HAPPY NEW YEAR!
I love writing about wine, more than any work I’ve done in the rest of my life, but like everyone else, it’s still hard to start tapping out on the keyboard after a long Christmas break. The weather, too many mince pies, Covid blues (and I haven’t even caught it yet), whatever the reason, I can’t even feel the effects of my morning mug of strong black coffee. January is surely the time to hibernate (or ski if you can afford to). However, looking at the wines I need to tell you about today, in the first part of my December roundup, the sheer excitement of them certainly helps to generate some much-needed enthusiasm for the task.
Eight wines here and eight more to come in Part 2, we have a Pinot Noir from Eglisau, a strong start, you will agree, no? We then look at one of the new-wave of Jura producers, then my first 2020 from Annamária Réka(-Koncz), and a Grower Champagne that everyone loves. Next, the wine I chose as my “Wine of the Month” in my Review of 2021, a rare appearance of Bugey-Cerdon, a deliciously different Barossa red and, to finish, a well-known Tuscan producer’s attempt to work outside of the box, using amphora.
BLAUBURGUNDER 2018, BECHTEL-WEINE (Eglisau, Switzerland)
This comes from the tiny Deutschschweiz appellation of Eglisau, not too far from Zürich, and is made by one of German-speaking Switzerland’s rising stars, Mathias Bechtel. A few of you will have noticed that his Räuschling white was one of my wines of the month in my Review of 2021, published just before Christmas.
Blauburgunder is the Swiss (and Austrian) name for Pinot Noir, and although you will find some wines using this nomenclature in Northeast Italy too, more producers, even in these regions, will stick to the French name. What I’m unsure of is whether the Blauburgunder name is developing an identity for local clones (cf producers in Germany increasingly using Pinot Noir or Spätburgunder to denote French/German clones).
Whatever the case, this is another lovely wine from Mathias, and one which very much has its own personality. There is a touch of richness and smoothness, but it isn’t in any way weighty, this despite a surprising 14% abv on the label. The cherry-dominated bouquet is fascinating. There’s a little spice and grip but no tannins to speak of, yet you would call it well-structured. It lingers on the palate. I have a couple more of these so I shall try to save one for a few more years to check how they age.
Find Mathias Bechtel’s bottles, when available, at Alpine Wines. He doesn’t make very much.
SAVAGNIN OUILLÉ “LA PIERRE” 2017, CÔTES DU JURA, LES GRANGES PAQUENESSES (Jura, France)
Winemaker Loreline Laborde describes this exquisite gem as evoking “the duality between minerality and exoticism, tension and generosity”, and there in one short sentence, you have it. Loreline started out just over a decade ago with a couple of hectares and it would be fair to say that her reputation has gone stratospheric in that short decade, although she hardly makes enough wine to hit superstar status, despite having doubled her vine holdings to 5 hectares in the years since.
Loreline comes from Southern France and cut her teeth in the Rhône, most notably working for Laurent Charvin in Châteauneuf-du-Pâpe. She naturally fell in love with the Jura, as we all do, and bought her small farm in the relative backwater of Tourmont, west of Poligny. Here, as well as tending her vines “naturally”, without chemical inputs, she reputedly looks after goats and chickens…and Amazone, her horse which ploughs the vine rows. Thanks to Laurent Charvin, her exports began to take off before any local trade, but the French, especially the Parisians, have caught up.
It’s an “ouillé” cuvée, ie topped-up rather than aged oxidatively, here in barrels which are a few years old. At four years old this wine is still packed with freshness, starting with the lime zest on the nose, underpinned by acidity and two other notable elements on the palate: a slightly salty taste and a mineral texture. Forget about fruitiness, this is all about the tension. But, a big but, it is also unquestionably a sensual wine. Above all, it’s a thrill to drink and worthy of all the plaudits others have heaped upon it. This is certainly one of the most exciting producers in the whole Jura region at the moment.
Loreline’s wines are imported by Vine Trail.
