Grower Champagne – Here’s Our Chance To Dance Our Way Out Of Our Constrictions (Feet Don’t Fail Me Now)

Hobbes versus Rousseau. We find this conflict almost everywhere these days, especially in global politics. Hobbes favoured the rule of law in an almost Old Testament sense, the structures of the state (Leviathan) providing the only way to keep we wicked humans on the straight and narrow (ie, under control). Rousseau was more for freedom (within the context of his time), showing the value of individual thought and action. So, what on earth has all this to do with Champagne’s Grower Revolution? After all, Rousseau gave us The Enlightenment, and the great leaps in Science, Philosophy and Literature which stemmed from that movement are somewhat more important than the economic emancipation of a group of French farmers.

Back at the time of creation we wandered the globe as free beings, but not the Champenois farmers when the regulations were laid down for the AOC. No, when “Champagne” was created, it was run by the Champagne Houses, who over time (bar a few riots thrown in by the paysans) tightened their grip on this largely viticultural region in Northern France. They not only dictated which vineyards were to be part of their region, they also dictated the price paid for grapes. The people who grew those grapes were most certainly the peasants and the negociants were the aristocracy.

When I began drinking Champagne it was all about the Houses. Apart from anything else, the power of these large movers enabled them to write the story of Champagne, and part of that story is that Champagne has to be a blend of different grapes from different villages, in different parts of the region. The whole is superior to the sum of the parts. And we probably won’t tell you what those parts are!

Forget the fact that many of the big Champagne Houses, the Grandes Marques, have pretty much made single vineyard Champagnes for decades: Taittinger, Bollinger, Philiponnat, and the biggie, Krug, to name only four. Pretty good they are too. Now I’m not against the Houses at all, and nor would I try to argue that Grower Champagne is better than that made by a Grande Marque. What I do argue is that by exploring the Growers one can learn so much about the region as a whole, through what are indeed diverse, individual and highly interesting terroirs. Even if you were to decide that the “blend” of sub-regions is better than the single terroir, wouldn’t it be instructive to see how they express themselves tout-seul?

What I would like to do is to introduce you to some Growers. Many of you may not merely have heard of all of them, but will have drunk wines from them. This would come as no surprise. All of these producers are making wines potentially as good as anything bottled in the Champagne Region. I initially wanted to put together a nice neat mixed case of a dozen wines from a dozen different producers, but that’s always too difficult for me. My compromise is a baker’s dozen, thirteen, with a few honourable mentions tacked on to the end. My excuse…one of the wines chosen below to represent our Grower Revolution is not sparkling.

Francis and Delphine Boulard, Massif de Saint-Thierry

We will start in the region’s far northwest, just off the A4 Autoroute from Reims to Paris, and at the village of Neuville-aux-Larris, where at that time Francis Boulard made Champagne under the “Raymond Boulard” label. It was here that I visited on the way home one late summer’s morning having come across his Champagnes in a shop run by the now owner of Tillingham Wines in the UK, Ben Walgate. Francis very soon went his own way, joined by his daughter Delphine. They are now based at Faverolles-et-Coëmy, and still make most of their cuvées from grapes off the Massif de Saint-Thierry, labelling them Francis Boulard et Fille. Although this is possibly one of the least known names in my selection, I would say that these were very possibly the most terroir-specific Champagnes I had ever tasted back in the mid-2000s.

I could have recommended the Boulards’ “Petraea”, made in a cuvée perpetuelle (a little like a solera), but I shall go with the biodynamic Chardonnay beauty that is “Les Rachais”. The Chardonnay vines forming this single site wine are fifty-four years old now, planted on sandy silex/limestone  terrain on the Massif, fermentation in fairly old barrels and dosed Extra Brut (circa 2g/l). This is a wine of genuine mineral purity, which Michael Edwards called “ethereal” when speaking of my favourite vintage for this wine, 2002 (it was first produced in 2001). A cuvée one should only think about disturbing from the cellar after ten years.

Jérôme Prévost (La Closerie), Montagne de Reims

Prévost was initially most famous for being one of the first so-called disciples of Anselme Selosse (who we shall come too in a minute or two). His tiny estate (originally two hectares) is at Gueux, where he began making wine in 1998, initially sharing winemaking facilities with his friend, Selosse. He started out making one wine named after the single vineyard from whence it came, “Les Béguines”. The wine, aside from being eye-wateringly good, was unusual at the time in that it was made from 100% Pinot Meunier, the much-maligned member of the Champagne grape trio.

However, this is not the wine to sneak into my baker’s dozen. That is Prévost’s second cuvée, “Fac-Simile”. This is also pure Meunier, but is a Rosé. I say Rosé, but like another wine listed below, it is pale. It has a haunting quality which stems from the small but concentrated dash of red wine added to the straight white “Béguines” to make the wine tinged with a rusty pink colour. It’s a wine which sometimes smells of red fruits and sometimes of tea leaves, sometimes a minute apart. It’s capable of real complexity but in that subtle way that emerges in the (preferably large) glass over time. Coming off very complex soils which include limestone, chalk and sand, all packed with the compressed remains of marine fossils, this is hardly surprising.

Bérêche et Fils, Montagne de Reims

Of all the growers in Champagne the one I’ve enjoyed building a relationship with the most is the very friendly Raphaël Bérêche (and his mum). I’ve been entertained with tastings at their winery on top of the Montagne, at Le Craon de Ludes, on several occasions and have been able to get to know the whole range. Raphaël and his brother, Vincent, farm just less than ten hectares spread over the mountain and the valley of the Marne. Everything is done here gently, but with care and attention to detail, perhaps most exemplified by the fact that they insist on using real corks rather than crown caps for the second fermentation of the top cuvées. I also remember visiting when the new Coquard vertical press had just arrived, and another time an optical sorting table, ahead of its time.

Every wine made here, from the Brut Réserve upwards, is worthy of inclusion. The Rosé here, “Campania Remensis” (from Ormes) is a particular favourite, as is “Le Cran”, a vintage blend of two vineyards at Ludes (Cran = Craon). They also make what is my favourite still wine (Coteaux Champenois) from Champagne with Pinot Noir from Ormes. That’s even before we mention some stunning negociant wines. But I’m going to choose a wine which has long been my favourite here, “Reflet D’Antan”. It’s another wine from a cuvée perpetuelle, which Raphaël insists is not a solera! It was discontinued for some years when, in order to make it even more complex, they decided it should have longer lees contact. It now gets 36 months sur lattes. In some ways it is a kind of marmite wine, in that it has some oxidative notes which its UK importer (Vine Trail) suggests may be reminiscent of Jura wines (being a massive Jura-phile that doesn’t worry me). It’s also very honeyed with age and remarkably complex. Certainly it’s a gourmet wine to be savoured in a wine glass, and perhaps thrown (gently) into a carafe for a while beforehand.

Vilmart et Cie, Montagne de Reims

I strongly recommend a visit to Vilmart if you can arrange one. Their cellars at Rilly-la-Montagne are not just impressive for the wines, nor just for the large wooden barrels and vats which adorn one part of the building, but for the rather beautiful stained glass all around you, created by René Champs, father of current incumbent, Laurent Champs. This is another very focused producer. The old vines may all be mere Premier Cru (no Grand Cru vines here), but they are cared for meticulously (even tilling by hand). The result at the top end is almost miraculous quality.

“Coeur de Cuvée” is the top of the range at Vilmart. It is made, of course, from the heart of the first pressings. Fermentation is in small oak (222-litre barrique). Such wines require perhaps a decade to feel fully integrated. At fifteen to eighteen years, depending on vintage, and with a good swirl in the glass, it comes together. By twenty years of age, you may feel it is close to perfection (others may prefer it younger). The blend is usually around four fifths Chardonnay to one fifth Pinot Noir. Expect a vinous wine with nuttiness predominant. This is a classic, and in my opinion, forgotten by many of today’s “influencers”. It is also a regular bet in so-called off vintages.

Lilbert et Fils, Côte des Blancs

Bertrand Lilbert is the current young head of this historic Grower. The family began growing vines around Cramant, at the northern end of the Côte des Blancs, in the mid-eighteenth century. He farms in Cramant, Chouilly and Oiry. The style here is quite strict, the wines being almost piercing in minerality in their youth. It’s the acidity and mineral spine which gives the vintage wines their longevity. In some ways they are the essence of chalk on a blackboard.

I remember tasting here early one frosty late winter morning. The wines struck the palate like a needle. I was thrilled, not because I’m some kind of masochist, but because these wines reminded me of a complex-structured but filigree snow crystal, and I could foresee how they might develop (it was the 2006 vintage). I could have suggested a rather unique wine genre made here, called “Perle”. The style used to be called “Crémant de Cramant” and is bottled at just 4 atmospheres pressure, rather than the usual six for traditional Champagnes. However, the 100% Cramant Chardonnay vintage wine is finer, an old vine cuvée which expresses the terroir of “Les Buissons”, which comprises 75% of the blend. But it’s another wine to age, so that the crisp acids soften and the chalk comes through.

Anselme Selosse (Champagne Jacques Selosse), Côte des Blancs

I debated whether to include Selosse. Against – everyone knows him, his wines are horrendously expensive and anyone who dislikes the mere idea of Grower Champagne is just so negative. In the “For” camp, well, the guy pretty much single-handedly kicked off the Grower Revolution. If anyone has shown that Champagne is not merely one idea, and that other ideas are valid, this is the man. It was so long ago, 1974, that Anselme took over his father’s vines in Avize. He’d studied winemaking in Burgundy, not uncommon nowadays (almost de rigueur among the most terroir-conscious vignerons today), but rare back in the Seventies. Selosse was an early proponent of biodynamics in the region, but much more than that, he is a philosopher of what “Champagne” might be, and is capable of.

It is debatable as to whether the Champagnes Selosse creates are really terroir wines, as some here undoubtedly are, but that’s far from the point. In choosing a wine to include I had to bear in mind their cost, illustrated by the fact that there are now no Selosse wines I feel I can afford to buy, at least when compared to other producers’ wines. But then I was lucky to be just about early enough in the game to get to know them. I’m going to choose the entry level “Initial” here. It’s made from the youngest vines on the estate, 100% Chardonnay from Avize, Oger and Cramant, off lower elevations with deeper soils.

It’s always a well put together multi-vintage wine, and arguably the most “normal” in terms of flavour profile. Oak aged, the wood always integrates, and it has that creamy palate which shouts Grand Cru Chardonnay. It still gives an intro to the Selosse philosophy, and if you can afford anything from this producer, this is the one you will most likely buy.

Champagne Pierre Péters, Côte des Blancs

François Péters was an early Champagne hero of mine, and he has been ably followed, since 2008, by his son, Rodolphe, farming just less than 20-ha from the family’s winery in the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger in the heart of the Côte des Blancs. This is yet another source for some of the finest Grand Cru Chardonnay going. The range is excellent at every level, and this used to be another favoured source for the lower atmosphere “Perle” style which goes so incredibly well with almost any food you care to try it with. However, at the pinnacle of the Péters pyramid is one of the consistently finest wines made in the whole region.

“Les Chetillons” was previously called “Cuvée Spéciale”, but the name now justly reflects the very spéciale vineyard from which it comes. The vineyard itself is situated on pure chalky soils at Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, and it’s a wine with a very chalky texture, almost the purest minerality imaginable. But again, you really need to be patient and age this, or at least in most vintages (the 2000 was really good, for my taste at least, but more forward than most). An example is the 2002 vintage. When this was shared a couple of years ago one Chétillons aficionado declared it still not ready, and I tended to agree. It was my last but one bottle…though I have one left. It would be hard for me to believe that there is, in a fine vintage, any cuvée in the whole of Champagne which is better than “Les Chétillons”, which makes it exceedingly good value even at the price one has to pay today.

Champagne Ulysse Collin, Coteaux de Morin

You’d be excused for not knowing where the Coteaux de Morin is, though you might be more familiar with the Coteaux de Sézanne, with which it is contiguous, forming the northern part of a string of vine clad hills south of the Côte des Blancs. Olivier Collin farms nearly 9 ha at Congy, though when he began, in 2004, he had one parcel and one cuvée. Like Jérôme Prévost, Olivier spent a short time working for Anselme Selosse in the early 2000s. The joke is that you started with Selosse. When he got too expensive you moved to Prévost, and when you could no longer afford him you bought Ulysse Collin. This was back when Selosse Initiale cost maybe £90-£100 and Collin’s then single offering, “Les Perrières”, was maybe £55. Today you will pay somewhat more, around £100 retail at least.

Although that cuvée formed my first several purchases, I am selecting “Les Maillons” today. The reason – we’ve had lots of Chardonnay and this is a Blanc de Noirs bottling. It is again a single site, and the wine reflects the quite different terroir. In part this is down to micro-climate, but even more so it is perhaps a result of the fairly unusual soils, rich in iron, around Barbonne-Fayel, down on the Côte de Sézanne. The resulting wine is quite full-bodied, not always a style I go for. But this wine is fantastic, a real gem of a terroir wine and worthy of your attention…even though I lament the way the prices have risen inexorably at this address. Sadly, I cannot find a photo of “Les Maillons”.

Champagne Jacques Lassaigne, Montgueux

Montgueux is another hidden sub-region, just outside the old regional capital, Troyes. If you believed the stories, you’d think Emmanuel Lassaigne spends all his time in Troyes’ famous natural wine bar, Au Crieurs de Vin, rather than in the vines, but that would be far from the truth for this most meticulous and committed Grower. I say grower, but Emmanuel is technically also a negoce, like the Bérêche brothers. He buys in around 30% of his fruit. In part it’s to ensure he has enough wine to make a living, but just as important is access to other Montgueux terroirs. He is the greatest living advocate for this tiny sub-region.

Montgueux is quite special. Its geology is unique (almost) in the whole of Champagne. It has similar chalk to the Côte des Blancs, but far older, and instead of marine fossils there’s lots of flint. The only other place I know which has a very similar geology in the region is another isolated hill, Mont Aimé, which anyone who has stayed at the hotel of the same name, south of Vertus, will probably know.

Montgueux has been called the “Montrachet” of Champagne, and Emmanuel Lassaigne’s “Le Cotet” is the finest explanation for that epithet. We have a single plot of vines between 55 and 60-years old within this individual vineyard, all Chardonnay, making a wine of intense minerality. It sings with citrus acidity in its youth but as it ages it fattens (the grapes are always picked ripe and the reserve wines come from a complex reserve perpetuelle). It’s another Champagne which you have to treat as a white wine with bubbles, serving it preferably not too cold in a good wine glass.

If you can’t find “Le Cotet”, grab a bottle of “Les Vignes de Montgueux”. It contains bought-in fruit and is an expression of Montgueux as a whole. It’s great value (though also note the cuvée mentioned among the recommended retailers, below).

Vouette & Sorbée, Côtes des Bar

Montgueux is technically part of the Aube, Champagne’s once ignored southern region, but when one thinks of the Aube it is in fact the Côte des Bar which springs to mind. The “Bars” in question are the twin towns of Bar-sur-Seine and Bar-sur-Aube. This region tends to be warmer than the rest of Champagne’s AOP, with a semi-continental climate, and the soils differ in that there’s a lot more Kimmeridgian limestone and marl with any chalk. The comparison would be closer to Chablis, which is a stone’s throw across the Burgundian border, rather than the Côte des Blancs, a good long drive to the north. Pinot Noir thrives here, and has long provided fruit for the sometimes-secretive Grandes Marques in Reims and Epernay. Yet perhaps the greatest of them, Krug, has never been sensitive about admitting to using Aube fruit in its flagship wine.

Bertrand Gautherot is a name we see too little when we speak of the great growers. This is because when he began bottling his own wine in 2001 he chose to name his domaine after his two vineyards near the village of Buxières-sur-Arce. Both are quite different, Vouette being on the typical Kimmeridgian soils, Sorbée being on Portlandian strata. All the vines are worked biodynamically and any manipulation in the winery is kept to an absolute minimum (indigenous yeasts, zero dosage and tiny additions of sulphur).

I was talking to an importer last year lamenting the fact that so often now I’m forced, for purely financial reasons, to become most acquainted with the entry level bottlings from the great growers these days. This is certainly the case with Gautherot’s wines. This is why my choice here is “Fidèle”. Instead of selecting an expensive bottle I’ve possibly only drunk once, I’ve gone for a wine which is, after all, one of my genuine favourites.

