Recent Wines April 2021 (Part 2) #theglouthatbindsus

Part 1 of April’s wines began with a new wine from a very new producer, Jas Swan. This Part 2 begins with a new wine from a producer I expect is unknown to most readers as well, but one who more than most points to the remarkable things going down in Czech Moravia at the moment. This lovely Czech wine starts off a run which, even within the context of my usual exploratory drinking, yields some additional wonderful and exciting wines from Greece, California, Alsace, Switzerland, The Canary Islands, and also Cahors and Jura in France.

UNCUT SILLER 2020, PETR KORÁB (Moravia, Czechia)

Siller is a traditional wine style, also called Schiller in Germany, and although there are differences, Schilcher in Austria. It’s a lighter style of red wine (the name translates as “to shimmer”) and it was originally a pale pink. However, all of the modern Siller/Schilcher I’ve drunk has been dark in colour. It was also traditionally a blend of red and white grapes (hence the colour), but as you will know, Austrian Schilcher is made from one very red grape. This Czech Siller is a blend of three, but all red varieties. This one is closer in style to Hungarian Siller, which would often be a darker-coloured light red, but with a tannic crunch.

The Siller blend from this exciting Boleradice domaine is St Laurent, Frankovka (Blaufränkisch) and Zweigelt, from vines over thirty years old and picked in mid-September. It is called “uncut” because the vines are left untrimmed, similar to the “graupert” style of cultivation we see at Meinklang in Burgenland. Far from overproducing grapes or greenery, the vines find an equilibrium, even if they look untidy to those who prefer a lawn to a wildflower meadow.

As you can see from the vintage, this wine is very young and as such, by drinking it now, we capture its almost raw vibrancy. It has a brambly, hedgerow, scent and the palate pricks the tongue with concentrated dark fruit acids. The finish does indeed have a good lick of texture which makes it inhabit a world very different to a lot of easy going young red wines. In a way it reminds me of those refreshing wines from the less well-known grape varieties of Piemonte (Freisa, Grignolino, Ruché…). It’s kind of rustic yet very modern at the same time. At a perfectly judged 12% abv, it’s delicious served a little cool and very gluggable. Indeed, as wines go, it’s very cool indeed. More please.

Petr Koráb is, of course, imported by Basket Press Wines.

“SPIRA” [2018], KTIMA LIGAS (Pella, Greece)

There’s definitely a feeling among most wine professionals that Greece makes wonderful wines, and this is proved beyond doubt at numerous trade tastings. The difficulty is that their retail distribution is relatively poor, and this in my view holds them back in getting the recognition they deserve from consumers. Perhaps retailers think Greece would be a hard sell, the same issue faced by a number of smaller and less-hyped countries. If you taste the wines of this “natural” producer you’ll see how wrong that is.

Domaine Ligas was founded by Thomas Ligas in 1985, based in Northern Macedonia (north of Thessaloniki), up in the mountains at Pella, where he follows the teachings of Masanobu Fukuoka, allowing nature to take its course in vineyards which, from the photos I have seen, look achingly beautiful. Son Jason is now involved, and daughter Meli, who lives in Paris, travels Europe to promote the wines. It is therefore Meli with whom I have tasted on numerous occasions at the natural wine, and importer, fairs in London.

This cuvée is unusual for a couple of reasons. First, it is made from the black Xinomavro variety, vinified as a white wine (although the colour is actually more yellow with a pink/orange tint). Secondly, it’s a solera wine, comprising in this bottling vintages from 2012 to 2018. It has undergone skin contact and the result is unctuous and rich, a little toasty with hints of orange citrus, peach and honey. It is a wine in complete harmony, even at 14% abv, and I would probably say it is my favourite of all the Ligas wines I’ve drunk so far, and from one of my very favourite Greek producers. Zero sulphur is added and, honestly, this is so damned good.

The importer of Ktima Ligas wines is Dynamic Vines.

MONDEUSE ROSÉ 2017, RORICK HERITAGE VINEYARD, JAIMEE MOTLEY (California, USA)

Jaimee is an art graduate who fell in love with wine whilst working under Rajat Parr at the famous restaurant, RN74 in San Francisco, which has rightly been described as revolutionary in introducing West Coast diners both to more unusual grape varieties, and to a more food-friendly style of wine than the Napa norm. She then went on to work as an assistant winemaker for Pax Mahle, another mover and shaker for the New California.

This wine comes from Calaveras County, high in the Sierra Foothills. Jaimee sourced the cuttings in the Santa Maria Valley and Matthew Rorick (of Forlorn Hope) grafted them onto old Graciano roots.  Fermented in stainless steel after a long period of gentle foot-treading, the wine was then aged in used oak. Only a tiny addition of sulphur at bottling, no other additives at any stage. This was Jaimee’s first vintage and what she has produced is astonishing. I’ve never drunk a Californian Rosé remotely as good as this.

The colour is more burnt copper than pink. The bouquet is both herbal (it’s the large sage bush outside our back door) and floral, and on the palate it is rich for a wine of just 12% abv, but yet it has that clarity you might expect from grapes grown at 600 masl on mainly limestone rock with a thin layer of schist. Essence of Rocky Mountain Way. I cannot express how much I loved this wine, there’s just so much in there. Inspired.

Jaimee’s wines have recently been brought in by Littlewine (littlewine.co). Uncharted Wines also lists them, but currently has no stock (according to their web site).

RIESLING “LE CHAMP DES ALOUETTES” 2016, CHRISTIAN BINNER (Alsace, France)

I think I may have mentioned fairly recently that Binner was one of the first of the Alsace natural wine domaines I got to know. Most likely for that reason I hadn’t drunk any of late, so I put that right by purchasing a few bottles. Binner is based in Ammerschwihr in the Haut-Rhin, that part of Alsace which used to be rather dominated by some of the bigger producers.

Christian, a mainstay of London’s natural wine fairs, converted to biodynamics way back in 2003 and has ever since been producing a range of exceptional white, and indeed red, wines from his Ammerschwihr winery. This one comes from a vineyard at Katzenthal which is also known in dialect as Lerchenfeld. The soils are pure granite with mica.

Why buy this wine, which retails for just over £20, as opposed to more weighty offerings, such as the Grands Crus? You get the expression of a single site, but if you like a nice taut and mineral Riesling, you don’t need to wait years to enjoy it. The colour is closer to amber than the usual pale Riesling hue. The bouquet is classic Riesling but with orange blossom and beeswax. The palate is quite savoury, with a honey-like finish. Lime and ginger add to the complexity and interest here, which is surely a bonus at this price. Bottled with zero added sulphur and sealed under a glass Vinolok. Don’t try inserting a corkscrew.

Imported by Les Caves de Pyrene and also available from Littlewine (littlewine.co).

OEIL DE PERDRIX 2019, DOMAINE DE MONTMOLLIN (Neuchâtel, Switzerland)

Œil de Perdrix translates as partridge eye, the French term for a particular pale style of Rosé. The style used to be relatively common in the French-speaking parts of Switzerland, with a similar type of wine being made in the German-speaking Cantons under the name of “Federweiss” (which can be white or a pale pink). I used to buy Oeil de Perdrix regularly from one or two small domaines to the west of Geneva, but some years ago the Swiss authorities bowed to the winemakers of Neuchâtel and the Trois Lacs, and reserved the term for their Neuchâtel AOC pink wines.

Although a number of grape varieties can be used for the style here, Domaine de Montmollin, based in the famous wine village of Auvernier, is one of the producers which makes their Oeil de Perdrix from Pinot Noir (which I would also argue makes the best Federweiss). The grapes see a very light direct press, and the juice is relatively pale. I say relatively because by using Pinot Noir (organic at Montmollin) the wines have just a bit more weight to them. The colour can also vary from vintage to vintage, if only slightly. I’ve seen them paler than this 2019 from a domaine whose wines I have bought for several years.

The style isn’t overtly complex. Red fruits and grapefruit acidity dominate. But there is subtlety here, and you don’t want to lose that by serving it too cold. As it warms the Pinot character is amplified and the wine rounds out nicely. The back label had the usually bland suggestion that it goes well with “Asian cuisine”. In this case, well, it did.

Swiss wines are always expensive to we Brits, but at a little less than £30 it’s not too expensive for the adventurous drinker to try a unique style. There is still some up on the Alpine Wines web site, though as one of the only sources of Swiss Oeil de Perdrix in the UK, it does sell out fairly swiftly.

LISTÁN BLANCO 2019, LA PALMA, DARREN SMITH with VICTORIA TORRES PÉCIS (Canary Is, Spain)

Darren used to work at The Sampler in London, but like a few young people who work in the wine trade he wanted more. Wine writing, which he has also since turned his hand to, probably wasn’t enough either, so in 2018, after dabbling at a few harvests, he became an itinerant winemaker. So far, he has made wines in collaboration with local winemakers in Portugal’s Bairrada, Chile’s Bío Bío, and here on La Palma, the smallest of Spain’s Canary Isles. They are all released under his label “The Finest Wines Available to Humanity”, which is a quote from the cult British comedy classic, Withnail and I.

Darren’s collaborator for this Listán Blanco (aka Palomino Fino) is Victoria Torres. As Victoria was one of my highly trumpeted discoveries of 2019, you will understand my desperation to get hold of some of this wine just as much as I was keen to try some wine from Jas Swan (see Part 1 of April’s “Recent Wines”). On the basis of this first bottle, I definitely plan to try more from Darren.

The vines are quite old, grown on the island’s “picón” soils, dark volcanic ash, which cover the vineyards here in both the southeast and southwest of La Palma. Viki’s winery is at Fuencaliente, nearby, and this is where Darren made the wine. That wine is made from organically farmed grapes with very low added sulphur and no other manipulations…and it really is remarkably good. It has the island’s characteristic salinity along with a dry, apple freshness, but it has a gently honeyed centre centre as well, which definitely adds depth. This all creates a wine which lingers a long time, riding the palate in a sedate slalom. Only 400 bottles were made so I am thrilled to get to try it.

Darren has this wine at his former employer’s, The Sampler, along with Lechevalier on Tower Bridge Road, and he seems to have a stall at the famous market in London Fields (Westgate Street) on Saturdays. Maybe check out his Insta (@tfwath) for updates and details. The quantities made of these wines do not suggest a much wider distribution. I purchased mine directly after contacting him via Instagram.

HAUTE CÔT(E) DE FRUIT 2019, FABIEN JOUVES (Cahors, France)

When I was younger, I had a bit of a thing for Cahors. I suppose it was a little different to Bordeaux but in a similar space. The region around the city is very beautiful, as is the cuisine, and although we never stayed there, I was lucky enough to pass through it several times, allowing long enough for an hour or two in the city or nearby. As I got more interested in natural wines, Cahors (with one or two exceptions) didn’t always come to mind.

Fabien Jouves, however, has been a constant in my more enlightened drinking, not least for his cuvée which strikes a deliberately offensive pose, “You F**k My Wine”. It certainly gained him some notoriety, but it makes a point about how some more conservative appellations seek to move in one direction only, which doesn’t always connect with the zeitgeist.

In the case of Cahors, it might be worth noting that there have been some moves to identify the wine with its main grape variety, thus jumping on the bandwagon of the commercial success of Argentinian Malbec in a big and usually quite alcoholic style. Fabien makes something very different, and indeed although the wine does say “Malbec” on the label, this cuvée’s name emphasises the local synonym for Malbec, Côt.

Mas de Périé, Fabien’s domaine, sits up on the plateau above Cahors, where the soils blend limestone and clay with deep-bedded mineral deposits. The vines are currently undergoing biodynamic conversion, but Fabien’s wines are all “natural wines”. Haute Côt(e) de Fruit has a vibrant deep inky purple colour with scents of violets along with mostly red and some darker fruits. It has a delicious freshness which you might call “brisk”, and a general fruity lightness.

Very much glouglou rather than structured and/or tannic. Most certainly not your typical Malbec, certainly not one I’d give to my neighbour who loves the variety. That said, this does sport 13% abv, so any move to glug this down swiftly might result in a surprise wobble on standing up. Still, what its brambly fruit does allow it to share with its distant Argentine cousin is a suitability for the barbecue.

Fabien Jouves is imported by Carte Blanche Wines. My bottle came from Bin Two Wines (Padstow, Cornwall) because I decided to make it worthwhile when I ordered the Jas Swan wines by adding in a further assortment of bottles (as one does).

CHARDONNAY “TERRE DU LIAS” 2018, DOMAINE DE LA BORDE (Jura, France)

The final wine from April is another absolute stunner. Julien Mareschal started out in his early twenties with, originally, no wine background at all. He moved from studying agriculture onto a wine diploma course at Dijon before working for a number of Jura domaines (among other regions). I think it is pertinent to mention that his approach was changed when he was mentored, as so many superb natural wine producers in the region were, by the late Pascal Clairet of Domaine de la Tournelle

Julien now farms around five hectares from his base at Pupillin, just outside Arbois. This particular wine is from a site called “Sous la Roche”, a steep slope rising to 500 masl. The soils are “argiles bleues du lias” (lime-rich blue marls). Although Julien has little Chardonnay, he does make it from two sites. Both are made ouillé (topped-up, not the traditional oxidative style). This wine is both fermented and aged in older foudre with ten months on lees. There are no additives, either in the vineyard or winery, except for very minimal sulphur.

This is an especially fine Chardonnay, from one of the finest of Jura’s new wave of producers. A wine of considerable purity, showing lemon citrus, hints of pear and a little nuttiness. Its great minerality and lees-induced texture suggest it will age rather well, but who cares. If I had a second bottle I’d be no more able to hang on to it to find out just how well. One to seek out before prices go really mad. A decade ago, this young man was almost unknown. Now his reputation is assured.

Domaine de la Borde is imported by Les Caves de Pyrene. This bottle was purchased retail from The Solent Cellar (Lymington).

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Recent Wines April 2021 (Part 1) #theglouthatbindsus

April arrived swiftly, May even more quickly, but as I begin my roundup of last month’s bottles, with reference to my previous article, I can pretty confidently assure you that no “Roundup” was used on any of these wines. They all fall, most of them firmly, into the natural wine camp. We begin with a serious “score” from the Mosel, a producer I had been craving to try for a while. Next, a Champagne I wanted to try so much but couldn’t afford. A friend for whom I did a small favour sent me a bottle and he cannot imagine the thrill I felt both on opening and drinking it.

That accounts for two of the eight wines in Part One, but those which follow are no mere pedestrians, as we shall see. Alice Bouvot, Vino Magula, La Soeur Cadette, Jan Matthias Klein, Pieter Walser and Meinklang make for some spectacularly varied and “different” drinking in the first half of last month.

“SIF” 2019, KATLA WINES (JAS SWAN) (Mosel, Germany)

I’d picked up on what Jas Swan was doing, working mostly as a micro-negociant out of Jan Matthias Klein’s Staffelter-Hof premises at Kröv, some time ago. Then when Trink Magazine launched, I read an article about Jas and the “Alternative Mosel” movement, written by Valerie Kathawala (trinkmag.com), one of my favourite writers on wine. This cemented my desire to try her wines, yet she has no major UK importer. Then I found a source which had literally a handful of bottles of “Sif” and I was in like a shot.

When I chatted with Rudolf Trossen at an event put on by Vine Trail and Newcomer Wines in London a couple of years ago, he told me that all the young winemakers should come to the Mosel because they can get hold of vineyards pretty much for free. Well, I think a few did and they make up a group which Swan calls “Alt-Mosel”. They tend to be young, farm abandoned vineyards in less famous villages or sites, and use whatever grape varieties they feel like. Whilst Trossen may be a guiding light, Jan Matthias Klein (who we shall meet later) has been a true mentor, whilst putting his own beliefs into practice as well. Valerie Kathawala calls ex-sommelier Swan the spokesperson for this group. She only founded Katla Wines in 2019.

Although Jas tries to farm the vines for her negoce label herself, she purchases fruit from Nahe and Rheinhessen as well as the Mosel. She works in a very traditional way, hands on but minimum intervention. Sif is a Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc) grown on slate and clay soils. It is fermented with indigenous yeasts, 50% destemmed, in füder with a five-day maceration. Then, with 50% direct pressed fruit, it is moved to stainless steel after winter, and is bottled after a year.

Bottled with carbon dioxide dissolved in the wine, it is slightly pétillant on opening. It is dry and textured, having that minerality that I like from Pinot Blanc. It’s also light and refreshing (just 11% abv). No sulphur is added. It’s certainly not a complex wine, but it’s not meant to be. Fun, fresh and savoury, glad I have another bottle. I look forward to trying more of Jas’s wines, and I’m sure we shall be hearing a lot more from this young talent.

