For Part 2 of the most interesting wines we drank at home during January we head first to Beaujolais before a massively contrasting wine made by an Englishman in South Africa. Next up a wine from Italy’s Cinque Terre, a region I drink all too rarely but a bottle which one of my contributors selected as their light bulb wine of 2020. If you have read my “Mein Burgenland” article you will know I am a fan of the next winemaker, but you will probably be more surprised at wine number five, a Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois. The home straight contains an amber wine from Czech Moravia, a Wiener Gemischter Satz in a more serious style, and to finish, an entry level Riesling from an inspirational couple making wine at a very old family estate in Dambach-la-Ville, Alsace.
MORGON 2016 KÉKÉ DESCOMBES (Beaujolais, France)
Kewin « Kéké » Descombes is the son of Georges Descombes, one of the famous Bojo Gang of Four who more or less kick-started the natural wine movement in Eastern France, and were certainly responsible for the current resurgence in the popularity of Beaujolais, after its status had been trashed by industrial quantities of Beaujolais Nouveau in the 1980s.
Kewin started out at the age of twenty-one, with three hectares his father gave him. That was almost eight years ago and he now farms 6ha around Morgon, producing this wine and two others. Only in his early thirties, he has already established himself as one of the region’s new wave of talent, making wines which are assured, but equally full of fun. Just how Beaujolais and Gamay should be.
The vines used for this cuvée are at reasonable altitude for the appellation, near to Vermont, Kéké’s home village, which is tucked away up in the northwest corner of the Cru, just south of Chiroubles. The wines here are generally a little lighter than those in the Morgon heartland of the volcanic Côte du Py, but not at all lacking intensity when made in this natural style, fruit-forward.
Aged in old foudres, the scent of purest Gamay cherry is mirrored on the palate. It’s a lively wine despite its age, singing with that fruit, yet there’s still just a bit of tannic structure remaining. In a good place. Less than 10 mg/l of sulphur was added which might account for why it shines so brightly.
Kéké Descombes is imported by Graft Wine.
“THE DURIF” 2010, CHARLIE HERRING WINES (Stellenbosch, South Africa)
Many people reading this will know Tim Phillips from his beautiful wines (and ciders) made from fruit grown in a magical walled vineyard on the Hampshire coast, near Lymington. If you wondered how Tim started out in wine, this bottle is part of the answer. Back in 2006 Tim planted a vineyard on the Blaauklippen Road in one of the best parts of Stellenbosch. Around three hectares were planted, most to Syrah but a half-hectare to Durif.
Durif is a 19th century crossing, by French botanist François Durif, of Peloursin and Syrah. It is more commonly called Petite Sirah in California where old vines are not uncommon. It is also found in old vineyards in Australia, and a little in South Africa. It has somewhat gone out of fashion because of the powerful style of wines it tends to produce, but of course Ridge Vineyard keeps the flame burning with their Petite Sirah from their Lytton Springs Estate in Sonoma, California.
Tim’s Stellenbosch vines produced a tiny crop in 2010, which he fermented in open vats and aged in 225-litre French oak for two years. This vintage was bottled, unfined and unfiltered, in 2012. It’s a powerful wine, for sure, possibly an under-statement. It is labelled at 14.75% abv and the colour is suitably inky! The bouquet is of big ripe blueberries and black cherry. That inky colour is transformed to ink on the tongue, both in its velvet texture and concentration, and there’s a pleasant bitter edge so you don’t get any jammyness from the deep, ripe, plum fruit. The palate is more savoury to the nose’s fruitiness. This means that it is a potential food wine rather than merely a sipper. The remaining tannins give it bite as well. It’s a wine built for long ageing and to be honest it will go another decade with ease. Such length. However, as the vineyard and crop were so small, only 800 bottles were made.
Because of the wine’s structure Tim kept back much of his stock, which was shipped to the UK when the vineyard was sold in 2011. It has been occasionally available to visitors to Tim’s Hampshire winery, and a word with Tim may well secure the odd bottle. The slightly more plentiful (3,722 bottles to be exact) Spotswood Syrah 2010, from the same site, is available from Littlewine for £28. I drank this wine last summer and it is very much in the same vein, a powerful, rich, Stellenbosch Syrah of some stature. Although what Tim is doing now is so very different, when you drink these reds you get another window on a man who is just such an accomplished winemaker.
“ER GIANCU”, AZIENDA AGRICOLA POSSA (Cinque Terre, Liguria, Italy)
Discovery Dozen was a December article where I asked twelve people in wine to name a bottle which had really made them sit up and take notice during last year’s social slumber. It was a wonderfully eclectic selection by a group of highly discerning professional palates. Nic Rizzi of Modal Wines selected this bottle. Possa is the estate of Heydi and Samuel Bonanini, a producer based at Riomaggiore, west of La Spezia, in the DOC of Cinque Terre.
I’ve only been down there perhaps three times, always just passing through, but it has to be one of the most beautiful of Italy’s very many stunning wine regions. It’s also very small with just 100 hectares of vines in production. The vines grow on narrow terraces supported by dry stone walls constantly in need of rebuilding, and which are remarkably difficult to access. Anyone left making wine here is committed to a labour of love.