“A CHANGE OF HEART” 2020, ANNAMÁRIA RÉKA-KONCZ (Barabas, Hungary)
Okay, so if you don’t know that this winemaker in Eastern Hungary is one of my favourite new names of the past couple of years, then I apologise for not repeating for the umpteenth time her biography. This bottle was the first I had drunk from her 2020 vintage, newly imported a month before. I’d had to wait a while because, despite buying a good few ARK wines, they disappeared swiftly. You won’t thank me for saying that the first shipment this year has more or less sold out already and I wonder whether the importer might wish I hadn’t been such a stalwart supporter of this producer in print?
The colour really hits you, a beautiful, luminous, cherry red which appropriately hits the nose with a deep and vibrant cherry bouquet. It promises such pleasure…and then actually over-delivers on the palate. Zippy but not frivolous, and yet another unique view of Kékfrankos (aka Blaufränkisch).
I would say that Annamária Réka appears to gain confidence with each vintage I have tasted. It seems to me that the winemaking is under control, yet Annamária is not afraid to push the boundaries. This is such a joyful red wine, more than anything else. Then comes the deflating realisation that this small producer made only 1,750 bottles of this cuvée in 2020.
Basket Press imports ARK, and I do hope that they can squeeze another shipment for the UK. These wines are becoming very popular indeed, not least in my household, but I hate to see them all snapped up by restaurants where, of necessity, they will cost at least double the retail price. I’m all for sharing.
BULLES DE COMPTOIR #9 “TRADITION” MV, CHARLES DUFOUR (Champagne, France)
This Champagne is adored by so many people in the trade who I know, and part of the appeal must have something to do with Charles being a great person. Charles really got hold of his own destiny when the family estate he had run since 2006 was divided up amongst the family four years later. He wound up with six hectares, which he farms from his base at Landreville, in the Côte des Bar, more specifically in that part of the Barséquanais which lies on the right bank of the River Seine.
Bulles de Comptoir is Charles Dufour’s entry level wine, an Extra Brut but unusual perhaps in that the current vintage is combined with wine from a solera-style perpetual reserve. Number nine (each Bulles is numbered) is from 2018 fruit harvested across several sites, and containing Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, and some rare (in Champagne) Pinot Blanc.
These 2018 grapes were blended with wine from a perpetual reserve which at that time contained vintages 2010 to 2017. It was bottled in October 2019 and disgorged in January 2021. If this degree of multi-vintage complexity were not enough, Dufour has magically united different terroirs around Landreville, Essoyes and Celles-sur-Ource, all with varying shades of clay and limestone. Dosage is less than 2g/l (Extra Brut).
Dufour is, despite what some have portrayed as a slightly rebel image, one of the most thoughtful young growers in the Aube. His focus is very much on the soil, not only as terroir, but as a living ecosystem. The result is beautiful. Darker than some wines from 2018, doubtless because of the reserve wines here, you can convince yourself you are tasting terroir, even at this level and knowing it is not a single site wine. And “wine” it is, vinous but fresh and lovely. I think, in fact, this is a wine where you can taste its soul.
This bottle came from Littlewine, although I’ve more frequently bought Dufour in France, in times when they actually allowed us into the country. I may also have found his wines in The Good Wine Shop (Kew branch), but certainly at Les Papilles (Paris). Although Grower Champagne is becoming horribly expensive in the UK, this is one great wine that remains affordable (for a few) at £42.
“IS THAT THE MILKY WAY” 2019, DARREN SMITH (La Palma, Canary Isles, Spain)
Darren Smith made this wine, released under his “The Finest Wines Available to Humanity” label, at Vikki Torres’s winery, but not from her grapes. The name comes from the clear night skies so common on the south side of La Palma (apparently, according to friends who are there as I type, it’s cloudier and wetter in the north most of the time). The photo on the label gives a good idea, and it reminds me of the skies I have seen from the Himalayas, with millions of stars visible to the eye.
