The final eight wines from October include a few which are unusual, even by my standards, though for different reasons, and actually, one isn’t a wine. We have a smart Oregon Pinot, A Furmint from Austria, an Austrian red from a couple whose wines had been out of my physical reach for a while, a wonderful Czech cider, a German Spätburgunder, a magnum from the “Drinking Against Sinking” project and a very good value Mencia blend from Ribeira Sacra in Galicia.
Cuvée Laurène 2007, Domaine Drouhin (Oregon, USA)
Twice recently I have opened a wine I purchased long ago thinking that it might be past its best, and been pleasantly surprised. The first of these is a wine I bought so long ago the small London wine shop where I found it has long gone. It’s the product of Burgundy negociant Joseph Drouhin’s North American arm, which had been founded as long ago as 1987. That’s twenty years before this vintage, proving that they were very much ahead of the game.
The large, 225-acre, Drouhin estate in Oregon lies in the Dundee Hills, overlooking the Willamette Valley and the Cascade Mountains. Once the new frontier of North American winemaking, the Drouhin scouts chose well. The Dundee Hills has become rather crowded now with plenty of big-name estates making the most of a climate which favours the Pinot varieties, Chardonnay and Riesling. The soils, mostly basalt with red loam as topsoil, favour Pinot Noir especially.
This wine was made by Veronique Drouhin-Boss from an assemblage of barrels from their best lots. Cuvée Laurène was first released in 1992 so not only did the vines have plenty of time to mature, but the style of the cuvée had time to bed down. The result, when given fifteen years ageing, was magnificent.
I knew Laurène has a reputation for ageability but there comes a time when you lose your nerve and think a wine may have sat there too long. On opening it has a nice scent, even in the bottle. The colour had a classic brick red rim and in the glass the bouquet developed into a lovely cherry bass note. Next to emerge was an earthy note with spice escaping skywards, just captured fleetingly in the nasal passages. Autumnal, but definitely focused.
Robert Parker predicted some years ago that it would drink through to 2022, but I would say this is not quite fully mature, though I’d imagine I can go a bit further than Mr Parker with Pinot maturity. By now it has become a stately wine which could rival many Burgundies, not that this is what it’s all about. I found it sublime.
Domaine Drouhin’s Oregon wines are, I believe, now imported by Berkmann Wine Cellars.
Furmint 2019, Heidi Schröck & Söhne (Burgenland, Austria)
Heidi Schröck was the first Burgenland producer I visited, on my first trip to Rust. Her cellar lies on the edge of the magnificent main square of the town, worth planning a trip to for a host of reasons, even if you weren’t a wine lover. I’ve been lucky since then to purchase Heidi’s wines from, I believe, three different sources in the UK, but I’ve added a fourth since moving to Scotland.
Heidi has run her ten-hectare family estate since 1983, and since my visit she has been joined by her twin sons, Johanne and Georg, hence the estate’s subtle change of name since I last wrote about one of her wines. This bottle’s purchase also coincides with Heidi being named Falstaff Magazine Winemaker of the Year, a well-deserved accolade in my opinion.
It comes from two sites farmed by Heidi near the shores of the Neusiedlersee, called “Turner” (no idea?) and Vogelsang. The vines have seen no herbicides nor pesticides, as is increasingly the case in this fragile ecosystem so essential for bird life (which is far more diverse than just the large numbers of storks who nest on the town’s chimneys).
Furmint is, of course, a Hungarian variety, but it has always had a presence in Rust because the town (and its Royal Charter) dates back to the time it was technically part of Hungary, within the Austro-Hungarian Empire, this despite being relatively close to Vienna. The variety fell from favour and plantings were much reduced in previous decades, but it is now almost fashionable again. There are certainly a number of very talented winemakers here who use Furmint now.
The soils in these two vineyard sites are predominantly loam, with sand and gravel, plus a bit of quartz interspersed, which over many years I’ve come to believe does affect the wines in terms of a kind of mineral focus. This cuvée is both fermented and aged in large (1,500-to-2,000-litre) acacia barrels, spending eighteen months on fine lees. That adds the lovely texture we get. It has Riesling-like precision with its focused fruit, acids and salinity. I really think occasionally Furmint does a pretty good impression of Riesling until it opens out into something different.