“Fidèle” is a Blanc de Noirs, 100% Pinot Noir, from vines in the Vouette vineyard. Although it’s an entry level wine be aware that it does need a little post-disgorgement ageing. Given a year or two in your cellar or wine fridge it blossoms. It’s still pretty uncompromising (as I think Peter Liem has called all the Gautherot wines), and another example of the way the Growers are increasingly making the kind of Champagnes we call “Vinous”, wines which complement food.

Cédric Bouchard/Roses de Jeanne, Côtes des Bar

I was very lucky in that Bouchard was imported into the UK by The Sampler, almost from when they opened. In those days the Bouchard cuvées seemed expensive, but affordable. That is hardly the case now. Every wine made by Bouchard is from a small single plot, almost as if they came from tiny Burgundian Grands Crus, not that the Aube was allowed any Grand Cru sites when they were classifying the Champagne vineyards in 1911 (GC ranks 100% on the old échele, PC ranks 90-99%, but most of the Aube manages just 80%, clearly ridiculous).

Bouchard works out of Landreville, which like Bertrand Gautherot’s Buxières, is in the Barséquanais (Seine), on the right bank of the river. There are, if I am still correct, seven small batch Champagnes made, all of exemplary quality and real personality. I know and love most of them but my favourite is called “Le Creux d’Enfer”. Yes, it’s time to introduce another Rosé, but like Prévost’s, it’s quite far removed from most examples of “Pink Champagne”.

Apparently, it comes from just three rows of Pinot Noir and, according to Peter Liem, is foot-trodden. The very pale colour comes from a short skin maceration. The result is actually, for me, one of the most sensually and at the same time, intellectually, stimulating Champagnes I know. My typical note would be “ethereal”. It reminds me most of fresh tea leaves, though whether this is green tea or fine Assam I’m not sure (or perhaps my favourite tea is more appropriate, that exquisite Blue Himalaya Oolong from Marriage Frères in Paris). It’s probably fair to say that the first time I drank it provided my most revelatory moment in all the time I’ve been drinking Champagne. Maybe not quite Dom Pérignon’s “I’m drinking the stars”, but close.

Okay, so the photo’s Val Vilaine, not Creux.

Marie-Courtin, Côtes des Bar

The vineyards of Polisot, where rising star Dominique Moreau grows her vines, stretch over both sides of the River Seine in the south of the Côte. This estate is however merely one very tiny part of those vineyards, less than three hectares, formed on a south-facing slope. There’s a little bit of Chardonnay, but it’s mostly Pinot Noir that Dominique has planted here.

What I like about Moreau’s wines, and probably in truth most of my favourite Aube wines, is that whilst they undoubtedly show in some respects typically ripe Aubois fruit, they are also pristine, even crystalline in their freshness and rapier-like qualities. They do, as I’ve said before but it applies equally here, love a bit of PDA (post-disgorgement ageing, a watchword in the Champagne section of the Crossley cellar – it helps that having so few of these wines I am never in a hurry to drink them).

I only really know two of Dominique’s wines, “Résonance” and “Efflorescence”. Résonance is the entry-level Pinot, vinified in tank, whilst “Efflorescence” differs in that it is a vintage wine, aged in used oak. I’m going to choose “Résonance” because I know it best, but also because the combination of ripeness and precision allows the wine to show the purity of its red fruits. It’s very refreshing. I think Dominique Moreau is making wonderful wines and I hope I can get to know all of her wines in due course.

Olivier Horiot, Côtes des Bar

My first visit to the Aube was when I was in my mid-twenties. I stopped for a night en-route to the South of France, visiting some friends who were honeymooning in a borrowed house near Les Riceys, a group of hamlets about as far south as you can get in “Champagne”. We were almost literally over the border from the town of Chablis. One of the three wine visits we all made the day after our arrival was to a producer called Morel Père et Fils. It was my first taste of Rosé des Riceys, a still pink wine made from Pinot Noir with its own appellation, which at that time was almost unknown in the UK. Over the years I returned to Morel to stock up. If you aged it like a red wine, it was pretty good.

I nearly said “amazing”, but it was more recently that I discovered clearly the best producer of Rosé des Riceys, a real step up in quality, initially via this producer’s Champagnes. Olivier Horiot only started out in 2000, and he began by making the still pink before making bubbles. He uses two sites, after which he names his two single vineyard cuvées. “Valingrain” is marl and white clay, “En Barmont” is red clay, with Portlandian elements alongside the village’s Kimmeridgian soils. I’m not going to choose one or the other of these. “En Barmont” is usually described as the more fruity of the two, perhaps plumper in most vintages, whilst “Valingrain” perhaps has more finesse but is more linear in the mouth. Maybe.

What is clear is that these wines are class acts, and seriously under-appreciated by the fine wine fraternity. Olivier makes some very good, distinctive, Champagnes (with quite distinctive labels), the most easily sourced called Sève, and let us not forget two still Coteaux Champenois bottlings, a Chardonnay and a very good red Pinot Noir. But it is the Rosé des Riceys cuvées which are the stars. If you age them (and you really must), they take on that ethereal quality I mentioned with Cédric Bouchard’s “Creux d’Enfer”, but they never lose their classic red fruit character.

My justification for including this still wine in my Grower’s baker’s dozen is that we have just made a journey through many (certainly not all) of the terroirs of Champagne, and Rosé des Riceys reveals so much about the terroir here in the south. We have already vicariously sipped on a dozen wines which exemplify these terroirs. If we really do follow this, or a similar, route we can build up a picture of what Champagne really is, and what it might be.

Why should we bother? Because Champagne should not be dismissed as a drink for celebrations, almost not really a wine at all. Champagne should be appreciated as a wine like any other, and one which partners most dishes at table. If we can begin to appreciate the subtleties of terroir, we can then better understand the good and the bad (and the downright amazing) that exists in the Grande Marque blends as well. Which means we will truly appreciate all that the Champagne Region has to offer.

I promised (threatened?) I would include a few more names of producers I particularly enjoy. I could easily list thirty or more Growers here, but that would not be helpful. So, with apologies to any I missed out, I could so easily have included in this hypothetical mixed case Agrapart, Val Frison, Ruppert-Leroy, Aurélien Suenen and Jérôme Dehours. That I didn’t was only due to time and space, or lack thereof.

There are several retailers and direct-selling importers who provide good sources for interesting Champagnes like those listed above. The Good Wine Shop (I use the Kew store) always has enough bottles of good Growers to make it difficult to choose, as does The Sampler. Les Caves de Pyrene is light on Champagne but what they do have counts. Vine Trail has one of the best lists of Grower Champagnes in the UK, Dynamic Vines sells Francis and Delphine Boulard (which you might otherwise be pushed to find here). Horiot is usually well represented at Winemakers Club.

I particularly recommend a trip to La Cave des Papilles in Paris’ 14th Arrondisement. They are very friendly with Emmanuel Lassaigne and as well as stocking his full range (when available), he makes their “House Champagne” under the Papilles label (see photo below). Reims and Epernay are there to explore, with many good Cavistes, but Le 520 (1 Avenue Paul Chandon, Epernay) specialises in Champagnes d’Auteurs, and has a fine range.

I currently use three books for reference on the Growers in the region region: Michael Edwards’ “The Finest Wines of Champagne” (Aurum, 2009); Peter Liem’s “Champagne” (Mitchell Beazley, 2017, which includes the wonderful Larmat maps in a pullout tray); and the entertaining “Bursting Bubbles” by Robert Waters (Quiller, 2017, originally Bibendum Wine Co, Australia, 2016). The literature on Champagne is considerable. For more information on the Grandes Marques I am often inclined to turn to Tom Stevenson, who has written more than twenty books and runs the prestigious CSWWC (Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships), a wine competition wholly for fizz.

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Noble Rot Book – Wine From Another Galaxy (Review)

“The Rotters’ Club” (by Jonathan Coe) used to be one of my favourite novels, for the simple reason that its plot line resonated so perfectly with parts of my own early teenage years. It has very little to do with Noble Rot (the magazine etc, rather than botrytis) except that when Noble Rot Magazine opened a restaurant of the same name in London’s Bloomsbury, a group of early fans, of which I was part, tended to call it by that name. It was a place that resonated with us as much as the magazine had done, and in my case the book before it.

Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew were drawn together when a highly successful young record executive (well, he signed Coldplay, but we won’t hold that one against him) met a young, dynamic, employee of Roberson Wine Merchants, via their much-missed retail outlet in West Kensington. Drinking together led to the birth of Noble Rot, the magazine, and then somehow to the wine bar-come-restaurant on Lamb’s Conduit Street, in an obscure part of London close to which I had spent my twenties working.

Noble Rot, the restaurant/wine bar, became a regular place to meet for lunch, or to partake in longer wine dinners behind the screen at the back. A combination of inspired wine choices and immaculate simple dishes made it just perfect. A warm place in every sense, where the warmth of the welcome was worth any number of Michelin Stars.

The kitchen’s influence, via Head Chef Dan Flavell overseen by Stephen Harris, is fairly obvious. Many will know that Stephen runs my favourite restaurant in the world, The Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent. To get him on board in an executive role was the coup of all coups. The wine list(s) show less obvious influence. The wine preferences of Dan and Mark can easily be misconstrued if you look at their favourites “lists” at the end of this book. 1862 Madeira, 1945 Haut-Brion, Krug ’88 and Coche 1990 Meursault appear in a list which suggests the boys have been let loose in a sweet shop at some point. But if you look more carefully, you’ll find Overnoy and Puffeney, Philippe Alliet, Envinate, Les Vignes de Paradis and Cota 45 (and so on). When you dine at Noble Rot the wine lists (and the blackboard) read like a mix of “Terroirs” and “The Ledbury”, with a whole lot in between.

Annual Bojo Night, Noble Rot Bar, Lamb’s Conduit Street (photo Juan Trujillo Andrades)

Following the magazine (2013) and the wine bar (2015), Keeling and Andrew set up a small wine import business (under that name), and most recently opened a second wine bar in the historic premises of “The Gay Hussar”, in Soho, a venue famous as a watering hole for plotting politicos which I have yet to visit, but once travel to London becomes possible it is top of my lunch list. To add further to the the Rotters’ vibe, 2020 saw this book appear, Noble Rot – Wine From Another Galaxy.

It’s probably helpful to attempt to describe what the book is and what it perhaps tries to achieve. The very first thing you notice is its design. The cover is simple but striking and the binding, beautiful. Inside, graphics and page layout have clearly been thought about a great deal. It’s not so difficult when you have many issues of a strikingly visual magazine whose graphic images and photos you can call upon. The book is clearly a mirror of the mag in many ways. The photographs, of which there are many, are mostly not just good but stunning, especially those taken by Benjamin McMahon,  Juan Trujillo Andrades and Tom Cockram.

The book itself divides into broadly two parts. The first 130 pages introduce Mark and Dan’s adventures into wine journalism and restauration. You get some tales of the setting up of the mag and bar, with some nice pics of early interviews (the musical connection is strong here, not just the music references spattered around, but see the photo (below) of Brian Eno, taken by Tom Cockram, for an example of an early interview with a star, a theme the magazine has regularly pursued).

Next, we get a little wine learning: how wine is made, grape varieties, how to judge wine, how wines age etc. This section is mostly aimed at relative beginners, but the style is jovial and I’m sure even the most expert wine aficionado will enjoy it (though one or two might find the short section on grape varieties slightly simplistic).

We then see a well put together few pages on food and wine, with not surprisingly some nice recipes (and photos thereof). Bottle Art more or less follows, which allows the authors to demonstrate their own passion for design before we move on to the second, perhaps more meaty, part of the book. Pages 130 to 341 form “The Rotters’ Road Trip”.

Brian Eno by Tom Cockram (pp24-25 in the book). An early theme emerged in the magazine, interviews with celebrities, many from the music industry.
Bottle Art (p 126)

We get thirty short chapters, or vignettes, covering visits to France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Greece and back home in England. Some cover an event (La Dive Bouteille or the Paulée de Meursault), some of them cover a wine region (Champagne, Ribeira Sacra, Santorini), whilst others focus entirely on a single producer (Emidio Pepe, Comando G or Frank Cornelissen). This is where the breadth of the authors’ tastes comes into play. They do cover posh end Bordeaux, visit d’Yquem and consume thousands of Euros worth of wine in the drunken fog of Meursault’s Paulée, but in their visits to Gravner, Bea, Pepe, and Overnoy you understand that it’s all about the wine, not the money.

It is, in fact, a deep combination of wine knowledge and experience, and a true passion for the liquid, which makes Noble Rot, in all its forms (whether reading, eating or drinking it), including this book, such a feel-good place to be. I will not lie…via Noble Rot Dan and Mark have an entrée into parts of the wine world which I cannot hope to emulate. My long-term appreciation of Pierre Overnoy’s wines from a region I’ve been visiting since the late 1980s has never gained me a seat at his table, though I did get invited to stay at Pichon-Baron once. Mark and Dan can get to meet (almost) anyone, even Aubert at DRC.

But they don’t lord it over we mere mortals, and in fact I’m sure if they saw a familiar face at the side of the road, they’d invite them along for the ride. The whole Noble Rot concept is about sharing a passion. They do it with easy humour and a familiarity which is infectious, and this certainly comes through in these pages. Whether you know Noble Rot Magazine, or their London wine bars, or not, and whether you are a jaded old-timer who has drunk everything under the sun, or a wine newbie sensing a nascent wine flame within, you will surely love this book. It won’t furnish a plethora of  encyclopaedic facts, but it will act as inspiration. Especially inspiration to drink as well and as widely as you can. I’m equally sure that you will be inspired to visit some of the vineyards portrayed in the photographs, which I can assure you really are as profoundly beautiful as they look. So that’s a definite and very firm endorsement.

Noble Rot – Wine from Another Galaxy is published by Quadrille (h/b 2020), an imprint of Hardie Grant. It costs £30.

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Recent Wines December 2020 (Part 2) #theglouthatbindsus

I’m not going to lie to you, this third Lockdown in the UK is pretty hard. First time around we at least had the sunshine, and no idea really that things would go quite the way they did (well, we may have had an inkling but I’m not sure that it was a fully formed prophesy). Now, looking out on a cold, grey, day in Southern England there’s far less to look forward to. Certainly no winter tastings like those I wrote about enthusiastically in my Review of 2020. I’m sure we all hold out hope for wine travel, but there’s a certain defence mechanism now which is constructed to avoid disappointment.

Yet there is still wine, and I’m sure that right now every bottle drunk is chosen with a little more care, and the act of drinking it is perhaps a tiny bit more focused. The ten bottles here take us over Christmas up to New Year. You will note that the selection chosen is not full of boastful bottles, partly because the few of those I own are always saved to enjoy with similarly wine obsessive friends (generosity breeds generosity). There was no partying in the Crossley household over the festive season. However, there are undoubtedly some remarkable choices amongst the bottles of Burgundy, Alsace, Franken, South African, Champagne, Australian, Loire, Jura, Canary Island and Austrian wines. That’s how they wind up here.

GEVREY-CHAMBERTIN « CLOS DES CHÉZEAUX » 2011, DOMAINE DENIS BERTHAUT (Burgundy, France)

You have to bear in mind that this is a selection of the most interesting bottles sampled at home. It’s not that this wine was faulty, merely that it was way too young, so I place it here in some ways as a warning. I have been well tutored in the art of avoiding wasting money by opening bottles of Burgundy too soon, so this rookie error was unforgivable, really.

Denis has now handed over to his daughter, who indeed was manning the tasting room at the domaine in Fixin when I last visited them, and where this bottle was purchased. Back then, Denis was working with his brother, Vincent, farming 14 hectares of vines around the village, and in Gevrey. In the latter there are tiny parcels in 1er Crus of Les Cazetiers and Lavaux-St-Jacques, but also the village wine, Clos des Chézeaux, represented here.

The Berthaut wines under Denis were always fairly structured (perhaps less so under Amélie, who now makes wine under the domaine name “Berthaut-Gerbet”, encompassing all Denis’ vines and those of François Gerbet). Well, this is not an exception. Even with time to breath (though not decanted) it remained firm and structured. What got me fooled was the vintage, or rather my recollection of the vintage at the time of purchase. I bought some 2010s to lay down and some 2011s to try after a decade. I’d say this wine will go a further decade itself.

There is nice dark cherry with a smoky note, and the tannins are not harsh. It’s just a little bit “strict” right now, slightly closed. Lesson learned.

