Guest Wines Tour de France
Following our introduction to the Champagne region, we stopped the night at a budget hotel in Auxerre (‘oh-sair’), a small port town on the river Yonne just West of Chablis itself and capital of the Yonne département. Upon leaving for our next stop Chablis, we noticed that the landscape became increasingly hilly and rolling and very picturesque. The sun was shining and a temperature of 23.5 degrees gave for a happy mood and readied us to taste some Premier and Grand Cru Chablis.
Prior to embarking on our work for the day, we took in breakfast at the ‘Chablis bar’ bang in the centre of town, where the very friendly staff topped us up with the obligatory croissant and cup of strong French coffee.
Our first stop was at La Chablisienne, which started life as a cooperative winery but has now evolved to bring everything in-house. We were possibly the first customers of the day – well, better to get in early and avoid the crowds!
After being shown a short video on Chablis explaining the different wine appellations, Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier Cru and Grand Cru, we were introduced to a selection of wines from each, Ruth immediately picked out a slight cork taint in one of the Premier Cru wines, which was gladly exchanged for another in better shape. Well done – WSET in action!
We thoroughly enjoyed the wines from the range we had and would best describe them as being of good body and substance. There was quite a difference in the flavours and structure of each wine, marking out where it came from, with intensity and complexity growing as you moved through to Grand Cru level. They were all very good wines, however, the Grand Cru Les Preuses 2009 stood out for us, an elegant wine showing lovely apple, pear, fennel, almond aromas and flavours, a true ‘phwaar’ wine!
We also picked up a few recipe cards, suggesting dishes to go with their wines. The asparagus and avocado tart with Premier Cru Montmain sounded pretty tasty indeed!
Next, was William Fèvre, where we were taken through a range of wines selected from the available list by Sylvain (our Wine Advisor), who was very helpful with explaining the chosen wines to us.
The range here was lighter in style, with more subtle flavours, to what we had already tasted but the differences between the wines were still marked in terms of which appellation the grapes came from. The prices at William Fèvre were a step up from La Chablisienne but based on what we had tasted, we felt La Chablisienne was pretty good value for money.
However, we did like their Saint Bris Sauvignon Blanc, which had a lovely aroma of fresh green peas (and it happened to be their cheapest).
Just around the corner from William Fèvre, we found Domaine Pinson and were led into a tasting cave (literally!) by the proprietor’s daughter Charlene. We loved their wines with their fuller flavour that still maintained steely acidity. More oomph, in terms of flavour, for a great price. With each tasting we were beginning to understand which characteristics could be attributed to which appellation of Chablis.
We especially enjoyed their Premier Cru Montmains 2011, Fourchaume 2011 and Mont de Milieu 2011, all exhibiting a fuller bodied, richer style of Chablis with good acidity.
The tastings we experienced this morning brilliantly demonstrated terroir in action, although each individual producer had their own style there was no getting away from the fact that the terroir shone though, certain areas had quite distinct characteristics no matter who produced them, for example Premier Cru Fourchaume to the right side of Chablis always had a soft roundness to it, whereas Premier Cru Vaillons on the left side had a more mineral touch.
On our way to Préhy and Saint Bris, we took to the hills that offered wonderful views across the valley and stopped for a lovely picnic lunch just outside Courgis with stunning views of the vineyards stretching out around us!
The afternoon was spent at Domaine Jean Marc Brocard in Préhy, where we were given an excellent and informative tasting in lieu of a tour, which wasn’t taking place due to the busy activity of harvest.
It is an impressively large winery, nestled next to the small church Sainte Claire that stands proudly amongst the vines, a picturesque scene indeed.
Three generations produce the wines on sale here, with third generation Julien gradually taking over the reins from father Jean-Marc. Father-in-law, Emile Petit, also produces an Auxerrois range of wines at the Domaine. Julien is pursuing biodynamic practices and his range of wines all reflect this along with a modern slant to his bottle labelling. The main range of wines continues to be produced by father, Jean-Marc, which also now includes several biodynamic wines. In tasting both father and son’s biodynamic wines, we noted similar characteristics that carried over between them, which we found really interesting.
We enjoyed tasting a wide range of the wines from Petit Chablis, Chablis, Premier Cru and Grand Cru sites and were especially impressed by Jean Marc’s Premier Cru Vaulorent 2011, honeydew melon, grapefruit, round and buttery and Grand Cru Les Preuses 2010, white flower blossom, honeyed melon, lovely richness, as well as Julien’s Premier Cru Les Vaudevay, fruity green fig character, flinty and fresh. All these wines were biodynamic.
This was followed by a trip to Saint Bris but unfortunately the cellar at Domaine Groisotwas closed to appointments. However, we were able to see that they were busy washing out the press after a busy morning harvesting. We therefore decided to wander around the town and soak up its grand buildings and an ancient past.
