Category Archives: Travels

Mapping the Douro

I have a fascination with maps. When my parents took us on our first trip to America’s West coast back in the 80’s, my brother and I spent weeks pouring over the Rand McNally road atlas we bought beforehand, working out the most exciting route for our month long adventure. Then I got into wine and remember buying my first wine book back in 1988. It was an old edition of The World Atlas of Wine by Hugh Johnson and to this day, many editions later, it is still my favourite wine book. Maps provide a context for me and allow me to fill in the images for myself. Maps create a familiarity to a place I’ve never been. And for those places I have been, the maps take me back to the memories, recreating travels and adventures, better than any picture can.

I imagine it was a similar fascination that drove Joseph Forrester when he created the first detailed map of the Douro Valley in Portugal. Joseph arrived in Portugal in 1831 to join his uncle who was a partner in a Port house. Although he got involved in the business initially, he ended up devoting himself to a comprehensive survey of the Douro Valley from the upper reaches near the Spanish border all the way down to the outflow into the Atlantic. This resulted in a map that was to be one of the most important works of its kind. Looking at the river today gives you some idea of the scale of the task that would have faced him, but the many tourist vessels, traveling up and down make it look rather sedate and much of the river has now been tamed by dams, ultimately as a result of Forrester’s work. In his day Forrester would have been traveling into the unknown and he and his team had to negotiate the wild rapids flowing through the huge canyon in handmade wooden boats. The Douro gave him his life’s work but also took his life when the boat he was traveling in was overwhelmed in one of the fearsome rapids. His body was never to be recovered.
As we travel high up in the Douro the map becomes a reality. We glimpse some of the history in the museum in Regua where the map hangs tucked away in a corner, as part of a larger exhibition of the historic Douro. And we get a feel for the river itself on a boat trip leaving from Pinhao, further upstream. I am in no doubt our experience is hugely different from Forrester’s. I ponder this as we sip sparkling wine aboard a small motorised vessel and take in the stunning views. But it is high above the river, walking through the Quinta da Boavista, it is easiest to step back in time. Forrester visited Boavista, until recently owned by Offley, the company his uncle was a partner in. As a winery it has fallen silent. But now this piece of Douro history is owned by Tony Smith, who is keen to breathe new life into its ancient walls. Lunch is served in the old ‘lagares’, the big stone throughs where in days gone past the vineyard workers would crush the grapes at harvest time with their bare feet. One of the more unusual places I’ve had the pleasure of having lunch. Tony already owns Quinta de Covela, located just outside the demarcated Douro Valley. Here he and winemaker Rui Cunha make Vinho Verde to die for from the local Avesso grape. Their efforts have been rewarded this week when they received the trophy for best viticulture from the Revista de Vinhos magazine. For now there is no wine at Quinta da Boavista but judging by Tony’s ambitions, this is going to be one Quinta to watch. Let’s just say he seems very keen to put it back on the map. I’m sure Joseph Forrester would have been pleased.

Serendipity and Long Lost Friends

According to Wikipedia, Serendipity means a ‘happy accident’ or ‘pleasant surprise’. I think it’s about being in the right place at the right time or under the right circumstances and good things will come to you. Wine can be a pleasant surprise and I’m sure there are plenty of winemakers who have stories about a wine that turned out to be a happy accident. Prior to visiting Turkey for the EWBC I had already tasted a few Turkish wines and realised they could make some pretty decent stuff. But having been immersed (not quite literally) in the wines of Turkey for a few days the country has proven itself to be a very pleasant surprise.

Fresh air and dry Muscat at Urlice

After a few intense days of workshops, speeches and tasting countless wines, many with unpronounceable names, we were let off our leashes and released into the wilds of Izmir’s countryside. It was refreshing to feel the wind in your hair and the first winery we visited gave me an instant holiday feel. It is a small, but perfectly formed boutique winery and the owners couldn’t have been more welcoming. It’s the kind of place you feel at home immediately. Reha and Bilge Bengisu Öğünlü are a Turkish couple who lived in America for a while before deciding to settle back in Turkey and make wine. Reha’s twitter bio reads “wine, vineyards, guitars, windsurfing, cooking, slowfood, travelling” and he comes across as thoughtful and well-travelled. The kind of guy Billy Connolly would call ‘windswept and interesting’.

