Out the Box groups together seven small, independent, wine importers to give them a group platform in the ever competitive and crowded British market. This market may be both of these things, but it has also grown enormously over the past decade. With the uncertainties over the future, especially with the massive devaluation of our currency over the past year, and rising inflation, small importers need a platform to promote their wares.
The 2017 Tasting took place in the spacious Crypt on the Green in Clerkenwell, one of London’s hidden “villages”, between Farringdon and Islington. During the three-and-a-half hours I was there I could not say that the room was crowded. It’s true that there was at least one very big Tasting across town which clashed – at this time of year there are so many Tastings, almost every day. Whereas in some previous cases you will have been able to read about a tasting like this one from numerous sources, I have a suspicion that write-ups of “Out of the Box” might be slightly more limited. I hope to give you a good flavour of the very exciting stuff on show.
If you persevere with my articles, you’ll find more than fifty wines selected for inclusion from those I tasted. And indeed, these form the majority of those I tasted. I may well have missed out some gems, but very few sips were unworthy of comment. As you read on, you’ll also notice that many of the names here may be unfamiliar, and some of the wines will seem downright unusual. Out the Box certainly pushed at a few boundaries.
In order to make this Tasting a little more digestible, I’ve split it into two parts. Part 1 (here) covers three importers: The Knotted Vine, Modal Wines, and Red Squirrel. Part 2 will follow with Basket Press Wines, Nekter and Swig. Maltby and Greek were also at the Tasting, but I did them justice at the recent “Dirty Dozen” tasting in Soho (see my article here), although I did spot that they had some of the elusive Sigalas oak aged Assyrtiko from Santorini, which was so annoyingly glugged dry at the Vinyl Factory event.
THE KNOTTED VINE
This is a new importer to me. It is based in London and is headed up by David Knott. His passion is for wines of purity, “clean wines that allow varietal grape characteristics to shine in the glass”. He appears to know what he’s doing.
Architects of Wine is the label of Dave Caporaletti. Knotted Vine import two wines, a Chardonnay (Adelaide Hills) and a Riesling (Clare Valley), both made with minimal intervention. Only 900 bottles were made of Skin Contact Riesling 2016. But this 12%er is so well defined, light on its feet yet concentrated too. Very “natural”.
Damon and Jonathan Koerner are a Clare Valley team, with most fruit coming from their own Gully View vineyard. The Clare Red 2016 is a nice blend, but I preferred La Corse Red 2016, Sangiovese, Malbec, Grenache and (hence the name) Sciaccarello. Very juicy, quite light and zippy for a red, not unlike some of the wines out of Corsica.
David Franz is actually the son of Peter Lehmann (not that his surname gives it away), and he tills the earth in that same Barossa Valley where his father made his name. These wines are quite exciting. They have great fruit without it being drowned in either alcohol or oak. Possibly my favourite of the four was Long Gully Semillon 2015. The vines are 130 years old, I’m told. Picked early for freshness (which shows in spades), the juice spends a year on lees for texture and complexity. But it’s so refreshing (all lime and greengage).
Plane Turning Right 2013 refers to Bordeaux’s Right Bank (Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot), is fruit packed, and not like any Saint-Emilion jam I know. Grenache 2015 comes from Adelaide Hills this time. Quite pale with reddish fruit, plus bitter cherries on the finish. Despite 14% abv, this is actually pretty elegant. You’d never guess it packs a punch. Back to wider Barossa, Georgie’s Walk 2012 is pure Cabernet Sauvignon with a deep, dark fruited, bouquet and nice concentrated fruit.
I drink a lot from Austria, as you know, but I’ve never come across Barbara Öhlzelt from Kamptal. Not surprising because although she’s been making wine since 2014, Knotted Vine is her first importer outside of the German speaking world. Try her Kellerweingarten Grüner Veltliner 2016 which is mineral, but quite fruity too for this variety. A nice softness as well.
Armas de Guerra (Weapons of War) refers to the tools used to maintain a healthy vineyard when not using synthetic chemical treatments. Based in Bierzo, in Northwestern Spain, I tasted a red and a white. Godello 2016 is quite exotic, from 45 to 55-year-old vines grown between 450 and 600 metres, delicious. Bierzo Tinto 2016 is pure Mencia, not as immediately appealing as the white in some ways, yet a nice savoury, chewy, and bright red.