The only source I found for Jas’s wines was the retailer Bin Two Wines in Padstow, Cornwall. I’m grateful to them for allowing me to purchase two whole bottles, to give me the chance to try one and, in due course, spread the word a little more with the second.

 “HÉRACLITE” BRUT NATURE 2014, TIMOTHÉE STROEBEL (Champagne, France)

Timothée Stroebel is based on the Montagne de Rheims at a village few will have heard of, Villers Allerand (which sits between the main D951 route to Épernay to the west and Rilly-la-Montagne to the east). Although the family vines go back to Timothée’s grandfather’s generation here, he is the first to really carve a niche as a top-quality Grower. He describes himself as a practitioner of “agriculture paysanne” making non-interventionist wines from Premier Cru fruit. “Héraclite” is 100% Meunier, planted in 1964 on mostly clay soils. In fact, Timothée is incredibly focused on soil health, using a couple of horses to plough and working organically. All the finished wine sees is a tiny bit of added sulphur. The name of this cuvée was inspired by a quote from Heraclitus: “The only constant in life is change”.

The wine, which sees three years on lees before disgorging, sings of red fruits on the bouquet but the palate is quite savoury. It’s actually pretty unique among Champagnes in terms of flavour, and one Champagne specialist I know, who also likes this wine, said “but it is different”. It certainly has its own personality, but that personality is not necessarily assertive. The wine sings with purity. It was a touch tight initially because I served it too cold, but it soon opened up into something beautiful. Some have said “poetic”. I agree. I could drink this every week. Only 2,005 bottles made.

Although this was a gift it was sent to me via Littlewine (littlewine.co), which on last look had a few Stroebel cuvées on the site.

“COMMENDATORE” [2013], DOMAINE L’OCTAVIN (Jura, France)

Always getting told off for naming my favourites (I can see why a wine writer shouldn’t really do that), I really cannot deny the passion I have for this producer’s ever-increasing range of wines. Many of the bottles I have bought since Covid struck have been the “gnome label” négoce bottles, but I try whenever I can to source the immaculate domaine wines. This one is one of Alice’s originals, the name reflecting her love of Mozart operas (in this case, Don Giovanni).

Commendatore is a Trousseau made from over 50-year-old vines in the well known Arbois vineyard called “Les Corvées”, which lies just to the northeast of the town, below the road to Montigny-les-Arsures. The fruit is macerated for eight months in tank with no plunging of the cap or pumping over. The result is at seven-and-a-half years of age a stately wine, mellow with smooth fruit. Contemplative, but in no way “old”. There are soft red fruits to the fore and just a nice savoury edge to add interest. It is one of the finest bottles of L’Octavin I’ve drunk for a couple of years.

Although I buy, and continue to buy, Alice Bouvot’s wines wherever I can find them, both in London and Arbois (the UK importer is Tutto Wines) I’m sure this bottle was cellared from a visit to the winery some years ago.

VELTLÍN 2018, VINO MAGULA (Lower Carpathians, Slovakia)

This is Grüner Veltliner, known as Veltlín in Slovakia, and it comes from a biodynamic producer whose wines I seem to be drinking with increased frequency as I get to know them better. Magula is a biodynamic family farm at Suchá nad Parnou in the Lower (aka Lesser) Carpathians, northeast of Bratislava. They have 10 hectares of vines on deep loess soils which are rich in minerals, especially calcium. The climate is sunny and dry, and their labels depict a vine delving deep underground to find nutrients.

I think you’ll find this is a wine which sort of hits you and makes you sit up. Dry on the palate, yet with quite exotic fruit (lime, mango and pineapple for me), but with a touch of, almost, chilli spice, on the front of the tongue. This is accompanied by some zesty acidity, so that you might think the wine is a year younger. The balance comes from an initially deceptive 13% abv. Delicious. A nicely different take on the old Grüner variety.

Magula has, since 2018, upped their label game (as you will begin discover next month, and as indeed has Jas Swan since “Sif” was released). Of course, we don’t buy a wine for its label (though I can think of a few whose labels put me off), but we all love a nice wine that is well packaged.

Magula is part of the Basket Press Wines portfolio in the UK.

MELON 2018, VIN DE FRANCE, LA SŒUR CADETTE (Burgundy, France)

Melon is, of course, Melon de Bourgogne. It’s the grape of Muscadet, so there’s a kind of neatness to see it grown in Northern Burgundy. Domaine de la Cadette was created by Jean and Catherine Montanet when they planted just short of 14 hectares of vines, beginning in the late 1980s, to the southeast of the beautiful abbey town of Vézélay (way west of Chablis). The soils, on the edge of the granite Morvan Hills, are complex, blue, red and grey clay marls with limestone outcrops.

Of course, the vines are now reasonably old and despite this being a little-known corner of the greater Burgundian vignoble, they have made something of a name for themselves. By 2010 they even warranted inclusion in Jasper Morris’s Burgundy Bible, Inside Burgundy. Although Vézélay has been AOC/AOP since the late 1990s, this interloper variety (but is it?) is bottled as a Vin de France. Jean and Catherine’s son, Valentin, has been in day-to-day charge for the past decade.

Most would drink this wine young and fresh, but I left this resting over the winter and so we are drinking 2018 here. Age has softened it a little but what it lacks in the kind of freshness you might associate with this grape variety, it gains in interest in other areas. Despite being a cheap bottle, it has some subtlety. It hints at Chardonnay in a strange way, just a tiny bit, though I am assured it is 100% Melon de Bourgogne. It does show an innate minerality from the limestone content in the soil, which adds a touch of steeliness. In its third year, it may be relatively simple but it is a lovely wine.

Imported by Les Caves de Pyrene, and in light of my recent article about the man, it is imported by Kermit Lynch in the USA.

PAPA PANDA’S RISING [2018], JAN MATTHIAS KLEIN (Mosel, Germany)

We already mentioned JMK in relation to Jas Swan earlier in this article. Jan runs the family winery, Staffelter-Hof, at Kröv. Although his family have long tenure here, since the early 1800s, the estate is claimed to have been mentioned in 862 (sic), as part of the property of a Belgian Benedictine Abbey. Some say it may be the oldest still existing wine estate in the world.

That’s all very traditional, as (more or less) are the Rieslings JMK produces under the estate label. However, Jan is a man on a mission and he also makes a large and ever-increasing number of natural wines, many with the most unusual grape varieties for the Mosel, and some under a label he calls “Pandamonium” (sic, hence the panda references). These specific wines are collaborative ventures. In fact, there’s a rumour he’s doing one with Jas Swan, but this petnat wine was a joint venture with a Polish neighbour, Andrzej Grestza.

Each of them, Jan and Andrjez, fermented a 1,000-litre füder of Riesling grown on slate, and allowed malolactic to take place. The two barrels were blended together before bottling. It makes a lovely petnat wine showing a herbal bouquet with a slatey edge (you can definitely smell wet slate). The palate is mineral, citrus and with plenty of texture derived from the lees in bottle (if you prefer not to drink it cloudy, then it needs to be stood up for 24-hours at least).

Simon Woolf (The Morning Claret) tasted this 2018 vintage in October 2019 and found it a little tight. His suggestion, to leave it a year, has certainly worked in this case. It’s a lovely bottle, and I’m sure some of you noticed it appeared in my article on “petnats” recently, as one to look out for.

Imported into the UK by Modal Wines. They usually sell a good selection of JMK’s wonderfully different cuvées which challenge the whole conservative ideal of what Mosel Wine should be.

“A RARE MOMENT” 2019, BLANK BOTTLE WINERY (Western Cape, South Africa)

This is the red brother to “The Trip”, which was a Grenache Blanc I drank back in December last year, one of the latest pair of wines Pieter Walser made exclusively for Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton.

This cuvée is mostly old bush vine Pinotage with a dollop of Syrah, all from a single small grower at Darling, Western Cape. It’s the same source for the Pinotage of the previous red Pieter made for Butlers, “Gothus”. Some stems were left on in the fermentation and the wine was aged in casks of some age.

You get rich, smoky, fruit on the nose with a dusting of cracked black pepper. There’s a beautiful freshness which belies the 14% abv on the label. Pieter’s wines often tend to look ripe and rich from the declared alcohol level, but they always tread lightly with an elevated freshness making them seem a couple of degrees lighter…unless you drink the bottle solo. Right now, we get some tannic structure which suggests it will age well, but you weren’t going to see me keeping my hands off it for long. Bursting with vitality now, you could go either way, drink or keep. Or buy two or three, especially if you reckon you don’t like Pinotage.

Blank Bottle Winery is imported by Swig Wines, who can supply the very wide range of small batch wines Pieter makes. His labels, many designed by his children, are some of the most exciting in South Africa. This wine is, of course, exclusively available through Butlers Wine Cellar, Brighton. It seems like they will be doing an exclusive pair every year and at a little over £20, they are brilliant value.

KONKRET ROT 2012, MEINKLANG (Burgenland, Austria)

Meinklang Farms is a large mixed biodynamic operation at Pamhagen, at the southern end of Burgenland’s Neusiedlersee, close to the Hungarian border. Aside from their cereals and beef cattle they make beer from ancient grains, remarkable ciders, wine from the Somló Massif in Hungary, and a wide range of everyday wines in Burgenland. Then there are the premium quality bottlings from “graupert” vines (unpruned, left wild more or less) and at the top of the tree, perhaps, some red and orange/white wines called “Konkret”, vinified for twelve months in 9-hectolitre concrete eggs.

The red version in 2012 is 100% Saint-Laurent. Although the wine has a darker hue, it’s not remotely heavy. The permeability of the concrete in the eggs allows for in effect some micro-oxygenation. This gentle ageing allows the wine to stabilise and to continue ageing slowly in bottle. Despite this being nine years old, it still has clear and defined, and fairly concentrated, raspberry and cranberry fruit on the bouquet. The palate goes on to pick out some darker blackcurrant flavours as the wine opens in the glass (Zalto Universal, to concentrate that fruit). You might then find some nettles prickling the back palate slightly and, certainly, an iron-rich texture characteristic of the vinification vessel.

This is, I would say, one of the most under rated wines I habitually buy (though Meinklang hasn’t arrived here since the first Lockdown and I’m now clean out of them for the first time in many years). The care that goes in at the front end allows the wine to age beautifully and what you get is both intellectually stimulating, and thrilling at the same time. Most of my Meinklang, including this Konkret Rot, came from Winemakers Club in London.

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Are We Doing Enough?

Last week we had Earth Day, and all media was full of climate doom and save the planet pleas from environmentalists and scientists. Most of us probably gave the matter some thought, whilst others would have let the warnings pass them by, either because they don’t believe or would rather leave it all to others to solve. Governments and large corporations continue to talk the talk whilst any walking the walk is generally cosmetic, fiddling (whilst Rome burns) around the edges without addressing the key issues. One of those issues is agriculture.

A few years ago, we saw an enormous revival in the interest in nature writing, whether this was through those who poetically described the nature they saw in our past, like WH Hudson and Edward Thomas, or highlighted the perils we were about to face, like Rachel Carson in the 1960s. Have you noticed how there has been a bit of a shift over the past year or two? Now we have moved to a narrative which purports to show what needs to be done. We have solutions like Chris Smaje’s “A Small Farm Future”, James Rebanks’s “English Pastoral” (more or less a return to rotational and smaller scale farming which takes on stewardship of nature at the same time) and Isabella Tree’s “Wilding” (hopefully self-explanatory), and many more, all of which offer us a hope for the future under the overarching umbrella of sustainable regenerative agriculture.

So, what has all this got to do with wine? Well, I feel that wine has somehow become disconnected from agriculture in general and has largely slipped out of the debate. Wine producers grow grapes, which provide an annual crop just like any other form of agriculture. It could be said that viticulture is different to other forms of agriculture, arable farming and animal husbandry, being fruit production, where the tree or vine remains in situ throughout its whole life cycle, rather than a crop being planted, grown and harvested (by animal or man) through a growing season.

This perhaps avoids that which is central to all agriculture, the soil. Many people, perhaps the majority, are aware now of the issues surrounding the application of synthetic chemicals in vast quantities to crops. Especially from the middle of the 20th Century, the agrochemical industry began to provide solutions which could, along with modern mechanisation, increase crop yields dramatically, pushing memories of food shortages into the past (so the theory went).

A beautiful diversity of wildflowers in the vineyard, here above Mesnay (Arbois, Jura)

By providing cheap food, the idea goes, people are moved out of poverty too. Combined with the choices reliably available in the new modern supermarkets, it all sounded so good. Food could equally cease to be seasonal, and cease to be of national origin, one of the first consequences of global markets. But looking at it from the perspective of the 2020s, that just hasn’t happened. We in Britain spend close to the smallest proportion of our income on food in the whole world, and by quite a long way the smallest proportion in Europe, yet we still have food banks, child poverty and, just as importantly, many very poor farmers.

Going back to the farming landscape, the biggest visible impact of the application of agrochemicals is in the flora and fauna which are removed from our farms in order to “keep our crops healthy and to increase yields”. This is no different for vineyards. Wild flowers provide food for pollenating insects, and insect life provides food for birds, and so it goes on up the food chain. In this fiftieth anniversary year of JA Baker’s book, “The Peregrine” it is interesting to note that a general recovery in raptor populations in the UK hides the fact that they are often adapting to safe urban environments whilst actually declining over some intensively farmed regions (and grouse moors, of course). But the biggest impact, which we don’t see, unless it is pointed out to us, is the effect of these chemicals on soils.

A good example (on the left) of the dead zone, photo courtesy Christina Rasmussen, littlewine.co

On the earth (as opposed to in the seas), our soils contain by far the greatest number of living organisms. Or I might say “should contain”. The effect of spraying crops regularly, in which we include spraying vines, acts inevitably as a kill-all solution. Constant spraying, especially when coupled with soil compaction by tractors, creates a dead zone. Then we must add in the effects of soil erosion on hillside vineyards, which deprive the vines of a whole system of nourishment and health. So, to keep producing a crop from increasingly sterile soil, more and more chemicals need to be poured in. In fact, the eventual outcome is that the application of chemicals becomes systemic. Everything is thrown at the vineyard/field system in order to hedge against any eventuality, a bit like giving livestock antibiotics whether or not they have any illness or disease.

With antibiotics we kind of get it. Resistance. This is no less a problem for livestock and poultry as it is for humans. The situation with the application of synthetic chemicals to a vineyard is analogous. You need more and more applications until, as we have seen on some of the large industrial farms, the soil dies and it cannot be revived. There’s no pulse in this living organism.

Arable farmers used to have a solution which worked, rotational agriculture on, perhaps, a mixed farm with crops and grazing animals rotating, and with fields left fallow to recover. Of course, you can’t do this in a vineyard, and you don’t need to. Every year, barring frost and hail, serious disease or bush fires, you will (under all but the worst circumstances) get a crop. Sometimes large, sometimes small, but a crop nevertheless. This gives a false sense of security that all is well in the ground.

So, let me get around to the point of this article. Many consumers who are at least aware of the issues surrounding highly intensive agriculture are nevertheless unable to draw a connection to the wine they drink. Of course, we have “organic” wine, but I don’t think the majority of even mildly concerned consumers seek out organic wine every time they take a bottle off the shelf. This is without any discussion of what exactly organic means here.

The people who are really doing the most to make wine sustainable are those making so-called “natural wine”, but the difficulty here, let’s not kid ourselves, we who advocate for low intervention viticulture and winemaking, is that this area is currently very niche. A lot needs to be done to educate consumers about what natural wine is and how it may differ to wines farmed and made conventionally, but before that happens the wine retailers and wine writers need to be educated.

I always find it both funny and frustrating that people who can afford to buy their provisions from fresh produce suppliers like Riverford Organic, or buy their “Duchy Organic” lines from Waitrose “because they are not covered in pesticides” (a topic for discussion from both angles) are nevertheless wholly uninterested in what is sprayed on, and what additives go into, the wine they have just selected to accompany their “pesticide-free” dinner.

There’s a whole list of things wine producers are trying out in order to make viticulture more sustainable, and many of those are focused on renewing soil health. They can range from using a horse to plough between the rows, using sheep to graze the space between, using sexual confusion rather than sprays to deter insects, and even planting trees to encourage birds, right up to not tilling the soil at all. Those who follow the practices suggested by Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) use no pesticides nor herbicides, and follow a “no-till” philosophy which is being shown increasing levels of interest, both in viticulture and farming generally.

Domaine Lissner (Alsace) follows Fukuoka’s philosophy in the vineyard, with results for wine and biodiversity

I should also add in a sentence about wine farmers who work their vines on a mixed farm. It used to be the norm in much of Europe, especially France. Today it remains relatively common in parts of Central Europe, especially countries in the former Eastern Bloc. It has also seen something of a revival in Austria. Cows, goats, geese, chickens, ducks, sheep, they all fit in to the lifestyle choices which many younger winemakers are drawn to.

