Recent Wines September 2021 (Part 2) #theglouthatbindsus

Following on from Part One, we have another pretty eclectic mix of wines. For those who think I drink too much from Austria and Jura, or even Czech wine, well, there aren’t any here. Instead, I give you a Portuguese white wine from Alentejo, one of the finest wines being made in Alsace (well, a minority view, perhaps, but I’m not alone in this assertion), a South Australian Nero d’Avola, a Grower Champagne whose producer’s reputation is growing rapidly, a still English Rosé in its first vintage, a classic English Sparkling Wine and a Manzanilla from my old friend Jesùs and amigos at Equipo Navazos.

“FITAPRETA BRANCO” ANCESTRAL 2019, ANTÓNIO MAÇANITA & DAVE BOOTH (Alentejo, Portugal)

In the couple of years before Covid I began to explore António Maçanita’s wines from the Azores Wine Company. They are so good that I found the style of his “Fitapreta” red from Alentejo (Recent Wines, May Part 2) a little too modern for my palate, or indeed should I say “old school” in a modern context of big and shiny…and 14.5% abv? The red was unquestionably very good, but just not really the kind of wine I drink too often nowadays. However, I did really enjoy the corresponding white.

The Branco is a complex blend comprising Roupeiro, Rabo de Ovelha, Antão Vaz, Tamarez, Alicante Branco and Arinto. Around 7% of the wine saw oak, the rest stainless steel, but I don’t know a lot about its fermentation (ie separate or co-fermented?). Reasonably low sulphur regime noted.

However it may have been made, you get a lovely dry wine with fresh lemon acidity, made much more interesting by a savoury edge. The vines are old, between 30-to-47-years of age. The alcohol is perfectly balanced at 12.5%, yet there’s still a little weight, even gras, or perhaps sinew, in a wine that has zero flab. Very much a food wine as a result of the savoury element. As with a lot of Portuguese white wines, it may well age into something interesting, but if I had another bottle, I’d still drink it now. I just loved the freshness.

What makes this more enticing is the UK price of £15. It’s somewhat cheaper still in Portugal. However, I don’t know about you but last time I imported wine from the EU I decided to avoid doing so again. The shipping cost was stupid. Better to phone up Butlers Wine Cellar (Brighton).

SI ROSE 16-17, CHRISTIAN BINNER (Alsace, France)

Binner’s “Si Rose” (that’s Rose, not Rosé) is legend. It is made from old vine Pinot Gris (35%) and Gewurztraminer (65%) from diverse parcels of oolitic limestone near the family’s home village of Ammerschwihr. Farming is wholly biodynamic. The cuvée is made up from equal parts of both vintages (2016 and 2017) with the 2016 seeing a long, eight-month, maceration whilst the 2017 part of the cuvée received just 8 days on skins. Aged in 100-year-old oak foudre, it was bottled in spring 2018. I’ve aged it further, beyond the release of subsequent blends.

It’s a remarkable wine, really complex. The primary notes on both nose and palate are within the “orange” family of citrus, with herbal touches and a hint of yellow peach moving to apricot. As the wine warms it expresses complex umami notes. It’s a powerful wine, both in terms of abv and also in terms of its affect on the drinker. I find this one of the most profound wines I buy, frankly. This is why I chose to age this bottle, and it was a good call.

The name, Si Rose, hints at the “rose petal” nuances which, you will note, I haven’t mentioned (on past experience age has replaced them here). I was also surprised to learn recently (I didn’t know) that “Si Rose”sounds like “cirrhose” in reference to the wine’s liver colour. It has darkened just a touch in my cellar. But I still love it.

Imported by Les Caves de Pyrene although I think this particular bottle came from Littlewine.

NDV NERO D’AVOLA 2016, BRASH HIGGINS (South Australia)

Brad Hickey makes most of his wine using home-sourced fruit from McLaren Vale, and this Sicilian variety comes from the well-known Omensetter vineyard there. The wine has more in common with Sicily than just the variety because it’s part of Brad’s amphora project.

NDV saw a whopping 180 days on skins in 2016, in 200-litre, beeswax-lined, amphorae which are made locally, not imported. Fermentation is with wild yeasts and sulphur is minimal. Only 300 cases were made of this vintage.

It’s a beautiful wine, my favourite of Brad’s reds (though almost a close call with, perhaps, his Cabernet Franc). It has the typical “ferrous” and earthy freshness from the amphora and a certain richness (alcohol is a perfectly balanced 13.5%). It feels more restrained than the bigger wines from the Vale, doubtless downto the amphora-freshness. Its long stay in the clay hasn’t dulled the fruit one bit.

I have met Brad because, as I’ve said before, he’s originally a Chicago native and his best buddy at school ended up working with my wife. So, that contact aside, I still believe Brad makes some remarkable wines (including an impossible to source marvel of a nod to Vin Jaune, but made from Chardonnay, called “Bloom”, and a lovely amphora Zibibbo). They really do merit exploration. Including “NDV”.

I think this was one of the last two bottles which I snaffled from Bin Two Wines (Padstow), although Berkmann Wine Cellars now imports Brash Higgins and I think they may have added “NDV” to an initially smaller selection of Brad’s Wines.

FOSSE GRELY BRUT NATURE 2015, CHAMPAGNE RUPPERT-LEROY (Champagne, France)

Gérard and his daughter, Bénédicte, originally set up this domaine, based just outside Essoyes. This is almost as close to Burgundy as you can get in Champagne. Bénédicte converted the domaine to biodynamics under the mentorship of Pierre Overnoy in Pupillin, and Bernard Gautherot (Vouette & Sorbet) in her own region. She also follows a regime whereby she adds no dosage and no sulphur to the wine. It’s very much “natural wine” here.

The blend of this cuvée is equal parts Pinot Noir and Chardonnay from the 2015 vintage, off argile-rouge terroir. There is more clay in the Aube than the chalk of further north. It may make the region more suitable for Pinot, but Chardonnay excels in the right places. Fosse Grely was disgorged in January 2018, so saw a decent time on lees. It’s a very classy Champagne, initially floral but then opening to rich fruit (citrus and peachy tones) with more complex classic hazelnut developing as the wine warms and the bubbles soften.

I think there are many Growers who are gaining a very high reputation now (not least the aforementioned Bernard Gautherot), but Ruppert-Leroy is definitely up there with all of them. They are on a roll and worth checking out.

Sometimes I’m not sure where a particular bottle came from. I’ve bought this at Papilles in Paris and The Good Wine Shop in Kew, but I’m reasonably sure this bottle was from my last order with Vine Trail, whose list of Grower Champagnes is enviable, if wallet-damaging.

“DANCER IN PINK” 2020, BLACK CHALK WINES (Hampshire, UK)

This is the newly released, first still wine, from the new star in English Sparkling Wine, Black Chalk, based in Hampshire’s Test Valley, not far from Winchester. If you are a regular reader, you will know that I think Jacob Leadley and his assistant, Zoë Driver, have had a massive impact since launching Black Chalk around five or so years ago. Their sparkling wines are becoming established amongst the very finest in England.

The very ripe fruit of the 2020 vintage enabled Jacob to experiment and release a still wine made from a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Précose (aka Frühburgunder) and Pinot Gris. The wine is a lovely salmon-pink in colour. The ripe fruit is immediately apparent on the bouquet, with rich scents of strawberry with cherry. The mid-palate becomes creamy, adding peachy notes and the finish adds a little grippy bite, which grounds the wine. Fresh acidity tops off a lovely bottle, which others before me have rightly praised.

I’ve been unable to get hold of a tech sheet as yet, so I can’t really say a lot more about this, suffice to say that it’s very good. I don’t know whether it will make a regular appearance now, or only when the vintage provides ripe fruit. I believe most of it has sold out from this inaugural vintage. My bottle (sadly only one) came from The Solent Cellar (Lymington). I do believe that the winery has a little left. At least it is still up on the web site (£19/btl). Worth adding a couple or more into your sparkling wine order.

CUVÉE OLIVER MINKLEY BRUT 2011, BREAKY BOTTOM (Sussex, UK)

As many of you will realise, I’m drinking my way through various cuvées of Breaky Bottom. This is one of England’s, and the South Downs’s, earliest artisan producers, founded by Peter Hall and his wife in (I think) 1974, in a stunningly beautiful “bottom” of chalky loam, between Rodmell and the sea. Each year cuvées are named after friends of the family.

We have a blend of 60% Chardonnay, 30% Seyval Blanc and 5% each of Pinot Noir and Meunier. The wine is, take it from me, stunning. What makes it so good is first and foremost the ageing: six years on lees. I would also add that I don’t know of any English producer who grows better Seyval Blanc. Try the 100% Seyval cuvée, “Jack Pike” (the 2015 may still be available).

This particular cuvée is developed and evolved but retains amazing freshness too. The citrus acidity has morphed into lemon peel, a deeper lemon. The red fruits seem more autumnal and there is just that miniscule hint of “forest floor” you can get with aged Pinot (despite it being such a tiny part of this cuvée). There’s more brioche the more you let it warm up, but it doesn’t overwhelm. It’s drinking so well.

Vintage 2011, six years on lees…hard to find this degree of depth in English Sparkling Wine without cellaring it yourself. Yet I bought this wine only this summer from Butlers Wine Cellar. Despite production being small (2,604 bottles of this), Butlers, in Brighton, is usually a good source for Breaky Bottom. They have a close relationship with Peter and family, and usually stock any cuvées they can get hold of.

LA BOTA DE MANZANILLA 82, FLORPOWER MMXV, EQUIPO NAVAZOS (Jerez, Spain)

Florpower as a concept began as a Palomino Fino table wine, but recently the Navazos team has begun to bottle it also as a fortified Manzanilla. The grapes come from the “La Baja” part of the famous Pago Miraflores at Sanlúcar, south of Jerez. Single vineyard/vintage Manzanillas are still quite rare, but are starting to become popular as an expression of the region’s great terroirs. The expression of time and place is the whole reason for creating this wine.

This Bota 82 differs in the intensity of the flor influence in a wine which still, in its lightness and freshness, resembles the unfortified Florpowers. In fact, whereas the unfortified versions I’ve kept to age have definitely matured, this bottle still has a remarkable freshness. It is aged under flor in the same butts as it was fermented in, fortified from a 12% table wine to a 15% Manzanilla.

Delicate, a wine of finesse, would be its hallmarks. It’s by no means simple, though. First, take the salinity! There’s also a depth which strangely, on the bouquet, reminds me of a fine Meursault. Odd, I know, but that’s what it smells like, somewhere deep in its core. Either that or it was making me hallucinate. Either way, amazing!

The 82 might be hard to find now, but if you want to try a “Florpower Manzanilla” then Bota 101 is a similar wine, but from 2016 rather than 2015. Although made in small batches, the Equipo Navazos wines are quite widely available. I certainly see a reasonable number in small independents like Solent Cellar. For more stockist info, contact importer, Alliance Wine.

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Recent Wines September 2021 (Part 1) #theglouthatbindsus

September has been a strange month. After feeling we had pretty much no summer it turned out to be mostly warm and sunny. It doesn’t quite feel like time to raid the Nebbiolo and Syrah really. So, the reds have been on the lighter side…in theory, alcohol levels not always low, but at least not too noticeable. The whites haven’t been too light either, but any alcohol has been magically balanced to perfection. I’ve chosen seven wines for this first part of September’s wines drunk at home, originating from Alsace, Jura, Rheinhessen, Burgenland, Liguria, the far north of Burgundy and Switzerland’s Valais. So, a nice varied selection. Some were cheaper than others, but all merit exploration if you come across them.

“LE BLEU” PINOT NOIR 2020, PHILIPPE BRAND (Alsace, France)

Philippe made this particular wine, bottled in litres, from grapes cultivated by a young winemaker friend, Guillaume Edel. It’s organic Pinot Noir off argilo-calcaire soils at Ergersheim. The village is of great interest, first because it is situated on the new frontier of exciting Alsace wine, directly east of Strasbourg (and just north of Molsheim). Secondly, Philippe Brand is, of course, one of the most exciting vignerons in the whole of Alsace right now, and is helping lead the charge up there.

This cuvée is just pure and total fruit which underwent a ten-day maceration before eight months in tank. Blackberry fruit makes a nice change in Pinot Noir, in a wine which is remarkably drinkable from the off. Very highly recommended.

This was purchased from a pop-up shop in Brighton’s Lanes area, Brazen. The guys behind it, Jon and James, are looking out for new premises soon, and I hope they find some. Their all-natural wine range is small but very well chosen. In the meantime, until they find more bricks and mortar, check out brazenwine.co online.

“THREE VIEWS OF A SECRET” 2019, PATRICE BEGUET (Jura, France)

Patrice is one of a handful of my favourite producers in Arbois, although technically he’s in the hamlet of Mesnay, around three minutes at most by car once you leave Arbois on the road towards Les Planches. The wider Jura region seems increasingly hit by climate change events now, mostly hail, and frost, and as in other regions, producers (especially small ones) have been forced to start a negoce label for bought in fruit. Patrice has followed Alice Bouvot’s well-established natural wine lead in this respect.

This wine, then, is an equal blend of Pinot Gris, Muscat and Gewurztraminer from Marc Humbrecht in Alsace. It’s interesting that those Jura growers who have gone down the negociant route often favour Alsace varieties for their aromatics.

The result here is an amber/orange wine which saw around four weeks on skins to produce a deep colour. I’m always struck how these wines really do seem to have scents of orange. The palate strikes me as peachy, initially, with clementine to follow. The acidity is fresh and there’s a good amount of texture (though I’d not call it tannic). This was my first bottle of this and I was extremely taken with it. In the past, Patrice has been a master of experimentation for his own wines, and this is frankly as good as anything I’ve tasted from the domaine (and trust me, I’ve tasted a lot). Superb stuff.

Patrice Beguet is imported by Les Caves de Pyrene, from whom I bought this direct.

