Austria’s Sparkling Again (Sekt not dregs and…)

Monday 7 February, I should have been at the Wines of Austria Tasting at London’s Institute of Directors. I wasn’t. Never mind, I’m still going to write about Austrian wines, but some of the Austrian wines you don’t often hear a great deal about. When thinking about countries which produce fizz, Austria is not usually near the top of the list. Let’s face it, it probably wouldn’t figure at all on some people’s lists.

This is hardly surprising. I read recently that in 2015 only 3,000 bottles of Austrian sparkling wine were imported into the UK, and indeed only a fraction of production goes outside of Austria. Of those 3,000 bottles, I think that my wine friends and I drank quite a significant proportion.

Sparkling wine used to be a niche product within Austria. It tended to be made by large specialists, none perhaps better known than Schlumberger, based in Vienna. Apart from one particular regional speciality, of which more later, the family wine producers who have transformed Austrian wine in the 21st Century generally ignored the sparkling option. This has all changed. Many are now approaching the style with serious intent.

There are those who have embraced Sekt as a quality product, for example Schloss Gobelsburg in the Wachau, and Fred Loimer in Kamptal. But up until now, these producers have been hindered by a lack of regulation. Sekt could be made from 35 different grape varieties and from several variant methods. About the only thing fixed was the minimum pressure level (at 20°C) of 3,5 bar (the same minimum as for Champagne, although your average bottle of Champagne might have 5-7 bar, 3-4 bar being more typical of a French Crémant). For such producers, the new three-tier system (see link at bottom for more information) for a new designated protected origin (PDO) for Sekt, just in force, will help them establish their wines on the market, should they go down this route. Especially as one of the most important facets of the new regulations stipulates minimum ageing (on lees) requirements at each level of the quality pyramid.

However, it is not really these quality Sekt wines which I’ve been drinking. As always, regulations are rigid, and they don’t always take account of the innovations already underway, the kind which smaller producers are driving, and which slip under the radar. So how the new regulatory environment, overseen by Austria’s new “Sekt Committee” (with the same standing and authority as Austria’s regional wine bodies), will affect these young guns, remains to be seen.

My first exploration of Austrian Sekt was through a series of wines made by the industry’s doyen, Schlumberger. The wines are made by the “Méthode Traditionelle”, and generally light and fresh, as exemplified by the nicely marketed Cuvée Klimt, and the Rosé, in the photos below. One of the other well known producers of Sekt, whose wines are generally available in the UK, is the Steininger family. If you are in Vienna, do look for Fritz Wieninger‘s Cuvée Katharina Rosé Sekt (they like to mix their languages). It’s a Champ…er, I mean traditional method blend of Pinot Noir and Zweigelt, a delicate pink colour, quite lacy, dosed at 5g/l. As far as I am aware, this is not one of Fritz’s wines which is imported into the UK.

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My next taste of Austrian sparkling wine was that regional speciality I mentioned,  which even some Austrians find strange, and one frankly dismissed by most wine writers. Yet, perhaps typically (for someone who discovered and enjoyed wines like Bugey-Cerdon in the early 1990s), I find it quite beguiling. It’s called Schilcher.

Schilchersekt is made from one grape variety, Blauer Wildbacher, which is almost unique to its region of production, Weststeiermark (Styria), in Southeastern Austria, towards the Slovenian border. The wine it makes is equally one of the world’s unique wines. Blauer Wildbacher can make a dry, still, pink wine, even a red on occasion, but the pink sparkling style is equally well known, and has something of a cult following. The only one I’ve had more than once is that of Langmann. The acidity is characteristically high, and the dryness is compensated by a very fruity strawberry and raspberry nose, replicated on the palate. Strohmeier‘s version has more than a hint of orange blossom and more citrus. The high acidity is what puts the pros on their guard, but frankly this is a gluggable fizz which will appeal to many of the Pét-Nat lovers who read this blog.

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This brings us neatly onto some of the other Austrian sparklers I’ve been drinking. Some of these are even labelled with the French term, “pét-nat”, others alluding to the méthode ancestrale used to create these wines. Now, Susan Barrie MW states in Decanter’s 2017 Austrian Wine Supplement that “most of the better [sparkling] wines are made by the traditional method”, but not being tied to the quality doctrines of the Institute of Masters of wine, you’d not expect me to agree completely with the near black and white certainty of that statement.

The most extreme of these wines is undoubtedly Kalkspitz from Christophe Hoch. Christoph makes wine in the part of Kremstal just south of the Danube, at Hollenburg. The soils here are chalky, and his sparkling wine is high in acidity, very mineral, and with a bit of salinity. The pressure, at a little under 3 bar, is too low for PDO accreditation, not that I presume Christoph would seek it. He treads his own path. It’s not for everyone, though if you read my blog you’ll know I like it enough to have drunk it several times. To be honest, it’s a great wine to take somewhere to provoke a reaction. You get apples, pears and red berries, and there’s even a touch of Marmite in the mix, a genuine Marmite wine.

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Meinklang, based in Burgenland’s Pamhagen, on the Hungarian border southeast of the Neusiedler See, make two lovely sparklers which I know well. Foam is made from Pinot Gris as a somewhat yeasty, orange-hued pét-nat. It’s a fun wine, yet with serious intent. Prosa is quite different. Made from Pinot Noir, 10.5% alcohol to Foam’s 12%, it has juicy strawberry fruit and a sweetness balanced with acidity, which makes it a perfect wine for summer picnics. It’s rather quaintly stoppered with a string-tied cork, rather than Foam’s more traditional (for the type) crown cap, and it is styled as a frizzante. It’s dangerously bottled in clear glass, but this really is a wine to pop open when you get it home, after a spell in the fridge.

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The story we are reading seems to be one of an iconoclastic approach to making sparkling wine. Old favourite Claus Preisinger, is one of several young winemakers around Gols who are worth following. Ancestral is his take on pét-nat with just 9% alcohol. It’s vinified as a blanc de noirs from the St. Laurent grape variety. Light, as the alcohol suggests, but with clean red fruits and, as someone said on Vivino, “totally f***ing smashable”. The 2015 is, I believe, sold out, but 2016 will be on its way.

After some of the above, the final wine in my Austrian sparklers roundup might seem quite ordinary to some. The grape variety is Grüner Veltliner, which is not particularly unusual for Austrian sparkling wine. Often blended with Chardonnay in some of the méthode traditionelle wines, here it sits on its own in a magnificent brut cuvée from Martin Diwald in Grossriedenthal (Wagram). He’s Arnold Holzer’s best mate and neighbour, for those of you who need your memory jogging. This is a lovely fruit-driven wine, yet with great balance (it has weight but it’s not heavy or cumbersome), and a Grüner savouriness (maybe the much over used umami?). I only drank this for the first time quite recently, sharing a sample bottle, but I have ensured I get some when it’s delivered.

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For those who wish to explore further, including those who want more information on the new regulations and quality regime for Austrian Sekt, follow the link to the Austrian Wine web site’s Sekt page (with a further useful link in the third paragraph therein).

UK sources for Austrian sparkling wines include Alpine Wines (Steininger, Schilchersekt, Strohmeier, and Stift Klosterneuburg), Newcomer Wines (Preisinger, Hoch), Red Squirrel (Diwald), Clark Foyster (Schloss Gobelsburg), Roberson (Ebner-Ebenauer from Weinviertel, which I’ve not yet tried), Winemakers Club (Meinklang Foam), Vintage Roots and Wholefoods Warehouse (Meinklang Prosa, only occasionally at the latter) and Oddbins (Loimer). Check out your local independent too.

Oh, one more thing, here’s an article on Austrian wine which doesn’t mention the Austrian Wine Scandal of 1985, where a number of wines were adulterated with diethylene glycol (anti-freeze in popular parlance). It was over thirty years ago, and didn’t extend beyond a few large producers trying to cash in on the vogue for cheap but sweet. I only bring this up because the insistence of British wine writers in mentioning this in almost any article on Austrian Wine must get right up the noses of the hard working, and very “clean”, producers of today. It’s a bit like writing a restaurant review and mentioning BSE every time there’s beef on the menu. Stop it, please!

 

 

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Back to the Future

I do write the occasional Review of a wine book, or DVD, though I haven’t done so recently. I haven’t actually read any new wine books for a while, not since Stephen Brook’s Wines of Austria, and that was almost a year ago. I’m actually quite shocked by that, it’s unlike me. I have one or two on my “to read” list, but I am constantly re-reading or dipping into older books. It was doing just that, whilst undertaking a bit of research for a recent article, that I picked up The Future Makers by Max Allen.

Max Allen is not all that well known in the UK, but is far more widely read in his native Australia. He’s written several wine books, and had various columns, and it seems he recently joined AFR (Australian Financial Review), though he appears to be well protected by their paywall. I got to know his work initially via copies of Austalian Gourmet Traveller. Back at Christmas 2010 an Australian friend flew over with a 400pp+ doorstep of a book called The Future Makers. I lapped it up, and even now, six years on, it’s still one of the most enjoyable wine books I’ve read this decade. I’ve read it cover to cover three times now. Most of my wine books manage just twice.

At that time I was just coming back to Australian wines. Like many I had begun appreciating wine just before the Australian wine revolution hit the UK in the 1980s. The Oddbins chain had already begun to popularise the country, and brands such as Rosemount with their oaky Chardonnay, and Penfolds, with their Koonunga Hill and other reds, were on the lips of everyone I knew who went as far as actually discussing wine. There was a place off The Strand, in London, called The Australian Wine Centre, where I’d occasionally slink off to in my lunch break and come back with bottles such as Parker Coonawarra Estate, St Hallett Old Block Shiraz, Charles Melton Nine Popes, or McWilliams Elizabeth Semillon.

As we all got older, the lustre wore off many of these wines. Elizabeth excepted, the alcohol wore us down a bit. These “sunshine in a glass” wines were just too big for our ageing palates to sustain an interest for very long. There was a period during the 1990s and early 2000s when I bought little Aussie wine. The exceptions were South Australian Riesling (Grosset etc) and the more restrained genius of Canberra District’s Clonakilla, and what I always thought were rather special wines, Jasper Hill (Heathcote).

Two things happened towards the end of the 2000s. The first was a trip to Australia which included my first visit to Melbourne, and Victoria. I visited several wine regions around the bay, including Yarra, but I really fell in love with Mornington Peninsula. Both as a place, and as a wine region, and especially Kooyong and Ten Minutes by Tractor. We managed quite a bit of sampling over the few days spent there, and I was able to appreciate especially the Chardonnays and Pinot Noirs in situ. These wines were not always lower in alcohol, but there was always freshness, and often, restraint.

The second thing that happened as a result of that trip, was that on my return I began to seek out new names, producers who seemed to be making wines with great fruit, but with a similar freshness to that which I’d experienced on Mornington, yet which seemed to be lacking in some of the bigger, oak-influenced wines I’d fallen out of love with. Early discoveries included Castagna, Sorrenberg and Giaconda (all Beechworth), plus Bannockburn and then By Farr (Geelong).

As the decade reached its end I was starting to hear other names, often from South Australia. Anton van Klopper (Lucy Margaux/Domaine Lucci), William (Bill) Downie, Luke Lambert, Timo Mayer and eventually Tom Shobbrook. It was when I wanted to read about the last of those that I returned to Max Allen’s book. Everything is there. Back in 2010 Allen was visiting, and had built relationships with, most of the people who now constitute modern artisanal Aussie wine. Over the years it has proved a wonderful resource. Not all the new names are here, but of the many artisans who we see gaining popularity today, a good number were getting established or just starting out when Allen wrote The Future Makers.

The book actually begins with a disclaimer. Allen suggests that Australian wine is a turbulent industry. He warns that by the time we read his book, several producers may well have closed down, or sold up. It is a testament to his knowledge, to how firmly his finger was on the pulse, that very few have. It is also a testament to the popularity of the artisan winemakers who form so large a part of his book. They have proved, indeed, to be the people who have made the future, at least in so far as they are the dynamic drivers of modern Australian wine. As the large multinational corporations which had taken over Aussie wine in the 1980s and 1990s hit the wall, unable to grow their businesses in difficult market conditions, constrained by the cost pressures of large volume production, it was the artisans who kept the flag flying, especially as guardians of quality and diversity.

