Canada House

Canada House, not a dance music sub-genre, although a few readers might not be too surprised if I went off on a different subject, but the venue yesterday for the Taste Canada 2018 event, organised wonderfully well by Westbury Communications. It featured thirty-seven producers from British Columbia, Ontario, Nova Scotia and (one from) Québec. It was the largest Tasting of Canadian wines I’ve been to so far, and the quality on show was exciting.

I would guess that most of us don’t know a lot about Canada. We think of it as an enormous country, northern in climate, nice people but perhaps not really all that well known for wine? This isn’t quite true on two counts.

Canada may be “up north somewhere”, but the wine growing regions lie between 41 degrees and 51 degrees latitude. That’s not too different from Morocco to Kent and Sussex. Of course, that means relatively little. The climate is very different, with different climatic influences, but even so, there are parts of the Canadian vignoble, specifically Niagara, which even lie further south than parts of the USA.

Readers old enough to remember the 1990s will have experienced the first wave of Canadian wines to hit our shores in the UK. Icewine, mostly coming from Southern Ontario’s Niagara Peninsula, and principally made from the French hybrid vine, Vidal (as well as some fine Riesling), had an impact based on its sweet concentration and tingling acidity.

Now there is another major player in Canadian wine, British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, east of Vancouver. Here, it is mainly European vinifera vines which dominate production, of which the most successful seem so far to be the Burgundian and Bordeaux varieties (though I’m making a pitch for Riesling too). Okanagan has some very special and specific conditions which, as we shall see, make this long valley ripe to become, potentially, one of the world’s sources of very fine wine.

There is also a nascent industry (though “industry” isn’t really the right word) in the far east of the country, in Nova Scotia, which might have a good future for sparkling wine. But there are only around 300 hectares here. Québec has more vines, but the only producer on show from Québec yesterday uses apples, albeit to make a wonderful “Ice Cidre”.

I can’t write about each and every one of the thirty-seven producers showing. I tasted most of them, but my own favourites might not tally completely with those of other commentators. Read through my notes and seek out what takes your fancy.

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Okanagan Crush Pad Winery (Okanagan Valley, BC)

This is the Canadian producer I’ve written about more than any other, and I suppose the fact that I like their wines so much is attested to by them having quoted some of my writing in their marketing brochure. But that doesn’t detract from what I genuinely think about them. One or two other wine trade luminaries seem to have the same views, although I should add that one or two of the older and more conservative tasters yesterday apparently found the life and energy in these wines a little hard to handle. A bit too “natural”. That shocks me a little.

Seven wines were on show and as I have written about them so frequently I won’t dwell here. But the Haywire Vintage “Bub” 2013 does need a few more words. A bottle-fermented Pinot Noir/Chardonnay, an equal blend of both, with 52 months on lees, it was only bottled (with zero dosage) and released two weeks ago. Dry, mineral, well balanced between weight and acidity, this is very attractive. They also plan to release a reserve version at seven years old.

Which is my favourite of the Sauvignons is hard to pin down. Haywire Waters & Banks 2015 is made in concrete (concrete eggs are a fixture here). It has beautiful aromatics (citrus and herbs), and has an elegance which hides 13.5% abv very neatly. Free Form White 2016 is Sauvignon Blanc made in stainless steel and is really different. The palate is bone dry, but you get an amazing sweet-fruited bouquet which shouted yuzu fruit!

Gamay is always a favourite here. Haywire Gamay Rosé 2017 has a nose which reminds me pleasantly of confectionery, but the palate is dry with red fruits. Haywire Gamay Noir 2016 sees a 4-week maceration before 6 months in concrete. So there’s some grounding texture under the cherry fruit.

Haywire Freeform Red 2016 is Pinot Noir with 9 months on skins in amphora, no filtration and no added sulphur. This has a lot of texture right now and needs a little time, but it is a singular iteration of Pinot Noir, which in this case I think has translated well to amphora (the amphora wine experiments at OCP are rejected if they feel they haven’t worked).

Wines available via Red Squirrel.

Norman Hardie Winery (Niagara Peninsula and Prince Edward County, Ontario)

Norman Hardie’s vines sit on both shores of Lake Ontario, Niagara in the southwest and Prince Edward County (a newish VQA) in the northeast. He’s one of Ontario’s most renowned producers and the wines exude class. They are the products of the microclimates of the lake, where breezes moderate the temperatures in summer, and also of the fine limestone soils (and glacial deposits in Niagara) which dominate the geology, although Prince Edward can suffer harsher winters.

I began by trying the excellent Riesling 2017. Quite restrained at first, then a touch of florality and minerality came through. Nice presence and texture, coming from fermenting with a lot of solids. Expect to pay around £16 for this, excellent value.

Three Chardonnays were all clean and fresh, with the Cuvée des Amis 2015 showing best of all. This comes in at just under 12% alcohol but following 24 months elevage it has genuine personality, with a touch of butter and nuts. The Chardonnays here do see oak, but mostly used wood in larger formats.

Both Pinot Noirs tasted were attractive but different. Prince Edward County Pinot Noir 2016 is pale and bright with nice young cherry fruitiness. Niagara Peninsula Pinot Noir 2016 is also pale but with lovely, elegant, cherry high notes.

This is one address to seek out, wines stocked by The Wine Society and Bibendum.

Norm conducting for his audience, juggling several tasters at once with aplomb

Megalomaniac (Niagara Peninsula, Ontario)

Sébastien Jacquey makes some excellent wines with both the Niagara designation, and labelled from the Twenty Mile Bench, one of a dozen sub-appellations already designated on the peninsula.

Everyone was enjoying Bubblehead NV, a bottle-fermented pink sparkler made from Pinot Noir. Whole clusters see six hours skin maceration, then fruit is pressed gently to preserve lovely aromatics. It only gets two months on lees, before 18 months further ageing before release (bottled sulphur-free at 6g/l dosage). A frothy, fun wine, but not entirely frivolous. It’s seriously tasty as well.

The Bespoke reserve series of wines includes Chardonnay 2016 which comes off shallow soils. Whole clusters see barrels for fermentation (10% new, larger, puncheons) and there is no lees stirring and no maloCabernet Franc 2015 is lovely and floral for a red. It’s very concentrated. Ontario saw a slightly less hot 2015 than BC, but it followed two bad winters where many vines dies, and yields were consequently lower. Pinot Noir 2015 is from a 25-year-old block (like the Cab Franc, from Twenty Mile Bench) with almost no topsoil. Thirty-five days skin maceration sees extraction slowed down as time proceeds, and then 16 months in barrel (15% new). Sébastien says he “builds the bones first and then adds the fat”. It exudes freshness.

There’s also a serious Bravado Cabernet Sauvignon 2015 which is purple, sweet fruited, and in need of more time, plus a very sappy Cabernet Franc called Frank (also 2015) which is not extracted but weighs in at 14%.

A producer to watch carefully. I don’t think they have a UK importer. Sébastien was one of the most engaging producers in the room.

Mission Hill, Martin’s Lane & CheckMate (Okanagan, BC)

This group of three wineries are all owned by Darryl Brooker, but have different winemakers. Mission Hill is one of the oldest and better known in the valley, and from here we tried a very aromatic Reflection Point Pinot Noir 2016 and Vista’s Edge Cabernet Franc 2015. The fruit for the latter comes from right down on the US border. Red and dark fruits both dominate the bouquet, and it reminded me of a nice Loire from a ripe year. You don’t realise it has a shockingly high level of alcohol, at 14.9% (you really don’t).

Martin’s Lane also showed two wines, a Riesling and a Pinot Noir. Simes Vineyard Riesling 2015 was another version of the grape which made me wish I’d seen more Riesling. This is a dry (13% abv) version with perhaps a slight nod to the Pfalz.

CheckMate Artisanal Winery provided perhaps the most interesting wines of the three. Attack Chardonnay 2014 is in a richer style (with 14% abv), made in large 1,500 litre foudres. One is new and the other is a second year cask. It sees just one racking in 14 months. Despite being a bigger wine (a Californian style Chardonnay, perhaps – winemaker Philip McGahan is an Australian born lawyer, turned winemaker, who spent 4 years at Williams Selyem), it still shows freshness.

Opening Gambit Merlot 2014 is a big boy at 14.5%, and indeed is tannic too. But unlike some of Saint-Emilion’s modern monsters, it seems to share that freshness.

On that Okanagan freshness: It does seem a genuine trait of the valley. Alcohol levels can look quite high in these wines, and particularly fruit grown at the southern end of the valley is easy to ripen. Yet other climatic and geographical factors seem to mitigate loss of acids, and the wines seem almost always to taste “fresh”, even in a hot vintage here, like 2015.

It seems that the alignment of the mountain ranges allows breezes to become a major factor in cooling the vineyards. This is coupled with big diurnal temperature variations. Add in long sunny autumns for a longer and slower ripening cycle, and cold winters which close down the vines, and you have a fairly unique set of circumstances which help develop complexity. It is perhaps only a matter of time before the vineyards become more mature, and quality increases even more.

LaStella Winery & Le Vieux Pin (Okanagan, BC)

Another pair of wineries run by one person, in this case Severine Pinte, who was on hand to run through the bottles. LaStella (like Checkmate, no space) is Severine’s “Italian-style” winery, and makes two impressive but pretty big wines. Fortissimo 2016 is her professed nod towards the supertuscans, mainly Merlot (79%) with both Cabernets and Sangiovese. Although fairly tannic, and 14.3% alcohol, it is savoury and classy, and will be food friendly when mature. Allegretto 2014 is, despite the Italian name, 100% Merlot off sandy soil and planted on its own rootstock. Maybe she has Bolgheri in mind? This wine comes in at 14.7%, but like most Okanagan Merlots, seems to be balanced despite that. Both wines require cellaring.

Le Vieux Pin might fool you into thinking this is Severine’s homage to Bordeaux’s Right Bank, but the grape varieties tell you not so. Ava 2016 is based on 50% Viognier with Roussanne and Marsanne. Stone fruit is fresh and aromatic, and the palate is dry and textured (13.9%). The three Syrahs contrast a hot year (2015) with a cooler one (2014), and one in between (2016).

Cuvée Violette 2016 is easy drinking, even for a wine at 14.4% alcohol. Some Viognier is blended in, and it has lots of lifted fruit on nose and palate. Cuvée Classique 2015  (14.3%) has a deeper, warmer, bouquet of plum and violets and the palate has an unexpected lick of fresh acidity, though it has plenty of tannins at this stage too. Equinox Syrah 2014 ironically has more alcohol for a cooler year. It’s quite rich and smooth as well. But it’s a barrel selection, about ten barrels from 150. It will be long-lived, I think.

Severine Pinte’s properties are imported by Flint Wines.

Liquidity Wines (Okanagan, BC)

Liquidity is one of eight Okanagan wineries (including Okanagan Crush Pad) which this year formed the Okanagan Wine Initiative to promote the excellence of Okanagan wines outside of BC. They make some lovely wines, with vineyards once more right down at the southern end of the valley, near the US border.

There’s a good, dry, Viognier 2017, which was followed by two good Chardonnays. Estate Chardonnay 2016 is barrel-fermented (15% new oak) with ten months on lees after malo. It is creamy, and so far, the most aromatic Chardonnay of the day. If it lacks anything, perhaps a touch more acidity? But it is relatively inexpensive (£16 rrp).

Reserve Chardonnay 2016 is a step up. It sees 25% new oak, and is more complex, currently more restrained, and finer than the Estate wine. Quite subtle, I’d say, but with dormant power too. It won top wine in the Chardonnay du Monde 2018 competition in Burgundy, apparently, whatever store one gives…but the wine is certainly very impressive.

Reds included a Bordeaux blend, Dividend 2015, and two Pinots, the entry level version being nice and fruity, and Pinot Noir Equity 2015 being more serious: older vines, and emphasis on clone 828, 35% new French oak and 15 months in barrel. Deeper, a little more earthy, yet polished too. Keep it for five years.

Sadly they didn’t think to bring their Dornfelder-Zweigelt pink! At least they know how to have fun.

Next, a couple more Okanagan wineries, friends with the folks at the Crush Pad, to wind up our British Columbian element.

Painted Rock Estate (Okanagan, BC)

This producer had four reds on show, three of them from 2015, which was the hottest vintage ever in this part of BC. “Dark and Inky” was a frequent note here. You might wonder why I’d write about a bunch of wines coming in at between 14% and 15.3%, but it’s that bizarre freshness that makes them irresistable. The vines here are sheltered by a low mountain range, just a little way up the valley. The vineyards have a gentle slope averaging 6% and the cooling breezes sweep down through the vine rows, blowing the heat off the grapes.

There was a Rhônish Syrah 2015 nodding a little to Cornas in texture, a concentrated and ripe Cabernet Franc 2015, and a Merlot 2014, from that cooler vintage. Red Icon 2015 contains a blend of the five Bordeaux varieties, with 45% Merlot dominant. It has a classic profile of what really seems to be becoming an equally classic Okanagan “Bordeaux blend”.

Had to include the swirly decanter here, which supposedly works. Fascinating, hypnotic even!

Poplar Grove (Okanagan, BC)

Poplar Grove is the friendly neighbour of Painted Rock. Tony Holler’s estate is at Penticton, on the Naramata Bench, but with vines down on the border as well. Tony was one of the most fun people to taste with, truly enthusiastic but not over serious. He makes some tasty wines too.

Chardonnay 2016 is lightly oaked and aromatic for Chardonnay, with melon and pineapple, plus citrus on the finish. A fruity wine which should retail for £15-£16. This aromatic freshness seems to follow over into the reds, especially Cabernet Franc 2014. This despite 13.9% abv. In this case Tony puts it down to the slow maturation of the grapes in the region’s long autumns. The equally alcoholic Merlot 2014 and Syrah 2014 are in a similar style. Legacy 2013 with and extra year in bottle is another classic Bordeaux blend, this time build around 44% Cabernet Sauvignon.

All the reds see oak (a third new, a third one-year-old and a third two-year-old), followed by 18 to 21 months in bottle before release. Classical in style, and once again, although you would expect Canadian wines to be fairly expensive, most are around the £15 to £20 mark, the Legacy rising to around £25.

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Hidden Bench Estate Winery (Niagara Peninsula, Ontario)

We now skip back to Ontario, and Hidden Bench, another reasonably well known producer even outside of Canada. Harald Thiel’s wines are certified organic, and he follows biodynamic methods, and these are serious bottles. The winery is just outside of Beamsville, and part of the Beamsville Bench sub-appellation.

This was another producer of a tasty Riesling, Estate Riesling 2016, fruity with 11g of residual sugar. I was more taken with this than with the Fumé Blanc 2016, but that is doubtless more down to style than quality with me. A single vineyard Felseck Chardonnay 2014 is directly off the Beamsville Bench and hopefully helps to show why the land here is so sub-divided (largely down to geology). It sees 14 months in oak (20% new) and then 8 months in stainless steel to settle, and it undergoes partial malolactic. The result is complex already, and nicely rounded.

There is also a Felseck Pinot Noir 2015 from the same site, which is quite serious too, and contrasts nicely with the pale and vibrant (if slightly leaner) Estate Pinot Noir 2015.

The growing season in Niagara is ostensibly somewhat shorter than that in Okanagan, and it is particularly impressive to see Pinot Noir doing well here, but it may be that climate change is having an effect, as producers report longer summers than usual in recent years (though winters can still be frighteningly cold, despite the ameliorating effects of the water in Lake Ontario).

Harald looking serious for his serious wines

Inniskillin Wines (Niagara, Ontario)

Inniskillin must be the most famous wine producer at the Tasting. In the 1990s it was their Icewines which won Trophies at the major Wine Competitions, and put Canadian wine on the map. True to form, for those of us planning to taste the ultra sweet dessert wines towards the end of the day, they were almost all gone, and the table was unmanned.

The main grape for Icewine production, as I’ve already said, is the French hybrid vine, Vidal. Inniskillin make a still Vidal, and a sparkling version, which I rarely taste and had very much wanted to on this occasion. Riesling is made in generally smaller volumes, but perhaps the least well known Icewine variety is Cabernet Franc.

Cabernet Franc Icewine 2016 was the only bottle left with any wine inside. I was tempted to liberate that bottle, but thought better of it. Suffice to say that these are fine wines, and they combine concentration with a nice acid balance. The grapes are picked frozen, and as with European Icewine/Eiswein/Vin de Glace, that intensifies the sugars as the frozen water is removed in pressing. The wines are refreshing, due to their acidity, but boy are they sweet.

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Mainly empties at Inniskillin, sadly.

Pillitteri Estate Winery (Niagara, Ontario)

This producer makes a range of inexpensive (and quite good value) dry wines, red and white, but was also showing a couple of Icewines. Typically, as Pillitteri are more or less unknown in the UK, the bottles still contained plenty of wine. A Reserve Vidal 2014Reserve Riesling 2013 and a Reserve Cabernet Franc 2015 were delicious examples of the genre. Perhaps not with the concentration that I remember with Inniskillin, but not far off. These wines had slightly more alcohol than those of that better known producer (11% abv, as opposed to 9%), and they both come from the more specific Niagara on the Lake, where you will also find the more well known producers Jackson Triggs, Peller, Stratus and Southbrook Vineyards.

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Lightfoot and Wolfville Vineyards (Annapolis Valley, Nova Scotia)

We now come to three quite different producers in one of Canada’s new wine frontiers, Nova Scotia. Peter Gamble, who was pouring the wines, has been creating a bit of a frontier ruckus, being largely instrumental (and vocal) in the formation of Nova Scotia’s Tidal Bay appellation (2012). The estate produces nice Chardonnay and Pinot Noir which shouldn’t be discounted, but I was especially impressed with the Lightfoot Woolfville Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut 2013, Annapolis Valley.

Commentators say that Nova Scotia’s climate, cool but moderated by the Atlantic Ocean, is a shoe-in for sparkling wines. This one is  biodynamic Chardonnay with four years on lees, bottled at 5g/l dosage. Just right, it balances fruit with crispness. As the Winery Association of Nova Scotia declares, “acidity is the signature attribute of Nova Scotia Wine”.

Benjamin Bridge (Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia)

Gaspereau Valley, which lies south of the Annapolis, is described as a “valley within a valley”. The Bay of Fundy moderates the climate producing a longer than expected growing season, with a “longer hang time” for mainly “Champagne varietals” (sic). This is why Benjamin Bridge is able to claim to be “Canada’s most acclaimed sparkling wine house”. I only mention this producer briefly to signal that if you do see any Nova Scotia sparklers, they are worth picking up.

Luckett Vineyards (Gaspereau Valley, Nova Scotia)

Sophie Luckett was reasonably sure she’d met me before. I don’t believe that is the case, but I have certainly drunk one of the Luckett wines before, back in October 2016. It was their Buried White 2013. The grape variety is the hybrid L’Acadie, and it is conceptually interesting because it is fermented in Hungarian oak which is buried in the vineyard where the vines for this cuvée grow. Only around 200 bottles were produced.

Four Luckett wines were on show, all of them really quite exciting in their own way, because they show a different side of Canadian wine (and they don’t cost all that much money).

Phone Box Fizz 2016 is a tank fermented fizz made from L’Acadie again, with Muscat and Traminer. A floral nose gives way to crunchy grapefruit on the palate, but it is bottled with 25g/l of residual sugar. It’s a simple but refreshing summer wine. The name? There’s a London phone box in the middle of the vineyard. Random!

Tidal Bay 2016 is the appellation wine, but from fruit still sourced in the Gaspereau Valley. Production of this wine, along with the Tidal Bay appellation generally, is seeing rapid growth. This is another wine based on L’Acadie (which covers around 25% of Nova Scotia’s vignoble), this time blended with Seyval Blanc, Muscat and Ortega (the great hope for Kentish white wine). I think you would also describe this as a light, summery, wine, think seafood.

Phone Box Red 2015 is also a blend of a few hybrids based around one of Nova Scotia’s leading red varieties by volume planted, Marechal Foch. It’s quite dark in colour and sees 12 months in French oak. Quite sappy.

Rosetta was an under the counter special and I didn’t spot the vintage. By this stage I admit I was tiring, but it perked me up no end. A simple, fruity, pink but none the worse for that.

It seems that Luckett Vineyards is well geared up for wine tourism, with a restaurant and lovely views which remind me a little of pictures I’ve see taken from New Zealand’s Waiheke Island. I’d love to visit…though Toronto and Vancouver do beckon forcefully.

One more time with feeling: Sophie Luckett communicating with tasters until the bitter end

Domaine Neige (Hemmingford, Québec)

Domaine Neige was the first producer of Ice Cidre in Canada, producing this delicious product from mainly MacIntosh apples planted on 100 acres. I suppose that with the apple-friendly climate, and perhaps, if fancifully, the connection Québec has with Normandy settlers, an apple product which mirrors Canada’s famous Icewine is not unusual.

There are two versions which were on taste yesterday. Both were very fine products, and both reminiscent of Icewine, but with apple clearly the source fruit. Neige Première 2014 is quite light, though 12% abv, with a fresh zip and a touch of apple skin bitterness to counter the sweetness. The fruit here is picked in September and the apples are stored and frozen before pressing. The nectar is then put into tank for fermentation.

