Short of Valentine’s Day inspiration? NIGEL BUXTON picks ten top romantic spots in Europe’s wine regions to share a bottle with that special someone
What makes a romantic rendezvous for wine lovers? Associations, often. If history is your thing, it would be thrilling, for instance, to wine or dine at the same table as to have been occupied by Wellington in his lodgings on the eve of Waterloo. Yet such connotations might be a turn-off for lustful types seeking more obvious pleasures. Other qualifications apart, the place surely needs to have an intrinsically compelling, nostalgic distinction; not by any means necessarily elegant or expensive, but always what the French call sympathique. Our selection might be multiplied by a hundred, and still someone’s ardent choice would be omitted. Romance is a personal thing.
1. Caunes-Minervois, France
Marble from Caunes was once hardly less prized than that from Carrara. Italian exporters grew rich on it and built themselves mansions in this little town, northeast of Carcassonne, on the southern edge of the Black Mountains. In the courtyard of the 16th-century Hôtel Alibert are a Renaissance well and an open stairway that would not look out of place in a nobleman’s palace in Florence. No longer a well-kept secret, people tell friends about their amazing discovery, and every year more English voices are heard in consultation with major-domo Frédéric about his list of local wines.
Invariably, such discussions result in a list of producers well worth visiting.Year by year the discoveries grow in number and variety. ‘It’s a little wine we picked up on holiday last year,’ nostalgic visitors tell their appreciative dinner guests back home. ‘There was this extraordinary hotel…’ Year after year one thanks whatever gods there be that such places still exist in France.
2. La Cadière d’Azur, France
La Cadière is one of the prettiest of all the villages perchés in the south of France, and the Hostellerie Bérard is perhaps its best-known possession. A window table in the main restaurant of the 37-room hotel is worth asking for: good dinners with panoramic views of wine country do not come much better (or much more expensive, it should be said) than this. Some rooms in the medieval part of the hotel command the same prospect.
In addition to being as knowledgeable about the hostellerie’s extensive list of local wines as the sommelier himself, owner Danièle Bérard is an authority on local walks. She will recommend trails to Château de Pibarnon, with its own far views, and to Moulin des Costes and other producers among the hills or in the plain.
Which brings us naturally to the hotel’s spa, ‘where aromatherapy will awaken your senses’, and where among other delights are rose oil body wraps and ‘milk baths with flower petals and essential oil of lavender and marjoram’. If romance does not flourish here one must be unfortunate with the weather or one’s partner, or both.
3. Côte de Nuits (alfresco), France
From Burgundy’s world-famous village of Gevrey-Chambertin on the Côte de Nuits a minor road leads up the hill and into the Bois de Forey. There, a vehicle may be temporarily abandoned in favour of a dirt track running between the wood and the top of the vines, which offers easy access on foot to a score of places where a picnic may be spread with a view that brings legends to life.
Mazis-les-Hauts, Mazis-les-Bas, Chambertin-aux-Charmes, Clos-de-Bèze: a few hundred metres steeply below are the vineyards that lend their names to some of the most illustrious of all Burgundies. A few kilometres to the right are Morey St-Denis, Chambolle-Musigny, Vougeot. After looking in at a boulangerie and a charcuterie in one of the villages, having brought something away from a cellar visit before lunch (and maybe kept a bottle of something in the hotel refrigerator overnight for an apéritif), you can settle back, offer a modest libation to the spirits of place, and savour an unforgettable view.
4. Deià, Majorca
The inclusion of Majorca in these proposals will certainly arouse the withering contempt of a not inconsiderable number of those who knew it before Sir Richard Branson, Michael Douglas, Sir Mick Jagger et al discovered the place and a progressive mayor built a road to the village’s only beach.
But let a man who sometimes dried out on the rocks in company with poet Robert Graves after an early morning swim raise a murmur of dissent. On the garden terrace of La Residencia Hotel – a five-star favourite of many a celebrity for its views to the surrounding hills and down to the sea – he recently agreed with his well-travelled companion that it was as pleasing a place as any they could think of to linger over a glass or three of well-chilled fino before a romantic candlelit dinner. The wine list in the hotel’s delightful El Olivo restaurant is far and away the best on the island and unsurpassed by many on the mainland. If there were any celebs around that evening, they had the decency to keep out of sight.
5. Vaud, Chardonne, Switzerland
From Vevey in the canton of French-speaking Switzerland (which embraces more than three quarters of the country’s entire wine production), a funicular climbs to Mont Pèlerin and the café-restaurant Le Chalet, recommended for a terrace which commands magnificent views of Lake Geneva, some 800m below. Stations on the way up the mountain are Corseaux (home to writer Graham Greene from the late 1980s until his death in 1991, and where he is now buried) and Chardonne, one of the most attractive wine villages in the appellation of Lavaux. The white wine of Corseaux – like that of neighbouring and more famous Dézaley and Fendant of the Valais – is made from the Chasselas grape, whose best expression is here and hereabouts. Dry, floral, fruity, a touch flinty, it is an unbeatable choice for lunch out of doors on a sunny day. Buy a bottle or two at the Association Vinicole in the centre of the village, walk a few hundred yards, and on the steep vineyard terraces overlooking the lake are picnic spots deserving of the wine.
