Continuing to the second selection of wines I drank at home during November, we start out with a rare treat from New Zealand, then a South African favourite, before settling down to Burgenland, Jura’s Sud Revermont, Monmouth in Wales, Champagne, Beaujolais and Alsace. I am no different to many other people who say they have been drinking better than ever during the pandemic, but I really think there are some spectacular wines in this selection. Let’s hope the treats keep coming.
SKIN FERMENT SAUVIGNON BLANC 2018, THE HERMIT RAM (North Canterbury, New Zealand)
Theo Coles farms the “Limestone Hills” vineyard and other tiny blocks in North Canterbury, the rapidly up-and-coming wine region on New Zealand’s South Island. This beautiful landscape has, in Theo’s case, remained untouched by chemical sprays, and he makes natural wines here perhaps like no one else in the country. Other more “natural” winemakers still manage to make wines which taste very “NZ”. Theo doesn’t lose that identity but he’s prepared to push the envelope just a bit further. He’s a wizard with Pinot Noir, and he makes a shockingly good Muller-Thurgau (once quite prevalent in NZ before Sauvignon Blanc came along). But if you really want to see what sets him apart, maybe this signature Sauvignon is one to try.
Fully destemmed fruit sees six weeks on skins. It undergoes malo in barrel after which it is immediately bottled with no added sulphur. It pours out of the bottle between straw and gold in colour and despite a kind of “skin contact” texture on the nose, its bouquet is pure NZSB, but after time it gets more complex. The palate has texture too and there’s a little bitterness. This isn’t over extraction, merely a of bit added flavour riding on the edge of vibrant fruit, if that makes sense. For me, it’s a brilliant wine, the like of which I don’t think New Zealand has seen before. As someone said to me online recently, forget SB in new oak. Skin contact is the way to go. It sure is.
The Hermit Ram is available from Uncharted Wines. They are one of the many importers who have opened an online shop for private customers during the pandemic, giving us all a chance to order wines which are often only to be found in restaurants.
KORTPAD KARPTOE 2016, BLANK BOTTLE WINERY (Swartland, South Africa)
I’d managed to keep a bottle of Pieter Walser’s Fernão Pires (aka Maria Gomes) for a couple of years and it proved a good move as this has aged magnificently. Pieter always has a story for every wine. The name here translates from Afrikaans as “by the fastest route” (he tells us). When asking for directions a grape grower told him “take a right after the Shiraz and Carignan and then left at the Fernão Pires”. Fernão what? On investigation the owner, a Malmsbury producer, didn’t really want this variety. He told Pieter he could have it if he took it all. As with all of Pieter’s stories, they sound a tiny bit surreal, but once you know the man you invest them all with truth (even when they involve fighting off sharks). Anyway, it turns out that these are the only Fernão Pires vines in the Cape.
Pieter fermented the grapes simply, in tank. The result hits you with a nice fresh lemon zippiness before a more honeyed side comes through. It has the sort of texture of honeyed (more than oily) Viognier via its apricot stone fruit. It’s a kind of sunshine richness. Then the faintest hint of butterscotch (or perhaps salted caramel, these things are rarely that precise) lingers before ginger comes through on the finish. Once it has warmed up each mouthful is a journey across that spectrum of flavours, from citrus to saline and savoury. You don’t really notice it cracks 13.5% abv because it retains a vivacity not always seen above 13%. As with all the Walser wines, it seems to manage to be both quite lively and stately at the same time. It’s an oddity which I genuinely think people should seek out.
Blank Bottle is imported by Swig Wines. They regularly get Pieter over to the UK to do events around the country (as well as trade tastings). I went to one such event at Butler’s Wine Cellar in Brighton back in 2019. I couldn’t have wished for a better morning, entertained like never before at such a tasting. He’s one of the nicest and most engaging people in wine I’ve ever met. The owners of Butlers are good mates with Pieter and he’s made a few exclusive bottlings for them, excellent value wines. They are one of the retailers always well provided with Blank Bottle cuvées.
ZWEIGELT 2017, HEINRICH (Burgenland, Austria)
Gernot and Heike Heinrich are yet another biodynamic operation based in the wine village of Gols (also including Claus Preisinger, Rennersistas, Judith Beck and more), to the north of the Neusiedlersee. They took over from Gernot’s parents in 1985. This is an estate where incredible attention to detail has created wonderful living soils and a diverse ecosystem. Conversion to biodynamics was certified in 2006, the Heinrichs being one of the founder members of the Austrian “Respekt” organisation. The wines are all treated as individuals here and from cheapest to more expensive they all have something different to say. There are numerous reasons why their wines don’t always appear on the most fashionable wine lists in London, but they are incredibly well loved by people, like me, who write about wine.
