Yesterday I was at the autumn outing of the Vault Tastings, held at Winemakers Club’s Holborn Arches site. The Vault Tastings comprise six small, and not so small, importers (plus a “guest table”) who share a common outlook, even if their portfolios are quite different. A lot of the wines on taste at these events tend to be the sort of thing which will creep under the radar at some larger agencies, and that would be a shame. You can be sure that at The Vaults you will taste plenty of wines that we’d be the poorer for not having available. The importers are Tutto Wines, Howard Ripley, Gergovie Wines, Carte Blanche, Clark Foyster and Winemakers Club, and the guests were SWiG. In addition, the wine importers were joined this time by Androuet, the cheesemonger, Cocoa Runners (fine single estate chocolate) and The Charcuterie Board (British cured meats).
The Winemakers Club
John Baum and his team are appropriate hosts for The Vaults Tastings. The wines they import are, by their own suggestion, “local wines from around the world”. These wines are pretty much singular creations, outside the norm, often even within their own countries and regions. I’m not sure any producer at this tasting better exemplifies this than Hegyi Kalo from the Eger region in Hungary. Followers of the Blog may have read about the unusual Grüner Veltliner with 100 days of skin contact which I drank recently. I’d rank it as one of my top wines of the year so far. On show yesterday were their Czereesnyerees and Kekfrankos, both following a similar, if less extreme, path of skin contact weirdness, a mountain of thrills and something to make the more conservative wine critic shudder. If I ever took Robert Parker prisoner (let’s face it, he’d never answer my dinner invitation) I’d say he could only leave after a sane and objective critique of the Czereesnyerees, and after having written its name fifty times with no spelling errors.
The other truly standout producer on show here was Domaine des Marnes Blanches. Pauline and Géraud Fromont, based down south in Sainte-Agnès, are rising stars of the Jura Region. Again, I recently drank their multi-site 2011 Savagnin, Empreinte, stunningly good with a few years of bottle age. This time I tried a couple of wines from the generally excellent 2015 vintage, the single vineyard Savagnin Muscaté “En Jensillard”, and the Poulsard (both Côtes du Jura, both delicious, although they both need more time). Then a treat, a sip of the off-list Vin Jaune 2008. Like that of Domaine de la Tournelle in particular (see recent “Jura Week 1”), it’s a VJ which has such freshness it could be approachable young (though obviously will improve with keeping). In a month where I’ve tasted rather a good number of Vins Jaunes, this was one of the best, very impressive indeed.
I must mention the bracing pét-nat from Crocizia in Italy’s Emilia Region, made from Malvasia, and Riecine‘s ever exciting Chianti Classico (2014 on show). The latter is a wine I don’t buy often enough, mainly because there are always too many new wines when I venture under the arches, but I really love it. I also mustn’t forget to mention Romeo del Castello (Allegracore, always impresses) from Etna, nor indeed Karim Vionnet.
Every time I go to Paris now, I trawl those secret places where you can find, if you are lucky, a few bottles of some of the new, young, Beaujolais producers who are reinvigorating this region that was once drowned in a sea of cheap nouveau. Karim Vionnet is one such guy, ever since I brought back a bottle of his “Vin de Kav” Chiroubles a couple of years ago. On taste was his Beaujolais-Villages “Du Beur dans les Pinards”, although I’d perhaps recommend his straight “Villages” 2015 as an introduction to the masses of fruit which Vionnet manages to combine with a lively freshness. The “Beur” has more structure and this particular ’15 needs more time to soften a little. Karim is a worthy successor to the “Gang of Four” in his methods and philosophy.
Tutto is an Italian specialist which actively seeks to champion some of the lesser known grape varieties of this viticulturally diverse nation. My standout sips included wines made from Pignoletto – from Orsi San Vito in the Colli Bolognesi (a rare grape which thrives here, making light but piquant white wines, often with a little CO2); Zibibbo – an increasingly well used white from Sicily, this version from Barraco having a very unusual (but lovely) nose which reminded me of Lucozade (for non-UK readers, an orange flavoured sparkling glucose drink); and Malvasia – Skerlj‘s Carso white, a wine from limestone terroir showing a mineral complexity and texture, added to by three weeks on skins and three years in old barrels.
