February is the month when we suddenly begin to see calendar congestion. The Spring portfolio tastings come so thick and fast that it is unfortunately impossible to go to them all. I’ve tried to select a good variety. The first of these, which I’m bringing to you today, is a trio of tiny importers who I would suggest are bringing some stars of the future to the UK. All three of them I consider very important because they are pushing boundaries.
Nekter Wines specialises in the New World, effectively South Africa, North America and Australia, where they have deep knowledge. Nic Rizzi’s Modal Wines is hot on Central Europe, but also ventures into Spain, Germany, Italy and France. Roland Szimeiszter is the guy behind Roland Wines, and he’s focused on Central Europe, covering Hungary, Slovakia, Croatia and also Serbia.
As a heads-up of what is to follow in the next three weeks here on Wideworldofwine, we shall have write-ups for Indigo Wines, Wines of Hampshire (don’t look away, this was an excellent tasting at 67 Pall Mall), and another trio of wonderful small importers, Winemakers Club, Wines Under The Bonnet and Otros Vinos (who are presenting at Antidote next Tuesday). I also owe you “January Wines” , an article on the exciting Austrian spirits of Invivo, and an article on some new and interesting wine publications. That’s a lot to get through, so bear with me.
It looks as if each importer was allowed fifteen wines on the table, plus another wine each on a food matching table. I started with Nekter, whose range has some superb simmering wines which may be new to many readers.
The Matthiasson Family may be well known, certainly as pioneers of organic viticulture out west, in California, but their Tendu wines, bottled in litres, are less well known. There’s a white (2016) Vermentino-Colombard, and a red (2017) Aglianico-Barbera-Montepulciano blend, both off the alluvial and pink gravel soils of the Dunnigan Hills AVA (Northeast of Napa, some way south of Colusa). Both are great palate cleansers, the white being particularly lovable for its 10.3% abv lightness, the red being a strong contender for hot summer barbecue duty (simple bitter cherry fruit and a heatwave-tolerant 11.7% abv).
Steve and Jill live a genuinely “back to the land” life in Napa, producing a lot of what they eat along with their wines. You’d be forgiven for forgetting that Steve worked for some of the biggest names in California wine before some of the ideas he soaked up as a philosophy grad made him rethink a few things. Especially the issue of ripeness and alcohol. This is why their wines are always ripe, fresh but shall we say higher in liquids than jammy solids (alcohols are restrained for California, to be sure). Pretty much anything they make is worth exploring, but these simple wines really exemplify so much of what these Californian pioneers of sustainability stand for.
Staying with alternative varieties, another interesting producer is somewhat less well known. Ferdinand Wines gave us an Albarino 2017 from Borden Ranch (an AVA straddling Sacramento and San Joaquin Counties), and a 2014 Tempranillo from Sierra Foothills.
Evan Frazier is the guy behind Ferdinand. He used to work for John Kongsgaard, and in fact he makes his wine in the Kongsgaard facility. The Albarino, which spends 18 months in barrel, has some tropical notes, but it also tastes a little like a Chablis-style Chardonnay, perhaps some influence from the superb Chardonnays he made for Kongsgaard.
The Tempranillo has a gentle strawberry/cherry bouquet and comes from the famous Shake Ridge Vineyard owned by Anne Kraemer in Amador County. The fruit is all destemmed and it goes into oak (a small proportion of which is new) for 22 months. It’s pure with lovely fruit and structure, but it does pack 14.1% alcohol.
There are also some wines in a can from Ferdinand. Don’t laugh, they are fun, and wine in a tinny has come a long way since I used to see the alcoholics guzzling the M&S cans on the early train to London Victoria.
Donkey and Goat is a label you may have come across as it has been getting a bit of social media coverage lately. Jared and Tracey Brandt make natural wines in Berkeley, California. When I say “natural”, they will use minimal sulphur, but nothing else is added at any stage. Perli Mendocino Ridge Chardonnay 2016 spends ten months in barrel but the fruit is picked early. This gives the wine real zip, but without too overt acidity. Stone Crusher El Dorado Roussanne 2017 sees 12 days on skins, giving some texture and a savoury, even sour, note, but it’s lovely. Hard to choose between the two, though the Roussanne is a fascinating wine.
Geyer Wines perhaps won my producer of the day award on the Nekter table. Dave Geyer is based in the Barossa and is making natural wines from varieties just outside the mainstream. The absolute freshness, wholly uncharacteristic of many old fashioned Barossas, is exemplified in his very lovely Barossa Semillon 2017. Forty-three year old vines, direct press with a little skin contact adding complexity and texture, silky fruit, and all for 11% abv.
Rosé 2017 is a blend of 55% Cinsault with Pinot Meunier and Grenache, the latter from 100-y-o vines. Pale with an ethereal strawberry/raspberry scent, it could have been a New World Poulsard. Lovely sour/savoury palate. Then we have Seaside Cabernet Franc. This is also a 2017, hailing from the Adelaide Hills. The nose is classic Cab Franc, and the violet scented fruit (whole bunch fermentation) is delicate, but still hitting 13% abv. Deliciously sappy and juicy.
We also had a couple of exemplary producers (the first new to me) from South Africa. Bryan MacRobert Wines is a producer in Abbotsdale, just southwest of Malmsbury (technically Swartland but off most vineyard maps). Chenin Blanc 2015 is remarkable value, tasting quite a bit more expensive than the price (maybe a little over a tenner) suggests. The vines grow on east-facing slopes, giving cooler evenings, so you get just 12.5% abv and a lovely fresh acidity along with obviously Chenin flavours. Abbotsdale Syrah 2015 is also good value, and both wines make excellent by the glass options for the restaurant trade.
Martin Smith owns Paserene with Ndabe Mareda. These are wines at the opposite end of the spectrum, in the luxury bracket, though it’s all relative. Luxury wines but not luxury prices.
Union 2015 is labelled Western Cape, but it is made from Martin’s Tulbagh fruit: 51% Syrah with Carignan and Mourvèdre which sees 20 months in old oak. A serious wine, yet approachable. Shiner 2016 starts with 80% Cabernet Franc, plus 13% Merlot, 6% Petit Verdot and a splash of Cabernet Sauvignon, all from Stellenbosch. It’s a big boy, and I quote, “a badass wine”. Marathon 2016 is heavy…I mean the bottle. Sourced in Stellenbosch, it has 53% Cabernet Sauvignon, 32% Petit Verdot and the rest Carmenère (I think this is the only Carmenère vineyard in South Africa). This flagship cuvée knocks out a big 14% abv, but you do get class and developing complexity for your money.
Nic was showing the broadest spread of wines out of the three importers, so everything here was quite individual and different. The wines mentioned below were my own favourites, and this included four wines from my favourite Modal producer of all, Weingut Joiseph.
Based in Jois, near the top of the Neusiedlersee in Austria’s Burgenland, this is the project of Luka Zeichmann with Richard Artner and Xandl Kagl. They cultivate six hectares now, starting out with much less in 2015, on limestone and shale at the foot of the Leithaberg Range. Their work in the vineyard supercedes everything else. They are star wines, but not for the faint hearted I might add. They take more than a cursory swig.
Fogosch 2017 is the new vintage (I still have a ’16 left). It is always an edgy Grüner. Softer than many, it has texture and extract. There’s bags of interest. Also from the new 2017s, Welschriesling has twelve weeks’ skin contact. Sweet and sour, almost literally. One of the most singular versions of this grape you’ll find.
Roter Faden is a truly beautiful blend of Zweigelt (from Trift), Pinot Noir from the Langen Ohne site, and Blaufränkisch from Obersatz. It’s basically just amazingly fruity, and I have to have some for summer. Last but not least is BFF 2017. It can’t be called by its grape, Blaufränkisch, due to DAC complications, but it has the vibrant colour and freshness of limestone-grown Blau’ (from the Neuberg). The fruit and texture are delicate and it has a lingering mouthfeel that goes on and on. Not a heavy wine, yet it stains the glass.
Everything by Joiseph comes in tiny quantities (between 1,000 and 1,500 bottles and a few magnums from each cuvée), so they are fiendishly hard to get hold of, but well worth the effort. Wines for the adventurous connoisseur of Austrian natural wine.
Staffelter Hof is an old family farm based in one of the Mosel’s lesser known villages, Kröv, which you can look over the river towards if you are on the wonderful Mosel cycle path heading for Traben-Trarbach (it’s at the start of the big bend which almost encircles Wolf).
I’m not sure I remember tasting their wines before but they are quite different, as Little Bastard (2017) signals just by its name. It’s an unusual blend of Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc, Muller-Thurgau and Muscat in what I would call a gemischter satz style (both as a field bled and as a prickly fresh white). I thought it was brilliant fun, light and summery. I must admit, I couldn’t find this, nor the “Little Red Riding Wolf” on their web site, and I almost thought I’d got a different producer of the same name, but no, Modal links to the same producer. I suspect the younger generation is at work.
Silice Viticultores is a producer I’ve mentioned before, and again, one whose red wine I have in the cellar. Fredi Torres has worked internationally, and at Clos Mogador in Priorat. He’s the co-ordinator for a group of producers in Northern Spain’s beautiful Ribeira Sacra region. Blanco 2017 is new to me, and turns out to be just as exciting as the red. It’s Albariño (the inland version being quite different to the coastal strain) with Treixadura and Palomino, one third each. Just 11.5% abv, fresh and mineral with a nice roundness underneath.
Tinto 2017 is the wine I know from the previous vintage. Pure-fruited Mencia (80%) plus a field blend of other local varieties, and I mean pure. If you think Mencia has become big and ballsy, especially in Bierzo, give this a try. It’s more delicate. It’s a wine that helped me fall back in love with a grape variety I thought would be Spain’s big red hope a decade ago.
There follows a handful more wines that deserve exploration. Nibiru Grundstein Grüner Veltliner 2017 is from Kamptal, but is not DAC-labelled. Nice and juicy. Slobodne Cutis Deviner 2015 is a Slovakian rarity from the Hlohovec region, and is a blend of Roter Traminer and the autochthonous Devin variety.
The Slobodne story has been touched on before on this blog…a family who took part in the rebellion against Nazi occupation only to lose their land in the Communist era. The younger(ish) generation got it back in (I think) 2010, and have been making natural wines in Western Slovakia since then. If you really want something different this is your bottle. The nose alone is worth the entry, and the palate gives you a host of white and yellow fruits and a sourness. It’s very different, and I love it, I really do.
With Atelier Kramar we are in Slovenia, in the western part of Goriška Brda (Barbana to be exact). The wines, from 4.5 hectares, are effectively biodynamic (including attending rigidly to the phases of the moon). Primario 2016 is made from Rebula which saw three days skin maceration and six months in 1,000 litre oak (note that the 2017 saw a different method). This is another wonderfully textured wine with a nice plumpness.
Last but not least, Cascina Borgatta. This pioneer of organic wine production in the Alto Monferrato hills is based at Tagliolo, just east of Ovado. Production, since 1948, has been solely Dolcetto and Barbera, of which together they make under 10,000 bottles a year. Lamilla 2013 is 100% Dolcetto, perhaps not Piemonte’s most highly regarded grape, but something of a speciality in this part of the region (Ovado, Acqui Terme).
If you think the vines are quite old (over 40 years), then this is nothing compared to Emilio Oliveri, who is still making the wine in his eighties. This bottling is fermented in concrete and aged in stainless steel. It’s juicy, like all the best Dolcetto, but it also has a serious side, justifying the four years it has in bottle before release. Old school.
Roland wines may focus on less well known countries in Central Europe, but that’s not to say they don’t have a few well known producers. For me, their star wines come from Strekov1075. Sütó Zsolt cultivates 12 hectares of vines in a unique region of ponds and lakes amid marshland at Strekov in Slovakia. I will never forget the photo of Sütó on the Raw Wine website playing his drums to the vines, wearing a white sleeveless vest with inches of snow on the ground. Not just because I was a drummer in a former life, but because the photo made the man immediately worth investigating.
As it turns out (well, obviously), he makes brilliant wines. He’s an avid experimenter…with skin contact, wine under flor, and bottling unfiltered and sulphur free. Rizling/Veltlin 2016 is, of course, Welschriesling and Grüner Veltliner as we know them better. It’s a blend of the two white varieties which usually appear in separate cuvées. A singular wine, just try it! Fred #1 is a non-vintage field blend of local varieties, actually from 2016 and 2017, very savoury, made in open fermenters and no added sulphur. This is a great wine to choose if you want to find out what Strekov1075 is about.
Frankovka 2016 is that variety we know better as Blaufränkisch. This is perhaps slightly less wild than Fred, but it’s all relative. Great cherry fruit from very complex soils, but containing limestone, which all but guarantees a zippy freshness with this variety. All superb wines. Why 1075? The year the village of Strekov first appeared in manuscript. Why no space? No idea.
You may also have tried the wines of Klabjan. They are based in Slovenia’s province of Istria, and are lucky to possess some of the region’s oldest vines (up to 150 years old, the older ones ungrafted). Roland showed just one Klabjan wine, Refosk WL 2015 (one of two Refosco cuvées they make, there being a specifically old vine bottling). It’s a big wine, weighing in at 14% but the mouthfilling fruit and softening tannins suggest it will be more than merely interesting with a bit of age to it.
The Maurer family originated in Salzburg, but in the 19th Century, when this was all part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the moved south to what is now Serbia. The family farms 16 acres of vineyards, six of them just south of the Hungarian border at Szabadka in Serbia, with another ten acres in Fruška Gora, a mountain region below the Danube, about 40 miles north of Belgrade.
With so many wonderful wines coming out of Central Europe, it’s really exciting to taste Serbian wines. I’ve tasted some before, but (I won’t name names) without much of a thrill. Furmint 2016, made from one of Hungary’s best known varieties, was herby with a touch of mint, quite mineral (perhaps the volcanic soils of Szerémség), almost certainly the best Serbian wine I’d tasted to date.
Kadarka, a native of the Carpathian Basin, is a grape I like, especially off (the same) volcanic soils. Kadarka 2017 was light red with a bit of an orange glow, very easy to drink but with genuine personality and originality, and no less good than the Furmint. Serbia…who’d ‘ve thought.
Another potential star here was the Slovakian producer, Bott Frigyes, based in the Pohron Region. Again, the soils are volcanic. The range would actually ring bells with anyone familiar with traditional Hungarian varieties, not least Háslevelü 2017. Two thirds of the grapes see four days on skins with a further eight months on lees. The other third was fermented by carbonic maceration and the two parts were blended at bottling. The wine has a lovely lime freshness, but weight as well. Delicious.
Giorgio Clai is one of Croatia’s (and Istria in general) best known winemakers, and his wines feature on the lists of some smart restaurants worldwide. Roland showed his Ottocento Bijeli 2014, a white blend of Istrian Malvasia (70%), Pinot Gris, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc off Istria’s singular chalk and clays. It’s a classic skin contact wine, golden in colour, aged in various sizes of oak, showing the chewy texture and mouthfeel of what is a classic orange wine style. There’s also a red Ottocento from the same vintage made, I believe, from Refosco and Merlot. It was the orange (golden?) wine which stood out for me.
Back to slightly more familiar territory, a word for Bencze Birtok Riesling 2017, a nice food-friendly Riesling from Hungary’s Badascony Region, immediately to the north of Lake Balaton in the west. And for a wine from even more familiar territory (for me), Grabenwerkstatt’s Grabenwerk 2017 from Austria’s Wachau no less.
Michael Leke and Franz Hofbauer farm in the far west of the Wachau region, beyond Spitz, with vines (Riesling and Grüner Veltliner) on the Spitzer Graben at around 500 metres altitude, probably the last vines in the valley. The winery is…a garage. They caught the biodynamics bug working at Pyramid Valley in New Zealand. This tasty Grüner Veltliner, delicious and approachable as it is, singles these guys out as producers to keep an eye on. The small production here makes this wine expensive (over £20 retail), but it is rather good.
That’s a lot of wine, but these three importers should be supported. In fact I’m happy seeing plenty of restaurant buyers at tastings like this. If we don’t support the small guys (and girls) who are unquestionably pushing the boundaries and discovering brand new, often small production, gems, then we’ll end up drinking the same old wines. That’s not a terrible thing, there’s so much out there that’s brilliant. But those wines were new once. The likes of David Geyer, Strekov1075 and Joiseph are tomorrow’s stars, perhaps.