Many readers will know of 67 Pall Mall. It’s a members club for lovers of fine wine. On the edge of the City, on Farringdon Street, under Holborn Viaduct in the arches long ago occupied by Oddbins’ Fine Wine shop is another kind of club.
At Winemakers Club you can buy and taste wine, eat, sometimes even “dine”, or watch a band. A very different kind of club. And you don’t have to pay to join this one. They must be nuts!
It’s a space often used for tastings too, and on Tuesday importer and agent Red Squirrel hosted their annual portfolio tasting here, New Frontiers. These guys are nuts as well. It’s not the name, which let’s face it would be up to my usual poor standard of punning, but because they take more risks than most to bring some of the world’s more unusual wines to their customers.
This is why I was very pleased to see some of the big names in the world of wine writing present. I hope they enjoyed the wines as much as I did.
I do want to address one issue brought up on social media – that the room was too dark to see the wine. Actually, the space resembled perfectly a traditional underground wine cellar, where I’m sure many of us regularly taste. The light of a solitary bulb or candle doesn’t put me off at Mauves or Vosne, and it was not quite that dark, but then I’m not so fixated on what the wine looks like in bright light. I’m not using the WSET scoring system (sorry guys – I do actually have the Diploma). So the dark venue didn’t bother me. It was no darker than some other tastings, like Haisma/Le Grappin for example. That said, it’s a perfect excuse for some of the photos being a little dark…
Anyway, onto the wines. I largely stuck to the new wines in the portfolio, so you won’t see notes for Vinterloper, Clos Cibonne, the Ligurians, Parxet Cava etc. I’ve written about these and others elsewhere (link at bottom), and suffice to say they are all worth trying. Below are what I would like to think is the best of the new stuff, but as with all tastings like this, you can’t always try everything. I can think of one winery I sadly missed – Ahrens Family. There’s always one.
Champagne A Levasseur
This was a good start, perhaps an under statement. This Marne grower is in the village of Cuchery, which is a little to the west of the main Reims-Epernay road, up in the Parc Régional. Founded by Albert Levasseur in the 1940s, this small producer (with just 4.2 hectares) is now run by the very able David, his grandson. The entire production is organic, and amounts to around 35,000 bottles per year.
Five wines were on show: a fruity Brut (9g/l), a precise and one year older Brut Nature, a Blanc de Blancs from Marne Chardonnay, an Extra Brut from 100% Pinot Noir, and a cuvée called Extrait Gourmand, a pink containing blended in three year old red wine. My favourite was the Chardonnay, but that’s probably my own tastes coming through. The rosé would make a very good food wine, fresh but with real presence. David, a very affable chap, recommends it with spicy food and sushi. The wines are not cheap (the Brut is only £35 but the single variety cuvées are £65 retail, the pink £40, the latter being a relative bargain I suppose), but quality is high and I count this a discovery.
Chateau L’Argentier, Sommières, Languedoc
This producer is based in the hills more or less between Montpélier and Nîmes, just north of Lunel. Run by the Jourdan family since 1937, there are 45 hectares on the estate, of which 24 ha are currently under vine. They have kept all the old concrete vats here, and I’m sure that’s one of the reasons that the wines have an earthy authenticity, most pronounced in the really grippy Cinsault. It’s a vielles vignes cuvée, which shows real character. There’s a Coteaux du Languedoc made from a blend of 40% of both Syrah and Grenache with 20% Carignan, with more colour and depth and less rusticity. I like both wines but slightly preferred the Cinsault (£16).
The top cuvée is the Sommière, a new Languedoc denomination, and L’Argentier were the first to release under this label. They were showing that first 2011 here, based on 70% Syrah with 20% Carignan, the remainder Grenache. It comes from a 2.2 hectare single site on very thin soils and just 500 cases were made. It’s a deeper, darker, wine with the Syrah gently dominating. A step up, but only £22 for a wine which is in no hurry to be drunk.
Château Combel-la-Serre, Cahors
This is one of a growing band of Cahors producers who prefer to make their wines from pure Malbec, but the wines here bear little relation to the big and brassy Malbecs we often see out of South America. In fact “pure” is a perfect description of Julien Ilbert’s wines. He’s been bottling since 2005, and has been organic since 2013 (certified 2015). The vineyards, totaling 26 ha, are on different topsoils, but all having as their base the limestone of the causse above the Lot Valley.
