The eagle-eyed reader will have noticed that when I published Part 1, I called it Part 2. The brain fog lasted a day before I corrected it. This is the real Part 2 with, I promise you, a different set of wines.
My Part 2 selection from December covers most of the wines I drank at home during the second half of the month, from 18th to 26th. After this there’s a large gap until 8 January as I was struck down by that awful “Not Covid” virus. Nevertheless, this selection covers the festivities of Christmas Day and Boxing Day, so we start out with some natural wines (two English, one Swiss and one from Alsace), and then we throw in a few classics from Burgundy, Tuscany and Rioja. That Rioja may have been the last alcohol I drank in December, but I did manage to enjoy another one of the Euforia birch saps, which are very interesting indeed. I’ve tagged that onto the end.
Seyval Blanc 2017, Charlie Herring Wines (Hampshire, England)
This is, I guess, a sample bottle of Tim Phillips’s Seyval, the first of which I’ve tasted. I don’t think this is available (prod me if I’m wrong, Tim) but he does plan to release the 2018 vintage around Easter time. The vines aren’t grown in Tim’s own walled vineyard, but on a plot close to his winery at Pennington. They were planted in the 1960s, so really before the first planting boom in the county, by Mark Turley, on his Black Barn Vineyard.
The key to this wine is Tim’s usual reticence to let go until he feels it’s good and ready. This is often down to his gut feeling and intuition rather than analysis. This vintage was dosed at 5g/l which to me seems well judged for the variety. At five years post-harvest (but disgorged October 2020, so two years pda) it has some autolytic character which has rounded out the variety’s natural acidity, yet it keeps its spine intact. There’s also nice weight on the palate to balance the acids.
Initially I saw some similarities to Tim’s Riesling, perhaps in the mineral edge, but then his Sauvignon Blanc came to mind. You probably know that, for me, Breaky Bottom is the benchmark for sparkling Seyval Blanc. This 2017 isn’t quite a match for Peter Hall’s still available 2010 (I’m sure Tim will agree), but it is extremely good and coming up on the rails. I wonder what Tim’s 2018 will taste like. Knowing Tim, he’ll be aiming for something even better (he always has something in mind to aim at), but if it were merely as good as the 2017 it would come more than highly recommended.
I don’t know where the 2018 will be available when released. I understand there may be around 250 bottles, so as with Tim’s other wines, unicorn alert.
Ham Street Wines Petnat 2021 (Wiltshire via Kent, England)
This blend of Pinot Gris, Bacchus and Pinot Noir comes from a regeneratively farmed vineyard on the periphery of Kent’s Romney Marshes. Lucie Swiestowska and Jules Phillips (no relation to Tim) planted 16,000 vines on an original 4-hectare site in 2019, near the village of Hamstreet, just south of Ashford. These include the varieties in this blend along with Meunier and Chardonnay. They began to supply their fine organic fruit to Daniel Ham for his Offbeat Wines, made in Wiltshire. In 2021 Daniel made and bottled some of those grapes for Jules and Lucie’s first wine under their own Ham Street label.
The farming is now effectively biodynamic, though not as yet certified (organic certification due this year). At the winery all the grapes for this cuvée were vatted together and the wine was made with no added sulphites. The Pinot saw a little foot treading, the rest were macerated overnight with pressing the next day. The result is a pink petnat which is simple but lovely and fresh, a genuine thirst quencher. The scent of gentle strawberry and other red fruits is mirrored on the palate, which rides on a line of brittle acidity at a mere 10.5% abv.
The wine was not disgorged, so the bottle contains sediment, which one can invert to distribute and thereby increase the wine’s texture and flavour, or which the less adventurous can stand up and let it settle in the bottle and enjoy clear. A classic English petnat in so many ways. Lightly sparkling, it’s a very nice treat, especially as I grabbed one of only 484 bottles made. One to look out for from the 2022 vintage when bottled this year.
This came from Cork & Cask in Edinburgh, and cost £25. The ’21 is, of course, sold out. The wines are distributed by Wines Under the Bonnet.
Blauburgunder 2018, Bechtel Weine (Zürich, Switzerland)
One of Mathias Bechtel’s wines appeared in my recent “Wines of the Year”, so I won’t repeat everything I said there. Mathias is a very highly regarded winemaker who works the slopes of the tiny but prestigious enclave of Eglisau in the Canton of Zürich. His Pinot Noirs are becoming famous, and expensive. Blauburgunder, using the Swiss name for the same variety, is how he labels his entry level wine. This is the penultimate bottle of four.
Over time this 2018 has matured in bottle and become more assured. It doesn’t taste “entry level” to be honest. It is in the darker-fruits spectrum of Pinot, quite ripe fruit with an added smoky quality. I’d call it structured still, but not really tannic. As such it is drinking nicely as an accompaniment to food, but will age a little further for sure. I’ll see what happens with my last bottle.
