Part Two of June’s wines begins with a country I have drunk too little of since our Lockdowns began. I hope to be purchasing some more Georgians this summer. Next up, two English wines in a row before a first-time experience for me, a Portuguese Petnat. Then we head a long way east, into Austria (two wines, both sensational), Czechia and Germany, parts of Europe which appear to feature strongly as I drink my way through July as well. Although these articles are written to highlight the most interesting wines drunk at home during the month, I will end June with a brief mention of a couple of bottles we drank in a restaurant on the very last day of the month…because I have to!
TSOLIKOURI ORKHVI 2017, NIKOLADZEEBIS MARANI WINES (Imereti, Georgia)
If American painter, John Wurdeman, is the outsider who brought international attention to Georgian wine via his Pheasant’s Tears winery in Signaghi, in the Kakheti Region of Eastern Georgia, Ramaz Nikoladze is the Georgian who became an unlikely ambassador for his country, via his hooking up in the mid-2000s with the Slow Food Movement in Turin. He went on to open Tblisi’s famous natural wine bar, Ghvino Underground, and has now done so much more for his country, including as founder of “Qvevri Renaissance”.
It all began when a Japanese journalist suggested that his traditionally made Qvevri wines were worthy of Slow Food’s attention. Ramaz is unusual, in that the Qvevri tradition had not been quite as prevalent in the Central region of Imereti as it was and still is in Eastern Georgia. Also, quite unusually, his clay vessels were buried out in the open rather than in a winery, though they now live indoors since these past five or six years.
This particular wine is a little different though. Ramaz makes it from Tsolikouri vines owned by his uncle in Lekhumi, less than a hectare with an age range of thirty to one hundred years old, planted on mainly limestone soils. There is no skin contact here and the grapes are pressed directly into qvevri (no stems). Fermentation lasted around eighteen days using indigenous yeasts, and then the juice spent six months in the same qvevri, before racking into clean ones before bottling.
The result is very clean, fresh and zippy. It might shock you if you are expecting an “orange” wine. However, I guarantee you will be stunned…in a good way…by its vivacity. So alive. Another side of Georgian qvevri winemaking, equally brilliant.
Tsolikouri has always been the most planted variety in Western Georgia, and as such was much prized for its supposed quality in the former Soviet Union, no matter how industrial its production may have been back then. Apparently, it was Stalin’s favourite grape variety. Please don’t let that put you off. It’s imported by Les Caves de Pyrene. This wine has a mega reputation in some quarters and a lot of people want a bottle. I have no idea what the current Tsar thinks of it, probably not a lot, Georgia being far from his favourite country.
« A FERMAMENT » SAUVIGNON BLANC 2018, CHARLIE HERRING WINES (Hampshire, UK)
Tim Phillips makes this play on Tom Phillips’s “A Humument” from vines planted in his walled vineyard near Lymington. This brick-walled site protects the vines enough here to ripen Sauvignon, and even Riesling, like nowhere else I know in the UK. The site really is something of a paradise. Anyway, if you recall, it was English Wine Week back in late June, so this bottle seemed highly appropriate.
Tim’s wines generally benefit from time. He won’t release wines before he deems them ready, this being just one more detail in a whole string of quality-focused decisions which inform the winemaking of this perfectionist. The nose is clean with notes of gooseberry and nettles. There’s sufficient acidity to suggest holding this a little longer, maybe another year. Nevertheless, it’s already quite astonishing.
You get a blend of purity and intensity. The freshness explodes on the tongue. You could almost imagine the fruit was distilled, not fermented. It has that kind of pure essence which you’d expect from an eau de vie, except without the alcohol (Tim’s wine has 11% abv). It sits on the tongue for a very long time. If you appreciate acidity as the defining core of a wine, you’ll love this, a wine as lovely as its label.
