Skelton’s “The Wines of Great Britain” and some thoughts on English Wine

This article began its gestation as a book review. I recently read another edition from the Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library, of which I have reviewed two further books in just this past year (on Sake and Japanese Wines by Anthony Rose, and The Wines of Germany by Ann Krebiehl, both of which I loved). I thought that as I’ve been getting increasingly interested in English Wine over the past few years it was about time that I read a book about it, especially as the publisher of this series had sent out a 40% discount code.

Stephen Skelton MW has unarguably been the biggest name in English Wine, not just as an author but also as a winemaker and a consultant, over the past forty-plus years. He studied at Geisenheim in the 1970s before returning to establish Tenterden Vineyard, in Kent, in 1977 (Tenterden is now the home of the UK’s largest producer, Chapel Down). He became a Master of Wine in 2003 (proclaiming the highest mark in the written paper in his book bio), and has since worked as perhaps the most notable consultant to the English Wine Industry.

This is not Skelton’s first book on the subject by any means. His publications list includes The Vineyards of England (1989), The Wines of Great Britain and Ireland (2001)Viticulture (a student text), Wine Growing in Great Britain (2014, aimed at producers), and a UK Vineyards Guide (originally 1989, fully updated 2016). This Infinite Ideas edition was published in 2019.

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With such an authority to review you may wonder why I have added the second part to the title of this article. Before I crack on with telling you what the book covers, I think it’s fair to say that there are some parts of English and Welsh viticulture that it leaves out. Stephen Skelton might argue that some of these are peripheral, but in terms of my own readership I am not sure that they are. What he leaves out to a certain extent relates to dynamic new producers, and also to some of what he might judge to be fringe activities, but which have literally burst onto the independent retail scene in the past year or two.

Petnats and skin contact wines are two such areas of experimentation. And if the book lacks anything, it is that Skelton appears not to consider it worth discussing those producers who are at the edges of English Wine. As you will know all too well, my view is that progress is driven by the innovators. So I want to talk about those.

I would also like to share some concerns which the author could not be expected to address, in terms of the future health of English Wine at the time of publication, back in 2019. The view from back then wasn’t all rosy. English Wine, of course, seemed so exciting all of a sudden. Awards were flooding in and because, as Skelton identifies, most of the amateurs and the less professional wineries had left the scene, quality was generally excellent. On the back of the obvious success of English Sparkling Wine (ESW), mostly made from the “Champagne” varieties and by the same méthode traditionelle, we were also beginning to see some very good still wines, and even (honest, folks) some good reds.

Both of those colours in the still wine category had previously been either looked down on or considered poor value for money by many wine professionals, although a certain market for Rosé wine had grown up. In fact the market for English wines was beginning to diversify. The cellar door sales of the bigger names (and indeed some of the smaller ones), as part of a tentative attempt to establish a wine tourism of sorts in England and Wales, were and still are important, and in many cases life saving. There’s also no doubt that the enormous support of the Waitrose supermarket chain, the country’s largest retailer of English Wine, meant and continues to mean a great deal to the industry.

The more recent phenomenon has to be the increased availability of English Wines in the independent retail sector, especially their acceptance as a “hip” category by some. Not only does a cutting edge retailer need to have a few Jura, or Austrian wines, or maybe even something from Czech Moravia, they also need to show some support for home grown talent. That some of the wine importers more known for wholesaling “natural wines” (such as Les Caves de Pyrene) have dipped their toe into English and Welsh wine is encouraging. Why? Because at the big wine fairs like Real Wine and Raw Wine these producers are being tasted by a much younger audience. These are passionate wine lovers who we really need to get behind English Wine.

There is a dedicated section, an English Wine corner, at the annual London Wine Fair, usually dominated by Nyetimber’s attractive double-decker bus, but it is by no means large enough, with too little industry-wide backing. The best promotional work is being done by the Wines of Hampshire group, whose annual tasting is held in the basement tasting room at the 67 Pall Mall members club. It is always very well attended and the wines on show are pretty much exemplary, and it’s a shame more work like this isn’t undertaken by other groupings.

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The elephant in the room which the hype of the national press has tended to ignore is that vast quantities of new vineyards are soon to shed their grapes onto the market as new wines, and just a few of us have wondered whether all of this new wine might find a ready market…or not, especially as Brexit threatens to make exports potentially more difficult (if potentially cheaper with a weaker Pound).

With Coronavirus coming into the picture the situation gets a little worrying. The threat of recession, with high unemployment, lower spending, and possibly even inflation, cause a number of issues to be highlighted. A recession is not what you want when you are about to increase production several-fold (both in terms of new vineyards, and for producers of ESW a large amount of stock currently ageing on lees due for imminent release).

If you were not already feeling hit by my potential pessimism, remember that grape growers are no different to the producers of any other agricultural crop. Unless they are very small they need a team of pickers at harvest time, and most of the teams who regularly turn up on our shores for the grape harvest are Eastern Europeans. They tend to be highly skilled too, so it may not be a case of merely hoovering up swathes of unemployed school and college leavers come the autumn. Being able to use the same team of skilled individuals, often family groups, year on year has assisted in the increase in quality we have seen from our vineyards, of that I am certain. Brexit may have yet another negative consequence for those producing English and Welsh wine.

So let’s move on to the book. The Wines of Great Britain is divided into eight chapters with an appendix, comprehensive bibliography and index. Chapters 1-3 are a history lesson. I’m going to say that the seemingly endless debate, which Skelton does cover, as to whether or not the Romans practised viticulture in the British Isles, is of less interest to me than perhaps to some readers, and to a degree I’m also less interested in Chapter 2 (1939-1951), though certainly not disinterested. But the establishment of commercial viticulture in the United Kingdom from 1952 onwards (Chapter 3) does give a good foundation for what has swiftly moved from an almost dilettante occupation at the beginning, to a fully fledged industry of value to the UK agricultural economy (with now something approaching 3,000 hectares of vines planted, if by no means all of it yet producing a wine crop).

Skelton details the change in grape varieties planted over this latter period, and it is worth noting how the switch to the traditional “Champagne” varieties has been so swift, with the consequent move away from varieties more useful for still wine in an extremely cool climate. Doubtless climate change has been beneficial to the extent that we can now hope to ripen these varieties almost every year.

He gives the reader two facts which I think are essential in one sense in illustrating the rapid changes taking place. The first is that those three sparkling wine varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, now account for 63% of that 3,000 hectares (and, he says, more like 70% of production). But he also repeats an oft-quoted fact that the area under vine in England and Wales has grown by close to one third in the period since 2016, which if you look at the figures is phenomenal growth. It’s why I think my earlier concerns about a glut, if not an English wine lake, are worth noting.

The figures regarding the Champagne varieties do hide what I can see as something of a resurgence for the older (in UK terms) varieties, though. Wines made from Bacchus, Ortega (and others but especially those two) are gaining a following among that younger audience I mentioned. So when the author says “The future for production in Britain of sparkling wine – which in truth is the only category that really matters now…” (my itals), I am not sure he is completely correct. I really do see a market emerging, albeit small, for other varieties. The reason I think it’s important is because these wines are not being bought by the coach parties but by that younger crowd who are prepared to pay £20-£30 for what they perceive as exciting and quality wine.

There is one other comment I would like to address on grape varieties. On page 68 the author states that “Riesling…resists all attempts to be grown successfully in Britain”. It may be the case that Mr Skelton has never tasted the Charlie Herring Wines Sparkling Riesling (“Promised Land”) made by Tim Phillips from his walled vineyard (undoubtedly the key) between Sway and Lymington, in Hampshire.

I will add in a little suspense by telling you that the 2013 will get a Review in Part One of my “Recent Wines” for May, next week. However, Tim’s wine may well prove the exception. I am told Denbies could never ripen Riesling, and equally that Rathfinny, which planted around 20,000 Riesling vines according to one source, grubbed them all up this year. But that doesn’t mean Tim Phillips’s Riesling isn’t a marvel. If you like a firm, steely, spine to your “Sekt” (many a Lauer fan does), then it certainly is.

I believe in the promised land…photo for Anne Krebiehl MW

The chapter on viticulture and winemaking gives us more than a fine overview of the conditions faced by grape farmers in England and Wales. The emphasis on selecting the right site is repeated over and over again, especially with regarding to planting altitude. One of the great issues British grape growers face is wind, which in terms of my own garden I perceive to have been particularly strong over this current year. I have seen the vineyards at Rathfinny Estate many times over recent years and I would say my first thoughts were along the lines of “boy, you’ve chosen a windy site”, less than two miles from the sea, south of Alfriston (East Sussex).

I found it interesting that Skelton includes a long quotation from Rathfinny owner Mark Driver’s blog where Driver acknowledges wind was a concern when choosing the site. The author suggests that in the search for chalk-rich soils in the Southern Counties perhaps insufficient note has been taken of exposure to wind. Wind can do many things, not all negative in relation to disease, but it can play havoc with yields. Rathfinny is one of the two biggest vineyard investments in the UK, and Stephen Skelton does worry that “time will tell if this multi-million-pound venture will be a financially viable enterprise”. If crops are limited by wind, then profitability will be impaired, unless the Rathfinny name can ensure a hefty premium, which I’m fairly sure is what the vineyard’s owners hope.

Rathfinny’s vineyard team has put in large expanses of plastic wind break, which are fairly ugly (and not at all in keeping with the attractive Downland scenery, nor very ecological). One hopes they are a temporary measure as natural windbreaks grow. As Mr Driver says, “…the trees we planted as windbreaks are taking a lot longer to grow than I expected”. Well, it’s pure chalk exposed Downland…

The books which I have read in the Infinite Ideas wine library series all major on producer profiles. This particular book differs from most others in that there are only twenty-one major profiles of producers. This is considerably fewer than the other books in the series, although it is true that the profiles in this chapter are much longer. Of these twenty-one I would say that seven of them I did not know. Naturally, with a larger entry for those selected I learnt an awful lot about them (each alphabetical entry gets between four and eight pages of text, approximately).

The chosen few were selected as covering “the complete spectrum of those owning vineyards in Britain today”. That may be true but in omitting many top and major wineries from this chapter, I think that it lessens the book’s value as a consumer guide to English and Welsh Wine. The answer, of course, is to buy Skelton’s aforementioned 2016 Vineyard Directory (UK Vineyards Guide), which I understand lists more than six hundred vineyards and producers, though I am not sure in how much detail. But so much has happened so quickly on the English Wine scene in the last five years that I would imagine a new edition would be welcome.

Stephen Skelton, as I noted before, has worked extensively as a consultant to the British wine industry. It is clear from his text that, at the very least, many of the producers selected for an entry in this chapter are ones he has worked with, which has doubtless given him privileged access to, and insights into, these operations. But for myself, I was surprised to see several key names missing here. In terms of size and/or prestige I can’t really fathom why he has not decided to include the likes of Denbies, Gusbourne, Hambledon and perhaps Wiston in such a list, but I am not privy to the reasons for exclusion.

Those omissions are to a certain extent made up for by an Appendix which contains “Other Notable Vineyards”. There are, in fact, seventy (if I have counted correctly) producers listed alphabetically, but the entries are very short, mostly between two and six lines of text. They often sound like pure marketing. There isn’t generally much information about wines produced, but we do learn that if you visit English Oak Vineyard near Poole in Dorset, then “electric vehicle charging [is also] available”; that Gusbourne Vineyard “strives to create wines that stand up alongside the finest offerings across the globe”; or in the case of Lavenham Brook Vineyard, all we are told is that it is “planted on a south-facing chalk slope [and] makes award-winning still and sparkling wines”.

These few lines read almost as if they are paid entries in a directory, and certainly as if they were written by the winery itself. Lavenham Brook is a good example of how this small directory section could have been improved immeasurably, because as with many of these wineries, if you don’t know them you won’t know where they are. Their web site addresses are given, for sure, so we can look them up. But if we had just been given a location (nearest town/village and county) it would have assisted our decision as to whether we wanted to take our research further when perhaps choosing a vineyard to visit on a weekend afternoon.

Some of the English producers I might have hoped to see get a multi-page entry in Chapter 6 do appear in this appendix with a few lines. People like Denbies, Gusbourne, Hambledon, Hattingley Valley, Rathfinny, Ridgeview and Wiston (to name a few). Hattingley and Wiston are notable for their respective award winning winemakers, Emma Rice and Dermot Sugrue, who have had an unquestionable influence on modern English Sparkling Wine.

Plumpton College gets a four line mention in this appendix. It is rightly described as “Britain’s centre of excellence in wine training, education and research”. I would have argued for a lot more information on the one place in the UK where you can get an undergraduate, and graduate, qualification in wine. The college is now rightly at the forefront of wine education and is increasingly turning out home-grown winemaking talent essential in taking English Wine forward. Plumpton doesn’t get it all right (I have some thoughts on their use of synthetic agro-chemicals and possible alternatives), but their level of experimentation stretches to a nice row of new amphorae and qvevris spotted on my last visit there.

Now we come to what I call the complete omissions, and these fall into two categories. The second would be the innovators. I will talk about those in a minute. These might, for various reasons, be ignored by the author. But there is another category, that of very high quality producers of ESW who are for whatever reason ignored. There are several, who for me would include the likes of Cottonworth, and especially Jacob Leadley’s Black Chalk Wines. This producer in Hampshire’s Test Valley admittedly only launched their first wines in 2018, but they exploded onto the scene. Many insiders (not just myself) consider Black Chalk to be potentially the most exciting new producer in Britain at the moment.

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Of course there are also wines which may not have wide appeal but which some of us enjoy nevertheless. I can’t help but give a shout, in this category (though I can’t complain at it not getting a mention in the book), to Bolney‘s red sparkling Dornfelder. Not one for the wine experts, but if you are seeking a bit of old school fun…

Now to the innovators. These are the people who may be working at the fringes, but in fact are the people who are driving subtle changes in the market for English (and Welsh) wines. Their influences may seem tiny looking down from the lofty heights, but here at ground level they are perceptible.

Innovation one – petnat. Skelton rightly mentions and pretty much dismisses cheap sparkling wine made by the Charmat (tank fermented) method, but he fails to comment on wines fermented in bottle by what the French call the méthode ancienne. The resulting wine is bottle-fermented but is not disgorged of its lees sediment, creating a style called pétillant naturel. These wines have achieved massive popularity worldwide among younger drinkers, largely because they are primarily fun wines full of glouglou charm, usually low alcohol, and usually cheaper to make and consequently much cheaper to buy than traditional method ESW. These wines are also not made to fit into the “luxury” category inexorably pursued by most producers of traditional method wines. Producers of notable examples include Ancre Hill, Davenport, Westwell and Tillingham, but there are many more.

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Mentioning Tillingham, this most innovative of labels was set up by ex-Gusbourne CEO Ben Walgate, creating a winery and a new vineyard inland from Rye in East Sussex. As well as pushing the petnat envelope he has led the slow but essential march towards experimenting with terracotta winemaking via skin contact methods. Beneath an Oast House a hundred metres from the winery Ben has a number of qvevri buried, all sourced from Georgia, and his experimentation extends beyond wine to qvevri cider as well. As I said above, his experiments have not gone unnoticed, with qvevri now landing, inter alia, at Plumpton College.

The Qvevri shed at Tillingham (Ben Walgate left, Tim Phillips centre) with their contents

These experimental styles of wine are well suited for some of the grape varieties which have previously gone under the umbrella “lesser”, both vinifera and complex hybrids like Seyval Blanc and Solaris. I’ve made my own skin contact orange wine from Seyval Blanc, and although I’m a mere amateur, I would say that it was the best wine I ever made. The grapes are no longer available to me and I’m now making light red from Frühburgunder (more commonly known as Pinot Précose in the UK). Davenport’s petnat is always highly sought after, if you look to that style, and Adrian Pike’s Westwell “Pink” (Pinot Noir/Meunier blend) is wonderful if you fancy an excellent Rosé (and often easier to source, though there are only usually around 1,000 bottles).

Ancre Hill, like Tillingham, is completely biodynamic. They make stunningly good Demeter-certified Welsh Sparkling Wine by the traditional method, aided by a particularly well chosen 12-hectare site with a special microclimate in Monmouth. Among other wines from Ancre Hill I have tried a fun, red, petnat made from Triomphe, and an exciting cuvée called “Orange Wine – whole bunch pressed (mostly) Albariño, one of the most potentially promising varieties introduced to the UK recently, which sees 30-50 days on skins and comes with one of the most quirky labels in England and Wales (traditional Welsh National Dress meets A Clockwork Orange).

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Interestingly there was one producer which Stephen Skelton had intended to include in his chapter of larger producer profiles, one he describes as “a Welsh biodynamic producer”, which I take to mean Ancre Hill? The reason for exclusion given – “unfortunately he changed his mind and was ultimately unwilling to discuss his business with me”. Considering my perception of the importance of Ancre Hill on a number of levels (ranging from quality to innovation) it is a shame that no mention of this wine producer appears anywhere in the book. It means that the future role of biodynamics, and low intervention winemaking and viticulture generally in the United Kingdom, doesn’t get a real airing.

“Natural Wine” is a philosophy which, for most of those who practise it, trumps production levels, even getting a crop at all. Those who make wine without recourse to the addition of synthetic agro-chemicals do so because they believe such chemicals are harmful, either to fauna or consumers, or both. This topic is pertinent with brexit around the corner because there are a number of treatments either banned, or due to be banned, from use in the EU which might not receive the same treatment in English and Welsh vineyards in a post-brexit situation.

Glyphosate (more commonly known by the trade name created by Monsanto for the weedkiller of which it is an ingredient, “Roundup”) is one example, a ban having been put off for a further five years by the EU in 2017, so due to be taken out of use within the European Union in 2022. It’s one chemical those who eschew the use of the synthetics always mention as in their view potentially harmful. Let’s hope that we don’t end up keeping it when the EU ban finally comes into force, but readers ought to note that the UK was one of those EU Member States in favour of a renewal of the licence. There are statements online which claim studies suggesting that glyphosate can be a cause of non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and other cancers, though I have no personal scientific knowledge here, only the tools proffered by Google for my research. By total coincidence I read yesterday that UK DIY chain B&Q has just announced it will no longer sell glyphosate-based weedkillers.

Our climate can have been said in the past to have been eminently unsuitable for grape farming without the assistance of chemicals described by some producers as napalm death. Yet a small number do succeed with organics, biodynamics and “natural wine”. Have they just been lucky with climate change or are they, like Ben Walgate and Tim Phillips, Ancre Hill (and a few others) careful and clever?

Back to the book…I suppose Stephen Skelton hasn’t perhaps set out here to create a real consumer guide, by which I mean a book which gives the kind of details someone would find useful if setting out to visit English and Welsh vineyards. As we have noted, he’s already written that one, although perhaps a “Vineyard Directory” may not be exactly what I’d like to read either. This work doesn’t, for instance, list the wines made by each producer with some sort of critique. The larger winery entries in Chapter 6 are much more slanted towards the business than the end product. I think this is the key way in which this work differs from the others I’ve read so far in the Infinite Ideas series.

It could not really be said that Skelton is a finger on the pulse man. Clearly he has a great deal of insider knowledge of the industry, in terms of financing and wine technology. He has advised so many English and Welsh vineyards on site selection, grape varieties, vine training methods, rootstocks etc. But I would have loved to know what he thinks about the mass of innovation taking place on the periphery. Does he dismiss it or is he unaware of what those producers I’ve been talking about are up to? I presume it isn’t the latter? So perhaps where we differ is in my perception of the future value of this innovation to the industry, and that such innovation is not merely a gimmick.