My picks from the reds were very different. A fruity Oltrepo Pavese from Barbacarlo was perfumed and simple in a good way, and a typical Lombardian food wine. La Distesa “Rosso Nocenzio” 2014 is a blend of Montepulciano and Sangiovese with a nice lick of cherry on the nose and grippy tannins – a well made example of a Marche Rosso in a classical style, from Cupramontana in the aforesaid region.
Hard to say which was my favourite wine on the Tutto table. The Carso from Skerlj came close, but it was possibly just pipped by a non-Italian…well, almost Italian. Marko Fon makes his Vitovska in Kras, Slovenia. The clue is in the regional name, remarkably similar to Carso over the border, of which this region is a geological continuation. The Vitovska is a lovely, quite delicate, wine. Tutto also list Fon’s Malvazija, which wasn’t on show but must be worth a try.
Swig is another small independent importer who bring in an impressive selection for their size, and their reputation has grown as a result. Few on the London wine scene will not have heard about them, and their wines are available in increasing numbers of restaurants and small independent wine shops. At tastings like this it’s just not really possible to try every wine on the table, so you have to go and do a bit of prior research, along with seeking the ongoing recommendations of friends who’ve hit them before you. Even so, I’m bound to miss some gems, but with Swig the list of wines I want to mention is quite long.
I already know Collard-Picard and I’ve passed their premises on the Avenue de Champagne in Epernay many times. Swig were showing their Cuvée Prestige, which is a fine bottle. One half Grand Cru Chardonnay, plus 25% each of Premier Cru Pinots Noir and Meunier, fermented in large foudres. There’s no malolactic fermentation, so the wine is very fresh and has a very neat line and precision. At around £40/bottle (less by the case), this is excellent value for a non-vintage prestige blend.
Two New World wines impressed a lot, and I know from the social media noise that others agreed. BLANKbottle is the label of Pieter Walser, who makes wine in the Western Cape. His story is colourful, to say the least, and almost unbelievable. The “blank bottle” name apparently comes from his managing to sell a load of unlabelled Shiraz to a customer who hated Shiraz, all he had left after the South African tax authorities had confiscated almost all of his entire stock. That behind the cuvée Orbifrontal Cortex (Grenache Blanc, Semillon, Verdelho and Clairette with “definitely no Chenin” it was stressed) is equally strange (all to do with meeting a neuro scientist on a plane and later being wired up to test his reactions to his different cuvées), but the wine is delicious and as distinctive as its label.
Continuing with the crazy stories, Brandon Keys’ “One Ball” Chardonnay from his BK Wines in the Adelaide Hills means exactly what you are thinking, though not about Brandon, he’d want me to add (maybe). It’s another distinctive wine, slightly leesy, but unusual enough to keep your interest as it develops. Certainly in the new, leaner style of Australian Chardonnay. One of those wines you actually want to drink a whole bottle of to see how it changes along the way.
There was nice Sicilian Grillo from Valdibella and a very tasty and precise dry Riesling from Stefan Winter (Rheinhessen). Even better, perhaps, was a very unusual dry Tokaji Szamorodni 2010 made by Karadi-Berger. It’s steely with nuts and dried fruits, complex and suggestive of skin contact. There’s a touch of nicely bitter orange peel on the finish.
I also enjoyed Yabby Lake‘s Red Claw Pinot Noir. It’s not a complex wine, but it has bags of fruit on the nose. It’s a good introduction to both Yabby Lake, and the Mornington Peninsula, my own personal favourite Aussie region for Pinot Noir. I have also seen the Red Claw Pinot in Marks & Spencer in the UK, although it’s no cheaper than at Swig.
Before leaving the Swig table, I must just mention that they have a good range of AA Badenhorst wines from The Cape/Swartland (in fact their whole South Africa offering is well worth checking out). They have a few Badenhorst bottlings you wont find in some other stockists, including their marvelous vermouth made from Chenin Blanc, Caperitif, which you can even accompany with Adi Badenhorst’s own proprietary tonic water.
I wasn’t going to taste at the Howard Ripley table, only because I often manage to get to their own tastings (I’m sure you all read my notes on the German GG and Reds event at Gray’s Inn, published 9 September), and I know their wines pretty well. After all, they have one of the best Burgundy portfolios around, and in my personal opinion, the best German selection out there. But by lucky chance a fellow taster mentioned that they were showing a wine I’d never tried before, from one of my favourite half-dozen producers from their German list, Peter Lauer.