As mentioned above, this wine was purchased from the domaine.

“SINGULIER” 2017, VIGNOBLE DU RÊVEUR (Alsace, France)

Vignoble du Rêveur is, of course, the personal domaine of Matthieu Deiss and his partner, Emmanuelle Milan, based in Bennwihr, north of Colmar. The wines are both biodynamic and “natural” with nothing added except for a little sulphur in some (not all) cuvées. Everything is done here in a very considered way, by hand, a mixture of the skills learnt both at college and from the couple’s respective famous fathers (in Alsace and Provence), and a wonderful degree of intuition.

Singulier is a carbonic maceration of Riesling and Pinot Blanc. The grapes spend ten days fermenting in large oak, giving colour, after which the wine ages for a year on its fine lees, adding texture. With this cuvée minimal sulphur is added. The attack is dry, bright and citrus flavoured, with acids and mineral notes providing tension. Beneath this is a lick of richness wound around that fine mineral core. A balanced 12% abv makes this both refreshing but also a good food pairing (I’m sure you know the kind of dishes…the “lightly-spiced” cliché etc). Definitely a producer to follow throughout the whole of their range.

The Deiss/Milan wines are imported by Swig Wines, this bottle purchased from Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton.

“TRIO SAUVAGE” 2019, MAX SEIN WEIN (Franken, Germany)

Max farms 3.5 ha at Dertingen in Franken (Franconia). His passion is for Silvaner and Pinot Meunier (Schwarzriesling), although he also has some Müller-Thurgau, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir, all grown on mostly limestone with patches of red sandstone. Although he’s a third generation winzer, he has worked around Europe (including in Austria with Judith Beck and Gut Oggau), and in New Zealand. That’s interesting because I see a certain affinity there. The wines are pretty natural though, and on the evidence of this one, my first, they are very good.

Trio Sauvage blends 50% Silvaner with Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, all the vines being at least 60 years old. The Silvaner is direct pressed fruit, whereas the remainder is fermented on skins together for ten days. Zero manipulation takes place, including no added sulphur. The colour is almost a very pale salmon pink, presumably deriving from the macerated Pinot Gris skins. The flavours are initially fresh and a little fruity but a savoury note kicks in, a little bitterness and texture from the period on skins. With low alcohol (11.5%) and zippy acids, it’s a very easy wine to drink. I will definitely be trying more of Max’s wines and I can see why Jiri and Zainab made their first German addition to their Central European portfolio.

This is imported by Basket Press Wines.

“THE TRIP” 2019, BLANK BOTTLE WINERY (Western Cape, South Africa)

Regular readers will be aware not only that I’m pretty keen on the wines of Pieter Walser’s Blank Bottle Winery, but that he regularly bottles a pair of exclusive cuvées for his mates Henry and Cassie at Butlers Wine Cellar down in Brighton. This year’s pair were released just before Christmas, and I got my order in to receive them on the day of release.

I think I can safely say that “The Trip” is the best white bottling for Butlers so far. It’s mainly Grenache Blanc with a few other bits and pieces (I do like this variety, it has to be said). Ageing is on lees in old oak. Lovely fresh acidity rides like Pieter’s surfboard over oceans (almost, okay, getting carried away with my metaphors here) of tropical fruit, rather like the man himself making his escape from a shark in one of his enthralling stories. This is not a complex wine, but POW! It hits you. I don’t mean the alcohol, which although listed at 13%, doesn’t seem as high as stated. It just slaps you with fruit and freshness. At a tad over £20 this is pretty good value. Nice label too, riffing again on Brighton Pier.

Imported by Swig Wines, one of two new cuvées exclusive to Butlers Wine Cellar, Brighton.

“FIDÈLE” CHAMPAGNE BRUT NATURE, VOUETTE & SORBÉE (Champagne, France)

Champagne Vouette & Sorbée is named, perhaps self-effacingly, after the single sites Bertrand Gautherot farms above Buxières-sur-Arce, in the Côte des Bar. Bertrand is often cited in the list of disciples of Anselme Selosse, and it is true that Selosse has been an influence. They know each other well. The wines are nevertheless distinctive, and Gautherot is definitely a star in his own right. He’s certainly always cited as one of the region’s foremost producers of biodynamic wines, and although Bertrand had a career in design before he became a vigneron, he’s no newcomer, having farmed at Buxières since the mid-80s.

Fidèle is the entry level at V&S, and also the largest of the cuvées produced. It follows the house style, which means oak vinification with natural yeasts. The cuvée is 100% Pinot Noir, which we know thrives on the south-facing Kimmeridgian clay of the Vouette site (Sorbée is Portlandian limestone). The vintage here is 2016, the wine being disgorged in November 2018, giving it two years post-disgorgement ageing before I popped the cork.

For me, this is a gourmet Champagne. The juice is handled with care, using a traditional Coquard press. Ageing is in old fûts, there’s very little sulphur added and bottling is with zero dosage. The colour is pale gold, and the palate can best be described as mineral and vinous. This is small scale Grower Champagne (Bertrand farms just 5.5 ha) at the highest level, just as inspirational as any of the top names working in Champagne today.

Bertrand Gautherot’s wines (and I mean “wines”) are imported by Vine Trail.

“GENESIS SYRAH” 2002, CASTAGNA (Beechworth, Victoria, Australia)

Beechworth is a fascinating region. It’s well away from most of the well-known vineyard regions in Victoria (west of King Valley and South of Rutherglen), and it isn’t often listed when discussing the top wine regions of Australia, yet there are several very well-known producers here (well, I can think of three) who make wines to match anything in the country. Julian Castagna is one of them, and he’s also one of Australia’s most outspoken winemakers, especially on the topic of judging wines and the show circuit. That said, having met him two or three times, I can also say that he’s one of the very warmest guys in Oz wine I’ve ever had the pleasure to spend a small amount of time with.

Australian Wine visionary Max Allen described Castagna’s physical appearance as “wombat-like” which fits a man who needed to be stubborn to do his own thing when he and his wife started out. His Beechworth vineyard is planted on a north-facing hillside on granite and clay, and it was when faced with the chemical treatments he’d been sold to prepare the land for planting his vines that he realised that there was another way. He’s since become a loud advocate of biodynamics, an approach to farming which now thrives throughout the region, largely on the back of the Beechworth Biodynamic Forum Julian began in 2004. He’s notable for being one of the quartet of members of Nicolas Joly’s “Return to Terroir” group (information in this para from Max Allen’s seminal The Future Makers, Hardie Grant, 2010).

Genesis is a Syrah to age par excellence. It comes from a single site on the estate, off that great granite terroir which we know the Syrah variety loves. Julian, working now with his equally uncompromising son, Adam, follows a minimum intervention route. “Genesis” sees 18 months in French oak, 50% new, to make a wine that will keep as well as any fine Northern Rhône. A touch of Viognier (of course) adds elegant lift, but the fruit is smooth and refined, the length exceptional. Stately, magical, call it what you like but a year after my last trip to Australia it felt like a perfect reward for my longing to be back. This is a wine which confounds expectations of what Australian fine wine can be.

This bottle came from The Solent Cellar in Lymington, where I first met Julian. It may be possible for them to source small quantities of this 2002 from a private cellar (sadly not mine).

MELON JAUNE “VALLET” 2002, PHILIPPE GUÉRIN (Muscadet, Loire, France)

Philippe Guérin is a Muscadet producer based in Vallet, in the east of the Sèvre-et-Maine part of the wider region. The family estate is of a reasonable size, 30 hectares, yet the vines are really old. Those used for this wine are over ninety years of age. Perhaps he’s one of the forgotten names in a largely forgotten region, that is forgotten outside of a few serious aficionados. But this is not Muscadet, or certainly not Muscadet as we know it. The term “unicorn wine” is undoubtedly over used, especially for wines which are not produced in tiny quantities but are rare because those who sell them hide them under the counter for whoever they deem worthy. This has always been the bane of people like me when touring the bars of Paris. Much as I love that beautiful city…

Occasionally a wine comes along that is genuinely special and genuinely rare at the same time. This is such a wine. The variety is the Melon de Bourgogne, the grape of Muscadet. What Guérin did was to age it under a voile of yeast (ie flor), in fact just like a Vin Jaune. Vins de voile are not restricted to Jura, and I’ve drunk such wines from elsewhere, in Franche-Comté, from Gaillac (where they were once very traditional) and Savoie. This is my first Loire “vin jaune” so to speak.

At Vallet, in the far east of the region, limestone predominates. This adds a mineral edge to the wine which is in some ways similar to the mineral edge of the Savagnin variety used in Jura Vin Jaune, but without the degree of nuttiness. Its importer managed to snaffle a single case for the UK. He put six bottles into the favoured retailer below and told me recently that he’d kept the other six for himself. Mean as that might initially sound, I can fully understand why, and absolve him from guilt. It may cost a little more than an average Vin Jaune from the Jura (£65), but its quality and rarity make it surely worth that. But be aware that if the retailer has kept one for himself (I presume he has), then the most which is available in the UK is four bottles, at least of this 2002. It’s still on their web site! Let me know if you get one. I’ll be round…

Imported by Dreyfus Ashby, retailed by The Solent Cellar.

CHARDONNAY “LE MONTCEAU” 2014, CÔTES DU JURA, J-F GANEVAT (Jura, France)

This is one of Jean-François’ estate cuvées made from a single old vine parcel near Rotalier, in Jura’s Sud Revermont. Jean-François farms something over ten hectares now, with an addition of an increasing number of négoce bottlings with his sister, Anne. He has had two pieces of luck in his career. The first is that despite being from a long line of winemakers, he had the good fortune to be one of the first to leave the region and gain a wine education at Beaune. After this followed a period as Cellar Master for Domaine Morey (Jean-Marc Morey) in Chassagne-Montrachet. He returned home in 1999. His second bit of luck were the vineyards his family had planted at the beginning of the 20th century, some dating back to 1902 and some planted either side of the First World War.

The Jura Region is famous for its “marnes” soils. This wine is grown on “marne du lias”, a type of Jurassic Limestone. Whole bunches go into used large tronconic (cone-shaped) vats to ferment, then into used oak foudres to age for twelve months. This cuvée is what is called ouillé (topped-up), not in the traditional oxidised style of the region, like all of Jean-François’ father’s wines were made. No sulphur is added.

This truly is glorious Chardonnay, with such depth already for a young wine. It has body, but is neither fat nor alcoholic (it registers only 12% abv), more a wine with delicious fruit set on a sturdy frame. The great length here is just one long journey of mineral purity, a wine which surely combines the best of fine Burgundy with the deliberate rustic touch on its very edges of great Jura. Sometimes the hype is real. Ganevat’s wines are expensive, but they are not impossible to find, which makes them attainable classics despite the price. Equally, expensive wine can still be good value, and despite the hype, these wines remain decent value.

I can’t say where I bought this. The Solent Cellar generally has a good but ever-changing selection of Ganevat, procured through Les Caves de Pyrene, but equally I always bring back a few Ganevat on my trips to the region.

MALVASIA AROMÁTICA 2017, VICTORIA TORRES PECIS (La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain)

As I said in my review of the past year, the most read article on my site in 2020 was that which I wrote on Vicky Torres Pecis back in August 2019, “The New Star of The Canaries”. Since I first wrote about her, she seems to have grown in fame and it’s not really a surprise that said article was popular. If you want to know my 2020 tips (if you’ve not read the Review), we have two more ladies, Veronica Ortega (just this week described by someone online as “The Queen of Bierzo”) and Annamária Réka-Koncz, from Eastern Hungary.

Victoria inherited extremely old bush vines (many now 130 years old) dotted around La Palma, one of the smallest of Spain’s Canary Isles. Tenerife has, of course, become extremely famous and fashionable, but vines are central to the traditional economy on several of the islands. Victoria’s base is in Fuencaliente, on the southern end of La Palma, and her bodega still retains the old stone lagar where grapes continue to be trodden, although some new stainless steel vats and slightly newer barrels have made an appearance since she was thrown in at the deep end when her father passed away in 2015. These inherited vines, on old volcanic terroir known locally as picón, just like her friends’ vines on Tenerife, have the distinction of being pie franco, or on their own roots. Phylloxera has not reached La Palma so the vines were never replanted on American rootstocks.

This Malvasia is a tiny cuvée of just 1,300 bottles, the old vines giving miniscule yields. When you smell and taste it you know you are in the presence of a wine fashioned by wind and sun. It’s fragrant, saline and mineral. It’s not a wine which suggests its fruit had an easy life, but it has gained genuine character from its hard upbringing…so to speak. Its backbone is sharp and chiselled and the palate is also textured, but there is not remotely any excess of acidity. This creates a gentle side to temper the austerity. A mineral austerity rather than an austerity of acids. This means you have a great deal of length over which to savour the juice as it tails off into a salty distance.

It’s a remarkable wine. It probably needs to be remarkable to tempt you to pay £44 for a bottle. Not that you can get any because the current vintage (2018) is, as expected, sold out (so says the web site). But importer Modal Wines will have some other wines from Vicky, so long as you are quick, and some are less expensive. She is a true star, though.

Imported into the UK by Modal Wines.

“DOPE” [2019] (PETNAT), CLAUS PREISINGER (Burgenland, Austria)

We all need some dopamine at the moment, and in many ways this wine felt more appropriate to see out 2020 than anything posh or fancy. That’s not to say that it was in any way inferior at all. We drank this for dinner on New Year’s Eve, and we would not have seen in 2021 at all had it not been for the loud explosions and raucous cheering of crowds of happy Lockdown party-goers around midnight.

Claus is the King of Gols in many ways. He’s assured and confident both as a man and as a winemaker, as he surveys his neighbourhood from the surf board table on the lakeview balcony of his standout modern winery on the slope above the village. He explores different styles, some serious and some wonderfully frivolous. This is the latter. From its simple label, where the information is on a neck strip, to the cuvée name, made by printing “Dope” onto a tiny black plastic strip (the brand was Dymo back in my day, when every child owned one), it’s look is very minimalist.

The wine itself is made from lightly macerated Blaufränkisch, giving the wine a salmon pink hue. The vines are on a mix of limestone and slate, and the grapes macerate in amphora. The pressed juice spends eight months on lees in bottle (the Ancestral Method) and the resulting petnat has zero added sulphur, and of course is not disgorged, leaving a fine sediment to add texture if shaken. Red fruits dominate, but there’s a dark side lurking beneath. Maybe some garrigue herbs and white pepper on the finish. It gives an edge, accentuated by the terroir’s minerality, which takes it beyond simple fruit. So, a simple looking petnat becomes something more interesting in the glass. Then, with more time, you catch sight of the beauty beyond the surface austerity…which is so often the best kind of beauty.

So maybe that’s a metaphor for 2021, with which to end 2020. As I write this, we have already drunk seven bottles this year. Were they, and the bottles included here, really as good as I remember them, or is it merely that there’s more time to focus on what is in the glass? If so, then that’s one positive out of the Lockdown, albeit a very small one. But let us hope that 2021 does bring some joy to all of us, not just wonderful bottles.

The wines of Claus Preisinger are available both from Newcomer Wines and Littlewine (littlewine.com).

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Recent Wines December 2020 (Part 1) #theglouthatbindsus

There’s a strange feel to writing about the wines we drank at home during December. Looking back on the first ten bottles, which will comprise Part 1, it seems so long ago that I drank them, more so than usual. I think that must be because we hibernated during Christmas Week, and waking up today, almost the whole of last year seems like some surreal dream. Yet wine was a constant, and looking back on the notes I took on these bottles, I was certainly blessed to drink some very good wines. Some unusual ones too, but perhaps that’s no surprise.

We have here two Spanish wines, two Swiss, a Champagne and a Jura, a rather miraculous “natural” Bordeaux, and bottles from Slovenia, Germany and Austria. I would not say each of these wines is on the same level, but six or seven of them would sit well alongside anything I drank in 2020, and every bottle here would, as always, be thoroughly enjoyed by any adventurous drinker.

LA BOTA DE FLORPOWER 84 (MMXVI), EQUIPO NAVAZOS (Sanlúcar, Spain)

“Florpower 84” is a 2016 Palomino table wine aged under flor for 19 months, eight months in Sherry casks and the remaining 11 months in stainless steel vat (therefore bottled in 2018). The grapes were harvested from the chalky albariza soils of the Pago de Miraflores “La Baja” (the best plot in this vineyard) at Sanlúcar. This was, I think, the fifth bottling of Florpower and it has been bottled with a bit shorter period under flor than previously. The idea was to express freshness and the specific terroir rather than emphasise the biological ageing.