The innovation we are seeing is important for one good reason, which ties in once more with the general worries about the market for English and Welsh wines I expressed at the beginning of this article. Stephen Skelton suggests (as I have quoted) that English wine is all about the emulation of Champagne. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier on chalk (and not forgetting that some pretty fine sparkling wines come off good old English clay, something not all new producers appear to know). These wines cost a lot to produce, a lot to market, and when it comes to the end result, retail prices approaching £40 a bottle or more limit your audience, even more so in a likely recession.

Is there not a lesson to be learnt from the innovators? They signal opportunities to diversify. Ben Walgate has proved that you can make profitable petnat from Pinot and bang it out for £20 a bottle, and he’s also proved there’s a thirst for skin contact, orange wine and all manner of other concoctions if they taste good, and especially if they come with good modern and innovative design. He’s by no means alone. There are small artisan producers doing great things, if on a small scale, in pretty much every county that grows grapes.

Your average drinker of ESW is older and affluent, not to mention perhaps a more conservative palate. Your average drinker of the innovative styles is younger, and if not exactly “poor” they certainly have other calls on their disposable income. The future of English and Welsh wine may not be completely orange, but there’s certainly a place in the market for it, alongside some of the other more offbeat wines and styles I’ve mentioned. If that particular market sector is small now, I am convinced it can grow.

Did I enjoy the book? Yes, actually, I did. It’s a work containing a great deal of knowledge and experience. Am I pleased I was able to use a discount code? Well, perhaps I am. It meant that the book cost £18 instead of £30, and I would not say I felt it was as seminal as some of the other books in this often fabulous series. But remember, I write for an audience which I have come to know over five or so years, and with whom I share a number of truths. We all love to see boundaries pushed, sometimes by the conventional and sometimes by the unconventional. Even the world of English (and Welsh) wine is wider than just “ESW”.

I think that most readers coming regularly to my site want to see English and Welsh wine move forward in directions other than merely a copy of the world’s most famous sparkling wine, however central traditional method sparklers are, and will be, to our country’s wine future. This is why I have taken the opportunity to express some views and discuss some wines beyond the scope of Stephen Skelton’s book. My intention is not to claim great knowledge, merely to add to, and stimulate, the debate.

The Wines of Great Britain by Stephen Skelton MW was published in 2019 by Infinite Ideas Ltd, as part of the Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library (RRP £30). There are currently, I believe, twenty-one books published in this excellent library, making Infinite Ideas one of the most prolific sources for wine writing, certainly the most prolific in the UK. Their list is worth exploring. I’ve read four and there are at least half a dozen more I’d like to explore.

 

 

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Maybe it’s Time to (Re)Visit Alsace?

I was supposed to be going to Alsace in July, part of a visit taking in Arbois as well. I won’t be able to go now, but I can tell you about what I’d planned. I adore Alsace. I mean, I love the wines, but I adore the region. I’m not sure why it strikes such a chord, but I know there’s something about walking on the lower slopes of the Vosges which ignites a feeling of contentment deep inside me. I think it’s the forests I love, early in the morning when the air is fresh, full of bird song and the theraputic aromas of pine.

Most times I have visited Alsace, which now numbers quite a few, I’ve been staying somewhere around, or south of, Colmar. There are lots of exciting producers down there, in the Haut-Rhin. In the beginning my interests lay with the likes of Boxler, Barmès-Buecher, Dirler-Cadé and even, initially, the classics like Domaine Weinbach, Hügel and Trimbach. Latterly I became more interested in Schueller, Frick, Ginglinger and Bannwarth etc, from the villages between Eguisheim and Pfaffenheim. But way back on my first visit to Alsace we had stayed up in the Bas-Rhin Department, in Itterswiller. It was to this part of the region that we returned to on our last visit, in 2017 and it was here that we planned to return to again, this summer.

The Bas-Rhin has always been considered somewhat inferior to the Haut-Rhin by those who have written about Alsace, not that many do and the region desperately needs a contemporary (I mean truly contemporary) account of the exciting “new” winemaking that is taking place there. It’s not surprising that the southern villages were favoured. The great names among the classical producers are there, as are most of the Grands Crus. The story always went along the lines that the Vosges Mountains are higher in the south so the vineyards are more protected in what is (surprisingly) France’s “sunniest” region.

The converse, usually repeated, was that the wines of the north were lighter, a term seen as pejorative. Well hey-ho, now we have climate change, and guess what, we like lighter wines. In Alsace a weightier wine can easily mean a Pinot Gris with 14% alcohol and rather a lot of residual sweetness. And who ever suggested a more delicate rendition of Riesling was such a bad thing?

I want to talk here primarily about the Mittelbergheim School (as “Back in Alsace” wine blogger David Neilson calls it, in part because of the group of artists a selection of local producers use to create their beautiful labels but also for the group of producers who regularly taste together). I will expand that a little north and south, but Mittelbergheim, a beautiful flower-bedecked village just south of the town of Barr, is the centre of a concentration of natural winemaking seen in few other parts of Alsace.

It should be noted, in light of my previous comments, that Mittelbergheim has had a reputation among aficionados for as long as the wine writers had been largely ignoring it, and Andlau too, a short walk to the south. Maybe not completely ignoring it. Domaine Ostertag, based in nearby Epfig, has always found a certain favour with the classicists, and many would consider André Ostertag as one of the fathers of the Alsace New Wave, but there’s a lot more to explore as well.

Before we move on I should say that if you want to discover the true frontier of Alsace winemaking these days you need to go even further north. On clay and limestone slopes to the west of Strasbourg, between Molsheim in the south and Marlenheim in the north, we may well find wines from hitherto unknown winemakers which will begin to get the coverage they deserve in years to come.

There is no doubt in my mind that it is the natural wine brigade which has revitalised Alsace wine. The region was always cited as the darling of the wine trade, but one whose wines were hard to sell. The flute-shaped bottle was often cited as one reason, the surprise that Riesling was dry, another. In truth the fact that Alsace labelled its wines by grape variety was a positive as New World varietal labelling became popular in the UK market. The fact that as climate change affected sugar and alcohol levels in the region, often seeming to push both inexorably higher, Alsace became a region which for many of us didn’t really know what kind of wines it wanted to produce. Doubtless this wasn’t helped by each producer’s propensity to bottle so many different cuvées.

Natural wine from Alsace is usually zesty, fresh and dry, far better suited to either sipping in the sunshine or drinking with food. What these winemakers were producing was almost a completely different concept to what the big names (with a few exceptions) were doing. This includes innovation, always attractive to me: Skin contact, the Cuvée Perpetuelle and last but not least, grape varieties.

In Alsace Riesling was always seen as king. After Riesling we have Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. The rest were definitely second class citizens in the 1980s and 1990s, with a good few third class citizens as well (and that’s excluding Chasselas!). Today, so-called second division varieties are also having their say. First of these must be Pinot Noir, which has seen a rise from a tiny base to a reasonable coverage of around 4,000 hectares since 1970. “Pinot d’Alsace”, as it used to be known, was a light red at best, rather like English Pinot of the 2000s. Today it can easily ripen into an exemplary lighter red, often with medium body.

A grape variety which has seen even greater increase in plantings is Pinot Blanc (and Pinot Auxerrois, it’s sibling, to a lesser degree). Much of this is used as a base for Crémant d’Alsace, but still Pinot Blanc is getting better and better. If I order wine with lunch in the region it will often be Pinot Blanc.

Two more varieties deserve comment. The first is well known and the second most certainly isn’t. Sylvaner is actually being grubbed up by many producers, but it finds favour for natural wine. Its general decline has been down to the decline of Edelzwicker, the blend of varieties (often a field blend, like Gemischter Satz) once synonymous with a night in the weinstube. Sylvaner’s revival comes mainly from those who value it as a single varietal, its 2006 elevation onto the list of varieties allowed (with limits, on one site only so far) to be labelled Grand Cru, helping right a few wrongs. It’s revival in Germany, especially in Franken which specialises in the variety (spelt Silvaner there) has also helped its acceptance among wine lovers.

The unknown variety is Klevener. Not to be confused with “Klevner” (aka Clevner, a variety originating in Italian speaking Switzerland), Klevener (with a second e) is a speciality of the village of Heiligenstein, just north of Mittelbergheim. Klevener is a synonym for Savagnin Rose. This is a pink skinned member of the Traminer family, not nearly as aromatic as Gewurztraminer. It is only allowed to be planted in a limited area roughly between Heiligenstein and Obernai, a small town to the north. It’s worth mentioning because it adds another string to the bow of the producers I shall mention below.

So who would I be visiting in this part of Alsace? In Mittelbergheim the most important address in my view is Jean-Pierre Rietsch. There are a couple more important local producers who are part of a group who regularly taste with Rietsch, Lucas Rieffel (who is just down the street from J-P) and Catherine Riss (on rue de la Montagne, south of the village centre). In Mittelbergheim that leaves André Kleinknecht as the other important low intervention producer, whose wines I know far less well.

Andlau is about two kilometres from Mittelbergheim. If walking in the hills it’s quite nice to walk from one to the other, bearing in mind that Andlau has more options for eating than Mittelbergheim, but if you walk by the road it will only take about half an hour or less to cover that short distance. Andlau has an interesting museum too, but we are there to see two producers. Both Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss and Domaine Durrmann are fairly central within this large commercial village. Antoine Kreydenweiss runs the domaine now and he is one of the Mittelbergheim tasting group.

All of the following producers would wish you to make a prior appointment. Kreydenweiss does have an office open on the road and they will sell you some wines without tasting if you wander by and there’s someone there.

Domaine Rietsch

Jean-Pierre Rietsch has a small winery at 7 rue Stein in Mittelbergheim. This 12 hectare  farm has been run for seven generations by the Rietsch family, but it was Jean-Pierre’s parents who concentrated on vines in the 1970s. Their son took over in 1987, overseeing organic certification. This is a very low intervention operation and so zero synthetic chemicals are used in wine production. Sulphur additions, where used, are kept very low.

There’s something about this place that helps you understand that you are going to be in the presence of a man who thinks deeply about what he is doing, just by stepping into the tasting room. Everything is neat and ordered and there’s an almost Japanese atmosphere. It’s very tidy, not the jumble of bottles and boxes you see so often. Jean-Pierre’s own bottles sport some of the loveliest and also most design-conscious, artist designed, labels in the region, but there are also other producers’ empties sitting on shelves. One I recall was from Partida Creus, the well known Catalan natural wine producer. This shows a palate far beyond parochial.

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Jean-Pierre’s range is large and eclectic. I won’t go through them all, one never can when recalling a tasting in Alsace. Let’s begin with his Crémant, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Auxerrois and Pinot Gris, which is my personal favourite Crémant in the whole of Alsace. Auxerrois stars on his lieux-dit Stierkopf, Muscat stars in an unusually fresh Murmure, and Riesling is at its most classic from the Andlau Grand Cru, Wiebelsberg.

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Moving gently off-piste, Jean-Pierre makes a singular Gewurztraminer, Demoiselle. The grapes are picked right at the start of harvest and the wine travels on its lees for six months following a partial whole berry fermentation. It ends up in the orange citrus flavour spectrum, but it also has a quality you rarely, if ever, find with this variety: minerality, a fresh mouthfeel and texture. It doesn’t lack alcohol, though.

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I have to give a very big and bold shout out for Sylvaner here. It performs remarkably well in these more northerly locations, and with a number of natural wine growers up here. Rietsch makes a couple. One is the Sylvaner Vielle Vigne (sic), unusually an assemblage of two vintages. It’s fresh and fruity but for me its greatest attribute is salinity. One of the most multi-dimensional Sylvaners you will taste.

I mentioned that Sylvaner belatedly achieved the chance of Grand Cru status, thus far on one site in the region, and few Grand Cru sites will ever give you a Sylvaner as stunning as on this one, Zotzenberg. It’s a 36.5 hectare hillside vineyard ranging between 215 and 315 metres, facing southwest, right above Mittelbergheim. Much of the soils around here are clay-limestone but Zotzenberg is iron-rich sandstone with limestone. The wine’s singularity is enhanced by 36 months on lees (the first year in demi-muid, thereafter in stainless steel).

We finish with that Savagnin Rose. Jean-Pierre makes a wine labelled under the appellation Klevener de Heiligenstein, but only in “even” years (the reason will become apparent below). It’s a golden wine with flecks of pink and bronze. It smells strangely like pears and has a bitter finish, but if you allow yourself to concentrate and think hard about what you are tasting it shows itself as something more than mere juice, something more interesting than the varietals you know so well.

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What happens in the odd vintages? Pas à Pas is what happens. This Cuvée Perpetuelle (similar to but decidedly not a solera) is one of Jean-Pierre’s loveliest wines for the true lover of Alsatian adventuring. My tasting note when I drank a bottle last month was as follows:

The wine is darkish in hue, almost cherry wood. The bouquet is extraordinary. Burnt orange, autumnal orchard fruits and a touch of hazelnut, with just a hint of Sherry-like oxidation, but not much. The wine is dry, fresh and slightly textured…and pretty amazing. This really was a sensational bottle.

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I’d almost forgotten Jean-Pierre’s Pinot Noir, but I’ll leave that for your own discovery, if indeed you can find some. I’ve been trying any Pinot Noir from the region I can get hold of for as many decades as I’ve been visiting. Some have been pretty poor and others (Muré’s “V” from the Vorbourg Grand Cru) have been at the other end of the quality scale. Natural wine has somehow created a boost for the variety (Frick, Binner, Schueller and Ginglinger make especially good ones), but as with Jean-Pierre’s Crémant, there’s no Alsace Pinot Noir I’d rather have a few bottles of.

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Domaine Rieffel

Lucas Rieffel feels a bond with Jean-Pierre Rietsch I think, not just because of their proximity to one another. This is another domaine run by the same family for several generations and Lucas has been working here since 1996. Like Jean-Pierre Rietsch, Lucas boasts an experienced palate, and as many of his wine heroes are from outside Alsace as are within the region.

There are several specialities amongst the fourteen or fifteen cuvées Lucas fashions every vintage. Crémant would certainly be considered a speciality. The terroir here, cooler for a start, gives great base wines. Lucas uses the same blend as Jean-Pierre, though in different proportions (around 70 to 75% Auxerrois). Next we must mention the Pinot Noir. Site specific Pinots from named lieux dits illustrate very well how this domaine majors on terroir wines, each one showing a different facet of its site.

I understand that there is a movement afoot to create a second tier of Premier Crus from the many lieux-dits which have gained acceptance over the past decades. It’s a great idea. I have always argued that Alsace should have created its Premier Crus first and then later elevated the best to perhaps a smaller number of Grands Crus than the fifty-one (or is it fifty-two?) it has currently. Pinot Noir is produced on many specific sites well suited to the variety throughout the region.

If I want to mention one more Rieffel grape variety, then it must be Sylvaner. If you visit this part of the Bas-Rhin you must taste what this variety can do here. Like Jean-Pierre Rietsch, Lucas Rieffel has Sylvaner on the Zotzenberg Grand Cru. This is, as I said above, the first site where Grand Cru Sylvaner has been allowed to be so-labelled and it may well be the finest site for this variety in Alsace. If Sylvaner is gaining in popularity whilst at the same time decreasing in area planted (down from more than 2,500 ha in 1970 to around 1,000 ha today) then I think that when David Neilson points out that at least now it is found in the most suitable locations for it, he has a point.

Lucas Rieffel (Domaine Rieffel) is at 11 rue Principale, Mittelbergheim.

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Catherine Riss

Catherine Riss makes wines which combine a lightness of touch and yet a certain flamboyance too. The wines are precise but full of glouglou, this latter quality perhaps more so than any of the other producers mentioned here. I’d never want to be so crass as to describe any wine made by a young woman winemaker as “feminine” yet the Riss cuvées are a little different.

Her terroir is different for a start. She has a tiny holding amounting to not much more than 3.5 hectares around Reichsfeld, a village up a small river valley in the lee of the mountains, several kilometres southwest of Andlau (and west of Epfig), in slightly wild country, and further small plots mostly scattered between Andlau and Barr. Catherine fits in here not only as a member of the tight knit tasting team of Rieffel, Rietsch, Riss and Kreydenweiss, but because her base is at 43 rue de Montagne in Mittelbergheim.

Why Reichsfeld, you may ask? Catherine doesn’t come from a wine background. Her move into wine took her away from the region, principally to Burgundy where, after college in Beaune, she worked for Trapet. Her return to Alsace was to work for the Chapoutier family, managing vineyards in guess where? (Reichsfeld)

Catherine is another local producer who loves Pinot Noir, and it forms a major part of her output. Empriente comes from Reichsfeld and sees older oak. The T’as Pas du Schiste cuvée comes from rare blue schist, and receives a longer maceration. Finally (for Pinot) a blend with Gewurztraminer of all things, is made by a method where the Pinot Noir is direct pressed, creating something which you might mistake visually for an orange wine.

The small range is completed (at least the wines I know of) with two different Rieslings and another blend, of Auxerrois and Sylvaner called Dessous de Table (below). Stone fruit, melon and rich lemon meringue notes fill the mouth. Frustratingly I couldn’t locate more (and better) pictures of Catherine’s wines among the thousands of wine bottles clogging up my media files.

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Domaine André Kleinknecht

The Kleinknecht domaine consists nine hectares covering several good lieux-dits as well as parcels on the Grand Crus of Zotzenberg and Kirchberg de Barr. This is a fully biodynamic domaine with, in this case, Demeter certification arriving in 2014. I know André’s wines less well than the others in this article, and I’ve not visited him, although I could not fail to highlight this domaine. What I will say is that naturally André also has Sylvaner on Zotzenberg.

Other wines I’d recommend trying are certainly the firm Riesling off granite, but even more interesting is his range of petnat wines. In a region well known for high quality sparkling wines made by the traditional method, it isn’t always common to find a pétillant naturel made by the méthode ancestrale. André makes two that I know of and one is called Orange is the New White. 

This is promising, no? The blend is 80% Gewurztraminer, which I believe I, and most of my friends, think is the most suitable Alsace variety for skin contact (see the beautiful “Artisan” made by Mathieu Deiss and Emmanuelle Milan under their Vignoble du Rêveur label for one of the best still versions). This variety is blended with Pinot Gris and Muscat, these varieties adding to the bouquet as much as anything. This alone is surely enough reason to visit with some space in the boot.

Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss

We have now moved two kilometres down the D62 to Andlau. There are two producers here which I would recommend visiting, both quite different. Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss is the more famous of the two. Today it is run by Marc’s son, Antoine, who is very much one of the Mittelbergheim School, despite his location.

Antoine farms 13.5 hectares of vines, including sites on each of Andlau’s three Grand Crus: Kastelberg (behind the winery, towering over the village), Wiebelsberg and Moenchberg. This means that Antoine has an enormous palette of soils, from unusual pink sandstone, granite, schist (grey, blue and black), and limestone (by no means a comprehensive list). For this reason the domaine’s wines are divided into those that express fruit and those that express terroir. The Grands Crus and the sweet wines form separate categories.

Interestingly, the wines described as “expression of fruit” are often site specific, but they are all easy to drink, perhaps best exemplified by the very aptly named Pinot Boir. The terroir wines include three individual Clos. First, Clos Rebgarten is a high density plot of Gewurztraminer near the centre of Andlau, Clos du Val d’Eleon is planted with Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris on schist, and Clos Rebberg is also schist, some of the region’s oldest rocks, where Riesling planted on southeast facing terraces is steely and mineral with gunflint aromas.

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Often my favourite Kreydenweiss wine is the rather classic, dry, Wiebelsberg Riesling, coming off a steep southeasterly facing slope of pink sandstone at the point of exit of the Andlau Valley. It’s the vineyard slope you see on the left as you leave Andlau and drive up the D62 towards Mittelbergheim. It begins as a floral wine but given the age it deserves, it becomes spicy and complex.

