Ultravino Piemonte at 67 Pall Mall

There were two good reasons to head up to London on the train yesterday lunchtime, despite a long morning drive beforehand, to taste Ultravino‘s Piemontese offerings at 67 Pall Mall. Just as well there were two reasons, as the Tasting, in the club’s basement room, let visitors see very little of this renowned and expensive London Club for wine connoisseurs (I was hoping to nose around but I got the feeling that non-members were being politely chaperoned away from the club areas).

However, thankfully there was a second, better reason.  Ultravino is a Piemonte specialist, based not so far from me, in Bognor Regis, West Sussex. Their aim is to promote “under-the-radar boutique producers” from Barolo, Barbaresco and the increasingly interesting (to Nebbiolo drinkers) Roero. The only instances where they fail in this aim are where their producers have now become already very much on the radar of Nebbiolo lovers.

Nebbiolo has been very much on my mind. Beginning the Nebbiolo season, as autumn closes on winter, reminded me how I’ve allowed my stocks to diminish without sufficient replacement (I seem to swing like a pendulum between Piemonte and Tuscany). Some people I know have just come back from an interesting and informative trip to the region, which I’ve been reading about on Wine-pages.

I also drank my first Piemontese wine of the season last week, Fabrizio Battaglino’s Sergentìn Roero 2009, and it looks like I may drink some more Nebbiolo on Friday. So a good reason to make the effort to attend this Tasting, and it was well worth that effort.

Relief maps are becoming quite common, and these well positioned reliefs of Barolo and Barbaresco were perfect to locate producers’ vineyards.

ROERO

Maybe Roero needs a geographical introduction. It’s only just north of the Langhe (north of Alba and Bra), but I’m amazed how many people ask where it is. Its wines have been quietly gaining a reputation for a decade or more, first via white grape Arneis, and now much more for the Nebbiolo reds. Some wines can be more earthy and lack quite the elegance of fine wine from the two “B”s, yet you can also find lovely perfume here from sometimes lighter wines, perhaps more delicate (which can make some of the tannic young wines seem weedy after Barolo’s finest). This is put down to a much higher proportion of sand in Roero, than in the Langhe to the south. Let them age and that elegance comes through, on nose and palate, in wines from the best producers.

Cascina Val del Prete

The family name here is familiar, Roagna, though I don’t know that Mario Roagna is related to the more famous producer of that name. His parents were sharecroppers who bought a well sited amphitheatre of vines in the 1970s. Mario brought organics and then biodynamics to the picture, and his son Giovanni brings experimentation. This domaine, based at Priocca, is now seen as one of the best in Roero.

Roero Arneis Luèt 2016 comes from water retaining clay soils, more clay than is usual in Roero. It sees one-and-a-half days on skins before fermentation in stainless steel (which is the standard vessel for the Arneis in the region). Arneis rarely makes wines of great complexity, but it is a nice grape and a good alternative to the more widely seen Cortese of Piemonte’s eastern and southern vineyards. This one is quite concentrated with quince, pear and almond.

The red wines here rise from the lightish, young vine, Roero Bricco Medica 2013, concrete fermented, where the concrete softens the tannins (increasingly, producers are seeing the benefits of concrete again), via Roero Vigna di Lino 2013 named after Giovanni’s grandfather (40-y-o vines spending 16 months ageing in barrique), through to Roero Riserva 2013, a selection of the best grapes from the best part of the hill, fermented in steel and then aged 24 months in second year barrique. Quite structured, yet as Roero wines tend to become ready to drink earlier than their more famous neighbours, this should drink into the mid-2020s.

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(Don) Giovanni, Val del Prete

Cà Rossa

This is the project of Angelo Ferrio, a quiet and thoughtful man who produces some truly under the radar cuvées from some of the top sites. The Arneis here, Roero Arneis Merica 2016, is a fresh and drinkable wine, but the reds are more serious.

Roero Valmaggiore Audinaggio 2015 has a lovely nose. It’s pretty tannic right now but for an entry level 2015 it is impressive. Remember, Sandrone makes a Valmaggiore, so as a location it gets the seal of approval from one of the wider region’s more expensive producers.

Roero Mompissano Riserva 2013 is a bigger and even more complex wine which sees 30 months in large oak. The soils on this site are what are known locally as “white soils”, containing marble. The nose has genuine depth developing and the potential is obvious. To show that potential, Angelo had his Riserva 2010 open. Of course, it still needs much more time, but you are sipping a potentially profound wine from this great vintage.

                           Angelo Ferrio and his Cà Rossa wines from Roero

Giovanni Almondo 

There were two Arneis here. Roero Arneis Bricco delle Ciliegie 2016 is made from vines between 35 to 60 years of age. It’s refreshing with a pear-like finish, dry and textured. Roero Arneis Le Rive del Bricco 2016 is an old vine selection from the same vineyard which is more concentrated, almost a touch tannic, and clearly with the potential to improve in bottle.

Although known locally perhaps as a white wine producer, the reds here are made in an intentionally elegant style. The Roero Bric Valdiana 2015 exemplifies that approach, coming from 75% sandy soils (the rest being limestone and chalk). Aged in large oak, only 4,000 bottles are produced.

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BARBARESCO

Giorgio Pelissero

This is a producer saddled with the modernist tag in the past, although the new French barriques tend to be used far more for his top wines. It is also true that Treiso, where Pelissero is based, has a reputation for elegant wines, compared to those of Neive, and Barbaresco itself. On the whole, the late harvest in 2013 produced quite classical wines in Barbaresco, and there is a certain tannic structure to them, no doubt accentuated by the oak in this case. But it is clear that underneath the tannins, that renowned elegance resides, alongside genuine personality waiting to emerge.

Barbaresco Nubiola 2013 blends fruit from six vineyards which then see stainless steel for fermentation before 18-20 months in large oak. The fruit is smooth under the tannins and it has a nice weight. Barbaresco Tulin 2013 is a single vineyard near Treiso made in a traditional style but with a lovely sweetness on the nose. Effectively, you get more tannin, albeit fine tannin, and more depth here. The fruit underneath is lovely and fresh.

Barbaresco Vanotu 2013 was their most expensive wine on show, from a vineyard closer to Barbaresco itself where there is more sand. It showed softer tannins, and also illustrated the Pelissero reputation for elegance.  Barbaresco Vanotu 2010 served from a 3-litre bottle was gorgeous, even now, though you would not want to waste it by opening now.

Paitin

The Pasquero family are rightly famous for their part of Serraboella, and the estate is named after that singular plot within it, Sorì Paitin. The wines have a reputation for ageing well, but I have also heard them described by some Piemonte fans as pretty oaky. I’m not sure that this is not sometimes their tannic structure, which aids their longevity, showing through.

Barbaresco Serraboella 2013 does not appear oaky. In fact it is a well priced entry level with a nose already developing nicely, and a certain smoothness underneath the tannin. Barbaresco Sorì Paitin 2013 has that extra degree of concentration you’d expect from this parcel within the cru. I think the drinking window of 2020 – 2030+ is quite conservative in this case. Someone elsewhere was talking about “pomegranate” in tasting notes. This is a wine where I’d definitely use pomegranate, along with rich cherry.

The apogee of the list is Barbaresco Sorì Paitin Vecchie Vigne Riserva 2011, which is from the very oldest vines in the parcel, from where the family’s first vines were planted in 1796 (obviously replanted since!). This is a very impressive wine for me, and the tannins seem somehow softer, perhaps due to the plush underlying fruit. 2011 was seen as an excellent vintage on release, but one which might drink well early on, I think.

To press the point we were treated to an off-list Sorì Paitin Riserva 2004 from magnum. It is still tannic, but coming into its own. My fears that 2004 is drinking before 2001 are making me rethink my planned Barbaresco for lunch on Friday…

BAROLO

Palladino

Palladino is not a name I know, but I’m pleased to have become acquainted with their wines. They use the old Cappellano winery in Serralunga where they make quite traditional wines, fermenting in concrete and ageing in “botti”. What I liked about the wines here was their ease of drinking, quite forward but not lacking anything as a result. But as the Tasting brochure says, rather atypical, with their well integrated tannins, for Serralunga Barolo.

The opener here is Barolo del Comune di Serralunga d’Alba 2013 which is a blend of vineyard sites which spends two years in Slovenian oak. Although they put a drinking window on it of up to 2028, I think this will be enjoyable well before that.

Barolo Ornato 2013 and Barolo Parafada 2013 were both enjoyable and, for £190/6 in bond, far more reasonably priced than the bigger names. The former is off clay and chalk with no sand in the soil. It shows salinity and an earthiness, but complexity too. The latter, of which there are at 3,500 bottles, 500 more than the Ornato, is very elegant. It sees a year in French barrique, then a year in older tonneau. That said, there’s power there too.

Livia Fontana

Livia Fontana is much better known in the USA (and, apparently, I learnt, in Scandinavia) than in the UK. They are based in Castiglione Falletto, with some pretty famous sites. Donato Lanati consults, so there is obvious ambition.

Off-list we began with Langhe Arneis 2016 from vineyards in Roero. It was the fruitiest of the Arneis I tasted and I really liked it. Nice precise definition as well.

Three reds began with the only non-Nebbiolo red of the day, Barbera D’Alba Superiore 2014. This was dark-coloured, with deep cherry fruit and a lick of brambly bitterness on the finish. From a site near the family home, it sees two years in oak and then up to 18 months in bottle before release, and I would suggest it is one of the “superiore” style of Barbera that will benefit from ageing. Four or five years for it to mature, I’d guess.

Barolo Villero 2013 is one of several famous crus of Castiglioni and as such it gets three years in older oak and further bottle age. It’s a pale wine with a bouquet that’s quite developed, yet elegant. Lighter on the palate than some, but in a good way. Barolo Bussia Riserva 2011 has an even deeper nose and combines elegance and power…perhaps more elegance than I expected from the broad shoulders of Bussia. We were also treated to a taste of the Bussia Riserva 2010, another very elegant and admirable rendition of this vintage.

Carlo Revello & Figli

Carlo appears quite fierce in some ways but he is a very thoughtful winemaker, now based in Santa Maria in the La Morra zone, working with his son, Erik, after the family holdings were split with his brother in 2016. He has vines in Rocche dell’ Annunziata, Giachini and Conca.

The vines for Langhe Nebbiolo 2016 were planted in 1960, on chalk and clay, and the grapes are fermented in horizontal rotary fermenters, before ageing in barrique. But this is a lighter style of Nebbiolo, which will age for sure but will also be approachable soon. I think the old vines show here. A promising start.

Barolo 2013 continued that promise. I’d read a note that someone who had recently drunk the 2012 (in Verduno) and 2013 of this wine, both within a week of each other, had felt the 2013 surpassed the previous vintage with ease. Not having a 2012 to compare it to, I really liked this 2013 with its high toned nose, and mouth coating tannins. The same rotating fermentation vessels are used but the Barolo grapes get four days skin contact.

There was a Riserva on show from the same vintage, Barolo RG 2013. “RG” stands for the components of the blend, originating from Rocche dell’ Annunziata and Giachini. It’s an incredibly impressive wine, but very tannic. A Rocche dell’ Annunziata Riserva 2005 was poured from a 3 litre format. It was a good vintage to choose, the nose very voluptuous.

The wines here showed tannin and structure, but also personality and they made me want to try more of them in a dining environment.

E Pira & Figli

This producer is probably better known by the name of the lady behind the operation, Chiara Boschis. Chiara farms around 8.5 hectares in the wider region, but with some spectacular sites including a near-perfect slope forming part of Cannubi. She has been joined recently by her brother, Giorgio, formerly of Borgogno. I suppose this is the least “under the radar” of Ultravino’s producers, and of course Chiara’s wines are available in other places, but always in tiny quantity. So it is good to find another source.

Chiara is famous for many things, but perhaps more than anything, for the meticulous attention to detail that this Economics graduate has brought to this estate, and probably more than anywhere, in the vineyards. Since taking over in 1990 she has invested in new sites, and Barolo Mosconi 2013 might be the first vintage from this site which I believe was purchased that year. Velvet would be my main descriptor here, albeit the proverbial velvet glove hiding an iron fist.

If you were impressed by MosconiBarolo Cannubi 2013 is something else. A 1.5 hectare parcel on sandy soil, a little altitude and a near perfect southwestern exposure make this one of the best sites in Barolo (the whole region, not just the village). Even at this stage it is elegant and majestic, and even though you’d not be thinking of popping a cork before 2025 at the very earliest, preferably longer. It would be the wine I’d wish to walk away with, although preferably one from a vintage more nearly ready to enjoy.

You can see Chiara’s Cannubi plots shaded in pencil if you look carefully at the map (right above the vineyard name on the pale brown patch)

La Briccolina

This is another producer completely unknown to me, but there is a sad story to be told. Tiziano Grasso began bottling his own wine, albeit in tiny quantity (around 3,000 bottles per year) in 2012.  He sadly died this summer, leaving his wife and son to continue his work. There were two wines on show, and Barolo 2013 was slightly corked. Not irredeemably corked, so it still tasted quite decent and was an interesting wine.

