If one thing has been said to me more than anything else this year, it’s that wine lovers have never drunk as well as they have during 2020. I think as we’ve all been drinking more at home, and very little outside of the home, many of us have been inclined to open more so-called weekend wines on a Monday or Tuesday. Or maybe it’s merely because we have more time at home and less time on a train that we can better appreciate the wonderful wines we have at our disposal. It’s certainly something I felt acutely, so when this was repeated to me a few times I thought it might be an idea to ask a few wine friends what had set them alight, what had been their wine discoveries, in this year of lockdowns.
As we are talking wine, then a dozen seemed an appropriate number. Everyone below works in wine, whether as a writer, importer or retailer (or all three in some cases). The wines they have “discovered” are therefore available through the companies my contributors run in many cases, but if they are still available that’s a good thing. The one thing you can be certain of, looking at the individuals who have contributed, is that if this mixed case landed by your front door in the runup to Christmas, you would be very lucky indeed. In the spirit of independence, which you know I like to stick to, I did not request that they submit a bottle for my own quality control evaluation. More fool me.
Christina Rasmussen – Journalist and Co-founder, littlewine.co
L’Aligator, Jean-Yves Vantey (Burgundy, France)
“In the nooks and crannies of the hillsides above the Route des Grands Crus you can find Isabelle and Jean-Yves Vantey making compelling Burgundies from the lesser-trodden slopes of Maranges. L’Aligator is old vine Aligioté from a 0.15ha plot planted in 1972, farmed biodynamically then whole bunch pressed, aged ten months and then bottled unfined (only 1,270 bottles made). Neither Isabelle nor Jean-Yves come from a winemaking background and they started their Domaine des Rouges Queues with just 1ha of vines in 1998. Yet what they have made here is the epitome of a “little wine”, humble yet full of life.”
The excitement currently around this neglected and once maligned Burgundian variety is palpable. Not only are some big names giving it more attention, but it seems almost the grape of choice for a lot of newcomers to the region. I’m drinking Aligoté like never before and I hope I get to try this one (though with less than 1,300 bottles I may need to wait for the next vintage).
Christina visited Jean-Yves and Isabelle on her vintage tour, tent on back, this summer. One of the lucky ones to get a vintage fix in a year when wine travel for me was non-existent. If you ask her what her “Lockdown achievement” was, she’ll tell you she learnt to fly a drone. Her article about the Domaine des Rouges Queues on littlewine.co follows the Aligoté harvest and includes drone footage. It’s amazing what drones have brought to wine journalism in the last couple of years.
Nic Rizzi – Modal Wines
“Er Giancu” 2019, Azienda Agricola Possa, Cinque Terre, Liguria (Italy)
“This wine, tasted along with Heydi Bonanini’s whole range, stopped me in my tracks for its uncompromising expression of a forgotten land, and possibly the most picturesque region on earth. 80% Albarola, 20% Bosco, 25 days on skins”.
Cinque Terre truly is a special place and although there’s not a lot of room for vines, the potential is great, and is beginning to be being realised. This sounds exactly the kind of wine I long to discover myself. Modal Wines’ Nic Rizzi is adept at sniffing out future superstars. In the past few years these have included Burgenland’s Joiseph and La Palma’s Victoria Torres Pecis, to name just two.
Ben Henshaw – Indigo Wine
Tokaj 2018, Holass (Tokaj, Hungary)
“A blend of Furmint and Hárslevelü from a husband and wife team which has all the things I’m looking for in a modern white – character, texture, freshness and depth – plus it’s delicious and very food friendly.”
Hungary seems always on the verge of a breakthrough and the modern face of the Tokaj region has such potential to make deeply individual terroir wines. It amazes me sometimes just how many new winemakers Ben and his team at Indigo sniff out and their range expands every year on a wave of sheer quality. One of Indigo’s new stars will get a mention in my own review of 2020.
Jiri Marjerik – Basket Press Wines
“Les Autochtones” 2019, Max Sein Wein, Franken (Germany)
“This 100% Silvaner from 60-year-old vines has an amazing minerality, a complexity that is gentle yet very enticing. It is a wine that you can sit with and really get deeper into its character, changing with time in the glass, an absolute charmer.”
I bought some of these wines and I’m looking forward to trying them soon. They are hopefully available (unless sold out) at the Basket Press popup shop on Hackney Road (opposite Sager + Wilde) through December. Basket Press Wines specialises in Central Europe (Czech Republic and Slovakia with forays into Slovenia and Hungary). This is their first excursion into Germany, and my guess is that the wines must have made a real impression on Jiri and Zainab for them to make the leap.
