Hungarian dry wines tasted :
Ré:serve 2012, from Abraham Pince (100% Furmint)
Tokaj Szamorodni 2007, from Samuel Tinon (“Coup de Cœur“ Wine Explorers)
Tokaji Kabar 2013, from Château Dereszla (100% Kabar – a unique grape variety from Tokaj, with only 11 hectares)
Cabernet Franc 2012, from Demeter Zoltán
Kékfrankos 2013, from Etyeki Kúria (100% Kékfrankos, also known as Austrian Blaufränkisch)

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A production of sparkling wines has also been developing in Hungary for about 8 years. Grof Degenfeld, an organic winery since 2008 and producing a delicious cuvée “Furmint Sparkling Brut 2011“, is a good example.

Samuel Tinon, the discreet genius of Tokaj

Samuel Tinon was born in the vineyards of Sainte-Croix-du-Mont, another beautiful region of sweet wines(7). He was 21 years old when he arrived in Hungary in 1991. Samuel learned Hungarian on the spot and quickly became the director of the Royal Tokaj Wine Company, the first joint venture between East and West, created in 1989. He already had gold in his fingers. In 1999, he created his vineyard of 5 hectares in the Tokaj appellation.

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With his wife Mathilde Hulot – a correspondent for numerous wine-producing magazines and co-author of reference wine books(6) – they settled in the town of Olaszliszka in 1998, in the center of the Hatari grand cru.

Samuel cultivates two varieties: Furmint and Harslevelu, planted on clay and loess soils on the Zemplén hillsides (slope between 30 and 40% facing south). Among his wines – which, I must admit, are all delicious – one was my Hungarian favorite wine : his Dry Szamorodni. A wine – or rather a base method by name – which means “as it comes” in Polish, at a time when workers picked up whole botrytised clusters (not individual berries).

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Samuel makes a dry version from it with fermentation in open tank sous voile (under the veil). A unique wine in the world and which to this day is part of the great Wine Explorers’ discoveries, both for its complexity and for the emotion it has given us. A pure moment of meditation.

Etyek Buda, the other (promising) face of the Hungarian vineyard

The region of Etyek has been known for wine for 200 years; especially for its chalk soils and its production of sparkling wines. However, it is not always a favorite when talking about Hungarian wines. Wrongly…

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The Etyeki Kúria estate is a great example of its success. Started in 1996, it has made a name for itself thanks to its production of red wines; making great Pinot Noir and Kékfrankos wines. In 2009 Sára Matolcsy, the owner, enrolled Sándor Mérész – one of the country’s best oenologists – to manage the 26 hectares estate (plus 17 hectares in the Sopron region).

Together, this sympathetic binomial makes Etyeki Kúria one of the jewels of the region.

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Conclusion (unavoidable) on the Eszencia, a very rare nectar that we had the pleasure of discovering at Château Dereszla and which is a must to taste at least once in one’s life, as this sweet wine is an explosion of perfumes and flavors. Why? Imagine a grape syrup in reality, made from the best botrytis grapes harvested berry by berry, sometimes fermenting more than twenty years in small oak barrels, with more than 600g/L of sugar, less than 3 degrees of alcohol and 17g/L of acidity… There, all is said.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Château Dereszla, Grof Degenfeld, Erzsébet Pince, Demeter Zoltán, Samuel Tinon, Abraham Pince, Tokaj-Hétszőlő and Etyeki Kúria for their warm welcome.
Thanks to Gergely Somogyi, publisher at Tokaj Today, for having guided us so well in our wine wanderings in Tokaj. For more information on tours of vineyards organized by Tokaj Today : www.tokajtoday.com.
 

(1) Source : Sommeliers International
(2) Of the 11 000 hectares of Tokaj appellation in Hungary, only 5,500 hectares are planted.

(3) A unit of aszú is equivalent to 25 kg. After maceration, the wine is filtered and again put in oak barrel to age for at least two years. Then it is bottled and remains in the cellar for at least three years, two of which are in oak barrels. The wine thus obtained, called “Tokaji Aszú”, is marketed in bottles of 50 cl. Thus, 4 puttonyos means a minimum of 90 g/L, 5 Puttonyos minimum 120 g/L, 6 Puttonyos minimum 150 g/L and Aszú Eszencia minimum 180 g/L.
(4) Before the Second World War, more than 25% of the population were Jewish. Many of them have been deported and the region has become industrialized and mechanized, resulting in unemployment and poverty.
(5) According to a government calculation, an average of 10 hectares is required for a producer to make a living from his production. => A person who would come to settle in the region would receive 10 hectares, free over 30 years (already planted) + 30K€ + 60K€ for a loan with interest at 1.9% over 20 years + wine marketing programs for the promotion of Tokaj.
(6) Some reference wine books co-written by Mathilde Hulot : Le petit Larousse des Vins : Connaître, choisir, déguster, 1900-2000 : Un siècle de millésimes, Visages de Vignerons-Figures du Vin, Voyage au-dessus des vignobles de France or Les 100 vins cultes. For more information on Mathilde Hulot : http://mathildehulot.com.
(7) The sainte-croix-du-mont, or sainte-croix-du-mont appellation, refers to a French wine with a registered designation of origin produced in Sainte-Croix-du-Mont. Together with the appellations Cadillac and Loupiac, they form a small region producing sweet wines in the vineyard of Entre-deux-Mers, in the Bordeaux region. The AOC sainte-croix-du-mont is extending over 500 hectares planted with the varieties Semillon, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscadelle.