Tim’s wines are in remarkably short supply. They are occasionally available from Les Caves de Pyrene, and I’ve seen the 2017 currently on the Littlewine site (a good bet for drinking sooner than the 2018, perhaps). The Solent Cellar, Tim’s local indie wine merchant, often has a few bottles when he releases something.
“END GRAIN” 2019, TILLINGHAM WINES (East Sussex, UK)
We continued English Wine Week with another of England’s most innovative artisan winemakers, Ben Walgate. Tillingham is his rather smart project (vineyards, hotel with rooms, restaurants on site) just north of Rye, close to the Kent border and within sight of the Sussex coast. Tillingham is becoming the wine tourism destination, so much so that following significant attention from the national press, I was unable to book a stay there. They are apparently full for seemingly some months to come.
Nevertheless, long time readers will be aware that I have followed this project from the beginning, most importantly watching the wines themselves evolve. There are a host of different cuvées to select from every year, including some spectacularly good wines with bubbles, but End Grain is a favourite. It’s a still wine made from a base of Ortega (28%), Madeline Angevine (33%), and Bacchus (36%) with a tiny 3% of Müller-Thurgau.
The key to this blend is skin contact. Ten days for the Ortega, less for the Madeline Angevine and Bacchus. The overall ageing and blending sounds way too complicated to elaborate in detail. There’s a little time spent in oak for part of the blend, stainless steel for other mixed parts, but the Ortega component spends longer in concrete vat before all four varieties are blended before bottling without fining/filtration and just a tiny addition of sulphur.
The wine is cloudy, the colour of “Robinson’s Lemon Barley” for all old-school Wimbledon fans. The fruit component, which combines with the acidity, is beautiful elderflower and lemon zest. This rides on a tasty salinity, all of which quench the thirst, but the whole wine is grounded on the texture added from the skin contact, not too much so that the balance is maintained even at a low 10% abv. Not one for the “serious-minded” drinker. You need a lighter soul and a sense of joy. Drink on a warm day, outdoors if possible.
As with Tim Phillips’s wines, you sometimes need to hunt for them. Les Caves, and a selection of independent retailers they supply, will often have them. I have also seen some Tillingham bottles on Littlewine.co (though a search today found none). But they are fashionable, though more is available and more widely than in the case of the Charlie Herring Wines.
PET-NAT ROSÉ 2020, QUINTA DA RAZA (Minho, Portugal)
Quinta da Raza is a Vinho Verde specialist, established at the end of the eighteenth century, whose wines I have never come across before, but this bottle was recommended by a couple of the guys at The Solent Cellar in Lymington. It’s a co-fermented cuvée of Vinhão and Padeiro grown at around 250 masl in the sub-region of Celorico do Basto, in the far south of Minho’s Vinho Verde zone.
Vinification uses wild yeasts for a spontaneous ferment, with the light pink colour coming from the Vinhão without extraction. The partner variety, Padeiro, gives the wine its aromatics. These are fresh red fruits, raspberry and strawberry, with a nice brambley edge on the finish. You’d say it’s a simple wine, mostly on its fruit, although the bottle contains the lees which, as with most petnat wines, are not disgorged, and these give just a touch of texture. Altogether rather nice, a lovely picnic or beach wine. Super-refreshing, quite tight, lots of bubbles and a frothy mousse.
This wine is imported by Raymond Reynolds. If you are in Portugal you can, allegedly, purchase this for 9€. Here you will have to pay British prices, more than twice that, but we have to accept these sad facts of life and live with it. It is still, within a UK context, good value.
WEISZE FREYHEIT 2017, HEINRICH (Burgenland, Austria)
There are few places on this planet where I would rather be than on the shores of the Neusiedlersee, and naturally Gols would be where I’d wish to spend much of my time. There’s just something about this relatively unprepossessing place that produces an unusually large concentration of very fine winzer and winzerin, even for this prolific part of Austria. Prolific that is in terms of fine wines and very fine natural wines at that.