The Saar Riesling Cremant (should we use an accent?) Brut is a non-vintage wine labelled not as a Sekt, but in the French style. What is Florian trying to tell us? I had no idea they made this wine, and I can’t see it on their web site, but there we have it, Howard Ripley have some. It’s really good, certainly one of the nicest German sparklers I’ve had recently. The remarkable thing is that it tastes like Riesling, which is something you can’t always say about Riesling Sekt. It has a great mousse, a nice bead too, and it’s not at all heavy and lumbering (though neither is it insubstantial). The best bit is the price, around £17/bottle in bond. I think they brought it in for a restaurant client, but you can buy some.
Clark Foyster are kind of non-specialist specialists, or is it the other way round? They don’t do every country or region, but those they do, they do pretty well. They have one of those ranges full of wines which are often just a bit too well known to grab the fashionistas, yet in truth, they share the philosophy of the other Vaults attendees, stocking wines made by committed family producers.
If you look at just the Austrian wines on show at this tasting you might get an idea of what I mean. Felsner Grüner, Polz Sauvignon Blanc, Feiler-Artinger Zweigelt, Stadt Krems Riesling, Pittnauer Pinot Noir and Moric Blaufränkisch. All the producers will be known to Austrian fans, all the wines are good. The one you might miss is the Polz. You don’t see a lot of Austrian Sauvignon Blanc in the UK and this is the best version I know.
Other wines to look out for? The Jacques Picard Champagne Brut Réserve is good, and was always my choice for aperitif when I dined more regularly at one of the 28-50 restaurants, back in the day when Xavier was working the floor. The Greek range here is interesting, and they showed wines from two good estates, the well known Argyros (an Assyrtiko from Santorini), and the perhaps less well known (in the UK) Katogi-Strofilia (a red Nemea, “Mountain Fish”, made from the local Agiorgitiko). I have a soft spot both for Santorini whites, which are generally of high quality and always worth a punt, and for Nemea, which can sometimes be hit and miss as to style. This one is deep purple, fruity and unoaked, and all the better for it.
I didn’t try the Vinho Verde from Adega de Monçao, although I drank their excellent red version at lunch afterwards (more of which, in the next article).
These guys have been around for about seven years, importing stuff at the quirkier end of the spectrum. They emphasise their modus operandi of actually hitting the vineyards with a degree of regularity just not possible for those with an enormous portfolio of hundreds of wines. They have a good selection from Languedoc-Roussillon, with names you might know. Domaine de L’Horizon, Maxime Magnon, Pas de L’Escalette, and Clos des Augustins to name just some of them.
I already know the Domaine de L’Horizon wines, from the exciting region around Calce in Roussillon, but my pick of the Southern French was probably Magnon’s “Metisse”. The best introduction to Magnon is to mention that this Burgundian, who makes wines in the Hautes Corbières, studied under Jean Foillard (everybody’s favourite Beaujolais producer at the moment, me being no exception), and then was mentored by Didier Barral. Carte Blanche also showed a couple more of his wines, Le Begou and Rosetta, the Rosetta running the Metisse a close second.
I was especially keen to try the wines from Bodegas Vidal Soblechero (Pagos de Villavendimia), based in La Seca, Castilla y Leon, Spain. This producer is technically making Rueda, although they try to avoid being put in that pigeonhole. The wines would probably scare anyone looking for a Spanish Sauvignon Blanc lookalike. The main grape is Verdejo, although they also have Viura planted. El Escribiente is an inexpensive field blend of the two, from vines astoundingly (for the price) up to 200 years old. Finca Valrrastrojuelos is a single site Viura, whilst Fincas El Alto, Buena Vista and Matea are all Verdejos. The last two are available in genuinely tiny quantities and very much “price on application”, but the El Alto is more affordable, a very nice wine with an exquisite nose. It’s crisp but doesn’t lack the body to accompany food.
Gergovie are perhaps the most outspoken of the Vaults group in their shunning of anyone using pesticides and chemical fertilisers. As they point out, there’s really no such thing as “non-intervention” winemaking, but Gergovie follow producers who intervene in the vineyard (pruning, trellising, ploughing etc are all interventions) “with respect to vine and soil”. Gergovie are perhaps even better known in London for the bar/restaurant at their distribution warehouse, “40 Maltby Street”, not far from London Bridge Rail Terminus.