The best-known wines from Cinque Terre are made from Vermentino, often called Pigato in Liguria. However, this wine is a blend of two less well-known varieties, being 80% Albarola and 20% Bosco, from vines over forty years old. It sees a long skin maceration of 25 days, which really is the great determining factor in how this wine looks and tastes…a real amber or orange wine.
It starts off with a few reductive notes, but it opens out nicely with a swirl. I’d have used a carafe if forewarned. After breathing, it developed a unique but attractive smoky bouquet, but even more impressive was the palate. A distinctly mineral wine of both precision and beauty. Herbal, savoury, not so much complex, it has that life-affirming simplicity which makes it far more than simple. Does that make sense? Perhaps “purity” is the word I’m looking for. Remarkably good value for around £23, you can drink it now but it will certainly improve over a year, maybe longer.
Selected by Nic Rizzi, importer, of Modal Wines as his star of 2020.
“WILDWUX” 2016, BIRGIT BRAUNSTEIN (Burgenland, Austria)
Birgit Braunstein comes from one of the Neusiedlersee shore’s oldest wine families, who have been making wine around Purbach, north of Rust, for four hundred years. Birgit’s estate is quite large, 22 hectares, farmed biodynamically. She makes a wide variety of wines. Some use international varieties, some are made in amphorae buried behind her house. Wildwux is perhaps what you might call her most “natural” wine, though inputs and adulterations are as far as I can tell pretty much absent in all of her cuvées.
It’s a classic Burgenland red blend of Zweigelt, St-Laurent and Blaufränkisch, with a tiny splash of Merlot in some vintages, off soils rich in a mix of schist and limestone. The vines are growing at between 100 and 200 masl in her best sites, both close to Purbach and in the Leithaberg Mountains immediately to the west. There’s a five-week maceration on skins in open-top fermenters, followed by 18 months in used small oak. The cellar-mistress here is Adriana Gonzalez, who has been working with Birgit for many years. They make a wonderful team.
The palate is brimming with fresh red fruits accentuated by a definite mineral edge, most certainly a sign of the quite distinctive terroir of the hills around the lake. It’s a wine which has a serious side, yet is also so easy to drink. This is a wine of balance, finesse and purity, all of which may sound like one big cliché, yet I think Birgit doesn’t get as much recognition as many of her younger colleagues in the region. She’s making lovely wines and in quantities which could easily find a wide distribution.
The UK importer is Indigo Wines.
CHÂTEAU PHÉLAN-SÉGUR 2004, CRU BOURGEOIS, ST-ESTÈPHE (Bordeaux, France)
Currently owned by Belgian shipping magnate, Philippe Van der Vyvere, when this 2004 was made this large St-Estèphe Cru Bourgeois, at one time in the depths of Bordelais history attached to the Cru Classé estate of Calon-Ségur, was in the hands of the owners of Champagne Pommery, the Gardinier family. It was this family who re-established high quality at Phélan, bringing it up to what many believe is Cru Classé quality today.
Phélan-Ségur sits south of St-Estèphe itself, just to the north of Château Meyney, but less than 10 ha of a 70 ha vineyard (though more than 90 ha at the time of this vintage) is close to the château itself. One large block sits close to Montrose, and in fact 22 ha here was sold to Montrose in 2010. The current estate forms part of the once vast vine holdings of the famous Comte de Ségur, who also once owned Lafite, and the vines which eventually became Mouton and Latour.
So, to the wine. It is often touted as a label which deserves to be recognised as a Cru Classé, and in the ill-fated re-classification of Cru Bourgeois it was rated Cru Exceptionelle. In fact, when it was last sold it fetched a record price for a Cru Bourgeois of 90 million Euros. The Grand Vin (Frank Phélan is the second label) is around 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot, but with tiny additions of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Vinification is in stainless steel vats of assorted size to allow for the fermentation of individual plots separately. The wine then goes into barrique, 50% new, but with a lighter toast.
It is generally suggested that Phélan Ségur should be drunk between 10 to 20 years old. The 2004 vintage is not portrayed as one of the finest at the estate, but nevertheless, neither was it a particularly poor one. The colour here was darker than I had therefore expected and the bouquet took some time to develop in the glass. Yet with time what developed was a very attractive nose which reminded me of the Christmas Pudding we had eaten not four weeks previously. However, the palate was fairly tight, the wine structured and closed. I found the fruit a little compressed, and we could doubtless debate the reasons for that. But it is fascinating to come back to classic wines like this after my usual fare these days.
This wine’s origins are lost in the mists of time. I can think of two possible sources which are either The Sampler (a decade ago I was still prone to grabbing the odd Bordeaux off their shelves), or very possibly Majestic Wine Warehouse. I’ve not listed Majestic on this blog before, as far as I’m aware.