I’ve purchased Bechtel mostly from importer Alpine Wines, although this bottle, and the one I have left, both came from The Solent Cellar in Lymington. They no longer have any (though I’m pleased to see they do have four Swiss wines in stock), but Alpine Wines (online) should have the 2019 or 2020 for £33.60. That isn’t inordinately expensive for Swiss wine, which, as so many commentators seem to be saying, might just break through properly this year on account of impending support from the Swiss government for wine exports.
Riesling sur Grès Cuvée Nature 2021, Domaine Durrmann (Alsace, France)
The Durrmann domaine occupies a fairly central position in the lovely wine town of Andlau, a town of which I am especially fond of not just for its wines but also for the walking (a day’s walk from Andlau can take you up to a number of ruined castles hidden away in the forest). The domaine was founded by André and Anne, but is now effectively run by their son, Yann.
I met André when I visited the domaine in 2017 (only meeting Yann later at the Real Wine Fair in 2019), and according to him I was the first English wine writer to do so, and to write about their wines. Since then, Yann has taken the wines more in the “natural” direction, a direction commenced by André, who began to use sheep in the vineyards, encouraged birds as natural insect predators, and drove around, whether locally or to Paris, only by electric vehicle.
“Sur Grès” is a direct pressed Riesling off sandstone (grès). As 2021 was a cooler vintage this is citrussy, precise and nicely textured. The fruit is quite appley. I am sure this will flourish further in bottle and I may try to pick up another to prove my point, but sometimes its nice to drink a Riesling which stands out for its purity, as this does right now. Not currently complex, but certainly dynamic, it hits the spot. It is lifted by a little dissolved CO2, making it lightly “perlant”, an old French phrase I’ve not seen used for a good while. “Nature” on a Durrmann label indicates their unsulphured cuvées.
Imported again by the excellent Wines Under the Bonnet, and purchased at Cork & Cask, Edinburgh (£23). Very good value.
Morey-Saint-Denis “Clos Solon” VV 2006, Domaine Fourrier (Burgundy, France)
This is another wine I don’t intend to expand on too much, in this case because it was among my Wines of the Year (see article 10 January 2023). It shouldn’t surprise anyone who knows me. Although I tend to buy natural wines, and increasingly wines which cost somewhat less than this domaine now costs, Fourrier was always one of my favourite producers of fine Red Burgundy back in the day. Clos Solon, an old vine lieu-dit, in the village of Morey-St-Denis on the Côte de Nuits, has always outshone its “village” designation, producing wines which age as well as many a Premier Cru. An insider wine, so to speak.
Jean-Marie Fourrier, who took over the running of the domaine in 1994, learnt his art with Henri Jayer, and subsequently in Oregon at Domaine Drouhin. He espouses a low intervention regime throughout the farming and winemaking process. There’s a touch of old school in what are nevertheless certainly not old-fashioned wines. This bottle has purity and balance, developing in the glass into a savoury, smoky, yet structured and restrained example from a vintage the critics and charts don’t rate up there with the best. Very good for whites but patchy for reds, though some nice ones from the Côte de Nuits, was the post-harvest generalisation, though the ever-optimistic Berry Brothers web site says that the 2006s “have developed significantly since…immediately after the harvest and are now a delight”.
I tend to think Berry Bros are right in this case, although they list the 2004 (not the 2006) for an equivalent of £300/bottle (3,600/case) in bond. Sadly, I won’t be buying Clos Solon again. That was my last bottle, and my penultimate Fourrier (I spotted a Gevrey, the domaine’s home village, in the rack). This one came from The Sampler in London many years ago. I don’t know what it cost, but I could afford it. It was, as you will have guessed, a fitting centrepiece for our family Christmas lunch.
**I only learnt today that Jean-Marie Fourrier took over as winemaker of the famous (or should I say cult) producer, Bass Phillip, in Victoria’s Gippsland, Australia in 2020. Ironically, or perhaps pertinently, Bass Phillip founder Phillip Jones is known to have wanted to create Pinot Noir in the image of the Henri Jayer wines he had loved in this oft-windswept region southwest of Melbourne. I can attest his initial success via a few rare bottles from one-time Australian importer par excellence, Vin du Van. I presume Jean-Marie is still involved at Fourrier.
Montecarlo Vin Santo 2003, Fattoria del Teso (Tuscany, Italy)
Vin Santo is a wine style I used to drink far more frequently when I was younger. I really enjoy it, and I think I got the taste for Vin Santo travelling in Tuscany in the late 1980s, when a glass with some cantucci biscuits, the classic combo, made a good substitute for dessert in the cheap restaurants we frequented on the road. I used to get to drink some at the Tuscan lunches I used to go to every year (latterly at the sadly now defunct Glasshouse in Kew), and most often at Christmas. Our tradition of leftovers with nuts and snacks in the evening always seems a good pairing.