“FREI, KÖRPER, KULTUR” 2018, WEINGUT SCHMITT (Rheinhessen, Germany)

Free (be brave to be free), Body (we are all of the same kind), Culture (cultivate your nature cleverly, consume with culture)! Not a bad philosophy. This is a red Landwein, bottled in litres, from Daniel and Bianka Schmitt who are based in the famous Rheinhessen village of Florsheim-Dalsheim, in the Wonnegau sub-district. Both Daniel and Bianka have an unimpeachable CV in terms of natural wine stages but they are lucky to be able to farm 16 hectares of vineyards now which have been in the family for two-hundred years.

This red is a blend of the unsung varieties Dornfelder and Portugieser. The fruit is all destemmed and the skins separated from the free-run juice. Maceration on the skins lasts four weeks and then the wine goes into very large, old, oak füder for ageing. The result is a very dark and deep purple wine which is mirrored in dark bramble fruit on nose and palate, exactly as you’d expect. It’s another wine with great fruit acids (like the Brand Pinot, above), which just add biodynamic “brilliance” (in both senses, really). It’s a genuinely delicious wine, and a litre is just right for glugging purposes.

Purchased from The Solent Cellar.

“FOGOSCH” GRÜNER VELTLINER 2016, JOISEPH (Burgenland, Austria)

Luka Zeichmann is the winemaker in this partnership, based in Jois at the top end of the Neusiedlersee, just south of Vienna. For the past few years I’ve been calling him a star in the making, but it takes time to see whether the wines will age well. On the evidence of this 2016, one of my favourite Joiseph cuvées, it ages magnificently.

This was only the second vintage Luka made here. Fogosch is Grüner grown on the typical limestone mixture you find here, which suits the variety (and Blaufränkisch) so well. The vines are old so benefit from roots which go down deep through the limestone’s small crevices seeking water and nutrients.

Twenty-four hours is all the grapes are macerated for and ageing is one year in old chestnut barrels. The result is a bouquet of orange marmalade, with quince and peach appearing on the palate. The wine’s savoury side is enhanced by a saline minerality. I’d say it’s rich but with restraint, not at all a flabby richness. The spine is taut. It sees minimal added sulphur. Aside from that, it’s damned gorgeous, but note, also cloudy. The sediment definitely adds to the textural quality so don’t be afraid to agitate the bottle.

I drank the 2019 Fogosch at Plateau down in Brighton this summer and it was delicious, but the extra age of this bottle from 2016 gave it another dimension. Brilliant, but definitely be wary if you are not a fan of natural wines. If you are, you really must try it. Imported by Modal Wines. Only 600 bottles made.

ROSSESE DI DOLCEACQUA 2019, TERRE BIANCHE (Liguria, Italy)

I bought a couple of bottles from this producer, a Pigato (a Vermentino clone) and this red made on Western Liguria’s rocky coast not far from the border with France. Filippo Rondinelli and Nicola Laconi are behind the Terre Bianche label. It’s not strictly a natural wine, but they do employ a minimal intervention approach to their vines (many over a hundred years old) and wines.

Destemmed Rossese grapes are fermented with indigenous yeasts to give a bright crimson red wine with an edgy bouquet of red fruits and spice. The palate has smooth fruit but the finish has bite. The wine is pretty good value at £22.50 and is one of those wines you don’t come across very often, which perhaps adds an extra level of interest. It might not match the wines which both precede and follow it here, but definitely makes the cut on its merits, and it is at the cheaper end of my monthly drinking.

This bottle came from Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton.

“CARAVAN” 2019, LE VENDANGEUR MASQUÉ (Chablis, France)

Le Vendangeur Masqué is, of course, the negociant label of Alice and Olivier De Moor, based in Courgis in France’s Chablis region. As with Patrice Beguet (above), the De Moors have been forced by the weather to spread their search for grapes. They’ve been doing this successfully for a few years now, and I get the impression they revel in the experimentation it allows. Caravan has become almost iconic amongst such wines.

We have 40% Riesling sourced from Luc Faller in Alsace, with 40% Sauvignon Blanc and 10% Chardonnay from vineyards closer to home, in the Yonne. These are topped up with Aligoté from their own vineyards. Blending these varieties together is, at least in their capable hands, a genius idea. Each variety adds to the blend. The result is unusual, but in a good way.

The wine is aromatic and has a bit of gras which, in this case, results in a wine with lower alcohol (12.5%) than you might perceive from the medium weight. The balance comes from perfectly judged, sleek, green apple acidity. The whole is rounded out by twelve months in foudre with only a tiny amount of sulphur added at bottling. Mightily impressive but even more enjoyable. It has that characteristic De Moor vivacity…know what I mean?

The name “Caravan”, by the way, comes from the inspiration afforded by listening to the Duke Ellington track of the same name. The label, as with many of the De Moor wines, is as exquisite as the contents, at least for my aesthetic.

From The Solent Cellar via Les Caves de Pyrene.

DÔLE « LA LIAUDISAZ » 2017, MARIE-THÉRÈSE CHAPPAZ (Valais, Switzerland)

Some readers will know that Marie-Thérèse is one of my very favourite Swiss producers, based at Fully near Martigny, the bit of the Valais just before the Rhône turns abruptly north, towards Lac Léman. The vineyards are steep and benefit from the sun’s reflected warmth and biodynamic viticulture thrives in this lady’s experienced hands.

To many who know Swiss wine, Dôle can be a disappointment, perhaps an understatement. However, this talented producer makes more than one version of this once-derided blend, which is the same (Pinot Noir and Gamay) as Bourgogne Passetoutgrains, and despite appreciating such wines from Burgundy made by the likes of Lafarge and, in the past, Arnaud Ente, this is my favourite.

La Liaudisaz is mostly Pinot Noir (between 85-90%), topped-up with Gamay. Its crunchy fruit is balanced by a certain richness making a wine that is both smooth and savoury. Aged in old wood after a whole berry fermentation and a low sulphur regime, it’s simply gorgeous. It’s kind of a bit serious, as befits a top domaine, but then not too much. It’s after all not meant for big occasions, and all the better for it. Someone, perhaps knowing Dôle, wondered whether this 2017 might be past its best. LOL! It’s Chappaz!

I’ve bought this over the past few years from both Dynamic Vines in Bermondsey and from Alpine Wines online, and I can’t tell you which one of them sold me this bottle. As these wines are hard to come by, take a look at both importers.

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Foot Trodden by Simon J Woolf & Ryan Opaz (Review)

If I ask you to name one country which is most often completely forgotten for its wines, at least on the UK market, I’d put money on many of you saying Portugal. It’s not as if Portugal doesn’t make a range of fantastic wines, from tinglingly fresh Vinho Verde whites (and reds, come to think of it) to long lived, serious, Douro red wine, with rather a lot in between. The Body in charge of promoting Portuguese wine also does a good job here once a year with a Portuguese Wine Week, which rewards independent wine shops which most successfully bring this country’s wines to our attention. I know a few wine shops I use get involved.

It is equally not as if this country on Europe’s Western edge doesn’t have a lot to offer. It has the undoubted expertise of the Port Houses, it has traditions like foot treading in Lagars and fermenting and ageing in traditional clay vessels (Talhas, largely from Alentejo, are the Portuguese equivalent, though very different, to the Georgian qvevri), and it has a string of barely known autochthonous grape varieties to entice the wine geeks and satisfy their curiosity for months.

Perhaps the main issue Portugal has had in popularising its wines would be, in the past, a lack of quality-conscious individual producers with a reputation overseas. They have always existed, of course. Take Luis Pato as an example, who started bottling his own wine back in the 1980s. But overall, Portuguese wine has been dominated by larger producers, whether private companies or co-operatives. They have sometimes been content to produce rather generic examples of traditional wines.

Luis Pato, whose Bairrada was the first quality Portuguese wine from an independent producer I ever tasted, back in the 1980s

Where such wines have been made in a more traditional style, then they have just not been easy to find outside Portugal. Take the wine of Colares as one prime example, or traditional wines favoured by the older generation (or younger football managers in the case of José Mourinho’s professed love of Barca Velha).

Then there is the “flying winemaker”. When I was getting into wine these folks were everywhere, but Portugal had a few high-profile individuals (Peter Bright and his Bright Brothers company is probably the most prominent example of an Aussie flying winemaker who had a massive influence on the more commercial side of Portuguese wine). As in other countries, Antipodean winemakers, university educated in modern winemaking, have had a transformative influence. It’s just that in the quest to “clean up” Portuguese wine, undoubtedly producing wine of good quality at affordable prices, maybe something of its original character and uniqueness was occasionally bypassed.

Another cause for Portugal lagging behind the rest of Europe has probably been the paucity of natural wine producers. The natural wine movement has seen many young people begin to make wine across the continent, often with very little land at their disposal, but they have achieved a profile far greater than their output would usually warrant. Those countries/regions with a hive of natural wine activity (Eastern France, Austria, Loire, South Africa etc) have very quickly become fashionable, especially among younger drinkers. Until quite recently, Portugal was slow off the mark here, although this is changing.

This new side to Portuguese wine I have yet to experience in the flesh. I won’t tell you exactly when my one and only trip to the country was, but we are talking decades. It was restricted, so far as wine went, to the north, with a visit to Vinho Verde country and a journey up the Douro. This was a time when a desire to try a red Vinho Verde in a bar was met with an attempt to dissuade me. I discovered why. It did taste rather similar to the vinegar on the table. It was also a time when in regions like Trás-os-Montes and Alto Douro transport was frequently by mule cart, when a 1940s-era bus was more or less the only alternative. It was also happily a time when EU-funding was beginning to change people’s lives here, reducing rural poverty and for better or worse, eroding one of Europe’s last bastions of embedded tradition.

I have just one book on Portuguese wine on my shelves, written by Charles Metcalfe and Kathryn McWhirter, self-published in 2007 (The Wine and Food Lover’s Guide to Portugal, Inn House Publishing). It was an excellent book. Not only did it cover the wine regions, it was also a useful travel guide with places to stay, eat, and buy food and wine. But a decade-and-a-half on we are in need of something new.

Thankfully we have it in Foot Trodden – Portugal and the Wines that Time Forgot by Simon J Woolf and Ryan Opaz. I’m sure you all remember that Simon Woolf’s first book, Amber Revolution was my Book of the Year in 2018. Simon is one of a small number of people I cannot imagine writing anything I would not love. His photographer and fellow contributor is a real talent in his own right and the photography here adds to the mood of the book in ways hard to imagine without seeing for yourself. They “tell the story” alongside the words, the two being inseparable. The photograph taken on Madeira (pp200-201) must rank among the finest wine pics I’ve seen in print.

Ryan Opaz is, of course, based in Portugal so his local knowledge and network of contacts has probably been transformative in terms of what, and who, the authors have been able to gain access to, but Simon Woolf is hardly lacking in expertise himself, having visited Portugal regularly for at least the past decade.

Foot Trodden states its aim to explore the intersections between wine, culture and history. This is essential on several levels: it’s the only way to view Portuguese wine, but at the same time, it is culture and history which both ground the story and furnish us with that true sense of excitement which may have been lacking. Portuguese wine is so much more that some grape varieties we’ve never heard of fermented in stainless steel, aged in oak and sold for £8.99 on the supermarket shelf alongside the Rioja and Rueda from Spain.

After the preliminaries and an Introduction, Foot Trodden is divided into seven further chapters, all thematic. They are as follows:

2. Granito – Vinho Verde

3. Lagar – Douro

4. Serra – Dão

5. Baga – Bairrada

6. Talha – Alentejo and Ribatejo

7. Terra – Colares and Madeira

8. Bom Dia! – Lisboa and Beyond

Each chapter covers wider ground that you might imagine. We meet the wines, and we meet the people who are not only making them, but who are pushing the boundaries and drawing the international spotlight onto their respective regions. These are individuals who are doing so much more than the regional wine bodies, hidebound, perhaps to a degree, by the need to service the larger producers who are paying their wages. This is not a book which ignores larger producers where their wines are sufficiently interesting and, shall we say, any good. But it is a big shout for artisanal winemakers, and for producers who feel a connection to place, tradition and the wider culture, treading increasingly lightly on their often unique terroir (terra).

In the same way that many so-called modern winemakers in Spain are going “back to the future”, making modern wines via an exploration of tradition and forgotten expertise, Portugal’s best winemakers seem to have an interest in what has been forgotten from the past alongside what has been learnt in the present. Authenticity is a much over used word, but perhaps it is relevant for the wines made by this younger generation of winemakers, looking back to a few select mentors from an older generation and to some of the methods their grandfathers may have used, and generations before them.

Do I have any criticisms? It seems a mean one…my own interest in the wines of the Azores is not reciprocated as this distant outpost of Portuguese winemaking is not covered. I can well understand the reasons, being a mix of Covid constraints and the sheer cost of getting boots on the ground there.

I am pleased that due to the success of the Kickstarter campaign, it became possible for the authors to visit Madeira. I grow increasingly intrigued by all the wines produced on this island, despite poor knowledge and all too little experience. Equally, when I was younger Madeira was seen very much as a destination for old people, on cruise ships. This perception has changed, and with its culture, wine and walking (always a bonus for us), I am coming closer to desiring a trip there.

I think that the world of wine today is crying out for a different tack, and I know Simon Woolf is with me on this. The three decades years before this current decade has seen wine writing take an approach based all around scoring wine. It has led to a great deal of technical discussion in relation to viticulture and winemaking. Can you read anything of this ilk which doesn’t talk about clones, about the size of the open-top fermentation vessels and what was the toast level of the oak in which the wine was aged?

This book has a different focus…on the people and their stories rather than only on the wine as an object to analyse. It’s a book of history and culture rather than just wine science (though winemaking has its part to play here). This is why, alongside knowledge, perception and fine writing, I commend this exceptional book to you. It’s one of those rare books which you don’t know you need to read, but when you do you will be enriched by reading it.

