In dividing my Real Wine Fair 2017 odyssey into three manageable parts, I decided to base Part 2 on four North American producers I tasted. But as this will be the shortest of the three parts, I’m going to throw in one from Australia and one from England as well. There is no doubt that The USA is increasing its “natural wine” profile in the UK year on year. Three of the producers below were completely new to me, and were showing some brilliant wines, but first, we’ll begin with a producer I do know pretty well.
What did I get from tasting these particular producers? Well, with the North Americans and the Australian, I think none conformed to stereotypes and cliches about what wine from these places tastes like. There was an overwhelming sense of joy in the wines, rather than an attempt to be serious. They are, on the whole, wines to drink, rather than (as is so often the case in these regions) wines of high alcohol, wines to sip on their (and often, your) own. This is the prime reason why even the more affluent younger drinkers are turning to these wines, and away from the monsters. It’s what makes a Wine Fair like Real Wine (and Raw) so important, and also so obviously popular with a younger audience. The demographic here, as compared to many other London Tastings, is telling, and should be a warning to the trade.
La Garagista, Vermont
La Garagista are in Barnard, and have vines around Lake Champlain, and Mount Hunger. The focus is on biodiversity and permaculture on their home farm, and all winemaking is biodynamic. Viticulture is only part of their story.
I first met Caleb and Deirdre a year ago, and loved their wines. My favourite was without doubt the pét-nat, Grace and Favour, made from La Crescent, a hybrid grape variety said to be descended from Black Hambourg. It gets its name because that is the variety of “The Great Vine” at Hampton Court Palace, outside of London (where “grace and favour apartments are allotted to former royal functionaries). It was just a month ago that I drank the 2015 bottling of Grace and Favour, so I had to try the new one.
Grace & Favour 2016 has less of the zip and direct thrust of the 2015, but that is replaced by a lovely floral ambience. It’s quite a different wine, but equally good. The 2015 was my first vintage of this sparkler, and it was such an exciting wine. This is a little toned down, but it won’t be any less of a shock (I’m hoping in a good way) to the uninitiated.
Ci Confonde Rosso Pet Nat 2015 was completely new to me. I knew of a rosé in this series (made from Frontenac Gris), but Caleb said that this cuvée was made from Marquette, a hybrid developed in Minnesota especially for colder climates. It was my first (but not last) “new” grape variety of the day. The wine is frothy, fruity and has a certain savoury quality on the finish. Very possibly a challenger to Grace & Favour.
I finished off with Loup d’Or 2015, which I have tried before – so “Brianna” is not a new variety to me. Brianna is a hybrid between vinifera, labrusca and riparia plants, developed this time in Wisconsin. It does, again, suit colder climates. It was originally developed to use as a table grape, but is now quite widely planted in the Midwest for wine production. Up in Vermont it seems to make a very taut wine, but it also has a creamy texture. If citrus and cream sounds weird, don’t let that put you off. It’s an unusual wine, but it has a nice floral quality which the adventurous will find beguiling.
Importer – Les Caves de Pyrène
Caleb pouring Grace ’16, some red pét-nat Ci Confonde, and that map again – one presumes they draw a new one every year? Most of us need it!
Golden Cluster, Jeff Vejr, Oregon
Jeff Vejr is lucky to be able to source his grapes from one of the Willamette Valley’s heritage sites. Originally called the Charles Coury Vineyard (it has since been renamed David Hill Vineyard, after a later owner), he was one of the three original pioneers of Oregon viticulture (David Lett of Eyrie Vineyards, who died back in 2008, was perhaps much better known). Jeff pays homage to Coury, the region’s unsung hero, through his labels, but he is completely opposed to the modern day marketing story that Oregon means Pinot Noir. Hence the diversity of varieties he bottles. Jeff’s not a local, he hails from New Hampshire, and his first vintage was only in 2013. Early days then, but lots of promise.
Coury Old Vines Semillon 2014 is far from typical, if you are thinking Graves, or Australia. Dry farmed on its own original rootstock, it is given a little skin contact (two days), and is then aged on the lees in bottle. But the vines are old – in fact the oldest Semillon vines in America’s Pacific Northwest, and you can tell. Good texture and mouthfeel, combined with quite a concentration of fruit, though not remotely flashy. The fruit is bright, layered over a gentle beeswax base. Delicious, and a piece of viticultural history too.
Dion Vineyard Syrah 2015 actually has 2% Grenache added. Made with some whole clusters, this is aged partly in 500 litre wood, and partly in some stainless steel kegs. Apparently Syrah does extremely well in the Willamette, although I’ve little experience of it myself. This has nice bright fruit, very tasty now, but I presume with the capacity to age.