Gernot and Heike Heinrich took over the family winery in 1985, and they farm around ninety hectares, quite a large holding in the region. They are noted proponents of biodynamics, and indeed were founding members of “Respekt”, an Austrian biodynamic certification body.
The wine is called “white freedom”, which of course refers to both the low intervention approach they follow, and their freedom to create the wine exactly as they would wish. The main variety in the wine is Weissburgunder (Pinot Blanc), grown on fossil-rich limestone soils with sandstone and mica-schist. To this is added just 3% of Muskat Ottonel for aromatics. Around 25% of the juice sees a fortnight’s skin contact, but ageing on lees for 21 months after fermentation, in large used oak, adds to the textural qualities here.
The bouquet strikes a first note of citrus, but the palate is quite different, with, for me, peach and Galia melon. The acids are very fruity, with a hint of sharpness but overall rounded and softened. You get texture but not too much, it’s well integrated. But such words are dull…this wine is just transformative and transcendental, really something special. I poured a taste whilst cooking and immediately filled the glass on the first sip. I drink a lot of really good wines but this is one which is just that few centimetres taller than most. Next level, so to speak. No added sulphur either.
Heinrich is imported by Indigo Wines. They may be available retail via their “The Sorting Table” web shop.
NEJEDLÍK ORANGE 2011, DOBRÁ VINICE (Moravia, Czechia)
Out of all the wines I’ve enjoyed from the Czech Republic over the past few years, this “unicorn” wine has to be the most unique. Petr Nejedlík is based in the Moravian village of Novy Saldorf, on the southeastern edge of the Podyji National Park. He farms without using any chemical treatments on his 15 hectares of vines.
The grapes used in this cosmopolitan blend are Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, grown on granite, sand, silex and quartz. The winemaking is much less “international”, though. It’s a rare expression of Czech qvevri vinification. Petr uses vessels imported directly from one of Georgia’s most acclaimed qvevri makers.
Initially you will get a real sense of Fino Sherry on the nose. This broadens out as the wine warms in the glass and on the palate into something akin to dry orange marmalade, whilst retaining the salinity you will have encountered in the bouquet. The wine is still very fresh, even after a decade, though I’m not sure how recently it was bottled from the qvevris.
This is one of those wines which will appeal very much to lovers of Vin Jaune, although it is, of course, quite different. It transcends what anyone would expect, as it does any old-fashioned notions of quality. It’s just complex and long and rather wonderful. I drank my first bottle of this back in December 2019, and promptly made it my “skin contact WOTY”. If anything, this second bottle, drunk a year and a half later, was even better than I remember it. This is good…shhhh! A bargain at £35 in my very humble opinion.
Basket Press imports. No idea how much, if any, they have left. It’s certainly still up on their web site.
SCHILCHER FRIZZANTE , ÖSTERREICHER PERLWEIN, STROHMEIER (Styria, Austria)
Franz and Christine Strohmeier make astonishingly good natural wines at St Stefan ob Stainz in that part of Southern Austria known as Weststeiermark, famous for its rare grape variety, Blauer Wildbacher. There are just over 330 ha of this variety, almost unique to this sub-region, but the grape comprises around 60% of the 500+ hectares planted here.
The Strohmeiers warrant a mere four lines and two words in Stephen Brook’s first edition of The Wines of Austria (Infinite Ideas, 2016), yet ask any wine lover who knows the region and they will be among the first artisan winemakers to get a mention.
Blauer Wildbacher makes Schilcher, often interestingly described as a Rosé. Schilchersekt, in its sparkling form, is quite popular in Vienna and beyond, but this wine is made “frizzante”, less pressure and fewer bubbles. I personally find this style closest to my taste on account of having just the right amount of fizz for this fairly uncompromising variety (which reminds me loosely of some of the red frizzante wines I’ve drunk in Piemonte and Emilia-Romagna).
