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. 

A Grand Annual Tasting 2016 full of surprises!

Back from a second year of exploration of the wine planet, suitcases full of bottles –  one more intriguing than the other – we were impatient to share our discoveries with 120 fine wine connoisseurs!

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It was a difficult choice for the selection, with a final list of 35 wines from 14 countries (1). True heart strokes for some wines, nice curiosities coming from climates both extreme and diverse, each wine tasted on June 13, deserves special attention for its quality and unique personality.
To follow is the summary of a tasting far away from the beaten tracks, organized on the beautiful terrace of Duclot-La Vinicole.

(Northern) Europe seduces with the freshness of its wines

A Swedish white wine on top of the ranking, followed by a Belgian wine, was the first highlight of the tasting!
Made from interspecific varieties (cf. PIWI) – 100% Solaris for Hällåkra Vingard in Sweden and 100% Mossiat for the Belgium Château de Bioul – these wines have “seduced with their freshness and surprised with their aromatic potential”. And although these new varieties (still unknown to the general public), can sometimes lack complexity, they could – thanks to their high resistance to cold – rapidly become the future solution for “Northern” climates, where harsh winters and a lack of sunshine make the production of Vitis vinifera wines (very) complicated.

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Speaking about red wines, Slovakia and Austria are two European nations to follow closely. The Slovak “Cuvée 2012” from Mrva & Stanko (made of 4 indigenous varietals: Hron/Vah/Rimava/Rudava) & 100% Blaufraenkisch “Alte Reben 2011” from J. Heinrich have been described as “providing immediate pleasure with a lot of finesse and an elegant and complex tannic structure”.

TOP 5 – WHITE WINES
1 – Sweden : “Solaris 2014“, from Hällåkra Vingård
2 – Hungary (Tokaj) : “Muskotály Réserve 2003“, from Château Dereszla
3 – Indonesia (Bali) : “Aga White 2016“, from Hatten Wines
4 – Belgium (Côtes de Sambre et Meuse) : “Mossiat 2014“, from Château de Bioul
5 – Hungary (Tokaj) : “Tokaj Szamorodni Sec 2007“, from Samuel Tinon

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Exotic destinations in front of the scene

Who would have believed it?… Two Balinese wines on the podium: undoubtedly the biggest surprise of the tasting!
Imagine Bali (the only wine region of Indonesia): a tropical country where one can harvest up to 3 times a year, where the vineyard has no dormancy period, where it is never less than 23 ° C in winter and where the vines do not live more than 12 years, because of incessant labor…
Yet the wines “made in Bali” have astonished many guests. Described as “very aromatic, pleasant on the palate and with a certain freshness”, these wines showed that with suitable grape varieties (here Belgia and Muscat St Vallier), advanced technology and specific expertise, it is technically possible to make good wines here.

The top 50 studios pics of the tasting !

The top 50 studios pics of the tasting !


As for Brazil, an increasingly recognized destination, with varied climates (equatorial in the north, continental-temperate in the south), it is a country where great “terroirs“ are emerging. As in the Valle dos Vinhedos in the south, where the “Quorum 2006” from Lidio Carraro (40% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Tannat, 15% Cabernet Franc) was unanimously recognized as incredibely elegante.

The production of sparkling wines of high quality is booming worldwide

Germany, England, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, Hungary… all these countries have something in common: they play in the big leagues in terms of production of sparkling wines.
Blind tasted around a game that consisted of finding the country of origin (not that easy…), seven sparkling wines, all from different countries, have literally amazed our guests!

JBA with John Leroy, winemaker @ Ruffus Estate (Belgium)

JBA with John Leroy, winemaker @ Ruffus Estate (Belgium)


In fact, more and more wineries, located in regions of the world with suitable terroirs – predominantly calcareous/chalky soils and cool/temperate climates – prove that with suitable varieties, grapes harvested with good maturity, using the traditional method (2) and with long and rigorous ageing, it is possible to produce fantastic bubbles around the world – able to compete with the French production, for example.
Even Bali moved up on the podium with it’s Moscato d’Bali from Sababay, an aromatic and slightly sweet sparkling wine.

