Tag Archives: Best of Wine Tourism

On your bike at Château Marquis de Terme.

Chateau Marquis de Terme walked away with the top award for the Global Gold Best Of Wine Tourism in Bordeaux at the end of 2016. Their original ‘Best Of’ win was for Innovation in Wine Tourism. They have really embraced wine tourism since their renovation with the arrival of director Ludovic David in 2009. They have an open door policy with receptions rooms for groups and different tours including food and wine tastings for wine tourists.

Château Marquis de Terme

Vineyards are pretty adaptable at catering to the interest of the visitors. Subjects include the history of the property, as most Bordeaux vineyards have a long and fascinating story to tell, wine making, barrel ageing and of course the tasting.

The actual vineyards, the fields of vines, don’t always get a look in. In recent years the role of terroir, the responsibility of the winemakers to look after it in an ecologically sound way and the management of this terroir in a plot-by-plot fashion (precision viticulture) is at the heart of wine making. The emphasis is all about growing as perfect a grape as possible and getting it safely to the wine cellar so the wine maker can then work his or her magic on the best possible raw material.

To do so, the matching of the varietal to the soil is all-important. The terroir of the left bank, where Margaux is situated, is usually described as gravel, compared to the clay and limestone soils of the right bank around Saint Emilion for example. But there is so much more to it than this. To understand the variations in the soil that can make all the difference to wine you need to get out there and take a closer look.

Welcome to Marquis de Terme for their unique ampelography tour. This unique tour was the deciding factor for their winning the Best of Wine Tourism award to innovation. Ampelography is the branch of botany specifically about the identification and classification of vines. Château Marquis de Terme is perfectly situated at the heart of the Margaux appellation, a classified growth of 1855 surrounded by other classified growths. The plots belonging to the vineyard are spread throughout the appellation over four different types of soil; gravels of different dimensions and clay, each identified thanks to precise soil analysis. Each type of soil is deemed best suited to one of the four different varietals that make up the blend of the chateau wines.

After all, blending is one of the signatures of Bordeaux. These Bordeaux blends are always mentioned during the tastings but why we blend in Bordeaux rather than creating mono varietal wines is not always made clear. If you really want to understand this, there is no better way than to go into these plots of vineyard and see for yourself.

On your bike!

On your bike then! Reflecting their environmental values, demonstrated by their ecological certification, these tours are conducted by a guide leading you across the vineyards of Margaux on bicycles. It’s a great way to understand the appellation as a whole and not just Chateau Marquis de Terme. Margaux is the largest of the ‘village’ appellations of the Medoc, known for the complexity of its terroir. Up close you will really see how different viticultural techniques are adapted to each plot, from pruning to harvesting dates, aiming to producing the best grapes possible.

Back at the chateau, wine making is explained, a tour of the cellars showing how the characteristics cultivated on each of the plots you visited are preserved through precision wine making and barrel ageing. And after all that pedalling you will have worked up a thirst for the tasting.

The original of this article was posted on the Great Wine Capitals Best of Wine Tourism Blog 

Bib Happy at Château Lestrille.

It’s not uniquely the top vineyards in Bordeaux that are innovating. It could be argued that less well-known properties, where the competition is toughest, need to innovate most of all. Almost fifty per cent of Bordeaux production is in the Bordeaux and Bordeaux Superieur appellations (including Rosé and Clairet), that’s about 4000 vineyards trying to find their place at a very competitive price point.

Clairet and rosé, two Château Lestrille specialties

How can they create a brand identity? How can they differentiate their wines? One solution is to cultivate a direct contact with the client. It increases margins but also allowing them to ‘speak’ to their customers creating that all-important bond, but how to reach them?

Wine fairs, direct mailing, creating appealing branding and packaging, wine tourism, welcoming clients to the estate with tastings, tours, lunches and other events are all great ways (and hard work). Certain properties are really good at some of these, one or two are good at it all. Château Lestrille is a good example. I have mentioned them in previous posts, (yes I do have my favourites) but a recent visit reminded me just how dynamic they are.

Estelle Roumage serves her wine with lunch on the terrace ofChâteau Lestrile

Château Lestrille is in the centre of the village of Saint Germain du Puch, in the Entre deux Mers, about half way between Bordeaux and Saint Emilion. The location is not without its difficulties; the vinification and ageing cellars are on opposite sides of the road – a bit of a logistical headache at certain times of the year. Unlike Classified growths Leoville Poyferre and Leoville La Cases in Saint Julien, who have a tunnel under the road to solve a similar problem, Lestrille has to rely on forklifts.

But they have turned this location on a busy road to their advantage, by opening a shop in 2010. They are pioneers; wining a Best of Wine Tourism as early as 2013 for their innovative approach. Along side the bottled wines, local food specialities and other wine gifts and gadgets they have now introduced their latest packaging: a BIB (Bag in a Box) and they have embraced the concept with a surprisingly Anglo-Saxon sense of humour.

The busy shop at Chateau Lestrille

Estelle Roumage may be French, the third generation wine maker in her family, but something must have rubbed off on her during her time studying in the UK or perhaps when she was wine making in New Zealand.

With names such as BIP-BOP A LULA for the Bordeaux Blanc, BIB BIB BIB HOURRA for the Rosé, BIB OR NOT TO BIB for the Bordeaux red and BIB HAPPY for the Bordeaux Superieur – you know these are party wines that are not taking themselves too seriously. They are made with the same care as the bottled wines and are deliciously easy drinking. Even more so when they are just 17€ for 3 litres (20€ for the Bordeaux Sup).

BIBs with a sense of humour.