Slovakia, vineyards in reconstruction to be discovered

One can only marvel at the beauty of the Slovakian vineyards.
3000 years old, it is concentrated in the south of the country, along the Carpathians(1).

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After being marked by more than 40 years of real socialism(2) and the collectivization of vineyards by the State, the Slovakian wine sector is now booming and is full of wineries one more interesting than the next. Some have opted to focus only on production, exclusively purchasing their grapes from vine growers. Others, more recently, have invested in the vineyard and have created their own estates. We met with three of them.

Modern viticulture that has suffered from “real socialism”

From 30,000 hectares in 1990 to less than 17,000 hectares today(3), Slovakian vineyards are slowly being rebuild.

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After the velvet Revolution of 1989, state wine companies began to collapse. The vine growers, who were previously obliged to sell their grapes to these big farms, now found themselves in a difficult situation. They had two options : they could either continue to sell their grapes to other new establishments, or they could establish their own estates.

Slovakia – after gaining its independence in 1993 – took the decision to apply a protectionist policy on imported wines, thus encouraging a qualitative progression of local production for almost 10 years(4). This allowed winegrowers to sell all of their production in Slovakia at low prices without foreign competition.

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Divided into six regions – Small Carpathians and Eastern Slovakia to the west, Nitra and Central Slovakia to the south, Southern Slovakia and Tokaj to the east – a more qualitative approach is now being adhered to. As proof, a system of controlled appellations was set up in 2009.

Mrva & Stanko, a successful example of controlled grape purchases

Established in 1997, Mrva & Stanko was born from the meeting of two men. Mr Mrva, a talented winegrower who has made his mark in many European countries, and Mr Stanko, a Slovakian businessman. They began with 12,000 bottles and immediately made the choice to buy grapes from producers, in order to concentrate exclusively on investing in equipment (winery, cellar, barrels…).

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“In Slovakia, it is normal to separate the vineyard part from the production part. One hectare is very expensive”, according to Mr Mrva, who admitted that he preferred leaving to Austria during the communist period. Understandable when you are passionate and want to produce nice wines.
Now producing 400,000 bottles, the Mrva & Stanko estate has grown extensively but still remains qualitative, only buying grapes within 2.5-hours driving distance maximum from the production site, for better control of the quality. Thus the winegrowers under contract with whom they work are all located at the 48th parallel north (equivalent to Vienna in Austria, Munich in Germany, or Brest in France).

We met with a winegrower working for Mrva & Stanko. “We work hand in hand and grow the vines according to Mr Mrva’s recommendations. Everyone is happy like that and it is very pleasant”, he explained.

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We ended the visit by discovering the cellars of the estate. There are private lockers, rented to wealthy clients for storage of the great wines of the estate (a system we had seen in China). This approach seems to please a clientele long deprived of premium bottles. Count 600 €/year for a locker of a hundred bottles.

Tajna, the renewal of independent viticulture

Tajna estate is a new and very promising project and is a great example of the Slovakian wine-growing revival. Starting from zero, Rastislav Demes and his father planted 16 hectares in 2011, in the commune of the same name. “We have total freedom of action, both in the choice of grape varieties and in the management of the vines and the equipment used”, Rastislav enthusiastically explained..

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With its high-tech wine cellar, Tajna is well equipped to produce great wines. “It’s in the details that we are making the difference”.
During the wine tasting, Rastislav kindly proposed to us to choose the music of our choice. Delicate attention. We opted for a jazzy and convivial atmosphere. The wines of the estate, although made from young vines, are already very promising : mineral, generous, with nice tension and great freshness.
“The geological substratum of the Slovakian wine-growing regions is very varied : from limestone to granite, via volcanic rocks and river sediments, the typicity of the Slovak « terroir » is indisputable”, according to Rastislav.

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We finished the day with a delicious Perkelt cooked by his dad, a traditional meal made from marinated meat and potatoes. A delight.

Some nice Slovak wines discovered during our journey :
Rizling Vlassky Tramin 2014, from Tajná (80% Rizling Vlassky, 20% Tramin)
Vinolovca Exclusive 2013, from HR Winery (70% Rizling Vlassky, 30% Pinot Gris)
Cuvée 2012, from MRVA & Stanko (Hron, Vah, Rimava, Rudava)
Pinot Noir 2013, from Tajná
Cabernet Sauvignon Barrique 2012, from HR Winery

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HR Winery, a women’s story above all

Created in 2012, HR Winery is the story of a hunter and wine enthusiast, who succeeded in acquiring a vineyard of 230 hectares with 30-year old vines. Often traveling to satisfy his first passion, he entrusted the reins of the vineyard to two women. Beata Saskova, oenologist. And Mila Kissová, the sales manager. A duo full of joy and energy.

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While visiting the vineyard with Beata, we were amused by the radio, which suddenly began to sing on the village loudspeakers, alternating two pieces of traditional music and flash-info for five minutes. It was 3pm and time for advertising!

We discovered no less than 26 different grape varieties on the estate. Alongside the international varieties, there are others emblematic of the country, such as Rulandské Biele (Pinot Blanc), Devín, Pálava and Rizling Rýnsky (Riesling Rhénan) for the white and Frankovka Modrá, Svätovavrinecké (Saint-Laurent) and Rulandské Modré (Pinot Noir) for the red.

