The three dynamic, young and small importers featured here have not chosen a pithy name for themselves, like the “Dirty Dozen”, so I’ve kind of done it for them in my title (sorry chaps). Nekter Wines, Roland Wines and Modal Wines held their annual Portfolio Tasting once more at The Duke of Cambridge, in Islington, London, on Tuesday 17 September. It’s a small and intimate venue but the event once more seemed to attract the numbers of tasters that these wines deserve.
Nekter Wines specialises in organic and low intervention producers from California, Australia and South Africa. They have around thirty estates on their books, and bring in a range of wonderful rarities, often in very small quantity, selected with passion and a deep knowledge. That is reflected in the wines I have chosen to highlight here.
It may be a good time to note that quite a few wines showed reasonably high levels of alcohol, as one might certainly expect from some of these sources. Maybe the pendulum is swinging back a little, but despite my general aversion to high alcohol wines as I get older, it’s all about balance. If I’ve selected a wine to comment on, you can be sure that if a high alcohol level is noted, it didn’t detract from the wine for me. So long as the wine is sitting up with a straight back, rather than slouching on the sofa (as I’m told I do regularly), then it doesn’t seem to matter.
Keep Wines Delta White 2018, Clarksburg (USA) – A 50:50 blend of Falanghina and Cortese from fruit grown on the Lost Slough Vineyard in the Sacramento River Delta in California. It is made by Jack Roberts (also assistant winemaker with Steve Mattiasson) and Johanna Jensen, a couple who, rather romantically, met on their first day travelling in Napa a decade ago, and are now married. The blending of this pair of varieties, one which performs best on the hills of Southern Italy, and the other a ubiquitous Piemontese (Gavi etc) has a past tradition in California among Italian immigrants. The marine deposits of the river delta site are mirrored in the wine’s minerality, and assist with the texture cultivated from four months on lees whilst ageing in stainless steel. A lovely style, balancing some weight with elegance. A juicy opener. £28.
Pasarene Chardonnay 2017, Elgin (South Africa) – I am always impressed by this Franschhoek wine from Martin Smith and Ndabe Mareda. The 2017 underwent a gentle pressing (0.2 bar max) over seven hours at very low pressure to obtain the purest juice which glints bright green in the sunlight. You get 14% abv, not as low as some wines from cooler Elgin (this is exclusively Elgin fruit grown up around 300 metres ASL on mainly red clay with plenty of iron ore deposits coming through). There is certainly a richness. But somehow it is still incredibly fresh (not just fresh). It also shows a definite savoury side, and the fruit and savoury combination lingers for a long time.
Aged in new, tight-grained, French oak, the freshness may in part come from 5% topping up with the new vintage during the 16 months spent there. It is then kept in bottle a further 10 months before release. Retailing at £45 it’s not cheap, but it is rather fine. It was the first wine Nekter ever shipped, so it has a special place in their portfolio.
Benevolent Neglect Submerged Cap Ribolla Gialla 2017, Oak Knoll, Napa (USA) – This is quite an unusual wine. In 1972 George Vare, president of Geyser Peak and others, brought back some Ribolla cuttings from Josko Gravner in his suitcase. The results of these surreptitiously sneaked in cuttings were eventually grafted onto vines in the Bengier Family Vineyard at Oak Knoll in 1999, and have thrived.
The vineyard, at the foot of the Mayacamas, benefits from cool air blowing in from San Pablo Bay. The wine is called “submerged cap”. This translates to 15 days skin contact/cool maceration, before fermenting and ageing in neutral oak on the lees for fifteen months. The only point at which sulphur is added is a tiny amount at bottling. The wine was not fully topped-up during this time and a little flor formed. Savoury, with the slightest note of deliberate oxidative/biological ageing, textured, almost tannic, this is a glorious alternative to Friulian Ribolla (or Slovenian Rebula). Around £38 retail.
Keep Wines Counoise 2018, El Dorado (USA) – The specific site for this rare “Châteauneuf” variety is the Girard Vineyard, close to Placerville in the Sierra Nevada Foothills, east of Sacramento. The wine underwent whole cluster carbonic fermentation in a sealed vessel before transfer to neutral oak for just six months ageing. No sulphur was added at any time. It’s quite a pale wine with lovely red fruit scents (pomegranate and redcurrant jelly) with a waft of violet or lavender. The palate produces a little fine grained tannin and a herbal element adding a savoury, bitter note which makes the finish more interesting. This was poured chilled, which worked well. £32.