The day was pressing on but we felt that it would not be right of us to go away from Chablis without trying some of the reds available. So we went to Irancy on the hunt for their take on Pinot Noir. We found a good example of this at Benoît Cantin. Sonia, the winemaker’s wife, talked us through a few of their wines, including a rosé, before showing us around the winery, all excellent stuff! A gorgeous little place nestled between hills and well worth a visit.
Their Irancy “Palotte” 2010 combined Pinot Noir with 10% of the local grape Cesar and showed savoury, forest floor aromas alongside the red fruits.
Unfortunately, we did not have enough time to call in to Les Caves de Bailly, with their impressive cellar, as it was already quite late in the day and we had a long journey ahead of us in order to reach Burgundy before darkness in the hope that finding the budget hotel would be less difficult than the previous night!
The journey to Dijon was pleasant, with a noticeable change to the terrain – steep inclines and rocky outcrops suddenly jutted out from the earlier gently rolling landscape.
It was our first try with a ‘Fast Hotel’, cheap but with a welcomingly cheerful receptionist, who was happy to make us a pot of green tea late at night as there was nowhere to get a hot drink (coming back to the lack of kettles in French hotel rooms again!). And so ended another great day. We both came away from Chablis feeling that little bit more knowledgeable about the region and its wines.
So, would we feel the same upon entering Burgundy’s other half?
Guest Wines Tour de France
Leaving home at 7am we hit the road, sad to leave our little Tibby behind but excited at our French adventure ahead, plus we knew his lordship was in good hands with his very own support crew!
After a very easy drive south, we arrived at the Eurotunnel port. Having never experienced this before it was quite exciting and amazingly easy. We were even early enough to catch a train one hour earlier than booked. It’s a strange experience driving onto a train, then travelling at 110mph underwater without actually moving the car! If you haven’t travelled by Eurotunnel, we would recommend it. The return cost just over £100 and although it takes time driving to Folkestone and then onto your French destination, the fun is in the journey and this is day 1, not just a day lost to travel – we also got to see a bit more of England and of France as well!
We arrived in the northern Champagne region in the early evening. It has a noticeably flat landscape and besides the obvious vine, other types of agriculture featured such as potatoes and sunflowers. Although a lot of the Champagne vines were on slopes, many seemed to be on flat land. We would be hard pressed to say that the surrounding countryside matched the grandeur of the drink itself. Often, it seemed to be more in contrast: one dimensional and flat!
Also not reminiscent of our “atypical” picture of Champagne was the location of our Hotel Première Classe (yep, living the dream!), which was located within a business park on the outskirts of Reims (not pronounced ‘reems’ but ‘rance’ as we were corrected). Compact, decent and clean but most importantly, within budget (though French budget hotels are pricier than their English equivalent). Why waste good money on expensive accommodation when there’s Champagne to be bought (which surely must be in our budget, right?)!
The following day we headed to Ay, South of Reims on the outskirts of Épernay, and our appointment at René Geoffroy Champagne House.
The harvest, la vendange, had commenced the day before with attention being focused on the red grapes – the rosés were first in line, and although he was rather busy with all the harvest activity going on, we got to meet the man responsible for these wonderful wines, none other than Jean-Baptiste Geoffroy.
Anne, the Champagne House secretary, gave us a tasting and showed us around the winery. We were also lucky to witness the traditional Coquard wooden presses in action, pressing the grapes harvested that morning, with the dark juice flowing into stainless steel tanks on the floor below, gravity-fed as this is a more gentle procedure.
It is difficult to have a favourite of those we tasted as the quality of all was excellent, the Brut Expression, 50% Pinot Meunier, 40% Pinot Noir & 10% Chardonnay, was light and fresh whereas the Brut Volupté 2006, 80% Chardonnay & 20% Pinot Noir, was richer, spicier and wafted those recognisable Champagne yeast aromas.
This producer also makes a limited number of still Pinot Noir wines (Cumières Rouge Traditionnel), which is interestingly a non-vintage blend of grapes from 2002, 2004, 2007 and 2009. He also makes Pinot Meunier still wines by the bottle, unfortunately the latter was sold out but we did pick up the Pinot Noir, which we are looking forward to trying.
Afterwards, we decided to take a leisurely stroll around Ay. It was an amazing feeling walking around and seeing so many world famous Champagne houses in close proximity to one another in such a small quiet village, surrounded on all sides by vines.
You really don’t appreciate just how big the Champagne department is until you take a drive from Montagne de Reims to reach the Côte des Bar, a mere 20km from Burgundy, where we were destined for our next appointment at Louise Brison in Noé Les Mallets.
A three hour drive took us from flat open plains, through forest and idyllic villages to reach this Estate in the Aube department. We arrived fairly late in the afternoon, though Julie (Assistante Commerciale) was aware of our drive and had kindly agreed to wait beyond her usual closing time to receive us. And glad of this we were as we were treated to some excellent wines.