This wine comes not from Chianti, but from Montecarlo, in the Province of Lucca in Northern Tuscany. The estate dates back to the 13th century. Today they farm a considerable 70-ha, Francesco Bartoletti consulting. This Vin Santo is made in the traditional way, whereby ripe Trebbiano di Toscana grapes are dried on reed mats and aged in an assortment of small wood (both oak and chestnut) in an attic room for two years. Heat rises and thus creates a warm environment, unlike the cool cellars more normally used for ageing wine.
The result is a sweetish and highly concentrated wine of dark amber colour and considerable complexity. Indeed, this complexity can contain contradictions, all to the wine’s benefit. The sweetness is echoed in scents and flavours of apricots and dried raisins, but the sweetness is matched by an intense savoury edge with almost a hint of bitterness. Such wines are very long-lived and this 2003 certainly tastes fresh and youthful. It is also rich, complex and long.
Living as I now do up here in Scotland, I can tell you that shopping at Valvona & Crolla near the top of Edinburgh’s Leith Walk is such a pleasure, especially at Christmas. This 500ml bottle (c£25) came from here, and it was far from being the only item I left with on that particular visit. Indeed, we only finished the last pieces of panforte at lunchtime on 15 January. I shall be back for more (of both).
Prado Enea Gran Reserva 2004, Bodegas Muga (Rioja, Spain)
This was our Boxing Day wine. From one of Rioja’s great Bodegas, this is a top cuvée made from 80% Tempranillo, the rest comprised of Garnacha, Graciano and Mazuelo. Only made in the best vintages, it spends twelve months in vat, three years in barrel and a further three years in bottle before release. It seems I’ve had this in my cellar for a long time.
Muga was founded way back in 1932, but the company really took off in the 1960s. Although they make a very modern version of the DOCa in Torre Muga, the Prado Enea Gran Reserva is the epitome of fine, traditional, wood-aged Rioja. Grapes are sourced from high altitude sites of their own, along with some exceptional parcels owned by other growers with whom they have worked for decades.
It showed a dark garnet colour in the glass and the bouquet was pretty complex once it began to open up. I’d say that tobacco notes dominated, though you also find hints of liquorice and peppermint. The palate has very deep fruit, not distant but neither is it in your face, with savoury dried fruit undertones. It’s quite a giant of a wine, not in the sense that its 14% alcohol dominates, nor that it is tannic. It just has a broad and sturdy structure.
Barquin, Gutiérrez and De La Serna, in The Finest Wines of Rioja etc (Aurum Press, 2011) call Prado Enea “intellectual” and I can see exactly what they mean. There are vintage sites that say the 2004 is at its peak, but I’m not sure it is. If I had a second bottle I’d try it after another decade, but as a word of caution, I’m very partial to old Tondonia.
Purchased from Majestic Wine. Do they still sell it? I think they have the 2015 for £54.99. Waitrose Cellar claims to have the 2014 for £59 (you can never be sure of the vintage with supermarket purchases). Berry Bros lists older vintages and overall, it’s not a difficult wine to source.
Euforia Fermented Birch Sap, Blackthorn (Bohemia, Czechia)
A few readers may have seen me write about these birch sap drinks a couple of times last year, and indeed in my article about Autentikfest, in Moravia, in the summer. It’s both a unique and unusual product made by a skilled and dedicated couple, Jan Klimeš and his wife, in the Bohemian Highlands of Northern Czechia (very close to Utopia Cider, with whom they are great friends).
The sap is collected from birch trees and then macerated, usually with fruit and in this case with wild blackthorn berries. The maceration takes place over a whole year before bottling and release. Although a type of fermentation does take place, it is a kind of malolactic, not alcoholic, fermentation and the product has zero alcohol. Nor are there any additives, so it is completely natural.
The taste has been described as akin to coconut water with a hint of aloe vera, but the macerated fruit gives the drink its taste profile. Some are enhanced, as this is, by a gentle effervescence. I think it tastes a little like some kombucha, and it certainly has a similar gently uplifting quality. The importer of these drinks, Basket Press Wines in the UK, says they are “considered to have great health benefits, very hydrating, diuretic, detoxifying, with high levels of manganese, amino acids and magnesium”.
I have now tried a good few of these and blackthorn remains one of my favourite flavours, alongside blackcurrant, rose hip and orange. In fact, I was personally less keen on non-fruit macerations, such as the pine, but that’s just me. They are all worth a try. They definitely make you somehow feel good after drinking them and seem, for me, to aid digestion. It’s something different to pull out when you don’t want alcohol for lunch, or in my case when you just couldn’t face a glass of wine. At £16 they are not cheap, but remember this is a natural artisan product, cheaper than wine and these days cheaper than much artisan cider. They are certainly unusual, but I’d definitely recommend giving them a try.