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The Beagle Bugle

The Mighty Rhone

The Mighty Rhone

The Rhône Valley is prime hunting ground for The Wine Beagle so I thought I would put together a brief overview of this wonderful region.

The Northern Rhône.

The northern part of the region stretches from Côte-Rôtie down to Cornas. It accounts for just 5% of production but this is where you’ll find some of the finest wines and grandest appellations (AOCs). Hermitage AOC and Château Grillet AOC to name a couple.

The only red grape permitted is Syrah and the whites are made from Viognier (Condrieu AOC for example), and/or Roussanne and Marsanne.

While much of production is small scale and expensive, more affordable wines can be found in the St-Joseph AOC and Crozes-Hermitage AOC.

The Southern Rhône.

The Southern Rhône (everything south of Montèlimar) is a different thing altogether. The climate is more Mediterranean, with milder winters, long warm summers and less rainfall.

In terms of grape varieties, Syrah is still crucial, but Grenache is the main player and there are numerous other red grape varieties allowed in the wines. The most important being Mourvèdre, Carignan and Cinsault. Whites wines are mostly made from Viognier, Marsanne and/or Roussanne, with cheaper blends often being based on Grenache Blanc.

Châteauneuf-du-Pape in the southern Rhône.

The key to a basic understanding of the wines of the Rhône Valley is the appellation system. When faced with a selection of Rhône wines, it is this which will help you divine what is smart and what isn’t. This is how it works:

Côtes du Rhône AOC: This is the entry level stuff, it accounts for about 70% of production. Most of it is red and made from Grenache-dominated blends. It tends to be light, fruity and easy drinking. A small amount of white is made and a certain amount of rosé too. 

Côtes du Rhône Villages AOC: The subtle addition of the word ‘Villages’ should be looked out for as it denotes quite a step-up in quality. Again, red makes up the great majority of production with Grenache being the dominant grape. These are often very good value and a safe bet in any restaurant. 

Côtes du Rhône Villages + the actual name of a village: Specific villages can be promoted up to this level if they show sufficient class. A few examples are Roaix, Sablet and Plan de Dieu. There are 21 villages in this category. As an example, the label would read – Côtes du Rhône Villages Roaix AOC. They can be very high quality and very good value.

The individual Crus: At the top of the pile are the Crus. Appellations that can dispense with any mention of Côtes du Rhône AOC and just write their name on the label. For example, Rasteau AOC or Vacqueyras AOC. They make up 20% of Rhône production, there are 17 of them and again they can offer some serious drinking at very good prices (in the south at least, not so much the north). A few of the best known are Châteauneuf-du-Pape AOC, Gigondas AOC (in the south) and, as mentioned earlier, Hermitage AOC and Côte-Rotie AOC in the north.

Caveat! Although the appellation system is designed to show different levels of quality, there are always exceptions. Some Villages wines for example might be better than some of the Crus, but if the vineyard is outside any of the 17 Cru's borders, then the wine cannot be eligible for Cru status. As a rule of thumb though the above will give you a pretty good idea of where you stand.

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This wine smells like a wet dog.

If this is the case, then most likely you're dealing with a 'corked' bottle of wine. Here's a quick explanation of what exactly this is and how it happens.

What is it?

Basically, any wine that has been infected by the organic compound TCA. It gives the wine a nasty aroma, often compared to damp cardboard, wet dog, or mouldy newspaper. At worst it makes the wine completely undrinkable, at best it will just mute the natural flavours. There are various other organic compounds that have a similar effect (TBA, TeCA etc), but TCA is the main culprit.

How does it happen?

Mostly it is a result of using an infected cork to seal the wine bottle, but the wine can also be infected by taint compounds present in wood or rubber in the winery itself (barrels, beams, rubber tubes etc). The latter can be disastrous for the winemaker - wineries have been levelled in the past in order to stamp out the problem. This explains why it is possible for a screw capped wine to be corked.

The Cork Oak can be harvested every 9 - 12 years. It is always done by hand and no harm comes to the tree.

How do the corks become infected?

TCA forms when Chlorophenols interact with naturally occurring, airborne fungi. Chlorophenols are present in some pesticides, so if these are used in cork plantations then trouble may be afoot.

How to deal with it?