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After the visit, we improvised a tasting and a photo session in a room filled with stuffed animals. The “trophies” of the domain. Rather special but fun.

To conclude, it is impossible not to mention the famous Tokaj wines.
Known as the “wine of kings, king of wines“ in Hungary, it has been the subject of many dilemmas between the two countries since the Second World War. Although Slovakia has a legitimate right to the Tokaj designation and can produce it, only Hungary has the right to market it within the European Union. A big and understandable frustration for the Slovaks.
In any case, the country’s viticultural future is indeed there and its positive growth is encouraging. A country to discover urgently.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to MRVA & STANKO, HR Winery and Vino Tajná for their warm welcome. Thank you also to Miklós Jobbágy and Guyard Paul for their nice winery recommendations.

 

(1) Source : Slovak National Statistical Office
(2) Socialist parties throughout the world experienced splits in the 1920s (or “real socialism”) applied by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), the latter being proclaimed the “homeland of socialism”.
(3) Source: Slovak National Statistical Office
(4) It was at the time of Slovakia’s accession to the EU on 1 May 2004 that the producers had to face rapidly a major international competition.

Poland, a country where wine has a taste for victory

What a beautiful country… I’m moved every time I think about our stay in Poland and the kindness of its inhabitants.
Strongly touched in the last century by incessant wars, struck by a terrible genocide, and with a communist regime that is just beginning to soften, the country is still in the midst of a search for identity and is gradually rebuilding itself, like a phoenix rising from its ashes.

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The production of wine is still confidential. Yet, a real craze for wine seems to take over Poland.

An emerging wine scene

Imagine : it wasn’t until 2009 that it became legal to buy Polish wine in the country… Finally it became possible for local winegrowers to market their production and thus to formalize their activity.
A new era opened for Polish viticulture. In just a few years, a very lively amateur wine-growing scene developed in the country, with groups of small producers, mainly in the regions of Zielona Góra in the west, Wrocław in the south-west and Podkarpacie in the south-east.

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“Productivity is moving in the right direction”, Roman Myśliwiec, the president of the Polish Institute of Vine and Wine(1) explained.
Today, there are about 400 amateur vineyards, covering a total of 400 hectares(1). However, only ten estates are actually officially registered(2). We met with three of them.

Adoria Vineyards, an American in the vineyard

Born in the middle of the Californian vineyards, Mike Whitney has lived in Poland since 1995. A former CEO for big corporations, he wanted to settle permanently in this country after meeting his wife. At the same time, he wished to start producing wine.

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But Mike had to start from scratch. Both on the technical side, and for the purchase of equipment. This huge and exciting challenge has lead him all over Europe to meet with suppliers for the construction and equipment of his winery.
After a year and a half of research on more than 300 sites, Mike settled in Zachowice in the south in 2005. He planted 3 hectares of Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Riesling and Bacchus on clay-sandy soils in this former German region which had become Polish after World War II, after Poland’s borders were redefined by the Allies.

“We didn’t built all of it on our own”, Mike humbly said. “We had the chance to work with a large team of professionals from around the world on this project, including consultants from Oregon and Tuscany.

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In the end, Mike is a busy man. “Being a vintner is a good job for a dad : I can modulate my working time as it suits me”, he said during the dinner where we enjoyed delicious home made pasta with pesto. It was an ideal dish to warm us during this late autumn. The harvest was barely finished and it was already -3°C at night. The gas heating ran at full speed in the campervan.

Winnice Jaworek, from metallurgy to wine

“This year is a good vintage,” according to Lech Jaworek, owner of Winnice Jaworek. The priest came to bless the grapes before the harvest. This is an important Catholic tradition.
Lech Jaworek is an engineer in the metal industry. And it was slightly coincidental that he planted his first vines in 2000, right next to his company.

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In 1995, after the change of government, he was told that he had to either purchase the 120 hectares of property next to his company – including all the buildings and the land – or abandon his business. In order not to lose his factory, he had no choice but to buy everything. But what to do with all this land? It was there that he had the idea of creating a 15-hectare vineyard on this ancient 14th-century wine land (when the monks imported vines to make the mass wine). A very nice idea!

For now, the equipment is still a bit precarious and the labeling of the bottles is done by hand. While waiting for stainless steel tanks, a cold room has been improvised with a lot of malice. Bubble wrap is covering large tanks during fermentation.

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Nevertheless, the buildings are gorgeous and seem made to become a real winery. No doubt that this old farm from the eighteenth century, with its typical and charming red bricks, will rapidly become a recognized tasting place.

Interspecific grape varieties – in this case Solaris and Regent – seem to produce better results than Riesling and Pinot Noir because they are more resistant to humidity and diseases. And the honey wine of the house, made with brandy distilled in a simple column, heats up the soul and regales the taste buds.

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Some Polish wines tasted during our journey:
Chardonnay 2014, from Adoria Vineyards
Metoda Tradycyjna NV, from Adoria Vineyards (65% Riesling, 35% Bacchus)
Moscato 2013, from Jaworek (100% Muscat)
Marszalek 2014, from Krokoszówka Górska (100% Maréchal Foch)
-and a curiosity : Miodowe, a honey wine from Jaworek

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Krokoszówka Górska, the natural wine

Thousands of young Poles emigrate every year to find work in England or Germany. The profession of farmer is disappearing. Here is the sad but realistic report done by Marek Górscy. Going against a current where costumes and ties are more fashionable than boots and pruning shears, Marek decided to leave his office to become a winemaker in 2005.