As an aside, so many of the books I read talk about the disconnect from his or her land a farmer suffered when they swapped horse and plough for the insulated cabin of a tractor. James Rebanks, in English Pastoral, talks about the importance of walking his land every morning, just as his grandfather did, looking for tiny changes and any signs that something might not be quite right, as do the best wine producers who get to know their vineyards intimately. Feeling the ground under your feet does genuinely act as a connection between farmer and land.

Natural Wine’s opponents can be highly vociferous, criticising wine faults without caring to address the issues surrounding the potential harm which can be caused by synthetic chemical applications. We no longer have DDT sprayed on our crops, but we still see the widespread use of Glyphosate (which is the subject of mass actions for damages connected with cancers, although the producer, Monsanto, it must be stressed, argues that more than eight hundred studies show no cancer risk so long as the herbicide is used according to directions on the label). But let us not pretend that the lobby groups will ever allow governments to ban the whole arsenal of weed and pest killers currently at the vigneron’s disposal. It needs to come from the farmers.

Many of these critics of natural wine almost seem to have an attitude which goes along the lines of “if the wine’s faulty it must be a natural wine”. They forget that some of the world’s most famous wines are “natural wines”, at least under any definition which accepts the application of minimal added sulphur. They also forget that some of the greats from the past made wine without synthetic chemicals or winery additives, even into the early 1980s, because they simply could not afford them. I’ve used the example recently of the revered names of the Northern Rhône in this context. Today, I would argue, there are still faulty natural wines (as indeed there are faulty conventionally-made wines), but wine faults due to poorly made natural wines have decreased dramatically.

I have not yet mentioned one of the major issues relating to sustainable viticulture, water. Like any crop and any animal, vines need water to survive and thrive. Of course, it’s not as simple as that. Too much rain can be as bad as too little, and a little too little can be a good thing (vines forced to seek water below the surface send down stronger and larger root systems). But wine requires a lot of water, both where irrigation is required and indeed in the winery. Water is used in vast quantities to cool vats during fermentation, and to clean winery equipment, wash bottles etc, in order to create a hygienic environment.

Of course, “natural” viticulture will usually receive no irrigation, not only because any rain will soak into healthy soils and will not run off, but equally because irrigation is one of many things which will not be allowed for people wishing to credibly describe their product as natural wine.

Another one of the main inputs most natural wine producers potentially need to address is electricity use, and I’m not suggesting all winemakers are doing so, but at least in most regions suitable for viticulture there are alternative ways of harvesting electricity (principally solar and wind, but hydro-electricity is also sustainable). I’d also argue that we have to look carefully at those claiming to be “sustainable” and who claim to be “carbon-zero”. Carbon offset schemes are currently under a great deal of scrutiny, in some cases calling into question that you can offset your emissions by planting trees on the other side of the world.

Sheep graze amongst the vines at Domaine Durrmann (Andlau, Alsace) where André and Yann have also planted trees in the vine rows to encourage birds, where most vignerons would love to erect nets

What needs to be done? As I have said, education is the key.

We need to get those people who are thinking about the environment and buying their more expensive organic veg and fruit to put that same degree of thought into purchasing wine. Yet the vast majority of consumers purchase wine as a commodity. Whether they would like to drink wine which is tastier, and potentially in some cases a little healthier (though connecting wine with health is clearly a no-go zone today), certainly wine which is more sustainable for the wider environment, they may not have the disposable income to do so. For many, wine is fuel, just like food, albeit fuel which can bring the pleasure, or the escape, of intoxication.

For the benefit of this segment of wine consumer, especially, we need perhaps to educate the producers of more industrial wine. Maybe the answer is for them to see the long-term effects of soil health that the systematic application of chemical treatments on the land is causing, to help them realise that what they are doing is not sustainable. It would also be good to get them on board with the idea that they can make their own contribution to our environmental crisis.

There may be some large-scale producers who have absolutely no intention of doing their bit, but it is good to remember that a well-known Bordeaux Château, or Southern Rhône estate, may be producing many hundreds of thousands of bottles, and any changes they could make would have a genuine impact for the good. And, of course, in those cases where there are shareholders to please, they will have a corporate social responsibility strategy, which may well connect with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (especially, but not exclusively, STG15, “Life on Land”).

In the UK there are an increasing number of retailers and importers who truly are taking these concerns seriously. This may not merely be in the wines they import. Companies like Littlewine try to ensure their shipping is carbon neutral (occasionally carbon negative) too. This is all admirable, but the proof of the pudding (that there is a market out there for these ideals) is in their success. It is incumbent on we who share those ideals to support such operations, as much as it is incumbent on them to keep pushing these ideas and beliefs out there, getting more and more consumers to think more about their purchasing habits.

Postscript Note: I hope that the more sceptical reader will have reached this far, though that might be optimistic. Occasionally I write a piece which is just intended to throw some ideas out there. To get people thinking a bit. I don’t claim expertise in all areas environmental, and I certainly do not claim to have all the answers. So, you may be able to pick holes in what I’ve written. That’s fine, I have no ego to damage. But I am convinced that as our “rulers” appear so inept at taking any meaningful measures to lessen the impending impacts of our climate catastrophe, despite all their COP26 bluster, it only remains for individuals to do what we can, following the mantra of successful sportsmen and women, that the sum of small, incremental, changes to our behaviours can still have a meaningful, even significant, result. Not everyone can take more direct action, or protest, but we are judged, ultimately, on how we live our lives. Thank you for listening.

I’ll leave with what may at first glance seem like a fairly random quotation I found in James Rebanks’s “English Pastoral” (Penguin, 2020). It comes from Wendell Berry’s The Unsettling of America (1977).

“A healthy farm culture can be based only upon familiarity and can grow only among a people soundly established upon the land; it nourishes and safeguards a human intelligence of the earth that no amount of technology can satisfactorily replace.”

Yet it is our rejection of a “healthy farm culture” in favour of agro-industry which is ultimately putting our food security at risk. Perhaps somewhat less important, but important nevertheless to we wine lovers, it is also putting at risk the idea of wine as a thing of value, part of our own enduring culture, rather than a mere commodity to be consumed and forgotten. Alongside our planet, surely that culture is also of value and ought to be preserved?

The rewilding of the Knepp Estate in Sussex is one of ecology’s great success stories. Only a week ago we saw five storks nesting around the farm, where livestock, ponies and deer roam free
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Adventures on the Wine Route (Kermit Lynch) – Still Relevant Today

It’s now over a year since I last left the UK, and almost eighteen months since I stood in a vineyard. The craving for wine travel, within the context of realising how very lucky I am, of course, grows every week and like many I have been finding ways to assuage that thirst. I don’t know if I’m unusual, but the initial hit of the Zoom event, spending time with a winemaker, often gazing on the vista of their vine clad slopes over their shoulder, ceased to give me that hit after a while. I think after a day staring at a screen it became almost exhausting to catch up with friends and family, and then to strain to see and hear a winemaker in a far-off place.

One way I’ve found to lose myself in wine without, that is, merely staring into the bottom of a glass, has been through wine books. You may have noticed the increase in the number of reviews I’ve written, a sure sign I’ve been reading more about wine and less about my other interests as the year has progressed. Reading Matt Walls’s book on the Rhône caused me to dip into Robin Yapp’s “Drilling for Wine” autobiography, which naturally led me to a classic of the wine travel genre, Adventures on the Wine Route by American importer Kermit Lynch.

Lynch first published Adventures in 1988, but it covers his travels from a young and inexperienced wine buyer to a man with a considerable palate over the later 1970s and into the 1980s. It overlaps quite a lot with the travels described by Yapp (also, by coincidence, published 1988) in that he spends quite a bit of time in the Loire, Rhône and Provence (the three Yapp specialisms back in the day). Lynch’s travels, however, range wider, into Bordeaux, the Languedoc, and northward through Beaujolais, Mâcon/Chalons, the Côte d’Or and Chablis.

Lynch and Yapp both built up a strong relationship with many of the same producers, none more so than Gérard Chave at Mauves. In fact, I have an idea that Gérard became the godfather to Robin Yapp’s son, although Kermit Lynch was eventually to have a falling out with Chave, or at least he alludes to that in the book. Nevertheless, facing the Title Page of Adventures on the Wine Route there is an old photograph which truly sets you up for the journey within its pages. We are deep within a musty barrel cellar underground. Lynch stands among three vignerons, who are named below. They are Raymond Trollat, Père Trollat, and Gérard Chave. Chave looks relatively youthful, and it’s possibly the youngest I’ve seen him in any photograph. One picture is a window on another age.

But here it gets interesting. This book is far from being merely a nostalgic saunter through a different age of viticulture and winemaking. It is true that life was tougher back then in terms of the income you could make and the hard work you had to put into your few hectares of vines. The importance of this book is that it reminds us that there is nothing new in wine. In a time before Parker Points, new oak, high alcohol and widespread synthetic chemical inputs, it is a reminder that most winemakers in France could not afford any of these things (except, perhaps, a truckload of sugar to chaptalize the alcohol a few degrees upward).

Lynch uses a word to describe wine in a way which might surprise modern readers. That word is “natural”. Yes, natural wine. What he describes may not have exactly the same meaning as when used by, for example, Isabelle Legeron MW, today, but the concept is the same. Wine without significant adulteration, certainly without fining and filtration (we shall come to sulphur in due course). This is what Kermit Lynch seeks out.

In many ways, in describing a time before the wholesale mechanisation of wine and its yielding to white coat scientists, he walks the same path of those nature writers who have done the same for our English countryside and farming, such as WH Hudson, Edward Thomas and James Rebanks. As we follow the narrative there is a lot to be learned for the attentive reader.

I came across Kermit Lynch again not that long ago on a Zoom chat and his wisdom is obvious. I read an article about him this week which made a striking observation about the quality of the French wine domaines he unearthed and brought back to North America. It went along the lines that if Lynch were a music A&R man, it was as if he had discovered The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Who and Pink Floyd all on his own. Because, of course, these now famous name producers he visits, and often befriends, were far from famous back then. Some were even unknown prophets in their own land.

That Zoom event helped me to draw into focus a deep affinity I share with Lynch. I followed in his footsteps a little later as I made my first travels around viticultural France, and the year after his book was published, I made my first extended viticultural tour of the country. Although I’d already visited the Loire, Provence, Bordeaux and Burgundy, it was the year of my first visit to the Rhône. The closest I got to Gérard Chave, at that time very definitely my favourite wine producer, was a sheepish glance at his roadside front door in Mauves, and a picnic above some of his vines on the Hermitage hill (though as I’ve mentioned before, I was blessed with a morning spent with Georges Vernay the following day). But I feel that I just caught the end of the era which Lynch describes, and that has stuck with me.

There is a sense among many wine drinkers who grew up in the Parker era that the old timers were lacking in knowledge. After all, they had rarely been blessed with the kind of wine education their children may have been given, whether at Bordeaux University or Dijon, or for those further afield, at Geisenheim, Roseworthy or Davis California. When the old timers looked at the rigid and controlled perfection of the results made by the students of these institutions, they said that the wines lacked soul. For their pains they were called anachronisms.

Some of their beliefs may be difficult to comprehend in terms of “science”, but they often hold the kernel of an idea which we should pursue. An early example in the book is where Lynch is talking with René Loyau, a Burgundian old timer even then, who recounts a visit to another grower in his cellars in Gevrey-Chambertin. Loyau comments that the wines from one vineyard always exhibited a strong scent of wild currants, which had disappeared from recent vintages. Loyau asks (merely intuitively) when the grower had torn out his wild currant bushes. Well, as it turns out it was actually his neighbour over the wall who had done so, coinciding with the loss of the scent in the wine.

Loyau postulates that the scent in the wine came from the pollen being transferred by the local bee population. Now it has been pointed out to me that vines are not pollenated by bees, but there is no reason to suspect that bees might not alight on the flowers of the neighbouring vines after having visited the wild currants, or perhaps that pollen had been carried by other insects or even on the wind. There are many cases of the transfer of scent from a local plant to wine, the classic example perhaps being eucalyptus in Australia. At least there the pungency of the oil from the eucalyptus leaves are a good candidate for transfer.

We tend to think of winemakers back then as being predominantly men, and that the rise of female winemakers is something new. Of course, back in the 70s and 80s there were plenty of women making wine. Often, however, it was a case of needs must rather than a free career choice, when their husband or father was injured (broken limbs from falling off ladders resting against vats being horribly common), or had tragically died prematurely with no “son” yet ready to take over. One such winemaker was Madame de Lacaussade, proprietor of Château de L’Hôspital in the Graves. Her story is perhaps a sad one, in that her children apparently had no interest at all in continuing the family tradition (nor indeed in country life itself).

Perhaps typically of a woman forced to be strong by circumstances, she always made a point of recommending other winemakers to Lynch, who always, without exception, turned out to be vigneronnes. She also, typically of her time, even for Bordeaux, had “a horror of certain modern vinification techniques like chemical fertilizers and asbestos filter plaques” and weedkillers.

I don’t follow this property today. It was bought by a couple called Batistella in 2012 and converted to organics. They professed a desire to restore the Château and vineyards to their “days of past glory”, though one English importer describes a recent vintage (2016) of the red as “almost New World style”. I remember when I was cutting my teeth on Bordeaux in the mid-1980s and Château L’Hôspital often came up in conversation, almost without fail, as a very traditional and extremely good value Graves, a wine which back then always had a large part of the blend made up from Cabernet Franc. I notice that the 2016 vintage is comprised 65% Merlot with almost all of the rest comprising Cabernet Sauvignon. Sic transit gloria mundi, at least in the eyes of those who favour the so-called lesser Cabernet off the gravels south of Bordeaux.

The subject of modern vinification practices comes up a lot in the book, and none more so than filtration. Lynch always tries to get his wines bottled without what he sees as a process which strips the life from the wine. The producers generally quibble on the grounds that like sulphur, filtration adds stability to the wine, adding that customers always complain about sediment. Lynch takes pains to cool-ship his wine, using refrigerated “reefers”. He must have been one of the very first to do this to North America. Today, every wine lover should pay attention to how and when their wine is shipped, filtration or not. Most merchants paid scant regard to such matters back then…and some still don’t today.

So, the book has plenty of examples of the comparison between filtered and unfiltered bottlings of the same wine. Lynch is always surprised that the winemakers don’t undertake this experiment of their own volition. Whether at Domaine Vieux-Télégraph with the Bruniers or at Domaine Tempier with the Peyraud family, everyone always agrees, to Kermit’s great satisfaction, that there is no contest. Unfiltered always wins hands down. There’s a moment later in the book where at Domaine Tempier an old bottle is brought out and, although filtered, has thrown just as much deposit over time as an unfiltered bottle. Why bother? Sediment in wine has to be one of the first things to educate consumers about.

Another thing that comes through in Adventures is how, price aside, it is relatively easier to get hold of examples of some of the appellations he visits today. Nevertheless, some of these are extremely small vineyards. Giving figures in his original edition in acres (not hectares), the author makes some comparisons. 300 acres of Hermitage compared to 7,900 at Châteauneuf-du-Pape, 130 at Cornas compared to 2,600 at Gigondas. He mentions that Vieux-Télégraph, which he imports, is itself as large as Cornas. However, he does go on to point a finger at a trend in the Northern Rhône which continues, if more slowly today than in the 1980s and 1990s, the planting of flat land either down near the river or up on the plateau above.

Saint-Joseph has been the most widely publicised victim of over-planting in this way. But Lynch is quite warm towards this often-maligned appellation. He’s always one for making a wine suit the occasion, and clearly the occasion does not often warrant opening a Chave Hermitage. He likens St-Jo to Zerlina in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, seductively distracting to the Don despite not matching the emotional dimension of Donna Elvira (personally I excuse any imagery which crops up which would surprise some younger readers…it was of a time and perhaps only rarely does the author become overtly sexist in this book).

But I do like his summing up on modern Northern Rhône, when he asks “Which deity handed down the law that serious, heavy wines are better than gay, playful wines? It certainly was not Bacchus. Was it America’s Puritan God, who refuses to accept that wine can be pure unadulterated fun?”

One wonders who the puritan god of wine was that he had in mind? Perhaps we can find a clue later in the same chapter when he talks about some modern Côte-Rôtie wines, drenched in oak (okay, going back to 1980s sexism, perhaps avoid the middle para on page 178 if you don’t want an analogy of big wines with female physique).

“I cannot begin to communicate how profoundly the critics’ embrace of such freak wines depresses me” is at least an assertion with which most of my readership will doubtless agree, perhaps especially in relation to Côte-Rôtie, which I know should be elegant and perfumed.