The first thing you notice on the nose is the purest, clean, lemon citrus. The palate has a mineral structure and beautiful salinity, and the finish has a gentle chalky texture. There’s an odd resemblance here to a new-born Chablis, at least to my palate. Although I had obviously kept this a couple of years from purchase, I won’t worry about keeping the one remaining bottle of 84 until warmer weather comes along. It’s still fresh, but has perhaps gained a little complexity.

Equipo Navazos is distributed in the UK by Alliance Wine.

AMIGNE DE VÉTROZ GRAND CRU 2017, JEAN-RENÉ GERMANIER (Valais, Switzerland)

This is an old estate, established in 1896 at Vétroz, just past Sion, towards the western end of the Rhône Valley before it turns north, at Martigny. In the 1990s Jean-René Germanier (the founder’s grandson) along with his young nephew, Gilles Besse, took the estate towards the top of the region’s producers, with a shift to quality over quantity.

Vétroz just happens to be the village where you will find in decent quantity one of the rare high-quality grapes of the Valais, Amigne. In some ways it is the lost variety of the region, because there just isn’t enough Amigne to allow it the profile of, say, Petite Arvine, or Cornalin. You don’t see it often, and this is one reason why I’ve not drunk any for years.

The vineyards here are black schist, all crumbled slate, and on the specific steep site where this wine derives, called “Balavaud”, the slate is interspersed with glacial moraine. When the biodynamically grown grapes are harvested they are, perhaps a surprise, vinified in amphora. The result is remarkably good, a clean but textured mountain wine which has both fresh acidity, yet at the same time a beautiful weight (alcohol does strike 14% but don’t let that put you off), with balanced herbal and mineral notes. It’s a reminder to make sure I don’t go anywhere near as long before drinking another.

I should add that Germanier/Besse are equally as good with other autochthonous varieties (especially Cornalin and Heida), and with international varieties like Pinot Noir and Syrah. I’m a fan of the long-lived Cayas Syrah, but I think this Amigne is now my favourite wine from this excellent estate.

The UK importer is, in this case, Alpine Wines.

CHAMPAGNE CHARLES DUFOUR « BULLES DE COMPTOIR #7 » (Côtes des Bar, France)

Charles set up his own estate at Landreville based on the 6 hectares of vines he retained from the Robert Dufour estate when it was split up in 2010. Since then, he has very quickly established a mega-reputation among lovers of Grower Champagne which has thus far luckily outstripped his prices. So Bulles de Comptoir, his main line, remains under £40, occasionally, making it one of the best values you can find in this sector.

This version #7 is a blend of biodynamic Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and unusually, some Pinot Blanc, the latter a parcel of old vines (60 years plus) perhaps rarely found yet not unknown down in the Aube. The vintage is 2016, but these grapes are blended with those from a reserve perpetuelle (a bit like a solera) from vintages 2010 to 2015. Tirage was in November 2017, disgorged March 2019. It is bottled extra-brut (around 3g/l dosage).

The result is lively, vibrant, truly alive…this is the real plus for this particular Champagne. That said, it doesn’t lack for depth, the reserve making all the difference, but perhaps the extra bottle age as well. One expert described Bulles de Comptoir online as “fancy Champagne for people who know”, and you cannot disagree, especially in terms of value for money. I think the current release available will now be #8 (based on 2017), which I haven’t tried but will have no hesitation in doing so.

I admit I’m not sure where I bought this. Checked the usual suspects but no luck. If anyone knows, please add a comment.

POTION MAGIQUE VIN DE FRANCE [2018], DOMAINE L’OCTAVIN (Jura, France)

Some wines live up to their name. For me, a magic potion is not necessarily going to be complex, but it should be transformative. Here, the Queen of Arbois blends 40% Poulsard, 40% Chardonnay and 20% Savagnin, all from the Mailloche vineyard, past the western edge edge of the town. Picked in September, so quite early, the fruit was destemmed and placed in cuve for seven months on skins. The result is totally unique. The colour is, what, pale red, orange, pink, indeed all of these together depending on how you hold the glass. On the palate it tastes like a blend of blood orange and quince.

I won’t lie, the wonderful labels Alice sticks on her newer wines, especially the ever-widening number of negoce cuvées, are an attraction in themselves. But you will be hard pressed to find more enervating juice coming out of the back streets of Arbois. I truly cannot wait to go back for another visit, if she’ll have me. All the wines Alice makes are perhaps unusual, but certainly magical.

L’Octavin is imported into the UK by Tutto Wines.

BOBAL TINAJA 2017, BODEGAS GRATIAS (Manchuela, Spain)

This is the second wine I’ve tried from this family bodega in the wilds of Manchuela. The first was back in March 2020, a wine called “Arroba” made from the obscure Pintaillo variety. It was all herbs and raspberries, a skin contact red which made my nose prick up. It was one of just 560 bottles made. Nine moths later I get round to trying their Bobal, perhaps an ever so slightly better known grape, but still well within the mission of the bodega to protect anything local and traditional in their vineyards. These really are very old bush vines, growing low on clay soils with a high lime content. Bobal is the main variety grown at Gratias.

This is a zero-intervention wine, the grapes being placed into small clay tinajas to ferment. We may think of Sicily, or the Slovenian-Italian border, for “amphora” wines, yet Spain and Portugal have just as vibrant a tradition, which is once more being revived, by the natural wine producers in particular. You don’t often get fruit presence like this out of clay, but there’s a packed mouthful of cherry on first swig. Then comes something contrasting, deep and natural liquorice. It adds a dark side, enhanced by the tiny touch of burnt sugar on a dry finish. It’s both deep and delicious, another 14% abv wine which does not lack subtlety.

This is imported by Alliance Wine, my bottles being bought at The Solent Cellar.

“MIRACLE” 2018, OSAMU UCHIDA (Bordeaux, France)

Sometimes you taste a wine but wait a long time to buy a bottle. I met Osamu and his wife at a rather wonderful tasting called “Bordeaux : The Risk-Takers” put on by Vine Trail (at Carousel off Baker Street) in March 2019. I tasted the two Uchida wines on show and was massively impressed (perhaps even an understatement). It took me until autumn 2020 to buy a bottle.

Uchida farms a mere six tenths of a hectare, hidden away, surrounded by trees, in the Haut-Médoc appellation, yet remarkably close to Mouton-Rothschild. All the vines are Cabernet Sauvignon and are at least 30-years old. Farming is naturally biodynamic. Vinification uses hand-destemmed whole berries. Ageing is in a single 500-litre old oak cask where it rests for twelve months before bottling, by hand, no fining/filtration and just a tiny bit of sulphur added.

In some ways there’s a real “new world” side to this Cabernet. It’s very fresh indeed. The fruit is cranberry and blueberry, with a touch of blackcurrant emerging later. It has a touch of smokiness and/or black pepper spice which seasons it. Yet it doesn’t show the weight of most “New World” Cabs (though it does register 13% abv). It’s clean and alive and very much hand-crafted, it’s easy to tell that.

Uchida is perhaps a visionary, a special guy truly in tune with his tiny vineyard. Originally from Hiroshima, he visited around three-hundred domaines to learn about wine. It seems almost perverse that he ended up in Bordeaux, but it has given us the opportunity to taste Bordeaux of a very different kind, one which is slowly emerging from the structured new oak and “gobs of fruit” of the Parker era. I was smitten back in 2019 and I was twice-smitten last month. One thing I’d pondered on though, at that tasting. Osamu reckoned this wine (well, the 2016 vintage) retailed around £26, which made me wonder how he could make any money. Perhaps reassuringly I had to pay £45 for the 2018, but I have no regrets whatsoever. It’s possible you may not love this like I did, but you never know until you try it.

Vine Trail is the importer whose tasting I had attended in 2019, where I got my first taste, but the bottle reviewed here came from littlewine.co.

“JANKOT” 2018, STEKAR 1672 (Goriska Brda, Slovenia)

The name is a play on “Tokay”, the grape we now call Friulano, and Janko Stekar, who along with his wife, Tamara, runs the Stekar 1672 estate, founded, you guessed it… The vineyards are situated mid-way between the Slovenian (or Pre-Julian) Alps and the Adriatic Sea, within the region of Goriska Brda at a town called Kojsko. These are pre-Alpine vineyards, and pretty steep. The Stekar family farm seven hectares of vines, on a mixed cultivation farm about twice that size.

Most readers will probably know that Friulano is very much a favoured variety for skin contact wines, and that’s what this is. What really struck me here, though, was that alongside the textural platform you get from the maceration, amazing amounts of tropical fruit come through. It’s actually easy to drink, aided by the fresh acidity, yet there’s a tension between the texture and the fruit which means you’d be unlikely to mistake it for New World. In fact, it’s quite typical of the fascinating wines coming out of Slovenia now. At just 12.5% abv it has a food-friendly demeanour but nothing too heavy. The skin contact side is there but restrained, at least compared to some Friulano orange wines. It is quite gorgeous.

Imported by Basket Press Wines.

ESCHENDORFER FÜRSTENBERG MÜLLER-THURGAU “S” 2019, HORST SAUER (Franken, Germany)

I used to buy Horst Sauer wines, many years ago, but always Silvaner. This was always considered the classic estate for Silvaner in Franken, especially the wines from Eschendorf’s Lump site. Though Horst (now joined in managing the domain by daughter Sandra) is usually seen in smart attire when on the road, he’s a farmer at heart and the enduring success of this estate is down to the vines. This perhaps pertains especially to the much-maligned Müller-Thurgau variety, demonised through the cheap süssed-up wines of the 1970s.

Actually, Sauer calls Müller-Thurgau a “renaissance grape variety”, and it is indeed undergoing something of a renaissance in Germany, even if the mainstream is yet to rediscover it. The key to the success of this wine is first of all, old vines. Forty years and over here. Next is, of course, site. The vines may not be on the famous Eschendorfer Lump, but Fürstenberg is just next to it, facing east, and as the name suggests, is certainly not a flat site, but in fact a VDP Erste Läge.

There are many exciting natural wine M-T cuvées on the market but if you give this a go I think you’ll see how classical the grape can be with the right care. Both floral and vinous, the palate of what is undoubtedly a young wine is slightly spritzig (lively, tangy, with miniscule bubbles of CO2 yet not sparkling). The acids are reasonably pronounced but there is a slightly evasive touch of richness which might grow with age. It’s certainly a wine with a mineral backbone that may put on some flesh in the cellar. It reminds me, more than any other German wine, of Switzerland, for some reason. No pun or psychological connection to Thurgau intended. It also tastes more like an 11% wine than one showing 13%.

Going back to cellaring (you can cellar it for sure, but if I buy it again I’ll probably guzzle it), the Bocksbeutel flask in which this comes is a real pain to stack – it won’t fit in the rack, though as many now come sealed under screwcap they will happily stand on the floor. Anyway, I’d hate to see this traditional bottle phased out. Despite the propensity of family members to say “what’s that, Mateus Rosé?”. Come to think of it, should’ve saved the bottle for a candle. Fittingly, perhaps, Weingut Horst Sauer is on Bocksbeutel Strasse, in Eschendorf.

Purchased from Butlers Wine Cellar, Brighton.

SYRAH “CHAMOSON” 2009, SIMON MAYE & FILS (Valais, Switzerland)

If Switzerland’s Rhône Valley gives us a plethora of autochthonous grape varieties of real value, it also produces some very fine wines from French grapes. Certainly, there’s world class Pinot Noir from the Mercier family at Sierre, but perhaps we can find rather more fine Syrah, after all, the grape of the Rhône. One of the top producers of Valais Syrah is Simon Maye & Fils, based at St-Pierre-de-Clages. It is Simon’s sons Axel and Jean-François who farm the famous vineyards of Chamoson today, recently joined by their son/nephew, Raphäel.

The estate is relatively large for the region, 12 hectares, and the Maye range is equally extended. I’m a fan of their Humagne Rouge, but the Syrahs are the most highly regarded. What is interesting is that there is a Vieilles Vignes bottling, but this cuvée we are discussing is the “regular” one. Nevertheless, they are both capable of a long life, and this 2009 was on cracking form.

At first, you’d say it is structured (though not so much “tannic” at this stage) but the fruit is slick, smooth and smoky. I find a kind of smokiness in many Valais Syrahs, which don’t always seem to develop that bacon note you get in the French Rhône’s classic Syrah terroirs. You might place this as a good Côte-Rôtie in a younger vintage, but the way it develops is quite different.

This bottle was purchased from Alpine Wines, though it is not currently listed among the several Simon Maye cuvées they do bring in.

PERSPEKTIVE ROT 2017, WEINGUT KOPPITSCH (Burgenland, Austria)

After drinking this bottle my cellar is completely empty of wines from this producer based at Neusiedl-am-See, at the top end of the lake. This is the first time I have to say that in two or three years, and I’m quite sad. You see, the wide world of wine is full of fantastic wines, and it’s also pretty well stocked with fantastic people. But the Koppitsch family are among the warmest and most friendly people I’ve met, from what is almost certainly about the friendliest wine region in Europe. That sadness was probably made worse because they were undoubtedly one of maybe a dozen or so producers in Europe which I’d pencilled in to visit during 2020.

Perspektive Rot is all about limestone. The blend is 70% Blaufränkisch, which we know adores the limestone terroir of the Leithaberg Range, 20% Sankt-Laurent and 10% Syrah. The vines are on a prime rocky site called Neuberg, northwest of Neusiedl, part of that Leithaberg Range (which I can never bring myself to call mountains). The limestone soils are scattered with pockets of schist, and this mixture can produce some very lively red wines up here.

Limestone-grown Blaufränkisch always seems to have a mineral backbone, but perhaps the sinews are stiffened by the schist (think St-Laurent in a similar context to slate-grown German Spätburgunder). Freshness is there as well, a common and sometimes giveaway as to what’s in the glass.

The fruit was 90% destemmed and then pressed manually into barriques after thirteen days. The wine saw 22 months maturing on gross lees, post-fermentation. Nothing was added, not even sulphur. The result is gloriously pure-fruited with a hint of wood smoke. It will age further, as its tannins attest, but they are gentle tannins and this 2017 tastes lovely as a reasonably young wine.

This can be sourced from Fresh Wines of Kinross, Scotland, by mail order/online. They usually have a fairly small selection from Koppitsch, but all the wines are good (and I believe new vintages have arrived). Those with the newer colourful labels are full of glouglou goodness, whilst the Perspektive wines and the Reserves will age.

Jascots is also a potential source in England for Koppitsch, but note that their online shop lists just three (somewhat older) 2016 cuvées at the less expensive end of the range now. The wines are fairly easy to find in Austria, but they are one of the poorest represented in the UK (in terms of availability) out of all the exciting producers bordering the Neusiedlersee.

Posted in Artisan Wines, Natural Wine, Wine, Wine Agencies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Review of the Year 2020

Well indeed, what a year 2020 has been! Like no other, for sure. But although everyone involved in the world of wine has experienced life in different ways, wine is still there, and has given us all immense pleasure, a snapshot of which was provided by a dozen friends in wine in my last article. So, of necessity my annual review of the preceding year is bound to be a little different. That said, 2020 provided enough highs to write about, and as I sign off for the year with the hope that 2021 brings more of a return to our wine normality, principally wine travel, trade tastings and lots of companionship, let us take a page or two to celebrate the best “winey” things from the past twelve months.

If you’d have asked me how my blog was going in April or May, I might have said it looks as if I hit my peak readership in 2019, yet for some reason readership picked up again in the second half of the year and, as I begin this article on 16 December, I have already topped last year’s readership by a little more than a thousand. So, whilst an increase of maybe 3,000 on last year (currently running at a little over 1,000 a week) may be modest, you can’t imagine how motivating it is to still be climbing the mountain.

What is worth mentioning is that so far during 2020 I’ve been read in 114 countries (three new ones added in the past fortnight). Only around half my readership (19.3k) were in the UK, with the USA, France, Canada, Australia, Germany, Switzerland and a number of other European countries following in our wake. But I’m very pleased to see so many other nations represented, and I’ve often wondered who my two readers in the Vatican City might be. One never knows.

In 2020 I managed to publish sixty-four articles, and before I move away from all this statistical nonsense, I thought I would list the twelve most popular, for they make interesting reading in considering what people find attracts them to Wideworldofwine.

