The wine trade, and the hospitality industry in general, is going through a very worrying time with Coronavirus. I am well aware that my complete inability to find a single four-pack of toilet rolls in any local supermarket in four attempts is absolutely unimportant compared to the stress being felt by all those, whether restaurateurs, bar owners, indie wine shops or small-to-medium importers, who have all worked so hard to build businesses running on low margins and tight cash-flow.
I am very lucky. I may not be all that well off for rice, tinned tomatoes, nor ginger and coconut cream (jeez, why are people going crazy for these…but thank goodness they’d not cleared the shelves of fenugreek), but a rough calculation suggests that if my wife and I shared a bottle of wine every night (which, don’t be overly concerned, we don’t) we could survive for a couple of years. But now is not the right time to stop buying, I think. I can’t even come close to propping up the UK wine trade with my consumption, but I promise to do my bit.
This means that despite all the tastings being cancelled and any planned trips to Austria and France being off for now, I still have numerous things with which to attempt to entertain you all. So much so that my monthly article on wines drunk at home is even a little late. But here we are, a dozen wines (well, one is a cider) knocked back during February chez nous. As usual it’s an eclectic mix of classics, bubbles and glou.
Airén “Bayo Flor” 2018, Vinos Ambiz (Gredos/Madrid, Spain)
Fabio Bartolomei makes truly magical wines, and their magic lies in something more than merely the terroir or the grape varieties used to make them. His Airén Bayo Flor (under flor) exemplifies this completely. Airén is at best dismissed by commentators as just a workhorse grape, once the most planted in Europe. There are many who would dismiss it in the same way as they dismiss Muller-Thurgau or Silvaner. Whilst one would never call this particular wine “world class” in any traditional sense, it is a wine which will cause joy and wonder for anyone who has a deep and passionate love for wine.
In some way, Fabio’s achievement here outstrips that of a winemaker working with a “noble” variety, especially because his own patch of mountain is ferociously malign to human endeavour. Yet the man himself would argue, and he may have a point (especially when you read his back labels) that his input is merely as a mule who moves grapes, must and wine at various stages of the process.
The vessels used in making this strictly non-interventionist viña include stainless steel, wood and the old terracotta tinajas Fabio collected from around his ex-cooperative cellars. The grapes from vines averaging fifty-to-sixty years of age which go into them are brought down from the harsh granite of the Gredos, from 600-to-650 metres above the El Tiemblo bodega. We have a wine of dark straw colour. The bouquet is frighteningly exotic, the wine surprisingly complex. Above all it is juicy…and textured, with bags of extract and flavour. Yet this Viña de Mesa only sees six months ageing, allegedly without skins. Somehow it seems impossible that it might contain 13.25% alcohol. It goes down like fruit juice. It really is quite beautiful. Each of the sub-1,000 bottle production will cost a little over 20€.
This bottle came directly from the producer. Otros Vinos is the UK importer.
Pithos Bianco 2014, COS (Sicily, Italy)
COS has always been a beacon for those of us whose heads were turned by “natural wines” back in distant times when finding them required Arctic Explorer levels of seeking out. An awful lot has been written about them since those days, and rather than try to add to that I will merely mention Robert Camuto’s travel book on Sicilian Wine, Palmento (Univ of Nebraska Press, 2010), which is a nice way to find out about many of the people producing wine on Sicily back at the time of the island’s vinous rebirth.
The Pithos wines, red and white, are to a degree, what COS is (or was) all about. This “white” (one might better call it orange/amber, or if from the UK, perhaps the colour of Lucozade) is made 100% from biodynamically grown Grecanico, from sites at 230 metres asl near Vittoria, in Sicily’s southeastern corner. The complex soils here are Pliocene sub-alpine sands with limestone, calcareous tufa and red clay. The grapes are placed in submerged amphorae where they spend seven months, their only manipulation being a little added sulphur at bottling.
The result is textured but smooth, especially at this age. The complex notes here include beeswax, tangerine, mimosa and ginger, but that’s just my take. There’s plenty more in there. Normally I would recommend Pithos Bianco as a wine to drink within two or three years of release, yet this 2014 was fascinating in the way it had developed. A lovely wine. Funny, but we kind of think of these as being “classics” now. It’s hard to imagine how new they seemed all those years ago, but they are no less exciting today.