They regularly welcome people to the vineyard for tours, tastings, lunches and other events but Estelle wants to get closer still to her clients. Her next project is a shop and wine bar in down town Bordeaux ‘Un Château en Ville’. It will open at the end of November 2017 at 25, Rue St James. As far as I’m aware, this will be the first shop and wine bar opened by a vineyard in the city. If there are any more I haven’t discovered them yet, please let me know. I’m not counting the Grand Maison of Bernard Magrez of course – that’s a whole different approach (Lestrille wines are on the menu there though).

The soon to open Lestrille wine bar and shop in Bordeaux.

While you’re waiting for opening night, if you do visit the vineyard, go at the weekend. They have regular tapas nights in the cellar and garden (the next one is planned for 30th June if you’re nearby), tastings and lunches; including wine maker evenings featuring other vineyards from both Bordeaux and further afield.

Bordeaux closed doors? Not here!






Chateau Feely – sustainable wine tourism

Chateau Feely’s award of the Gold Best of Wine Tourism for accommodation is a victory for the small guys. Many of the winners of these awards are the grand and prestigious Châteaux of Bordeaux, their awards are well deserved for the excellence of their service and prestigious offerings, but Chateau Feely is different.

Wine tourism is at its heart, hand in hand with their passionate and more serious message of eco-responsibility. The property is also in the Dordogne, to the east of the vineyards of Saint Emilion, in the lesser known Saussignac region of Bergerac. It’s worth a trip this beautiful area that benefits from similar soils to Saint Emilion and is perched on the rolling hillsides above the Dordogne River.

The vines at Château Feely

The vines at Château Feely

The Château is a one-stop shop for all things wine tourism: tasting, teaching, staying, touring – you name it these people pull out all the stops to share their passion. ‘They’ are Sean and Caro, a very international couple. Caro is of Irish origin, her grandmother was French descended from one of the 14 merchant families of Galway who left France in the 1300s to import wine. Sean’s grandfather was a wine maker in the Cape where they met through a shared passion for wine. They left The Cape for Ireland and on a holiday to France fell in love with the vineyards of Bergerac – easy to do. They hatched a plan to move there and after five years of saving they left their jobs in IT and finance to rescue Chateau Freely from liquidation in 2005.

Sean and Caro Feely

Sean and Caro Feely

Their objective was to bring back this historic vineyard, with cellars dating from 1737 and some walls dating as far back as 700 AD, to a healthy working vineyard.

Mission accomplished; through a lot of investment in time, money and effort Chateau Feely is now an organic and biodynamic vineyard. Determined to make a difference they have farmed organically from the get go, as of the vintage 2009 their wines are certified organic and certified biodynamic since 2011. They have succeeded in bringing a dream to reality.

The vineyard is farmed organically but eco sensitivity is integrated into all the activities on site, including the sustainable accommodation. The organic theme runs right through the property.

They have been welcoming guests to the property since 2007 and now have two self-catering options on the vineyard, each housing 4 guests: The Cottage and the Wine Lodge, a rather new world feeling right there in the name.

What does sustainable accommodation mean for them? Both are ecologically constructed using organic paint, natural wood fibre insulation (with poplar panelling on the ceilings). The Wine Cottage’s thick stonewalls date back to the 1700’s – that’s traditional insulation!

Rainwater is captured from the roofs to use on the gardens and farm, electricity is economised by naturally drying linen and towels on a line, and there’s a heat pump for water and the low energy under-floor heating. The eco-friendly design includes overhanging roofs in the wine lodge and tasting room for natural temperature management, light wells in the corridors to avoid using lights during the day with sensors on lights. Solar panels are planned for the barn roof – it’s an on going process.

There’s no doubt you are close to nature here and the stunning views across the organic vineyards from the terrace is a guarantee that there are no pesticides, herbicides or systemic fungicides in the air. Guests are invited to contribute to the movement with ecological cleaning products provided, recycling compartments and instructions on how to contribute fruit & veg waste to the compost heap.

What goes around comes around, if you stay for a picnic or for lunch in the tasting room, you will taste organic, local products including veggies grown in and amongst the vines. Or you could just stroll into the herb garden or the orchard and help yourself.

Organic eggs for breakfast? Chickens in the vegetable garden of the Château

Organic eggs for breakfast? Chickens in the vegetable garden of the Château

But ecological doesn’t have to be rustic – no hair shirts and sandals here! It’s luxurious, with a 12m saltwater pool, allergy free cushions and organic duvets, pillows and sheets, wireless speakers, wifi and fully equipped kitchens.

One of the guest bedrooms at Château Feely

One of the guest bedrooms at Château Feely

Caro is a passionate advocate for eco friendly living and shares this passion with guests through education and writing. Guests staying in the gite were always asking for help understanding what is going on in the vineyards so she started giving classes on French wine and it grew from there. Now as a Certified WSET provider, she runs certification courses on the estate, wine tours, vineyard walks including offering free visits to school and college groups explaining how organic works and it’s importance. The walking tours they offer are particularly popular as in Saussignac 60% of the growers are organic.

There is also wine and food pairing lunches, wine tours to neighbouring vineyards and even photography, painting and cooking classes – did they forget anything?

What does the future hold? Unsurprisingly they have plans including offering an ecological setting for seminars and team meetings, particularly apt for companies with an eco agenda and green focus. Wine and food pairing is also on the agenda using food from Feely farm in partnership with a local chef.

If you can’t make it to Chateau Feely yourself Caro also shares her passion for living lightly on the earth through her writing. Her books ‘Grape Expectations’ and ‘Saving our Skins’ recount their adventures in wine land and the third book in the series ‘Glass Half Full’ has just been published.

The original of this post is on the Great Wine Capitals Blog.