Neige Winter Harvest 2008 was quite different. The fruit here is picked in December when the apples are frozen on the tree, just like a true Icewine’s grapes are frozen on the vine. It has a richer and deeper flavour, something akin to toffee apples. You get more complexity but no loss of fresh fruit above the deeper toffee/caramel notes. I’ll tell you, if the guy had a bottle to sell I’d have bought one.

Suggested partners are cheeses (especially cheddar), which funnily enough I’d not thought of, but would work well, I imagine. Or cocktails, it says on importer Cellartrends‘ web site. I’d try cheese, or just drink as a digestif. The winter version has just 9% alcohol. Both should retail at about £26/half, a little expensive to drown in a cocktail.

This was an excellent Tasting, and as with the wines of other countries not sufficiently represented in the UK, Canada should be on the Wine Lists of far more merchants and restaurants. The quality is generally very high. Canada’s profile is growing, and this tasting definitely helped cement the reputation of its major producing appellations and regions.

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Vegan Wine…What?

Yes, Vegan Wine. As my family is vegan, I eat a largely plant-based diet, although the fundamentalists among them are still horrified that I am prone to lapses when out at wine functions, or in desperate need of cheap chocolate. This means I also get to field fairly frequent questions about vegan wines, or rather, wines suitable for vegans. But as often as I am asked these questions, I’m also just as likely to be met by a blank look when I mention the subject myself.

You see, whilst some vegans are vaguely aware that all wines are not suitable for vegans, just as many, if not more, are wholly unaware that there are any issues. I may eat the (very) occasional Kitkat but do you ask the bar tender whether the beer you have just ordered is vegan, or the host when you go round for dinner and get poured a Chilean Merlot?

It’s something that has been niggling away at me for a long while, but I decided to write about it because the subject has been getting a bit of coverage elsewhere of late. In fact Indigo Wine, the importer of artisan wines, who I have written about several times, recently, posted a whole piece on their blog dedicated to this very subject: Smell something fishy? Clarifying the vegan wine debate (25 April 2018). This pretty much tells you all you need to know, but I probably have a few things I can add (and indeed give the subject a slightly wider readership).

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Can I make one thing plain, this is an attempt to clarify issues around wine for vegan readers, and others interested in the subject. I am not passing any judgements on individuals, and I hope you won’t do the same on me. As my vegan daughter put it once, whether you give up meat and dairy for Veganuary, or just for one day a week, you are making the world a little better for both animals and the planet. I can see the health benefits of a plant-based diet, and I am concerned for animal welfare, but I’m no saint. Equally, I have never lost a friend over the subject and hope not to do so now.

Why on earth are some wines not vegan? 

The problem is that whereas vegans generally know quite a lot about animal husbandry or slaughter, what drugs animals are habitually given, or the dairy industry’s methods, they know nothing about how wine is made. Why should they!

The main actions in making wine which might affect a wine’s vegan credentials take place in the later stages of the production process, where animal bi-products can be used to finish a wine before bottling. Specifically, we are looking at how (and whether) a wine is fined and, to a lesser extent, filtered.

Fining is the process whereby solids are removed from the wine to make it look bright and clean in the bottle. We know that non-specialist wine consumers in particular don’t like “bits” floating around in their glass. Even harmless and natural tartrate crystals are approached with suspicion by many of them. So often wine producers, especially those who are not close enough to their customers to be able to explain wine deposits and solids, just get rid of them.

How? Well, there are many agents they can use for this, but the ones we are concerned with from a vegan perspective are egg whites, isinglass (from fish bladders), gelatin (from a range of animal sources) and casein (milk product). Fining agents attract/repel particulate solid matter in the wine as they are passed through it. The agent usually attracts or repels particles by way of a natural electrical charge, dragging the solids in suspension down to the bottom of the vat, where they can then remain as the wine is drawn off for bottling.

If wine is further filtered at the end stage, the producer can ensure (if he/she wishes, depending on mesh size) that not even the finest particulate matter can follow the wine from the vat.

I think a lot of vegans, and indeed perhaps a few non-vegans, might be somewhat surprised at this range of additives. It has to be said that when these are used, only a trace (at most) is left in the wine, but that is still a trace large enough to make a difference to many vegans. Irrespective of whether any residues are left, it matters to many that these products were used at all (though others might take it in the same way as a food labelled “made in a factory which …”, where the food doesn’t contain milk etc but other milk products are used in the same factory, but this appears a minority view in my experience, once people become aware).

How do I avoid these ingredients/additives?

It’s not quite as difficult as it seems. First of all, many producers these days, largely those in the artisan category, don’t fine their wines. Whereas the larger “vino beverage” producers see a need for clarity in their bottles, many wine makers feel that fining and filtration strips away elements of the wine which give it character and personality. They might argue that such a process deprives the wine of its potential to show another dimension. If your winemaker doesn’t do this, then they won’t have added these non-vegan ingredients. Wines are quite often labelled to state that they are not fined/filtered.

The biggest problems come with wines which give little information as to production methods, and also so-called fine wines. It was once habitual in Bordeaux, for example, to fine with egg white, although this is now restricted to some of the finest (pun intended) properties. It is time consuming and expensive, but it is still undertaken by some.

Of course, there are now synthetic fining agents in use as alternatives. They are potentially cheaper and you certainly don’t need to break and split dozens of eggs from their yolks. The problem is that you just don’t know what the producer is using without better labeling, another (wider) subject worthy of debate .

So where will I find vegan wines?

Over the past few years you will have been able to find wines labelled as vegan at the many Vegan Fairs springing up (Vegfest is one you may have come across in several major UK cities). But let’s be honest, one of the problems is that, just as was the case when wines started to be labelled “organic”, we want to buy wine because it tastes nice, not just because it is vegan.

What about the supermarkets? Well, you will indeed find wines labelled as “vegan”, or “suitable for vegans”, on the shelves at most of the major supermarkets now. You just have to take a punt. As with all supermarket wines, some will be good and some will be quite ordinary. In the early days of “vegan recognition” you’d probably find a wine with “Vegan” on the front label, but it would usually be at the lower end of the range. Things are improving. Waitrose has a symbol for vegan wines in its free wine list (and on shelf stickers), and as you flick through the List you may be surprised by just how many they sell, including Waitrose own label Champagnes.

The sector of wine we call natural wine is usually a safe bet because these producers are broadly against the use of additives, whether synthetic or animal, during winemaking. Although what makes a natural wine natural is infamously unregulated, you can be sure that a producer who claims to be a natural winemaker will not use the ingredients listed above. Most natural wines are going to be vegan, and indeed it is only my caution about people trying to jump on the natural wine bandwagon, and the lack of enforceable standards, which stops me short of being more decisive than stating “most”.

The “Indigo” wines in the photos below are guaranteed vegan by the importer, just a tiny selection. Hopefully one day they will all say so on the label.

You haven’t mentioned viticulture though?

Well spotted. This is a more tricky area. Animals are often used in the vineyard, especially the more “eco-friendly” ones (horses for ploughing, sheep for manure and even “pruning”), but that’s not what I mean. Fertilizers may well contain bone meal, and occasionally other animal bi-products, although again, it is unlikely that natural wine will be made using such products.

This producer uses sheep to prune and mow, and the wine from this vineyard is additive free, the only issue being that the sheep will eventually get eaten!

What about biodynamic wine? I know that no cows are killed specifically for the purpose, but all those cow horns in which biodynamic preparations are buried must come from somewhere. Some people might be concerned by that.

Most people, however, are happy to confine the idea of vegan wine to wines where no animal bi-product is used in wine making. If you think your views are more fundamentalist, and you are concerned about the viticulture aspects I’ve mentioned, then I can only recommend further research. But if you are happy to focus on winemaking, then either the increasing use of “vegan friendly” labeling, or looking further into natural wines, is the way to go.

Shouldn’t there be more help out there from the retailer?

Indeed there should, and this is increasing. This is where we return full circle to Indigo Wine. Indigo has an excellent list. They are one of the best small wine importers in the UK. They now state on their Trade wine list which wines they sell are vegan. But the ironic thing is, they almost shouldn’t bother because around 99% (according to one Indigo employee) are in fact vegan.

Veganism is now, like natural wine in fact, far more than the “fad” some observers would prefer it to be. Vegan food has, over the past couple of years in particular, moved from the specialist shops into mainstream supermarkets. Less and less do we see “vegan” paired with “diet”, a kind of double entendre gag implying it lives with the other latest weight loss fads of the moment. Veganism is a choice based on either the health benefits of a plant-based diet, animal welfare issues, or both. To call it a lifestyle choice is equally demeaning. But the major food manufacturers and retailers are not stupid. Vegan food is one of the fastest growing markets today. Vegan substitutes for meat, cheese and milk etc are some of the most profitable lines for both.

Vegan wine is playing catch up as far as labeling and marketing goes, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t plenty of great vegan wine around. You just have to look for importers like Indigo (their range is so good you could almost say “look no further than”) who have their finger on the pulse as to what information consumers want. And you have to push your local wine shop into finding out which wines they sell are vegan.

One final observation, Beer. Beer is just as likely, if not more so, to require caution if you are vegan. For starters, many vegans will go and grab a beer at a bar without even thinking of putting their vegan hat on. But ironically this is a market where labeling is perhaps more advanced than wine. Many beers on supermarket shelves are labelled “vegan”, and I’ve drunk own range beers from several major UK supermarkets that are labelled vegan/suitable for vegans.

There are also a number of specialist beer wholesalers (like Biercraft in London, founded by ex-Liberty Wines man Nick Trower in 2013) which specialise in a range of true craft beers where additives are used to a minimum, and where pretty much everything will be vegan-friendly. Like natural wine, “craft beer” is a very wide, and often misused, category, yet true craft beers are made with the same kind of values as true natural wines. If you don’t want to chat to a specialist like Biercraft (who, incidently, are close friends with Indigo and share similar values), then you just need to stop and look at the label more often.

So, the answer is that if you are vegan there’s a whole new set of shelves where you need to spend the time reading the small print on the back labels. If you want to get advice from someone who knows, the alternative is to ask a specialist retailer…your local wine shop. They ought to know, and if they don’t you may just prompt them to learn.

Hopefully, more people like Indigo Wine (and I must say, others) will come forward with this information to help consumers. Many list wines as being “organic, biodynamic, natural” and I’m sure “vegan” will be a welcome addition, if they can obtain that information. I think it will happen quickly. And as a final suggestion, if they don’t know about vegan wines, then ask them if they have any natural wines. They should be a safe bet, but I would not wish to be the one to guarantee that one hundred percent. At the end of the day, what we really need is better wine labeling.

Some of the places you can find vegan wines: The Raw Wine Fairs (London, San Francisco and Berlin); and wine bars like Jaja Berlin (top right) and Plateau in Brighton (bottom). Les Caves de Pyrene is the biggest importer of natural wines in the UK, and is another good source for vegan wines.

Posted in Natural Wine, Vegan Wine, Wine, Wine Agencies, Wine and Health | Tagged , , , , , | 7 Comments

Otros Vinos, Spring 2018: Spain’s Wild Frontier

Over the past few years there has been a genuine widening of what wine lovers are prepared to consider exciting and ground breaking in the world of wine. The natural wine movement has drawn attention to hundreds of small time artisans making wine without recourse to many of the teachings of the big wine schools. Commercial production and artisan winemaking are moving apart. This is probably also true of the kind of cerebral wine which collectors favour and the “glouglou” glugging wine favoured by the younger frequenters of the kind of bars that are doing so well in the world’s most vibrant cities.

Rather like politics in Europe, there seems to be less of a consensus, in this case as to what wine should be, and those who hold tightly to the certainties of the post-1982 Parker era often get very upset at all the “faulty” wines being glugged by “ignorant” young people in those city bars throughout the continent. But even in the natural wine world there are extremes. A few brave merchants in the UK, like Tutto Wines and Gergovie, have been brave enough to explore the fringes, where natural wine means “additive free”, and additive free means a very strict attitude to sulphur additions.

We all know that Spain is one of the exciting frontiers of European wine. A country which promised so much, but really failed to deliver something genuinely new when focused on “modern” techniques. Yet in its “new” old regions and its young winemakers, it has begun to forge a massive reputation for natural wine. This is where the importer under the spotlight here has stepped in.

Otros Vinos may be a relatively small importer of wines, mainly from Southern, Central and Northeastern Spain, but it is right at the forefront of that new frontier. It is hard to argue against the suggestion that this is one of the most adventurous lists in the UK. The producers are not doing anything particularly unusual. Okay, some are utilising Amphora and Tinajas, but just as many work with stainless steel. Equally, there are a few grape varieties you won’t have heard of, but there are plenty of “international” varieties as well, including lots of good Syrah and Cabernet, not to mention Viognier and Chenin. Sulphur is certainly banned by many. But more than anything, these wine producers all make wines of genuine character and personality. That is what you find here, in abundance.

Eleven producers were shown at the Otros Vinos Spring Portfolio Tasting at Duck Soup in Soho (London), some old favourites and some new. There was a good spread of regions and sub-regions, with clusters of producers close to Barcelona, and around Granada in the broader Sierra Nevada, dominating the show.

VINOS AMBIZ (Sierra de Gredos, Madrid)

Gredos has been a bit of a secret for many decades, and the high altitude vineyards of Spain’s central plateau, perhaps made famous by Daniel Landi and friends, and their Comando G project in particular, have only recently joined those to the southeast (near Toledo, where the Marques de Griñón’s Dominio de Valdepusa is now a pago) as somewhere to watch carefully.

I’ve written many times about Fabio Bartolomei’s domaine in the village of El Tiemblo. Brought up in Scotland of Italian parents, Fabio works mainly  (but not exclusively) with some pretty rare local varieties. His wines are some of the most singular in the Otros Vinos range.

We begin with the darkish coloured, smooth, Airén La Carabaña 2015, which like several wines to come, proves just how much personality can be extracted from one of the wine world’s most disparaged varieties (along, perhaps, with the likes of Ugni Blanc/Trebbiano Toscano).

Doris 2016 made from Doré is more fragrant with a touch of bitter pineapple. The label is exquisite. I’ve enjoyed a bottle of this quite recently, but yesterday I was feeling the love for the next two wines.

Malvar Tinaja 2016 is fermented in clay jars (which are plentiful in El Tiemblo as there was a tinaja factory there until the 1950s). It’s a pinkish-orange hue with a real “skin contact” nose – you can almost smell the clay and the tannins. Lovely.

Tempranillo 2016 is a total contrast, in grape variety and production – it’s made by carbonic maceration. It has a vibrant light red colour, like raspberry when in the glass, which is where the fruit is heading until a little bitter note creeps in to ground it. Concentration and fruity acidity rule, a classic summer tipple you’d think. Indeed, you are going to knock this straight back, but do beware. The abv reads 14%.

BODEGA CAUZÓN (Graena, Granada)

Ramón Saavedra is a cult figure in Spanish wine, perhaps in some ways in the same vein as Stefano Bellotti in Italy’s Gavi region. All you really need to see is a photo of the snow up here at 1,000 to 1,200 metres in winter to know that this is extreme winemaking in every sense. Saavedra is a bit of a guru (I know he’d be cross at me saying this) who makes wines with genuine soul.

Cauzón Blanco 2017 is a nice blend of varieties, including Macabeo, Sauvignon Blanc, Garnacha Blanco, Chardonnay and Torrontès. Whilst I’ve most often concentrated on the reds here, this was my Cauzón wine of the day, 2017 being a brilliant rendition, the best so far.

Mozuelo 2016 is a pale cherry bomb with a luminescent pale red colour to die for. Duende 2016 is made from macerated Syrah which just sees stainless steel, and has more weight. Pinoir 2016 (Pinot, of course) is a 12% cherry glugger with a touch of tannin. It’s another thing altogether, not remotely “Burgundy”. For me, Cauzón Tinto 2015 is still a little tannic (revisit next time).

The top red on show was Iradei 2017. This is a blend from the oldest ungrafted vines. In the past Ramón has aged this in old wood, but the 2017 is the first time he’s opted for stainless steel. It is smooth and rich, but equally, restrained. It should age nicely.

CLOT DE LES SOLERES (Piera, Barcelona)

I sampled these wines last at Raw London, and if anything they were showing even better yesterday in the lovely cool basement at Duck Soup. This producer makes some nice sparkling and white wines, but unusually with this producer it was a pink(ish) wine and two reds which grabbed my attention on this occasion.

Cabernet Rosat 2013 reminds me a little, in its scent and bouquet, of the orange-coloured Fox’s Glacier Fruit sweet, which I admit may not strike a note of immediate recognition for most readers, but perhaps will provide a pleasant Proustian moment for a few. It is just off dry, and age has given it some gentle complexity. It hit the spot, flavoursome but also thought-provoking.

Cabernet Sauvignon Amfora 2014 is a lovely wine, with the added interest of treating Cabernet to a totally different upbringing to what we usually see from this grape. Latour it isn’t, but you won’t find many Cabernets which taste like this. It only sees twelve days on skins though. Cabernet Sauvignon 2011 is made and then aged in stainless steel for a year before further extended bottle ageing, but it gets a longer twenty days on skins. The year in stainless steel seems to impart a freshness that passes into bottle, so that it is quite sprightly for a wine which is just short of seven years old. There is lovely sweet Cabernet fruit here too.

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LOS COMUNS (Priorat, Tarragona)

In many cases I love the slate terroir of Priorat but balk at the alcohol levels, which even the freshness of the wines cannot always counter. Ever since my introduction to the region, via the wines of Scala Dei back around 1990, I have found it hard to get to grips with. These wines are a little different. They do seem more “alive”, but that’s not to say that you don’t notice the alcohol in some bottles.

Estrem 2016 is a blend of “Carinyos” (Carignan, 30%) and “Petxanga” (Garnacha, 70%). It’s a dark wine weighing in at 14.5%, but half of the cuvée is made via carbonic maceration. There is certainly some tannin in this young wine, but freshness too. I preferred it to what is a more expensive parcel wine, Bateta 2015, which undergoes a normal maceration over ten days. Torts 2015 is a little out of my comfort zone (Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon coming in at 15%), whereas the tasty Carinyos 2015 from the same vintage is noticeably lighter at 13.5%.

Of all the Otros Vinos wines on show, these are the ones least to my own personal taste, yet they are rightly proving extremely popular with those looking for a bit of heft with accompanying freshness, so do taste them for yourselves.

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COSTADOR TERROIRS (Conca de Barbera, Tarragona)

This might not be the smallest producer in the portfolio, but it has consistently proved one of my favourites. I cannot really conceive of buying wine from Fernando without including some from Costador. This makes an objective assessment difficult, but I will begin by mentioning a wine I’ve never bought, Xarel-lo “1954” 2015. As you will have guessed, this is made from very old vines. There is white Xarel-lo, and the rare red version, in the mix, harvested from two plots both within 2km of the sea. The method here is direct press of whole bunches, then ageing in acacia. It’s massively fresh, yet the old vines seem to add another dimension.

The Metamorphika range comes in clay flagons. The idea is that as the wines are made in amphora, they should continue to grow in the same medium. As Fernando says, the idea is slightly whimsical because the clay “bottles” are in fact glazed inside. But as with some of the Austrian wines which use the same idea, they do look amazing. Thankfully they also taste wonderful too.

There are white amphora (“Brisat”) cuvées made from the rare Sumoll Blanc, Chenin, Viognier, Muscat and Macabeu. Of these, I always love the Sumoll Blanc Brisat (2015 on show), and yesterday the Chenin Blanc 2015 spoke to me in a way it hasn’t done before.

Metamorphika Sumoll Negro 2015 was just about my pick of the two reds. It has lovely fruit and length. There’s just something about Sumoll I love. But the savoury Carinyena Amfora 2016 isn’t far behind. If you buy some of these you will never want to throw out the empties. Buy them you should.

VIÑA ENEBRO (Bullas, Murcia)

This is a producer I’ve not tried before. Two very nice wines were on show. El Batiburrillo 2016 is a frothy pink sparkler made from Monastrell, which probably needs to settle down a bit (a lot of the new wines were shipped about two weeks ago), but I think it will really hit the spot. Acidity is restrained, there’s a bit of body, but the fruit is light and easy.

Blanco de Negra 2016 is a very fresh white, freshness achieved with direct pressing of whole bunches to avoid skin contact. Forcallat is the variety. I’d never heard of it, but it certainly produces a lovely aromatic wine. Juan Pascual López is a young man to watch.

The Enebro pair with a couple of Ferrer gate crashers

VINYA FERRER (Terra Alta, Tarragona)

Otros Vinos’ newest producer is based in the south of Catalonia. Childhood amigos Marcel Carrera and Ramón Viña came together to make wine around their home village of Bot. They only have a couple of hectares or so and everything is done simply. Plastic containers for fermentation and ageing in stainless steel, and production is tiny, just a couple of thousand bottles or so.

All the wines were lovely, Nar i Tornar Blanc 2017 especially. Nar i Tornar Roig 2017 is a parcel of very clean tasting Garnacha, and it is a close run thing whether I like this more than Bye Bye 2017, a light but textured red of which I can find pretty much no information, but it speaks well enough for itself – fruity, but with texture and a slightly savoury/bitter quality, plus a bit more grip. Although the reds are mainly Garnacha, there is also a little Cariñena and Morenillo, a very rare local variety which a few Terra Alta producers are trying to revive. It may be no coincidence that those who are doing so are those that also have a reputation for quality. Perhaps Morenillo may become the local “Sumoll”?

MARENAS (Montilla, Cordoba)

Eight wines were on show from Marenas, a producer I often forget to buy (my loss), and I’m going to mention four of them. Here in Montilla the grapes get their character from the sandy clay soils and the Atlantic breezes which come in off the coast. These breezes are all that ameliorate temperatures which can reach 50 degrees in summer (harvesting takes place between 2.00am and 8.00am at Marenas). José Miguel Márquez fashions quite remarkable wines in these conditions, but at least disease is not something he often has to contend with. This is why he is able to make the most natural, non-intervention, wines possible.

Mediacapa has often been my favourite wine here. It is made from 100% Pedro-Ximenez (PX). The 2015 is tinged pale orange and it is just off-dry. Whole bunch pressing into stainless steel makes this a very refreshing wine, very different from most other PX table wines in so many ways. Delicious.

Laveló 2015 is 100% Tempranillo, quite tannic and 14% abv, but it has a bit of zip to it as well as the grip. Vides Bravas 2006 shows what this terroir is capable of. Okay, it also manages 14% of inebriation inducement, but it is maturing beautifully and is ridiculously cheap for the quality (£12 to trade). Only 4,950 bottles were produced of this Tempranillo-Syrah blend.

I’ve previously tasted a sweet Muscat from Marenas, and Asoleo 2016 is in a similar vein. Sweet Syrah at just 9% alcohol. It’s smooth, very sweet indeed, almost without structure, but not at all heavy and totally, and decadently, moreish. The texture of cough medicine, but with none of the yuck! On the contrary!

VINOS PATIO (Mota del Cuervo, La Mancha)

Samuel Canos is a fourth generation winemaker in charge of his family’s 35 hectares in La Mancha. The region had a reputation as Spain’s wine lake workhorse, and Airén is certainly Spain’s workhorse grape (still covering about 30% of the country’s vignoble).

Nine wines were on show. Of the four Airén with black labels in the photos below, I most liked the Aire en el Patio “Salvaje” 2011-2015. The “vintage” can be explained by the fact that this is a solera wine. Only 200 bottles are filled every year from a solera started in 2011, and this is from the 2015 batch. As time passes, the wines in the solera will get older. This is very fresh, with just a touch of soy.

The oddest wine of the whole tasting was Aire en el Patio “La Tarancona” 2016 which, for me, had notes of digestive biscuit and the weird Japanese Umeboshi pickled plums you get for breakfast there. Fernando agreed that this is a bit weird and needs time to settle down.

My pick of the Patio wines was Atardecer en el Patio Rosé 2017, made from Tinto Velasco (the V is pronouced as a B, as one does down there). It is beautifully scented, gently floral. The palate blends a raft of savoury notes with underlying fruit of the purest kind.

Paeriza 2015 comes mainly (80%) from the same variety and is zippy, with sour notes adding a savoury quality. Into the Tinto Velasco is blended 20% of Syrah, Graciano and Petit Verdot. It sees a year in cement. The same blend (roughly) makes up Patio 2015, but this is more structured through a year on skins.

There are two sweet wines here. Another dessert Syrah, Atardecer Al Sol Del Patio 2015 has amazing scents and a hint of maturity, but in my view it was eclipsed by Atardecer Al Sol Del Patio “Airén” 2016, a wine harvested in December. Wow! 6% alcohol, pineapple, peach, a hint of fig, and rather a lot of sunshine, with great length. Luscious in the extreme, it probably should be censored and banned.

PURULIO (Marchal, Granada)

Another great name of Granada viticulture, Torcuato Huertas, is behind this label. Here we are back to the tiny production of 3 hectares of mountain vineyard on the north side of the Sierra Nevada, between 900-1,050 metres above sea level. There are two plots, the higher of the two being very exposed. Days in summer are hot, but nights are cold. That’s where you get the purity which these wines have in abundance.

Fernando showed just two wines. Purulio Blanco 2016 has the colour of a skin contact white wine, but with unusual delicacy, made from an array of different white varieties (there are 21 grape varieties planted in these two tiny plots). It’s a wine I really should buy, but I’m more often swayed by the reds. In fact Purulio is one of three producers I knew before I discovered Otros Vinos, and that was what drew me to Fernando’s portfolio.

The red which was not shown, Purulio Tinto, drinks nicely when young, made from grapes in both of Torcuato’s vineyards. But Jaral (2013) comes just from the highest plot, up on the windswept plateau. Seeming to blend the scents and flavours of two very different fruits, pomegranate and blueberry, it is a wine rarely given enough chance to mature. This 2013 is tasting good now, with a savoury undertone, but there is structure and tannin. I’ve cellared a bottle of 2012 which I bought a year or so ago to see how it develops.

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VERDEVIQUE (Cástaras, Las Alpujarras, Granada)

Anyone who has visited Granada and had the opportunity to drive into the Alpujarra Mountains will know that it is one of the most attractive landscapes in Europe. Visiting here is the only reason I would ever be stupid enough again to take a car into Granada (where car parking knocked me back €50-a-day).

The Garcia family has a fairly decent 22 hectare holding here, with vines, many up to 110 years of age, planted between 1,100 and 1,400 metres altitude. Some of the very highest in Europe. Rainfall is very low, but altitude, along with the proximity of the Mediterranean, means that temperatures don’t get as high as you might expect, not as high as at Purulio, further north.

In some respects my favourite wine here has always been their delicious 11%, bottle fermented, Brut Nature “Garcia de Verdevique”. This 2012 is more weighty, and perhaps serious, than much Cava, and its orange tinge is unusual, but it is also very fresh (and dry). It’s made from a really interesting autochthonous variety which Verdevique champions, called Vigiriego. Also grown in the Canary Islands, Vigiriego was often used as a table grape, but there can be no argument that it makes a really interesting wine.

Verdevique also makes a couple of interesting still whites, from Jaen (nicely scented, smooth, but 14%) and Vigiriego. Vigiriego Barrica 2015 merely adds to the interest in this variety. The wood seems to add colour but is not, to my mind, intrusive. The reds (Tinto Cosecha 2015 and Tinto Crianza 2010) were both a little tannic for me, but then age will mellow them.

All of these wines, like in fact the whole Otros Vinos portfolio, are remarkable value, especially as so many of them are made in such tiny quantities. I kind of feel it is my mission to get people to try these wines, and more importantly, to stock them. The best retailers to try (best telephone for availability) are Burgess & Hall in Forest Gate, Theatre of Wine (Greenwich, Tufnell Park and Leytonstone) and Furanxo in Dalston. A list of restaurants which may list some of them appears on the Otros Vinos web site (see below). Outside London you might find it tough to track them down, but if you have a sense of adventure (both private customers and trade), and if any of the wines I’ve described sound exciting, do contact Fernando.

Web: https://www.otrosvinos.co.uk

e-mail: info@otrosvinos.co.uk

Posted in Natural Wine, Spanish Wine, Wine, Wine Agencies, Wine Merchants, Wine Tastings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Nepal – A Month Drinking Differently

Take a fish out of water and it stops breathing, but what happens if you place an avid wine drinker into an environment where there frankly isn’t much wine, or at least not the kind of wine readers of this blog might want to drink. Nepal is many wonderful things, truly, but it is not yet a mecca for great wine.

First of all, there are a few local drinks to slake a thirst for an alcoholic beverage. I’ve written about Tongba before (Tongba: A Study of Emptiness), but this millet-based brew is more mildly hallucinogenic than alcoholic. Okay, I’m exaggerating somewhat, but a session usually ends with me lying on the floor hardly able to move, without feeling the slightest bit drunk. Actually, as an aside, the article linked to, posted in January 2016, still gets several hits every week.

Another Nepali home brew is Chang (sometimes written Chaang). It’s not the well known Thai beer brand you can find in Tesco and other UK supermarkets, but is a traditional “rice beer” drink of the Newari people (sometimes Newar), who are the original inhabitants of the Kathmandu Valley.

It’s made by fermenting rice, usually in a series of large, purpose made, metal containers, although home brew versions as often use plastic. As with Tongba, water is progressively added to the brew, and so the first batch tends to be the most alcoholic, with the third batch (the weakest) often being given in small amounts to children as well as the still thirsty adults. It’s milky to look at, like cloudy sake, and it tastes mild and very pleasant. Of course, it smells of rice, a bit like sake without quite so much of the alcohol punch.

The alcohol content of Chang is quite low (not that anyone measures it). Like Tongba, it produces more of a warm glow, though in my case without the mild paralysis. Any inebriation comes from the tradition of drinking it in fairly large quantity. Because it tastes mild and pleasant, this is not hard to do over an afternoon session, but I had no negative effects from the few cups I drank, no hangover. The reason it is allowed to children is because it is said to have health giving properties. It is also said to help stave off the cold in winter.

Drinking Chang at the famous Bisket Jatra festival in Bhaktapur. Chang fermenters bottom left

Beer is ubiquitous in Nepal, and reasonably cheap (less so as time goes by). There is always a selection of international beers, from Carlsberg to Duvel (Belgian monastic beers are very popular). Tuborg is so common that many Nepali people seem to believe it is a Nepalese beer, not Danish. I prefer the real Nepali beers, and my two favourites are Gorkha and Sherpa, the latter describing itself as a craft beer.

Nepalese brewing is taking off and there are always new brands. My son-in-law has been commissioned to design the label for another new one, with a suitably Nepalese themed name. I probably shouldn’t disclose the details, but I love the playful design and will be looking forward to trying the new beer next year.

When you get to the heart of a Nepali man you realise just how popular spirits are in the country. If whisky is the most popular, the Old Durbar brand is seen almost everywhere. This has at least been partly made in Scotland, with (they claim) English Grain Spirit blended with “glacial water from the Himalayas”. A bottle of 8-year-old Old Durbar costs around £14 in a supermarket or liquor store. Old Durbar “Black Chimney” is a smokier version, a few pounds more expensive, still with around eight years ageing in American oak.

A lot of Indian-produced whisky found in Nepal is actually made largely with spirit distilled from fermented molasses with around 10% or so added malt whisky. Rum is very popular in its own right, with Khukri one of the best easy to find brands, an oak vatted dark rum made in Kathmandu. Khukri comes in three versions: XXX, Coronation and “Spiced”. The Coronation, launched in 1974 to commemorate the Coronation of that year, comes in a 375ml bottle shaped like a traditional Gurkha knife, the kukri. Expect to pay around £40 in the UK for the dagger bottle if you can find one. My daughter told me that apparently it was on sale in a London bar for £300. The XXX will set you back a whole lot less in Nepal.

If you happen to be in Kathmandu and you want a really good, friendly bar (I’m not talking smart hotel bars here but somewhere that tourists and locals mix in more gritty surroundings), look no further than Sam’s Bar in Thamel. You’ll need to ask for directions, but it’s pretty central in this backpacker district.

Sam’s Bar, Thamel, Kathmandu

But what of wine, you ask? Wine is popular in Nepal, of course. It’s on sale in all the smarter restaurants, and even in the tiny liquor stores which appear every hundred metres or so on the main roads and in the smaller neighbourhoods. That said, I don’t think the Nepalese get a great deal when it comes to wine. The big brands sit in the sun-soaked shop windows (if you think the spot lighting in some European wine stores is bad for the wine, think what a Kathmandu summer is like). As you will see in the photo, you get French, Spanish, Chilean and lots of Australian branded wines, plus of course the Indian brand, Sula. I found a big pile of empty Lindeman’s bottles hidden away in an otherwise beautiful village in the hills, which I annoyingly forgot to photograph.

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There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these wines. I’m no wine snob. But these beverages don’t necessarily provide great value, especially when import taxes are piled on. I’ve not seen any “fakes” yet, despite the proximity of Nepal to China, which is at least one source of relief (though maybe I’m not looking hard enough).

Wine knowledge in the country is fairly low, but there are attempts to rectify this. Sometimes the best intentions are slightly askew, as in the helpful poster below, where Pinot Noir is described as a grape variety/wine from “US West Coast, Germany, Australia” (poor Burgundy, and I’m confused by some of those fruit indicators). And as with storage issues, vintage issues are a serious problem. In a shop specialising in French and Italian products not far from the French Embassy, I spotted a magnum of Moulin-à-Vent from the Hospices de Romanèche-Thorins. I was almost tempted, until I saw it was a 2008, which might actually have tempted me (around £12) in a cool French wine shop, but in Kathmandu I was more cautious.

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All is not lost on the Nepalese wine front, though. If you have been reading my blog for a long time you will know that wine is made in Nepal. If you want to read more, follow the link here to Is This the Outer Edge of the Wine World? and scroll down about half way. Pataleban Vineyard is, so far, Nepal’s only commercial vineyard. It was founded in 2007 with outside help and investment from Japan, and at first they concentrated on hybrids and crosses which would work in the climate of the Kathmandu Valley (where winters can be cold and summers steamy…not forgetting monsoon season). But as we saw during our trip to Japan last year, European varieties can also be successful in difficult climatic conditions.

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Now one of the benefits of living in a part of Kathmandu where there are embassies is that the affluent Westerner does get catered for (although there are plenty of affluent locals with their Range Rovers secreted away in smart gated developments). Just up the road from where we were staying (in Lazimpat/Pani Pokhari) there is a very good Saturday farmer’s market. You can buy some delicious local produce (including various yak cheeses), and after an hour’s shopping at the stalls, retire for brunch in a smart cafe set in a Tokyo-esque low rise square of nice shops.

One of the stalls at the market was selling Pataleban wines. I picked up a bottle of their Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc white blend. They also had a Cabernet-Merlot, but we only made it there on our last weekend and I was cautious about bringing some home, being unprepared for wine transportation. This means I can’t share the experience with anyone, which is a shame: the wine is actually pretty good, so long as you are not expecting Puligny. I’ve certainly drunk worse in Burgundy in the past.

First of all, it is not difficult to spot the varieties. The Chardonnay is identifiable on the nose, slightly buttery, clean and a little nutty. The Sauvignon Blanc adds freshness but isn’t especially acidic. When I arrived home I reached for my last bottle of the De Moor’s Melting Potes, which blends Grenache Blanc, Clairette and Viognier. We all love this wine, don’t we, but it makes no claims to complexity, just freshness and, yes, glouglou. It struck me that Pataleban’s white blend is the same sort of thing. At £10/bottle at the market I’d not hesitate to buy some more. Had my suitcase not contained a few things I couldn’t risk getting ruined I’d have brought back a couple of bottles to introduce to the world. I kind of wish I’d risked it now.

There is at least one other vineyard project close to Kathmandu, and we had hoped to get out to see it. It will have to wait for another time. But home made wine is no less popular in Nepal than anywhere else. The plum wine below tasted like a sweet Ruby Port with a rich fruitiness and a touch of spirit on the back of the throat, if a tiny touch of oxidisation as well (it was hand bottled and stoppered with, I suspect, corks cut down to make three from one). Now you will say that I’ll drink anything, and to a degree that is true (or, at least, I will try anything…in the name of research). But this was rather palatable (and reasonably alcoholic, though no one was measuring).

Perhaps some palate adjustment on my part will be necessary over the coming days. Normal service should hopefully resume. Next week Otros Vinos has its portfolio Tasting at Duck Soup in Soho. The following week there’s a big Canadian Tasting in London, and on May 21-23 it’s the London International Wine Fair, where I shall mostly be inhabiting the “Esoterica” area. I shall also be trying to fit in a piece about Vegan Wines (which have been getting a bit of publicity all of a sudden), and a visit to Ben Walgate’s setup, Tillingham Vineyard. I want to finally stick my nose into his qvevris.

Himalayan sunrise. Go on, you know you want to…

 

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Recent Wines (March/April 2018) #theglouthatbindsus

For my last article for around three weeks I am going to clear the decks with some more fascinating recent wines. What to leave out proved difficult, so there are fourteen here. I’ll try not to waffle too much. I’ve drunk some really cracking wines (and a cider) these past few weeks, so there’s plenty to rave about.

Österreichischer Sekt 2010, Ebner-Ebenauer (Weinviertel, Austria) – the keen-eyed reader will recall that I went rather overboard about this wine when I tasted it at the IOD Advantage Austria Tasting back in February. A friend kindly brought me a couple over from Vienna after a Roberson employee intimated that the couple of cases they get are snapped up by restaurants. However, another friend did manage to bag a bottle from Roberson, so it’s worth a  try.

This is a zero dosage traditional method (bottle fermented) wine made from 100% Chardonnay, which had extended lees ageing of almost seven years. The Gault & Millau Austrian Wine Guide made it their Sekt of the year for 2018, and I’m told that Stephan Reinhardt has described it as Austria’s finest sparkling wine. He’s not wrong. It’s elegant, fine and long, with a freshness which belies its age. A sophisticated wine, which is not cheap but is good value at around €60. Stunning, honestly. I hope to make the trip up to Poysdorf to see Manfred and Marion later this year if I can work out a simple way of getting up there from Vienna.

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Manzanilla Pasada Bota 80 (Bota Punta), Equipo Navazos (Jerez, Spain) – Sourced from Hijos de Rainera Pérez Marín in Sanlúcar, this latest Manzanilla Pasada release is stunning. This wine has previously been released as the “Bota” numbers ending in zero (10 through to 70), but the 80th EN release takes it to another level of complexity. Slightly darker, it is incredibly fresh and intense. Dry nuttiness dominates the palate, with underlying citrus gently adding zing. It is very long indeed. It does come in at 16.5% abv, which one observer commented on, but it doesn’t worry me. I don’t think elegance is lost, but there is, as I say, great intensity (which EN fans will adore).

This wine is unique. The butts had been filled to more than the usual level and the result was that the layer of flor was thin. This has enhanced the oxidative effect on the wine, and this also probably helps account for the quite pronounced saline character Bota 80 displays, and the higher than usual alcohol. It needs to open out, so give it air, don’t over chill it and, as EN recommends, use reasonably large glasses. It comes in 50cl bottles.

Watch out for the next “Florpower” release, which, will use up the rest of this source, if my information is correct, in an unfortified table wine. I really can’t wait. Alliance Wine is the UK agent for Equipo Navazos.

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Sylvaner “L’Hermitage” 2015, Domaine Julien Meyer (Nothalten, Alsace, France) – Nothalten is a little to the south of Andlau, where I was staying in October last year. There is no doubt that my first visit to Alsace in five or six years has really reinvigorated the love I had for the region’s wines. I picked up this bottle from the remarkable takeaway list at Plateau, Brighton’s excellent natural wine bar/restaurant.

Patrick Meyer’s Sylvaner vines are planted on Nothalten’s Zellberg, not a Grand Cru but nevertheless a fine site in its own right. For Sylvaner there’s a touch of unexpected richness (the vintage, perhaps), and the freshness and acidity one expects comes in to act as a nice balance. To say this is full of life is not a cliche, but true. Patrick Meyer is making some lovely biodynamic wines, and this really shows how interesting, and good, Sylvaner can be. A domaine I must explore further on my next visit.

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“Dynamitage” Vin de France, Baptiste Cousin (Loire, France) – Domaine Le Batossay is the name for the wines made by young Baptiste Cousin, who is now making the family’s Gamay and Grolleau south of Angers, in Anjou, whilst Olivier now concentrates on the Cabernet Franc. This Gamay comes from the vines from which Olivier made “Yamag” (so obviously Gamay backwards, oh how these poor vignerons have to circumvent French wine bureaucracy).

The label is quite plain and gives little idea of what’s inside. It’s not your standard Loire Gamay, for sure. Sulphur free, it’s packed full of blackberry and blueberry fruit (rather than cherry) from whole clusters, aged in barrique. Enormously concentrated, I suggest that if you grab a bottle you will be in for a gorgeous surprise. Just 11% abv, Loire Gamay at its very best. I think (the label is not very illuminating) that this is a 2015. Imported by Les Caves de Pyrene but possibly available at Noble Fine Liquor and  Solent Cellar among other good independents.

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Ce Marrin 2016, Vin de Pays d’Allobrogie, Les Vignes de Paradis (Savoie, France) – Dominique Lucas makes wines in Savoie and Burgundy, but this is from his 7.5ha near Ballaison, just south of Lac Léman. Ballaison is in the Crépy AOC, which used to be known for slightly spritzy (crépytant as the local negoces used to call it) but anonymous wines made from Chasselas. Such wines are generally over-cropped, under-ripe and heavily chaptalised. Lucas’ wines are somewhat different in every respect.

Only 4,000 bottles of this Chasselas were produced and it is a lot more concentrated than the commercial versions of wine from this variety, from both sides of the lake. Although Dominique is based at Ballaison, the grapes for this cuvée come from the Marin cru, which is further round the lake near Évian. It has promising colour and is softly herby with just a touch of citrus acidity, yet with plenty of mouth texture (the vines are planted on glacial moraine over granite).