Not easy, but Andrew Waterhouse (professor of wine chemistry at The University of California), reckons that soaking the wine in cling film can do the job. Apparently it sticks to the Polyethylene in the cling film. I haven’t tried this but it sounds like it would be worth a go, particularly if you’re dealing with a melchizedek of Lafite... might be a bit of a fiddle though.

Myths dispelled:

  • Bits of cork floating in the wine do not mean the wine is corked.
  • Mould around the top of the cork does not mean the cork is infected or that the wine will be corked.

It’s also worth pointing out that wines can be spoiled in other ways. Oxidisation being the main culprit – if the wine is exposed to too much air (for example due to a dry and therefore leaky cork), it will taste a bit like vinegar.

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Interview with Nicolas Mollard

Interview with Nicolas Mollard

What are the defining characteristics of red wines from Terraces du Larzac and why?

Freshness and aromatics. Because the Larzac plateau is so high (800m), the nights are particularly cool. As a result the grapes mature slowly and we keep a nice freshness and balance in the wines.

Can you explain the increased popularity of wines from Terraces du Larzac in recent years?

Terrasses du Larzac is home to several pioneering Languedoc domaines. They have pushed the region into the spotlight.

The wines are fruity, very well balanced and early drinking – a quality that many people look for these days.

The strict rules of the Terrasses du Larzac AOP ensure that only high quality wines can be sold under that label.  

There is a real diversity of soils (ruffes, sandstone, schist, pebbles), terroir and aspect.


Other than wine from Terraces du Larzac, what other regions’ wines do you tend to drink? Do you drink much New World wine?

We like to swap wines with friends during tastings and are happy to drink wines from all the French regions as well as the New World – as long as they’re well made, we’re happy.  We particularly love seeing well known winemakers from the New World focusing on terroir instead of grape variety.

What particular challenges does your area throw up?

Wood diseases (Esca) and wild boar are the main problems.

What are your thoughts on Organic, Biodynamic and ‘Natural’ wine making?

The most important thing is the intention of the winemaker! If their aim is to produce a good wine based on terroir and environment, it doesn’t matter what it says on the label!

Talk me through the basic wine making process from harvest to bottling for your Terraces du Larzac red.

All the vines are treated with composted lees, manure and crushed unwanted shoots. The soil is ploughed. We insist on thorough spur removal, hard pruning, and strictly controlled yields (average about 35hL/ha). All harvesting is by hand, and grape picking starts when tasting shows they’re ripe. 

Each land parcel is vinified separately and macerated for 12 to 18 days in concrete vats. Then each parcel is aged for 12 months before final blending and release – the Syrah is aged in French oak barrels (350L) and the Cinsault, Carignan and Grenache are aged in concrete vats.

The wine is bottled in July during a waning moon.

Corks, screwcaps, etc… what are your views on these different closures?

We use cork to bottle our wines from Terrasses du Larzac because we think it is better for reds that can age. We have no problem with screwcaps being used on early drinking whites.

Food recommendations for the Terraces du Larzac red 2015?

Lamb from the Larzac plateau with mushrooms or beef ribs with French fries.

Ageing recommendations for the same wine.

4 to 6 years. Drink at 17°. Can be opened one hour before.

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The Wine Beagle guide to Christmas fizz

Sparkling wine of some sort is surely a Christmas essential. But where to start? There are so many different types, prices vary wildly and the question of what represents real value is often quite opaque.

In my view, step one is to avoid the sub £15 Champagnes. They really aren’t up to it. If you’re trying to keep the price down, you’re much better off with some Cava (made in the same way as Champagne but generally with different grapes), Prosecco (though not the really cheap, cloying stuff please!), or maybe a Crémant of some kind – these are the Champagne equivalents from other regions around France, again they’re made in the same way as Champagne, but the grapes used will be the speciality of that region. Crémant de Bourgogne is often a good bet, or Crémant de Loire.