Imported by Les Caves de Pyrene.
Champagne Jacques Lassaigne “Les Vignes de Montgueux” (Champagne, France)
Emmanuel Lassaigne’s wines are as firmly established among lovers of natural wines and Grower Champagne now as Manu himself is allegedly established in his seat at the bar of “Aux Crieurs” in Troyes, if every article written about him is to be believed. Just as Aux Crieurs is indeed the best place to drink in the region, Manu is without question the best producer. Of course, the vineyards on the hill of Montgueux, a stone’s throw west of Troyes, only amount to two-hundred hectares. Emmanuel took over from his father, Jacques, in 1999 and farms around four of those hectares, buying fruit from a further two-and-a-half.
From his vines, Lassaigne makes an interesting array of wines, beginning with the house cuvée for Les Papilles, the famous Parisian natural wine shop, up to single site bottlings of real individuality. “Les Vignes” is of course a blend, non-vintage, but nevertheless a wine which seems to express its terroir. It does this via a fairly fullish body with flavours of both apple and more exotic fruits. It has freshness, texture and real presence, and it somehow seems just a little bit different and unique. One can’t help but put this down to it coming from this small island of viticulture between the southern Côte de Sezanne and the Côte des Bar. It is made from 100% biodynamic Chardonnay.
Purchased from La Caves des Papilles (35 rue Daguerre, Paris 14). In UK, try The Good Wine Shop. Although they currently only list the wonderful “Le Cotet” (£82), I have purchased “Vignes” from them in the past.
Whole Bunch Pinot Noir 2017, The Hermit Ram (North Canterbury, New Zealand)
There is no shortage of exciting winemakers in New Zealand, but probably no one is making wines as close to the edge as Theo Coles. I can’t recall from whom I’m stealing this quote (not made directly about Theo, but it fits), that only those who have fallen off know what it’s like that close to the edge.
If you really want to see the edge (of both darkness and light), try Theo’s skin contact Muller-Thurgau. This Pinot is relatively restrained by comparison, but it’s still a long way beyond what most people are doing with the variety. The grapes come from the layered limestone, clay and iron oxide of Omihi. The wine sees 75% whole bunch fermentation and no additions or manipulations, save a tiny addition of sulphur at bottling.
The result is 12.5% abv, fruity, but clearly with the means to age in bottle. One person I shared this bottle with summed it up so well when he said “it feels as if this is actually doing me good”. What more can you say of a great natural wine. The wines of Hermit Ram deserve to sell out within minutes, though they are not perhaps for the fainthearted. You probably won’t recognise this as NZPN but I hope you will recognise it as so much more.
Hermit Ram is imported and sold by Uncharted Wines.
Cornas “Renaissance” 2004, Domaine Clape (Northern Rhône, France)
Although 99% of the wine I buy today is a long way removed from what I used to buy ten or twenty years ago, I still have plenty of wines from the old classic regions lurking in the cellar’s depths. Back in the day Clape Cornas was a by-word for inky Syrah requiring a generation to reach maturity, but then along came this “young vine” cuvée so we could drink it rather than leave it to our kids. But wait, you have left this cuvée which has been designed for earlier drinking a full sixteen years before trying it? Yes, but I know Cornas.
This bottle has a reassuringly dark colour, inky almost. There’s not a lot of difference in colour at the rim, but that nose is classic mature Northern Rhône Syrah. There’s even a touch of bacon there, a bit of a shock. The palate shows a wine that has mellowed and which has lost most of its tannins but not structure. It has merely loosened up. It’s velvety and silky in a way young Syrah never is, but in a way which shows the class of the terroir. Very long finish. You wouldn’t want to keep it longer really, but it’s a nice expression of a French Classic which, to be fair back in 2004 as seen by some as very much the junior red from the region’s top three (back then St-Jo hardly got a look in).
Clape Cornas is available via a number of sources in the UK, but this was purchased on release directly from this producer’s original UK agent, Yapp Brothers (of Mere).