These dozen were articles (from most popular down) on Victoria Torres Pecis (yes, this has been the most popular article of the year, “The New Star of the Canaries”); extreme viticulture in Nepal; unicorn wines (maybe Fifty Shades of Unicorn was an enticing title?); Pieter Walser’s Blank Bottle Winery; on Tongba, a Tibetan/Nepalese experience made from fermented millet grain; unusual grape varieties; Bindi Wines (producer of the most sensational wines I tasted in Australia in 2019); another article on Nepal (A Month of Drinking Differently); then come two articles on Gut Oggau and Rennersistas in Burgenland; on the Durrmann family in Andlau (Alsace); then finally a tourist guide to Arbois and the Jura for wine lovers.

This year has not been packed with big trade tastings, interesting wine dinners and lunches, and visits to see producers. On that note I had to forego visits to Austria, Alsace, Jura and again to Australia, along with my annual trip to Nepal and a much hoped-for return visit to the vineyards of Nagano in Japan. These trips, tastings and dinners have, in the past, made up the bulk of my writing, along with my monthly round-up of “recent wines” drunk at home.

So, 2020 in many ways forced me to think on a wider horizon. The focus changed from tasting to dreaming. Plenty of vicarious wine travel seemed to hit the spot, and other articles which seem to have had a lot of hits, especially in the final quarter of 2020, have included those on the wine regions such as Burgenland, Aveyron and Bugey. The title of my site perhaps hints strongly at how wide my horizon is, but it is inspiring to think that others are equally interested in something more than just the classics, though I in no way denigrate those regions.

The year began, as you may remember if you allow yourself to cast your mind back that far, with a number of exceptional events before the Lockdowns began. In January we had the Bogans in London (Haisma, Le Grappin and Eyre) and a great Nekter Wines tasting at The Ten Cases, not to mention another Wines of Hampshire event at 67 Pall Mall, showing the strides made yet again by some of England’s finest sparkling wine makers.

Two major tastings took place in quick succession at the end of January and late February, namely Dynamic Vines at their Bermondsey HQ, and Viñateros in the Royal Agricultural Halls in London’s Victoria. Both were sensational, and little did I know that as we headed off to Tromso in a bid (successful) to see the Northern Lights in mid-February, they would be the last large-scale tastings I was to attend this year.

Pascal Clairet (Dom. de la Tournelle) at Dynamic Vines

We came back to what also turned out to be two exceptional dining experiences, the last for the remainder of 2020. The first was the annual trip to The Sportsman at Seasalter on the North Kent coast, which although it has become a regular jaunt with similarly open-minded wine buddies, involving far too much time spent on trains and in taxis (and too much wine if I’m honest), remains a genuine treat every time. The food is hard to beat, perhaps only The Ledbury in London equalling the experience in all my years of dining in the UK.

We had begun 2020 on New Year’s Eve, dining at Wild Flor down in Hove, a quality neighbourhood restaurant which truly specialises in the kind of wines, admittedly mostly of a more classical bent, which someone like me will appreciate. We dined there with a friend on the very night that the first English Lockdown was summarily announced (in fact I heard the news on the BBC as I was putting on my shoes and coat to head down). The team there provided a truly memorable, celebratory, evening that I shall not forget any time soon.

Although we are mostly talking wine here I ought to mention the best dish I ate at home. It was a mushroom wellington made with chestnuts and pecans, and do you know what? It was from a Moutard de Maille recipe, appearing as an ad on Instagram.

Throughout 2020 wine merchants were trying to keep connected with their customers in different ways, but none more so than the “Wine Zoom”. Now I won’t lie, nor pretend I’m the only one, who got totally “zoomed-out” in those early weeks of Lockdown. The problem was zooming wine in the day and facetiming family and friends in the evenings. I developed an allergy to screen talking which required a long mid-year detox to overcome. Yet those early Zooms provided some exceptional insights (though some were boring and some suffered from insuperable tech issues, not to mention the occasional feeling of embarrassment when you see the only other “attendee” drop off, leaving you alone with the broadcaster – it only happened the once).

Zooming with Newcomer Wines, one series I tried not to miss

The Zoom events helped me to focus on the best way to help a lot of small wine importers (and it remains so) – to buy wine from them. To those who received a mere six-bottle order from me, I’m sorry but I had to spread the love around. To those I purchased from more than once, what could you possibly have done to deserve such largesse, hey?

I will say that the necessity of creating a working interface with private customers for importers whose main business was previously with the “on-trade” resulted in the lucky consequence that we individuals were given the chance to buy wines which would normally end up in restaurants. Some of these wines would have been hidden away for the favoured few. I, for one, have really benefitted and snaffled a few unicorns. There’s still time. I know my “Time for Delivery” Insta-pics have received plenty of likes and hey, yes, I’m waiting for another delivery as I type (Modal Wines). You know, stockpiling before Brexit…

To take my eyes off the screen I’ve done a lot of reading (real books, for those still attracted to them), and some of that reading has been on wine. I have to say, 2020 has not seen as many wine books published as I would have wished, but almost all those I have read (not all published in 2020 of course) have been exceptional (well written, engaging, informative). I have most enjoyed Jamie Goode’s “Goode Wine Guide” (he does so love to prod the shiny buttons), Luis Gutiérez’s “New Vignerons”, and Alice Feiring’s book on Georgia, but my Wine Book of the Year Award for 2020 (although it was published in 2019) must be The Wines of Germany by Anne Krebiehl MW.

The “MW” is important, but not for the reasons you might think. I was aware of Anne when her MW dissertation on Spätburgunder earned her not only a big prize, but also the respect of all of us who have long fought the corner for Germany’s red wine terroirs. Add to that the fact that she understands Deutscher Sekt like no one else I know, and you have a voice for modern German Wine.

Actually, I do know one or two lovers of German Wines who have raised an eyebrow or two over a couple of omissions from her book (published in the Infinite Ideas Wine Library), but surely she easily makes up for these by having her finger on the pulse of German wine like no other writer today.  That she is a young woman is perhaps telling. She may not have quite the same perspective as I do (that is surely the MW thing, though having ended my wine education after my WSET Diploma, perhaps my view is somewhat skewed there), but she appreciates the transformation of German wine by the next generation in a way that perhaps more traditional pens cannot. She is happy to remove her MW hat (not that I’ve ever seen the fabled MW hat, nor the lapel pin either, though it exists) and show us pure unbridled passion for her subject. To combine knowledge with passion is, for me, the ultimate attraction in wine writing.

All I can say is that in all the forty years I have been enjoying good German wine, it has never been so exciting, and that of all the worthwhile voices currently writing on the subject, none excites me more than Anne Krebiehl’s.

Before talking actual wine, I think I must just mention two developments of 2020 which stand out for special recognition. Both new ventures are brave at this time, but both have proved thus far exceptional contributions to our passion.

The first is Littlewine, or littlewine.co. Littlewine was the brainchild of Christina Rasmussen, a wine journalist who also worked in Wine PR, and Daniela Pillhofer, who co-founded Austrian specialist Newcomer Wines with Peter Honneger in 2004. Littlewine is both an educational platform for wine knowledge focused on wines with soul and integrity, and an online bottle shop where one is able to sample such wines. The model is a subscription one (the “Backstage Pass”), but also with plenty of free content. The wines on sale, which change regularly and feature some of the finest and most innovative low intervention wines available in the UK, are exceptional too.

The second is Trink Magazine. Of course, I can’t be wholly objective here because since their launch late this year they have published my article on the market for German and Austrian wines in the UK. But the reason I think Trink Mag is important should be obvious to my readership. Its aim is to translate (often literally) a German-speaking perspective on the wines of the German-speaking regions of Europe (Austria, Germany, South Tyrol and German Switzerland/Deutscher Schweiz). Its founders are Valerie Kathawala (based in New York) and Paula Redes Sidore (based in Germany).

I have been a follower of Valerie’s writing for some time, and we share so many passions in wine, so I was naturally thrilled to become part of the Trinkmag story. Trink may of necessity move to a subscription model, at least in part, but I do recommend expanding your mind through its varied articles. The writers really are some of the best in their respective fields. If their “TrinkTalks” start up again online, I can assure you they are well worth checking out.

After a substantial couple of thousand words of waffle I do need to tell you about some of the astonishing wine experiences I’ve had this year. Like everyone who shares this passion, I have been drinking more and better at home. Each month I publish here (in two parts now) an article called “Recent Wines”, which I try to limit to sixteen wines a month. These are not meant to be “the best” I’ve drunk that month, but the most interesting. You won’t therefore read about every bottle in a six-pack, nor perhaps about too much DP and Comtes.

I cannot bring myself to award “Wine of the Year” in each category this time around. It would be unfair to the children of my cellar who have provided untold amounts of light in the darkness. It would be nice to think I could keep this “best of the best” list to twelve wines, but that ain’t gonna happen, is it! We start off with the wine I drank on New Year’s Day 2020, from a producer whose several wines consumed this year have raised him even further in my personal pantheon, and we end with, would you believe it, a Red Bordeaux (but not remotely as we know it). Remember, these wines are not points scorers, they are wines which inspired me.

  • Gewurztraminer “Demoiselle” 2016, Domaine Rietsch (Alsace)
  • Trossen Rot 2018, Rudolf & Rita Trossen (Mosel)
  • Gringet “Les Alpes” 2016, Domaine Belluard (Savoie)
  • Counoise “David Girard Vineyard” 2018, Keep Wines (Napa)
  • Mischkultur Gemischter Satz 2018, Joiseph (Burgenland)
  • “Superglitzer” Rot 2018, Rennersistas (Burgenland)
  • Pas à Pas Savagnin Rose MV, Domaine Rietsch (Alsace)
  • Eastern Accents 2018, Réka Koncz (Hungary)
  • Promised Land Riesling Brut Nature 2013, Charlie Herring Wines (Hampshire)
  • Chardonnay Rose Massale 2016, Stéphane Tissot (Jura)
  • Méga-Gamay Vin de France, Domaine L’Octavin (Jura)
  • Chianti Classico 2005, Castello di Ama (Tuscany)
  • Lorchäuser Seligmacher 2011, Eva Fricke (Rheingau)
  • Furmint “Aus dem Quarz Unfiltriert” 2018, Michael Wenzel (Burgenland)
  • Rakete 2018, Jutta Ambrositsch (Vienna)
  • Frankovka Modra Unplugged 2015, Magula (Slovakia)
  • Bierzo Godello “Cal” 2017, Veronica Ortega (Léon)
  • “So True” 2015, Patrice Beguet (Jura)
  • Devin 2018, Magula (Slovakia)
  • Ripken Vineyard Ciliegiolo 2018, Keep Wines (Napa)
  • Skin Fermented Sauvignon Blanc 2018, The Hermit Ram (North Canterbury)
  • Kortpad Kaaptoe 2016, Blank Bottle Winery (Swartland)
  • Poulsard “Sur Charrière” 2013, Domaine Labet (Jura)
  • Cœur de Cuvée 2003, Champagne Vilmart (Champagne)
  • Intergalactic White Blend 2019, Renner und Rennersistas (Burgenland)
  • ZBO (Zibibbo in Amphora) 2018, Brash Higgins (Riverland/McLaren Vale)
  • Fleurie « Chavot » 2014, Julie Balagny (Beaujolais)
  • Amigne de Vétroz Grand Cru 2017, Jean-René Germanier (Valais)
  • Bulles de Comptoir #7, Charles Dufour (Champagne)
  • Jankot 2018, Stekar 1672 (Slovenia)
  • Miracle 2018, Osamu Uchida (Haut-Médoc)

If there are awards to be made, I would really like to focus on just two young winemakers. The last thing I wish to sound is I any way patronising, but 2020 has had its dark side for wine. There have been several high-profile issues surrounding the treatment of women in various parts of the wine trade, several of a serious nature. Wine is unquestionably still dominated by older white males, and those of us who find this unacceptable must work for greater equality and transparency on matters including gender and race.

It is nevertheless reassuring that the past decade has seen not only an increase in the number of high-profile women winemakers (something I feel Austria has led the way on in many respects), but those women are, in so many cases, making the most exciting wines. Regular readers will know the women winemakers I have long admired, with an uncanny number working within a stone’s throw of Burgenland’s Neusiedlersee. But in 2020, following my discovery of Victoria Torres Pecis (La Palma, Canary Is) last year, I got to try the wines of Vernonica Ortega (Bierzo, via Indigo Wines) and Annamária Réka-Koncz (Eastern Hungary, via Basket Press Wines). You can currently try Veronica’s wines easily because importer Indigo Wines now has an online shop. Basket Press Wines has a pop-up shop on Hackney Road (almost opposite Sager + Wilde) through December, though their wines are also available online. For what it’s worth, those two are what I’d call my discoveries of the year. They are very fine winemakers.

Veronica Ortega

With that I will sign off. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my highlights of a peculiar year. I don’t now expect to publish more this year, but I hope to be back in early January, doubtless with a clutch of superstar wines from December, along with a new and exciting-looking wine book to review. This really is a time for hibernation with a real fire and as many glasses of wine as I can reasonably get away with. I shall dream of real vineyards next year. I’ll leave you with some photos of what, for any wine lover, will strike a chord as some of 2020’s happiest moments, that #timefordelivery. Just a selection, mind.

Many thanks go to (in no particular order) The Solent Cellar, Modal Wines, Basket Press Wines, Littlewine, Vine Trail, Indigo Wines, Uncharted Wines, Tutto Wines, Nekter Wines, Alpine Wines, Equipo Navazos and Butlers Wine Cellar for inspiring me to part with too much money.

Posted in Artisan Wines, Natural Wine, Review of the Year, Wine, Wine Agencies, Wine Books, Wine Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Discovery Dozen – 2020s Magic Moments for Friends in Wine

If one thing has been said to me more than anything else this year, it’s that wine lovers have never drunk as well as they have during 2020. I think as we’ve all been drinking more at home, and very little outside of the home, many of us have been inclined to open more so-called weekend wines on a Monday or Tuesday. Or maybe it’s merely because we have more time at home and less time on a train that we can better appreciate the wonderful wines we have at our disposal. It’s certainly something I felt acutely, so when this was repeated to me a few times I thought it might be an idea to ask a few wine friends what had set them alight, what had been their wine discoveries, in this year of lockdowns.

As we are talking wine, then a dozen seemed an appropriate number. Everyone below works in wine, whether as a writer, importer or retailer (or all three in some cases). The wines they have “discovered” are therefore available through the companies my contributors run in many cases, but if they are still available that’s a good thing. The one thing you can be certain of, looking at the individuals who have contributed, is that if this mixed case landed by your front door in the runup to Christmas, you would be very lucky indeed. In the spirit of independence, which you know I like to stick to, I did not request that they submit a bottle for my own quality control evaluation. More fool me.

Christina Rasmussen – Journalist and Co-founder, littlewine.co

L’Aligator, Jean-Yves Vantey (Burgundy, France)

“In the nooks and crannies of the hillsides above the Route des Grands Crus you can find Isabelle and Jean-Yves Vantey making compelling Burgundies from the lesser-trodden slopes of Maranges. L’Aligator is old vine Aligioté from a 0.15ha plot planted in 1972, farmed biodynamically then whole bunch pressed, aged ten months and then bottled unfined (only 1,270 bottles made). Neither Isabelle nor Jean-Yves come from a winemaking background and they started their Domaine des Rouges Queues with just 1ha of vines in 1998. Yet what they have made here is the epitome of a “little wine”, humble yet full of life.”

The excitement currently around this neglected and once maligned Burgundian variety is palpable. Not only are some big names giving it more attention, but it seems almost the grape of choice for a lot of newcomers to the region. I’m drinking Aligoté like never before and I hope I get to try this one (though with less than 1,300 bottles I may need to wait for the next vintage).

Christina visited Jean-Yves and Isabelle on her vintage tour, tent on back, this summer. One of the lucky ones to get a vintage fix in a year when wine travel for me was non-existent. If you ask her what her “Lockdown achievement” was, she’ll tell you she learnt to fly a drone. Her article about the Domaine des Rouges Queues on littlewine.co follows the Aligoté harvest and includes drone footage. It’s amazing what drones have brought to wine journalism in the last couple of years.

Nic Rizzi – Modal Wines

“Er Giancu” 2019, Azienda Agricola Possa, Cinque Terre, Liguria (Italy)

“This wine, tasted along with Heydi Bonanini’s whole range, stopped me in my tracks for its uncompromising expression of a forgotten land, and possibly the most picturesque region on earth. 80% Albarola, 20% Bosco, 25 days on skins”.