This is without doubt the best wine I’ve drunk so far from any of the terroirs south of the lake, whose wines (sometimes for my sins) I know pretty well. In fact all the Marin I’ve previously drunk has been quite close to battery acid. Dominique still makes wine in Burgundy, in the Hautes Côtes above Pommard, but he is surely the king of French Chasselas. I think I have another one, made from older vines on different terrain, to drink at some point. But do also look out for some amphora Savagnin, and the astonishing (if rare and expensive) Kheops Chardonnay, fermented in a concrete pyramid. 🕉

I picked up a mixed pack of the Lucas wines recently from Solent Cellar and they are another producer imported by Les Caves.

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Foam 2014, Meinklang (Neusiedlersee, Austria) – This is an unusually old Foam which had been hidden away in the mess that is my pétnat pile on the floor of my wine stash. It’s a Grauburgunder (Pinot Gris) made from fruit grown in Meinklang’s Pamhagen vineyards near the Hungarian border, just south of Austria’s most famous lake.

It’s fairly orange in colour, certainly cloudy (unfiltered), but it still has the zip of fine bubbles and a persistent bead, not having lost its fizz as quite a few older pétnats can. It has a certain edge to it, which I wonder whether results from the wild graupert vines Meinklang own (I’m loathe to say “cultivate”), from where the fruit is sourced.

It’s quite a wild wine in fact, and whilst it still has the “lightness of being” which you look for in pétnat wines, there’s a bit of depth in there as well. Naturally the vintage has moved on, but if you can find Foam anywhere, it will likely be at Winemakers Club.

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“Doris” [2016], Vinos Ambiz (Sierra de Gredos, Spain) – Fabio Bartolomei goes very much his own way at El Tiemblo, with his high altitude mix of rare, Spanish and international varieties, mainly made in amphora which he scoops up from around the village (there used to be an amphora factory there until the 1950s).

Doris is made from the Doré grape variety (which may be Chasselas Doré) . A massive twenty-four hour hailstorm in July 2016 took around 50% of the crop and Fabio said he was only able to make around 700 bottles of Doris. It’s a unique wine, and one which I suggest is for advanced students only. It’s cloudy (unfined and unfiltered) with no additives. If you’ve ever bought an Ambiz wine you will know that the back label is one very long list of what Fabio doesn’t do to the wine. In fact, the wine gets crushed/pressed, racked and is only clarified by gravity. It is fresh, with a very bitter orange peel note. You’d never guess it tops out at 13.75% abv, it’s so fresh.

It really is something very different, but lovely. Don’t let me put you off with a cautionary warning that this is a wine which will make you stop and think. If you can find one of those 700 bottles, it has one of the most exquisitely pretty labels anywhere. Mine came from Burgess & Hall, imported by Otros Vinos.

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Riesling Trocken “Faß 16” 2015, Weingut Peter Lauer (Saar/Mosel, Germany) – Florian Lauer’s Faß 16 is so named because he tries to use the same casks every year for the same wine. The Faß numbers originated when the 1970s German Wine Law removed the right to use the long-existing individual vineyard names, and at Lauer the practice has stuck.

This may be entry level but this really is the dry German Riesling (12%) you want to grab a case of for the summer (I think that the current 2016 is even racier than this 2015). It’s quite intensely fruity, and just so fresh, although it doesn’t have the rapier-like acid spine you can get from many a dry Saar wine. In fact, there’s even a hint of richness in 2015’s ripe Riesling fruit.

This is a truly lovely wine, but it is also something of a bargain at around £15 for the 2016, from Germany and Burgundy Specialist, Howard Ripley.

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Loibner Gelber Muskateller Auslese 2011, Weingut Knoll (Wachau, Austria) – Knoll is one of the producers that sparked my interest in Austrian wines many years ago. Perhaps, as I’ve found new interest in Austria’s natural wines, I’ve been purchasing fewer Wachau wines of late, but I still enjoy them just as much.

This Auslese in 50cl format is a bottle I picked up a few years ago at Vinothek Hubert Fohringer in Spitz. The shop, right on the Danube by the ferry stop, is the best wine shop I know in the region, really worth a visit upstairs. It’s on the Wachau cycle trail and if you hire bikes, be sure to get ones with a basket between the handlebars! But you can also visit the Knoll restaurant in Unterloiben, on the same trail, where the Knoll wines can be sampled in the warmer months outdoors with excellent food.

All the Knoll wines seem to share a common trait. They are always quite tightly wound expressions of their terroir. This Muscat à Petit-Grains is not especially Muscat-like. It tastes drier and more mineral than you might expect, with plenty of fresh acidity. Would I know it was a Muscat? Well, just about. But it’s more “a Wachau”, which is actually what makes it so attractive.

This might be impossible to find, but it should encourage you to think outside of the Riesling-Grüner box in the Wachau. Impressive.

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Malvasia Rose Frizzante “Il Mio” 2016, Camillo Donati (Emilia, Italy) – This is dark pink with a hint of an orange tinge (like you can get in a negroni). It’s basically a simple dry frizzante with only a little mousse and visible bead (drunk from a Zalto Universal), but the palate is packed with secret CO2, which combines with a touch of bitterness to make a very refreshing glass. When it goes down it’s another case of not really noticing 13.5% alcohol, but as it goes down so easily, it does creep up on you (alcohol with bubbles!). This wine has become a classic now, and I’m sure many readers will have tried it. If you want to smell summer roses and spring blossom along with a hint of tea leaf, this may be the place to look.

Doug says that their Lambrusco “would happily unite Klingons…” but I can tell him that the chance of The Klingons reforming is pretty much zero! England’s loss, I’m afraid. Imported by Les Caves de Pyrene and hopefully available at many of the retailers who buy from them.

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Starvecrow Pét Nat Cyder (East Sussex, England) – Many years ago I used to be a frequent visitor to Normandy. I used to bemoan the fact that I was going to a part of France that didn’t make wine, but in the land of the apple I soon developed a taste for Normandy’s sparkling cider (and Calvados, so often to my cost). There really does seem to be a renewed interest in Cider/Cidre in Europe once again, and this is being driven by the “naturalistas”, especially by the success of Eric Bordelet’s Sidre from north of Le Mans in France, and the Cidrerie Le Vulcain, near Fribourg in Switzerland, both of whom make some of the finest ciders in the world.

Ben Walgate is one of the people behind this cider made at Clayton Farm, Peasmarsh. Fashioned like a petnat wine, bottled during its “wild fermentation”, it’s made from an interesting blend of apples, not your normal cider varieties (from Bramley, Golden, Jonagold and Braeburn). It’s unfined, unfiltered, and importantly, unsulphured.

If you like your sparkling cider dry and brisk you should go out and grab this. At just 5.5% abv it’s instantly refreshing. Appley aromas combine with the spine of acidity you get with (good) cool climate Riesling. I grabbed several bottles from Butler’s Wine Cellar in Brighton. Les Caves take Ben’s petnat Dornfelder/Pinot Noir, PN17, so they might have some. This is the red label. The black label “Natural Cyder” has 7% alcohol and was made in old whiskey casks. It has a bit less of the zip and is slightly broader, and less fizzy. Both are good, but this one’s my favourite. It has a lot in common with a petnat wine, but for a mere tenner a bottle.

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Chardonnay 2011, Riverby Estate (Marlborough, New Zealand) – I’ll ‘fess up here that Kevin Coutney, who owns Riverby, is someone I’d count as a mate now. He’s a generous bloke. If you are passing by you should tell him I sent you to see him, and try his wines. I’m sure not many readers will know them, but whenever people try them in Tastings in the UK, opinions are almost always way more than just positive. They are indeed some of Marlborough’s hidden gems. That said, his sweet botrytis Rieslings are well-lauded, and awarded, in New Zealand, among the country’s very finest dessert wines.

This single vineyard Chardonnay, from fruit grown on the gravels of the Opawa River which was diverted in the 1930s, has a bit of bottle age, yet it was so fresh. Lean (almost sinewy) but not mean. Even our non-expert guests knew the variety, but unlike some examples from the region it’s devoid of overt fatness, oakiness and sugariness. You get just a touch of butter, but not “slapped on”. It’s also quite pale. It does pack 14%, yet it seems light, well, relatively speaking.

Riverby Estate doesn’t have that wide a UK distribution, but their importer is Black Dog Wine Agency, a small importer specialising in New Zealand wines, based in Cheshire, who you can contact for direct sales or a list of stockists. Riverby does a wide range of varietal wines, including good Pinot Noirs and equally interesting Grüner Veltliner. Their Chardonnay is most often my own favourite from the dry wines (the ’14 is another winning vintage), but the sweet Rieslings are sensational.

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Côtes du Jura Trousseau “En Rollion” 2015, Les Dolomies (Jura, France) – Céline and Steve Gormally farm  around 4ha at Passenans, to the southwest of Poligny, and just north of Château-Chalon (where they have some vines, but only classified as Côtes du Jura). This glowing bright light red smells of concentrated red summer fruits (raspberry, strawberry, cherry), is smooth, but really lively on the palate, and probably the most gluggable bottle of 13.5% alcohol red wine you’ll find in a region where gluggable wines abound. Amazing stuff.

My bottle came from the region. The Cave des Papilles in Paris is often a good bet for Les Dolomies. I noticed that last year Vine Trail in the UK began to list the domaine (along with two other excellent choices, Marnes Blanches and Domaine de La Touraize), but not this particular cuvée. US distribution is very good. If you come across any of the Gormally wines, grab one.

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La Bota de Florpower 44 (LMMX), Equipo Navazos (Jerez, Spain) – I make no apology for listing another Equipo Navazos wine. In some ways drinking this, just a couple of days ago, was a sad moment for me. Bota 44 was the first Florpower, EN’s Palomino table wine, and this was my last bottle. 2010 was the first vintage of a wine sourced mainly from Jerez’s Pago Miraflores, plus a few other sites in the Sherry Region. It was fermented in stainless steel and aged eight months in butts before blending into steel again for bottling in July 2013.

Visually, this looks old, quite dark. It smells of flor and nuts, and tastes quite nutty, with a saline lick on the finish, like salted almond with a touch of deeper hazelnut. What you don’t expect is its retained freshness, emphasised with a little lemon citrus on the finish. It’s also quite chalky in texture as it trails off, very long and clean.

Florpower is an amazing wine, really. So eminently drinkable, but with real personality. The most recent release is Bota 77, although as I mentioned above when discussing the Manzanilla 80, watch out for the next Florpower which should hit the UK in the next few months, via Alliance Wine.

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See you in May (you can follow me on Instagram)

 

 

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Bursting Bubbles – Robert Walters, and Some Thoughts on the Grower Champagne Philosophy

You will recall that I made Champagne by Peter Liem my wine book of last year. That expertly written book which puts terroir at its heart was the outstanding work on wine, in my view, in the whole of 2017. Bursting Bubbles by Australian author Robert Walters follows a similar route, but with perhaps a more radical message.

Liem’s work is highly detailed, and comprehensive, but it is not over critical of the negociant producers, the so-called Grandes Marques. Walters, in focusing on the small number of committed, high quality, producers he imports and works with, questions the whole focus of the Champagne region, and gets to the heart of what is Champagne.

In his Foreword, Andrew Jefford describes Bursting Bubbles as “The most engaging book about Champagne growers I’ve read…”. Let’s see whether we agree.

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What kind of Champagne do you want to drink? This is the question that Walters asks, and it is perhaps one which most Champagne drinkers have never considered. What he points out is a simple but often overlooked fact. Throughout the rest of France, the finest wines (and he often turns to Burgundy as an example) are expressions of place. They are also wines which use the best grapes, ripe and cropped at reasonable levels and turned, in the winery, into fine artisanal wines which express the nuance of where they come from: Gevrey or Chambolle, Morgon or Fleurie, Saumur-Champigny or Chinon, or Eguisheim or Bergheim, to name just a few examples of my own.

Champagne’s history, and its worldwide market, is one created by the negociant. There were clear historical reasons for this, which Walters outlines. Nevertheless, this has led to two clear differences between Champagne and the rest of “Fine Wine France”. The first relates to production methods, not just the (as some would say) semi-industrial nature of production for the vast majority of Champagne produced, but in blending. The market for grapes has led to Champagne Houses blending their wines from all over the region, from north of Reims right down to the Aube, which borders Burgundy. In effect, they are, it might be argued, blending away terroir.

The other major difference relates to the marketing of Champagne as “a festive drink or, at best, a high-quality aperitif that should not be taken as seriously as the great wines of the world”. How often do wine lovers demote Champagne to the mere prelude to an evening drinking the serious stuff? To a certain extent the new owners of the Grandes Marques, the luxury goods companies, have been changing this perception through their expensive prestige cuvées, but for the vast majority who drink Champagne, it remains, as Walters puts it, “a bubbly drink for bubbly people”.

So how do the “growers” differ? Well, to begin with, we need to destroy any idea that Grower producers make better Champagne than the negociants. There are hundreds of families making wine in the region (aside from those who get an allocation back from the co-operative of which they are a member and stick their own label on it). Some of these wines are among the worst in the region, purely because, whilst using the same methods as the negociants use for the volume side of their production, they don’t possess the expertise, nor the vineyards, nor the equipment, to match them.

There are, however, a group of vignerons working in the wider Champagne Region for whom quality comes naturally, a product of dedication, attention to detail, very hard work, and sticking to a philosophy that is based upon a clear idea of how they want their wines to reflect their place. The father of the movement is Anselme Selosse, and it is no coincidence that he studied, unusually for a son of a Champagne producer, in Burgundy. Several of the producers covered in Bursting Bubbles were mentored by Selosse and his influence, if not always his production methods, has been immense.

In a north-south journey through Champagne Walters’ first stop is to visit Jérôme Prévost, whose own journey to become a producer was directly influenced by Selosse, in whose winery he made wine in his early years. Prévost used to make wine only from Pinot Meunier, which is all he originally had planted in his vineyard at Gueux, on the northern slopes of the Petite Montagne. “Les Béguines” is planted with Meunier vines over forty years old. Rather than crop this later flowering (frost avoiding) variety at the high levels usually produced for the big houses, Prévost keeps yields low.

The soils here are not the cliche of chalk, but express the deeper, unspoken, nuance of the region’s geology – here it’s alluvial sand and clay with marine fossils, covered with a thin layer of topsoil. It isn’t all that hard to see how a unique terroir, an unusual single variety approach using the so-called lesser of the three major Champagne grapes, and a methodology which values working the land, rejecting chemicals, and making sparkling wine with a similar approach and philosophy to a producer of still wines, will lead to something very different.

Indeed, Prévost’s wonderful wines are a paradigm of ageworthy, terroir expresssive, Champagne. More than that, they have become, like Selosse, a symbol of status for a bar or restaurant which has something from La Closerie on its list, and for the Champagne geek who has some in his/her cellar. As Walters says, ordering one “has become almost a badge of honour, a secret sign that affirms your initiation into an exclusive club of those in the know”. But he also goes on to point out the problem we chasers of Grower Champagnes of quality have. The guy makes around 13,000 bottles per year…not a lot to go around.

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Fac-simile is Jérôme Prévost’s wonderful rosé, one of the finest in all Champagne. Initial is Selosse’s entry level cuvée, which costs not much less than many a “prestige” 

I don’t plan to go through all the producers visited in the book, of which there are not that many. Actually, Walters reckons that the really good grower-producers can be counted on your fingers and toes. I think he’s being a little unfair, and this is where Peter Liem’s book comes in handy. He lists more, in particular a new band of quality-focused growers who are trying to make this “grower movement” into the grower revolution that it half promises to be. It would be impossible to talk about this movement, however, without a visit to Anselme Selosse, the “most significant figure in the great grower movement” (I like Walters’ modification, adding the word “great” to distinguish the stars).

Selosse, according to Robert Walters, was always an outsider as a child, and had a difficult upbringing. This led him to go away to school from age twelve, and to study wine in Beaune from age fifteen. It was a pilot ecology course at the Beaune Lycée which fired up Selosse’s passion, along with his discovery of the solera system whilst gaining work experience in Spain. It was his experimental nature, one of careful observation of the results of his actions, which led him first to abandon herbicides, and then to change his winery methods (abandoning filtration and the very important but still controversial technique of cutting back on the dosage, etc).

Selosse, and his impact, is a perfect reflection of how the region works in relation to the dominant houses and their grape growing suppliers. When his wines began to get noticed there was a lot of animosity. People didn’t like his challenge on quality and identity, because grape prices are high enough to make a farmer a good living, cropping high and keeping disease and pests down with synthetic products, without having to strive for perfection. He was accused of many things, including that he was “a fraud”. The “great growers” continue to face such animosity. One such producer I know a little (not one featured in the book) told me some of the things the head of a Grande Marque had said about these grower-producers at an event they were both attending. Arrogant and not pleasant.

Selosse, and all the other great growers for that matter, have always given credit to the Grandes Marques for creating a worldwide market for Champagne. Some of the negociants will (if grudgingly at times) credit these sought after growers with creating a renewed interest in Champagne as a fine wine, beyond the “festive fizz” image, as something more serious, and something to accompany food throughout a meal. In my view, these impacts have benefited the Grandes Marques, but some don’t quite see it that way. They merely see any idea of a “grower revolution” as a threat to their grape supplies, and their control of the market. This, despite the fact that growers in total produce a mere 5% of Champagne, and the “great growers” of the type we are talking about here produce a tiny proportion of that 5%.

I’d like to look at one final grower covered in Bursting Bubbles, Cédric Bouchard. Bouchard is in many ways the archetypal exemplar of the methods we are focusing on. His production comprises, with every wine he makes, of a single grape variety from a single plot. It comes from a total focus on terroir, allied to complete perfectionism. He looks for richness in his wines, and to achieve this he crops insanely low for the region (c26 h/hl in some cases), without any chemicals. This gives him ripe grapes (with potential alcohol of at least 11%, sometimes as high as 13%, where levels for Champagne are more commonly around 9% before chaptalisation, as Walters points out).

Bouchard clearly makes wine first and Champagne second. He tells Walters that he’d rather make still wine but he hasn’t yet been able to produce still wine of a quality sufficiently stunning for his perfectionist approach. Bubbles, he suggests, just get in the way!

I want to use a quote from Bouchard in Bursting Bubbles which for me sums up the region perfectly. “The great problem with Champagne is very simple. You have over-production and it’s a great pity, because we have…an enormously important terroir…when people have in their minds mostly money…it’s hard to see this situation changing”.

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Côte de Val Vilaine comes from a 1.4 hectare plot of Pinot Noir at Polisy, and was once called Inflorescence

The fear is that this movement, of which Prévost, Selosse, Bouchard and others are part, will fizzle out. Many vested interests would very possibly like that to happen. Despite the obvious benefits of having a group of producers in a bright spotlight, bringing kudos to a region for their “fine wine” interpretations of the genre, they are too often seen as a commercial threat, which is ludicrous. Perhaps it is more the challenge to the way in which Champagne is produced by the majority, and the challenge to the whole philosophy behind this sparkling wine, which really upsets people – it hits a raw nerve.

I’ve only really given a flavour of Bursting Bubbles here. There are also chapters on Champagne Myths in which Walters burst a few more bubbles, which I shall allow readers of the book to enjoy on their own. Quoting Andrew Jefford again, “No wine is promoted more pretentiously or mythologically than Champagne”.

Bursting Bubbles is, in my opinion, an important contribution to Champagne writing. It’s an easy read as well, less dense and technical than most books on the Region. As Walters says in his Introductory “Disclaimers”, it isn’t a wine guide. Nor, he admits, is it impartial, and nor is it intended as “an excercise in Grandes Marques bashing”. But it will without doubt help you to answer that question I posed, taken from Robert Walters himself, at the top of my article – What kind of Champagne do you want to drink?

My wife is currently reading a book by an American physician, Michael Greger, called “How Not To Die”. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? It’s a book which both advocates a plant-based diet from a health benefits point of view, whilst at the same time pointing out the very real potential harm to humans which can result from eating industrially farmed and chemically treated meat and dairy products.

This book would be likely to cause a number of different reactions, aside from that of “I’m not going to read that!”. First you might reject his arguments, possibly out of prejudice, or a refusal to consider their validity. If you are an American meat lover (EU regulation currently saves British consumers from some of the methods he mentions, which are outlawed within the EU) it is probably a tough read.

Second, you might read the book and leave with a nuanced viewpoint and a desire maybe to try a few of his ideas (eat more beans and pulses, for example). The third result might be a “Road to Damascus” experience, whereby you feel a light has been shone in a dark place. All of these possible reactions are equally valid for Bursting Bubbles. If you are happy with your bottle of NV Champagne at Christmas or on a birthday, fair enough. If your indifference to Champagne is based on it being, well, not quite a fine wine, then Bursting Bubbles might make you look again.

I think that for me, it is none of the above, purely because the inner geek in me got interested in (Great) Grower Champagne many years ago. My introduction was actually via the wines of Francis Boulard, Egly-Ouriet, Larmandier-Bernier and Pierre Péters, and my long standing passion for growers such as Bérêche is well known. I was lucky, because these wines were far more affordable back then, and I have been able to try bottles from all but a few of the more recent people to come onto the scene. Bursting Bubbles simply reinforces and focuses some of my views and experiences, yet does so in a clear sighted and entertaining way.