Part I of the book is called The Big Picture, and sets the scene. Changing climate (higher temperatures, less water) has challenged industrial winemaking, on which this country began to rely for ever growing exports of their sunshine in a glass. One way to conquer these threats of nature was for people to rediscover the old traditions and winemaking methods, whilst looking for new grape varieties more at home in hotter, drought prone, conditions.

Part 2 is a run through the wine regions. There’s always a précis of what’s going on, then a discussion of the best producers, some of whom are covered in a paragraph or two, whilst others are given a special section of a whole page, or two. Although not all of the producers featured would remotely fit into the broad category of “natural winemakers”, there is a thread of sustainability running right through. Allen’s affinity with the natural wine movement is clear (you’d have been able to attend talks by him at “Rootstock”, the big Australian natural wine fair, last year). In Allen’s own words, he focuses on “the newcomers and old-timers, the artisans and entrepreneurs, the ratbags, larrikins and dreamers putting the heart and soul back into Australian wine“.

It’s a great book. Now for the rather disappointing bit. I’d have loved to say that you can pick up this wonderful book at a famous online shop beginning with the same letter as the author’s surname, but you can’t. Unless you are willing to please some hopeful seller who has the temerity to ask £399 for a used copy. They do happen to be able to sell you a copy for Kindle for a mere £12 though. The physical book is actually really attractive, printed on nice matt finish paper with plenty of photos. But I guess if your book shelves are already heaving with wine books, Kindle may be the answer.

Having read dozens of wine books over the years, this would almost certainly make it into my desert island dozen, so if you do happen across it in a second hand book store, or on some obscure online site, it’s worth grabbing a copy. Australian readers might well have greater luck on that front. If you are thinking of flying home with one, do beware – it’s going to take up almost one-and-a-half kilos of your baggage allowance. It makes my friend’s gift even more generous.

Max Allen – The Future Makers, Hardie Grant Books, 2010, hard back, ISBN 978 1 74066 661 9

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Muy Generoso

Generoso usually refers just to a dry fortified wine, but in this case it refers to our Sherry lunch on Friday where we drank largely wines of a darker hue, Amontillado, through Palo Cortado and Oloroso, to PX. Of course, it also applies in equal measure to our generous host and hostess who laid on a sumptuous feast to go with those wines. After a couple of excellent Fish & Fino lunches at Masters near Waterloo, we felt it should be the turn of the darker wines. As our host quite rightly said, we (almost) never think that the place of these wines is at the table, but they really do go so well with food, as I think we proved. Even with the high levels of alcohol, the fact that you can happily sip them means you don’t need to come away rolling down the road. And a half bottle of any one wine goes easily around nine or ten people, so long as you have a plentiful supply.

We arrived to a pincho of anchovy and a glass of Equipo Navazos Florpower Bota 57 MXII. This is EN’s unfortified Palomino which has had (in this case) 30 months under flor. This is a delicious wine. Think of a cross between 1970s Don Cortez (bear with me here) and, as someone said, old Domaine de Chevalier Blanc. It’s not the wildest of the Florpower bottlings. It has some colour to it and is unmistakably from the chalky soils of the wider Jerez region. Winey citrus with a softer chalky texture, and above all, life. It really has vivacity, refreshing the palate without high acidity. At home we usually drink this with food, but here it proved itself as a perfect aperitif.

For our first course we were treated to crab meat, both brown and white, and we got underway with two super wines. Cuatro Palmas Amontillado, Gonzalez-Byass is at the pinnacle of this firm’s output. First released in 2011 (this was bottled in 2012), the Cuatro Palmas (it only goes up to four) is so fragrant, quite extraordinarily delicate, and even with a slight hint of fino in there. Such complexity so early in the meal showed the sort of lunch we were about to have. One of my wines of the day.

We paired it with Rey Fernando de Castilla Premium Amontillado. Altogether darker, with a very deep nose, almost coffee or chocolate in there. Perhaps the Cuatro Palmas was the better match for its greater delicacy, and of course it is a spectacularly fine wine in its own right, but neither wine was put to shame in its place on the table. A very strong opening pair. The photo below shows the contrast in the colour of these two wines.

The next flight contained two more Amontillados to go with a terrine of duck, made with a glug of Palo Cortado, and we were really getting to see just how much variety lies in this style. Amontillado is a Sherry style that I generally drink less of, especially as my palate has developed a love of the Palo Cortado in recent years.

Williams & Humbert “Jalifa” Amontillado is a 30 year + wine with nice balance, a citrus fresh style initially, despite its age, and with a little saltiness on the palate too. This famous old firm has had its ups and downs, especially at the time of the Rumasa breakup in the 1980s, but it is now back in majority private ownership. The firm is not generally known for its Amontillados, but Jalifa is of a quality commensurate with its VORS status/age.

Sandeman Dry Amontillado was a really fascinating bottle. Sandeman is still active, and of course they are still present in the Port industry, but their Sherry brands are owned, I think, by Sogrape. This bottle was purchased at auction and is thought to be, from its label, a 1980s bottling. Potentially this might have been one of the simpler wines of the lunch, yet venerable bottle age (or something) had given it Marmite, truffles and a kind of earthiness, with surprising depth.

The next course was a Cazuela de Chorizo, and I should say at this point that absolutely everything that could have been was made by our host, including not only the terrine of the last course, but amazingly, the chorizo in this one – totally home produced and cured. It was delicious, the salt leeching out into the broth, so as to give chorizo sausage which had a gentleness to which I am probably unaccustomed.

Next up was Equipo Navazos Bota de Amontillado Viejisimo 49, La Bota “A.R.”. I think most would agree it was the most intense wine of the day. It was my top wine and featured up there for some others as well, but not everyone went for such a dominant sip. The wine for this saca of 2014 came originally from Gaspar Florido, via a sojourn at Pedro Romero in Sanlúcar. The wine, as the “Viejisimo” label would suggest, is very old – 55 to 80 years. “AR” stands for Ànsar Real, the name of the solera from whence it came. Even the EN web site calls this the most savage of the wines from this solera, and even more intense than its sister, the Palo Cortado 47. It is also a single cask wine, not a blend. Personally, I’d say this is the finest Amontillado Sherry I’ve ever drunk. A half bottle is very expensive, but there are still some around, and I would argue this is of a quality comparable to any great fine wine from anywhere in the world.

The Equipo comes in at 22% alcohol, so a half bottle does go a long way. By this stage, there were many bottles circulating. I had to be unduly restrained in order to live up to my responsibilities for recording the feast, and I did manage to keep the wines in order. I think at this point we might have been drinking some wines with different courses. But by now we were moving on to our one Palo Cortado and four Olorosos.

Dos Cortados Palo Cortado, Williams & Humbert was the second wine of the day from this stable (and the only one I managed to take a completely blurred photo of). It’s a 20 year old wine, but despite the intensity of the “49” which preceded it, it was not put to shame. This is because, by way of contrast, it is quite opulent (but not flabby) for a Palo Cortado, dry and with an unusual hint of bonfire on the nose.

Bodega Cooperativa Católico Agrícola Oloroso comes from Chipiona, a small town on the coast about five miles southeast of Sanlúcar. Cooperative wines are not often seen marketed as such in the UK (though they support many an “own label” brand), and this one was imported by Warren Edwardes’ Hyde Park Wines, a source for several of the more unusual wines here. The nose is curious as there’s something sweet to it. Unfiltered, there’s a good texture on the dry palate, and  spice, perhaps a bit of nutmeg and ginger.

Next, another wine Warren imports, and one also from another of the small Sherry towns, Lebrija. Lebrija is in the far north of the region, and about 20-25 miles inland, not far from the Rio Guadalquivir. It isn’t technically part of the Jerez DO, having been granted its own Lebrija DO, so that is what you’ll see on the label, not “Jerez”. There’s no doubting the quality of Gonzalez Palacios Lebrija Old Oloroso, but it isn’t made from a solera system like most Sherry, being bottled from individual butts as required. It’s a bronze coloured wine with a clean, high toned, nose and a little bit of a kick to it (though not quite the full mule). The palate gives hints of caramel and raisins without sweetness. It’s quite sedate. By now we were on to some serious lamb and roast potatoes, and none of these wines were showing any hint of jarring with the food.

Bodegas Tradición Oloroso came in the livery of the Fortnum & Mason bottling. Tradición, an exceptional Jerez-based bodega marketing only VOR and VORS wines, is not otherwise seen that often in the UK. Fortnum’s interesting own label range is the best place to find them and, although prices have risen indeed over the past couple of years, they are still exceptional value. Although technically a 30 year old, the truth is that you are drinking a wine with an average age of more like 45 years. It’s relatively full bodied, and quite intense again, perhaps not the savage intensity of the EN, but nevertheless on its own you’d be struck by that feature. And it contrasts to that Amontillado perhaps by being a man in late middle age sat back in a battered leather armchair with a glass to sniff. The EN is sitting upright with an espresso.

Our final dry wine was Valdespino Don Gonzalo Oloroso VOS. This is dry and mineral in texture but also with dried raisins and a richness coming through as the wine sits on the palate. It was a really good wine to end with. Not as fine perhaps as several of the wines we’d consumed, but a fascinating and complex bottle which can be had for around £30. It makes just as good a match as an old Rioja with a slice of pink lamb, or at least in the opinion of the nine Sherry lovers at this table. It also went equally well with the Spanish cheese selection. In the photo below, the hard cheese on the right is a Payoya goat, the small blue in the centre being also a goat cheese from the Jerez region. The two larger blues were “Picos” cow and goat blends from the Picos de Europa, part of the beautiful jagged Cantabrian mountain chain in Northern Spain.

Were we finished…not at all. We were almost ready for some sweet wines, after, of course, a small palate cleanser of the Navazos-Niepoort Blanco 2014. I took one of these to the last Fish & Fino lunch, which I think gave sales a mini-boost, hence the appearance of a bottle here. But then with a dessert of vanilla ice cream with delicate profiteroles, we were able to contrast a Pedro-Ximénez with a Moscatel.

PX Solera Fundación 1830, Bodegas Navarro is dark and treacle thick. Oranges, raisins and Earl Grey on the nose, pruney/figgy on the palate, from a solera begun in 1830, though containing wines with an average age of about 25 years. How can a wine with so much sugar, velvety rather than acidic, not be cloying? But it isn’t. I note that I last drank this back at one of our Spice Oddities lunches in June 2015. I think it was probably in its perfect place here with the ice cream, rather than with the kulfi sticks of that lunch, though I note that I had been too full to indulge in dessert back then. Despite a gargantuan feast, I wasn’t too full, nor had I drunk too much. I was pleased to be able to pour some of this full 75cl bottle over my ice cream as well as into my glass. This is a Montilla-Moriles, from the region southeast of Córdoba, famous for its sweet wines.

Gutiérrez Colosía Moscatel was a surprising contrast. Despite the intense sweetness of both wines, PX and Moscatel are clearly different grape varieties. We perhaps rarely drink these sweet styles today, even more rarely two together. Nice as they are, it is possible to have too much of a good thing. But once your palate becomes accustomed to the sweetness, trying another proves that even here, there is great variety to be had. Gutiérrez Colosía is based in El Puerto de Santa María, the Sherry region’s third town, so to speak, after Jerez and Sanlúcar. This is sweetly honeyed and soft, with the characteristic aromatics and concentration on the palate of sun-dried Muscat grapes. Another wine with a distinctive tea note lingering in there.

 

So, what did we learn that we didn’t know already? Well, the main point of this lunch was just for a bunch of us to have a nice time, let’s be honest. But we did learn that the generoso style is a surprisingly good match for a whole raft of Spanish inspired dishes. After a few fish & fino lunches it was only fair to give these boys and girls a chance.

We think of biologically aged Sherries with food all the time, but I wonder how many of us these days reach for an Amontillado, Palo Cortado or Oloroso for the table? We also learned that if you sip these over four hours you won’t notice the alcohol half as much as you might think. All the half bottles here evened out the alcohol intake, so that I actually felt better than after many a lunch where I’ve consumed a bottle-and-a-half of red after an aperitif. The lunch was an unqualified success, and I certainly would not turn down an invitation to repeat it one day.