Moenchberg’s sandstone and marl gives a Pinot Gris of some power. It is recorded that the vineyard was first planted by the monks of the Abbey of Altdorf in 1097, hence the name. Kastelberg is a vineyard I have special affection for. I probably know its topography better than any other Alsace Grand Cru. It’s a steep slope of black schist, famous for Riesling, although it is said that the top of the slope, where it slopes gently to the plateau before the forest (not Grand Cru), is one of the best sites locally for Pinot Blanc.

To complete Antoine’s four GC sites, he has a plot on top of the Kirchberg de Barr, to the north. This site, at altitude on marl and limestone, was replanted in 2012 and I’ve not tasted a wine made from it. I believe it is a site which has always been farmed without chemicals, and is being worked with a horse. I had rather been hoping to get myself some of this in July. It’s a Pinot Noir, did I mention that…

Domaine Kreydenweiss has Ecocert certification and can be visited at 12 rue Deharbe, Andlau, just a couple of minutes from the centre of the village, following the tiny river (or is it a stream) known as L’Andlau, as it flows down from its source in the mountains, near the walking resort at Le Hohwald.

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Domaine Durrmann

This second Andlau domaine is now run by Yann Durrmann, but his parents André and Anna are still very much in evidence. The impression here is that although the new generation should take this domaine to another level, it is very much a case of building on the innovations and philosophy of the previous one. When I visited in 2017 it was the first time I had actually seen a flock of sheep in the vineyard, and it was the first time I had been driven to a vineyard in an electric farm vehicle (André owning a very slightly more conformist electric vehicle for his sales trips to Paris).

When I say least well known, I would like to think that I may have been in some degree responsible for the Durrmann wines becoming available in the UK. After that visit, and the articles I subsequently wrote, both the wines of Jean-Pierre Rietsch and Domaine Durrmann were imported by Wines Under the Bonnet. They currently list six Durrmann wines, along with four from Rietsch, and I have had the pleasure of ordering them in a number of the usual suspect natural wine bars in London and the south of England.

This is a traditional Andlau family. André’s grandfather was a part-time shoemaker to supplement his income from a mixed farm. Vineyards that had lain abandoned by his father’s generation were renewed by André in the 1970s. He was one of the first in Alsace to convert to organics in the 1980s. Yann took full charge very shortly after my visit, and he is going even further, building on the increasingly natural approach his father had begun with part of the range.

The everyday cuvées here were cheap but less interesting than anything that was labelled “Cuvée Nature”. As with all producers, there’s a big range and so it pays to taste as much as you can. Pinot Noir is juicy, also quite herbal, and very good as a “Nature”, as also is the rosé from the same variety. One for a sunny lunch, though still 13% abv despite its fruity qualities.

There are good wines from the Kastelberg Grand Cru, both labelled “Nature” and straight Kastelberg. My guess is that the merely organic wines will be phased out. The Riesling Nature from this site is all quince and spice off schist and has no added sulphur.

One wine which really impressed me back in 2017 is called Zegwur. This is a natural wine made from Gewurztraminer. Gewurz is not always my favourite Alsace variety, yet when people do something a little different with it (skin contact, cuvée perpetuelle etc) my opinions usually change. This isn’t manipulated in any way but it seems to combine a fairly tropical fruit profile (pineapple definitely, maybe a little mango) with a real zip and zest. On the 2016 the acidity stops (when I tasted it) any cloying sweetness and it shows just 12.5% abv (13% for the 2018, I note). I’ve been meaning to open my remaining bottle of that 2016 vintage (well, of two) and I will try to do so tonight for a Zoom chat with friends. Watch for a future “Recent Wines” appearance.

Domaine Durrmann is at 11 rue des Forgerons, Andlau. If you can blag a trip to see the sheep, whichever vineyard they are grazing, it is well worthwhile. Back in 2017 I got the impression that the Durrmanns didn’t get vast numbers of visitors, always the bane of the better known and better publicised producer. Maybe that has changed a little over the past three years, but I received a very warm welcome here, although don’t expect a smart tasting room as at Rietsch. Just a different sort of experience.

I have to return, before departing Mittelbergheim and Andlau, to something I was talking about at the beginning of this article, when I told you about my love of the region, and especially walking in the hills. Above Andlau there are a number of castle ruins, the kind you see on almost every hilltop in the region. From within them local lords looked down towards the Rhine, feeling protected above the dense forests. Walking up here, between the Château de Spesbourg and the Château du Haut Andlau, its easy to become lost in another world and perhaps even another time. If you do visit the region, do try to leave plenty of time for walking up here. If you like to use a map to enhance your experience, the IGN Carte Randonnée 3717ET will do the job (1cm = 250m).

Scenes from Andlau, top from the Kastelberg, bottom right chez Durrmann

I’d like to acknowledge David Neilson and his blog and web site, Back in Alsace. If you love Alsace from a natural wine perspective, then this is an essential place to look. I hope David doesn’t mind that a good half dozen facts in this article, particularly in relation to Riss, Rieffel and Kleinknecht, are the result of his writing. David, who I talk to frequently online, was also instrumental in reminding me to big up Sylvaner. He didn’t need to twist my arm on that one. David has put his money where his mouth is and planted his own vineyard, which he hopes one day to be able to tend full time (he has help on the ground). He’s currently stuck in LA for the duration. Back in Alsace is one of a handful of blogs I read regularly, and David does more than most to shout about the new wines from this neglected part of France.

For a look at Back in Alsace, see here.

 

 

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Recent Wines April 2020 (Part 2) #theglouthatbindsus

We’ll slip straight into Part 2 with the final nine wines we drank at home last month. Part 1 immediately precedes this article. We will travel to Jura (twice), Alsace, Burgenland, Vienna, Eastern Hungary, Slovakia, Stellenbosch, and the Langhe.

PINOT NOIR 2015, DOMAINE DES BODINES (Jura, France)

Emilie and Alexis Porteret are a young couple who set up in 2010, and who have joined my very favourite Arbois producers in the past few years. When the wine is beautiful, the philosophy is right, and equally important, when the vibe is good, the soul of the wine seems to come through. In a wine world where hundreds of producers are crying for our attention I would assert that people do matter.

Whatever those who live by points and the so-called objective analysis of wine might say, when you like the people involved, it adds an edge. This can actually apply not merely to producers we are lucky enough to visit and form relationships with, but to importers and retailers too, where trust in a recommendation from them builds bonds.

The Porteret family farm on the edge of Arbois, on the road heading to Dôle (naturally named the Route de Dôle), and you will zip past their house on the left before you know it and have left the town. The regime is very low intervention and biodynamic in both vineyard and winery, and the bulk of their vineyard is right up the hill from their front door.

Pinot Noir does well around Arbois, and don’t overlook it as you stock up with your Trousseau and Poulsard. Alexis follows a kind of whole bunch method here, whereby he layers the whole berries in alternate layers, with then without stems. Ageing is in older oak. This unfiltered bottling from a warm vintage walks that fine line between glou (retaining great freshness and zip) and seriousness (at four-and-a-half years old it has depth and development). It does all this with restraint when it comes to alcohol (abv registers 13.5% but I reckon you’d guess 13%). It’s simply quite delicious.

Les Caves de Pyrene imports some wines from Domaine des Bodines. They currently list the 2018 Pinot. This wine was purchased in the region, but this bottle didn’t come from the domaine. I have since been lucky enough to find the odd bottle there, but they are usually sold out by Christmas (visits strictly by appointment).

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PAS A PAS, JEAN-PIERRE RIETSCH (Alsace, France)

Talking of favourites…but I’m planning an article on the Mittelbergheim School, as Alsace blogger Back in Alsace (David Neilson) rightly calls it, so more on J-P to come, next week I hope.

Pas à Pas is an updated, and perhaps unusual, rendition of something that the older reader might remember when touring Alsace – Klevener de Heiligenstein. Klevener has nothing to do with the “Klevner” grape variety, but is a synonym for Savagnin Rose. It comes off Heiligenstein’s clay and limestone soils just to the north of J-P’s Mittelbergheim base, all organically farmed, of course.

When I said “unusual” I was referring to this being made in a cuvée perpetuelle, a little like a solera, but not similar enough to call it one as most French producers who use it are always keen to stress. This bottling is a blend of three vintages, 2011, 2013 and 2015, it being refreshed every two vintages and “re-fermented en cuve“. It was bottled in August 2016 after coarse filtration and light sulphuring (total sulphites 20 mg/l).

The wine is darkish in hue, almost cherry wood. The bouquet is extraordinary. Burnt orange, autumnal orchard fruits and a touch of hazelnut, with just a hint of Sherry-like oxidation, but not much. The wine is dry, fresh and slightly textured…and pretty amazing. This really was a sensational bottle.

This was purchased on my last visit to Domaine Rietsch in 2018, and I imagine that there is a new cuvée with 2017 fruit currently available. The wines are imported into the UK by Wines Under the Bonnet. They don’t currently list Pas à Pas but they do list four Rietsch wines, including his usually hard to source Pinot Noir.

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ZWEIGELT RESERVE 2015, ALEXANDER KOPPITSCH (Burgenland, Austria)

I am sure I’ve mentioned before how I see a kind of connection between Alexander and Maria Koppitsch and Alexis and Emilie Porteret at Domaine des Bodines (see above). They are both young couples with young families, committed to low intervention and chemical free farming and winemaking, their beliefs focused by the legacy they would like us all to leave to the next generation.

Alex and Maria started out a year after the Porterets, in 2011, although Alex’s family had been farming the land at Neusiedl-am-See for 500 years before they took over 6.5 hectares of vines and set out to make natural wine using boidynamic methods. You may be used to seeing the new Koppitsch labels now, brightly coloured for fun wines. This Zweigelt is from the Reserve range, wines which are slightly more serious and which have the ability to age a bit longer should you wish.

This Zweigelt is vinified in 500-litre barrels, a mix of oak and acacia, for 23 months, the grapes harvested from sandy but also rocky sites, directly to the north of the Neusiedlersee, in the lee of the hills. The colour is a little darker than a lot of the Zweigelt we are used to seeing these days. The bouquet is bright and brambly, and there’s a kind of smokey depth that’s intriguing. The palate still has that lively zip you get in all of the Koppitsch wines, but whereas the lighter cuvées are made for glugging, this has a chewiness and a bit more intensity. It also has a touch of white pepper on the finish, Blaufränkisch-like (probably the terroir). It’s one to select for the table.

Koppitsch is imported by Fresh Wines, a small online-only agent based in Kinross (Scotland). They sell a limited number of Koppitsch cuvées, and I think coincidentally this is the only one they currently hold in stock.

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EASTERN ACCENTS 2018, RÉKA-KONCZ (Eastern Hungary)

Annamária Réka farms three hectares of vines in Eastern Hungary, around the village of Barabas. When I say east, we are talking about right on the border with Ukraine, and in fact some of Annamária’s vines are technically inside Ukraine. This isn’t too far from Tokaj, and the climate is quite similar. The soils, however are very different, and quite unique. Effectively volcanic, where lava ash cooled down to form perlite, overlaid with loess. The loess gives a bit of weight and gras whilst the volcanic soils push an intense minerality which runs through all of the wines I’ve thus far tried.

Annamária has a range of varieties on her 3ha. We begin with a range of grapes you might expect: Furmint and Hárslevelú along with Yellow Muscat and Riesling. She also has Királyleánka, a rare autochthonous variety which many growers have pulled out. The different varieties are all mixed together in the vineyard, an insurance policy of old for poor ripening, uneven flowering or disease. This means that most of Annamária’s wines are field blends to varying degrees, and most also happen to use skin contact techniques.

Eastern Accents has the colour of peach juice, which immediately suggests that it has seen some skins. Indeed, the Háslevelú saw a gentle five days skin maceration, hand destemmed, and the Királyleánka saw two weeks semi-carbonic maceration. No wood was used, and neither was the wine fined nor filtered. The result is a juicy mix of stone fruit flavours and textures with a degree of complexity beside the freshness, from vines between 50-60 years old.

Annamária may be relatively new to the game but she really knows what she’s doing, something she confirmed over an Instagram session hosted by her UK importer a week ago, where she was confident and impressive (for a young woman who professed that she used to be impossibly shy). The wines have both a traditional and a modern natural wine feel. A bottle of this cuvée  was the first of her wines I tasted just before our lockdown and I was completely smitten. They all have such energy. I immediately marked her as my find of the year, but any sense of smugness soon evaporated when I began to see that everyone who tasted the wines was coming to pretty much the same conclusion.

Réka-Koncz is imported by Basket Press Wines.

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GLOCKENTURM “MUKENTHAL” GRINZINGER GEMISCHTER SATZ 2016, JUTTA AMBROSITSCH (Vienna, Austria)

Jutta Ambrositsch began life as a graphic artist, and retains a trained eye for design. She had no real background in wine, although her parents, foresters, did own a tiny vineyard. It was tending a vineyard in Eisenberg in 2004 that made her realise what she really wanted to do was to work outside, in nature. Jutta, who I’ve only met once, appears quite shy, but she loves her vineyards and I’ve read that she hates the harvest, the act of having to take the grapes off the vine that has produced them making her a little sad.

Nowadays we all read about the vineyards on the hills surrounding much of Vienna (not least from me), and indeed about their famous gemischter satz field blends. Back in the first decade of this century Vienna’s wines were far less well known outside the city, and vineyards were not too expensive to purchase. Thankfully Jutta was able to snap up around four hectares, some with old vines planted in the early 1950s, in the districts of Bisamberg, Sievering, Döbling, Riesenberg and Rosengartl. This wine comes from sites above Grinzing, an often tourist-infested major wine village. Grinzing itself, in the Döbling (19th) district of Vienna, is full of wine taverns (Heurigen), but the vine-clad slopes and tree-topped hills of the Wienerwald beyond the houses and taverns makes for surely one of the most beautiful landscapes on the edge of any capital city I know.

Every summer Jutta opens her pop-up Buschenschank in a different temporary, rented, location, serving her wines with simple food. She works in a similar way with her winemaking. Jutta was able to buy her vineyards with her partner Marco, but she couldn’t afford a winery, nor all the equipment required. She’s been blessed with help from another highly regarded Viennese winemaker, Rainer Christ, who looks after her wines, I am told with Peter Bernreiter.

Although Wiener Gemischter Satz is “DAC” now (AOC equivalent), this wine is a Landwein, like a table wine. Jutta prefers it that way. It’s still a traditional field blend, from ten different varieties, but in this particular case based around a high proportion of Sylvaner. It smells springlike (no, it wasn’t the blossom in the photo), with a palate dominated by vibrant grapefruit citrus. It also had a hint of Riesling about it, with apple-freshness (amazing that it’s still this fresh tasting considering the vintage). I think this is in good part down to the very well drained gravel soils on a cool site planted (not by Jutta, of course) in 1972.

If you want Parker points for this, I’m giving it “sensational”. I’ve been following Jutta for a number of years and I have never had a bottle, neither here nor in Vienna, that I haven’t truly enjoyed to bits. Jutta Ambrositsch is imported into the UK by Newcomer Wines.

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REBELA ROSA 2018, SLOBODNÉ (Hlohovek, Slovakia)

We are certainly getting used to wines from Czech Moravia by now, but just to the southeast (northeast of Bratislava) we see an emerging post-communist era wine industry in Slovakia too. Slobodné is a fifth generation winery, but they had to take a bit of a break due to WW2 and the intervention of communism’s state control. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain two sisters from the original family owners, along with their partners, have rebuilt the neglected vineyards. This has included reinstating traditional winemaking methods, which have of course always been what we call “natural winemaking” in this part of Central Europe.

They make a wide range of delicious wines, but Rebela Rosa is perhaps the most unusual and the most left-field. The grape varieties blended here in equal proportion are Frankovka Modrá (Blaufränkisch) and Cabernet Sauvignon, which are fermented in Spanish tinajas (well, maybe that bit isn’t quite traditional). The wine is frothy/spritzy (sealed with a crown cap), but not fully sparkling.

The colour is strawberry (strawberry blond perhaps?) and the fruit is all bursting red berries on nose and palate, creamy strawberries dominating. I’m not talking bland poly-tunnel fruit but quite intense strawberry (if you saw Paul Hollywood tasting very expensive strawberries in Japan on TV recently, you will know what I mean). The overall texture is soft and gentle, which the frothiness helps to emphasise. The finish has a twist to it, not exactly “bite” but just something to stop it trailing off without you noticing. It’s a lovely wine, great fun, but pretty edgy too. The kind of bottle that might scare a few less hardy wine adventurers. It is recommended to drink this in one sitting, but it’s only 12% abv, so it’s no hardship to do so. Zero sulphur, I think.

Imported by Modal Wines.

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“BREAK A LEG” 2019, LUKAS VAN LOGGERENBERG (Stellenbosch, South Africa)

Lukas is considered well established, four vintages in, as one of the exciting new wave of South African producers, making wines from parcels across the Cape. Up until now I only knew his “Breton” cuvée, remarkably like a Loire Cabernet Franc from a good vintage. This rosé is described as a Blanc de Noir, yet it looks indeed perfectly pink to me. The variety is Cinsaut (sic for SA), from dry farmed old bush vines, fermented and aged in old oak.

Red fruits dominate what I think is a wine made in a very interesting style. It does have fruit, for sure, and a lovely floral note accompanying it on the bouquet. These are matched by nice acids, but then we come to the texture. This comes through the spine of the wine, quite firm but not sharp. It adds quite a lot of depth. That spine also holds the wine together tightly. It’s refreshing, with only 12.5% alcohol.

I’ve read that “Break a Leg” was possibly less impressive than some of Lukas’ other wines in the previous vintages, though I also understand it achieved commercial success, and perhaps the critic in question meant more commercial? I wouldn’t know. This is my first bottle of this cuvée and I think it’s fair to say that it is pretty impressive, with much more to it than your average summer pink.

This bottle came from Solent Cellar. Lukas van Loggerenberg is reasonably widely imported, though I suspect that this came via Dreyfus Ashby.

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“LE VIN DE PLOUSSARD OEUVRE L’ESPRIT” [2016], TONY BORNARD (Jura, France)

Tony is Philippe Bornard’s son, who you probably know by now has gone back and taken over the family vines at the estate his somewhat famous father, Philippe, created at Pupillin, just outside Arbois. This is a Vin de France, made from the 2016 vintage (though therefore not labelled as such) from different parcels (Philippe’s Ploussard is usually from Point-Barre).

We have a vivacious and easy going but clearly “natural” rendition of the Ploussard (Poulsard) variety here. It’s firmly philosophically in the zero:zero school (nothing added, nothing removed) and the ripe and glowing light “tomato”-red juice is bottled on its fermentation gasses, which helps preserve the wine in lieu of added sulphur.

On opening there’s a clear hint of reductive winemaking which the usual generous swirling motion alleviates, allowing any off odours to blow off and the wine to open up. I’d serve this ever so slightly chilled, so that it warms in the glass as it becomes less reductive. In this way you get to taste the fresh explosion of fruit in a purer form. There is a slight spritz, but this is pleasurable, enlivening the wine. There’s also, as a result of the “nowt taken out” part of the equation, a fair bit of sediment. Altogether very nice, introducing a more youthful facet of the Bornard oeuvre. 

This was purchased from Les Jardins Saint-Vincent, Arbois’ natural wine shop. Domaine Philippe Bornard is imported into the UK by Les Caves de Pyrene. As far as I know, Tony’s own label doesn’t have a UK importer.

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DOLCETTO D’ALBA “ROUSSOT” 2018, FRANCESCO RINALDI (Piemonte, Italy)

I seem to be still drinking the Langhe occasionally, despite it being May now (we drank a Barbaresco two nights ago), no doubt because it went back to being bl**** freezing here in Southern England a couple of weeks ago. April was a bit warmer than the first half of May, but then Dolcetto is a bit lighter than Nebbiolo.