This is, as Jamie Goode says on the back cover, “A beautiful creative endeavour that looks set to introduce a new public to Portugal’s remarkable wine scene”. I could not have put it better.

Foot Trodden by Simon J Woolf and Ryan Opaz is published this month, arriving first to those who helped fund the project via a highly successful Kickstarter campaign. It is published in Europe by Woolf’s Morning Claret Productions and in the United States by Interlink Books of Northampton, Massachusetts, priced £25 (UK), €30 (Europe) and $35 (USA).  Contact for sales via http://www.themorningclaret.com (Shop) or Simon Woolf via Instagram ( @themorningclaret ) for further information.

Images © Ryan Opaz 2021, used with permission.

Ryan Opaz and Simon Woolf

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Recent Wines August 2021 (Part 2) #theglouthatbindsus

Part Two follows swiftly on from Part One, mostly because I can’t wait to review a rather exciting new wine book as soon as I can get through it. So, taking up where we left off on Wednesday, we begin with a wine made from some very obscure varieties in Czech Moravia, then one of my all-time favourite Viennese field blends and a lovely litre of Corsican Vermentino, which had shamefully been in my fridge for nearly a year. Next, a Crazy fizz from Germany, a beautiful Rosato from Frank Cornelissen on Sicily and, to wind up August’s wines drunk at home, possibly my bargain of the summer, from Northern Spain.

MLADÝ BOCEK 2017, RICHARD STÁVEK (Moravia, Czechia)

Richard has been making natural wines in Moravia for over 25 years on part of his mixed farm (15ha, of which around 4.5ha are planted to vines). Although I am buying probably more Czech wine than most individuals these days, I’ve probably neglected this producer. Checking through my notes I’ve tried far more of his wines at tastings than I have bought over the past three or four years.

This wine has a level of interest which suggests I’ve been a fool. The blend here is enough to get any rare variety hound salivating, Sevar and Rubinet are the grape varieties. They make a powerfully juicy red wine. The concentrated fruit is cherry with other red fruits in a supporting role. The colour is very dark, yet it is lighter on the palate than you would expect…unless you’d spotted the 11.5% abv on the label. The bright acidity makes it remarkably refreshing. You slurp it almost like a fruit juice with a chewy finish.

This makes for a wine which I guess you’d use for the same kind of cuisine as you might pull out a Barbera or Dolcetto for…or any number of Alpine reds for that matter. Don’t be put off by the obscure grape varieties. It’s a lovely, sappy, uncomplicated red wine crying out for a whole platter of rustic delights.

The current vintage has, I think, moved on to 2018, which will cost £30 at Basket Press Wines.

RAKETE [2019], JUTTA AMBROSITSCH (Vienna, Austria)

It is difficult to explain why I love this wine so much without taking you to the vineyards immediately to the north of the Austrian Capital, blending seamlessly into the city suburbs. I love walking among the vines over the wider Nussberg and Kahlenberg hillsides, in summer sipping wine at the pop-up Heurigen, in winter delighting in the crisp air above the Danube. Most Gemischter Satz field blends, from here and elsewhere, tend to be white wines, but there is no reason why they should not contain red varieties, vinified as a Rosé or pale red.

I’ve written a lot about Jutta before, suffice to say that this ex-graphic designer makes the most exciting, edgy, wines in the region, one which should have a bigger international profile than it perhaps does. It might be that most of the winemakers (not all, for sure) are as quiet and undemonstrative about their wines as Jutta is. She remains at the top of her game, yet sadly her output is tiny.

Rakete is a field blend of St Laurent, Rotburger (aka Zweigelt), Blauburger (Blauer Portugieser x Blaufränkisch), Merlot and some assorted white varieties in very tiny quantities. The vines are close to fifty years old, off the limestone of Kahlenberg (a short walk or bus ride from Nussdorf).

The grapes come in and undergo a four-day maceration. The essence of gemischter satz winemaking is that the grapes are all picked together and co-fermented. In this case, whole bunches go into stainless steel. Bottled without fining, nor filtration, with an admonition on the label to shake the bottle and serve chilled. It’s just pure cranberry juice, joyful and life-affirming.

Rakete, and other wines from Jutta Ambrositsch, are usually available via Newcomer Wines and Littlewine (littlewine.com).

“ZINZINU” 2019, VERMENTINU, CANTINA DI TORRA (Corsica, (France))

This is a litre of low alcohol Vermentino (or Vermentinu using the Corsican dialect spelling) from Nicolas Mariotti Bindi on his Cantina di Torra label. The wines are made from around 7.5ha of north-facing slopes on the Golfe de Saint Florent, west of Bastia. This is a part of the island perhaps better known for its appellation wines, Patrimonio and Muscat de Cap Corse.

Although bottled in litre size, this is no plonk. Seventy-year-old vines are hand-harvested off limestone “carcu” and clay before being whole-bunch pressed into stainless steel. Although only labelled as organic, bottling is with minimal added sulphur. This perhaps enhances the freshness which this 10.4% abv beauty had retained in my fridge for nearly eleven months. It’s easy drinking, light but with a saline finish which elevates it from simple to delicious.

We drank this al fresco, first with taboulé, and then cheese and it just did the job perfectly. To be honest I am not sure it would have tasted substantially better if it hadn’t performed the function of emergency backup for longer than I’d normally hope (do you keep wine in the fridge just in case you get unexpected guests?).

This came from The Solent Cellar. I don’t see it currently listed, but they do have a couple of Nicolas Mariotti Bindi’s red wines in stock so perhaps they will get some more next year.

“CRAZY CRAZY” 2020, MARTO WINES (Rheinhessen, Germany)

Today Rheinhessen rivals The Pfalz as the most innovative and progressive wine region in Germany”. Those, more or less, are the opening words on Rheinhessen in the M&B World Wine Atlas, current edn (Robinson et al). That statement is undoubtedly true, although perhaps the authors were thinking Keller and Wittmann rather than the kind of innovation we have here!

A tome like the Wine Atlas spends its two Rheinhessen pages relating the great concentration of fabulous names in both Wonnegau and the revived Nierstein/Oppenheim axis, but this is Germany’s largest wine region and there are more than 150 wine communes to take in. Not all of them have sites famed for GG Riesling, but that’s by no means to write them off, especially if it is indeed innovation you are seeking.

This wine was described to me as a kind of “German take on Prosecco”, so naturally I was hooked and reeled in. Marto Wines is the label of Martin Wörner, based at the notable wine village of Flonheim, northwest of Wonnegau, that being one of Rheinhessen’s better known sub-regions, in which you will find that other pair of aforementioned innovators. Taking natural wine methodology seriously (Martin did work at Gut Oggau and Matassa, after all), the estate’s five hectares are sown with cover crops and sheep graze the vineyards.

If the wine’s name is a repetition of the word “crazy”, the first crazy must be the blend: Würzer, Huxelrebe and Müller-Thurgau. The latter used to be the mainstay of Rheinhessen in the bad old days, and Huxelrebe? It must be decades since I have drunk a wine containing that variety, and when I last did it might well have been English wine. Würzer? Another one for the rare variety sleuths.

So, to the taste of it. Apple and lemon freshness, quite cidery on the palate yet not volatile, more just sharp apple freshness. It’s a gorgeously thirst-quenching froth monster, real fun in the glass. Well sedimented, though, and definitely the way it tastes is the second “crazy”.

This small winzer, pretty much unknown in the UK, exports to places as diverse as Australia and Japan. Whilst some of the UK wine trade has very possibly taken its finger off the pulse due, no doubt, to our current Covid/Brexit predicament, we can still rely on Les Caves de Pyrene to bring in some of the new names in European wine. Let’s hope they are able to continue to do so. Anyone noticed the rise in cost of importing as an individual!

SUSUCARU ROSATO 2020, FRANK CORNELISSEN (Etna, Sicily (Italy))

Frank is still often portrayed as the wild man of Etna’s natural wine scene, but I’m told he’s changed a lot since I first began to drink his wines, and his wines have changed a little too. As an early enthusiast I kind of stopped drinking them eventually, down to many a volatile disaster and the cost of those fails. In fairness to the winemaker, they were probably caused by shipping and storage, with the sulphur-free instability one saw more often in the early days of natural wine, and it was certainly not the case that every bottle was affected.

Robert Camuto in his 2010 book, “Palmento” (Univ of Nebraska Press), suggests that Cornelissen decided to make wine on the slopes of Etna because he believed it was the only place in Europe where he could make wine free of chemical additives. Thankfully, many more such places have since been discovered. Perhaps the bleak solitude of the mountain appealed to this former mountaineer, and maybe even the danger inherent in living beside an active volcano?

Susucaru is the label for the entry level wines Frank used to call “Contadino”. The name translates as “they stole it”, and grape theft is a real problem in Sicily, as one might imagine. That sort of activity cannot help but make this rosato even more of a supposed unicorn than it already is. Frank blended Malvasia, Moscadella, Inzolia and Nerello Mascalese into this 2020 vintage. It saw ten days on skins before ageing in tank. It also saw a very light filtration, but no added sulfites.

Does it express the terroir, as intended? It certainly expresses real purity of fruit, with clean cranberry flavours plus a saline edge. Definitely a “volcanic wine”. I don’t quite see the similarities with Poulsard which have been touted, but that’s just me. It’s really good, in fact inspiring, and a very clean and fresh, dark pink, wine.

So, this is said to be a unicorn. It’s true that no one in the UK has a lot to sell (although an acquaintance did say she saw three cases of this in a Barcelona wine shop recently). However, it does seem to be shared out fairly widely among the indie merchants, so plenty of folks will have six or twelve to sell. It’s just a question of getting in quickly, either there or at Les Caves de Pyrene. When there’s some around you can get it, but it disappears quickly. What it does not share with most so-called unicorns is price. This is priced around just £30. For now, we are lucky.

TXACOLI ROSÉ 2020, BODEGA REZABAL (Euskadi/Basque Country, (Spain))

I’m going to stick my neck out and say that this wine has probably been my bargain of the summer. The grape variety is one of the Hondarrabis common in the Basque Region, but this one is Hondarrabi Beltza. It is grown on that lush, green, part of Northern Spain which goes from just west of Bilbao to just east of Donostia/San Sebastian, increasingly known for apple-fresh tasting white Txacoli, a wine which is well enough known these days that most people can now pronounce it.

However, this wine is very pale pink, and in fact the producer calls it a Rosé rather than use the Spanish term. It is made by Anders and Mireya Rezabal on their 20ha domaine in the sub-region of Getariako (Guetaria DO), just west of that gastronomic mecca, San Sebastian. The vines are traditionally high-trained, and the vinification is as simple as possible with the aim to retain the same freshness you find in the white wine.

The bouquet gives a lively strawberry scent and the CO2 prickle in the wine is easily sensed on the nose on first sniff. The palate, whilst full of that freshness, also has a rounded, lush, peachy flavour. There’s a little dry extract on the finish to ground things. Simple but most effective, its 11% alcohol being just right to quench a summer thirst. Serve well chilled. I’m thinking of getting some more, although that may well be an easier task than finding some more reliable sunshine.

This wine is quite widely available. My bottle came from Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton, and cost just £13.99. I know that Theatre of Wine sells it in London, as do quite a few of the usual independent suspects.

The following wines are bottles we drank from someone else’s cellar. You just get a peak.

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Recent Wines August 2021 (Part 1) #theglouthatbindsus

August’s “recent wines” will be a little shorter than usual, still two parts, but with a focus on just six wines in each part. This is partly because of spending time away and partly because we drank some bottles I’ve written about fairly recently. I don’t think I can resist a brief mention of a couple of additional bottles we drank on the road though. For Part One we have Dorset, Anjou and Bio Bio alongside Jura, Sanlúcar and the Eastern Languedoc. The bonus wines are a fabulous New Zealand petnat and a smart Champagne which drew attention to the dangers of writing off a less favoured vintage.

“CORALLIAN CLASSIC CUVÉE” EXTRA BRUT, LANGHAM WINERY (Dorset, UK)

Made from 75% Chardonnay with 15% Pinot Noir and 10% Meunier (that’s much more Chardonnay than the 2017 base), 83% of this cuvée is from the 2018 vintage and 17% from reserves. Bottling was in August 2019 and disgorgement February 2021, dosed at 1.5g/l.

John Langham first planted vines near to his new home close to Dorchester, which he purchased in 1980, a manor house dating from the time of Edward VI. In 2009 his son, Justin, commercialised the operation, planting the 30-acre Crawthorne vineyard. The Langham cuvées are effectively single vineyard wines, all made from fruit grown on the estate, using what the team term “low intervention” methods in the vines and the winery.

This is the second recent bottle, the first being around seven or eight weeks before this one and the difference was marked. The first bottle was nice but very young, but for some reason this one was a big step up in terms of flavour and complexity. This is curious, considering it’s a fairly young wine in which I’d have expected less autolytic character. It could possibly mean that this 2018 base may age more quickly, or it could be bottle variation. That said, most people will buy this to consume almost immediately.

Nevertheless, it really was very good indeed. Brioche notes on the nose, a slightly rounder mouthfeel despite the low dosage, and pretty good length. A nice bit of chalky texture lingers on the finish, which seems a little softer than many Extra Brut cuvées.

In any event, this is shaping up to be one of my favourite “classic cuvées”, helped perhaps by the fact that it’s a bit cheaper than some of the others which would make my list. This cost £30 from The Solent Cellar. The Langham Blanc de Blancs leaps to £39.

“EGLANTINE” VIN DE FRANCE PÉTILLANT [2019], BENOÎT COURAULT (Anjou, France)

The Courault domaine is at Faye D’Anjou in the Western Loire Valley, south of Angers and west of Saumur. The vines here are grown on a fairly flat plateau comprised of clay over blue slate and schist. Benoît took over 6.5ha of vines around fifteen years ago and farms with the sensitivity to the environment and ecology that he learnt from one of his mentors, the great Eric Pfifferling, at L’Anglore in Tavel.