TOP 3 – SPARKLING WINES
1-Belgium (Wallonie) : “Cuvée Franco Dragone 2011“, from Ruffus
2 – Brazil (Serra Gaucha) : “Terroir Nature – SAFRA 2009“, from Cave Geisse
3 – Indonesia (Bali) : “Moscato d’Bali 2015“, from Sababay
Special mention : England (Kent) : “Blanc de Blancs 2010“, from Gusbourne

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[NB : congratulations to Paul Dunleavy, from Te Motu (NZ), the only guest at the blind tasting who identified the origins of the 7 sparkling wines!]

Hungary honored and present in all categories

Hungary was in all conversations on 13 June. First with the famous Tokaj region and its sweet wines : 260g of residual sugar for the delicious “Muskotály Réserve 2003“ from Château Dereszla of which remained not a single drop!
But also with dry white wine, like the amazing “Szamorodni Sec 2007” from Samuel Tinon : a wine made from botrytis grapes, fermented in open tanks without residual sugar (unique in the world)… a wine of meditation.

THE TEAM !!

THE TEAM !!


Lesser known than other Hungarian wine regions, Etyek-Buda (25 minutes west of Budapest), with its mild continental climate, turned towards the production of juicy Pinot Noir wines in recent years. A nice example : the “Pinot Noir 2013“ from Etyeki Kuria – n°1 red wine of the tasting. Again, a nice surprise!

TOP 5 – RED WINES
1 – Hungary (Etyek-Buda) : “Pinot Noir 2013“, from Etyeki Kuria
2 – New Zealand (Waiheke Island) : “Bordeaux Blend 1999“, from Te Motu
3 – Australia (Tasmania) : “Cab. Sauvignon/Merlot 2000“, from Freycinet
4 – Brazil (Serra Gaucha) : “Quorum 2006“, from Lidio Carraro
5 – Austria (Burgenland) : “Alte Reben 2011“, from J. Heinrich
Special mention : 
 “Cuvée 2012“, from Mrva & Stanko – Slovakia

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Oceania never ceases to surprise

We all agree, Australia and New Zealand don’t have to gain one’s spurs.
However, two regions particularly intrigued us by their cool climate, particularly suitable for the production of long ageing “Bordeaux style“ wines:
-Tasmania (South of Australia), with the “Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2000“, from Freycinet Winery, a model of elegance and freshness ;
-and Waiheke Island, in New Zealand (near Auckland), where the “Bordeaux Blend 1999” from Te Motu (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 10% Cabernet Franc), 2nd on the podium and WINE EXPLORERS’ Heart Stroke, impressed with its vitality and youthfulness.
Finally, our guests said they tasted some of the most finest Syrah from Hawke’s Bay (north of New Zealand), home of real Syrah gems like the great “Jewelstone Syrah 2013” from Mission Estate, as well as from Australia, with  “Syrahmi Dreams… 2012“ from Adam Foster and “Basket Press Shiraz 2011“ from Rockford Wines, without forgetting a legendary Grenache, with “The Tri-Centenary 2008“ from Yalumba.

The wine planet (still) remains to be discovered…

WineExplorers’cheers,
Amandine Fabre & Jean-Baptiste Ancelot

 

Thank you to Jean-Luc Lavatine and the team of Duclot-La Vinicole for having made available this beautiful place for our Annual Tasting.
Thank you to all producers for having participated in this event by offering us the wines. We were also very touched by the presence in Paris, on June 13, of some wineries which came to support the event : Hatten Wines (Bali), Ruffus (Belgium), Sababay (Bali), J. Heinrich (Austria), Te Motu (New Zealand) and the Château de Bioul.
Finally, a huge thank you to everyone who participated in the success of this beautiful evening : Catherine Ancelot-Savignac (who also prepared a wonderful buffet!), Prune Meunier, Ode Coyac, Alexandra Schneider, Clara Laurent, Victory Dauviau ; as well as Amandine Fabre, Ludovic Pollet and Stephane Diné from the WINE Explorers’ team.
 