The heart of the problem is this. For there to be a “Great Grower Revolution” these wines have to be tasted by lovers of fine wine, or perhaps I should say by those who like their wine to be an expression of the place where it comes from. People need to be able to judge them as such, and appreciate their uniqueness within the world of Champagne. Yet with tiny production, and doubling or tripling of prices in the past several years, they are in some cases no less expensive than the prestige cuvées of the Grandes Marques with which they now compete.

It is also sadly true that where such wines do appear on the shelves of wine stores, or on the wine lists of hip restaurant-bars (especially in Paris), their sale is occasionally refused to mere mortals deemed not worthy. I guess they don’t like the cherry pickers, and Champagne is not alone in this respect, as anyone who has got prematurely excited at seeing some Overnoy on a list will attest when the bartender or sommelier says “no!”.

All I can say is that if you read Bursting Bubbles there is a fair chance that you will be enticed into spending even more money than you can afford on the producers Robert Walters mentions…and if you spend considerably more on Peter Liem’s “Champagne” book as well, then the damage may be considerably worse. I think that’s a good thing. These wines (I use the term “wine” very deliberately) deserve our attention. Walters has done a great job in shining his own spotlight here.

If you have got this far I’m certain you will enjoy the book, or at the very least it will make you think. I’m sure it will be a book I revisit fairly soon. I really enjoyed it.

Robert Walters, Bursting Bubbles (A Secret History Of Champagne & The Rise Of The Great Growers) was first published in Australia in 2016 by Bibendum Wine Co. This edition was published in the UK in 2017 by Quiller Publishing, RRP £18.99 (hardback).

My article on Peter Liem’s Champagne can be found via this link here.

Below, a small selection of Grower bottles from the archive, all worth exploring, as are dozens more, all trying in their own way to reflect a different aspect of Champagne terroir

 

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The Great German Pinot Noir Tasting

Pretty much every time I go to a Tasting of German wines we see a few reds tacked on to the end, and I suppose that’s how reds have been seen in the past when it comes to the UK market for German wine. This is not the case in Germany, of course. Though I’m loath to talk about the phenomenon in these terms, climate change has probably been kind to those wishing to produce red wine in Germany, and the ability to count on ripe grapes is increasingly feeding a culture that has transformed to drinking a lot more red wine at table.

There are many red varieties grown in Germany, from local varieties like Dornfelder, Lemberger and Frühburgunder to international grapes such as Syrah, and even pockets of Cabernet Sauvignon. But Pinot Noir, or Spätburgunder (labelling is a personal choice, and some producers as we shall see use both) has long been Germany’s most promising red variety. It has also been grown in Germany for over 700 years, planted originally in Rheingau, by the same monastic orders who established the variety’s nobility in the Duchy of Burgundy.

Germany has one thing going for it perhaps above all others when it comes to Pinot Noir, and that is terroirs. I use the plural deliberately. In Burgundy, the Cru system of classification allows for nuance between similar plots and lieux-dits to show through. In Germany part of the fun is in comparing the same variety from different regions. Pinot Noir is often called the “Red Riesling” for its ability to adapt to different terroirs and to express those terroirs in the glass.

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Although a vast oversimplification, as well as the limestone of the Pfalz and much of Baden, you have major pockets of Pinot Noir grown on sandstone (Franken), volcanic bedrock covered in wind blown loess (Baden’s Kaiserstuhl Massif), and the Ahr Region’s famous slate, to name just a few highly diverse terroirs.

Another factor which I must bring up is clones. Dijon clones have increasingly been planted by serious producers of red wines, purely for qualitative reasons. That is not to put down the German clones, but the wines produced (even when taking into account terroirs), are usually very different. Some producers prefer French clones and some prefer the German ones (and even Swiss clones too, in the case of our final producer here).

And finally, another twist – a couple of the producers at this tasting have, like Fritz Becker who I visited last October in Schweigen (Pfalz), their finest Pinot Noir vineyards in France.

So when a taster asked a producer which Burgundy domaines he is trying to emulate (hopefully with his tongue in his cheek), you can imagine the answer. German Pinot Noir, or Spätburgunder, is distinctive.

So from this Tasting at Chandos House, off Oxford Street in London, a collaboration between Howard Ripley and ABS Wine Agencies, I think it is fair to say that people could take away a sense of that distinctive variety in German Pinot Noir, and also the leap in quality which producers have made across the board in the past decade. This, as far as I’m aware, was the first ever Tasting in the UK to consist only of German Pinot Noir. I think its time has arrived.

Eleven estates were showing their wines. Four from Baden, two from the Pfalz, and one each from Württemberg, Rheinhessen, Ahr, Franken and Ruwer. Almost a full house of red wine producing regions. There was not a single wine I did not like. I will save my own very personal favourite producer until last, one that ranks in my own top two producers of German red wine. The other wasn’t there, but if you’ve been reading carefully you will have deduced who that is.

MAXIMIN GRÜNHAUS (Mertesdorf, Ruwer)

I’ve known and loved Carl Von Schubert’s wines, with their equally attractive jugenstil labels, since the 1980s, but it is only in the past several years that I’ve been enjoying his reds. Carl’s Spätburgunder is grown in the centre of the Abtsberg, the estate’s finest site, on a plot where there is more topsoil, around a metre-and-a-half deep over the slate. He has a mix of German and French clones, and made his first harvest in 2010, when just a single barrique was produced. Yields are low, around 30 hl/ha, and the aim is to produce elegant wines which are mineral, and fresh.

Spätburgunder 2014 is a lovely wine with which to begin a Tasting, especially as the scent emanating from the glass is so beautiful. It’s a fragrant, lighter style, which one could call pretty, so long as that is not seen as damning with faint praise. It’s elegant as well…but definitely pretty too.

Pinot Noir 2015 is interesting. I only need to say once that 2015 was a hot vintage throughout Germany, as in France. But hot means different things when we are in some of Germany’s more marginal regions, and those of us who can recall the steely Rieslings from the Ruwer back in the day will know that this is not remotely a warm region to begin with. So there’s a deeper nose here and a bit more weight, but it’s not a big wine.

Pinot Noir 2016 was a cask sample, due to be bottled in May or June, and very promising.

I’ve not really made a quality assessment of these wines, have I. I am not going to argue that these are the most potentially complex wines of the day, but I will say that I like them a lot. There is always elegance here and, although the fruit is bright and fresh, there is subtlety too. I’ve written only positive things about the Grünhaus reds in the past, and tasting three together only served to reinforce my desire to drink them more often.

 

FÜRST (Bürgstadt, Franken)

The Fürsts began producing wine here in the Seventeenth Century, and that tradition carries on today. Weingut Rudolf Fürst is named after Sebastian Fürst’s grandfather. Sebastian now helps his parents, Paul and Monika, and their reputation grows by the year. This is based on attention to detail at the smallest level, and a recognition that they have some great terroirs to bring out.

Sebastian is now in charge of all the red wine production, having developed both his expertise and passion at Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss (Alsace) and Domaine L’Arlot      (Nuits). Despite a reasonably large holding of just under 20 ha of vineyard, production here is emphatically artisanal. Foot treading, barriques, minimal sulphuring, all aim to transfer the grapes into wines which display the nuance of the soils, mainly red bundsandstein with pockets of water-retaining clays, warm soils which assist ripening.

Spätburgunder Tradition 2016 comes from 100% estate fruit off 7.5ha of either younger vines, or lesser sites. Don’t discount it, it’s pleasant everyday drinking, and refreshingly light. Spätburgunder Bürgstadter 2014 is what they call their “village wine”. There’s a definite increase in depth and it represents good value at around £30 RRP.

There were three of the crus on show, conforming to the VDP Grosses Gewächs classification, which I suppose the organisation would like to be seen as a Grand Cru equivalent. Each of the next three wines represents a step up in quality.

Centgrafenberg Pinot Noir GG 2014 uses more whole bunches, and there’s great freshness here in 2014, as well as more depth and latent complexity. The GG wines do require ageing, perhaps at least a decade, and it is a big mistake to treat them as wines to open soon after bottling.

Schlossberg Spätburgunder GG 2014 comes from a walled vineyard, about three kilometres of walls protecting what is already a south facing site of red compressed sandstone. There is indeed a touch more ripeness, and the wine has a very appealing dusty or grainy texture.

Hundsrück Spätburgunder GG 2014 is made from fruit grown in the central part of the Centgrafenberg vineyard. When Germany botched its Wine Law in the 1970s, old sites like this were subsumed into the larger named vineyards, and Hundsrück had to be re-registered in recent years. But it is clearly a terroir of genuine class, again south facing, and producing ripe fruit with potential for great complexity. This is a fine 2014, but it should be given the respect of ageing, just like its Burgundian counterparts. Expect to be divested of around £115 for a bottle.

 

JEAN STODDEN (Rech, Ahr)

The River Ahr is a Rhine tributary, 50 km south of Köln. As it is such a northerly wine region, it surprises some that of all wine regions in Germany, it is the one whose fame lies mostly with red wine (indeed, Stodden is not just a “Weingut”, it is a “Rotweingut”). It is also the region which has the distinction of it’s famous Greywacke slate, on steeply terraced hillsides, where the ripeness of the fruit derives (as with Riesling in the Mosel) from the reflected and stored sunshine and heat of the river and the vineyard (assisted in part by the terrace walls made from the same material).

It’s so warm there that some authors have used the term “Mediterranean” to describe the climate. I’m not sure it is quite like Tuscany, or Priorat, (perhaps it is?) but the region does see more than 1,500 hours of sunlight in an average year, and an average temperature approaching 10 degree celsius. It’s also a dry region.

Gerhard and his son Alexander run one of the region’s most highly regarded estates (the other is Meyer-Näkel), farming around 6.5 ha near Rech, with many vines over 80 years in age, some (on the Sonnenberg GG) ungrafted. Alexander was one of the first in Germany to use new French barriques (currently Tronçais oak from François Frères), but it is only the exceptional sites and the ripeness they give which makes this possible.

Four wines, in increasing price and complexity, were offered to taste. Spätburgunder 2016 is all estate fruit, aged in old wood. It’s pale and fragrant, simple and fruity. Like all the 2016s at the tasting, it was promising. Spätburgunder JS 2015 comes at quite a step up in price (from £24 to £38). It is aged in new oak and, although still a pale wine, it has a bigger, rounder, nose with more depth. You can feel the new wood but it isn’t too intrusive, although the ripeness of 2015 no doubt helps.

Recher Herrenberg Spätburgunder 2014 is fresher and benefits from an extra year’s age, but we are getting up to £50-a-bottle here. It still has a slatey intensity of dark fruits and their slight bitterness. Top of the range here was the almost £90 Neuenahrer Sonnenberg Spätburgunder 2015, one of Stodden’s Grosses Gewächs, but it’s quite a different wine. From lower down the river, where the valley is wider and there is more loess and less slate, it has a plumpness to it, and an extraordinary bouquet. It has a lot more body than I was expecting.

I generally find Stodden’s wines very different to those of Meyer-Näkel (which I know much better), but they are absolutely among the most interesting producers of Pinot Noir in Germany, and the Ahr style (to the degree one exists) is a benchmark contrast to much of the rest of the world’s efforts with this variety.

 

KELLER (Flörsheim-Dalsheim, Rheinhessen)

Klaus-Peter Keller needs no introduction, I’m sure. This estate was founded in the year of the French Revolution, but when I began drinking wine Rheinhessen seemed almost a sleepy backwater of industrial production. Now it is one of Germany’s most exciting regions. This is in large part down to Keller more than anyone else (without taking anything away from Philipp Wittmann in Westhofen).

Klaus-Peter is, of course, famous not for Spätburgunder, but for Riesling, some of Germany’s finest and most expensive. But as with Riesling (and the inexpensive Von der Fels), there is a red wine which offers amazing value. The red wine quality here is unsurprising when one realises that this Riesling genius interned at Domaines Armand Rousseau and Hubert Lignier, in Burgundy. His first barrels came from DRC.

There are Grosses Gewächs reds, and Klaus-Peter even grafted some Pinot Noir onto old Silvaner in his treasured Morstein vineyard six or seven years ago, but Spätburgunder “S” is eminently affordable and well worth tracking down. 2013 (£29 RRP) is a fragrant wine which should peak in five-or-so years. It isn’t what I’d call tannic, but it does have a spine of fresh acidity, which seems precise, within it. 2015 (£35) is riper but there are similarities between the two vintages, which I’d put down to freshness and elegance. I said “riper”, but clearly Keller is avoiding any hint of over ripe fruit in a hot year. Like his whites, he’s aiming for the stars. I have this back to 2012, which tells you what I think. They will keep, the best vintages for a good decade if you wish.

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WEINGUT BERNHART (Schweigen-Rechtenbach, Pfalz)

This is the first producer here whose wines I’d never tried, but the keen eyed reader will spot the fact that I know this village, having visited Fritz Becker here last October (yes, Fritz Becker is that other favourite German red winemaker). And if you read my article back in November you will also know that the producers of the border village of Schweigen farm their Pinot Noir, or certainly the best of it, on the hillside slopes over in France, in the former monastic vineyards of the Abbey of Wissembourg. Bernhart owns eleven hectares, of which 60% are over the border, in France.

There is a frustrating anomaly for producers of wine from these French sites. Although the grapes come from France, the wines are made in Germany and have to conform to German wine regulation. The German authorities won’t allow the producers to use the French vineyard names, vineyards which in France are arguably Grand Cru quality (were they under Alsace regulation). The growers of Schweigen have to find another way to label them. Some go for fantasy names, but the most common way is to use a single denoting letter.

There’s a basic wine here, labelled simply as Spätburgunder which in 2015 was very ripe, fruity and tastySchweigen Spätburgunder 2015 is the village wine, with a more high-toned bouquet, but again, fruity.

The quality leap comes with the single vineyard wines from the Sonnenberg, which range from £25 to £45 a bottle and, as such, are pretty good value. Spätburgunder “S” 2014 was described by Gerd Bernhart as an Erste Lage, a premier cru. It sees 50% new oak and has good mineral depth and a touch of salinity. Spätburgunder “R” 2013 is the reserve wine from the same site. It’s Gerd’s oldest parcel with vines planted in 1977. It sees 100% new oak, but that surprisingly doesn’t dominate, and there is lovely smooth fruit underneath.

Spätburgunder “Rg” 2014 is a parcel on the west of the steep slope which rises from the Abbey, called Rädling. This spends 18 months in new oak, and the oak here is more obvious. But the fruit is sweet, and the oak does enhance this.

I’m not so keen on 100% new oak with most Pinot Noir as a rule, but I can’t say that the wines here are not balanced. And they certainly represent good value.

 

WEINGUT JÜLG (Schweigen-Rechtenbach, Pfalz)

I’ve drunk Johannes Jülg’s red wines on several occasions, and it was the homely, atmospheric, Weinstube, which the family runs in the village, where we headed for lunch last year, after our morning with Fritz Becker. Whilst I think the previous producer, Bernhart, represents good value, I think I’d have to emphasise that value for money even more at this address. But it’s all personal choice.

Johannes is another German winemaker who fell under the influence of a Burgundian, in this case Thierry Brouin at Domaine des Lambrays. What he says he took from his time there was to look for elegance and complexity in his wines.

We begin, as at other addresses, with a Spätburgunder 2015, plain and simple (bottled under screwcap, like it Johannes!). Super fruity with a smidgen of spice, this is almost ridiculously priced with a RRP of £12.20 according to the sheet we were given. The reserve Spätburgunder “R” 2012 is from vines exclusively on the French side of the border. It sees a little new wood. A 2013 “R” hails from a cooler vintage, and I’d have to be tricked into using that old chestnut “mineral” here, despite that voice inside my head telling me I shouldn’t.

Pinot Noir 2012 is so-labelled  because these vines are French clones. The style is slightly meatier, but there’s great length and acidity to match. The 2013 version is noticeably different, slightly paler and brighter, as befitting a cooler vintage. The difference in labeling is wholly valid, and it’s nice in fact to see the two styles, “Pinot Noir” and “Spätburgunder”, side by side.

The Jülg wines may have less complexity than some, but they do have a vibrancy, and even with the oak, an approachability. The added bonus is that everything here comes at less than £40/bottle.

 

RAINER SCHNAITMANN (Fellbach, Württemburg)

Schnaitmann is a new addition to the ABS roster, and a relatively new member of the German VDP. Rainer is described as a dynamic young guy, “articulate, intelligent, caring, passionate, detailed (sic)”, a lot of praise. A shame I didn’t get to meet this former architecture student into music and art, as he shares some of my own interests outside of wine.

I’ve never tasted Rainer’s wines before, but the fame of this young man precedes him. Stephan Reinhardt wrote (in The Finest Wines of Germany, Aurum, 2012) that his Fellbach Lämmler Spätburgunder GG 2009 was rated by some opinion leaders “as highly as any other German Pinot Noir”, and describes him as “the most prominent and rapidly rising newcomer of the past decade”.

The wines really live up to that praise from Germany’s most knowledgeable wine writer. More than anything here, you get silky smooth wines with concentrated fruit, giving them instant appeal. Other tasters were impressed by their magic too.

Spätburgunder “Junge Reben” 2015 (£25) is from young vines in this ripe, warm, vintage. The colour is vibrant and the fruit is concentrated. Simonroth Spätburgunder 2014 is from older vines (45-50 years of age) from a single site. Again, the simple description “tasty” is all you need, really. There’s certainly a greater freshness here than with the Simonroth 2015, where the fruit is riper and the tannins softer. The opulence of the 2015 is really appealing, but then so is the freshness of the ’14. Both single vineyard wines here are recommended to be sold at £40, although I have mentioned the GG (not shown), which is presumably a little more upmarket in pricing.

 

KARL H JOHNER (Vogtsburg-Bischoffingen, Kaiserstuhl, Baden)

Karl Heinz and his wife Irene used to run Lamberhurst Vineyard in Kent, but they returned to Germany way back in 1985 to found their Baden domaine. Ever restless, in 2001 they also began farming in Wairarapa at the foot of North Island, in Neuseeland, where they spend about four-and-a-half months of their year.

Karl Heinz is one of the few German wine producers who openly admits his red wines aspire to emulate Burgundy, yet he is no copycat producer. In fact he’s fiercely independent, going his own way on so many issues. Their son Patrick is now working in the business and continues with the fine work being done here, especially with Pinot Noir/Spätburgunder.

Spätburgunder Kaiserstuhl 2014 is a fruit-driven entry level wine. Spätburgunder 2014 is off loess soils and is fresher. A 2016 cask sample of this wine (just ready for bottling) tasted very nice, with slightly more breadth. Spätburgunder 2015 (unfined, unfiltered, matured in wood, 20% new) was a richer version.

Pinot Noir Steinbuck 2013 is made from Burgundy Dijon clones, vines which yield bunches with lots of small berries, and which were planted in 1998. It has a slightly darker cherry colour, and still has some tannins.

The top wine on show was Spätburgunder “SJ” 2013. This is made from vines on the eastern side of the Kaiserstuhl, the volcanic massif which rises to just over 550 metres above sea level from the Rhine Graben, more or less opposite Colmar. This, says Karl Heinz, is their Grand Cru, though he’s way too independent to join any organisation which would allow him to label it as such. There’s a lot of concentration here, but there’s also a good degree of approachability.

 

HOLGER KOCH (Vogstburg-Bickensohl, Baden)

This is another estate at the heart of the Kaiserstuhl, where Holger farms 8.5 ha. His first love, when it comes to wine, was Bordeaux, thanks to a stage at Canon La Gaffelière under Stefan (Graf Von) Niepperg, in Saint-Emilion. Thankfully, Holger didn’t come home and graft all his vines over to Merlot. But he did return with a new found enthusiasm for terroir-driven wine, and he did replant the family vineyard with improved Pinot clones.

There is an interesting philosophy at work here, which differs from some of the estates making Pinot Noir in Germany today. It seems that Holger isn’t afraid of fashioning wines of power, although he looks for freshness too. Unlike some Saint-Emilion, the oak doesn’t dominate completely (which is just as well with Pinot Noir), and Holger has an experimental nature as well. The wines were shown by Holger’s wife, Gabriele.

Pinot Noir Herrenstück 2015 is one of the bigger entry level wines at this Tasting, and it has some structure too. The 2016 version of this wine was deliciously fruity. It’s also tighter and more precise, from what is shaping up to be a vintage of freshness all around Germany.

Pinot Noir * (one star) 2015 comes from a parcel within the Herrenstück, facing southwest. It’s quite different, with very acute freshness and concentration. Pinot Noir *** (three stars) 2015 is another step up. The parcel site here is at 370 metres altitude in a valley which is notably windy. As a result you seem to get the richness of the vintage from what is a south facing site, but tempered by freshness in the fruit, perhaps somehow the result of that wind. A nice wine. Nothing here appears to cost more than £40 (for the 2015 three star).