Francesco Rinaldi e Figli is one of the great Barolo producers, founded in the village of Barolo itself, in 1870. It is now run by two Rinaldi sisters, Paola and Piera. The family farms vineyards in some of the great crus of that DOCG, but here we have their version of one of the varieties too often overlooked among the wines of these famous houses. The Roussot vineyard is within the Barolo DOCG, at around 800 metres asl, on chalky clay, with traditional Guyot vine training.

The wine itself really is rather old school Dolcetto. It has medium weight (which means more weight than a lot of Dolcetto), and has a depth of colour. If that colour is dark cherry, then the bouquet is of red cherries, as is the predominant fruit on the palate. The nose also has some tobacco leaf notes typical of classy Dolcetto. It’s classic, slightly dusty, but vibrant and a lot more wholesome than you usually find with the variety. It has a slightly savoury, food-friendly, quality. Winemaking is in stainless steel followed with a ten month stay in similar tanks. It sees no wood. 13% abv is perfectly judged.

It’s probably one of the best Dolcettos from the Langhe you will find, with the added advantage that it is reasonably easy to find at the moment. It does seem like several people I know have been popping this Rinaldi during our lockdown. This bottle came in a mixed case from Solent Cellar, but checking their web site for the price, I can’t see it. I wonder whether the last of it went in a care package I got them to send out this week? I think it is imported by Astrum and by AG Wines.

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Recent Wines April 2020 (Part 1) #theglouthatbindsus

I hope no one minds me splitting my “wines at home” piece into two parts at the moment. As all the wines we are drinking are being drunk at home, there are somewhat more to write about, made worse by the fact that I seem to be opening so many great bottles. When I strip out one or two already covered in previous articles, April presents me with eighteen wines I need to tell you about. As two short articles covering nine wines in each, it seems an easier format for you to skip through.

We have one Spanish wine, one German, one Californian, one from Czech Moravia, one from Switzerland, one from England and three Austrians (who’d have guessed). No Jura? Don’t worry, there will be a couple in Part 2.

JARAL 2012, PURULIO (Sierra Nevada, Spain)

Torcuato Huertas Tomás makes his wine at Marchal in the stunningly beautiful Sierra Nevada mountains near Granada. In summer there is still some snow to be seen on these high peaks in Southern Spain, although if you are there in August, as I was a few years ago, then you will be wilting in the white-walled villages below. Jaral is an ageable red wine which rarely gets the opportunity to do so.

The vineyard is just three hectares on the north-facing side of the mountains. Days may be hot but the nights are cold at between 900 to 1,500 metres altitude. I think the grape variety is Tempranillo in this cuvée, but it reminds me much more of a young Nebbiolo than Rioja. Pomegranate and blueberry fruits are dense, rich and smooth, with just a little grip and texture grounding the wine. You can tell it’s a mountain wine, yet it also has delicacy. It comes from the estate’s highest altitude sites.

Torcuato Huertas is farming his grandfathers old vine plots, which he took over after getting the wine bug whilst helping his somewhat famous uncle with some pruning work in the 1980s. That uncle is Manuel Valenzuela of Barranco Oscuro. A nice connection to have, but I think Torcuato matches BO in making fantastic wines. He’s also a very nice guy, worth supporting.

Purulio wines are imported by Otros Vinos (London).

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BACCHUS TROCKEN 2017, 2NATURKINDER (Franken, Germany)

Melanie Drese and Michael Völker are 2Naturkinder, based at Kitzingen in Franken/Franconia, which is in Northern Bavaria. Franken is slowly becoming a hotbed for young people looking for a start in winemaking, but Michael’s family had been growing vines here since 1843. 2Naturkinder has become an exciting new label in the region, and in natural wine generally, and you can read an in-depth piece about them by New York writer Valerie Kathawala in Pipette Magazine (Issue 5), or via the link on Valerie’s own site here.

When Melanie and Michael returned to the family farm as Michael’s parents approached retirement they knew how they wanted to proceed, with low intervention winemaking. Michael eased into the project by making a range of wines with his father, called “Vater & Sohn. I think it is fair to say that the winery’s older customers really didn’t appreciate these new low sulphur wines. Previously a cellar master had been employed to make the wines conventionally.

In a classic mirror of what is happening all over the German speaking world, whilst rejected at home the wines have gained international recognition. Michael’s last vintage with his father was 2019 and now this young pair will forge ahead on their own, but with wines well established in export markets via success around Europe and America’s natural wine fairs. We won’t see any more of the Vater & Sohn labels, but 2Naturkinder’s solo labels do really stand out (the “Bat-Nat” and the “Head of Bacchus” especially).

This Vater & Sohn Bacchus has explosive fruit, and the fruit is pushed out with quite high acidity to match. What balances it all is the exotic side of that fruit. Traditional Bacchus grapefruit melds with more exotic aromas and flavours…of peach and pineapple. You only get a mere 10.5% alcohol here, but the wine is not weedy in the slightest. It’s quite steely, but its more exotic side gives a little unexpected breadth.

Perhaps this 2017 has benefited from a while in bottle, but it’s such a refreshing wine, both literally and in the sense that it is so refreshing to see more young ideas smashing the conservatism of German wine. That comes to mind specifically having just a night or two ago finished a bottle of Jan Matthias Klein’s Portu Geezer, a wine made from Arinto and Fernão Pires grapes in the Mosel Valley. You may not find this Bacchus easily, but anything from 2Naturkinder is worth grabbing.

This bottle came from the takeaway list at Plateau Brighton. Imported by Wines Under the Bonnet.

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DAVID GIRARD VINEYARD COUNOISE 2018, KEEP WINES (California, USA)

Counoise is, of course, a relatively minor variety in France’s Southern Rhône, famous (if that’s the right word) as a mostly very minor constituent in the multi-varietal Châteaneuf-du-Pape blend. However, it is surprisingly successful in California, and in fact I can never decide which of two versions I prefer – this one or that made by Benevolent Neglect.

Keep Wines was founded by Jack Roberts and Johanna Jensen, a partnership which began romantically on the first day Jack arrived in the USA. He’s an Englishman, and the old Keep Wines label (of which I was quite a fan) was a photo of Beverstone Castle in Gloucestershire, where Jack’s father was born.

Jack ended up as Assistant Winemaker at Matthiasson Family Wines, a position he held until recently. He’s now gone full time with Keep, but they remain friends and Steve has been a major influence. Johanna, or JJ as she’s known, has worked with Abe Schoener on the Scholium Project and at Broc Cellars. So, some well loaded CVs.

Keep Wines does seem to major on slightly esoteric varieties, but I think these are the kind of wines Jack and JJ like to drink, especially for pairing with their lightness of touch. This cuvée comes in at just 12.25% abv, not bad for California and a Southern Rhône variety. I like the rather dusty but gentle tannins here, which are a good foil to the smooth red fruit. It’s just so drinkable, and just such a marvellous wine. Very seductive, and an exemplar of zero sulphur winemaking.

Imported by Nekter Wines whose Californians (they specialise in South Africa, Australia and California) are a revelation, really, including some spectacular bottles from the aforesaid Steve and Jill (Klein) Matthiasson.

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PIROSKA 2018, JOISEPH (Burgenland, Austria)

Luka Zeichmann is the winemaking third of a partnership which produces some of the finest new wines in Burgenland, from a base near Jois on the northern edge of the Neusiedlersee. They began with less than a hectare, but have since grown their holding to five, yet some wines emanate from just two or three rows. Production like this is hard to get hold of and you have to be swift to land some.

Piroska is therefore currently out of stock with the importer, but when it comes to Joiseph grab what you can. This is a red blend of mostly Zweigelt and Pinot Noir, along with other varieties in the gemischter satz field blend tradition. It undergoes a wild fermentation and is bottled unfiltered with a reasonable sediment adding texture. The colour is that gorgeous cherry-red which natural wines seem to do so well, and which signal a light fruitiness usually accompanied by refreshing acidity.

That’s what you get here. The nose is high register strawberry and raspberry with the lift of a slight CO2 spritz on opening. It has a “bouquet” in the true sense, like a bunch of fruity flowers opening outwards from the bottle neck. The palate has lovely, zippy, cherry fruit concentration with slightly darker fruit on the finish, almost “Italianate”. It’s rather nice if served quite cool, and at 12% abv is perfect for lunch or a warm evening.

Imported by Modal Wines.

FRANKOVKA CLARET 2018, OTA ŠEVČIK (Moravia, Czechia)

One of Czechia’s finest producers, based in Bořetice, in Southern Moravia. This is a young-looking guy farming just two hectares, but he actually started making wine back in 1992, so he can’t be quite as young as he looks. He was also one of the founding members of the Czech “Autentiste” group of natural winemakers, whose influence has gone beyond the boundaries of Moravia.

The vineyards around Bořetice have a very high magnesium content, in soils of mostly sand or loess and this probably accounts for the precision in the wines locally. This is certainly apparent from Ota’s wines, red and white. Frankovka Claret is quite unique though. Frankovka is, of course, Blaufränkisch, which I’m sure you know by now. “Claret” has nowt to do with Bordeaux, but is a style of lighter red which is really becoming popular once more all across Europe (cf Clarete styles in Spain coming to the fore right now, and indeed one from the Canary Islands that I opened last night and which you may have spotted on Instagram).

Most “Claret” (and Clarete) would be a darkish pink colour, perhaps similar to cranberry or pomegranate juice. This has more of a peachy tone with indeed scents of stone fruit, along with red fruits which creep in later. It’s smooth, superficially “glou-glou”, but in actual fact it has real depth as well. It’s just very subtle. You need to allow it to unfurl slowly and gently. It expresses a lot, but just don’t expect it to blurt everything out in one go. On a warm day it ends up tasting remarkably like strawberries and cream. I really liked it…a lot.

Imported by Basket Press Wines.

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FENDANT “PRESIDENT TROILLET” 2017, MARIE-THÉRÈSE CHAPPAZ (Valais, Switzerland)

Marie-Thérèse is one of my two favourite Swiss producers, and it always pains me that I rarely have more than two or three Chappaz wines in the cellar. This is half down to lack of easy availability, and half down to price (especially on export markets where it hurts). The Chappaz winery is set below magnificent mountain scenery at Fully, which is just before the point at which the Rhône (and the A9 Autoroute which follows it here) turns abruptly from its southwesterly route northwards, at Martigny, towards Lac Léman. Marie-Thérèse’s vines are planted above the village, between 550 and 650 metres asl on south-facing granite with a little loess. Everything done in the vines and winery follows the priciples of biodynamics.

Fendant is the Valais name for Chasselas, Switzerland’s most planted variety. I hesitate to say “signature” variety because it is so maligned, especially by outsiders. It may, as I’ve said before, be capable of producing watery dross, but it is also capable of wonderful expression (I’m tempted to write an article about all of the best Chasselas but I’m not totally convinced it would be read).

Marie-Thérèse makes four cuvées and I own two. President Troillet is perhaps the one capable of most complexity, and ageing (and if I were able to recall just which cuvée is which I might have kept this a little longer). It has a nutty complexity already, and smells almost of the granite from which it comes. It is very mineral, especially at less than three years old, and is also savoury. I’ve seen umami as a note, which fits well. This is just the wine for the naysayers, although perhaps a few more years will make it more open. Troillet has a reputation of being able to go twenty years, although I’ve never had one remotely close to that age. It’s still a beautiful example of what a truly great producer can do with an unloved variety though.

This is a producer a few of those people disappointed at not sourcing Overnoy and Miroirs should be looking at. As with your typical Jura or Alsace producer Marie-Thérèse makes at least twenty-five different bottlings each year. The sweet wines are genuinely world class without argument, and I will argue with anyone about the dry wines as well.

Marie-Thérèse Chappaz has two principal UK importers, Alpine Wines and Dynamic Vines. Most of the Dynamic allocation goes into very keen restaurants, but if they have any left now could be a good time to ask. I’ve bought Chappaz Fendant from both sources in the past year, but I think this cuvée came from Alpine Wines. At around £40 it’s probably more than many would pay for Chasselas without the knowledge of the few.

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PINK 2018, WESTWELL WINES (Kent, UK)

Westwell Wines, founded by former Record Company owner Adrian Pike, sits on the south flank of the North Downs in Kent, looking down on the M20 Motorway as it takes people like me (as often as possible) towards Folkestone and the Channel Tunnel. Historically it sits on the Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury, on chalkland evocative of Chaucer and the vineyards of Champagne, which occupy the same strata on the other side of “La Manche”.

The Westwell vineyard is around nine acres (a little over three-and-a-half hectares). Five of these acres are dedicated to the usual Champagne varieties, used principally for the sparkling wines, and four acres are planted with Ortega. The exception to the former, the use of the two Pinots for sparkling wine, is this low production (circa 1,000 bottles) “Pink”, which blends Pinot Noir and Meunier.

The 2018 was picked on 13 October, undergoing a 24-hour cold maceration for colour before gentle pressing. Fermented in stainless steel with natural wild yeasts at low temperature, it was bottled early in late April last year, with a tiny addition of sulphur.

The colour is beautiful to behold. Adrian calls it “rose quartz” and it does take me straight into one of those crystal shops in Glastonbury. Red fruits explode from the bottle, riding on a cavalcade of apple-fresh acidity. It’s not trying to be an intellectual, merely the life and soul of the party. In this respect the winemaking is sheer brilliance and the wine is sheer joy. It was my choice for “English Wine Friday” last month. A difficult choice for such a significant day, with Tillingham and Dermot Sugrue strong contenders, but this was a recent purchase and fully deserved the slot.

Importer: Uncharted Wines.

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(The cd in the photo is for Adrian…he’ll know)

BRUTAL CUVÉE 2016, GUT OGGAU (Burgenland, Austria)

You won’t need me to tell you much about this producer, will you. Based at Oggau, just a few kilometers north of Rust on Neusiedlersee’s western shore, I fell in love with their wines on first sip quite a long time ago. It’s almost painful for me to actually open one (do you get that?), but always a moment of profound joy when I do. I think there are perhaps a dozen producers who remind me why I adore wine for drinking, not wine for “collecting”, and Gut Oggau is one.

The “Brutal” Cuvée was instigated by the famous Bar Brutal in Barcelona and its founder, Joan Valencia. Although it states that it comes from the “Brutal Wine Corporation”, there is no company involved. The famous black, red and yellow label can be used by any producer, provided it is what they call “zero-zero”, a natural wine with nothing added and nothing removed. No chemicals whatsoever, no filtration, and so on. Favourite producers who have also made “Brutal” bottlings include Christian Tschida (also Burgenland), Christian Binner (Alsace) and Domaine L’Octavin (Jura) among more than twenty I have seen or read of.

This is one of the older bottlings, which as you can see I have hung on to, but remember that natural wines do age. I was actually astonished by this. Is it a pale red or a dark rosé? The variety is the perfectly chosen Roesler, a crossing from the 1970s which fans of GO will know well, and one that is resistant to frost and fungal diseases.

The wine has juicy red fruits, but also a stony lick of texture and a touch of Blaufränkisch-like pepperiness on the finish. A little bite, in other words. It’s effectively crisp but fruity, with the crispness perhaps a little less dominant than it might have been twelve months ago. It’s really beguiling stuff at this age, not at all brutal.

Gutt Oggau is imported by Dynamic Vines.

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SUPERGLITZER 2018, RENNERSISTAS (Burgenland, Austria)

Heading back to the north of the lake, the Renner vineyards comprise a healthy 12 hectares, surround Gols. I wonder whether they will keep the name “Rennersistas” now that their younger brother, Georg, has joined the team? I do hope they keep their iconic labels (with the tractor), which I think are among the very best, perhaps in fact the most effective in Austrian wein.

Superglitzer is a blend of Blaufränkisch, St-Laurent and Zweigelt, though one insider (Simon Woolf) suggests there’s also a bit of Roesler in there too. Superglitzer’s a great name. Although initially the name of the cuvée conjured up a sparkling wine for me, it aptly describes (as does the modified glitzy label) a lively red wine brimming with vibrant red fruits and the kind of abundant zest which few, even natural, winemakers produce in quite this way.

The predominantly limestone soils here probably add some of that zip and the varieties chosen for the blend add a little spice. It’s a gorgeous wine to drink with joy, and preferably with friends (for whom I am saving my other bottle, for when such an occasion eventually becomes possible). Glorious stuff. Little compensation for the fact that I was supposed to be in Vienna in April, with the natural hope that we could make a return to visit the somewhat joyfully enlarged now Renner family (more congratulations due to Susanne). But compensation nevertheless.

Imported by Newcomer Wines.

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Wines of The Aveyron and a Little Vicarious Travel

Back at the end of the 1980s I had this idea for a book. It was going to be called The Lost Vineyards of France. Somehow it never happened, and as the years passed so many of the vineyards I visited with a view to inclusion suddenly got found. I think Les Caves de Pyrene were guilty of much of their discovery, and the wines of the Aveyron were among them. I’m going to take you away from your isolation down into deepest France. We shall visit wooded mountains cut by famous rivers, we shall visit a mysterious abbey with a dark history, hidden among the forests and river gorges, which houses one of the most remarkable hidden religious treasures in the country. Then we shall taste wines that few really know, yet one of the producers down here (Nicolas Carmarans) is amongst the finest natural wine makers in Europe

Aveyron is historically, along with Corrèze to the north and the other departments of the Massif Central, one of the very poorest regions in France, so rural and remote that even some French people don’t really know where it is. The major city is red Rodez, not red for political affiliations, but for the beautiful pink-red stone from which its major buildings and Gothic cathedral are constructed. The red comes through in the old name for the province, Rouergue, a land of red earth surrounded by mountain country. To the north there are the great limestone causses of Cantal, Aubrac and the Monts d’Auvergne. To the east lies the great wooded Cévennes. The Aveyron river itself flows into the Tarn north of Toulouse, whilst directly west of Rodez the River Lot flows towards the hill country of Cahors, then on towards Bordeaux. Only to the south is the country more open, as we head through broad hills into L’Hérault, towards Montpellier and Mediterranean France.

The main vineyards of Aveyron lie a little to the north of Rodez, roughly from south to north being Marcillac, Estaing and Entraygues et du Fel. Marcillac is the senior appellation, with around 160 hectares planted, with a further forty or so hectares split evenly between Estaing and Entraygues. The soils are mostly rich red clay (called “rougier”), with a high iron oxide content, but they are mostly laid down over schist. In parts there is both schist and limestone (the latter for which the wild causses to the north are famous). The seemingly perfect choice for the region’s major red variety is Fer Servadou (reflecting the iron, both in name and nature), also known locally as Mansois. The next two varieties seem to have strayed down from The Loire, Cabernet Franc, and Chenin Blanc. Cabernet Sauvignon also appears, as do a host of minor varieties in this context (Gamay, Semillon, Muscat etc).

The obvious question seems to be why is there wine down here? Especially if I tell you that there were several thousand hectares in Aveyron before phylloxera, surely far too much to supply a local market and a relatively small urban population? I think the answer isn’t simple. Although there are good communications by river, they almost all lead towards Bordeaux and the west, and we know that the wines of “the hill country” were only allowed into the cellars of the Bordeaux merchants once the local stuff had been sold. Yet the Aveyron wines were once quite highly regarded, and they also seem to have been sold further north in the Auvergne, via the River Truyère.

Rural depopulation struck as the Twentieth Century loomed, and the lure of factory work, however poorly paid, was better than the agricultural subsistence offered on the fringes of the Massif Central. Many Aveyron pioneers had forged a route to Paris even earlier, coalescing together, as the Auvergnats and Alsaciens did, in the city’s eastern reaches. On top of depopulation the First World War hit hard, as it did in all sparsely populated parts of France.