Our first taste is of a local version of Muscat. It is fresh, dry and racy and just what we need to wake us up. None of us had much sleep I suspect, as the visit comes hot on the heels of a sumptuous gala dinner and party the previous night. Spittoons are nowhere to be seen so needs must, but it’s no punishment, particularly as the sun is out and we are amongst the vines.

The winery itself is tiny and we cram ourselves in-between the fermentation tanks and into the small barrel cellar. It’s a romantic place, dimly lit, with barely enough room for a dozen or so barrels and lined on either side with bottle bins filled with the maturing wines. I think this is the kind of place most people have in mind when they think about a lifestyle business, a romantic notion of winemaking, away from the stresses and strains of life. The ‘when we win the lottery’ kind of place. The whole production is around 1000 cases with still a little room to grow.

Urlice Reserve Syrah Cabernet Sauvignon

Inside we taste more wines, a range of red wines made from international varieties. Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon in particular. Urlice is a member of the ‘Slow Food’ movement and grape growing techniques hark back to ancient times without recourse to chemicals. Reha’s vineyards are not certified organic though. It isn’t about the marketing for him, he sees it more as a way of life rather than a label to stick on a bottle. The wines are actually very accomplished. They certainly aren’t shy. Structured wines with quite a bit of tannin means they show best with some hearty food and they have put on quite a spread for us. I particularly liked their Cabernet Sauvignon / Syrah Reserve, which has a wonderful richness to it.

Serendipity has another surprise in store for us. Macit, who is our guide for the day, was meant to take a trip out to Ephesus but was moved onto our outing at the last minute. Fortunately he likes wine so he’s quite happy. When we arrive at Urlice, Macit and Reha look at each other stunned as they recognise each other. They were old friends who lived across from one another in Izmir more than 30 years ago and haven’t seen each other in all that time. It was serendipity that brought them together. Or maybe it was the wine.

#EWBC12 Macit & Reha Urlice Vineyard
Reha and Macit catching up on old times.
Photograph by Winesagasu


Getting to the Source

The journey reminded me of my younger days, when catching an overnight train to save on accommodation was a budgetary necessity. After a short and virtually sleepless flight we arrive in Istanbul in what seems like the middle of the night. It may be 5.30am here but at home it is the middle of the night. We pile onto the local bus that takes us right to the water’s edge on the Asian side of the city. After a brief stop for a cup of tea and some toast we venture onto a ferry, we assume will take us across the Bosphorus and into the European part of this sprawling city. Although the weather is more like a dreich summer’s day in Glasgow, the skyline still manages to be beautiful when it finally reveals itself. How incredible must this look when the sun is just coming up.

I am traveling with Richard Ross from Appetise, who developed the Showmappr app and I’m helping him populate the app with the various sessions at the impending conference we’re both attending.

The Appetise Istanbul office

There is still some work to do so after checking into the hotel and breakfast with plenty of coffee we settle into the cosy hotel bar sofas with our laptops to get the job done. Later in the afternoon the rain is still pouring down and although it’s taking away a little of the magic, it doesn’t stop us from exploring the city some more. So far, no wine has passed our lips, that will have to wait until tomorrow evening, in what is the unofficial starting point of the EWBC, the now infamous (so I’ve been told) BYOB dinner. As this is my first EWBC I’m feeling a mix of curiosity and excitement. Excited about meeting so many winelovers, many of which I may have had a chat with on Twitter and sharing some amazing wines and experiences with them. Curious also about the wines of Turkey. Like most people, I don’t necessarily view Turkey as a serious player in the wine market but that is not to say there isn’t some excitement to get here. Part of this morning’s job was getting a bit of background on some of the wineries involved and there is a real appetite to show off how the country can be different. The fact it now has its own generic trade body shows this quest is taken seriously and indigenous grape varieties seem to be what get a lot winemakers out of bed here. I’m hoping to be convinced these can provide something that truly represents the country. The next few days are about exploring the ‘sources’ and I can’t think of a better place to do that than right here in Turkey, a country that goes right back to wine’s source.