Cinque Terre truly is a special place and although there’s not a lot of room for vines, the potential is great, and is beginning to be being realised. This sounds exactly the kind of wine I long to discover myself. Modal Wines’ Nic Rizzi is adept at sniffing out future superstars. In the past few years these have included Burgenland’s Joiseph and La Palma’s Victoria Torres Pecis, to name just two.

Ben Henshaw – Indigo Wine

Tokaj 2018, Holass (Tokaj, Hungary)

“A blend of Furmint and Hárslevelü from a husband and wife team which has all the things I’m looking for in a modern white – character, texture, freshness and depth – plus it’s delicious and very food friendly.”

Hungary seems always on the verge of a breakthrough and the modern face of the Tokaj region has such potential to make deeply individual terroir wines. It amazes me sometimes just how many new winemakers Ben and his team at Indigo sniff out and their range expands every year on a wave of sheer quality. One of Indigo’s new stars will get a mention in my own review of 2020.

Jiri Marjerik – Basket Press Wines

“Les Autochtones” 2019, Max Sein Wein, Franken (Germany)

“This 100% Silvaner from 60-year-old vines has an amazing minerality, a complexity that is gentle yet very enticing. It is a wine that you can sit with and really get deeper into its character, changing with time in the glass, an absolute charmer.”

I bought some of these wines and I’m looking forward to trying them soon. They are hopefully available (unless sold out) at the Basket Press popup shop on Hackney Road (opposite Sager + Wilde) through December. Basket Press Wines specialises in Central Europe (Czech Republic and Slovakia with forays into Slovenia and Hungary). This is their first excursion into Germany, and my guess is that the wines must have made a real impression on Jiri and Zainab for them to make the leap.

Simon Smith – The Solent Cellar

Chardonnay “À la Percenette” 2016, Domaine Pignier (Côtes du Jura, France)

“Made by the three Pignier siblings who have long practised biodynamic farming, making increasingly fine wines in their 13th century cellar [at Montaigu, south of Lons-le-Saunier]. This Massale Chardonnay is the Melon à Queue Rouge, and it sees minimal handling and ageing in oak (though it is topped-up, or ouillé) for twelve months, bottled with no added sulphur, releasing notes of blossom and acacia, ripe apple, and nuts.”

Simon notes that he’s grateful this still flies under the radar. Another contributor to this article would agree…she says it is one of her favourite Jura Chardonnays in her book on the region. I have some on order. These red-stemmed Chardonnay clones, found rarely except in Jura vineyards, have a special nuance well worth exploring.

I suspect many of you already know The Solent Cellar, in Lymington, on the edge of the New Forest. I have family there and it took me a while of walking past thinking I really don’t need another wine shop in my life before I went in and discovered what would become my favourite wine retailer in the country. Simon is not afraid to stock anything and exemplifies as much as anyone why the wine trade here is so vibrant. Like everyone, they do mail order, but Lymington makes a nice day out, especially on a Saturday morning when the sun is shining and the large market on the main street is in full swing. The wider area has become something of a gastronomic mecca too.

Doug Wregg – Les Caves de Pyrene

Allégeance Extra Brut Rosé, Champagne Marie-Courtin/Dominique Moreau (Côtes des Bar, Champagne, France)

“This biodynamically-farmed massale selection Pinot Noir comes from east-facing slopes on Kimmeridgean soils. Grapes see a two-day maceration, crushed underfoot in the traditional local fashion. It has an enticing onion skin colour and balances pretty red fruit aromas and flavours with real density of texture and profound minerality, and possesses that indefinable energy that one finds in all Dominique’s wines. This is primarily a wine of place and time.”

Poor wine writers are most likely to have to stick to entry level when it comes to purchasing fine Grower Champagne, but I’m pining for this cuvée, one I was unaware of before Doug sent this in. It’s exactly my kind of Rosé and I may need to stretch my hard-pressed budget. Dominique began working from Polisot, close to Celles-sur-Ource, in 2001, and farms a single site of just 2.5ha. She fashions mineral wines of true sophistication, especially with age, and yet there are so few bottles to go around.

David Neilson – Back in Alsace (and Raisin)

David is based partly in San Francisco and increasingly in Alsace. He’s my go-to for all the new producers in Alsace and I’m indebted to him for giving me the heads-up that Tutto Wines have taken on Lambert Spielmann in the UK. This Muscat, and his “Red Z’Epfig”, duly arrived here last week. The labels are genius.

“This is MUSKA” 2019, Lambert Spielmann (Saint-Pierre, Bas Rhin, Alsace)

“Pronounced like Muscat, it comes from a certified organic vineyard and sees fifteen days whole grape maceration before raising in innox.  A discrete base of mixed fruits with a long and dry finish that brings fabulous vibrancy. Lambert’s music selection on the back label is The Specials’ cover of the ska classic “Pressure Drop” by Toots and the Maytals”.

Anne Krebiehl MW – Author (The Wines of Germany)

Weissburgunder “Ried Höchtemmel”, Weingut Schauer (Südsteiermark, Austria)

Anne found it very hard to choose one favourite, being an avid consumer of bubbles, Pinot Noir, dry Riesling, and Austrian and Italian reds. But she went, like most participants, for something a little different. As it’s a producer I’ve never tried, nor indeed seen, that makes it a good choice for me.

The German-speaking wine world has many fine writers, but somehow Anne seems to have her finger on the pulse of the exciting developments in these countries, which makes her writing so vital for me. Read whatever she writes about traditional method Sekt, and she is undoubtedly the Queen of Spätburgunder.

“My discovery goes to a region that always gets under my skin but to an underrated grape variety which has been made to shine with purity, depth and lightness. Grown at 570m altitude it is a picture of clarity. Its gentle ageing in oak gives it a glorious nutty edge and a most creamy texture. It is emollient and super-slender at the same time, it has elegance and poise, it is bottled purity”.

Wink Lorch – Author (Jura Wine and Wines of the French Alps)

Pet Nat 2018 Extra Brut, Domaine Miolanne (Auvergne, France)

Wink has strayed from the regions she is noted for writing about to select a wine from a place that I recently begged importers to get on board with in an article on this site. There truly is so much happening in the Auvergne. Goodness, there’s even a book on the region in French. I’m more of a petnat hound than Wink, revelling in its fun and simplicity. I’m hoping somebody is going to import this one. I mean, such a pretty label…but it just sounds so appetising.

“After all these years this is the first time I’ve truly enjoyed a petnat. It’s a coral-coloured, gently fizzy rosé Gamay from an old Auvergne vine selection grown organically at about 450m on volcanic soils. Totally opposite to the tutti-frutti character you might expect, this petnat spends nine months sur-lattes. It has a chalky dryness with a wonderful stony edge to it, which makes it cry out for nibbles, or indeed provides a flexible match with most foods. One of my unexpected finds from a short trip to the Côtes d’Auvergne in the summer.”

Peter Honneger – Co-founder, Newcomer Wines

Furmint “Gorca” 2019, Michael Gross (Haloze, Slovenia)

“It’s a unique piece of land, one of the most beautiful vineyards I have ever been to.  The wine sits in barrel for 15 months, totally untouched without racking or SO2. It’s a type of Furmint that is game-changing for what Slovenian wine can achieve and it once again proves that Furmint is the best terroir white wine grape variety in Central Europe at the moment”.

I’ve drunk too few Slovenian wines yet to know the country well, but just reading Peter’s description makes this wine a must buy. What I do know is that I had been trying to find exciting Furmint for years, and it is in the last couple that I’ve discovered such wines, in both Hungary and Austria (Wenzel, in Rust, which Peter also sells, has been a revelation). Certainly his point about the variety is highly valid.

Valerie Kathawala – North American-based author and co-founder of Trink Magazine

Silvaner “Augustbaum” 2017, Kerstin and Richard Östreicher (Franconia, Germany)

Fascinating that we have two wines selected from Franconia/Franken in this article, and both from made Silvaner. I have a secret shame in that I’m quite a fan of Silvaner/Sylvaner and will argue its corner with any of the naysayers. But aside from one fine vineyard in the north of Alsace, Franken has to be Silvaner’s true home.

“The Östreichers farm just over 3ha in Sommerach, an historic site for viticulture within a stone’s throw of the great urban vineyards of Würzburg. The Augustbaum comes from a parcel of Katzenkopf, a site of sandy Muschelkalk at moderate elevation. With its nose of herbs and grapefruit pith and zest, and a suggestion of flint that emerges with time in the glass, the wine sets up expectations of something quite taut, but on the palate there is rippling depth, like a small stone thrown into the centre of a cold lake, its precision, balance and length amplifying a grounding minerality and waves of flavour. Organic, hand harvested, spontaneous fermentation and élevage in barrique (giving harmony without adding structure, aroma and oak flavour).

Daniela Pilhofer – Co-founder of littlewine.co (and Newcomer Wines)

La Bodice 2017, Hervé Villemade (Loire, France)

“My most memorable discovery of 2020 was “La Bodice” 2017 by Hervé Villemade (Loire), which I tasted on one of the few easy, chilled evenings of the year, watching a movie and popcorn in hand. It’s a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and upon first sip, me and my partner Peter both looked at each other and went “Wow, this is incredible.” It had a silky touch of almonds to it, with some salt kicking in as the wine was dripping down the palate. I’m not a huge fan of buttery expressions of wine, but this one had just the right touch of depth and richness to it, balanced by that salty finish. It reminded me a lot of the great wines coming out of Styria – by Ewald Tscheppe of Werlitsch and his brother Andreas Tscheppe in particular – probably also due to the combination of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. It was one of the first wines I have had by Hervé Villemade and it left me curious to visit Hervé when time and travel restrictions allow as I’m keen to find out more about the person who crafted this amazing cuvée and who, in my opinion, deserves more attention for this incredible art. Also, at £26 this is hard to beat.”

By coincidence we have friends just down the road from the Villemade siblings and I have known the Cheverny wines from this estate for some time. Quality right now has never been better and it’s lovely that Daniela has chosen this. The wines from the appellation of Cheverny, close to the truly enormous Renaissance period château of the same name, south of Blois, have long been a bit of a Loire secret and this estate is probably the finest exponent. There is a guest article on this producer by Aaron Ayscough for those who have access via Littlewine’s “Backstage Pass” subscription.

Reading through these entries again I can’t help but be amazed at the diversity of wines selected. But equally I can’t help but recognise the honesty of them. I mean the wines. I know it’s a cliché, but no one you will note has gone for anything flash or hyper-expensive. You can so easily imagine every single contributor sitting at home with a glass (probably a Zalto Universal if we’re honest) in hand taking a sniff and a sip. We can probably imagine the expression on their face, because we have most likely felt the same emotions as a stunning new wine has helped us through these unusual and trying circumstances.

Of course, I get to have my own say in my Review of the Year, which I hope will follow in due course before Christmas. But I’m grateful to everyone here who took the time to send me a wine to include. I hope that you feel as excited by them as I do.

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Recent Wines November 2020 (Part 2) #theglouthatbindsus

Continuing to the second selection of wines I drank at home during November, we start out with a rare treat from New Zealand, then a South African favourite, before settling down to Burgenland, Jura’s Sud Revermont, Monmouth in Wales, Champagne, Beaujolais and Alsace. I am no different to many other people who say they have been drinking better than ever during the pandemic, but I really think there are some spectacular wines in this selection. Let’s hope the treats keep coming.

SKIN FERMENT SAUVIGNON BLANC 2018, THE HERMIT RAM (North Canterbury, New Zealand)

Theo Coles farms the “Limestone Hills” vineyard and other tiny blocks in North Canterbury, the rapidly up-and-coming wine region on New Zealand’s South Island. This beautiful landscape has, in Theo’s case, remained untouched by chemical sprays, and he makes natural wines here perhaps like no one else in the country. Other more “natural” winemakers still manage to make wines which taste very “NZ”. Theo doesn’t lose that identity but he’s prepared to push the envelope just a bit further. He’s a wizard with Pinot Noir, and he makes a shockingly good Muller-Thurgau (once quite prevalent in NZ before Sauvignon Blanc came along). But if you really want to see what sets him apart, maybe this signature Sauvignon is one to try.

Fully destemmed fruit sees six weeks on skins. It undergoes malo in barrel after which it is immediately bottled with no added sulphur. It pours out of the bottle between straw and gold in colour and despite a kind of “skin contact” texture on the nose, its bouquet is pure NZSB, but after time it gets more complex. The palate has texture too and there’s a little bitterness. This isn’t over extraction, merely a of bit added flavour riding on the edge of vibrant fruit, if that makes sense. For me, it’s a brilliant wine, the like of which I don’t think New Zealand has seen before. As someone said to me online recently, forget SB in new oak. Skin contact is the way to go. It sure is.

The Hermit Ram is available from Uncharted Wines. They are one of the many importers who have opened an online shop for private customers during the pandemic, giving us all a chance to order wines which are often only to be found in restaurants.

KORTPAD KARPTOE 2016, BLANK BOTTLE WINERY (Swartland, South Africa)

I’d managed to keep a bottle of Pieter Walser’s Fernão Pires (aka Maria Gomes) for a couple of years and it proved a good move as this has aged magnificently. Pieter always has a story for every wine. The name here translates from Afrikaans as “by the fastest route” (he tells us). When asking for directions a grape grower told him “take a right after the Shiraz and Carignan and then left at the Fernão Pires”. Fernão what? On investigation the owner, a Malmsbury producer, didn’t really want this variety. He told Pieter he could have it if he took it all. As with all of Pieter’s stories, they sound a tiny bit surreal, but once you know the man you invest them all with truth (even when they involve fighting off sharks). Anyway, it turns out that these are the only Fernão Pires vines in the Cape.

Pieter fermented the grapes simply, in tank. The result hits you with a nice fresh lemon zippiness before a more honeyed side comes through. It has the sort of texture of honeyed (more than oily) Viognier via its apricot stone fruit. It’s a kind of sunshine richness. Then the faintest hint of butterscotch (or perhaps salted caramel, these things are rarely that precise) lingers before ginger comes through on the finish. Once it has warmed up each mouthful is a journey across that spectrum of flavours, from citrus to saline and savoury. You don’t really notice it cracks 13.5% abv because it retains a vivacity not always seen above 13%. As with all the Walser wines, it seems to manage to be both quite lively and stately at the same time. It’s an oddity which I genuinely think people should seek out.

Blank Bottle is imported by Swig Wines. They regularly get Pieter over to the UK to do events around the country (as well as trade tastings). I went to one such event at Butler’s Wine Cellar in Brighton back in 2019. I couldn’t have wished for a better morning, entertained like never before at such a tasting. He’s one of the nicest and most engaging people in wine I’ve ever met. The owners of Butlers are good mates with Pieter and he’s made a few exclusive bottlings for them, excellent value wines. They are one of the retailers always well provided with Blank Bottle cuvées.

ZWEIGELT 2017, HEINRICH (Burgenland, Austria)

Gernot and Heike Heinrich are yet another biodynamic operation based in the wine village of Gols (also including Claus Preisinger, Rennersistas, Judith Beck and more), to the north of the Neusiedlersee. They took over from Gernot’s parents in 1985. This is an estate where incredible attention to detail has created wonderful living soils and a diverse ecosystem. Conversion to biodynamics was certified in 2006, the Heinrichs being one of the founder members of the Austrian “Respekt” organisation. The wines are all treated as individuals here and from cheapest to more expensive they all have something different to say. There are numerous reasons why their wines don’t always appear on the most fashionable wine lists in London, but they are incredibly well loved by people, like me, who write about wine.

This Zweigelt was described by the Heinrichs as displaying the delicacy of a cut diamond. In a different vein, Jancis Robinson said the 2015 had sufficient acidity to counter the heartiest Tafelspitz (which did make me yearn a little for some of those traditional Viennese Beisl restaurants serving hearty traditional dishes). Those very different notes sum up this lovely wine.

The grapes are harvested from all three vineyard zones by the lake, from the flat gravels closer to the reed beds on the Parndorfer Plain up to the limestone and pockets of schist on the Leithaberg. It was given two weeks post-fermentation on skins in both wood and stainless steel, before thirteen months in old wood (vats and 500-litre barrels). It’s quite serious Zweigelt, dark coloured, smooth and rich, yet only 12% abv. It majors on concentrated cherry fruit cut with red fruit acidity. It’s very elegant as well. It’s way too under the radar. Gernot and Heike are well noted for being one of the first Burgenland producers who really took Zweigelt seriously, and their reds, especially off the wonderful terroir of the Leithaberg which just seems to bring life to the wines, are so vibrant…but please don’t neglect their whites.