 

SHELTER WINERY (Kenzingen, Baden)

Hans-Berte Espe met his future wife Silke Wolf at Geisenheim. Hans-Berte cut his teeth in Oregon whilst Silke worked for the State Wine Institute in Freiburg, before they bought their Baden estate, which now comprises 5 ha.

Although this is not a “natural” wine producer, no insecticides nor herbicides are used on the vines. They believe in low yields and hand harvesting, with destemming, wood fermenting in cuve and ageing in a mix of new and old barriques.

Their five hectares is planted to 95% Pinot Noir, along with a little Chardonnay (the latter planted 2009), on soils of mainly loess over limestone. A young vine Spätburgunder 2015 starts us off. It sees oak, but 100% used, and it is still very fruit-driven. Pinot Noir 2014 gave a more elegant version of the grape variety, although there’s still a good degree of concentration. Pinot Noir 2015 has a high-toned bouquet and, for the vintage, is pretty elegant too. The cuvée labelled Pinot Noir is from their eldest vineyards, planted in 1977 and 1978.

It’s interesting that Kenzingen is over on the eastern side of the region and to the north of the Kaiserstuhl, close to the backdrop of the Black Forest. Here, they get quite cold winds which not only reduce the threat of disease, but also seem somehow to keep a certain freshness in the wines.

 

ZIEREISEN (Efringen-Kirchen, Baden)

The three Baden names we’ve tasted so far are probably not among the most famous in the region. Wine is a personal thing. There are some very well known and highly regarded names in Baden, mainly producers who group around the Kaiserstuhl. I’m thinking of Huber, Bercher, Dr Heger, and Franz Keller of Schwarzer Adler fame. But of all of them, Ziereisen is my own favourite.

Hanspeter Ziereisen and his wife, Edel, are only just Baden producers. Their 15 ha estate is only 4km from Switzerland, with vineyards actually overlooking the city of Basel. Hanspeter is a convert to a different way of doing things. He speaks with horror of how he used to chaptalise his wines, and his wines today generally have a good 2% lower alcohol than they reached in the 1990s.

Pinot Noir is a mainstay here, and indeed my introduction to these wines could not have been better, via one of the Jaspis Pinots many years ago. There are other varieties equally worth exploring, though. Hanspeter makes a really excellent Syrah in the Jaspis range (Jaspis is a selection of the best barrels for each wine), from vines planted in 1999. It has a Northern Rhône quality to it, a freshness.

Hanspeter’s vines are relatively protected from the north by the forests around Basel, but he places a lot of importance on the role of the Belfort Gap to the south, which allows ventilating winds to sweep up and over the vines, which grow at between 250 to 400 metres. These cooling winds slow down the ripening process. Seek out the Syrah if you can.

Also seek out Hanspeter’s Chasselas (known as Gutedel in these parts), which is a really thought-provoking wine, made with just short of a year on lees in large old wood. Chasselas is underrated, but its relatively poor reputation is largely justified in this part of Germany and over the border in Switzerland. Yet it is capable of something finer, whether on the terraces of Lavaux, in the finest Fendant of the Valais, or indeed in the hands of Dominique Lucas at the up-and-coming Vignes de Paradis estate south of Lac Léman, near Geneva (see my next article on Recent Wines). But here, it produces something different again, with quite rich stone fruit flavours and a touch of herbiness, allied to a frisky salinity.

But I digress, do I not! We are here for the Pinot. Spätburgunder Tschuppen 2012 is, for me at least, one of the very best sub-£20 reds you’ll fnd anywhere in Germany. A great every day wine.

We get a bit more serious with Spätburgunder Schulen 2015. Hanspeter achieves genuine freshness in a hot vintage, but it’s not just the wind. He told me that the thing they really learnt from the scorcher that was 2003 was canopy management. “The grapes should see the sun but the sun shouldn’t see the grapes”. 50-55% whole bunches also helped retain freshness, as did very gentle extraction, and this wine has just 13% abv.

Spätburgunder Rhini 2015, like Schulen, is off limestone, but in a part of the vineyard with plenty of clay and iron. In 2015 the wine is bigger than in the recent past, a little meaty even (in flavour as much as weight), but is still remarkably fine.

When we get to the three Jaspis wines on show we can see a very clear step up in quality, but don’t let that put anyone off the Schulen and Rhini, which fall into the £20 to £30 range, more or less. Jaspis Spätburgunder 2010 is a fine wine made from old vines (planted in 1958). 2010 was a cool year here in Southern Baden, but this is maturing nicely with a superb bouquet and spicy fruit. Jaspis Spätburgunder Alte Reben 2009 was my favourite wine of the day. It gets an extra three years ageing before bottling over the other version. There is a mere 12.5% alcohol here and it is simply gorgeous.

But what do I know? Hanspeter’s favourite is Jaspis Pinot Noir Alte Reben 2013. To me it was just less developed, but then I know the wines far less intimately than their creator. It’s still bloody brilliant though!

These wines are all wonderful. I know I’m rating this estate above some more famous producers, but I think that the enthusiasm, knowledge, experience, and sheer personality of Hanspeter and Edel do a lot to foster my preference. I’ve loved these wines for years, and this Tasting only served to cement my opinion. I’d love to get down to Efringen-Kirchen one day. Especially as I hear Hanspeter has some Chasselas under flor (is this true?).

 

I’ve no doubt that I have shown a degree of enthusiasm here for the Pinot Noirs of Germany which might raise an eyebrow or two among some (perhaps older) readers. Yet (and it’s not the first time I’ve banged on about this) German red wine in general is in the process of a transformation.

There are plenty of tasty, fruity reds from several varieties, and from pretty much all of Germany’s regions…yes, even the Mosel. There are also some very fine wines being crafted from Pinot Noir/Spätburgunder. They are never cheap, but then when compared to fine Pinot from around the world, they are often surprisingly good value. Please go out and try them, but do give the best of them the honour of some cellar time before you drink them.

My own, wholly personal, selection from the estates tasted would be Ziereisen, Keller and Maximin Grünhaus, from which one can purchase a spread of different wines at different levels, with a variety of drinking dates. In addition, I do want to explore the wines of Rainer Schnaitmann, and to drink some more from Johannes Jülg. Let’s also not forget Fürst, whose wines I’m inclined to pick off the shelf somewhere like Fortnums, as I’m innocently passing through the basement wine department.

I will finally mention that London-based German MW Anne Krebiehl delivered a couple of booked-out masterclasses during the Tasting on Monday afternoon. I was sadly unable to attend one. I’d have loved to hear her speak. Her MW Dissertation was on “The Future of Premium German Pinot Noir” and there is no stronger, nor more compelling, advocate for the German iteration of this variety. In my humble opinion, the future for German Pinot is very bright indeed.

Fürst, Stodden, Schnaitmann and Johner are imported by ABS Wine Agencies. Contact kd@abswineagencies.co.uk

The remaining producers are imported via Howard Ripley Ltd. Contact Sebastian.Thomas@howardripley.com

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Recent Wines (February 2018) #theglouthatbindsus

I’m a little bit behind again with my regular pieces on recent wines drunk at home, so here I’ll mention just eight stars from February, along with a clutch of wines we drank last Saturday night (which deserve not to be left behind). I’ll try to get up to date with some more wines in the next ten days.

I was reading Andrew Jefford in Decanter’s “April” edition. He was talking about the takeover in Burgundy by the big corporates and billionaires, and how the knock-on effect spells the end of small artisans making top-vineyard Grand Cru Burgundy. It’s pertinent to this series on what I drink at home because once upon a time I bought so-called fine Burgundy. I own a tiny bit, and of fine Bordeaux too. My journey outside the box kind of began from Burgundy, when we decided, on our then annual visit to the Côte d’Or, that Arbois looked interesting for a day trip (we never looked back, I can tell you). But I rarely drink it these days, and have not bought any Burgundy, other than a little from young growers and micro-negoces like Le Grappin, for a long time.

Instead, I drink amazing wine of such variety, excitement and quality, yet which, whilst often quite expensive, costs nothing remotely like that of the wines I once used to stretch to buying. The first eight wines here are a perfect illustration of that. Sometimes I think my drinking just gets better and better, wines freed from the shackles of the required typicity and expectations of classical styles. Yet there is still majesty in the classics, as you will see in the pair that took to dinner last weekend (though neither were from Bordeaux nor Burgundy, I must try harder). The third wine, taken by friends, is very much a new classic.

Côtes du Jura Pinot Noir 2016, Domaine des Marnes Blanches (Jura, France)

In the past couple of years this domaine, from the Southern Jura, at St Agnès (just a few k’s north of Rotalier) has become a firm favourite among the group of people I drink with. I do keep repeating that they are Southern Jura’s rising stars. What I didn’t realise until recently was that Pauline and Géraud Fromont were in their early twenties when they set up the domaine in 2006 – I only discovered them about three years or so ago, when Winemakers Club began working with them.

Whilst their whites benefit from a while in bottle to achieve their potential, this Pinot is a palish version of the variety, with low (11.5%) alcohol. The raspberry fruit is adorable now, and it is soft and ever so slightly smoky. Others have suggested that their winemaking allows their wines to age, and perhaps this Pinot would be no different to the whites, given the opportunity. But there’s a rare freshness here which just makes me think it’s fantastic now.

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Örökségül 2014, Hegyikaló (Szomolya, Hungary)

Héjon Erjesztett Zöld Veltliner, or effectively Grüner to you and me. But with 60 days skin contact followed by a year in old wood. Golden-orange colour gives on to a bouquet and palate of honey and soft lemon. It kind of takes me back to some pleasant childhood memories. I say “soft”, but there’s a richness too, all underpinned with the texture of all that maceration, though it’s not intrusive.

I never know which is my favourite wine from Hegyikaló. Adam and Julia only make around 4,000 bottles a year, spread over several wines, but they seem equally gifted in all four colours. This wine is just brilliant, so long, unquestionably wonderful, and certainly my favourite…until I drink something else they made. This is the second of three wines sold by Winemakers Club here.

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Weissburgunder Erdeluftgrasundreben 2013, Claus Preisinger (Burgenland, Austria)

You know Claus from Gols, up at the top of the Neusiedlersee, don’t you. Well this is the first of his orange wines I’ve drunk this year, and this 2013, with a touch of bottle age, was majestic. It comes unfiltered, and you can stand it up to let the deposits and sediment settle if you wish. Claus recommends that you shake it (like a polaroid picture, as the song goes), to enjoy it in its full, cloudy, textural, glory.

If you do decide to be brave, the flavour reward is complex, and you will certainly get more sour/bitter flavours. Nothing is obscured by the cloudiness. It’s rich, long, ever so slightly lactic, citric and probably karmic and cosmic too for all I know. But it ain’t no intellectual beast. Despite 13.5% abv on the label, it’s hard to put down. Almost a glugger! A serious wine, but with the life and joy of Claus’s cheaper wines.

Newcomer Wines at Dalston Junction bring Preisinger into the UK, and in fact he was one of their original producers back in the shipping container days.

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Bugey Chardonnay 2014, Famille Peillot (Bugey, France)

Pushing 2018 as the year of Alpine wines, this is another tasty Bugey, made by Franck Peillot at Montagnieu, which is thirty miles east of Lyon, where the pre-Alps begin, in the département of L’Ain. If you read Part 1 of my Raw Wine review published a little over a week ago, you’ll have read about another Montagnieu producer, Yves Duport.

This is pale for Chardonnay, but the nose clearly has varietal definition – you can tell what you are sniffing. It’s lightness carries through when you take a sip. It is balanced easy going, the acidity is fresh, and the alcohol is just 12% (low for a Chardonnay). I think you might make an educated guess that this is a mountain wine.

This was a sample from Winemakers Club (not a freebie, I did a swap with John as I wanted to try this). Peillot is probably better known as a bit of a Pinot Noir expert and, when it comes to white wine, for his Altesse, but this is an attractive Chardonnay. I’m not sure whether Winemakers will ship it? Vine Trail also sell some of Franck’s wines, but as far as I’m aware, not his Chardonnay. But it may turn up in the UK soon, as Savoie and Bugey get more publicity as the year goes on.

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Pithos Rosso 2014, COS (Vittoria, Sicily, Italy)

The wines of COS go back a long way with me. We have history, one of seeking out these wines wherever I could find them. Although their Zibibbo in Pithos was one of my wines of 2018, I probably drink a fair bit less COS than I used to – there’s just so much that is new to explore. But every time I drink COS I remember how wonderful their wines are, and every time I drink this wine, I recall with utmost clarity why I got interested in amphora-fermented (in pithos) wines. Pithos Rosso was almost certainly my first.

The “pithos” in this case are 400 litre amphora, buried to the neck in the Georgian style. Into them go biodynamically farmed Nero d’Avola and Frappato grapes, the same blend, more or less, as the Cerasuolo di Vittoria of this part of Southeastern Sicily. Everything about this says terracotta, from the distinct whiff of brick dust on the nose, to the slightly bitter edge, to the concentrated nature of the dark and red fruits (morello cherry dominating). Then there’s the vibrant acidity which gives the wine such freshness. Finally texture, not a lot, but enough to slightly dry the tongue with a prickling sensation. Love it!

COS has always been, and remains, a stalwart of the Les Caves de Pyrene stable. I hear there’s some more Zibibbo in Pithos coming soon. Shhhh!

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“Simone C’est Moi! 2014 Vin de France, Julie Balagny (Beaujolais, France)

Julie Balagny is a native of Paris, who somehow rocked up in Beaujolais in 2009 after making biodynamic and natural wine for others in Southwest France. She has a habit of being difficult to visit, and her wines are not easy to get hold of. I used to wear out the soles of my shoes in Paris before Tutto Wines began importing her, but the UK’s allocation is still pretty tiny.

Simone is unusual. It’s normally a Fleurie, but in 2014 the fermentation wouldn’t stop and it ended up being shipped in 2016 (if I recall?) as a Vin de France. It’s pretty pale, so it’s not a surprise to find the most ethereal scent of cherry rising like thin wisps of smoke from the glass, with strawberry joining in as you sniff deeper. The palate is soft and the wine has a calming nature. The acidity is perfectly judged almost as if, after all that extended fermentation, the wine said “ah, yes, that’s just right”. It’s damned near a perfect wine. I now have one bottle left…must share it. Is there a producer in the region whose wines I like more than Julie’s? Probably not.

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Sumoll Blanc Brisat 2014, Metamorphika/Costador Terroirs (Catalonia, Spain)

Here we are in Conca de Barberà, near Tarragona, up in the hills at 400 to 800 metres altitude. Sumoll is better known as a red variety making fabulous wines in Catalonia (try some), and occasionally vinified white as a blanc de noirs. This is the very rare vrai white Sumoll, from bush vines of about 80 years old. The grapes go into amphora for six weeks as whole bunches (so the grapes at the bottom are pressed by the weight of the fruit on top, as in Beaujolais sometimes). This makes for some skin contact, and a pale orange wine (“brisat” identifies skin contact in Catalan). The fermented juice then goes into 500 litre old oak for about seven months.

The bouquet is of flame raisins (sorry, pretentious but it just came out) and herbs (let’s not take it too far by being specific). The palate is quite different. It’s a little creamy and quite “mineral” at the same time, with a tad of citrus on the finish. Despite having skin contact in amphora, it tastes “clean”, and certainly mellow. Quite a wine for contemplation, despite coming in at a very low 10.5% alcohol. Otros Vinos is the man to see (well, Fernando Berry is his name).

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Xarel-lo Ancestral 2015, Clot de Les Soleres (Catalonia, Spain)

I first tasted this wine in March 2017, and in the intervening year it had lost none of its freshness, if perhaps a touch of its fizz, though as an off-dry wine with just 10% alcohol it might have made better summer sipping under the parasol than as an accompaniment to “the beast from the east” (which in the UK was a few days of late heavy snowfall, not one of Boris Johnson’s unhelpful quips about Vladimir Putin).

From Piera in Barcelona Province, it is a pure Xarel-lo, disgorged in October 2016. It’s completely natural with no added sulphur. The nose is quite grapey but if you were expecting any similarities to Muscat, not one bit. The palate has both richness and freshness, with the fruit being slightly candied with this level of sugar. The soils on which this Xarel-lo are grown are a mix of limestone and quartz, and I find it a little hard to dissociate that soil profile from the underlying structure and texture. It’s frothy too.

Clot de Les Soleres specialises in petnat wines, though not exclusively. As they are completely non-interventionists, each one will be allowed to turn out as it wishes, to do its own thing. This means you get different styles emerging every vintage and you just have to go with it. You can read about Carles and Montse Ferrer’s wines which I tasted at Raw Wine London 2018 in the previous article on this site. It’s another Spanish (Catalan) producer imported by Otros Vinos.

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That’s the first batch of the “home consumed” wines, but as I mentioned above, we went to dinner in the New Forest again last weekend. The East End Arms is a nice old forest pub about fifteen minutes out of Lymington (just before you get to East End). It was bought in 1990 by John Illsley, bass player for Dire Straits, who wanted to preserve this lovely pub for the locals.

In fact the restaurant is pretty good, with nicely sourced ingredients, a step above “good pub food”, and it’s name has reached much further afield (I think it got a 9/10 from the Daily Telegraph, and they have rooms too). They were also able, with prior warning, to knock up three very good and inventive vegan courses. Those who have been reading my occasional pieces on New Forest dining should add The East End Arms to the list of restaurants to visit.

We were, as so often is the case, privileged to be allowed to take some wines. All three were right on top of their game, which is why they deserve a mention.

Vino de Parcela “El Tamboril”  2014, Comando G (Sierra de Gredos, Spain) – In the province of Avila, Fernando Garcia, Daniel Landi and Marc Isart got together a little over a decade ago to reinvent the classic wines of Garnacha (the “G”). I love those wines. They have become famous classics, but in some ways I like this white even more than the reds, perhaps for its rarity in coming my way. We are still with Garnacha here, just 90-year-old Garnachas Blanc and Gris. They are planted on a north facing slope of quartz-flecked granite in a tiny parcel (just 0.2ha), “El Tamboril”, at 1,230 metres altitude near the village of Navatalgordo. The great altitude, slightly water-stressed old bush vines and wild landscape produces late ripening fruit, which creates wines of genuine intensity.

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López de Heredia Viña Tondonia Rioja Reserva 1994 (Rioja, Spain) – Viña Tondonia is the flagship wine of the most traditional of all of Rioja’s great bodegas. Long wood ageing has given this wine, comprising around three-quarters Tempranillo with diminishing amounts of Garnacha, Mazuelo and Graciano, the organoleptic patina of an old mahogany table, cherished and polished for twenty-three years (don’t worry, it still looks deep red, not brown). Yet it doesn’t taste old, it tastes remarkably fresh. This is because wood at L de H is a seasoning, not the sauce that overwhelms the dish.

The 1994 vintage in Rioja produced wines capable of long ageing, and it has been said elsewhere that Viña Tondonia from this vintage is probably at the apex of that ageability. I think that despite the age of this wine, it has many years ahead of it. Alas, it was my solitary bottle from this vintage, although I have other Tondonia and Bosconia from the 1990s. Yet I will not complain about not keeping it for longer. This old wine was one of the finest classic bottles I have drunk for some months. Such experiences are genuinely moving.

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Côte Rôtie “Cuvée Du Plessy” 2006, Gilles Barge – I’d taken this as a backup for the Tondonia. Well, you never know, there have been some instances of perhaps poorly stored Lopez de Heredia wines on the UK market in recent years, as friends have experienced. We decided to open it anyway.

The Barge family is old school Northern Rhône. Well, not quite Chave longevity there, but making wine in the 19th Century, for sure. Winemaking is traditional, with tank fermentations before transfer to old oak of varying sizes. Cuvée Du Plessy is sourced from various parcels on the Côte Blonde, and the Syrah (vines now averaging around 50-years and older) has around 5% Viognier added. There is clearly lift and fragrance, which one presumes the Viognier enhances.

The bouquet of this 2006 cuvée is mature, but it doesn’t have any bacon fat or meat on it. There is a touch of peppery spice, but red berries dominate. It’s beautiful, that fragrance providing so much pleasure that you hardly notice the palate developing slowly as it breathes. I’d be pushed to say that it matched the Tondonia if forced to talk of relative quality, but that’s a pointless comment to make.

On its own merits this is a very fine wine indeed. I used to buy quite a bit of Côte-Rôtie, and I suppose that I slowed down when the wines I was buying went consistently over the £50/bottle mark. However, The Wine Society seems to still be listing the 2006 for £39-a-bottle. In terms of cost, it’s the bargain of the three wines we drank.

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I’ve still got several more wines to write up, but I’ll save them. Expect a second “recent wines” article in a week or so. Next up, we have Howard Ripley‘s German Reds on Monday, which I’m very much looking forward to.

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Raw London 2018 Part 2

This is the second part of my selection from Raw Wine London 2018, the first part of which precedes this article. Here we have eleven more producers from the weekend before last’s event at The Store on London’s Strand. All but one are from Europe this time, it’s just the way things worked out I’m afraid. What I can say is that if you read on you’ll find one or two old favourites, but equally, some exciting new estates.