Innovation at Chateau de Reignac

Yves and Stephanie Vatelot have been innovating at Chateau de Reignac since they purchased property in 1990, so it came as no surprise that the Chateau was awarded the best of Wine Tourism award for Innovation for 2016. As an engineer and entrepreneur, innovation is in Yves Vatelot’s DNA, he made his fortune with the ‘epilady’ that some of our readers may know well.

There is a clear hierarchy to the wines of Bordeaux, thanks to the famous classifications from the 1800s and early 1900s established Bordeaux’s reputation but there is also a hierarchy within the 62 different appellations that make up the region.
The Bordeaux appellation is at once the largest and most humble of the appellations of the region and Chateau de Reignac is firmly at its heart. Their red wines are under the Bordeaux Supérieur label, which requires a slightly lower yield and a longer ageing period.

So why Château Reignac? Well as always, it’s all about the place in Bordeaux: the ‘Terroir’. Situated almost at the point of the Entre deux Mers close to the confluence of the Garonne and Dordogne rivers, the highest outcrops of Reignac’s vineyards are strewn with pebbles brought by these rivers over millions of years. This deep quaternary gravel similar to that found in the Medoc and Graves, is key in Bordeaux’s cool Atlantic climate. The warmth reflecting off the gravel helps the grapes, especially the Cabernet Sauvignon, to reach perfect and consistent ripeness. Other plots of the vineyard are dominated by the Limestone and Clay soils associated with the top vineyards of Saint Emilion where Merlot and Cabernet Franc flourish on these cooler soils. So the potential was here, the range of terroir that shows the range of soils that Bordeaux does best.
Investing in such a region for an innovator offered a myriad of possibilities but also challenges, the Vatelots rose to this challenge with gusto, and it has paid off.
The property now produces 4 wines, the Grand Vin de Chateau de Reignac, the second wine Chateau de Reignac their top cuvée Balthus, produced from a small parcel of Old Merlot, and more recently a dry white.

Choosing Michel Rolland as a consultant was a daring move but they applied his ideas and the resulting Grand Vin de Reignac regularly shines at blind tastings outclassing wines that are sometimes 10 times the price. He seems proud of his tag line Grand Cru Non Classé.

These were the heady days when the garage wine movement in Bordeaux was all about the innovation in the cellar: low yields, severe selection of berries, cold maceration, integral fermentation, techniques that are now well integrated into, if perhaps toned down, to Bordeaux winemaking thanks to innovators like Michel Roland and de Reignac, amongst others, who dared to be different.
Today innovation is all about what’s happening out in the vines and de Reignac is right there, using the latest agronomical and pedological studies and techniques. Biodiversity is a buzzword in viticulture and the layout of the 150 ha of the property contributes to this, just 70 are under vine, the remainder being forest and a lake large enough for an enthusiastic client to land his seaplane on during a recent visit. If you need any reassurance that they take their eco credentials seriously – check out the sustainable pencil used for tasting notes, plant it and seeds embedding in the tip will flower for you!

Next to the Chateau is the beautiful greenhouse, built by Gustave Eiffel, and the new aroma garden where 200 plants, sharing the typical aromas of red and white wines, have been planted. After a visit to the winery and the barrel cellar, a tour of this garden allows guests to get their sense of smell well honed before the tasting. This brings to life, in a very relaxed way, the part of wine tasting that many find the most challenging.

Reignac greenhouse

The Greenhouse at Chateau de Reignac

The garden has been such a success that many guests stay here for a picnic lunch under the trees with a picnic basket prepared by the property accompanied by their wines, of course and it was this garden that clinched the 2016 Best of Wine Tourism prize for ‘Innovation et discovery »

Lunch in the garden?

Lunch in the garden?

I first visited de Reignac just after the launch of Balthus in 2002. Named after their youngest son, it had been crowned the most expensive Bordeaux Supérieur on the market and was enjoying great success in the US. I was with a group from the American wine trade, keen to learn more about this phenomenon and we were not disappointed. The tasting room is in the 16th century pigeon tower, renovated in 1998 it includes a circular tasting table built around a dramatic pulley system that lowers the bottles selected for blind tasting from an upstairs room, already innovative in it’s approach to welcoming visitors.

Inside the Tasting Tower

Inside the Tasting Tower

The proximity to the water was the inspiration behind a new experience. “The Secrets of a Wine in a Day” starts in Bordeaux where a minibus takes guests to visit local barrel maker Boutes, then, after a full visit of Chateau de Reignac including the aroma garden and a tasting they enjoy a lunch in the gardens before returning back to Bordeaux by cruising up the Garonne river. This new experience is available for small groups from May until October.

Chateau de Reignac continues on its path of innovation in wine making, grape growing communication and tourism. In one single property they dispel several myths that surround Bordeaux: they offer excellent wines at affordable prices with a warm and innovative welcome in 5 languages. If you can’t get to visit the property to experience it for yourself, you can join them via social media, but I recommend you try – seaplane trip anyone?

The Best of Chateau Carbonnieux

My very first visit to Bordeaux, in the early eighties, was to the Graves, more precisely to Pessac Léognan to the North of the appellation.

I was visiting from Paris for research for my thesis on Bordeaux wine marketing. The owner of Chateau Carbonnieux, Antony Perrin, along with Jean-Jacques de Bethmann of Chateau Olivier and Bernard Thomassin of Chateau de France each took the time to explain in detail, to a foreign student, the workings of the system of the Bordeaux market place ‘La Place de Bordeaux’.

Sadly, none of these gentlemen are still with us today but their wines are and their legacy continues with their children continuing to make great wines, with a nod to the past and excitement about the future.

Under the stewardship of Antony’s sons, Philibert and Eric, Chateau Carbonnieux has just won the coveted Best of Bordeaux Wine Tourism award for Architecture and Gardens.