Kermit Lynch was perhaps the very first wine merchant to suss out what was new in the Beaujolais, and he did so by sussing out what in fact was old, via the group of winemakers which he dubbed the Gang of Four (which forever after has stuck). In his introduction to the Chapter on the Beaujolais he says that when a client is planning a wine trip to France, he always recommends they go to Alsace, or to this region.

Lynch’s love for Beaujolais began with a leading Parisian wine merchant, Jean-Baptiste Chaudet. Chaudet describes Beaujolais as a pale red, with a touch of greenness, rarely above 11% abv, and a wine without chaptalization (sugar added to raise the alcohol level). He contrasts Chaudet’s 1970s description with that from Robert Parker’s 1987 Wine Buyer’s Guide (soft, lush, silky, full, fleshy, rich, supple…all these adjectives are used to describe the wine a decade later). As Lynch says, “Mr Parker is correct. His adjectives perfectly describe today’s overchaptalized, overalcoholic, Beaujolais”.

Chaudet in his autobiography “Marchand de Vin” mentions a near namesake, Jules Chauvet, so Lynch seeks him out. He enters another world, tasting simple, wholly unadulterated wines, wine even without the addition of sulphur dioxide. I could go on at length about where this all leads the author, though it certainly leads him to Lapierre, Foillard et al. These guys crop up again in the more recently added epilogue to the 2013 “25th Anniversary Edition” I have been reading.

What everyone forgets in the story of Jules Chauvet is that he was a great scientist. Indeed, his background in biochemistry led him to work with a Nobel Prize-winning team. But he also remembered what old-style Beaujolais had tasted like, in the days before the Second World War. As a scientist he observed and recorded everything. It shows that he was far from being totally laissez-faire, as many natural wine makers are accused of being, and it was by constant observation that he came to be able to more or less guarantee that his zero added sulphur wines would remain stable, at least so long as they didn’t get too warm.

Chaudet wrote in his autobiography “The day the consumer demands a more natural product, the winemakers will be obliged to take up the methods of their ancestors”. I think what has happened is actually that many winemakers got fed up with soulless wines stripped of flavour, that flavour being replaced with alcohol and oak. So, they have created a sizeable, growing, market for natural wines and consumers are following.

One person whose wine I have never tasted is the late, great, Burgundian winemaker, Henri Jayer. But few truly enamoured with wine would not wish to bask in the romance of Jayer’s wines, even vicariously.  I think Lynch must have visited some time in the mid-1980s, when Jayer was in his sixties, during the episodes he relates in the book, but it is obvious they have known each other longer. Jayer was another supposedly “paysan” winemaker, yet as Lynch says, “he’s one of wine’s most lucid intellects”.

Farmers learn far more from long experience than most scientists will learn from five years at University and another four or five in research. I think Jayer hits the proverbial nail on the head when he says “fewer and fewer winemakers are willing to take the risks it requires to make wine in the traditional way” and as Lynch repeats, “he warns that enology is replacing the artistic side of winemaking”.

Is there a key difference in wine appreciation here? Do some of us look at wine as a crafted product which satisfies a need, whilst others look to wine to transcend that, to thrill, excite and transport us who knows where? Of course, wine is probably not art in the same sense as a Picasso painting, a poem by Byron, a novel by Stendhal or a Mozart opera. But it can have elements of art within it based on what its maker is setting out to achieve.

You don’t know what you don’t know, and younger drinkers are obviously unable to process a recollection of something they’ve never had the chance to drink. But what worries me is that I know some older drinkers of a conservative bent who have had plenty of opportunity to sample and to cellar wines from the old timers in some of these once less well known but now classic wine regions (take Cornas as an example). They worship at the feet of the old guys, but yet will not countenance any of the new “natural wine”. You cannot call Jayer anything but the master, just like Aubert de Villaine or perhaps Jean-François Coche. Yet his wisdom is perhaps ignored by his acolytes in the world of wine collecting, the mere name being enough.

I think that my understanding of wine has altered a great deal over the decades in which I have grown to love it in all its forms (well, so long as Macvin and Ratafia are more occasional, er, treats). Wine changed when scores became all important. Or when, as Lynch says, “American wine critics were sounding the intellectual shallows, passionately debating numerical ratings for wine”. He loathes points like I do and suggest that such ratings actually cloud our appreciation of wine. Spot on they do.

I hope the author doesn’t mind me pinching his two best quotations in the book, but I think they sum up my own feelings pretty damned well. Colette tells us “wine makes the true savour of the earth tangible to man” and I would add like no other food we know. But Nikos Kazantzakis, the creator of Zorba, takes it to another level. A level to which not all of us would admit to travelling, but I’m certainly in that place. “When you drank it, you felt as if you were in communion with the blood of the earth itself”. If you are reading this and you say you haven’t been there, then I suggest you were merely too drunk to remember.

My edition, the 25th Anniversary version, as I mentioned, comes with an epilogue which for me is an important addition to the book. It details the “where are they now” for some participants, a number of whom are sadly departed. Lynch also updates us in a few wider areas of interest. Foremost of these is probably “natural wine”. He is thrilled to have been proved wrong and that today there is more interest in unadulterated wine than he had dreamed possible. He doesn’t blow his own trumpet to remind us the part he played in that. Yet he does remind us why this is important, not just aesthetically but for health.

“In Europe today, fifty-nine additives are permitted [in wine], and in the United States a couple of dozen more”…not to mention those that are not permitted! Lynch makes no bones about why he believes additive free wine is healthier for us. He cites a letter from Marcel Lapierre outlining why he believed natural wine was better for us, and I often wonder why so many people think it’s all rubbish. It is truly amazing what people will readily believe, as we have discovered pretty much for the whole of the past five-or-six years, politically speaking. Wine additives are primarily sold for profit and as the wine business is huge, so are those potential profits.

As Kermit Lynch says, “…natural [wine] is alive. Death is stable. Living wines…present a risk and I’ve noticed that even those who demand a natural wine will be back with the bottle if the living wine goes haywire. It would be nice if the risks are shared”. I agree with this, even as a consumer. I have never returned such a wine. One takes a risk buying the bottle, as one may take a risk on a record one hasn’t heard, or on a new and unusual dish in a restaurant. We should try to accept that sometimes we will sense the meaning of life in our Zalto, and occasionally we will experience a volatile or oxidised mess.

As an advocate for living wines, Kermit Lynch was one of the first. His influence has been monumental in his native North America, and few wine obsessives anywhere will be unaware of his name. Life is always full of coincidences and yesterday I discovered that a New Zealand winemaker/estate owner of my acquaintance has been reading the very same book, and discovering what a wonderful read it is.

For some wine lovers it is the one classic wine travel book they will cite, and I can’t recommend it enough for both those like me who through its pages can travel back to their youth, and to younger wine lovers whose lives revolve around today’s natural wine movement. In the pages of this book, they will see the very roots of what, for health and excitement, they drink with such pleasure today. For all readers it offers a different perspective, from the time when the pendulum was swinging towards a certain type of “modern” wine, but perhaps that pendulum is now beginning to swing back.

Adventures on the Wine Route by Kermit Lynch is published in its 25th Anniversary Edition by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (FSG Books), this edn 2013 at $19. My copy came from Blackwells online and cost just £12.41 with free (if slow) postage. My only criticism of this paperback edition is that by the time I had read around half of the book some of the pages came loose on account of the glue in the binding. That said, the epilogue of just over thirty additional pages in this 2013 soft cover is, in my view, an essential addition which definitely enhances our appreciation.

For those interested in more wine travel, Drilling for Wine by Robin Yapp was published by Faber & Faber in 1988. It will probably be a second-hand copy if you want to read it, but available quite cheaply (Blackwells Online suggest there’s one for £0.77), although Yapp Brothers wine merchants in Mere, Wiltshire, might still have new copies.

Posted in Artisan Wines, Fine Wine, Natural Wine, Rhone, Viticulture, Wine, Wine Books, Wine Science, Wine Travel, Wine Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

The Petnat Phenomenon – A Gateway to a Different Path

Back in January I wrote about Grower Champagne and what a phenomenon that seems to have become, and I’ve been looking for an opportunity to write about what I see as a complimentary sparkling wine style ever since. There is no doubt at all that the pétnat phenomenon has grown dramatically over the past ten-to-twenty years, providing vinous adventurers with wines which perhaps may not fit within the standard hierarchy of classic quality perceptions, but which nevertheless provide real excitement, especially it seems for part of a younger wine drinking demographic.

With an increasing emphasis on stimulating labels and what is perceived as good value when compared to more traditional (method) bottle-fermented sparkling wines, pétnats have carved a niche, especially in wine bars and for outdoor drinking (picnics, barbecues). They have especially struck a chord with fans of natural wine because in order to enjoy them to the full, perhaps one needs to have a slightly different take on outmoded ideas about “wine quality”, and indeed what wine is and can be.

It would be useful to try to define what a “petnat” wine (or pétillant naturel, to give the genre its original French name) is, and we can begin by saying what it is not. Two or three decades ago there were perhaps two main ways of making quality (sic) sparkling wine, with some variations. We have the method used in Champagne, whereby (very broadly speaking) the fermented wine goes into bottle to undergo a second fermentation, started by a liqueur sugar solution, whilst resting on its lees sediment. This sediment is removed (disgorgement) usually after an extended period of ageing, before the bottle is sold. This, with the autolysis created by longer ageing on lees, was always seen as the way to produce fine sparkling wine, with the complexities of that interaction between wine and yeast cells over a number of years in a cool chalk cellar.

The cheaper method was to undertake the process in a tank, most commonly stainless steel. Fermentation is usually much faster here and it is ideally suited to base wines which perhaps have less capacity to age or where complexity is not sought. In France this is called the charmat or cuvé close method. But perhaps the most famous wine mostly made in this way is Prosecco.

Those two methods of making quality sparkling wine (ie other than by merely injecting carbon dioxide into a still wine) are kind of at the two extremes. I’d add …of perceived quality, but of course there are many very good Proseccos made by the Charmat method. They have their own style. Our modern day petnat occupies a kind of middle ground. Most of the pétillant naturel wines we enjoy today are made by a method known as the méthode ancestrale (sometimes called méthode rurale).

With the ancestral method, the second fermentation takes place in bottle, just like Champagne and the wines described in France as Crémant (d’Alsace, du Jura, de Bourgogne etc). The major difference is that with the Ancestral method the wine is not usually disgorged of its sediment, which remains in bottle when sold. Many consumers may be frightened of the sediment and stand the bottle up when chilling so that it remains safely in the bottom of the punt. However, most producers suggest we embrace the sediment, which adds texture and flavour in the glass. The dead yeast cells are totally harmless. Another major difference is that petnats are usually sold in the year following the vintage, so do not undergo long ageing on their lees. There are exceptions.

Thirty years ago, wines made by this method were relatively rare, and those found by the average consumer would mostly be French. The most commonly seen wine (even in some supermarkets) was Blanquette de Limoux, from Southwest France. Adventurous drinkers might have come across wines of a similar style from Bugey, on the edge of the Alpine regions of France. Both were generally off-dry or sweet, with the second fermentation creating bubbles but not converting all the sugar to alcohol. Bugey, by way of its Bugey-Cerdon sparklers, can be extremely good these days, and is very much under the radar. Some wine lovers would have tasted an Italian wine made by a similar method, what writers often called “real Lambrusco” (as opposed to the sweet, industrial, version popular in the 1970s and 80s), sold by a very small selection of specialists here in the UK.

The Ancestral Method can be tricky to get right, and I know of a few producers in the early days, shall we say in the 1990s, who got it wrong, either bottling too early and failing to get bubbles, or doing so late and getting too much CO2, leading to bottles exploding in some cases. The key difference today is that most of the petnats you find are intended to be more or less dry, an added complication to the process requiring more skill and judgement on the part of the winemaker. Equally, some winemakers lightly filter their petnats to reduce sediment, usually at bottling (a few disgorge).

The result is a wine which will most often be a little less sparkling than Champagne, but yet should have a fine bead of bubbles and a good mousse. It will almost always have spent less time on lees than Champagne and other Méthode Traditionelle sparkling wines, and so will lack the complexity brought about by long ageing on the yeast cells, yet it should offer vibrant fruit when young, and aged bottles can be increasingly interesting in their own right.

One big difference to Champagne we might cite is consistency. Petnats will not taste the same from year to year, and are rarely intended to. Some in fact do not contain the same grapes (one of the wines recommended below is a different colour in the current vintage). One major difference may lie in the pressure/bubbles. This is in part due to the imprecise nature of the Ancestral process, but I’m also aware of how the application of the usual closure, a crown cap for petnats, by hand, can lead to loss of pressure. That said, if the wine lacks some of its fizz, that doesn’t usually spoil the experience too much.

The style has been taken to heart by the natural wine world. It fits in so well with the whole ethos, not just of winemaking, but the philosophy of fun which the whole movement promotes.

The first producers to really market the petnat style were in the Loire, one of the early hotbeds of natural wine more generally. It was certainly these wines which I came across first. An early favourite, still brought in by Les Caves de Pyrene is Domaine Mosse’s “Moussamousettes”, a blend of Grolleau Gris, Gamay and sometimes a little Cabernet Franc, so pink in colour, cloudy (if you shake it) and very frothy. For a white petnat, Catherine and Pierre Breton were always a good bet.

Another region where petnats began to crop up in abundance was the Jura, also a hotbed of natural wine experimentation. Alice Bouvot’s Domaine L‘Octavin began making “Foutre d’Escampette” from Chardonnay, although L’Octavin’s most commonly found petnats now are probably the ”Betty Bulles” cuvées. Along with Alice Bouvot’s bubbles, I also got to enjoy a few good bottles from Patrice Béguet, the Ploussard-based “Plouss Mousse”.

Austria was another early adopter of the style, again riding on the back of the natural wine movement and the industry’s transformation by a raft of “new generation” winemakers taking over from their parents. Some of the most exciting petnat wines are coming out of Austria, and nearby countries, Czech Moravia being a case in point. Germany is now also getting in on the act.

Further afield the world is your oyster, but I would recommend being as adventurous as possible. One place where experimentation combines Ancient Method sparkling wine with hybrid grape varieties is in the North American State of Vermont. I will list one below, because it’s a wine I can source here in the UK, but it looks like there’s a lot going on more generally around Lake Champlain.

So, as promised, here’s a selection of petnat wines to try. In limiting the list I’m missing out an awful lot of truly stimulating wines, and I had to cull 50% of my original selection just to keep things sensible. I do drink quite a lot of this style of bubbles, and my revised plan to include just a dozen examples here has stretched slightly. Never let it be said I sell you short.  I have tried to offer a spread of regions, but Burgenland and Jura still get two entries each, both cut down from four.

The key to the style is that the wines are fun, and hopefully relatively good value (cheaper than Champagne, though obviously expensive when put alongside cheaper supermarket fizz made by less labour-intensive, less artisan, methods). It just depends how discerning and adventurous you want to be, and of course, how much money you have to spend.

JURA

Domaine L’Octavin, Betty Bulles (Arbois)

Alice Bouvot’s gnome labels can be spotted before you even enter the shop, so distinctive are they. The grape blend is unusual. Being one of Alice’s négoce wines, Gamay is sourced in the Ardèche and Muscat near Perpignan, in Roussillon. Light, fresh and very frothy. Alice effectively manages the vineyard, and like all the wines here, there are no additives (except minimal sulphur in some cases, but not here). There is also a white version.

Domaine des Bodines, Red Bulles (Arbois)

Alexis and Emilie Porteret’s provocatively, but accurately, titled wine is made from Poulsard grapes from their vines around Arbois. I described its bouquet as a “riot of raspberry, pomegranate and cranberry”, which it is. Very fruity with an attractive edge. This is a small, very hard-working, family domaine whose wines, over the whole range, are very accomplished, and which is only now beginning to garner the attention it deserves.

AUVERGNE

Jean Maupertuis, Pink Bulles (Saint-Georges-sur-Allier)

Jean’s “Pink Bulles” is made from old vine Gamay d’Auvergne. Blended with a little Pinot Noir, it has a pale orange tinge. Cherry fruit is joined by strawberries, especially on the bouquet. Its refreshment value is enhanced by a spine of firm acidity and a little texture. I look out for this wine every summer. It’s always popular when opened on a hot summer’s day.

BUGEY

Domaine Philippe Balivet, Bugey-Cerdon (Mérignat)

The Balivet family makes Bugey-Cerdon in both colours and I like both equally, but for summer fun let us go with the pink (though I have white for this summer). Gamay with a smidge of Poulsard, this wine has a good degree of sweetness and low alcohol. It’s a traditional style of méthode ancestrale where not all of the sugar is converted. It is also sealed with a mushroom cork, less common for petnats these days but of course traditional in Bugey.