Simon Smith – The Solent Cellar
Chardonnay “À la Percenette” 2016, Domaine Pignier (Côtes du Jura, France)
“Made by the three Pignier siblings who have long practised biodynamic farming, making increasingly fine wines in their 13th century cellar [at Montaigu, south of Lons-le-Saunier]. This Massale Chardonnay is the Melon à Queue Rouge, and it sees minimal handling and ageing in oak (though it is topped-up, or ouillé) for twelve months, bottled with no added sulphur, releasing notes of blossom and acacia, ripe apple, and nuts.”
Simon notes that he’s grateful this still flies under the radar. Another contributor to this article would agree…she says it is one of her favourite Jura Chardonnays in her book on the region. I have some on order. These red-stemmed Chardonnay clones, found rarely except in Jura vineyards, have a special nuance well worth exploring.
I suspect many of you already know The Solent Cellar, in Lymington, on the edge of the New Forest. I have family there and it took me a while of walking past thinking I really don’t need another wine shop in my life before I went in and discovered what would become my favourite wine retailer in the country. Simon is not afraid to stock anything and exemplifies as much as anyone why the wine trade here is so vibrant. Like everyone, they do mail order, but Lymington makes a nice day out, especially on a Saturday morning when the sun is shining and the large market on the main street is in full swing. The wider area has become something of a gastronomic mecca too.
Doug Wregg – Les Caves de Pyrene
Allégeance Extra Brut Rosé, Champagne Marie-Courtin/Dominique Moreau (Côtes des Bar, Champagne, France)
“This biodynamically-farmed massale selection Pinot Noir comes from east-facing slopes on Kimmeridgean soils. Grapes see a two-day maceration, crushed underfoot in the traditional local fashion. It has an enticing onion skin colour and balances pretty red fruit aromas and flavours with real density of texture and profound minerality, and possesses that indefinable energy that one finds in all Dominique’s wines. This is primarily a wine of place and time.”
Poor wine writers are most likely to have to stick to entry level when it comes to purchasing fine Grower Champagne, but I’m pining for this cuvée, one I was unaware of before Doug sent this in. It’s exactly my kind of Rosé and I may need to stretch my hard-pressed budget. Dominique began working from Polisot, close to Celles-sur-Ource, in 2001, and farms a single site of just 2.5ha. She fashions mineral wines of true sophistication, especially with age, and yet there are so few bottles to go around.
David Neilson – Back in Alsace (and Raisin)
David is based partly in San Francisco and increasingly in Alsace. He’s my go-to for all the new producers in Alsace and I’m indebted to him for giving me the heads-up that Tutto Wines have taken on Lambert Spielmann in the UK. This Muscat, and his “Red Z’Epfig”, duly arrived here last week. The labels are genius.
“This is MUSKA” 2019, Lambert Spielmann (Saint-Pierre, Bas Rhin, Alsace)
“Pronounced like Muscat, it comes from a certified organic vineyard and sees fifteen days whole grape maceration before raising in innox. A discrete base of mixed fruits with a long and dry finish that brings fabulous vibrancy. Lambert’s music selection on the back label is The Specials’ cover of the ska classic “Pressure Drop” by Toots and the Maytals”.
Anne Krebiehl MW – Author (The Wines of Germany)
Weissburgunder “Ried Höchtemmel”, Weingut Schauer (Südsteiermark, Austria)
Anne found it very hard to choose one favourite, being an avid consumer of bubbles, Pinot Noir, dry Riesling, and Austrian and Italian reds. But she went, like most participants, for something a little different. As it’s a producer I’ve never tried, nor indeed seen, that makes it a good choice for me.
The German-speaking wine world has many fine writers, but somehow Anne seems to have her finger on the pulse of the exciting developments in these countries, which makes her writing so vital for me. Read whatever she writes about traditional method Sekt, and she is undoubtedly the Queen of Spätburgunder.
“My discovery goes to a region that always gets under my skin but to an underrated grape variety which has been made to shine with purity, depth and lightness. Grown at 570m altitude it is a picture of clarity. Its gentle ageing in oak gives it a glorious nutty edge and a most creamy texture. It is emollient and super-slender at the same time, it has elegance and poise, it is bottled purity”.
Wink Lorch – Author (Jura Wine and Wines of the French Alps)
Pet Nat 2018 Extra Brut, Domaine Miolanne (Auvergne, France)
Wink has strayed from the regions she is noted for writing about to select a wine from a place that I recently begged importers to get on board with in an article on this site. There truly is so much happening in the Auvergne. Goodness, there’s even a book on the region in French. I’m more of a petnat hound than Wink, revelling in its fun and simplicity. I’m hoping somebody is going to import this one. I mean, such a pretty label…but it just sounds so appetising.