“Eglantine” is a delightful pink petnat. Delightful as a descriptor could be taken as damning with faint praise, yet it fits so perfectly here. The wine isn’t in the slightest bit demonstrative, but it’s lovely. It’s a blend of Cabernet Franc and Grolleau, with in 2019 a dash of Pineau d’Aunis. The wine’s makeup changes each year, as does the pressure in the bottle. The 2019 has turned out more frizzante than fully sparkling, and I think this is what gives the wine its charm. Just a touch of sulphur is added at bottling, which is in the spring after harvest. This petnat is disgorged.

The bouquet is initially of rose petals, which come across in a gentle, ethereal stream. This is followed by red fruits (raspberry aromatics), which also dominate the palate, but the finish is unexpectedly redolent of spice, perhaps pepper. The gentle nose gives way to a firmer palate, which is built around some nice fresh acidity with just enough steeliness.

Imported by Les Caves de Pyrene.

PAÍS 2019, DARREN SMITH & ROBERTO HENRÍQUES (Bio-Bio, Chile)

This is another of Darren Smith’s collaborations under his “The Finest Wines Available to Humanity” label. Roberto Henríques worked as an agronomist and this was how he discovered plots of old vine País in Bio Bio’s Itata Valley. País is probably the same variety as Listán Prieto, which originated in Spain’s Gredos Mountains. A “peasant” workhorse grape, it probably made the communion wines of the first Christian monks and priests who went to Chile during the conquest by Spain in the sixteenth century.

I recall being pointed towards Roberto’s wines when they were first imported into the UK by Wines Under the Bonnet several years ago, and I remember being particularly impressed with his País. Having drunk a few of Darren’s collaborations from Portugal and the Canary Islands, I was rather looking forward to my bottle of this.

The grapes are from 200-year-old, dry-farmed, vines near the tiny village of Millapoa, right up at around 350 masl. The soil here, not that there’s much, is eroded black basalt sand.

The colour is a dark ruby with glints of deep purple. The legs are notably thick, but the wine only registers 13.5% abv. The bouquet is all concentrated bramble fruit and cherry with notes of violet and lavender. The palate has a nice line in rusticity but certainly with a modern twist. In sum, textured, fruity and with bright acidity. Remarkably, it’s easy to slurp this, despite the alcohol level. I was very taken with it and Darren seems to be putting out some very exciting wines. I guess his choice of collaborator here has been spot on.

Purchased direct from Darren but you can read more about his wines and other avenues to purchase them in my article from June, Here.

“ENTRE-DEUX” CÔTES DU JURA 2016, PEGGY & JEAN-PASCAL BURONFOSSE (Jura, France)

I have been a fairly regular small-scale purchaser of the Buronfosse wines, on and off, when in the Jura region, but they had previously appeared absent from the UK market. It was a shame. I know there are so many fashionable small growers in the region, but Peggy is up there with the very best. Thankfully, I’ve now discovered they are in the UK, thanks to the ever Jura-vigilant Solent Cellar in Lymington.

Peggy fell on her feet really when Raymond Pageault rented his old vines to her and husband Jean-Pascal on his retirement. It helped that Peggy had become friends with her neighbour, Jean-François Ganevat, because these vines were in La Combe, Rotalier, one of Jura’s most famed locations. A “grand cru” if ever there was one.

The couple’s 4ha of vineyards are on steep slopes of limestone, marl and schist at both Rotalier and St-Laurent Grandvaux. “Entre-Deux” is Savagnin, a selection wine presumably made from vines in both locations. It is made in the ouillé style (topped-up, not oxidative). It’s lime-fresh, gorgeously so, with a very lengthy finish. The 12% alcohol seems perfectly judged in a lovely, impressive, bottle. It’s one of those wines you don’t see very often on Instagram but one which those who know, know.

Imported by Raeburn Fine Wines.

LA BOTA DE FLORPOWER 99, « ANTES DE LA FLOR », EQUIPO NAVAZOS (Sanlúcar, Spain)

I decided I needed to check up on one of my most recent EN purchases, although the weather this August hasn’t really induced me to drink a lot of Palomino Fino, whether fortified or not. It’s a shame because I don’t normally need an excuse.

This Palomino comes from the Pago de Miraflores La Baja at Sanlúcar, a very special terroir. The idea behind this bottling “before the flor” is indeed to create a table wine, without fortification, which is the purest expression of that terroir. So, no cask ageing, just tank. The vintage is 2019 and ageing was 12 months in stainless steel, without the appearance of a veil of yeast. Then bottling, which took place last year.

The result is, as always with these “Florpower” wines, pretty amazing. It’s certainly youthful, but that’s a good time to broach one. The salinity and chalky terroir texture are perhaps at their peak, along with freshness, which will mellow into greater complexity with time. The vines are very old and the yields are naturally low, which assists the winemaker to get that tell-tale EN concentration, and the potential to age impressively is definitely there for anyone who cares to do so. That potential for this wine is significant, which is why a few bottles, not merely one, would be essential if you can get some. At least these delicious Florpowers are cheaper than the fortified Sherries they bottle at EN.

The UK agent for Equipo Navazos is Alliance Wine.

MAS LASTA PÉTNAT ROSÉ, ANNE-LAURE SICARD (Languedoc, France)

Anne-Laure is a vigneronne on the Terroir de Larzac, the vineyards near the Causses of the same name in Western Languedoc. She has farmed 8.5ha of vines, all up at around 400 masl, at St-Privat since 2015, using non-intervention approaches in the vineyard and winery. Initially she trained as an agricultural engineer before enology studies. Subsequent to that she has worked over several continents and is very widely travelled for a young winemaker.

From what I can tell, Anne-Laure is something of a red wine specialist, certainly getting excellent reviews for her Grenache, Carignan and Syrah. Her vines are old, and scattered in small parcels around the village, but growing on the now famous schist and sandstone of the sub-region.

This simple petnat is delicious. It’s a darker shade of rosé, made from Grenache. It’s fruity, light and clean, in fact not remotely scary for anyone new to natural wine. It’s just what you want from summer fizz, although this is a petnat which contains sediment, easily avoided by standing the bottle up for a while if the idea of cloudy wine doesn’t appeal. I prefer a little texture, which the sediment adds. At 12.5% this is still very easy to guzzle down.

This was a recommendation from Solent Cellar.

Now to the two wines I didn’t drink at home. The first was shared with a couple of friends on the beach and it was as perfect as you could imagine a beach-time petnat could be. So, you might be shocked to discover the grape variety is Müller-Thurgau. If anyone makes a brilliant version of this old workhorse variety, once widely planted in New Zealand before Savvy Blanc became fashionable, it is Theo Coles.

Theo farms at North Canterbury on NZ’s South Island, and I’d be hard pushed to name a New Zealand winemaker whose wines thrill me as much as his do. This was his Ancestral Method Müller-Thurgau 2019. Who would have thought the old variety of German sugar water fame could give us this little gem! To be fair, a few German winemakers are re-evaluating the variety and we are seeing a few excellent natural wines made from the grape in Germany now.

What we have here is just pure fruity fizz, zero complications, for times when you have a thirst (post-swim, perhaps). The 2019 is almost certainly all gone, but maybe you can grab a bottle of the 2020? Uncharted Wines is the agent, and my previous source, but this one came from Littlewine.

The second wine I want to mention is a classic, and in many ways it’s not a wine I would expect to drink often. Yet “Comtes” is and has always been one of my favourite Prestige Cuvée Champagnes. That said, I can’t see myself buying any more because this has pushed over £150 now. I’m not sure what this 2005 (yes) cost because it would have been purchased with a discount, but the 2006s I have remaining are my last, I’m guessing.

So it goes with a lot of Champagne. I used to have a reasonable amount of the stuff, but it’s disappearing way too quickly and however much I claim there’s plenty of wine out there, Champagne is something I just cannot replace. It hurts.

This Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2005 was delicious and I mention it primarily because it highlights that truth, obvious to any real wine lover, that a top producer’s top wine will be worth buying whatever the vintage. People talk some generalised rubbish about vintages. Someone I know drank a very tasty Haut-Brion 1984 the other day and it reminded me that a friend’s father had opened one for our anniversary, over in France, a few years ago, with a similar result.

Are the 2004 and 2006 vintages of Comtes better than the 2005? Probably, if you ask an expert. The 2005 is just different. We drank it with close friends, one of whom has a special love and connection with Comtes, which is why I took it for our Glyndebourne picnic and we were lucky…this bottle was glorious, drinking perfectly but I don’t think anyone need panic if they have a case or two. Complex and majestic.

I know there’s no God-given right for any of us to be able to drink any given wine, whether that be fine Champagne or a Jura Unicorn. But that doesn’t stop me wishing.

This is, of course, very widely available in whatever is the current vintage (the excellent 2008 vintage is available at some retailers if you have £160 to splash). If Waitrose is having one of their 25% off weeks, it’s always worth popping into their Oxford Street or Canary Wharf branches. But even so, wines costing more that £100, even with discount, cost more than I care to pay these days.

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The Visitor

It’s what we do, isn’t it? As wine lovers, obsessives even, we visit vineyards and taste the wine, and if we are not the victim of airline baggage restrictions, we probably buy some to bring home. If we are lucky enough to be driving, we bring lots home. Although our partners and children don’t always appreciate our obsession, for those of us who have a wine passion, bringing home bottles from producers we’ve visited on holiday is probably (don’t tell the family) the most exciting part of the trip.

I’m pretty sure that I’m far from being alone here. The fun is partly in obtaining bottles you might not be able to get back home, something the importer thinks won’t sell, but for the self-styled connoisseur it’s just what he or she had hoped to get hold of. Sometimes it’s just bagging new cuvées or vintages which have not yet reached our shores. There’s also the fun of cramming it all in, along with the luggage, and all that paraphernalia you need to give the young ones in the family a sense that it is a holiday for them too, not just a period of automobile incarceration for the length of daddy’s wine trip.

Of course, I’m being a little tongue-in-cheek. Wine regions surely vie with the mountains as the most beautiful places to holiday and the vineyards I love to visit are usually near to mountains, or at least pretty big hills. Can you beat a vineyard walk after breakfast? And on the subject of food, it is probably no coincidence that wine regions also seem to have the best cuisine, at least in Europe.

Such holidays always excite the organisational side of my personality. I like a good puzzle and fitting wine into an already crammed boot is a challenge I’m up for. When the children’s feet didn’t reach the floor in the back of the car, the seat wells could take the odd six-pack for them to rest upon. Odd bottles fit under seats and it is amazing how many small spaces there are in the boot. Mind you, I remember one particular holiday, many years ago now, where we ended up in the mountains near Aosta and I genuinely thought I’d broken the back axle, which had it been true would have been a mean feat for a Volvo estate.

So, if the “wine visit” is the highlight of our holiday, we also assume that it’s part and parcel of a day in the life of your average wine producer. This assumption, or not so much an assumption but something one probably didn’t really think about, has been rocked somewhat over the last eighteen months or so. The issues around visits were first mentioned to me in conversation with Wink Lorch, who highlighted the difficulties even she, as an established authority on Jura and Savoie, was sometimes having in gaining appointments in these regions.

The issue was once more brought to light on social media this month, with some Twitter users apparently declaring their God-given right to rock up at a vigneron’s house, expecting a tasting. The overall opinion went along the lines of “well, they are running a business”. Such a view was somewhat countered in a great piece by Hannah Fuellenkemper, which appeared a week ago on Simon Woolf’s “Morning Claret” site.

It’s a fun read and it puts across the potential point of view of the winemaker very well. In examining all the reasons why someone decided to become a winemaker, she says “but I bet at no point you decided to make wine because you wanted to spend all your time drinking with random people in your kitchen”.

Shall we take a step back. There are many kinds of winemaker and a great number positively encourage visitors. They may be a large commercial operation where coaches are welcome. They may merely be Australian. I jest, but Australian winemakers with almost all sizes of vine holdings will have a tasting room. Those who don’t are highly adept at making their winery very hard to find (even if one has been granted an invitation). Even a star producer like Clonakilla in Canberra District will allow the odd coach by appointment, though.

The finest estates in an Australian wine region like the Hunter Valley, or Mornington Peninsula see the value of wine tourism in helping to establish both their own brand and that of their region. You can expect a tasting room which, these days, will often be modern and light, and there’s a good chance you’ll find a restaurant too. There will be staff employed just to conduct your tasting and the punter will usually be expected to pay a small fee for the samples, albeit usually refunded against a few bottles purchased.

In Europe this kind of experience used to be most common in Champagne. You pay for the “tour” of, if you choose well, some beautiful chalk Crayères in Reims, with a man in period costume, circa 1920, riddling a few rows of bottles by hand (the mechanical gyropalettes which jerk the sediment down the bottles in their millions will be behind closed doors but the keen-eared visitor will hear them clunk every so often). At the end of the tour your fee will include a few sips of the non-vintage.

I’m not knocking this at all. In fact, everyone should pay such a visit. It’s worth it at houses like Taittinger just to see the magnificent cellars. But these tours are not aimed at serious wine lovers. Such tours are now even available in Bordeaux, last bastion of the verb “to exclude”, where the public have generally been excluded in the past and the wines have therefore become even more exclusive.

Today, Bordeaux has opened up. Of the tours available to the general public, perhaps one of the best is to Château Lynch-Bages, in the “wine destination hamlet” of Bages. Bages has a nice place to eat, a top bakery, and on the opposite side of the square, the Lynch-Bages gift shop where, trust me, it’s impossible not to spend some money after the winery tour (the Lynch-Bages Blanc I grabbed on my 2015 visit was actually rather good).