The vines are planted on what the locals call “opok” soils. They look just like schist/slate but are in fact a mix of clay and silt, which you may know from Maria and Sepp Muster’s famous “Vom Opok” Sauvignon Blancs. The Blauer Wildbacher grapes see a ten-hour maceration, giving the wine a rust colour. The second fermentation in bottle gives the wine its bubbles and gentle sparkle, rather like a petnat.
The wine seems to embody every taste sensation going. “Red fruits and girders” wouldn’t be too outrageous. Someone called it “dry Irn-Bru” but that might be a cultural reference too far for non-Brits/Scots. The palate has fruit wrapped around the acidity, though which fruit(s) exactly, I can’t say. The finish is dry, a little salty and mineral in texture. It can be served cloudy, using the dead yeasts in the bottle, but I would recommend trying a glass where the bottle has been stood up…clear before cloudy, just to see that remarkable colour. Thereafter, give it a gentle shake.
I’m not going to lie, I praised this bottle on Instagram and immediately worried it would sell out, after the feedback, so I ordered some more, getting in before anyone reads this and shares my enthusiasm. The friends we shared it with had never tried Schilcher in any form before (oh my!) and I think they rather liked it. Though be warned, my love of Austrian consumables probably goes beyond what is deemed normal in Great Britain.
Both Littlewine and Newcomer Wines stock Strohmeier in the UK.
WEHLENER SONNENUHR RIESLING SPÄTLESE 2009, JOH JOS PRÜM (Mosel, Germany)
Going classic here to prove a point. If you are going to buy these wines, give them a chance to mature. For many, this Bernkastel-Wehlen estate is the top of the pile in the Mosel. For others who don’t really get these wines, and probably drink them too young, they look on somewhat nonplussed. Stephan Reinhardt in The Finest Wines of Germany (Aurum Press, 2012) says “To drink a Riesling from Joh Jos Prüm is to enjoy a springtime of the heart and mind”.
The Sonnenuhr site at Wehlen is a steep slope on the Bernkastel side of the river, bookmarked by the very obvious sundial on the cliff face from which it takes its name (best seen from the opposite bank, on which you may well be cycling if you hired your bicycle over the bridge in Kues and are pedalling along the Mosel cycle trail).
The vintage in 2009 was unquestionably warm here, in fact hot and dry. It had the potential for producing wines of greatness. This Spätlese is quite delicate for a year like this, but it also has breadth and a lot of depth. The floral bouquet emphasises what I mean by delicate. It’s nose-fillingly beautiful, just to smell it. There’s no petrol. The palate is dryer than you might think, especially the way the spätlesen have been going (is 2020 going to prove an exception?). The palate seems to me to have a combination of brioche and mellow lime. There’s such length here, I can’t describe how long it stays in the mouth. If this isn’t fine wine, I’m not sure what is. A feast for all the senses.
This was purchased from The Sampler a very long time ago.
I mentioned that I wanted to highlight a couple of wines we drank in a restaurant. That restaurant was Plateau in Brighton, one of my favourite places before Covid, but this was our first time there since March 2020. I was struck by how the food was even better than ever. A sad reflection of our times is the fact that the wine list (including a separate list now called “unicorns”) was a little smaller than before, but what it lacks in quantity it makes up for in quality.
We began with a bottle of Joiseph “Fogosch” 2019, Luka’s glorious Grüner Veltliner from Jois in Burgenland. After glugging that rather swiftly, we moved on to Sin Titulo 2018 from Victoria Torres Pecis on La Palma (Canary Islands). This light red is as amazing as the Fogosch white and I couldn’t have chosen two more exciting bottles. Although this cuvée changes with the vintage (2016 was white, but 2017 was a red made from Negramoll), I am assuming from the taste that this was also made from Negramoll? I was brought down to earth when told that the “unicorn wines” are not available for takeaway – I really wanted that red. Sic transit gloria mundi. Both wines are coincidentally imported by Modal Wines. I could not recommend these, and indeed all of the wines made by these two “star producers”, more highly.