“After all these years this is the first time I’ve truly enjoyed a petnat. It’s a coral-coloured, gently fizzy rosé Gamay from an old Auvergne vine selection grown organically at about 450m on volcanic soils. Totally opposite to the tutti-frutti character you might expect, this petnat spends nine months sur-lattes. It has a chalky dryness with a wonderful stony edge to it, which makes it cry out for nibbles, or indeed provides a flexible match with most foods. One of my unexpected finds from a short trip to the Côtes d’Auvergne in the summer.”
Peter Honneger – Co-founder, Newcomer Wines
Furmint “Gorca” 2019, Michael Gross (Haloze, Slovenia)
“It’s a unique piece of land, one of the most beautiful vineyards I have ever been to. The wine sits in barrel for 15 months, totally untouched without racking or SO2. It’s a type of Furmint that is game-changing for what Slovenian wine can achieve and it once again proves that Furmint is the best terroir white wine grape variety in Central Europe at the moment”.
I’ve drunk too few Slovenian wines yet to know the country well, but just reading Peter’s description makes this wine a must buy. What I do know is that I had been trying to find exciting Furmint for years, and it is in the last couple that I’ve discovered such wines, in both Hungary and Austria (Wenzel, in Rust, which Peter also sells, has been a revelation). Certainly his point about the variety is highly valid.
Valerie Kathawala – North American-based author and co-founder of Trink Magazine
Silvaner “Augustbaum” 2017, Kerstin and Richard Östreicher (Franconia, Germany)
Fascinating that we have two wines selected from Franconia/Franken in this article, and both from made Silvaner. I have a secret shame in that I’m quite a fan of Silvaner/Sylvaner and will argue its corner with any of the naysayers. But aside from one fine vineyard in the north of Alsace, Franken has to be Silvaner’s true home.
“The Östreichers farm just over 3ha in Sommerach, an historic site for viticulture within a stone’s throw of the great urban vineyards of Würzburg. The Augustbaum comes from a parcel of Katzenkopf, a site of sandy Muschelkalk at moderate elevation. With its nose of herbs and grapefruit pith and zest, and a suggestion of flint that emerges with time in the glass, the wine sets up expectations of something quite taut, but on the palate there is rippling depth, like a small stone thrown into the centre of a cold lake, its precision, balance and length amplifying a grounding minerality and waves of flavour. Organic, hand harvested, spontaneous fermentation and élevage in barrique (giving harmony without adding structure, aroma and oak flavour).
Daniela Pilhofer – Co-founder of littlewine.co (and Newcomer Wines)
La Bodice 2017, Hervé Villemade (Loire, France)
“My most memorable discovery of 2020 was “La Bodice” 2017 by Hervé Villemade (Loire), which I tasted on one of the few easy, chilled evenings of the year, watching a movie and popcorn in hand. It’s a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay and upon first sip, me and my partner Peter both looked at each other and went “Wow, this is incredible.” It had a silky touch of almonds to it, with some salt kicking in as the wine was dripping down the palate. I’m not a huge fan of buttery expressions of wine, but this one had just the right touch of depth and richness to it, balanced by that salty finish. It reminded me a lot of the great wines coming out of Styria – by Ewald Tscheppe of Werlitsch and his brother Andreas Tscheppe in particular – probably also due to the combination of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. It was one of the first wines I have had by Hervé Villemade and it left me curious to visit Hervé when time and travel restrictions allow as I’m keen to find out more about the person who crafted this amazing cuvée and who, in my opinion, deserves more attention for this incredible art. Also, at £26 this is hard to beat.”
By coincidence we have friends just down the road from the Villemade siblings and I have known the Cheverny wines from this estate for some time. Quality right now has never been better and it’s lovely that Daniela has chosen this. The wines from the appellation of Cheverny, close to the truly enormous Renaissance period château of the same name, south of Blois, have long been a bit of a Loire secret and this estate is probably the finest exponent. There is a guest article on this producer by Aaron Ayscough for those who have access via Littlewine’s “Backstage Pass” subscription.
Reading through these entries again I can’t help but be amazed at the diversity of wines selected. But equally I can’t help but recognise the honesty of them. I mean the wines. I know it’s a cliché, but no one you will note has gone for anything flash or hyper-expensive. You can so easily imagine every single contributor sitting at home with a glass (probably a Zalto Universal if we’re honest) in hand taking a sniff and a sip. We can probably imagine the expression on their face, because we have most likely felt the same emotions as a stunning new wine has helped us through these unusual and trying circumstances.
Of course, I get to have my own say in my Review of the Year, which I hope will follow in due course before Christmas. But I’m grateful to everyone here who took the time to send me a wine to include. I hope that you feel as excited by them as I do.