Beneath all that you do get fruit coming through. All taken together, it’s a lovely wine for the price. I had wondered whether a 2019 would have tired a bit, but not at all. The vintage was excellent for its sugar/acid balance on this (western) side of the lake.
This excellent wine cost just £19 from local merchant, Lockett Brothers, via Liberty Wines. Unfortunately, it is currently the only Heidi Schröck wine they stock, but it’s a pretty good place to start.
Ret 2020, Alex & Maria Koppitsch (Burgenland, Austria)
We stay in Burgenland, and on the shores of the Neusiedlersee for our next wine, but we move north and a little east, to the town of Neusiedl-am-See itself. I’ve known Alex and Maria for a few years, Maria a couple of years longer having first met her at London wine fairs. I immediately engaged with the wines, and said so quite vocally at the time. Due to their initial choice of importer, Koppitsch wines didn’t quite get the UK distribution I had hoped for. Now I’m lucky to be able to get my hands on a number up here in Scotland.
The farming and winemaking here are biodynamic and increasingly “natural”. Ret is one of the Koppitsch entry level wines, fun and easy drinking by design. We have 80% Zweigelt blended with 20% Saint Laurent, from thirty-year-old vines off the gravels sloping down to the lake. The grapes were destemmed and fermented on skins over eight days, most going into stainless steel, but with some of the Zweigelt seeing acacia barrels. As a side note, I’m sure that it hasn’t gone unnoticed how plenty of Czech and Austrian producers are using acacia more and more, either alongside or instead of oak.
The wine sits on its lees for 16 months before blending the three different parts together prior to bottling. At this stage 5mg of sulphur is added, the only chemical manipulation the wine sees. The result is certainly not complex, but the Koppitsch’s can do more complex stuff with other wines intended for ageing. This is glouglou pure and simple, low alcohol (10%), gorgeously refreshing, made lively by a hint of CO2. The fruit, as always when this increasingly popular grape blend is done well, is zippy strawberry and raspberry juice with an undertone of blackcurrant and dark cherry playing minor roles.
I hope that now that the excellent small importer, Roland Wines, has the Koppitsch agency in the UK we shall see these beguilingly thirst-quenching wines grab more indie shelf space. I have also managed to top-up on their pink petnat, a long-time favourite.
“Play na ná nánana” 2020, Utopia Cider feat Milan Nestarec (Sudkuv Dul, Czechia)
I’ve written about the ciders of Utopia before. This is not exactly a new idea, but it is a new departure for Eva and Ivo. We know there are ciders which have wine added to them, cf Tim Phillips’s Hampshire gems and equally, those produced by Tom Shobbrook in Australia. The “Play” series goes one small step further. Utopia’s apples, from their orchards in the Josafat Valley are pressed, fermented and bottled, where they are blended with grapes from a Czech wine producer.
Each beverage (neither wine, but not exactly cider) in this series has a (kind of) musical title, and a recommended track to listen to whilst drinking it. “na na nanana” features Welschriesling and Rheinriesing on skins from Moldavian star, Milan Nestarec. There are a number of other bottlings in the series using the wines of other producers, but I think so far this is the best, and very possibly the best thing I’ve tasted from Ivo yet (though the newly imported Utopia Drinking Vinegars, which I tasted at Autentikfest in Moravia this summer, match the ciders, a real revelation, probably the most exciting new product I’ve tasted for some years).
The cider is lightly sparkling, gentle and not at all aggressive. The skin contact element does show through, giving texture, yet it is unobtrusive. Like all similar products, there’s a definite wine element. If you are a cider purist you do need to be aware of that, but I myself find this and similar products innovative and exciting. With 7% abv this is almost non-alcoholic, and goes down like a very refined gently sparkling natural apple juice (we are very much in zero additives land, and that means no sulphur added too). Trust me, you need more of this than just the odd bottle added to a mixed case (my error).
Utopia ciders and vinegars are imported by Basket Press Wines. For anyone tempted, the track paired with this cider is at sptfy.com/nananana. “Live is Life” might not be so much my bag, but don’t let it put you off the drink, which is brilliant, and costs under £15 for a superbly crafted, artisan, product.
