Almost half way through May and finally some wines from April emerge. I’m late because I had another week in Scotland, fuelled more by Whisky than wine, it must be said. But now back in the South of England, I can reveal some of the cracking wines we drank here last month. We begin with exciting new wave Alsace before visiting eclectic destinations like Georgia, Switzerland and Japan. Czech wines are, ahem, not uncommon on these pages and we have another here, but from a producer I’ve neglected a little. The penultimate wine is a magical Jura, from a man who I haven’t seen for way too long. We finish in the Loire, towards the east of the central section, drinking another beautiful Moelleux wine from a now sadly departed old-timer, an artisan vigneron who supplied a friend’s father for many years.
COMPLÈTEMENT RED 2020, LAMBERT SPIELMANN (Alsace, France)
I don’t think there’s a region in Europe where there are more new and emerging natural winemakers than Alsace, specifically its northern sector, the Bas Rhin. David Neilson (backinalsace.com) seems to mention a new one almost every week, and it was he who introduced me to the wines of this young guy, who has vines in Epfig and Nothalten, crafting original cuvées in his makeshift cellar in the former. His holdings currently total just 2.5 ha but he makes the most of what he has with the creativity of a musician (which he is). His environmentalism includes planting trees among the vines for future shade, and, of course, to encourage insect-eating birds.
Most of his labels reference some of his wide musical passions. I’m not sure I get any musical reference from this wine’s colourful label, however. It’s a Pinot Noir, made from 25-year-old vines on sandstone at Nothalten. Whole bunches are fermented for ten days, then pressed into demi-muids for a short time before bottling fresh and fruity.
What we get is a very pure-tasting natural wine which tastes even brighter for having no added sulphur. Vibrant cherry dominates both bouquet and palate, keeping things relatively simple except for a nice spicy twist. Fruit-forward is what the old-timers in the trade used to call this type of wine, but I use it here in the most positive sense. This will refresh the parts other Pinots might not reach (being more cerebral). What you get is fruit, zip and bite. A hint of reduction will blow off with a good swirl.
Lambert does recommend listening to “Comandante Che Guevara” (aka “Hasta Siempre” by Boikot, hope I’ve spelt that correctly). If you hate the song, you may not like the wine (inserts large winking emoji). I did. So does Tutto Wines, who are importing Lambert Spielmann in the UK.
BAIA’S WINE 2020 (Imereti, Georgia)
Baia Abuladze, along with her siblings, makes wine in Obcha, a village the Eastern region of Imereti. Her star has risen swiftly, someone said to me “prematurely”, but they agreed that she is now making wines with the potential for star quality. Equally important, she’s raising the profile of her region with all the positive coverage she’s getting and is yet another Georgian winemaker with a strong international outlook whilst making traditional wines with minimal interventions.
This simply labelled cuvée blends 60% Tsolikuri with 20% each of Tsitska and Krakhuna. These are very much autochthonous varieties, farmed biodynamically. The vines are around 30-years-old, planted on local clays. A triage is carried out to pick only grapes which are in perfect condition. Each of the three grapes has good acid balance, so the wine is very refreshing, but it also has some body. This is in part down to a mix of the texture from qvevri fermentation (all varieties being co-fermented), and 13% alcohol.
After around three months in qvevri the wine was put into stainless steel in January 2021. The shorter period in qvevri makes for a wine less “orange” than some, although you’d certainly call it amber, just about. The fragrant bouquet shows apricot and pear, with apricot and soft lemon on the palate. You find there’s a little texture, but not a lot. In this respect it may suit those who are wary of the full-on tannins in some clay-fermented wines. For me, it was lovely. I really liked it and would (will) definitely buy it again.
It cost £21.50 from the Oxford Wine Company, and is imported by Taste of Georgia.
