I’m writing this as Easter approaches for us in our part of the world, and a quarter of the year has almost gone…and where? Of all the deprivations of this Lockdown situation, being unable to travel to see family, both at home and overseas, is certainly hardest, though I’m not going to lie, having spent so much of my life travelling, I can’t help feeling something is really lacking more generally. It’s going to be a long old slog until May (when I hope we can see my parents), and longer still for our offspring overseas. But compensations are there. Walks in nature are more frequent, less driving, my son opening my eyes to new music, and books. I’ve read more books this last year than at any time since I was a teenager/student.
But I guess above all there’s wine. There is undoubtedly more time to focus on what’s in the glass every evening, and more time to “feel” the wine and what it has to say. Enjoying natural wine definitely changes the way you approach what’s in the glass, and I think that these lockdowns have been an aid to better appreciating every single bottle. The hastily grabbed glass is not just a rarity, but non-existent right now. That has to be a blessing, albeit one tinged with a realisation that very few people have a cellar containing several hundred bottles from which to choose. But the power of wine to lift the spirits seems obvious to me. I’ve been sending half-cases every month to my parents and brother, and I don’t think anything has cheered them up as much as that little luxury.
So, here’s to drinking delicious wines. For Part 1 of March, we have a rare diversion into Deutschschweiz, another marvel from Eastern Hungary, a Welsh sparkler, a truly magical Viennese blend, an equally wonderful Mencia from Bierzo, a classic Côte-Rôtie from the depths of the cellar, another biodynamic classic from a unique Alsace Grand Cru, and finally, a Crémant du Jura which should not remain under the radar any longer.
FEDERWEISS 2018, BECHTEL WEINE (Eglisau, Switzerland)
It’s extremely difficult for Brits to get hold of wines from the German-speaking Cantons of Switzerland. Although the whole of this part of the country is usually lumped together as “Deutschschweiz”, there is real a diversity of terroirs in the nineteen cantons which produce a little less than 20% of all Swiss wine (from two-thirds of Switzerland by area). Of these, Eglisau is one of the smallest. It has just 15 hectares of vines to the north of Zürich and the Rhine. It already has one well known producer, Urs Pircher (soon planning to retire), but although Mathias Bechtel, mentored by Pircher in his early days, is thus far almost unknown outside of Switzerland, within his homeland he’s already acknowledged as one of the country’s rising stars.
Mathias swept to fame as a member of the influential Junge Schweiz-Neue Winzer movement, before he started to take home the big prizes. His small estate occupies land rising to 470 masl, on mostly marine deposits covered with river sand and gravels, rising above the river and sheltered by forest. Like many young winzer without family vines to inherit, he started out with a rented plot in 2014 and didn’t have a proper winery until the 2019 vintage. Nevertheless, he still managed a “Grand Gold Medal” for his 2015 Pinot Noir in the “Mondial des Pinots 2017”. Much of his wine is currently made from bought-in grapes whilst he is reorganising his small vine holdings, according to Dennis Lapuyade (artisanswiss.com in an excellent article about Räuschling, highly recommended).
Whilst Eglisau is definitely Pinot country, Mathias is not wedded to one style. He’s reinvigorating the once-maligned Räuschling, making a fine though atypical version and here, he’s showcasing a traditional wine style usually considered a peasant wine in the past. Federweiss is also most often found as a blanc de noirs, a white wine made from red grapes. Here, Bechtel creates a light rosé from his Pinot Noir, orange-tinged, almost salmon pink. It isn’t complex but it certainly isn’t frivolous. Mineral and fruity, it’s a refreshing juice but you can’t escape its personality and soul…if you give it time and focus. Definitely a good lockdown wine.
Mathias Bechtel has been brought into Britain through what I can only call the altruism of Joelle Nebbe-Mornod at Alpine Wines. She’s not going to sell a lot of Eglisau, but then there’s almost nothing to go around. I feel a mix of privilege to have been able to get some but also some degree of regret I didn’t buy more. They are naturally not cheap (this was £36). Explorers can’t take cheap flights.
