French wine and Champagne is generally more expensive in the UK compared to when purchased in France, and many smaller French producers simply do not export. It’s far more fun to combine a short holiday in France with a wine buying expedition and come back with something wonderfully different to the usual supermarket labels.
For a Champagne adventure, fly or take the Eurostar to Paris and the Champagne towns of Reims and Epernay are under two hours away by train. What could be simpler? When you visit one of the small Champagne houses in the area you will probably be personally greeted by the owners themselves, or at least one of the family, as I was when I visited one such house a few years ago. Actually, to be more precise, I was first greeted by the owners’ dog, who then padded off to find Madame and brought her out to see me.
I was there to purchase Champagne for my parents’ wedding anniversary party a few months later, and Madame could not have been more helpful in showing me around, pouring me samples of the various champagnes to try and generally making me feel very welcome to her family’s business. I learned all about the way the famous sparkling wine was produced, the varieties of grapes and how they were blended and the length of time the mix was left in the various stages to create the different wines. Madame told me that her husband was at that very moment in the vineyards, supervising cultivation of the precious vines. Her daughter was at college studying marketing and business administration so that she could help out with the business, while her son had gone to work in California, at one of the great Napa Valley wineries, to learn the trade the American way. No danger of this house dying out just yet, it seemed.
After a couple of very pleasant hours, I duly bought a mixed case of a dozen bottles of the house’s various wines, and carted them back to England to present to my parents on their anniversary. None of the bottles lasted very long, as they don’t when you’re pouring wine for around 30 people, and the conversation focused how unusual it was to have gone to France, bought wine there and shipped it back, rather than simply ordering a crate from one of the online retailers or the local supermarket.
I would thoroughly recommend a trip to France to buy wine or Champagne at source. I would suggest a trip to any of the great wine-producing regions. The big houses and caves have a slick tourist patter, but the real charm lies in seeking out the small family-owned vineyards, talking directly to the vintners and vignerons to discover a personal view of the ancient craft of wine making, and of course, trying new wines that most others will not have found.
For a small suggestion list of smaller Champagne producers check out this article by the Guardian: Champagne wine route: top 10 guide
Have you been to any small Champagne or wine houses that you would recommend?
Catalunya, tucked away in the North-East corner of Spain, has one of the most fascinating stories to tell. A proud, independent sea-faring nation with prominent ports and military significance, it still suffered various attacks over the centuries from the Greeks, Carathaginans, Romans and the Moors. A convoluted medieval history full of intrigue, betrayal, alliances and war followed and even a lost civil war and extreme dictatorship in the 20th century couldn't quell the local spirit here. Today the capital city of Barcelona is the single largest port in the country, an artistic and cultural wonderland as well as being home to some of the countries best chefs, restaurants and bars. It shouldn't then come as a surprise to learn that Catalan wine is also enthusiastically celebrated locally and increasingly so in international markets as well. 11 of Spain's 69 Denominación de Origen's (Individual, high quality wine regions) are located here, and 95% of the countries entire Cava production as well.
Italy is a country of thousands of wineries large and small. If you are a wine lover planning a trip to visiting Italy, you are surely wondering which wineries are most worth visiting and which wine producers create wines most worth tasting and potentially purchasing to bring back home.
Slow Food International offers an English-language edition of its unique guide to Italian wines whose qualities extend well beyond the palate. Drawing upon visits to more than 300 cellars, the 2000 wine reviews in Slow Wine 2017 describe not only what's in the glass, but also what's behind it: the work, aims, and passion of producers; their bond with the land; and their choice of cultivation and cellar techniques--favoring the ones who implement ecologically sustainable wine-growing and winemaking practices. An essential guide for travelling oenophiles.
If you look around the world of wine today, you'll notice that most wine is made with the same grape varieties. Pretty much every 'New World' country produces wines made from grapes native to France; Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot... the list goes on. This is no bad thing as stylistically, all the above varieties can be drastically different depending upon climate, soil, viticulture and vinification. The vast majority of glossy, bold Shiraz from Australia is, literally and figuratively, a world away from the savoury, peppery wines of the Northern Rhone, for example. However, in the last 10 years the fashion has been to move away from seeking out the 'best' examples of these well known varieties and instead to look for unique expressions, typically from grapes native to specific countries and regions. This has seen the emergence of some new stars in the world of wine, from the austere, mineral wines of Mount Etna in Sicily to the powerful, racy Assyrtiko of Santorini in Greece. Austria has re-modelled its vinous reputation with the versatile Grüner Veltliner and even as afar as South America, Bonarda and Pais are resurging on both sides of the Andes, in Argentina and Chile respectively.
However, no country has been rediscovered in quite the same way as Spain. There are somewhere in the region of 600 grape varieties on the Iberian Peninsula, the vast majority of them indigenous and regionally specific in production. Despite this, Spain was for decades synonymous with oaky, extracted wines from Rioja, and to a lesser extent Ribera del Duero, with Tempranillo the only celebrated indigenous grape hailing from the country. Short-sighted producers ripped up their old, unfashionable vineyards and replanted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and anything that was currently selling, not realising that in doing so they were giving up their major point of difference on the international market-place. However, this wasn't true for all producers and quietly, many went about their business as they had done for centuries; cultivating their families vineyards and producing wines of distinction and style, as their vines slowly became older, sturdier and produced better quality fruit. To look at the market now compared to 20 years ago is staggering. Shops in Barcelona are awash with local Catalan wines, Galician field-blends are appearing in top restaurants across the world and even Sherry is making a come-back! To cover the entirety of this resurgence would take a strong liver and a lot of time, but I'd like to share a few exciting varieties from my own little corner of Spain, the fiercely independent Catalunya: