Louisiana: Baton Rouge and a Wine Travel Tour


Baton Rouge and the Louisiana Wine Travel Tour

Two nights in Baton Rouge (as well as our entry into the state from neighboring Mississippi) gave us the opportunity to visit three of Louisiana’s six wineries. We also visited the readily accessible tasting room of a fourth, and tasted and bought two bottles of wine from a fifth. So if it’s ok with you, we’ll consider this a Louisiana wine tour!

Our itinerary called for visits to two Louisiana wineries on the way to Baton Rouge, followed by two nights in Louisiana’s vibrant capital city. Entering the state from the east on Interstate 10, you’ll find yourself just north of Lake Ponchartrain and heading directly west toward Baton Rouge. We were particularly interested in visiting Ponchartrain Vineyards, our first Louisiana winery.

Visiting Two Louisiana Wineries

Before stopping at the two wineries, we dropped in at a small Louisiana brewery — the Abita Brewing Company. Brewers of such beers as Purple Haze, Abita Golden and Turbo Dog, Abita is also readily available in Illinois. The brewery, pub and gift shop are located in the small town of Abita Springs on Highway 36 just a few minutes north of the interstate.

We visited during the week, so we were unable to take a formal tour, but we did have lunch at the Abita Brew Pub, housed in the former brewery bottle house. In addition to tasting some of Abita’s fine beer, we enjoyed a wonderful southern-style lunch of crawfish cakes, gumbo and a combination po-boy sandwich stuffed with shrimp, oysters and catfish.

Abita Brewing has been around since 1986, making it one of the oldest craft brewing companies in America. As if great beer and a great lunch aren’t enough reasons to stop here, there’s also the charming town of Abita Springs to explore. If you’re visiting New Orleans, do make a point to stop at Abita Brewing.

After lunch, it was on to Ponchartrain Vineyards, located just a few short minutes from Abita Springs outside the town of Covington. We were particularly interested in visiting here because our research indicated Ponchartrain Vineyards is the only winery in Louisiana producing wines from traditional Louisiana-grown wine grapes. We took this to mean grapes other than muscadine, and that’s indeed what it meant.

Ponchartrain Vineyards cultivates two types of wine grapes in their vineyard, viewable from their tasting room and outside terrace, where numerous popular jazz concerts are held. We learned that this area, which is 20 twenty miles north of Lake Ponchartrain and 140 miles north of the Gulf of Mexico, is the first hilly terrain north of the Gulf and Louisiana’s coastal plains. Three types of traditional wine grapes are grown in their vineyards: Blanc du Bois, a white grape, and Cynthiana and Norton grapes.

We were able to taste two of Ponchartrain Vineyards white wines, the Roux St. Louis and Le Trolley. The Roux St. Louis was crisp and fruity, and drier than we expected (in a good way). We found it almost reminiscent of a Riesling. Le Trolley was a bit drier, crisp and well balanced, similar to a Chardonel.

You’ll enjoy the tasting room here with the beautiful view of the vineyards. Armed with three bottles of Ponchartrain Vineyards wine for our collection, we headed about 15 minutes west to the intersection of Interstate 55 and I-10 (actually it’s Interstate 12 from here to Baton Rouge, then resuming west of Baton Rouge as I-10).

If you head two exits north on I-55, take Exit 36 to Amato’s Winery in Independence. We lucked out, as a tour bus was just leaving as we arrived and we were able to visit and taste. Otherwise, call ahead for an appointment.

Amato’s Winery (phone: 985-878-6566) is best known for their strawberry wines made from local strawberries. Three versions are available: dry, semi-sweet and sweet. (We liked the semi-sweet the best!). Muscadine wines are also available — but most interesting is owner Henry Amato’s discovery of a new grape on his property, which borders Interstate 55.

Several years ago, while inspecting the outer reaches of his property, he came across some old, abandoned sharecroppers homes near a creek. Growing on a vine attached to a tree near the creek were clusters of small grapes that looked unlike others he had seen. With the help of Louisiana State University’s agriculture specialists, the winery — in conjunction with LSU — is working to cultivate the grape and produce wine from it. This particular grape was heretofore unknown, so Amato was given the privilege of naming it La Sarachannah. The “La” prefix stands for Louisiana, while the name combines the names of Amato’s grandchildren. It will be interesting to find out what kind of wine is eventually produced from La Sarachannah (pronounced Sara-see-hannah) grapes in the future!

On to Baton Rouge

Leaving Amato’s Winery, we dropped back south on I-55 and headed west on I-12/10 heading west about 45 minutes to downtown Baton Rouge. We arrived mid-afternoon, with plenty of time to explore the downtown area and get acquainted with the city’s layout.

Baton Rouge is bordered by the Mississippi River on the west side of downtown and has a distinct “river city” feel. Boats and ships of varying sizes head downriver to New Orleans, and it’s easy to while away an hour or so watching them all go by.

We also visited the State Capitol building, Louisiana’s tallest at 450 feet! At the Capitol Building, there’s an observation deck you can visit on the 27th floor (free!) to see how the city is laid out. One of Louisiana’s most well known historical political figures, Governor Huey Long, is buried on the grounds. There’s a statue of him facing the building. The observation deck affords a great view of the nearby LSU campus, as well as the meandering Mississippi, downtown Baton Rouge and far beyond.

With more than 800,000 people in metro Baton Rouge, it is Louisiana’s largest city. It has a personality all its own, despite being less than an hour and a half’s drive from New Orleans. There’s a wonderful mix of cultures here: Creole, Cajun, Italian, German, Greek and, of course, Spanish and Caribbean. Locals will sometimes drift off into colloquial versions of French. After a day or so, you’ll find the term “cher” is a term of endearment, like people in the South use the term “honey” or “hon”. You’ll hear it everywhere in Baton Rouge!

We visited in early March, which is a great time to be in Baton Rouge. Temperatures are moderate, but not yet steamy as they can get anytime from May to mid October. There’s not much of a winter here, and even January temperatures hover in the 50s.

After settling in to our room at the comfortable and ultra convenient Hotel Indigo which is located in the downtown entertainment district, it was time to narrow down our choices for lunch and dinner for the next two days.

Just like New Orleans, Baton Rouge is known as a restaurant town. Seafood is king here, as are Creole and Cajun specialties. But you’ll also find a surprising amount of other specialty restaurants. Greek, barbecue, Italian, and Southern soul food are among those we crossed paths with.

Lunches and Dinners in Baton Rouge

Over the course of two days, we were barely able to scratch the surface of Baton Rouge’s culinary scene. There is an amazing array of choices, particularly if you prefer local, independent restaurants. On our first night, we stared at happy hour at a great local, casual restaurant-bar called The Chimes, which has 60 beers on tap and 1/2 price oysters weekdays from 4 p.m.-7 p.m. The beer menu offers several Louisiana taps, and a concoction of Guinness and Abita’s Purple Haze named “Black and Bruised.”

The Chimes is Baton Rouge’s beer bar, plus an approachable, casual menu of Louisiana favorites, sandwiches, burgers, salads and more. They have two locations in Baton Rouge and one in Covington, not far from Ponchartrain Vineyards.

We decided to stay for dinner and thoroughly enjoyed a platter of BBQ shrimp, fried Louisiana alligator tail and an appetizer of boudin balls. If you’ve never heard of boudin, it’s a type of sausage made with pork, onions, rice and various herbs and spices. You’ll find it all over in Louisiana — it’s a little spicy and a whole lot delicious.

After a thoroughly satisfying evening at The Chimes, we stopped for a nightcap at the famous Roux House bar, walking distance from our hotel. The Roux House and another well known local bar called Boudreaux and Thibodeaux’s are perfect spots to end your Baton Rouge evening.

Exploring Baton Rouge and Louisiana Wine

With a bright sunny Louisiana day on the horizon, we set out to make the most of our one full day here in Baton Rouge. On the agenda was a visit to the tasting room of Casa de Sue Winery in nearby Sorrento and as much time as possible exploring Baton Rouge’s shopping and dining destinations.

If you’re staying downtown, a great way to see the area is via trolley. The Capitol Park Trolley is a great way to get around, and you can buy a day pass and hop on and off as many times as you desire. We jumped on board and rode the whole loop, from the Capitol Building to the north and the downtown area slightly farther south. One particularly enjoyable stop was the Main Street Market at 5th and Main. This local marketplace is billed as “Downtown’s Freshest Idea,” and it’s the perfect place to mingle with locals and get a pulse on the day’s activities.

Main Street Market has several food and specialty vendors, so it’s ideal for a light breakfast. Be sure to stop at Plantation Pecan for local BBQ sauce, honey and a Louisiana tradition: pralines. It’s a great shop to pick up something for friends and family back home, as is The Gallery at Main Street Market, which features local art.

Circling back to our hotel on the trolley, we set off southeast on I-10 for a 30-minute drive to Cajun Village in Sorrento. Cajun Village is a shopping destination for all things Cajun, with an adjacent group of small cottages for overnight visitors. It’s also the home of the tasting room for Casa de Sue Winery, whose winery is located northeast of Baton Rouge in Clinton. This destination was much more convenient to reach, and actually it’s a good stopping point for those traveling I-10 from New Orleans to Baton Rouge. You’ll find Cajun Village about 1/2 mile off Exit 182 in Sorrento. When you visit, say hello to “Big Boy” and “Nubby” — two alligators who live on site.

Casa de Sue’s wines are made from muscadine grapes, including a grape named Carlos, a white grape that does well in these parts. Our favorite wine here was Carlos Dry, somewhat sweet and yet quite light and not cloying in taste. We found it more fruity than sweet, so it was quite pleasing to our palates.

Another wine we took home from here was Delta Blush, which we felt offered the ideal balance between sweet and dry. It’s a good sipping wine for summer days on the patio and worth buying not only for the taste, but also the beautiful label depicting an old-time paddlewheeler.

Baton Rouge Shopping and Restaurants

After exploring Cajun Village, we headed back to Baton Rouge to explore a few culinary and shopping destinations. We stopped at Calandro’s Market, a local family-owned supermarket known for carrying local products. Calandro’s has been in business more than 70 years, and this is where you’ll find Louisiana food products to take home. Two of our favorites are Russell’s Seasonings and an outstanding bottled sauce for Cajun cooking, Omi’s Remoulade.

From here it was time for lunch, and afterwards onto one of Baton Rouge’s primary shopping districts, Perkins Rowe, located at the intersection of Bluebonnet Boulevard and Perkins Road. Craving fresh seafood, we narrowed our many options down to a real taste of Baton Rouge, Rocco’s Po Boys on Drusilla Lane near the LSU campus.

Rocco’s Po Boys and Cafe (phone: 225-248-1999) has been around since 1997 and has won several “Best Po Boy” awards from local publications. There are about two dozen po’ boy concoctions, along with several Cajun-influenced sides. For us, a mix and match of grilled shrimp po’ boy, red beans and rice and Cajun potato salad did the trick.

The Perkins Rowe shopping district is the ideal after lunch destination. Walk off your meal in this multi-block area of shops, both large chain and local. We’re told as late afternoon turns to evening, Perkins Rowe takes on an even more sophisticated look and feel, with sparkling lights and fountains accenting the shopping and entertainment experience.

The remainder of the afternoon took us over to the LSU campus to explore the area and then to Baton Rouge’s local microbrewery, Tin Roof Brewing Company, located between the campus and downtown. Tin Roof’s beers can be found all over Baton Rouge. We recommend Tin Roof Blonde Ale, an easy drinker, and the wonderfully complex and tasty Voodoo Bengal Pale Ale, which has a slight touch of Louisiana cane syrup to balance out the hops.

After relaxing a bit with a stroll downtown, we headed for dinner at Parrain’s Seafood on Plank Road in the mid-city district. Parrains’ exterior can best be described as slightly upscale roadhouse and the interior as comfortable, lively and welcoming. The only seafood served here is direct from the Gulf, so you’re assured it’s fresh. We opted for two Cajun specialties on the menu: an Andouille-sausage-encrusted amberjack and a bountiful seafood platter consisting of shrimp, oysters, crawfish tails, catfish and hushpuppies. What a meal, and what an end to a perfect Baton Rouge day!

One More Louisiana Winery

Before leaving Baton Rouge late the next morning on our way north, we stopped at Tony’s Seafood Market, also located on Plank Road. It’s mostly a large seafood market catering not only to locals but the restaurant trade as well. You can buy various seasonings and specialty food products made in Louisiana, including the famous Lousiana Fish Fry spice and seasonings.

We also stopped at a local Matherne’s Supermarket (you’ll find them all over Baton Rouge) and bought two bottles of wine from another Louisiana winery, Becnel Plantation Winery, which is located just southwest of New Orleans. Becnel produces a line of dry table wines made from local fruit like blackberry, black currant and raspberry. We were able to buy the blackberry and raspberry. The raspberry, in particular, pairs well with grilled steaks.

Heading north out of Baton Rouge on Louisiana State Highway 68, a short 30-minute drive brought us to State Highway 10 and the small historic town of Jackson. This is where Feliciana Cellars, one of Louisiana’s most established wineries, is located.

Feliciana Cellars is housed in a handsome Spanish-style building located in downtown Jackson. They too specialize in Carlos muscadine wines and offer a dry, fruity white we enjoyed named Dry Carlos. We particularly enjoyed Felicite’s Blush, created from a blend of muscadine grapes and best served well-chilled on a warm summer day.

Cheers!

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