“A CHANGE OF HEART” 2019, ANNAMÁRIA RÉKA-KONCZ (Barabás, Hungary)
Some readers may be a little bit bored with my frequent inclusion of Annamária’s wines, but you will only read about either wines I’ve not previously written about, or new vintages. Don’t worry though, I’m now down to my last bottle and will have to wait until later in 2021 to re-stock. I certainly will.
At least the frequency of this producer’s wines appearing here mitigates the need for me to fill in the background. If you don’t already know of these wines, then you can look her up in my Review of 2020, where she was highlighted as one of my discoveries of the year (alongside Veronica Ortega, one of whose wines appears later in this article).
A Change of Heart is her red wine, made from Kékfrankos (aka Blaufränkisch), of which only 1,633 bottles were made in 2019. We take a deep sniff and out of the glass flows the scent of violets. Quite calming, actually. The juice is full of concentrated red fruits with that zippy fruit acidity which makes this lady’s wines taste so alive. There’s a certain tension here that I love, and it manifests itself as a light tingling on the tongue. This 2019 is, for me, even better than the previous vintage (despite 2019 yielding a little more than double the number of bottles made in 2018, the vintage which I reviewed last October).
Suffice to say I’m still in love with these wines, and I’m also convinced Annamária’s wines are getting even better. Imported by Basket Press Wines.
SPARKLING ROSÉ BRUT 2013, ANCRE HILL (Monmouthshire, Wales)
Ancre Hill is now well established as one of the premier biodynamic producers in the British Isles. How…in Wales, people ask? Everyone imagines Wales is wet, but tucked into the southwest of the country outside Monmouth, fairly close to the English border and the Wye Valley, this is a little microclimate well suited to viticulture.
Ancre Hill’s twelve hectares were planted in 2006. Their portfolio is quite eclectic. They make a skin contact amber wine from albariño, called “Orange”, with one of the most inspired labels in English and Welsh wine. They also make a deliciously glouglou red sparkler from Triomphe d’Alsace. But they made their reputation with traditional bottle-fermented sparkling wines.
This Rosé is made from 100% Pinot Noir fermented in a mix of stainless steel and concrete eggs. It was disgorged in July 2019 after several years on lees. The colour is a pale salmon pink with a bouquet of creamy strawberry fruit, with the focus of crisp acidity grounding it on the palate. Place this alongside the natural wines made by the Growers in Champagne and I think you’ll agree this is a worthy companion. Very attractive. Let it warm and give it air to best appreciate it.
Ancre Hill’s agency is with Les Caves de Pyrene. This wine came as part of a selection of Ancre Hill bottles from Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton.
“GLOCKENTURM”, MUKENTHAL GRINZINGER GEMISCHTER SATZ 2016, JUTTA AMBROSITSCH (Vienna, Austria)
This particular field blend comprises ten different varieties from eight rows of 45-year-old vines on well-drained gravels, from the Mukenthal vineyard at Grinzing (at the foot of the Nussberg on the edge of Vienna). It’s an eastern slope which is relatively cool, but which soaks up late afternoon sun.
Farmed and fermented according to strong natural wine principles, the thread which runs through all Jutta’s wines, in my opinion, is that they have real soul. Superficially, they are fun, lively, refreshing. But sip on this 2016 and there’s a lot more. But it’s subtle. That becomes apparent if you let your nose linger over a bouquet which, for a white wine, shows red forest fruits with white peach. And is that a hint of very fine Riesling which penetrates after a few seconds? Don’t be afraid of the age and vintage.
The palate is textured, a little mineral, but even more waxy. The mouthfeel is unique, and at the same time really holds your attention as the fruit of the bouquet at first battles the more savoury palate, before the two become integrated as a whole and the wine resolves. It doesn’t take long, but if you pay attention you can feel that journey from two parts into one taking place in your mouth. It says auf wiedersehen with that dry waxy texture underneath honey and quince.