(1) Complete list of the 35 wines presented on June 13 for the Grand Annual Tasting :
1 – Indonesia (Bali) : “Aga White 2016“, from Hatten Wines – Bali
2 – Belgium (Côtes de Sambre et Meuse) : “Mossiat 2014“, from Château de Bioul
3 – Sweden (Skåne) : “Solaris 2014“, from Hällåkra Vingård
4 – Belgium (Heuvelland) : “Pinot 2015“, from Entre Deux Monts
5 – Switzerland (Mont-sur-Rolle) : “Clos du Couvent 2009“, from Domaine de Maison Blanche
6 – Austria (Wachau) : “Smaragd Singerriedel 2014“, from Domäne Wachau
7 – Czech Republic (Moravia) : “Sonberk Riesling V.O.C. 2013“, from SONBERK
8 – Australia (Eden Valley) : “Heggies Vineyard Riesling 2005“, from Heggies Vineyard (Yalumba)
9 – Germany (Rheingau) : “Riesling Alte Reben QBA trocken 2005“, from SCHLOSS VOLLRADS
10 – Australia (Tasmania) : “Freycinet Riesling 2003“, from Freycinet Vineyard
11 – Hungary (Tokaj) : “Furmint Sparkling Wine 2011“, from Gróf Degenfeld
12 – England (Kent) : “Blanc de Blancs 2010“, from Gusbourne
13 – Brazil (Serra Gaucha) : “Terroir Nature – cuvée SAFRA 2009“, from Cave Geisse
14 – Belgium (Wallonie) : “Cuvée Franco Dragone Prestige 2011“, from Ruffus
15 – Germany (Rheingau) : “Riesling Sekt Extra Brut 2003“, from SCHLOSS VOLLRADS
16 – Indonesia (Bali) : “Moscato d’Bali 2015“, from Sababay Winery
17 – Australia (Barossa) : “Sparkling Black Shiraz NV“, from Rockford Wines
18 – Hungary (Tokaj) : “Kabar 2013“, from Chateau Dereszla
19 – Hungary (Tokaj) : “Tokaj Szamorodni Sec 2007“, from Samuel Tinon
20 – Hungary (Tokaj) : “Tokaji Aszú 6 Puttonyos 2008“, from Gróf Degenfeld
21 – Hungary (Tokaj) : “Muskotály Réserve 2003“, from Vinotéka Dereszla
22 – Denmark : “Utopia Rondo 2006“, from Kelleris Vin
23 – Austria (Burgenland) : “Alte Reben 2011“, from Weingut Heinrich
24 – Hungary (Sopron) : “Kékfrankos 2013“, from Etyeki Kúria Winery
25 – Austria (Burgenland) : “St. Laurent Schafleiten 2013“, from Judith Beck
26 – Slovakia : “Cuvée 2012 (Hron/Váh/Rimava/Rudava)“, from Víno Mrva & Stanko
27 – Brazil (Serra Gaucha) : “Quorum 2006“, from Lidio Carraro
28 – New Zealand (Waiheke Island) : “Bordeaux Blend 1999“, from Te Motu
29 : Australia (Tasmania) : “Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot 2000“, from Freycinet Winery
30 – Slovakia : “Pinot Noir 2013“, from Víno Tajna
31 – Hungary (Etyek-Buda) : “Pinot Noir 2013“, from Etyeki Kuria Winery
32 – Australia (Barossa) : “Tricentenary Grenache 2008“, from Yalumba
33 – New Zealand (Hawke’s Bay) : “Jewelstone Syrah 2013“, from Mission Estate Winery
34 – Australia (Heathcote) : “Dreams…2012“, from Syrahmi Estate (Adam Foster)
35 – Australia (Barossa) : “Basket Press Shiraz 2011“, from Rockford Wines 

(2) The so-called classic way (though not the oldest) to produce sparkling wine is popularly known as the Champagne method or méthode classique which is the official EU designation. The wine is fermented once in the barrel and then undergoes a second fermentation in the bottle.