The one wine I wasn’t quite sure about was Olmo Flora 2016. Flora is a cross between Gewurztraminer and Semillon, made in 1938 by Harold Olmo at the California Viticultural Experiment Station. I first came across it not in North America, but in Australia, via Brown Brothers’ well distributed dessert wine, Orange Muscat & Flora. This also comes from the David Hill (originally Charles Coury) vineyard. It is a relatively low acid wine with quite a sour and ever so slightly bitter finish. But I won’t pass judgement and dismiss it on one sip.
Savagnin Rose 2015 was much more to my taste. The variety is also known as Roter Traminer, but may be better known to some as the grape variety in the rarely seen Alsace wine, Klevener de Heiligenstein (which isn’t, confusingly, made from Klevner, note the middle ‘e’). It’s a white grape, yet has a pink skin. This cuvée tastes dry, but has around 5g/l of residual sugar, balanced by good acidity which is nevertheless not too assertive. There’s also some protective CO2. Jeff thinks this was the first planting of the grape variety in Oregon. A fun wine, worth trying if you can find it.
Importer – Les Caves de Pyrène
Bow & Arrow, Scott and Diana Frank, Oregon
Scott and Diana are based in Oregon, but some of their wines could almost be straight out of Anjou and Touraine. They’ve been going almost seven years, and bring their own brand of low intervention wines to an industry which at times can seem like, well, an industry. They share with their natural wine counterparts in The Loire a predilection for lower alcohols, refreshing in both senses.
Melon Blanc 2015 is clearly a nod to Muscadet, further evidenced by the year the wine spends on its lees in tank. Like Muscadet, this wine has very linear minerality, and fresh fruit, but expect a little more body than many Muscadets, at least the young ones. With superb length, this is really good. It won’t match the ridiculously low prices which the French wine fetches, but at around £20 UK retail, it’s still very much worth seeking out (and I will).
Gamay Noir 2015 is made by semi-carbonic maceration from vines grown in the Willamette Valley. The nod to The Loire continues, in that this reminds me more of the increasingly delicious versions from here, than of Beaujolais. I’m finding North American Gamay quite exciting right now, and this is no exception. Expect fruit concentration, but something resembling restraint.
Was Air Guitar 2015 my favourite wine from Bow & Arrow? Certainly, it gains bonus points for the name with me. It’s a blend of Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, with the fruits firmly in the “red” spectrum, rather than anything darker. It has the same kind of restraint I found in the Gamay, something which for me signals perfect ripeness, but no unwarranted extra hang time.
Scott was also showing his Pinot Noir wines. Rhinestones 2015 is actually a blend of 60% Pinot with 40% Gamay. Think good Bourgogne Passetoutgrains, or the best of Dôle from Switzerland’s Valais. I don’t think there’s a hint of pretension here, just a very pleasant and fruity wine for glugging…yet extremely well put together despite the minimal intervention.
Hughes Hollow Pinot Noir 2014 (an error in the catalogue listed 2015) is a single vineyard wine from a north facing site in the Willamette Valley, just west of the Eola-Amity AVA. Very much cool climate initially, and Scott said he thought it may have just been planted for extra volume, although the vines are planted on their own rootstock. But with global warming, the vines now achieve full phenolic ripeness without going above 12% abv (yet), and 2014 was a very warm vintage. Ripe fruit is quite floral on the nose, whilst on the palate it’s mainly raspberry with a touch of red cherry. There are tannins which are quite smooth but not without texture. Hughes Hollow is possibly the most potentially fine wine from Bow & Arrow, although my heart is probably with the Melon and Air Guitar.
Importer – Les Caves de Pyrène
Scott Frank demonstrates a bit of air guitar to the thronging crowds at Tobacco Dock, defending the faith
Ryme Cellars, Megan and Ryan Glaab, California
In Part 1, I mentioned how I’m always stopped by people recommending producers to me, and how they often end up being some of my best discoveries at big wine fairs like Real Wine. My friend Nayan Gowda was responsible, via social media, for sending me to Ryme Cellars, having graduated with Megan. This was no mere plugging of a mate, the wines are brilliant.
Megan and Ryan are both winemakers (Ryme combines the first letters of their names), and they started making wine together out of Healdsburg in 2007. They claim to have the same ideas and intuition in their winemaking, but where they did disagree was in what to do with their Vermentino. So they made one each.