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“Today I no longer look at my computer at work, I get up and contemplate nature”. Marek now takes his time and reconnects with his roots. Neither fining nor filtration nor sulphite in his wines. Marek wants to make “clean” wine. With one hectare of vines and an annual production of 6,500 bottles, he just manages to generate an income. Whatever. This freedom has no price.

The fact that Poland joined the EU gave him the opportunity to receive training in viticulture and oenology, as did other young winemakers in conversion in the country.

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Outside the rain was pouring down. Marek served us a delicious Polish coffee to warm us up. It reminded me one of the Turkish coffee I had a few year ago. Strong but so tasty. “Temperatures can go down to -20°C in winter!”, he concluded.
Making wine in Poland definitely remains a major challenge.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Adoria Vineyards, Jaworek and Krokoszówka Górska for their warm welcome. Thank you to my friend Marc-Antoine Brekiesz for his valuable contact with a Polish translator. And finally, a very big thank you to Rafał Kisielewski, for having accompanied us in our research and for having put us in good hands during our trip to Poland.


(1)
Source : Polskiego Instytutu Winorośli i Wina

(2)Among the ten officially registered estates in the country are : Adoria Vineyards, Winnica Jaworek, Krokoszówka Górska, Winnica Maria Anna, Winnica Płochockich, Winnica Stara Winna Góra, Winnica Miłosz, Winnica Jura, Winnicy Golesz ou encore Winnica Wzgórza Trzebnickie
(3) Source : http://www.krakowpost.com/

The Czech vineyard & its Moravian treasures

Having left Paris in the early autumn, we embarked on a bucolic tour of Eastern Europe, where we planned to crisscross the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary and Austria on board of our faithful camper van, the “house-mobile-office” of the Wine Explorers.

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After a journey of 1,280 kilometers over two days, we arrived in Moravia, the main Czech wine-growing region (18,500 hectares and 96% of the country’s production(1)), named after the Morava River, a tributary of the left bank of the Danube watering the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Austria.

We were awaited by three estates with profiles as atypical as friendly.

Viticulture that is just recovering from communism

Located at the same latitude as the south of Germany (50th parallel north), the Czech vineyards are among the northernmost vineyards. The summers are warm and dry, the winters long and cold, offering wines with very varied profiles.
But before sharing the magnificent discoveries that we made, it is important to refer back to three key dates in Czech history, in order to better understand the wine history of the country. Although the viticulture dates back to the 2nd century (under the Roman era), it was at the beginning of the 20th century that it reached its peak.

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1948 : The appearance of the post-war communist movement. Radical changes were taking place in the country, the vineyards were under the exclusive control of the State, giving priority to yield and productivity, and regarding culture and heritage – great thinkers and talents were excluded from power or imprisoned ;
1990 : The end of state cooperatives, the opening of borders and the beginning of private investments, giving access to new technologies and an increase in the quality of Czech wines ;
2004 : The entry of the Czech Republic into the EU, with a wine legislation in line with European standards, but also the cessation of the extension of its production areas of 19,200 hectares planted(2) (0.2% of the world’s vineyards).

Sonberk, the revival of Czech viticulture

Welcome to the south of the Czech Republic, 25 kilometers from the Slovakian border, to one of the prettiest estates of the country. Sonberk, with its 45 hectares of vines majestically plunging on Lake Thaya, is the first Czech estate to have established its winery in 2003 in the middle of the vineyard.

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An initiative unthinkable a few years back, when all the vineyards were under state control.

Mainly planted with Riesling (13,5ha), Chardonnay, Palava and Moravian Muscat on loess and limestone soils, Sonberk has literally amazed us by the quality of its white wines. Admiring the sunset from the terrace, we enjoyed their Riesling wines, fresh and very precise. 
A success for this new vineyard with a production of 150,000 bottles, who has made the choice to hand harvest and operate their winery by gravity. The 30-year-old vineyard, with a distance of 3 meters between the rows (a requirement of the old communist system to let the agricultural machines pass) were replanted to 1.9 meters and cut into single guyot with 7 to 8 branches.

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Here and there, a few hives dress the landscape. Fruit trees are legion. Pumpkins grow by tens. Sonberk is a proud example of the Czech wine revival.

Reisten, at the top of Moravia 

On the way to our next destination, on the other side of the lake, we admired the beauty of Moravia and its many castles, enthroned on the tops of the surrounding hills.
Having arrived in Pavlov, we faced Reisten, a 30-hectares winery planted in 1999, at the foot of the ruins of the castle of Divci Hrady, a 13th century building erected on the highest point of the region, 438 meters above sea level. 

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Here, the calcareous soils, very rich in calcium, oblige the root system of the vines to establish itself in the rock, and seem to give a particular characteristic to the white wines. This famous flavor of “rifle stone”, whose existence has never been proven from a scientific point of view, was undeniably present in each of the wines we tasted.

This was the end of the harvest for the day. After a morning of filming with the workers, we took a walk along the steep paths that lead to the ruins of the castle. The wind literally nailed me to the wall. It blows like that for more than 300 days a year.