Schweigener Spätburgunder 2013, Weingut Friedrich Becker (Pfalz, Germany)
Fritz Becker Junior (Kleine Fritz) may farm in the Pfalz, but you literally could not get further south in that region. So much so that those of his vineyards near his base at Schweigen which spill down the hill towards the Abbey of Wissembourg are in France. Those vineyards are technically in Alsace, and worthy of Grand Cru designation, but Becker’s wines are all subject to German wine law and labelling, whether they come from the French or the German side of the border.
This requires the labelling of those wines in a way which can only hint at the French names for those sites. Things are not so difficult with this cuvée, the grapes coming from vines on the German side and designated not by single site but as a village wine. It’s a good way in to sample the wines of this top producer, because the single vineyards are somewhat more expensive than the £26 or so you will pay for the current vintage.
This “Schweigener” shows an attractive ruby red colour with mostly cherry and lighter red fruits on a nicely perfumed nose. This then develops further with a forest floor bouquet, hinting at pine needles on dry earth. Despite its age it has a little structure still, and I know others have been surprised at this wine’s structure when younger. I would say this hasn’t completely reached its peak but the fruit is abundant.
The vineyard has limestone soils and the vines are approximately between 30-60 years of age. Fermentation is for three weeks in open vat followed by 16 months ageing in barrique. The Becker family usually buys barrels from Burgundy (the region which remains Fritz’s inspiration), but he’d rather buy a good quality used barrel than a cheaper new one.
When we read about German Spätburgunder there are often a number of names mentioned, but you find that the Becker name generally comes up only when the true aficionados (or the German writers) are writing. Becker’s top wines are hard to source (we are talking the special selections above GG level), and the prices are beyond almost everyone I know. However, I just love the wines he makes which fall within my price range, which is pretty lucky really.
Weingut Friedrich Becker’s wines are usually available from both The Wine Society and German specialist, The Wine Barn. Expect to pay around £30 for this in a current vintage in the UK.
Pinot Noir Nature 2021, Lucas & André Rieffel (Alsace, France)
As a nice contrast to the Becker wine above, we are looking at a Pinot Noir from Alsace. Although Mittelbergheim is in the more northerly sector, the Bas Rhin, we are still a little over an hour by car from Schweigen. We are also in a somewhat different place philosophically as well. Fritz Becker makes wines which are individual and express his wonderful terroir, for sure, but they do take their inspiration from Burgandy. Rieffel, father and son, are making a very Alsace-focused wine, expressing both their own unique terroir and their natural wine philosophy.
Mittelbergheim is, of course, noted as potentially having some of the finest Pinot Noir terroir in the region. The variety can now be designated Grand Cru from neighbouring Barr’s “Kirchberg de Barr” (as well as from Hengst at Wintzenheim) from the 2022 vintage…so long as the wines follow the rules.
This wine comes not from any posh Grand Cru, but from vines below the village, sloping towards the main road. It is fermented as whole bunches in stainless steel and then goes into used barriques (though like Becker, also from Burgundy) for around eight-to-ten months before bottling.
“Nature” is the most easy-drinking of the three (I think) Pinots they make. The aim is to emphasise the fruit over all else, and in this they succeed magnificently. As it says on the label (“Nature”), the wine is not only neither fined nor filtered, but sees no added sulphur. Carbon dioxide is used as a protection against oxidation.
You get an explosion of bright cherry fruit on both nose and palate. The acidity is all pure fruit acids and there is a faint prickle from the CO2. The finish, carried along by all this liveliness, lasts as long as some fine wines, but it is trying to be nothing more than fruity fun.
I drink this quite often. I find it irresistible. It tastes of a sunny afternoon spent in the shadow of a cherry tree, although its lightness does mask 13% alcohol. That’s only half a degree less than many a serious Burgundian Pinot. The overall frivolity does trick you into glugging this back, trust me. Don’t go operating machinery, as they say, after finishing a bottle. You will definitely want to finish it.
This was £29 from Cork & Cask in Edinburgh and is quite widely available through a range of indie wine merchants.
“Drinking Against Sinking” MV, Petr Koráb (Moravia, Czechia)
In Part 1, I wrote about one of Petr’s more frivolous and fun wines, Raspberry on Ice. This magnum is slightly more serious, both as a wine and in its purpose. Drinking Against Sinking was a movement among mostly European winemakers (plus one in Argentina) where they made wine, all with the same label (which they could download), profits going to local businesses, like restaurants and retailers, hit by Covid during the first part of the pandemic. All the wineries involved (including Koppitsch from Burgenland, whose “Ret” I wrote about above) were either natural wine producers, or at the very least organic. A worthy cause. There wasn’t a great deal in the UK, but I managed to bag a mag(num) from Petr’s UK importer.
I must say that Koráb has bottled one of his most impressive wines yet under this label. It’s a field blend of grapes coming from three consecutive vintages. First, we have the juice from his Natur Rysek 2016, macerated over winter. Then comes Orange Traminer, with six months on skins, from the 2017 vintage. Finally, Ryzlynk Vlassky from 2018, grapes picked with a touch of botrytis.
Although you will read elsewhere that this is an “orange wine”, the colour is more of a dark yellow than pure orange, and the smoothness and lack of tannins is commensurate with what you’d expect from that colour. Petr did say he’d made this to age, and yes, maybe it will last longer, but I thought it would make a good wine to open for a Halloween weekend gathering of a few family and friends…I was quite blown away. It was brilliant. Smooth mouthfeel with just a little texture, a little exotic, floral, peachy, with poise and panache.
Basket Press Wines, Petr Koráb’s UK importer, had a few of these. If there were 75cl bottles, even I wasn’t swift enough, but the magnums have all left their warehouse now. That said, a persistent search might throw up a few independent retailers who still have the odd magnum if their customers have no idea what it is, and how good it should be.
Lalama 2017, Dominio do Bibei (Ribeira Sacra, Spain)
Ribeira Sacra is in Galicia and stretches east from Ourense, and close to Pontevedra, all the way as far as the boundary with Bierzo (which is in Castilla y Léon). Some Godello is grown for increasingly sought-after white wines, but this is mainly red wine country. The terroir, to a degree, dictates this, being based on the steeply-terraced granite and slate slopes of the small DO’s twin rivers, the Sil and the wider Miño.
Dominio do Bibei is the producer, under the guidance of Javier Dominguez, with consultancy from star names in Northwest Spain, Raúl Pérez, René Barbier and others. As with most reds from Northwest Spain, the main variety is Mencia. This variety came to justifiable prominence in Bierzo a couple of decades ago, producing fragrant red wines with medium body. In my view it went through a dark period, in both senses, with extracted, tannic and carelessly oaked wines appearing from some sources. I think that has been dialled back somewhat, to most people’s relief.
Along with 90% Mencia there are a couple of interesting varieties in the blend. 7% is Brancellao, an autochthonous variety in the wider region, easy to ripen and which buds early. It’s a variety with generally quite high sugars and low acids. There is also 2% Alicante Bouschet in the mix, a teinturier variety (ie a red grape with red flesh, very uncommon in vitis vinifera). If you taste a pure varietal made from Alicante Bouschet (Portugal makes most of the best, with a few from the South of France) you will notice how incredibly intense the colour is. It’s usually used to beef up weedy reds, though this isn’t the case here. It’s probably why this wine is a little darker than much Mencia, though, because I’d definitely not place Lalama in that former over-extracted category.
Still, this vintage nevertheless packs 14% alcohol, despite it coming off north-facing slopes in a region that is unquestionably more Atlantic than Mediterranean. That said, I’ve seen other vintages of Lalama with around 12% abv. It’s quite potent, but it has a beautiful perfume. It has seen 18 months in a mix of barrique and foudre but the oak is pretty well done. It’s not overtly oaky. There is a smooth, rich, mouthfeel and cherry fruit coats the palate.
In many ways this is not a complex wine, and with 55,000 bottles of it produced each vintage one might not expect it to be, but the rich and tasty fruit is enough to make it attractive to drink. I’ve seen notes suggesting this 2017 will go to 2024, but I found it good to go now. My bottle (not my first, so obviously I quite like it) came from The Solent Cellar, and I think cost somewhere between £25-£30, but there is none currently listed online. I’m not sure of the importer, although it could be Lay & Wheeler. It certainly has a decent UK distribution, ably pedalled by Bibei’s export team.