 

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The Emperor’s New Clothes are Real

This is just a quick shout for Newcomer Wines, the Austrian specialist wine merchant who used to be in Shoreditch Boxpark. The emperor in this case is, with typical corny humour, naturally one of the Habsburgs, and whilst in the story, those new clothes were somewhat ephemeral, in this case their new store opposite Dalston Junction London Overground Station is very much the real deal.

The Boxpark shop was very well situated for me, and for any other fairly regular diner at Rochelle Canteen. I passed it every time I dined there before the move, and I can hardly remember an occasion when I did so without popping in for a bottle or two. You’d think a shop which only sold Austrian wine would be a crazy idea, but the more I wrote about them, the more my friends came to agree it wasn’t. From the best value glugging wines of people like Claus Preisinger, up to the rare gems of Christian Tschida, the shop developed an often eclectic and always interesting range.

The Boxpark sits on prime real estate dirt, and won’t be there forever. Equally, the little wine shop in a shipping container was a good idea but never big enough. The new store at 5 Dalston Lane is three or four times as big, and has three sections. When you walk in there’s a bar. Next comes the wine selection, whilst out back are a few tables. In the evening the shop becomes a bar where you can buy a bottle and drink it, and also eat, small plates of Austrian meats, cheeses and so on.

The second difference with the new store is that the wine range has expanded. This means both more Austrians, and also a small but well formed selection of wines from other countries. The intention is to broaden the appeal of the place as a local neighbourhood wine bar destination, as well as a mecca for lovers of Austrian wines. There are now 200 lines to choose from, a significant increase on what was available in Shoreditch. If diners take to the Zalto glassware they can also purchase some of those to take home, along with a small selection of beers, Austrian chocolate, and, occasionally, pretzels.

I’m guessing you’d quite like to know what I left with? A mix of wines from old favourites, plus one or two that Toni Tossmann recommended to me. A couple from Milan Nestarec, the Czech producer whose wines I loved at Raw Wine last year, were top of my buying list (the two pét-nats from the “Forks and Knives” series), as I’d noticed that Newcomer had begun to stock Milan’s wines.

Then three wines from Claus Preisinger. I think I got one of the last couple of the 2015 Ancestrale, an ancestral method sparkler made from St-Laurent at just 9%, and vinified white. Then the interesting Puszta Libre 2015, which is a carbonic maceration red meant for early drinking, and finally a red I’d not tried before. Kalkundkiesel  is a blend of five varieties: Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt, St-Laurent, Müller-Thürgau and Welschriesling. This has lovely fresh acidity but is also soft and rounded at the same time (the acids aren’t sharp). The fruit, both dark and plummy, is ripe and sappy without making the wine heavy. It weighs in at just 12.5%.

Claus makes some more expensive wines. Those labelled Edelgraben (from the vineyard of the same name) are all amphora wines, more expensive and very impressive, but there are only two or three people making such good everyday wines as Claus in Austria today.

Christian Tschida needs little introduction to many. His wines are some of the most expensive in the Newcomer range, especially as he has a penchant for bottling in magnums. But the Himmel auf Erden (Heaven on Earth) white is one of his less expensive wines. It’s a peachy blend of Scheurebe and Pinot Blanc with a dry mineral texture.

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Last but not least, my first bottle from Andreas Nittnaus. There are several Nittnaus’ around Göls, where Claus Preisinger is incidentally based as well, at the northeastern corner of the Neusiedler See. You might have come across Matthias. Andreas is brother to Martin and has recently begun to make wines under his own label. My choice, recommended by Toni, was his Blaufränkisch “Tochter” (daughter). If seven bottles had not been the limit for my small suitcase…

Before visiting, I had rather regretted Newcomer’s move. I used to live just up the road in Stoke Newington once, but even so I’d got it into my head that Dalston Junction was difficult to get to. Yet a twenty minute bus ride from the City was all it took, probably shorter than that when the roadworks are finished. The new shop has lost a little of the cool glamour of the Boxpark, and I do rather miss the little techie bits and pieces they had there : i-Pads and interactive screens. But they can clearly offer much more in the new location and next time I won’t imagine it as an awkward trip. Certainly quicker than getting to some of the restaurants out west I occasionally go to.

One unexpected bonus was lunch. Newcomer don’t do food at lunchtime, but my family had recommended a vegan cafe which turned out to be just around the corner, literally two-to-three minutes away. Fed by Water serves, among many dishes, enormous and delicious calzone, and one of those, which I only just managed to finish, kept me going for the rest of the day. Nice people too.

Newcomer Wines is at 5 Dalston Lane, London E8. Check out their website here for opening times etc.

Fed by Water is at 64 Kingsland High Street, London E8

Posted in Austrian Wine, Natural Wine, Neusiedlersee, Sparkling Wine, Wine, Wine Agencies, Wine Heroes, Wine Merchants, Wine Shops | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Late January back in Se-ven-teen

I’m chanelling “Oh What a Night” (The Four Seasons)…Not December 1963, but still “What a Very Special Time for Me, As I Remember, What a Night”. If you know the song, that’s what it felt like. I rarely write about a set of wines from one meal at home, and as meals go there were only four of us and so we only drank six wines, plus one spirit. But the wines all sang beautifully, and although one or two are well known, none of the wines were obvious. It wasn’t a string of Classed Growth Bordeaux, book-ended with Krug and d’Yquem, and I thought each of the wines would interest readers.

The food, incidentally, was almost (cheese course excepted) all vegan. A soup based on squash and fennel, a rich wild mushroom stew, a pear tarte tatin, and a Jura cheese platter from La Fromagerie (18- and 30-month Comté plus some Morbier).

Rare 2002, Piper-Heidsieck – This vintage, only the eighth out of nine since this prestige cuvée’s inception in 1976, is blended from 70% Chardonnay and 30% Pinot Noit. The grapes come from eight villages on the Montagne de Reims and Côte des Blancs**, and the wine undergoes seven years ageing. Dosage in 2002 is 9.5g/l. It’s a wine which had been very highly recommended to me on release, by perhaps my two most knowledgeable Champagne friends, but I’d never managed to buy any. This was most generously brought by our guests.

[**Decanter, in the 2016 Awards Issue, suggests all grapes for Rare 2002 came from the Montagne. Piper’s own web site lists Oger and Avize among the crus providing grapes]

It’s funny, I have just read two tasting notes for this wine, wondering when the experts consider it to be ready to drink. One, in the normally more forward French publication, La Revue des Vins de France, suggested a drinking date from 2020. Another, from a Silver Medal tasting note from the 2015 International Wine Challenge, suggested it was fully mature back then – it had in fact won a Trophy in the same competition in 2014, but this vintage went on to win Platinum/Best in Show in the more recent 2016 Decanter World Wine Awards. I think it is somewhere between the two in maturity terms, drinking quite nicely now.

There are some very complex things going on – white flowers, bread and lemon citrus to begin with. The Chardonnay is interesting as it’s not a mature version of a Côte des Blancs style of Chardonnay (to generalise horribly), and the Pinot definitely comes through strongly. It’s elegant and fine, with a smooth and silky texture, which certainly brings to mind the phrase which Cellar Master Régis Camus used to describe it, Haute Couture. A stunningly beautiful Champagne. Yet it also has a bit of heft, not that I should use such inelegant language for such a supermodel, but such wines do have a certain size and weight to them before maturity beckons and they shed a few pounds.This is no lean and mean wine, despite its profound elegance.

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The Orange, Roter Veltliner 2013, Eschenhof Holzer, Wagram – Arnold Holzer is a great guy and a great winemaker. I’m sure you’ve read about his sappy glugging wines on this Blog before, especially his Zweigelt. This is a different ball park, in terms of quality, price and ambition. Take a rare but really good Austrian grape variety, pick it pristine, by hand of course, and give it around three weeks skin contact before leaving it in new barriques for 18 months. Orange in colour, obviously, just below the Lucozade spectrum for British readers, in fact. There’s so much going on I can’t reasonably describe it all. At the top of the ladder there’s orange peel and soft-scented floral notes, below you have honey and spice. It’s dry, there’s some texture but not too much (for me!), and the wine is soft but not flabby. The acidity’s there, but not prominent. We drank it with a nice orange coloured soup – butternut squash, fennel and ginger. Add that to the list of food matches, Red Squirrel!

I think this may be onto the 2015 vintage now. Red Squirrel, who import Arnold’s wines, suggest it will improve over about four years from vintage, and I think the 2013 was à point. The only problem, I think he only makes around 300 bottles per year. It’s expensive too. This will, I think, knock you back somewhere between £40-£50/bottle, but having managed a sniff and a sip at the last Red Squirrel Tasting, I could not resist. But if you can’t go there, all of Arnold Holzer’s wines are worth buying.

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Hermitage La Chapelle 1998, Paul Jaboulet Aîné – In some ways this wine might sound quite conventional, given the wines I usually write about. Well, I used to drink more conventional wines. It was generally held among wine writers that PJA went through a less exalted patch during the 1990s. La Chapelle gained its unquestioned prestige as one of the top three or four Hermitage cuvées, and certainly the best known, for vintages in particular in the 1960s, late 1970s and early 1980s (although the Legends were probably 1961, 1978, and 1990, with a personal shout for a bottle of 1983 which opened my eyes to Northern Rhône Syrah). By the 1990s things were less even. 1995 and 1999 were very good, but other vintages have come up for criticism.

In the previous decade Fleet Street wine bar and merchant, El Vino, were selling through their 1990s stocks of La Chapelle at very reasonable prices, and I bought a good string of vintages. This was the last bottle of 1998 in my cellar. A previous bottle, and a couple of 1997s, had been somewhat disappointing, but this was a joy. It was soft but still showing some fruit under the bacon butty nose and slightly oily texture. John Livingstone-Learmonth (Wines of the Northern Rhône, CaliforniaUP, 2005) gave a drinking window, based on tasting it in 2003, of between 2015-19, which I’d say was uncannily accurate. He gives it three out of five stars, but I’d like to give this bottle four. Very lucky. The Henschke backup was not called into play.

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Traminer Trockenbeerenauslese Nummer 8 “Nouvelle Vague” 2004, Kracher, Burgenland – The late Alois Kracher not only made a name for some of the very finest sweet wines in Austria, he created one of the country’s very top domaines too. Under his winemaking tenure the sweet wines, from the eastern side of Burgenland’s Neusiedler See, more specifically from a stretch of land known as Seewinkel (near to Illmitz), were divided into two styles and labels. Schwischen den Seen (between the lakes) is for wines made in stainless steel where the focus is on the fruit flavours of each grape variety. Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) is for wines aged in barrique. There is also a numbering system, from less sweet to sweetest as the numbers increase. Finally, there’s the colour of the label. There are many cuvées each year (with at least six or seven grape varieties plus blends) and different levels of residual sugar. But the top wines have a gold label, and the cuvée in each series which is deemed best balanced (not necessarily the sweetest) doesn’t have a number, but is called “Grande Cuvée”. Complicated.

The Traminer here has a number 8, so it’s quite sweet, with relatively low (9.5%) alcohol. It’s pretty dark in colour (see photo below), and it smells of botrytis (found in Kracher’s BA and TbA wines) and apricots. At this age I couldn’t discern any real oak. The palate is smooth, very sweet, very concentrated. There’s not a lot of acidity left but it hangs onto its frame nicely. Maturity, depending on storage, probably in three or four years. This was a very nice bottle, and it was a very good match for one of current winemaker Gerhard Kracher’s own food pairing recommendations, tarte tatin (albeit made with pears at this time of year, by choice we’d have used apricots for this match, but it still worked).

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Château-Chalon 1999, “Granges Bernard”, Marie & Denis Chevassu, Jura – The Chevassu-Fassenet family live at Granges Bernard in one of the villages just to the north of Château-Chalon itself, Ménetru-le-Vignoble. The domaine (now Chevassu-Fassenet) has been run since 2008 by Marie and Denis’ daughter, Marie-Pierre, although she began working with her father, as winemaker, back in 2000. This wine, if I’m correct then, might be the last vintage of Château-Chalon made by Marie-Pierre’s father.