Impossible is not a Swedish concept!

Welcoming and friendly people, varied and spectacular landscapes,  generous and sensual cuisine ; how is it possible not to fall in love with Sweden? Personally, we succumbed…

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It is via the Øresund Bridge(1) that we left Denmark, heading to the south of Sweden, where a handful of die-hard winemakers were waiting for us. An enchanting journey in a country with a climate as Nordic as austere, where direct wine sales at the estate is not permitted, where it was forbidden to produce (commercially) until 2000, yet offering (a few) wines like no other.

Hällåkra Vingård, a little paradise

“Maybe we will be able to harvest early November ; if the strong cold spare us this year… of course”. It was with these words that Håkan and Lotta Hansson, owners of the Hällåkra Vingard’s estate welcomed us. A little piece of paradise, home to 6.5 hectares of vines, planted in 2003 on beautiful south-facing slopes.

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We were in the village of Anderslöv, in the south of the country. Håkan grew up here. It is the house of his childhood. “I remember little.  Fetching water from the well. We didn’t have electricity either. Life was good, simple”. After becoming a redoubtable businessman – first as a banker in Stockholm, then as a member of the Swedish government attached to the Ministry of Industry – the midlife crisis of 50-years finally overcame its bureaucratic side. “At the time, I didn’t think for a moment about all the work involved in producing the bottles of wine that I was drinking. Today, it makes me a philosopher”. Adding : “when you have a top job in Sweden, wine is one of the things to know to shine socially, as well as playing golf or hunting”.

It makes him smile now. He received us in shorts, hair in the wind, smiling from ear to ear.

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This return to the earth is a success. And thanks to his sensitivity, and with the expertise of Peter Bo Jorgensen, his winemaker, Håkan produces lovely wines and is constantly creating. Like with his new amphora wine project. A delight.

Some Swedish wines to discover :
Solaris 2013, from Hällåkra Vingård (100% Solaris)
Blanc de Blancs Brut 2010 (20% Pinot Auxerrois, 20% Chardonnay, 30% Orillon, 30% Seyval Blanc) from Köpingsberg Vingård
Per Ols Röa 2013 (80% Rondo, 20% Cabernet Cortis) from Ekesåkra Vingård
Rondo 2014 from Hällåkra Vingård (100% Rondo)

Products from the forest & Swedish cuisine

But why would one want to make wine in Sweden? Icy winds, early snow, late frosts, long winters and short days… it is hard to find more extreme circumstances. “Swedish wines have managed to create a new identity in terms of “taste”, with a higher acidity and low alcohol degree. The profile is atypical : fresh and very tense, accommodating marvelously the local cuisine!”, Karl Sjöström, the sommelier at Hällåkra Vingard explained.

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Because traditional Swedish cuisine is a clever combination between seafood (its fleshy salmon is a must!) and those of the forest.

To prove it, Lotta Hansson, a genuine hostess – who leads the kitchen with a master hand – took us for a picking in the forest, in order to compose the menu that would be served for lunch… An ancient practice, and a great inspiration to many restaurants. Here as well, Noma(2) makes its market.

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Upon our cheerful return to the estate, basket filled with herbs, plants and all kinds of wild fruit, one more appetizing than the other, it was time for cooking! At noon, Lotta would serve a monkfish fillet with a cranberry white butter, accompanied by mashed potatoes and a homemade chutney. Memorable.

The Systembolaget, the monopoly on wine sales in Sweden

Forget about independent wine shops in Sweden… The retail of wine – and more generally that of alcoholic beverages of more than 3.5 degrees –  is under the exclusive management of the Systembolaget, the state monopoly. Why such control? To curb alcohol consumption(3) (in theory). The rules are strict and not always understood : sale to persons under the age of 20 is prohibited, as is promotional offers and bottles are only sold individually.