There are many thousands of family producers who fall into the next category, where there’s a tasting room either open at certain times (weekends, open days), or maybe by appointment. If a producer has a tasting-room you can be pretty sure they welcome visitors, though perhaps more at their convenience than yours. Quite often it may be another family member who is on hand to welcome you. A daughter back home from studying English in Boston, or the vigneron(ne)’s partner. You can find such places all over viticultural Europe, from Alsace to Piemonte and from the Rheinpfalz to Burgenland.

Usually, if you’ve called in advance, you will get a welcome, although the article I referred to by Hannah Fuellenkemper is actually titled “Why French Winemakers Never Reply to E-mails”, and the title is apt. They really don’t, and why would they? Don’t imagine you are not one of dozens of people at least who every week crave an audience with the great winemaker him/herself. I always recommend telephoning.

If you don’t speak their language, you may well be, as they say down here, stuffed. My wife speaks the kind of French which sounds French, fluent but with just enough of an English accent I’m told is appealing to the ear (unlike mine…I can get by very well so long as no one mentions my accent). This is a bonus for me, and indeed occasionally for friends who request a favour.

A welcome may not always be forthcoming because life can move at pace for these families. I remember a visit with my own family in tow, arranged with one producer during our drive back to England. We turned up at the appointed time to discover he’d gone out to his furthest vines and we were met by his wife, in her dressing gown (late morning), wholly unaware of our visit. She did open something, but I think she was pleased we were just most interested in relieving her of a mixed case. A relatively short visit seemed in everyone’s best interests.

The difficulty, for the potential visitor who exhibits even a mild obsession with wine, is that Europe’s wine regions are increasingly peopled by very small producers who farm a hectare or two, often with no full-time help. These are the young stars we increasingly chase after, and as the classics of Burgundy, Bordeaux and Barolo become too expensive for most of us, and as natural wine gains even more appeal, more and more of us want to seek them out.

Their partner may do the accounts in the evening or weekends, but there’s no tasting room and no-one to conduct a tasting. These are the producers Hannah is talking about in her article. If you like natural wine, then almost all of the producers you desire to meet and taste with are likely to fall into this category. The issue has been highlighted on social media especially in regard to Jura producers, but the problem is not restricted to that region in France, and not to France exclusively. It is a big problem for the young winemakers who are struggling to make a living from a few small parcels anywhere, but mostly in Europe.

André Durrmann in their tasting room – It’s nothing fancy but you will be made welcome

A good example of this kind of winemaker was mentioned in the Twitter feed which led to Hannah’s “response” article. Patrice Beguet is based at Mesnay, a small village which is walkable, being just down the road, from Arbois, Jura’s heartland. I’ve visited Patrice a few times and any tasting he conducts takes place in his small cellar, below the house. Any transactions are conducted in his open plan living room above. Such producers are not geared up for wine tourism and it is hard to believe how an exciting young vigneron like Patrice, whose vignoble includes plots in far-away Pupillin, could actually get any work done if he saw all the visitors who would like to taste there.

Then there’s the elephant in the room…wine to taste? What wine? Many of the people who left comments on the article, and those who commented on Twitter, say the same thing. At the end of the day, wine is a business and if you make wine, you’ve just gotta go out and sell it, boy! But the key lies in whether you’ve got any wine to sell.

Some people forget, or have no idea of, the size of some domaines in regions like the Jura, the Ardêche or Alsace. If you’re a cult natural winemaker worldwide demand strips out your production before it’s seen the inside of a bottle. I know some lucky souls who could double production and still sell out in a week or two, as indeed is quite common in Burgundy as well. These guys aren’t trying to ship hectolitres to China, but anyone who’s been to Tokyo in the past few years will see where a lot of natural wine is heading, especially now that the post-Brexit paperwork or other hassles make my own market such a pain to ship to. The more new markets open up, the less wine there is for us.

Perhaps the extreme of this can be found almost on my own doorstep with Tim Phillips’s Charlie Herring Wines in Hampshire. September will see a tranche of Riesling released. Even at one bottle per customer, he will be over-subscribed, and he could probably double his prices with no change in the result.

You may be lucky enough to sell all of your production from a good year without difficulty, but if you are cursed with having vineyards in much of France, especially Central and Eastern France, you’ll have been greeted with either terrible frosts, or hail, or various kinds of rot, or all three, in pretty much every vintage for the past…well almost as long as I can remember.

Take the case of Patrice Beguet, of whom I spoke above. When I first visited him, it must have been almost a decade ago, he let me taste a whole range of cuvées, dark red, light red, white (oxidative and ouillé), pink, orange and a few petnats as well (not forgetting the Macvin!). I’ve just last week purchased a new wine of Patrice’s called “Three Views of a Secret”. Devastated harvest conditions in 2019 saw his mates Benoît Landron, Claude Ughetto and Marc Humbrecht help him out, and “Three Views” is the result. Without friends like that one wonders whether he’d have enough cash flow from his own vineyards to continue.

Some producers have made a real name for themselves from their negociant wines (Alice and Olivier De Moor in Chablis, Alice Bouvot at L’Octavin in Arbois and J-F Ganevat down at Rotalier to name just three). But make no mistake. The catalysts for creating these labels have been the vicissitudes thrown at them by the weather.

This is happening every year now, especially in and around Arbois. It’s not one bad harvest but several. I know winemaking couples where one has had to go out and get another job to bring in a little more income. Life is tough, and you will know just how tough if you read my June article on the very sad loss by suicide of two of Eastern France’s truly great winemakers (though I don’t wish to judge or to over-simplify the reasons for those tragic deaths, which are not directly related to the contents of this piece).

So, you say, what’s the point of your article? Well, I’m not the kind of person who thinks they can tell others how to behave. If you think these guys are there for your entertainment, or your determination to bag that Vin Jaune their importer doesn’t get an allocation of trumps everything, then that’s up to you.

What I want to do is merely to make my readers pause and think about the situation these incredibly hard-working people find themselves in. Time poor, worn out not just by vineyard work but by the whole commercial/admin side of their business, and with an empty cellar. I have been truly honoured on occasion when I realise that the few bottles a winemaker has agreed to let me buy actually come from their own private stash. That has happened at one producer on two consecutive visits.

How do I propose to change my own behaviour? I think I’m going to seriously curtail my visiting in the case of these very small producers who don’t have a tasting room regularly open to the public. I’m going to stop and think about the impact of my visit. Sadly, this means there are people I’d truly like to revisit but on the whole, I may not feel I can justifiably bother them anymore. I would even say that I feel a degree of guilt for past visits…for my assumption that even as a writer with a wide readership, I have some right to take an hour of their precious time.

Alice…in a garage…in Arbois…at 8.30 am! How did she make time?

This still leaves a group of producers I know quite well, or at least a little. Mostly people in Alsace, Jura and Burgenland who I’ve already visited, chat with on social media and see at wine fairs. I feel pretty certain there are nine or ten places where I am genuinely welcome in those regions. In some cases, I’ve championed their wines from the beginning and they remember that.

I’ve never had the stamina for five visits in a day, like some people, so if I can see three or four producers on a week-long trip, that’s enough. Plus, those who maybe say at a wine fair that I must go and visit them. It does happen, and I’m quite happy to remind them of it. You have to be prepared to take rejection though. I’m not like these “top” journos who believe they can dictate a date and time of arrival, turn up three or four hours late, and still expect to be treated like a king.

Even the hard-working winemakers usually get away for some kind of holiday in August, and equally, hassling them around harvest is usually unforgivable (though again, generosity abounds, as it did with one producer I know well, who honoured our appointment even though it turned out to have been made for the first day of an unexpectedly early harvest, and there was a team to manage. If she was stressed, we didn’t see it).

Possibly the highlight of all my wine trips – being literally the second person (after Stefanie) to taste the first juice of harvest (Pinot Noir for Petnat, Weingut Renner, Gols 2018)

It’s really just a question of being more thoughtful.

Oh, and one more thing…Hannah says “sometimes people bring gifts”. She also points out the other side of the coin, that some expect an aperitif, or even an invitation to stay for dinner (and it’s true, I’ve heard stories). Winemakers do love trying new wines. Some will have a row of bottles from around the world in their cellar. If you take a carefully selected bottle or two as a gift, you will more than likely find your generosity is rewarded, perhaps with a free bottle yourself, but mostly with a better, more relaxed, visit and the chance to at least buy a few coveted bottles. I’ve done this myself, not at all out of any expectation of reciprocity, but out of a shared passion and respect for the winemaker and empathy for their work.

At the end of the day, it’s all about empathy, isn’t it!

Hannah Fuellenkemper’s article in The Morning Claret can be found here.

Posted in Artisan Wines, Jura, Natural Wine, Wine, Wine Hobby, Wine Tastings, Wine Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The One Straw Revolution (Masanobu Fukuoka)

Here in the UK a series of proposals has just been published under the ambitious heading of a “National Food Strategy”. Its author, Henry Dimbleby, has outlined a raft of measures we need to adopt in order to save lives from our poor diet, to protect nature and the environment and ensure that farming in the UK is sustainable. Perhaps the most eye-catching proposal is that we should reduce meat consumption by 30%. Less eye-catching, but no less important, is the need to massively reduce agri-chemical inputs. Aside from the dangers to human health they may or may not pose, long-term, it is their destruction of ecosystems which has finally been recognised (in some quarters) as unacceptable.

Such proposals may well get nowhere, and especially those relating to synthetic chemical interventions. Aside from the fear that climate change will bring new challenges, no challenge to the profits of the large agri-chemical producers will go unchallenged. Whilst low input agriculture remains a minority sport, there’s little to worry about, but we can’t have the whole world going organic, surely? Think of food security, think of the costs (they say).

In many ways the food strategy is framed in a way that puts the focus on a change in diet, and on educating people to change habits. In other words, a market-led approach. What needs to happen (as indeed with things like plastic packaging) is a producer-led approach. We are starting to see this to a degree, but nowhere near enough.

I think we can say that in some respects the wine fraternity is moving ahead of other agricultural sectors, and one way it is doing this is by exploring the methods of regenerative agriculture. No-till farming is not new. In fact, such methods were common in many countries until the 20th Century. I keep hearing about projects in the UK, and I even read about a return to this way of farming in The Guardian newspaper this week, in Spanish olive groves. But the methods, practical teachings and philosophy of the man I will introduce you to have taken off all over the wine world, whether directly influenced or indirectly.

Those who know producers like Ligas (Greece), Lissner (Alsace) and Meinklang (Burgenland), to name but three, are all following principles which effectively leave the whole ecosystem to regulate itself. In the case of vines there is no intervention between rows and just a little shoot repositioning (no annual pruning). Such ecosystems seem to become self-regulating after a while. I was recently with Tim Phillips (Charlie Herring Wines) in his Hampshire vineyard and we were discussing our passion for this very book as he showed me the cuttings to be returned to the earth as natural fertiliser.

The book is The One Straw Revolution and the author is, of course, Masanobu Fukuoka. I think those interested in natural wine and low intervention wine production will enjoy reading it, not least because of the increasing interest in Fukuoka from the wine community. Perhaps the time has arrived to shift our focus away from the biodynamics of Steiner and Thun, just a little, and to focus on how wine in general might benefit from a “no-till” regenerative approach.

Fukuoka was born in 1913 and lived a long and eventually contented life, passing away in 2008. Trained as a scientist (plant pathology), he broadly managed to avoid combat in WW2 working as a produce inspector and researcher in Yokohama. This gave him an insight into Japanese agriculture, which underwent great change after the war, largely as a result of American influence, both in terms of what to grow (Japan was a big potential market for American cereals) and how to farm.

In rejecting modern agricultural methods, returning to farm on the island of Shikoku, he developed a philosophy which some called “do nothing” farming. He applied his methods to both the dual cultivation of rice (summer) and grain (winter) in the same fields, and to his citrus orchards, in which he also planted his vegetables, amongst the trees. Some thought him crazy, but his methods worked. He matched the best yields in his neighbourhood without the costs associated with mechanised, chemical, farming, and with far fewer hours work than his contemporaries.

Fukuoka’s farm became the focus of attention, both from other scientists and from people looking for identity in a new way of life, the latter forming a community in huts on his mountainside.

The key to Fukuoka’s philosophy and methodology lies in the ability of nature to carry on doing what it does without much help from humans. In fact, Fukuoka’s light bulb moment may have been when he saw an abandoned field full of weeds, but with an ample crop of rice growing up among them.

A natural ecosystem includes a fluctuating number of predators which generally appear to balance each other. Too many of one type of insect and you get more predating spiders, too many spiders and there’s more food for the birds. Even common rice diseases righted themselves. In fact, as for yields, his shorter and healthier plants produced the same number of rice grains as the taller chemical-fed fields. What’s more, his natural food began to get a reputation which could have enabled him to charge much higher prices (as the retailers did who bought it), except that he believed such food should be available to all (an issue in our market, for sure).

The application of agri-chemicals on a large scale is largely a 20th Century phenomenon. In the 1960s activists drew attention to the potential harm to humans some of them could cause, especially Rachel Carson in the USA. Yet although her warnings were heeded to a degree, once DDT was banned the pressure kind of fell away.

Fukuoka outlines four principles to “Natural Farming”:

1 No cultivation (ie no ploughing or tilling);

2 No chemical fertilizers or prepared compost;

3. No weeding (weeds build soil fertility and balance the biological community); and

4. No other chemicals.

Soil health is absolutely key. This is a mantra we hear almost daily now, but not from a majority of farmers. And indeed viticulteurs. This despite so many photos of napalmed vineyards. Now, chemical applications by heavy tractor seem the easy route, and no one thinks of the long term.

It reminds me of a story in the James Rebanks book (see further reading below) English Pastoral. An old farmer was mildly made fun of for having been left behind by the agricultural revolution, for being a bit “backward” in taking up any new technologies. After he died a soil analysis was undertaken. On intensively farmed land this is essential because the soil is slowly dying and needs constant “replenishment”. On Henry’s farm they discovered the soil was rich and healthy, full of worms, very fertile. Henry had added no chemicals to his land and had not spent thousands of pounds doing it.