Barolo 2014 most certainly wasn’t corked, and perhaps explained why the 2013 had indeed seemed so fascinating. This is good! Fresh on the attack, there is fruit and well managed tannins, the latter softened by ageing (this time) partly in cement (some wine was also aged in old wood). It is quite old fashioned in some ways, a wine where you get roses on the nose if not tar. Spicy too, a wine for truffle season if ever there was one. All that from a vintage only just bottled (release of the 2014 is planned for spring 2018, but there were only around 3,000 bottles made).

The grapes are from old vines (50 years plus) planted at the top of the Briccolina hill, which is a south and southeast facing amphitheatre reaching around 320 metres above sea level, at Serralunga. Tiziano’s sad loss is a real blow, because I get the impression that critics were just beginning to notice his wines. Hopefully his family will be able to continue his work.

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What conclusions could be drawn from the tasting?

  1. 2013 seems to have produced some very good wines, perhaps quite high in tannins, but many here were both attractive to “taste” and showed real potential. Some tannins were very dry, but most were well managed.
  2. Talking to the producers, they were naturally quite enthusiastic about 2015, but could not contain themselves over 2016. Those I spoke to here seem to give it  “best ever” status, with a massive smile on their faces.
  3. 2017 is a vintage they were more guarded about. Reactions were along the lines of “well, in our case we were lucky and missed most of the frost”, and if you listen to some you’d think that all the hail fell on Treiso. Maybe it did?
  4. This was an extremely enjoyable tasting. Not all the producers were under the radar. I already knew the wines of Pelissero and Paitin quite well, and Chiara Boschis not quite as well as I’d dearly love to. But the rest were relatively under the radar, and certainly every one had something worth buying.
  5. Palladino’s wines were interesting for me, and also La Briccolina, I think because the wines may have been a little atypical, but also had something different about them. I was also impressed, from the producers I didn’t know, with Carlo Revello, particularly liking that 2013.
  6. Roero may not yet be on the lips of all Nebbiolo lovers, but it should be soon. The wines generally have a different profile to Barolo and Barbaresco, but then so do the equally discoverable Nebbiolos of Gattinara and Valtellina, and Roero arguably has more  producer “names to watch”. As the two “B”s rise in price, this will be somewhere to look for good drinking, perhaps more so than the “Langhe Nebbiolo” of all but the top producers from the more famous zones.

Ultravino should be very pleased with this tasting.

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Downstairs at 67 Pall Mall, a good central location for a tasting, though I wouldn’t have wanted this rather small room to be any busier than it was by 3pm. The picture was taken before 2pm as we got under way, near perfect conditions for tasting!

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Brunswick House – Some Classical Wines in a Classical Setting

It had been a while since I was at Brunswick House in Vauxhall, so I was very pleased to be back, even on a miserably wet night, earlier this month. When I’ve been before the food has been exceptional, largely because the sourced ingredients match what the kitchen does with them. This was also a chance to catch up with friends I’d not seen for a while, but who habitually drink what one might call more classical wines than I often write about. Yet there will be plenty here to interest everyone. I think, in fact, we’ll begin with the wines this time.

We managed a couple of aperitifs before the food began to arrive. We serve all the wines blind at these events, only for a laugh, but I think the first was already revealed when I got there. Dönnhoff Oberhäuser Brücke Riesling Spätlese 2004 is a wine which was possibly unfairly criticised by the man who brought it, but I saw his point. It has a pretty good attack and really suggests some complexity. The problem is that this didn’t really last very long. Everyone agreed on that, but coming in from the rain, it still made a nice refreshing glass, not too sweet but needs more length.

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Joseph Perrier Cuvée Joséphine 2002 was my offering for the evening, part of a batch from London merchant Jeroboams which quite a few of us bought into at the time. It’s fair to say that others have had mixed experiences, but my last bottle was very good, hence my decision to give it a go. It was quite rich and evolved after an initial reticence. I have one bottle left and will drink soon. Good, but not a patch on the last 2002 I took to a wine event, the magnificent Pierre Péters Les Chetillons. Whilst the latter wine should be good to around 2030, I wonder whether the Joséphine is more likely best by 2020?

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The next wine was fun to try to guess, and after initially suggesting it might be Swiss, I suggested Loire. It was in fact from Margaret River, and based on a blend of Chenin Blanc, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc. LAS Vino CBDB 2013 is a wine I’d heard about but never drunk, and it may be worth seeking out (I think the current vintage may be the 2016 though). LAS stands for something like Luck (of the weather), Art (of making wine) and  Science (which underpins it). The man behind the label is Nic Peterkin, whose dad is behind Pierro and whose mum is Vanya Cullen’s sister, so he’s Margaret River Royalty.

The 2013 is nicely evolving. You get honey and almond, then a creamy peachiness to the fore, but also some tropical fruit too. I’d love to grab a bottle as it’s really quite distinctive.  It doesn’t lack freshness, despite about 14% abv, and it costs around £40 from Liberty Wines. I wasn’t sure what CBDB stands for. Apparently it’s Chenin Blanc Dynamic Blend, but it somehow got me humming Talking Heads’ Psycho Killer. Obviously thinking of CBGBs. Wonder whether that was intentional?

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Things turned a little serious next, although as a consequence the wine (if not the vintage) was not too difficult to guess. Lopez de Heredia Rioja Blanco Viña Tondonia 1973 is a beautiful iteration of a wine which almost never fails to amaze, especially when given the requisite cellaring. You really would not believe how fresh this is. Waxy and with some salinity on the nose, the palate is honeyed, and so so long. Stunning! The man sitting next to me said “maybe a fraction light on the finish”. I think he was being a bit picky. You can still source the 1973 GR for a small fortune, and the 1999 for around £300, but the current vintage, 2004, is usually around £30 retail (and might be had for less). It is, potentially (assuming you keep it), one of the bargains of the wine world. I’m just waiting for the next vintage of the Rosado to come along.

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The next wine was obviously Sherry, but even this pretty knowledgeable bunch could not quite decide which type. It was a luminescent bronze colour, mellow and scented, but at the same time so fresh. Darker than a Pasada for sure, yet with a lightness on the palate. I was quite firmly thinking Amontillado, though certainly Equipo Navazos. In fact it was Equipo Navazos Palo Cortado Bota 75, probably the most elegant Palo Cortado I’ve ever drunk. It turns out that the juice here is exactly the same as that which went into the first edition of the EN Table Wine, Florpower, from Hijos de Rainera Pérez Marín in Sanlúcar.

At just 18% alcohol, moderate for a Palo Cortado, this shouts breed and finesse, and indeed even those who find EN bottlings quite a shock should appreciate the elegance of this one. In fact it combines a smooth middle with something quite floral on the finish. In this instance, to say it lacks the intensity usually found with ENPC is merely to suggest that this allows a whole different dimension of Palo Cortado to become apparent. It was quite a revelation.

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I’m going to have to zip through the reds a bit more quickly, and unfairly. Artadi Rioja Grandes Añadas 1999 was clearly a modern Rioja, wasn’t it? Well, I was thinking Super Tuscan to begin with. The nose was very much cherry and raspberry, with a touch of stalk and quite a bit of oak. Don’t get me wrong, the nose was in fact the best part. The palate was much more dumb, a phase perhaps?

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It was put to shame by my red of the night, Produttori Barbaresco Riserva Paje 2004. Most went with Barolo but soon guessed The Prod when directed to its neighbour. Anyway, this is way more delicate than the tar and roses cliché, more fruity (raspberry), with that lovely cold tea note. A gorgeous wine which I’d suggest is drinking now, but in the early part of full maturity, with a bit more to give.

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Three classic Bordeaux followed. Château Giscours 1966 came as a Berry Bros bottling and was a privilege to drink. It contains two-thirds Cabernet Sauvignon, which has doubtless sustained it as it gave us a good twenty minutes of good fruit before fading rapidly (longer, I think, than anyone expected).

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It was tough for Clos du Marquis 1983 to follow it. I’d had some bottles of the 1982, which I really enjoyed, and generally 1983 produced some under rated wines just lacking the longevity of the preceding year (that was my experience, not shared by all critics). This was nice to drink but, as with many 1983s at this level, it is approaching the end of its drinking window.

I bought a few wines from the vintage of the next bottle, it being still available, if not in great quantity, when I began to appreciate finer wines. It’s a vintage which I, at least, found quite distinctive. This enabled me to guess the vintage of  Château Giscours 1975, and as it was a backup for the 1966, the property. There is something hard about a lot of ’75s, almost like a full stop after the upfront fruit. Very nice, though, and it didn’t fade like the ’66 (this bottle was under the Château label). I’d be very happy if I owned a few bottles of this.

Our last wine of the evening was a classic red from Burgundy which I kicked myself for not getting near to identifying exactly. It’s a producer I used to drink quite regularly up to a decade ago. De Montille Pommard “Pezerolles” 1er Cru 1996 is classic Hubert, with that firmness of structure which Pommard exhibits ramped up another notch. In light of the producer and the wine, it really does need a good half-decade more in the cellar, but yet I found it hugely enjoyable, especially as it warmed up and the underlying fruit began to peek out.

I’m sure I have some 2001 of this. I had a look but it must be buried somewhere. On this showing of the 1996 I didn’t feel I needed to look too hard.

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An immensely enjoyable evening of wines was matched by some exceptionally nice food. Red Mullet tartare, Stonebass pan fried with artichoke and black garlic, Venison and Pork Trotter Ragu, and well aged English Longhorn Beef (two porterhouse and two tomahawk steaks of some depth between us) were all highlights. The beef was mouthwateringly immense, and the small dish of ragu was very rich and filling (but you just know you’d love to come back for double helpings some time).

It is true that the service was probably a little slow, but then we were eight of us. The only surprise of the evening was the bill. We’d asked for a set menu (and arranged BYO), and it is true that the beef was an optional extra, but I walked away paying twice what I’d previously paid at Brunswick House, which is a reminder to know what you are paying for. So it turned out to be an expensive Tuesday night out, but with the quality of the wine, the food and the company, the bill was something I was able to get over after the initial shock.

Brunswick House is at 30 Wandsworth Road, London SW8 and open every day for lunch, and dinner (but closes 5pm Sundays). Nearest Underground is Vauxhall, and if you get the right exit, it’s only a couple of minutes or so to walk.

The restaurant is part of a warehouse selling antiques and architectural salvage, much of it going to restaurants etc. If you want a flavour of the quirky but very attractive dining room, take a look at the front page of their web site below.

Check them out at brunswickhouse.co

 

 

 

 

 

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Eastern France Part 5 – Bérêche, Champagne

I can tell you two things about my relationship with Bérêche which will inform your reading of the rest of this article. First of all I will name you my favourite four Champagnes. They are Péters Chétillons, Philipponnat Clos des Goisses, Taittinger Comtes and Bérêche Reflet d’Antan. Okay, there are a few others, and if someone gave me Clos du Mesnil more often…but keep it simple. The other fact you should know is that Champagne is the only wine where I could survive on just one producer. No guesses for which.

Bérêche was founded in 1847, so has a proud history from a time when the idea of “grower champagne” was a long way from conception. If a Champagne producer is lucky, every few generations someone will take over who has the drive and vision to take them to another level. Bérêche is most fortunate in that the current fifth generation, in Raphaël and Vincent, has two such people.

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Two young men, with their father, who have grown to become two of the most creative people on the Montagne, with great sensitivity for their terroir

Bérêche & Fils owns around nine hectares of vines. Some are around their winery which sits up on the ridge at Craon de Ludes (or Le Cran). Some sit down in the west of the Marne Valley, at Mareuil-le-Port (not to be confused with Mareuil-sur-Ay). The rest of their vines are at Ormes, which is on the Petite Montagne, not far from the better known Vrigny.

The reason why it is worth detailing this information in this instance is that more than anything else, Bérêche is a producer of “terroir wines”, or certainly of wines where the different terroirs can clearly be seen to contribute to a blend. In fact both of those words, terroir and wine, carry equal weight. These are not just terroir Champagnes (a difficult concept for some aficionados to agree with), but they are also wines.

Every April an event takes place called “Terres et Vins de Champagne“. This was the first professional tasting in the region itself which allowed the trade to taste the vins clairs (still wines, before second fermentation) from a host of producers (now over twenty growers). Raphaël Bérêche was one of the main driving forces behind this event, which is now seen as part of the wider, emerging, idea for a “Printemps des Champagnes“.

This belief that Champagne can, and should, express the terroir on which the grapes were grown just as much as any still wine is central to what the brothers are trying to achieve here. The front page of their web site expresses it thus: “The beginnings of every wine takes place in the vines”. This is not always a popular idea in a region where the large Marques blend their wines from a wide, and often unspecified, area. It is the rallying cry for the “artisan grower”, differentiating his product as a wine of place. But, of course, we all know that in wine, quality begins with meticulous vineyard work.

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It is always a pleasure to visit Bérêche no matter who is there. We most usually see Raphaël, but he was in London with Vincent, pouring at Peter Liem’s very exclusive event at The Savoy, so it gave us the chance to taste again with Catherine, their mother.

The first wine to taste is always the Brut Réserve. Not only does it give the measure of the producer, setting the tone as well as quality, but in my experience if you don’t appreciate the entry level you often find something lacking further up the range. That said, Bérêche Brut Réserve is not a run of the mill “NV”. This one is from the 2014 base, disgorged in July 2017 and dosed at 7g/l, The highest dosage of all their wines. It combines really great fruit from (broadly) equal parts of the three main varieties.