If you’re happy to spend north of £20, I’d advocate the ‘Grower’ Champagnes. Unlike the big brands who buy in grapes from all over the region, ‘Grower’ Champagnes are made from grapes grown by the producers themselves. This means that they have control of the process from start to finish and can produce ‘terroir’ driven wines. I.e. wines that represent a particular place. Given that these are two central tenets of fine wine production the world over, I’m not quite sure how the big Champagne brands have persuaded us that the same shouldn’t apply there. In order to work out if a Champagne is in this category, you need to look for the letters RM on the bottle. This stands for Recoltant-Manipulant as seen below:

Grower Champagne label

Keeping it more local, English fizz has very much come of age and quality is now up there with some of the better Champagnes. Prices however are still quite high, so although this can make an interesting choice, you’ll have to be prepared to pay at least £20 a bottle for a good one and, dare I say it, a Champagne at the same price would probably be better value.

For the more adventurous, look out for some German Sekt. Made from either Riesling or Pinot Noir, this dry sparkling wine can be absolutely delicious and there is excellent value to be found in the £15  - £20 bracket. 

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Au naturel?

Au naturel?

Following the Pope’s announcement that from now on, communion wine should be of the ‘natural’ variety only, I thought I’d give a brief explanation of what exactly this means and where ‘natural’ wine fits in with organic and biodynamic.

Organic wines

Wines certified as organic are subject to a whole host of rules, the main thrust though is that artificial chemicals cannot be used and that the farmer should encourage a biodiverse, sustainable ecosystem in the vineyard. This will to some extent keep bugs, weeds and diseases under control (i.e. ladybirds eating aphids, sheep eating weeds, chickens eating grubs), and the biodiversity will in turn lead to healthy soils, stronger vines and better grapes.

Sulphites (preservatives) can be used but the maximum allowed is much lower than in conventional wines. That’s the rule in the EU anyway, in the U.S. no sulphites can be added to organic wines.

Click here for a brilliant video showing a quack squad (sorry) of Indian Runner ducks keeping pests under control.

Biodynamic wines

Biodynamic wines are made according to the farming practises suggested by the philosopher and all round genius Rudolph Steiner in the early 20th Century. Much of what he proposed tallies with organic farming methods but some of his theories haven’t exactly been accepted by the scientific community. His emphasis on the importance of the positions of the planets when tending to the crops for example; and some of the organic preparations that he devised:

Preparation 505: Oak bark is sheathed in the skull of a farm animal and buried in a watery environment over winter, then dug up. The skull's contents are removed and inserted in the compost (the used skull is discarded). Provides "healing forces" to prevent disease.

Preparation 502

Biodynamic Preparation 502: Yarrow flowers are encased in a stag’s bladder, hung up in a tree over summer, then buried over winter.

The amount of sulphites that can be added to wines labelled as biodynamic is lower than that of organic wines.

Natural wines

The ‘natural’ wine movement is a recent addition and unlike organic and biodynamic, it is not certified in any way. In fact the exact definition is really quite unclear. In essence though it is organic/biodynamic production taken to the next level, with even less intervention in the vineyard and fewer additions in the winery (i.e. chemicals, acidification, added sugar etc). The aim being to produce wines that are as honest a representation of the 'terroir' as possible. These wines often have very little or no sulphites added to them.

So, which is best?!

In my view, organic practices are clearly a step in the right direction and the label should give the consumer some reassurance. It’s not perfect though - just because a substance (a fungicide for example) is ‘naturally occurring’ and therefore allowed under organic rules, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is better for you or the environment than an artificially created one. Copper Sulphate for example, nasty stuff but allowed in organic vineyards, because, well, it's seriously handy and the most organic option available. Admittedly, organic regs don’t allow as much of it to be used as in conventional vineyards though.

Biodynamics? I’m generally in favour of this as well. Despite the lack of scientific explanation for some biodynamic practices, it clearly does no harm, and there is evidence that suggests that vines and ecosystems seem to benefit from it. On top of that, if a vigneron is willing to go to these lengths then that is surely an encouraging sign.

Natural wine? Well it is quite hard to argue against an approach to wine making that is not actually defined. The obvious problem though is that because the movement more or less spurns sulphites, there are too many producers in this category making faulty wines. This was clearly the case when I went to a recent ‘natural’ wine fair – too many of the wines were, in my book, basically ruined. 

So, to sum up, it seems to me that the best approach is not actually categorised. It would be a combination of organic and perhaps biodynamic practices with the use of non-organic pesticides, herbicides etc when it makes better sense for the environment and vineyard. There are plenty of excellent winemakers who follow this approach but as a result they don't qualify for the organic or biodynamic certification.