Wine doesn’t travel

Are you all dreaming of jetting off to sunnier climes over the summer? No wonder with this continuous drip-drip-drip effect we seem to be having up and down the country. I’m getting ready to spend a week on the beach of a Croatian island soon. The phone will be loaded up with my favourite music and plenty of books. Other than that I’m taking Speedos. Holiday destinations for me are about that peace and quiet but also a little discovery of the wonder of the local food and wines.

The other day I was discussing the reason why wine seems to have become so popular over the past 30 or so years. My view is that the advent of foreign travel, and cheaper air travel in particular, have opened people’s eyes to a continental lifestyle. Being exposed to the local wines and relaxed lifestyle made people want to recapture some of that magic when they got home. Usually with pretty mixed success, it has to be said. We all have stories of that wine which tasted so wonderful on the Spanish costas or the Greek islands. Once we got home to the British autumn it turned out to be less than pleasant and recaptured little more than a headache the next day. I’ve had it myself.

The local wine of Naples and the surrounding Amalfi Coast is a semi-sparkling light red wine called Gragnano. It is served in pitchers, perfectly chilled and very refreshing. Naples is well-known for its pizza and this wine just works far too well with the huge stone baked pizzas served all over Naples. Not long after the trip, I managed to track a bottle of it down in Scotland and thought I’d give it a try. I knew the producer and their wines are generally very good. There was nothing wrong with their Gragnano either, to be fair, but it just felt totally out of place up here in the cold Scottish autumn. More often than not, context is crucial to how a wine is experienced and it gives rise to the phrase ‘wine doesn’t travel’.

Sometimes it works though and I’m excited about the Croatia trip because the wines of Croatia are starting to make some waves here too, up until now largely in the independent sector but the quality absolutely warrants a wider distribution. That shouldn’t really come as a surprise with its proximity to wine superpower Italy. The great thing will be to continue the journey of discovery over the odd glass or two once back home.

If you want to have a go with Croatian wines yourself, here is one to try. It is made from the local variety Grasevina, which gives fresh, fruity white wines, perfect for sunny afternoons. Good on Marks & Spencer for being one of the first retailers to include a couple of Croatian wines in their portfolio.

Disney and Champagne

It is mid-October and we are spending a mid-week in northern France with the family. To be more specific, we’re staying in the the Davey Crockett Lodge about 10 minutes drive away from Disneyland Paris. The playful set-up of the ‘log cabins’ dotted around the woodlands take you away from the hustle and bustle of the parks itself and is a great alternative for families who want to go self-catering. Having a car with you is an absolute necessity, but taking the car is no punishment when you realise the other ‘big attraction’ on the doorstep; the city of Reims, heart of the Champagne region.

A few of us adults took an afternoon out of the frantic pace that is Disneyland and lavished in an altogether more sedate pace of talking and tasting ‘Champagne’.

The set for the afternoon was the medium-sized house of Henriot and our lovely host, Béatrice made us feel instantly welcome. She talked through the intricacies of the house and its history (unsurprisingly this involves a widow, a given in Champagne it seems) and she introduced us to three of the Champagnes. First up was the Henriot Rosé Brut, an unbelievably soft and elegant wine. The dosage is a bit higher than with the whites at around 10 grams per litre but it accentuates the strawberry fruitiness and balsamic notes.

Next up was the Henriot Brut Souverain. This is an almost 50/50 split of Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Henriot tends to use very little or no Pinot Meunier, preferring the more slowly maturing Pinot Noir instead. The wine is fresh and lemony, yet creamy, very mineral, making it pure and clean. But it has richness all the same.

The final wine in the trio was the Henriot Blanc de Blancs. As the name indicates this is 100% Chardonnay. The four years of maturation give it a rich complex nose that’s at once floral and honeyed. Toasted brioche with honey is what sprang to mind for me. The palate is lively and is showing a sweet fruitiness reminiscent of quince jelly. This has to be one of my favourite Blanc de Blancs wines. Before serving us the Blanc de Blancs Béatrice decanted the bottle into a chilled, smooth decanter, a first for me. It may have been pure suggestion but the Champagne seemed very happy.

Béatrice then suggested we go down into the cellars for a tour and had a treat in store once we were down there. A bottle of the Henriot ’98 vintage was waiting for us there and this is where taking the car became punishment for me, the driver, as I had to severely limit myself, while the others enjoyed the experience. Well, someone has to.