In some respects this is an old school “Vin Jaune”. There are prominent nutty aromas and plenty of flor character. There’s also a strong line of citrus flavour, lemon with perhaps a hint of lime or grapefruit. But it is also very mellow and retains a stately elegance. These wines prefer not to be chilled. Their complexity is masked by cool temperatures, and their length is amazing, they go on and on.

I say “retains” a stately elegance almost as if this were an old wine. Whilst this might be so in some wine regions, here that is not the case. Because of the ageing requirements for Château-Chalon (exactly the same as for Vin Jaune, it must be aged until at least 15 December in the sixth year after harvest), this is really a wine only approaching middle age slowly. Vin Jaune habitually appears on release in restaurants and bars now, and anyone sampling a 2008 today, quite common to find in London, is drinking a young bottle (2009 is the most recent vintage you could potentially find in shops at the moment). It’s a wine which not only ages magnificently, but cries out for it.

If you do want to try a Vin Jaune, or similar style, which is approachable young, look to Domaine de la Tournelle and Domaine des Marnes Blanches (both brilliant and also capable of maturing nicely), or a sous voile-style Savagnin such as now retired Jacques Puffeney’s. But at the same time, keep an eye out for older vintages. They’re not exactly two-a-penny, but you can find them, and if you are happy to pay a bit extra for a wine that is not at all cheap on release, snap up whatever you find. There are few poor producers of Château-Chalon.

The perfect match for Vin Jaune or Château-Chalon is, of course, Comté cheese. One of the best sources for Comté in London is Patricia Michelson’s La Fromagerie, off Marylebone High Street. I quite like to pull out a cheeseboard consisting of just three ages of Comté, which provides a good contrast between youth and the amazing complexity of a mature cheese. In this case I went for a bit of variety, unable to resist the really good Morbier fermier which they had in the cheese room. Morbier is largely produced industrially, and a lot of it is nothing like a really good farm cheese. Buy a good one when you find it and you will notice the difference. With the Morbier, we ate an 18 month Comté, and a 30 month version, the latter full of the small crystals which give older Comté its unique nutty flavour and texture.

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La Bota de Palo Cortado 62 “Diez años después”, Equipo Navazos, Jerez – This is quite a rare bottling, a ten year celebration of the Equipo Navazos story, which began with an Amontillado in 2005. It’s a Palo Cortado from the cellars of Bodegas M Aragón in the town of Chiclana. A single butt of 300 litres was, unusually, completely bottled (in 50 cl bottles) for this saca. Some went to friends of Equipo Navazos and a small number were commercialised. Anyone who got one has a real gem.

It’s very dark, so dark that you can tell the level of concentration just by sight. On rare occasions you can justify a flowery tasting note, a real Oz and Jilly. On other occasions a more philosophical note, a Jefford, comes to mind. For a wine like this I’m just transported to somewhere old and dark. The wine in this butt is about fifty to sixty years old, but it smells of the big tasting table I remember inside of Taylor’s old Vila Nova Lodge, the beams on HMS Victory’s gun deck, or perhaps, I imagine, the old dresser in the loft of Tom Hardy’s fictitious London house in the current TV Series, Taboo.

There’s a freshness and a timelessness such as you find in very old Madeira. You know this wine isn’t a youth, but it’s still youthful. This comes through the concentrated but well-toned muscles of its frame, and the breath of fresh air acidity which underpins the longest length on the planet…almost. In some ways it might seem a shame not to let it age further. Another twenty years will not concern it unduly. But without sounding morbid, this is one wine you really don’t want left in the cellar when the doctor tells you to give up immediately. I don’t give scores, but I’ll go “sensational out of a hundred on this”! A “you could smell it in the dining room in the morning” kind of wine, and certainly the most memorable out of a bunch of memorable wines on the night.

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La Bota de Ron 65, “Bota No”, Equipo Navazos – And now for the Rum. Someone impugned my speed of drinking, and probably my masculinity too, when I mentioned this last on social media. Well, ha! I got some more, you see. That, considering you can’t find this in the UK, is about as boastful as I hope I get this year. But this is really good, a very fine spirit. I’m no rum aficionado, having only really discovered it in the past few years, so I’ve been giving occasional sips to people with more experience than I have, and thankfully they agree.

This old rum (15-20 years) made 800 bottles, at 44% proof. Made from the finest sugar cane (I found a suggestion that it comes from Nevis in the West Indies, although the EN web site doesn’t confirm this), with no additives (colouring, sweeteners etc). The EN web site calls this an “iron fist in a silk glove” (sic), a cliché perhaps, but you can see what they mean. It does have a punch, but not a kick in the mouth. Instead, it’s smooth, refined and very long. The alcohol is not obtrusive. You may only want to sip it, but you will sip it all night until someone takes the bottle away and tells you to go to bed.

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Posted in Dining, Fine Wine, Premium Spirits, Rum, Sherry, Wine, Wine and Food | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Panacea – A Remedy for all Ills

I’m not really one to make New Year’s Resolutions, but I won’t deny the tendency to make a few wishes – things I’d like to do, places I’d like to go, in the coming year. One of those was to visit The Remedy in London’s Fitzrovia District. I’m not sure why it took me so long after all the photos I’d envied on Instagram throughout 2016, and we had tried to go, for sure. Anyway, a mere ten days into 2017 we managed to secure a table for four, not bad!

One reason we’d not been able to get a booking before became apparent as soon as we walked in. The place is tiny, really tiny. They can seat forty people, I think, plus ten outside (not in these temperatures, they can’t). There’s hardly anywhere for a coat and work bag. In some places that would be a right pain, but here it doesn’t matter. Brilliant aperitifs, tick. Stunning deep wine list, tick. Really great food, tick. Friendly and helpful staff, tick.

The wine list is what all my wine friends go to The Remedy for, but it would be foolhardy to neglect the list of aperitifs. There are plenty of adventurous options, a lot of Lillet, and a good fix of gin. I had my first ever white negroni. It was brilliant, and only the first of several reasons why I can’t wait to go back.

The food is very much in the small(ish) sharing plate format. You certainly need a number of them, although the sausage dishes come with delicious chips, and are more substantial (and come in at £10). Courgette Frittata and Grilled Octopus were my personal selections, but I also shared some Smoked Duck, and Chorizo Sausages with chips. It was all good but the octopus and the chorizo were exceptionally so. Simple but well done, with the octopus cooked perfectly, something easy to get wrong. I didn’t have any of the oysters, but they were pronounced fresh, from Jersey I think. We finished with Antica Formula and Orange Sorbet, which was a perfect palate cleanser.

The wine list is quite a thing to behold. As someone who has seen the wine bar scene in so many capital cities blossom in the past few years, it’s no surprise to find a decent wine list, but The Remedy just seems to get hold of so many wines you rarely see elsewhere. It’s probably no surprise that David and Renato, who run The Remedy, used to work at Terroirs, the first of the wine bar/restaurants owned by Les Caves de Pyrene. There are plenty from CdP’s exciting portfolio on the list.

We did ask for one rare wine, Alice and Olivier De Moor’s “Cuvée 1902” Aligoté. The De Moors are a favourite Chablis producer, based in the village of Courgis (where the only other producer is young rising star, Thomas Pico). I’d tasted their current vintage of Aligoté with Alice at the Real Wine Fair last year and was stunned by its quality. Probably the best Aligoté I’ve tried (I’m guessing that Coche-Dury was still too young!). We were told that it was sold out. Now I’m usually slightly cynical in such cases. Parisian natural wine bars are notorious for saying “non!”, saving their Overnoys and Ganevats for regular customers. But I later found out (Doug Wregg told a friend) that there were only 24 bottles of this imported into the UK.

Anyway, we chose the De Moor Chablis L’Humeur du Temps 2015 instead. It was brilliant, very possibly the best bottle of this that I’ve had for a while. This was the first ever De Moor wine I bought if my memory serves me, and it’s also the cuvée I’ve drunk most often. I first found it in, of all places, Berry Brothers‘ “factory outlet” just outside Basingstoke. This is a great place not only to discover bargains, but also new wines. De Moor are, of course, part of the Caves de Pyrene portfolio, but I have found one or two De Moors in the Basingstoke warehouse, and it’s a shame I find it pretty difficult to get over there these days.

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The Chablis was £75 off the list at The Remedy. This may sound expensive, but is just about on the good side of typical for London restaurant markups (about double the retail price in this case). Wine drinkers may not like subsidising the food, but the food here is pretty well priced, and an overall bill of under £60 per person for aperitifs, plenty of food including dessert/cheese, a great bottle of wine plus a couple of extra glasses of red, isn’t bad at all for a night out in London.

The Remedy is brilliant. Good food and drink (do take a peek at the list of Madeira by the glass on one of the blackboards, and the magnum selection), and a lot of fun with a warm atmosphere. If you’ve not been, be sure to book for dinner. They are now open all day in the week, for breakfast (with really good coffee), lunch and dinner. Shorter hours on Saturday, closed Sunday (see web link below).

The Remedy, 124 Cleveland Street, Fitzrovia, London W1, 020 3489 3800

 

 

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Great Exhibitionists

The Winemakers Club and Carte Blanche Wines got together again at Farringdon Street Vaults for their Winter Portfolio Tasting. Readers of this Blog will know Winemakers very well. Their philosophy is finely stated in the words of founder/owner John Baum: “The place for understated winemakers – those of quiet genius, and for those who want to drink their wines”. Carte Blanche are a good fit with Winemakers. Founded about seven years ago, and based in Basingstoke, their stated aim is to bang the drum for “new regions and new styles”.

Both of these merchants sell, albeit not exclusively, wines which some people would term “natural”, many of which are biodynamic. Certainly you won’t find any winemakers here who don’t give a toss. As far as exhibitionism goes, these are hardly the voluptuous, fleshy, wines of parkerised porn. They often have more in common with a fine etching rather than a canvas where oils have been laid on with a  palette knife. If they often seem leaner at times, then they are often elegant with it, and certainly all of the best wines have a frame on which the lightest of silks are often draped, either on their bouquet, on the palate, or both.

This will be yet another long read, I’m afraid, but I think it is right to keep to one piece. As a result, my comments may be truncated, and inevitably with two such high quality ranges there will be producers I can only mention in passing, or will miss out entirely. Explore! If your appetite is whetted, it’s not difficult to find out more from Winemakers Club and Carte Blanche themselves, via their web sites:

Winemakers Club

Carte Blanche Wines

WINEMAKERS CLUB

Stefan Vetter, Franken, Germany

Vetter is one of the exciting new producers on show, with the wines being available to buy in a month or two. Winemakers Club are leading a London cider revival, from Herefordshire to Barossa, and Stefan Vetter makes a very fresh appley Rural Method Apfelperlwein. This was a very pleasant start to an afternoon’s tasting. There will be four whites, and based on the three I tried (Müller-Thurgau, Riesling and Sylvaner), there’s a lot of promise. Winemakers Club are introducing a few Sylvaners and they might even challenge Aligoté in popularity as the fresh white of 2017. But the wine of the pack here is the Blaufränkisch 2010. Pale, piercing nose, very juicy. The grape is more commonly known as (Blauer) Limberger in Germany, but Stefan has chosen the Austrian synonym.

La Grange de L’Oncle Charles, Jérôme François, Ostheim, Alsace

Another exciting new producer. Based in Ostheim, near Ribeauvillé, 2015 is only Jérôme’s second vintage. The range opens with an old time classic Alsace blend of ten grape varieties, which has a lovely gentle nose, and the softness is accentuated by a relatively low level of acidity. Sittweg is a single site on granite, blending Riesling and Pinot Gris. There’s more body here. Grand K blends Riesling, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Muscat. Like the Sittweg, this majors on its aromatics, with the Gewurz and Muscat coming through. Three wines which smell wonderful and I’m really looking forward to buying some.