Chateau Carobonnieux: a family home and an historic site.

Chateau Carobonnieux: an historical monument and a  family home.

It was here, in the 17th century, that we saw the emergence of the new French Claret, Bordeaux wine as we know it today, and it was here in 1987 that the appellation Pessac Léognan was created in the historical heart of the Northern region of the Graves appellation.
Château Carbonnieux is one of the oldest of these estates, founded in the 13th century by Benedictine monks. In 1776, the white wines of the “Benedictines de Carbonnieux” were considered to be the top white wine of Bordeaux (with neighbouring Haut Brion being the top red). The bottle became instantly recognisable by its scallop shell motive, the symbol of pilgrims on their way to Saint Jacques de Compostella.
Despite it’s religious background, the white wine made it into the Muslim world when a French member of the Ottomans harem became his Sultana and imported the white wine as «the mineral water of Carbonnieux» into Constantinople, flaunting the religious laws thanks to it’s crystal clear appearance. This reputation reached the ears of Thomas Jefferson, who visited the estate on one of his tasting trips to Bordeaux.

The chateau is both an historical monument and a family home. The Perrin family purchased Carbonnieux in a sorry state after the tragic frost of 1956, already having already established their reputation as wine makers in Algeria. They continue to honour this rich history but are resolutely turned to the future.

The white wine cellar at Chateau Carbonnieux

The white wine cellar at Chateau Carbonnieux

Anthony has restored both the Château and the reputation of its wines. Château Carbonnieux became a Cru Class for both the red and the white in the 1953 classification of the Graves and this was reconfirmed in 1959, an honour only bestowed on six properties in Pessac Leognan.

Today, the Carbonnieux estate covers 170 hectares of land farmed in an environment-friendly “sustainable agriculture”, banning the use of chemicals and respecting biodiversity.

Close to the city of Bordeaux, perched on top of one of the gravel outcrops of Léognan, Carbonnieux welcomes visitors throughout the year to share the history, discover the vineyards and the beautifully restored cellars, which include a unique collection of French historical cars, another family passion.

Vintage cars and vintage wines

Vintage cars and vintage wines

The fortified chateau with its four towers is built around a central courtyard where receptions rooms welcome groups for visits and tastings that show the marriage of tradition and technology that maintains Chateau Carbonnieux wines at the top of their game. The Perrins do not work in splendid isolation, they also work closely with their neighbours such as Chateau Haut Bailly with whom they create ‘Bicolore’ Red and White open days and picnics in the grounds. This willingness to share their heritage was confirmed when they were awarded the Best Of Wine Tourism award in 2015 as regional winner in the Architecture and Landscape Category. Another feather in their cap.

The original version of this post was published on the Great Wine Capitals Blog 

Back to the future at Chateau Lamothe Bergeron

You’ll know by now, even if you only read this blog occasionally, I’m a big fan of Cru Bourgeois. The history, the concept, the rebirth of a classic and the all important value for money represents for me, what Bordeaux does so well, taking the classics and adapting them to the current market.

Many of the individual chateaux in this ‘classification’, have the same philosophy and Chateau Lamothe Bergeron, a Cru Bourgeois in the Haut Médoc appellation, is firmly in this category.

Chateau Lamothe Bergeron, Cru Bourgeois of Haut Médoc

Chateau Lamothe Bergeron, Cru Bourgeois of Haut Médoc

The vines here go back to the Middle Ages but the chateau became famous thanks to its owner Jacques Bergeron who inherited it from his father in the 1800’s. His innovations in all things agronomic after the French revolution included the creation of a style of grafting that still carries his name. The prestige of his name was such that the next owners added it on to the property in the 19th century.

The vines seen from the observation post on the edge of the park.

The vines seen from the observation post on the edge of the park.

Improvements to the property have continued through various owners including the Bordeaux Negociant house Mestrezat, under whose ownership in the 70s and 80s the vines were replanted and the winery modernised. But it is under the current ownership that the property has come resolutely into the 21st century.

Having sold the Vodka brand Grey Goose, Cognacs H. Mounier and Hardy had some spare cash in their pockets and in 2009 they invested in this classic Medoc property, another example of the cliché that if you want to make a small fortune in the wine business start with a large one…..

Cognac producers know a thing or two about marketing and it’s clear to see here when you visit this beautifully renovated estate. Opened to the public last summer the elegant château, which dates from 1868, has been restored to its former glory, having been more or less abandoned after a fire in the 1950s. It has been cleverly renovated to blend the old with the new included fourguest rooms, a dining room and a conference facility under the eaves.

The dining room at Chateau Lamothe Bergeron

The dining room at Chateau Lamothe Bergeron

The tour is high tech too. The Chateau was awarded the recent ‘Discovery and Innovation’ Best of Wine Tourism award. As you visit the chateau, paintings come to life to tell the history of the Chateau, there’s a wooden cabin/look out post from where you can see the replanting of the vineyard and take in the blend of 58% Merlot grapes, 38% Cabernet Sauvignon, 2% Cabernet Franc and 2% Petit Verdot that make up the 67 hectares, of the vineyard.

The blending light show in the cellars of Chateau Lamothe Bergeron

The blending light show in the cellars of Chateau Lamothe Bergeron

But it’s not all show; serious investment has been made in wine making including appointing Hubert de Bouard, of Château Angelus fame, as their consultant. Visitors are treated to a detailed video explanation of the stages involved in wine making and another more humorous video projected on to the glass panels of the wine cellar of the blending operation showing de Bouard and the director Laurent Mery in action. The visit ends with an underground tasting room, cellar and shop. The difference being the tasting is not limited to just the château’s wine but also an excellent range of the company’s Cognacs.


