Vin Jaune 1983, Rolet Père et Fils (Jura, France)
Rolet is one of the unsung names in the Jura region. This family company is run today by the brother and sister team of Pierre, Elaine, Bernard and Guy. Their father, Désiré Rolet, planted vines during the Second World War at Montigny-les-Arsures, and the family left the cooperative when elder sibling Pierre joined him in 1958. Since then the family vignoble has grown from five hectares to 65ha today, which makes them the largest estate in single family ownership in the wider region. You can taste their wines at their shop in the rue de L’Hotel be Ville in Arbois (next to the two-star restaurant, Maison Jeunet).
Vin Jaune spends almost seven years ageing in barrel under a thin layer of flor before it is bottled and released. This gives consumers a false impression of the wine’s age, and most often you will find the current vintage on restaurant lists. Whilst some producers make Vin Jaune which tastes very nice when young, it is a wine which unquestionably benefits from further bottle age. To have the opportunity to drink a wine from the 1980s is a treat, one that comes maybe once or twice a year at most.
It’s not easy to reproduce a meaningful tasting note for a wine like this. You’d certainly know it is Vin Jaune even if your experience was limited to younger versions. It has the same flavours, except that the acidity has mellowed along with all the wine’s other attributes. It is still nutty, and spicy too, whilst there is less overt citrus. “Complex” and “long” don’t do it justice really. “Profound” does, without being OTT about it. Rolet VJ has been part of my life since the late 1980s, in part because they always bottled a half-Clavelin version, which made it more affordable to a younger me, and allowed the pleasure of a bottle to be split more easily. So whilst you can surely buy finer Vin Jaune, and certainly more fashionable (and expensive bottles), Rolet really isn’t that far behind. Visit their shop and see what they have.
This bottle came via a generous guest and close friend. Berkmann Wine Cellars imports four (I believe) Rolet cuvées into the UK, including Vin Jaune.
Sydre “Argelette” 2017, Eric Bordelet (Mayenne, France)
Eric Bordelet makes apple and pear cider in the Maine region in Western France (historically part of Southern Normandy but today administratively in the Pays de la Loire). He took over the family business, 23 hectares of orchards, in 1992. Did you know that before that he was a sommelier? This is doubtless what informs his cider making. Artisan cider has been something of a slow burner that has taken off like a rocket in the past few years, but it could be argued that Bordelet was the first star artisan cider master of the modern tradition.
The family orchards are situated in Mayenne, a region once famed for its English connections at the time of the Plantagenet Kings. The terrain is mostly Precambrian Schist (Argelette) and Granite, from which Eric fashions the Grands Crus of French cider using organic and biodynamic methods. Perhaps the key to the quality of the cider lies in this terroir, but there’s also the profound number of different varieties (I think 30 of apple and 20 of pear) Eric has at his disposal to blend.
All the ciders are fermented in vat on natural yeasts, and when bottled they also re-ferment naturally with no addition of sugars. Argelette is off schist, very old trees and equally as old varieties: Fréquin Rouge, Locard Vert, Damelot, Sang de Boeuf, Tête de Brébis, Kermerien, Bourdas, Doux Moen, Peau de Vâche and so on, all wonderful names which put grape varietal nomenclature to shame. The result is mellow, smooth, with some richness and a stony bluntness, although the finish is long. Refined stuff and really quite vinous in many ways. You can understand why these ciders (or Sydre as Eric prefers here) appeal so much to wine lovers.
Imported by Les Caves de Pyrene.
Champagne Suenen Blanc de Blancs Extra Brut 2009 (Champagne, France)
Aurélien Suenen is one of the new and rapidly rising stars of Cramant on the Côte des Blancs. He’s only been running the family domaine (and I use the word domaine advisedly, indeed the cork cap reads “Domaine Suenen”) for a decade, with around three hectares in Cramant and the villages of Oiry and Chouilly. This is all Chardonnay, of course. He also travels northwest of Rheims for two further hectares of both Pinots, on the Massif de Saint-Thierry, but I understand he sells almost all of the grapes from the Massif and (mostly) only bottles the Chardonnay.
If you buy vintage Suenen these days it may well be a terroir wine, named after plots in all three Côtes des Blancs villages, plus La Grande Vigne from Montagny on the Massif, the only Pinot (Meunier) he bottles now. But back in the 2009 vintage it was all going into a vintage blend, this wine being 100% Chardonnay. Whilst consequently less of a terroir wine, do not let that put you off.
Disgorged in mid-January 2017 and dosed at just 3g/l, only 2,483 bottles came into the world. A good length of time on the cork gives this the patina of extended lees ageing, but what you notice most is the sheer verve of it. A remarkably fine bottle of dry Champagne which in our house was always headed for the dinner table. I mean it tastes like a cracking Blanc de Blancs and it goes with white meat and fish, but when you follow a mainly vegan diet everything starts to go with everything. One thing it does go mighty well with is a schnitzel, vegan or not.
This wine came from Champagne via a friend and I’ve not been able to find a UK importer. That should not be taken to mean that there isn’t one. If that were to be the case then the finger of the English wine trade must have slipped decidedly off the pulse of Grower Champagne.
Arnaio 2013, Valdonica (Tuscany, Italy)
Valdonica is the project of Dr Martin Kerres, who began making wines in the Tuscan Maremma in 2008, from vines planted up to 500 metres asl in virgin volcanic soils. Arnaio is 90% Sangiovese, of which Dr Kerres has nine clones, with 10% Ciliegiolo. The grapes were fermented (for the 2013) in a mix of 1,100-litre food grade plastic containers and stainless steel tanks, using around 30% whole clusters, before being racked into barrique, mostly second fill, for around sixteen months ageing. Following this, the 2013 received a further 12 months in bottle before release.
Like all lost wines, discovered in the cellar whilst looking for something else, one does wonder whether it might be too old. I was reassured by checking the producer web site, which stated a drinking window of six years from release. That seems spot on to me as I was going to be towards the end of that window, but not pushing at the exit.
The bouquet is pure Sangiovese, you’d be unlikely to get that wrong, and beautiful it is too. The cherry fruit is lifted by an ethereal woodland scent. The palate is slightly gamey, showing the tertiary development you’d dream of from a Chianti of the same age, though maybe it’s a touch more herbal and with a salty tang I’d associate more with a white wine. Perhaps that’s the Mediterranean calling. It was, in short, a rather pleasant surprise. One of those wines to drink as a couple and rather regret not being able to share it with the uninitiated.
Valdonica used to be imported by Red Squirrel Wines, but I’m not sure they made the transition when RS became Graft Wines. I think I bought this as one of several bottles after I’d met Dr Kerres at Raw Wine 2017. Perhaps someone has picked them up?
Savigny-les-Beaune Blanc 2015, Le Grappin (Burgundy, France)
Following a career in “The City”, one of the seminal Ozgundians, Andrew Nielsen, spent five years learning the craft of winemaking across several continents. In 2011 he and wife Emma settled in Beaune, eventually finding premises in the old city wall in what I believe was once a small gunpowder store. I think they are the only negoce to keep cellars in the city walls, everyone else having moved out to more modern and spacious premises. But if Andrew learnt anything in his period of wandering, it was that the vineyard comes first.
Despite being an outsider, Andrew is the most affable of blokes, with charm and wit, but also a willingness to raise a glass or two in friendship. It’s not hard to see why he has managed to establish good relationships with grape farmers across the Côte d’Or and down south. “Le Grappin” is the label for the micro negoce wines he makes from the villages and some Premier Cru sites on the Côte, whilst “Du Grappin” is reserved for often more experimental wines hailing from Beaujolais, the Maconnais and the villages of the Southern Rhône.
This particular wine comes from a plot of village wines above Savigny itself, tended under Andrew’s watchful eyes. The grapes received a very gentle pressing before settling overnight in the cellar beneath the walls of Beaune. Next day the juice is racked into used oak barrels for ageing on the fine lees, and it’s pretty much as simple as that. You get 2015 ripeness, but as always with Le Grappin, it is matched by a freshness which might trick you into thinking the wine was maybe half a degree lighter in alcohol than its 13%. That’s good going for 2015, and it’s the freshness, even at five years old, which makes it. For me, it is all a village White Burgundy should be. A bit of texture, a little nuttiness and a big splat of fruit. Wonderful.
Le Grappin sells its wine mainly through their own web site, legrappin.com. The wines are also available through a selection of independent retailers (some of the best known are Burgess & Hall of Forest Gate, London, The Vineking, Highbury Vintners and Whalley Wine Shop, along with the famous Mons Cheeses (Borough Market) and La Fromagerie in Marylebone, Highbury and Bloomsbury.
Canavese Rosso “Torrazza” 2016, Ferrando Vini (Piemonte, Italy)
Of all the wines in February’s selection this might be the most obscure in some ways, assuming that many people are pretty familiar with wines from the Sierra de Gredos already. Canavese is one of the many DOCs in Northern Piemonte, but it sits in that wilderness north of Turin and south of the Val d’Aosta which is even less explored than Gattinara and Ghemme etc to the east. It forms quite a large area, but the two DOC/DOCGs within it are better known, just: Carema and Erbaluce di Caluso. Canavese is so little known that it does not even warrant a single word in the text of the new “Wine Atlas” edition, though it is, of course, on the map, and Ferrando does get a mention for its fine Carema!
Ferrando Vini is a family firm founded in 1890, run by five generations of the family who have made wine all over wider Piemonte. The cellars at Ivrea, on the Dora Baltea river as it flows out of the Val d’Aosta and down towards the Po, were constructed in 1964 mainly to make what is often termed the “Mountain Barolo”, that underrated Nebbiolo, Carema. Torrazza differs substantially in that it is a blended wine, mostly Nebbiola with Barbera, but also allegedly containing a little Bonarda, Freisa and others. However, it still comes off the extensive sub-Alpine glacial moraines which give these wines from altitude their own often rugged character.
What of the wine? Despite its 13.5% abv there’s a sense of lightness, probably down to its lifted raspberry and strawberry scents. The palate is smooth, fresh and fruity with a little spice. I’d call the finish persistent rather than long. This is no substitute for the Barolo lover looking for a cheaper alternative. Go for Carema or Gattinara (where Nervi makes wine comparable to top Barolo at a price), or indeed Roero where you will trip over all the good producers. This is a wine for the more adventurous. It’s simpler stuff, but certainly no Barbarian.
At £18 from Solent Cellar I must remember to ask for another bottle to be slipped into my next self-isolation case. I think the UK importer is Astrum.
Côte de Brouilly 2016, Pierre Cotton (Beaujolais, France)
Pierre Cotton is one of the young generation of Beaujolais producers, and without his beard you can tell he’d look very young indeed. He started out channelling his Zen into motorcycle maintenance before taking on one hectare of his fathers vines to make wine at the family home at Odenas in 2014. Pierre’s father retired in 2017, since when Pierre has farmed eight hectares in both the Crus of Brouilly and Côte de Brouilly (with a tiny parcel in Regnié).
Here we are in the far south of the Crus region, and not only are these two Crus the most southerly of Beaujolais, Odenas is also the most southerly village of any real size. The soils here are more complex than we often think. There’s your usual granite of course, but the Côte de Brouilly, as you climb the slope of the hill known as the Mont de Brouilly, has a unique rock called locally corne verte, a pink granite with diorite. It is from a one-hectare plot on a corne verte base that this cuvée originates. Erosion varies dramatically here so topsoils are complex, and being this far south, the micro climate varies as well.
Cotton is a natural winemaker, but so was his father. It’s just that it wasn’t called natural wine back then. This includes no sulphur additions. The grapes for this cuvée come from vines averaging 65-to-70 years old. Fermentation is semi-carbonic in cement tanks, after which the juice is left to age in old foudres for eight or nine months.
This 2016 has lovely smooth cherry fruit, lifted by a real natural wine vibrancy. Any tannin it may have had has largely dissipated and it is drinking really well at the moment. I shall drink my remaining bottle this summer. Cotton’s wines can often show reductive qualities, on account of remaining in the large wood without frequent racking. If this bottle was reductive, any odours must have blown off whilst standing open on the table. It didn’t require a decant and it was very open. I said this is a natural wine, but it didn’t worry my elderly mother, who always enjoys a nice Gamay. I’m not sure she noticed it had 13.5% abv either, as it tastes smooth and light.
This was another purchase from The Solent Cellar, which no longer has this listed but is always a good bet for a very interesting range of Beaujolais. I can’t find a current UK importer (lots in North America). Kiffe My Wines listed the 2017.