El Mozo is a small family enterprise in Rioja Alavesa, nine hectares of old vines in 18 small plots at Lanciego. Rioja Alavesa “El Cosmonauta y el Viaje En El Tiempo” 2016 boasts a fetching red “cosmonaut” label. Pale, with some tannin, which hides (at this stage) a wine which I think has a lot of potential to age into something very elegant. The other reds I tasted from El Mozo were good, but this blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Viura, Malvasia and Torrontes had something extra.
Vinos Mar 7 is based in the centre of Sanlucar, but I’ve never heard of them. They don’t appear in Peter Liem and Jesús Barquin’s Sherry book. But the three wines on show were very nice. My favourite was the Manzanilla Pasada which was salty and savoury, with a bit of extra body.
Modal Wines’ manifesto is to “source unique wines with the right mix of edge, character, balance and drinkability”. The Modal offering at this Tasting was smaller than most, but none of the wines I tasted here disappointed. The most interesting producer I found was Slobodne from Slovakia. I’d be doing a disservice not to mention all four of their wines on taste.
Oranžista 2015 is 100% Pinot Gris with 10% skin contact. Pale orange colour with a distinctive bitter orange flavour (a bit like dry Lucozade). Cutis Pinoter 2015 is also Pinot Gris, but with 100% skin contact. Broader on the nose, this is pinkish-orange. It really retains its freshness, there’s a little texture on the tongue, and it finished with the bite of marmalade peel. Deviner 2013 blends the local variety, Devin (a Gewurztraminer/Roter Veltliner cross), with Traminer and Grüner Veltliner. This has no skin contact, and is aromatic, clean and fresh. A lovely white. Cutis Deviner 2014 is the same blend, but far more extreme. One for orange wine aficionados – I loved it. All four wines come from Hlohovec, in the Trnava Region of Southwest Slovakia.
Modal also imports wines from Joiseph who are based at Jois at the northern end of the Neusiedlersee, not far from Neusiedl-am-See. The most interesting of their low intervention offerings was a wine often more associated in our minds with Vienna. Ruhe in Frieden 2015 is a Gemischter Satz. It comes from an old co-planted vineyard and had three weeks on skins, so there’s a bit of texture. Only 240 bottles were made, aged in four 50 litre demijohns. The name translates as “Rest in Peace”. The vineyard was in poor condition when the family took it over, and it is no longer in production. But the wine is extraordinary for its type if you ever get to taste a not inexpensive bottle.
Red Squirrel is one of my favourite small importers, so I know their wines well. This is why I’m not going to write about wines I’ve covered before, but sticking to new producers was impossible when faced with new wines from old favourites. Still, my two stars here were both wines I’d never tasted, but had been aching to try.
I began with Vinterloper as I have to mention the Park Wine pair. These are bottled in 50cl beer bottles with a crown cap, and intended for picnics etc. A brilliant idea from David Bowley in the Adelaide Hills – top marks for really thinking “out(side) of the box”. The white is Gewurztraminer, but a version that is fresh and zingy with a touch of texture. The red is Dolcetto. Serve it chilled, and quaff it out of the bottle if you dare.
Bioweingut Diwald is well known in my house, especially for Martin’s Sekt this summer, and for all his Grüner that we saw in Japan in August. Maischegärung Zündstoff 2016 is an orange Riesling to rival his mate Arnold Holzer’s orange (Roter Veltliner) wine. Despite the skin contact, which some argue takes away varietal character, I’d argue that you know this is Riesling. Lots of minerality and character come through.
Okanagan Crush Pad seems to be appearing on my blog a fair bit at the moment (we had a Gamay and Pinot Noir a week ago, see my last post), so I will only mention one of their wines today. Haywire Free Form White 2015 is a slightly cloudy Sauvignon Blanc of genuine individuality, partly because it has all of nine months on skins (that’s up from five months for the 2014). It comes from the limestone and granite of the Waters & Banks Vineyard in Okanagan’s Trout Creek Canyon. Unique, I’d say, and delicious, so long as you like a lovely sour touch on the finish. For me, really exciting stuff. All of the Crush Pad’s wines are well worth buying.
If Château de Bel is unfamiliar, you don’t follow me on Instagram. I’ve drunk both of Olivier Cazenave’s entry red and white wines, Echappée Bel, recently, and for £15 they are excellent value. Here, we are leaping up in quality and perhaps doubling the price. But these are well worth it! Bel en Blanc is, like the red which follows, and like all Olivier’s wines, a “multi-vintage”. It’s 100% Muscadelle, gorgeously fresh with beeswax and melon among the many flavours coming through (a bottle would, I’m sure, yield a lot more). Franc de Bel is pure Cabernet Franc. Pure in both senses, smooth and rich, and mouthfillingly bright. Made in a solera, I believe. Can’t wait to buy some.
Château Combel-la-Serre is Julien Ilbert’s rapidly praise-garnering Cahors estate, with 26 hectares up on the causses at Saint-Vincent-Rive-D’Olt. The purest of 100% Malbec, no oak, Burgundy bottles, these all signal an attempt to make something different. Try, for example, La Vigne Juste Derrière Chez Carbo 2016, carbonic maceration Malbec with vibrant colour, smooth fruit and a lightness of touch which you only get in Argentina from the new wave, and almost never in Cahors. It doesn’t lack body, but the amazing fruit lifts it.
How many of you have been to Liguria? It really is a lovely region, not only the vineyards on the steep coastal fringe, but also the densely wooded mountains which act as a barrier with Southern Piemonte. When I tasted a Ligurian wine the other week at “The Dirty Dozen”, I wrote that Red Squirrel is my usual port of call for Ligurian wine. Just try these.
Bruna may just produce the best Pigato in the region. Red Squirrel import three Bruna Pigatos from single sites, plus a “Vermentino” just to prove that although they are genetically identical, so we are told, the two “varieties” act differently in the Arroscia Valley. Pigato “Le Russeghine” (2014) is said to be the most varietally expressive of the three. Compared to most Pigato you come across in the region, it’s in a different class. I really love this wine.
Altavia make wines in the area around Dolceacqua, which is located on the western edge of Liguria, near the French border, and have done so since the 1970s. This Rossese di Dolceacqua Superiore Riserva 2012 is palish cherry-coloured, a medium to light wine with a rounded mouthfeel. It’s not complex as such, but quite unique. Altavia used to make a remarkable Touriga Nacional until the authorities cottoned on. Red Squirrel still have a little, I believe (2007 was the final vintage). One to stump the wine buffs, perhaps?
Ahrens Family are by now pretty well known. Albert Ahrens was winemaker at Lammershoek before helping to found Blank Bottle. He now makes wine at Wildepaardejacht beneath the De Toitskloof Mountains, near Paarl. Try the intense fruit of his Black 2015 for an insight into the Ahrens philosophy, which is one firmly rooted in place. This 2015 is 70% Syrah with Carignan, Grenache, and tiny additions of Marsanne and Roussanne. Okay, it’s 14% abv, but it just unfolds more and more different flavours from all the components. Some wines are spat out swiftly but I was forced to linger over this. Not one for the 100-wine tasting bench team to assess, though it certainly has that “sit up and take notice” presence.
So many great wines on show at this table, but I must end on the high of the Azores Wine Company. Some will have read the article in Decanter recently, or read the “Volcanic Wines” book by Canadian, John Szabo MS, and already know about the revival of winemaking on the Azores. On the island of Pico there are currently just 12 hectares, and they have been granted UNESCO World Heritage status for their unique low curved walls which protect the vines from searing Atlantic winds, and the equally uncommon way in which the vines are trained so that the grapes grow, protected, within a “basket” of wood and foliage (similar to training found on Santorini).
The white on show was Arinto 2016, a light wine with a mineral flavour, plus a herby citrus finish. The red Isabella a Proibida 2015 is so named because the Isabella grape variety (there are a few other co-planted varieties in this cuvée) is Vitis Labrusca, not Vinifera. These “American” varieties are technically banned for wine production within the EU, although I know of such vines in France, in old co-planted sites. Perhaps the UNESCO status, and the importance of Isabella to the history of wine in the Azores, has led to a certain acquiescence on the part of the authorities. I do hope so.
It’s a Marmite wine. I know one RS employee who doesn’t like it one bit. I do, not least for its historical importance. It’s basically fruity, juicy, a little acidic (but not sharp), and hardly complex. It’s also expensive. But what price cultural history. Bravo for importing half-a-dozen wines from this remote place. Do check out Red Squirrel’s Azores wines. They really deserve exploration if you are a serious wine lover.