“RESCH” 2017, VYKOUKAL (Moravia, Czechia)
You’ll have seen one or two wines from this producer in my Recent Wines articles over the past year or so. They are not one of the most glamorous Czech producers, and certainly the labels are dull by comparison to some, but Zdenek Vykoukal is only a small part-time winemaker and his wines have kind of sneaked up on me. This was the most interesting so far but all have been excellent.
Zdenek farms just 1.5 hectares of vines, planted mostly in 1953 at Hostêrádky-Resov in the Velpavlovická sub-region of Moravia. The variety in this cuvée is Welschriesling, planted at 240 masl on pretty unique soils. They are made up of loess deposits over tertiary limestone which once formed undersea cliffs.
Fermentation sees nineteen days on skins in open vats followed by 12 months on lees, ageing in old acacia barrels. The wine is then further rounded out in stainless steel for eleven months before bottling. The colour is certainly orange. It also has a bouquet of orange pith with a bit of rusty metal adding edge, so to speak. The palate is clean and precise on the attack, but the mid-palate brings out softer exotic fruit with which a savoury element mingles. I can’t quite put my finger on what that is. Whatever it might be, the wine is superb. It will undoubtedly age further but right now it has that edge of freshness which gives it real vitality. Pretty accomplished for a part-timer who spends his working week as a station master. But as a warning, it’s definitely in the orange wine camp. There is some texture, though balanced by all the other elements.
Vykoukal’s small production wines are imported by Basket Press Wines. Despite their somewhat less than eye catching labels (maybe it’s fairer to say more traditional) these wines, from the battlefield of Austerlitz, are apparently becoming highly sought-after. Retails for just over £25.
WIENER GEMISCHTER SATZ “RIED KAASGRABEN” NUSSBERG 2017, WEINGUT ZAHEL (Vienna, Austria)
Alex Zahel is the young fourth generation winzer in charge at this traditional family estate in Vienna’s vineyard. He’s assisted in the winery by his American-born wife, Hilary, who is an artist and was once a food editor, perhaps bringing a degree of creativity to the business. She designed the hand printed butterfly and wine vessel labels which adorn the Zahel bottles.
Ried Kaasgraben is a named vineyard, or “cru” on the larger Nussberg, which rises above Grinzing on the western side of the Danube just north of Vienna. Protected both by the woods above it, and the city below, it’s a terroir of complex differences and sub-plots which produce a surprisingly varied array of wines and styles, even given the traditional field blends which by law must make up the contents of the Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC.
Kaasgraben is a small site with its own microclimate in a tiny side valley close to Sievering, in Vienna’s 19th District, overlooking the Kaasgraben Church. The vines are all more than sixty years old and it’s worth listing the nine varieties in this field blend: Chardonnay, Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Rotgipfler, Zierfandler, Neuberger, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. It’s an eclectic mix of the traditional and the international. Following a simple fermentation, the wine goes into stainless steel tanks for 12 months before bottling without fining or filtration.
The result is more opulent than you might imagine. It is not a simple spritzig Gemischter Satz for sure, and it weighs in with 13.5% abv, which is more than many show. But it does have something in common with Franz Wieninger’s top single cru wines, a more serious version of the tradition. For cellaring a few years rather than sloshing back in a wonderful Heuriger. The Zahel family would probably counsel one of their lighter wines for that purpose at their own heuriger. This particular single site cuvée should last at least a decade, but there’s a limit to how long I will keep them all.
This bottle was purchased from Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton, and came in the same mixed case as the Alto-Adige Kerner featured in January Part 1.
DAMBACH-LA-VILLE RIESLING 2017, BECK-HARTWEG (Alsace, France)
Florian and Mathilde Beck-Hartweg are very much part of Alsace’s wonderful new generation. In their early thirties, they are the sixteenth generation of a family which has farmed on the unique pink granite soils of Dambach-la-Ville, north of the town of Sélestat, since the 16th century. Florian began working with his father in 2009 in preparation for his retirement a year later, when Florian and Mathilde took over.
What makes them different to their forbears is that, like so many young vignerons in the region, the couple have fully embraced ecology in every sense. In particular, they follow the teachings of Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese farmer-come-philosopher whose “one straw revolution” I have previously written about in relation to terroirs as diverse as Alsace and Northern Greece (Domaine Lissner at Wolxheim follows the same principles, as do Thomas and Jason Ligas in Greek Macedonia). Although there isn’t space here to outline Fukuoka’s approach to cultivation, in his own way he ranks alongside Steiner, and his writing is well worth exploring.
After all that, I’m not going to say a great deal about this wine. I don’t need to. It is the entry level village Riesling at Beck-Hartweg. It’s off pink granite with some sandstone, and is fresh, zesty and saline. It’s fermented in foudre and aged just ten months. Really simple purity of fruit with terroir coming through. Floral bouquet, grapefruit dominating palate, literally pure and simple, as they say. As with all the wines here, no additives, zero sulphur. The 2016 was just as good for the money. My last bottle of Beck-Hartweg was their pétnat, “Tout Naturellement Pétillant” which was a glorious sparkling treat.
Beck-Hartweg’s wines, including their exceptional Grand Cru wines off Frankstein, are imported by Vine Trail.