Naturally this wine is not so much a terroir wine in that it blends fruit from every location where they have vines, but nevertheless it is possible to identify what each brings to the blend. For me this is especially the minerality of Ludes fruit and the richness coming from the Pinots off sand and limestone at Ormes. The mineral backbone and precision is amplified by the house producing non-malolactic Champagnes, but they also all have, to a greater or lesser degree, a certain rounded richness. This may be in part down to using 60% oak for fermentation, and (unusually for a wine at the entry level) 30% reserve wines from their perpetual reserve (rather like a solera system). Brut Réserve sees 24 months sur lattes.

Les Beaux Régards is a pure Chardonnay wine, this sample being from a 2013 base, disgorged March 2017 and dosed at just 3g/l. This wine is from two plots of old vines at Ludes on the Montagne. It is quite different to a lot of Chardonnay from the Côte des Blancs, balancing real fruit precision again with a rounded quality (it is aged in 350 litre barrels). A wine which needs more ageing than I fear it gets (I’ve been as guilty as anyone), but capable of some genuine complexity when it gets it.

All of the Bérêche cuvées apart from the Brut Réserve do their lees ageing (32 months for this wine) under cork. Raphaël always stresses how important he feels this is to the gentle development of the wine as it undergoes this crucial lees ageing, and Catherine is no less keen to stress the point.

What is the effect of ageing under cork? Oxygen intake is different, but not necessarily in the way you would think. Research suggests that initially oxygen exchange is lower under cork, although it increases exponentially under natural cork the longer the wine is aged. This is why the Brut Réserve is aged under crown cap (for two years), whereas some wines here are aged eight years or more.

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Le Cran is the vintage wine. The cuvée blends two plots near the winery, Le Cran itself facing west, towards Ludes and St-Jean, facing east towards Mailly.  The former is Chardonnay and the latter, Pinot Noir, and Chardonnay slightly dominates the blend (60:40). The soils in both plots are chalk and yield quite high acid juice, but 84 months ageing adds complexity. As with Les Beaux Régards, production is just between 3,000 to 4,000 bottles, but in a normal vintage.

When out in the vines near Ludes I’d noticed whole vineyards of unpicked black grapes. Pinot Noir tends to bud and flower early, and guess what, 2017 was another year of terrible frosts. The problems really occur when spring comes early and the vines wake up, only to be hit by a return to winter in these northerly climes. When this is accompanied by later rains and rot sets in, this is devastating. The Bérêche family lost 30% of their crop, not as bad as some, but they still found some plots wiped out completely.

The grapes on the vines, which look so puzzling to the casual observer in the November sunshine, are actually part of a second crop which are nowhere near mature enough to make wine. If you have already lost a large proportion of your crop you can’t afford to pick them, so they await disposal at winter pruning.

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You can clearly see what looks like a full crop here, near Ludes, but this photo was taken on 3 November

Campania Remensis is one of my favourite Rosé Champagnes. Pink Champagne may not be fashionable, but consumers were for years asked to pay a premium for fairly anodyne rosé wines. Now, producers like Vilmart, Péters, Cédric Bouchard and Bérêche are making wines with character and finesse, and in the case of this wine, there’s a textured (almost earthy) note, and real elegance too. Thirty-six months on lees, this doesn’t need drinking soon. The 3g/l dosage sees the gentle red fruits come to the fore. Mainly Pinot Noir, there’s also 30% Chardonnay in the blend, colour coming from 5% Coteaux Champenois Rouge.

Returning to the idea of terroir wines, it was perhaps a natural progression for Vincent and Raphaël to make still wines. The difficulty with Coteaux Champenois is always the price. Such wines are necessarily expensive to make and the general wine lover will always appear to find better prices for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay still wines elsewhere. But that perhaps is not the point. Those who truly love Champagne see a place for these wines (as we do for Rosé des Riceys from the Côte des Bar).

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There are two Coteaux Champenois – the red Montées (75% Pinot Noir and 25% Meunier from Ormes, planted in 1965) and the white Monts Fournois (Chardonnay from Rilly, planted 1961). The former is the same wine used to colour Campania Remensis. When there is so much fine sparkling wine here, I can quite understand a reluctance to buy these still wines, but I’m guessing you will be hard pushed to find two such masterfully made and well delineated still wines from the Montagne de Reims.

The last of the Champagnes made by Maison Bérêche is Reflet d’Antan (I know I missed out the Pinot Meunier Rive Gauche). I didn’t taste it, but nor did I the Reflet, which is so rare that a bottle isn’t opened very often. As I said at the top of the page, Reflet is one of my very favourite wines from the region. It comes out of the Réserve Perpetuelle, begun in 1985, and is a blend of Chardonnay and the two Pinots in the proportion 30:35:35. It spends 41 months on lees under cork, and is currently bottled with 6g/l dosage.

This is a rich wine, in large part from the “solera-syle” ageing in 600 litre oak which effectively increases the age of the blend, and from the richness of the juice which goes into the reserve to begin with. You get quite a nutty hit and also more dried fruits than fresh ones. It is one Champagne where the adjective “honeyed” is not out of place. There is nuance, of course, but that is perhaps not the point. It is a little different, a wine of truly singular character and personality. It is also a Champagne of great length. Bottle age mellows it magnificently.

Even with the dosage being slightly higher than the majority of the wines at Bérêche (bar the Brut Réserve), and all my comments about richness, it finishes very dry with texture and extract. For me, amazing, and generally still good value compared to most prestige cuvées (my last bottle purchased retail in the UK this year was £85 and you may even squeeze a bottle or two for less).

Raphaël and Vincent have also begun to work as micro negociants, being very careful in what they select. The Crus Sélectionnés are not a range set in stone, but a Collection is released each year to represent Côte, Montagne and Vallée. For the 2016 release there is Côte from Cramant (2007, 4,000 bottles); Montagne from Verzenay (100 magnums of 2002, and 1,000 bottles and 100 magnums of 2004); and Vallée, this latter being a non-vintage wine with 4,990 bottles aged 66 months in cave and 2,371 bottles aged 60 months. I’ve a particular liking for the Côte from previous releases, and I enjoy seeing what Raphaël can do with fruit from the Côte des Blancs. The 2005 Côte had more than ten years ageing (you read that correctly) and there might still be some knocking around in the UK. Remarkable!

If you are beginning to explore this producer do try everything you can, although all of the wines genuinely benefit from time in the cellar, more time than I’ve probably had the patience to give them in the past. A word of warning – there is more often than not no wine to sell at the domaine and several friends have been disappointed. Their UK agent, however, is Vinetrail, who generally has stocks. Individual wines are often available at the usual good independent wine shops.

You’ll pass the Bérêche premises on the brow of the hill at Craon de Ludes on the Montagne de Reims. If you are coming up from Reims, or indeed if you are frustrated at having driven past, driving from Epernay, do beware of the speed camera (facing uphill on the Reims side) as the speed limit is very low.

Check out their web site here

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Posted in Champagne, Sparkling Wine, Wine and Food, Wine Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Eastern France Part 4 – Domaine des Bodines, Arbois

 

This year we paid a shorter than usual visit to Arbois, and it must be said that the beginning of November isn’t the best time to visit. The Toussaint holiday takes away at least a day, some shops and restaurants are closed and wine producers are often away too, taking advantage of the school holidays in some cases (the Clairets of Domaine de la Tournelle, a “must visit” for me, were in warmer climes). But in any event, I was lucky to be able to visit Domaine des Bodines, whose winery is just outside Arbois on the road to Dôle. They have, over the past couple of years, slipped effortlessly into my favourite half-dozen Arbois producers, and there is plenty of hot competition.

Domaine des Bodines is the project of Emilie and Alexis Porteret. Like so many of the truly inspirational vignerons in the Jura Region, they had no background in wine when they decided to embark on this road. It sometimes seems as if this clean start allows a different way of looking at things, without the weight of tradition or family practice. I’m thinking here of people like Patrice Béguet (Hughes-Béguet) and Jean-Baptiste Ménigoz (Les Bottes Rouge), to name just a couple more.

The person the Porterets see as their adoptive wine father, the abovementioned Pascal Clairet (La Tournelle), was in a  broadly similar position himself back in the early 1990s, and this may be why the Clairets, who are a truly wonderful and warm couple, have been mentors in one way or another to so many young Jura winemakers. The co-operative attitude among the younger Jura wine producers goes a long way towards helping them get off the ground (as well as moral support there is an equipment sharing co-operative which means impossible investments can be put off until they are well established).

As Wink Lorch says in Jura Wine (2014, the seminal work on the region), the Porterets were very scared as to how they would sell their first commercial harvest of around 8,000 bottles. Now there are few importers of Jura wines who would not love to have them in their portfolio.

A few things have changed at Bodines since Wink’s book. First of all Alexis no longer works part-time at Domaine de la Pinte, enabling him to devote all his energies to home turf. Secondly, although the size of the domaine has only increased a tiny bit, they no longer farm the vines they had from Catherine Hannoun, over near La Pinte, but they have taken on a little Savagnin and Chardonnay at Poligny. Production has risen to around 15,000 bottles a year now everything is fully productive.

Another reason the domaine is more work for Emilie and Alexis is their conversion to biodynamics. They began with organic conversion, but have used biodynamic preparations for five years (La Prêle, or what we call horsetail, is used in the spring as an excellent biodynamic fungicide known to Pliny the Elder, silica in summer is sprayed on the leaves, and they use the traditional cow horn buried for six months before dynamising in water, to promote soil life) but Emilie said that the cost of certification is prohibitive for young producers with a five hectare estate.

The newest plan is to use a horse for the vineyard work. If you follow Bodines on Instagram you may have seen Emily’s first experience of horse ploughing. She’s had a lot of support from Alexandre Bain (Pouilly in the Loire). Emilie described all of these activities, especially using a horse, as “bettering ourselves”, and you can see that the pursuit of excellence is embedded in everything they do here. A horse doesn’t compact the ground like a tractor does, nor does it harm the vine roots thus shortening the life of the vines. Of course, it doesn’t pollute what in this case is theirs and their children’s back garden either.

 

Before tasting in the small cellar we headed out into the vines. The Porterets are very lucky, because their main vine holding is right outside their house and chai. The land slopes gently upwards to a small ridge (planted with Trousseau on its highest part), from where there are views over towards Villete-lès-Arbois and Vadans. Towards Arbois is a beautiful copse, and nearby vines are not treated chemically. In the autumn sunshine the air was fresh and the location idyllic.

The soils up here are on argilo-calcaire (clay-limestone) and the traditional mix of marnes found around much of the town. The vines were planted by the previous owner, co-operative vigneron Jean-Paul Crinquand, in 1983, which Emilie says is nice because that’s the year she was born. They have all five Jura grapes in Arbois to go with the white varieties I mentioned in Poligny.

The pleasure of seeing the vines is in understanding where and why different varieties are planted in different places, and here, seeing the ploughing between rows, which the Porterets (on their terroir) believe helps the vines, especially with drainage (the vines have always been ploughed here, even before Emilie and Alexis took over). On the way back we briefly met Alexis and his father, who helps out when he can in the vines.

The chais boasts a range of small tanks in the first part at ground level, some fibreglass and some stainless steel, all purchased secondhand because, as Emilie said, starting from scratch is frighteningly expensive.

 

In the Jura tradition, without comment, we began with the reds. Pinot Noir 2017 was harvested at the end of August and was direct pressed. It is very fruity, with both strawberry and raspberry present. It also tastes very pure. 2017 was a difficult harvest in terms of quantity but everyone here seems happy with the quality.

Trousseau 2017 was still macerating. The plan was to draw it off to press two days after our visit. They like to make a “lasagne” (that’s how Emilie described it), layering whole bunches with stems, bunches without stems, and then bunches with stems again. The aim is to do absolutely nothing. There is no pigeage or remontage, no added CO2, nor anything else. The wine pretty much makes itself at Domaine des Bodines.

Maceration Savagnin is a wine I was really looking forward to trying, one of the Bodines wines I’d yet to taste. It undergoes a four month maceration now. They taste continuously, and have decided that up to six months maximum is enough, so that they can keep plenty of fruit as well as the maceration textures, and not too long a maceration (they went up to eleven months whilst experimenting) also allows the balancing of Savagnin’s natural acidity with that texture. This juice was also going to be pressed at the end of the week, undergoing a very gentle pressure. It’s always hard to make proclamations based on juice, though in Jura at least I have a modicum of experience. But for me, this tasted thrilling.

We then moved to the barrel room next door, and just a little below ground level. Chardonnay 2016 is very fruity and fresh for the variety. I really have a soft spot for Bodines Chardonnay. It doesn’t lack body at all in 2016, but it does have real focus and a mineral edge. It spends two winters in wood before being put back in tank for blending, so expect release perhaps next spring, or maybe later (looking at the ’15 below).

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Savagnin 2016 was affected by the cold winter of 2016/17 in that temperatures reached -13 celcius, and fermentation stopped, not recommencing until March this year. In my experience, this is not totally uncommon in the region, where January and February can famously be bitterly cold. I even know of one case in Arbois where fermentation didn’t begin again for a year, though I don’t know the fate of that particular wine. This Savagnin has some nuttiness developing nicely, and it seems rounder than the Chardonnay right now.