Quoting Rebanks “The men had discussed it in the pub. Dad said the way farming was going was insane. That old Henry had known more than the rest of us daft fuckers put together”.

Masanobu Fukuoka recounts a visit from a university professor who finally understood why there was no leaf-hopper problem in these fields…because natural predators of the insects were there in abundance. It dawned on him that in the other fields all the predators had been eradicated by spray treatments, yet here a natural balance in nature was maintained. “He acknowledged that if my method were generally adopted, the problem of crop devastation by leaf-hoppers could be solved. He then got into his car and returned to Kochi”. Even when his methods were proved to work, no one dare advocate them on a large scale.

Of course, many grape growers are highly focused on soil health these days. I only choose to mention the Rennersistas in Gols (Burgenland) as an example because soil health featured very early on in my conversations with Stefanie Renner, even before I visited them. One aspect of soil health Stefanie believes has a profound effect is a cover crop. As well as putting nutrients back into the soil they compete with the vines and help in some way to concentrate grape flavour. As Stefanie said in a recent interview with Littlewine (littlewine.com), “the wine tastes different with a cover crop”.

This ties in very well with Fukuoka, because he advocates a cover crop as an essential part of his regenerative agriculture. Along with a straw mulch, he uses white clover, which he found in his particular circumstances when used together control but not eliminate weeds, which play their own part in soil fertility and in a regenerative ecosystem.

This small book is a delight to read, well translated (by Larry Korn, Chris Pearce and Tsune Kurosawa), it’s a mere 184 pages long, made up of very short chapters. They set out the reasons Masanobu left science for the farming life, his practical methods and especially later in the book, his wider philosophy.

The Preface is written by Wendell Berry. Best known as a writer, and as an anti-Vietnam War activist, he’s also a farmer and has written widely on this subject, becoming an influencer here as well. The Preface is useful in putting methodologies specific to Japan into a wider context. As the American Berry says, Fukuoka’s techniques will not be “directly applicable to most American farms” but they do provide a great example of what can be done. Berry introduces the founder of organics, Sir Albert Howard, and highlights some similarities in their beliefs.

He also highlights a key element to Fukuoka’s thinking, asking the question “what will happen if I don’t do this?”. In this respect you could say Fukuoka is “a scientist who is suspicious of science”, but in reality, he is merely questioning the instructions of those who possess “piecemeal knowledge by specialization”, as a child might question the instruction of a parent. Why? What for? Because it is clear that the specialist does not see the whole picture, just as the scientist does not see how nature performs without his or her intervention.

In one of Fukuoka’s later, wholly philosophical, chapters (Drifting Clouds and the Illusion of Science) the author is expansive in his criticism of aspects of science, or at least the ways in which specialised, segmented, science dominates our lives. In a way such science has helped form our current economic conundrum, and it is the same conundrum for agriculture (and by that we include viticulture) as for climate change. We are locked into the capitalist requirement for growth and progress to generate increasing profit.

It is such thinking which creates our current crisis whereby all of the things we need to change seem unchangeable. As Chomsky points out, our problems are systemic because the way we do things (mechanisation, fossil fuels, agri-chemicals etc) are locked into a profit-driven system, and that system cannot easily be changed. But change must come and only consumers and farmers can effect these changes when related to agriculture. The pressure from the multi-nationals and financial institutions (investment banks solely responsible to their shareholders) is against them, but slowly change can be made. It has to be.

Masanobu Fukuoka described a so-called “do nothing” method of agriculture successful on a tiny scale on one of the islands of the Japanese archipelago. He suggests that great change can begin with one straw of barley. It is exactly the kind of revolution we need…in thinking about food production as part of our desire to feed the word, healthily.

In Fukuoka’s own words (page 3) “This method completely contradicts modern agricultural techniques. It throws scientific knowledge and traditional farming know-how right out the window. With this kind of farming, which uses no machines, no prepared fertilizer and no chemicals, it is possible to attain a harvest equal to or greater than that of the average Japanese farm. The proof is ripening right before your eyes.

Such results may or may not have a wide application in agriculture in general (and I know we have not discussed various climate events which have produced famine in the past and will do so in the future), yet those who are trying elements of this form of regenerative agriculture have achieved quite a degree of success. It is clear that those in viticulture who have taken on board Fukuoka’s teachings appear to be forging ahead, and if you look at the producers I’ve mentioned in this article, who are just a sample, the proof is in the bottle.

If you have the slightest interest in growing food, and especially if you are interested, as I am, in experiments at the cutting edge, pushing the boundaries, of wine production, I promise that you will find this both practical and philosophical book a great little read. A tenner well spent.

The One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka was published by the New York Review of Books(this edn 2009, soft cover/paperback), originally published in Japan as “Shizen Noho Wara Ippon No Kakumei” (1978) by Shunju-sha (Tokyo). It may be available on a number of the larger online sources, including Blackwells, Amazon etc.

There are at least a dozen books I could recommend as very peripheral reading, and I imagine at least half my readers will have read all of them. However, the following four books are lovely reads and throw light on different aspects of agricultural knowledge and practice. I know I’ve mentioned these before, but sometimes it doesn’t hurt to labour a point.

English Pastoral by James Rebanks (who previously published “A Shepherd’s Life”) (Allen Lane, a Penguin imprint, 2020) – a shepherd who is so much more than that.

Wilding by Isabella Tree (Picador, 2018) – England’s great rewilding project which I visit frequently.

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe (Magabala Books, 2014) – Australia’s indigenous peoples were not hunter-gatherers.

Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed 2013, Penguin 2020) – As Pascoe (above) describes the understanding of Australia’s land, including its aptitude for producing food, by its original inhabitants, pre-colonisation, so this author shows the unique understanding of North America’s capacity to produce food by its own indigenous peoples. Both highlight the way that science, perhaps with the arrogance of a colonial mentality, has ignored deep knowledge learnt from nature over centuries.

Posted in Artisan Wines, biodynamic wine, Japan, Natural Wine, Philosophy and Wine, Viticulture, Wine, Wine and Health, Wine Science | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Recent Wines July 2021 (Part 2) #theglouthatbindsus

After a somewhat focused Part 1, we can inject a little more diversity via the second half of July’s drinking at home. Champagne, Slovakia and Alto-Adige (or Südtirol if you insist), then Alsace and the Pays Nantais are followed by the Swiss Vaud (another wine from a producer featured in Part 1, as promised), winding down with Friuli and Burgundy. I’ve noticed a couple of sparkling wines in there. I’m quite shocked at how few I’ve drunk this “summer”. Whilst I’m one for drinking whatever I want whenever I want, I can’t help thinking that the weather has played a part.

RÉSONANCE 2014 EXTRA BRUT, CHAMPAGNE MARIE-COURTIN (Champagne, France)

Dominique Moreau makes this lovely Côte des Bar Champagne in the village of Polisot, with a 2.5-hectare contiguous parcel of vines not far from the River Seine. In fact, this part of the region is now known as the Barséquanais. Most of her vines are Pinot Noir, with a little Chardonnay. All are certified organic, but Dominique’s viticulture and winemaking go much further than that, into biodynamics and natural wine philosophy. She is undoubtedly one of the major emerging star Growers in a region which has become somewhat the centre of the so-called Grower Revolution in quality.

Résonance is made from old vine Pinot Noir grown on Kimmeridgean clays (like Chablis next door). It spends three years on lees with vinification in tank. No dosage is added on disgorgement. The result is certainly dry, but very characterful. There’s a lovely balanced blend of apple freshness and red fruit aromatics, seasoned with a little salinity on the finish. This is simply a glorious Champagne, I don’t care if it’s only Dominique’s “entry level”.

This came from The Good Wine Shop (Kew location). I would have been back a few weeks ago were it not for Covid. They have one of the best Grower Champagne selections in the UK. Les Caves de Pyrene imports Marie-Courtin and they are an alternative source for all of Dominique’s wines, depending on what they’ve shipped at any time.

ORANZOVY VLK 2019, VINO MAGULA (Slovakia)

I keep buying wine from this 10-hectare family estate at Suche Nad Parnou in Western Slovakia, northeast of Bratislava, and every wine seems to get a little more exciting. This is, as the name might possibly give away, an “orange”, “amber” or skin contact wine. The blend is Rizling Vlassky (Welschriesling), Veltlin (Grüner Veltliner) and Devin, the latter a variety indigenous to Slovakia’s western hills and deriving from a cross between Traminer and Roter Veltliner.

The vines are grown on the highly calcium-rich soils in two valleys close to the village. Farming is biodynamic. Skin contact gives the wine its orange hue, more akin to the colour of rust. It smells clearly of mandarin citrus and tastes like Seville Orange marmalade with its bitter orange finish. It starts out tasting a touch tannic but this softens as the wine warms and rounds out in the glass. The result, after the cold edge disappeared, was rather delicious and I recommend not serving this too cold. No sulphur was added and this gives the wine its bright, lively quality which I find always appears in the best amber wines.

Imported by Basket Press Wines. OV will set you back £29.50.

VINO ROSSO LEGGERO 2018, PRANZEGG (Alto-Adige/Südtirol, Italy)

I was going to purchase my annual dose of Foradori’s “Lezèr” but then I saw this, another light summer red. Pranzegg is a favourite producer from the region among people I know, but I’ve rarely drunk their wines. I wasn’t even aware that they were imported into England until I saw this. Martin Gojer took over his family’s tiny estate, just 3.5-ha of vines, in 2008. He is based at Bolzano (or Bozen for German speakers), about 50 km below the Brenner Pass into Austria.

Martin and his wife, Marion, farm biodynamically, and they see their farm as a holistic ecosystem which they aim to be self-sustaining. They are a shining beacon of ecological awareness in a region dominated by co-operative cellars, albeit some rather good ones. We have a blend of Schiava and Lagrein, two of Südtirol’s traditional varieties, so what’s not to like?

To create this light touch red wine with a bit of texture the direct press juice of these two red varieties is fermented on the skins of already fermented white grapes. The result has a unique quality. Whilst the colour is pale for a red wine, almost like that of a darker-hued Rosé, there’s a bit of tannin and the kind of bite you get in a good Vinho Verde. Otherwise, it tastes like a white wine. The bouquet is all red fruits (pomegranate comes to mind), and with a touch of CO2 on the palate, it’s extraordinarily refreshing (just 11% abv here). As the wine warms slightly the fruit amplifies into lovely cherry juice, but in this case do serve chilled.

Imported by Newcomer Wines, purchased from Littlewine.

CRÉMANT D’ALSACE BRUT ROSÉ « MR PINK » 2018, LUCAS & ANDRÉ RIEFFEL (Alsace, France)

Lucas Rieffel is a member of the Mittelbergheim School, an extraordinary group of artisan winemakers producing wines among the most exciting in Alsace, and sharing ideas and wines to move the whole village forward. If we know Mittelbergheim as a centre for Natural winemaking in the Bas Rhin, it is down to this group. If we are speaking of excitement, as well as sheer quality, and about the feeling generated on tasting a new cuvée for the first time, my first bottle of his pink Crémant must be right up there. I hope it isn’t anywhere near my last.

Lucas and his father are best known for their steely biodynamic wines made from Riesling, and some rather good Pinot Noirs on the same level from different sites around the village. This Crémant Rosé is pure Pinot Noir. The vines are all thirty years old or more, initially aged in foudres before bottling. The wine sees ten months on lees, this being disgorged in May 2021. The idea, I think, is not to make a wine with a great deal of lees-age autolytic character, but rather what we have here. Pure raspberry fruit dominates, but it clings to a spine of mineral steeliness.

I would say that this is one of the best couple of bottle-fermented sparkling wines I’ve drunk through our eighteen month Covid ordeal. It combines a fruitiness rarely seen from a lees-aged sparkling wine with the house style, a firmness of purpose and real focus.

At £28 from Littlewine I say it compares well to anything I’ve drunk for the price, including some more expensive English fizz. A lesson in value and pleasure, sheer joy to drink.

“JE T’AIME MAIS J’AI SOIF” VIN DE France [2019], VINCENT CAILLÉ (Loire, France)

This wine comes from the Muscadet/Pays Nantais part of France’s Loire Valley, Vincent Caillé being based at Monnières. He’s the fifth generation to farm here, in charge of the family estate since the mid-1990s. His major contribution has been a focus on quality coupled with the introduction of biodynamics in a region once considered too wet by many.

However, a few years ago a challenging vintage saw massive crop losses due to the double-whammy of hail and frost followed by some disease. This resulting wine has an element of innovation to it, being a blend of the traditional Muscadet grape, Melon de Bourgogne, with Colombard, Grenache Blanc, Macabeu, Roussanne and Marsanne.

If some of those varieties don’t look very “Muscadet”, then you might have an idea what happened here. Vincent is seen as a bit of a torch-bearer for biodynamics and low intervention practises in the region and plenty of growers, far and wide, rallied to his aid. The brilliant label, which seems to channel Ubu Roi, was specially created by a local artist. The wine was such a success that it has become a regular cuvée in the Caillé portfolio.

Like Muscadet, the wine is clean and fresh, but somewhat broader than the wines of that appellation (except for those aged in oak). Imagine the flavour of a juicy, ripe, Galia melon with a twist of lime on the finish, along with a tiny lick of pebbly texture. In other words, a simple wine giving great summer refreshment.

This was £22 from Bin Two in Padstow.

DORAL “EXPRESSION” 2019, CAVE DE LA CÔTE (Vaud, Switzerland)

I wrote about this forward-looking co-operative’s entry level Chasselas in Part 1 of July’s ”Recent Wines” (the article below this one if you wish to check it out). I suggested that it may not be as profound as some of the best Chasselas made biodynamically elsewhere in the country, but Chief Winemaker Rodrigo Banto has captured the essence of the variety as a clean and fresh, tasty aperitif wine. I purchased this particular bottle because I’ve never tried this grape variety before, but in the same way that I was slightly, but most pleasantly, surprised by the simple freshness of the Chasselas, I was surprised at how I liked this one even more.