This Zweigelt was described by the Heinrichs as displaying the delicacy of a cut diamond. In a different vein, Jancis Robinson said the 2015 had sufficient acidity to counter the heartiest Tafelspitz (which did make me yearn a little for some of those traditional Viennese Beisl restaurants serving hearty traditional dishes). Those very different notes sum up this lovely wine.
The grapes are harvested from all three vineyard zones by the lake, from the flat gravels closer to the reed beds on the Parndorfer Plain up to the limestone and pockets of schist on the Leithaberg. It was given two weeks post-fermentation on skins in both wood and stainless steel, before thirteen months in old wood (vats and 500-litre barrels). It’s quite serious Zweigelt, dark coloured, smooth and rich, yet only 12% abv. It majors on concentrated cherry fruit cut with red fruit acidity. It’s very elegant as well. It’s way too under the radar. Gernot and Heike are well noted for being one of the first Burgenland producers who really took Zweigelt seriously, and their reds, especially off the wonderful terroir of the Leithaberg which just seems to bring life to the wines, are so vibrant…but please don’t neglect their whites.
Heinrich is imported by Indigo Wines.
POULSARD “SUR CHARRIÉRE” 2013, DOMAINE LABET (Jura, France)
Domaine Labet was one of the Jura producers which set me off on my journey down that particular rabbit hole. Back in those days Alain and Josie worked the land. Today it is their children, led by Julien, who farm somewhere in the region of seven hectares in what is known as the Sud Revermont, near Rotalier. This is the far south of the Jura region, but despite its distance from Arbois, it is another centre for world class producers, as you may well know.
I have to say, because it is something I feel strongly about, that Domaine Labet should be every bit as famous as their neighbours, whether that be the established J-F Ganevat or the superstar newcomer, Domaine des Miroirs. Or indeed any producer in the wider region. I feel that it’s only now that the wines of this wonderful estate, whose vines have never seen any chemical sprays or additions, are getting their just acknowledgement as some of the finest natural wines in France.
So, to the Poulsard. It’s from Labet’s “Parcelles Rares” series. Very old vines, planted in 1969, and a little planted in 1994, from a plot of just 46 ares (sic) on marnes bleus soils at 350 masl, make up the cuvée. The wine is simply made and sees no sulphur added. The result is now, after seven years, brick red, almost the colour of an aged Nebbiolo. It has a mere 10.4% alcohol, but it doesn’t lack body. It has mellowed nicely into a truly complex wine, indeed profound and magical. There’s just something about it. It has a haunting quality that makes the wine float on the palate, but it hasn’t lost that core of concentrated pomegranate or cranberry fruit.
This bottle came from Winemakers Club. Labet can also be purchased through Vine Trail.
TRIOMPHE PETNAT, ANCRE HILL ESTATE (Monmouthshire, Wales)
Richard and Joy Morris planted vines just outside of Monmouth in 2006. Intuition might tell you that surely Wales is too wet for viticulture, but this is a particularly dry part of the country. Although they have some Triomphe [d’Alsace] planted, they have managed to grow Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Albariño, over 12 hectares, to great effect, establishing a reputation as a pioneer of low intervention viticulture and winemaking in Great Britain. The estate is now openly up for sale as Richard and Joy want to retire. If you have a spare £15 million and want to get into biodynamic (Demeter certified) grape farming in Great Britain, here’s your opportunity (contact Savills Estate Agents).
Triomphe was developed as a hybrid cross (between an American variety and a vinifera) in 1911, in a Colmar then still under German rule following annexation in the war of 1871 and the Treaty of Frankfurt. It grows well even in a cool climate, though you need to really keep on top of canopy thinning to avoid mildew when wet. The wine produced in this case is deep coloured and gently fizzy (almost frizzante with only 2-to-3 bar pressure) and very frothy. It’s a multi-vintage wine whereby the juice from the new vintage is added to the base wine, its sugars reinvigorating a second fermentation. The result is very simple, yet it does exactly what any petnat should. It provides a “smashable” juice which refreshes all the parts…in this case, being a red wine, through pure raspberry juice with a hint of Ribena (that’s blackcurrant to those not familiar).
Ancre Hill wines are to be found through the Les Caves de Pyrene network of independent wine shops. I bought a selection of Ancre Hill wines in an order from Butler’s Wine Cellar of Brighton, source of the Breaky Bottom sparkler which appeared in Part 1. Definitely worth a look for English and Welsh wines.