Chardonnay 2015 is certainly a product of that warmer vintage, being fatter than the 2016, without losing that mineral freshness. Both are appealing, and the ’15 naturally tastes more complete with the extra year. It will be bottled very soon.

We finished in the barrel room with a very nice Savagnin 2015 which will also be bottled soon. Emilie says they like to do as little as possible so that the wines make themselves, which means they are also very particular about when they bottle each cuvée. This Savagnin is ouillé, or topped-up, and it retains freshness and vibrancy. It’s one of the most popular wines from Domaine des Bodines.

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You really feel there is a nurturing spirit at work here, but then Emilie is an arts graduate who trained in childcare. I got the impression that she has a deep feeling for her wines, and a deep understanding of them, unusual in one so young, but it really shines through, spending a couple of hours with her.

We moved out into the sunshine to taste from bottle. In some ways this was the disappointing part of the visit, but only because there was so little to taste, and indeed to buy. The wines are in such demand that Emilie only had two wines to open for us.

Névrosé 2016 is a pale red, very much in the Jura Ploussard tradition, except that this is made from Pinot Noir. It is from a precocious plot which we saw on our vineyard walk, lower down the slope and looking more or less eastwards. It has all the refreshing qualities you’d expect from a wine best served cool. It’s fruity and soft. But it does pack 13.2% alcohol. Like the wine below, don’t expect any fining or filtration to strip the life out of the wine, so you will also get some fine sediment swirling around in the bottle. Stand it up for a couple of days, and likewise, if you decide to chill it a little in the fridge.

Pinot Noir 2016 is still very young. Emilie said that she didn’t really want to sell the 2016 yet, but that she feels sorry when people come a long way to visit and there is no wine left (remember that the 2015 Chardonnay is still in barrel here).  This Pinot underwent  eight months maceration, one third whole bunches and two thirds destemmed. This eight month period was kind of accidental, according to Emilie, because it was too cold to press the juice initially. It has only been in bottle two months, hence their reluctance to let it leave, but I promised to squirrel it away and not touch it.

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In any event you might be remarkably lucky to find some 2015 in the shops. I even tracked down some of their Ploussard “Red Bulles” pét-nat in the region. This is the first Bodines wine I ever tried, about three or four years ago and I’ve managed to buy a bottle or two every year since. It’s one of the region’s best pét-nats, although the roll call of fine examples seems to grow every year. Ploussard/Poulsard just seems perfect for fresh and fruity sparkling wine.

Emilie proved to be one of the most welcoming hosts in the region, in line with everything acquaintances had said about her. On a visit you certainly learn an awful lot about this patch of terroir, and how this young couple, just in their thirties, work here. There is a very strong philosophy, more one felt passionately than intellectualised. It entails respecting the vineyard as a living entity, allowing the wines to form of themselves, naturally, without unthought out interventions. And I think they care very much about how their wines are appreciated too, and are keen to know where they end up. It struck me as not dissimilar to wishing to stay connected to your children when they leave home. I think the wines are wonderful.

 

Animals play their part here too. Each family member, parents and children, has a chicken as a pet and a donkey will be arriving soon.

Domaine des Bodines is right on the Route de Dôle, immediately as you are leaving Arbois on the left (the sign is large but easy to miss). Call (0)3.84.66.05.23 or contact via domainedesbodines@gmail.com . Visits by appointment, although if you are largely interested in purchasing wine it may be best to ask if any is available.

Bodines has much of its distribution abroad, where a lot of their 15,000 bottles seem to end up. The excellent Selection Massale in California seem to stock the wines, and they are  currently listed in the UK by Les Caves de Pyrene, although I’m not sure what their current stocks are. The Cave des Papilles in Paris has, in the past, been a source, at least for Chardonnay and Pinot Noir. Epicurea in Poligny is a good bet, unless the Jardins St-Vincent is open in Arbois (see below). I’d like to think that these wines might crop up a little more widely in London before long.

ARBOIS UPDATE

Those who have an interest in visiting Arbois and the region can find a lot of information in articles from previous trips on this blog, especially those written in 2016 and 2015 (use the search function). But it felt appropriate to add a small update here.

We dined at La Balance on our first night, and some readers might be aware this restaurant has changed hands. In my opinion it is (on that showing) very little changed from what it was (it was always a breath of fresh air to go there). We drank André-Jean Morin’s Domaine de la Touraize Savagnin 2014. It’s aged under flor but very fresh as well as nutty. Not as big as some, lighter than those more complex sous-voile wines which often get described as “mini-Vin Jaunes”. I really enjoyed his pét-nat earlier this summer (see in “Recent Wines- Summer ’17, Pt 2”), and I definitely plan to sample more of this producer, who was new to me in 2017.

Sadly Les Claquets was closed whilst we were in town, but it does appear to be open otherwise, despite rumours it might close down, and indeed, seems to be open lunch and evenings (it was due to reopen two days after we left).

Also closed, as usual, was Stéphane Planche’s Les Jardins St-Vincent but Stéphane did mention as part of a conversation on social media that he will be opening Fridays and Saturdays. This, despite all the “domaine” shops in Arbois, will bring joy to all the natural wine lovers visiting the town. I did spy Stéphane in Arbois, but he looked resolute (he may have been carrying a battery charger), but I have been told that if he’s around he will open up specially (he’s been back consulting at Jean-Paul Jeunet for a while, and that’s where one might track him down).

Finally, I know of at least a couple of readers who have done some of the walks I’ve mentioned before. We did the long walk to Pupillin again this time (climbing up past the Hermitage overlooking the town before taking part of the GR59 through the forest to the village). This time we also explored the walk to Les Planches, the nearest village to the Cascade des Tufs. This is marked towards the Allée du Roi de Rome after which it is a rocky path along the western ridge of the steep cliffs which lead to the Fer à Cheval. Possibly not a walk for icy conditions, but safe otherwise, quite up-and-down with an occasional scramble, but very enjoyable. We saw mouflons up close as we descended to Les Planches. The Arbois Tourist Office sells a very good map detailing several excellent walks for €5 (called Arbois – Vignes et Villages).

 

Left to right:- Touraize Savagnin sous-voile at La Balance, Les Claquets in Place Faramand and Hirsinger, Arbois’ internationally acclaimed chocolaterie-confiserie. No visit to Arbois is complete without a big slab of Comté and a visit to Hirsinger.

 

 

Posted in biodynamic wine, Jura, Natural Wine, Wine, Wine Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Eastern France Part 3 – Fritz Becker, Schweigen

The more geographically, or cartographically, inclined reader will immediately spot that Schweigen is not in France. In fact it is in Germany’s Pfalz region. So as I asked the other day in my introduction to this series of articles, what has Fritz Becker got to do with Eastern France? More perhaps than you might think, and it is an interesting story which goes back eight hundred years.

In the eleventh century the Benedictines chose Wissembourg as the location for one of their large monastic communities, and under Abbot Samuel began construction of one of the largest and finest churches in the region. There had been a church on the site since the seventh century, in the reign of the Merovingian King, Le Bon Roi Dagobert (as the song goes). Wissembourg soon grew to become one of the five biggest ecclesiastical landowners in Western Europe, and naturally the monks planted vineyards, lots of them.

In those days there was no Germany, eight centuries away from unification, and France was a small island of territory around Paris, several days ride away. As we know, over time, this particular bit of territory made its way from one overlord to the next until we reach the Second World War, where Wissembourg and her fine old buildings, dominated by this great abbey church, were right on the front line between France and Germany. The story I was told is that an enlightened local commander on the German side refused to fire into Wissembourg, but this act of restraint was not reciprocated by the allies. The fact is that Wissembourg stands, and Schweigen and much of the surrounding vineyard was levelled.

It took us an hour and a half to drive up to Wissembourg from Andlau, and it is just a four minute hop over the border to the Becker winery in Schweigen, but although that winery is firmly located in Germany, 85% of the Becker vineyards are in France, including their best sites which produce their Grand Cru Pinot Noirs.

Fritz junior (Kleine Fritz to his family), with whom we spent the morning, is the seventh generation of Friedrich Beckers to run this estate (there is a baby Fritz to take it to an eighth generation). He told us the story whilst we were out in the vines of how his own father remembered his father’s best wines before the war as coming from the hills over the border in France. The only problem, aside from the shell damage, was that these vines were now on the other side of the border, and whereas crossing the border had once been a day to day occurrence, the postwar Franco-German border was a hard one. Nevertheless, in the 1960s Fritz junior’s father bought back the vineyards confiscated from his father in 1945. Everyone thought he was crazy as by then the vines of a resurgent Schweigen-Rechtenbach were being planted on the flat plain, easy to work for the tractors and with much higher yields.

When you are out in these hillside vineyards, you can easily see why these sites produce such fine wines. There has apparently been Pinot Noir here since those eleventh century vines were planted. The Saint-Paul vineyard, set beside the last remaining of the four watch towers the monks built for defence, is a magnificent south facing slope which was originally planted with Pinot Noir in the 14th century, but was recovered and replanted by the Beckers in 2000. The Kammerberg, which provided wines for the senior monks, slopes dramatically right down towards the abbey itself. The vines here are old, and it was one of the sites Fritz senior repurchased in the Sixties.

The top photo shows the view down the slope of the Kammerberg towards the Abbey of Wissembourg. Bottom left is the Saint-Paul vineyard with the last remaining watchtower from the eleventh century just on the right of the picture. The stone marks the repurchase of the Kammerberg by the Beckers in 1967.

The soils up here are predominantly on poor limestone and the climate is very similar to that in the Côte d’Or. Pinot Noir had fallen out of fashion here, due to its low yields, but high yields were not what Fritz senior had wanted. He knew he could make the best Spätburgunder in Germany on these sites. And I think his son does.

A month ago Anne Krebiehl MW wrote an article in Decanter Magazine on German Spätburgunder. It was a very good article, but I was quite surprised to see no mention of Weingut Friedrich Becker. The Becker wines are indeed not all that well known in the UK, although Wine Barn import them, and they are occasionally seen in London’s exclusive Hedonism Wines. Yet German writer Stephan Reinhardt in his The Finest Wines of Germany (Aurum 2012 in the World of Fine Wine‘s Fine Wine Series) describes this estate as “one of the top producers of Spätburgunder in Germany”. He goes on to remind us that Becker’s top wines “regularly receive the highest scores in the German wine press”, and that each year between 2001 and 2009 a Becker wine was awarded Best Spätburgunder by Germany’s Gault Millau Wine Guide.

Weingut Becker is not all about Pinot Noir though, and before we tasted the reds we went through a series of white wines. Despite the fame the reds have achieved, the whites are also exciting propositions, all displaying freshness and finesse. The domaine has undertaken a reappraisal over the past decade. Oak has been dialed back on the reds, as has extraction, with grapes being picked at slightly lower oechsle levels to allow for greater acidity and freshness (Fritz junior’s father was one of the first to import barriques from France into Germany). This philosophy has filtered through to the white wines.

Silvaner Trocken 2016 – This, and a Riesling, are the bulk wines of the domaine, if any wine can be so described here. The Beckers farm 18.5 hectares and produce around 100,000 bottles each year in around 40 different cuvées (plus large and small formats). Bottled in one litre format, this Silvaner has quite high acidity, but is fresh with a mineral bite and a touch of prickly CO2. It makes a good party or picnic wine.

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Grüner Sylvaner Alte Reben 2016 – Note the French spelling of the grape variety here. At 11.5% this still shows more amplitude than the litre version. From old vines of around 30 years upwards, and naturally low yields, this sees two-to-three days skin contact before pressing. There is building complexity and this will keep.

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Grauer Burgunder “Kalkmergel” 2016 – Pinot Gris has pink tinged berries, and this wine sees five days on skins, from which it derives a pinkish hue. It has a lovely nose and the palate is dry with both light red and stone fruits. It weighs in at 13% but Fritz said his aim is to slow down the sugar production and keep the acidity relatively high. So this is focused and fresh, unlike some of the richer Alsace and Pfalz Pinot Gris.

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Weisser Burgunder “Kalkgestein” 2016 – This blends grapes from the limestone hills with those from sandstone on the plain, and it sees some oak, a mixture of large and small wood, but all old. It has a sort of Sauvignon Blanc gooseberry nose with just an exotic touch on the palate, but otherwise there’s real focus.

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Chardonnay “Mineral” 2013 – This has a few years bottle age and is showing very well. It smells quite like Chablis, with perhaps a touch of Tasmania. Very, well, mineral with a nice dry mouthfeel and, again, that Becker focus on the palate. All new plantings on the estate now are either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. In this location it is not surprising that Chardonnay does so well. I think this needs more time, but it is impressive for a wine to be had at the cellar door for under €10.

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We now come to the reds, the Spätburgunders for which the domaine is famous. Regular readers will have seen, in my last article on recent wines, that I drank a 2010 vintage of Becker’s entry level Spätburgunder a month ago. If we need to locate it in terms of quality, imagine a beautiful Bourgogne Rouge from a top Burgundian producer. At the domaine it will set you back €11.50 for the 2014, though even cellared at home for several years, my 2010 cost somewhat more from Hedonism. It was amazing, especially considering where it sits in the hierarchy, and it still had, perhaps, a little development in it.