Julie displayed her wealth of knowledge for these Champagne’s and took her time so that we could really appreciate what we were drinking.
We were impressed to learn that every wine produced here is vintage, apart from the rosé, bottles from each year dating back to 1991 were on display and available to purchase all at very reasonable prices.
We particularly enjoyed tasting the Brut millésime 2007, 50/50 Pinot Noir/Chardonnay, which had a lovely balance of fruit and toasty notes, and the Cuvée Tendresse Blanc de Blancs millésime 2005, 100% Chardonnay, which had a much more expressive nose displaying creamy fruit and hazelnut richness.
The harvest had not yet started here but was due to commence the coming Monday. It was fascinating to witness the procession of caravans and mobile homes that were being parked up next to vineyards creating small villages in themselves, in readiness for this event.
We definitely came away from Champagne with far more questions left unanswered and the desire to return to explore this region in far more detail than our quick whistle stop tour.
We were now on our way to our next destination. Though not in too much of a hurry so as not to take in Essoyes, a quietly picturesque village that the impressionist artist Renoir loved, spending many summers of his life here with his wife (originally from this town). Taking a walk around “Du Côté des Renoir” and seeing first hand where some of his inspiration was gained it was entirely understandable why he loved it so and in gratitude to this, the village displays various Renoir creations as large murals on the side of buildings all over the village. There was certainly an air of something serene and peaceful here.
Darkness soon fell upon us and unfortunately so did a diversion that took us miles out of the way of our original route. Feeling like we were driving blind in the dark with the fuel indicator creeping down lower and lower and no sign of a petrol station for at least 50 miles or so, we were preparing ourselves for a possible night of sleeping in the car (still looking on the bright side, we did have Champagne!). Running on empty, we finally found somewhere to fill up that accepted our credit card, having earlier discovered that certain petrol stations only accept French cards (silly us for mistaking France as being a part of Europe)!
Finally, after getting lost in yet another business park (in our defence, apart from lack of any signage, they also look the same), we found our budget hotel. Though, what is it with not providing a kettle at these places? Tea = civilisation! So off to bed we went to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for taking on Chablis.
Follow us to Chablis next …
Day 6 in Roussillon
It was an early start today to tidy the winery ready for a group of American and French journalists who were arriving for a tour and a tasting.
Leaving Jonathon to host them, I went to see the 25th International Festival of Photojournalism in Perpignan with Rachel, Georgia and Jill. The photographs are exhibited in various buildings across the city, some of which are not usually open to the public. So it is a fantastic opportunity to see some rarely visited places as well as beautifully shot photography although the images were often shocking and at times disturbing. I must admit the majestic Serengeti lions made up for the dark violence of human behaviour.
A lovely lunch at a nearby cafe gave us a chance to sit and have a break from the intensity of the exhibition after which we were ready for more.
Then on our way home, a caramel ice cream from Olivier Bajard was most welcome, possibly one of the best ice creams I have ever tasted!
picture sourced from http://ecole-olivier-bajard.skyrock.com
Back at the winery, I took a short walk around Troullias before settling down in the evening sun with a glass of Pierre Andre, Les Craies Bourgogne Aligote 2010, which I had bought at Les Caves Maillol and was planning on using as the mystery wine for everyone to taste that night.
The wine had a flinty, smoky nose with some tropical pineapple and passion fruit aromas. Both Jonathon and Georgia were impressed and we all liked it a lot, not bad for something under 10 euros. It matched extremely well with the barbecued duck, rice and salad that we had for dinner.
We were treated to Treloar’s Tahi and Le Secret as well as a taste of the co-fermented Carignan/Syrah that is still in barrel. What a powerful wine, beautiful voluptuous nose of violets, black and red fruits, spice, the gripping tannin is to be expected but should integrate and soften out nicely. I look forward to getting hold of a bottle of this next year!
As yet unnamed Carignan/Syrah
The wine was flowing and everyone was chatting, Jonathon got his guitar out and entertained until bedtime.
Join me for the final episode in my Roussillon experience next week.
Day 5 in Roussillon
A Sunday lie in didn’t really happen this morning, if anything I was awake earlier, lots of noises disturbed my slumber last night. The chickens were bloody lively so I hope its chicken for dinner today, sweet revenge!
I got up for a coffee and decided to make the most of a bit of down time to write up my notes. I can now see the bruises developing nicely on my arms and legs alongside the scratches, ah the signs of hard work!
So far, it’s been an interesting experience at Domaine Treloar. I’ve certainly learnt a lot in a short time and had the chance to do a variety of jobs already, all very important in learning how to run a small winery. It’s nice to know my French is coming in useful too, helping with customers and sending out messages to the pickers. Rachel and Jonathon’s lives are certainly pretty hectic but its really not a bad lifestyle at all.
