Grand tours

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
You don't have to be an anorak-sporting wine nerd to enjoy a vineyard visit on holiday. Opening a bottle bought at Tesco may be an occasion, but tasting wine in situ is an experience. The focus on four of the world's classic regions in the new Touring in Wine Country series (Mitchell Beazley, pounds 12.99 each) is less ruined castle and mini-golf than serious wine with a gastronomic, cultural and historical twist.

This is most true of Bordeaux, despite author Hubrecht Duijker's attempt in Bordeaux to persuade you that visiting the windswept peninsula of the northern Medoc is like being "in the Camargue, or the south of France, or even on a Dutch polder". St Emilion and the odd medieval castle such as Montesquieu's Chateau Labrede apart, Bordeaux is not over-endowed with social or historic thrills.

Visiting Bordeaux is more like a pilgrimage, in which the thrill of recognition, preferably on bended knee, is in the sight and taste of a famous name. Just as well really. As Duijker warns: "don't look for evening entertainment in the Medoc, for the peninsula is silent and deserted after sunset".

The most useful features of the guide are the thumbnail sketches of individual producers and recommended hotels and restaurants. In particular, Duijker gives practical insights into the lesser-known, often good value crus bourgeois and petits chateaux, especially in appellations such as Bourg, Blaye and the Cotes de Castillon. He could have given a better idea of vintage variations however.

Burgundy is not the most picturesque of wine regions either (Beaujolais, included in the guide, is prettier), but the attractions of a serious local gastronomy, great white and red wines and numerous sites of historical interest make a richer and more colourful tapestry out of Duijker's Burgundy. He might have pointed out that while the negociants may be easier to see, the effort of visiting a good grower is likely to be more worthwhile.

Alsace is the most picturesque and foie gras studded of the three regions. Like a latter-day Pied Piper, Duijker in Alsace whisks you along the cobbled streets of Colmar, Riquewihr, Ribeauville and Turckheim with their half- timbered houses and wrought ironwork and out into the steep vineyards of the Vosges mountains. With nearly 100 villages along the wine route, Alsace offers plenty to savour, but beware of an overdose of tweeness and gewurztraminer.

In Tuscany, by Master of Wine Maureen Ashley, wine, food and scenery stand out in glorious 3-D. Ashley blends her enthusiasms with an intimate knowledge of the region and its people, but she will also dish out criticism where it is due: in the over-sulphured white wines of San Gimignano, Colli Aretini - "a Tuscan low spot" or Biondi-Santi - "strangely resistant to increasing numbers of doubting voices".

The Machiavelli Museum, Mona Lisa's birthplace and the Display of the Virgin's Holy Girdle vie for space with butcher's, cheese makers, olive oil producers, and where to get your mitts on funghi porcini, the best espresso or home-made ice cream (from Vivoli, since you ask, in Florence's inappropriately named Via Isole delle Stinche). You can't escape - and may not want to - Romanesque churches, Etruscan ruins and medieval villages, but Tuscany's vineyards and wines take pride of place.

Ashley traces the development of Tuscany's modern revolt into style, describing its pioneers and innovators, and the varying styles of Chianti, Montepulciano, Brunello di Montalcino as well as rare wines such as Vin Santo. Beginning and ending in Florence, wine tours vary from half an hour to a day, with plenty of suggested hotels, trattoria and restaurants.

The series' wine maps contain useful grid references, wine routes coloured in green and important cellars picked out in capital letters. The maps will not necessarily guide you to the cellar door, so you'll need your own detailed road map. Producers' telephone numbers, but not addresses, are given in the Tuscany guide, for most producers in Bordeaux, but not, for some reason, for producers in Burgundy or Alsace.

Hopefully, the publishers will iron out the inconsistencies in the four new volumes to be published next spring on Northwest Italy, Mosel and Rheingau, the Loire and Bavaria. Bavaria? And you thought that's where they drink Double Bock.

Wines of the week

1994 Gewurztraminer, Turckheim, pounds 5.79, Safeway. Typical rose-petal scents of Alsace gewurz with exotic lychee fruit and ginger-like spiciness. 1992 Clos Magne Figeac, Saint Emilion, pounds 8.95, selected Sainsbury's. Surprisingly youthful, deep ruby Right Bank claret with a cedary bouquet and plenty of satisfying, savoury-sweet, blackcurrant fruitiness. 1993 Domaine Maillard, Chorey-Les-Beaune, pounds 9.75, Waitrose; pounds 9.99, Wine Cellar. Spicy and oaky with the sumptuous soft red fruits character of Pinot Noir and firm backbone of the 1993 vintage. 1994 Rosso di Montalcino, Talenti, pounds 8.50, Bibendum, London NW1 (0171-916 7706). Gloriously fragrant, liquid cherry-fruity younger brother to Tuscany's classic Brunello di Montalcino

Comments