Pride and passion in South Africa

After just a few days in South Africa I’m hardly in a position to start drawing definitive conclusions about the wine industry there but several things really marked my recent visit: the pride the people have in their country, their industry and their wines, their desire to establish South African wine on its own quality merits, not as a ‘cheaper new world option’ and the dynamism and attention to detail that seem to link it all together.

We frequently heard: ‘I don’t know why people insist on calling us a new world wine region, we’ve being doing this for over 350 years’. South African wine was reintroduced to the world wine stage in 1994 after decades of isolation from international markets. Abandoning quotas has opened up new land; especially higher, cooler land. That, along with a new generation (not always young!) of highly educated winemakers with international experience that shines through in the quality of the wines.

The other theme that came through was a frustration at being considered a source of cheap wines, they have long been relegated into an ‘affordable’ category. If what I tasted was anything to go by, now is the time to sit up and take notice of these wines that hit well above their price point.

South Africa offers a fabulous range of wines and although the national vineyard is just smaller than Bordeaux, at almost 100 000 ha, the diversity of wines on offer from the different terroirs, topography and varietals is impressive. Everywhere you look there are wonderful views of mountains, the altitude that gives a freshness and elegance to wines. As if to prove the point we had two very chilly days whilst we were there.

You can find red, white, sweet, dry, sparkling, port, sherry and brandy – you name it they make it, unharnessed by European legislation. There is an almost 50:50 split between red and white varietals, Chenin Blanc dominates white planting and the like it loath it Pinotage, still just about dominates the reds.

Perhaps the most spectacular visit was to Delaire Graff, the brainchild of London diamantaire Laurence Graff. His link to South Africa and its diamonds, will come as no surprise but he has taken this one step further by buying the Delaire winery in Stellenbosch; 20 ha of red and white grapes producing a range of wines for all purses including South Africa’s most expensive Cabernet, the Delaire Laurence Graff Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon retailing at around R 20 000 (approx. €US 1 400) per bottle. This is wine tourism at its most luxurious; a spectacular tasting room, 2 top restaurants, a handful of private villas for rent amongst the vines and a world class African art collection. Unsurprisingly, Delaire Graff was voted global winner for Art & Culture in this year’s Best of Wine tourism awards.

The entrance to the cellars at Delaire Graff

The entrance to the cellars at Delaire Graff

Both the winery and hotel are spectacular showcases for the country, its art and wine, as well as the diamonds of course. My first ever visit to a winery with a diamond shop! As the diamond expert said (and yes I did go in for a peek) ‘It’s so nice that people come here for a celebration and can take away a little souvenir’. Usually it’s a bottle but I guess diamonds are a lot easier to get into carry-on! I loved their Méthode Cap Classique (MCC, their Méthode Traditionnel) named Sunrise after the canary diamond. I came away with the bottled version.

The Spectacular view from Dealaire Graff

The Spectacular view from Delaire Graff

Even if you are not that familiar with South African wine you may have heard of Stellenbosch and neighbouring Franschhoek. Franschhoek means French Quarter, which takes its name from some of the first French immigrants. (The Dutch were the first to import vines in the 1650s).

The French influence still continues today, The Glenelly Estate was purchased by May-Eliane de Lencquesaing 13 years ago. The old fruit farm is now a vineyard of 60 ha producing mainly Bordeaux blends (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot) inspired by the wines she brought over from Chateau Pichon Comtesse. The ultra modern cellar juts out from the mountainside and gives winemakers Luke O’Cuinneagain and Jerome Likwa the perfect conditions to aim for the Bordeaux elegance that Mme de Lencquesaing is accustomed to. Gravity feed, picking into crates, French oak barrels. They do a great job from such young vines (an average of 9 years old), the Bordeaux blends are complimented by lovely fresh Syrah. There is also a small (10%) production of elegant Chardonnay.

The tasting line up at Glenelly

The tasting line up at Glenelly

Their wine sales are export driven, which seems to be the theme for the whole of the South Africa as sales to export are increasing year on year and now account for about 60%. The Lady May is aged in 100% new French oak and the Chardonnay is barrel fermented in 500l barrels with no malo, then aged for 10 months with no battonage (lees stirring). The more affordable Glass Collection, named after Madame’s passion for glass, has a subtler oak approach; a very approachable range despite its youth. According to assistant winemaker Jerome, 2015 is their 1st perfect year so things look great for the future.

Familiar French oak barrels at Glenelly

Familiar French oak barrels at Glenelly

Women are not strangers to the South African wine scene. If you can manage to tie her down, Rianie Strydom is a successful example. Jancis Robinson recently named Rianie as one of the worlds leading women wine makers. I was lucky enough to meet her in 2010 in the Napa Valley at the Wine Entre Femmes event bringing together women wine makers from Bordeaux and Napa with a few special guests; including Rianie.

She has been making wines at Haskell since 2005 after American Preston Haskell invested there. Before that, she was already an award winning wine maker at Morgenhof, winning Decanter Best New World Red with her 2001 vintage.

Chardonnay from Dombeya and Haskell

Chardonnay from Dombeya and Haskell

Wine making experience in Burgundy and Bordeaux has given her an elegant focus, which clearly shows in the wines. Previously known as Dombeya, the 23ha property now produces wines under both labels.

On the diverse Helderberg slopes the names of the wines are evocative of their origins, showing the importance Rianie pays to the soils. The plots (blocks) are small, a clear recogntion of the complexity of the terroir and the opportunity it gives for micro expression and diversity of the wines. The Aeon Syrah is from old soils; Haskell Pillars 2011 is from a sandy loam ex horse paddock guarded by 3 pillars.  Haskell II is a blend of the 2 varietals Cab and Syrah and IV unsurprising from 4: Cabernet Sauvignon (and occasionally cabernet Franc), Merlot, Petit Verdot and Shiraz. She feels the Petit Verdot brings earlier drinking to the wine. The beautiful Haskell Anvil Chardonnay takes its name from the shape of the plot it comes from, ageing in 2nd year old barrels keeping its fresh European style – very much a signature of all her wines. The Dombeya range is more varietal led with the Sauvignon Blanc coming from cooler terroir, alongside the Chardonnay, Merlot, Shiraz and the Fenix blend.