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Domaine des Marnes Blanches, Saint-Agnès, Jura

I’ve been drinking a few of these wines since Winemakers began stocking them last year. Marnes Blanches are without doubt rising stars of the southern part of the region, and we should all join the party. Their Crémant is fresh and wonderfully apple scented. For £30 in the shop, it’s a genuine challenger for even good Champagne. There are two very good Chardonnays, although I find their Savagnins more fascinating in a regional context. En Jensillard 2015 is described as Savagnin Muscaté and shows the fruity side of the grape. The Savagnin Tradition is labelled Empriente de Temps, for their wines which are aged sous voile. Magnificent.

The Trousseau is full of bitter cherry fruit, and the Poulsard is pale and haunting. Apologies for not tasting the Macvin (not a style I drink a lot of), but the new (2008) Vin Jaune is one of the best. It’s actually one of only a small group of VJs which are genuinely approachable young, though it will age magnificently if you are prudent enough to put some away.

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Karim Vionnet, Villié-Morgon, Beaujolais

Karim is one of the good guys, and is another producer who really merits support after a weather affected few vintages. His Nouveau, which we tried in Paris, is still fresh and light, even after Christmas. He makes two very good Beaujolais-Villages, one just labelled thus, and one with a little more body and presence, called Du Beur dans les Pinards. Those are all 2015s, but he was also showing a 2013 Moulin-à-Vent, which is nicely settled and smooth, altogether a little more serious.

But going back a step, perhaps because I adore the vivant qualities of Karim’s wines, the one I’ve bought most often (both in Paris and from Winemakers) is the Chiroubles Vin de KaV 2015. This was a little cold, but it’s a really tasty wine from a Cru which isn’t seen quite so often in the UK. Perhaps not as serious as the M-à-V, but it’s a little cheaper too.

Meinklang, Pamhagen, Burgenland, Austria

One of my favourite handful of Austrian producers, so the chance to taste so many of their wines together was a treat, although my bias here is clear to anyone who would take a peak in my cellar.

The wines divide into several sub-ranges. There are some really nice and fairly inexpensive 2015 wines such as Burgenlandweiss (Welschriesling, Gruner and Muscat Ottonel), Sziklafeher (Olaszrizling, Harslevelu and Juhfark, zippy and aromatic), and Burgenlandrot (Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and Sankt-Laurent), a 12.5% glugger which had lots of great press for the previous 2014 vintage).

Slightly more serious are three reds made from single varieties, ZweigeltSankt Laurent and Blaufränkisch. These are still in the realm of “drinkers”. But it’s not much of a step up, financially, to two really interesting whites. H15 is Harslevelu, ornate and confident with a smooth body offset by fresh acidity. J13 is made from the rare Juhfark. The nose here is more subdued but there’s more palate complexity. It’s the wine which started off my Meinklang passion.

The last of the whites on show was a Pinot Gris (Grauburgunder), the Graupert Weiss 2014. This is made from vines allowed to grow wild and is part of a permaculture project. The wine has skin contact and you’ll detect floral notes and mandarin citrus, with plenty of extract, texture and mouthfeel. There is a red version (2013), made from Zweigelt, which has so much juicy fruit that you are almost shocked by the serious twist at the end.

The last red comes from the very pinnacle of the Meinklang range, Konkret Rot 2012. There is a white Konkret as well, which is possibly my favourite Meinklang wine, but it wasn’t on show (the Konkrets are both rare and expensive). The red version is made in concrete egg, as the name suggests. It has that dusty terracotta texture also found in amphora wines, and the Sankt Laurent variety gives a deep colour, fine acidity and beautiful elegance. This wine is unique.

Kiral Yudvar, Tokaj, Hungary

This producer has a reasonably large 45 hectare biodynamic estate, and there is a very good dry Furmint Sec 2013, but it’s the sweet wines which have the wow factor. Lapis 2010 is a nicely scented Furmint, sweet but not cloying. Patricia Cuvée 2012 has a degree less alcohol (10%), and is commensurately a little sweeter with a touch more complexity. Furmint is joined here by Harslevelu, as is the case with the Lapis Aszu 2005, a Tokaj 6 Puttonyos showing amazing complexity, with concentrated and unctuous honey and lemon – there’s no lack of freshness along with all those “buckets” of residual sugar.

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Hegyikalo, Eger, Hungary

This is a producer I think not many readers will know, other than the few who noticed how loudly I praised a couple of their wines last year (and, of course, those readers who I know buy them too). The added pleasure of meeting Julia, one part of the winemaking couple here, enhanced the experience of tasting so many of their wines.

There were two whites, a sort of pink(ish) light red, three darker reds, and a sweet red on show, and they are all very different indeed. Héjon Erjesztett (2012) is one of my favourite wines from the estate. It blends Olaszrizling and Zold Veltellini (Grüner Veltner). Skin contact makes it almost tannic, but there’s a gentle and quite ethereal nose, a wine to contemplate. They make a lovely single varietal Zold Veltellini as well.

The pink, or probably more of a pale red, is called Czeresznyéerés Roze 2014. The grape here is Medina, not very Hungarian sounding, but this rich, dark, red seems to be planted all over Poland (never had a Polish wine, believe it or not) according to my few minutes of research. Here in Eger it makes a light wine which is very hard to describe, perhaps like a red fruit tea with a bit of bite? If there had been a bottle on the shelf at 5.45pm, it would have gone home with me.

My favourite red is the Kékfrankos 2015, which is a very sappy version with intense fruit. Örökségül Voros 2012 is a serious red, blending Cabernet Franc and Turran (sometimes spelt Turan, a 1964 cross with Kadarka as one of its parents, very dark and normally used to add colour). This is quite a tannic mouthfiller, with evident oak. Tiszta Szivvel (2009) is a pure Turran. It smells of pure, sensual, rose, but is tannic, even a little rustic. Although dry and recommended for beef by Julia, she said it is also paired with dark chocolate desserts.

The last wine, from an unlabelled bottle, was a 2015 botrytis Turran. Very concentrated, sweet but not lacking acidity. Tremendous stuff. Adam and Julia only make a sum total of 4,000 bottles each year, so the wines are not easy to track down. But they epitomise what John and the team are trying to sell to a less conservative clientele.

Tom Shobbrook, Seppeltsfield, Barossa Valley

I think I counted ten Shobbrook wines, plus a cider. I’m sure a few were lined up that didn’t appear on the list. We had Shobbrook Rieslings from the High Eden, various Syrahs and Cinsault, plus other grapes as diverse as Merlot and Mourvèdre to Nebbiolo and Semillon.

Of the whites, go for the Rieslings if you want to play safe (though the High Eden 2016 has quite a unique flavour), but if you want to venture into Tom’s world, try the lovely 2016 Sammion (Semillon), or the even more avant-garde Giallo 2016. This is a blend of Musket (sic), Riesling and Semillon, which tastes not like the derogatory “cider” jibe of those afraid of natural wine, but of a simple but very fruity cloudy apple juice (alcoholic of course).

Clarrot is a 14% Barossa Merlot and Syrah blend which tasted uncannily of beetroot (in a nice way). I always enjoy the fresh, very dry, Cinsault, but the Novello shone more brightly for me. It’s a Nebbiolo/Grenache/Syrah/Musket blend from the Basket Ranges.

The “Tommy” wines are always exciting – Tommy Field is Syrah, Tommy Ruff is a darker and more concentrated Syrah-Mourvèdre. It’s this latter wine that Aussie natural wine proponent Max Allen said tastes like “pink flowers and raspberries squashed between terracotta”. If that doesn’t appeal to you, I know quite a few people that it does excite. I finished off with the slightly more conventional Seppeltsfield Syrah 2013, all dark black plums.

Aussie biodynamic winemaking of the highest order.

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A little known fact about Tom Shobbrook – he spent six years at Tuscany’s leading biodynamic exponent, Riecine. The man who became synonymous with that producer, although as loyal winemaker, not owner, is Sean O’Callaghan. His latest project is Il Guercio. I know nothing about it really, and although Sean was purported to be there yesterday, I didn’t spot him to ask. More’s the pity. There was a simple bottle of Sangiovese which in all its unobtrusiveness was deemed “Wine of the Day” by one or two people. Of course, there’s the range of Riecine wines which Winemakers Club stock (grab that magnum of rosato for summer), but this is a wine to send out your spies for.

A final pair of sweet wines before we move on, which John poured for me before I left. Gino Pedrotti Vino Santo 2001 is exquisite. It’s from Trentino (hence the “Vino”), and fashioned from Nosiola (usually a good sign). Snap some up.  The second was Maestro Terenzio Passito 2008 from Feudo dei Sanseverino (Saracena, Calabria), a blend of Greco Bianco and Moscato. Winemakers Club is really hot on the stickies right now.

I have rather neglected Italy, which Winemakers Club does so well. Although I’ve not featured them, do not ignore the wonderful wines of Tim Manning’s Vinochisti (Tuscany) and both Romeo del Castello and Guccione (both on Sicily).

 

CARTE BLANCHE WINES

Domaine du Mortier, Saint-Nicolas-de-Bourgueil, Loire

I’ve written about these guys before. These wines are common on the Parisian natural wine bar circuit but not often seen in England. Carte Blanche were showing a very gluggable Saint-Nic and the slightly more serious Bourgueil from the 2014 and 2015 vintages respectively. These are fairly inexpensive for these appellations, and are so much more alive than most of the wines you’ll find there at this sort of price. Below is also another of their sappy reds that I drank earlier.

Domaine de L’Horizon, Calce, Roussillon

Another old favourite from my explorations of Roussillon, I remember back then (they’ve been going since 2006) finding the wines both exciting and challenging.

There are two levels here, the L’Esprit bottlings in white and red, and the corresponding Domaine bottlings. Both of the whites are based on Macabeu with different additions, whilst both reds are built around a base of Carignan, with other varieties. It is definitely worth trading up to the more expensive domaine wines if you can, my favourite of these four being the domaine white (a Côtes Catalanes Macabeu/Grenache Gris and Blanc) of exceptionally low yields (12-15 hl/h) from chalk and schist.

There is additionally a red called Mar-y-Muntanya which I’d not tried before. It’s a good intro to the range, albeit not as serious as those domaine cuvées.

I’m wondering, as an aside, if anyone can tell me why there is a photo of Jancis Robinson at the top of the home page on their web site? I know she has a place down there, but I’d not have necessarily paired her with these wines, and I do read her fairly avidly. Obviously missed something.

Domaine Christophe Muret, Castelnau de Guers, Languedoc

Christophe apparently used to be one of the biggest exporters of melons in France, but just as banking becomes boring, so presumably does melon growing. Anyway, Christophe now makes wine in Languedoc. His most recognisable wine is his dry and stony textured Picpoul de Pinet, an AOC which seemed, a few years ago, to take over the role once played by Muscadet as a dry aperitif or oyster accompaniment. This is a nice wine, although it seems that Christophe may have more of a passion for his interloper varieties. The Chardonnay is very lively, in a leaner and fresher style than you usually find in parts of the Languedoc. The Syrah, Christophe’s passion, is grown on a windy limestone and red clay hillside. The wine is textured from a little skin contact, and whilst you won’t mistake it for Côte Rotie, it’s an excellent cheap version of Syrah.

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Mas del Périé, Fabien Jouves, Cahors

Fabien is fairly (in)famous for his cuvée You F*ck My Wine. This is one of his Vins de Soif, a series of brightly labelled wines, of which he was also showing Haute Côt(e) de FruitTu Vin Plus Aux Soirées, and the pink Malbec A Table. All of these are really tasty gluggers, seriously worth trying not just for their bright (and one very rude) labels.

Fabien also makes a range of Vins de Terroir, AOC Cahors under the Mas del Périé label, although these are hardly traditional in style. Les EscuresLa Roque and Les Acacias are all well delineated, being both drinkable (the first there is 2015, the other two 2014) as well as having the potential to age. Bloc 763 Malbec comes from a 1.3 hectare site of 50+ year old vines. The grapes undergo a 30 day maceration and are fermented in egg, followed by 22 months élevage in the same type of container. This is a fine expression of Malbec, and I am pleasantly surprised that this is allowed as AOC Cahors.

Likewise Amphore, which comes from a 1 hectare plot, and is both fermented and aged (for 6 months) in various amphora of between 100 to 800 litres capacity. These are some of the most interesting Cahors wines you’ll find, although having met Fabien yesterday, his personality definitely inclines towards his Vins de Soif. If he likes to challenge his audience, so do his wines, but I mean that as a positive. They all, of whatever style, speak impressively for the man, and are fine examples of the real dynamism that is surfacing in Cahors now.