Finally, at the end of the Fair, I tasted some excellent Sake. Many readers will know of my interest in Japan, but I’m no expert when it comes to this wonderful product. Tasting such a wide range of styles here certainly broadened my knowledge and appreciation.

MEINKLANG (Burgenland, Austria)

Meinklang definitely fall into the “old favourites” category, and I’d without doubt place them in my own very subjective list of my favourite half-dozen Austrian producers. Their mixed farm is at Pamhagen, south of the Neusiedlersee, right by the border with Hungary.

What do I need to say for the few readers who do not already know Meinklang? Well, all their farming activities are biodynamic, they are at least as famous for their beef cattle in Austria itself, they make some wines from vines left wild (Graupert) and some in concrete eggs (Konkret), and they also have vineyards in Hungary, on the amazing volcanic cone of Somlò.

I know the whole range reasonably well, and have written about these wines many times, so I will concentrate on just four. Foam White 2017 is the new version of their excellent petnat. It’s actually more of a peach skin colour, rather than white. You have to revel in its cloudy frothiness, and freshness abounds. It’s a delicious wine, but there’s a variant on this petnat, Foam Somlò 2017. Here we have a wine with low pressure (around 1.5 to 2.0 bar), so that it is just slightly fizzy. The straight Foam is often made from Pinot Gris, but this Somlò version is 60% Hárslevelü and 40% Juhfark, two of the classic varieties on the Somlò massif. Fruity and soft but dry, this is exceptional petnat.

There’s a red version too, simply called Foam Red (2017). This sample was actually drawn from wine still fermenting, and it needs another two-to-three months. It’s an unusual blend of Gamaret and Blaufränkisch. Gamaret is a cross between Gamay and Reichensteiner, very common in Switzerland, especially in the vineyards of Geneva. It’s not a variety I’ve come across in Austria but here it adds a lot of fruit and a light touch. The wine is inky dark and Gamaret’s partner in the blend adds a touch of bitter, peppery spice. Even at this stage it’s delicious.

As well as their more elevated still wines, Meinklang produces a superb range of simpler varietal wines from their 70 hectares under vine. I’ve often come across these in restaurants specialising in vegetarian food, where they are an instant “go-to” on the wine list. But this wine is a blend I’ve not tried before. Blauburger-Pinot Noir 2017 isn’t in fact on the market yet, but for a simple wine it’s quite majestic. It’s just delicious Pamhagen fruit, vinified simply. Whilst the Graupert wines are a little different and the concrete eggs make wines of genuine energy, don’t discount trying Meinklang’s range of simple varietals and blends when you want something a bit cheaper.

Meinklang wines are available via Winemakers Club and one or two other retailers and importers.

ALEXANDER AND MARIA KOPPITSCH (Neusiedlersee, Austria)

Of all the Austrian producers at the wine fairs I go to, the Koppitsch family are perhaps one of the least well known in the UK. If I was attracted to their stand last year by some of their attractive labels, it was their beautiful wines which won me over. The wines are made biodynamically, and they are also proudly vegan (as all true natural wines will be).

The Koppitsch vineyards are right up to the north of the lake, at Neusiedl-am-See. The family has been farming here for 500 years, and Alex took over 5.5 hectares of vines in 2011. The aim is above all to express terroir through largely single-vineyard wines. There is no cellar manipulation, aside from a small amount of sulphur at bottling only for some of the “Authentisch” range (the orange wines see no added sulphur). As these wines are less well known, I’ll zip through all the wines Maria and Alex’s sister, Anna, had available to taste.

Zweigelt authentisch 2016 – dark, dense colour, sappy bitter cherry with good concentration and no added sulphur. 12.5% abv. The authentisch cuvées are all vinified either in stainless steel or old large wood, with the aim of leaving in the wine “lots of mineral character” and clean bright fruit. That’s what you get here. I’m a massive fan of Zweigelt like this.

Rot No 3 authentisch 2015 – a blend of Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and St Laurent, a little less densely coloured than the pure Zweigelt but in the same vein.

Welschriesling Maischevergoren 2016 – skin fermented Welschriesling, two weeks on skins. It’s fruity and a little herby at the same time. The vines here are over 40 years old, off the famous limestone of the region, which is proving not only to be a perfect terroir for the Blaufränkisch variety, but proving here (and with others) that it makes for fascinating orange wines as well.

Gemischter Satz Maischevergoren 2016 – this is the Gemischter Satz blend turned orange. Although Vienna is the famed location for Gemischter Satz, with its very own DAC, the traditional field blend style can be found all over Austria. There are fifteen varieties in this cuvée, all picked together and fermented together. As is often the case, some varieties have never been identified. It’s a single site, planted in 1934 and rented by Alex. This is delicious, spicy, savoury, with a umami edge. A wonderful alternative GS.

Weissburgunder unfiltriert 2016 – stone fruits, a touch of apricot perhaps, great mouthfeel and texture.

Blaufränkisch unfiltriert 2015 – two yerars in eight-year-old barrique, there’s a lot of structure and depth, making a wine which will age well. There is some of the richness of the vintage, but with none of the wine’s definition taken away.

Pretty Nats 2017 – this is a Blaufränkisch petnat vinified pink, with no sulphur added. Off limestone, some of the qualities of the variety vinified red come through. It’s basically dry and packed with fruit. On my list! They also make versions from Pinot Noir and St Laurent, I believe.

Grüner Veltliner 2017 – amazing fruit, a kind of soft and gentle pineapple. A “must try” wine, if I can find a bottle.

Sauvignon Blanc – I think this was a 2017. The nose seemed a little reductive to me, but the palate was really concentrated. It was nicely balanced, not too much acidity.

I also tried a very pale Rosé autentisch 2017 blending the usual Burgenland triumvirate of Blaufränkisch, St Laurent and Zweigelt, which had an adorable sweet scent, and finally Zweigelt 2015. This had seen two years in 500 litre oak, and has a truly concentrated bouquet.

When I met the Koppitschs last year they had no UK importer, but they have since been picked up by Jascots. They deserve to begin to become much better known in the UK.

MAGULA FAMILY WINERY (Malokarpatská, Slovakia)

Vladimir and Lucia Magula’s wines were completely new to me, but I’m pleased to hear that they are joining the excellent Basket Press Wines portfolio very soon. They farm six hectares on alluvial soils and chalk and they don’t buy in any fruit. Their plan is to aim for expansion to 15 hectares, in a region of very low rainfall, which lies to the southeast of Czech Moravia. Their vines lie in two valleys, one producing wild wines (hence “wolf”) and the other, more gentle wines (“rose”).

Welschriesling 2016 is vinified in stainless steel on fine lees for seven months, bottled with only 14 mg/l of sulphur. It’s very characterful, but a gentle wine.

Oranzový vlk 2016 (orange wolf) is their only orange wine, with a nice label painted by Lucia’s sister. It blends a third each of Welschriesling, Grüner Veltliner and Devin (an autochthonous variety). It has a lovely bouquet and the kind of unusual and fascinating personality which has to be tried.

Frankovka 2014 was the first vintage of their Blaufränkisch I tasted. 2014 was as cold and wet in Slovakia as in Austria, but this is developing nicely as a subtle fruited red. Apparently it didn’t taste as they had wished a year ago, but in the last twelve months it has blossomed. The 2015 version is also very good, but different. It was actually an unsulphured sample (because adding sulphur would have put the sample totally out of balance for tasting at Raw). The fruit here is really good, without any overweight characteristics of a very hot vintage.

Frankovka “unplugged” 2015 is made from the same grapes but they are never touched by anything mechanical. Stems are included in the fermentation and it is aged on lees, giving a wine of gentle cherry fruit with a dusting of pepper. Vladimir said this is his “dearest baby”.

Carboniq 2017 is a youthful and simple wine made from Blauer Portugieser by carbonic maceration. Expect a Gamay-like red of 10.5% abv with very juicy, sappy, fruit. We will be tasting a Czech Blauer Portugieser later, but this part of Slovakia is well known as home for a variety which sounds as if it should be grown a long way to the west.

As a first foray outside the Czech Republic, the Magula wines will be a really excellent addition to the Basket Press Wines list.

BATIČ (Vipava, Slovenia)

Miha Batič carries on the tradition of 16th Century monks who made wine from this property at Sempas, near Nova Goricha in Western Slovenia, not far from the Italian border.

Only three Batič wines were on show, and I tasted the Batič Rosé 2015 and Angel Batič Rezerva 2011. The former is made from Cabernet Sauvignon and comes in one of the most unusual bottles on the market . It’s a shape that only a photo can describe (see below), rather like something I might come up with if I attempted to fashion a fluted bottle shape on a potter’s wheel. It doesn’t please everyone, but from experience I know it gets quite complex as it ages (I’ve purchased it a couple of times before as well as tasting at previous Raw events).

Angel Rezerva is the classic wine from Batič, a very special wine from a unique terroir. The Vogersko Hill near Brdce is surrounded by forest and well protected. Low yields produce a concentrated orange wine from around 40% Pinela, 20% each of Chardonnay and Malvazija, and lesser amounts of Retula, Laški Rizling, Zelen and Vitovska. Apple pie with ginger comes to mind. It’s a wine with immense potential to age.

I used to buy these wines from another source, but I see they are now imported by an agent I don’t know, World in Bottles.

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DOBRÁ VINICE (Moravia, Czech Republic)

The USP for Petr Nejedlik’s wines is his five buried, unglazed qvevri of 1,000 litres capacity, although some wines are also made in oak barrels. Petr was the first winemaker in the Czech Republic to make wine in these amphora. Although uncertified, Petr uses organic methods and some biodynamic preps. The vineyards are mostly in the Podyji National Park, around Znojmo.

I began by tasting a nice blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Pinot Gris and Pinot Noir (vinified white) called Quatre Cuvée 16 (2016) before moving on to a couple of more serious orange/skin contact wines. Velinské Zelené Qvevri Georgia 2012 sees nine months maceration on skins in qvevri. There’s plenty of texture resulting, but also amplified fruit acids, so the wine has a refreshing quality. Chardonnay Qvevri Georgia 2013 has a similar vinification, but is bigger in the mouth, with even more texture. Both wines benefit from age here.

Kambrium Cuvée 2014 is an attractive savoury blend of Veltlin (Grüner), Rizlink (Rhine Riesling) and Sauvignon Blanc. You get a hint at the qualities of each component, where the fruit is gooseberry, the spine is firm and the seasoning is pepper. I had already enjoyed this wine this year at the Plateau Brighton Tasting of Moravian wines (2 February article).

I missed out on the petnat, a blend of 60% Pinot Noir with Rhine Riesling…it was sadly all gone. I did however enjoy Petr’s Blanc de Blancs 2015 which he makes from Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris, very fruity. My knowledge of Czech sparkling wines grows by the week, and there is a lot of potential, it seems.

Last up, VDC 2015. Velké Dobré Červené is a late harvest wine made from Pinot Noir, Zweigeltrebe and Frankovka (Blaufränkisch), with the Pinot Noir vinified in qvevri and the other varieties in oak. It’s a red of structure, tannin and concentration. It wasn’t my immediate favourite from this excellent producer, but I’d like to try it with a bit more age. It so obviously has more to give.

Dobrá Vinice are on the roster of Basket Press Wines, of course.

VINARSTVI JAROSLAV OSIKA (Moravia, Czech Republic)

Jaroslav Osika is one of the founders of the natural wine movement in Moravia. The winery is tiny, with just 3 hectares under vine at Velké Bílovice in the far south of Moravia (we are 45km southeast of Brno and 80km northeast of Vienna). He doesn’t speak a word of English, and although these wonderful wines speak for themselves, I was pleased to have Jiri of Basket Press Wines on hand to translate.

I really do love this producer. It is probably in part because the techniques used here, long ageing in tandem with oxidative winemaking, remind me so much of the wines of the Jura Region in France. But there is nothing copycat about them.

Chardonnay 2012 is left on skins for six months, after which the juice stays on gross lees for a while before two years on fine lees in an old barrel. The wine shows 14% alcohol and is extremely rich (2012 was a warm vintage here). The oxidative quality is very much to the fore.

Modry Portugal 2016 is an Osika wine I tasted at Plateau Brighton at the beginning of February. Modry Portugal is the Moravian name for the Blauer Portugieser grape we came across in Slovakia (Magula’s “Carboniq”, above). It’s made in used wood, but then goes into fibreglass tanks, which helps retain freshness before bottling. Deep colour, crunchy fruit, a bit denser than the previous version of the variety, this is maybe a wine to glug slightly cool, or to pair with charcuterie and olives. I actually liked it even more on second meeting.

Pinot Gris 2015 starts its vinification with three days on skins in large oak (10% unbroken grapes are then added), is left for two-to-three months, then aged 21 months on lees. It is delicious. There’s no bitterness, just amplified fruit turned up to “11”.

Pinot Chardonnay 2014 is 60% Chardonnay/40% Pinot Gris, an interesting blend made slightly nutty in an oxidative style. Jaroslav then pulled out a couple of younger Chardonnays from 2013 and 2014. The 2013 was fresher, from a cooler vintage. It made a nice contrast to that rich 2012. For me it’s good to see each vintage appearing different to the others. What matters is what nature gives, not what the winemaker imposes. This is Jaroslav’s philosophy, but also that of all great winemakers.

Last of all there was a Gewurztraminer 2016, the youngest wine from Osika. It showed plenty of varietal character on the nose, but is much more mineral and less floral than what one might expect from Gewurz. It seems effectively dry, but there is a touch of richness as well. Alcohol comes in at 13%.

DOMAINE LIGAS (Macedonia, Greece)

Jason Ligas is the winemaker at what is very much my favourite Greek estate, but the wines are generally shown by his sister Meli, who lives in Paris. There are five autochthonous varieties grown: Assyrtiko, Kidonitsa, Xinomavro, Limniona and Roditis. Super-natural, Jason farms using the “Fukuoka” method (after Japanese farmer-philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka) of so-called “no-act” science. The vines are pretty much left to do as they wish (no tilling of the soil, no sprays etc) on the beautiful Paiko Mountain in this part of Northern Greece.

I tasted six wines this year. Kydonitsa Barrique 2015 sees a month’s maceration on skins, producing a deep orange wine which combines both texture and genuinely thrilling freshness. Roditis Barrique 2015 is a bit less orange, and even fresher all round. Very exciting stuff.

Xi-Ro 2015 is made from very gently extracted Xinomavro giving a red that is deliberately low in tannins, intentionally “drinkable” and in this context a total success. Pata Trava 2016 is a very different take on Xinomavro – as an orange(ish) wine. It’s quite dark in colour, perhaps as this was a warm vintage, even though it was directly pressed. But it only has 12.5% alcohol, and I was thrilled to find a bottle of this at the Burgess & Hall popup shop.

Lamda 2016 is a skin contact Assyrtiko (which is generally my favourite Greek red variety). It only sees four hours on skins before fermentation, but the vines are grown on pergolas. This makes for thin skins and the pigment is concentrated, so it doesn’t take a lot of extraction to get the colour. A fascinating “Vin de Table”.

Finally, a sip of Bucéphale 2016, presumably named after Alexander the Great’s beloved horse? This is a Xinomavro once again, but here vinified so as to make the kind of Xinomavro you are more likely to have come across. After a year in barrel it is a dark and concentrated red with amazing scents of olives and tasting of dark summer fruits. It’s only made in the best vintages.

Every wine from Ktima Ligas is different, and every one I have so far tasted is a gem. These are special wines, even in the context of all of the producers at Raw. They are part of the very dynamic portfolio at Dynamic Vines.

VINOS AMBIZ (Sierra de Gredos, Spain)

Fabio Bartolomei, son of Italian parents who emigrated to Scotland, is one of my favourite small “Spanish” wine producers, and if you read my Blog anything like regularly you’ve probably read a good bit about him already. No chemicals are used in either vineyard nor winery (which happens to be the big old co-operative cellar at El Tiemblo, which I imagine dwarfs Fabio’s small operation).

Fabio champions some very little known local varieties (like Doré, Malvar and Chelva along with Airén and Albillo), but he also uses more famous international and Spanish varieties (Sauvignon Blanc, Tempranillo, Garnacha). He’s also keen on amphora. When I somewhat ignorantly asked him where he sources these terracotta vessels, he told me they are just lying around the village. El Tiemblo used to have a amphora factory, which closed down in the 1950s. Apparently he picks them up fairly cheaply.

There were a lot more wines on taste than the three listed in the event catalogue. Anything here is worth grabbing if you see them on a shelf (Otros Vinos is the importer, or try Furanxo near Dalson Junction on Dalston Lane, or Burgess & Hall over in Leytonstone/Forest Gate, E7).

Malvar has a ten day skin maceration before going into amphora, and has decent tannic structure, even for an orange wine. Sauvignon Blanc makes a unique wine. Two weeks maceration before amphora, very high-toned with a herbal, even medicinal (but in a good way)…I did say unique, emphatically so.

Airén 2016 has a less dangerous personality for the more sensitive drinker. It has no skin contact and is made in stainless steel. Doris 2016 is one of my personal favourites (unfortunately it’s currently the only Ambiz wine I own). Made from the Doré variety, it gets just two days on skins in stainless steel and it has a slightly bitter texture. Nice label too!

Or do I prefer Alba? Two days on skins here is supplemented by amphora ageing. You get herbs, butterscotch and a lot more. It sounds unusual, and it is, but it’s also sheer genius if you just go with it.

The New Wave Girl 2017 is my first taste of this new wine. 90% Albillo and 10% Malvar, two days on skins again and then six months in amphora. It was one of the best wines on the stand. But it was topped by the craziest juice I drank all day, Tempranillo Carbonica 2016. It almost tastes like very funky fruit juice more than wine, but totally concentrated. I thought I’d bagged the last bottle at Burgess & Hall, but I stood aside for an Aussie whose birthday it was, and he was flying home the next day. Hoping one will come my way soon!!!

Finally, Garnacha 2016, a single vineyard wine fermented in stainless steel and aged in old oak for ten months. Proof that Fabio can turn his hand to something relatively traditional as well as the edge of the world stuff. I’m sure he’d think I was nuts to say it, but there’s certainly a touch of genius about Fabio’s winemaking. And bags of creativity too.

CLOT DE LES SOLERES (Catalonia, Spain)

Clot de les Soleres is the creation of Carles and Montse Ferrer, who took over family vineyards on the edge of the Valls de l’Anoia, not far from Barcelona, in 2008. They make a range of wines, specialising somewhat in a variety of petnats where they let the fermentations do their own thing. Nothing is done in the winery, pretty much, and certainly no sulphur is added.

Xarel-lo 2014 is a delicious example. It’s more like a still wine with a little CO2. The 2015 version didn’t even finish fermenting so it has some residual sugar, off-dry but with a spine running through it giving some tautness.

Don’t particularly expect “varietal definition” from Chardonnay 2015, but it does have fruit underpinning an intense mineral character. Macabeu 2014 is very fruity, whereas the same 2015 has a tiny bit of CO2 in the bottle and a little residual sugar. It’s very fresh, and makes a pleasant and interesting contrast to the character of the Xarel-lo wines.

I tasted two wines made from the French interloper here. Cabernet Sauvignon Anfora 2015 is actually fermented in stainless steel before being introduced into amphora for 13 months. It has a really interesting take on the usual Cabernet bouquet, a sort of iron filings and blackcurrant blend of fruit and spice. Round, rich, fairly tannic and 14% abv.

Cabernet Sauvignon Rosé 2015 is very different, and also very appealing (to me, but my wine tastes get more debauched by the day). Off-dry and frothy, and even better than the off-dry Xarel-lo “Ancestrale” I had from these guys a week or so ago. As far removed from the Bordeaux model as you can get with the variety, bravo!

This is another estate on the innovative Otros Vinos list.

ANDI FAUSTO (Lombardy, Italy)

These wines were something very different, and another producer who garnered diverse opinions from those I spoke to. I was at one with the person who had recommended I try them. I admire people who go their own way, and for this reason I am going to recommend you at least try some of these admittedly high alcohol, concentrated, wines. Wines for meditation, undoubtedly.

The Fausto vineyards are near Pavia, so around 50km south of Milan and east of Piemonte, in the region of Oltrepò Pavese. Winemaking is based on long macerations, making wines intended for extended ageing. It is easy to bandy around phrases like “unique”, and I’ve done so for individual wines even in this article. But I’m including the wines of Andi Fausto here because the whole range fits the bill.

Ardito 2015 was my intro, a blend of Barbera, Bonarda and others with a whole year skin maceration. A big, concentrated wine with 15.5% abv, and the power of an Amarone, albeit from different grapes. Ascaro 2015 is more of the same, if a degree less alcoholic, and 100% Barbera.

Estro 2016 comes in at a whopping 16.5% alcohol (that’s what the bottle says, the tech sheet says 15.5%), though I’ll admit that on a small tasting sample it didn’t quite taste that alcoholic. It’s made from Moradella, Croa (Croatina?), Vermiglio and Uva Della Cascina, fermented (fermented!) for 12 months in oak.

Sottosera 2016 is a Barbera Riserva, produced only in “a great year”. Quite a whopper again, with 15.5% alcohol, but such sweet fruit.