AUSTRIA

Rennersistas, In a Hell Mood (Gols, Burgenland)

This is one of my favourites, but I’d also say that some might consider it potentially the most edgy, or feral. You can’t be sure every vintage will be the same blend, but my last bottle was 75% Chardonnay and 25% Pinot Noir. The overriding quality is freshness, but it can also have a texture some have described as earthiness. I’d say it’s a wine with guts, rather like its makers.

Alexander & Maria Koppitsch, Pretty Nats (Neusiedl-am-See, Burgenland)

It may be quite difficult to source this wine, made by a truly lovely family based just a few kilometres west of the Rennersistas, on the north shore of the Neusiedlersee. It usually appears in small quantities and then disappears almost immediately, due to its very small distribution in the UK. Half Pinot Noir and half St Laurent, fermented in fibreglass, bottled in spring. Simple, but one of the most fun wines in this selection.

GERMANY

Jan Matthias Klein/Staffelter Hof, Papa Panda’s Rising (Kröv, Mosel)

Jan has a range of wines made as a collaboration with other growers which he calls “Pandamonium” (sic). A local grower from Poland grew the Riesling for Papa Panda’s 2019 cuvée on Kröv’s steep slate. Fermented initially in two Füder (Jan and the grower made one each) and then bottled together with no added SO2. If you don’t like fine Riesling Sekt then this would clearly be a couple of steps too far. For those of us who do, this is a fun diversion down wine’s learning curve.

CZECHIA

Petr Koráb, The Milkman [2019] (Boleradice, Moravia)

Koráb is perhaps establishing himself as the best producer of the petnat style in Moravia, and frankly any of his petnats are recommended (I’ve drunk a few). My favourite so far has been this one, which featured only last week in my Recent Wines from March 2021. The blend is Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc from old vines picked early. Maturation is in robinia (false acacia) barrels and the colour is an enticing pale orange. You get red fruits, citrus peel, and even a hint of curry powder. Although it is dry and crisp, there’s also a creaminess, from where it gets its name. But note that the 2020 version is apparently made from Pinot Blanc and Neuburské (Neuburger).

HUNGARY

Annamária Réka Koncz, Pretty Cold (Barabás, Eastern Hungary)

This wine probably has the most unusual grape blend as it’s based on the autochthonous Királyléanyka variety. It is rammed with fine bubbles and has quite an ethereal nose hinting of red and citrus fruits. The palate contrasts with texture and minerality, with a firm backbone. Production is quite low and it is presently sold out, but I presume we shall see some here via Basket Press Wines when their next shipment arrives from Hungary, perhaps in a few months.

ENGLAND & WALES

Tillingham Wines, PN** (Rye, East Sussex)

As the vines at Tillingham became established Ben Walgate bought in organic fruit and started to experiment like mad. He was not the first to make petnat on our islands, but he has been prolific, and I could easily have selected other cuvées here, especially “Col”. But I’ve gone for “PN” because it was the first one I tried. It’s slightly different every vintage but the first, PN17, was just so exciting. Pinot Noir was the main grape variety and it was packed with red fruits, pretty simple but delicious, which is just what you are looking for. PN20 blends seven different varieties for a gently sparkling strawberry and peach fruit bomb.

Ancre Hill Estate, Triomphe (Monmouth, Wales)

This highly regarded biodynamic estate on the Welsh Borders made its name through traditional bottle-fermented wines, but this is something different. One reason is that it is unmistakably a red wine. Secondly, it is made from the hybrid variety, Triomphe (aka Triomph D’Alsace). It is a non-vintage wine in that new juice is blended with the previous year’s wine and fermented to a low pressure of 2-to-3 bar (gently fizzy). It’s frothy, dark-fruited and just 10% abv. Very different, great fun.

NORTH AMERICA

La Garagista, Grace & Favour (Lake Champain, Vermont)

The grape variety is the hybrid (La) Crescent, descended it is claimed from the Great Vine (Muscat d’Ambourg) at Hampton Court, outside London. I like this for its savoury depth, a little weight and, dare I say it (for a hybrid), a little complexity. I just think it’s one of the most interesting sparkling wines you’ll find. I’m almost tempted to call it “profound”, but then you’d think I’m silly.

AUSTRALIA

Tim Wildman Wines, Heavy Petting (Riverland, South Australia)

There are plenty of petnats  in Australia now, and equally some very interesting wines being made in the same way as Col Fondo Prosecco, using the same Glera grape variety (check them out). But I have decided to select one of a series of wines made by English MW Tim Wildman, mainly because they are completely crazy…in a good way. Heavy Petting blends Nero d’Avola and Zibibbo from the vast Riverland Region. Zero dosage, zero added sulphur, ruby red and full of sediment. I think Tim changes his source but Tim’s label will always guarantee excitement and adventure.

NEW ZEALAND

The Hermit Ram, Ancestral Müller Thurgau (North Canterbury, South Island)

Theo Coles is always experimenting, but few people in NZ still use what was the country’s first mainstay variety before the savalanche occurred. Whole clusters go into open top fermenters and then settle in tank. On bottling, some frozen unfermented juice is added to promote the second fermentation, but then nothing more is added, nor taken out. The wine generally has a kind of raw edge to it, like most of Theo’s wines. Millions will disagree, but I think he’s making the best wines in New Zealand right now. Plenty, however, will agree that they are the most interesting. What a coincidence, another bottle of this arrived today. Party Time!

Posted in Artisan Wines, Natural Wine, Petnat, Sparkling Wine, Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Recent Wines March 2021 (Part 2) #theglouthatbindsus

For Part 2 of March’s most interesting wines (I used to say “drunk at home”, but let’s face it, where else am I going to be drinking wine at the moment?) we start off with a little-known (in the UK, but soon to change, I think) Australian estate which I’m particularly fond of, then a rather lovely Bourgogne Aligoté, a petnat from very possibly Czechia’s finest proponent of the style and a very interesting Jura red blend from one of my first loves in Arbois. The final bottles from this roundup feature an Alsace blend from Bennwihr, a stunning new “Florpower” from Equipo Navazos, another natural wine discovery from Bordeaux and, to finish, a brilliant South African Cabernet Franc which amazingly tastes great now but will definitely age very well indeed.

“FRNC” CLOS ANTONIO LAMENTO CABERNET FRANC 2018, BRASH HIGGINS (McLaren Vale, South Australia)

Brash Higgins is the label of Chicago native Brad Hickey, based in McLaren Vale. This Cabernet Franc comes from vines planted in 2001 at Malpas Road in the Vale. Brad makes all his wines with minimal intervention and many are made in innovative ways (for Australia). Some readers will have read my previous reviews of his amphora wines, and his Chardonnay nod to Vin Jaune, Bloom. Here, we have a more conventional approach, but a very Australian take on a classic French grape variety.

We get an extended period of skin contact, around five weeks in open-topped vats, the fruit plunged once a day. Fermentation is, of course, using wild yeasts. Next, the wine goes into French oak hogsheads for eight months, and thereafter is bottled under a Stelvin closure. The result is a deep ruby red colour smelling of both red and dark fruits, hints of violet and a faint smoky note rising above the bouquet as if in whisps. As it opens up it becomes even more nicely aromatic. The palate has a lot going on too, ranging from plump mulberry fruit, with raspberry acidity and a little black pepper adding spice.

The silky-smooth fruit has a medium body and it tastes less weighty than the 13.9% abv on the label suggests, although there’s a little more beef than many Loire versions of the variety. There’s a nice bit of grip on the finish and it would age if you wish to…but the fruit is so good now. Well balanced, delicious, definitely one of my favourite half-dozen wines from Brad (although my list of favourites grows each vintage). There was no FRNC in 2019 so the current vintage is 2020.

The new importer for Brash Higgins is Berkmann Wine Cellars. The wines have a reasonable distribution now, and this bottle came via The Solent Cellar.

BOURGOGNE ALIGOTÉ “L’ALIGATOR” 2018, DOMAINE DES ROUGES QUEUES (Burgundy, France)

This wine is another perfect example where subtlety could so easily get lost on the tasting bench, but where if you have time to sip and savour, then a totally different experience awaits. Isabelle and Jean-Yves Vantey have put together a small domaine at Sampigny-lès-Maranges. We are right at the foot of the Côte de Beaune here, so remote in feel from the famous vineyards fifteen minutes away to the north. I’ve only been down here once. It’s the kind of place you visit if you have more than the standard few days in Burgundy, but this is an attractive corner making increasingly interesting wines, especially from the old and once neglected vines down here.

The Vanteys make this old vine Aligoté from a tiny 0.15 hectare plot planted in 1972 (though the domaine was founded in 1998). It manages to produce on average just 1,300 bottles. Aged on lees in tank, it’s a marvellous wine. It starts out deceptively simple (simple is not a negative here). In the glass you can sense it evolving. Sometimes you think you are drinking a softer version of the Aligoté of old, but next sip you are drinking a relatively fat-free Jura Chardonnay off marnes bleues. When we talk about a soulful wine, I know some people will just switch off. But sometimes a wine affects more than the palate. It makes you both think and feel. A wine definitely best drunk whilst relaxing, not rushing. Mineral flavours, wholly “natural” (free of chemical inputs) except for a little sulphur if necessary. It’s the epitome of an honest wine.

This came from Littlewine. Christina Rasmussen chose it as the wine which most made her sit up during 2020 in an article published here before Christmas. £29, and I can’t believe they still appear to have a little left. I have also discovered that Isabelle Vantey takes beautiful photographs, which she posts to Instagram as @isabellevantey. Worth checking out as well as the wine.

THE MILKMAN PETNAT [2019], PETR KORÁB (Moravia, Czechia)

Petr Koráb has a mixed farm at Boleradice in the heart of Moravia’s vineyards in the Velkopavlovická sub-region. He specialises in autochthonous varieties and Moravian clones, keeping alive the region’s old vines. Like many of the region’s finest producers, he follows the charter of the Authentiste group of winemakers, of which he is a member. But take a look at his portfolio and you will see that he’s far from old fashioned. In fact, Koráb is becoming something of a petnat specialist, and whilst his whole range is top-notch, his ancestral method sparkling wines are very exciting.

The Milkman is a blend of Pinot Noir and Pinot Blanc from 30-year-old vines, picked in early September 2019. Initial maturation is in robinia (aka false acacia) barrels, before transfer to bottle. The 2019 version is a pale orange colour smelling of delicate red fruits, a twist of citrus and curry powder. But the palate has a creaminess which, having been consistently picked up by tasters, led to the name. The result is both dry and crisp, but with an underlying creamy softness to balance the mineral texture. There’s a certain tension between the two, but they don’t pull apart, if that makes sense. It gives the wine a multi-dimensional feel to it.

Note that the current 2020 vintage is a white petnat made from a blend of Pinot Blanc and Neuburger (Neuburské in local dialect). It’s a different wine. Doubtless as good, but I’ve yet to try it. Petr Koráb is, of course, brought to us by specialist importer Basket Press Wines.

“CUL DE BREY” 2015, DOMAINE DE LA TOURNELLE (Jura, France)

Domaine de la Tournelle is run by Pascal and Evelyne Clairet, with a tasting room and now famous little bistrot beside the River Cuissance in the centre of Arbois (5 Petite Place), though the winery is elsewhere. Pascal started out making wine in 1991, and it became a full-time occupation in 1995. He soon became fully biodynamic and has always followed a low intervention, low (and occasionally zero) sulphur, winemaking methodology. Pascal and Evelyne work together, both having wine science qualifications and experience, Pascal for the regional wine body and Evelyne as a vineyard technician in the Rhône Valley. They own and farm around ten hectares of vines now, both in the vineyards around Arbois itself and out in the villages close to the town.

They have created a pretty unique cuvée in “Cul de Brey”, blending equal parts of Trousseau, the rare autochthonous Petit Béclan and Syrah. The grapes see a light press and a long maceration (up to thirty days) with foot treading twice a day. Then the wine goes into used oak barrels to age, being bottled with no added sulphur. I think I bought this in 2019.

The aromas of red fruits are almost profound, a truly lovely scent as you first approach the glass. Cherry is dominant on the palate, fresh and clean acids melding with the soft, ripe, fruit, and beneath there’s just a little texture in a wine which I’d say is still fruity but drinking beautifully now.

Domaine de la Tournelle is imported by Dynamic Vines, and their wines are also available in the upstairs shop at Antidote Wine Bar in Central London (12A Newburgh Street). Of course, I would strongly recommend a visit to the Bistrot de la Tournelle in Arbois, when it is open during the summer months, and a visit to the tasting room next door, afterwards.

“UN INSTANT SUR TERRE” 2017, VIGNOBLE DU RÊVEUR (Alsace, France)

Mathieu Deiss and Emmanuelle Milan farm seven hectares biodynamically at Bennwihr, vines left to Mathieu by his maternal grandfather and uncle. They do so separately to Mathieu’s family operation, for whom he also works alongside his father, Domaine Marcel Deiss. Vignoble du Rêveur is purely an opportunity for this very talented winemaker to do his own thing, presumably before the full responsibility of one of the region’s famous name estates begins to take most of his time.

Doing his own thing in the case of this particular cuvée means exploring skin contact. It’s a method of winemaking which has become increasingly fashionable, I suppose, in Alsace, but for which a number of varieties, especially Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, are particularly well suited. “Un Instant…” blends both those varieties with 10% Riesling.

Skin maceration lasts for eight months in amphorae of various types before final ageing of three months in clay amphorae. The Riesling and Gewurztraminer is all fermented as whole clusters, the Pinot Gris being partially destemmed. It’s made fully naturally, including with zero sulphur addition.

The colour of this 2017 looks deep amber, but on pouring into the glass it reveals a hint of pink from the skins. First the bouquet gives out scents of both peach and grapefruit, and then candied orange (for those who know, I’m talking of the wonderful candied orange you can buy in Fortnum & Mason at great expense rather than those confected, sweet, boxes of candied fruit made by Rowntrees in the 1970s, standard issue in my childhood home at Christmas).

The palate is certainly complex. The fruit is quite rich, enhanced by 14.5% alcohol, no doubt. It doesn’t taste boozy though. In fact, the complexity comes through a degree of salinity and skin contact textures which allow the tongue to grip onto the ample fruit. There’s a certain weight to it but the wine avoids being ponderous, perhaps through excellent judgements made in the wine making. Because it does seem well-judged for a fairly big wine. I drink this cuvée usually once every year and it always impresses.

The importer is Swig Wines and I purchased this through my regular, if occasional, source for Mathieu Deiss wines, Butlers Wine Cellar (Brighton).

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

We are getting close to the landmark 100th edition of the Equipo Navazos series. In fact, I own a few of La Bota de Manznilla Pasada 100, but sufficiently few that they will be saved for special occasions. However, the latest in the Florpower series is, I can tell you, a real cracker.

Bottled without fortification and without having been aged under flor, this is a pure Palomino Fino table wine, and I mean pure in both senses. The grapes came off old vines in the La Baja section of the Pago Miraflores at Sanlúcar. 2019 was an exceptional vintage here. The wine was aged only in stainless steel, for twelve months, before bottling under a Stelvin closure, and the result is clean and fresh juice with just a little texture on a filigree spine. It will evolve in bottle, for sure, and I won’t argue with the suggestion that it will improve. Yet right now, it’s just SO good that I don’t regret opening a bottle in the slightest.

It’s hard to better what the Equipo Navazos folks say about this lovely wine: “The exceptional 2019 vintage provides a magnificent opportunity to show wine lovers the raw essence of “florpower”, a pure expression of a vineyard, a grape and a climate. Of a terroir, to express it in one word”.

Imported into the UK by Alliance Wine with reasonably wide availability, whilst it lasts.

CLOSERIE DES MOUSSIS 2016, HAUT-MÉDOC (Bordeaux, France)

Laurence Alias and Pascale Choime are pretty much the epitome of the true garage winemakers. They were the lucky successors to a lease on an exceptional small plot of vines on the Sénéjac gravels, passed on by Michel ands Stéphanie Theron because, apparently, they wanted the vines to be farmed with a similar hands-off philosophy.

The ladies do all the work themselves, having managed to grow their holdings just a little to around two hectares, with help from their Breton draft horse, Jumpa. The wines are made along natural wine lines, just using a little added sulphur as the only manipulation.

The Haut-Médoc here is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon with Cabernet Franc and Merlot. It’s a beautiful wine from vine to glass. Extraction is gentle and the wine undergoes just occasional pigéage before ageing in 400-to-600-litre casks (90% are old casks and 10% new oak). This is truly gluggable Bordeaux, very fruity, packed with blackcurrant flavours. In one respect it seems quite classical, but at the same time you don’t often experience such brightness and vivacity in Red Bordeaux.