Rianie for the Cape Winemakers Guild

Rianie for the Cape Winemakers Guild

Rianie is one of only two ladies in the 46 members Cape Winemakers Guild, quite an honour. It’s an invitation only association, where top Cape winemakers, are asked to create a unique cuvee for sale by auction, the proceeds going to educational development in the wine lands.

Trying to catch Rianie standing still at Haskell - impossible!

Trying to catch Rianie standing still at Haskell – impossible!

For the Strydoms wine is a family affair; Rianie’s husband Louis is the winemaker & MD for the Ernie Els winery just around the corner. This is altogether a bigger affair.  Ernie is a famous name for golfers and the 75 ha estate has 45ha planted under vine but the range is large, complimented with grapes and wine bought in to add to the diverse offer. It’s an interesting contrast from Rianie’s small Haskell winery to Ernie Els’ slick operation; the wines have quite a different focus too.

Louis Strydom for Erni Els

Louis Strydom for Ernie Els

The Big easy range does what is says on the label; easy drinking affordable wines from a range of origins each chosen for the best expression of the single varietals in red, white and rosé. (They carry the same name as a very good restaurant they own in Stellenbosch). I particularly liked the Big Easy Red Rhone blend, fresh with low tannins & lots of fruit retailing at R125, a perfect summer red, serve chilled. The whites are brought in from the Darling region as Louis feels his vineyard is too hot for whites. He explained how varietal wines are often perceived as better quality in the home market compared to blends. It is difficult to explain a blend as premium wine in the local market. They offer blends at their two top levels: the Proprietor’s blend, (there are also proprietor’s varietals Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah) and the range culminates with the Ernie Els signature blend with an important Cabernet influence. He feels the local terroir gives a great expression to this varietal.

The husband and wife team also produce wine between them; The Strydom family vineyards but I get the feeling that Rianie is very much in the driving seat as far as wine making is concerned; the same elegance in these wines echoes that of the Haskell wines. The Strydom wines on are on Simonsberg and they clearly express where they come from. Soil variation is enormous and is expressed not just in style but again their names give them away. Rock Star is a Syrah grown on rocks, Rianie says that Syrah will grow everywhere here, and this is a Single vineyard where Rianie successfully aims to balance opulence against restraint. Hades takes it’s name from a plot where it is so rocky it’s hell to grow there and Rex, well because Cab is King, giving a tight, smoky minerality that will age beautifully. She has as much fun with the names as she does with the wine making. She also produces a Sauvignon Blanc called the Freshman, the 1st wine she produced under own name in 2010, In 2015 4500 bottles will be bottled and she is adding another wine to this range – watch this space. As if all that didn’t keep her busy enough she also consults and makes wine for a few friends – told you it was difficult to tie her down.

Rianie Rock Star

Rianie Rock Star

Rianie took me over to the other side of the valley for lunch to Jordan, another champion of hospitality as well as block-by-block vinification. Their delightful Sauvignon Blanc is grown on higher land, 410m above sea level enjoying a cooling breeze. The views were spectacular and when we called in at the weekend, despite a wedding in full swing they took the time to take us up through the vineyard to sample the different wines in the blocks they came from presenting us with the spectacular views that are such a signature of the region.

On safari with jordan

On safari with jordan

At Warwick a woman has also played a major role. Passionate Canadian, Norma Ratcliffe, put this family winery on the map as the 1st woman to make wine in South Africa.The feminine theme continues with the lady range (Pink Lady, White Lady, First Lady), the labels designed around an old marriage cup.

Part of the Warwick line up

Part of the Warwick line up

Her son Mike is now at the reins, bringing the property firmly into the 21st century with his marketing expertise putting these wines firmly on the world wine map. This is a great example of blending the new and the old. The estate was started in the 1700s and Mike is the 3rd Ratcliffe generation at the helm. He is very much at the forefront of putting SA wines on social media with accounts for Warwick, himself and their other property Vilafonte, that he owns with iconic US wine maker Zelma Long. At Warwick we tasted our best South African rosé; Pink Lady 100% Pintotage. It’s the best use for Pinotage according to Mike, which  doesn’t mean it’s easy; it leeches big time so it’s a challenge to get the delicate rosé colour that defines this wine reflecting the delicate aromas of roses and raspberries. Watermelon was the local descriptor.

Talking of local descriptors, do you know what a Guava smells like? It’s used as a descriptor often here, especially for the Sauvignon Blanc, where tropical fruit aromas seem to be the underlying signature. And the Whites from Warwick are simply spectacular, we loved The White Lady Chardonnay, from a high-density single vineyard. This is Simonsberg, the smallest and oldest appellation and the emphasis is on the freshness. They protect the whites from oxidation, preferring to roll the wines aging in barrels on the lees rather than stirring. When we say Bordeaux Blend we invariable think about Cab:Merlot but Warwick makes a white Bordeaux Blend too; a delicious Sauvignon Semillon blend called Professor Black. The story goes (and we do love a story) that the block is called after the Professor Black peaches previously grown on an orchard here. They in turn took their names from the professor of pomology (yes that is a science) at the University of Stellenbosch who developed a species of early ripening peaches for the export market. The wine is certainly a beautiful aromatic – not sure if I could detect peaches though.