Vignerons Schmölzer & Brown Prêt à Rouge 2017, Beechworth and Alpine Valleys (Australia) – Tessa and Jeremy Schmölzer farm 18 hectares south of Beechworth, perhaps the one part of the State of Victoria from where I don’t think I’ve ever had a less than exciting wine. If I tell you that Tessa has worked at Kooyong, on Mornington Peninsula, and closer to home at Sorrenberg, you will immediately sit up. The Alpine Valleys part of the wine is 60% Syrah, from Whorouly South, in the Ovens Valley. Beechworth is represented by 40% Pinot Noir, three quarters their own fruit and a quarter from a neighbour. The cool climate element comes through nicely with juicy and sappy red fruits. It’s an approachable wine with nice acidity, grounded with the smallest hint of tannin. Excellent for £34.
Benevolent Neglect Whole Cluster Syrah 2016, Sonoma/Carneros (USA) – Las Madres Vineyard is a hillside site resting in a bowl, with the vine rows orientated to allow prevailing winds to flow down them. It’s a clever way of cooling the grapes and limiting disease in this dry-farmed vineyard. We have whole cluster fermentation here, the fruit being basket pressed into a decade old large puncheon. The result has 14.8% abv, which might in part account for the rather amazing bouquet of dark olives and crushed black fruits. Astonishing. The palate shows spicy blackberry and blueberry with dark chocolate and fairly firm tannins (still). It’s certainly a big wine, but equally, a fine wine, for ageing. £60.
Keep Wines Carignanne 2015, Contra Costa County (USA) – From the famous Evanghelo Vineyard, these Carignanne vines claim to be the oldest in existence anywhere (130-to-140-years-old). The sandy soils here have kept phylloxera at bay, so they are on their own roots, remarkably rare in California. The vines are farmed organically by Morgan Twain Paterson. 100% whole clusters are pressed early and fermented in old oak. Ageing is one year in similar. This is so complex. There’s dark bramble fruit, but also balsamic notes and there’s something almost North African. I’m thinking pair this with a good tagine.
Expensive for Carignan at £44? Not really for a wine as special as this, and with all that history. Talking of which, the Nekter folks are rightly happy with the new labels from Keep Wines, but this one retains the old black & white pic of Beverstone Castle, an 11th Century Norman Keep in Gloucestershire. I rather like it, and it reminds me of when I first tasted Jack and Johanna’s wines, three or four years ago.
Ferdinand Wines Tempranillo 2014, Amador County (USA) – Shake Ridge Vineyard, near Sutter Creek, sits up at over 1,700 metres ASL. The soils are red volcanic, with lots of quartz, and it has been farmed by one (now) elderly lady in her eighties for the past 27 years. Evan Frazier, who works as an assistant winemaker at Kongsgaard, makes Tempranillo and Albariño as his side project. Fermentation is in stainless steel, and ageing is 20 months in oak (10% new) with malo. Red fruits and plum dominate a wine that has a smoky touch, and a pert freshness possibly brought out by the 5% Graciano fruit added to the Tempranillo. At 14.1% abv it is perhaps more Ribera than Rioja, but perhaps a bit less tannic. That freshness is nicely complemented on the nose where we have more floral scents, quite haunting. £36.
From Sunday Lucky’s Red 2018, NSW (Australia) – This is a Syrah-Pinot Noir blend again, the Syrah from Orange and the Pinot from Hunter Valley. This was one of the three wines paired with food on a separate table. It’s popularity was assured for those of us tasting around lunch time, and the pairing in this case, of quail rillette on toast, worked very well (as did all the pairings). This is a wine of juicy, expressive fruit, inexpensive at £20, and not surprisingly Nekter’s best selling red wine. From Sunday is a partnership of three guys who met at university, who make different series’ of wine around Australia.
Roland Wines perhaps flies under the radar a little, possibly on account of their preference for Facebook and Instagram, rather than an active web site, as their contact point. They specialise in low intervention wines from Central and Eastern Europe, and their reputation to a certain extent has grown on the back of some of their star producers like Strekov1075 and Klabjan. I tasted wines from Slovakia, Austria, Croatia and Slovenia.
In a small tasting venue the Roland Wines table was awkwardly placed, and consequently quite crowded. I found it difficult to “get in” and I was very disappointed on leaving to find that I’d forgotten to ask to taste the Serbian wine on show, Maurer’s Kadarka 2017 from Szerémség. I know it’s a light red but with a big punch of flavour, excellent for summer barbecues and dried meat and cheese…and it’s Serbian! You don’t get the opportunity to try Serbian wine all that often.
New Boy Emidio Russo
Strekov1075 HEION 2015 (Slovakia) – Probably Slovakia’s best known cult producer, the project of erstwhile drummer Zsolt Sütó. HEION is a Welschriesling cuvée made from young vines. Fewer than 1,000 bottles were produced in 2015. The grapes go into open top fermenters for two weeks on skins, and the juice is then aged on lees for nine months. It sure is a different kind of wine. To appreciate it you need to leave all your prejudices behind. If you can do that you almost attain an enlightened state. Well…it’s cloudy with a predominance of sour stone fruits, but it is flavoursome, juicy and long. Bottled without sulphur and sealed under crown cap, a wine for those looking for something new, pure, wild perhaps.
Johannes Zillinger White Revolution Solera and Pink Revolution Solera NV, Weinviertal (Austria) – This pair was a bit of a revelation to me. From the Austrian wine region to the northeast of Vienna, and approaching the Czech and Slovakian borders, they were both aged in amphora. The white is co-fermented Chardonnay and Scheurebe, with back vintages of Riesling from a solera added. A light (12% abv) wine, but with texture, it has notes of orange zest and stone fruit. No sulphur is added. It was paired with a fresh and tasty crab and fennel salad on the food matching table.
The pink version is similarly vinified, with a long maceration in amphora, but the grape varieties are Saint-Laurent, Syrah and Roesler, the latter a grape I know from Gut Oggau in Burgenland. It’s pale with ethereal red fruit notes, dominated for me (I can’t help being specific here) by Scottish raspberries…you know, the fresh and slightly more acidic ones with a bit of bite. The acids are really crisp and refreshing. Both were quite revelatory, but if I had to choose a favourite, then the “Pink” would edge it.
Strekov1075 Fred#3 NV (Slovakia) – There’s a little bit more of Fred than the HEION, thankfully, but not a lot. “Fred” is (actually a surprise to me) short for “Friendly Red”, but it certainly is. Number 3 is blended from 50% Blauer Portugieser, 25% Dunaj (A St-Laurent/Zweigelt cross) and 25% Alibernet (Alicante x Cabernet Sauvignon). After two weeks fermenting in open vats the Dunaj goes into stainless steel and the other varieties into old oak. The wine is dark in colour with vibrant berry fruit plus some lovely “autumnal” flavours (hard to pin down exactly). A fruity wine but with just a twist of bitterness. Serve chilled with a cold platter, lip smacking stuff.
Vinarja Križ Trica Plavac Mali 2016, Pelješac (Croatia) – Križ (pronounced “Krish”) makes lovely wines. This red is from dolomitic sand and limestone close to the sea near Prizdrina. It tastes quite old fashioned in a way, none the worse for that, of course. It has dark fruit and a meaty side as well, plus 14.5% alcohol. The fruit on the nose smells so sweet, a major part of its charm, I think. It ferments in open top vats for two weeks, then a year in old oak, only being released after a further six months in bottle, with a dash of added sulphur. It has bite, texture and tannins that give it a hard edge, but yet it is so packed with flavour.
Klabjan Refošk “BL” 2011, Istria (Slovenia) – The Refosco variety does well in Slovenia, and this estate makes a cracker of a version. It is no shrinking violet, spending a long four weeks in open top fermenters and then three years in 1,500-litre casks of Slavonian oak. Bottled without added sulphur, it is a full-bodied wine coming in at 14.5% abv. Black fruited, with even more “meat and gravy” than the Croatian wine above, it is rounded with smooth fruit, yet grippy tannins, and a certain (expected) astringency. Keep for a few years and serve with game or full-flavoured dishes. This is the “black label”, which I think is a kind of reserve cuvée…there’s a “white label” which is, I think, generally more approachable in its youth.
Modal Wines perhaps has less of a specific focus than the other two importers, yet has a dynamic range of yet more low intervention wines. I last saw Nic Rizzi at the recent Vicky Torres tasting at Ten Cases. None of those rare wines were on show here, unsurprisingly, but some fundamentally great wines were. The new ones never cease to surprise me (especially that final wine, below), but equally I can’t resist my old favourites. When an old favourite like Joiseph brings out a new wine, jackpot.
I tasted a lot of wines here, so the trade-off will be slightly shorter notes…perhaps.
Entre Vinyes Cava Gran Funàmbul 2014, Penedès (Spain) – This wine deserves its place because although less rare than it once was, artisan Cava from a small family estate is still not all that common. About 3,000 to 4,000 bottles are made of this Xarel-lo and Chardonnay blend. All the Entre Vinyes Cavas are vintage dated wines and this spends four years ageing on lees in bottle before disgorgement. It shows. The wine has a gentle palate on which the fresh bubbles ride. There’s complexity, but not solely from long lees ageing. The vines are very old. With zero dosage the result is savoury and gourmande, and also pretty concentrated.
Schenter Schönberg Riesling 2018, Kamptal (Austria) – I’ve never seen this producer on the Modal list before, but this is from the Nibiru stable of Josef Schenter and Julia Nather in the Danube region of Kamptal, east of the Wachau, and also one of the dynamic Austrian wine zones where younger producers are settling, unable to afford land west of Krems. The grapes are off schist but you’d not immediately recognise that. The fruit is soft and the bouquet quite floral. But then there’s a piercing mineral note which comes through on nose and palate, like a thin line running down the wine’s spine. The grapes have actually gone through malolactic but it’s still mighty fresh, and just 12% abv. Super value too.
Sota Els Àngels “Flow” Blanc de Noirs 2018, Empordà (Spain) – This estate is in an idyllic location inland from the Costa Brava, surrounded by a Mediterranean cork forest. Farming is biodynamic and winemaking is simple. Here, fermentation and ageing (6 months) is in stainless steel with gentle batonnage. The variety is Carignan Blanc and the wine is clean and fresh. It’s the freshness that sells it, although it isn’t over acidic (it goes through the malo). There’s a whole range of fruit flavours, right from pomegranate to peach, but as it tails off it is the wine’s salinity which lingers longest.
Slobodne Veltliner 2017, Zemiansky Sady (Slovakia) – A favourite producer, not just of mine, but of so many frequenters of cutting edge small restaurants in London, where you see this star producer listed. The Veltliner comes from vines about an hour east of Bratislava. It’s a new wine from the estate (with a new label too) where the fruit has spent seven days on skins (these people are masters of skin contact, as we shall see below). The next stage is ageing…a year in concrete egg. It has a pure scent, quite floral and (white) peachy, a bit of texture, and a good dollop of pepper and spice. A lovely addition.
Slobodne Cutis Deviner 2016, Zemiansky Sady/Hlohovec (Slovakia) – If you really want to try orange wine, come right this way. The colour, for a start! It’s almost like glowing caramel with orange flecks in the light. The grape, Deviner, is a cross between Devin and Traminer, the latter being exceptionally well disposed to making skin contact wines. It is aged not in amphora or egg, but for 18 months in old Hungarian oak. It’s super aromatic, obviously unfiltered (lots of fine lees sediment) and has explosive flavours of oranges, cardamom, cinnamon and more. Very complex and textured, but somehow easy to drink at the same time. For me, glorious stuff. Others might shudder just to look at it, and prefer some Chilean Cab.
Fattoria di Sammontana Primo Fuoco Bianco 2018, Tuscany (Italy) – This is a fourth generation 13 hectare wine and olive estate, now biodynamic, on the east side of the Arno Valley near Montelupo, about 20 km from Florence. Primo Fuoco is a Bianco Toscana IGP wine made from the much maligned Trebbiano Toscana variety. Vinification is in large (500-litre) amphora with three months on skins, after which the wine is drawn off and put back into amphora, minus skins, for a further six months. It’s a cuvée made from the estate’s best Trebbiano, from vines up to 50 years old. Quite golden, it’s another savoury, textured, skin contact wine, and certainly the best Trebbiano Toscana I’ve tasted this year, if not longer.
Joiseph “Fogosch” 2017, Burgenland (Austria) – The rising star young winemaker (and one of three partners, based at Jois, just north of the Neusiedlersee) is Luka Zeichmann, who only began making wine in 2015. His wines made their mark with me from the beginning, but I only met him for the first time early this year. What a nice young man! Fogosch is Grüner Veltliner which saw 24 hours on skins, being both fermented and aged in neutral oak. Luka achieves the near impossible task of integrating suave fruit with grippy texture. I’m going to steal a perfect description that I cannot better for a wine like this from my IG friend Valerie Kathawala: “animated tension”. That sums up this deceptively simple, yet ultimately sophisticated, wine perfectly.
Malinga Sauvignon Blanc 2017, Kamptal (Austria) – That same wine writer was mentioning the often remarkable Sauvignon Blancs from Styria the other day. I’ve enjoyed a few of those, but what I don’t think I’ve ever tried is a Sauvignon Blanc from Kamptal, though not labelled with the DAC. It’s a bit “out there”, you see. Christoph Heiss added 20% Welschriesling (in 2017, sometimes a little less) as whole clusters to Sauvignon Blanc that had already macerated on skins for ten days. I think it all comes through most on the nose, which is very unusual for SB.
The fragrance of the nose is mirrored in the lovely brightness of the wine. You get something akin to a mix of tropical pineapple with apple/pear and lemon citrus. There’s something deeper too, like blood orange. It’s all wrapped up in freshness that isn’t too bracing, and there’s also a touch of minerality and texture, from the terroir, and from the skin maceration this undergoes. Definitely one of the most multi-dimensional SBs you will taste, although you can imagine a Show Judge noting “lacks varietal character”. Hmm!
Fattoria di Sammontana Alberese 2018, Tuscany (Italy) – Alberese is not a grape variety, of course, it’s the name of the famous soils in Tuscany’s Chianti Region. The main grape here is Sangiovese, with around 30% Trebbiano, vinified as a light bodied (and pale coloured) Rosso Toscano, intended to be served chilled. Both grape varieties are co-fermented and then aged in stainless steel. It’s a lovely easy drinking wine, with light cherry fruit, hi-toned, and yet with identifiable Sangiovese character. Quite inexpensive but a great little light red.
Joiseph Piroska 2018, Burgenland (Austria) – This looks new, but I think it’s the new version of Roter Faden. It’s a blend of Zweigelt from the Trift site and Pinot Noir from Langen Ohn. It has a bit of the white wine about it in its crispness, and yes, there is a dash of Welschriesling in here, and allegedly a tiny bit of Blaufränkisch as well (but I’m confused by the “GS” on the back label). Luka likens it to a red gemischter satz (maybe that’s it?). It certainly cries out to be chilled. The scents are light and fresh red cherry, mirrored on the palate. The fruit is pure, concentrated and smooth, and you get a little tannin too. A lovely wine, sealed under crown cap. So good! Damn, I want some!
The “food match” wine from Modal was Cascina Borgatta “La Milla” 2013, Piemonte (Italy). This estate is at Tagliolo Monferrato, near Ovada, just east of Acqui Terme. We are in the far south of Piemonte, bordering on the Ligurian Mountains here, and many of you will know that Ovada is one of the zones renowned for Dolcetto. This Dolcetto ferments in cement tanks with 20 days left on the skins. It then ages for just a few months in second and third year oak barrique. It’s not complex, but is quite concentrated, with soft cherry fruit and a spicy twist to it, finishing pleasantly bitter. It went well with stuffed pepper Panzanella.
There’s one more wine to mention here, which I’d never tried before, but that was frankly sensational. Clos des Plantes Whaka Piripiri Mai 2018, Anjou (France) is, as far as I can tell, a previously undiscovered gem from Olivier Lejeune, who makes only around 3,000 bottles of wine each vintage from Saint-Lambert-du-Lattay (close to the River Layon, and indeed to Domaines Oggereau and Mosse). This is a new producer to Modal, and Olivier (I saw a photo, he does indeed look very jeune) also has a Grolleau and a Cabernet Franc off his miniscule two hectares. This is a gorgeously pure pear-drop Chenin, bottled as Vin de France. I know almost nothing else about this, but it was shockingly good.
This was a great tasting, and provided all the evidence one needed that keeping up with this trio of small importers is pretty essential. I did notice that the members of the trade tasting here, pretty much most of them already customers, were remarkably young. I felt obviously the oldest in the room. That is not a rare thing, but it was very noticeable here. It’s an interesting point to note, and it actually felt good…that there’s a willingness to try new wines from less well known producers and regions. That said, some of these wines are not available in huge quantities, some merely a case or two. With the quality on show, I doubt they have too much trouble shifting them when tasted, even though a good number are from producers you may never have heard of.