As a rule though, organic and biodynamic labels are good indicators that the wine is relatively nasties-free; and as for ‘natural’ wines, well, good intentions, but for the moment it’s not actually clear to me what this means. Other than that next time you take communion, the wine might taste like old socks.

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Boysenberry pate de fruit, anybody?

Wine tasting notes have long been a bit of a joke, but they are a necessary evil - if we want to differentiate between wines then we need to be able to describe them. The problem is, it is cursed difficult to write a good one.

There are a few different approaches:

You can go for the plain, factual description: “Medium bodied, red fruit, high acidity etc…”, but these make for pretty boring reading and do little to convey the deliciousness (or otherwise) of the wine.

Go too far in the other direction though and you risk being shortlisted for the ‘Pulitzer Prize for Wine Reviews’ (as chosen by Ron Washam, a.k.a. The Hosemaster of Wine). The following was a contender last year:

“This is gorgeous, with lush linzer torte, boysenberry pâte de fruit and plum sauce notes that captivate, while anise, Lapsang souchong tea and singed apple wood notes fill in the background...”

Sounds sensational but definitely far fetched.

If you really can't be bothered, you can try the online Random Wine Review Generator. (This is not policy at Beagle HQ). 

Or, you can go with the guerrilla wine reviewing technique used by this supermarket joker:

The truth is that not many people have the writing skill to pull it off. Two who do tend to get it right though are Hugh Johnson and Jon Rimmerman.

Rimmerman writes knowingly silly tasting notes, but he does still give you a pretty good idea of what to expect, and they are quite tempting:

“This wine is so delicious, I can still taste the spice cured jambon and dripping peppery red fruit that appears to float like a weightless dancing dandelion seed wafting and waiting to fall to earth (only to be carried further afield by a cool breeze).”

Hugh Johnson, co-author of The World Atlas of Wine, keeps it more serious but has a real knack for hitting the nail on the head. Not to mention being quite handy with a semi-colon.

The following description of Sauvignon Blanc and the merits of white Graves is not a tasting note, but it does show why he is the acknowledged master, (and he’s definitely right about white Graves/Bordeaux – often sensational but still strangely good value):

“Sauvignon Blanc has a loud voice but not a musical one. Singing piano or mezzo forte, as it does on the Loire, it can be more than agreeable. With all the stops out, Marlborough style, it is about as musical as the Last Night of the Proms.

And yet the solution is so easily at hand. The world’s grandest manifestation of Sauvignon has been doing it for a century. Has nobody noticed? To two measures of Sauvignon Blanc add one of Semillon. Vary the recipe to taste. If your grapes are impeccable, ferment in a barrel; if not, contrive a sniff of oak. France’s one true rival to top white Burgundy is Graves. It lost its way, some time in history, in a muddle about residual sugar and too much sulphur, but don’t blame the sins of the fathers on the children. If I have a racing prediction about white wine trends it is this. The evidence is growing: white Graves is coming back, and some of the brightest of the New World are joining in.”Hugh Johnson, Decanter magazine.

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Cycling to Sicily Part II: The Food

Cycling to Sicily Part II: The Food

I’m greedy and although some cycle tourists stick to canned beans and trail mix, I was keen to make the most of the culinary treats along the way. Luckily, being on a bike means that you can eat as much as you like and carbs are something you should eat lots of.

Through France it was the boulangeries and food markets that kept me going. One (or two) of those outrageously tasty almond croissants made for a very good start to the day; and for lunch I’d strap a baguette to the pannier, hopefully to be filled with pate, cheese and ham from one of the amazing farmer’s markets that you find in most French towns.

I stopped at various restaurants as well, but I have to admit that my good chef radar seemed to be on the blink for much of France as I tended to pick quite badly. I did find some winners though, one that sticks in the memory is the Auberge La Morinais just to the north of Nantes – an excellent inn with restaurant attached that was supplied almost entirely by produce from their small farm. A great concept that you see more and more of in rural France.


The camping ground at Auberge La Morinais

Italy saw an immediate change in proceedings. Breakfast became a bit less clear with the disappearance of almond croissants. Italian versions are easily found – cornetti – but they’re not really in the same league. That said, a proper Italian brioche is not to be missed.