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Mouthes Le Bihan, Duras, Southwest France

Duras is a small town with a fascinating Château, east of Bordeaux but outside of the Bordeaux Region. I’ve known the red wine from this estate for many years. The two reds on show yesterday blend Merlot with Malbec. Pie Colette Rouge 2014 (Pie Colette is slang for knocking back a few, but the picture on the label is of course a magpie/”pie” in French). It is another vin de soif, a light wine with generous fruit. Vieillefont Rouge (2011 was listed) is in a slightly more structured style, but hardly much more expensive. The very tasty Pie Colette Blanc is Semillon, with Chenin and Sauvignon Blanc blended 50:25:25. A refreshingly clean, steel tank fermented, thirst quencher from one of the Southwest’s rarely seen appellations.

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Other wines to look out for from the Carte Blanche portfolio are Champagne Camille Savès (from Bouzy on the southern side of the Montagne de Reims), the lovely Chablis of Patrick Piuze, and several Spanish producers, especially the two Galician estates of Dominio do Bibei (Ribera Sacra), and Forjas del Salnés (Rias Baixas).

I really wanted to try the one wine listed from Gaznata. This producer is based in an old co-operative cellar near El Barraco in the Sierra de Grédos (within an hour of Madrid). The winemaker is a name you may have come across, a budding superstar called Daniel Ramos. Sadly, this solitary Garnacha, Daniel’s entry level glugger, was too well hidden among the crowds and there was never anyone to ask. Carte Blanche list four of the Gaznata wines, and I’d like to try them all.

The incident with the Gaznata highlighted my only real issue (not really a criticism) with this Tasting – there were just so many wines to try, probably hundreds of them, in quite a small space overall. In that sense, I’m sure there were gems that I missed. I managed to be there for about three-and-a-half hours, but I would have been pushed to try every wine if I’d been there all day. I saw one or two professionals I recognised who were in and out somewhat more swiftly.

In that context perhaps my notes will be valuable where the wines may not be written about elsewhere. There are wines I haven’t mentioned, but probably more due to omission than any active dislike. Some of these wines might be challenging to very conservative drinkers, but then if you read my Blog with any degree of regularity, you will know my tastes are both adventurous and wide. Well done to all the readers who made it this far (is it presumptuous to presume that any did?).

 

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I Met a Traveller from an Antique Land

…My name is Ozburgundian, Winemaker of Winemakers, Look on my Wines, ye Mighty, and despair!

Okay, not quite what Shelley had in mind, but the mighty Ozgundians were in town again yesterday, this time joined by another Australian washed up on the shores of the Côte d’Or, Jane Eyre. Still utilising the facilities of Vinoteca, but switching from Farringdon to Soho, they exchanged a dark basement for a lighter first floor room without giving in to providing us with any more space (though there seemed to be more wonderful cheese to nibble). The move was a good one, although I know of at least one poor man who rocked up at St John Street (where their previous tastings had been held) and gave up due to the atrocious weather. It does pay to read the email!

Le Grappin, Andrew and Emma Nielsen, Beaune

Andrew and Emma Nielsen have had a magnificent year. When John Bonné described Le Grappin as “One of Burgundy’s next superstars” he wasn’t exaggerating. Not only have some of our own very senior wine writers discovered them, but they have been fashioning what might just be their finest wines yet. Indeed, 2015 was a great success for all of the exhibitors, but there’s a sense that Le Grappin is really hitting its stride now.

This comes at a time when Burgundy is playing hard to get with the micro negociants. Small crops, caused by hail and other climatic nasties, have caused prices to rise inexorably, so that Andrew said “we are starting to become a Beaujolais producer who makes some Burgundy”. Don’t despair. The Côte d’Or wines will stay as they are, but expect some expansion in Beaujolais and the Rhône for the du Grappin range in particular. Whilst Andrew and Emma were showing their Côte d’Or wines yesterday, let’s not forget that they are making Beaujolais which is just as exciting as that made by the young guns who are the superstars of the Parisian and New York wine scene.

To the wines themselves (prices for the EP offer in brackets are for a 6-pack in bond here). There were four whites and three reds. Don’t just focus on the reds because Le Grappin made some very fine, and well differentiated, white wines in 2015. The Savigny-lès-Beaune Blanc (£137) has a warm, friendly, nose. It might be the “entry level” white, but it has bags of personality, not least because Andrew is very precise about when, and how much, sulphur is added.

Saint-Aubin “En L’Ebaupin” (£152) is a step up, but quite different. Almost exotic, delicious, with a nod towards Meursault, despite this lieu-dit being situated right at the northern tip of the Appellation. It has a good bit of gras and body to it without losing acidity. Santenay  1er Cru “Les Gravières” (£170) has a more elegant nose. It’s less opulent but more serious, as befits a Premier Cru. The Beaune 1er Cru “Les Grèves” (£190) is a very fine white, with great balance and finesse. Although the Beaune is a touch more expensive, my personal favourite was the Santenay. A personality thing, I think, and it’s interesting because it has taken me a long while to see the potential in the wines from this village.

Just two reds to whet our appetite. Savigny-Lès-Beaune (£137) has all the plush fruit you’d expect from 2015, amazing fruit actually, with a silky smoothness, and freshness too. Beaune 1er Cru “Boucherottes” (£177) is generally my favourite Le Grappin red. It’s an interestingly sited vineyard on the Pommard border, below Vignes Franches and Clos des Mouches. The nose is very different to the Savigny, and overall the wine has more depth. For a 2015 there is exemplary weight and balance. But of course, the price reflects this.

I won’t deny that the wines here are getting more and more expensive, but they do represent good value for the quality. I’d strongly recommend buying now, especially if you are new to Le Grappin. I’ve been following them for several years, almost from the very beginning. 2015 is potentially a magical year at this address, and the wines, now very much in favour with those in the know, ain’t gonna get any cheaper.

Mark Haisma, Burgundy and Rhône

Mark was showing a long string of wines, as usual. I tasted every one, and although I can’t write about them all, Mark’s 2015s (and one 2016 sample) were singing. The 2016 was his Viognier (£16.50/bottle) from the Ardèche. As with the Auvergne, this is an area which, with some great terroirs and younger winemakers, is taking off. Mark has his finger on what is essential with Viognier at this level – to retain fresh acidity and to keep the alcohol down. He succeeds! The bottle I tasted from, with Mark, had lost its chill, but the wine was still holding it together. I know that when freshly opened this is Viognier not unlike Stéphane Ogier’s La Rosine Blanc. The other Ardèche wine is a Syrah/Grenache Vin de France (£16.50), made with lowish yields from vines on schist, near Flaviac, in the hills south west of Valence. Great value, sappy fruited, tasty stuff.

Of the Burgundian whites, the Saint-Romain (£24.50) is lovely, restrained for the vintage, but of course the village is up in the cool hills north of the main Côte de Beaune villages. It’s a lovely wine, but the real find is Mark’s Aligoté (£17.50). If 2017 is the year when Aligoté may make its breakthrough, this is one to help push that secondary grape forward.

Of course all the Côte d’Or reds are very fine, just different. The Bourgogne Rouge (£18.50) is always worth snapping up (we did a dinner featuring a string of Mark’s straight Pinots a couple of years ago), and add in the vintage, 2015, and you know that it will punch above its weight. Of course, it doesn’t compare with the top wines, but neither does the price. There’s Nuits “La Charmotte” (£32.50), Volnay “Paux Bois” (£31.50), Gevrey-Chambertin (£33.50) all at village level. The two Premier Crus, Morey-St-Denis “Les Chaffots” (£52.50) and Pommard “Les Arvelets” (£47) are both particularly fine and classy, and quite well priced for this quality. Mark’s Bonnes-Mares Grand Cru is legendary. It would knock you back £235 per bottle, and he’d only let you have two per person, but I think he said there were just eight bottles left. The 2015 is already stunning, and I did ask myself what on earth I was doing spitting it out, an automatic tasting reflex when there’s a spittoon nearby.

Mark also showed his well priced Cornas “Les Combes” (£29.50), very purple, beautifully scented and structured. It needs the respect of time, but I’d say this should be added to any order. As usual the wines of Vincent Paris were also on show, and again the Granit 60 showed greater class than the Granit 30, albeit as a dense and quite tannic wine right now. But oh, the 2008 Geynale! Worth the entry fee for the nose alone. And at £27.50 it is even cheaper than the majestic, but only cellar ready, 2015 (@£31.50). Cornas has jumped in overall quality in the past decade, and wines like this are amazing value when set beside Hermitage and Côte Rôtie.

 

Jane Eyre, Bligny-Lès-Beaune

Jane moved to Burgundy in 2004, working with Dominique Lafon, with whom she now shares a winery and cellar in Bligny-lès-Beaune’s old château, whilst still working as full-time winemaker at Domaine Newman in Beaune. She began making wine under her own label in 2011. Jane also makes Pinot Noir in Australia, with logistical help when she’s away from her friend and mentor, Bill Downie. There were five 2015 wines on show, all from the Côte d’Or, but expect a Fleurie from the 2016 vintage. This was the first time I’d met Jane and tasted her wines, and without being condescending, I was very pleasantly surprised. I wondered why I’d not heard about her…too much of a well kept secret.

The Volnay (£31) was a promising start. It’s the only wine that underwent a light filtration, the rest being unfined and with minimum sulphur additions. Bottling took place in December. The Volnay’s promise over the next decade lies in its bouquet, floral and ethereal. But the ’15 doesn’t lack for structure at this stage.

The Savigny 1er Cru “Aux Vergelesses” (£32.50), is from a vineyard which sits at the northern end of the Appellation, right on top of one of my favourite vineyards in Burgundy for value, Pernand’s Ile des Vergelesses. Jane made four barrels of this, using one new barrel and three older ones. A wine of lively energy, precise, concentrated cherries on nose and palate, and fine tannins. This was a real eye-opener, and it was not only my favourite of Jane’s reds, but one of my wines of the tasting. 14% alcohol, but you’d never know without looking.

There’s a Beaune 1er Cru Cent Vignes (£32.50) which shows how fresh Beaune might prove in this hot vintage, the cru being situated northeast of Beaune, adjacent to the Clos du Roi, towards the A6 Autoroute (it’s a large vineyard, there are more than 100 vines!). Then there are two Gevreys from the Côte de Nuits. The village Gevrey Chambertin (£32.50) is dark fruited with spicy notes. The Gevrey 1er Cru  “Les Corbeaux” (£60.50) is situated right next to the village, but travel a few metres south and you have stepped into Mazis-Chambertin. Jane uses 20% whole bunches and 40% new oak on this wine. We are back with cherries, and a deep licorice. The oak is quite strong, but this is built to age. All of Jane’s wines will age gracefully, on the basis of what I tasted here, but this wine particularly so. It has the fruit to go the distance. I think Jane’s estimate of 8-15 years errs more to the French taste than the British – it will live longer than that.

Jérémy Recchione, Gevrey Chambertin

Not an Ozgundian, indeed very much a local, we met the young couple behind this Gevrey domaine last year. This time Jérémy was on his own as they are expecting a baby soon. They have planned it well, at least avoiding harvest. The domaine is based in Gevrey Chambertin, but the white comes from the Côte de Beaune. Saint Romain “Combe Bazin” 2015 (£24.50) is rich and ripe, quite tropical. The winemaking is gentle, the fruit is scrupulously clean (not so difficult in ’15) and the care taken has created a wine that despite its voluptuousness, is also elegant. The village wine from Gevrey Chambertin (£32) has a nice high toned bouquet and is well structured on the palate. Fixin 1er Cru “Les Arvelets” (£45) is a supple wine with an elegant nose, which might persuade older tasters that Fixin, like Marsannay, is now firmly part of the Côte d’Or heirarchy. Someone told me that they didn’t like Jérémy’s labels, but to be frank, who cares. The wine is good, and this lovely young couple deserve to do well.