The opening wine is called Pur Fruit du Causse, and served from magnum it had a purity you’d be surprised at (£32 mag/£16 btl). A lovely, fresh, wine. I want some of this! The Cuvée Château is less mineral, very slightly softer, and perhaps this is because there’s more topsoil on this site (yellow/red clay). The top wine is Au Cerisier (cherry tree). This is from a small parcel on very hard limestone. It has a mineral and saline savouriness, very impressive (£25).
Pasaeli, Izmir, Turkey
I’m increasingly impressed by the Turkish wines I’m tasting. They are beginning to make inroads into the UK market thanks to people like Pacta Connect and Sarah Abbott MW. I just hope their President doesn’t go and completely mess it up for them! Pasaeli was founded in 2000 by Seyit Karagözoglu, sourcing indigenous grape varieties from vineyards in Anatolia and Thrace. All of these wines are truly distinctive.
The whites on show were a Yapincak white from a vineyard 200 metres from, and facing, the Sea of Marmara, on the Asian side facing the European shore. These are old vines trained in a traditional gobelet bush style. A wine for mezze. Çalkarasi makes an aromatic rosé with fresh acidity.
My two favourites were the red wines. 6N 2014 is 82% Karasakiz with the addition of 18% Merlot. Fruity, very distinctive, although the plummy Merlot does make itself known, as always with this grape. The top red, if only by £1 (£18) is 100% Papazkarasi. It’s not too tannic (undergoes soft punchdowns), and whilst Seyit suggests drinking it young, this 2013 is not going to fall apart soon. This is a very interesting grape, also very distinctive, apparently well regarded in the 1960s and only now coming back into favour. Let’s hope others keep flying the flag for Turkey’s autochthonous varieties. If you want to try genuinely new flavours, this is a good place to come.
Bioweingut Diwald, Großriedenthal, Wagram, Austria
Martin Diwald is the second generation to be running a pioneer of organic viticulture in Austria (organic since 1980). He farms 20 ha in 43 different sites in this increasingly quality focused region to the East of Krems. Martin is not only the neighbour of Arnold Holzer, whom Red Squirrel devotees will know very well. They are also best mates since childhood. The focus here is a little different though, and Martin was showing seven wines.
First up, a very good Sekt, bottle fermented and made from Grüner Veltliner, two years’ lees ageing, 13% alcohol. Usually this is pushing it for sparkling wine, but it didn’t seen too alcoholic. It has a freshness and a little weight. Then come the still Grüners, three bottlings representing a village blend and two different sites. Goldberg is a Danube-facing terrace on warm loess, Alte Weingärten a high plateau with nearby forest and overall a cooler site.
Fuchsentanz is a fruity Riesling, Zündtoff Maischegärung #2 a very different one. It’s an orange wine with 20% Grüner blended in. Ten days skin contact, then into used barrels, no filtration and a tiny bit of sulphur at bottling. Very good indeed, though at £45 it should be, but then they only made 350 bottles of this in 2015.
The final wine of the lineup was the Grossriedenthaler Löss red (from Zweigelt). This is another skin contact wine, but it is aged in acacia, very large barrels of between 1,300 and 2,700 litre capacity. This means they impart no “oak” flavours whilst allowing gentle oxygen ingress. The nose is pure cherry. At £16 this is good value.
These wines are what Martin calls “northern style”. They’re not too big, restrained, food friendly. Diwald make a brilliant addition to the Red Squirrel range, sitting beside Arnold Holzer. There’s still a rich vein to be mined in Austria.
Eschenhof Holzer, Großriedenthal, Wagram, Austria
Some of you will know that Arnold Holzer’s wines form a regular part of my drinking, in particular his Zweigelts, which for me, along with those of Claus Preisinger, I consider some of the best value drinkers on the market. So I’m not going to take you through Arnold’s wines this time, but I had to stop to say hello and to taste The Orange.
Holzer didn’t make an orange wine in 2014, and this 2015 was only bottled five weeks ago. It is made from an intriguing Austrian rarity, Roter Veltliner (they make a couple of more classic whites from this grape, which despite the name is not a red grape, at £15 and £30). It has a whopping 4 to 5 week maceration and pretty much zero intervention. £40…but if the guys at Red Squirrel HQ don’t save me a bottle I’ll be seriously pissed off. It was, albeit by a narrow margin, my Wine of the Day!