CHAMPAGNE VILMART COEUR DE CUVÉE 2003 (Champagne, France)
Vilmart & Cie is tucked away in Rilly-la-Montagne on the crest of the Montagne de Reims, just west of both Chigny-les-Roses and the main D9 road from Reims to Epernay. Vilmart was the first “Grower Champagne” I became enamoured with, before I even knew that “growers” existed, or at least as producers of cuvées like this one, to match the very best produced by the Champagne Houses.
Laurent Champs runs this perfectionist operation, with a winery filled with some of the most beautiful wooden barrels and vats, matched by the stunning beauty of the stained glass created by Laurent’s father, René. The vines are “only” Premier Cru, but they are old (most are around 50-years of age) and the top cuvées really do make a mockery of the Grand/Premier Cru distinction which in most other cases holds relatively true.
Coeur is made from the heart of the cuvée, the first gentle pressings. The grapes are unusually fermented in barrique and like any wine thus made, it demands a long period of post-disgorgement bottle age for it all to come together. Then, like any fine wine, it can be magnificent. It is usually made up of around 80% Chardonnay with just Pinot Noir added, but I don’t have the exact blend for this vintage. What I am able to say is that this ’03 is now complex and magnificent. It is obviously made with great care and attention to detail, but it also has genuine soul.
Laurent has an odd knack of producing some magnificent bottles from what the critics term less-good vintages. In fact, I’d like to try a better 2001 than Vilmart’s Couer de Cuvée of that disastrous year. This is much better than the 2001 though, a lovely wine drinking so well now. It’s my last 2003 Coeur, though I do have a few 2002 left. But it is now probably beyond my pocket to purchase newer vintages, as are most prestige cuvées from Champagne. Sic transit gloria mundi.
This was purchased on a visit to the domaine in April 2012, as the 2003 had just been released.
FLEURIE “CHAVOT” 2014, JULIE BALAGNY (Beaujolais, France)
Julie is a Parisian who is very much more at home in the countryside. She began working for wine producers in France’s southwest, but managed to make a home with three hectares of vines surrounded by woodland, around Fleurie. Julie has since added a further 2 ha in other locations and she has started to supplement her estate wines with a few negociant cuvées (one of which I bought this week).
I have had so many really good bottles of Beaujolais from 2014, and indeed this is my last of three (or four?) of this cuvée. Not only have they all been superb, but this is still going strong, drinking nicely but not sliding down the hill. As with all the Balagny wines, this sees whole berries undergo a semi-carbonic maceration. The juice is never manipulated by pumping over or pushing down. No additives, including sulphur, make this the purest of natural wines in both senses.
Cherry juice of the most concentrated (but light as a feather) kind is the core. There’s a tasty twist of pomegranate acidity dancing over the top, and a little bit of earthy texture sitting underneath. Overall, it’s smooth fruited and, it’s true, alive. I’d say it’s mature but has perhaps as much as four or five years left in the tank. Who says natural wines cannot age? I think this actually might be the best bottle of the batch, a case shared with a couple of friends.
Tutto Wines is the importer for Julie Balagny. I don’t think there is any “Chavot” remaining on their list, but they do show five Balagny cuvées from the 2019 vintage, only one of them currently on their online shop, Tutto a Casa.
AUXERROIS “STIERKOPF” 2016, DOMAINE RIETSCH (Alsace, France)
Jean-Pierre Rietsch is one of the most respected producers in Mittelbergheim, hotbed of innovation in the Bas Rhin. He’s the seventh generation of his family to farm here, although they have not always been wine growers, his parents having begun vine cultivation in the 1970s.
Stierkopf is a south facing slope of limestone and sandstone at Mutzig, perhaps ten kilometres to the north of the Rietsch base at Mittelbergheim. It’s a particularly warm site on which Jean-Pierre also grows amazing Pinot Noir. The wine began a spontaneous fermentation after which it was left in vat, on lees, for eleven months. It is allowed to go through malolactic. It shows just 12 mg/l sulphur on analysis. It was bottled in August 2017.
There’s a mineral structure backed with striking salinity, but there’s also fruit to match, generous pear and quince. Looking at the wine as a whole, standing back a moment, it looks like a wine bound together with a certain tension yet that tension is relieved at the edges by sunshine. I guess that means I think the wine reflects its terroir. It certainly shines brightly, an exemplary wine. I know I am lucky to own a reasonable number of Jean-Pierre’s wines, but they are getting drunk rather quickly. A visit to Alsace this year had to be postponed, only exacerbating the situation, but although this bottle came from a previous visit to the domaine, Jean-Pierre Rietsch is imported into the UK by Wines Under The Bonnet. Fill your b…onnets, as they say.