Dry January! I don’t know what it means to you but it patently doesn’t mean a month without alcohol to me, although equally we don’t drink every night here. In my case Dry January does mean a bit of a creative hole. I’ve not written anything since I completed my roundup of wines drunk during December 2021, last month on 12 January. Actually, having a bit of “time off” has been good. It has been a busy month, but I’ve also been able to listen to a bit more music than usual. I won’t lie though, after two years of working hard in active cooperation with the muse, I really had run out of things to write about.
Whilst I hope that the muse returns, I can at least tell you what I drank during January. Fourteen wines, seven of them in this Part 1. Seven more will follow next week. The usual eclectic mix here consists of one from Alsace, one from Beaujolais, a South African from the Western Cape, a juicy Moravian, a more classical Burgundy, a wine from the Pfalz and one from Vienna.
VIEILLE VIGNE SYLVANER 2015/16, JEAN-PIERRE RIETSCH (Alsace, France)
Down towards the end of the main street in Mittelbergheim, in the village perhaps most synonymous with the revival of the Bas Rhin into a centre for natural wine innovation, sits the winery and tasting room of one of the men most responsible for this revival, Jean-Pierre Rietsch. His ever-changing range, with their ever-changing artist labels, is a beauty to taste through, and there is much difficulty in selecting wines which are supposedly “better” than others. J-P does his absolute utmost to strive towards perfection with every wine he makes, within its own context.
The old vine Sylvaner comes from different plots around the village, planted on argilo-calcaire terroir. Produced without additives and with minimal interference, a blend of the two named vintages sees ageing on lees, different ageing periods adding nuance and complexity. Alcohol is a perfectly balanced 12.5%, residual sugar comes in at 2.2 g/l and residual sulphur a mere 1.6 g/l.
The result is zippy, lively, totally fresh despite its age, but with some old vine and lees complexity (and texture). It balances on a tightrope between citrus and biscuity, savoury, food-friendliness. As far as Sylvaner goes, it might be one of the “kindest” I know. It has stature but, as with most examples of the variety, no pomposity, nor pretention. Contemplative and among the finest examples of Sylvaner made in France.
This was purchased at the winery, but Wines Under the Bonnet imports JPR into the UK.
“MINOUCHE” 2019, JULIE BALAGNY (Beaujolais, France)
There are many delicious wines from this reinvigorated part of Southern Burgundy, and indeed there are a good number of natural wines which would not unduly trouble those more used to classical flavours. Balagny, one of my absolute favourite winemakers in the region, does not make wines like this. I was going to say that she takes her wines wherever they want to go, but it would probably be more accurate to say that she allows them to wander where they will. Like any good parent, however, she does keep a watchful eye on them, ready to step in when needed.
This wine is bottled as a Vin de France and comes from two Gamay parcels close to the Cru of Saint-Amour. The grapes were grown by two amis of Julie, Jerôme and Gilles Courtois, but the wine which Julie made very much bears her stamp. I know plenty of people who I’d give a good chance of spotting this was a Balagny wine blind.
Whole bunches receive a cold soak, without any manipulation before its carbonic fermentation, a slow and gentle pressing to follow. Ageing is in old oak barrels with zero added sulphur (as with all Julie’s wines). The result is definitely a fruit bomb. Gamay cherries explode on the palate and in the nasal passages. No way is it one-dimensional, though. The mineral edge is fairly pronounced and there’s a touch of spice in there too. “Lovely” is how I’d describe it, in the best sense of that word. The 2020 is on sale now, but this 2019 is singing.
Tutto Wines imports Julie Balagny.
“AIR CARROTS OF PAGNOL” 2018, BLANK BOTTLE WINERY (Western Cape, South Africa)
Another wine from the vast creative talents of Pieter Walser. It’s also a wine which has a story to it. Pieter’s stories can be long, so I will try to paraphrase. In 2010 he made his seminal Manon des Sources (the Pagnol connection). When he bottled it in 2012 the owner asked for a private bottling to sell himself, but for whatever reason the bottles sat unsold for seven years. Pieter bought them back and they sold out immediately.
Jump forward a few years and Pieter is at a film festival in the South of France where a documentary about his Blank Bottle project is a finalist. Lo and behold, one of the judges turns out to be Nicola Pagnol, the author’s grandson, who didn’t threaten to sue over the “Manon” name…phew! Of course, that doesn’t explain the “Air Carrots” and I am to this day none the wiser.
The wine itself is a real beauty, made from Grenache Blanc and a little Grenache Gris, sourced from Wellington and Swartland. It was tank-fermented and aged in old oak, but notably seeing plenty of skin and lees contact.
The colour is a very limpid green-gold. The bouquet sings of herbs with beeswax and ripe quince. The palate is fleshy and textured with stone fruits and pear. It has a gorgeous southern (warm) bitterness which rides upon a wave of fresh, fleshy, fruit…rather as I imagine Pieter on his surfboard paddling swiftly away from yet another shark encounter (another of his fabulous yarns). I’d probably rate this my favourite Blank Bottle wine of the past year.
Imported by Swig Wines.
SAINT-LAURENT 2020, PETR KORÁB (Moravia, Czechia)
I apologise that I’m currently drinking a Koráb wine every month. Have any of you taken the hint yet? It’s often his petnats which I guzzle but this red is so good I definitely plan to buy more. Truly glouglou. Petr’s vines date back to 1936, 4-hectares owned by the family with a little rented. Most of them are original Czech clones, which he is actively trying to preserve. As these are natural wines (and Koráb has used biodynamics since 2008), the purity of these clones comes through. Even though the vines are old, Petr manages to emphasise freshness above all else, through his hands-off methods.