AUVERNIER NON-FILTRÉ 2019, DOMAINE DE MONTMOLLIN (Neuchâtel, Switzerland)
This Domaine has been making wine in the village of Auvernier since the 1600s. It’s a fairly large family estate of around 50 hectares, run today by De Montmollin siblings Benoît and Rachel. The estate is now fully biodynamic, though certified organic. They grow grapes on clay and limestone in eight villages along the shores of the Lac de Neuchâtel, benefiting from the sunlight reflected off the water to ripen them to a greater level than this northerly region might otherwise allow.
You have probably guessed that the variety here is Chasselas, a grape I do have, some say, a perverse liking for. But this is unquestionably a good one. It is vinified in stainless steel for freshness with just a short period of ageing before transfer to bottle. The result is a pale wine with a herbal/biscuity nose. The palate has a touch of lemon and then a hint of more exotic fruit. It dances lightly across the tongue and whilst I generally prefer this unfiltered wine a year younger, this 2019 hasn’t, to be fair, lost an ounce of freshness.
So, you say, “but Swiss wines are so expensive”. Well, this is just £22.20 at Alpine Wines. For around £6 more you can also taste the Neuchâtel speciality, Oeil de Perdrix, a pale partridge-eye Rosé made from Pinot Noir. I suppose I do have a soft spot for Domaine de Montmollin, but then they do make some tasty wines.
JUNMAI GINJO SPARKLING SAKE, AKASHI-TAI (Akashi City, Japan)
So, I do occasionally veer away from wine to other alcoholic beverages. If anyone has read my past pieces on Japan you will know I’m in love with that country. I don’t, to be fair, buy lots of sake, especially the sparkling version, but I wasn’t going to leave this on the shelf when I was picking up a Georgian stash from OWC’s Turl Street shop in Oxford
This is a bottle-fermented sake from Akashi City, near Kobe, and is made by the Yonezawa family who run the Akashi Sake Brewery Company. Anthony Rose in his excellent “Sake and the Wines of Japan” (Infinite Ideas, 2018) explains that Tai is sea bream, hence the label, I guess. After the 1995 Kobe earthquake the company relocated their brewery premises, using the opportunity to update equipment, and production was further updated, perhaps revolutionised (though that is perhaps a little strong for the way things move in Japan) by Kimio Yonezawa when he took over from his father. For sure, there seems to have been a jump in quality.
This sparkling sake is off-dry with a bouquet of peach, soft lemon/yuzu and melon, with just a hint of rice flavour (less than in most still sake). It has a lovely freshness to it, lifted by the fine bubbles. The water in Akashi (which again I would never have known without Anthony Rose) is very soft, a key to the sake they make, although they do filter out any iron content. The alcohol level is just 7%.
Akashi Brewery is one of the most export-orientated sake producers in Japan. Around 50% of sales goes overseas and the UK was their first export market (Rose, p192).
There’s just one downside to this lovely drink, and that is the bottle size, just 30cl. This also makes it perhaps more expensive than it seems at first sight but don’t let that put you off. Buy a bottle each and it will set you back £34 for a couple. It will be well worth it to try something different.
You should find this for £17 at Oxford Wine Company, who have a number of branches dotted in and around Oxford, Turl Street being the most central.
“VOX SILENTIUM” 2017, DVA DUBY (Moravia, Czechia)
Jiri Sebela is the man behind DVA Duby, making wine at Dolni Kounice in Moravia’s south, near the Austrian border. The soils here are pre-Cambrian, over 700 million years old, based on Granodiorite. This is volcanic rock and soil, but from magma, not lava flows, and soils are a fairly thin layer over solid (very solid) rock. Farming is biodynamic and winemaking is close to zero intervention, with just a little SO2 being added before bottling.
Silentium is Jiri’s top of the range Frankovka (aka Blaufränkisch) from a single plot. The wine has concentrated raspberry and dark fruits at its heart. The added complexity comes through on the nose (floral notes) and fresh acids on the palate which give way to a deeper fruit concentration. The wine is dark in colour and over-all this perhaps suggests a brooding presence. When you taste it, and perhaps notice the lowish 12.5% abv, you are surprised and instantly uplifted. Uplifting is a pretty good word to use to describe this intense and exciting bottle.