Often available from both Newcomer Wines and Littlewine, still currently listed at the latter as I was looking today.
“QUITE” 2018, MENCIA VALTUILLE, VERONICA ORTEGA (Bierzo, Spain)
Veronica Ortega is based in Bierzo, with a number of her ever-increasing portfolio of wines coming from Valtuille de Abajo in the municipality of the town of Villafranca del Bierzo (Léon Province). I stayed in the rather modern Parador here in 1988, before the wines of Bierzo were really well known (in fact the wines I drank back then were labelled “El Bierzo”, as those of Priorat were called “Priorato”). This is only significant because Veronica started her wine journey working for Alvaro Palacios in Priorat. She then travelled via Clos Erasmus, to Burn Cottage in New Zealand, Niepoort in the Douro, spells in Burgundy (Comte Armand and DRC) and Crozes-Hermitage (Dom Combier), but came “home” so to speak to work with the great Raúl Perez.
From 2012 Veronica cobbled together a few vineyards which now total around 5 hectares. They are all tiny plots of very old vines, many abandoned from active viticulture. She also buys in grapes from selected growers whom she works with, which has enabled her to grow her range. This is mostly comprised of reds made from Mencia, although I reviewed her stunning white wine, “Cal”, in November last year.
The Mencia grapes Veronica farms come off complex terroir, a mix of slate, clay, limestone, granite and sand. 80% of this cuvée comes off sand and clay and it sees an equal mix of old wood and amphora for ageing. The result has beautiful shimmering dark cherry fruit, leavened with spicy notes of nutmeg and cinnamon. It’s very concentrated but not weighty, coming in at a balanced 13% abv. It finished with just a little grip and texture. I think this is a brilliant introduction to Veronica Ortega’s wines, and as I said earlier in this article, one of my big discoveries of 2020. Thank goodness we all got to Viñateros London before the first Lockdown!
Imported by Vine Trail, some of Veronica’s wines have also recently been listed by Littlewine.
CÔTE-RÔTIE 2004, RÉSERVE DU DOMAINE, STÉPHANE OGIER (Rhône, France)
When I could no longer afford the wines of the Chave family at Mauves (Hermitage) I transferred my Rhône allegiance to Stéphane Ogier, who back in the early and mid-2000s was slowly taking over this Ampuis estate from his father, whom he was working alongside. In doing so, he was projecting the domaine towards the top rank. So much so that my vertical of the Ogier Côte-Rôtie wines, which I was putting together throughout this decade, tailed off once the wines topped £50 a bottle. That said, Stéphane continues to make a pair of great value IGT wines (I’m very partial to the La Rosine Viognier for its unusual freshness), and is a pioneer in the potential future appellation (currently IGT) of Seyssuel, on the opposite side of the river below Vienne.
The 2004 vintage does not rank among the best of the decade for Côte-Rôtie, but I will say that the Ogier bottling is a very creditable effort indeed, at least to my palate. These days the estate produces various single site wines, but back in the day there was just this blend, from vines on both Côtes (Brune and Blonde), along with a special cuvée called Belle Hélène, named after Stéphane’s mother.
We have definite “bricking” of the colour, a classic orange rim of age. The bouquet is gamey in the classic style too, but with a strong accent of rich and ripe plum. The palate lets it down a little if I’m being hyper-critical, largely on account of it drying out ever so slightly. Personally, I don’t mind the slightly pronounced acidity. What I like is that it’s still a wine of genuine personality. When looking for the perfection of one hundred points, we neglect the pleasure, as well as the experience gained, from drinking a wine which is gingerly descending from its plateau of excellence, from middle age to a more stately existence (a bit like me). I have more Ogiers which will taste younger, and probably better, but all too few, and so I took what this offered me with pleasure.
The wines of Stéphane Ogier are imported by Berry Brothers & Rudd, although back in the day they could be found in the Waitrose stores with the largest wine departments. I’m not sure from which this bottle came.