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All these constraints – including high taxes on wine – lead many Swedes to buy their wine via the “thirsty drive”, to Germany for the southerners, and to Estonia for those in the east.
Even worse for the few Swedish winemakers is that they are unable to sell their wine directly from the estate… unless they have a restaurant (in which case wine can be sold by the glass). Damn frustrating for the tourists.

“It is very difficult to sell to the final customer”, Claes Olsson and Thorsten Persson, the owners of Ekesåkra Vingard winery told us. After having proved the veracity of their vineyard project to the government (creating a business plan over 6 years!), they now have the right to sell their production to three stores in the south.

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“If I had to start it again, I will never do it”, Claes, a former commercial director for a large US firm, who simply wanted above all to reconnect with his farmer family roots, likes to say.
There are however two positive points regarding the Systembolaget that deserve to be highlighted : the diversity in the supply of wine is superb, and the quality of information available to the consumer, impeccable.

The limits of northern viticulture

“If some have managed to make wine in Denmark, we can succeed in Sweden”, Gabriel, the owner of the (former) Gabriels Vingård estate, used to dream. As builder of green homes, he began this venture in 2007 with 2,000 vines planted in his garden (only white); with a few viticulture and wine books purchased online, as only technical support.

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Located in Yngsjö, south (60km north from the other wineries visited), Gabriels Vingård faces a major problem: it is at the gateway to the Baltic Sea. Result : strong winds throughout the year and late frosts almost every summer (sometimes until June 6!).

During six seasons, with a large dose of perseverance and courage, Gabriel planted, replanted and replanted again the majority of the plants, uprooted or destroyed by the ruthless weather, without ever having been able to do one complete harvest… Just half a harvest in 2011, the birds having spared the remaining grapes. Each year, he said to his wife: “Again. I try again next year. I’ll get there”.

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Until his pragmatism prevailed. He realized that the climate here will never allow him to make wine. “Sometimes you have to resign yourself and stop”, he told us not without some emotion in his voice. A humbling and a rare moment of sharing, savored around delicious tacos cooked by Gabriel. We were kindly invited to join his family for dinner.

Our Swedish trip ended on a sparkling note with Carl-Otto, the owner of Köpingsberg Vingård estate, the only exclusive producer of sparkling wines. A future solution for the production of Swedish wine according to him.

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Because as he rightly summarizes: “the only way to become a winemaker in Sweden one day, is to be above all a dreamer first!”.
To meditate…

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

 

Thank you to Hällåkra Vingård, Gabriels Vingård, Ekesåkra Vingård and Köpingsberg for their warm welcome. And thank you to Christofer Johansson, Torbjörn Rundqvist and Per Fritzell for their warm invitation to the north of the country to taste ice ciders : we hope to honor it next time we visit Sweden.
 

(1) The Øresund Bridge, 7.8 km long, connects the cities of Malmö in Sweden and Copenhagen in Denmark, for a crossing price of 36€. This bridge is on two levels: on top is the E20 motorway, and on the bottom the railway line.
(2) Noma, two Michelin stars, is a restaurant located in Copenhagen, Denmark. It was ranked “best restaurant in the world” by Restaurant magazine in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2014.
(3) It was in the nineteenth century in Stockholm that Magnus Huss (Swedish doctor) introduced the concept of alcoholism as a disease.

Denmark, a newcomer on the European benches

I am lacking the words to describe the beauty of Denmark.
Upon our arrival, we were moved by its brightly colored landscapes. Its virgin aspect, wild and unspoilt. Its unequaled blue sky.

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Starting in the South, from the Dutch border, we were eager to discover the Danish vineyards, the young student on the European benches.
Because even though the Danish Vineyards Association (1) was created in 1993, it was not until 2000 that Denmark was  (finally) allowed by the EU to produce wine commercially (2).
Today there are a hundred producers. Most wineries are less than 2 hectares in size, producing in difficult conditions. To make a living from this passion remains quite a challenge. The guided tour follows.