I first tasted this domaine at the seminal “Bordeaux – The Risk Takers” Tasting hosted by Vine Trail in 2019, where I also tasted their Merlot-dominated special cuvée, “Baragane”, made from 150-y-o pre-phylloxera vines (pretty stunning but doubtless more expensive). Vine Trail naturally imports them, but Littlewine lists this Haut-Médoc cuvée (£30), and that’s where this bottle came from.

 “BRETON” 2018, LUKAS VAN LOGGERENBERG (Stellenbosch, South Africa)

Lukas has been making wine since 2015, but has worked for a few of South Africa’s famous names, which has stood him in good stead when breaking out on his own. He’s definitely been singled out as one of the rising stars of South African wine. A graduate of Elsenburg College, his stints working for others have even included one in North America’s Finger Lakes. He’s now working out of the Devon Valley in Swartland (at least he was when I bought this), but “Breton”, a Loire synonym for Cabernet Franc, comes off the Polkadraai Hills in Stellenbosch.

Although I’d say the style here is more Loire than Bordeaux, there is a very South African angle, through the really concentrated and bright fruit. Breton sees ten months in used French oak and although that fruit fills the mouth, it is at the same time restrained and elegant. It’s a focussed wine and it will certainly age superbly. In this respect, I probably opened it too soon, but it had no hardness to it. Just black fruits joined by a little touch of herbs on the palate, and a little texture and grip. It’s got a nice long finish.

Sometimes you find even with great expectations, a wine still over delivers and Breton is a case in point. The importer is Dreyfus Ashby and the good news is that this vintage still has a pretty good distribution. You should still find the 2018 at Butlers Wine Cellar Brighton and The Sampler in London. The Solent Cellar (source of my bottle) and Handford Wines, among others, have moved on to the 2019 vintage. Last April I drank Lukas’s “Break a Leg” Rosé, made from Cinsaut (sic). That is also highly recommended. If you can, grab a couple of bottles of the Breton and age one. I’m pretty sure it will be worth it. Around £35.

Posted in Artisan Wines, Natural Wine, Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Recent Wines March 2021 (Part 1) #theglouthatbindsus

I’m writing this as Easter approaches for us in our part of the world, and a quarter of the year has almost gone…and where? Of all the deprivations of this Lockdown situation, being unable to travel to see family, both at home and overseas, is certainly hardest, though I’m not going to lie, having spent so much of my life travelling, I can’t help feeling something is really lacking more generally. It’s going to be a long old slog until May (when I hope we can see my parents), and longer still for our offspring overseas. But compensations are there. Walks in nature are more frequent, less driving, my son opening my eyes to new music, and books. I’ve read more books this last year than at any time since I was a teenager/student.

But I guess above all there’s wine. There is undoubtedly more time to focus on what’s in the glass every evening, and more time to “feel” the wine and what it has to say. Enjoying natural wine definitely changes the way you approach what’s in the glass, and I think that these lockdowns have been an aid to better appreciating every single bottle. The hastily grabbed glass is not just a rarity, but non-existent right now. That has to be a blessing, albeit one tinged with a realisation that very few people have a cellar containing several hundred bottles from which to choose. But the power of wine to lift the spirits seems obvious to me. I’ve been sending half-cases every month to my parents and brother, and I don’t think anything has cheered them up as much as that little luxury.

So, here’s to drinking delicious wines. For Part 1 of March, we have a rare diversion into Deutschschweiz, another marvel from Eastern Hungary, a Welsh sparkler, a truly magical Viennese blend, an equally wonderful Mencia from Bierzo, a classic Côte-Rôtie from the depths of the cellar, another biodynamic classic from a unique Alsace Grand Cru, and finally, a Crémant du Jura which should not remain under the radar any longer.

FEDERWEISS 2018, BECHTEL WEINE (Eglisau, Switzerland)

It’s extremely difficult for Brits to get hold of wines from the German-speaking Cantons of Switzerland. Although the whole of this part of the country is usually lumped together as “Deutschschweiz”, there is real a diversity of terroirs in the nineteen cantons which produce a little less than 20% of all Swiss wine (from two-thirds of Switzerland by area). Of these, Eglisau is one of the smallest. It has just 15 hectares of vines to the north of Zürich and the Rhine. It already has one well known producer, Urs Pircher (soon planning to retire), but although Mathias Bechtel, mentored by Pircher in his early days, is thus far almost unknown outside of Switzerland, within his homeland he’s already acknowledged as one of the country’s rising stars.

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).

Whilst Eglisau is definitely Pinot country, Mathias is not wedded to one style. He’s reinvigorating the once-maligned Räuschling, making a fine though atypical version and here, he’s showcasing a traditional wine style usually considered a peasant wine in the past. Federweiss is also most often found as a blanc de noirs, a white wine made from red grapes. Here, Bechtel creates a light rosé from his Pinot Noir, orange-tinged, almost salmon pink. It isn’t complex but it certainly isn’t frivolous. Mineral and fruity, it’s a refreshing juice but you can’t escape its personality and soul…if you give it time and focus. Definitely a good lockdown wine.

Mathias Bechtel has been brought into Britain through what I can only call the altruism of Joelle Nebbe-Mornod at Alpine Wines. She’s not going to sell a lot of Eglisau, but then there’s almost nothing to go around. I feel a mix of privilege to have been able to get some but also some degree of regret I didn’t buy more. They are naturally not cheap (this was £36). Explorers can’t take cheap flights.

“A CHANGE OF HEART” 2019, ANNAMÁRIA RÉKA-KONCZ (Barabás, Hungary)

Some readers may be a little bit bored with my frequent inclusion of Annamária’s wines, but you will only read about either wines I’ve not previously written about, or new vintages. Don’t worry though, I’m now down to my last bottle and will have to wait until later in 2021 to re-stock. I certainly will.

At least the frequency of this producer’s wines appearing here mitigates the need for me to fill in the background. If you don’t already know of these wines, then you can look her up in my Review of 2020, where she was highlighted as one of my discoveries of the year (alongside Veronica Ortega, one of whose wines appears later in this article).

A Change of Heart is her red wine, made from Kékfrankos (aka Blaufränkisch), of which only 1,633 bottles were made in 2019. We take a deep sniff and out of the glass flows the scent of violets. Quite calming, actually. The juice is full of concentrated red fruits with that zippy fruit acidity which makes this lady’s wines taste so alive. There’s a certain tension here that I love, and it manifests itself as a light tingling on the tongue. This 2019 is, for me, even better than the previous vintage (despite 2019 yielding a little more than double the number of bottles made in 2018, the vintage which I reviewed last October).

Suffice to say I’m still in love with these wines, and I’m also convinced Annamária’s wines are getting even better. Imported by Basket Press Wines.

SPARKLING ROSÉ BRUT 2013, ANCRE HILL (Monmouthshire, Wales)

Ancre Hill is now well established as one of the premier biodynamic producers in the British Isles. How…in Wales, people ask? Everyone imagines Wales is wet, but tucked into the southwest of the country outside Monmouth, fairly close to the English border and the Wye Valley, this is a little microclimate well suited to viticulture.

Ancre Hill’s twelve hectares were planted in 2006. Their portfolio is quite eclectic. They make a skin contact amber wine from albariño, called “Orange”, with one of the most inspired labels in English and Welsh wine. They also make a deliciously glouglou red sparkler from Triomphe d’Alsace. But they made their reputation with traditional bottle-fermented sparkling wines.

This Rosé is made from 100% Pinot Noir fermented in a mix of stainless steel and concrete eggs. It was disgorged in July 2019 after several years on lees. The colour is a pale salmon pink with a bouquet of creamy strawberry fruit, with the focus of crisp acidity grounding it on the palate. Place this alongside the natural wines made by the Growers in Champagne and I think you’ll agree this is a worthy companion. Very attractive. Let it warm and give it air to best appreciate it.

Ancre Hill’s agency is with Les Caves de Pyrene. This wine came as part of a selection of Ancre Hill bottles from Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton.

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

This particular field blend comprises ten different varieties from eight rows of 45-year-old vines on well-drained gravels, from the Mukenthal vineyard at Grinzing (at the foot of the Nussberg on the edge of Vienna). It’s an eastern slope which is relatively cool, but which soaks up late afternoon sun.

Farmed and fermented according to strong natural wine principles, the thread which runs through all Jutta’s wines, in my opinion, is that they have real soul. Superficially, they are fun, lively, refreshing. But sip on this 2016 and there’s a lot more. But it’s subtle. That becomes apparent if you let your nose linger over a bouquet which, for a white wine, shows red forest fruits with white peach. And is that a hint of very fine Riesling which penetrates after a few seconds? Don’t be afraid of the age and vintage.

The palate is textured, a little mineral, but even more waxy. The mouthfeel is unique, and at the same time really holds your attention as the fruit of the bouquet at first battles the more savoury palate, before the two become integrated as a whole and the wine resolves. It doesn’t take long, but if you pay attention you can feel that journey from two parts into one taking place in your mouth. It says auf wiedersehen with that dry waxy texture underneath honey and quince.

Often available from both Newcomer Wines and Littlewine, still currently listed at the latter as I was looking today.

“QUITE” 2018, MENCIA VALTUILLE, VERONICA ORTEGA (Bierzo, Spain)

Veronica Ortega is based in Bierzo, with a number of her ever-increasing portfolio of wines coming from Valtuille de Abajo in the municipality of the town of Villafranca del Bierzo (Léon Province). I stayed in the rather modern Parador here in 1988, before the wines of Bierzo were really well known (in fact the wines I drank back then were labelled “El Bierzo”, as those of Priorat were called “Priorato”). This is only significant because Veronica started her wine journey working for Alvaro Palacios in Priorat. She then travelled via Clos Erasmus, to Burn Cottage in New Zealand, Niepoort in the Douro, spells in Burgundy (Comte Armand and DRC) and Crozes-Hermitage (Dom Combier), but came “home” so to speak to work with the great Raúl Perez.

From 2012 Veronica cobbled together a few vineyards which now total around 5 hectares. They are all tiny plots of very old vines, many abandoned from active viticulture. She also buys in grapes from selected growers whom she works with, which has enabled her to grow her range. This is mostly comprised of reds made from Mencia, although I reviewed her stunning white wine, “Cal”, in November last year.

The Mencia grapes Veronica farms come off complex terroir, a mix of slate, clay, limestone, granite and sand. 80% of this cuvée comes off sand and clay and it sees an equal mix of old wood and amphora for ageing. The result has beautiful shimmering dark cherry fruit, leavened with spicy notes of nutmeg and cinnamon. It’s very concentrated but not weighty, coming in at a balanced 13% abv. It finished with just a little grip and texture. I think this is a brilliant introduction to Veronica Ortega’s wines, and as I said earlier in this article, one of my big discoveries of 2020. Thank goodness we all got to Viñateros London before the first Lockdown!

Imported by Vine Trail, some of Veronica’s wines have also recently been listed by Littlewine.

CÔTE-RÔTIE 2004, RÉSERVE DU DOMAINE, STÉPHANE OGIER (Rhône, France)

When I could no longer afford the wines of the Chave family at Mauves (Hermitage) I transferred my Rhône allegiance to Stéphane Ogier, who back in the early and mid-2000s was slowly taking over this Ampuis estate from his father, whom he was working alongside. In doing so, he was projecting the domaine towards the top rank. So much so that my vertical of the Ogier Côte-Rôtie wines, which I was putting together throughout this decade, tailed off once the wines topped £50 a bottle. That said, Stéphane continues to make a pair of great value IGT wines (I’m very partial to the La Rosine Viognier for its unusual freshness), and is a pioneer in the potential future appellation (currently IGT) of Seyssuel, on the opposite side of the river below Vienne.

The 2004 vintage does not rank among the best of the decade for Côte-Rôtie, but I will say that the Ogier bottling is a very creditable effort indeed, at least to my palate. These days the estate produces various single site wines, but back in the day there was just this blend, from vines on both Côtes (Brune and Blonde), along with a special cuvée called Belle Hélène, named after Stéphane’s mother.

We have definite “bricking” of the colour, a classic orange rim of age. The bouquet is gamey in the classic style too, but with a strong accent of rich and ripe plum. The palate lets it down a little if I’m being hyper-critical, largely on account of it drying out ever so slightly. Personally, I don’t mind the slightly pronounced acidity. What I like is that it’s still a wine of genuine personality. When looking for the perfection of one hundred points, we neglect the pleasure, as well as the experience gained, from drinking a wine which is gingerly descending from its plateau of excellence, from middle age to a more stately existence (a bit like me). I have more Ogiers which will taste younger, and probably better, but all too few, and so I took what this offered me with pleasure.

The wines of Stéphane Ogier are imported by Berry Brothers & Rudd, although back in the day they could be found in the Waitrose stores with the largest wine departments. I’m not sure from which this bottle came.

RIESLING MUENCHBERG ALSACE GRAND CRU 2008, DOMAINE OSTERTAG (Alsace, France)

I used to be quite an avid purchaser of André Ostertag’s wines. Based in Epfig, this was the very next village to where I stayed in Alsace for the very first time (Itterswiller). The Muenchberg is one of the most interesting of the region’s fifty-one Grand Crus. In the once less fashionable north of the region (the Bas Rhin), it has always produced very distinctive wines from its mix of puddingstone, conglomerate and volcanic debris (ash and lava). Especially distinctive for Riesling.

André Ostertag’s father started the family domaine in 1966 but André has been at the helm a little over forty years now. More recently his son, Arthur, has returned from stints overseas to secure the domaine’s future.

So, what of the Muenchberg Riesling, in this case at over a dozen years old? Muenchberg not only has an interesting geology, but an interesting geography too. It’s a croissant-shaped hill bounded on two sides by southerly-exposed valleys, and it is well protected by the Vosges, which do not usually rise to the height of the Ungersberg outlier this far north (901 masl). This creates a single unique microclimate for all of its 17.7 hectares. The name “Muenchberg” (Monk’s hill) comes from the nearby Cistercian abbey of Baumgarten, which farmed vines here.

We begin with the bouquet, which here hints strongly at the complexities to come on the palate. Lemon, lime, dry honey, “Biscoff” and spiced apple cake are wrapped in a textured parcel held together by a taut mineral thread forming the spine (this wine sees twelve months ageing on lees). This is a very fine Riesling indeed, and perhaps not sufficiently rated in the past by some commentators. This may be why I used to find this cuvée, and others made by this great wine philosopher, in the bin ends at Berry Bros factory outlet store (sic) outside Basingstoke. A genuine terroir wine, it really is very, very, good with a bit of age to it.

As I said, Berry Brothers is the UK importer. I also very much enjoy some of the cheaper Ostertag wines (especially his old vine Sylvaner, and Pinot Blanc as well at one time) along with other single vineyard cuvées, of which I know the various wines from Fronholz best. However, Muenchberg is top of the pile, for me, at Domaine Ostertag.

CRÉMANT DU JURA BRUT NATURE NV [2018], DOMAINE PIGNIER (Jura, France)

I’ve known the wines of the Pignier family for many years but I don’t recall drinking their Crémant before now. The estate is run today by three siblings, Marie-Florence, Jean-Étienne and Antoine. The domaine consists of around 15 ha at Montaigu, just south of Lons. Their winery consists of a couple of old monastic buildings around the Place Rouget de Lisle, a man of course famous in these parts because this Lons-le-Saunier native composed the French National Anthem at Strasbourg in 1792 whilst serving in Napoleon I’s Army of the Rhine.

The Pigniers farm a range of Jura grape varieties, including a little Enfariné Noir (interesting to me because a friend and small grower near Arbois has purchased a few rows of this rare autochthonous grape), along with Argan, Petit Béclan and some Gamay. The family were one of the first to turn to biodynamics in this part of the region, gaining Demeter certification eventually in 2006. Some cuvées are also made with no added sulphur.

The Crémant is made almost 100% from Chardonnay with a little Pinot Noir, depending on vintage and, made with low sulphur additions (Wink Lorch suggests there may also be a zero-sulphur bottling, but I’ve never seen it). It’s bottled with zero dosage though, after eighteen months on lees.  It starts out with a little youthful austerity here, and a crazy torrent of fast-moving tiny bubbles. At this stage citrus notes predominate. Leave it to warm in the glass and it softens considerably, but is still fresh. It has a nice mineral spine (the grapes are grown on limestone and clay), but there’s a chalky texture in the mouth and the edges show softer brioche. Vigorous and somehow healthy, this is a very good biodynamic Crémant du Jura.

Pignier is imported by Raeburn Fine Wines, and this bottle was purchased from The Solent Cellar (Lymington) via mail order. I think they still have a little left.