Viticulture was tougher than tough here, yet there was a ready market for some vignerons who had clung on, in the mines which were worked in the area, at their peak from the 19th century until about the time of my first visit. I remember coal miners’ cottages seeming almost incongruous in the rural hamlets of the region. Coal and vast amounts of water running from the north into the main river systems allowed for local industry, and indeed not far to the north you can visit the village of Laguiole, which no aficionado of fine cutlery would care to miss. But transport to the French industrial heartlands was slow and the railways passed the region by.

The advent of wine here goes back a lot further. Sited in the hills above the steep-sided valley of the River Dordou, a little north of Marcillac-Vallon, is one of France’s real hidden gems, the Abbey of Conques. It is the monks of Conques who first introduced the vine as they came down here from Burgundy, and its story is worth telling. The Abbey was founded by Burgundian monks in 866 on the site of an older seventh century oratory, near one of the ancient routes to Santiago de Compostela. The monks really needed something to draw people to stop at remote Conques so guess what these good Christian men did? They stole the relics of the 4th century Christian martyr Sainte-Foy (Saint Faith) from the Abbey of Agen and installed them at Conques, and guess what, pilgrims stopped visiting Agen and came to Conques instead. The Chapter at Conques became very rich. Why Agen never came asking for them back I have no idea?

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Beautiful Conques

The Abbey Church is now based on a large cruciform building erected in the eleventh century, no doubt built by pilgrim riches. It has a lovely compact feel, recently restored. The church itself is famous for its 212 carved columns and a fine tympanum of the Last Judgment over the west door, but the treasury is what most people visit for, wonderful even without the great “Majesty” of Sainte-Foy. This is a gold-plated statue, life-size, of the child martyr.

The reliquary’s head, which contains a part of a human skull said to be verified as the child’s, is Roman in origin (5th century), when the statue began its life as a reliquary. I say began because the precious gem stones, intaglios and cameos of Roman, Byzantine and Eastern origin which adorn it were added by pilgrims over subsequent centuries, it is said as offerings for the “great many wondrous miracles” the effigy performed. Whatever your beliefs and faith, you do not want to miss the Majesty of Sainte-Foy. You will see few treasures like it in the whole of Europe.

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Stfoy

Back to wine. The monks did, despite their shameful theft (not uncommon, strangely, in medieval Europe, as the treasures of St-Mark’s Basilica in Venice attest), begin something worthwhile by selecting the warmer sites in these cool hills for planting vines. The special microclimate here was recognised very early on.

Today there are few producers, full stop, but they do mostly tend to be producers of note (though Marcillac has a good co-operative, and Estaing a small one). If you are going to make a living here it is clearly going to be because the quality merits a good price. This exceptionally beautiful part of France has, like the Auvergne, furnished some hardy individuals with affordable vineyards and an alternative lifestyle option, and this is doubtless why the best wines of the Aveyron tend to fall into the low intervention category.

Most of the vines are on terraces, the majority of which currently stand abandoned but the pre-phylloxera sites, when restored, do provide the best wines. The vignerons do have one thing to be thankful for. Mansois/Fer took easily to regrafting after phylloxera, so the region’s traditional variety for the most part survived and has probably grown here for more than a thousand years.

There are ten or so private estates, including three or four major players, in Marcillac, and the first whose wines I tasted were those of Philippe Teulier of Domaine du Cros. Imported currently and for many years now by Les Caves de Pyrene, I remember being so pleased on returning to the UK in 1988 that his excellent Lo Sang del Païs cuvée was imported by Admans of Southwold. What a name for a varietal young-vine Mansois, “blood of the countryside”. If Fer Servadou often tastes first of iron filings, then its secondary flavour must be fresh, iron-rich, blood. But this young vine wine, made in stainless steel, is also very fruity and very easy to glug.

If the Lo Sang is from young vines (averaging 25 years), then the old vine Mansois, coming from vines between 50-to-100 years old, is a different beast. Darker fruited with coffee and liquorice notes, it undergoes a much longer vinification and is aged in older foudres for 18 months. This is a special occasion wine, which I’ve had a few times, whereas I’ve drunk many bottles of the former, which I think I prefer on account of its lively authenticity.

There is, I believe, a barrique-aged red wine which I haven’t tried. It comes from grapes harvested at the top of the limestone scree slopes, and from the “rougiers” soils at the bottom, the two blended together. There’s a rosé and a white, the latter from Muscat and a blend of local varieties. I am pretty sure there was a semillon up to the late 2000s. Only the red wines are AOP/AOC.

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Philippe’s son, Julien has joined his father and the future looks bright for Domaine du Cros. Philippe started out with just one hectare which he has grown to 22 hectares, making this the largest domaine in Marcillac. Lo Sang del Païs is pretty easy to source, via retailers working with Les Caves de Pyrene, which also sells the VV cuvée (of which they sometimes have magnums as well as bottles). The domaine is situated above the Aveyron River at Goutrens, near Clairvaux, and the countryside here is rather spectacular.

Don’t just gaze here, do head north if you can. It isn’t wine country but the Causses are beautiful in their own way. We stayed in the region for a week and one of several trips took us north via Aurillac, to the beautiful small town of Salers and a brisk walk up the Puy Mary. Less far to drive is Laguiole, the original home of the finest knives in France (production later expanded and moved to the “knife city” of Thiers, to the north). It was on a trip here that we returned via Aubrac and the causse of that name. Stopping in one of the villages we saw an advertisement for the transhumance, the annual springtime moving of the cattle to higher summer pastures, where the milk for the local cheeses (rather like Cantal) takes up the flavours of wild flowers on the limestone soils. We saw an advertisement for the transhumance raffle. First prize was a cow.

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Salers (Cantal)

It was much later that I discovered Nicolas Carmarans, who makes wine with his wife near Marcillac. If I tell you that Nicolas ran the Café de la Nouvelle-Marie in Paris in its early days, you will recognise immediately that this is a man committed to natural wine. He purchased a vineyard called “Mauvais Temps” in 2007 and works (I think) somewhere between three and four hectares today. His unstaked single vines are on hard to work single row terraces (much of the local terracing takes a number of vine rows), so he cultivates them with a cable-plough and sprays only with biodynamic preps.

Mauvais Temps itself is a beautiful wine, but unusually for the region it is not a varietal Mansois, 50% of this grape being joined by 30% Negret de Banhars and 10% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. I can drink this bottle after bottle. Cuvée Maximus is pure Mansois, a deep wine of darker fruits with cherries. It has structure and bite, but low alcohol. I think I’ve only tasted “Fer de Sang”, a negoce cuvée, also Mansois but undergoing carbonic fermentation.

 

The main white cuvée, called “Selves” is a little gem, not to be overlooked. The variety is Chenin Blanc, also grown on the narrow terraces. It starts off apple-fresh, more ripe apple with spice, but not into the tarte tatin spectrum. A floral, blossom, scent floats above the apple, but the palate is full of the mineral tension given by the volcanic soils. There was a white blend in 2017 made from Chenin with Aligoté too. I would say, if feeling mean in doing so, that it’s “almost as good”…it’s brilliant but I prefer Selves by a nose. It’s called Entre Les Eaux and was made because of the frost and hail losses. The Chenin (40%) comes from Nicolas’ own vineyards whilst the Aligoté (60%) was sourced from a friend in Macon. Vin de France, of course.

 

The other winemaker worth getting to know is Jean-Luc Matha (Domaine Le Vieux Porche), who makes Marcillac from his base at Bruéjouls. He has a couple of powerful strings to his bow in Laïris (the easy drinker) and Peïrafi (the Cuvée Spéciale), both 100% Mansois and aged in old barriques and other barrels. I haven’t seen the wines around for some time. Last I heard he’d achieved organic certification in 2016, and the estate does stretch over a good sixteen hectares, but I’m not sure how the future will pan out. Jean-Luc has been making wine for more than thirty vintages and I understand his son, Hugo, has a successful career in Parisian fashion. In France these wines are cheap, with Laïris below €10, Peïrafi not much more.

If you want to sample the wines of this remote department, then Marcillac is the place to begin. But if you are especially adventurous, and indeed if you actually visit the region for an opportunity to sample one of the last enclaves of true “France Profonde”, then you will certainly want to explore Estaing and Entraygues et du Fel too. If Marcillac is almost directly north-to-NNW of Rodez, half way to Conques, then these two tiny wine regions are a little further away, both off the D920 accessed via the attractive town of Espalion, on the River Lot.

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Espalion, on the Lot, has a famous medieval bridge

Taking Estaing first, because it is closest to Rodez, the name may be familiar. The château which imposes itself on the other side of the bridge over the Lot was built on the remains of the original in the eleventh century, when the Lords of Estaing were powerful regional noblemen, and bishops of Rodez. The most famous “Estaing” was French President, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing (served 1974-1981). He purchased the château here, along with his brother, in 2005, although I know of no direct link with the original owners.

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Estaing

Like Entraygues et du Fel, Estaing used to make wine under VDQS and now produces under AOP. Estaing used to have the honour of being the smallest VDQS at the time, although that may not apply today. The grape mix is a little different in Estaing, although Mansois/Fer Servadou still dominates. You will also find Gamay and Arbouriou (which variety those who know the Marmandais wines of Elian da Ros will surely have tasted).

A little further downstream Entraygues -sur-Truyère sits on the confluence of the Lot and Truyère rivers, at the exact point up to which the Lot is navigable, and it joins the small hamlet of Le Fel further down the Lot to form the last of these three small wine regions. The soils are similar, as are the grape varieties, with Banhars (after which that Negret variety is named) being only a few stones throws up the Truyère from Entraygues. The main difference between Entraygues/Estaing and Marcillac is that the former pair are distinctly cooler. And if you think the countryside around Marcillac is rocky and mountainous, wait until you see Le Fel, a cluster of buildings atop a cliff above the Lot.

On my 1988 visit I purchased wine from Jean-Marc Viguier at Entraygues, whose red was made with a fruit salad of grape varieties at the time, before he reduced his palette to just Fer Servadou and Cabernet Franc. In 2005 Laurent Mousset came along (and later his son, Olivier). Laurent and Olivier’s base is Le Fel, and Laurent set about revitalising his five or so hectares and establishing himself as the clear leader in Entraygues. He’s also a Fer and Cab Franc man, but he has reworked his terraces to allow a small tractor to balance somewhat precipitously along the vine rows. Les Caves used to import Mousset’s red. I wonder what happened? I liked it.

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The only wine I have bought from Estaing was from a tiny six-man co-operative called the Caveau du Viala, which now just calls itself Les Vignerons D’Olt. The co-op has since expanded and has established a Maison du Vin between Estaing and Espalion (check lesvigneronsdolt.fr for location and opening times). There’s a hamlet called Le Viala (not to be confused with several villages called Viala in the wider region), which is (or was) the base for Pierre Rieu, who was Estaing’s best known producer at the time of my 1980s visit. I never found him, although Rosemary George did (in her French Country Wines, Faber & Faber, 1990).

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If you want to try the wines from this part of France I strongly recommend anything and everything from Nicolas Carmarans, and the fruity Lo Sang del Païs from the Teuliers. But if you are a lover of the true rural France try to find your way to The Aveyron. If you are such a person you won’t be disappointed, although you may not have quite the experience we did. We stayed on a farm a couple of kilometres from Montrozier, in rooms directly above the cow shed, which only smelt, almost unbearably so, on arrival. We became surprisingly used to the bovine odours after a night there, and as ample compensation walked with the owners’ dog, Titou, a three-legged canine companion, through fields, woodland and along an old Roman Road, when we were not exploring further afield.

Before leaving Aveyron I should mention the AOP wines of the Côtes de Millau and the former Vins de Pays de L’Aveyron. The Côtes de Millau is in the south of the department, and I have never seen a wine from this vignoble. Certainly a few years ago there was a decent small co-operative there, based at Aguessac.

I have seen biodynamic, zero sulphur, wine from the old Vin de Pays de L’Aveyron (now IGP or often Vins de France), in the guise of Patrick Rols. Les Caves sold a couple of white cuvées from Patrick, who has six hectares at Le Colombier, Conques. Apparently Eric met him at the Dive Bouteille Tasting, where he stepped in for an absent Nicolas Carmarans. They subsequently imported a couple of his wines around the late 2000s, but I have not seen them listed recently.

Sources

You won’t find many sources for wines like these. In fact you can probably read more about them in one of those big old Les Caves wine lists than in any books. The World Wine Atlas places these wines on its map of France but they don’t get a mention in the text. The first book listed below (a classic) gave me just a tiny insight of what to expect in the wider region. The second was for decades the bible for any lover of French Regional Wines.

The book by Michael Busselle appears partly because it has some text on the region, but also because Busselle, a photographer, has been quite an inspiration to me over the years. I have several of his books, and The Wine Lover’s Guide to France (Pavilion, 1986) was probably the book which taught me how beautiful the vineyards of France can be at a time when I had hardly begun to get to know them as I do now. It may have been the biggest spur to my life of wine travel.

The last book on the list is considered “the” work on the wines of Southwest France. Despite being more than a decade old, I reckon most people would learn a lot from reading it.

  • Three Rivers of France – Freda White (Faber, 1954)
  • French Country Wines – Rosemary George (Faber, 1990)
  • Discovering the Country Vineyards of France – Michael Busselle (Pavilion 1994)
  • South-West France The Wines and Winemakers – Paul Strang (Univ of California Press, 2009)

 

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East of Salers on the road to the Puy Mary

 

 

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That Georgia’s on my Mind – For The Love of Wine (Book Review)

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I can’t recall how many years ago it was, but I do recall trudging around several of the Marks & Spencer’s stores in Central London trying to find a particular bottle of wine. Now M&S, as this chain is known here, has had some surprisingly interesting bottles in the past, or at least surprising for those of us who like wine at the fringes. But this wine was in a league of its own. It was Georgian, and made in a qvevri. 

I was certainly aware of Georgian wine back then, and I knew what a qvevri was, but I’m not sure I’d ever tasted a bottle made in one, or at least not from Georgia. I was certainly an old hand with amphora wines, starting out early on the wines from Sicilian stars, COS. By the second decade of the century there were certainly Georgian wines in the UK, and there were even more skin contact, or “orange”, wines from other places available in the UK. But if a British supermarket chain was importing one, then it had to signal something significant was happening in the world of wine. Georgia has an 8,000 year history of winemaking, and the buzz of excitement around the qvevri tradition signalled that it was finally about to leap into the spotlight on the international stage for the first time in those eight millennia.

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Where the journey began for me, Tblivino Qvevris 2011 (Marks & Spencer)

This particular wine was called simply Qvevris and was produced by Tbilvino, a Tbilisi-based winery which was established in 1998 by the Margvelashvili brothers on the site of a facility which had produced wine in the Soviet era but which had since gone bust in the post-communist era of the free market economy. The wine was a varietal Rkatsiteli, Georgia’s most planted white grape variety, and it had seen six months on skins in these ancient and traditional terracotta vessels. It was good, although it wasn’t an earth shattering wine in terms of quality, but on so many other levels it was, for me, revelatory. All of a sudden I went from thinking I knew a little, even a lot, about wine to realising I had a whole world suddenly to explore.

My first job was to taste Georgian wine, which I should probably mention right now is not by any means all made in qvevri, and is not by any means all of the quality made by those producers who have gained a name on export markets (as illustrated by the resumption in more recent years of the export trade to Russia). Now there had been plenty of opportunity to do so, at the bigger natural wine fairs, where the Georgian contingent was becoming famous for its capacity to party. But with my myriad specialisations already diverse (Austria, Jura, Savoie, Grower Champagne, Alsace, Switzerland, Czechia and more), then Georgia just seemed a bit too much when faced with a single day at these events. So I was slower off the mark.

I had been buying more and more odd bottles to sample, but about three years ago I bought a mixed case from the largest importer of Georgian wine here, Les Caves de Pyrene, with currently eight producers listed: Niki Antadze, Okro’s Vinos, Iago Bitarishvili and his wife, Marina Kurtanidze, Ramaz Nikoladze, Zurab Topuridze, Sister’s Wine and Pheasant’s Tears, the latter being probably Georgia’s most internationally famous operation on account of one of its founders, American born John Wurdeman. If it were not for Wurdeman’s help in getting the word out, Georgian wine probably would not enjoy the super-fashionable status it has for a certain sector of the wine buying public.

Iago Bitarishvili (or just Iago) at the Real Wine Fair, London (organised by Les Caves de Pyrene)

Although I visited Russia during the Gorbachev years, I didn’t really have a burning desire to return there after the fall of Communism, and perhaps initially that blunted my desire to travel very far behind the former Iron Curtain as well. But as the 2000s progressed into their second decade I knew people who had been to countries like Romania. Aside from the natural beauty I knew existed (from years of receiving trekking brochures from companies like Exodus and Explore), I was seeing photos of beautifully restored towns and churches, and hearing of an emerging food and bar culture.

By the time I read Simon Woolf’s “Amber Revolution”, my Wine Book of the Year for 2018, I was already harbouring a desire to visit Georgia, but whilst that was slowly  getting a little closer to becoming a reality the likelihood of getting there any time soon has now, perhaps for obvious reasons, receded a little. This is a shame because my first “Lockdown” wine book was For the Love of Wine by Alice Feiring. The book had been lying on a pile of nine or ten as yet unread books since I can’t remember when, but all I can say is that it found its perfect time. With three wine trips, to Austria, Alsace and Jura, cancelled for this year I was in dire need of some vicarious wine travel.

Alice Feiring first visited the former Soviet Republic of Georgia (I make this point because even famous Americans have been known to assume that one means the State of Georgia in the southeast of the USA, always a problem when the Rugby World Cup comes around) in 2011, to attend the First International Qvevri Symposium. She was partly there because her second book, “Naked Wine”, was due to be translated into Georgian. This was a sign that the government there, through the country’s wine authorities, were encouraging the renaissance in traditional winemaking. As my first Georgian wine was that 2011 I like to think that perhaps she may even have passed the very qvevri it came from if she made a visit to Tblivini whilst she was there.

In many ways the qvevri tradition and natural, low intervention, winemaking methods go hand in hand (though not always). Whilst viticulture in the Soviet era was based on the napalm death approach, massive yields achieved through equally massive application of agro-chemicals, Georgian families had been allowed to retain a few rows of vines for personal use, and even if they had wished to, synthetic chemicals were just too expensive. This chemical free environment didn’t always lead to good wine, but it did at least allow the qvevri tradition to be kept alive…just.

The essence of Georgian wine, aside from unique terroirs, lies in grape varieties and in particular the rather special autochthonous varieties, many of which are not seen elsewhere. Estimates vary, but the country boasts more than 500 indigenous varieties (some say 525). The ones we know best on export markets today (Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane, Chinuri, Saperavi, Kisi etc) are just scratching the surface. Pheasant’s Tears is just one producer trying to keep many of these varieties going, and their Poliphonia red cuvée contains, apparently, 417 different varieties, many sourced from their vine library in Kakheti Province.

Alice’s book, published in 2016, details in a little over 160 pages, a subsequent visit to Georgia. Since 2011 much had changed, not least the adding, in 2013, of the traditional qvevri vessel to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. It also seems, and I get this from other visitors too, that Georgia has experienced something of a full on renaissance, and not just in wine.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union Georgia declared independence in 1991 and was in almost immediate conflict with Russia, which backed ethnic Russians within Georgia’s border provinces (which was mirrored more recently by Russian action in Ukraine). This resulted in the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 and a subsequent ban on wine imports into its former monopoly market. This could have been crippling to the industry. But necessity being the catalyst to invention, the Georgians discovered that rather than a market for bulk wine, one existed in the West for quality wine, and wine at that which could be sold for a much better price.

