So, 2021 begins, although little has changed. I was going to say that we are getting used to the new normal, but that would not be true. It’s impossible to get used to our current geographically curtailed existence, not helped when you have family overseas who one can’t see, but who are pretty much able to lead fairly normal lives themselves, at least in contrast to our own. Another thing which hasn’t changed is the format of these monthly Recent Wines articles. We will be continuing with the two-part format because, let’s face it, I can’t limit my monthly highlights to just ten or twelve wines.
We begin this first batch with the two wines we drank on New Year’s Day (which seems so long ago), a Manzanilla and a New Zealand Pinot Noir, then moving on to a couple of Northern Italians (though not Piemontese), rounding off with wines from Catalonia, Alsace, Hungary and the Jura. So exciting are the wines we are drinking at home right now that I’d almost forgotten how good these wines from early January were. Nothing especially famous (well, maybe the NZ), but a selection of really interesting, excellent, wines.
LA BOTA DE MANZANILLA 55, EQUIPO NAVAZOS (Sanlúcar, Spain)
Bota 55 is a saca of 2014, another release from an old Miguel Sánchez Ayala almacenista from the back streets of Sanlúcar. This was my last bottle of 55, but there’s sense in saving some of these Equipo Navazos releases if you are lucky enough to purchase a few bottles. They do truly show that Sherry, or at least some of it, does not have to be drunk as fresh as possible, as the wine books will tell you. But these are fine wines, and of course far removed from that stale (sorry) cliché.
What you get with age is certainly a darker wine, dark straw in this case. What hits you is sheer depth. Perhaps it’s the nature of a fortified wine that it is possible, but there are few wines which can truly match these EN releases for depth. This is because the mineral freshness generated by the white chalk terroir, coupled with the extended biological ageing under flor, gives the tenor line to the baritone of time’s added complexity. You will also likely ask yourself how many wines give you such length? Of course, this all comes at a price for some who want merely delicacy, and perhaps less personality. There are people, I know one or two, who find these wines have just too much personality. For me, they are treasures, and this bottle is outstanding in all the ways described.
Equipo Navazos is imported by Alliance Wine and has a reasonably wide retail distribution among independent retailers.
MARTINBOROUGH PINOT NOIR 2010, ATA RANGI (Martinborough, New Zealand)
Ata Rangi (it means “dawn sky” or “new beginning”) is one of the most famous of New Zealand wineries. Clive and Phyll Paton planted vines on the edge of Martinborough village in 1980. Back then it was certainly not the famous specialist zone for North Island Pinot Noir that it has become. Since that time Ata Rangi’s Pinot has become one of the most sought-after wines in the country and, coinciding with this 2010 vintage, it was awarded with the inaugural Tipuranga Teitei o Aotearoa (Grand Cru of New Zealand).
Helen Masters has been the long-time winemaker here. She now makes three Pinots, being a single vineyard release, this estate wine, and an early drinking bottling. These, and the estate’s other varieties, are all farmed in a sustainable way and Ata Rangi was one of the prime movers of the sustainable movement, which is now ubiquitous among NZ grape farmers.
This 2010 benefits from the maturity of the original vines. The vintage was a cool one at the south of the North Island, but benefited from warm sunshine around harvest which brought on ripeness and sugar (we hit 13.8% abv here, so it can’t have been too cool). There’s certainly a lifted freshness which gives a kind of minty edge to the cherry fruit. The overall impression is a wine of focus and precision, but one which has a smooth and velvet finish despite evident backbone. At a decade old I’d put it around half way through its drinking window, indeed less…I reckon it will continue to give pleasure for another decade. Definitely a wine that was ahead of its time and I was so glad to have a bottle in the cellar.
I am not at all sure where I bought this single bottle. Possibly The Sampler in London, but that’s just a guess, and perhaps irrelevant today. I think London’s Piccadilly department store, Fortnum & Mason, may sell it (and that’s another possibility for my original purchase).
KERNER 2019, CANTINA VAL ISARCO (Alto-Adige, Italy)
If you are driving north from Verona to Innsbruck, when you reach Bolzano you arrive at the confluence between the Adige and Isarco rivers, the former running more or less northwest, and the Isarco running northeast. Not far from Bolzano is the Abbey of Neustift (Novacella), which has made the Kerner variety something of a speciality. Their “Praepositus” Kerner is one of the finest renditions of this grape, a beautiful wine from a beautiful place, a wine I had to seek out having read about it years ago in “1001 Wines You Must Try Before You Die”.
This Kerner comes from the Eisacktaller Kellerei (to use its alternative German-speaking name) at Chiusa. It’s not as fine as the Novacella Kerner, but it’s damned good. Kerner is a 1929 crossing between Schiava (aka Vernatsch or Trollinger), a red variety, and Riesling, to create an aromatic white variety. The result is usually a wine to surprise the uninitiated. In fact, I was fairly surprised myself at how many social media followers said “I love that wine” when I posted a photo in early January.