Cabernet Franc seems to be gaining in popularity in the region, it’s freshness taking the ‘edge’ off Bordeaux blends of Cab Sauvignon and Merlot, Warwick was the 1st vineyard to grow Cabernet Franc in 70s and it produced the 1st single vineyard Cab Franc in 1986. I loved it. Mike feels it is very vintage sensitive, this was one of the rare times that vintage variation was readily discussed.

Cabernet Franc from Warwick

Cabernet Franc from Warwick

Stellenbosch is not the oldest wine making area in South Africa. Constantia or the ‘Vin de Constance’ has this claim to fame. It has a long history dating back to the 1680’s and has enjoyed historical popularity in Europe. Once a single vineyard it has now been divided into two: Groot and Klein Constantia divided between 2 brothers Groot (large) went to the oldest and Klein to the youngest son. Klein Constantia is currently undergoing a transformation thanks to recent investment by majority shareholder Zdenek Bakala and his partners including two Bordelais; Hubert de Bouard of Chateau Angelus in Saint Emilion and Bruno Prats, previous owner of Cos d’Estournel in Saint Estèphe.

For 100 years the estate produced no wine, it started again in 1986 under the then new owner Doogie Jooste. Sold to the current owners in 2011 current investment continues in the cellars and in the 19th century Cape Dutch manor house. 100m2 of solar panels now pump 500 kW into the system per sunny day.

The cellars at Klein Constantia

The cellars at Klein Constantia

Constantia ‘Vin de Constance’ is a sweet wine, that traditionally was made from a blend including Semillon and often botrytised. Now it is 100% Muscat de Frontignan grown as bush vines for sun exposure to maximise the drying and there is no botrytis. Dried on the vine they are hand picked in up to 25 batches. The raisins (that’s not my French spell check they really are raisins) are picked one by one, 1-5kgs per person. We tasted the 2014, harvested from end January until the end of April to keep the acidity as well as the sweetness. (165g sugar per litre, 14° alcohol, 6.8-7g acid). Fermentation in 60% new French oak with light toast stops naturally, then it ages for up to 4 years. Lightness and delicacy define the wines and they are easily recognisable thanks to their unique bottles. At lunch after our visit at the nearby Conservatory at Honhort cellars, we sprang for a half bottle of the 1992 Klein Constantia clearly marked Sauvignon Blanc Botrytis Noble Late Harvest.

The characteristic Kleine Constantia  bottles

The characteristic Klein Constantia bottles

Wine maker, Mathew Day, who was promoted from assistant to head winemaker upon the arrival of the new owners, seems even more passionate about the Sauvignon Blanc plantations on the highest slopes.  In 2005, a unique Sauvignon Blanc vineyard block called ‘The Perdeblok’ was released; it has great length and a saline minerality, influenced by the coastal breezes perhaps? Matt’s descriptor of this SB was G&Tish – perfect! As the years go by Matt is identifying smaller and smaller blocks each with an individual identity that allows him to improve and build on the wines’ complexity. Here again is this intimate understanding and passion for the terroir that we saw in all the Cape vineyards we visited. For example the Block 371, a natural ferment with a creamy mid palate, despite oak fermentation and ageing there is no oak dominance and again that savoury finish.

Excellent Sauvignon Blanc from Klein Constantia

Excellent Sauvignon Blanc from Klein Constantia

Matt’s international wine making experience includes time in Sancerre, the home of Sauvignon Blanc, with Pascal JOLIVET. They have collaborated here at Klein Constantia making Metis; a selected block of SB, natural ferment, aged on the lees, again, no racking, no stirring in barrels, just rolling with thicker and wider staves – it’s all about reducing oxidation and keeping that fresh salinity he loves so much. If you need any more encouragement to try these wines Matt was named as one of the top 30 wine makers under 40 to watch by the Drinks Business in 2014.

These whites are not to be confused with their KC range made from grapes from further afield producing charming wines, less complex in style but benefiting from the same wine making expertise. They also make a MCC that we sipped high up in the vineyard next to the dam across the reservoir, admiring the view across the vineyards to False Bay. We were not the only ones enjoying the idyllic spot; a Sea Eagle was circling overhead, waiting for us to leave so he could fish in the reservoir for trout.

The view over the Kleine Constantia vineyards to the ocean

The view over the Klein Constantia vineyards to the ocean

A perfect end to a wonderful Cape Wine lands experience.

Follow the guide If you want to know more, Platter’s Wine Guide is the South African wine bible. A jury judges every year on what is great and good. There is also a web site. The 2016 edition was released when we were there to much fanfare. Browse through it and you will see that several of the wineries I mention above reached the coveted 5 star status for their wines in this latest edition: Delaire Graff, Ernie Els, Haskell, Klein Constantia and the White Lady Chardonnay 2014 from Warwick that also won white wine of the year. Just saying.

My conclusions: My brief visit just scratched the surface of the South African wine scene and I was blown away by the freshness and elegance of the whites in particular, and the fresh fruit driven expression of the Syrah with the lightness of touch it brings to the red blends, they are Bordeaux blends with a twist, a very distinctive South African twist.

The vineyard perhaps suffers from the complexity of the varietals and blends on offer, making it difficult to manage consumer expectations. The trend seems to be towards a more precise and intimate knowledge of their extremely varied terroir, making plot-by-plot precision viticulture commonplace, with plots getting smaller and more adventurous. This is leading to clearer regional identities expressed through precise varietal choices, a philosophy championed by producers such as Mike Ratcliffe and Rianie Strydom. It was explained to me that if you see Syrah on the bottle the winery is aiming at an elegant ‘old world expression‘ whereas if you see Shiraz on the label expect a bolder (Australian?) expression of the variety. But what is the South African expression? It is in the hands of these dynamic, enthusiastic and welcoming wine makers. Winemakers the world over have unbounded enthusiasm, but here there is also a pride in their country, not something you always find in the more blasé ‘old world’.