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Some beautiful Czech bottles tasted during our journey:
Riesling V.O.C 2013, from Sonberk
Maidenburg Palava 2013, from Reisten (100% Palava)
Blanc de Pinot Noir 2014, from Stapleton & Springer
Ryzlink rynsky 2011, from Sonberk
CTVRTE Pinot Noir 2013, from Stapleton & Springer 

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Stapleton & Springer, rock’n roll Pinot Noir

After a delicious (and very copious) local lunch, based on soup with meatballs and a stew of doe in sauce, we began our visit of the Stapleton & Springer estate, only 30km from Austria.
Here we met with Jaroslav Springer, an emblematic figure of Czech Pinot Noir. His family has been making wine for 300 years. When he was 6, during a winter where he was forced to do some work in the vineyard, it was so cold that his fingertips almost froze. That day he swore never to make wine. Then again… you can always change your mind.

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A Burgundy lover, he swears only by Pinot Noir, a grape variety long perceived as “bourgeoise” in the country during communism. His three sons work with him on the 23 hectares of vines. 

He is a passionate and hard worker, who converted his vineyard organically since 2007. Do not talk to him about filtration, he hates it. And the man has his ideas: “I think exporting wines is stupid. In an ideal world, everybody should sell their production only 200 km around its winery”. 

It is a point of view and I respect it. Ending the visit, Jaroslav decided to take a goose in the enclosure that adjoins the vineyard for the evening meal. After a few minutes’ stalking, he ended up catching the beast and bleeding it on the spot in the grass. Back in the winery, and to recover from this quite stressful moment, Jaroslav took his electric guitar and started a piece of Iron Maiden. The Pinot Noir had a rock’n roll look.

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Unlike most wine roads in the world, the Moravian wine route is an extensive network of bike paths and trails, winding through vineyards between villages and other scenic spots over more than 1,200 kilometers. An invitation to travel, and probably the best way to take the time to admire the beauty of the Czech Republic, is by walking from cellar to cellar.
A notice to fans, it may be that you have found your next travel destination.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

Thanks to SonberkReisten and Stapleton & Springer estates for their warm welcome.

(1) The second region of production is Bohemia, to the west, with 730 hectares.
(2) Wine of Czech Republic, 2016
(3) The 1st vintage of Domaine Reisten is from 2012

Happy New Year… with a Spanish Cava!

In these end-of-year celebrations, we decided to cook a special menu, thought around three cavas from the bodega Raventós i Blanc, in order to try something outside of the beaten path.

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A tasteful experience as delicious as interesting, where the Spanish bubbles have shown us that they compete easily with the best sparkling wines, wonderfully accompanying a whole meal.
We therefore wanted to share with you the recipes of these food and wine pairings, with three dishes signed by the chef Laëtitia Visse. At your furnaces!

STARTER
Scallop carpaccio & cuvée De Nit Rosé Extra Brut 2014

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A cava rosé aged 18 months on lies, blend of Macabeu (37%), Xarel.lo (37%), Parellada (18 %) and Monastrell (8%), with notes of red fruits, lively and supple in the mouth, pairing superbly with the delicacy of the scallops, the freshness of the radishes and the crunchy pomegranate.

Recipe for 6 people
*18 scallops (3/person), 1 bunch of coriander, 1 piece of pomegranate, 1 bunch of round radishes, 1 lime, 1 bunch of watercress, 1 piece of curly salad, 1 bunch of chervil, extra virgin olive oil, Espelette pepper, black Himalayan salt.
*Preparation : slice the scallops into thin slices and place them on the plates in rosette. Set aside in the fridge. Finely chop the coriander bunch. Remove the heart of the curly salad (small yellow and tender shoots), wash and spin carefully. Cut radishes into quarters or 8 slices depending on size. Grind the grenade.

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*Dressing : season the carpaccio with a pinch of Espelette pepper and the black Himalayan salt. Arrange sparingly the pomegranate, the chopped coriander, the pieces of radish, the small sprigs of chervil, curly and watercress. Add a drizzle of olive oil and a dash of lime juice.

MAIN COURSE
Duck magret, poached pears, purée of celery, lime gastric, roasted beets & cuvée Manuel Raventós Extra Brut 2008

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A rich and complex cava, with very fine bubbles, aged 6 years on lies, without additionnal sugar, blend of Xarel.lo (70%), Parellada (15%) and Macabeu (15%), with notes of brioche, honey and citrus fruits. A little creamy with a nice length in the mouth that marvelously highlight the juicy side of the duck breast, the beets and the poached pears.

Recipe for 6 people
*3 breasts, 3 boots of mini beets, 3 small pears, 1 celery rave, 200g raw milk butter, 300g whole milk, 10g brown sugar, 100g sugar, 10 limes, 20g fresh ginger, 2 badianes, 250g brown sugar in pieces, a few watercress shoots.
*Preparation : prepare the magrets (remove nerves and bloody areas). Finely carve them. Set aside.
Squeeze the juice from the limes. Peel and thin the ginger into thin strips. Put the juice, the ginger, the badiane and the sugar into pieces in a saucepan. Let cook slowly on low heat, skimming regularly, until obtaining a thick syrup.