RIESLING MUENCHBERG ALSACE GRAND CRU 2008, DOMAINE OSTERTAG (Alsace, France)
I used to be quite an avid purchaser of André Ostertag’s wines. Based in Epfig, this was the very next village to where I stayed in Alsace for the very first time (Itterswiller). The Muenchberg is one of the most interesting of the region’s fifty-one Grand Crus. In the once less fashionable north of the region (the Bas Rhin), it has always produced very distinctive wines from its mix of puddingstone, conglomerate and volcanic debris (ash and lava). Especially distinctive for Riesling.
André Ostertag’s father started the family domaine in 1966 but André has been at the helm a little over forty years now. More recently his son, Arthur, has returned from stints overseas to secure the domaine’s future.
So, what of the Muenchberg Riesling, in this case at over a dozen years old? Muenchberg not only has an interesting geology, but an interesting geography too. It’s a croissant-shaped hill bounded on two sides by southerly-exposed valleys, and it is well protected by the Vosges, which do not usually rise to the height of the Ungersberg outlier this far north (901 masl). This creates a single unique microclimate for all of its 17.7 hectares. The name “Muenchberg” (Monk’s hill) comes from the nearby Cistercian abbey of Baumgarten, which farmed vines here.
We begin with the bouquet, which here hints strongly at the complexities to come on the palate. Lemon, lime, dry honey, “Biscoff” and spiced apple cake are wrapped in a textured parcel held together by a taut mineral thread forming the spine (this wine sees twelve months ageing on lees). This is a very fine Riesling indeed, and perhaps not sufficiently rated in the past by some commentators. This may be why I used to find this cuvée, and others made by this great wine philosopher, in the bin ends at Berry Bros factory outlet store (sic) outside Basingstoke. A genuine terroir wine, it really is very, very, good with a bit of age to it.
As I said, Berry Brothers is the UK importer. I also very much enjoy some of the cheaper Ostertag wines (especially his old vine Sylvaner, and Pinot Blanc as well at one time) along with other single vineyard cuvées, of which I know the various wines from Fronholz best. However, Muenchberg is top of the pile, for me, at Domaine Ostertag.
CRÉMANT DU JURA BRUT NATURE NV , DOMAINE PIGNIER (Jura, France)
I’ve known the wines of the Pignier family for many years but I don’t recall drinking their Crémant before now. The estate is run today by three siblings, Marie-Florence, Jean-Étienne and Antoine. The domaine consists of around 15 ha at Montaigu, just south of Lons. Their winery consists of a couple of old monastic buildings around the Place Rouget de Lisle, a man of course famous in these parts because this Lons-le-Saunier native composed the French National Anthem at Strasbourg in 1792 whilst serving in Napoleon I’s Army of the Rhine.
The Pigniers farm a range of Jura grape varieties, including a little Enfariné Noir (interesting to me because a friend and small grower near Arbois has purchased a few rows of this rare autochthonous grape), along with Argan, Petit Béclan and some Gamay. The family were one of the first to turn to biodynamics in this part of the region, gaining Demeter certification eventually in 2006. Some cuvées are also made with no added sulphur.
The Crémant is made almost 100% from Chardonnay with a little Pinot Noir, depending on vintage and, made with low sulphur additions (Wink Lorch suggests there may also be a zero-sulphur bottling, but I’ve never seen it). It’s bottled with zero dosage though, after eighteen months on lees. It starts out with a little youthful austerity here, and a crazy torrent of fast-moving tiny bubbles. At this stage citrus notes predominate. Leave it to warm in the glass and it softens considerably, but is still fresh. It has a nice mineral spine (the grapes are grown on limestone and clay), but there’s a chalky texture in the mouth and the edges show softer brioche. Vigorous and somehow healthy, this is a very good biodynamic Crémant du Jura.
Pignier is imported by Raeburn Fine Wines, and this bottle was purchased from The Solent Cellar (Lymington) via mail order. I think they still have a little left.