Every region has a cross to bear in terms of consumer (and sadly often trade) perceptions. Here it is a historical expectation that South African wines should be cheap – there is a price ceiling that even the most expensive fail to shatter. This is great value for the consumer, these terrific wines are still so very affordable, but disheartening for the producers. They are also tackling the devastating leaf roll virus.

I wish them higher prices to reward their investment in capital, education and passion. The good news is that, just like Bordeaux, the 2015 vintage is a great one, so keep an eye open for it on the shelves near you very soon.

Women in Wine Tourism.

As owner of the high-end Wine Tour Company Decanter Tours, one of the few full service wine tour operators with extensive experience working in the wine industry, Mary Dardenne couldn’t help noticing that most of the key players in this dynamic and growing sector, whether in accommodation, transportation, restaurants or wineries were women.

Following a wine fuelled lunch in Bordeaux between 8 girl friends, all, like Mary, key players in the industry; she created The Women in Wine Tourism association in 2009.  There were formal trade organisations in existence such as the Great Wine Capitals, Destination Vignobles and Vignobles et Chais en Bordelais but the objective was to create an informal and complementary association that covered all aspects of wine tourism.

Where it all began

Where it all began

This group is now, 4 years later, a dynamic networking association for the wine tourism industry including Chateaux, interprofessionnal organisations, hotels and restaurants from Bordeaux to Cognac and Burgundy.  Mary’s unique access to contacts in the industry across France has grown the association to 120 members with over 250 likes on the Facebook page and an active following on Twitter.

The monthly meetings, usually over lunch and a glass or two of wine, bring together between 30 and 50 members giving them an opportunity to talk about their various initiatives, discuss their challenges and successes and share ideas on how to continue growing in this relatively new sector. Informal, fun and supportive, the group has encouraged members to work together promoting their activities and creating joint projects.

Ready for lunch at Chateau Troplong Mondot.

Ready for lunch at Chateau Troplong Mondot.

These lunches are not only a forum for sharing and networking but also an opportunity to try new restaurants and discover new initiatives in chateaux as diverse as a restaurant and accommodation at Les Belles Perdrix at Chateau Troplong Mondot, conference and reception facilities at Chateau Marquis de Terme and a village centre boutique at Château Lestrille, to name a few. The group also participates in industry events such as Bordeaux Fête le Vin (26-29th June this year) and test-drives new initiatives such as the Bordeaux Wine Trip app.

Bordeaux Fête le Vin

Bordeaux Fête le Vin

It also provides a forum for new comers to the industry to meet market leaders in an informal, supportive and fun environment and learn from the experts in this growing field. If you want to know more contact Mary marydardenne@decantertours.com


Size matters at Chateau Soutard.

The average size of a wine property in Bordeaux is 14ha, this is a dramatic and relatively recent evolution. In the 60’s the average size was only 3ha and there were over 45 000 producers compared to ‘only’ 8 700 today. On the right bank however the properties have remained smaller, around 6ha in Saint Emilion and Pomerol on average. There are some notable exceptions to this rule, not least amongst the top properties. First classified growths such as Chateau Canon with 22ha, Chateau Troplong-Mondot at 33 ha, Chateau Cheval Blanc at 37 ha and the largest Chateau Figeac with 40ha under vines and a further generous 14ha in parkland, buck this trend. Classififed growth Chateau Soutard is amongst this group with 22ha under vines unchanged around the 18th century chateau for the last 100 years. The monumental Chateau is one of the largest buildings at the heart of a Saint Emilion property with 30 000 sq ft of roofing.

Under ownership of the de Ligneris family since the early since 1900’s the property was sold to La Mondiale insurance company in 2006. La Mondiale already knows a thing or two about St Emilion owning the neighbouring classified growth Château Larmande for the last 20 years, Grand Cru Château Grand Faurie La Rose and, the most recent addition to the team, Château Cadet-Piola. In total, the company owns almost 55 hectares of vines in the classic terroir of the limestone and clay plateau and extending throughout the clay, limestone and sandy slopes at the very heart of Saint-Émilion.
Claire Thomas-Chenard manages all four properties, assisited by cellar master Véronique Corporandy, and she has overseen the two year renovation of Chateau Soutard. The 2011 harvest was the second crop to enter the new cellars and they are spectacular – showing that some things are just worth waiting for. An elegant marriage of steel and oak in both the decor and the fermentation vats (50/50 stainless and oak small vats) the classic varietal blend of 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc enter into the cold storage rooms before being transferred to the vats, allowing not just temperature control of the must but an even flow management of the process. Even the remontage of the cellars is automatied allowing Claire to keep a close on all four cellars simultaneously during the busy harvest period.

It is not just in wine making where they are reaping the rewards of their investment. Chateau Soutard won the 2012 Best of Wine Tourism award for parks and gardens offering a unique way of discovering the property. As well as visiting the cellars and tasting the wine the gardens and vineyards allow visitors, map in hand to discover the different themes, from the natural approach to cultivation of the vines, to a childrens tour or a romantic moonlit visit. The boutique is open to the public, not just to sell wines, there is a large range of books and momentos including a children’s corner. If you would like to taste, pull up a chair on the terrace to taste their wines with some local cured ham or buy a bottle and borrow a picnic hamper to go and picnic in the grounds.
If you fancy more formal dining book ahead for a private lunch, dinner or cooking class and then cycle off lunch by pedalling through the four propeties and you can even stay the night at one of the guests rooms at Château Grand Faurie la Rose to sleep it all off.