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Peel the raw celery with a knife. Cut into cubes and put it in a saucepan with the milk. Fill with water at high and cook. Once the celery is well cooked, drain and mix (without the juice) with 150g butter. Adjust seasoning and set aside in small saucepan.
Peel the beets. Cook them over low heat in 50g butter with two tablespoons of water and brown sugar. Stir regularly to pearl the beets. Set aside.
Cut the pears in half, remove the seeds. Make a syrup with 100g caster sugar and 300g water. Leave to simmer, leaving the pears immersed. When the point of the knife enters the fruit without resistance, set aside.
*Dressing : heat a frying pan without fat. Place the duck breasts on the fat side and let them melt until they turn brown. Turn on the flesh side one minute and turn off the gas. Leave three minutes for cooking to continue slowly.

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Heat the pears, beets and celery puree. In the plate, arrange two small dumplings of celery puree using a tablespoon. Place the duck breast next to it, and arrange a few beets and a half pear. To coat the breast with the brush with the lemon gastric (attention, very acid and tasty preparation, serving as a condiment, to use with lightness!). Add the pink beetroot and some watercress shoots.

DESSERT
Hazelnut biscuit, lemon cream, white chocolate ganache, passion fruit & cuvée De la Finca Extra Brut 2013

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A cava with a nice tension and fine bubbles, aged 3 years on lies, without additionnal sugar, blend of Xarel.lo (50%), Macabeu (40%) and Parellada (10%), with notes of white flowers and citrus fruits, which goes very well with the sweet side of the biscuit and the light acidity of the creamy lemon, for the delight of your taste buds.

Recipe for 6 people
CREAMY LEMON (to do the day before)
*100g of lemon juice, 94g of sugar, white of 3 eggs, 225g of butter, 1 sheet of gelatine, 1 small pot of basil
*Cook all the ingredients (except gelatin and butter) at 85°C. Add the gelatin, previously softened in ice water. Reserve in a salad bowl. When the mixture has reached 50°C, add the butter. Set aside until the next day, and put in a socket pocket.

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WHITE CHOCOLATE GANACHE (to be done the day before)
*115g of white chocolate, zest of 1 yellow lemon, 65g whole milk, 1 gelatin sheet, 135g of 35% cream.
*Melt the white chocolate in a water bath. Put milk, sugar, lemon zest in a saucepan. Bring to a boil. Pour the boiling mixture over the melted white chocolate. Emulsify with a whisk. Add the previously softened gelatin to the ice-cold water, then the cream. Reserve for one full night. Put in socket pocket (fluted socket).
HAZELNUT BISCUIT
*100g of hazelnut butter, white of 3 large eggs (or 4 small ones), 2g of salt, 105g of icing sugar, 100g of flour, 60g of hazelnut powder
*Melt the butter. In a salad bowl, whisk and add in egg whites, salt and sugar, then flour and hazelnut powder. Butter and flour a pan. Spread the dough over 1cm thick (max). Cook for 10 min at 180°C.

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CRUMBLE
* 70g half salt butter, 50g flour, 50g hazelnut powder, 60g brown sugar
*Mix everything in a salad bowl while crumpling with your fingers. Spread thinly. Bake for 10 minutes on a plate, in the oven, at 180°C, until a very blonde color is obtained.
Dressing : arrange a square of financier in the bottom of a plate. Poach to the plain socket two pretty bubbles of creamy lemon. Do the same with white chocolate ganache, with fluted socket this time. Pour a little of the passion fruit on the preparation, add a little basil chiseled (attention, the chiseled basil black very quickly, to do at the last moment), hazelnut crumble.

Bon appétit !

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to the restaurant Les Arlots (136 Rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, 75010 Paris), for having allowed us to make these festive dishes in their kitchen. Thank you to the chef Laëtitia Visse, for having thought these three recipes and for having learned us how to cook them. Thank you to the photographer Yohann Ancele for the beautiful pictures of dishes and bottles. Finally, thank you to the estate Raventós i Blanc for having made us discover three magnificent cuvées.

Cuvée De Nit Rosé Extra Brut 2014 – 11,8 % Vol. ; cellar price : 19,36 €
Cuvée Raventós Extra Brut 2008 – 12,2 % Vol ; cellar price: 89 €
Cuvée De la Finca Extra Brut 2013 – 11,5 % Vol ; cellar price: 25 €

Where to buy in France : restaurant Casa Gala – 18 Rue de la Fraternité, 66190 Collioure
For more information on Raventós i Blanc : http://www.raventos.com

Switzerland, a vineyard with 3 faces

I have been looking forward to talking about Switzerland. This is a country which I deeply love and where I had the chance to live a decade ago, for my first experience working in the wine industry.

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Welcome to a territory of great wines, with green landscapes and a unique cultural diversity, in which 3 seemingly opposing worlds co-exist in perfect harmony.
Imagine : on the one side the French-speaking Switzerland. On the other side, the Ticino, where everything is only Italian. Between the two, the Swiss German – the biggest part – where the German language is king. And in the middle of all this, a “small” but charming area of vineyards of 15,000 hectares (the equivalent of the Alsatian vineyard – or 0.2% of the area of the world’s vineyards (1)), extending from east to west. Guided tour.

Discovering the wines of Aargau

The choice of which wineries to visit was complex, as there are many promising wine regions in Switzerland. From the Merlot of Ticino and the Gamay of Geneva to the Syrah and Chasselas of Valais, the Swiss vineyards harbor treasures. There are more than 200 varieties, many of which are indigenous (2).