 

Dagon Clan, Dealu Mare, Romania

Dagon Clan is a collaborative venture between a local family and Mark Haisma, who makes the wines here. These are Romania’s most famous vineyards, Dealu Mare, on the lower curve of the Carpathians, directly north of Bucharest. There are both traditional grapes with a long history, and Western European varieties, some of which blend well together.

The wines include a crisp, dry, white, an off-dry white, a pink and a red. The dry white, based on Feteasca Alba, is very good. Bottled about four months ago, it is very fresh and lively. The rosé deserves a mention. 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Syrah, it is pale, dry and fruity. The off-dry white is also fresh. The style perhaps might not appeal to the wine buff, but it should appeal massively to many novices, although that’s to do it a disservice. The star, for me, is the red. It blends Feteasca Negra with Pinot Noir (which has been present in Romania for a very long time), and it is indeed a fortuitous blend which works very well. The blend is 60:40, and it is oak aged (about 30% new oak). The 2015 is bright and elegant with good fruit and acidity, even for a vintage which was as hot in Romania, as in much of Europe. The 2014 had the advantage of an extra year in bottle and showed nice richness, though the ’15 had deeper fruit.

These are well priced artisanal wines, made with lower yields by a highly skilled winemaker at the top of his game, and they are made in a style intended to appeal to Western palates. They are clean and well made, and just a little bit different. They help show the enormous potential of Romania, where there is a vast, untapped, supply of good vine material and excellent terroir, which Mark is helping to highlight.

Dagon Clan are available via Wanderlust wines for between £10-£15. www.wanderlustwine.co.uk 

 

My Favourites!

I’m well aware this has been a long piece of writing. It’s hard to do justice to everything here. It’s also hard to pluck out a few wines when everything was genuinely good. But I won’t sit on the fence. The following are the wines I’d buy myself:

  • Le Grappin Santenay 1er Cru Blanc “Les Gravières” 2015
  • Le Grappin Beaune 1er Cru “Les Boucherottes” Rouge 2015
  • Jane Eyre Savigny-Lès-Beaune 1er Cru “Aux Vergelesses” 2015
  • Mark Haisma Bourgogne Aligoté 2015
  • Mark Haisma Bourgogne Rouge 2015
  • Mark Haisma Morey-St-Denis 1er Cru “Les Chaffots” 2015
  • Mark Haisma Cornas “Les Combes” 2015
  • Dagon Clan “Jar” (Red) 2015

But of course, when it comes to Andrew and Emma’s Beaujolais, it’s a case of filling your boot with anything you can get. Add in a few of those and I’d have a very desirable mixed case.

 

 

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Beyond the Classics

January sees the tasting circuit back in full swing after the Winter Solstice, so much so that there were at least four tastings yesterday which I would have liked to have gone to. I chose the tasting of the French Vigneron Indépendant group because it promised a lineup consisting almost entirely of producers I didn’t know. Whilst the tasting’s title may have been slightly misleading (many of the wines on show would be categorised as “classics”, both in terms of origin and winemaking, by the majority of the British wine trade), there was plenty of interest here.

The tasting was organised by Business France, who chose an interesting venue for the event, Soho’s The Vinyl Factory. This is a large underground industrial space with the requisite white walls and bare pipes. Its only drawback in an English winter, it was pretty damn cold. Whilst I imagine it would be pleasantly cool in summer, the wines, especially the reds, were not at an ideal temperature. That said, a reasonably experienced taster should be able to see through that issue. After all, we often taste in cold cellars in the field. But I think the producers would have preferred a temperature more conducive for their reds, and I hope it didn’t put any buyers off the wines.

There were plenty of visitors, although a high percentage were French speaking, and I didn’t see nearly as many of the faces familiar to me from the usual round of tastings. I know this was due to the other tastings which clashed with this, so perhaps I will be one of the few to write about this one? Out of thirty-one producers I found twelve I thought particularly worth mentioning, either for the whole range or for individual wines.

It’s worth iterating the code of the Vignerons Indépendants:

  • They farm their own vineyards
  • They harvest their own grapes
  • They make and age their own wine
  • They bottle their wine on the estate
  • They sell their own products

But bear in mind that whilst some of these are small producers, some member estates can be quite large, with a production of tens of thousands of bottles.

 

Dominik Benz, Ariège

Dominik, as his name suggests, isn’t a local. He hails from Zurich, and with his wife Martina, has only been farming ten hectares of vines not far from Foix for a few years, arriving in the region in 2013. He has Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah and Tannat, all IGP Ariège, and was showing exclusively red wines.

The wines are all named after characteristics of local fauna, and are attractively labelled. Fait du Bruit and Nez Creux are both Cabernet/Merlot blends (the former 80:20 and the latter 50:50) and are aged in large oak. Tête Sage is a pure Merlot, aged partly in barrique, partly in 500l oak. Le Roi is the most regionally indicative wine of the bunch, 100% Tannat aged 12 months in barrique after careful hand harvesting and hand de-stemming. This was my favourite of the four wines tasted (I believe Dominik makes six wines in total, including a rosé but no white). The wines are hardly inexpensive and this is a producer who is focused and pays attention to detail. A nice guy too. Definitely one to watch.

http://www.dominikbenz.fr

Domaine Leccia, Patrimonio, Corsica

Lisandru Leccia has around thirteen organic hectares in the north of Corsica, making a range of dry wines under the Patrimonio AOP, plus a delicious Muscat du Cap Corse.

The dry white is a Vermentino which is not over acidic, but is nevertheless fresh and nutty (no malo). There’s an equally fresh, pale pink made from Nielluccio (Corsica’s name for Sangiovese), and the same grape is used for the estate’s two reds. The basic domaine red wine is a simple, sappy, cherry number, whereas the Cuvée Pettale is from a single site, a hillside on chalk/schist. This has fine tannins and needs a little time.

The Muscat du Cap Corse is a lovely wine. A typical Mucat nose is grapey, and the palate blends concentrated fruit with good acidity to balance it. The grapes are harvested ripe. The more sugar, the less alcohol is needed for the mutage to stop the fermentation and retain sweetness (at 16% alcohol). A rotary fermenter is used for one day and the skin contact it generates helps release the sugars. As a Vin Doux style, the wine is in harmony with the added spirit. It’s a long way from the cheap Beaumes de Venise I recall buying in the 1980s from French Hypermarkets, a wine which in its day was incredibly popular, not as an aperitif (as the French use it), but believe it or not, as a dessert wine.

I’m familiar with Antoine Arena, and the various excellent Corsicans imported by Yapp’s. This is another domaine to add to the list. Like Dominik Benz, Domaine Leccia is looking for UK representation. I hope they find it.

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Domaine Déramé, Muscadet, Loire

Déramé was one of the larger producers present. They make around 30,000 bottles of their Muscadet Sèvre et Maine Sur Lie from their Domaine Du Moulin, and about a third of that from their Domaine de la Morandière. Both of these wines were 2016 bottle samples and were ever so slightly in shock, but both are clearly well made, refreshing wines. There are two more selective Muscadets from the same AOC, the most interesting of the Melon wines being the Cuvée Famille Déramé 2014, fresh and highish in acidity, but with a faint prickle on the tongue and a herbiness which reminded me of Swiss Fendant.

There’s a Chardonnay which was very interesting, with distinctive freshness. It was a bit lean, but Chardonnay tends to put on a bit of fat after initial bottling, and I’d quite like to revisit this after that has happened (all the 2016s being samples).

Finally, the Gros Plant. Most Folle Blanche wines are fairly neutral with very high acidity. I used to use them for Kir, a cheap substitute for Aligoté. This version may well be the most distinctive I’ve tasted, a wine of actual personality. There’s a mix of ground almonds and violets on the nose, and the palate is clean and fresh (like the freshness of a nice Loire Sauvignon Blanc). Acidic, and dry but not rough, in fact quite refined for this grape variety.

http://www.domainederame.com

Domaine de la Font des Pères (Philippe Chauvin), Bandol

Font des Pères is based at Le Beausset and produces AOP Bandol wines in a fresher style, this being on account of having some north facing slopes. This means the vines get about an hour less sunshine in the afternoon, and temperatures cool quicker allowing for fresher nights – no great disadvantage in the South of France.

This gives a fresh and herby white, made from 52% Clairette/44% Bourboulenc, with floral notes. The palate is what some of us more annoying wine writers like to call mineral. The pink is pale salmon coloured and has a lovely bouquet, floral and citrus, the palate being slightly weightier than the elegant nose suggests. It’s made from around 50% Mourvèdre and 30% Grenache, plus a little Cinsault, Bourboulenc, Clairette and Syrah. It’s made by direct press after a night’s cold soak, and is mainly tank fermented, with about 15% fermented in wood.

The red Bandol is perhaps the main event. This is 90% Mourvèdre, the remainder Grenache. It’s typically deep purple with floral, herby, scents and a palate which combines chocolate/coffee and menthol with plummy fruit. In essence, it smells like Bandol! I have this down as a wine to age for a decade, also typical of the region’s better wines.

http://www.lafontdesperes.com

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Domaine du Deffends (Anne de Lanversin), Var

This is a 14 hectare family estate in the foothills of the Monts Auréliens, 45 minutes north of Bandol (between Aix-en-Provence and Brignoles). This was one of the producers I was most impressed with. The vines are at altitude (around 400 metres) and largely on southeast facing slopes which see sunset at around 4pm in the ripening season. The earlier sunrise gives heat in the morning, but the afternoons are much fresher and the vines avoid the stress of direct sun.

The estate was founded around thirty years ago by Anne’s father, a Professor of Law at Aix University, but the vines are mostly between 40-50 years old. The estate’s white, Champ de Sesterce, is made from 75% Rolle (Vermentino) and 25% Viognier. I really enjoyed this. It is made in demi-muid, and has a nice stone fruit texture to go with its freshness. The vineyards’ orientation allows the Viognier in particular to be harvested with decent acidity, yet the variety gives the blend a little weight and gras.

The pink Rose d’Une Nuit (self-explanatory, I hope) was also very good. A blend of Cinsault and Grenache, the elegance of the nose is matched on the palate, very floral plus a touch of red fruits. The estate’s red Coteaux Varois en Provence (as the AOC is now formally designated) is made in higher quantities than the couple of thousand bottles of the white and pink (18,000 bottles of red), but don’t think it lacks any quality. It’s the new classic Provençal blend, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah (or one could say the “Trévallon blend”). It has 12 months in third fill demi-muid (previously used on the white wine). There are elements of each variety on the nose, but they meld together well. The 2014 already has hints of a nice complexity to come.

Again, an estate looking for UK representation. http://www.deffends.com

Domaine L’Amauve (Christian Voeux), Séguret, Vaucluse-Rhône

Christian Voeux is a man in late middle age with a twinkle in his eye. He was described in the catalogue as a “non-conformist wine grower”, but when I asked him about that he was self-deprecation incarnate. He is certainly a man who pays complete attention to quality at every stage of the wine growing and wine making process.

Christian’s vines inhabit the rocky hills around Séguret, just north of Gigondas, and overlooking the River Ouvèze. The soils are chalky-clay, strewn with chalky white pebbles. There is no trumpeting of organics, but respect for nature is paramount. The red wines in particular are structured to age, but at the same time, elegant. Christian recommends putting them into a carafe when young and drinking them with grilled meats. When more mature, he suggests venison. You get the idea.

La Daurele is a blend of Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Viognier and Ugni Blanc. There are 7,000 bottles, with 3,000 more of each of two reds. Laurences blends Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre and Cinsault. The 2015 has settled nicely and is characteristic of this superb vintage with great length, fruit and an elegant structure. Cuvée Estelles is made from the same as the above, with the addition of Carignan. A third of the must is vinified in oak for 12 months, of which a third of the wood is new, so a sort of “prestige cuvée”. There’s a little oak on the nose, not too much. It’s rounded with a lovely weight and chewy extract.

The wines at this domaine are all really fresh and alive. Christian aims to use minimal sulphur. Again, looking for an importer, but surely he’ll find one! Very good indeed. http://www.domainedelamauve.fr

Mas Oncle Ernest (Alexandre Roux), Entrechaux, Ventoux

Alexandre is typical of a breed of young winemaker keen to make the very best wines they can, but this Entrechaux domaine is actually four generations old, and its new name is an homage to Alexandre’s uncle Ernest, on whose very hard work the domaine was originally established.