Posted in Alsace, Artisan Wines, Austrian Wine, Hungarian Wine, Jura, Natural Wine, Rhone, Swiss Wine, Wiener Gemischter Satz, Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Feral Art et Vin – Going Wild in Bordeaux

It’s an inescapable fact that the wine trade is, despite occasional deviations, one of the friendliest professions you could imagine working in. For some reason people in wine just seem on the whole to be extremely friendly, supportive, co-operative, and fun to be around, so it is inevitable that from time to time you come to write about people you know, and some of those must count as friends. I think that there’s nothing wrong with this so long as the writer fulfils two criteria.

First, of course, is that the subject stands scrutiny as being of interest to your readers. The second is that you are completely open about any relationship you have with the subject. Whenever I go to visit any city in Europe, I’m always looking for a new place to buy natural wine, and plenty of these have been reviewed on wideworldofwine, so I don’t feel in the slightest bit guilty about plugging this one.

I’ve known Russell Faulkner and his wife, Sema, for approaching a couple of decades. We met via the Online Forum on Tom Cannavan’s winepages.com, and in person at their offline wine lunches and dinners. I think at that time the interest we shared was for Champagne, especially Pierre Péters if I recall. Then, around a decade ago, Russell and his family left the UK to work overseas, but we kind of kept in touch, more so after we realised that we were both moving towards the appreciation of natural wines. In fact, we both share the same journey, from a passion for exploring fine wine, towards a different philosophy of wine appreciation and what wine means to us.

We also share something else, and that is both having been able to turn our hobby (for me, an obsession) into some approximation of work. I became a wine writer (of sorts) and Russell and Sema have just opened a wine shop. In fact, Feral – Art et Vin is unusual, not because it sells predominantly natural wine (with a little organic/biodynamic) alongside Art, but because it’s a natural wine shop selling a good proportion of foreign wines in the heart of Bordeaux.

Feral is situated in the heart of the medieval city, on the Rue Buhan, close to the famous Grosse Cloche, the large 18th century bell tower, one of the city’s major landmarks. In fact, we are in the Quartier Saint-Paul here, part of the old city on the left bank which is often described as a centre of religion and education. It contains some of Bordeaux’s largest churches and a number of colleges. Montaigne studied and lived here as a student before he moved out to his famous tower, northeast of the city close to Castillon-la-Bataille. The neighbourhood is one of attractive small businesses and cafés, a couple of theatres and the odd museum, which reminds me a little of the area just north of the Marais in Paris, as you walk up towards the Marché des Enfants Rouges.

I think Russell and Sema were looking for a while to find a good location with a reasonable footfall. You might think Bordeaux is the last place in France to have a following for natural wine, though I’m fairly sure that most people reading this will be aware of the standout producers making wine there in a different way to the herd, whether that be the biodynamics of Château Pontet-Canet, the longstanding natural wine estate, Château Le Puy, or the micro-producer currently riding a wave to stardom, Osamu Uchida.

Most of these natural and natural-leaning wines, and more, are represented, on account of their quality, in the many more traditional wine shops in the city, as well as the surprising number of wine bars and bistros which focus on natural wine. What Bordeaux has perhaps lacked until now is a retail outlet which introduces a far wider spread of natural wines, both from elsewhere in France and, perhaps bravely considering the attitude of many locals to wine from abroad, some gems from the rest of Europe and the world.

I asked Russell why Bordeaux? “As every Bordelais knows, or may think they know, Bordeaux is the centre of the wine universe. So, after eight years spent overseas, moving to Bordeaux as a lifestyle choice seemed very attractive. A beautiful, vibrant city, close to the mountains, the beaches, perfect for a good family life.”

The natural wine itch can be scratched in Bordeaux, but as I’ve already said, mostly in bars and restaurants. So, for a couple impassioned about natural wine, the idea of starting a wine shop with a natural wine focus once Covid Lockdown home schooling had finished seemed the, er, natural course to take.

You’ll see from the photos that the space they have found, after it must be said some major tidying up, looks pretty smart. I asked Russell about the design of the space and what they wanted to achieve.

“When thinking about how to present the wines, we wanted to keep things exceptionally clean and simple, just a single bottle on display of each of the sixty-to-eighty references, and to keep it fresh by ordering in small quantities and changing stock frequently”.

This, of course, not only gives regular customers a reason to keep coming back, it also allows Feral to stock some pretty rare wines, available in tiny quantities. Bordeaux has all of a sudden become remarkably lucky because Russell has already lined up a few wines you’d probably be pushed to find in London right now. When prospective producers ask what else they stock it isn’t difficult to entice them in.

The clean lines are created by storing most of the stock in wine fridges, out of sight, so that they don’t spoil the aesthetic. It’s something they have seen working well in Germany, but it’s less common in France. This also allows for a large part of the wall space to be set aside for art exhibitions. The first exhibition, to coincide with the shop opening just over a week ago, is by a Romanian female artist (living in France but currently in Canada), Lali Torma. Sema has lined up three female artists to exhibit in the space. The plan for the art, which is of course for sale, is to change every couple of months. They are also selling a few selected periodicals (Pipette, for example), wine books, and high-class chocolate from Friis Holm (Denmark).

I wanted to know what were the main challenges in setting up in France. Remarkably, decisions as to any change to the shop frontage have to go to national level. Then there’s the small issue of architects (I think they had to change theirs) and builders. Setting up in an historic quarter means they can’t do just whatever they want with the premises. But from the photographs I think they’ve done a very smart job.

“Assembling a small range of wines is in many ways more challenging than a big one. It means you can’t really go deep into any single producer. You have to constantly think about the shape of the whole portfolio, the balance between red, white, orange, pink and fizz. We also want an equal representation for women winemakers. But we primarily want to offer wines we love, with commercial appeal important, but secondary to that. But it does mean having to exclude certain producers which we really want on the shelves merely because we are not able to offer them at a reasonable price. The distribution network is not always efficient, and the paperwork required to import from certain countries creates its own problems.”

Russell did say he was grateful to all his friends who have helped with a flood of suggestions. Having weighed in myself, I imagine they have been fairly swamped with ideas, but I know very well that Russell has both the knowledge and the passion to select his stock without too much outside badgering. Some of their first sales were wines from Meinklang (Austria), Partida Creus (Spain) and Lucy Margaux/Anton Von Klopper (Australia), which not only illustrates Russell and Sema’s fine taste in wine, but also suggests there is indeed a market for more adventurous wines in Bordeaux. Of course there is!

I thought I’d better give you a small selection of producers from their list, both to whet the appetite for anyone able to visit, and I suppose to justify taking your time to draw attention to the shop. From France they have the likes of Fanny Sabre, Kumpf & Meyer, Ormiale, Uchida, Domaine Dandelion, Charles Dufour, Timothée Stroebel and a host of producers I’ve never come across. From further afield the very wide choice covers Gut Oggau, Preisinger, Radikon, Envinate, Nestarec, Trossen, and  Costador, from Europe, Lucy Margaux, Testalonga and Ruth Lewandowski (Evan Lewandowski) from further afield. L’Octavin should arrive this week. They stock a healthy side line in magnums, which is always encouraging.

Plans for the future? Russell says that “we are very pleased with progress so far, with customers praising not just the wine selection, but also the whole aesthetic (and the music on the turntable). Longer-term we will consider sales by the glass, events, etc, but for now we are just a little gallery and wine shop selling the things we love.

If you are in Bordeaux, I suggest checking them out. Feral Art et Vin is at 22 rue Buhan, Bordeaux. See www.feralartetvin.com and on Instagram at @feralartetvin . Feral also appears on the Raisin App for natural wine makers and vendors.

Below, a few photos to give a feel for the Quartier Saint-Paul immediately around the shop…books, coffee, tea, a “Bistrot Bordelais”, a Japanese store and natural wine…what more could you want?

Posted in Artisan Wines, Bordeaux Wine, Natural Wine, Wine, Wine Agencies, Wine Shops, Wine Travel | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

Wines of the Rhône by Matt Walls – Book Review

Even most readers who know me reasonably well might be unaware that The Rhône was my first real passion in wine. I didn’t get to visit the north for a few years, but by the time I hit Ampuis in 1988 I’d already explored most of the South, from a base at Pernes-les-Fontaines for a couple of weeks, some years previous.

I’m not sure where my interest in the Northern Rhône sprang from. The South is clear. Around the time I was tasting my first oaked Australian Chardonnays I’d purchased a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, Le Vieux Télégraphe. I’ve no idea what vintage, and I’m very much aware that I was drinking it too young, but it made a big impression, as you’d imagine.

The Northern Rhône came via Yapp Brothers, whose attractive base at Mere in Wiltshire was a pleasant day trip when staying with my parents-in-law. A picnic taken by the fountain in the Yapp Brothers “Old Brewery” courtyard (a reproduction of the one in the Square at Châteaneuf-du-Pape) or at nearby Stourhead Gardens, a pint in “The George” pub up the road, a climb up Mere’s old castle mound and a haul of wine. One great day out.

I recently mentioned to someone that I had been able to get into buying Chave Hermitage at £12.75 a bottle. Hard to believe. We are probably talking 1984 here. I tried to find evidence but all I could find was Yapp’s 1987 Price List, where the cheapest Chave vintage had risen to the dizzy price of £14. I’m sure Yapps won’t mind me reproducing some pages showing a few of the Rhône old-timers going for what seems like next to nothing. Of course, those wines were bargains, but £14 went a long way back then and they didn’t seem exactly cheap either. Yapp Brothers, via the exploits of Robin Yapp, generally got it right back in the day.

One of my truly happiest memories in wine occurred the next year, 1988. We were on a trip which was eventually to lead us to Umbria, but at Lyon we detoured south for a night in Vienne and then a day in the vineyards. We ate our baguette and cheese on top of the Hermitage Hill, drove up to Château Grillet, and after a further night in an aubèrge on the plateau we rocked up at Georges Vernay in Condrieu. Already being an avid purchaser of his wine for a couple of years this was an essential stop for me. It must be remembered at that time that Condrieu consisted of maybe a couple of dozen hectares at most, and as far as I’m aware, Viognier wasn’t planted anywhere else besides the environs of Ampuis/Condrieu. Vernay had almost single-handedly saved the Condrieu appellation, and the Viognier variety, just a few years before by working the steep slopes whilst everyone else seemingly preferred the greater ease of a factory in Valence.

We spent the morning with the great man himself, much of it going through very old photographs in the vines and winery, from a different age. His hospitality moved us. We couldn’t take a lot of wine on the road. We bought a couple of bottles, and knowing of our journey’s direction, Georges gave a us a couple of halves as a gift. I don’t recall what we used to drink it out of, but I do remember chilling one in a stream on the way east to Grenoble. Sometimes circumstances make a wine taste even more heavenly than you dream is possible.

Over the years I sort of left the Rhône behind a little. Southern Rhône and Châteauneuf trickled away some time back in the 2000s, largely because of high alcohol content. With Northern Rhône it was always price. The lovely 1991 vintage was the last year of my once-prized Chave red vertical, 1998 for the white. I have none left. I continued to buy Côte-Rôtie and a little Cornas, but my eventual Chave replacement, Stéphane Ogier, topped £50/bottle in the later 2000s and that saw me opt out as well.

There is one Rhône producer I do regularly look out for and that is Eric Pfifferling’s Domaine L’Anglore, based at Tavel. But otherwise, I do notice I’m not really buying much Rhône wine. I still have a dwindling supply of the old school producers (sadly no Chave, let alone from Gérard’s days), but the flame has not died. This is why I was keen to get my hands on Matt Walls’s Wines of the Rhône.

I’ve met Matt a few times on the circuit and at the occasional wine dinner/lunch, and he has always seemed to me one of the nicest guys in wine, as well as possessing a very good, and unusually ecumenical, palate. When I heard that he was taking his family off to France for a couple of years in order to write a new book on the whole region, I began to follow with interest his social media reports of his travels. The resulting book, another one in the Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library, was published at the start of this year.

Wines of the Rhône is one of the fatter books in the series, running to around 375 pages, but thankfully (in my view) they chose to produce it in soft cover/paperback. Nevertheless, it still costs £30 full price. What I will say immediately, because I hate suspense, is that it is wholly and one hundred per cent worth investing in.

My extensive home wine library contains several books on the Rhône by a number of well-known authors, but they are bookended by one author’s books, a name that on its own means “Rhône”. Naturally I speak of John Livingstone-Learmonth. My Rhône section began with the 1983 reprint of his 1978 “The Wines of the Rhône” (Faber & Faber), written jointly with Melvyn Master. It ended (before Walls) with Learmonth’s 700-page epic, “The Wines of the Northern Rhône”. Published in 2005 by the University of California Press, even back then this formidable hardback set me back £42.50.

Of the other “Rhône” books I own, the most interesting would be Remington Norman’s “Rhône Renaissance” (Mitchell Beazley, 1995), but after 2005 I can find no other book on the region which has excited me enough to purchase. Nevertheless, Matt has big boots to fill, so it was encouraging to know that he was diving in deep.

Not only did the author go and live in the region in order to research his book, but early on, apparently, he made a significant decision. We know that the whole of the Rhône, north and south, is very complicated. Not only are there numerous layers of appellations, there are also an impossible number of wine villages and sub-sub-regions. Many of them attained named status long after I left the room, and many a long time after the last comprehensive work was published. In making the decision to visit every one of them the author struck gold. As he said in a social media conversation with me before I had read the book, it was so often in these small and almost unheard-of villages where some of the most interesting wines would turn up.

There are several reasons for this. The Côte du Rhône’s mountain fringes, or the terraces of the Massif d’Uchaux (to take two examples) are marginal to the story of the region, yet they offer relatively cheap vineyard land to committed and experimental newcomers. They often offer an opportunity to showcase less planted grape varieties (and especially allowing growers to focus a little on the potential for white wines). They also offer hope in the face of climate change which is pushing alcohol levels towards hard to sustain heights on the plain. Villages like Saint-Andéol. Only promoted to named village in 2017, Walls describes it as, in his view, one of the front-runners for conversion to full Cru status. It’s just one example of the great potential Matt identifies, all good for the future of the region.

There are other traits picked up upon too, and I think these include some of the reasons why this book will undoubtedly act as a catalyst for my re-exploration of both the Northern and Southern Rhône. First, he identifies a pendulum effect on alcohol levels. With the increase in temperatures and the change in rainfall patterns (as opposed to rainfall quantity) in the region, growers have seen that even if they felt the market was still quite as keen on high alcohol (which in the post-Parker era it clearly is less so), sustaining wines forever pushing well over 15% abv is unlikely to enable them to retain balance and quality. So, producers are finding different ways, whether by vineyard composition, viticultural practices, or winemaking, to dial back the alcohol (and often accompanying new oak) levels.

At the same time, there is a clear movement to either reduce or eliminate synthetic agrichemical inputs. There are many reasons for this, ranging from health (human as well as vines and, critically, soils) to costs (if the Mistral wind keeps the vines relatively disease free, why spend the money?). Many producers are going much further, and the younger generation is far more interested in biodynamics, and “natural wine” than most of their parents’ generation were. The increase in numbers of producers following these practices had, in the main, passed me by.

The format of the book is easy to follow. After the background issues and history set out in Part 1, the author begins his journey in the Southern Rhône. Starting around Avignon, which grants the opportunity to begin with the big guns of Châteauneuf-du-Pape, we then travel more or less in an anti-clockwise direction, via Ventoux and Luberon (the latter not always included in books on the Rhône) up to the mountains of the northeast. Then he crosses the river, into the Ardèche, to cover the west bank villages down to Lirac and Tavel, then as far south as Costières de Nîmes and Clairette de Bellegarde. The final chapter in Part 2 gives us an invaluable eight pages on the tiny, almost sub-Alpine, enclave of The Diois.

Part 3 takes us on a north-south journey through the Northern Rhône. We may only get two chapters, “Around Ampuis” and “Around Tain…”, but they are equally thorough. For example, this is the first time for a long while that I have read anything significant in print about Seyssuel, whose IGP wines are a very clear candidate for full appellation status (though the speed at which things move in Paris don’t expect any changes in the near future). Equally, in the south of this northern section, full coverage is given to the wines of Brézème and Saint-Julien-en-Saint-Alban (I know the former rather well, yet had never heard of the latter…Walls calls some of the wines and producers here “highly promising”).

Each chapter follows a format which explains the appellation in terms of history, viticultural politics, personalities, geology and climate, and then profiles the producers the author considers the most important/best/interesting. He calls them “Key Producers”. But you always get a good paragraph or three on “other good examples” as well. These may include promising new producers who only lack a track record, people doing interesting things in the vines or winery, or maybe someone with just one standout wine among a less interesting output.