“Hers” Carneros Vermentino 2016 takes as its inspiration the bright and clean wines of the Ligurian coast. Stainless steel renders a lovely fresh “garden wine”. “His” Carneros Vermentino 2014 (note the vintage) is a skin contact wine, more orange than Megan’s yellow. It’s made from whole clusters, with two weeks on skins. It has texture from the winemaking method, but great purity. I didn’t tell Megan I kind of preferred Ryan’s wine, but only because I love the style. Both wines are very good.
However, I liked the next wine even more. Fiano is an under rated grape variety. Famous in Italy’s Campania/Irpinia region, and especially around Avellino, we are seeing the grape spread beyond its homeland. One of the most exciting finds of last summer was Larry Cherubino’s version from Frankland River in Western Australia.
Sonoma Fiano 2015 is every bit as exciting. It comes from Dry Creek Valley (Sonoma County), a little north of Healdsburg. Megan said she thinks there are only around eight acres of Fiano planted in California. This version is simply made, aged in neutral French oak for ten months with just one racking. The fruit is rounded and stony, with a nice gentle texture, overlaid with citrus freshness.
Napa Ribolla Gialla 2013 is a rare find. In the Oak Knoll district of Napa, at the foot of Mount Veeder, a guy called George Vare has around 2.5 acres of this Northeastern Italian grape variety. Megan and Ryan secured a single ton of grapes, and decided (they love the wines of Sasha Radikon) to ferment it on skins for six months, before ageing for two years in more neutral French oak. The wine is very complex already. The colour is deep, the nose is quite spicy (ginger and nutmeg?), and the palate is textured, with the tannins of a red. It tastes of crunchy pears. There’s quite a bit of gras adding a little weight, but it’s in no way a heavy wine, just nicely poised.
The first wine this couple made together in 2007 was an Aglianico, from fruit sourced from Peachy Canyon Road, Paso Robles. It had been planted to complement the prodigious quantities of Zinfandel around that district. This would remind you that it’s pretty hot here, but Aglianico is a late ripener which doesn’t mind such temperatures. Picked in late October, foot trodden as whole clusters without destemming (ouch!), it is aged for three years in barrel, then given a year in bottle before release. The 2012 Paso Robles Aglianico has 14% alcohol, but also a very high ph of 3.2, so enough balancing acidity. Right now it is super tannic, though the acidity lifts it, making it not hard to contemplate. It’s made to age…Megan said well over twenty years. But it seemed to me to have enormous potential.
Not generally a fan of high alcohol Southern Italian reds, I’ve nevertheless always had a soft spot for Aglianico. Like Sicily’s Nerello Mascalese, it seems to retain freshness (both grapes are often grown at altitude in the finest examples). As an example of the remarkably assured winemaking here, this wine is exemplary.
I didn’t get to try the Carignane and their Cabernet Franc.
Importer – Les Caves de Pyrène.
Megan holding a carafe of the highly impressive Paso Robles Aglianico
Martha Stoumen, California
Matha makes wine by herself in Northern California, aiming to create real biodiversity in the vineyards she leases directly. She had three wines at the Fair: Post Flirtation 2016, a blend of 65% Carignan plus Zinfandel made in the glouglou/gulpable style (11.3% alcohol); Venturi Vineyard Carignan 2015 from Larry Venturi, out of a vineyard on Russian River’s former bed, covered in large stones; and Mendo Benchlands 2015, 60% Nero d’Avola blended with 40% Zinfandel (whole clusters, foot trodden, one month maceration then 18 months in neutral oak, 14% abv).
Sadly, when I arrived a little before 5pm, Martha was clean out of wine. I mention her in part because of the rave reviews she got from some of my friends, and also for what I decided was the “Label of the Day”, for the Post Flirtation Blend, which I have reproduced below.
Importer – Les Caves de Pyrène
Sam Vinciullo, Margaret River, Western Australia
Sam Vinciullo was another of the star producers at Real Wine 2017. Sam has had a varied winemaking career, around Australia and in California. But his most formative experience was working with Frank Cornelissen on Etna. Helped by Sarah Morris of Si Vintners, who sold him his first parcel of fruit for the 2015 vintage, Sam makes three wines – a red and a white, and a “red-white” blend. 2016 is his second bottled vintage, 2017 being safely in tank.
Warner Glen Sauvignon 2016 is no typical Sauvignon Blanc. The nose is stunning, almost tropical and very primary, but not in the same direction as many New Zealand versions. It’s softer than you expect on the palate, though the acids are there, as is a nice texture. Sam allows fermentation to run wild, with no temperature control, but every stage of vinification is scrupulously monitored, and the winery is said to be spotlessly clean.
Warner Glen Red Blend 2016 is Cabernet/Merlot, a combination that’s hardly uncommon in Margaret River. Sam destems the fruit, but uses a high proportion of whole berries. The red winemaking is very gentle, and the resulting wine has a nice medium weight with bright, vibrant, fruit. Definitely a wine to match with food. Good to go if you open it early, or splash into a carafe. Probably even better in a year.
Red/White Blend 2016 is one of those fortuitous discoveries which may not be the height of sophistication, but provide the perfect fruity wine for summer. The blend is Merlot and Semillon. It has a nice glowing red colour to it, very attractive (I know that pretty labels and bright colours shouldn’t sway sophisticated palates, but this is a fun wine, not a Grand Cru). It simply delivers fruit and freshness. Great garden fodder, if we can persuade the sunshine to return.
Sam is pretty particular about his way of doing things. He eschews oak, uses a small basket press, and there is no pumping, just hand punching in open fermenters. He’s very tactile, getting to know the skins as he said. Sam aims for texture and a relatively low ph. Native yeasts and no added sulphur complete the picture. So whilst the grapes are your usual Margaret River fare, the winemaking, and hence the wines, are not. As I said at the top, but will repeat here, star quality.
Importer – Les Caves de Pyrène
Davenport Vineyard, Limney Farm, East Sussex (UK)
Whilst the sparkling wine industry in the UK is relatively new, Davenport has a history longer than many, having built up vine holdings at a rate of about an acre a year over twenty years, and over five different sites. They are unusual, for our UK climate, in being fully certified organic. Some copper and sulphur are used to control mildew, but all other treatments are made from plants (nettles feature prominently). There is generally a very high degree of environmental awareness here, even down to bottle weight and non-bleached cartons, and the winery is solar powered.
The range of wine is quite broad, although Davenport were not showing their top “traditional method” white – the current vintage (2013) is settling in bottle after disgorging.
Limney Auxerrois Sparkling 2014 is somewhat simpler than that 2013, made from Pinot Auxerrois instead of the classic three variety Champagne blend. Nevertheless, it gets two years on lees in bottle, and reminded me a little of a very good Crémant de Bourgogne.
Davenport Pet Nat 2014 is more fruity and quite simple, but I can’t recall tasting a better English wine in this style. It is only in its second vintage, but I really hope it proves a big success. In its first vintage it was made from Pinot Auxerrois, but that block was apparently eaten by badgers in 2016, so they switched to a blend of Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Faber (Faberrebe), and they think this is even better. I can’t comment on the 2015, not having tried it, but the ’16 is delicious, in the pét-nat style, ie ripe fruit, great acidity, slightly tart but very refreshing. Simple wine to knock back and enjoy.
Limney Estate Sparkling Rosé is the counterpart to that resting white. Mainly Chardonnay, with 10% Pinot Noir for colour. It gets a year on lees and is dosed at 4g/l, so it is very dry. There’s a line of fine acidity to go with the fine bead, and it’s red fruits all the way.
Horsmondon White 2015 comes from a vineyard planted originally in the early 1990s with a range of varieties which at that time were considered, by the English viticultural fraternity, to be the future of English wine. They may have been proved wrong in the event, but the Bacchus, Ortega, Huxelrebe, Siegerrebe and Feberrebe planted here make a refreshing white, which is given a touch more weight by placing the Ortega in wooden foudre for six months.
I am generally wary of many English white blends using these type of grapes, which can often produce wines high in acidity and which are rather one-dimensional. But this wine has gained a very good reputation, and I’d say deservedly so, especially for its thirst quenching qualities. Sip at the cricket on a Sunday afternoon.
Diamond Fields Pinot Noir 2015 was, for me, the least convincing of the Davenport wines. It is actually made from the strain of Pinot called Pinot Noir Précose, a Pinot Noir mutation known in Germany as Frühburgunder. It is basically an earlier ripening version of the Burgundian grape. We grow some ourselves, just one big old vine, which yields at best thirty bunches, which we juice. It’s a real pain, always having uneven fruit set, and with some tiny berries among the normal ones.
Diamond Fields has darker fruit than you expect from Pinot Noir, along with a bitter touch on the finish. I’m going to put my neck on the block by suggesting it is not going to yield the complexity true Pinot Noir is capable of, due to its early ripening properties.
There’s nothing wrong with Diamond Fields. It’s just that for me, although there are a couple of glaring exceptions, I am just not convinced that global warming has gone quite far enough, and that vine siting and age are yet helping create truly exciting still Pinot Noir in England that offers value for money. But as we know, it’s getting warmer and if we can become lucky with the rain, the future may well be bright for English red wine.