The town of Troullias seems like a nice little place, on my first day a couple of ladies out walking said good morning and commented on the heat, which came as a welcome surprise in contrast to my frequent visits to the small town of Ceret where I have visited my sister for near enough 12 years, possibly as Ceret receives so many foreign visitors each year.
As picking was still delayed, more grape samples were required so Georgia and I headed out to the vines.
Sample taking was easier today because it was overcast, so was much cooler, however, the trip out was a tad less peaceful than usual when a single and very loud gun shot rang out across the vines scattering a flock of birds sky high. I nearly jumped out of my skin and not for the last time as the shots continued to shake the air.
It was very unnerving not being able to see where the shots were coming from, they sounded too close for comfort a couple of times. In the Grenache vines on the hill three grouse flew out as I disturbed them, flipping heck I wondered if I would end be the next target. Further down the hill, in the Syrah, the shots felt very close over head and a hare ran past me, terrified. Again, I thought I might get hit if the hare was the target. Then I noticed a man standing behind camouflage at the tree line, rifle in hand, who was responsible for the shooting.
Sam, Domaine Treloar’s dog, seemed non fazed, which was good in a way as I was jumpy enough and glad to head to the next parcel out of the way of gun fire. Nevertheless, Sam got his comeuppance as something startled him in the vines, Georgia said she might have seen a snake, yikes, maybe that spooked him but whatever it was made him yelp and run like the wind. We frantically shouted for him hoping he hadn’t run into the road but there he was, tail between his legs at the end of the row. Silly pooch!
Back at the winery, Jonathon checked the alcohol and acid levels of each sample. Still none were ready for picking yet, as the acids were high and skins not quite ripe enough, further delaying the harvest until after I leave, which is a shame.
The next job to be done was to transfer the white juice we pressed on Thursday from the steel tank to barrels, these needed washing out and then rolling under the concrete tanks. This was not a nice job and was made even nastier when each tank had to blasted with CO2. Jonathon looked on the verge of fainting. We stuck our noses in it and it smelled very strong with a burning sensation like peroxide up your nose.
After filling the barrels, it was once again cleaning time! With a slight wobble, I climbed the ladders up to the top of the tank to hose it down. Just when Georgia and I thought we might have finished for the day we then had to re-rinse a couple of the concrete tanks, detach the sluice doors and clean out the gully, making sure all pump hoses were rinsed thoroughly and detached. Phew, done by 7pm.
As the sun set and the clouds have cleared, the sky was once again blue. The grapes will welcome the sun and heat now.
We were treated to a Sunday dinner of beautifully tender lamb shank with roast potatoes and green beans! Along with a bit of Domaine Treloar’s Motus, 100% Mourvedre, and Domaine Trilles Incantation Rouge, it went down a treat.
To hear what happens next don’t forget to follow the series.
Days 3 and 4 in Roussillon
My next job was to start sweeping the tops of the concrete tanks and top floor of the winery ready for washing down. Wow, Cinderella eat your heart out! Broom in hand, surrounded by clouds of dust I brushed and brushed and brushed, until the place looked clean.
We just about had time to get changed ready for a trip to Perpignan and a wine merchants called ‘Les Caves Maillol‘, where Guillaume, the shop’s owner, and his wife were hosting an ‘English wine tasting with Jonathon’. A good number of people turned up early and enjoyed the tastings and nibbles. I’m sure once the word spreads this will grow.
Back at the house, two mystery wines were brought out for tasting. It turned out they were both Malbec, one from the Languedoc, which I honestly would not have guessed, the other from the South West, a Cahors, which I almost got. Blind tasting really isn’t easy but it was very interesting.
I have been waking up with the village bells at 6am each morning and the chickens across the road are usually in full clucking action then. Saturday was the first morning I woke up to grey skies and the forecast for thunder storms was spot on, it started raining at lunch time and just got heavier and heavier.
The grapes need rain at this point just before harvest, even though it makes them swell it won’t dilute them too much as they will revert to what they were before. It’s the skins that need the water, as they are dehydrated and may not ripen fully if they lack fluid. At the moment they aren’t quite ripe, which is partly why the harvest is late, the hot topic of discussion in the wine community at the moment is that it’s been a strange harvest so far.
Today the tank cleaning needed to be finished, which meant actually climbing down inside each one – there were four to do. With the ladders lowered in and safety light tied on Georgia was first to disappear into the hole. It felt a bit like an Indiana Jones adventure finding some long lost cave and lowering yourself down into the unknown. I was a bit apprehensive but thankfully okay once in the tank and not claustrophobic, phew.
We cleaned two tanks each, which involved brushing the dry tank to get rid of all the bits, then rinsing it down with water. A cleaning solution was then pumped through the system.