I think this vintage has just the right amount of age, keeping its vibrancy yet perhaps allowing the concentrated fruit to mellow and develop. It’s a beautiful natural wine and one of the best from Basket Press Wines this year. Not that I’ve had any that were less than very good. Check out my notes from their London Portfolio Tasting published on 17 March.
ORANGE WAS THE COLOR OF HER DRESS 2015, PATRICE BEGUET (Jura, France)
Patrice Beguet is based at Mesnay, just a stroll outside of Arbois. He farms vines here and on prime sites over at Pupillin, where Pierre Overnoy gave him early encouragement. It’s a wonder he’s ever at home to receive visitors to his house and cellar right next to Mesnay’s tottering church. He started out in 2009, the domaine initially called Hughes-Beguet, adding the name of his former (English) wife. Within around three years Patrice achieved Demeter biodynamic certification, and he’s definitely one of the most environmentally conscious growers in a town and region well known for its focus on regeneration and sustainable, low intervention, viticulture.
The range has changed quite dramatically here over the years, as have the labels. This cuvée, which I believe 2015 was the first vintage, is a reference to one of Patrice’s musical idols, Charles Mingus. It sports his mid-period couture, a lovely lithographic image which was adapted from that used by his grandfather for his Gentiane. It’s a skin contact Savagnin (the ouillé version is named Oh Yeah!). It sees five months on skins in barrel after a three-week whole berry fermentation, though Patrice says it is more of an infusion than a maceration because there is no lees stirring, or pumping over. Patrice used to add a little sulphur to just his white (sic) wines, but 2015 was the first vintage he went sulphur free on everything.
It’s very orange, to be sure. The bouquet is fairly exotic with floral notes above rich fruits (mango especially) and cinnamon spice. The palate veers more to apricot with a hint of caramel and honey on a long finish. It has aged very nicely. You get a gorgeous mellow richness but it’s still fresh as well. Many have described 2015 as Patrice’s best vintage, although recent wines have been, without doubt, as good as he’s ever made, despite frost-ravaged harvests.
This bottle was purchased at the domaine, but Patrice Beguet is imported by Les Caves de Pyrene, who should have a selection of his more recent bottlings.
LE MÛR MÛR DE LA GAUDRONNIÈRE MOELLEUX 2011, DOMAINE DE LA GAUDRONNIÈRE (Loire, France)
The late Christian D’Orléans was an artisan vigneron based at Cellettes, near to the village and royal château of Cheverny, just south of Blois in Eastern Touraine. This producer, as I mentioned in my intro, provided wine for the father of a French friend. His cellar was amazing, and among all his First and Second Growth Bordeaux you would find boxes of Christian’s wines. For this reason, we paid him a visit when staying down there. We bought a selection of his wines but sadly he passed away a couple of years later. This sweet Moelleux wine, which he recommended we age for at least a decade, was the last bottle from that stash. Out of respect we did, which was a good move.
This is not in any way an expensive wine made by some internationally famous producer, but what it clearly shows is the occasional capacity of the obscure Romorantin grape, only grown now in this one appellation, to age to sublimity. Yellow-gold, like a wedding band, it smelt of rich honey, apricot and a little bit of curry spice. The palate was still bright. It would certainly be described as sweet, but not excessively so, with no hint of cloying. The texture and acids actually give it short moments of dryness, especially on that finish which, to my palate, was surprisingly reminiscent of Chenin Blanc. This all hangs on a fleshy core of honey. A lovely wine and very much more impressive than I expected.
The Appellation, Cour-Cheverny, I am assured by eminent sources, is exclusively for dry (often quite tart) wines made only from the Romorantin grape. Well, this was sweet, not dry, even if age had blunted the sweetness just a bit.
Purchased at the domaine, I don’t think you will find these wines very easily, certainly not in the UK. There are, however, many importers of very fine Moelleux Chenin Blanc from the Loire. Romorantin, less so. Perhaps the variety doesn’t always have this capacity to age? I truly wish that I’d bought more Loire Moelleux to lay down when I was younger. The rewards are usually far greater than the outlay would have been at the time.