Lunch and dinner was easy though, with lots of excellent, cheap pizzerias to choose from and the occasional pasta shop dolling out a rolling menu of fresh ravioli and spaghettis. There’s a great one in Rome near the Spanish steps called Pastificio - standing room only and 4 euros for a plate of whatever delicious pasta they have on the go and a plastic cup of wine.

It is quite difficult to find bad pizza in Italy and the styles changed as I made my way south. On the Ligurian coast in the north, it was all about foccacia – well oiled, salted, light and airy, it is excellent by itself or even better as a pizza base. The best one I found was at La Pia in the seaside town of La Spezia: a focaccia base and some farinata (a sort of chickpea flour pancake), absolutely drowning in tomato and mozzarella.

Golfo dei Poeti, La Spezia

La Spezia, Golfo dei Poeti

Around Rome it is the thin and crispy type which dominates, and then as you approach Naples the famous Pizza Napoletana starts to appear – a thin base but with quite doughy crusts. Confusingly Napoletana is a sort of topping as well as a style of pizza.


Naples and Mount Vesuvius

The town of Frascati, just to the south of Rome, was a surprise hit on the food front. As well as being home to the famous dry white wine of the same name, this is the area that invented porchetta – a wood-roasted roll of pork, stuffed with herbs. I had a superb dinner in Cantina Grappolo d’Oro – a scruffy but excellent bar/restaurant with beaten up wooden benches and tables outside, and food served on paper plates. The bar lady laid on a delicious selection of local meats (the best porchetta in town she assured me) and cheeses with honey and olives, all washed down with a carafe of her brother-in-law's Frascati.

The Frascati approach to breakfast was an interesting one, with cake being the main ingredient. Knowing that I’d need plenty of energy for a days cycling, I was initially pretty enthusiastic about this, but it turns out that copious amounts of swiss roll doesn’t go down very well first thing.

Cycling through Italy in the autumn it is impossible not to notice all the activity in the olive groves. I visited a small one just outside Florence and spent a very enjoyable day with Stefano, the chap who manages the trees and oil production. He showed me how they make the oil and then rustled up some bread from a neighbour so we could taste the latest batch. He had a bottle of Chianti lying around so we had that as well, it being nearly midday.Stephano

Stefano, olive oil maestro

The olives came from different types of tree on the estate (each variety has its own character); it was ‘extra-virgin’ (no chemical additives) and cold pressed (heat during production is bad for flavour and texture). Needless to say, it was extremely good and I’m keen to ship some over at some stage to offer alongside some Italian wines.

Olive Oil Tasting

The olive oil tasting and production room

Another culinary highlight was a brief stay in the hills to the east of Rome with a chap called Achille – a friend of my brother-in-laws and a great man. Achille used to be the local mayor but since retirement has concentrated on making his own wine and olive oil from his nearby vineyard and olive grove. He makes the olive oil the old fashioned way, crushing the olives with a granite wheel rather than using a modern, temperature controlled slicer. The granite keeps the temperature relatively low during the crushing process and so helps to achieve the same ‘cold pressed’ results.

Achille’s sister cooked up some superb spaghetti for dinner (I noticed that they had about 30 packets in the store cupboard, no messing about on that front), which was tipped into a wok in which she had fried some pancetta in about two inches of oil. Following that we had some hard sheep’s cheese, local bread, several vintages of olive oil and some of Achille’s black olives which he’d salted and partially dried in in front of the fire for a few weeks. They were delicious, as was his home brewed wine. Pudding was more wine and some homemade panforte (I was packed off with a large wedge the next day to keep the energy levels up).

Their food was exceptional and it was incredibly kind of them to put me up for the night and lay on such a banquet. Incredible hospitality and in my view Achille has absolutely got his priorities right with this home production lifestyle.

There are plenty of other things that deserve inclusion here: other people who very kindly put me up for the night, the pizza and rum babas in Napoli, the arancini and sfincione in Sicily, but I’m aware that my word count is already well beyond acceptable blog levels so I think I best leave it at that. 

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Cycling to Sicily Part I

Cycling to Sicily Part I

On 1st September I set off on a wine finding mission on my bicycle, the plan, to pedal from home in Devon to Sicily, exploring the vineyards of France and Italy along the way.

I spent just over two months in the saddle, covered about 2,000 miles, and flew back from Palermo on 9th November, a fair bit lighter than I was when I left, and with oddly brown knees.

The Daymark

Practice run down to the Daymark, Dartmouth.

Before this trip my biking experience was limited to commuting across London and a few practice runs through the Devon lanes. So, cycling down to Plymouth to catch the ferry to Roscoff in northwest France, I was not really sure if a). I was actually going to be a fan of cycle touring at all, and b). (closely linked to a), what my views were about going up hills – something that seems to be a crucial part of the enjoyment for cycling enthusiasts.

Arrival at Roscoff

Arriving at Roscoff on the ferry (or 'the ship of broken dreams' as my brother calls it).

Luckily, it didn’t take me long to start appreciating the benefits. Arriving at dawn at Roscoff and slowly pedalling off the ferry and into the rolling countryside beyond, I had my first taste of the excitement that each morning brings when you are travelling by bike. There's none of the faff and stress of repeatedly catching trains and buses, instead, you load your panniers, get some good breakfast down and silently roll off down the road, wondering what's in store for the day.

Above Roscoff

Heading south from Roscoff.

Being out in the open and travelling at such slow speeds also means that you really take in your surroundings, and get a proper sense of where you actually are - not the case, I find, if I arrive anywhere by public transport or Sat Nav. 


Amboise on the River Loire.

Add to that the mood buoying effects of exercise and the fact that 6 hours a day on a bike means you can eat as much pizza and gelato as you want, and you have a winning formula for a holiday, ahem, business trip.

Camping by the Loire

Camping by the Loire.

As for the hills, it turns out that they really are a key part of the enjoyment. Long stretches of flat soon become boring, and, knackering though the climbs can be, the views and the exhilaration of the downhills, make them more than worth while. It is best to know what you’re dealing with though: a long, unexpected climb when you feel like you should have had lunch an hour ago can cause a sense of humour failure.


Cilento coast, south of Naples.

 The Route

The route took me from Roscoff down to Nantes, up the Loire, down the Rhône, onto the Cote d'Azur and then down through the great wine producing regions of the west of Italy.

The route

Cycling through France was a fairly civilised affair, the drivers are well used to hordes of cyclists and tend to give you plenty of space, and there are lots of cycle paths along the way.

Italy on the other hand was a slightly dicier business. Especially on the mountainous coastal roads. The driver attitude seemed to be that if there was a 50/50 chance of getting past without nudging you into oblivion, they should go for it. Even if they were:

a). Talking on the phone
b). Drinking a cappuccino
c). Gesticulating at their passenger
d). All of the above. 



Coast road in Liguria, northwest Italy.

Tunnels along the mountainous parts of Italy’s coast could also be quite unnerving – particularly when even a scooter sounds like a juggernaut in a tunnel.

Luckily though, I didn't have any mishaps, although there was a close call on the Calabrian coast involving an oncoming bus and a wasp stuck under my helmet strap.


Amalfi coast.

Best bits

In terms of the cycling, the Amalfi coast was superb, though you wouldn’t want to do it during high season. The rolling hills of Tuscany are also a winner and I had some great days in the quiet hills just to the northwest of Beaujolais. The key ingredients (for me anyway) are rolling hills, fine views, quiet, good roads and variety - you don't really want to spend a whole week biking alongside a canal with woods on either side for example - better to strike out for some different terrain and away from the tourist trail.



Dos and Don'ts for anyone considering something similar

  • Do not put red wine in your plastic water bottle, one of my canteens tasted slightly of Cabernet Franc all the way to Sicily. (For the record, the wine was for drinking at the end of the day, I wasn't chugging it on the road).
  • Do get a Brooks saddle - hard leather saddles are the answer, its the squashy ones that will have you walking like John Wayne.
  • Do not bother asking anyone in France if there is a Boulangerie in town. There is always a Boulangerie in town.
  • Do use those clip-in bike pedals, they're much more efficient. You will probably have to suck up a few dignity-robbing falls while you get used to them though.
  • Do resist the urge to drink wine at lunch time if you're planning on tackling any hills in the afternoon.
  • Do not expect to understand shop opening hours in France. 