Doral is a cross between Chasselas and Chardonnay. The intention was to create a wine with the fresh herbs and citrus qualities of Chasselas along with the breadth and class of Chardonnay. I don’t think this wine has any pretentions towards Burgundy, but it does indeed manage to give a nice rounded amplitude to the typical qualities of Vaudois Chasselas (which you may or may not appreciate).

The colour is an attractive green-gold, the bouquet is of crisp apples, lemon and perhaps even kiwi fruit. The palate is where, perhaps, the Chardonnay comes in. The added breadth encompasses peach and maybe a little apricot, but you get the idea. I think you might in fact guess that this was not a crossing, but a blend of the two varieties. I’d be interested to know what anyone else thinks?

This can be had from Alpine Wines online for £22, or from a few independent retailers who, as I said in Part 1, are beginning to see the value of listing a few Swiss wines. My bottle came from The Solent Cellar.

CHARDONNAY 2019 « I VINI DI JACOPO », NEC-OTIUM (Friuli, Italy)

Here we are more precisely in Friuli di Colli Orientali with what at first appears to be an unassuming negoce Chardonnay. It’s made by Christian Patat, who might be familiar to a few afficionados. The wine is made from any surplus of grapes from Ronco del Gnemiz, and there is also a tenuous connection with the very high end Miani cuvée, which is now rather expensive – some grapes come from this source on occasion as well.

The fruit comes, geographically speaking, from Buttrio, Rosazzo and San Zuan, so close to the Roche Manzoni near the Slovenian border. Different wines appear under this label each vintage depending on what grapes become available. The Chardonnay cuvée has no pretentions to seriousness. In fact, it’s quite light on its feet, despite a 13% tag on the label. However, it does combine a mountain freshness (which it fairly oozes with), alongside a salinity which could fool you into believing an influence from the Adriatic. The overriding impressions are of sweet lemon citrus and honeysuckle. For around the £18 mark it certainly delivers real value for money. The Ronco del Gnemiz estate Chardonnay can be had, by the way, from a retailer near me, for £62.50.

Imported by Astrum, purchased at (in fact, recommended by) The Solent Cellar.

BEAUNE 1ER CRU « LES BOUCHEROTTES » 2012, LE GRAPPIN (Burgundy, France)

I sadly have to admit that the Côte d’Or’s Premier Cru wines are now almost beyond the pocket of someone who now devotes all his time to writing about wine rather than earning a proper living, and I’ve rather cut off the “freebie” route in my desire to only write about wines I truly like a lot. I have to rely on that thing we call “the cellar” – thank goodness I have one. There are still some bottles left of older vintages, but they are diminishing. Mind you, Andrew Neilsen did say it was a while since he’d drunk a ’12 when he saw my post on Instagram, so maybe he’s not so well endowed with his older vintages too?

Boucherottes is what I call one of those classic Beaune Premiers. Back when I drank Burgundy with greater frequency Beaune was considered largely downmarket by the connoisseurs, with a few notable exceptions. Certainly, compared to the famous villages of the Côte-de-Nuits, and even compared to the red wine 1er Crus of neighbouring Volnay and Pommard. But I always loved the smooth sensuality yet unprepossessing restraint of some good Beaunes from decent vintages, exemplified in my purchases of Jadot’s “Les Ursulles”.

I guess I’d never tried a Beaune Boucherottes until I bought a six-pack of Andrew’s 2011 vintage but this following year has always seemed, at least to my palate, a little more open for business. This is why it might surprise some that it’s still going strong.

You get silky-smooth Pinot fruit with hints of sous-bois development. One might call it suave, intended as a compliment. Nice length yet not a shouty wine at all. Modern winemaking but with an old-fashioned sensibility, perhaps. It shows how good a winemaker Andrew was even way back then. It was also affordable for mere mortals in multiple-bottle quantities. I don’t begrudge Andrew what he charges today, taking account of costs, and I still think this cuvée is very good value indeed. We can only feel lucky he still has access to the fruit.

Purchased direct from Le Grappin on release.

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Recent Wines July 2021 (Part 1) #theglouthatbindsus

In the first half of July, I crawled into a corner of European wine which spilt out a little from Trink Magazine’s “umlaut wines” domain, but only just. I think the eight wines I’ve written about here are perfect for summer, not that the weather here in the South of England was always everything one might wish for during these two weeks. For those who crave a little more diversity, you will find that in Part 2, and for those who are with me on this page, so to speak, there will also be a little more of the same.

We begin in Hungary, before travelling to Austria’s Burgenland, Baden in Germany and French-speaking Switzerland. Then we try two more German wines before a return to Burgenland, finally finishing back in Switzerland, but this time in a rarely seen part of Deutschschweiz.

EASTERN ACCENTS 2019, ANNAMÁRIA RÉKA-KONCZ (Eastern Hungary)

This is my last bottle of Annamária’s wine until the 2020 vintage arrives in the UK, hopefully in early autumn (although with the current delays to delivery one cannot be certain). I’m almost certainly shooting myself in the foot to say this, but famed as I am for my drinking diversity, this is one of the few producers I would (indeed will) devote a whole order to when they do arrive.

Eastern Accents blends 70% Hárslevelu with 30% Királyleányka from Annamária’s organic vineyards at Barabás, close to the Ukrainian border, on the Northern Great Plain. The vines average between forty and sixty years of age. The first variety is macerated on skins for five days, whilst the second sees a two-week semi-carbonic maceration.

The result is so fresh and fruity, with good acidity. This is balanced by texture from the maceration on the skins. No wood is used for this cuvée. What you get is an orange or amber wine, but not the ponderous tannic version. This is lively but with bite. It’s a pure joy to drink and at just 12% abv, very easy to drink too. All in all, a remarkable producer who is beginning to find a cult following and not just in the UK.

Imported by Basket Press Wines.

PUSZTA LIBRE 2020, CLAUS PREISINGER (Burgenland, Austria)

Claus sits like a lord surveying his domain from the balcony terrace of his ultra-modern winery above Gols at the northern end of the Neusiedlersee. It’s somewhere I had hoped to be at some point this year…such is Covid life. Claus makes some very serious wines, and some tasty varietals lower down the pecking order, but this cuvée is just a marvel of simplicity, to be drunk by folks with joy in their hearts, not the most serious of wine collector types.

Puszta Libre is a life-affirming, zippy red blend, of Zweigelt and St-Laurent. There’s nothing added here, not even sulphur. You serve it cold as a beer and drink it like fruit juice (and with 11.5% alcohol, that’s not difficult). One of the vendors says “this wine may be finished before you open it”. Well put. It won’t last long, and frankly, with a wine like this, that is all you need to know.

Imported by Newcomer Wines, this bottle purchased from Littlewine. Just £19!

SPÄTBURGUNDER ROSÉ 2018, ENDERLE & MOLL (Baden, Germany)

Florian Moll and Sven Enderle farm at Münchweier, on rich limestone and sandstone soils on the slopes below Baden’s Black Forest. Working together since 2007, they have made a name as two of the rising stars of German Pinot Noir, using a low intervention approach, transforming some of the region’s oldest Pinot vines into quite spectacular wines, if perhaps unfairly under the radar in the UK market.

Whilst many might ignore their Rosé, that would be a big mistake. Pinot Noir can make exceptional pink wines, especially when they are not a mere afterthought. This version is darker in colour than what has become fashionable for Rosé these days. In fact, I’ve seen lighter colour in some reds. It’s also a wine which hits 13% abv, making this very much a gourmand wine, not a “slurp in the sun” effort.

The wine is clearly Pinot, both on nose and palate. The fruit is built around a core of mineral acidity which gives it a “rosé” character, and it’s deceptively easy to drink, despite the alcohol level. Highly recommended for something a little different, especially for those who believe Rosé is not just for summer.

Another wine available via the Newcomer Wines/Littlewine combo.

CHASSELAS 2019 “VIN DE PAYS”, CAVE DE LA CÔTE (Vaud, Switzerland)

The Cave de la Côte is based at Tolochenaz, near Morges, just west of Lausanne on the north shore of Lac Léman (Lake Geneva). They are a large co-operative operation and farm, via their members, vineyards stretching all along this part of the Vaud, towards Geneva. For many Swiss wine snobs, they might say that this comes from the “wrong side” of Lausanne, the steeply terraced vineyards of Lavaux, to the east of the city, having somewhat more kudos. This is not the point.

In 2003 this adventurous large co-operative appointed Chilean winemaker Rodrigo Banto as Chief Winemaker and he has transformed the operation here into almost certainly the best co-op in the Canton of Vaud, and one of the best in the whole of Switzerland. His major contribution was to change the mindset whereby the winemakers worked with whatever fruit came in. By working alongside growers in the vines, quality has been transformed.

I won’t pretend this particular bottle is more than an easy-going co-operative wine, albeit one that has been well made. It’s flinty, pebbly, herbal. It can work as a food wine, but it makes an even better aperitif. Whenever we visit Geneva friends we always sit down before dinner with a civilised bowl of nuts and a bottle of light white wine, which is most often a Chasselas from one of the villages on La Côte. There’s zip, a CO2 prickle and apple freshness, with a touch of peach blossom. The finish has a savoury twist.

Whilst I recommend this as an aperitif wine, it went well on this occasion with a Japanese-style vegetable curry. In some ways it’s the essence of drinkable Swiss wine, updated with modern winemaking methods and without the outrageously high yields of old. It has the rare quality found in so few Swiss wines as well – affordability. Joelle at Alpine Wines says “this is the best entry-level Chasselas we could find” and I don’t doubt her. At £16.20 surely worth a try?

Rodrigo has introduced a range of natural wines, which go under the label “Nu”. These will cost a little more and can be had from the same importer as this wine in the UK for closer to £25. I shall be featuring another very interesting wine from this co-op in Part 2. There’s enough interest in Swiss wine to last a lifetime and I can’t understand why more wine lovers don’t make the effort to explore them.

The Cave de la Côte is imported by Alpine Wines but a few of their wines are increasingly found distributed by Alpine in several small independents who want the odd Swiss wine to enliven their list. I grabbed this from Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton. It may currently be out of stock but Joelle writes that more is expected soon. Equally, try The Solent Cellar or contact Joelle at Alpine for stockists.

SCHIEFERBLUME 2018, RITA AND RUDOLF TROSSEN (Mosel, Germany)

I won’t re-introduce the Trossens. I’ve posted and written about plenty of their wines before. They are as legend in the Mosel as are the likes of Ganevat in Jura, at least among lovers of natural wines. This long-biodynamic estate is based at Kinheim in the Central Mosel. The couple have been farming here without chemical inputs since the 1970s, using no added sulphur for the past decade. Their purest of pure Rieslings have been an inspiration to other producers for a long time, and the other varieties they grow are certainly not inferior in my opinion.

They cultivate their Riesling vines on the grey and blue slate of what were once highly unfashionable slopes, and certainly a terrain which is difficult and back-breaking to work. The key to their success is old vine stock, biodynamic cultivation and pretty much zero intervention in the winery. Perhaps as important to Rudolf is the spiritual side of wine, something I can see he deeply appreciates as a farmer of vines. I have a great deal of admiration for all of his wider philosophical beliefs and I admit that helps me appreciate the wines more.

Schieferblume blends Riesling from three sites, translating the slate terroir into a summer meadow with a solitary peach tree providing aromatic shade in the glass. Just off-dry to my palate, it is vibrant, harmonious and drinking so well. When I placed my last mixed order, it was hard to resist getting more of this, though in the end I opted for something “Trossen” I had not tried. But frankly, Rudi can’t fail!

Predictably another import from Newcomer Wines, but as for availability, it’s possible that only Littlewine has some left at present.

PINOT NOIR 2018, SCHWÄBISCHER LANDWEIN, WEINGUT ROTERFADEN (Württemburg, Germany)

If you want a regular buy Pinot from Germany, this is one to consider. The region of Württemburg is one better known for mixed farming than for vine specialisation, and perhaps it took a couple whose parents were not winemakers to specialise here, at Vaihingen/Roßwag, 30km northwest of Stuttgart. Hannes Hoffmann and Olympia Samara farm four hectares on steep terraced slopes on a bend above the River Enz. They may not have had family working in wine, but Olympia has worked with Claus Preisinger and Hannes with Dirk Niepoort.

The vines are old but they are vinified rather simply. Some destemmed bunches and some whole bunches infuse gently for three-to-four weeks, ensuring minimal leaching of tannins from the skins, but not minimal flavour. Ageing consists of ten months in large old oak before bottling, of course without fining or filtration. Just a minimal amount of sulphur is added at this stage.

The initial impression is of bright cherry and raspberry fruit with a reasonable level of concentrated fruit acids. Of the last bottle I drank (July 2020), I said “sings like a choir of angels”. Okay, that’s quite florid for me (actually, I may have been quoting someone else), but boy this is good. This bottle, a year on, has greater depth, perhaps with slightly less vivacity, but it’s still fabulous.

Newcomer Wines/Littlewine. A mere £26 for a bottle of joy.

WAITING FOR TOM ROSÉ 2017, RENNER & RENNERSISTAS (Burgenland, Austria)

This is another estate in the blessed location of Gols, this time with a winery on the western edge of the village. Stefanie, Susanne and Georg make wines of which I would say their greatest quality, across the range, is excitement. This comes through a lack of fear when it comes to experimentation, but this is backed with a rather quiet meticulous attention to detail. This has been achieved through truly getting to know their vines and terroir before experimenting. For the Renner family, soil health is key and it shows in their wines.

We have here a pink wine which has a little age. To be honest I was surprised when I saw the vintage because I’ve not had the bottle “that long”. The current vintage in the UK appears to be 2019. The wine is something of an old friend. The blend is around 70% Zweigelt and 30% Blaufränkisch, direct-pressed. The juice is aged eight months on lees in used barriques.