If I chose two words to describe this wine, they might seem kind of opposites, but nevertheless you do get freshness and power. Power through the 14% abv and the almost exotic fruit, peachy (a bit like Viognier), but balanced with freshness and zip. This is a northerly region with vines between 300 metres and 900 metres above sea level, but as with Switzerland’s Valais, there’s a lot of sunshine. The creamy, smooth, fruit is actually delicious, but its mountain freshness gives the wine another dimension entirely. Hard to believe many could fail to fall in love with this, especially as it can be had for just under £18.
I’ve been trying to seek out a number of sub-£20 wines (because I am apparently spending too much on wine), and this was one of the real successes of early winter purchasing. It’s hard to excite a wine fanatic in the sub-£20 price range, even one like me who jumps at trying the less well-known varieties, but this bottle did it for me. From Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton (mail order available).
ROSSO DI VALTELLINA NEBBIOLO 2017, ARPEPE (Valtellina, Italy)
The Perego family have been winemakers near Sondrio since the mid-nineteenth century. They work with only one variety, the region’s signature “Chiavannasca”, which they prefer to call by its more common name, Nebbiolo, for this entry level cuvée. In this sun-swept valley immediately south of, and parallel to, the Swiss border, the vines can reach 700 masl. They sit on steep south- and southwest-facing granite (sfaldata) slopes which are worked by hand, being way too steep to mechanise. This producer is the key natural wine name in the region, making low intervention wines of spectacular quality.
Despite the entry level nature of this wine, the vines are still fifty years old, sited on the lower to mid-slope. Picked quite late, the grapes go into 50hl tini for an extended maceration before pressing, after which they are transferred to large chestnut casks and cement vats. After six months ageing the wine is bottled and kept back before release (in this case, it was shipped in spring 2019).
The colour is vibrant cherry and the bouquet is strikingly floral with just a hint of rust. Structured on the palate, it opens nicely in the glass, a lovely wine currently showing the vibrancy of youth. It’s that kind of Nebbiolo with a touch of ethereal lightness, grounded on a hard granite minerality. It would keep but I think this kind of Nebbiolo (as with some Aostan versions) is just so tasty like this. Any Nebbiolo lover needs some.
Imported by Tutto Wines.
SUMOLL “100% AMPHORA” 2015, LA METAMORPHIKA (Catalonia, Spain)
Metamorphika is the label Jean Franquet (of Costador Wines) uses for his wines bottled in flagons. Many are amber wines, made with extended skin contact, in amphora (“Brisat”). This is unusually a red wine, although a blanc (or perhaps I should say orange) de Noirs is made from the same variety. Sumoll Negre (there’s also a white Sumoll Bianco variety, not to be confused) is one of Catalonia’s, and Spain’s, great grape varieties in my opinion. It is often used to make magnificent blanc de noirs sparkling wine (cf Clos Lentiscus), and superb reds.
The vines are grown in mountain vineyards in Tarragona Province, near Conca de Barberà. Farming is organic but winemaking is low intervention with only small amounts of sulphur, nothing else, added if necessary, and always at the time of racking. This red is fermented in amphora at low temperature for eight weeks before ageing on lees for nine months in traditional clay tinajas. The tannins are integrated by now, but the terracotta gives the wine a characteristic texture which will be familiar to anyone who knows COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria from southeastern Sicily. Rising above this texture is deep red fruit. Superb.
These wines are imported by Otros Vinos and this one was purchased at Furanxo, the excellent little Spanish deli on Dalston Lane (conveniently five or ten minutes from Newcomer Wines).
“THIS IS MUSKA” VIN DE FRANCE 2019, LAMBERT SPIELMANN (Alsace, France)
Spielmann is a new producer to me, who came to my attention through David Neilson (Back in Alsace web site). You know, I’m sure, that my passion for music would not let me ignore wines with labels like these, but thank goodness the wines are really good as well.
Lambert is based at St-Pierre, close to Epfig, in the Bas-Rhin Department, once seen as the poor cousin to the Haut-Rhin, where all the big names are based. Any lover of Alsace wines will know that it is the Bas-Rhin where the excitement is most evident today, in large part because vineyard land has been slightly less expensive for young growers starting out. But it’s also true that a melting pot of natural wine producers has attracted others.
Lambert is one of these. His family are not winemakers so his two-hectare estate is a totally new venture. However, the vines had been previously farmed organically for more than twenty years, and Lambert is a convert to biodynamics, using Maria Thun’s calendar for vineyard work. If he has a method in the winery, it is to do as little as possible as gently as possible, and the results, on the evidence of this, my first of his wines, show in the bottle.
