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677: The Little Island
Escape the late-winter blues with a tropical blast from the past
675: Scenic Spirituality
Commune with religion and nature in an ancient land
673: Aoni Onsen
Return to a forgotten time at one of Honshuís most remote getaways
671: The Golden Rock
One of Burmaís many splendid attractions hangs by a hair
669: Hida Takayama
For personal trips gentle to the soul, seek out the old-time charm of Hida Takayama
665: Okayama
A serene stroll through history awaits at this seaside retreat
663: Cruising the Bay
Ha Long Bay offers a breath of calm away from Vietnamís urban rush
661: Agamachi
Fox fires and bar codes help a rural Niigata town reinvent itself
535: Hotel California
Mark Parren Taylor kicks up the desert dust in Palm Springs, the perennial Hollywood star retreat.
531: Race through time
The Xterra Saipan triathlon journeys through tropical jungle, up steep mountain paths and across the sands of history. Tama M. Lung joins the chase.
527: Bohemian rhapsody
No visit to Paris would be complete without taking in the Montmartre district. Bon vivant Simon Rowe dusts off his French to go exploring.
523: Slow Motion
Mark Parren Taylor touches down in the timeless former seaport of Lukang, Taiwan.
519: Rock of ages
From ancient times to the present, Gibraltar has always been an island of legends. Stephen Mansfield sifts through its history.
515: Go west, young man
Simon Rowe takes in the big skies and dust trails of Western Australia's East Kimberley region.
511: All mixed up
Mark Parren Taylor makes land on Macau and finds an enigmatic blend of cultures, cuisine and heated competition.
505: Earth, wind and fire
A historically imperiled town in Papua New Guinea holds the keys to a magical getaway. Carlo Niederberger splashes ashore.
501: Off the rails
Braving the 2,010 kilometers of Vietnam's Reunification Express from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi is quite the adventure. Simon Rowe goes along for the ride.
493: Rites of passage
From firecrackers and cheek piercing to divinations and buffalo races, Thailand's most colorful customs come alive at two annual festivals. Mark Parren Taylor joins the crowds.
489: Paradise found
Beaches, battlefields and a colossal casino provide tropical pleasures on the Pacific isle of Tinian. Carlo Niederberger touches down.
485: Through the grapevine
Stephen Mansfield drinks up the delights of the Château Monbazillac in southwest France.
481: Pleasure island
Saipan awaits the young and young at heart with its pristine beaches, pointy peaks, and perfect amount of entertainment. Carlo Niederberger checks in.
477: Reservoir of dogs
Simon Rowe visits the Kingdom of Tonga, where storms burst without warning and wild canines rule the night.
473: Into the bat cave
Sarawak’s Niah Caves are home to hairless bats, birds on the brink of extinction, and lots of bugs, according to Simon Rowe.
469: A fork in the river
Laos’ ethnic minorities battle the forces of time. Stephen Mansfield goes upriver in search of them.
465: Action scene
Sick of the short, humid Japanese summer? Tired of the winter? In NZ it’s summertime and the living is easy, the food and drink inexpensive, and the evenings long and lazy. Mark Devlin heads south to explore and party.
457/458: In living color
Simon Rowe soaks in the glow of Samoa's kaleidoscopic streets.
454: From Jamaica with love
Michael McDonagh soaks up the atmosphere in James Bond's balmy birthplace
449: See worthy
Dan Grunebaum drops oar in the stunning caves of Thailand's Phang Nga Bay
445: Great heights
Simon Rowe packs his hiking boots and sets out for Malaysia's Mount Kinabalu
441: Split personality
There are few cities with such an exacting dividing line between past and present as Lijiang in China's southwestern province of Yunnan
438: Fierce creatures
Simon Rowe introduces us to the untamed charms of Australia's Kangaroo Island
434: Leap of Faith
Simon Rowe dives into a tropical island paradise of waterfalls, reefs and bush rugby on the Fijian archipelago
430: A week in Provence
Stephen Mansfield explores the historic festival city of Avignon, a medieval diamond in the south of France
426: Outer space
Surreal sites, lunar landscapes and UFO sightings go with the territory in Chile
422: The Big Easy
The Moorish streets of Granada, Spain are alive with a new Bohemian rhapsody
418: Small awakening
Japan's microbrewers
414: Fowl play
The animal kingdom comes alive in the Galapagos
410: The river of spirits
Wading through soulful waters in Varanasi, India
406: Heading north
Marching to the beat of a modern drum in North Korea
403: Santa's lap
Santa's lap - enjoy saunas, Santa and sightseeing in Finlandís Lapland
399: Shanghaied
Seeking the past in China's megacity
395: Rising from the ashes
Mary King explores the rich history, culture and art of Croatia’s phoenix city, Dubrovnik.
391: The betels and the stones
Simon Rowe rolls with the tropical exotica on the obscure island of Yap
387: Prague
World heritage site
383: South Africa
Land of hope
381: Hawaii
Pearl Harbor
377: Salt of the earth
Tour the Uyuni Salt Pan
374: China
Suzhou and Hangzhou
370: The Nile
The river mild
367: Tibet
Top of the world
363: Laos
Memo from the Lower Mekong
360: Cuzco, Peru
Lost cities
357: Namibia
Call of the wild
354: Southern India
Mad about Madurai

ISSUES 349-   

Through the grapevine

Stephen Mansfield drinks up the delights of the Château Monbazillac in southwest France.

Rows of vines lead the visitor to Monbazillac's front door.

Visitors come from all over the world to taste the country fare, truffles and foie gras of the Dordogne region of southwest France. They also come for a look at some of the thousand or so magnificent chateaus. These fairy-tale homes, however, are not without their problems. In order to pay for the maintenance and running costs of these large and drafty buildings, an increasing number of château owners, in exchange for a small admission fee, have opened their homes to the public. Many are now museums or venues for famous gardens, restaurants and country clubs.

Châteaus are also strongly associated with wine production and viticulture. One of the Dordogne's most elegant ancestral homes, and the source of one of its finest wines, is the Château Monbazillac. Located 5 kilometers south of the well-known town of Bergerac, the château was built in 1550 and is described by James Bentley in The Penguin Guide to the Dordogne as "Just the kind of château you would make as a child's model."


Renaissance charm
Almost 450 years after its completion, the château remains almost totally unchanged. Its unique and original architecture remains just as it was intended, mixing the design of a medieval fortress or castle with the charm of a Renaissance palace. Inhabited until 1960 by the Lords of Bergerac, members of France's small Protestant aristocracy, the château still houses a Protestant museum. Today, it belongs to the Wine Co-operative of Monbazillac, which hails from a long line of winemakers dating the monks who owned these gently sloping hillsides back to the 11th century.

Some of Monbazzilac's white grapes are allowed to rot to give the wine a special matured taste

While the red wines of nearby Bergerac, such as the first-rate Pecharmant and the very decent Cotes-du-Buzet and Cotes du Marmandais, bear a remarkable family resemblance to the Bordeaux right bank wines like Blaye and Bourg, the sweet white dessert wines of Cotes de Saussignac and Monbazillac are enclaves of viticulture well worth special attention.

Approximately 2,700 hectares of land surround the Château Monbazillac in a lush landscape south of the river Dordogne with grapevines now covering 22 hectares of the limestone soil. Most of the vines here are planted on the steep, north-facing slopes where the climate is similar to that of the Midi. A special method of vinification is practiced on the estate, giving Monbazillac wines their special character.

The autumn mists and damp infect the grapes with a fungus that causes some of them to release water and then shrivel and decay. The noble rot, or la pourriture noble as the French call it, explains Monbazillac's well-matured flavor and its distinctive golden color that deepens with age.

The Château Montbazillac's famous restaurant which is found in the château grounds

The taste, and its scent of wild flowers, is improved by leaving the wine to age in new oak barrels. Exceptionally good Monbazillacs, like those produced in 1989 and 1990, can be kept for up to 30 years. This is a wine always served extremely chilled. Drunk either as an aperitif or alongside pâté de foie gras or a liver terrine, it is also enjoyed with sorbet and ice cream or poured into half a melon along with slices of walnut and a touch of Angostura bitters. The château restaurant, described in guidebooks as one of France's "temples of gastronomy," is an excellent place to sample Monbazillac wines with some of the region's best local cuisine.


Taste test
Visitors usually enter the main château building first, inspecting its fine halls, salons and towers, before descending to its superb cellar. Here, hundreds of bottles are carefully classified according to their vintage year. The cellar also houses a small museum with a number of traditional instruments and tools used in the cultivation of vines. Visitors usually walk to the reception area at the entrance to the château where they can sample as many types of Monbazillac as they wish.

Rows of 20-30 year old Monbazillac can be seen in the château's cellar

"It's better to try one of the local dry wines first for comparison, before tasting the sweet wine we produce here," Monsieur Philip Richard, one of the managers at the nearby Cave de Monbazillac, advised me. The showroom, which is just 2km from the château, was established in 1940 so that visitors could sample and purchase wines, as well as shop there for some of the regional foods which are an ideal complement for this wine.

The French say that wine does not travel well. Although superb wines can be bought almost anywhere in the world now, there is some truth in this belief. To sample Monbazillac at its finest, wine lovers will surely want to visit this noble château for themselves.


Getting There:
Monbazillac lies in the southwest region of France known as Perigord. The village is easily accessed from either Bordeaux or, even closer, Bergerac. There are daily flights or rail connections to both these cities from Paris and other major French cities.

Where to Stay:
There are few places to stay in the small town itself, though the Hotel Relais de la Diligence is recommended. Nearby Bergerac has more choice. Its Tourist Office (Tel: at 97 Rue Neuve d'Argenson can be contacted for information on accommodation in the region.

More Information:
The Château Monbazillac is open every day of the year. English guides are available in July and August. The village of Monbazillac has a lively patronal festival on the first Sunday of August, a chance to sample countless wines at stalls and tents set up for the event. July and August are the busiest times to visit as Europeans take their vacations at this time. The spring months and September are delightful.

Photo credit: Stephen Mansfield