Biodynamic farming and minimum intervention create a perfect summer wine. Even now, this older vintage tastes of strawberries and cream with a raspberry acidity peeking through. It’s smooth, dry, has a little lees-induced texture and is the colour of strawberry juice. Still working its magic.

The 2019 will set you back £24 from Littlewine and is also available from Newcomer Wines.

RÄUSCHLING 2018, BECHTEL WEINE (Eglisau, Switzerland)

Eglisau is hardly a famous region for viticulture, even in Switzerland, yet within its fifteen hectares of vines planted north of both Zurich and the Rhine, it is home to two somewhat famous winemakers. One is the retiring Urs Pircher, the other is a rising star of Swiss wine, Mathias Bechtel.

Mathias swept to fame as a member of the influential Junge Schweiz-Neue Winzer movement, before he started to take home the big prizes. His small estate occupies land rising to 470 masl, on mostly marine deposits covered with river sand and gravels, rising above the river and sheltered by forest. Like many young winzer without family vines to inherit, he started out with a rented plot in 2014 and didn’t have a proper winery until the 2019 vintage. Nevertheless, he still managed a “Grand Gold Medal” for his 2015 Pinot Noir in the “Mondial des Pinots 2017”. Much of his wine is currently made from bought-in grapes whilst he is reorganising his small vine holdings, according to Dennis Lapuyade (artisanswiss.com in an excellent article about Räuschling, highly recommended).

Räuschling is an old Swiss-German variety, at one time also common in parts of Alsace, and once very much seen as a workhorse grape for mass produced jug wines. It’s a cross between Gouais Blanc (know as Gwäss in Eastern Switzerland) and the Jura’s Savagnin variety. I may be wrong, but I don’t think you’ll find it, certainly not in commercial quantity, very far from Zurich nowadays.

So how come a rising star is concentrating on a variety not known for making serious wines? The truth is, that as with many other so-called lesser varieties, it’s all down to yields, care in the vineyard, and attention to detail in the winery. When an effort is made, Räuschling can produce aromatic dry white wines with a little more fat on the bone, and with a capacity to age to greater complexity.

This is exactly what Mathias Bechtel achieves here, something considered atypical (although neighbour and mentor Urs Pircher’s Räuschling is of equal fame, but I have sadly never tasted it). There’s a crispness, but allied to something more complex, rounded out via ageing on lees in acacia wood. Do you know arrowroot biscuit? It’s here. There’s also a little stone fruit and pear. Altogether very much my kind of white. It’s just a little different, and for me that adds to the excitement.

We often talk about how beautiful Swiss vineyards can be, focusing on the terraces of Lavaux, or the Alpine slopes of the Valais. I’ve never visited Eglisau but from photographs this tiny enclave above the Rhine looks equally idyllic. I wonder whether I might get there one day?

Whilst Räuschling is undergoing a bit of a revival, the best is not remotely cheap as compared to the wines of old. Alpine Wines is the importer and they list this for £37.45, which is about 25% more expensive than Mathias’s possibly better-known red wines. However, it is very good and quite uniquely so for a wine made from this variety. For the adventurous, perhaps, but only because of the price. You won’t find the wine itself in the least bit disturbing. On the contrary. To all Fall fans, Räuschling Rumble!

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Intoxicating by Max Allen (Book Review): Ten drinks that shaped Australia

From the late 1980s onwards, I became increasingly interested in Australian wine. I used to think I liked some cool wines, but what transformed my knowledge of the country, by its focus on Australia’s artisan producers, was a book I’ve mentioned many times. Max Allen’s “The Future Makers” (Hardie Grant Books, 2010) is a big old tome, and I could not be more grateful for the friend who gave it to me as a present, sending it via his uncle, from Melbourne. It must have taken up a sizeable part of his luggage allowance. I would argue that there still is no better book on Australian wine, especially if you are interested in smaller, low intervention producers. Exactly the same producers who were at that time beginning to be imported into the UK.

We jump forward a decade, to the summer of 2020, and I am now following Max on social media, and I see that he’s a new book due out, called “Intoxicating: Ten Drinks That Shaped Australia”. Published by Thames & Hudson Australia, it is inexplicably not available for direct sale in the UK and this time I was blessed with help from a generous acquaintance in New Zealand, who I know from Tom Cannavan’s Wine Pages Forum. This very kind man sent a copy over with his wife, who whilst visiting family here posted it on to me around a month ago. Thankfully, Intoxicating is available in paperback, running to around 250 pages, but still, the generosity of people who share a love of wine knows no bounds (even if it took up rather less space in the suitcase).

The book is divided into ten chapters, each one highlighting a drink which has a place in Australian history and folk lore. You certainly don’t need to know every drink, nor necessarily want to drink it, to be drawn into this incredibly well researched and totally enjoyable book. Allen’s style is always engaging and he matches this with very deep knowledge, not bad for a guy who was originally born in England, though benefiting from Australian family until he moved out there in (I think) his twenties.

If the book gives a nod towards a chronology, the first chapter starts us off before the colonial period. What Allen does immediately is dispel the myth that alcohol was unknown to the indigenous people before the British introduced it. In particular, he introduces Way-a-linah, fermented from the sap of a tree known as the cider gum. The fermented sap produces (still) a mildly alcoholic beverage which apparently does taste a little like mild cider. Sadly, this tradition is at risk from climate change. The trees are very sensitive to too much heat so that even the parts of Tasmania where the trees are most prolific are at risk of becoming too warm.

As you read the book you will, I hope, be pleasantly surprised that one of several strands which run through it looks at issues around alcohol in relation to the original inhabitants of the continent, especially how the narrative has been shaped by the colonial masters to portray the aboriginals as drunkards and unable to consume alcohol without negative effects. That’s a narrative which completely ignores one place of alcohol in our own culture, as a crutch for people who have been deprived of hope. For native Australians, that deprivation has been of more than just hope. It has been of land, identity and soul.

When the first settlers arrived, life was pretty tough…and not just for the convicts. Failing to learn from those already farming the land, the British came close to starvation, but they soon sorted out their priorities and established (via one particular regiment) a spirits-racket. The drink of choice was rum, though not rum as we know it. Rum brought into Australia came mostly from Brazil. It wasn’t the golden spirit distilled from molasses we enjoy today, but aguardente, distilled from sugar cane juice. In Portuguese it means “burning water”.

The more adventurous reader might attempt to make a modern version of a drink invented by Colonel Thomas Davey, Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, in 1815. It’s a blend of beer, aguardente rum, brandy, sugar syrup and lime juice. It went by the name of “Blow My Skull”.

Chapter Three covers peach cyder. Actually, Allen takes us on a journey around the traditional tipple of many of the different immigrant populations into Australia, but peach cyder became a popular drink due to a surfeit of peaches and as the author makes his own apple cider, he gives it a go. It’s a nice story, which I won’t spoil, except to state something we all know. Peaches can make a fine distillate.

It might surprise some that Champagne not only made its way to Australia, but it did so in some quantity. Even more surprising is who drank it. We read the story of Mrs Bond’s brothel, founded in Melbourne in the 1850s, where archaeology finds Champagne bottles outnumber any other type of drink by many times (along with hundreds of oyster shells). The title of the chapter is “The Salthouse Champagne”, which refers to the wreck of The William Salthouse, which sank in the treacherous entrance to Port Phillip Bay in 1839. Some bottles were retrieved in 1982 and, in 1994, subsequently tasted. James Halliday was on hand to write about it in the Weekend Australian, describing them, according to Allen, as “particularly notable”.

From here on in we begin to read about drinks we’ve probably heard of, if not always tasted. Aussie classics like Seppelt’s Angaston Bitters, 1930 Dalwood Cabernet (the birth of Australian Fine Wine), Victoria Bitter (a beer with which I have had my own personal relationship), and McWilliams Port. Although you will rightly assume that the author touches on the historical importance of fortified wine in Australia’s drinks history, this particular chapter provides an interesting foray into “aboriginal drinking” and the Native Australians’ relationship with grog.

The penultimate chapter brings us up to date. Kanga Rouge was not part of the famous Monty Python sketch, it really existed. Trouble is, the wine was a joke. But the 1970s saw the beginning of a revolution in Australian wine, a revolution which led to popularity in the UK beyond the dreams of the corporates who eventually began to dominate Australian Wine. In the late 1980s and early 1990s (if my recollections are accurate), a BBC2 programme called “Food and Drink” had millions of viewers, my very young self being one of them.

Oz Clarke and Jilly Goolden introduced us to wines bursting with Australian sunshine, ripe fruit seasoned with oak (mostly real oak in those early days rather than chips or essence). We never looked back, or at least we didn’t for about a decade. I recall vividly the first bottle of Aussie Chardonnay I purchased (Rosemount), who we drank it with and the look on our faces. Rosemount was very soon joined by Penfolds in my wine racks, which made the classic reds of South Australia, from Grange at the top all the way down. We will come back to Penfolds.

Some think we in Great Britain are cheapskates. The story of Australian wine in the UK certainly does nothing to dispel that suggestion. A mass market for Aussie sunshine was established, but over the years that sunshine fell in value, especially to the supermarket buyers who saw Australian wine as a cheap drink to market to the masses in quantity.

When wine from countries like South Africa, Chile and Argentina became available for even less money, any pretence at loyalty evaporated. The market is king, always the problem for a near industrial product, much of it arriving in tankers to be bottled at the docks, made by increasingly large corporates. The artisans Max Allen wrote about in “The Future Makers” still found a market in the UK, albeit a niche one, but certainly a decreasing one too.

Australia has since found its saviour (perhaps) elsewhere, in China. In 1995 Allen quotes figures showing exports of wine to China were a mere 1% of that exported to the UK. In 2019, he says, wine exports to China were 150 million litres, worth $1.2 billion. Staggering, and dwarfing the relatively miniscule quantities of Aussie wines which now come our way.

I recently read that yet another name synonymous with Australian wine in this country, Brown Brothers, had decided to exit the UK market completely. Just a few years ago I could go to the annual “Australia Day” trade tasting in London and taste well over twenty wines from this large family company.

Ironically it appears that Penfolds has, after an absence of many years, made a comeback here. I think Majestic Wine lists around nine lines, although not all the once-famous “bins” of old. But Australian wine is changing at the corporate level.

Christopher Rawson Penfold and his wife planted their original Magill Estate at the foot of the Mount Lofty Ranges, outside Adelaide, in 1844, thus starting what became a great Australian tradition by which doctors who believed in the health benefits of red wine became the producers of some of the country’s finest labels.

Since the 1840s Penfolds has gone through so many owners, it really is a lesson in the corporate world of Aussie wine. Southcorp…Fosters…Treasury Wine Estates. Penfolds may be back in the UK, I’d quite like to know how that happened. But like all of Australian corporate wine, the real market is seen as China. However, markets come and go. At the bottom of the Penfolds range has long been a wine named, in a way, after the company’s founder (via the cottage on his estate). It’s called Rawson’s Retreat. I’m sure you’ve heard of it? If I remember correctly, it was a single red blend, although now it’s a brand with several product lines.

Anyway, I recently read (on Vino Joy News, a site dedicated to China’s wine market) that Rawson’s Retreat destined for China will now contain wine sourced in South Africa. This is admittedly mainly down to the current spat between the two countries which has led to a 218% tariff being imposed on Australian wine exports to China. I am led to believe that the Rawson’s Retreat you can buy for £5 in some UK supermarkets will not move in the same direction, or maybe not yet, not that I imagine too many readers of Wideworldofwine will be overly concerned.

Perhaps the reappearance of Penfolds in the UK might just be dipping a toe back into an old market, just in case, although I know that China’s wealthiest wine lovers won’t be unduly hit by 218% worth of taxes on their Grange. Such taxes ultimately only benefit the super-wealthy because they decrease the competition from plebs like me for the unicorns.

The final chapter of Intoxicating brings us back, in a fascinating way, to what the future might hold, not in terms of markets so much as in terms of what gets made. This chapter looks at (inter alia) wine from native grapes. Yes, there are native Australian grapes. Of course, all the vinifera vines were brought to Australia mostly from Europe and The Cape. That is well documented. What even few wine experts in Australia know is that there are native species.

There’s a lovely story in there, which I won’t narrate, but it ties everything together. It embodies a spirit of adventure, an open mind, and a desire to look at Australian drinks culture with a much wider perspective than that of the colonial boozer and his descendants. What after all, as the author points out, is the difference between the French/European concept of terroir and the aboriginal “connection to country”? In sub-titling the last chapter “Drinking the Future” the author acknowledges that in a country populated for a couple of centuries by invaders who paid scant regard to the agriculture of its native inhabitants…until now…when it comes to alcoholic beverages, there’s “so much more to learn”.

I would suggest that for anyone with the slightest interest in Aussie booze, or indeed in Australia and its culture, this book makes essential reading. Although I said that the book is not available in the UK, that is not completely true. Amazon has it as an e-book for Kindle (£12.10) and also seems to be listing (as of Tuesday, at 16.25) a single copy from an Amazon Seller, second hand, for £23.93 (as of 21 July).

A Kindle edition of The Future Makers is also available (£10).

There’s one other book I would say is essential reading if you want to expand your understanding of Aboriginal Culture in Australia. It’s one of the most famous books to come out of the country in the past decade, so I apologise to the many readers who will know it.

Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe (Magabala Books 2014, new edn 2018) is a well written but scholarly refutation of the “hunter-gatherer” tag which, was always applied to Australia’s Aboriginal peoples. If you suggest a people does not have a settled status on the land it becomes so much easier to dispossess them of it, but aside from this, Pascoe shows that we can learn a great deal from Aboriginal wisdom, especially when it comes to regenerative agriculture and the creation of a balanced ecology in a time of climate crisis and change. So much of what he discusses is as applicable to viticulture as to all other forms of agriculture in Australia.

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