6. Spitz, The Wachau, Austria
Ask half a dozen Viennese about romantic spots, and most will suggest downloading a few Strauss waltzes onto the iPod and heading for pretty local towns Grinzing or Gumpoldskirchen.
There are some less obvious but no less recommendable alternatives. Some 65km up river from the capital are the terraced vineyards of the Wachau, producing Riesling as well as Grüner Veltiner. Spitz is a pretty village at the heart of the Wachau, and the charming Barock Landhof Burkhardt hotel is a venerable manor house almost at the foot of the vineyard slopes. There are roses in the garden and apple blossom in profusion in spring. From some rooms there are views of the hills, and the blue river Danube is just a short walk away.
7. Graach-Schaferei, The Mosel, Germany
Dare we talk about a romantic grape? If so, then it is Riesling that overwhelmingly justifies the flight of fancy: Riesling rules in Graach, neighbour to Bernkastel in an 8km stretch on the middle Mosel of what Hugh Johnson thinks ‘may well be the largest vineyard of sustained superlative quality in the world’.
At Graach-Schaferei, above the village of Graach, Philipps-Eckstein is not only a highly respected producer, but the proprietor of a few guest rooms and a modest but very agreeable bistro: exactly the sort of thing one wants when the location and the contents of the bottle may be more important than what is on one’s plate (though here that is invariably very good). There are geraniums in boxes on the balconies and a terrace with heart-lifting views which are somehow a perfect match for a light, floral, elegant Mosel – a coincidence of pleasure which will give extra meaning to ‘the wine of the house’.
8. Brunello di Montalcino,
The Fattorie di Donatella Cinelli is a wine estate of medieval ancestry near the village of Trequanda in the Val d’Orcia (a World Heritage site) in charming Montalcino. As well as a traditional Brunello (which tends to need bottle age), the estate’s owner, Donatella Cinelli Colombini, also makes a more approachable Brunello Prime Donne, a softer wine claimed to have been ‘chosen by and for women’. All the winemakers here are female – a good start to qualifying for our romantic selection.
The estate also offers agreeable accommodation in the main villa (and other attractively restored farmhouses) with country cooking; a number of self-catering apartments; a central restaurant; and three swimming pools, all surrounded by countryside where the vine predominates but olive trees are not hard to find (the estate sells its own oil). With Montepulciano – one of the most picturesque and captivating places in Italy – less than half an hour’s drive away, we are surely within hugging distance of an ideal trysting place far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife. Moments to treasure ought not to be hard to contrive in these parts.
9. The Douro, Portugal
For the first and last time in this romantic round-up we might admit the term ‘breathtaking’. Connoisseurs contend that, once the city of Oporto has been left well behind, the Valley of the Douro more than rivals the Rheingau and the Mosel for spectacular wine country views.
Our appointment is up river in World Heritage territory, about 20 minutes’ boat ride away from Pinhão, at the Quinta do Panascal, in the Valley of the Tavora, a tributary of the Douro. Considered by Fonseca to be its number one winery, the quinta offers a flowered terrace, a prospect of the valley, and what the management (not to be outdone in descriptive enthusiasm) says is ‘un ambiente absolutamente paradisiaco’. Heavenly indeed to sit here with a companion and a well-chilled 10-year-old tawny before a picnic high among the vines. ‘Smooth, silky, mellow, voluptuous, nutty’ are all descriptors used by even the most down-to-earth experts (to apply to the port, one should qualify).
10. Santorini, Greece
The Hotel Katakies clings to the cliffs high above the sea on the volcanic island of Santorini, in the Cyclades, its architecture a marriage of the traditional and the modern, its appointments verging on sybaritic, its views of the Aegean superb.
Not exceeding 16km long and mostly barely 5km wide, Santorini cannot offer much to distract you from the hotel’s irresistible sky-high pools, terraces and open-air restaurants. At sunset there are tastings of wines from all over Greece, where quality has improved greatly in the past few years. Writing of the local dry white, Tom Stevenson describes it as boasting ‘an intriguing combination of high natural alcohol and high natural acidity’. What more exciting recipe for an aperitif to a candlelit dinner with a view of the ‘wine-dark’ sea?
Wine Lovers’ Little Black Book
Place de la Mairie,
11160 Caunes-Minervois, France.
Tel: + 33 4 68 78 00 54
83740 La Cadière d’Azur, France. Tel: + 33 4 94 90 11 43
Château de Pibarnon
83740 La Cadière d’Azur
France. Tel: +33 4 94 90 12 73
Son Canals s/n,
07179 Deià, Majorca.
Tel: +34 971 63 9011
Café-Restaurant Le Chalet
Route de Baumaroche 29, 1801 Le Mont-Pèlerin, Switzerland.
Tel: + 41 21 922 27 61
Tel: + 43 2713 2356
Wein und Gästehaus Philipps-Eckstein
Panoramastraße 11, 54470 Graach-Schäferei/Mosel, Germany. Tel: + 49 6531 6542
Fattoria del Colle
I – 53020 Trequanda (Siena), Italy. Tel: +39 0577 662 108
Quinta do Panascal
5120-496 Valença do Douro, Portugal. Tel: +351 254 732 321
Oia, Santorini, 84702, Cyclades Islands, Greece.
Tel: +30 228 607 1401
Written by Nigel Buxton