Les Caves de Pyrene held their annual Portfolio Tasting on Tuesday 23 September at the Hellenic Centre off Marylebone High Street, London. As with a similar event last year, Les Caves decided to stir things up a bit. A lot of work was put into choosing wines which would fit into several different categories (see below). The success of the tasting depended on the wines not only showing in a good light, but equally demonstrating that they did actually fit into these loose boxes.
That they achieved this made the event that little bit more interesting for we tasters. Not only could we assess the individual wines, but in some cases we could place them within a broad narrative. Such thinking shows that Les Caves continue to innovate on all sorts of levels, and they manage to educate us further than merely showing individual wines in isolation might.
I like the small hall at the Hellenic Centre. It’s bright white walls create the right environment for tasting, but even better is the nice high ceiling. The venue was quite full at times, and I tasted what I consider to be a lot of wines, more than ninety out of 178 on show. The high ceiling means that noise is less pronounced, which overall makes tasting more peaceful and less stressful. I kind of wish other organisers of portfolio events would consider these things.
If I’m truthful, what is hard with any Les Caves tasting is the sheer volume of wine to look at. They are, after all, the UK’s largest importer of natural wines, and their range is as broad as it is deep. I’m pretty sure no one got through all of the 178 wines, and I’m proud that I managed as many as I did in something over five hours, non-stop. I can’t repeat the feat of the recent South African New Wave event, where my single article was frankly too long. Hopefully I’ve learned my lesson. I shall bring you three bite-sized chunks over the next several days, which I shall hope to complete next week.
The categories chosen to illustrate the importer’s range were as follows (paraphrasing):
- Keg Wines
- Bang for Buck
- Variations on Classics
- Old and New (faces, arrivals, vintages)
- Taste of Terroir – Minerals
- Taste of Terroir – Sea, Sand & Saline
- Taste of Terroir – Volcanic, Mountains
- Taste of Terroir – Garrigue, Maquis, Finbos
- All About… – Pinot Noir
- All About… – Native Grapes
- 02 and Flor
- Amber Revolution
Part 1 will take us up to the beginning of the “Taste of Terroir” categories. Part 2 will take us through those four “terroir” categories, and then a slightly larger Part 3 will carry us through to the end.
Of all the wines I tasted there were none I didn’t like. One or two showed some reduction, which I feel I understand sufficiently that it doesn’t worry me. One usually cracking wine did seem closed. I tried to mix up some new wines and old favourites. With such a fine array of wines I decided to find a way to indicate any wines I felt were especially good. To achieve this, if you see ♥♥♥ before a note, you’ll know I especially loved that wine. I say “loved” because such assessments, selecting the best among equals, can only really be subjective, and intentionally so.
I must, before beginning, mention one thorny subject – mousiness. It’s a fault said to bedevil natural wines (and is well covered in Jamie Goode’s recent book on Wine Faults, Flawless). Jamie notes that around 30% of people may be immune to detecting this fault, which is only picked up on the palate, not by the nose. It is also a wine fault poorly understood by many. I have detected mousy wines on occasion, but rarely, and I think I may be at least on the outer edge of that 30%. I detected none on Tuesday, but I can’t ignore the fact that more than one taster told me they had.
LICENSED TO KEYKEG
This was subtitled 0020 (Litres) being the size of these kegs. Naturally, you cannot get them “in Bond” (ouch! Sorry). The first four were actually sampled from keg whilst the last two wines were bottle samples of wines available in keg.
Domaine Nicolas Reau, Bonhomme Chenin Blanc 2017 comes from the village of Sainte-Radogne in Anjou. Nicolas is a former jazz pianist who began making wine in 2002, but he’s better known to natural wine lovers as the bon mec who, with his wife Sylvie Augereau, created La Dive Bouteille, aka Le Salon des Vins Nature, in Saumur. This keg wine expresses gluggable Chenin perfectly.
Keg wine is relatively new, but pioneered by the likes of Rupert Taylor’s Uncharted Wines, and producers like Andrew Nielsen (Le Grappin), they have really taken off as a perfect tool for wine bars into selling the glouglou.
Ben Walgate has naturally been a keen advocate of the 20-litre keg format, and Les Caves sells a multi-varietal white blend, Tillingham Wines, Tillingham White 2018 made from grapes purchased from organic vineyards close to Tillingham, near Rye in East Sussex. It’s a foretaste of Ben’s delicious ’18s to come in later eoisodes. Andi Knauss Pinot Noir 2017 is a juicy German red from 15 hectares of vineyards near Stümpfelbach and surrounding villages, just east of Stuttgart (Württemberg). This is the valley of the famous River Rems (only joking), with vines up to 350 metres ASL. San Ferdinando Toscana Rosso 2016 is in effect a remarkably rare thing, gluggable Chianti which I reckon should be served quite cool.