Skaersoegaard, a lush green velvet

Nearby Kolding – on Jutland island, West – our journey started with Skaersoegaard estate. Being the second “biggest” Danish winery with 5.5 hectares, Skaersoegaard is a beautiful place to visit urgently.

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Paddle in hand, we were invited to visit the property by boat. Sven Moesgaard, the owner – and one of the pioneers to have planted vines in Denmark – fell in love with this place, largely due to the lake. “Without this body of water, I would never have planted vines; it provides the necessary protection against frost”.

A family of swans were watching us from a certain distance, hidden in the reeds. These are the employees of the winery, Sven laughingly explained : they maintain the vines by eating weeds and feed the soil with their droppings. Effective and free labor!

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The vineyard tour over, it was time for fishing on the lake for Ludo and for a nap in the shade of a tree for me. We were happily awaiting the evening BBQ at the water’s edge, in which a thousand pinecones would flame and crackle, to our greatest delight.

Not easy to be winemaker in Denmark

However, why plant vines in Denmark, where the climatic conditions are cold and the period of sunshine very short? “By challenge! “, Sven, who was an engineer in the pharmaceutical industry, before becoming a winemaker, said. “People have always thought it was impossible to plant vines and to make wine in Denmark…and I hate what is impossible”.

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As a result, you can find on Skaersoegaard estate – as elsewhere in Denmark – exclusively interspecific varieties (like Solaris, Rondo, Orion, Regent, Ortega, Cabernet Cortis, etc.), which have the advantage of being more resistant to vine diseases (powdery mildew, downy mildew), often with earlier maturities. And it works pretty well. Fortunately. Because vine treatments are banned by the Danish government (only three soft sprays are allowed) and the challenge of maintaining the vines in good condition is huge.

In addition to this, draconian hygienic standards are imposed by the government.

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Danish growers are not only forced to wear a full protective suit and overshoes to access their cellar, but also to have a “white” room, isolated from the rest of the buildings, washable from the floor to the ceiling, for cleaning technical equipment. What a surprise the first time we saw it… It’s (almost) like a hospital room. And attention to regular controls! “If these standards were applied to older wine countries, the majority of wineries in the world would have to close their doors”, Sven laughingly added.
To boot the government doesn’t provide any funding for this new business, which is for now judged as unprofitable. “No matter, the wine is primarily a story of passion”.

A night on Samsø island

Having left Skaersoegaard estate in the afternoon, we had to rally Rёsnes peninsula, East (on Sealand), where we were expected for our second visit. And it seemed that on this day the GPS of the Wine Explorers’ Truck  decided to play some tricks on us.

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Forgetting that the “shortest route” selection had been checked in the GPS, we naively followed it. After barely 20km, we were already facing the sea, in front of a ferry terminal. Amused by the idea of a boat crossing, we quickly forgave our guide.

A first stop halfway forced us to land on Samsø, an island of 100 square km and 3,700 inhabitants – and 100% energy independent and renewable (3). The place is bucolic. The inhabitants live in tune with the rhythm of the sea and the seasons. Everything is so quiet that no ferry will sail in the evening. We decided to spend the night on the island and to leave the next morning at dawn.

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We had the perfect excuse to stay a little longer.  The scenery immediately gave us the feeling of having arrived at the end of the world. We savored the moment with relish. This night, the undertow of the waves would be our lullaby.
Would we continue our journey the next day?…

Dyrehøj Vingaard, the vineyard on the peninsula

Freshly disembarked from the ferry and not yet fully recovered from our emotions, we headed towards Dyrehøj Vingaard, the largest Danish winery. A 8-hectares vineyard literally plunging into the sea. Denmark is definitely full of landscapes one more picturesque than the other.

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We met with Betina and Tom Newberry, brother-sister-farmers, who specialized in the breeding of pigs for a long time. A few years ago, they left everything behind to embark on a wine adventure, focusing on a strategy around oenotourism. The Rёsnes peninsula remains a must in terms of Danish tourism.
And fortunately, the place has a wonderful microclimate for making wine : the sunlight off the water is so particular that its brightness is reflected on the vine with a mirror effect, helping the grapes to mature.