Heinrich is imported by Indigo Wines.

POULSARD “SUR CHARRIÉRE” 2013, DOMAINE LABET (Jura, France)

Domaine Labet was one of the Jura producers which set me off on my journey down that particular rabbit hole. Back in those days Alain and Josie worked the land. Today it is their children, led by Julien, who farm somewhere in the region of seven hectares in what is known as the Sud Revermont, near Rotalier. This is the far south of the Jura region, but despite its distance from Arbois, it is another centre for world class producers, as you may well know.

I have to say, because it is something I feel strongly about, that Domaine Labet should be every bit as famous as their neighbours, whether that be the established J-F Ganevat or the superstar newcomer, Domaine des Miroirs. Or indeed any producer in the wider region. I feel that it’s only now that the wines of this wonderful estate, whose vines have never seen any chemical sprays or additions, are getting their just acknowledgement as some of the finest natural wines in France.

So, to the Poulsard. It’s from Labet’s “Parcelles Rares” series. Very old vines, planted in 1969, and a little planted in 1994, from a plot of just 46 ares (sic) on marnes bleus soils at 350 masl, make up the cuvée. The wine is simply made and sees no sulphur added. The result is now, after seven years, brick red, almost the colour of an aged Nebbiolo. It has a mere 10.4% alcohol, but it doesn’t lack body. It has mellowed nicely into a truly complex wine, indeed profound and magical. There’s just something about it. It has a haunting quality that makes the wine float on the palate, but it hasn’t lost that core of concentrated pomegranate or cranberry fruit.

This bottle came from Winemakers Club. Labet can also be purchased through Vine Trail.

TRIOMPHE PETNAT, ANCRE HILL ESTATE (Monmouthshire, Wales)

Richard and Joy Morris planted vines just outside of Monmouth in 2006. Intuition might tell you that surely Wales is too wet for viticulture, but this is a particularly dry part of the country. Although they have some Triomphe [d’Alsace] planted, they have managed to grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Albariño, over 12 hectares, to great effect, establishing a reputation as a pioneer of low intervention viticulture and winemaking in Great Britain. The estate is now openly up for sale as Richard and Joy want to retire. If you have a spare £15 million and want to get into biodynamic (Demeter certified) grape farming in Great Britain, here’s your opportunity (contact Savills Estate Agents).

Triomphe was developed as a hybrid cross (between an American variety and a vinifera) in 1911, in a Colmar then still under German rule following annexation in the war of 1871 and the Treaty of Frankfurt. It grows well even in a cool climate, though you need to really keep on top of canopy thinning to avoid mildew when wet. The wine produced in this case is deep coloured and gently fizzy (almost frizzante with only 2-to-3 bar pressure) and very frothy. It’s a multi-vintage wine whereby the juice from the new vintage is added to the base wine, its sugars reinvigorating a second fermentation. The result is very simple, yet it does exactly what any petnat should. It provides a “smashable” juice which refreshes all the parts…in this case, being a red wine, through pure raspberry juice with a hint of Ribena (that’s blackcurrant to those not familiar).

Ancre Hill wines are to be found through the Les Caves de Pyrene network of independent wine shops. I bought a selection of Ancre Hill wines in an order from Butler’s Wine Cellar of Brighton, source of the Breaky Bottom sparkler which appeared in Part 1. Definitely worth a look for English and Welsh wines.

CHAMPAGNE VILMART COEUR DE CUVÉE 2003 (Champagne, France)

Vilmart & Cie is tucked away in Rilly-la-Montagne on the crest of the Montagne de Reims, just west of both Chigny-les-Roses and the main D9 road from Reims to Epernay. Vilmart was the first “Grower Champagne” I became enamoured with, before I even knew that “growers” existed, or at least as producers of cuvées like this one, to match the very best produced by the Champagne Houses.

Laurent Champs runs this perfectionist operation, with a winery filled with some of the most beautiful wooden barrels and vats, matched by the stunning beauty of the stained glass created by Laurent’s father, René. The vines are “only” Premier Cru, but they are old (most are around 50-years of age) and the top cuvées really do make a mockery of the Grand/Premier Cru distinction which in most other cases holds relatively true.

Coeur is made from the heart of the cuvée, the first gentle pressings. The grapes are unusually fermented in barrique and like any wine thus made, it demands a long period of post-disgorgement bottle age for it all to come together. Then, like any fine wine, it can be magnificent. It is usually made up of around 80% Chardonnay with just Pinot Noir added, but I don’t have the exact blend for this vintage. What I am able to say is that this ’03 is now complex and magnificent. It is obviously made with great care and attention to detail, but it also has genuine soul.

Laurent has an odd knack of producing some magnificent bottles from what the critics term less-good vintages. In fact, I’d like to try a better 2001 than Vilmart’s Couer de Cuvée of that disastrous year. This is much better than the 2001 though, a lovely wine drinking so well now. It’s my last 2003 Coeur, though I do have a few 2002 left. But it is now probably beyond my pocket to purchase newer vintages, as are most prestige cuvées from Champagne. Sic transit gloria mundi.

This was purchased on a visit to the domaine in April 2012, as the 2003 had just been released.

FLEURIE “CHAVOT” 2014, JULIE BALAGNY (Beaujolais, France)

Julie is a Parisian who is very much more at home in the countryside. She began working for wine producers in France’s southwest, but managed to make a home with three hectares of vines surrounded by woodland, around Fleurie. Julie has since added a further 2 ha in other locations and she has started to supplement her estate wines with a few negociant cuvées (one of which I bought this week).

I have had so many really good bottles of Beaujolais from 2014, and indeed this is my last of three (or four?) of this cuvée. Not only have they all been superb, but this is still going strong, drinking nicely but not sliding down the hill. As with all the Balagny wines, this sees whole berries undergo a semi-carbonic maceration. The juice is never manipulated by pumping over or pushing down. No additives, including sulphur, make this the purest of natural wines in both senses.

Cherry juice of the most concentrated (but light as a feather) kind is the core. There’s a tasty twist of pomegranate acidity dancing over the top, and a little bit of earthy texture sitting underneath. Overall, it’s smooth fruited and, it’s true, alive. I’d say it’s mature but has perhaps as much as four or five years left in the tank. Who says natural wines cannot age? I think this actually might be the best bottle of the batch, a case shared with a couple of friends.

Tutto Wines is the importer for Julie Balagny. I don’t think there is any “Chavot” remaining on their list, but they do show five Balagny cuvées from the 2019 vintage, only one of them currently on their online shop, Tutto a Casa.

AUXERROIS “STIERKOPF” 2016, DOMAINE RIETSCH (Alsace, France)

Jean-Pierre Rietsch is one of the most respected producers in Mittelbergheim, hotbed of innovation in the Bas Rhin. He’s the seventh generation of his family to farm here, although they have not always been wine growers, his parents having begun vine cultivation in the 1970s.

Stierkopf is a south facing slope of limestone and sandstone at Mutzig, perhaps ten kilometres to the north of the Rietsch base at Mittelbergheim. It’s a particularly warm site on which Jean-Pierre also grows amazing Pinot Noir. The wine began a spontaneous fermentation after which it was left in vat, on lees, for eleven months. It is allowed to go through malolactic. It shows just 12 mg/l sulphur on analysis. It was bottled in August 2017.

There’s a mineral structure backed with striking salinity, but there’s also fruit to match, generous pear and quince. Looking at the wine as a whole, standing back a moment, it looks like a wine bound together with a certain tension yet that tension is relieved at the edges by sunshine. I guess that means I think the wine reflects its terroir. It certainly shines brightly, an exemplary wine. I know I am lucky to own a reasonable number of Jean-Pierre’s wines, but they are getting drunk rather quickly. A visit to Alsace this year had to be postponed, only exacerbating the situation, but although this bottle came from a previous visit to the domaine, Jean-Pierre Rietsch is imported into the UK by Wines Under The Bonnet. Fill your b…onnets, as they say.

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Recent Wines November 2020 (Part 1) #theglouthatbindsus

November’s “Recent Wines”, the most interesting wines drunk at home last month, kicks off in Rust and a winemaker whose wines were among the first from Burgenland I drank. We then continue our journey via Sussex, Hungary, the Mosel and back to Burgenland, before we head over into Slovakia. We are then back in Sussex but for something completely different, before ending Part 1 in California.

JUNGE LÖWEN 2018, HEIDI SCHRÖCK (Burgenland, Austria)

Heidi’s old family cellars are situated right on the square in the beautiful town of Rust, right on the western shore of the Neusiedlersee. Whilst the focus these days is rightly on the younger generation of natural wine producers around the lake, we shouldn’t forget that there are a group of women who have been making biodynamic or low intervention wines around here for many years. These include Birgit Braunstein, Judith Beck, and of course Heidi Schröck.

Junge Löwen does what it says on the label. It’s a tasty drinking red under screwcap, a blend of 85% Blaufränkisch and 15% St-Laurent. It smells of bright dark fruits with a lovely smooth palate made interesting by a slightly mineral edge. It’s simple, but an excellent introduction to Heidi’s very pure wines, and great value. Although her reds step up from here, via Rusterberg and Ried Kulm, this is just as enjoyable in its own way for its accessible sappy fruit.

I’ve mostly bought Heidi’s wines from Alpine Wines over the years, apart from a few bottles purchased in Heidi’s cellars, but this bottle came from The Solent Cellar via Liberty Wines, who seem to have the three red wines mentioned and halves of her Beerenauslese.

CUVÉE MICHELLE MOREAU BRUT 2014, BREAKY BOTTOM (Sussex, England)

Breaky Bottom is kind of hidden away in the Sussex countryside south of the County Town of Lewes. The six-hectare estate, founded by Peter Hall when he planted a vineyard near Rodmell in 1974, is one of the longest-standing quality producers of English Sparkling Wine, and perhaps one of the few to make very good Seyval Blanc. This cuvée, however, is made from a more traditional blend of 70% Chardonnay, 15% Pinot Noir and Meunier.

“Michelle Moreau” (a poet, dancer, writer, inveterate traveller and a close friend of the Halls) is an award winning cuvée of just 6,736 bottles which at £35.50 is as much a hidden classic as the estate is hidden away in the folds of the South Downs chalkland. It’s bright and classy with a little bite of acidity, but it also shows that bit of bottle age which adds depth and complexity. I’m sure it will improve further, but it is drinking so well now. Sort of lively, but stately. I definitely want to get some more.

This comes from the estate via Brighton wine merchant The Butler’s Wine Cellar, which is something of a specialist when it comes to English (and Welsh) sparkling wine, whose owners have a close connection with the estate.

ORA 2018, RÉKA-KONCZ (Eastern Hungary)

Annamária Réka is too much of a regular in these monthly revues for me to go over her background yet again, as I work my way through my first batch from her range (after this one I have just one more of her wines currently in the UK to write about). She makes mostly wines from white grapes with differing degrees of skin contact in the very far east of Hungary, right up by the border with Ukraine. She will certainly get a mention in my Review of the Year in a few weeks.

Ora is a field blend based on a local and rare autochthonous variety called Királyléanyka, which Annamária is intent on keeping alive. The blend also contains some Rhine Riesling, Hárslevelü and Furmint (probably among others, as is the way with traditional field blends all over Central Europe). It sees a five-day maceration of destemmed grapes in open cask before finishing in tank.

The wine has some protecting C02 which makes it gently spritzy (not fizzy) on opening. I should warn that it was the most “cidery” wine I’ve tried from this producer, though I’d describe it as the best cider I’ve ever drunk. But it is a little out there. Within the context of what I’ve just said this was gorgeous, if for the more adventurous.

There are plenty of more straightforward (if that’s really a fair word to use) wines in the Réka Koncz range. They are imported by Basket Press Wines and you can check out these wines (and their whole range, from mostly Central Europe) at their popup shop throughout December, at 188A Hackney Road (almost opposite Sager + Wilde). See my article of 23 November for more details.

LITTLE RED RIDING WOLF [2019], JAN MATTHIAS KLEIN (Mosel, Germany)

JMK is the man behind Staffelter Hof and this is one of his Landwein, which sport contenders for the most modern and perhaps most exciting wine labels in Germany today. You’d hardly guess that some of these wines hail from the traditional vicinity of Kröv, on the most famous stretch of the Mosel. This red is made from Pinot Noir with zero added sulphur, equally unfined and unfiltered.

What hits you first is mouthfilling cherry fruit. That’s enough, although a little earthy texture makes the wine food friendly. At a balanced 12% abv it is truly gluggable, but it doesn’t seem light or lacking weight on account of that concentrated fruit. One of the best German reds for drinking bottle after bottle in an unashamedly natural wine style without an excess of funk.

Imported by Modal Wines.

INTERGALACTIC 2019, RENNER & RENNERSISTAS (Burgenland, Austria)

The Renner establishment is on the right-hand side of the road as you drive (or cycle in my case) into Gols coming from Neusiedl-am-See, at the top of the lake. Gols sits in the middle of vineyards which slope both above the village and below it, more gently down to the reed beds of the Neusiedlersee. The Renner revolution is well underway, and Stefanie and Susanne are now joined by brother Georg. Although their father, Helmuth, has been a noted producer of the serious “Pannobile” wines of the region, the three siblings are all well versed in the ways of natural wine production (the sisters trained with Tom Shobbrook and Tom Lubbe).

Intergalactic is a new wine in the range, a white field blend of Grüner Veltliner, Welschriesling, Gewurztraminer, Muscat Ottonel and Chardonnay. When I visited at the time of the 2018 vintage Stefanie told me how, having seen how their individual varieties perform on their own and getting to know them, their interest now really lies in creating the best possible blends.

This cuvée sees a little skin contact over four days before ageing on lees in old oak. It only shows 11.5% abv, which gives it a lightness, but at the same time there’s definitely something in the blend which adds a little plumpness or gras. The overall effect on the texture is very positive.

This wine is firmly in the unfiltered camp, so it really does need a day or two standing up, but it’s a glorious field blend. Planet Gols is taking us to the outer reaches of the furthest galaxies. Please don’t stop.

Renner & Rennersistas are imported by Newcomer Wines and are also available at littlewine.co , and I’ve bought this from both so I’m not sure which one this bottle came from.

DEVIN 2018, MAGULA (Sovakia)

Magula is among the best three or four producers I know in Slovakia, and is equally one of my favourites in the whole of Central Europe. It is a ten-hectare family estate (second generation) at Sucha Nad Parnou in Southern Slovakia. Biodynamic wines are made in a dry valley (hence the vine on the labels, forced to go deep) from loess soils with a high mineral content, especially calcium, which you will see clearly affects the flavour.

Devin is a local cross between Gewurztraminer and Roter Veltliner. It combines a texture somewhere between peach juice and olive oil but the bouquet and palate give fresh lime citrus and peach with hints of spices and a saline twist. It’s a lovely variety for anyone seeking something very different to what they may have tasted before, yet don’t want anything too out there. In some ways it reminds me a little of Viognier, but if you don’t like Viognier don’t be put off. Everything blends together nicely, so that the wine is neither complex nor simple (or maybe it’s both at the same time).

Another bottle from Basket Press Wines which you could pick up at the importer’s popup shop (188A Hackney Road) during December.

QVEVRI WHITE 2019, TILLINGHAM WINES (Sussex, England)

Ben Walgate’s change of direction, from running a well-known English Sparkling Wine specialist to artisan winemaker pushing the boundaries of English wine at its fringes, is proving to have been a good move. The myriad wines made just inland from Rye are all of interest, or should be, to anyone interested in (or writing about!) the wines of Great Britain. One of the most out-there decisions Ben made was to import a couple of qvevri from Georgia. More have followed, and his cuvées of qvevri wine and cider are among the most exciting crafted at Tillingham.

This cuvée is a blend of Bacchus and Pinot Blanc, from two separate qvevris, whole bunch pressed with four months on skins in the buried clay vessels. You’ll be pushed to find another wine like this in England. It’s very cloudy (wholly unfiltered) but it tastes remarkably clean with grapefruit freshness cutting through the palate. It’s a versatile wine too. You might think it a summery glass but the texture adds palatability with food, and we actually drank it with a spicy curry.