By the time of the visit detailed in this book Georgia’s wine, and her most famous personalities, were known in Europe and America, as were their wines. That is in no small part down to the author. What Feiring achieves in this book is not to set out information about Georgia’s delineated wine regions, nor to list her producers, outlining the varieties and winemaking methodologies they use. This is a travelogue, and all the better for that. Feiring journeys with her winemaking friends, those who have mentored her in Georgian wine, and who obviously have a high degree of affection for her, which I think must come from more than merely the fact that she has been by far the loudest champion for Georgian wine in the United States (and internationally) over the past decade.

Feiring naturally spends most time with winemakers, and in many different parts of the country, some of which she hasn’t visited before. She also visits some of the last qvevri makers, and these visits are fascinating if you don’t know the skill, and especially time, which goes into creating every pot. But one of the most interesting people she visits is not connected with wine.

Lamara Bezhashvili could loosely be described as a silk weaver and wise woman. She crops up more than once in the book and obviously has a profound effect on the author. The time they spend together seems to give deeper insights into a country where the connection between people and the land, with its medicinal herbs and folklore which seems to work, has not been completely and irrevocably severed. Such moments remind the reader that this is not merely a wine travelogue. Wine and culture in Georgia are inextricably linked. You don’t take one without the other.

I could detail any number of stories from the book. Most involve eating and drinking prodigious quantities, in a country where hospitality is a religion (literally, it appears). There are sleepless nights occasioned by the requirements of feasting and there are mad dashes which bring to life the enthusiasms of Feiring’s guides (one particular excursion I enjoyed was her trek through mountain undergrowth to see an ancient wild vine).

We also hear about the near mythical Eastern Orthodox Alaverdi Monastery in the Kakheti wine region. Founded originally in the sixth century, it is where Bishop David has led the rebirth of the monastic winemaking tradition since the mid-2000s in a place which is not only the cradle of Georgian wine, but very close to the cradle of European viticulture itself. I guarantee that if you look up some photos of this place (or indeed take a look at those in Simon Woolf’s Amber Revolution book) you will be itching to visit this amazing complex.

Personally I didn’t want to book to end. I also wanted to be able to visit this wonderful country right now, although I know I won’t have adventures like these if I do finally manage to get there. I should mention one aspect of the book, aside of course from the recipes at the end of each chapter, wholly appropriate for a book about one of the most food obsessed countries in the world. Alice Feiring is very open. What I mean is that she reveals an awful lot about herself and her life (directly and indirectly). You will understand that she’s passionate, emotional, perhaps unyielding in her beliefs and focus.

Before I wrote this article I decided to read a few reviews and comments about the book, something I wouldn’t normally ever do. Some people don’t really seem to get on with this side of Feiring’s personality, and perhaps those people number more of her fellow countrymen than those outside of America. In her home country she is, of course, well known for her antipathy towards the effects of their most famous wine guru, Robert Parker. Perhaps that affects the perceptions of her there among a certain type of wine lover, or maybe Europeans are more open to the heart on the sleeve approach Feiring takes than our American cousins. Whatever the truth, I think Alice is generally held in a high degree of affection in the UK and Europe, and especially within the natural wine movement, which itself has plenty of detractors. Her openness and honesty didn’t bother me at all, though I imagine she is not one to suffer fools.

As I said, I finished the book wishing it was longer, which is my only criticism really. I wanted to know more, and I was in a happy state for a week as I travelled vicariously through Georgia’s wine country. What a treat it would be to travel with Alice, as indeed some lucky individuals did from time to time throughout the narrative. There are, of course, other books on Georgia and Georgian wine, but I can’t imagine anyone has a greater knowledge of, and a greater empathy for, Georgian Wine.

If I might leave you with one quotation from For the Love of Wine, it is one which inspires me to visit Georgia, and indeed to drink plenty more Georgian wine:

What I had come to learn during my travels – six visits in and hopefully many more to come – was that there is no other place on earth so plaited with wine, where that vibrant transformative drink is considered so noble, so spiritual that a country would die for its right to grow it and make it in the way it wants to – naturally, with no additives, even with some irregularities, as long as it gives pleasure“.

A manifesto to be proud of. Whether Georgia can stave off the so-called progress being peddled there by the purveyors of what Feiring calls “powders and potions” on the same page should be a matter of concern not just for the author, but for all of us. We should explore Georgia’s natural wines and support her traditional wine makers.

Alice Feiring’s For the Love of Wine was published by Potomac Books, an imprint of the University of Nebraska Press (2016, 167pp) and costs £16.99 rrp in the UK.

Further reading on Georgian wine must include the aforementioned Amber Revolution by Simon Woolf (2018), which has a whole section dedicated to Georgia, past and present, as well as twenty-four mini producer profiles in the recommended producers section at the end of the book.

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Of course this book will also give the reader a very broad picture of skin contact wine production in most parts of the world, although it was written a little too early to detail some of the English exponents of the qvevri, like pioneer Ben Walgate at Tillingham Wines (East Sussex). Nevertheless, it’s one of the most important books written on wine in the past twenty years (in my humble opinion, of course), and very enjoyable too.

The qvevri shed at Tillingham Vineyard, East Sussex, UK (Tillingham’s Ben Walgate left and Tim Phillips of Charlie Herring Wines, centre)

As far as I’m aware the latest book on Georgian wine is Lisa Granik MW’s The Wines of Georgia (Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library, December 2019) which is available direct from the publisher via infideas.com, rrp £30. I have not yet read this.

The new 8th edition of the World Atlas of Wine (Mitchell Beazley/Octopus 2019, Johnson, Robinson et al) boasts a double page spread on Georgia. The map which takes 25% of that space covers the most important of the country’s wine districts, Kakheti, in reasonable detail. The accompanying text gives a good introduction to the country and its traditions.

By coincidence today I noticed that an article called Skin Contact – Orange Wine 101 has appeared on the Littlewine site (littlewine.co), which gives a broader and basic run-down of skin contact/skin maceration wine in general. Definitely worth reading, especially for anyone not very familiar with this style of wine. Link to the article here.

On the subject of maps, Alice Feiring’s book does contain a fairly simple one, which at least shows the geographical location of Georgian wine regions in relation to the capital, Tbilisi, and sets the country within the context of the Caucasus Region, between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, bounded to the north by Russia, and to the south, west to east, by Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan.

The photographs scattered below show some of the Georgian wines and other terracotta-made or skin maceration wines I have most enjoyed over the past two or three years. Just a few. I am rather partial to this style as the wines go so well with food. The hand written label is one of my own efforts, but sadly I no longer have access to white (Seyval Blanc) grapes which went into it. But as you can see from the abv, the experiment didn’t really work, although oddly it tasted pretty decent.

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Qvevri winemaking first left Georgia for France’s Loire Valley, with a helping hand from Thierry Puzelat, but it has now reached the UK’s shores, with several producers taking up the style. I’ve already mentioned Tillingham, above, but even Ancre Hill Vineyard in Wales has made an orange wine, with a stunning “Clockwork Orange” influenced label. The qvevri joins other users of terracotta winemaking vessels of different types, such as amphora and tinajas, traditional in Italy, Spain, Greece, Portugal, and indeed most parts of the Mediterranean world.

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Orange Wine from Wales! Ancre Hill, no less

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Modern terracotta awaiting installation at Claus Preisinger, Gols (Burgenland)

 

 

 

Posted in Artisan Wines, Eastern European Wine, Georgian Wine, Natural Wine, Wine, Wine Books, Wine Travel, Wine Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Beyond Natural Wine

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As many of you know, the French Wine Authorities (shall we call them?) have recently acceded to a legal framework and definition for “natural wine”. For many years wine drinkers, mainly through social media and mainly those who bear some degree of antipathy towards natural wine, have used the lack of definition of what makes for “natural” as a stick with which to beat a different winemaking philosophy.

Whilst natural wine has captured the imagination of many, and has perhaps revitalised wine drinking and wine bars for a younger generation of consumers, and indeed for many of us has made us reconsider everything we believed about definitions of “quality” in wine, it has also created a heavy backlash from those who cannot contemplate its charms. Some people strike out angrily, as they would against anything they don’t understand, or against anything which appears to threaten their long-held belief systems, and these people, to be frank, probably don’t consider some of these beverages to be wine at all.

Many makers of wine without synthetic interventions etc have been forced to make their wines outside of regulated appellations. This has not usually been the fault of the winemaker. In France the appellations all have tasting committees, primarily made up of other producers plus so-called experts. These committees have been instrumental in excluding wines which “don’t fit in” from the club.

I think the first time this struck home for me was with the lovely wines made by Magali Tissot and Ludivic Bonelle at Domaine du Pêch. This domaine should be making wines in the Buzet AOP but they were excluded on, I believe, the grounds of lack of typicity (or was it because it was unfiltered, so potentially cloudy, I forget). The resulting cuvée became named “Le Pêch Abusé”. If you have ever tasted this wine against one of the standard offerings from the Buzet co-operative you may be inclined to raise an eyebrow.

Anyway, back to the rulemakers. The INAO, France’s governing wine body, was working on backing a natural wine definition as long ago as 2016 and this year it has given the green light to a Charter. I won’t say much about it because the details are not important for what I have to say here. What we have is called “Vin Méthode Nature“. It’s a Charter with a trade body and a label addition (in fact two, one for wines with less than 30mg/litre of total sulphites (that means both added and pre-existing) and one for zero sulphur addition, or “sans sulfites”). The label is not compulsory but the stickers may be used by signed-up Charter members.

When the Charter was announced it was clear that although a good number (several dozen) of French vignerons were happy to sign up, there was equally a good deal of resistance. This opposition to a charter seems to fall into several camps. There are those independently minded winemakers who just hate the idea of coming under the control of the man, of bowing to authority (on anything other than food safety, of course). There are equally those who habitually go beyond the Charter, and scoff at how it will make natural wine just another category.

I imagine that a good few natural winemakers suspect that some of those who are in favour of the Charter are larger producers who see a fast buck (a fast several bucks judging by the average bottle prices for natural wine) to be made from introducing and  marketing wine in this category. There is clearly gold in them there hills and some of the big boys are doubtless eager for a nugget.

I have to say that initially I had a lot of sympathy for the views expressed in the paragraphs above, and I was probably slowly siding with those opposed to the Charter. In any case, I am naturally drawn to those winemakers who are doing things at the outer limits of wine. I see progress as being forced on by creative people working at the margins (often across disciplines), and of course this does not just apply to wine, but to everything, surely.

Yet as the debate has developed I began to step back and look at the situation from further away, and as I did so my perspective began to change. One of the first catalysts for that was the brand new wine web site which I have written about recently, littlewine.co, but more of that later. My own developing opinions were brought most sharply into focus by an excellent article on Simon Woolf’s “Morning Claret” web site. As the writer of my Wine Book of the Year 2018, Simon’s site has become essential reading for me (if you want to know why, then read his own recent article on Japanese skin contact wines – where else will you get to read stuff like this, folks?). On 21 April he published an article by Hannah Fuellenkemper titled “Natural Wine is no Longer Enough”.

As Simon writes in his introduction, “Hannah argues that the new natural wine charter is a missed opportunity to make a radical statement – about how natural wine can push forward to the next frontier”. Hannah addresses the elephant in the room with natural wine. The definition is not only NOT one of quality, but equally importantly the Charter does not address all of the other issues around biodiversity and sustainability. Hannah puts it clearly when she points out that if natural wine producers are idealists, then why are they (and we) not asking for more than just a non-interventionist winemaking label?

Hannah says, quite rightly, that “sticking a label on something is rarely a way to generate change”, but she goes a lot further in identifying other issues which, in our post-Greta world, anyone in any production chain who professes care for our environment and ecology, and for the long-term health of humanity, should also be addressing.

I will begin by mentioning water. If, like me, you have made visits to countries like Australia (but equally in your case it could be California, South Africa etc), you will be aware that for many years water and water rights have been a big issue. Even back in the early 2000s I recall seeing a demonstration in Melbourne where farmers were complaining that the city was taking all the water they needed for crops (including vines, which are particularly prevalent all around Melbourne) and livestock.

That’s one perspective. Another, on the other side of the coin, so to speak can be ascertained from looking at just how much water is required to make wine, not merely for irrigation but for winery use (cooling and cleaning to mention two). In fact estimates vary but generally it can take six gallons of water to make one gallon of wine except where the producer is careful with this precious commodity.

Certainly there are parts of Australia, such as the Murray River and Riverland regions, where water use is so high that it will soon become unsustainable, despite the apparent end to the great Australian drought this year. Many Aussie winemakers are trying hard to adapt, often through seeking out grape varieties more suited to their warming climate. Italian, Southern Spanish and Southern French varieties can often be dry-farmed now, but for how long?

Water use is a major issue, but the author cites many more areas where producers need to step up and think about their wider production. Bottle weight, whether to use alternative packaging, plastic tape on cartons and other plastics uses, and cleaning products get a mention.

There are indeed many producers who are thinking about all of these issues, and have been doing for a long time. Some of the most empathetic winemakers I have met are thinking along these lines (people like the Koppitsch family, and indeed a host of other Burgenland producers, or the Porteret family at Domaine des Bodines in Arbois). It’s funny that so many of them seem to have small children, which perhaps focuses the mind.

I do remember way back in the 1990s an Italian producer in Emilia saying that he’d gone organic because he didn’t want his children breathing in agro-chemicals from the vines around the house. I probably shouldn’t mention the number of times I have read suggestions that breathing in synthetic sprays has had a terrible health effect in southern France among so-called paysan vignerons.

In the vineyard it is not unusual to see things being done to tone down the impacts of vine monoculture. There has been a rebirth in nature writing this century, picking up on the tradition of Gilbert White (one of our first nature writers from the nineteenth century) and WH Hudson and Edward Thomas (20th century), whose beautifully written books may not be about wine at all, but evoke an age when man was subservient to nature. A book which has had a great influence on me is Wilding by Isabella Tree. Few books have stopped me in my tracks in recent years as her book about the rewilding of the Knepp Estate in the south of England.

Of course you can’t rewild a vineyard, what is essentially a form of monoculture. But you can adapt it, and live in harmony with it. Whether this be with cover crops, allowing wild flowers and weeds to grow, or through planting trees in the vineyard, putting up bird boxes, introducing pest-eating insects, or even introducing sheep to graze. Indeed some farmers even make little effort to keep deer and wild boar (even bears in California) out of the vines, allowing others to share the bounty of the grapes. This takes a certain attitude, certainly to profit. It’s a lifestyle choice.

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Roos visiting the vineyard in Central Victoria

Those who allow grasses and wildflowers to grow between the vine rows have always received snide remarks from the napalm death producers whose soils are as dead as the soil in a nuclear winter, and usually compacted by heavy machinery, nutrient free. People like Jeff Coutelou in Languedoc and the late Stefano Bellotti in Piemonte both experienced vandalism from neighbours after the simple act of planting trees on the edge of their vine rows with a view to increasing a vineyard’s biodiversity.

However, it’s not all blind subservience to nature. Steve Matthiasson told a group of us recently that whilst he leaves the area between the rows to do their own thing, he does strim around the base of the vines. He does this to remove the cover which mice and other rodents like to use to nibble at the top of the roots, which causes problems beyond which a balanced vineyard ecosystem can deal with.

Yet have you seen some of the stunning ecosystems some farmers have created? If you visit, or meet, Bruno Schloegel of Domaine Lissner (in Wolxheim, Alsace), he will show you some wonderful photos of the extreme form of biodiversity he follows in the vineyard, where the only intervention ever is to reposition a few buds. His methods are similar to those of Jason Ligas, who loosely adheres to the teachings of Japanese biodiversity guru Masanobu Fukuoka in his vines on the slopes of Mount Paiko in Northern Greece. Or take a look at Meinklang’s Graupert vineyards in Southern Burgenland. These vines do their own thing as well, virtually growing wild, but the wine they produce is amazing.

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Some mindful wines

These are only a handful of examples of producers where the “bio” means not just biodynamics, but true biodiversity. A few years ago I saw my first ever vineyard full of sheep at first hand when I was taken out by André Durrmann (Domaine Durrmann, Andlau, Alsace). Here’s a guy who along with the sheep has planted trees among the vine rows, and owns two electric vehicles (one for vineyard trips and one for Paris, although I should add that neither is a Tesla because making enough money to own one of those isn’t on the Durrmann agenda).

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Part of the Durrmann flock, Andlau

I think these people have pretty much got the vineyard side sewn up, to the degree that it is possible to do so. No one is perfect. I mean I do know of people who harvest fruit from wild vines, in places as diverse as Georgia and Gascony, but they’re not making a living from it, nor indeed enough wine for personal consumption. These are people who try to live in harmony with nature, as much as is possible.

There’s an interesting parallel here. We were in Australia in November last year and as you may have read, we experienced the bush fires, though not to the extent that family did a matter of weeks after we had left. Bruce Pascoe in his famous book Dark Emu elaborates on how the indigenous peoples of Australia had learnt to co-exist with nature. This was not, as the colonialists argued as a way of claiming they had no rights to the land, as itinerant peoples, but as farmers who used the land in a different way.

This included their methods of burning back brush and undergrowth in order to lessen the affects of big fires, which were a problem as far back as the time of white European settlement in the eighteenth century (the First Fleet landed at Botany Bay in 1788). The refusal of the Europeans to learn from aboriginal practices almost caused the colony to starve before it had got off the ground. We appear to believe that nature is there to wage war against (as we speak of waging war against everything, Coronavirus included).

For a very long time before we imposed civilisation upon our world, which undoubtedly allowed us to produce enough food for growing populations, and freed people to work in areas other than food production, we had the knowledge of how to work in harmony with nature. This knowledge was retained for a long time, in Australasia, the Amazon, and on the Tibetan Plateau and the Mongolian Steppe, but we have lost it rapidly. In Isabella Tree’s book she speaks of conducting a survey of attitudes towards the Knepp project. Many middle-aged people didn’t like the wild landscape, but the elderly remembered that this is exactly what the land looked like in the early 20th Century.

Fascinating. Our idea of “the countryside” is a twentieth century construct and guess what, it’s the same for vineyards in most places. Of course, there were famous swathes of vineyard in the past but most viticulture was conducted as part of a polyculture, one of mixed farms, until very recently. Nowadays farmers plant whatever makes them money. Asparagus, apricots, vines.

Apricots is a case in point. You still find the best apricots in Europe in famous wine regions, the Wachau in Austria, and the Valais of Switzerland. Did you know that a very similar wine region in terms of topography, the Northern Rhône, was once famous for its apricots. Auguste Clape remembers when they were more lucrative than vines. Now they are more or less gone.

You still find winemakers who run mixed farms. The late Stefano Bellotti is one of the most famous, but Austria abounds with natural wine producers who keep some livestock, some chickens and a few crops or fruit trees. For most of them it’s a lifestyle choice.

As for in the winery, there is still so much to do. Water recycling and use can be tackled to a degree by anyone, as can plastics use, heavy bottles, chemical cleaning agents and the rest. Did you know that some wax used on bottle necks contains plastics? One thing that is more problematic is transportation. The impact of transporting wine is significant in a global market, and whilst producers can avoid heavy bottles by using lighter glass, or go down the route of the “bagnum” (Le Grappin), or kegs (Uncharted Wines et al), I think we all know that bringing wine over to the UK on a sailing ship is probably more a token gesture.

One thing we don’t hear a lot about, perhaps unsurprisingly, is producer travel. Natural winemakers are usually no better than any others when it comes to clocking up the Air Miles. I know, they have to promote their wares, and many slog around the tastings and on customer visits on foreign shores and in difficult time zones as hard as any young rock musician on tour. It’s no easy life for many, and the hangover from the regulation late night dinner perhaps not much less debilitating than the rock star’s usual excesses.

Yet many do see it as a perk of the job. Being feted by their importer makes a welcome change to the solitary months spent in the vines in all weathers. I read only recently a quote from Christian Tschida of Illmitz who said something along the lines that he only feels like a winemaker during harvest. For the rest of the year he feels like a poor farmer, except for the time around Christmas, when he feels like a “hippie on a road trip in a movie”.