Frodo 2011 (apparently no Lord of the Rings connection) is possibly my first ever 100% Moradella. This also has massive fruit, but tannin too. Built for the long haul.

Crinale 2000 was the oldest wine on show. It had fifteen years in barrel and has a palish colour, a very deep nose, and yes, I could tell it is a Pinot Nero, though you don’t get many coming in at 14.5% in Italy (California may be a better reference point). It contrasted with Originaldo 2015, not in alcohol content (identical), but in complexity, though this younger Pinot Nero wine has a lovely bouquet.

Finally Giubilo 2017. Here, I enjoyed tasting a very young sample wine made in a totally different style to the rest, a Pinot Nero ancestral method petnat which underwent no disgorgement. Pale peach skin colour, around 25g/l residual sugar at the moment. Or at least that was what I took down in my notes. The technical data I picked up describes this 2017 as a “classic method” spumante made from a blend “not disclosed by Andi”. And rather confusingly, it also states something I’ve never seen before…”there is a second disgorgement or, if requested, the bottle is left in the upside down vertical position to be degorged (sic) by the customer”. Er…?

I’ve rarely been so confused as I was by these wines. They are some of the most concentrated wines immaginable. The Pinot Noir/Nero seems to attain levels of tannin here which I’ve never come across with the variety, yet in all the wines the fruit is sweetly ripe and rich. I can fully understand the shock of some tasters, but for anyone who wishes to explore something genuinely different, this is somewhere to come. The wines were astonishing on many levels.

Andi Fausto currently has no UK representation.

OKANAGAN CRUSH PAD (Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada)

Okanagan Crush Pad produces two ranges, named “Haywire” and “Narrative”. The powerhouse team behind this venture consists of winemaker Matt Dumayne, with owners Steve Lornie and the globetrotting Christine Coletta, along with Alberto Antonini as winemaking consultant and the star soil scientist Pedro Parra on drums…I mean, er, soils.

This is another producer I’ve written about a lot, but I wanted to catch up with Christine, to find out what they are up to, and to try a few new cuvées.

Narrative Ancient Method 2016 is 100% sparkling Pinot Noir which, like many of the wines from this region, is amazingly fresh. It sees nine months on skins, yet is pale and light, with only a little texture. Love it!

Haywire Gamay is always one of my favourite Crush Pad wines. This 2016 is a very fruity varietal, given a touch of interest from its time in concrete. Concrete is used widely here for fermentation and ageing.

The Haywire Free Form wines have much more skin contact texture. My favourite is Free Form Red 2016, which is Pinot Noir having spent eight months in amphora. The nose strikes a high note, with super fruitiness underpinned with tannin and texture.

A final shout for the quite extraordinarily different Haywire Waters & Banks Sauvignon Blanc 2016. Terry Waters and Cathy Banks own the small Trout Creek Canyon Vineyard from where this cuvée comes. After fermentation in concrete tanks it undergoes malolactic before spending a period of seven months on gross lees with no racking. This wine is very concentrated, with a mixture of linear citrus acidity and herby textural notes. A lovely white wine of personality.

There’s quite a bit of planting taking place, including more Gamay, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but also Chenin Blanc, which Christine says she’s really very excited about. I can’t wait to try it in a few years. Red Squirrel is the lucky importer.

UENO GOURMET SAKE (Japan)

Ueno Gourmet sells premium sake via its online shop, www.japan-gourmet.com and they had a range of sake to taste. Having tried a good selection of different styles of sake in Japan, I was surprised at the variety here. There was straight, clean and soft through to sake of great intensity. There was a sweetish sparkling sake, an amazing red sake (made from unpolished red rice), one called “Dreamy Clouds” which was indeed cloudy and quite ethereal, and then something the like of which I’d never come across, although I’m told it is common – sake flavoured with yuzu fruit.

The red sake was Kameman Red Rice, in the Junmai category, fruity with mild acidity and a medium-sweet flavour. The “yuzu” was technically a liqueur made by Fukuju. It has a high proportion of fresh fruit, and is light and clean but also intensely fruity. It still manages 14% abv. The slight bitterness of the yuzu comes through. I’d love both of these, the former to drink with food and the latter as an aperitif. Ueno Gourmet suggests using it as a base for cocktails or sorbets, the latter being a particularly tempting suggestion.

I’m not really sure of any UK distribution other than online. The man I tasted with suggested Harvey Nichols in Knightsbridge, but I shall also return to The Japan Centre (Piccadilly) at the next opportunity. But if someone can point me to a good sake selection in the UK, and indeed to a good sake book, I’d be most grateful.

 

 

 

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Raw London 2018 Part 1

So Raw has been and gone for another year. Raw Wine seems now to be a real community – a group of artisans who know each other, so the vibe is always friendly and buzzing. If anyone doesn’t know Raw Wine, it is more than anything a platform for artisans making low impact and minimal intervention wines and other beverages. All the wines at Raw are almost additive free (some producers add a small amount of sulphur to stabilise their wine), and most should be vegan friendly too, a fact which demands promotion.

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The Festival seems comfortable in its new home for the second year at The Store on The Strand, which is central and very convenient to many of us. I attended on the Trade/Press Day (Monday), which only got crowded by mid-afternoon, at which point a few of the exhibitors were noticeably flagging. But Raw seems to grow in confidence and the vibe is always great, even when there’s a crush around the better known producers. Getting there relatively early, I had a chance to focus on tasting in peace, if not quiet.

There’s a decent food offering upstairs at The Store, which is another reason I like the venue. Retreating up there to take stock over a decent coffee allows a rare moment of relaxation amid the bustle of the Fair. At the end of the day it was especially nice to be able to pick up a couple of bottles from the Burgess & Hall pop-up shop. Forest Gate E7 might not be the easiest place to get to for out-of-towners like me (though having lived there for a few months in my distant past, at least I know where it is), but their selection was enough to persuade me I must get out and visit them this summer.

As usual, I have tried to include quite a few new names along with some old friends, although I’ve missed out some of the big names, I’m afraid. They will probably get plenty of coverage elsewhere. In this Part 1 all the producers are French. Part 2 covers the rest of Europe, plus (randomly) Canada and Sake, and will be slightly longer.

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The lady to whom we owe so much, Raw Wine founder Isabelle Legeron

DOMAINE GESCHICKT (Alsace)

This Ammerschwihr producer is run by Arnaud and Frédéric Geschickt and Aurélie Fayolle. They have been biodynamic since 1998, making “natural wines” since 2012, with a range of vineyards, including on the village’s great crus, Kaefferkopf and Wineck-Schlossberg.

Ten wines were on show, beginning with a fresh and very dry Crémant “Double Zero” 2015 from a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Riesling, through a couple of Grand Cru Kaefferkopf and an interesting Pinot Noir, to the orange wines.

Riesling Geschickt 2016 saw a slow eight hour press rather than strict skin contact, so the colour is a little darker. It’s round and rich but also mineral dry.

The two Grand Crus were very good, from a site which wasn’t named in the original Grand Cru designation, but which just about everyone screamed that it should have been. My favourite was a 2015 blend of Riesling with Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer off the part of the Kaefferkopf vineyard on clay and limestone. Fruity and floral yet with good acid balance and structure, this wine is a little different. It will age a decade if you want. It was partnered with a Kaefferkopf Riesling, both 2015.

The skin contact wines were very much to my taste. Le Schlouk 2016 (the sip) is a very orange blend which everyone should try. Blending Gewurztraminer and Riesling, it’s both rich and dry, and would pair with salmon or trout, or possibly even better with soft cheeses.

Last but not least here, Obi Wine Keno Bulle 2017 is a complicated name for a deliciously simple Muscat/Pinot Auxerrois petnat. It’s hand disgorged so a little cloudy/hazy, quite acidic but with a biscuit character not usually associated with pétillant-naturel. The fruit is like refreshing pineapple, so it’s a real thirst quencher.

This is a really good range and I’m quite surprised they don’t have any UK representation…yet (I hope).

DOMAINE LAURENT (Stéphane) BANNWARTH (Alsace)

I won’t duck the issue, Bannwarth seemed to polarise opinion among those I spoke to. As I was extolling these wines, I experienced some agreement, and a little dissention. I’m not sure why, exactly. I thought these wines were brilliant, if slightly “out there”.

Based in Obermorschwihr (south of Colmar and Eguisheim), they make two types of wine, one based on the fruit of the traditional grape varieties, and one style produced in Georgian Qvevri (since 2011). Even the wines made in the qvevri show really good (and very obviously healthy) fruit, which is very much at the heart of viticulture at Bannwarth.

I began with Red Bild 2015. It’s not Pinot Noir, but the pink skinned Pinot Gris, which has undergone two weeks maceration. This ripe vintage yielded good colour from the skins, but it’s a lovely pale hue, almost like a dark partridge-eye. A bit of a one-off, but highly recommended. Riesling Coeur de Bild 2013 comes off chalky soil and has a real lime zest quality…depth, freshness and zip.

The three orange wines all show different winemaking techniques, and all of them are out there on the edge, but in my view were all very successful (if for the adventurous), thrilling even. La Vie en Rose 2016 might mislead a little. It’s not a rosé! Gewurztraminer has two weeks maceration on skins in stainless steel. The bouquet is beautiful, but the palate is as textured as one would expect.

Pinot Gris Qvevri 2014 does just what it says on the label…amphora-made orange wine which is lovely and full in the mouth. Synergie Qvevri 2015 mixes Pinot Gris with Gewurztraminer and Riesling with eight months on skins, all three varieties co-fermented in amphora. It begins as a softer, gentler, wine, but with more underlying skin contact texture.

Like Geschickt, Laurent Bannwarth has no UK importer. I hope someone wakes up to these really interesting, if possibly challenging, wines. They would be well worth a visit for anyone heading over to the region.

LE VIGNOBLE DU REVEUR (Alsace)

Le Vignoble du Rêveur is the domaine of Mathieu Deiss and Emmanuelle Milan, based at Bennwihr. Going his own way, although he still also works with his famous father, Mathieu (with Emmanuelle) has amassed seven hectares, largely from his maternal uncle and grandfather, on alluvial soils close to the northern edge of Colmar. The wine, around 40,000 bottles each vintage, is made at Domaine Marcel Deiss in Bergheim.

There are six wines produced under the “Rêveur” label. The first three are made by direct pressing, natural fermentations, and one year ageing in foudre on fine lees. Vibrations 2016 is a real terroir wine, Riesling off Bennwihr’s alluvial terrain. La Vie en Rose 2016 has the same name as the Bannwarth wine, and guess what, it’s also Gewurztraminer, in this case from 40-year-old vines. Pierres Sauvages 2016 is a blend of Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Noir. The name kind of does the explaining, I think.

Singulier 2016 is a quite exotic Gewurztraminer aged in big oak after a short ten-day maceration, and no sulphur is added. It has a textured finish. Artisan 2016 is made the same way, but blends Gewurztraminer with Pinot Gris. It has a cloudy, peachy colour, and is rounded with a bittersweet skin texture. Possibly my favourite wine here.

Un Instant sur Terre 2016 is the other contender for me. It’s also made from a blend of Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris but it sees six months on skins in amphora (interestingly, the vessels in which the Gewurz is aged are made from sandstone, and those for the Pinot Gris, clay). Then the components are aged together in stainless steel for six months to knit together. The alcohol in this 2016 is reasonably high at 14.5%, but the wine is balanced and already showing interesting hints at complexity.

Mathieu and Emmanuelle do have an importer, Roberson, so you should be able to find them. They are some of the most exciting wines coming out of Alsace from a young grower who has not taken the easy path of merely shadowing a famous parent. As the domaine name suggests, Mathieu has a dream.

DOMAINE DE VALMENGAUX (Bordeaux)

It’s not too often I write about natural wine from Bordeaux. David and Valérie Vallet make two wines (two vintages of each were shown), but the vines, just under two-and-a-half hectares, are owned by a group of fifty investor-friends. Valmengaux has only been in their hands since 2017, but they are clearly enjoying the challenge. Their primary aim is healthy grapes. Around 90% of the vines are Merlot (they are around 20km from Saint-Emilion, at Verac), with the remainder Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Domaine de Valmengaux is a “Bordeaux AOP” vinified fairly traditionally, and Valmengaux “En Jarre” is made in amphora under the same AOP. I tried both 2015 and 2016 vintages. The more traditional wine from both vintages is clearly an easy drinking natural wine, with delicate tannins, 2015 being (as one would expect) somewhat richer.

The amphora wines were more characterful, aromatic and with a more interesting (for me) texture, but that’s not in any way to dismiss the other cuvée. These are all “drinkers”. There is no pretence at making wine with tannin and oak, meant to sit in a cellar for a decade. Both wines will cost less than £20. It’s the kind of wine Bordeaux needs to produce – affordable wine for actually drinking, not trading.

Amphora Bordeaux is not new. I tried one several years ago (and some of the top châteaux are experimenting), but that one, although a natural wine, was very expensive. These wines aren’t. They currently have no importer in the UK and I think that they would sell.

DOMAINE PHILIPPE VIRET (Rhône)

There are plenty of big names in the natural wine world making wines in the Rhône Valley, but the Virets make wine using a method I’ve not come across before, “cosmoculture”. I am still not totally sure what “cosmotelluric changes” are or involve, but it is something to do with the vines generating their own defence to threats from disease etc. It sounds like a variation of biodynamics, but I think it also involves magnetic lines, underground water, the metal elements in the soil and the way in which earth and sky interact.

Whatever cosmoculture might be, the Virets are obviously doing something right in their vineyards between Gigondas and Châteauneuf. Seven wines were on show, and winemaking is dominated by amphora use. Philippe may have been the first producer in France to dedicate his production to amphora. He now has twenty or so, each holding 420 litres of wine. The move to amphora came after blind tasting Sicilian wines made by this method, but also because there are Roman remains on the property.

The wines all have different personalities, but the one I found immediately attractive was labelled Dolia Paradis Ambré 2, 2016. It’s a deliciously textured amphora wine with subtlety and delicacy, yet equally strong presence. It’s an amazing blend of (if I counted correctly) thirteen Rhône varieties off clay, sandstone and limestone. No sulphur, no temperature control, no intervention, no nothing. These wines are new to Winemakers Club.

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KARIM VIONNET (Beaujolais)

It’s always a pleasure to taste Karim’s wines, and I get the opportunity to do so fairly regularly, and to write about them. But the reason for including him again here is that, when I’ve hardly begun tasting the 2016 vintage, Karim had some 2017 samples at Raw: Beaujolais-VillagesDu Beur dans les Pinards and Chiroubles “Vin de Kav”.

The 2017 vintage has been described as somewhere between 2015 and 2016. Or, as someone put it, “a bit like 2015 but still Beaujolais”. That might be a bit unfair to a few 2015s, but I’m sure Beaujolais fans know what they mean. Vintage 2017 was affected once again by hail, but the grapes that were spared were ripe and healthy at harvest. Alcohol levels are thankfully down on ’15.

All three of these wines will hopefully be on my list to buy when eventually bottled. The “Villages” is very fruity and silky, perfect glouglou, yet it’s not lacking in structure. “Du Beur” gives plenty of deeper, rounded cherry fruit. “Vin de Kav” always seems to over deliver for me. Not one of the famous crus, but it doubles up on great fruit and structure. It needs a little time, but not too much.

A treat to finish with, a delicious and very “off-dry” petnat, Grabuge. It’s a gorgeous bright pink, with quite high residual sugar and 7% abv. A perfect summer afternoon tipple which would also double as a perfect breakfast wine (oops, I see I’m not the first to suggest such debauchery with one of these) once it’s warm enough to stick the table on the patio. I somehow neglected to photograph this, but I think Winemakers Club is only getting around 36 bottles. I hope the promise of one for me is strictly adhered to. I know what some of you dear readers are like (vultures).

L’EPICURIEUX (Beaujolais)

Sébastien Congretel’s wines are not only new to me, but new to everyone I think. 2016 was his first vintage, and from what he was saying, he is totally new to winemaking. Sébastien has worked in the oil industry, being away from home for long periods. For him, it was all about a total change in lifestyle. Despite his inexperience, he’s crafted two lovely wines from his first attempt. Having a father-in-law who made wine in Lantignié helped, not least in providing a chais, but these are not the run of the mill wines of a back to the countryside city type. Sébastien has talent.

His Régnié “Chacha” 2016 is made from 40-year-old vines at 200 metres altitude on sand and alluvial soils. Morgon “Zelebrité” 2016 comes from even older (70-y-o) vines at the top of the Charmes lieu-dit at 450 metres, on pink granite. Both wines come in at 12%, from ten days carbonic maceration, two days pumping over and a gentle press. They are aged in 5 to 7-y-o oak and a 2,500 litre foudre with the assemblage a blend of the two sources for each cuvée. Sébastien adds 2 g/l suphur three weeks before bottling.

Both wines are delicious, the Régnié being the more forward, as expected. The Morgon has really tasty cherry fruit, and is plumper, but with more structure. Sébastien will get his organic certification through in 2019, but he is working using biodynamic principles. He has no UK representation, but I’m sure that will change – so many people were saying “have you tasted…?” and by luck I did as he was right next to Karim’s table. Annoyingly he was relieving himself of a few remaining bottles which he didn’t want to have to lug back to France. If I’d had space and no after party to go to, I’d have grabbed a couple, using my elbows.

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DOMAINE YVES DUPORT (Bugey)

Okay, I know I always taste these wines, but Bugey deserves a plug in the “Year of Savoie”, its near neighbour. Yves and his wife farm around ten hectares, and take grapes from other local growers, to make a relatively small production of 14,000 bottles per year. They are based at Groslée, though I’m sure some readers won’t even know where the AOP of Bugey is. We are effectively southwest of Geneva and Annecy, on the edge of the mountains which follow the right bank of the Rhône as it passes south from Lac Léman and then turns northwest, towards Lyon. We are on the eastern edge of the Bresse plain.

The Duports make a range of Bugey wines, including a nice bottle fermented traditional method sparkler, which takes up about 30% of their production. But it’s the still wines which are the serious business. Altesse de Montagnieu “en Chinvre” 2017 is my favourite white here, made from the Savoie variety (also known there under the Roussette de Savoie name). It makes mineral, floral, fresh wines which after a year or two in bottle take on a touch of beeswax.

There are two red wines from Mondeuse, as traditional here as it is in neighbouring Savoie. Mondeuse Tradition 2016 is a relatively simple wine which undergoes just a short maceration. Dominated by dark summer fruits, especially blackcurrant, it will nevertheless age. Mondeuse “Terre Brune” 2016 sees three weeks of skin contact followed by a year in old oak (approx 3-y-o). It is more structured, and intended to age. In my view, Mondeuse is an under rated variety. It makes wines at this level which are a very good accompaniment to mountain stews, yet more a wine of structure than power and alcohol. Mondeuse should always have bite and freshness.

Totem Wines import Domaine Yves Duport.

ERIC & BERENGERE THILL (Jura)

Eric Thill, along with his wife Bérengère, makes wine in the part of the Southern Jura known as the Sud Revermont, at Trenal, which is somewhat off the beaten track. Most of his vines are at the better known Gevigny, further east, where there is a clutch of better known producers. Eric comes originally from Alsace, where he studied. Bérengère is an oenology consultant. Together they farm a little over 5 ha, with Chardonnay (more than half their vines), Savagnin, Poulsard and Pinot Noir, but around two-fifths of the grapes are sold to the large Maison du Vigneron at Crançot. The domaine is certified organic, but Eric is working with no vineyard interventions.

Poulsard  2016 is a skin contact wine. The skins give it a bitter element, but the sheer fruitiness of the wine makes the balance exciting, rather than a negative influence. Fresh acidity makes for a great glugging Poulsard.

Chardonnay sur Montbouçon (MB) 2015 is tasty, but has the fatness of a warm year. 2016 is more complex, and (although I like both) I prefer it over the ’15. Cuvée Romane 2016 is a ouillé (topped-up) Savagnin which is floral and fruity, with nice definition. Cuvée S 2015 is both unusual and special. It’s made from Savagnin harvested late with around 13 g/l of sugar left after fermentation. Quite delicious. Eric suggests it hints at Alsace in character.

I know Eric also has a little Vin Jaune ageing away, and he makes a Liqueur de Chardonnay, a bit like a Macvin but without the restriction of being aged in oak. It was a thrill to taste the Thill wines. Eric remembered meeting me last year at Raw, when he only had the last drops of his Poulsard left. It was whilst chatting to him that someone walked off with my tasting glass, which he also recalled. Eric has no UK importer, and like those others in the same position here, fully deserves one. If anyone is looking for a Jura producer check them out, though as with many of the new Jura names, production is tiny.

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I look forward to continuing with Part 2 next week. My normal swiftness at getting the words out is being impaired by an unusually sociable week, which continues tomorrow at Noble Rot. In the meantime I thought I’d add in a few pictures of the pop-up shop from Burgess & Hall, which I mentioned above, and a few more from the after party dinner at The India Club, where everyone managed to bring along a delicious raw wine .

The exceptional selection at the Burgess & Hall pop-up shop at Raw this year

Raw After Party at The India Club – It’s party time and where the hell were you!

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