Spätburgunder Trocken 2014 – is somewhat less developed, being four years younger. Less rich too, I think, a product of vintage variation, 2010 being warmer. This is a wine majoring on its fruit, though something just hinting at earth comes through. Even at this level is is worth keeping a while longer. Very nice.

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Next up the ladder is the Spätburgunder “B”, which comes off limestone on both sides of the border, and the vines are older, up to around 35 to 40 years. I didn’t taste this, but it’s one of Fritz’s best value cuvées and I did buy some.

Spätburgunder Rechtenbacher 2013 – This is the sister (or brother) to the Schweigener Spätburgunder, which we can assume to be the village wines, so to speak. This cuvée comes from vines on red sandstone and it sees partial new oak. This is reflected in the tannins, but the wine is both svelte and precise and we are getting even more classy fruit underneath. There is potential to age, though my guess is that much of it doesn’t have that chance at just €20 a pop.

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Spätburgunder Steinwingert 2013 – is described by Fritz as “more Burgundian”. I’m not wholly sure what he means but this has perhaps a greater breadth of (smoky raspberry) fruit without losing a degree of precision. It partners the Herrenwingert cuvée, and Fritz also refers to them as the Premiers Crus. [no photo]

Spätburgunder Kammerberg GG 2013 – This, along with the Saint-Paul are the top of the regular pile (there are occasional special bottlings). They are the Grands Crus, or Grosses Gewachs. Of course the German authorities won’t allow the use of the French cadastral lieu dit names, so they are supposed to be sold with a fantasy name. On the list they appear as “KB” and “SB”, though I’m not sure what is going on with the bottle pictured below.

This has incredibly refined fruit, deep cherries at first on the nose giving way to ripe but focused raspberry. A very concentrated mouthful, with a long way to go. €50 at the domaine, though checking the Wine Barn web site earlier today, it looks like they may still have one magnum of 2006 for £183. I would say it’s very likely worth it for someone in need of a great Christmas gift idea. About 3,000 to 4,000 bottles are produced of each of these wines, so they should be obtainable.

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This was yet another wonderful tasting, and there is no doubt that seeing the vines and having the terroir explained does wonders for one’s work in the tasting room here. There is no doubt that having worked to dial back the power and oak and freshen the acidity, Fritz Becker is at the top of his game.

Most of the wines here are intended to reflect the different terroirs. The 1971 German Wine Law stripped away these old Einzellagen and replaced them with large Grosslagen, often misleadingly named to sound like one of the famous sites. Here, the old 10 hectare Sonnenberg site was the name given to all of these hillside parcels, and Sonnenberg suddenly grew to 240 hectares. The Becker family are adamant that the old names are valid, making clearly differentiated wines. But as Fritz says, “we pay our land taxes to France but Germany tells us how we can and cannot label the wines”.

These are not “natural wines” as such, although Fritz works with nature. The use of herbicides and inorganic fertilizer was stopped thirty years ago, although we saw a nice big pile of horse manure in the vineyard. Winery manipulations are minimal too, although we had a discussion about sulphur. Fritz makes clean and focused wines and he prefers to use sulphur as he doesn’t like any volatility. He’s not convinced he can do without it, but what he does utilise is carefully monitored to use the minimum necessary.

I truly hope that as we are seeing German Pinot Noir become fashionable, and as wine lovers discover just how good it can be, that the wines of Fritz Becker junior take their rightful place near the top of the quality list. All of his wines come highly recommended. This is a top German estate, even if most of their finest wines are effectively French in origin.

Weingut Friedrich Becker is at Hauptstrasse 29, 76889 Schweigen, tel +49 (0)6 34 2 290. Visits by appointment via www.friedrichbecker.de

From top, clockwise: Fritz with Thorwi, mags; winery yard; out of the van atop the Kammerberg; Becker is a member of the prestigious Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter; guarding the fort; the original Fritz, allegedly.

We wanted to eat lunch and Fritz recommended we go to the restaurant at Jülg. Weingut Jülg is the other good producer in Schweigen (some of their wines are imported into the UK by Howard Ripley). We had a very cosy lunch in very traditional surroundings (for me, a Riesling spritzer in a big tumbler, with schnitzel and salad, and a slab of simple but tasty cheesecake. Decent coffee too). From the Becker winery head along Hauptstrasse and turn right at the church, and the Wienstub is on the left just before the main road back to France.

Do take a wander around Wissembourg too. The grand abbey isn’t the only old building in town, and it’s well worth a sniff around the greengrocers. Fifty per cent of the cars in the large car park were German.

 

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Eastern France Part 2 – Jean-Pierre Rietsch, Mittelbergheim

Sometimes a visit to a producer can be quite a revelation, and this usually happens when you don’t know their wines all that well. Of course, like many of my readers, I’ve drunk a few of Jean-Pierre Rietsch‘s gems, but this was my first visit, and first chance to taste through some of the range.

I won’t pretend it was an easy tasting (on my part) at times. With most producers and growers my French is adequate to communicate, conversational French paired with much of the technical language required for the subject. Yet with Jean-Pierre my French sort of fell to pieces slightly. I felt I was in the presence of someone who thinks deeply about his wines. I don’t know whether that impression is correct, but it was clear that my French doesn’t go deep enough to say what I wanted to say much of the time. Because these wines are just so good.

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I think I’d go as far as saying that they are the best Alsace wines I’ve tasted for a long time, and I should add that this is in a region from where, month on month, I’ve been tasting more and more fantastic wines these past couple of years.

The tasting room at Domaine Rietsch has a very nice feel to it, an aura which felt almost Japanese to us. I think it was the lovely table which reminded me of a torii gate.There was something more ordered about it than, for example, the jumble of bottles and boxes chez André Durrmann the previous afternoon. The labels here are magnificent too. There is no obvious theme through the range, except the unity of artist. But it all adds up to a suspicion that absolutely every single detail matters for Jean-Pierre.

The thing to remember here is that these are very much wines of terroir, intended to express variety, of course, but equally or perhaps more so, place. Rietsch possess vines in the Grand Crus of Wiebelsberg and Zotzenberg, but also in sites like Stein (limestone, near the domaine in Mittelbergheim), Brandluft (clay, limestone and sandstone, on the road to Andlau) and Heiligenstein. This village/site north of Mittelbergheim used to have no reputation despite its own AOC for Klevener de Heiligenstein (clay and sandstone on which is planted the rare Savagnin Rose grape variety).

We opened with the Crémant d’Alsace Extra Brut 2014 (disgorged July 2017 with 8mg/l residual…note milligrams, not grams). Coming in with a fairly standard  12.5% abv it has the adition of a little fresh juice from the following (2015) vintage, an ancient method revived here. The wine is fresh, and has a bracing mineral acidity, with a very nice backbone and great mouthfeel. Like almost all Crémant from the region, there is not great autolytic character building at present, yet the nuttiness does nevertheless suggest complexity. Along with the fine nature of the wine, you will think it one of the best Crémant d’Alsace you’ve tasted. It is a blend of Auxerrois, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, all picked ripe.

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The domaine’s Sylvaner Vieille Vigne is an assemblage, in this case 50:50 from 2015 and 2016, from vines grown on argilo-calcaire (clay-limestone) soils. As with all good Sylvaner, you begin with fresh and fruity, with a misleading mirage of simplicity. But then it builds in the glass. Its greatest attribute, for me, is salinity. This (though not salinity alone) makes it multi-dimensional, which is achieved less often than not with Sylvaner. Certainly not a wine to ignore when purchasing (and I did buy some of everything I tasted, and one or two I didn’t).

I won’t list the tech details for every wine, but to illustrate the thoroughness of the labels I can tell you that this wine underwent spontaneous fermentation using indigenous yeast strains, and that it was aged on lees in cuve. It contains 12.5% alcohol by volume, 2.2 g/l of sugars, and 16 mg/l total SO2. Jean-Pierre said he will use a little sulphur to combat volatile acidity if he deems it necessary, but will avoid adding it if possible.

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Stierkopf 2016 is a varietal Auxerrois from both granite and clay-limestone. No sulphur is added. The sensation here is lemon citrus, fine, fresh, fragrant and if I say “uncomplicated” I don’t mean that as anything but a compliment. The most complicated thing about this wine is to decide whether I’d use it as an aperitif, or to partner food. My cop-out would be a summer lunch outdoors. Vibrant and refreshing, and I think it will age too. In fact I think all these wines will benefit from age and I plan to hold off drinking anything I bought for now, hard as that will be.

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Murmure (whisper) is the first of the maceration wines. No sulphur, seven days skin contact, 11% alcohol. The very best Muscat grapes (naturally we are speaking relatively here at a domaine which would reject any sub-standard berry) are direct pressed and the rest of the bunches are added later. There is a fresh acidity rarely found in Muscat, and a bit of texture from the maceration of the skins. It has a little CO2 present at first in the glass, which of course helps protect this zero added sulphur wine.

Along with the more floral notes that we associate with the Muscat varieties, you will also find yellow fruits, and a little tannin from the skin contact, perhaps less than you might expect. It’s very elegant, and mixes a precision, also rarely found in Muscat, with something evolving more broadly as it warms.

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Klevener de Heiligenstein is a wine most Alsace aficionados will have heard of, but if they have tasted one it might not have set their palate alight. This is different, I promise, and is undoubtedly the best Klevener de Heiligenstein I’ve tried. Although I’d not tasted it before, its reputation had preceded it (as in “you have to try…).

The grape variety, as I already mentioned, is Savagnin Rose, not a Jura variety but a Gewurztraminer variation. At 13% abv, it has spent eleven months on lees in demi-muid. It is made only in even years. The colour is a lovely gold with flecks of pink-bronze. The nose is pear with dried fruits emerging, and the palate finishes with a lick of bitterness, which Jean-Pierre describes as a taste of the stalks. I’m reminded of Andrew Jefford in Decanter writing that the best wines sometimes have a certain unloveliness about them. For such an unrecognised terroir (in quality terms), this wine really makes you think long and hard, and also makes you concentrate. You can’t “get” this with one sip on a tasting bench, but it is impressive.

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Pas A Pas is made in odd years only, explained by the fact that it comes from a réserve perpetuelle (which we loose talkers might call a solera, though most French vignerons I know prefer the former terminology). The cuvée name means step by step.

The grape variety is Savagnin Rose again, but here in a darker bronze cloak. The aromatics are rich and complex – quince, tarte-tatin, some oxidative notes…it is a quintessentially autumnal wine which felt just right for the cold but sunny weather of our visit. It also has somewhat more of a hint towards the Savagnin of the Jura with that oxidative, nutty, finish. I would suggest that you just fry up some wild mushrooms and you are away. As with the Klevener above, don’t serve it too chilled.

I said that the Muscat was not particularly representative of the variety in the region as a whole (a good thing!), and the same can be said of Jean-Pierre’s Gewurztraminer, Demoiselle (we tasted the 2016).

The grapes are picked right at the start of the vintage. The intention is to avoid excess maturity and excess alcohol, although this 2016 reached 14%, but you’d never guess from tasting it. Fermentation is partially whole berries, for 16 days, and then it spends six months on lees.

The colour has a gentle orange tinge, and the bouquet has something of orange citrus about it. Again, there is complexity, doubtless from the different individual sites where the fruit comes from, and that includes a certain minerality almost never found with Gewurztraminer. This is the second brilliant wine made from this grape I’ve tried this autumn, the other being Gut Oggau’s Emmeram. As I said when writing about that Austrian wine, such bottles change one’s perception of Gewurztraminer completely. Let’s not forget to mention the fresh acidity and fruit here, almost unheard of for decades in the region.

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You might ask why I only tasted seven wines? Whilst I had taken at least an hour-and-a-half of an obviously busy winemaker’s time, it was evident Jean-Pierre would have let me taste everything if I’d asked, but I like to try to balance selfishness with some thought for a welcoming host. And besides, despite what I said, we did talk a lot. I did take away some Grand Cru Riesling, and J-P especially recommended the Zotzenberg Sylvaner Grand Cru 2014 as well. Sylvaner was not part of the original plan for listed varieties in the Grand Cru regulations, but it is obvious that the variety has undergone a massive revival in quality all over the region. On a top site it can be transformed.

Site is important, but so is cultivation. Zotzenberg is composed of iron rich sandstone with limestone, with a pure southern exposure. The must sees 36 months on lees, in demi-muid for the first year before transfer to stainless steel vat.

These wines are “natural wines”, yet about as far removed from the weak stereotype as it is possible to be. They are also, as I perceive, thoughtful wines, or at least I find them thought provoking. No vin de soif “glouglou” for me. I hesitate to say “profound” as that kind of language is much over used in wine writing, but these are wines which require concentration and focus to fully appreciate.

Jean-Pierre seemed to enjoy talking about his wines, albeit in a measured way, and I felt almost ashamed that, in this instance, my linguistic ability let me down. He probably didn’t appreciate just how bowled over I was about the wines we tasted, and how much I appreciated his time and patience. I’m not into calling wine producers “popes” and such like, but I think we could all learn an awful lot at the feet of this master vigneron.

Jean-Pierre (and Pierre) Rietsch are at: 7 rue Stein, 67140 Mittelbergheim, tel. (0)6.79.05.25.08. Visits strictly by appontment only.

A few photos from the Rietsch tasting room and the vineyards around Mittelbergheim. Did you spot the Partida Creus on the bottom row, untouched by Jean-Pierre since Severine Perru from New York’s Ten Bells placed it there during harvest?