Walls is incredibly good at spotting, and singling out, this kind of thing, and as a well-regarded judge of wine competitions (he’s Regional Chair for the Rhône at the Decanter Awards, and is also a Contributing Editor of the magazine) his palate is experienced but clearly open to the new. I especially like his open-minded approach to natural wine methods. Of Eric Pfifferling of Domaine L’Anglore, he says “Who are the greatest winemakers in the Southern Rhône? Perhaps it’s a matter of opinion, but I’d be surprised if Eric Pfifferling wasn’t in the Top 10”. That might surprise a few older traditionalists, but it’s a sentiment with which I wholly agree.

As with all the books in this series, there’s always the highlighted text box, which are scattered about each chapter. They cover all sorts of topics. I especially like the one on p295, called “Past masters”. It talks about the old guys, many of whom are no longer with us but whose wines live on, albeit usually at eye-watering prices and in tiny quantity. People like Auguste Clape, Robert Michel, Noël Verset and others. I could add more, but then I’m a bit older than Matt and I actually remember some of these folks. If you want to read more about the romantic era of Northern Rhône winemaking (generally pre-Parker), I can recommend the books of Robin Yapp. Vineyards and Vignerons (with wife Judith, 1977) and to a lesser extent Drilling for Wine (1988) contain vignettes of his early buying trips when pretty much no other British wine merchants were hitting the Rhône.

North American writers like Kermit Lynch and Englishman Simon Loftus have similar stories to tell. I think that as many older wine books become out of date as guides to specific wines and producers, those with more of a travel narrative nevertheless act as social history, for which there is an appetite among younger wine obsessives. The last chapter of Robin Yapp’s Drilling for Wine, titled just “Chez Chave”, is much more than a mere portrait of a then not quite so famous winemaker.

We end Matt’s book with two appendices. The first is a very good vintage guide, or sensibly two: separate ones for north and south. Initially I didn’t realise this but thankfully soon twigged. Appendix II is an abridgement of Simon Loftus’s quite famous visit to Rayas in 1979 (rewritten in 2019), when Monsieur Reynaud, well known for disliking visitors, hid in a ditch to avoid Loftus at the time of his appointment (Loftus was at that time running Suffolk brewer Adnams’ wine department).

If one thing stood out whilst devouring (as I did) “Wines of the Rhône”, it was just how easy it is to read, and equally enjoyable. As of necessity, the Rhône requires a lot of facts, and there are a lot of key producers. It would be easy to get bogged down in endless names and numbers. Equally, you don’t want a load of flowery prose when the detail is important. I’m not totally sure how the author manages to tread an almost perfect path between the two. One reads wine books to absorb knowledge. There’s an argument that if they are too easy to read you finish too quickly to retain that knowledge. In my case I do much of my reading in the hour or two before I turn out the light, and I don’t want to be sent to sleep prematurely. No chance of that here.

Are there any negatives? Well, the maps are okay but a little pedestrian. That’s not down to the author. You just need your copy of the World Wine Atlas to hand to scan the villages in just a tiny bit more detail (monochrome is never an easy medium for maps of overlapping vineyard appellations). I suppose some real enthusiasts may complain that the book is just too short and that there are not enough producers profiled in full. I guess a 360-page book at £30 will sell more than 700pp at what would now be considerably more than £42.50 today, I presume. I actually think that in aiming for the widest possible audience within what is undoubtedly a specialist area, the author has weighed the balance well.

As I have intimated before, I thoroughly enjoyed reading “Wines of the Rhône”. I don’t think there is any praise I can give higher than the fact that it really has reignited my interest in a wider region I used to buy from with great regularity, yet which to a significant extent had fallen off my radar in recent years, as I had begun to explore further and further east within Europe, and, for my Grenache-based wines, the higher altitudes of Spain. In fact, my next task is to try to seek out Grenache from the Rhône which hints at the excitement of what I have discovered this past decade from Spain, at hopefully a more advantageous price. As well as all the established classics, Matt Walls shows us that in parts of the Rhône we are possibly at the beginning of something. Perhaps a second Rhône Renaissance? So that’s an emphatic “Buy”!

Wines of the Rhône by Matt Walls was published in 2021 by Infinite Ideas Publishing as part of their ever-growing Classic Wine Library (rrp £30, though discount codes and cheaper sources may be sought for those unable to afford the full price).

The other older books and authors also mentioned can pretty much all be found at numerous online sources, often used copies. There’s a world of viticultural social history out there to explore.

A short personal Rhône timeline
Posted in Fine Wine, Rhone, Wine, Wine Books, Wine Writing | Tagged , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Field Blends and Gemischter Satz – Why Should we Get to Know Them?

Gemischter Satz, a wine that brings joy to my soul. Back in 2016 the UK wine trade magazine The Drinks Business asked whether Gemischter Satz will be the next big thing. Well, it hasn’t quite worked out that way but there’s no doubt that this wine designation is a lot more well known, and certainly appreciated among connoisseurs, if not the general public (who right now are more likely to be getting to grips with the delights of pink Prosecco). Those of you who read my Blog with some frequency will know that I have a bit of a thing for Gemischter Satz and I thought I should tell you why.

My journey to understanding and appreciating Gemischter Satz, and in particular, Wiener Gemischter Satz, began long before I ever set foot in Vienna. I started my journey in wine at a time when varietal labelling was really taking off. We Brits all think of Australian Chardonnay and Shiraz as the catalysts for our modern obsession with grape varieties, although our North American cousins had been developing their own obsession with varietal labelling even before those wines hit our shores. But there is one European wine region which stood out for varietal labelling despite being firmly seated at the Appellation Contrôlée table, and that was Alsace.

On my first visit to Alsace at the end of…well, a very long time ago, I fell in love with the region of course, but as an adventurous, and more impecunious, wine lover I drank a fair bit of Edelzwicker. This is Alsace’s traditional blend, certainly at that time the cheapest wine in the Winstub (though if you were Hugel and you made a really good one from a fine site, you called it Gentil). Not always a field blend, but often so, it seemed back then as if it were just a bunch of different grapes thrown together, what was left from the fruit set aside for the varietals, plus a bit of Chasselas, Sylvaner and Savagnin Rose (Klevener not Klevner) that no one wanted.

When Alsace designed its Grand Cru system in the 1980s it was only the more noble white varieties which were designated as being good enough for this supposedly terroir-specific super appellation. No Sylvaner, no Pinot Noir. The rising value of Grand Cru varietal wines saw the Edelzwicker blends fade away. Except there is always someone who will go against the crowd and that man was Jean-Michel Deiss. His views on the subject were, and are, forthright. He’s a great source of quotes explaining the philosophy, as he sees it, behind the field blend. Those below are from Andrew Jefford’s The New France (Mitchell Beazley, 2002).

“What is terroir? It is a matrix by which the possible can be uttered…History robbed us of our memory…we no longer knew what Ribeauvillé meant…we have to find out what is possible once more.”

“Before the arrival of Crus, varietal diversity was the only way in which Alsace’s terroir could speak.”

According to Deiss, the field blend is perhaps a truer expression of place than the imposition of a single variety on a named site?

If the Grand Cru system forced the region’s winemakers to focus on terroir in a different way, something was lost in regulating what grows best, and thereby what should be allowed to grow, on that terroir. But Deiss has ploughed his own furrow, and has resolutely stood up for the field blend, albeit with wines which are beautiful and fine expressions of terroir over gape variety (though he does also make varietal wines, it is his blends which shine brightest). Now is not the place to expound on the mistakes and the ills of Alsace’s Grand Cru system, but suffice to say that it was Alsace which highlighted the field blend when I was getting to grips with my single varietals.

What is more, I don’t recall field blends being a part of the picture in my WSET studies back then. It was doubtless seen as an irrelevance. Like the pergola, which I wrote about recently, part of a peasant tradition wholly rejected by the university-trained viticultural scientists of the 1980s and 1990s. I sometimes wonder whether these men in white coats ever gave a second thought to the cultural and historic significance of the field blend, let alone its potential efficacy for the wine producer, especially in more marginal climates.

It’s worth spending a paragraph explaining why the field blend had proved such an attractive option to winemakers in the past. In a less technological age without synthetic agrichemicals and with the perils of uncertain climate/weather to ripen the grapes, a co-planted site of different grape varieties was a good insurance policy. Varieties ripen at different times and some are susceptible to different pests and diseases. Planting different varieties together meant that in most years a farmer would get some healthy grapes and if he (usually he back then) co-fermented them together, some would be over-ripe and give alcohol, some under-ripe and give acidity…and all would be more or less well.

Now we skip forward to 2013. As a subscriber to World of Fine Wine, when I received my copy of Issue 40, I was about to read an article which I have never forgotten. “Wiener Gemischter Satz – Vienna’s Heart of Gold”, written by Alder Yarrow, told me everything I needed to know about a wine I’d heard of, and even drank once at that point, but knew almost nothing about.

Vienna is not the only region of Austria to make a co-fermented field blend called Gemischter Satz, and many would rival Vienna’s in terms of excitement (you all know Joiseph Mischkultur, I suspect) but Wiener Gemischter Satz is the only Austrian blend of this type to be awarded DAC status (AOC equivalent). As the only wine region lying truly within a major European city, the viticultural practices and the drinking traditions of Vienna loom large in any study of wine in a social context. The cultural significance of the field blend here is exemplified like nowhere else.

The slopes of the Nussberg on the northern edge of Vienna

The DAC rules require a field blend…of at least three varieties (often many more and I have encountered at least one wine with twenty-six varieties), where one variety does not exceed 50% of the blend. There are two types of “WGS”. All Wiener Gemischter Satz must be under 12.5% abv (an unusual stipulation) unless it comes from a single site, where it requires 12.5% abv or more. This has led to the development of two modern styles of the DAC wine, more or less replacing the rather old-fashioned wines destined for sale by the jug in the city’s buschenschanks and heurigen, which were somewhat analogous to the Edelzwicker of old in Alsace.

Some of the Wieninger Cru Wines

The heuriger is Viennese wine central and a visit to the city should involve the exploration of several if you are able. They started out as the most rough and ready bars set up by the farmers to sell their new wine in the lighter months and into harvest. In time they began serving simple (usually cold) food to accompany the wine, and were ascribed into law as “buschenschanks” under Josef II. The heuriger (plural heurigen) is usually larger than the buschenschank, inns or restaurants run on broadly similar lines (we’ll not go into the differences here) by the now famous winemakers of Vienna. Many are “pop-ups” in the summer, either in fixed locations up in the vineyards, or in the wine villages. Some have become year-round restaurants proper.

Whenever I visit Vienna, which seemed to have fortuitously become an annual trip before Covid intervened, there is one non-negotiable outing. It involves a metro train out to Heiligenstadt and then a bus (38A if you are interested) which passes through the wine village of Grinzing before climbing up above the city. We get off near the Gnadenkapelle (nice café inside the gate) and then walk back along a path right by the bus stop, through woods, then vines, winding our way down through vineyards with vistas of the Danube and city, via the popup heurigen in summer, to an inevitable refreshment stop (stürm, or himbeerstürm, depending on season) at the famous heuriger Mayer-am-Pfarrplatz, the old inn where Beethoven once lodged, but also reassuringly close to the bus stop on Grinzinger Strasse, back to Heiligenstadt.

Perhaps we should look at some of the producers. The biggest name in WGS is Fritz Wieninger, who for more than thirty years has been at the forefront of re-establishing Vienna’s traditional wines as a serious proposition. His family farms a whopping 70 hectares, split between both sides of the Danube. On the left bank is Bisamberg, above Stammersdorf, where the winery is located, and on the Nussberg (right bank). The single site wines here are ageable beauties, whether his Nussberg Alte Reben, Bisamberg, Rosengartel or Ried Ulm, the latter a pair of smaller parcels, more or less premier crus, on the Nussberg. These are serious wines with around 13.5% abv and the capacity to age.

Fritz Wieninger and his Vineyard Manager, Georg Grohs

I spent a whole morning with the team at Wieninger a couple of years ago. Even though I had wandered the vineyards on a number of occasions, nothing beat driving around, from site to site with Fritz Wieninger’s vineyard manager, Georg Grohs, discovering the changes in the terroir after an extensive tasting. None of the sites better illustrate the semi-urban nature of Veinna’s vines than the tiny half-hectare Kaasgraben, surrounded by the encroaching wealth of Sievering’s villas.

Ried Kaasgraben, Sievering

Alex Zahel makes some cuvées in a similarly serious style. This is one noted producer whose base is not on the hills north of the city (though they do own vines there), but at Mauer to the southwest, within the city area. Some of the Zahel wines, with labels designed by Alex’s American wife, Hilary, are equally serious. They unusually have some vines on the Goldberg site, but you are most likely to find their own “Ried Kaasgraben”. The Zahel vines overlook the Kaasgraben Church in a narrow side valley. More opulent than the zippy cliché of WGS, another serious bottle.

Zahel Ried Kaasgraben

There are some fascinating experimental wines being made now, such as the Hajszan Neumann amphora GS (this producer was taken over by Wieninger in 2014 but has kept its own identity), and one cuvée I have from Rainer Christ (at Jedlersdorf (Bisamberg)), called “Kraut & Rüben”, which has seen skin contact. These sit beside more traditional offerings from Mayer am Pfarrplatz (and their sibling Rotes Haus label, making a lovely Nussberg GS). Then there’s Michael Edlmoser, who has worked at California’s Ridge Vineyards. His wines can be heady expressions of the Mauer vines. Stephen Brook (The Wines of Austria, Infinite Ideas 2016, new 2nd edn now available) mentions a Sauvignon Blanc “Riesberg” 2013 which hit 15.5%, a real expression of Californian Zinfandel in Viennese Sauvignon Blanc, perhaps. I’ve not tried it.

Rainer Christ, entry level DAC wine

I’ll leave until last the producer who fits most neatly within my own favoured philosophy of low intervention winemaking, Jutta Ambrositsch. First mentioned by Alder Yarrow, I had to seek her out purely on the basis of what he had written about her, but having bought several of her wines from London specialist, Newcomer Wines, I didn’t meet her until a London tasting in 2018.  Jutta’s wines do not always conform to the restrictions of WGS, so they will be labelled most often as a table wine equivalent. Don’t let that put you off. Jutta left as career in graphic design and cajoled Fritz Wieninger into giving her a job as a volunteer stagiste. He became her mentor and helped set her up with some rented vines in 2002. Since then, she has acquired tiny plots of always old, often abandoned, vines and now farms around five hectares.

What she makes is wholly natural wine, vegan-friendly (as Jutta is, like most of my family, vegan herself), and she follows biodynamic practices to make wines which leap out of the glass, so alive are they. Try anything from her, but if you can, try to secure a few bottles of “Rakete”. It’s unusual as a pale red wine, a co-planted field blend of Zweigelt, St-Laurent, Merlot and Blauburger. The label suggests you “shake resolutely and drink chilled”. It takes us back from the serious wines of the single sites to the joyous beating heart of the Gemischter Satz tradition. I can think of no better modern interpretation of a time-honoured tradition. In better times you might find one of her wines as the house wine at the unmissable Weinbistro Mast in the city’s 9th District. She’s hard to track down because she doesn’t have her own winery premises, but every summer she will open a pop-up heuriger and may well be there, serving her wines with simple food.

Wiener Gemischter Satz is a wine of many facets, and there are many styles to explore. But the advantage for the wine lover who enjoys wine travel is that they are made in easily accessible vineyards close to a city whose attractions grow as you become more familiar with it. Vienna is not all Hapsburg conservatism. You certainly don’t need a car to explore here, and if you enjoy walking, you’ll enjoy the Nussberg in particular. But more than anything, Wiener Gemischter Satz gives any inquisitive wine lover a window on the wines of another time, updated to the present day through a philosophy which views following winemaking tradition as a valuable cultural goal. In doing so, these producers have created something here in Vienna which is quite unique…and beautiful.

Some facts:

Vienna has a little over 600 hectares of vines, about 80% of which are white varieties. The Nussberg is the largest single hillside block of vines with 200 hectares planted on its south or southeast facing slopes ranging in altitude between 150 to 350 masl. Bisamberg has 250 hectares but these are more dispersed between (on my count) 26 different sites to the northeast of the city. Mauer, mentioned above, is much smaller with 50 hectares.

Access to the Nussberg hill is, as explained, relatively easy. The swiftest route into the vines is via Grinzing. My suggested route is more downhill. Bisamberg involves a long tram ride out to Stammersdorf, but even then the vineyards are a little bit of a trek on foot.

I have written extensively on Vienna and her wines. The following articles may be of interest if you want more:

Wieninger and Wiener Wein

Heuriger, Heurigen, Buschenschanks and Popups – A Walk in the Woods and the Vines

The seminal article by Alder Yarrow was in World of Fine Wine, Issue 40 (2013).

Posted in Alsace, Artisan Wines, Austrian Wine, Vienna, Viticulture, Wiener Gemischter Satz, Wieninger, Wine, Wine Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments