Oh how different the world seemed a couple of weeks ago. Basket Press Wines, the importer of primarily Czech wines, was down in Brighton to show some new wines and vintages to the staff of Plateau and Ten Green Bottles, and I tagged along so I could get in on the act. I’ve written about Basket Press before, and been to a couple of their public tastings, so it will come as no surprise that I was interested in getting a taste of what they are bringing in right now, especially any new wines.
Of course the restaurants, and most of the wine shops, Basket Press supplies have all had to close down. It’s a bummer for business, for sure. But Basket Press like most of the small importers are selling online now, and these guys are offering free delivery for orders of six bottles or more nationwide. That beats most small importers. You might like what you see here, but I’ll be honest, their whole list is a revelation if you’ve not tried these wines from Czech Moravia (with a couple of forays elsewhere). I got my delivery in quickly…it feels a bit like insider trading must feel, but I’m not proud. I had to have the Hungarians!
Utopia “Johana” 2017 (Cider) (Czech Rep)
This is a Czech cider, and I know you are aware of the artisan cider revolution which is going on right now. But I’m sure that you won’t yet have drunk many ciders quite like this producer’s. The orchards are at Sudkuv Dul in the Bohemian Highlands, and Ivo and Eva Laurin make cider much more in the image of natural wine than conventional ciders.
Utopia ciders come largely from old Czech heritage varieties. There are around 55 varieties planted. Some trees are 80 years old, although they have planted some old English seedlings as an experiment. The apples begin fermentation in Autumn. This is carried through to dryness in spring at which time wild cultures of lactic acid bacteria soften the cider’s edges, like the malolactic fermentation which softens wine’s malic acids.
I can’t help but admire the names of traditional cider apples. In my last article (Recent Wines February 2020) I mentioned some of the varietal names used by Eric Bordelet in France, but here they grow the wonderfully named “Minister von Hammerstein”. Why can’t we have grape varieties with names like this?
Fermentation, and then ageing, takes place over one year in old 225-litre casks, and the cider is then given bottle age before shipping. No sulphur is added at any stage and no fining nor filtration takes place. The result in the case of “Johana” is highly vinous. It’s appley but quite soft. There’s not the same complexity as with grapes for sure, but there is complexity compared to the clean freshness of most ciders. There’s plenty going on here, yet in a very understated way. This is super-interesting juice and definitely something for the table and food rather than just glugging on a park bench, or the beach…and as you shouldn’t be in either of those places right now, that’s good. The packaging is (perhaps) a heck of a lot less exciting than the product inside the bottle.
Krásná Hora “La Blanca” 2018 (Czech Rep)
This is an estate farming around eight hectares of vines, and purchasing grapes from a further five hectares, on the slopes outside Dolni Poddvorov, close to the Slovakian border inside Czech Moravia. The estate name means “beautiful mountain”. The vines here were originally planted by Cistercian monks, those great dissemblers of viticulture, in the 13th century.
The estate is now biodynamic but it has always avoided synthetic agro-chemicals on the land. Winemaking is similarly low intervention. In order to achieve this, and to restrict SO2 to very low levels, the team has become adept at using skin contact and lees ageing. These techniques are very common in Moravia, and this is one reason why it has become the centre of a very dynamic natural wine production.
La Blanca is the estate’s entry level white wine. The blend is approximately 60% Riesling, fermented separately to 40% made up of more Riesling, with Pinot Gris, Pinot Blanc and Gewurztraminer. This latter 40% gets a month on skins. The wine is very aromatic, with the Gewurz coming through on the nose. The palate has a richness from the skin contact, whilst overall the Riesling gives the wine a spine.
At only 10.5% abv there’s also crisp apple skin and a savoury side. The combination of aromatics and skin contact makes an inexpensive and low alcohol wine amazingly interesting. The Riesling element is lovely, but the richness of the Pinot Gris and the aromatics of the Gewurztraminer make for a wine which is more than the sum of its parts, though at a reasonably simple level. Only 6,500 bottles made.
Jaroslav Osička “Milerka” 2018 (Czech Rep)
Jaroslav is really the man behind the natural wine movement in Moravia. For thirty years he taught at the local viticultural college, inspiring his students with tales of what this region had once been capable of before the days of Communism and collective farming. He only farms three hectares, planted with seven different varieties. Milerka is his own nickname for the usually unloved Müller-Thurgau. The vineyard has been organic from the off, in the early 1980s and whilst not officially biodynamic, the sprays Osička uses are biodynamic in origin.
This wine is in reality a blend, with Müller-Thurgau forming just 85%, the remainder Neuberger and others. At 12% abv, this is fragrant and floral, and quite light. But Osička is a fan of Jura wines. This doesn’t come through too overtly yet in the nutty flavours which develop late on the finish you can just see a tiny nod towards Eastern France there. Of course this is aged on lees, in acacia barrels.
This producer is a master winemaker, and I think in many countries where he would get more exposure he’d be a genuine star, in the mould of a Puffeney or an Overnoy. This is the first of three wines here from Jaroslav Osička, and his Modry Portugal (see below), always a favourite, was in my delivery last week.
Réka-Koncz “Eastern Accents” 2018 (Hungary)
The two wines here by Annamária Réka are among four new additions to the Basket Press portfolio from her. This is their first foray into Hungary. I’m not wholly sure how Annamária remained undiscovered, but loath as I am to say so (because quantities are pretty small), these are special. This producer is another of my discoveries of the year. If you have been drawn by me to try the wines of Victoria Torres Pecis or perhaps Veronica Ortega, then you will enjoy Annamária’s wines. Another tiny three-hectare vineyard, Annamária’s vines are in Eastern Hungary, not too far from Tokaji, but equally not far from the border with Ukraine.
Eastern Accents is a cloudy and rather exotic wine made for the true adventurer. On tasting it I felt like taking up the bottle, wandering off to a silent space, telling everyone else not to wait up for me. The main variety here is Háslevelú, blended with Annamária’s most planted grape, Királyleányka. You may have never seen that name, but this Transylvanian variety goes by a name you might have come across in Romania, Feteasca Regală. The vines average between forty and sixty years old. The result is neither white nor orange, but the colour of peach juice. The Hárslevelú saw five days on skins whilst the Királyleányka was hand-destemmed before a two-week semi-carbonic maceration. Scented, juicy and textured, and most certainly easy to fall in love with.
Réka-Koncz “In Return” 2018 (Hungary)
If it was a vinous love at first sight for the previous wine, I think if anything this was even more impressive. Here the Királyleányka variety takes the driving seat, with Rhine Riesling as a passenger. After a 24-hour maceration the whole bunches began spontaneous fermentation. Ageing was on fine lees, but as with the previous wine, no wood was used. The skin contact aromatics really come over strongly here. The colour was slightly darker than Eastern Accents (above), and it shows nice lifted fruit. You do therefore need to like this style to share my enthusiasm.
Needless to say, I decided to grab a bottle of each of the four Réka-Koncz wines imported by Basket Press. I’m really not sure how much will be left, but at least I guess the restaurants are unlikely to be ordering them.
Ota Ševčík Riesling 2017 (Czech Rep)
Ota is another producer making wine from a tiny area, in this case two hectares in Southern Moravia, at Bořetice in the Hanáké Slováko Region, over two sites. He is a young man with a total focus on the land, and his wonderful wines are among my very favourites from the Czech Republic (see especially the next wine, below).
This Rhine Riesling is off a 1.5 ha plot tended without synthetic chemical interventions, and indeed Ota was a founding member of the Authentiste group of Moravian winemakers whose renown has been growing in recent years for their original work in keeping Moravia by-and-large chemical free among the wider region’s small wine farmers.
The essence of this Riesling, what gives it a uniqueness, is its two days on skins followed by a year resting on gross, then fine, lees in large used oak. So it’s an orange wine, dry but with broader fruit than a traditionally fermented version of the grape might show. It is grounded by a mineral intensity which may to a large part come from the high magnesium content in the soils. The vines are not that young, maybe five-to-eleven years old, but the complexity added by the vinification seems to make up for that. A lovely wine.
Ota Ševčík Frankovka Claret 2018 (Czech Rep)
This second wine from Ota was new to me. The Frankovka variety is none other than that which we know as Blaufränkisch in Austria. Claret has no Bordeaux associations, rather it mirrors the Clairet/Clarete light red style which is thankfully seeing a bit of a comeback right now, and would probably be perfect drinking under the azure skies of my small lockdown garden.
This wine is actually described as a “blanc de noirs” but its peach colour is closer to orange than white, and there’s just the smallest hint of red molecules in there to show up faintly in the sunshine. It was vinified in stainless steel, with six months on lees. It has a little lees texture, a little body and fleshy richness, with a smoothness of fruit. The finish has a satisfying creaminess. But that doesn’t really sound as thrilling and exciting as I think this wine tastes (in context).
This wine is so new it is yet to make it to many Basket restaurant customers, but if you like this style, I can recommend it highly. Its 12.4% alcohol makes it a good bet to drink cool under the parasol…because sadly we do not possess a hammock, whilst listening to Grand Funk Railroad’s 1970 classic live album.
Jaroslav Osička P.A.N. 2018 (Czech Rep)
Jaroslav says it is his wish to create an emotional reaction to his wines. I think this remark, which some could see as flowery ideals, is actually central to wine with soul. It is so easy for wine writers (especially those who see themselves as wine critics) to dwell wholly on the “objective” when experiencing wine. But my hunch is that if I do have a subjective emotional reaction to drinking a bottle, or tasting one, you the reader will actually be interested in this. I’m guessing total devotees of Parker Points might take issue with that, but perhaps not too many of them read my Blog.
Oh, so back to P.A.N. It’s another new wine in the portfolio. It’s largely Pinot Noir with the addition of André. That’s a grape variety, occasionally called Semenac, a 1960 Czech cross between Blaufränkisch and St. Laurent, not some bloke who fell into the vat during fermentation. It’s actually, as you might expect, a fruity and easy going red with an imprint of cherry fruit, fairly concentrated but gluggable stuff. Very nice, in a fun way. The emotion Jaroslav creates here is cheerfulness, and plenty of it.
Petr Koráb St Laurent (Czech Republic)
I didn’t get the vintage of this wine. The one listed on the Basket Press web site is the 2017 but this could be a new vintage. No worries, whatever vintage this Saint Laurent is another juicy, fresh red with typical cherry fruit, bright acids and a little grip.
Koráb founded the winery with his brother back in 2006, in Boleradice. Petr’s focus has been on reviving the old vineyards, and integrating them into a mixed farm with bee hives, goats and sheep. The old vines go up to 75 years of age, and are farmed biodynamically, with natural yeasts and the usual (for Moravia) minimum intervention winemaking, mostly using open vats and old oak barrels. This is another very good producer, and the wine’s label is a reflection of Petr’s philosophy of the guiding human hand nurturing and protecting nature’s bounty.
Dva Duby “Vox in Excelso” 2017 (Czech Republic)
Jiři Šebela makes wine in Dolne Kounice in Southern Moravia, and yet again these are natural wines, with only the addition of a small amount of sulphur at bottling, if necessary. I’m told this is especially beautiful wine country with vineyards rising above the river valley. Vineyards thrived here on Austria’s border in medieval times, and it’s probably no surprise that Frankovka, aka Blaufränkisch, is the most planted variety.
The difference here perhaps is the soil and bedrock. It is volcanic, based on Granodiorite, which is magmatic stone (ie from magma) which is molten rock beneath the surface, rather than lava spewed forth from an eruption. This gives Frankovka here a very distinct personality. “Vox” has a clear, bright, colour. It has an intense bouquet like distilled iron and blood, which singles it out as quite unique, although there’s a hint of the aromatics of Fer Servadou from The Aveyron in France.
The palate kicks in with crunchy sour cherry fruit and bright acidity. It’s a deep wine, serious, perhaps top level. It has a defining spine running through it and precision. Less of a glugging wine here, a little more serious, but approachable. Just better with food, perhaps and nevertheless very impressive. 13% abv.
Jaroslav Osička Modry Portugal 2017 (Czech Rep)
We finish with another wine from Osička, one which I’ve drunk (and bought) more than once. The variety here is the rare Blauer Portugieser, which one sees occasionally around the German speaking world and its satellites, and occasionally in the Hungarian red, Bull’s Blood (Egri Bikavér).
The grapes spend eight months in large oak and acacia barrels and then into fibreglass tanks to keep the wine fresh and fruity before bottling. It does have that lifted freshness, especially on the nose where you get fruity floral scents melded with darker and deeper beetroot and a slightly vegetal/umami edge. This is all with just 12.6% alcohol.
I think the reason I like this…well, okay, I admit that drinking a nice Blauer Portugieser helps affirm my faith in so-called lesser varieties…but otherwise I’m there sipping a wine that is just outside the parameters of what we drink most of the time. It’s a “natural wine” but that doesn’t make it unusual. It’s not cidery or scary in any other way. It’s just different, in possession of flavours outside the mainstream. Not so far outside that it ceases to be “red wine” with all those inherent expectations, but just enough that we take note.
So on a sunny afternoon at a tasting in sunny Brighton we finish on a high note…except that maybe all these wines in their own way strike a high note. If you feel adventurous and need something to stimulate your mind and soul during this period of confinement, maybe take a look at the Basket Press web site here. There is a retail price list on the site (click on “Wines – Shop” on the top bar) but most of these hover between £15 and £25.
Remember what I said about their free delivery, at least whilst wine deliveries are still possible. I’ve actually just received this afternoon an interesting (and timely) email from their mailing list. They have put together two different sampler half-dozens. One costs £111 and one £96.90, delivery included. They are discounted by 5%, but if you buy two you get a free bottle added in as a thank you. I don’t receive anything for recommending these wines, other than pleasure in sharing them with a wider audience, but it does help that these are really nice people working hard at something they are so passionate about.