Valdonica, Maremma, Tuscany
Tim Manning is the very able genius winemaker at this Maremma estate. Winemakers Club devotees will know Tim, not only from his occasional off-season stints in the shop, but also for his personal wines made under the Vinochisti banner, which Winemakers sell. You may remember that I swoon every time I try a version of his dry Erbaluce. The Valdonica wines take fewer risks (I’m guessing Tim wants to keep his day job), but they’re still superb. Mersino and Ballarino are both lovely Vermentinos, the latter made with a third of the grapes fermented on their skins before both parts see a year in steel tanks before bottling.
Arnaio blends 90% Sangiovese with Ciliegiolo, whilst the year older 2012 Saraggio is 100% Sangiovese. This latter bottling is made by fermenting small parcels separately with an average of 30% whole clusters for 5-6 weeks. The wine then sees 18 months in barrique, 15-20% being new wood. The latter is a more structured, serious, wine capable of ageing (£30). The Arnaio is more youthful, and an attractive £19.
As always, you can’t go wrong with anything made by Tim Manning. His love for wine was fuelled by working for Oddbins, before he managed somehow to wangle a job as assistant winemaker at Riecine under Sean O’Callaghan, so his CV is pretty impressive. With his own label wines at Winemakers Club and Valdonica with Red Squirrel, the UK market is twice lucky.
Bellwether, Coonawarra, South Australia
In Vinterloper, Red Squirrel have one hell of a South Australian producer. Now they have another to look out for in Bellwether. Sue Bell founded this micro-winery in Coonawarra, making wine from bought-in grapes, but now sources more widely. There’s a very classic 2009 Coonawarra Cab’ (excellent with seven years age, think iron and eucalypt plus tannins, £30), a Wrattonbully Shiraz-Malbec, and a Vermentino (not sure where that comes from?). My favourite wine of the bunch was a Tamar Valley Tasmanian Chardonnay (£30). The nose, not immediately obvious as Chardonnay, was amazing, more appley cool climate than most so-called new world examples. No malo for this wine, but whilst the freshness almost stuns the palate, it isn’t over acidic, nor under ripe.
Dal Zotto, King Valley, Victoria
Heading northeast we are into Victoria’s high country where Otto and Elena Dal Zotto settled in 1967, having emigrated from Prosecco country. Originally tobacco growers, the wine came twenty years later. The focus is on traditional northern Italian varieties, and winemaking is now in the hands of one of their sons, Michael.
The two whites on show contrast Piemontese and Veneto varieties. The Arneis has stone fruit and a bit more weight than many Italian versions. It’s a grape which seems to suit Aussie upland viticulture very well. The Garganega is fruity with an almond touch on the finish. Like the Arneis, it’s fresh but mouthfilling. Not sure I see many Italian single variety versions of this grape, but I’m absolutely sure it’s my first Aussie Garganega.
Their Barbera is paler than most Piemontese versions of yet another grape which seems to do remarkably well in Australia. It’s also more fruity than you may expect, but it still has that characteristic bitter bite on the finish. The final wine in the lineup was their Sangiovese. Definite brick colour here. No need in Australia to plump up the wine with some dark, satanic, Merlot. Savoury.
De Kleine Wijn Koöp, Western Cape, South Africa
It is pretty kleine as there are just five members of this coop. But they are not five ordinary men. There’s Edo Heyns (editor of Winelands magazine), JD Pretorious (winemaker, Steenberg farm), Jan Solms and Rohan Etsebeth (both designers) and Faan Rabie (a videographer). Everything here is in Afrikaans, but the wines are as far from old fashioned as you could imagine. This is minimal intervention winemaking as natural as possible. The two wines I tasted were fairly simple, but very pure and direct. Kreatuur No 3 Die Grenacinrah is 90% Grenache with a tad each of Cinsault and Syrah, whilst Liefling is a 12.5% alcohol pure Syrah. With a couple of designers onboard you’d expect decent labels too…
Okanagan Crush Pad, Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada
Having failed to introduce readers to the wines of the Okanagan Crush Pad in my articles on the Raw Wine Fair earlier this year…because I just ran out of time to try them, being waylaid at the end of the afternoon by some folks from Vermont, I’m not going to let you down again. But the thing is, these fabulous wines deserve a spotlight they probably won’t get at the end of what is already a very long article. So I’m going to give them a slot of their own, some time after I write up Wednesday’s Howard Ripley German Tasting. I hope you can bear with me. Do give it a look when it comes. The wines are worth it.
If you want to explore some more of Red Squirrel’s portfolio, here is a link to their October 2015 Tasting at Black’s Club in Soho.