Some Danish wines to discover:
DON’s Cuvée Brut 2013, from Skaersoegaard (60% Solaris, 40% Orion)
RÖS Muscaris 2014, from Dyrehøj (90% Muscaris, 10% Solaris)
Utopia Rondo 2006, from Kelleris Vingård (100% Rondo, aged 9 months in new Hungarian oak)
Utopia Cougar Rondo 2009, from Kelleris Vingård (100% Rondo, aged 22 months in new French casks)
Hedvin 2010, from Skaersoegaard (blend of Rondo, Régent, Léon Millot and Cabernet Cortis), a fortified wine (4) with notes of cooked black fruit.

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Kelleris Vingård, the most bordelais of Danish vineyards

After a (fresh!) morning swim in the Øresund strait, facing Sweden, we took the direction of Kelleris Vingård, two kilometers away from the sea, where the owners, Susanne and Søren Hartvig Jensen, a lovely couple, were going to host us.
Søren is a winegrower like no other. He was told repeatedly that Denmark is not a country suited for producing red wine!

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However…With a lot of courage and a touch of craziness, he bet on a production mainly focused on the blue Rondo variety. “I’m not a little crazy, but completely crazy for wanting to specialize in red wines! As consumers like red wines with a long barrel aging, the challenge to make such wine was fun!”.

An unconditional fan of Bordeaux, Søren even added two round towers to his home, to give his estate a castle-like touch – and built a vaulted cellar in order to store his barrels.
He also planted a few plants of Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay and Pinot Noir on an experimental basis and confessed with a smile that in 10 years, none of them have ever reached maturity. A great illustration of how the Danish climate is complex! “Let us not forget that only 12,000 years ago, there were still 3,000 meters of ice in Denmark”.

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We ended the trip with a meeting with Søren’s friend Jean Becker, former president of the Danish Vineyards Association. He explained that mutual aid between wineries is still difficult in the country, probably due to a lack of knowledge and feedback regarding viticulture at the moment.

Denmark remains to this day a newborn throughout the history of wine, with the future ahead.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

Thank you to Skaersoegaard, Dyrehøj Vingaard and Kelleris Vingård for their warm welcome. And thank you to the French Embassy in Denmark and especially to Raphael Caron, for having advised and guided us in our research. Finally, thank you to Jean Becker for having accepted an interview for the Wine Explorers’ project.

(1) Danish Vineyards Association (DVA)
(2) Along with Sweden and England
(3) For more information about Samsø : http://www.euractiv.fr/sections/energie/samso-lile-100-renouvelable-et-energetiquement-independante-312971
(4) A fortified wine is a wine whose alcohol content is increased and the fermentation stopped by adding alcohol in order to retain residual sugars.

The Netherlands, a thousand years of viticulture

Barely out of Belgium, we headed towards the Netherlands for the continuation of our European tour. Until then, I only knew this country for its delicious cheeses – such as Gouda, Edam and Maasdam – but I had never heard of Dutch wine !

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Yet, the country has 176 winegrowers for 250 hectares of vines. A micro-production full of surprises which reveals some very nice wines.

And why not us?!

Although Dutch wine history dates back to the year 968 (the region was then at the heart of the Franc Empire), modern viticulture only appeared in the early 1970’s. At that time, experiments were done in Belgium, just on the other side of the border. “Why not us?!” the Dutch then asked. It also seems that Al Gore’s speech on global warming issued in 1992, finally convinced skeptics to embrace the adventure…

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However, making wine in Holland remains a big challenge since a third of the country is situated below sea level. To gain a better understanding, we decided to start with Neimburg, in the south of the country, which with 85 hectares of vineyards, is the largest wine region of the Netherlands.

Domein Wijngaarsberg, pragmatism above all

It is sometimes said that the Dutch have a cold character. This is not true. However, they are very pragmatic.  We met with Jules Nijst, the winemaker and owner of Domein Wijngaarsberg. After working for large groups such as Phillips and Vodafone he decided to leave everything behind to be closer to nature.