The best of the bottle samples were the classic Loire Sauvignon Blanc, Clos du Tué-Boeuf “Le P’tit Blanc 2018 (very fresh indeed), and Arndorfer Grüner Veltliner Unfiltered 2018 from that excellent Kamptal producer…although I also liked Nicolas Reau Muscadet Indigène 2018.
Trade Prices (excl VAT) for a 20-litre keg vary from around £160 up to £340 (the Tillingham being the most expensive). They did the concept proud. What strikes me is that these are interesting wines, a real step change from the old bag-in-box rubbish we used to see.
BANG FOR BUCK
This section speaks for itself. It’s easy to get into thinking that these artisan natural wines are all expensive. In this category all of these wines bar one would be under £11 to the trade, with the cheapest at £6.25/bottle. I think all of these five wines below deliver real value for money. For Les Caves, price is meaningless if the wine doesn’t inspire at least joy in its drinking.
Celler Credo Miranius 2018 is 100% Xarel-lo from Penedès in Spain. The fruit here is very clean but the wine does show some personality. Excuse the short notes for these wines. We are not, after all, trying describe wines aspiring to greatness. These are more likely wines you will buy off a restaurant list, or by the case for a party, rather than to tuck away in your racks for a special occasion. But that doesn’t mean they are not worth trying, far from it.
Adega Sameiras, Sameiras Blanco 2017 is a case in point. A Treixadura-based multi-varietal blend from Ribeiro in Galicia, Spain. All the grapes are co-fermented in stainless steel and then aged a while in neutral oak to give a very fresh and harmonious, if simple, wine. Mind you, this was that one wine which, at £11.20 (trade, excl VAT) edged over that £11 mark.
There’s a big name Loire producer surprisingly in this category, with Domaine Vincent Ogereau L’Anjouée Rouge 2018. 70% Cab Franc blended with 15% each of Merlot and Pineau d’Aunis, all fermented separately by carbonic maceration. It’s super-cherry juice with plump fruit.
Even more powerful on the nose, almost a “grown up” wine, was Continental Platter “Pot à Cab Sav” 2018. Cabernet Sauvignon from Margaret River (WA), this is a steel fermented wine, aged in neutral oak for six months. The 13% alcohol pushes it forward. For £8.20 it has to be a bargain. It was only pipped for favourite red here by a very purple and violet 2018 Syrah from Domaine des Vigneaux in the Ardèche.
VARIATIONS ON CLASSICS
This section threw up some classics indeed, but always wines with a twist. Wines whose personalities somehow make them stand out in whatever context they are viewed. Take Jo Landron Vin de France “Melonix” 2017. This estate makes glorious Muscadet but this is made from fruit grown outside those appellations. With 12 months sur-lies, it is fresh and stony, in fact the texture is pure pebble. It’s not as high in acidity as the fresh bouquet might suggest, but it is perfectly balanced.
Intellego Wines Chenin Blanc 2018 is made by Jurgen Gouws, who used to work with Craig Hawkins at Lammershoek. This comes from two separate Paardeburg (Swartland) parcels. The bouquet is unmistakably Chenin. The palate bursts with pure fruit, from grapefruit and lime to pear, so fruit-driven and pure.
Matthias Warnung Basis Grüner Veltliner NV is an example of the new styles from Kamptal, challenging the more serious bottles from nearby Wachau. Sealed under crown cap, boasting just 12% abv, it has lovely sour pear fruit and good fruit acidity. It shares that fresh quality, driving it forward, like the South African above.
♥♥♥Patrick Sullivan Baw-Baw Chardonnay 2018 is not what many might expect from an Aussie Chardie. Gippsland is a promising region for Burgundian grape varieties, being a little cooler and in part almost coastal, not a million miles from Mornington (lying to the east of Melbourne). The bouquet is fresh, and the palate’s attack begins quite smooth, before the acids kick in. It finished as mineral as anything you’ll taste from Gippsland, but has an added dimension of vivacity balancing what it lacks in seriousness.
♥♥♥Domaine Alexandre Bain Pierre Précieuse 2017 is a Vin de France made from Pouilly-Fumé fruit by one of the Upper Loire’s iconoclasts. Slowly fermented (six months), with extended lees ageing (twenty months) and zero sulphur added, this wine was obviously never going to be granted the appellation, yet it is a beautiful example of complex, mineral, Sauvignon Blanc. Its sour quality might put some people off, yet this makes it a more weighty, food-friendly, wine than most examples of the variety.
Jauma Audrey’s Fairygarten Shiraz 2017 actually has 10% Grenache, I believe. Another wine under crown cap (too much expensive and dodgy cork around, I’m led to believe), the fruit comes from altitude in the Basket Ranges from vines farmed by Audrey Wood. Fermented and aged partly in old wood and partly in steel, you get a pale and fruity wine with just 12.5%.
Château Lamery Autrement de Lamery 2015 This is described as “Bordeaux”, although it is made by Jacques Broustet from his 4.5 hectare property in St-Pierre-de-Aurillac, nearly 50km southwest of the city. That matters little. We have a biodynamic wine made from approximately 70% Merlot and 30% Cabernet Franc with no added sulphur, and you know, it actually tastes like a good Bordeaux. What that says about terroir I’m not sure, but it is lovely and pure. Goes from good old cement into neutral oak for ageing, and pops out at a decent 12.5%. Very 1978.
Antoine Arena Carco Vermentino 2018 is from Corsica’s Patrimonio, and is from one of the first “natural” producers I discovered. Oddly enough this was before the days of natural wine bars, and it was in Le Villaret, then quite a famous off the beaten track Paris bistro among those in the know…but it was, and still is, in Oberkampf, of course. This is sweetly perfumed with a puff of blackboard chalk. Elegant.
♥♥♥Pierre Frick Riesling Grand Cru Vorbourg 2014 comes from what for me personally is one of the great GC sites in Alsace, and a wonderfully versatile one too (it provides some of the region’s finest Pinot Noir). It has an intense bouquet like a “Top C” and, in its savoury deliciousness, is just so obviously a terroir wine par excellence.
♥♥♥Cascina degli Ulivi “Filagnotti” 2015 is another of the late and truly great Stefano Bellotti’s creations, and another “non-Gavi”. Made from Cortese (like Ivag), it has a striking, bright, yellow-gold colour, a bouquet of apples and pears leading to tangerine and quince (yes, it’s complex Cortese) which fills the mouth with flavour almost like no other wine tasted here so far.
Sepp & Maria Muster “Graf” 2016 almost got the three hearts treatment (trying not to be too profligate), a wonderful wine from a wonderful Steirerland (Styrian) producer. It’s a multi-dimensional Sauvignon Blanc off the famous Styrian opok (fine-grained sedimentary rock comprising marl, clays and silt), particular to Steiermark. The wine has a genuine breadth which you so rarely find in the variety grown anywhere else. It has to be tried.
♥♥♥Les Cailloux du Paradis Racines Rouge 2015 – Courtois, of course, so lonely in the Sologne. Thirty grape varieties, many given to Claude Courtois by visitors. I think the key olfactory experience here is the amazing shock of a wine that tastes so alive. Simple vinification in old oak can’t have that much influence, so it must be magic. Serious stuff worthy of the legendary status these wines have attained.
Domaine des Vignes du Maynes Mâcon Rouge Cuvée 910 2018 like the Muster above only fails to get the triple love award because, well, you can’t truly love them all, I suppose. This is the cuvée made in the medieval styleee, from the Cluniac Clos, brought to the winery by ox cart, you know the form. Raspberry and cherry fruit with a touch of tannin, but also haunting and intense at the same time.
Domaine Leon Barral Faugères “Jadis” 2015 is a great example of beyond biodynamic wine. The vines near Lenthéric in Faugères are grazed by livestock, and were some of the first to enthusiastically take up insect predators as part of creating a balanced eco-system. Jadis is 50% Carignan with Syrah and Grenache (all old vines), fermented in cement, then basket-pressed into oak (10% new) for two years. This has smoothed out with age and the purity is beginning to come through. Lovely wine.
No photo 😦 .
OLD & NEW
This category amalgamates some new imports, new arrivals and some new vintages from old favourites. We have here the final ten wines of Part 1. They are all crackers in my opinion, but four of them earned the hearts.
♥♥♥Domaine Les Bottes Rouges “Face B” Savagnin 2017 is yet another Savagnin cuvée from Jean-Baptiste Ménigoz, who makes wine in a tiny hamlet, Abergement-le-Petit, west of Arbois. It’s new to me, though I do know his Savagnin “No Milk Today” (presumably named after the Herman’s Hermits song, whose B-side incidentally was “My Reservation’s Been Confirmed” – yes, I own it to my shame). This is mineral stuff, bright and vivacious and far superior stuff to the single, if I’m honest. More intense, for sure.
♥♥♥Progetto Calcarius, Nû Litr Bianco 2018 is the first of these wonderful new wines from Puglia sold in litre bottles, sealed under crown cap. I say “new” but they have been all over Instagram this summer, although this was my first sampling of them. The white is 100% Bombino Bianco, which may be the same variety as Pagedebit. I won’t go into all the periodic table stuff (see the label), but giving the fruit some skin contact has turned what is normally a neutral, over-cropped ugly duckling into a fully fledged pterodactyl with sharp teeth. Fresh, with bite, grip and a pebbly texture.
Luddite Chenin Blanc 2018 is, yes, yet another Saffer Chenin. Don’t yawn, this Bot River (Western Cape) wine sees a year in oak and undergoes full malo, but retains great acidity nevertheless. What this wine gives you is a beautiful savoury and mineral finish, making it versatile at the table.
♥♥♥Domaine des Miquettes Viognier-Chasselas 2018 is a Vin de France made in Saint-Joseph, on the Rhöne. Doug Wregg told me to try this, and I might have otherwise missed it. It’s a 50-50 blend made initially with around ten days on skins, and fermented in amphora. It smells like expensive perfume but the palate has lovely sweet fruit (in a dry wine) and almost massive texture. A wine that perhaps impresses as much as pleases, but one which you want to savour over a bottle rather than merely sip and spit out at a tasting.
Kelley Fox Weber Vineyard Pinot Gris 2018 Kelley makes this pinky PG from from “self-rooted” vines planted in 1987 in the famous Weber Vineyard (Dundee Hills, Oregon). I’m not allowed to tell you how good this is, because Kelley prefers to focus on her admittedly inspirational Pinot Noirs. But it’s pale and has the texture you find when rolling a grape skin around on your tongue…and I do rather love it.
Martha Stoumen Post Flirtation Red 2018 is the new vintage of another classic “drinker” from a great American female winemaker. She’s based at Sebastopol, obviously not in the Crimea but in Sonoma, California. The fruit for this wine, however, comes from Mendocino and Contra Costa Counties. It is Zinfandel and Carignan, in equal proportion, old vines but made in a lovely light style (12.3% abv), showcasing pomegranate fruit and rhubarb acidity. Pale and vibrant, alive with so many possibilities, you drink it and feel you can achieve anything. Life-affirming juice.
Bow & Arrow Air Guitar Red 2017 Who doesn’t enjoy a bit of air guitar. I know I do and I’ll bet Doug does too. I know winemaker Scott Frank does, because I’ve got photographic proof from several years ago. 50% Cabernet Sauvignon from Borgo Pass in the foothills of the Coastal Range and 50% Cabernet Franc from Willamette Valley’s Johan Vineyard, the wine made in Scott and his wife Dana’s Portland urban facility. At 12.5% abv this is clearly an attempt to make a lighter and (Scott says) European style. Yet like its maker, it’s a bold wine, big fruit with strong and intense flavours, very long (like all good guitar solos, of course…).
♥♥♥♥Vittorio Bera Bianchdudui 2000 Oops! Four hearts. Well, it is a special wine, though I’d suggest others matched it for my favour. It’s flor-aged Moscato. The flor was totally accidental, but after it formed the wine was left for 14 years in tank. It tastes unique (and totally dry), with a little Muscat quality but mostly pure umami. It’s simply a unique and astonishing wine which I’d urge every adventurous wine geek to try. The kanji on the bottle is the symbol for harmony. Spot on.
Ryme Cellars Ribolla Gialla 2013 This is a Geyserville wine, and I’m not sure whether the vines here originated from that first suitcase of illegal cuttings which came in from Gravner in the 1970s. The wine certainly does more than merely nod to Gravner, but a later Gravner of skin contact (two weeks here, I think) and texture. Ageing is in large old oak, not amphora, though. You really taste the depth here.
Domaine du Pech “Totem” 2004 Linger over the age of this new cuvée from Magali Tissot who makes probably the only wine worthy of being positively described in Buzet (Southwestern France). It’s obviously why the local authorities have never welcomed her into the appellation. The blend in Buzet is a Bordeaux mix, here around 50% Merlot with 25% each of Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon aged in 200-year-old foudre…for fourteen years! Another quite astonishing wine from a producer I’ve had a long affection for. Quite big, smooth, structured even (and 13.5% alcohol), a bit of a big boy really, but very impressive.