The grape variety here is Albillo Criollo, most of which does grow in the north of this small volcanic island (a volcano currently active, as you may well know). However, this batch was purchased from an old-time grower in the south, from a vineyard called Barranco Pinto. At 1,000 masl, the grapes cling to the side of a steep ravine-like gash of volcanic rock, with little topsoil.
The wine, which I chose as December’s wine of the month in my Review of 2021, was a revelation. It’s most certainly savoury, yet with a hint of exotic fruit as well. Its slightly darker hue is suggestive of some maceration. It begins life in the glass, on pouring, as something quite remarkable…and then just gets better from there on in, assisted by a finish as long as the Mont Blanc Tunnel.
I chose this to serve to a well-known wine consultant friend. You know, choose something offbeat, that they wouldn’t have tried before. I think they liked it no less than I did. A brilliant wine, but a unicorn in a true sense. Only a few hundred bottles were made and I’m led to believe that they are all gone. I don’t know whether Darren will return to work with VTP again, but he continues to travel the world making truly exciting wines, so far, a little under the radar.
Darren Smith’s wines are mostly sold online, direct, via his TFWATH web site: https://www.tfwath.com/ and also on Saturdays at Westgate Street Market in London Fields, but check before travelling because, you know, it’s winter…he may not be there. Also try The Sampler, Leroy in Shoreditch and Spring Restaurant at Somerset House.
The magical wines of Victoria Torres Pecis are imported, in equally finite quantities, by Modal Wines.
BUGEY-CERDON “RÉCOLTE CÉCILE” NV, DOMAINE PHILIPPE BALIVET (Bugey, France)
I imagine that a few years ago only a tiny number of people in the UK would have tried Bugey wines, but they have unquestionably become a little better know more recently. I got to know them because Geneva friends have a weekend place over the border in a village blessed not only with a cable car, but also a small restaurant around ten minutes staggering distance away. A nice place to eat, but with a generally uninspiring wine list, Bugey being an exception. My first taste of this tiny region in Eastern France were bottles of red, mostly Mondeuse, but slowly I got to know Bugey-Cerdon, an appellation for sparkling wines made by the Méthode Ancestrale, which makes them, of course, a very early type of Pétnat.
Wink Lorch’s book, The Wines of the French Alps, is the only true fount of knowledge for the region. Today you zip past on the impressive A40 between Lyon and Geneva without noticing it (although I do recall one of the autoroute service stations along the stretch near Bourg-en-Bresse sells an assortment of local produce, including Bugey wine), but as the map in Wink’s book shows, you can still pass through Cerdon, and indeed Mérignat where the Balivet family farm 7 hectares, if you exit onto the old N1084. The slow route goes through what can still properly be called “Old France”, with steep wooded slopes and ancient farms, tranquil being the operative word.
Vincent and Cécile Balivet, brother and older sister, now run the estate. What is unusual about Balivet is that they still have some Poulsard planted, which makes up around 10% of their vignoble. This Jura variety used to be more widespread in Bugey but it has become all too rare to find it now. “Cécile” in fact blends a small amount of Poulsard with the far more common Gamay. The vines are grown up to 500 masl on steepish slopes, with no synthetic chemicals used (Wink suggests that father, Philippe, blames chemical treatments for his own health issues).
Bugey-Cerdon is usually off-dry, something accentuated in this case by the wine’s extraordinary fruitiness (strawberries and raspberries), and by the low alcohol (7%) leaving residual sugar unfermented. However, the wine also has a lightness, freshness, acidity and vivacity which counterbalances any sweetness. No sulphur was added to this particular bottling. The pinkish colour is remarkably attractive, it must be said.
A good Bugey-Cerdon, which this undoubtedly is, makes a perfect accompaniment for lighter desserts, especially if red fruits are involved, but the wine is very versatile. Who doesn’t wish for a light, low alcohol, wine with small bubbles to refresh the palate on a hot day, not to mention to drink in the hot tub if you are so-inclined.