This bottle came from the shelves of The Solent Cellar but it’s worth remembering that the Tillingham shop is currently open from 10-4 on Saturdays during Lockdown (Dew Farm, Dew Lane, Peasmarsh), and presumably for longer after 2 December (check the web site). They sell the full Tillingham range on site, along with a great selection of other mainly natural wines from the restaurant cellar.

RIPKEN VINEYARD CILIEGIOLO 2018, KEEP WINES (California, USA)

The story of how Jack Roberts met his future partner, Johanna Jensen, on the Englishman’s first day in the USA is very romantic. Both moved into high quality wine making, Johanna with Abe Schoener’s Scholium Project and Broc Cellars, and Jack with Matthiasson Family Wines. Jack was Matthiasson’s vineyard manager until last vintage, when he finally felt able to devote all his time to his own family’s project.

Ciliegiolo is a little-known Tuscan variety, a minor component in Chianti, which has gained some recognition in recent years both in Maremma on the Tuscan Coast and in Umbria. Its name comes from the Italian for cherry, which pretty much explains the grape. Someone saw fit to plant some, whether deliberately or thinking it was something else, twenty years ago on the Sacramento River Delta. Jack and Johanna seem to have a passion for finding these less well-known varieties around wider Napa (I drank their delicious Counoise back in May), and every single time they get the very best out of them, as if they have a Midas touch.

The grapes are fermented in stainless steel with no stems. You get ripe, dark and zippy cherry fruit, concentrated but coming in at just 12.5% alcohol. This seems to make for perfect balance and maximum refreshment. A remarkably beautiful glass of alcoholic cherry juice which, if I dare say it, is the best Ciliegiolo I’ve ever drunk (and yes, I’ve had a few from Italy). Personally I would pick up any wine made by this pair.

Keep wines’ UK agent is Nekter Wines, a specialist in excellent under the radar Cali producers, as well as the likes of Matthiasson.

Sometimes even I forget to photograph the bottle…but at least I kept the label
Posted in Artisan Wines, Natural Wine, Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Goode Wine Guide (Review)

I’m hoping I’m not too late here to recommend a great little stocking filler for the wine obsessive in your life. This came out in September but my Lockdown reading pile has grown somewhat tall, and I’ve only just read it. I was just a little worried that its relatively small size would mean that the print was tiny, but that turned out not to be a problem. I guess that at just under 230 pages I zipped through it pretty quickly, and if it has any downside that is it. Easily remedied though, I am following it with a book which weighs in with over 500pp.

The Goode Wine Guide is the umpteenth book of Dr Goode’s I’ve read, and it’s a little different to the others. But it’s not at all what you might think. Jamie doesn’t give you a list of wines you should drink from every region or country he can think of, like most books with a similar title. Instead he provides a sort of manifesto for wine lovers. A kind of “this is what I think…you may agree with me or you may not”.

Jamie is that rare wine writer, a genuine scientist. He often jokes about people with letters after their name, but he has them fore and aft (Dr and PhD). His discipline is biology, and he is keen to remind us that winemaking is down to biology more than chemistry (unless you are a particular type of winemaker). He is also a little bit of an iconoclast, but again in a very different way to what we usually see. But that will come out as we go through the book.

The Goode Wine Guide is divided into 55 chapters, which is only an average of four pages each, but some chapters are even shorter. When Jamie makes his points, they are usually succinct, but in one or two cases I was yearning for him to go a little bit further. I’ll give you a taster of the sort of areas he’s discussing. Sometimes it’s winemaking or farming, sometimes it’s about the people who sell wine, and sometimes it’s about those who write about it. Quite often however it’s just highlighting an approach to the subject which is just a little out of kilter with the mainstream. A philosophy of wine perhaps, if that doesn’t sound too serious for a book that is above all, fun. He’s not so much an evangelist though, more someone who likes to prod us out of our stupor…our tendency to take things at face value and believe all the old clichés. He may like to tear down the odd stubbornly held belief, but he’s not smashing all the statues in the temple.

An example, perhaps. Chapter 6 dives into two opposing approaches to the subject, which he calls “reductionist” and “holistic”. He reminds us that our wine education teaches us to break down a wine, in our tasting notes, into its constituent parts. By “marking” a wine for elements such as brightness, bouquet, texture (for example) we can build up a brick by brick quality picture. Jamie asks us to look at the whole experience. He asks whether “if we rush too quickly to words we might miss out on the experience”. This really gets to the heart of Goode’s (and my) philosophy. If we reduce wine down to three points for this and five points for that, we are able to score the wine. But are we on a different planet to the people who buy the bottle to “enjoy” (my question, not his)? As Dr Goode says, “we need to dwell with it, experience it…”.

Chapter 11 is called “Mouthfeel Matters”. It’s only about a page long (plus a rare half-page footnote). We place so much store by how a wine smells, its bouquet. Of course we do. Most of us realise the importance of aroma the first time we smell a really fine Red Burgundy, if we’ve not already come to see half the pleasure in wine is its nose before that point. But there’s something else we tend to forget. The key to this vignette is a quote from Nick Mills of Rippon Vineyard in Central Otago. I won’t spoil it by giving you the full quotation, but it begins “Terroir is issued through shape and feel, not smells and flavors (sic)”. It’s so important to understand that a wine is not merely a list of summer fruits on nose and palate.

Chapter 14 is one after my own heart. Its title, Beauty is not the Absence of Flaws, illuminates a topic Jamie has touched on before in his book on wine faults. After you have read this chapter you will pine for Japan (if you’ve been before) and at the same time perhaps to listen to a record on which there is a real drummer, not a drum machine. I’m sure many of you will see where he’s going with this idea.

I’m pretty sure you want to know what the doctor thinks of scores? He discusses them in Chapter 20, which runs to almost five pages! His view is nuanced, as you’d expect from a man forced to use them in wine competitions. He accepts that they do have a limited value, but he perhaps looks over rather wistfully at those with the freedom to reject them (like myself). But one sentence sums up my own feelings. “[Scoring wine] is an attempt to make something diffuse and indefinable into something focused and precise”. My own view is that those who are truly enthusiastic about scoring wine are to me like someone who takes an opposing view to mine on Brexit. They are, in most cases, implacable. Trouble is, score inflation ruins any argument that scores are objective. Can people not see that in order to get your name on a shelf sticker you just have to score a wine 98-100 points? Because if you don’t see it, your rival can.

Chapter 27 says “Stay Critical but Remember There’s Room for Everyone”. Oh! how some wine critics have embarrassed themselves by allowing their mouths to froth over natural wine. Jamie wrote a letter to these people, which he published on his Wine Anorak blog, and reproduces here. It’s very funny, unless you have a very reactionary bent when it comes to people wishing to avoid using synthetic chemicals on their vines and a range of other interventions and manipulations in their winemaking. He’s not saying that people who make wine the other way are wrong. He’s by no means a natural wine fundamentalist, far from it. He’s just asking why people get so upset about natural wine? Personally, I consider them a bit like those who say “why do we have an international women’s day and not one for men?” In other words, they don’t quite get it.  Just let people do their own thing Mr very traditional wine writer. They are not hurting you! How many of us feel challenged, even diminished, by new thinking?

It’s nice to see someone who is (otherwise) very positive about the world of wine today, especially in terms of quality. As Jamie rightly says, there’s so much less bad wine than there used to be. I can attest to that fact, having been alive a little bit longer that the author. There’s a chapter on this point, but it ties in with another, on those wine writers who profess to be consumer champions. There are a few of those around today, all born perhaps from one man who told us we don’t need to pay more than average supermarket prices to be happy.

Jamie gets mildly upset when people suggest that the world of wine is peopled by rip-off merchants trying to push inexcusably expensive bottles to the public, and worse than that, decrying the cheaper brands as rubbish. Again, I won’t spoil it, but Chapter 42 is called “Beware the Consumer Champions”. ‘Nuff said! Needless to say, I’m firmly with those who cherish the expertise and passion of the wine trade in this and every other country I buy wine in. Naturally people in the independent wine trade want to make a living, but just like indie record stores and book shops, they do it because of their passion, and their desire to pass that passion on to you and me.

If you think that only one type of wine writer comes under scrutiny, think again. Chapter 53 is called “How to succeed at wine writing by writing boring articles”. This is where Jamie’s surely not afraid to make enemies. The story he reveals is one which happens so often. The writer is invited on an expenses-paid press jaunt. He or she may get to visit the odd artisan producer, but it’s clearly more about the bigger guns, who are after all stumping up the cash to bring the journos over. Back home they go and they are expected to knock out something which puts everyone in a good light, for their few hundred quid fee, making sure to mention anyone who might like to advertise on the opposite page.

Now spin it however you wish, but this is true in so many cases. It’s the way the wine world works, and it’s the way wine publications survive in some (not all) cases. There is a retort, which in fact a well-known wine writer highlighted in a conversation with me the other day. They said that if editors didn’t ask for formulaic articles like this, they wouldn’t get written, which is a fair point from someone whose work published in book form is very far from being formulaic or boring. However, they also said that no magazine or journal pays for really good wine writing. Perhaps those who have been lucky enough to write for World of Fine Wine have found an exception. Others are lucky enough to have the chance to express themselves in books. I, for one, feel very lucky that I can say what the hell I like here, and publish it.

Do I have any criticisms of The Goode Wine Guide? No. The book is not intended for anyone looking to learn about wine in a factual way. Very few times does the author mention any specific wine or wine region. But it is illuminating in other ways. Who would read it and why?

Certainly, anyone in the wine trade should not only enjoy it, but learn a little. We all get drawn into thinking about things through blinkers, and Jamie does nothing if not remove our blinkers. He reminds us that there is always another perspective. If we ignore or reject that perspective we risk missing out. For the same reasons this book is likely to be just as interesting to avid wine lovers, and those who are embarking on the journey towards a wine obsession. You might not have the same degree of interest or engagement as I did, in every single chapter, but there are fifty-five topics to grab your attention.

Only one quibble, Jamie. In Chapter 45 you exhort us not to be an all-rounder but to be a specialist. Well, it’s aimed largely at the wine producers of Great Britain. Their sparkling wines are so good that they shouldn’t go rambling on about their Bacchus, the author suggests. It’s not that my view is a bit more nuanced on this one (English and Welsh still wines are making great strides), but that in a footnote Dr Goode gives us a list of English Sparkling Wines he can recommend “to start with”. I’m sure your memory was shot when you wrote that footnote Jamie. It’s the only reason, surely, that we don’t see “Black Chalk” at the head of that list.

The Goode Wine Guide is published by the University of California Press (Sept 2020) at £15.99 ($18.95). It really would make a great stocking filler for Christmas and I can imagine sitting by a log fire, a glass of Palo Cortado in hand, with the need to read something both easy going yet stimulating at the same time. You may well find it hard to put down and be near the final chapter by the end of the Bond movie on TV which you’ve seen nine times before. I was going to say “a great way to avoid playing charades” but I guess there won’t be much of that this Christmas.

Posted in Philosophy and Wine, Tasting Wine, Wine, Wine Books, Wine Science, Wine Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Christmas Popup You Mustn’t Miss (Basket Press Wines on Hackney Road)

I don’t know if you are like me but I love browsing. Record shops, book shops and yes, wine shops. I find it remarkably difficult to enter one of these establishments and to leave without a purchase. But aside from the pleasure of spending time looking at the shelves I find that physical stores actually encourage me to try new things. Something always leaps out at me that I did not enter with the intention of buying, and quite often that something is a book, record or bottle that I didn’t even know existed. In the age of online shopping the pure pleasure of browsing is being lost to many of us.

There’s another great thing about these physical stores, and especially a wine store. Many of us would like to be adventurous but don’t necessarily know where to begin. Nowhere is this more obvious than wine regions which are new to us and hardly seen in your run of the mill store. This is why you really need to get down to Hackney Road during December.

If you are someone who reads this blog avidly, or even dips in from time to time, you will have spotted that I have a developing interest in the wines of Central Europe. It’s a kind of natural progression from my passion for Austria and her wines. Maybe my relatively regular bottles littering my “Recent Wines” posts may have whetted your appetite, but you have not been tempted to order online. Your prayers may be answered if you might consider dipping your toe in with just two or three bottles, and you’d like a bit of advice in selecting them. Basket Press Wines is opening a popup shop in East London during the month of December. I would suggest that you get down there if you possibly can to check out what’s going on in this exciting wine scene.

Jiri Majerik and Zainab Majerikova

Basket Press are specialists in the wines of the Czech Republic (or Czechia if you prefer). This isn’t surprising as Jiri Majerik is a Czech national. But they don’t stop there. They also cover top producers from Slovakia as well as dipping into Hungary, Slovenia and Germany.

Czech Moravia has a long tradition of winemaking but is poorly served in our wine literature (it warrants around 200 words in the new (8th edn) “World Atlas of Wine”). It has around 16,500 hectares of vines which spread southwards, in a kind of triangle, from the apex of the region’s largest city, the regional capital of Brno. It is a hotbed of high-quality natural winemaking, led perhaps by Jaroslav Osicka, one time teacher at the local wine college. The region has its own movement, called Autentiste, with its own festival, Autentikfest, every August. It is this band of winemakers which Basket Press focuses on for the core of their list. Their portfolio is not exclusively “natural”, but all of their producers are either biodynamic or at least organic, with low intervention at the heart of what they sell.

Jaroslav Osicka

Grape varieties to look out for do include the better known varieties like Veltliner, Frankovka (aka Blaufränkisch) and Pinot Noir (planted here originally in the 14th century), but also regional specialities like Modry Portugal (Portugieser) and Cabernet Moravia (a high potential Zweigelt-Cabernet Franc cross). I would especially recommend checking out the region’s many interesting petnats. Petr Korab is perhaps the king of Moravian bubbles, for my subjective taste, but he’s not alone.

In addition to the above you will find on their list the wonderful Czech natural ciders of Utopia, as well as wines from Slovakia (do not miss Magula), Hungary, Slovenia and Germany. Jiri and his wife Zainab have just made their first excursion into Germany, having taken on Max Sein Wein from Franken. It’s an estate which is certainly part of the “Alt-Germany” movement, with interesting blends, very old-vine Silvaner, and the rare Schwarzriesling (that’s Pinot Meunier to you and I).

Another star in the portfolio is their Hungarian producer, Réka-Koncz. Annamária Réka makes wines in the very far east of the country, so some of her vines are even technically in Ukraine. They are natural wines made most often with varying degrees of skin contact, and with a strong focus on autochthonous grape varieties. These are sensational wines for anyone with a true sense of vinous adventure, not easy and perhaps challenging for those whose palates may be of a more conservative bent, but I’m not alone in recognising their magic. Do ask advice in-store if you want to try one of the less extreme cuvées, though perhaps you might just go straight in.

Réka-Koncz

So, to the details. The Basket Press Wines Popup will be open from 1 December at 188A Hackney Road, London E2 7QL. It will be easy to find for many, situated across the Road from Sager+Wilde, Morito and The Marksman Pub.

Opening will be from 1 December to 31 December, Wednesday to Saturday from 12pm to 8pm and Sundays from 11am to 5pm. The Christmas exceptions will be Christmas Eve (24th) when they will open from 12pm until 3pm and then they will remain closed from 25th to Monday 28th inclusive. The shop will then reopen on 29th to 31st December from 12pm until 8pm.

Delivery will be possible, and in any case Basket Press Wines offers a very good next day mail order service throughout the year at basketpresswines.com . However, for the month of December you have the opportunity to browse, and to chat with Jiri and Zainab. Do not miss this chance to acquaint yourselves with these interesting and often genuinely thrilling wines if Hackney Road is within reach. Hopefully during this time we will be allowed to enjoy some of the other fantastic watering holes in the near vicinity as well (lunch sorted).

I should just add, as it is fairly unusual for me to promote something like this, that I am neither being paid or bribed to do so. These wines fascinate me and I’m keen to promote them, and to get people to try a few. There are other very good importers who sell one or two wines from this wider region, but Basket Press has the largest concentration of them in the UK at the moment. I think it’s a good move for them to go for a popup and I hope it introduces many more inquisitive wine lovers to what these regions have to offer.

Posted in Artisan Wines, Christmas and Wine, Czech Wine, Hungarian Wine, Natural Wine, Slovakian Wine, Slovenian Wine, Wine, Wine Agencies, Wine Merchants, Wine Shops | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment