London Wine Fair is a large affair, to say the very least. It’s the largest of the wine events I attend every year, but that doesn’t mean it’s where I taste the most wines. With a few exceptions, the main trading floor is, as its name gives away, where some of the bigger players do their commercial business. Many of the areas down there are devoted to larger producers and importers, alongside a healthy smattering of national and regional pavilions.
The event is also famous for its masterclasses and industry briefings, but if like me you are there for just one of the three days this time, then there’s no time for all that. I have begun to hang out, increasingly, up on the gallery floor at Olympia, in the section named Esoterica. The name betrays a certain pejorative attitude, rather like the old “Country Wines”, used to gently put down a wine from outside the classic regions. I think they should change the name to “The Exciting Bit”, but I guess those paying for the event via their lavish pavilions downstairs would get upset.
I’m only joking, though. This is a very important event for the UK wine trade, which is far more valuable, economically, than the selection of small importers I follow. I’m grateful that the event recognises the part these innovators will play in the UK market’s future. Downstairs discovers the trends, whilst upstairs we are discovering the groundbreaking new wines.
Even in the “Esoterica” section there are more than fifty tables, occupied mainly by small wine merchants/importers. It is a number of these which I shall focus on in my coverage of LWF 2019, with only a few diversions into other areas. On the opposite side of the gallery there is a section called Wines Unearthed. This is where you can find producers who are hopeful of finding UK distribution. After tasting the stars of the Esoterica tables it can range from tiring to, occasionally, soul destroying (no, I’m being too harsh) to taste through these wines. But I did find a very interesting Rhône producer here (for inclusion in Part 2), admittedly because of a tip from a wine merchant friend. One of those domaines where you like everything…the wines, the philosophy and the person.
As with all of these people in Part 1, I have tasted the wines of Nekter already this year, but there are always new wines and new vintages, and I do specifically ask to taste things that are new to me. I don’t think I’ve written about any of these wines before.
Pret-a-Blanc 2018, Schmölzer & Brown, King Valley (Victoria, Australia) This region of North East Victoria comprises the high hills along the King River Valley as it flows from Australia’s Alpine National Park. Tessa Brown (ex-Kooyong and Sorrenberg, eyes immediately light up), along with her husband Jeremy Schmölzer, have recently planted 2 ha of vines at Beechworth, but the bulk of their production comes from a neighbour’s vineyard over the road whilst the couple’s vines come on stream.
This is a blend of 70% Riesling with Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, whole bunch pressed into stainless steel. It’s an aromatic wine, a genuine Aussie take on an Alsace blend. There’s a floral (jasmine?) element to the bouquet, and the palate is soft, dry, saline and mineral, the latter via a slightly dusty texture. This is really good, and a very nice start at the Nekter table. The 2017 UK allocation of this all went to The Fat Duck, I believe. There will hopefully be some 2018 for the rest of us.
Brunnen Pinot Noir 2017, Schmölzer & Brown (Beechworth, Victoria) This comes off Beechworth’s Ordovician mudstone and shale, the grapes being destemmed and macerated for three days. They then hit the basket press before seeing French oak, six barrels of which one was new. The wine is pale and smooth, scented with strawberry and cherry, and some earthiness on a very long finish. Very fine. Not cheap (£46), but yes. impressive. Everyone is predicting stardom for Schmölzer & Brown, so perhaps it’s worth getting in quick here.
Voetstoots Old Vine Chenin Blanc 2016, Stand Alone (Stellenbosch, South Africa) Alexander (Xander) Grier’s own personal project makes wines using traditional methods with as little manipulation and intervention as possible. It’s a contrast to his day job with Villiera Wines, where he makes wine in somewhat greater quantity. This is his first own label Chenin from a very old block. He gives the fruit six hours on skins after which it follows the time-worn route of basket press to old oak. This is a beautifully fresh wine with so much depth, which will surely increase over a year or two. It’s not heavy, but it does have a bit of weight, assisted by a lovely texture.
Stand Alone Gamay Noir 2018 (Stellenbosch) This is the only Gamay I currently know of in South Africa, and it is far more than a mere rarity. Just three barrels of this were made, after layering the bunches in the tank alternately, destemmed and with stems, to create a more complex carbonic fermentation. This is the wine’s first vintage, and the bottle was an under the table jobbie which is not yet up on Nekter’s web site. Grippy cherries, zesty acidity, but also, unquestionably, serious stuff, 13% abv. I would recommend snapping this up as I reckon it will fly out.
“The Bear” 2016, Donkey & Goat (Berkeley, California, USA) Jared and Tracey Brandt make these natural/biodynamic wines in Berkeley, taking appropriately grown grapes from Napa, Mendocino and Sierra Nevada. The Bear is a single site wine from the Fenaughty and Lightner Vineyard, at altitude in the El Dorado AVA (Sierra Nevada foothills). The grapes are all loosely Rhône/Southern French varieties, Counoise, Cinsault, Mourvèdre, Grenache and Roussanne. We get both dark blackberry and red strawberry fruit with gentle nutmeg spice. It’s basically a pale wine packed with flavour and just enough grip. Excellent.
Seaside Cabernet Franc 2017, Geyer Wine Co (Adelaide Hills, South Australia) Fascinating to taste an Aussie Cab Franc after all those excellent Canadian versions I tried a few days before LWF. Dave Geyer’s take comes specifically from the Sellick Hills area. Half of this wine was originally intended to be a rosé, fermented accordingly. The other half was treated to ten days on skins. Liquorice, blueberry tart, saltiness and a fresh sprinkling of newly sharpened pencil lead, this wine majors on freshness and elegance and tastes remarkably Loire-like in some ways, especially the violet and lavender bouquet. The 13% alcohol doesn’t show at all.
Charbono 2015, Calder Wine Company (Napa, California, USA) Rory Williams is Frog’s Leap’s Vineyard Manager, using his middle name for his own small scale wine project. Charbono is a synonym for Bonarda, a grape which originated in Savoie, but may be better known to readers from the satellite DOCs of Northern Piemonte. This first vintage (the vines were planted by Rory himself in 2008) was fermented with 25% whole bunches for twelve days and matured 18 months in French oak (25% new). You get plum and cherry concentration in a fairly light red, with a minty freshness. The fruit has amazing concentration, enormous, seriously. There are (or maybe were by now, it has been a week) a thousand bottles of this. £38 for an obscure variety? In this case, a definite yes.
SOUTHERN WINE ROADS
Southern Wine Roads is a specialist importer for Greek wines, with a focus on small estates making wine from autochthonous varieties. Their portfolio seems to me to be improving every time I taste here. I’m not an expert on their whole range yet, not by a long way, but as with Alpine Wines (below), I’m convinced that we have here a small importer who it’s time to take a little more notice of.
Assyrtiko “Unfiltered” 2015, Papaioannou Estate (Peloponnese, Greece) The fruit for this white comes from Nemea, known for its often lovely red wines from the Agiorgitiko variety, but it is labelled PGI Peloponnese. It’s very different to the better known Santorini style of Assyrtiko, which is off volcanic terroir. In Nemea the soils are on clay and limestone, usually either side of the 300-350-metre contour line. This is scented with lovely fruit, a certain softness and a bit of mineral texture. It is aged for twelve months in new French oak, which stamps its mark, but I still found it oddly very attractive.
Assyrtiko 2018, Gavalas Winery (Santorini, Greece) You probably don’t often get to taste two completely different Assyrtikos together? Nor do I. But doing so allows you to understand what elements of the grape relate to terroir, and also what a great variety Assyrtiko can be. The vineyard here is claimed to be the oldest currently in Greece, some vines reputedly five hundred years old. These vines are trained in the traditional way, curled and furled into protected balls of wood which crouch low to avoid being blown away. The wine is tank fermented, exhibiting a wild freshness that must come from the sea breezes and rocky volcanic soils of that beautiful island. Pear and lemon with a delicious tropical fruit juice finish.
Litani 2013, Afianes (Ikaria, Greece) Ikaria is an island in the Southern Aegean about ten miles or so southwest of Samos. It’s a small Island but it rises over 1,000 metres in the centre. Its small population inhabits mainly fishing villages on the coast, but winemaking is getting a reputation via this quality estate, run by local pharmacist, Nikos Afianes.
The single variety for this white is Begleri, indigenous to the island. It comes off granite and sand at 400 metres altitude from very old vines (some more than 120-years-old). Made by foot stomping in a granite trough, it is fresh and herby, stony, mineral and with a twist of lemon zest. In fact it’s just as you would imagine a really good wine from the Greek Islands might taste.
There’s also a brilliant red wine which I tasted later but I’ll include it here, Icarus 2014, which is made from another variety peculiar to Ikaria, Fokiano. It’s made in mixed oak with 12 months ageing. It runs out at 14% abv, but it’s pale and has the most beautiful scent of aromatic cherries and red fruit. It’s very dry and it needs time, like a good Barolo needs time. I was genuinely surprised just how much I liked these Afianes wines. This red was one of my wines of the day, but I wouldn’t recommend trying to knock it back alone, in one go.
Paleokerisio 2016, Glinavos Estate (Epirus, Greece) We are up in Northwestern Greece here, on the mainland. I’ve tasted some Glinavos sparkling wines before, but this one is a bit different. It’s an off-dry, semi-sparkling, orange wine. The grapes are equal parts Vlachiko and Debina, the latter being a major variety for this producer’s wines. It’s a bronze skin contact wine with a mineral texture accentuated by the gentle bead, smelling and tasting of oranges, herbs and exotic Middle Eastern spices. The spice element grows on the palate as the fine bubbles fade. In one respect it’s really weird, yet it’s more than just interesting. If you, like me, are also adventurous I reckon you might actually adore this.
Lola 2017, Aoton Winery (Attica, Central Greece) This unique wine is labelled PGI Peania. The grape varieties are Mandilaria, Savatiano and Roditis. They are picked in the cool night air to preserve freshness. The Mandilaria has pine resin added during its separate fermentation, but the resinous flavours you usually get in a retsina (which this technically is) are somehow swallowed in the vat and you are left with the merest hint of pine. The result is just about pink, and really quite delicate. It’s dry too. Only around 4,000 bottles are made.
Naoussa 2015 and Paliokalias 2013, Dalamara (Naoussa, Greece) This is an old estate, dating from the 19th Century, in Northern Greece’s most famous, and perhaps traditional, PDO, but one where the new generation is beginning to raise its reputation even further. Naoussa makes deep reds from Xinomavro. The unfiltered entry level wine is made in quantity (in a Greek context, around 10k bottles), but after a year in oak it even has a touch of seriousness to it. It’s dry, savoury and herbal. The Peleokalias is a single vineyard wine which is showing greater depth and complexity, but leave it to age. It’s pale and quite Nebbiolo-like, but has heightened fruit as well. Another stunning wine.
This was my best tasting yet with Southern Wine Roads, and the best overall selection from them I’ve tasted. I know that they were selected for me as the best wines on the table, but if I were to buy a half case I’d be seriously pushed to leave out any of the eight wines above, certainly choosing all the reds, Lola, the Paleokerisio semi-sparkling orange wine, and the Litani, but then the Assyrtiko…
Alpine Wines sells wine from several countries and regions which are broadly Alpine, or maybe Sub-Alpine at a push, but although this includes a good range from Austria, they are the only really decent source for Swiss wine in the UK if you need a fairly wide selection.
I keep ramming it down people’s throats that they should try Swiss Wine. I know the best is expensive. Even the second best is expensive. But it’s usually different, not the same old same old. I’m tempted to say that it’s no more expensive than a bottle of good Burgundian Chardonnay, except that if that’s all you drink then your palate may not be ready for a Heida, a Petite Arvine, or a Fendant. Yet in truth they are not remotely scary. For starters, whilst some Swiss wine is natural wine, most is not. Just unfamiliar is what I’d suggest. Most of the wines I tasted here were Swiss, with a couple of ringers thrown in. The first of these is from Vienna.
Weissburgunder “Der Vollmondwein” 2017, Rainer Christ (Vienna, Austria) Christ’s wines are less well known overseas than his larger neighbour on Bisamberg, Fritz Wieninger, but he runs a reasonably sized operation. I had to try this a week last Monday as I was aware that several people I know tasted at his place last week. This Pinot Blanc is grown on limestone on the individual Bisamberg cru of Ried Falkenberg, one of the higher sites on the side of the hill facing the city and the Danube. Harvested under the full moon (Vollmond), this is beautifully fresh and vibrant, lemony with a textured, bitter, finish. Yet for all that freshness it does not lack body, and in fact packs 13% abv, so it has a Chardonnay-like weight. A food wine.
Petite Arvine 2017, Jean-René Germanier (Valais, Switzerland) If you read my blog regularly you’ll have come across this producer before. Jean-René and Gilles Besse make their wines above the Rhône Valley, between Martigny and Sion, close to Vétroz. Petite Arvine is the Valais white grape par excellence, out of several fine competitors. It’s one of the Germanier wines I didn’t see at the Swiss Tasting I went to near London Fields back in April. This pale yellow/golden wine reflects yellow fruits and lemon freshness. My notes say “dry, dry, dry” but it is also unquestionably thirst-quenchingly fruity. The dryness balances it out.
“Les Murailles” Rouge 2013, Badoux Vins (Aigle, Vaud, Switzerland) Aigle is in that part of the Canton of Vaud which lies to the east of Lac Léman, off to your left after you leave the lakeside if you are following the motorway towards Martigny. Badoux is a well known company which makes, in the white (Chasselas) “Murailles”, perhaps the most widely recognisable label in the country. This red version, similarly attired, is made from Pinot Noir. Actually I’m told 95% Pinot, but I have no idea what grapes make up that other 5%. A bit of the ripasso technique is used here, and the semi-dried Garanoir/Gamaret grape skins used add weight, and possibly alcohol (13.5%). So we have a wine that is not typical Pinot, especially on the nose, but overall the fruit is much darker, and richer. Quite a big wine really, so something different. Around £33.
Syrah Réserve 2013, Domaine des Muses (Valais, Switzerland) This is a top domaine at Sierre, further up the river Rhône than Sion, and sitting below the ski resort of Crans-Montana. I tasted the 2016 of this wine at the Swiss Tasting I mentioned above. I said 2016 was young, so the chance to try the 2013 was welcome. It still has the bite and structure of new oak, but as with the Canadian Cabernet Francs in my previous article, it has that signature freshness of Valaisin Syrah. There is still the same spice and liquorice I found in the 2016, whilst the plum and darker fruits are a little more juicy and softer. But being a reserve wine, one should expect to age it.
Sonntaler Grauvernatsch 2017, Kellerei Kurtatsch (Südtirol, Italy) Kurtatsch is about half way between Trento and Bolzano/Bozen, in Italy’s dual-language northeast (so it is also alternatively known by some as Cortaccia). This is one of Italy’s great co-operative wineries (Kellerei or Cantina, take your pick), and to be sure, that adjective is not misplaced in this part of the country. Grauvernatsch is also known by another name, Schiava Grigia in Italian.
The wine is a palish red with high-toned, concentrated, raspberry fruit, acidity and grip. Not a complicated wine, it nevertheless has a delicious savoury side, a finish of decent length, and a moderate 12.5% alcohol level. If some of the wines above are “finer” (and indeed all of the wines from the producer who follows), then this simple wine is nevertheless one I’d buy, and enjoy, for what it is. And hey, it’s Grauvernatsch and I bet you’ve never tried one!
Marie-Thérèse Chappaz (Fully, Valais, Switzerland)
Marie-Thérèse is unquestionably one of Switzerland’s foremost and most famous winemakers. Her wines are appreciated by the points-spouting classicists, who habitually spout a lot of points at her, and by lovers of artisan biodynamic winemaking, in equal measure. She has won more awards than she has had the time to attend their ceremonies, but she is a member of the highly regarded organisation of top Swiss estates, Les Artisans de la Vigne et du Vin, which she helped found in 1999.
I tasted four Chappaz wines at the Fair, and I know that Joelle at Alpine Wines brought them along, with her Coravin, in part for my benefit. I’ve never tried more than one of these wines at a time before, and they are sufficiently rare and expensive that I’ve never had more than one at a time in my cellar either.
Grain Nature Champ Dury 2017 is a truly gorgeous blend of Pinot Noir (90%) with Gamay off limestone and made in old oak. The “young vines” are around 25 years old. It is redolent of bright quetsch plum and cherry, big fruit and firm minerality. There’s no added sulphur, and in this case it’s absolutely bright and beautiful. £50 a bottle.
Dôle “La Liaudisaz” 2017 Dôle is much maligned, as perhaps is Bourgogne-Passetoutgrain, which conceptually it resembles. The best Dôle, like this one, will blend 85-90% Pinot Noir with the legally required Gamay component. The wines are rarely complex, but Chappaz does make a wine that is several steps up from the norm. Limestone soils and very low sulphur add an almost magical degree off freshness, in what is otherwise a simple wine. The fruit is crunchy, but there’s a meaty edge to the Pinot which transforms the wine when it kicks in. There’s no fireworks, just hard work resulting in a strangely satisfying bottle. Circa £31, cheap for Chappaz.
Grain Ermitage 2017 This is one of the stunners in the range. It’s made from 100-year-old Marsanne vines on one of the steepest slopes in the region, and an homage to the Northern Rhône, the French wine region way downstream. The wine is big and waxy, with lemon and lime acidity, and it weighs in at 14.5% abv. This means you need to be wary of it, but a little goes a long way, and like Hermitage Blanc, you don’t need to drink it all at once. If I was to try to say how it differs from that French region’s whites, I’d say this has a touch more fruit and perhaps less of the herby thing going on. It sees 18 months in oak.
I don’t think you need to give it the very long ageing that a White Hermitage requires, but you should nevertheless give it the due respect of ageing, a decade perhaps. I think Joelle’s recommendation to partner it with cheese is a very good one, though a perfect match might also be found with a Poulet de Bresse (maybe herbs and lemon, and roast potatoes). £69.
Grain Noble 2016 Marie-Thérèse is best known for her sweet wines, though I refuse to accept that the best of the dry reds and (especially) whites are any less good. The grape here is 100% Petite Arvine. I think the grape is one of the great underrated varieties for sweet wine in the world, and this is a world class wine. The old vines yield tiny quantities of grapes, which are picked berry by berry, with some botrytis. Spontaneous fermentation takes place, after which it is aged in old oak for 24-to-30 months.
The fruit is exotic, complex and complicated (you really don’t want a list of everything that’s in here). What’s more important is the minerality, and the fact that I’ve never come across this degree of freshness in a Swiss sweet wine before. Added to the fruit, it’s explosive, but not “shouty”. 12% abv means it’s neither light nor heavy but a wine with heavenly balance. But before you get too excited, you only get 500 ml for your £75.
Don’t despair though. The Dôle I tasted earlier, and her Fendant President Triollet (which is my sole representative) both sit just either side of £30, and are both very good wines, if lacking the ability to quite scale the heights of the top wines. These wines are exported in tiny quantity, a bit like the low yields of the Petite Arvine above. Alpine Wines has recently taken a delivery and their web site, at the time of writing, lists eleven Chappaz wines. You may even be too late if the Michelin-starred boys have pounced, but do check out their wider Swiss range. They don’t give me anything for my kind words, of course, but my passion for some of these wines makes me continue to plug them vociferously.
Part 2 will follow later this week, with more Esoterica, the “Unearthed” Rhône estate I promised, and the Nyetimber Bus. You have to visit the Nyetimber bus at London Wine Fair (and I’ll tell you, everyone does!).