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We decided to explore the canton of Aargau in the north. A small corner of paradise nestled halfway between Basel and Zurich. We were expected by Rahel & Daniel Buchmann, from Buchmann Weine.
“The wines of Aargau benefit from a micro-climate very favorable to the maturity of grapes, with a beautiful south-southwest exposure, an average altitude of 500 meters, natural protection of forests and many old vines, as here with 40-years old riesling-sylvaner (3)“, Rahel, a young and brilliant oenologist who has just taken over from her parents at the 4 hectare family estate, explained.

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The region is beautiful, wild and preserved. In the atmosphere, only the bells of the cows were ringing. The sky was clear and we could see the Swiss Alps in the distance. Time was about meditation.

Morning harvest in Chiquet-les-Vins

Continuing to the west, we headed towards the neighboring canton of Basel-Country, where Claude Chiquet welcomed us for a morning of harvesting under a soft late summer sun. Claude, who laughingly stated that he doesn’t know why he started in wine, put aside his past life in solar energies 10 years ago to plant a single hectare of vines in Ormalingen, his native village.

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Starting from scratch, he wanted to make Chiquet-les-Vins a 100% organic estate from the beginning. Planting interspecific varieties – the famous PIWI (4) which we mentioned during our visit of the Belgian vineyards – were a natural choice for Claude. “New varieties such as Sauvignon-Soyhières or Cabernet-Jura need four times less treatment than classic Vitis vinifera and give very nice results here.”
And although I (still) have doubts regarding the complexity of wines made from PIWI, I must admit that the different cuvées of Claude pleasantly surprised me regarding both body and length. Could this be the exception that confirms the rule? A case worth following closely during future tastings of these new crosses…

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Some Swiss wines we particularly enjoyed:
Clos du Couvent 2008 (100% Chasselas), from Domaine de Maison Blanche
Aspra Maisprach 2014, from Chiquet-les-Vins
Mondeuse Noire & Pinot Noir 2009, from Domaine de Maison Blanche
Mairah 2012, from Chiquet-les-Vins
TEGERFELDEN Cabernet Dorsa 2013, from Buchmann Weine

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On the shores of Lake Geneva

Add to an atypical character, an extraordinary encounter. Welcome to Yves de Mestral estate, in the Canton of Vaud. “What better way than a boat trip on the calm water of Lake Geneva offered by our host to better understand this unique terroir that is Mont-sur-Rolle?” Here we were, embarked on the yacht of Yves, enjoying an overview of the Vaudois vineyards.

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A magnificent estate on terraces, with steep slopes and enclosed by walls, the Domaine de Maison Blanche proudly overlooks the shores of the largest alpine lake in central Europe, from which it draws light and energy.
The ideal equation for the cultivation of Chasselas, a white grape variety originating from the region, known for making light wines (or table grapes) and not always valued at its true potential.

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A perfect challenge for this talented winegrower of well tempered character. He dared to experiment on his wines by ageing them on the lees or in barrels – which is unusual for this varietal – to the delight of our taste buds. His Chasselas are simply amazing, just like his cuvées of Mondeuse and Pinot Noir. A winemaker to discover urgently.

Gourmet escapade in the Friborg Alps

It was impossible to leave Switzerland without (re)discovering the very famous AOP : Gruyère. This cheese of great complexity matches perfectly with Swiss white wines. A tour of the manufacturing process at the Maison du Gruyère highlighted the importance of every step, from the choice of the alpine milk (400 liters of milk needed for a 35 kg cheese wheel!), through the curdling, the salt bath, the cellaring and the maturation (between 6-9 months for a tender and fruity taste, and up to 24 months for thrill seekers). All of these processes will determine the aromatic palette of this cheese with a thousand and one perfumes.

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With your fingers, on a piece of bread, melted, or as cheese soufflé, the Gruyère is a blast and makes you want to put on skis.
And for those who would still ask the question : no, it has no hole !!!

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Chiquet-les-Vins, Domaine de Maison Blanche and Buchmann Weine for having welcomed us so warmly. And special thanks to Philippe Gremaud, from the Maison du Gruyère, for this superb and private tour behind the scene.

 

(1) OIV 2016
(2) Some of native Swiss grape varieties include Humagne Blanche, Petite Arvine and Amigne for the whites, Humagne Rouge and Cornalin for the reds.
(3) Most widely planted white variety in German-speaking Switzerland, the Riesling-Sylvaner is also known as Müller-Thurgau (most commonly), Rivaner (Austria, Luxembourg and Germany), Müller, Müllerka, Müllerovo (Slovakia), Rizvanac Bijeli and Rizvanec (Croatia, Slovenia).
(4) PIWI comes from the German « PILZWIDERSTANDSFÄHIGE REBSORTEN », which literally means “vine varieties resistant to fungi”. They were created by crossing European varieties and American fungal resistant varieties. They belong to the type Vitis vinifera, as they are not to be distinguish from a taxonomically point of view (classification of species). For more information on PIWI in general: http://www.piwi-international.de/en/information-en.html

Germany, a nice place to drink

Having said goodbye to Sweden, we left the cool Scandinavian days for Germany, where a few atypical producers were expecting us.
We opted for a ferry trip by night. Departure at 23:30 from Trelleborg. Arrival early morning at Rostock. Allowing 6 to 7 hours of voyage for an average price of €69 per person (camper van included) (1). An inexpensive but adventurous option if you wish to sleep and don’t have sea legs!