I am in no way criticising any winemaker for the amount of travel they do. Customer contact is often essential for building personal relationships with clients, and this is even more important for struggling young winemakers than it is for those whose wines sell on allocation, and where an audience with the owner is sought like a knighthood among some wine lovers (those who would almost kill for a visit with Aubert). But at the same time I know many travel lovers who now say that at least in relation to flights, they will no longer do it. With family overseas on more than one continent I feel some degree of guilt, for sure, for not exactly committing myself fully to a flight moratorium.

So effectively what Hannah Fuellenkemper is advocating, with intelligent argument, is a new start. Okay, we’ve done “natural”, so now let’s take this to another level entirely. Let’s finally tie wine in with the whole subject of ecology, climate change, biodiversity and futureproofing the drink we all love. Sustainability.

Sustainable vineyard, Nepalese style

In the debate on social media Alice Feiring, one of the world’s fiercest proponents and most effective advocates for natural wine, did make a very valid and important point. She said “It should be kept in perspective that it took 35 years of waving the same old flag to be taken seriously and one should never be dismissive of that. The next step is the next step. So step up…it is indeed time for the next one”.

As others have said, the natural wine movement has been “transformative”. We who believe in these wines owe a great debt of gratitude to Alice Feiring, and indeed to people like Doug Wregg (Les Caves de Pyrene), Isabelle Légeron and others who have worked so tirelessly, facing ridicule and even hate in some instances (yes, the real anger merchants know who they are, especially the French and American ones whose language has often seemed to me to go beyond mere disagreement). But the time has probably come to move forward, to take another leap. Hopefully to put wine at the heart of the argument for a totally sustainable future.

So finally I come back to Littlewine, the new online venture from Christina Rasmussen and Daniela Pillhofer, as realised through littlewine.co. This is a new wine forum, which I’m sure most of you will be aware of, so much so that I won’t even bother to add a link to the article I posted up on 14th April (I’m assuming that most readers of this article were among the several hundred who read it in the couple of days post-publication). The word Christina and Dani use to describe the kind of winemaking they focus on is “mindful”.

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Mindful Meinklang (photo courtesy of Littlewine)

It’s not a perfect term, and I wouldn’t argue that all the producers they feature on the site are on top of all of the issues Hannah Fuellenkemper mentions in her Morning Claret article (which naturally I suggest you read in full at themorningclaret.com). But littlewine.co does provide a platform geared up for the discussion and promotion of approaches to wine that go beyond natural wine, beyond biodynamic. “Mindful” as a term may have certain connotations to some, but it does encompass a basis and framework for what needs to be discussed, advocated for, and ultimately achieved.

Everyone mentioned in this article, myself included, wants all of the issues of sustainability in wine to be addressed. As Hannah herself says, it’s not “either/or”, it’s a journey and a dialogue (as I try to point out to my children, with varying degrees of success, when it comes to my eradication of meat and dairy from my diet…but that’s not a subject for public discussion right now, if you don’t mind).

I accept that in some cases radical and immediate change is required, and in some cases revolutionary zeal is justifiable. However, I do believe that the most effective and long lasting change comes from building from the bottom up, from dialogue. As Alice Feiring will point out when looking at natural wine, it’s a long old slog, and the effort to engage and effect change on that subject alone is still far from over. Yet now does seem the time, post-Greta and during this global pandemic (which is of itself teaching us a multitude of lessons) to move the debate onwards and upwards. So it begins, Hannah.

As a final postscript, I am aware that not everyone will necessarily agree with me. Aaron Ayscough, someone I respect enormously, makes a good point (and I hope, Aaron, that I have not misunderstood your comments on Twitter). He says we have asked a lot of natural wine producers already. He suggests that what Hannah brings up are “the same whataboutist arguments regularly used by chemical winemakers to sow doubt about natural wine…”. I fully take this on board. It is equally true that many “chemical” winemakers do address other environmental issues that some “natural” winemakers don’t.

What I think Hannah is asking, and what I am looking for in the future, is for all wine producers, as part of a broader agriculture, to look at ways they can work both with nature and for a better environment. Biodiversity and sustainability. For me it’s not a question of asking “too much of natural wine”, its asking “enough” or “sufficient” of everyone, but bearing in mind that as Hannah and I both say, it’s a journey and a dialogue. But one we are due to begin in earnest, I hope.

The photo at the top of this article is from Bruno Schloegel’s tablet showing biodiversity in his beautiful, unregulated, vineyard (Domaine Lissner, Wolxheim, Alsace).

Hannah Fuellenkemper’s Article “Natural Wine is No Longer Enough” is published on Simon Woolf’s Morning Claret website, http://www.themorningclaret.com .

I would like to recommend to anyone who has not read it the book I mentioned written by Isabella Tree, “Wilding” (Picador, 2018). It’s certainly one of the most enlightening books I’ve read in the past few years.

For those who having seen the photographs of Nepalese vineyards have been interested in my several articles on wine and other alcoholic beverages in, and more generally on, Nepal, you might be interested in one of Isabella Tree’s earlier books, “The Living Goddess” (about the Newar child goddess known as The Kumari in Kathmandu)(Penguin, 2014).

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Posted in Artisan Wines, biodynamic wine, Natural Wine, Philosophy and Wine, Vegan Wine, Wine, Wine and Health | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Lockdown Guilt or Isolation Inspiration

Are you enjoying Lockdown? I am guilty of moments where I feel more relaxed and, dare I say it, quite happy to be stuck at home. It’s stressful worrying about loved ones, but then there just isn’t the stress of rushing for trains and that endless driving around, near and far, which seems to fill my life. Easter felt like a genuine holiday because usually we are busy a good three weekends out of four, often more in the warmer months. We have a moderately sized house full of food, music, books, and of course wine.

We have a small garden, but if I may say so, a beautiful garden. Blessed by summer weather in April we’ve been enjoying rare opportunities to sit outside with a coffee or a glass of wine, just watching things change and unfurl every day. That said, hardly a moment goes by without remembering how privileged and lucky we are in comparison to many, indeed to most, people who have far less of everything.

I mentioned the wine, didn’t I. We probably have a couple of years or more supply of wine, and that’s at current consumption. We could easily drink less. But whilst we’ve found we are spending less on what usually eats up our income generally, I have been spending more on wine. The reason is simple. I’m under no illusion that what I spend can save a small importer or independent wine shop from the difficulties they face at this time, but it does show that I care, and if we all do our bit the end result might just be to help preserve the great, perhaps unrivalled, diversity of wine we can buy in the UK.

My strategy has been simple, although it hasn’t forced me to buy wines I don’t want. First I’ve tried to buy a little wine from small specialist importers. So far these have been Basket Press Wines, Uncharted Wines, Nekter Wines, Modal Wines and Newcomer Wines. I’ve also bought a case of wine, beer and olives from Solent Cellar. In supporting these operations we are also supporting small artisan winemakers who are often reliant on these UK merchants for a good chunk of their income. Remember, most cellar doors are closed right now so that is a major income stream temporarily cut off.

Many indie wine merchants have been rushed off their feet delivering wine locally and packing up mail order cases. However, as most of these indies rely on bars and restaurants for their bread and butter, orders consisting a mixed case of cheap wines or a six-pack of Rosé for local delivery don’t quite match what they are losing there.

Don’t forget too that restaurants and bars are closed and wine merchants of all descriptions will be awaiting payment for orders long past delivered. We will all be hoping that those establishments are able to reopen and pay their debts, but perhaps not all of them will. A restaurant going bust without having paid for a lot of stock can cripple a wine merchant whose margins are somewhat thinner than my exercise-poor body right now.

A lot of the bigger wine merchants are also opening up their lists to private customers. There are big advantages. Plenty of so-called unicorn wines are usually earmarked exclusively for restaurants or wine bars. This is a rare opportunity to grab a few bottles which you might never be allowed so much as a sniff at in normal circumstances. But there’s one good reason to buy retail if you can. If you buy from a wine shop the retailer can re-order from the importer, and this way everyone in the chain benefits. This has thus far been my attitude towards the wines of Les Caves de Pyrene, to buy them retail.

Some bigger merchants have leapt to sell to private customers. This is okay just so long as their longstanding retailers don’t miss out as a result, and so long as they don’t undercut those retailers by charging wholesale prices to private clients. The temptation to do this might be strong in some cases, in order to push cash flow, but it can only be damaging to everyone in the long run…even to the customer. You benefit now but when everything hopefully gets back to normal and those importers stop selling direct, we want to see the retailers open and thriving, not going to the wall.

This all makes it sound like buying wine is like giving to charity, which it so obviously isn’t. However, this pandemic has taught me a lesson, one that I was beginning to learn anyway, but which all this has brought into focus. It’s all part of supporting local or small businesses. Whether that’s the local indie record store, book shop, baker, grocer, farm shop or corner shop, you may pay a little more but you’ll miss them when they’re gone. In fact you’ll miss them when the next wave or pandemic hits.

It’s amazing just who is delivering locally. At a time when the supermarkets haven’t really got themselves into gear, and when even a month in, managing to get a supermarket delivery slot is as complex as planning a long overseas holiday, we are getting fruit and vegetables delivered from a local source, and a local wholesale baker is keeping us in lovely bread. Coffeemongers, a Lymington-based business, sends us supplies of coffee beans at a click of the mouse and several local caterers are delivering everything from national award winning vegan pizzas, Greek food and Chinese dumplings that go a little way to satisfy my cravings for Nepalese Momos. Yes, we are truly very lucky.

For the first part of this article I thought I’d show you what I’ve been buying. Then I shall tell you what I’m most looking forward to when we are allowed, and when I can summon the courage (which is unlikely to be as soon as the first of those), to go out socially. I suppose I’ve spent quite a bit, but then the last time we went out for dinner was on 16 March (I’ll come back to that), and if I add up what we both would have spent eating in restaurants, travel to and from London and the attendant victualling resulting from tasting wine all day, I think the two are comparable.

BASKET PRESS WINES

Basket Press specialises primarily in the wines of Czech Moldavia, but sneaks into neighbouring and nearby countries for a few of their producers. Four of these wines are from one of my discoveries of 2020. Just before the Lockdown I accompanied Basket Press to a tasting at Brighton’s Plateau, and two of Annamária Réka-Koncz’s wines were on show. Stunning stuff, so I bought one of each wine they import. Probably all gone now, judging by the social media reaction, but I’m sure there will be more to come from Eastern Hungary’s new star.

 

UNCHARTED WINES

Uncharted Wines sells the most eclectic range of these small specialist importers, and of course they are perhaps best known for developing keg wines. In fact Rupert Taylor can probably claim he started the whole wine in keg revolution in the UK when, working for another importer, he began to persuade genuinely top producers to bottle some of their wine in keg for selling on tap in London’s wine bars. It changed the image of wine on tap completely. Uncharted sells plenty of fine wine in bottle, and I will single out Hermit Ram (NZ), Sybille Kuntz (Mosel) and Domaine Chapel (Bojo) as star buys. One of the Westwell wines served me well for the English and Welsh Wine Friday online event, back on Good Friday.

 

NEKTER WINES

Nekter specialises in three countries: The USA (primarily California), South Africa and Australia. I purchased something from each of those, but I can’t deny that I am particularly enamoured by Jon’s Cali selection. We leap in big with Matthiasson, but Keep Wines is also a favourite, as is Benevolent Neglect. The wine in the middle, to the left of the Matthiasson Rosé, is their Counoise (Keep Wines also make a fabulous Counoise but here I went for their Ciliegiolo). The Swartland Chenin is a fairly cheap version I fancied trying, and “The Beast” (black/brown label) is a stunning skin contact Verdelho from the Hunter Valley. I’ve tasted Geyer many times but never bought any, and I fancied their McLaren Vale Cab Franc.

 

MODAL WINES

Nic Rizzi imports another eclectic selection of natural wines from a wide variety of countries. Unfortunately he was sold out of Victoria Torres Pecis’ wines, but this was no hardship. I grabbed a couple of wines from Jan Matthias Klein (Krov, Mosel), Fredi Torres/Lectores Vini Priorat and another Spaniard, Garnacha from Navarra. Rebela Rosa is an on the edge Slovakian from Slobodne, whilst the other crown-capped bottle with minimalist label is from Joiseph, Burgenland’s new star. It’s Luka’s Mischkultur, a Gemischter Satz field blend.

 

NEWCOMER WINES

It was something of a relief to find that Newcomer are delivering nationally. It’s a difficult place to get to, at Dalston Junction, for me, but I persist in doing so because they sell so many of my favourite producers. It’s a great shop to browse in because there’s a ton of new stuff every visit. But you will see here that I’ve not stuck rigidly to their Austrian specialisation, with a pair from Rita and Rudolf Trossen, and a Pinot from Weingut Roterfaden from Germany ranged against a pair from Jutta Ambrositsch in Vienna and the obligatory Renner, “Superglitzing” its way into the box.

 

The biggest omission for me here is Dynamic Vines, but I did buy some wines from them before the Lockdown. If I’m honest there are plenty more small importers I’d like to make a purchase from. Fear not, because it’s far from over, is it!

THE SOLENT CELLAR

These folks in Lymington (Hampshire) have become one of my major sources for interesting bottles. They supply me with wine from several importers, the major one, but not exclusively, being Les Caves de Pyrene. They are always happy to add a few things into their next CdP order for me, although that doesn’t stop me from trying to get up to Pew Corner once a year, for old times sake.

I began shopping here almost by accident. We visit Lymington regularly for family reasons. This attractive Georgian town on the edge of the New Forest is best known for its yachting types. It’s the kind of place you can’t abide if stuck there as a teenager, but as you grow older its charms become apparent, not least because the New Forest has become a major foodie destination this past decade or so. The town itself has a very good Saturday Market.

I’d pass Solent Cellar, just past St Thomas’ Church, and turn my gaze away because it was hard enough being marginally loyal to other wine shops without a new one intervening. And what kind of wine would a Lymington wine shop sell anyway? I was so wrong on that assumption. I’m not sure why I first went in but what I found was something resembling a very good London independent down in a sleepy town on Hampshire’s south coast. Of course nowadays a wine retailer selling really interesting stuff in some obscure location is nothing new, but back then it was.

If you are tempted by a trip to the New Forest do try to hit Lymington in the morning on market day, and do try to peek into this wonderful shop. You want fane wane, they have it, you want natural wine, they have it. You may even be lucky and fine Equipo Navazos in magnum or something equally out there. Just let Simon know the kind of thing you are interested in. But they turn stuff around quickly, so a fair bit of the range changes almost monthly. They import quite a bit themselves, and the good stuff (Ganevat etc) can often be snaffled by London restaurants, so frequent visits are fruitful.

Stop, that’s enough of a plug, but they do have exceptionally good taste and a degree of bravery in what they buy for such an apparently conservative town. Here’s what I bought this time. The rest of the case was filled with beer and tins of Perelló olives (if you know, you know).

 

I mentioned earlier the last time I went out to dinner in a restaurant, on March 16th. It was at Wild Flor, Hove’s much awarded new restaurant which before the Lockdown had celebrated surviving and thriving for one year. It was actually the night that our Prime Minister announced that restaurants must close. We were actually putting our shoes on to leave when we heard the announcement and we didn’t intend to cancel, especially as we were dining with a friend who rarely sets foot in this part of the country. We had a faultless meal, as always, in a room where a number of tables had been removed to allow proper social distancing. We were a little nervous back then, but one month ago now seems like an age.

You know what the first thing I want to do will be once we are allowed our freedom? Thought so. I shall look forward to supporting them, and indeed to stuffing my face with some delicious food. I know it won’t be any time soon, but I hope it won’t be too long. When we turned up on that last Monday of normal life we were made to feel like we were truly supporting this young team who have worked so hard to create a superb place to dine, on many levels. Well, to Rob and the team, the pleasure is all ours. Hope to see you soon.

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So, to finish, but mainly for my friends to see what I have been doing these past few weeks, some isolation inspiration, mostly eating and listening. Along with the drinking it’s all stimulation of the senses, to keep us from falling into the kind of post-pandemic stupor which will make us all forget our promises to live life at least a little differently when we wake up from this bad dream…I already know what I want to do…

                      Food

 

                     Music (but spot the bookmark)

 

 

Posted in Artisan Wines, Californian Wine, Czech Wine, Dining, Hungarian Wine, Natural Wine, Wine, Wine Agencies, Wine Merchants | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Recent Wines March 2020 (Part 2) #theglouthatbindsus

As we are all doubtless drinking a little more at home during the Lockdown you may recall that last month’s “recent wine” roundup has been split into two parts. Part 1 is a mere short scroll down if you haven’t yet perused it, but in Part 2 we have another eight wines drunk at home (of course) during March. Below we have three wines from Spain, one from Burgundy, two Jura, one Georgian and one from Switzerland. Just trying to keep things fresh.

ARROBA 2018, BODEGAS GRATIAS (Manchuela, Spain)

If we are working our way down a list of the unusual grape varieties we have tried I wonder how many of us would get to Pintaillo? Among Spain’s many obscure autochthonous grapes, Pintaillo (also spelt Pintailla by Bodegas Gratias) is very obscure indeed. It grows not on its own but co-planted among the Bobal in Manchuela, and it isn’t very easy therefore to make a single varietal wine from it, but that’s what Bodegas Gratias does. It turns out that the effort is surprisingly worthwhile. It’s worth explaining that the “@” symbol you see on the label is called an arroba in Spanish.

It also turns out that Pintaillo/Pintailla was planted on Manchuela’s poor chalky soils for a reason. Bobal is quite prone to late frosts, but Pintaillo is a more hardy variety, so it’s an insurance policy. Not much of one because they are only able to make a small number of bottles, 560 of them in 2018. The juice is therefore fermented in small 500-litre containers and then is gently pressed into demijohns. It’s a completely natural wine with no additions.

You may not have come across this variety before, I certainly hadn’t, but it’s quite remarkable. Pale red in colour from minimal skin contact and gentle pressing, it has fresh acidity, and red raspberry fruit to the fore. That raspberry is so amazingly concentrated, though there’s also a herbal element sitting beneath the fruit. Tannin?…well maybe a tiny bit. I was very much taken with it. Sadly it is currently sold out, but it was well worth £30 from Solent Cellar(Lymington). In an order which arrived yesterday I grabbed a bottle of the same producer’s Bobal.

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MÂCON-CRUZILLE “CUVÉE 910” 2013, CLOS DES VIGNES DU MAYNES (Burgundy, France)

I suppose one could justifiably call the Cuvée 910 legendary. The Guillot family set out to make this Mâcon red from Gamay and Pinot Noir in an old clos that has reputedly never seen synthetic chemicals, and where the vines have been propagated by massale selection. Julien Guillot’s intention was to vinify this cuvée as it would have been in medieval times, when the wines from this site were made by the monks of the great Benedictine Abbey of Cluny.

Founded in 910 CE but now largely a ruin, albeit a rather large one, Cluny can properly be described as the beating heart of Burgundian, and perhaps even European, viticulture. It was partly as a reaction to the luxurious life of the inhabitants of Cluny that the Cistercian Order was formed indirectly, from one of Cluny’s satellite abbeys (Molesme), by Bernard of Clairvaux in 1098 CE. The Cistercians followed a shall we say more pious regime, where hard agricultural work was central. I think we all know the rest of the story, the monks of that first Cistercian monastery at Cîteaux (near Dijon) spreading the vine around Europe, re-establishing more intensive viticulture following the retreat of Rome and the so-called Dark Ages.

The gimmick perhaps is that not only is this wine made completely without any additions or manipulations, including no added sulphur, but the grapes are transported to the winery on a bullock cart, to mimic the oxen of old. After that they are foot-trodden. But obviously, oxen aside, the important thing is whether the wine’s any good, and it is very good indeed, always. I tend to buy this every few years and it has always been excellent, with the proviso that it does taste more “natural” than some natural wines from Burgundy. I don’t mean volatile, or faulty, but perhaps a little on the edge at times.