I try to grab a bottle or two of this whenever I’m in Eastern France, Vagne in Poligny often being a good bet for a couple of different Balivet cuvées. In England the wines are imported by Vine Trail. I’ve been trying to get hold of another producer’s Cerdon for some years, Renardat-Fache. I finally managed to squeeze a mere couple of bottles into a friendly retailer’s order just after I got back to the UK in November, so watch this space, and get to know Bugey.
DRY RED 2018, FREDERICK STEVENSON (Barossa, Australia)
I’ve no idea why winemaking genius Steve Crawford goes by the name of Frederick Stevenson, but he’s not alone in the alias game, so maybe it’s an Aussie thing and we are left out of the joke? But he is a genius of sorts. It’s not merely that his wines are always rather good. In this case, the wine is not one bit a stereotypical Barossa, and it’s all the better for it.
This cuvée is usually known as “Piñata” after the lovely label. The grape mix is a good wedge of Mourvèdre, slightly less Cinsault and Syrah, and about 5% Grenache, planted on wind-blown sand over clay, the grapes being dry-farmed biodynamically on the Ahrens family’s Ahrens’ Creek property at Vine Vale. The juice is vinified in concrete tank using whole bunches and native yeasts.
The result has that “made in concrete” feel to it. Lighter than pretty much any Barossa red wine you’ll find, it majors on crunchy fruit. The weight (and the 12.5% abv) is perfect to go with the crunch. The effect is accentuated by the two months the juice spends on its skins, but there is no heavy extraction at all. Steve is all about texture, and this wine has plenty.
You get gorgeous red and darker fruit flavours. There’s a little tannin, but the wine is just alive and leaps onto the palate without the tannins restraining the fruit. Added to this, I reckon you might find a whiff of nutmeg, and a perky herbal note. The feel (but not the taste) of the wine reminds me of really good Loire red wine with an Antipodean twist. Steve clearly learnt a lot about these varieties working in France (he also worked in Germany, but that’s another story), and that knowledge and experience has been put to good use and built upon back in South Australia, where he’s been for a decade now.
The bottle came from Seven Cellars in Brighton. The importer is Indigo Wines.
DA-DI 2019, IGT TOSCANA, AVIGNONESI (Tuscany, Italy)
I drank so few Tuscan wines in 2021 I could never reveal the shameful number. It’s embarrassing because twenty years ago people knew me as something of a fan. I think the slowness of the region to take up the low intervention torch has had something to do with it, that on the back of an increasing “internationalisation” of the region’s wines, including some estates I used to follow. A lot of Merlot and small new barriques.
That said, I bought this wine from a producer who definitely makes a mix of international-style and more traditional wines because I’d heard it was not only worth trying, but also great value.
Da-Di is made from organic Sangiovese in amphora. I think it’s not hard to see that this Tuscan variety is not just suited to clay, it’s probably a lot more suited to it (at this level) than some form of vanilla oak flavouring. The vessels are actually made from Tuscan clay, and the name supposedly means “earth” in Mandarin (though not on my version of Google Translate, it must be said). I don’t know whether this means that the wine is aimed at that market, but I’m glad some came westward.
I am not sure this can truly be called a terroir wine, because we have no indication of the terroir from whence it came, but no mind. The fruit spent 45 days macerating on skins and then a further 90 days in amphora. The result is not really any significant complexity, after all, it cost just under £20. That said, I thought it was rather nice, hence inclusion here. Cherry fruit predominates, with some other supporting red fruit flavours.
The amphora gives the wine a characteristic freshness which disguises the alcohol (13.5% abv). This means it’s pretty refreshing and easy to glug back all too quickly. It wasn’t perhaps as obviously an amphora wine as, say, a COS (Sicilian). That said, for the price I can say that this was pretty interesting and well worth trying. There’s plenty of wine that’s way less interesting in this price bracket.
Purchased from Butlers Wine Cellar (Brighton and online).