Of course, Mittelbergheim boasts other good natural wine producers, and if you have time, don’t neglect the one below. He’s also very good indeed.

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Eastern France Part 1 – Anna & André Durrmann, Andlau

The explanation for a lack of articles these past couple of weeks will be known to those who follow me on Instagram – I’ve been in France. Over the next week (or more!) I shall be planning to publish five articles from my travels.

This first article, on André and Anne Durrmann of Andlau, is about a grower I’d never come across before, but they are doing interesting things, in the vineyard as much as in the bottle.

I make no apologies for calling the subject of the second article one of the “gods” of Alsace natural wine, though he’ll probably be annoyed by that – the truly talented Jean-Pierre Rietsch in neighbouring Mittelbergheim makes what are now my favourite Alsace wines. For me, they are towers of natural winemaking, not only for their quality and finesse, but for their innovation as well. An extensive tasting is a privilege here.

Then I shall be introducing Fritz Becker, at Schweigen in the Southern Pfalz, my favourite producer of Spätburgunder (yet totally absent from the recent Decanter Magazine article on the grape variety). What has he to do with Eastern France? You’ll have to read it to find out. It’s a fascinating story.

The fourth article will introduce Emilie and Alexis Porteret, of Domaine des Bodines in Arbois. They have entered my favourite half-dozen Jura producers over the past couple of years, and after our visit last week Emilie now also counts as one of the very nicest people making wine in the region as well.

I’ll round off the domain visits with my favourite of all Champagne producers, Bérêche, up on the ridge of the Montagne de Reims, at Craon de Ludes. It was nice to catch up with Raphael’s mum again whilst he and Vincent were presenting their wines in the luxury of London’s Savoy Hotel. I managed to plead for a few bottles and still spent less than the cost of a ticket to that rather wonderful event, and out in the vines I also got a good sight of the problems caused by frost on the mountain in 2017.

Looking further ahead, I’m off to dine at Brunswick House this evening, my first visit there for nearly a year, so I shall be letting you know about how that went. I’ll be reviewing what, at least for me, is the autumn’s major wine book release, and then, in time for Christmas we have the long awaited, inaugural, Wide World of Wine Awards (WWWA’s)! Oh yes, a rival to the DWWA and IWC if ever I saw one. I’ve a few more things up my sleeve to slip in before Christmas, so keep on reading.

DOMAINE ANNA & ANDRÉ DURRMANN (ANDLAU, ALSACE)

For most of the time I have enjoyed Alsace wines the received wisdom has always been that the best wines come from the Haut Rhin, effectively the southern part of the region, from the villages around Colmar and beyond. This is where all the so-called big names are based, like Hugel, Trimbach and so on. It is also where most of the tourists go, to the geranium-bedecked villages of Riquewihr or Ribeauvillé. But as Alsace has changed, so the epicenter of excitement has shifted, and whilst there are many wonderful producers in that heartland, including many new names, the Bas Rhin, the region’s northern sector, has come much more into focus.

My first ever trip to Alsace was not far short of thirty years ago. I knew little about the region save for photos of attractive half-timbered, gaily painted, houses in wine books of the time (I well remember a few years later consuming Tom Stevenson’s excellent tome published by Faber, before he became known solely as a Champagne guru, which increased that knowledge substantially).

By total coincidence on that trip I stayed in Itterswiller, just south of Andlau and Mittelbergheim, two villages where some of the best natural winemakers in Alsace are now based. Four Alsace trips later and I was finally back in Andlau for six nights, and it was during a stroll on arrival there that I spotted some Durrmann bottles in a window near the Mairie, and the next day took a short walk to see him. He’s not well known in the UK, so this was new ground.

André Durrmann inherited the family vines from his father in 1979, but after conversion to organic viticulture, he only began experimenting with some zero sulphur cuvées in 2008, alongside his interest in permaculture and l’agroforesterie. They have Agriculture Biologique certification now.

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André Durrmann with “Zegwur” (right)

Before the tasting notes I want to tell you about our trip out into the vineyards. You soon discover that the Durrmanns walk the walk when you are introduced to their two electric cars. One is a small family car which André says can make Paris in eight hours with charging stops, the other is the vineyard car, a rather quirky “Mia” with the driver’s seat forward and room for three (at a pinch) on the back seat.

We headed off to a south facing vineyard in a valley close to the winery, where there is some Pinot Blanc, but mainly Pinot Noir, planted on limestone. André explained that he’d found this vineyard to be one where the vines both budded and fruited early, making them prone to frosts, so he’s undertaken quite a lot of vineyard modifications in order (he says successfully) to slow down growth.

First of all, he’s used a lyre training system, unusual in Alsace, which raises the vines from the ground. This means they access more sunlight, there is more old wood to protect the vine, and of course they are that little bit higher from the ground frost. Innovation number two is to leave the ground unploughed, with weeds between the vines (spaced wide at a little over three metres to reduce soil compaction) until after harvest, at which time he brings in his herd of sheep. They eat the vine leaves and mow between the rows, preparing the vineyard for the next season.

When Claude Bourguignon came to look at the vineyards they discovered the vine roots had reached a depth of more than 1.5 metres, and André said he believes this vindicates his decision not to plough. The roots get competition from the weeds and so are forced to burrow deeper, and hence, on the limestone, they find moisture and nutrients, whilst up top the untilled weeds harbour a wide variety of insect life.

Even more radical, but not unique, is the planting of trees in the vineyard. The twofold intention is both to offer some shade to the vines, and to make it less of a monoculture. A wide variety of trees are planted, including almond, cherry and oak, which will be allowed to grow to around eight to ten metres tall. There are already birds nesting in some.

Here you can see the raised Lyre training and some of the trees, newly planted and maturing

I asked André whether there had been any problems with neighbours, because I’m aware of a couple of vineyards in Southern France and Northern Italy where similar ideas have met with a frosty reception and vandalism. He said not. This valley is not in the centre of Andlau viticulture, the trees are not near the boundary, and he said that as a former president of the Andlau vignerons, he’d sorted a few things out so he felt he was generally liked in the village (a son is the current head of the Andlau winegrowers).

I also asked André about predators on the sheep. There are lynx in the forest, but the vineyard is fenced and he says they are not really a problem (the fencing also keeps the sangliers out when the grapes are ripe). Occasionally a local dog bothers them, but that is rare too. The Durrmanns are vegetarians, so the sheep don’t have humans to fear either.

André makes a  large range of wines from his seven hectares, approaching thirty wines plus eaux de vie, which is not remotely unusual in the region. To some he adds sulphur, but we concentrated on the sulphur free bottlings.

Sylvaner 2016 – the Sylvaner variety shows increasing promise in the region as a whole, the result of it being taken more seriously in the vineyard, no longer a cash cow and best suited for the Edelzwicker blends which used to occupy the lowest rung on the Alsace ladder. Indeed, all of the good natural wine producers in the region do something interesting with Sylvaner. André keeps his fresh and lively, simple, and with a good lick of acidity.

Pinot Blanc Cuvée Nature 2016 keeps that freshness with somewhat less acidity, more suppleness, and indeed more subtlety, but it’s still a lively wine which I would see as a thirst quenching vin de soif . Antoine Kreydenweiss, of Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss, my top winemaker in the village, does something more serious with the variety, but the Durrmann wine has the advantage of being inexpensive. A little over €6. The advantage of visiting a relative unknown on the international stage is price!

You have to pay double that for the Gewurztraminer “Zegwur” 2016, another unsulphured wine which is floral and spicy. It only weighs in at 12.5% abv, which tells you that this is “new old school” Gewurz, not one of the blockbusters which have somewhat taken the edge off the variety for me in past decades. André describes it as demi-sec, but in Alsace terms it’s more dry than sweet, for sure. It’s also unfiltered, and the bottle I brought home is very cloudy. Standing it up for 48 hours will sort that, as will a handy carafe, but the ever so slightly cloudy glass I sampled at the domaine had a nice lees texture to it. Well worth €12.30.

Visitors to French domaines will have found meagre pickings at most again this year, short harvests from hail and frost leaving the poor  vignerons with little to sell. In Alsace it seems the problem is worst with the red grapes, and few producers have Pinot Noir left from 2016 to sell. The Pinot Noir Cuvée Nature 2016 here has nice lively fruit with a little spice, hailing from the limestone vineyard we visited. At €11 you can’t really go wrong. Its moderate 11.5% alcohol suggests its lightness. Serve lightly chilled, as indeed one should with most (but not all) Alsace reds.

There are several single site wines here, mainly Gewurztraminer and Riesling, and André and Anna also have Riesling in the Grand Crus of Kastelberg, Wiebelsberg and Moenchberg, and as well as current vintages they offer bottles back even as far as 2006. Grand Cru pricing is more in the range of €23 to €25 (magnums around double when available), but that’s still cheap compared to the producers who make their way to London and New York etc. The Vendanges Tardives are no more expensive, but remember, if you want no sulphur you need to choose from the Cuvées Natures. One should also not forget the Crémant d’Alsace, bottle fermented sparkling wine for less than €10!

This is another producer working, at least for the most part, naturally (the only vineyard treatments used are copper and sulphur, but at levels much much lower than organic certification allows). The wines are nice (and inexpensive), the labels are nice, and André is a really nice, sympathetic, guy. The foil capsules covering the cork are “old school” and might benefit from an upgrade, but this address is well worth a visit when passing. You’ll find the attractively cramped premises, dating from the 1700s, at 11 rue des Forgerons, Andlau (tel (0)3.88.08.26.42). For €3 general visitors can arrange a two hour vineyard walk followed by a tasting. I can’t promise you’ll get a ride in the “Mia”.

The Durrmann premises and André’s quirky Mia electric car, not entirely designed for the rough tracks in the vines, but it made it

As an aside, Andlau is perhaps a perfect place to stay if you are up in the Bas Rhin. It is, if anything, less touristy even than Mittelbergheim, which boasts fewer facilities. Andlau has a great boulangerie, a butcher, post office, pharmacy and small supermarket, along with a handful of restaurants, not to mention a very interesting museum. You also have some wonderful walking literally on your doorstep. Climb up above the Kastelberg Grand Cru and into the forest (beautiful on a sunny autumnal day) and if you are happy to walk you can reach at least two ruined hilltop castles on well signed trails. The bird life was amazing. One morning, on a misty start, we disturbed a couple of deer in the vines, and we saw woodpeckers, jays and a plethora of raptors as we climbed.

Andlau views, with the towering Kastelberg Grand Cru which rises above the village, facing south (top), and the ruined castle of Spesbourg (constructed between 1246-1250) in the hazy distance (third row, right) which is, along with the even more impressive Château d’Andlau, walkable in around an hour-and-a-half one way (with about a thirty minute walk between them) through glorious forest. Allow around four hours for a round trip to both with a picnic. A longer route back can be taken via Mittelbergheim, also a very nice round trip in itself.

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Recent Wines (Autumn 2017) #theglouthatbindsus

This latest case of “wines drunk at home” is titled “Autumn”, but to be honest the weather has been so unseasonably warm recently that you would almost think it was summer here. In fact someone was laughing at me on social media for drinking the Partida Creus included here the other day. I’m not sure where they were at the time, but it was pushing past twenty degrees in Southern England, and for mid-October that’s remarkable. There’s a slight caveat on the “drunk at home” theme this time because three of these, at the end, were taken to dinner with some friends and family. I’m sure you’ll let me off.

Pét-Nat Vol 1 2015, Fuchs und Hase (Kamptal, Austria) – This is a collaborative effort between Martin and Anna Arndorfer (whose delicious Vorgeschmack blend didn’t quite make this case) and their friends and fellow Kamptal producers, Alwin and Stefanie Jurtschitsch. It’s a blend of Müller-Thurgau, Grüner Veltliner and Gelber Muskateller. It’s fermented on its skins and bottled whilst still fermenting. It’s certainly a simple wine, but that doesn’t mean it lacks a lovely bead and a good frothy mousse. Nor does it detract from a linear purity with mineral acidity and a little chalkiness on the palate. Glug it!

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Pink Bulles XVI, Jean Maupertuis, St-Georges-sur-Allier – Another pét-nat, this time French. It’s an unfiltered pink made from Gamay. The nose is red fruits, and it starts out frothy at first. It’s another wine with a rapier-like spine of acidity, refreshing of course, but it’s the bags of fruit that balances it. Almost fruit juice (though it does have 11.5% abv). It gains in texture as you drink it, and that’s even before the yeast sediment arrives in the glass. Both this and the above wine came from Solent Cellar, although the Austrian is relatively widely available, and Noble Fine Liquor should still have some of this pink bubbles left. With the weather we’ve been having, I’d grab some, but to be honest it will taste just as good in the middle of winter.

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Monopole Clásico Blanco Seco 2014, CVNE, Rioja – So, CVNE Monopole, has he gone mad? This certainly looks like the cheap white Rioja in the tall bottle, but the very observant would notice a small neck label proudly proclaiming “clásico”. This is a return to the methods used to make white Rioja at the company forty years ago. Blending Viura (90%) and Palomino, it is aged in old oak, and then the trick (for which special permission had to be obtained), there is an addition of a small amount of Manzanilla (sourced from Hidalgo) which adds bite, body and structure.