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In 2006, Jules had the opportunity to buy a vineyard planted four years earlier by a couple of neighbouring farmers ; as they couldn’t manage the vineyard in addition to their dairy operations.

Curious, I asked Jules what motivated him to endorse the winemaker cap. « I didn’t choose this profession for the money but for the joy of creating something ». He added humorously : « The only way to be rich when starting a winery, is to start very rich ». One needs passion, a touch of positive craziness… and a lot of pragmatism !

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On this particular day, his son and some friends from high school came to lend a hand. Why ? To remove half of the clusters in the vineyard ! A daunting task on the 3 hectares planted with Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but worth it : this action reduces the risk of botrytis by 80%, and improves the concentration of the remaining grapes.

For Jules, the most enjoyable part of being a winemaker is to find the right balance between free entreprise on the one side and obligations to the nature on the other. « Man directs the vine in winter; the vine directs man in summer »…

A picnic in the vineyard ?

Next stop Erichem village, in the heart of the Netherlands, where we have an appointment with Diederik Beker, the owner and winemaker of Betuws Wijndomein. Always fascinated by nature, he explained to us how he was able to combine both the development of wine tourism and biodiversity conservation in his vineyard.

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Because with 6 hectares of vines, Betuws Wijndomein is part of the “big” estates of the country and attracts many tourists.

But then, it is not always easy having your production known (or recognized) being an emerging wine country. Diedrich’s strategy is simple : highlighting nature while offering tourists the opportunity to stop and contemplate it – like with picnics in the vineyard. « I don’t want to compete with French, Italian and New Zealand wines, Dutch wines are too expensive due to their low production. So we need other ways to attract people ; like wine tourism ».

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Some Dutch wines to discover :
Chardonnay 2012, from Domein de Wijngaardsberg
Müller Thurgau 2013, from Wijngoed Fromberg
Linge Wit 2014, from Betuws Wijndomein (100% Johanniter)
Pinot Noir 2012, from Domein de Wijngaardsberg
Pinot Noir 2013, from Wijngoed Fromberg

Wijngoed Fromberg, a promising wine estate

The alert was raised in late August 2013 : a new invasive species was attacking the early ripening red varieties ! This Asian insect, the suzukii fly’s (1) particularity is to spawn in fleshy fruits (cherries, grapes…) on which the larva feeds, causing substantial production losses.

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And for now there is no treatment, we were told at Wijngoed Fromberg. Last year, a third of the harvest on this magnificent 3-hectare vineyard was lost. To watch closely this year…

On the wine side, the estate is very interesting.  Carmen and her husband Marcel are the current owners. The vineyard, which was planted in 1991 by Carmen’s father, is situated on very poor limestone soils.

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Respecting nature, perches for eagles are installed on every corner of the field. Why ? “This is the best protection to scare the birds that come to attack the vineyards in summer.”
And when asking Marcel about his greatest satisfaction as a winemaker, please don’t talk to him about medals! “I don’t like medals nor trophies or contests. My best satisfaction is when I’m out of stock !”.

Upon our departure, we came face to face with a beautiful antique windmill, restored by a passionate individual. While we were in contemplation, the owner of the place invited us to climb and visit it.

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We learned to unfold the sails and playing with the wind took us back to childhood…

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Domein de Wijngaarsberg, Wijngoed Fromberg and Betuws Wijndomein for their warm welcome. And thank you to Gerda Beziade, Xavier Kat and Lars Daniëls, for their advise and guidance  in our research of Dutch wineries.

(1) The “suzukii fly”, also known as Drosophila suzukii, Asian gnat or spotted wing drosophila, is a Diptera insect species of the Drosophilidae family. This invasive species has also appeared fairly recently in northern and eastern France (Paris basin, Picardie, Lorraine, Alsace), where it caused significant damage, especially in the strawberry fields. It is also widely spread throughout Germany and since last year in the Belgian vineyards.