Les Safres de mon Enfance is an AOC Ventoux Blanc, blending Grenache Blanc, Roussanne, Viognier and Vermentino (using the Italian name rather than the French “Rolle” because Alexandre thinks it sounds nicer) making around 3,000 bottles each year. It’s clean but bursting with character.

I really liked every wine I tasted yesterday which contained Viognier, it being infused with fresh acidity and not dominating in any way. I tasted the 2015 and the not yet bottled 2016 from Alexandre, both were very good, and both displayed that lovely freshness which Viognier can sometimes inhibit when harvested very ripe from younger vines.

Next, three reds, the first two being Ventoux AOC, the last, a Côtes du Rhône. The “Ventoux” tout-court is 80% Syrah with 20% Grenache, already displaying gamey notes and indeed some nascent complexity. Instant Présent is Grenache, Syrah and Carignan (50:30:20), the latter two varieties undergoing carbonic maceration. Despite 14% alcohol, it doesn’t taste heavy at all, really nice ripe cherry fruit and good lift. Patience et Longeur de Temps is an equal blend of Grenache and Syrah, bottled as Côtes du Rhône. Half the wine is aged in (used) oak for a year. This is more spicy and toasty, but the wood is fairly discreet.

Alexandre pulled out an unlabelled bottle which he said doesn’t yet have a name, a new prestige cuvée made from 90% Grenache and 10% Syrah. This is pretty tannic right now but showed considerable potential, although Alexandre reckoned he’ll only manage to produce about 500 bottles of it for the 2016.

As with the wines of Christian Voeux, above, the cellar door prices here are very reasonable for the quality. This is an estate which wine savvy friends in France have heard of, but again, no UK importer yet. http://www.mas-oncle-ernest.com

Domaine Py (Jean-Pierre Py), Corbières, Languedoc

Domaine Py is a large producer, situated at Douzens, in the beautiful Cathar country between Carcassonne and Narbonne. Some of their wines (they bottle nine different cuvées) are imported into the UK by Yapp’s and Vintage Roots. I tasted six of them (five reds and one white), which are all commendable in their own way and well priced.

The one which really interested me was the Cuvée Tout Naturellement. It was a good example of a larger producer experimenting with a sulphur free bottling and making a pretty decent success of it. The 2016, of which 13,000 bottles were made, so a not inconsiderable number, is 100% Grenache with a reasonably high yield of 50 hl/h. This has the advantage of yielding just 12.5% alcohol. Sans souffre wines often work best with lower alcohol, as it helps not to mask the wine’s innate freshness.

Vinification is otherwise pretty traditional. The wine tastes of black cherry, the palate is smooth but has bite. Very enjoyable. It contrasted with the more traditional Cobières reds made by the domaine, which seemed more tannic as we moved up to the very oaky Cuvée Lucien 2014. Here, 55-year-old Carignan was blended with Syrah and Grenache to give a very much more concentrated wine. I kind of preferred the sappy fruit of the previous wine to the more serious attempt of the Lucien, although I’m sure that the latter cuvée is the wine of which the producer is most proud.

http://www.domaine-py.com

Château Leroy-Beauval, Entre-Deux-Mers, Bordeaux

Leroy-Beauval is, like Domaine Py, hardly a small producer. I’ve been looking for some artisanal Bordeaux, and I can’t say that this property qualifies as “artisanal”. They are, however, an example of a larger producer in private ownership which is concentrating on quality and originality. Originality comes in two forms. First, they use all three of the traditional white grape varieties, Semillon and Muscadelle in varying proportions with Sauvignon Blanc. In a region where Sauvignon Blanc has almost taken over in the white wines, this is welcome. So it’s originality in tradition.

Secondly, under the Marquise de Leroy-Beauval label, they make a pair of fresh tasting, bottle fermented (Ancestral Method) sparklers, a Semillon/Muscadelle white and a Cabernet/Merlot red. Then there’s a fresh white Bordeaux Blanc, very fruity. The two top red wines are both Bordeaux Supérieur and are well made and reasonably serious. The Château bottling in 2014 is remarkably good value at cellar door prices (8 €). Okay, no egg fermentation or amphora, but this is a source of well made Bordeaux. They are represented by Be My Wine, an importer I’ve not come across.

I also tasted a single wine from Château La Haye, a Cru Bourgeois in Saint-Estèphe. The Cuvée Le Cèdre 2014 is remarkably smooth and I’d like to try a bottle with food. Available via Cambridge Wines.

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Château de Peyrel, Bergerac

Bergerac was one of the first French wine regions I visited, back in the 1980s. I was a complete novice then, and things have changed a lot. I’d really like to go back. The countryside was quite bucolic.

Château de Peyrel is near to Prigonrieux, west of Bergerac itself, and in the tiny AOC of Rosette, an attractive large Manoir with separate dovecote. The domaine recommenced making wine only in 2013, but the vines on the property are around sixty years old. Methods are deliberately artisanal.

There are two Bergerac whites and one Bergerac red, all well made. The most interesting wines are the Rosettes, a white wine AOC making an almost abandoned style of demi-sec traditional white. The Château de Peyrelle Rosette is made from all three traditional varieties, Semillon, Muscadelle and Sauvignon Blanc. It is semi-sweet, or off-dry – I didn’t see the technical data for residual sugar and the information wasn’t available. I think this kind of wine is unfairly forgotten, not nearly as popular as it once was. But the low level of sweetness, coupled with the fresh acidity, gives it some versatility. Quiches and tarts, salmon and blue cheeses were suggested as food matches.

There is also a Rosette Cuvée Excellence which is a touch sweeter and sees some oak. The sweetness is really nice, not cloying. The oak in the 2014 was just a little more intrusive than I’d like, but it should, one hopes, integrate with age. The market for Rosette must be tiny, but the wines are worth exploring.

http://www.chateaudepeyrel.com

I didn’t know any of the Grower Champagnes on show, but I did try a couple of cuvées from Champagne Fresne Ducret. This as an artisan winemaker at Villedommange, on the Northwestern side of the Montagne de Reims. The fruit is Premier Cru and, based on the cheaper cuvées Les Nouveaux Explorateurs (17k bottles) and Le Chemin du Chemin (7k bottles), it’s a house which might bear further investigation. The wines were well made and approachable.

http://www.champagne-fresne-ducret.com

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One premise of the Tasting was that wine and music go together, and I was asked to put together a playlist inspired by the wines. I’m not sure that the client realised that I’d be avoiding the cliché of songs with wine in the title, or actually about wine, but I put together a mixed list of material, with the help of Laure Monrozier at Business France. I’m not sure how many of them the DJ actually played.

The great thing about this tasting was the opportunity to try wines from producers I didn’t know. To this end it was very successful, and as you can see, there was a fair bit worth writing about. There were estates which I would certainly consider importing, if that were my métier. I hope that sufficient numbers of the trade managed to taste them.

Post-tasting, four of us headed up to The Remedy in Fitzrovia for an excellent dinner. If you read my recent New Year piece, you’ll know it was a New Year’s Resolution to go there, and I’m truly happy I did go so early in 2017. I’ll be reviewing The Remedy soon.

 

 

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Happy New Year 2017

I did consider a review of 2016, you know, what I drank, but it just seemed boastful and self indulgent for me (no aspersions cast on anyone else). It’s also quite likely you’ve read about it all on my blog already. So I thought I’d tell you what I hope to be drinking, and what I hope might happen in the world of wine, in 2017. After that, you can flick through a few photos of my highlights of 2016 if you like.

The tasting circuit cranks into gear straight after the festive break, and there look to be two crackers next week. On Thursday it’s the annual Le Grappin-Mark Haisma bash, still at Vinoteca but this time at the Soho venue. This is always a highlight, and the #ozgundians are not only about Burgundy, so plenty to taste. Before that, I’m at The Vinyl Factory, also in Soho, for the French Independent Vignerons’ Tasting, on Tuesday. I’m really looking forward to trying, among wines from many regions, some of the Bordeaux on show here.

It’s one of my hopes for 2017 that the smaller producers of this massive wine region start to get a look in. There are bordelais doing all sorts of stuff – eggs, amphora, the “back to cement” movement, and even pét-nat (did you spot that at one of our Oddities lunches?). With Burgundy, the Rhône, Loire and Champagne all showing the dynamism of the younger generation, it would be nice to see a bit of innovative publicity grabbing activity from wine’s famous dinosaur (or sleeping giant). Yes, we know it’s not just about the Corporate-Classés, so let’s hear it from the little guys in 2017.

This year might just be the year of Aligoté, as wine blogger/PR Christina Rasmussen (vintageofallkinds.com) has already mentioned in her New Year piece. Alice de Moor’s is the best I tasted last year, but a good few new ones have been recommended. I’ve a hunch that we’ll hear a lot more about this forgotten grape, deemed fit only for a summer Kir by much of the old brigade. Another look, I’d suggest.

It can’t just be me guessing at the 2017 trends, because Christina also mentions Grenache as well. I drank more Grenache last year than I have for a long while, but little came from the Rhône. Most turned out to be delicious examples from Spain, including those from around Granada, where I traveled to in the summer. But California and Languedoc-Roussillon were not far behind, not to mention some brilliant South Africans. Of the major varieties, 2017 could be the year of Grenache – made with balance and avoiding the jamminess of old. Christina – you stole my article, but if I’d appeared to pinch any more of your ideas it would have looked really bad, wouldn’t it!

Some may say Gamay is the “it-grape”, but I think Gamay may have been the grape of last year. I remember, as may you, the three great Beaujolais dinners we ran in 2015, but I drank far more Gamay than possibly any other red grape in 2016. My cellar is now almost rammed with younger/newer Beaujolais producers – Balagny, Breton, the Suniers (Antoine and Julien), Métras jnr (Jules), Kav Vionnet, France Gonzalvez and so on. Gamay is consequently getting attention everywhere, obviously all down to me and Dave Stenton, and don’t worry, it’s not going away any time soon. I have to admit that the Magma Rock of Vince Marie (Auvergne) could be the outstanding example from outside of Beaujolais from last year. Not everyone will love it as much as I do (it begins with some protective CO2 that takes a while to dissipate), but it wins out for being different, and original. Sorrenberg’s Gamay (Beechworth, Victoria) challenges for the top gong chez-moi.

I’m hoping to plan another trip to Switzerland in 2017, Lavaux and Geneva’s wines to take centre stage. Switzerland has a lot to offer the adventurous wine lover, but the prices put people off. The fall of sterling won’t help one bit, of course, but that will be the same wherever we look for wine. I sort of feel I should be taking advantage of the January Wine Sales as a result, but the wines I yearn for are almost never discounted.

The alpine, and semi-alpine regions are, as you know, the places which excite me most. So I know I’ll drink more Savoie and Bugey…and also the wines of Northern Italy, from Aosta to Isarco and everything in between. Austria will continue to feature, along with Jura, as my two subjective favourites, so long as their astonishing experimentation (both viticulture and winemaking) continue apace. And perhaps finally, Spain’s fringes and South Africa beckon as two more beacons of innovation. Altitude seems to be a running thread here, if you are after some vinous excitement.

If the world were ideal I’d plan to set foot in Arbois, Vienna and Epernay again before the year is out, but too many dreams can lead to disappointment and I’m unlikely to manage all three. I’m certainly low on Champagne, and Gut Oggau. I also have a mission closer to home, first to visit London’s The Remedy (I keep nearly getting there but other people always suggest somewhere else, or it’s full). I must also visit Newcomer Wines’ new store at Dalston Junction. I did promise I’d get there before the end of November, but Dalston is so hard to reach for us out-of-London types. Damned inconsiderate place to move to, but I wish you well, as I do to all my favourite haunts which I have managed to frequent pretty regularly (Winemakers Club, Rochelle Canteen, Solent Cellar, The Sampler, Quality Chop House…).

Instead of rambling further  into my wine dreamworld, I’ll simply wish you all a Happy New Year. To those who read this blog, a genuine, heartfelt, thank you. I hope the photos below, some highlights from 2016, will be of interest. They should all be tagged.

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