Gergovie only brought thirteen wines, and four of those were from Savoyard producer Jean-Yves Péron, who farms a few hectares on steep schistous slopes, at Conflans, near Albertville. The first wine I tried set the tone, a Vin de Table/Vin de France blend of Altesse, Jacquère and very quickly pressed (so as not to taint the juice red) Mondeuse. I think it is aged, at least in part, sous voile. There’s a slightly sour note to it, but it’s full of mineral expression and purity. It’s called Côtillon des Dames.
La Grande Journée is 100% Altesse with an extra month on skins, followed by a year in old oak. Really characterful, if scary, a wine which seeks to thrill by balancing precariously on the edge (you do need to mull this one over before pronouncing it sane). Champ Levat is red, a Mondeuse which has undergone a 15 day whole bunch maceration. It isn’t as dark as some Mondeuse (which can be quite purple). There’s summer cherry on the nose, refreshing. Côte Pelée is usually the more extracted of the reds, the big brother, and a wine for keeping. It still has just a year in oak, but maceration time is two months, four times as long as the Champ Levat.
There’s no doubt Savoie is coming up on the rails behind Jura and Bugey, so it’s a good time to go exploring. There are plenty of decent mainstream producers around the Savoie sub-regions, but if you want to explore the outer limits, head to Maltby Street.
What else was interesting on the Gergovie table? One of their band of Auvergne growers is Patrick Bouju, and his Re-Bus is mainly Chardonnay (allegedly with some Trousselier and Vermentino?). Patrick Meyer makes wine in Nothalten, up in the area near Andlau and Barr in what must be the most exciting part of Alsace at the moment. His Muenchberg Grand Cru lives up to this site’s name. Michel Guignier‘s Beaujolais “Granite” is, as you might expect, a very grippy and mineral version. Head here if you want to try a different expression of Gamay to the soft and fruity wines more often associated with the industrial produce of this AOC. You won’t find many more beefy Beaujolais. I should also mention Jean-Christophe Garnier, who farms at La Roche Bézigon, Layon (Loire). He makes some lovely wines, including some very different but often stunning Chenins (I had an old one some time ago which was lurking as a bin end on the list at Quality Chop House – lingering unloved until we spotted it one cold Monday evening).
Last wine tasted was a François Dhumes‘ Tête de Bulle pét-nat from the Auvergne. Gamay, 10% alcohol, residual sugar, pale, light and fruity, hardly wine at all…utterly delicious!
There were, sadly, no Barranco Oscuro wines on show. Luckily, as you probably noticed, I managed one or two in Granada this summer, but Gergovie are the people to go to for this iconic natural wine estate in Spain’s Alpujarras.
The admirable stance Gergovie take on chemicals etc makes their range both exciting, but also challenging for mainstream drinkers. Whilst I am on the “exciting” side, it’s only fair to point out that the wines I mention above will not necessarily be to the immediate taste of those more tutored on classic wine styles. Maybe try a trip to the wine bar to dip your toe in the Gergovie stream. There’s adventure to be had if you are up for it.
That pretty much sums up the Vaults Tasting for autumn this year. I’m sure you’ll agree that there were a pallet load of wines worth buying, and I’m worried that in my enthusiasm I’ve recommended too many. So here is my Vaults Fourteen (two from each attendee):
- Marnes Blanche Poulsard and Hegyi Kalo Kekfrankos (Winemakers Club)
- Marko Fon Vitovska and Skerlj Malvasia (Tutto)
- Blankbottle Orbitofrontal Cortex and Collard-Picard Cuvée Prestige (SWiG)
- Peter Lauer Cremant Riesling and Julian Haart Piesporter Riesling (Howard Ripley)
- Polz Sauvignon Blanc and Pittnauer Pinot Noir (Clark Foyster)
- Maxime Magnon Metisse and Vidal Soblechero Finca El Alto (Carte Blanche)
- François Dhumes Tête de Bulle and Jean-Yves Peron Côtillon des Dames (Gergovie)
All of those would be both exciting and interesting to anyone looking for that great adventure in wine. We are seeking stimulation over perfection, no?