French Riviera

French Riviera

Travelling solo

One of the first questions people often ask about the trip is 'didn't you get lonely travelling by yourself?' Well, clearly, not having a travelling companion can make things a bit less fun at times. But, I would say that this is balanced out by the advantages:

From a selfish point of view, there's no waiting around or debate about this, that and the other. You can go where you want, when you want.

You put yourself out there a lot more, whereas travelling with a friend can mean you stay in your UK bubble to some extent.

There is also a certain satisfaction in being completely self-reliant, particularly if you have set yourself a bit of a challenge.

In short, both ways of travelling have their advantages but I would definitely recommend heading off by yourself to anyone considering it.

    Messina, Sicily

    Messina, Sicily. Amazingly still completely untanned apparently.

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    Roscoff to Nantes

    Roscoff to Nantes

    The first leg of the bike trip took me from the ferry at Roscoff down to Nantes - the major city at the Atlantic end of the Loire and capital of the Brittany region.

    The area is well set up for bike touring so I was mostly cycling down greenways (an old railway line in this case), and then joined the Nantes-Brest canal about a third of the way down. Apparently the canal was built by Napoleon to counter the English blocade of Brest back in 1811. There were plenty of hills to keep me on my toes as well though.

    Northern Brittany is more about apples than grapes so no wine was to be had for the most part, I did sample some excellent cidre though at a Breton get together on a farm outside Rohan. It came in unmarked bottles so I had no idea how strong it was, the barman seemed quite far gone though, so I advanced with caution.

    The celtic traditions are alive and well here. See below for traditional Breton dancing. It's a bit like the Hokey Cokey but more dignified!

    A few canal towns later I arrived in Nantes, the beginning of wine country. The vineyards around Nantes are dominated by Muscadet production. This dry white is made from Melon de Bourgogne and is traditionally a winner with oysters. It was hugely popular in the 1980s in France and the UK, but the boom led to over production, a loss in quality and then the inevitable image problem. This prompted a sudden fall from grace with exports halving in the 90s - a bit like the rise and fall of Pinot Grigio. Will Prosecco go the same way?

    Place Royal, Nantes.

    Muscadet should absolutely not be written off though. There is good reason why it became so popular in the first place and recent focus on quality, the rise of independent growers and the establishing of communes within the Muscadet AOC are all contributing to its re-emergence. 

    Having visited a number of exciting small producers in the last few days, I for one am completely sold.

    There are a wealth of different styles thanks to the different terroirs within the region and the different styles of elevage, and although much is made for early drinking, it is clear that the better examples age extremely well, developing really impressive complexity over 5 or even 20 years. What's more, thanks to the boom and bust of the 80s, the prices are excellent.

    I've lined up a handful of the best for next spring. Captain Good Lad Eric Chevalier is on the list (pictured below) as well as the excellent Domaine Michel Luneau et Fils.

    I'm back on the bike tomorrow to head up stream towards Angers. Some more exciting prospects along the way in Muscadet country and then I'll be into Anjou and Coteaux du Layon.

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    What the Yecla?

    What the Yecla?

    The Spanish wine scene has changed extraordinarily over the last 15 or so years. Where once, Rioja and Ribera del Duero were the only real sources of high quality wine, there are now dozens of appellations producing superb wines, in many cases, at very good prices.

    Yecla in the Levante in south east Spain is one of these regions. For most of the 20th Century the area was best known for bulk production but in 1975 it was awarded a P.D.O. (Protected Designation of Origin) and focus on quality wine production has been on the up ever since.



    The red grape Monastrell is the key variety here, making up about 85% of plantings. This is the same grape that dominates Provence’s Bandol wines and is also one of the 13 grape varieties allowed in Châteauneuf-du-Pape (although to confuse matters it is known as Mourvèdre in France and elsewhere as Mataro).

    Monastrell vine

    Monastrell vine

    Conditions in Yecla are hot and arid which is ideal for the Monastrell grape, and the resulting wines are blackberry fruit driven with good structure and, thanks to the relatively high altitude of the vineyards, a good freshness as well (high altitude = cold nights = grapes that hold on to their acidity), something which is crucial in hot climate reds. A number of other red grapes are allowed by the P.D.O rules (Syrah, Tempranillo and Merlot among them) and a small amount of white wine is made from a variety of local and international varieties.

    I highly recommend seeking them out as prices at the moment are extraordinarily low.

    Vineyard at Bodegas Barahonda



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