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The Ahr Valley, a paradise for Pinot Noir

After having recharged our batteries in Cologne for the weekend at my cousin Amelie’s place, we took the direction of the Ahr Valley, one of Germany’s smallest wine regions, with barely 558 hectares planted (2).
And although Germany is known for its (legendary) Riesling wines, red varieties are king here (3)! Especially Spätburgunder (4). How is this possible? Through a unique microclimate. This tribute of the Rhine, mainly composed of slate – a metamorphic rock that stores heat – takes advantage of south-facing slopes, flooded with sun, for the delight of Pinot Noir.
As a result : fine wines, with freshness and delicate tannins, like those of J. J. Adeneuer estate in Ahrweiler.

Riesling, a white wine with aromas of… petroleum

If I had to choose three wines to take with me on a desert island, I would definitely take a bottle of German Riesling in my cooler!

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Because Riesling has thousand flavors and countless profiles, making its exploration infinite. From dry to sweet, moderately dry to very sweet, sometimes effervescent, sometimes botrytized, often partially fermented (when residual sugars remain), it never ceases to surprise and can match with all the moments of life. To make it short and as you already understood : I am a huge fan of this varietal!
Our next destination was the famous Rheingau region with the aim of unravelling the mysteries of Riesling. A grape variety that apparently develops aromas of “oil” with age, we were told at Georg Breuer winery. The estate is known to store an impressive amount of old vintages in its cellar.

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Perceived as a fault in young wines by some people and as quality in old vintages by others, the famous parfume of petroleum in Riesling always makes debate. Personally, it bewitch me. In conclusion, taste some of these great wines by yourself and ask youself the question : do I find it pleasant or not? Nobody will say it better than you.

In Rheingau, better not get dizzy!

Only 30 000 years ago, the sea was still present in this part of the world. As a testimony, it left soils rich in minerals and sediments, as well as beautiful and breathtaking vineyards along the Rhine, with such steep and rocky slopes that you sometimes need a rope in order not to fall!
“That’s what makes the charm and uniqueness of our wines”, Moritz Nagel, marketing director of Schloss Vollrads, a castle from the early seventeenth century with which we fell in love, explained.

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In addition to 80 hectares planted exclusively with Riesling, Schloss Vollrads holds treasures, like the oldest archives of German wine sales, dating back to 1211. As well as a room with walls covered by leather and gold inserts (only two rooms like this one exist in the world, including a smaller one in Cordoba, Spain).
An estate worth visiting, where you can taste much of the wine range at the cellar door, and even watch bats at nightfall, in order to discover their beneficial impact on the local ecosystem.

Some German wines to discover :
Kerner Spätlese 2014, from Weingut Klös
Riesling Alte Reben 2005, from Schloss Vollrads
Riesling Berg Schlossberg Auslese 2010, from Georg Breuer
Trockenbeerenauslese 2010, from Schloss Vollrads
Pinot Noir Kräuterberg VDP–Grosses Gewächs 2011, from Weingut Adenauer

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Weingut Klös, the Tom Thumb of the Rheinhessen

Even if the Rheinhessen is known to be the largest German wine producing region (5), our friend Helanie (winemaker in South Africa and our first great meeting in the project!) highly recommended exploring Weingut Klös winery. Here we met with Matthias and Simone Klös, a brother and sister team against the current of the region, making a very interesting production from the 3-hectare family estate.
Simone, a consultant for thirty vineyards in the region, explained the importance of her job in her analyzes laboratory to us. “The apprentice chemist side of wine doesn’t always receive good press, yet it is fundamental in order to deliver a faultless and stable finished product to the consumer”. Only one rule : hygiene. I even learned to de-scale tanks with Simone. Except that I wasn’t fast enough… and was rightly scolded. Don’t mess with cleanliness!

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The lesson completed, Simone took us discovering the “Hohlweg”, these traditional roads located between two slopes – usually planted with trees – linking the agricultural plots to villages, hamlets and farms. Narrow and difficult to access for agricultural machines, these paths are preserved as cultural heritage, as they have played a major role protecting both soldiers and the population during the Second World War.

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In conclusion of our German trip, we were invited to sit in the panoramic cockpit of a huge Ero grapeliner 6175, to attend the mechanical harvest of Klös’s neighbour. Literally stepping over the vine row, the machine demonstrated an impressive dexterity. First it shook the vines, then separated the leaves and the stalks of the berries, collecting them in a separate bin. All this with an average speed of 3.7 km/h. Bluffing…

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Weingut Adeneuer, Schloss Vollrads, Georg Breuer and Weingut Klös for having warmly received us. And a special thank you to Amélie Boudin, Moritz Nagel and the Klös family for their delicate hospitality.

(1) For more information on ferry lines crossings Sweden and Germany : http://www.directferries.fr/?_ga=1.236306113.1730865352.1472560082
(2) With only 558 hectares of vines planted for a global area of 102,000 hectares, the Ahr valley accounts for only 0.5% of German vineyards. Source: Sud de France.
(3) Germany now has 40% of red wine in its annual production; with about a third made from Pinot Noir.
(4) Spätburgunder is the German name for Pinot Noir
(5) Rheinhessen (or Hesse-Rhineland in French), is the biggest German wine region with 26,000 hectares of vineyards.