Whereas modern Monopole is pretty light and fruity, this is dry and saline (albeit with orchard fruits). More body and more complexity round this out, a wine with a genuine heritage. Production is quite small, I think, and this goes with a RRP of around £25. I managed to find some for £21, and so might you if you are canny. But even at £25 it would be money well spent.

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Cortezado 2015, Fedellos do Couto, Ribeira Sacra – This wine, imported by Indigo, is described by one retailer as “one of the best values in Spain”, and whilst right now there would be an awful lot of challengers for that accolade, there is no doubt that for about £20 you get a cracking wine. It’s made, of course, from Mencia, coming from a single site on the steep slopes up to 500 metres above the Sill River in this beautiful part of Galicia.

It’s made in simple fashion with fermentation in steel and plastic, and ageing in large, old, wood. Its character comes from those slopes of sandy schist and the wet and windy Atlantic climate which makes the region just about marginal at times, but certainly one where vintage variation can be expected.

The fruit is dark and red, with cherries and plums, but equally you get spicy pepper and almost a whiff of hickory smoke. Although 13%, it never seems more than medium bodied, so the terroir comes through without hindrance. It makes for a versatile wine. You can use it instead of a Pinot Noir, or you could break it out for the barbie. Fedellos do Couto has been so ubiquitous this year that it would be easy to overlook it. Don’t.

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Haywire Secrest Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015, Okanagan Crush Pad, Okanagan Valley – I’ve written about the Crush Pad wines quite a bit recently. I also keep saying that I like their Gamay best out of the reds, but it’s all about memory, and when I drank this Canadian Pinot I had to think again.

The Secrest Vineyard is a 35 hectare site above Oliver. Both fermentation and ageing is in concrete, but the fruit is ripe and concentrated when it goes in. So in the glass you first get berry fruits and a touch of spice, and then some texture underpinning it. This is not Burgundy, far from it, but Matt Dumayne has made a cracking wine for drinking on its fruit. With 13.5% abv it’s no little weed either, but the fruit-packed mouthful says “enjoy” rather than “pontificate”. Again, Christine and Steve have shown the potential of the Valley in different ways to those trying to make classical Cabernets, etc. Red Squirrel bring over a whole raft of the Crushpad’s wines.

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Chardonnay “Les Brûlées” 2015, Domaine de Saint-Pierre, Mathenay (Jura) – This estate has been owned for about five years by its former vineyard manager, Fabrice Dodane, who originally came on board in 1989. I have seen the vineyards, which mostly lie just outside Arbois, between St-Pierre-sous-Vadans and Vadans itself (where we know people), but until this year I’d not tried this estate’s wines. Wink Lorch, in Jura Wine (2014) describes this Chardonnay as “reminiscent of slightly old-fashioned village Burgundy”, yet whilst I see exactly what she means, I think the wine may have come on a bit since Wink was tasting for her book, and now that Fabrice has his feet more firmly under the table.

What makes this particular wine, I think, is the terroir. Around Arbois and beyond you will find a constant discussion about the affects of the different marly clays (known as Marnes in the region). But as you head from Arbois towards Dôle you find some interesting outcrops of limestone, which really suits Chardonnay (although Stéphane Tissot’s “Les Amants” comes from plots on both clay and limestone, I’m convinced the limestone fruit makes this wine).

Biodynamic fruit is aged in 500 litre old oak barrels, topped up constantly. The terroir really comes through in a wine of great purity. It actually surprised me to see 14% on the label as it tastes fresh and even relatively light for the alcohol level. I think this is down to the minerality.

Domaine de Saint-Pierre was, without doubt, well under the radar in the UK until 2017, but now I keep seeing odd bottles in all the best wine shops. Expect to pay £25 to £27. I actually bought some more of this, so fascinated was I. I also have some “Les Corvées”, a co-planted blend of Pinot Noir and Ploussard (sic), but Wink mentions in her book that Fabrice makes a Melon à Queue Rouge, and I’m going to look out for that on my upcoming trip.

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Le Zaune à Dédée, Anne & Jean-François Ganevat (Jura) – Rather provocatively subtitled “Grand Cul Classé”, this wine’s wonderful irreverence belies its unexpected class (the fact that it costs around £40 should give you a clue). The varietal blend here is a highly unusual one of two different wine regions entirely (Savoie and Jura), Gewurztraminer and Savagnin, bottled as Vin de France under the Ganevat negoce label. Both varieties are aged sous voile with no additives (not even SO2), and with skin contact.

On first sip I won’t deny that it tastes a little unusual, but in a few seconds you see what it’s all about. Darkish colour, highly perfumed (the Traminer comes across a little more than the Savagnin here), it’s fresh, alive and quite extraordinary. One of those wines that you find hard to describe in mere words, but it is quite astonishingly good. At just 12.5% it is versatile too.

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Spätburgunder 2010, Friedrich Becker, Pfalz (Germany) – When I’m in Alsace next week I’ll be driving up to Schweigen to see Fritz Becker, and I had this entry level Pinot knocking around and thought I’d try it. Fritz is acclaimed, in Germany at least, even if his fame has not travelled to the UK quite as much, as one of the country’s best red wine makers (I’d love to ask Anne Krebiehl why he didn’t make her “Top 20” in her Decanter Spotlight on Spätburgunder this month?). Although he’s based in the Pfalz border village of Schweigen, and although his wines are all under German wine law, most of his vines occupy some wonderful sites in Alsace, France. They are the old monastic vineyards on the border, once cultivated by the Abbey of Wissembourg.

This Spätburgunder is smooth and quite rich. It bears some of the hallmarks of the vintage and it is drinking well now, though with more in the tank. There’s lots of silky fruit, and richness, plus a little of Pinot Noir’s typical earth and leaf development. Delicious and, if I’m honest, even better than I’d hoped after a few years in a cool dark place. It has put me right in the mood.

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Rotwein 2011, Sepp & Maria Muster, Südsteiermark (Austria) – Sepp and his wife Maria make what I would describe as highly charged wines in Styria, near the Slovenian border. By “highly charged”, I suppose I mean with energy. I know, it sounds awfully new age but when you taste them, you can’t help but feel there is something vital there. Of course, they work biodynamically, and adhere to a non-intervention approach, attempting to let the terroir shine through. I suppose their ten hectare farm must have special terroir.

This entry level red is quite dark and dense to look at. The bouquet is full of concentrated scents of blueberry, bilberry and blackberry, yet the wine is lighter than you expect on the palate, quite sappy too. The blend is Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt and Blauer Wildbacher. This latter variety is a local speciality which is the signature of Schilcher Sekt. That rare  sparkler from Western Styria is highly acidic (I love it, but I know others find it hard going), and the Blauer Wildbacher adds a touch of acidic bite to this  still wine red cuvée. “Rotwein” has few pretensions to complexity (not least in its name), but there’s a nice touch of spice and pepper too. If you like really sappy wines from Northern Italy, you’ll love this.

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Vinel.lo VN Blanco 2016, Partida Creus, Penedès – Partida Creus was founded by two Italians, Massimo Marchiori and Antonella Gerona, who left careers as architects to make some of the region’s most singular wines, wines which could not have received more praise among natural wine enthusiasts since they burst on the scene. This is a blend of typical Catalonian varieties, Garnatxa (Grenache Blanc), Macabeu, Moscatel, Parellada, Xarel-lo and Vinyater (a rare autochthonous grape similar to, and often mistakenly equated with, Xarel-lo). Partida Creus also make an Ancestral Method fizz from the same varieties, but this is the still version.

It’s very fruity, the fruit coming to the fore as it warms up a little, but it’s oh so zippy as well, with fairly high acidity which bounces around the palate. It will pretty much cut through anything, but the fruit and freshness takes the edge off the acids. It’s as if this were the very wine for which the word “drinkable” was invented, or so it seemed on an unseasonably hot evening in October after a long and frustrating drive. Just 10.5% abv as well.

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Savagnin “Pourquoi Pas?” 2015, Domaine de la Pinte, Arbois – This biodynamic Savagnin is cultivated on the marnes bleues soils around Arbois. After picking, the grapes are macerated on skins for three weeks in concrete vats before pressing. No CO2 is added, neither is there filtration. The wine is therefore a beautiful autumnal orange colour and slightly cloudy for me (I had to lie it down in the fridge). The gentle bouquet has nuts and spices, citrus peel and generous fruit.

This is an experiment. I first tasted it with Laura Seibel at the domaine’s Arbois shop last year and she told me how it was her idea, after having helped make wine in Georgia. Only around 100 cases were made but this is a real success in every way possible. I love it. It’s a shame that there will be no 2016 when I’m in Arbois soon, as I would be adding several bottles to my order, but I understand there is a 2017 in the making with longer skin contact.

Domaine de la Pinte is the oldest biodynamic estate in Jura. In the past few years I think they have moved to another level, and this experiment exemplifies that. Kudos to Laura.

 

I usually try to keep it to twelve “recent” wines. But we are compromising this time, with a very quick mention of three more wines. The first couple are the pair I took to dinner with friends a few weeks ago. Montevertine, Rosso Toscana 2007 was the wine of the night in good vinous company. Classic Tuscan all the way through,  Sangiovese with Canaiolo and Colorino playing a minor role. Dark cherries with hints of tobacco and violets, relatively rich and smooth, drinking extremely well, yet I know this will get better and go on for many years.

Gut Oggau Emmeram Weiss 2015 is unusual among this producer’s wines in that it is a 100% varietal, a Gewurztraminer. It’s the Gewurztraminer to open for people who say they don’t like Gewurztraminer. Off limestone soils, it has a lemony note and fresh acidity, but this is balanced by an inconspicuous 13.5% alcohol. No chubbiness, just refreshing wine with a heavenly scent from one of my favourite producers anywhere.

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The last wine here is a bit of an oddity. Some of you may have seen it around. After a holiday trip to Santorini by Peter Barry in 2006, he was determined to bring Assyrtiko to Australia. It has taken ten years of quarantine, grafting and experimenting to produce the first commercial vintage of Jim Barry Clare Valley Assyrtiko 2016. It’s not exactly like a Santorini version. It lacks that true windswept, volcanic, minerality and a little of the acidity that marks Santorini Assyrtiko in youth and sets it up for ageing. But there’s more fruit. It’s a nice counterpoint to Clare Riesling. Only 500 cases were released of the 2016, so we have been lucky to see obtainable quantities in the UK (there are still a few bottles around).

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

‘Tis Fine, ‘Tis Noble and ‘Tis Sweet to See

There are two London wine stores right now in the Noble Fine Liquor stable (not quite yet a chain, perhaps), and another that doubles as a bar and kitchen, and they have quickly created an enviable reputation for themselves, based on their focus on what they agree is a loose term, natural and authentic wines.

Having taken the opportunity to pop in to the store on Farringdon Road, near Clerkenwell, a couple of weeks ago after the Out of the Box Tasting, I can see what the fuss is about. Their web site claims they started out “because the local bottle shop we wanted did not exist”. That would be a tad corny, were there not some substance behind the comment.

There are, of course, places in London which do major in similar wines, not least Winemakers Club which is just down the road, but another shop of this quality, reminiscent of perhaps Les Papilles or Le Verre Volé in Paris, is very welcome, even on London’s relatively crowded wine scene.

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The Farringdon/Clerkenwell store takes up the corner of the site occupied by Quality Chop House at 88-94 Farringdon Road. In fact the wine store is open to the QCH deli via an archway, so the two are physically connected, and the friendship stretches to a nice plug for NFL on the QCH web site.

What can you expect in store? Well, first of all Noble Fine Liquor does, justifiably, claim to have the best Jura range in the UK. There’s a big selection, from new names like Domaine Saint-Pierre to rarities such as Domaine L’Octavin (I spotted a few bottles of ULM, or “Ultra Long Maceration”, which is pretty hard to source here). You’ll find a few Ganevats, and the amazing Domaine de la Tournelle, alongside relative newcomers to London like Marnes Blanche, Les Dolomies and La Touraize, among many.

The ULM comes via the excellent ultra-natural wine importer, Tutto Wines, and it looks like a good few more wines on the shelves might come from the same source. Like Gergovie  Wines in Maltby Street, Tutto specialises in zero sulphur bottles.

Another hot area on the shelves has to be Austria. Newcomer wines (in Dalston) and Dynamic Vines in Bermondsey have done so much to bring Austria to our attention these past few years, but it is nice to see the country has another champion in London. Arndorfer, Tschida, Muster, Werlitsch, Preisinger, Gut Oggau and  Andreas Tscheppe give  just a flavour of what’s on offer here.

Other stars, some rarely seen on London shelves, include Mythopia (the Swiss estate between Sion and Brig in the Valais), Ar Pe Pe (Valtellina), Agrapart, Bérêche and Cédric Bouchard (Champagne), Zeireissen, Peter Lauer, Maximin Grünhaus, JJ Prum and Keller (Germany), De Moor, Alexandre Bain, Bruno Schueller, Pierre Frick, Vignes du Maynes, and the ubiquitous Foillard (France), but this list does not do justice to what they have sourced.

Also take a look at some under the radar producers such as Gilles Berlioz (Savoie), Franck Peillot (Bugey), No Control (Auvergne) and Eric Bordelet’s delicious “sidres”. The Partida Creus Vinel.lo VN Blanco I drank last night came from here too, but the Partida Creus wines don’t hang about these days. All in all, the range is pretty impressive, and shows a deep knowledge of the natural wine scene.