This is fairly dark in colour, with a purple rim, suggestive of brambly fruit scents merely to look at the glass. Actually, the bouquet is more redolent of cherries with violets. It’s on the palate where the darker fruits come in, predominantly blackcurrant, with all the juicy power of the acids that fruit usually erupts with. Despite what I’ve obviously highlighted as good acidity, the fruit is almost sweet, and certainly intense whilst remaining light on its feet.
Take a less fashionable variety, treat the fruit with the utmost respect, and the result speaks eloquently. Fresh and fruity with a little plumpness to round it out, it’s a wine that brought me tears of joy. At the end of the day this is no fane wane, it’s a fun wine for any occasion. But what fun!
Imported by Basket Press Wines.
FIXIN “LES CRAIS” 2010, DOMAINE BERTHAUT (Burgundy, France)
This is one of two January Burgundy reds. In Part 2 we shall drink a lovely Beaune. This bottle comes from Fixin, at the very north of the Côte de Nuits. The estate has since been renamed Berthaut-Gerbet, after Denis Berthaut’s daughter took over the management and winemaking at the domaine. Back in 2010 it was run by Denis with his son, Vincent. But under both regimes, this has been a consistent and very good value address in Fixin, and one of those producers responsible for the elevation of the village into one most people truly interested in Burgundy now take much more seriously.
“Les Crais” is a lieu-dit of 1.7 hectares, of which the family owns 1.4 ha. The elevation is low, it’s hardly a fine hillside site, yet it does boast good drainage, and old vines, planted here as far back as 1946, with some new plantings in 2002. The wine undergoes a classic Burgundy élevage, spending fifteen months in oak of which around 20% is new. This doesn’t seem too much for this top vintage, with the caveat that it does add a certain structure to fruit which probably would not want to see a great deal more new oak than was used.
After eleven years there is a little brick red colour around the rim, but the rest of the wine in the glass looks very dark ruby for its age. The bouquet is spiced cherry, very attractive, whilst the palate retains a degree of tannic structure. It’s drinking nicely, especially with air and food. Do I want to age my Fixin a lot longer? Personally, perhaps not, because I like this wine just as it is. It kind of gives a nod to a more rustic era whilst showing the advances in winemaking which make these once unfavoured wines highly palatable.
In that respect it’s a typical good Fixin, very well made and still with more to give if you want to keep it. Purchased at the domaine.
GRÜNER SYLVANER ALTE REBEN 2016, WEINGUT FRIEDRICH BECKER (Pfalz, Germany)
Fritz Becker’s estate is at Schweigen-Rechtenbach, right on the border with Alsace’s far north, and his best vineyards occupy a beautiful slope down to the French Abbey of Wissembourg. In fact, those monastic sites, planted to Pinot Noir in the main, are actually inside France. Becker is famous for his Spätburgunders, and it is all too easy to pass his other varietals by. It would be a mistake, as this wine demonstrates.
Grüner Sylvaner is the variety’s official name, not often seen nowadays but used very deliberately here. Its colour is so limpid green that you cannot ignore it. Initially, on first sniff, it has the surprise steeliness of a cooler climate Riesling (because the Pfalz can be fairly warm for Germany, hence its ability to fully ripen Pinot). The bouquet broadens and increases in interest with air, just as over time in the glass the palate does likewise.
Here we have almost shocking lime, at first. Then in comes stone fruit, herbs and an underlying mineral texture. The backbone is well defined but the fruit adds enough flesh, skin contact to the fore, perhaps. At over five years old this Sylvaner still tastes super fresh, but it has obviously developed. It’s this really well-formed spine which is responsible for its relative youthfulness, but it’s a cracking wine, as brilliant in its own way as that of Jean-Pierre Rietsch, above.
Another wine purchased at the domaine. If you do visit, don’t just look at the Spätburgunders.
WIENER RIESLING 2018, WIENINGER (Vienna, Austria)
I guess you mostly see me drinking the Gemischter Satz field blends from Austria’s capital, and in fact I’ve got one of those for you in Part 2. However, I have a long relationship with the wines of Franz Wieninger, and I tend to buy them at all levels, top to bottom. It’s quite nice to be able to introduce one of the less expensive varietal cuvées here.
Wieninger is “the” pioneer of the Viennese vineyards and he and his family own an incredible 50-hectares of vines on both the Bissamberg and Nussberg sides of the Danube. Although Wieninger is not a “natural wine” producer as such, the wines are made with great care and respect for this beautiful terroir, north and northeast of the city, using biodynamic methods throughout.
This is a paler, lemony, dry Riesling, deliciously balanced with citrus freshness (a definite squeeze of fresh lemon) balanced with something peachier with a touch of yellow flesh. There is slightly more fruit from Bissamberg’s loess and slightly less from the chalky limestone sites they farm on Nussberg, where their unmissable summer pop-up heuriger looks over the city, one of my favourite views on this planet. The grapes see a five-hour pre-fermentation maceration followed by a very gentle press. Fermentation is in stainless steel, where temperatures are kept cool to preserve aromatics. The wine then rests three months on its lees in tank (no oak) before bottling.
This is a subtle wine, not really complex but it has that lovely Riesling freshness, and mid-weight fruit, which makes for a fascinating glass. More than merely “glugworthy”.
This bottle came from The Solent Cellar, but it is widely available. I’ve seen it in Butlers and Selfridges, and I think Liberty Wines import.