Three Muscats (Muscat à Petit Grains, Muscat Ottonel and Muscat Rouge) are co-planted on clay. Whole bunches are fermented over two weeks and then are pressed into vats for around nine months ageing. There’s a tiny tinge of pink to the colour of a wine which leaps out of the glass with classic Muscat perfume. The palate has fresh citrus zest, with a nice level of acidity not always found in Alsace Muscats. I’d call it zesty, textured and pointy (for want of a better word…angular would be wrong, I mean “pointy” in a good way).
The label was designed by Fred Bouchet and reflects the wine’s name. Spielmann likes to suggest a musical accompaniment (“à boire écoutant…”), in this case the Ska classic “Pressure Drop”, the cover version performed by The Specials.
Another fine discovery by Tutto Wines. Their online shop for the public doesn’t carry all the wines they import, which can be a nuisance (I was only able to purchase two of the Spielmann cuvées they import). However, the selections in the shop change regularly and of course if you want a case, or perhaps if you ask nicely? I reckon I’m going to try to get to know Lambert Spielmann a lot better.
“THE WIZARD” 2018, RÉKA-KONCZ (Eastern Hungary)
My Recent Wines articles have contained a wine made by Annamária Réka Koncz in most months since the summer of last year. I’ve been slowly working my way through all of her wines, at least those which are imported into the UK, from the 2018 vintage. This is the last of them, although I’ve begun to get in a few 2019s from the lady I described as one of my two discoveries of 2020 in my Review of the Year (posted 17 December).
I won’t repeat too much about Annamária, except that she’s a supremely talented winemaker farming right on the Ukrainian border in Eastern Hungary, in a region with a climate not too dissimilar to nearby Tokaj. She currently has, I think, three hectares of old vines, at an age of around forty-to-sixty years, on the Tipet Kaszony (Tipet Mountain, but more a hill) near the village of Barabás. She never set out to be a winemaker, but after a BSc degree in Horticultural Engineering at Debrecen University she did her Masters in Copenhagen. Here she discovered natural wine and tied it to her love of nature and ecology.
“The Wizard” is a dry, textural, white made from a four-variety field blend, based on the rare variety Annamária is keen to save and revive, Királyleányka (introduced into the region in around 1920), along with Rhine Riesling, Hárslevelü and Furmint. Simply made, it undergoes a one-day maceration in open cask, the fermentation finished in tank.
The wine has a fresh and bright minerality, salinity, texture and structure, probably reflecting the soils here because all of Annamária’s wines are off volcanic ash and lava which on solidifying forms perlite under a loamy topsoil. As with all of the Réka-Koncz cuvées, it really is lovely. It’s not her most “skin contact” style, so it would be one of the cuvées you could try if you want to dip a toe into the R-K water. But I must say that I’m not alone in my enthusiasm. Everyone I know who has tried these wines has come back with some variation of “wow!”.
Réka-Koncz is imported by Basket Press Wines. They are now selling the 2019 vintage, but I hope there are still some various bottles left unsold (especially as I will need to order at least something from this estate during February).
MELON À QUEUE ROUGE 2014, ARBOIS-PUPILLIN, DOMAINE DE LA PINTE (Jura, France)
Domaine de la Pinte was the pioneer of biodynamics in the Arbois appellation, something which few people are aware of, even if they know that the domaine has in the past been a prime mover and supporter of the region’s natural wine fair, le nez dans le vert, the Salon des Vignerons Bio du Jura held (in normal times) in March.
The Domaine dates back to the 1950s and in some ways it’s an archetype for the glamorous purchase of rich industrialists so common in France in the 1980s and 1990s. Except that although the Martin family were owners of the construction company, based at that time in the region, that built much of the early Autoroute system, the Jura was hardly glamorous back then (any glamour came perhaps not before the 2000s). They were simply committed to making quality wine in a traditional way. Wink Lorch (Jura Wine, 2014) notes that Roger Martin had a passion for Vin Jaune. The style has always been a speciality at La Pinte, and you can often purchase surprisingly old vintages at the Domaine, and occasionally at their shop opposite Maison Jeunet in Arbois.
The domaine also specialises in an unusual grape variety, Melon á Queue Rouge, of which it owns perhaps 1.5 hectares. It’s actually a natural mutation of Chardonnay mostly found in the Jura. It has a bright red stalk which converts to this colour some time after flowering, as the grapes ripen. Although the mutation is relatively rare as a varietal named on the label, it has become fashionable due to its evident quality and points of difference to most Chardonnay.
The only word which really describes this wine, although it would appear as if I’ve stolen it from Wink, is “exotic”. It has a lightness and bright freshness which, coupled with the lifted bouquet might make you suppose I’m describing a lighter wine, but yet it has flesh on the bones. This comes by way of fruit almost reminiscent of a peach and pineapple sundae. Despite that description, it retains its elegance and most tasters will single out the subtlety which is accentuated by some complexity in this six-year-old bottle. I’ve only drunk this a few times, but every time it turns my head.
This was purchased at the Domaine. Visit by appointment, or visit their shop at 8 Rue de L’Hôtel de Ville in the centre of Arbois.