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I got an incredibly warm and friendly welcome at Noble Fine Liquor Clerkenwell, and as far as I can tell the only thing it has against it is that it’s not the easiest place for most of us to get to. But it is worth the effort. It’s about half way between Chancery Lane and Angel Tube Stations (probably about fifteen minutes walk from each), and a little closer to Farringdon (Tube and Overground). But once there you have the choice of lunch or dinner at Quality Chop House (and I believe QCH are still offering a “no corkage” deal on Monday nights), or you can head down Farringdon Road to the aforementioned Winemakers Club (under the arches of Holborn Viaduct). They offer a selection of cold plates (charcuterie, cheeses etc). Check out their “drink in at shop prices” occasional offers.

The other Noble Fine Liquor store is on Broadway Market, London E8 (just north of the Regent’s Canal and south of London Fields), and they are also behind the shop, bar and kitchen (as it is styled), P Franco, on Lower Clapton Road, E5, which has a reputation of being one of the five or six best “natural wine” diners in the capital.

Posted in Artisan Wines, Austrian Wine, biodynamic wine, Jura, Natural Wine, Wine, Wine Agencies, Wine Merchants, Wine Shops | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ribera Del Duero

This is the Tasting I alluded to in my last article. Ribera Del Duero may be one of Spain’s top winemaking regions, but the wines do have a reputation for tannin, and a lack of approachability when young. Not too long ago, when I mentioned to a wine trade friend that I was coming to this Tasting, he plied me with a story about a trip he went on, organised by the Consejo a few years ago, which involved, he said, lining up at nine in the morning to taste wines so tannic that after five or six out of a hundred his palate was shot to bits.

Although these wines don’t fit into my normal drinking pattern, it’s more than educational to attend Tastings like this. Let’s not forget that there was going to be a focus on organic/biodynamic wines, and on less oaked wines. Could this region dispel the myth that with one eye on Bordeaux and the other on Napa, they have no eyes left for Spain?

For me, there were faults aplenty. Not oxidisation, brett, volatility and the like, but lack of fruit and consequent poor tannin management. It was a bit like a high jump competition, where the bar is set by a pretty consistent level of tannin and you are trying to find wines with enough fruit to jump the bar. I tasted a lot which just fell back, or maybe the pole vault is a better metaphor as the oak in my mouth was like the bar snapping on the contestant. One winemaker there told me he thought there was just too much fruit on the vine which was not ripe enough for the oak regime it faced in the cellars.

But, getting out of the way three paragraphs of apparent negativity, I can say that there were wines which cleared the bar, and even one producer who managed to achieve it with all of their four wines on show. After swilling and spitting through maybe a dozen wines without hope of finding one to my taste, one invariably came along, and so what joy it brought. I know most of these wines were young, but I do have experience tasting tannic youths, and good young Bordeaux tastes very different to some of these over ambitious wines. This all makes the successful wines stand out even more. It is interesting to see who the importers of these wines are, because their buyers must have palates far more in tune with mine than some others.

Why do my views matter more than those of the largely older trade professionals at this Glazier’s Hall Tasting? Because my question to the Consejo and the Ribera Del Duero producers is “who is going to buy these wines”? Of course the likes of Vega Sicilia will have collectors after them, but the run of the mill wines, which need a decade to become approachable? Younger drinkers are looking elsewhere, to lighter wines, natural wines, vins de soif and glou-glou. I would suggest that commercial success is more likely to come from emulating the sort of wines I’ve picked out here. They don’t lack tannin and structure, but they offer more than just that.

Ribera Del Duero is in northern central Spain, north of Madrid and roughly between the towns of Peñafiel in the west and San Esteban de Gormaz in the east, following the valley of the River Duero as it heads towards Portugal (where, of course, it becomes the Douro). Most vines are at between 750 and 850 metres altitude on complex soils (clay, gravel, sandy silt), and the main grape variety is Tempranillo, known locally as Tinto Fino (or as one attendee rather disparagingly said, “Tinta del País by the peasants”). But there are other varieties allowed, with a fair bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, among others, in the blend.

The very top producers, wishing to emulate the great Vega Sicilia, sought to do so by very reduced yields from the region’s old bush vines, yielding intense wines of relatively high alcohol levels, which then go into small oak, often new, for an extended period. But the best growers are beginning to understand that long oak ageing may not produce wines for drinking in the medium term, and a refreshing return to older oak has been accompanied by another look at viticultural practices.

If so many wines seemed to disappoint, I may as well begin with the wine (actually two wines) which I would champion as my wine(s) of the day. In fact this pair were nothing short of brilliant, and I commend Raeburn Fine Wines (who import a number of good Ribera Del Dueros) for finding them.

The producer is Goyo Garcia Viadero, both wines come from the 2012 vintage, and both are from different sites. Finca Valdeolmos (13.5% abv) is 90% Tempranillo with 10% Albillo, and sees 42 months in oak. Finca Viñas de Arcilla differs only in that it is 100% Tempranillo and has a tad more alcohol (14%). Admittedly these are wines with bottle age, but the long period in oak has not killed the fruit (from very old vines), which still has a lovely strawberry edge to it. Smoothness, certainly concentration, is present, but there’s elegance too. The family owns some of the old caves in the region traditionally used for winemaking, and their naturally cool temperature is perfect for the stability of these wines.

This is a tiny producer, based near the town of Roa in the central western part of the region. The wines are very much “natural”, though I doubt that this fact would come to mind when tasting them, nor the fact that they have no added sulphur. I’m not sure that the many tasters who were raving about these wines all registered that fact. Pierre Overnoy of Pupillin is supposed to have particularly inspired Goyo.

They were positioned before Peter Sisseck’s Pingus 2012, and I know many who headed directly toward Wine 123 were dissapointed by its no show. They needn’t have been if they nudged left, to Wines 121 and 122.

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I actually began tasting at the table representing Tim Atkins MW’s Top 45 Wines. These are intended to be Tim’s interpretation of the best from the region. Tim’s experience in tasting tannins is considerably greater than mine, and he should be commended for his efforts. Seven of his 45 grabbed me more than the others, as I said, sticking their head above the tannin parapet, clearing that bar of oak.

Bodegas Pagos de Morgar Morgar Vendimia Seleccionada 2013 was my favourite of the wines which saw less time in wood (12 months in a mix of French and American oak), but this 100% Tempranillo is made from vines over 60 years old. Surprisingly, it was one of the few wines seeking distribution which I rated. No current importer.

Pago De Los Capellanes Reserva 2014 (Tasting Sample) is from very old vines at Pedrosa de Duero on clay and limestone. The oak here is unusually 300 litre French oak barrels. Plenty of brightness and good rounded fruit. The oak here is a bit heavy at the moment, but having liked it, another taster confirmed my opinion, and we both would love to see how this sample appears when bottled, and after a bit of age. I felt it has a lot of potential. Importer – Enotria.

Bodegas Félix Callejo produced an unclassified wine called just Felix Callejo 2014. This saw 15 months in oak after malo in new French oak. It showed a nice nose and no lack of fruit. Its only fault, one widespread in Ribera Del Duero, was the big heavy bottle. Okay, you want to tell the world this is serious wine, and it is indeed good, but a ten ton bottle is indicative of old thinking. Imported by Anthony Byrne Fine Wines.

Bodegas Pingon Carramimbre Altamimbre 2014 managed 20 months in oak without drowning the fruit. This Reserva is made from the oldest vines and they seem able to manage the new oak regime, all down to that vibrant fruit. Distributed by Amathus Drinks.

Dominio de Es Viñas Viejas de Soria 2014 is mostly Tinto Fino with just 5% Albillo, its organic fruit fermented slowly with 50% stems left in, then seeing 20 months in two barrels from DRC. The vines here are pre-phylloxera, planted on clay and sand. There was genuine elegance in this wine, and I liked it, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the tannins drown that elegance a bit, at the moment. I’d cellar it and wait. Imported by H2Vin.

Bodegas Hermanos Pérez Pascuas Viña Pedrosa Reserva 2012 had a lovely nose, and the wine was not as impenetrably dark as some. Bright, lively and fresh, the tannins are silky, and not too obtrusive. Nothing harsh here. Distributed by Bancroft Wines.

Bodegas Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5-year 2012 gives its 100% Tempranillo thirty-six months in wood (a blend of new and old, French and American), then two years in bottle. This is ostensibly made from “young vines” (but on average 35 years old). It’s suave and sophisticated, of course, and worth its reputation. If these guys can manage their tannins, why can’t some others? You probably don’t need me to tell you this is good…if you can afford it. Speak to FMV.

 

The remainder of the Tasting, the “open pour” section, was organised in order of oak usage, with a few rosados at the beginning. A word should be said in favour of the pinks. All those I mention here were very nice, wines I’d be happy to drink. In fact I did wonder why there were so few. The first two were 100% Tempranillo from 2016 – from Cillar de Silos (importer FMV) and Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro (OW Loeb) see no oak. Dominio Del Águila Picaro del Águila Clarete 2015 is a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Bobal and Albillo, with 12 months in oak (and an extra year in bottle over the other two). It shows more complexity for a rosado. Indigo Wines bring this in.

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I mentioned a producer whose four wines entered were all worthy of a mention. The producer in question is Bodegas FuentenarroCuatro Meses 2015 has a mere four months in oak and retails for between £10 to £15. Slightly lean in the Ribera Del Duero context, but this wine still has fruit, and that’s its purpose. A great restaurant wine. Fuentenarro Crianza 2014 is less gluggable, with 12 months in oak, but there’s more fruit here and a touch more concentration. Fuentenarro Reserva 2011 shows that even with two years in oak the fruit (from old vines) can shine through. We are beginning to see class in a wine that retails for less than £25. Finally, Fuentenarro Gran Reserva 2010 begins to show some maturity on the nose, with the development you expect from a Gran Reserva with a price tag of £35. Congratulations Les Caves de Pyrene for sourcing this producer.

 

In a nice overall selection from Indigo Wines I stumbled upon Quinta Milú Reserva 2016. Now don’t ask me how a Reserva (12 months in oak then 36 months in bottle if I am correct) can be a 2016? I tried to double-check all the vintages and did find at least one error in the catalogue. Anyway, this was a nice wine, but it needs a bit more time, I think.

Bodegas Tionio Austum ECO 2015 was one such wine where the catalogue gave the vintage incorrectly (as 2014). 100% Tempranillo, six months in oak, and biodynamic viticulture and winemaking, which I only just noticed, but may account for my note that this had more fruit than most of the wines tasted, and was vibrant and alive. So no cliché there, then. Oops, and this is imported by Red Squirrel who I can’t seem to stop praising at the moment. How embarrassing.

 

Dominio Basconcillos Ecologico 6 Meses 2016 is another nice, fruity, wine and the fruit here is smooth. This “cosecha” sees just six months in oak, and is 100% Tempranillo.  I was a little shocked to see that it has 15% alcohol, but the fruit and freshness balances the alcohol nicely, at least on one sip. But it pays to check before you down the bottle. Vintage Roots is the distributor.

The above wine benefits from not having too much tannin (6 months in wood) to manage, and the alcohol gives it some extra gloss. Bodegas El Lagar De Isilla Crianza 2012 probably has a different reason for its smoothness and lack of harsh tannins. It may have spent 14 months in oak, but this is a 2012, so there’s bottle age too. It hasn’t dried out and still tastes of fruit. The 94% Tempranillo is rounded out with 3% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Good length too. Distributed by Stone, Vine & Sun.

Dominio Del Águila made the last of the rosados I mentioned above. Their Pícaro del Águila 2015 blends Tempranillo, Garnacha, Bobal and Albillo, with 20 months in oak, and it certainly has structure and tannins. But there’s also plenty underneath that, and I thought it had much more potential to age (and, it has to be said, it has one of the day’s more adventurous and attractive labels). Distributed (again) by Indigo Wines. The same estate (and importer) showed a Reserva 2013, which saw “35” months in oak, made from organic old vines. It was a little bit more grown up, tannic but with a sweet fruited nose, and also with potential to age.

 

At the end of the day, despite all my caveats and criticisms at the beginning, there were plenty of very nice wines. Spain at the moment is so exciting, indeed it has a claim to be the most exciting wine producer in Europe right now. But Ribera Del Duero is one of the country’s “classic” wine regions, and perhaps it isn’t top of the list when we think of excitement and innovation.

All that said, we are beginning to see some real innovation over in Rioja, on many levels and from both a younger generation of wine growers and also from some of the more traditional names. The era of the winery is giving way now to the era of the vineyard, both in how the vines are managed, and how the winemaker wishes to express his or her terroir. In order to get ahead of the game, the producers of Ribera Del Duero could look to their neighbour and do the same.

In speaking to those with far greater knowledge of this region than me, I get the impression that this is what needs to happen. Those who are already thinking in this direction are perhaps the ones whose wines register with a modern palate. If some wines seem stuck in a “nineties” frame of reference, others seem to look forwards. Or backwards, perhaps. Just go out and taste those fantastic wines from Goyo Garcia Viadero!

This Ribera Del Duero Tasting took place at Glazier’s Hall in London on Tuesday 10 October 2017, and was organised by Westbury Communications.

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