It took the day to get the 4 tanks done and there was more still to do but we were due to head to Le Cave Byrrh in Thuir for Les Vignerons Des Aspres wine fair. So after a quick shower and change, off we went.
Keep following the series, read more here about the wine fair at Les Caves Byrrh and much more.
Day 2 in Roussillon
Up early in the dark … Yes, it’s dark in this part of the world at 6am, all the French pickers had arrived so Jonathon and Rachel got everyone registered and off we went to the vineyard. It got light pretty quickly and by 7.10am we were off picking the Grenache Gris, which is the most wonderful dusky pink colour, and some of the Grenache Blanc.
The vines are called ‘Goblets’ because of their shape, they aren’t tied to any wires or trained, which I thought would make it hard to pick as you have to bend down and kind of hunt under the vines greenery to find the bunches but it wasn’t as bad as I thought. Two people work together on either side of the vine and put the grapes in a bucket. Once the bucket is full you empty it into a crate at the end of the row.
Bunch selection was explained as it’s important not to pick bunches that look diseased, are not fully ripe yet or are hard and underripe, known as ‘grapillons’. The Roussillon has plenty of snails I noticed and it’s equally as important that they don’t end up being picked with the grapes.
Once we all got into the flow, we worked through the rows quickly and the group worked well together. A couple of the slower pickers got teamed up with me and Georgia, not that we were especially speedy, but more to help gee them along a bit and it worked. The first parcel wasn’t too difficult and we were done by 9am, ready to go to the next vineyard.
The sun was heating up now and the vines at the next vineyard were much larger in comparison with plenty of greenery to wade through and huge bunches of grapes, so we had to be careful not to snip a finger or two off, which would not only be a painful loss to myself but could have added some interesting flavours to the wine! It’s satisfying knowing these grapes will make La Terre Promise 2013, so when I drink some of that next year I’ll know I had a hand in making it, a wonderful feeling!
Jonathon and Ruth next to the last trailer load of grapes for the press
Whilst the rest of the gang continued picking, Georgia and I headed back to the winery in the Land Rover … and I’m pleased to report there were no driving incidents! We headed back to load the press, firstly emptying the grapes into the destemmer, which Georgia kept an eye on, whilst I had the joyous job of washing the crates out as they were emptied and restocking them ready to load in the lorry to go back to the vineyard. We completed 3 loads of grapes and then the Champagne 2000 press was kick started into action. The juice from today’s picking went into one of the temperature controlled stainless steel tanks.
One thing is for sure so far I’m pretty dirty and soaked most of the time, it’s hard work but there is great satisfaction in getting it all done.
The work didn’t finish there though. After lunch we had to make sure everything was washed down so no grape juice was around for fruit flies to be attracted to. Boy that felt like an age, the press must be spotless and it feels like you’re just pushing the grape skins around but never removing them. So much water gets used, something I was highly aware of in South Africa too, I believe the water goes into the river here, hence the need to take care what goes down the drains. Any stems or grape bits that end up on the floor are swept up and taken to a specialist recycling centre, not washed away.
Finishing around 7pm, we could relax and have dinner. My body was telling me it needed to lie down but after such a buzzing day, I got a second wind once fed and given a glass or two of Le Ciel Vide and Three Peaks.
Read more in the next in this short series when I get down and dirty in the tanks that will soon house the red wine.
Day 1 in Roussillon
When I was told the harvest in the Roussillon was likely to be around three weeks late this year my heart sank as I was meant to spend early September at Domaine Treloar, Trouillas, specifically for this purpose, so the question arose as to whether I should go or not. However, having booked my flights an age ago, and not being able to change them without charge, I hoped that cancelling was not an option. Thankfully there was plenty that still needed doing in the winery and around the vineyard in the run up to the harvest, and Rachel and Jonathon were happy to have me come over.
It was a scorcher the week I was there, hitting at least 30 degrees in the height of the day and it just got hotter. Was this really September and the time kids were heading back to school? The only nip in the air came from the occasionally bolschy winds that whipped down the valley on a couple of nights, boy are they competition for the North Easterly winds we are subjected to at home.
My first day at the vineyard was spent with Georgia, an Australian intern spending 8 weeks at the Domaine, she is studying viticulture and oenology in Montpellier. Luckily we hit it off straight away as we were to share a room for the next week.
The sun was shining and the sky was blue as we set off on our slightly rickety bikes to find the vineyards for my first job of collecting grape samples. This was done by walking up and down selected rows of vines counting a number of paces so as to get a good spread and only choosing 5 grapes from each bunch. Wearing shorts wasn’t such a good idea as I came across many spider webs stretched between the vines.
The wasp spider will bite if disturbed but isn’t as deadly as it looks, thankfully!
It became very hot work by midday but surrounded by vines with the mountain ranges rising defiantly in the distance, it was truly breathtaking. I felt like I was floating on cloud 9, sun, heat, vines, mountains and peace!
Back at the winery with our bags of grape samples, we squished each berry so we could drain the juice into glasses for testing the alcohol levels. The colours of the sample juice really struck me as the Syrah juice is so pink, whilst the Grenache is cloudy green like apple juice, yet both have black skins. One of the Grenache plots is referred to by its Catalunyan name of Lladoner, which is a new synonym to me.
After a tasty lunch of leftover curry and salad cooked by Jill, who was over from New York on holiday, Georgia and I helped Jonathon clean the winery and get things tidied for the start of the picking the following day. I just loved the Champagne 2000 retro yellow press that is suspended on the upper floor of the winery.
We had to dust all the equipment down and wash it, something we would become very familiar with doing. Bloody hell, power washing the floor was enlightening, the black mould vanished leaving behind a light coloured concrete floor, it looked like Mary Poppins had worked her magic. The picking crates arrived and sat outside waiting to be stacked and sorted on the tractor’s trailer, déjà vu of cleaning these crates at Koopmanskloof Winery in Stellenbosch came flooding back.
After all that we were ready to go picking the next day. So thankfully it seemed I would get a taste of the Roussillon harvest after all.
Read more in the next of this short series when I shall be picking in the vineyard.
Our final instalment of our 2012 English wine adventure concludes:
We still had much to do and see before our travels were over. We were now heading back to Kent and what better way to start than at The Bluebell Railway.
At the time of our visit, this railway was undergoing something of a transformation. Not only had there been a sighting of a diesel locomotive at this once very pro-steam railway (gasps of horror could be heard from the old-school fraternity!) but it was close to realising its long-held ambition of reconnecting with the main line at East Grinstead.
This connection has involved removing 90,000 tonnes of landfill and was still in progress on our visit with a projected completion date of March 2013 (something that the railway achieved on target and on budget – the big railway please take note!).
The Bluebell Railway is used in many film and TV period dramas and it is easy to see why.
Close by is a small railway that goes by the name of The Lavender Line. It is often in the news as it is part of the missing link between Uckfield and Lewes with an active local pressure group trying to get this bit of line reinstated between the two towns so as to once again create a through route between London and Brighton due to its importance as a commuter route. For the time being, it retains a tranquil atmosphere with its lovingly restored station at Isfield and many nature walks in the surrounding area.
Right then, let’s get back to wine…
We found ourselves in the Kent village of Marden, which once farmed apples and hops as its main commodity but has since replaced much of this with the cultivation of grapes due to it now being home to two important English sparkling wine producers – Herbert Hall and Hush Heath.
Both these producers were happy to show us around via prior appointment and it was great for us to see at first hand how two of the region’s leading fizz makers produced their lovely wines.
Up until this point we had not come across Herbert Hall. In fact, there wasn’t much clue to them being here as our initial search had simply come across a vineyard by the name of Marden. It wasn’t until we made an enquiry to see if we could visit that we discovered this to be Herbert Hall and what a wonderful discovery this was!
We met Nick Hall (who shares a partnership with his brother Peter) early one morning. He was happy to show us around the vineyard as well as his compact, very clean and well-kitted out winery, where we were given the opportunity to taste his fizz.
Herbert Hall concentrates on just two wines, a Sparkling white: Herbert Hall Brut and a rose: Herbert Hall Brut Rose, using a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. The white is Chardonnay dominated whereas the rose is Pinot Noir dominated. Both are fantastic examples of well made English sparkling wine and should be sought out. They can be obtained from major high street retailers such as Harvey Nichols. What a find!
Read more about Herbert Hall in our 2013 blog.
Hush Heath Estate
Just a matter of minutes walk up the road is the estate of Hush Heath. Here, we were met by Owen Elias, previously the winemaker at Chapel Down who has since decided to concentrate his efforts making sparkling and still wines at Hush Heath.
There is a state of the art, brand new, compact winery and production area of which Owen was happy to show us around and take us on a tour, explaining the evolution of wine from vineyard to the finished bottle. It was impressive to see the bottling process in action.
Afterwards, we were taken to the nicely laid out tasting room to try for ourselves the wines that he produces and are sold to many restaurants around the country. This tasting included the estate’s: Balfour Brut Rose and Balfour Blanc de Blanc both of which are definitely worth trying and can be bought direct from their online store.
A surprise for us was that they were also experimenting with a still cider, keeping with the tradition of the locality. A trial with some London restaurants was taking place at the time of our visit and this has obviously been successful as you can now purchase it from the online shop and very nice it is indeed!
Having had two great English producers fizz, we did not want to spoil the day by trying to visit anymore wineries. However, our experience of ‘great wine finds’ was not entirely over as calling into a local store in the village of Horsmonden we stumbled upon a bottle of Horsmonden Limney White, that we later discovered was made by Will Davenport, of which we write about in our 2013 English vineyard adventures.
Now it was off to do something completely different. Not only did this include a nature reserve and a place close to the sea resembling a strange and distant land but it also had a narrow gauge railway running through it! Well lets go!
The sun was shining and the heat was on, so what better way to indulge than with a walk around the RSPB Reserve at Dungeness. Apart from the many waterfowl that come here to swim in the lakes and ponds, and the many song birds, it also plays host to an array of butterflies and Damson Flies, we even caught site of our first English Lizard!
Dungeness is a very unique place and what better way to travel through its extraordinary countryside than by taking the narrow gauge train of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway.
The line was constructed in the 1920’s on the site of the closed standard gauge railway by the race drivers Captain J.E.P. Howey and Count Louis Zborowski.
Artefacts from the previous railway such as old railway carriages can still be seen, previously abandoned they have been reused and converted into homes and are a unique site in the village of Dymchurch. Here, the old line used to connect with various narrow gauge lines working along the coast, of which, this particular one is actually expanding rather than eroding and can be evidenced by how far away from the sea the light houses have become.
So are we going to get back to wine??? We hear you cry! Yes, we could not end our journey without calling in on two more important English wine producers. Important due to their production of sizeable quantities of English wine and both are household names.
So it was back to Tenterden and the chance to go and explore Chapel Down.
We had booked onto one of their vineyard and winery tours and decided that we would also try out their new stylish restaurant.
The tour took us on an A to Z of wine production and enabled us to see this on a much bigger scale, which ended in a tasting that included most of their range. Anything that was not included in the tasting that we would like to try, we found that we could ask for at the counter and our request would be obliged.
Chapel Down also produce an excellent beer that goes under the name of: Curious Brew – a lager made from Champagne yeast and well worth a try!
The food in the restaurant was excellent. Kel had his with the: Chapel Down Union Red: Pinot Noir, Rondo, Pinot Noir Precoce – Dark purple in colour and had a lot of dark fruity aromas on the nose, he did find that on the palate, as with so many English reds, this soon dissipated and the finish was a tad short as there didn’t feel to be enough tannin to keep the structure going.
An enjoyable day indeed!
Denbies Wine Estate
After leaving Kent and homewards bound, we crossed the border into Surrey for our final wine visit to Denbies Wine Estate. Situated in Dorking, literally just off the M25, its history lies in a farm that once stood there in the 18th century but now lays claim to being the country’s biggest single vineyard at 265 acres.
Denbies produces quite a wide range of wines – still, sparkling and dessert at reasonable prices.
We must say that the estate is more in line with a large farm shop and function venue than a typical winery. However, don’t let this deter you from paying a visit and trying some of their wines.
We took home with us a bottle of their: Surrey Gold: A blend of Müller-Thurgau, Ortega and Bacchus – herbal, fruity, citric with elderflower aromas.
And so our 2012 English vineyard tour comes to an end. We were now convinced that English wine has an important role to play in the world of wine, something that we felt needed sharing.
Kel’s experience lending a hand at Domaine Treloar in the Roussillon last year coincides with Ruth’s journey to the same Domaine a year later – this week in fact, so what better time to introduce this particular producer and tell you a bit about why we like their wines so much.
Jonathan Hesford and Rachel Treloar own and run this winery in a lovely corner of The Roussillon in the very south of France and make a range of wines to match.
Both gave up their New York City careers in the wake of the 9/11 event, living only blocks from the heart of the attack on the Twin Towers, they decided to change direction and head for a life making and selling their own wine. Initially moving to New Zealand, whereby Rachel can claim Maori Royalty in her blood, Jonathan spent time learning his trade with Neudorf Vineyards, becoming Assistant Winemaker, and qualifying at Lincoln University (NZ).
Moving to France in 2005, they found an old winery with parcels of mature vines in 2006, which is now established as Domaine Treloar and has enabled them to create for themselves the types of wines that they enjoy.
Domaine Treloar produces a complete range from white, rose, red and fortified. The wines have names that are representative of either the 9/11 events, Bruce Springsteen or Rachel’s Kiwi heritage, for example, their flagship red Tahi means “1” in Maori.
We have enjoyed all their wines with particular favourites:
La Terre Promise: Grenache Gris, Macabeu, Carignan Blanc – Medium bodied, dry white wine, well rounded and balanced with a fruity honeyed nuttiness (even a touch of wet stone) and mineral edge.
Three Peaks: Syrah, Mourvedre, Grenache – Lovely deep ruby colour, red and black fruits, strawberries and blackberries, violets and chocolate, hints of rosemary underpinned with smooth silky tannins.
Motus: Mourvedre – Dark sour cherries, raspberries and blackcurrants, dark chocolate, notes of black olive and white pepper. Well structured wine.