Purity is what we concentrate on with Cuvée 910. Purity of fruit. If I say the wine has an edge, it is certainly very much cleaner than when the Cluniac monks made it, so you don’t need to be concerned. Remember too, this is a 2013, but it doesn’t taste at all old. The fruit purity comes through unhindered. That fruit is raspberry and strawberry, light on the palate and tingling with energy. You have that “is it Pinot, is it Gamay?” feeling. Biodynamic brilliance, perhaps.

This bottle was purchased at Fromagerie Vagne in Poligny (Jura).

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CÔTES DU JURA CHARDONNAY “LES GAUDRETTES” 2015, DOMAINE PHILIPPE BORNARD (Jura, France)

Philippe Bornard was not all that long ago one of the new names in Pupillin, the village just outside Arbois made famous by Pierre Overnoy and Manu Houillon. Philippe’s father had previously sold his grapes to the local co-operative, but it was Overnoy who mentored Philippe when he decided he wanted to begin bottling himself. Winemaking at the domaine has recently been taken over by Philippe’s son, Tony, who has started to gain a fine reputation in his own right, but his father, Philippe, had certainly established Domaine Bornard as one of the finest domaines, not only in the village but in the region.

Les Gaudrettes is an interesting wine which I’ve had many times from several vintages. I’m also led to believe that this wine has also appeared bottled as a Vin de France, from the same vintage, which I have also drunk under that label. I won’t deny that it has a different effect on different people, very much depending on your reaction to natural wines. It tends to be a “marmite”, or love/hate, reaction. Whilst I am absolutely in the “love” camp, and am a big fan of Philippe’s wines, I can see why some might wonder how it managed to gain the appellation. I have even wondered that myself.

Can you tell it’s Chardonnay? Well, yes, but it is very much in that lighter, fresh apple, spectrum. I say lighter, but it comes with a remarkably well disguised abv of 13% in 2015. Some might think it more reminiscent of cloudy apple and pear juice with maybe a hint of hazelnut forming a base. The limestone and marl soils give it a particular minerality and the lees give it some texture. The acids are are zippy, and the wine is nothing but pure glou. It’s just so refreshing…yet alcoholic. What not to adore, open your heart and soul.

Bornard is imported by Les Caves de Pyrene.

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RKATSITELI 2017, ANTADZE WINES (Kakheti, Georgia)

Niki Antadze makes wine at Manavi in Georgia’s eastern region of Kakheti, where qvevri winemaking is at its most traditional, and indeed Niki is one of the people central to both keeping alive this ancient winemaking tradition, and ensuring not only its survival but its journey out into the world. He farms around three hectares of Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane and Saperavi at around 750 metres asl. The vines range between fifty to one hundred years old, all farmed organically, without additives.

Although we read about people like Joško Gravner in Italy, and John Wurdeman’s Pheasant’s Tears in Georgia itself, Niki Antadze along with a handful of others have been equally instrumental in promoting Georgia’s traditions to the outside world. It’s why wine has gained a sixth category after red, white, pink, sparkling and fortified: orange wine. He has also made wine with Laura Seibel from the Jura, who I first met when she worked for Domaine de la Pinte in Arbois. Actually, Laura has a habit of involvement with some really interesting wine producers, and if you see her name it’s well worth exploring the wine.

This is a classic example of Georgia’s best known white variety vinified in qvevri (or “kvevri” as I think Niki likes to spell it). Although it’s a skin contact wine, around 80-to-90% of the grapes are gently pressed and the remainder go in as whole bunches. The result is stone-fruited, with citrus, but majoring on texture. It’s mellow and smooth and I think it would easily age further. I think I probably opened this at the beginning of its drinking window, but it’s already showing depth. It’s certainly one of the finest Georgian wines you will come across, though I should say that the wine is unfiltered and therefore liable to be cloudy. As with many such wines, I think it actually tastes best with the sediment disturbed, but that’s a matter of personal taste.

Imported by Les Caves de Pyrene, who sell the widest range of Georgian wines in the UK.

Major typo alert…see label…

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ROZAS 1er 2015 VINO DE PARAJE, VAL DEL TIÉTAR, COMANDO G (Gredos, Spain)

Comando G is one of the projects instigated by friends Daniel Gómez Jiménez-Landi and Fernando Garcia (along with Marc Isart, but he has since gone his own way, though not through any disagreement) in what these amigos have made, more than any other winemakers, one of Spain’s most exciting viticultural regions this century: the Sierra de Gredos.

What the Gredos Mountains have become known for is very fine Grenache. There are several things which make Gredos Grenache special. First the mountains themselves, especially the altitude. Most of these old bush vines begin to grow at the 600 metre line, and go up as far as 1,200 metres. The soils are mostly on hard granite (with some clays and sand). But when the grapes come in they are fermented as whole clusters, so that when you taste these wines you sense altitude, granite and a particular type of winemaking which emphasises freshness and pure fruit. I talk about purity a lot, I know, maybe it gets a little boring, but these are quite without doubt some of the most pure fruited wines you can taste, from anywhere.

Dani and Fernando have adopted a kind of Burgundian heirarchy for their cuvées. At the base of the pyramid you have the regional wine, then the village wine. Above this there’s Premier Cru and the tiny production “Grand Cru” bottlings which are truly out of this world.

This wine, clearly a “1er”, comes from the village of Rozas de Puerto Real in the Valle de Tiétar (one of the two major rivers which have cut their valleys through the Gredos Mountains). The vines for this particular cuvée are planted at around 900 metres asl. The wine combines a smoothness with just a little bright mineral texture. Whilst the palate shows really explosive strawberry fruit, the bouquet is subtly floral with violets. I would say that this really is the Comando G wine to go for in terms of value for money, possibly the closest to the so-called Grand Crus, yet in some cases at almost half the price.

I would recommend looking out for the 2016s from Comando G, which are perhaps even better, and I was also able to taste a range of the 2017s and 2018s at Viñateros in London earlier this year. The Rumbo Al Norte 2017 was sensational, although you will pay near enough £200 for it. The village wine, La Bruja de Rozas, can be had for as little as £22 and I think this 1er Cru was perhaps £30+.

Les Caves de Pyrene imports Comando G, but it is also worth noting that Dani Landi’s own Las Uvas de la Ira project is imported separately by Indigo Wines.

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SAINT-SAPHORIN “CHAVONCHIN” 2014, J-F NEYROUD-FONJALLAZ (Lavaux/Vaud, Switzerland)

St-Saphorin is one of the Crus of Lavaux. Situated between Lausanne and Montreux on the northern (mostly) Swiss shore of Lac Léman, these UNESCO World Heritage vineyards are amongst the most stunning in Europe, narrow terraces cascading down steep hillsides into the water below. The lake acts as a big heater, just like the Mosel in Germany or the Douro in Portugal, radiating warmth and reflecting sunlight onto those slopes in what otherwise would be a cold sub-Alpine climate.

The grape variety here is Chasselas. This is neither the first time, nor will it be the last, that I will point out how Chasselas unfairly (in my view) gets a really bad rap. I will accept that quite a bit of Chasselas from Switzerland is over cropped and quite tasteless (it makes around 60% of Swiss white wine), and some of the most guilty wines come from the Canton of Vaud. Yet those who dismiss the variety out of hand really don’t show they have tasted very deeply. If yields are kept lowish by artisan winemakers it has an uncanny knack of reflecting its terroir.

Saint-Saphorin is grandly described as one of the “Premier Grand Cru” villages of Lavaux, and whilst such a description might appear uncharacteristically boastful for the Swiss, it is fine terroir. According to José Vouillamoz it is also likely the variety’s place of birth (there’s a Consevatoire Mondial du Chasselas preserving the variety’s clonal diversity at nearby Rivaz, and as this is Switzerland there’s a well signposted trail through this conservatory).

If there are two kinds of Chasselas, the distinction is between thirst quenching versions to drink as soon as it’s bottled, and wines intended to age. This wine is the latter. The producer, Neyroud-Fonjallaz, is based in the very nearby village of Chardonne. This wine is straw-scented with citrus and herbs. It’s USP is not fruit, but a dry mineral texture. Its mellowness would probably lead some to think it not exciting enough. For those who appreciate subtlety occasionally, this would be of interest. As you know, I’m always keen to proselytise in favour of Swiss wines. If Switzerland’s finest wines come largely from the Valais, Lavaux also has a lot to offer, and you can easily get to these vineyards (including Rivaz, for the Conservatoire and Vinorama, see below), as a day trip from Geneva, including by train if you have no car.

I purchased this at the Lavaux Vinorama, a modern vinoteque tasting room (also at Rivaz, Route du Lac 2) not far from the Conservatoire. They do have a very wide selection of Lavaux wines and various tasting packages. If you like rare grape varieties then try to taste some Plant Robert, a version of which is also made by this producer.

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VIÑA BOSCONIA RIOJA GRAN RESERVA 1995, LOPEZ DE HEREDIA (Rioja, Spain)

There’s no doubt in my mind that R Lopez de Heredia in Haro makes my favourite traditional style of Rioja, wines which will age magnificently for decades if stored in perfect conditions. This producer is so old they must be due for their 150th Anniversary before long. However, I have probably drunk eight or nine bottles of their red Viña Tondonia for every bottle of Bosconia, so I was especially looking forward to this, which had been lurking as a single bottle in my cellar for many years.

Bosconia is made both as a Reserva and a Gran Reserva. This GR is a blend of 80% Tempranillo and 15% Garnacha, the remaining 5% a mix of Graciano and Mazuelo, all estate grown. Initially it sees ten years in oak before bottling and then further age before release. Generally it is suggested by the producer that its ageing potential is “more than 10 years”. Not quite as short a period of ageing, I would suggest!

So we begin with the bouquet. The first notes are vanilla, although ageing is in French, not the old Rioja tradition of American, oak barrels. But the oak seems deep within the wine, not top-heavy like an oaky wine in youth, nor indeed like the almost vanilla essence of more commercial Riojas, such as those I remember from the 1980s. There’s fruit here, but that’s not really what this wine is about. It’s cherry fruit, but it’s kind of clafoutis cherry with that hint of alcohol. There’s a tiny woody note too, possibly a well seasoned log, or a roll-up, not that I smoke myself.

This is just so smooth and complex. It has fresh acidity and although the tannins are low, it’s not mature by any means. This will go years if not decades. I wish I had a couple more bottles to be honest. But saying that, it might well be the finest classical wine I shall drink this year, or close. Such an impressive bottle. I genuinely cannot recall where I bought it. Possibly The Sampler?

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“RED BULLES” PETNAT, DOMAINE DES BODINES (Jura, France)

I would say I’m one of Alex and Emilie Porteret’s biggest fans and before I had ever drunk any of their other wines it was this delicious Pétnat which had started my journey. Ironically, on the occasions I’ve visited Domaine des Bodines, right on the edge of Arbois, on the road to Dôle, they have never had any Red Bulles to sell. Thankfully one of the shops selling natural wines in Arbois or Poligny generally has had a bottle or two left. This young couple farm a mere three hectares, most of it literally in their backyard.

The first vintage at Bodines was only in 2011. Neither Alexis, nor Emilie, had worked in wine before but Alex had mentored for a couple of vintages with Pascal Clairet at Domaine de la Tournelle, and he was working part-time for Domaine de la Pinte until just before I last saw him in December 2018, before a full-time shift to Bodines. La Pinte was the first biodynamic domaine in Arbois, and Alex would love to be fully biodynamic, but for now he’s content to have fully converted their vines to organics. They have been experimenting with horse power in their home vineyard, though Emilie did tell me it was proving surprisingly expensive. There have certainly been some small harvests here, due to hail and frosts, in recent years but the wines all continue to impress me so much.

The name of the Pétnat is accurate enough, the wine being (pale) red and bubbly! It’s made from Poulsard grapes, which give that almost luminous light red colour which people never fail to remark on before anything else. The bubbles are plentiful, and they hit the nasal passages in a riot of fresh raspberry, pomegranate and cranberry. The palate has a dryness very reminiscent of pomegranate juice, with its slightly firm finish.

Most noticeable is the spine which runs through the wine, like brittle glass that will not shatter. The acidity is quite emphatic, but it is such a refresher. I do wish it was bottled in litres or magnums, and it is after all only 9.5% abv, so you could share a magnum between two without cause for concern. I do love Bodines, and I’m sure that as well as the quality of the wines here, it’s partly because of the warmth I sense in the family too. They remind me somehow of the Koppitsch family at Neusiedl in Burgenland.

This bottle would either have come from Vagne in Poligny or Les Jardins de St-Vincent in Arbois.

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Littlewine with Big Ambitions

As the Lockdown in Europe continues towards its second month my guess is that many, perhaps most, readers will have begun to find it quite normal behaviour engaging with wine on an online platform. Like me, you will perhaps be joining in with Zoom events, Crowdcasts and even more likely via the dozens of Instagram live broadcasts, as indeed I’ve written about here, as a way of keeping in touch with your favourite wine merchants and the producers of some of your favourite wines. Maybe you already chat on one of the long-standing wine forums too.

On 1 April something new arrived, something which was not just swiftly brought about as a result of the Coronavirus pandemic, but which had been in the pipeline since two entrepreneurial wine trade professionals had an idea back in January 2019. That idea has become Littlewine, or more precisely littlewine.co .

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Littlewine describes itself as “your online destination for exploring the story behind the bottle”, but it indeed promises much more than that. Since January last year Christina Rasmussen and Daniela Pillhofer have been working on what could be the most exciting wine web site, at least for people with my tastes, for very many years.

Christina had been working for Westbury Communications, and as a freelance writer with considerable travel notched up around the world’s wine regions, as well as more recently having made wine too. She has some of the widest connections in the trade of anyone I know. Daniela had been one of the founders, with Peter Honegger, of Newcomer Wines. They had begun importing Austrian wines, initially selling them from one of the shipping containers that formed Shoreditch Boxpark before moving out to premises at Dalston Junction. Here, along with their bar-style restaurant and import business they developed one of London’s most exciting wine shops.

Daniela Pillhofer and Christina Rasmussen

Both Christina and Daniela’s passion was not merely for wine as such, but for the kind of wine that is made in partnership with, not in conflict with, nature and Mother Earth. This is exactly how my philosophy had evolved over the years. I became an enthusiastic customer of Newcomer Wines, who happened to import almost all of my favourite Austrian new wave producers, and at the same time I was becoming, as an emerging writer, a frequent visitor to the events Christina was organising. I say this because I’m going to sound pretty impressed with what these two ladies have come up with but I suggest you head over to the site to check it out for yourselves if you doubt my objectivity.

The Littlewine platform aims to combine education and e-commerce. The focus is firstly on what the founders call “mindful winemaking”, which basically means a low-intervention approach to viticulture and vinification, and the creation of what I guess many people might call natural wine, although if this term is used on the site I’ve yet to spot it. As I said before, all the winemakers featured on the site make wine through working with nature, not against or at war with it.

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Biodynamics at Meinklang (Burgenland)

The overall aim is to bridge the gap between “the farmer…and the consumer”. The web site aims to do this via editorial (part of the site’s free content) and via winemaker features and recorded interviews, but also via the media of audio and film. High quality mini-documentaries will feature as core parts of the subscriber “access all areas” content on the site. From what I’ve seen of the film clips so far, they are informative, but equally artistically pleasing, and innovative too. Perhaps only Jonathan Nossiter, in his film length documentaries, comes close to what Daniela and Christina are trying to achieve. Of course the production values are similar to those of the promotional videos for any major winery, but in this case with editorial independence.

A quote from Christina sums up what they want to achieve pretty well: “Learning about wine shouldn’t be like going back to university; it should be more like watching David Attenborough on TV!”.

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The editorial content sets out to promote knowledge for everyone from the novice to the professional, and indeed for the philosophers of wine among us, through “Out of the Box” articles to come. Whilst much of the content will be provided by the founders, principally by Christina as Head of Content (who also directs the films), a number of experts are lined up  to make contributions as well. These include Jamie Goode, Rajat Parr, José Vouillamoz and Aaron Ayscough, all of whom could be described as being among the very best in their particular field.

The core content behind the paywall will consist of a number of winemaker profiles. Featured winemakers already include Pierre Cotton (Beaujolais), J-F Ganevat (Jura), Jaimee Motley (California), Claus Preisinger (Burgenland) and Silwervis (Swartland). The aim is to add two winemaker profiles (with interviews etc) every week, creating one hundred profiles in the first year. There are said to be 300 winemakers lined up for future inclusion.

The all access pass will cost a seemingly very reasonable £24-per-year and this will unlock exclusive content. You will be able to meet the winemakers through narrative, audio and film, as well as joining global events such as webinars. Additionally, there will be exclusive wines in the online shop.

The Littlewine online shop will sell wines, presumably largely but not exclusively, from the featured winemakers. In fact having checked out the online store, as well as several wines from each of the winemakers mentioned above, there are also bottles from Christoph Hoch, Anne-Sophie Dubois, Angelino Maule, Selvadolce and Raphaël Saint-Cyr, but I get the impression these will be added to. I think the idea is that rare cuvées and bottlings will be available to subscribers, with perhaps some wines even being exclusive to Littlewine.

“Fanfan” and Claus

Although there will, as I have already suggested, be information useful to novices, the main target audience is certainly those with a firm interest in the subject. This includes what they call “ambitious wine professionals, curious wine consumers and inquisitive winemakers”. Together these people will create a likeminded wine community, somewhere for everyone who effectively believes in the ideals of low intervention wine.

Who knows, perhaps one day the site will also develop a members online forum, a kind of cross between Winepages and Purple Pages but without the negativity, even occasionally aggression, towards natural wines that some more general wine fora can exhibit. Maybe there will be “offline” get togethers (tastings perhaps), even vineyard trips. Such speculation is for the future.

I think I can begin to conclude my mere introduction to Littlewine by quoting the words of Daniela Pillhofer. She says that the site will “highlight the people who deserve more attention”. This statement goes to the heart of the Littlewine philosophy. Small is beautiful. Making artisan wines, not wine on an industrial scale, is what this resource is all about, and it supposes that those who choose to go down this path as consumers will naturally be interested in a certain level of detail hitherto unavailable in one good source.

With a blend of editorial guidance and our own research we will, I hope, become more educated as to the methods and philosophies behind some of the world’s great artisan wine producers. It is a little ironic that Littlewine has been released at this time. I don’t mean simply because it provides us with yet more online content at a time when we perhaps have a little more of that precious commodity on our hands.

What I mean is that we have reached a point where those of us that were beginning to question certain ways of living are starting to think more seriously and more urgently about what we do with the rest of our precious time on earth, and what we can do in order to ensure that our generation begins to bring our planet back from the brink of destruction, at least as regards our own species’ survival along with that of our planet’s great biodiversity.

Certainly one of the obvious places to start is with what we consume, and a key part of that aspect of our lives is what we eat and drink. Drinking wine made with as little impact on nature as possible is pretty easy to achieve in 2020, in some ways perhaps easier than with what we eat (though I am not ignorant of the fact that it is the kind of choice that the privileged and reasonably affluent are able to make much more easily than most people).

At the time of this great global pandemic, perhaps Littlewine, in respect of one small part of our agtriculture, is here to give voice to a way forward which perhaps we should all embrace. Do check out what is on the site already. The free content should give some idea of whether you feel inclined to invest the moderate annual subscription for the access all areas pass. Personally I shall look forward to further exploration over the coming months and to seeing how this resource develops.

Littlewine’s free content can be accessed here. Subscriptions currently cost £24 per year.

All photographic materials in this article courtesy of Littlewine.

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