Muscat de Rivesaltes: Muscat à Petit Grains – Late harvest, sweet Muscat, dried fruit aromas of orange peel, apricot and honey, rich mouthfeel and a nuttiness to the finish.
Kel arrived last year just in time to lend a hand with picking the Mourvedre, as the harvest had arrived earlier than originally expected. On the other hand, this year it looks as though it will be a few weeks later! However, we are sure that Ruth will be kept busy.
Vineyard downtime last year was utilised by constructing decking for the gîte holiday accommodation and by all accounts is still looking good too.
Also last year, Jonathan was experimenting with a batch of Carignan grapes, of which Kel had a go with punching down the cap the good old fashioned way by … feet. This has now been bottled under the title of Le Maudit which translates as The Damned! Something that we are looking forward to trying.
If you want to know what wines from the Roussillon are all about, then Domaine Treloar would be a good way in which to be introduced, as we think that they are a great example of how to make fabulous wines from this part of the world.
No doubt Ruth shall have a tale or two to tell when she gets home, including an update on all those wonderful wines.
Our next part of the journey would see us moving in a westerly direction, over the border into Sussex via the seaside town of Hastings and the self-proclaimed town of Battle, hopping on and off trains in the proceedings.
Whilst on our way out of Kent, we took in The Spa Valley Railway. It was opened in 1886 by the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway as a through route from London to Brighton. It now has its headquarters in the spa town of Tunbridge Wells and the new station is situated on a site close to the original Tunbridge Wells West, where it still stands but is no longer rail connected with its use now being that of a hotel. The line stopped being a through route in the late 1980’s, closed by British Rail it is now blocked in one direction by a supermarket that has been built on what was part of the mainline. The town’s passengers have had to transfer to the nearby Central Station for their rail journeys since.
However, the line has been reopened in the direction of (and all the way back to) Eridge, where it now reconnects with the main line and is one of few preserved lines that shares one of its stations with the national network. Not often can you witness a 1920’s built Fowler 3F Jinty stood next to a Southern Electrostar electric multiple unit built in the last decade!
Bolney Wine Estate
Moving into the county of Sussex and not too far along the A23, this estate is situated at The Booker Vineyard in the village of Bolney. It has been making wines since 1972 and produces a full range including whites: Chardonnay; Schonburger; Reichensteiner; Wurzer and reds: Dornfelder; Merlot; Pinot Noir; Pinot Meunier; Rondo.
It is worth trying all the range of wines but we particularly liked the:
Bolney Estate Foxhole Vineyard Pinot Noir 2010 – Crimson in colour, good acidity and tannins. Cherry and blackberry aromas and flavours with a hint of savouriness from the oak. A good example we thought!
There is a bright and well set out tasting area, cafe and shop, excellent to while away a few hours sipping a glass or two of Bolney wine. Regular guided tours are available in various formats of the vineyard and winery. Tastings by the glass can be purchased as well as by tasting flights. Kel had a red and white flight and Ruth had a sparkling flight – a great way to spend a morning!
Right, time for some fresh air entwined within a bit a classic English history – so off to the seaside we went.
Hastings is famous for its long sea front and classic old town as well as for the battle that it is named after, even though this event took place a few miles further up the road in the now aptly named village of Battle. Taking in this seaside town, exploring some of its many historical streets and taking a ride on one of its two funicular railways, that afford spectacular coastal views, is well worth it. There was also the opportunity to take a ride on the miniature railway that runs along the sea front (of which Ruth was duly compensated with the hasty purchase of an ice-cream!).
We had a brief English history lesson when calling upon Battle on our way to Ridgeview. Neither of us had been here before and it was great to absorb the atmosphere still felt as a result of the events that took place almost a thousand years ago that had such a momentous affect upon English culture.
Ridgeview Wine Estate
A relative newcomer as an English wine producer compared to some of the others that we had visited on this trip so far, established in 1994 and produced its first wines in 1996. Since then, the reputation of the Estate has grown out of all proportion and can now claim to be one of England’s leading sparkling wine producers.
Ridgeview concentrates on making a range of sparkling wines, which can be found in stockists all over the country. They also provide Marks & Spencer with their Marksman Sparkling English Wine as well as making wines for many other local producers. Their wines have also gained the Royal seal of approval by being served at state dinners.
What we like about Ridgeview is their ability to produce consistently good wines, having tasted the full range over several vintages and two of our favourites are their Grosvenor and Knightsbridge fizz.
On our visit, we had the tasting room to ourselves. It was great to spend some time sipping and tasting the range whilst either looking out at the vineyard or down into the winery. Tours are available, please see their website for forthcoming dates.
We did have the opportunity to spend some time chatting with Oliver Marsh who is Sales and Marketing Executive. It was great to hear his take on the Ridgeview brand.
It was now time to head back to Kent, which involved one or two detours along the way including a stopover with friends in the village of Marden and what will be the final part of our 2012 tour of English vineyards.