Time seems to be zipping forward quite swiftly in 2023, especially as the evenings are noticeably lighter here now, though it seems that winter’s icy claws are about to grip tightly once more, hopefully a last-gasp before proper spring. The wines I drank in early February, represented here, seem a long time ago, yet they were enjoyed during a relatively mild spell. Of seven wines there were only two reds, and quite light ones at that. Whites predominate in a selection from Alsace, Southern Spain, The Loire, Hungary (2), East Sussex, and Kent which takes us up to 16th of the month.
Pinot Noir “Libre Comme L’Air” 2020, Catherine Riss (Alsace, France)
Catherine Riss was on my radar for a good while before I began to drink her wines with any regularity, largely thanks to the wonderful Plateau in Brighton. I was quite surprised to see her wines more frequently after moving to Scotland, which seems to go hand-in-hand with a bit more Alsace appreciation in Glasgow and Edinburgh.
Catherine gained part of her winemaking experience with Chapoutier, not in the Rhône but in their Alsace vineyard at Reichsfeld, not far from her current cellar at Bernardvillé, which is just south of Andlau in what I call the Mittelbergheim basin, or enclave, of natural wine excellence.
The grapes for “Libre” come from the commune of Eichhoffen, east of Andlau. The red grapes are macerated as whole bunches for two weeks with one pump-over each day for gentle extraction. The wine goes into used Burgundy barrels for ten months, resting on its lees, but Catherine doesn’t rack the wine.
It’s a new cuvée for me, although I’m very familiar with this producer’s Pinot Noir “Empriente”. It sports another of Catherine’s distinctive, quirky, labels designed by Julien Kuntz. The wine is really quite concentrated, but not extracted. The dominating element is fruit, packed with cherry and berry flavours, on both nose and palate. It has a natural zip to carry the concentrated fruit, making it both refreshing, but not frivolous. The wine retains some CO2 which manifests on the tongue, and which protects a wine which has no added sulphites. Like all of her wines, it’s very moreish.
£32 from Cork & Cask, Edinburgh.
Vino Blanco 2014, Navazos-Niepoort (Jerez/Sanlúcar, Spain)
Before we all started buying Equipo-Navazos “Florpower” there was this white wine collaboration with Dirk Niepoort. The idea back then (hard to believe the first vintage was 2008) was to make an unfortified version of Palomino Fino from the finest albariza chalk sites in the Jerez-Sanlúcar corridor, as a mirror of what would have been the norm back in the early nineteenth century.
Whereas now you can find unfortified Palomino fairly easily, this was innovation, and innovation of the highest order. The grape had been “traditionally” fortified with grape brandy for two hundred years before these experiments (not only by this team) took hold. Many people have come to realise just how good the variety is, and not just in its homeland (try Christina Rasmussen’s version which she made from California old vines if you can find it). This collaboration has proved the point, especially this vintage, from magnum, with around eight years in bottle.
This cuvée saw eight months under flor in forty-year-old American oak casks of 600-litres, which were filled to 5/6 capacity. The result certainly has a nutty flor character, but this has softened somewhat over time. With age it has developed depth and smoothness, and strangely it has an almost “Puligny” quality to it. Nutty, rich, majestic, a perfect (I don’t use that word lightly) expression of Macharnudo Alto, one of the region’s most famous vineyards.
We drank this with family at a big lunch. I originally had three magnums of the ’14. One was enjoyed in youth, but sadly I took the second to family dinner where one partner is from Seville. I discovered she only drinks red wine and I have no idea what fate befell this unopened magnum. If they still have it, on the evidence of this third magnum, it might be nothing short of stunning. Despite my fears, there’s absolutely no hurry to drink up.
Originally shipped direct from Equipo-Navazos.
Babylone 2019, La Table Rouge/Du Vin aux Liens (Loire, France)
I’ve already mentioned this wine in my popular recent article on Vanessa Letort’s wine collective “Du Vin aux Liens” (27 January, see side bar to right for link). Alongside Alsace winemakers Vanessa works with a few Loire producers, despite her base being at Beblenheim in Alsace, largely because she studied at the Lycée Viticole in Amboise. Philippe Chigard, who farms the micro estate “La Table Rouge” (0.8 ha) with his partner Claude Cabel-Airaud, was a teacher at Amboise. Their vines are at Noizay, near Vouvray in Touraine.
The partnership with Vanessa works because of the tiny vine holding, so tiny that Philippe calls himself a wine gardener rather than a vigneron. The vines are actually spread over four different plots, and they grow several local varieties, including this Pineau d’Aunis. Perhaps this is not a variety especially common to the Vouvray/Montlouis region, where it is more often Chenin Blanc which dominates, but Noizay is right on the eastern edge of the appellation, on the other side of the river Brenne. Needless to say, for a host of reasons, this red is bottled as Vin de France.
We have a whole bunch fermentation of biodynamically grown fruit. It saw ten months ageing on lees in old oak with minimal manipulation, and no sulphites were added at any stage. It has a ruby colour, but is almost transparent. The lovely bouquet sends out aromas of strawberry, blueberry and soft cherry, which here is a truly lovely combination. There’s a good hint of pepper here too, just enough to spice up the fruit. Imagine a wine which is smooth, yet with a zesty acidity to balance.
Imported by Sevslo (Glasgow) and purchased at Winekraft (Edinburgh), £24.
A Change of Heart 2020, Réka-Koncz (Eastern Hungary)
This was my last bottle of Annamária’s beautiful Kékfrankos (aka Blaufränkisch) from Barabás in Eastern Hungary. I didn’t know at the time but Annamária was unable to make a red wine in 2021, so that when my wines from that vintage arrive (if the courier can avoid breaking them, or was it stealing them, at the second attempt) I shall have to make do with white/orange for a year (though there is a new cuvée to try).
Annamária’s red wine has gained in several areas over the few years I’ve been drinking it. This may be down to vine age, but this bottle seems to be a little bit more structured, yet at the same time there’s a lightness as well. The fruit is very smooth, which I guess adds to the balance. That fruit is in both the red and dark berry spectrum, plump and “lifted”. This gives the wine over all an ethereal quality which I like a lot. Even in 2020 only 1,750 bottles of this cuvée were made.
Imported by Basket Press Wines. Although, as I said, there is no red wine this year, Annamária has produced a good selection of other cuvées, white, orange/amber and sparkling. They have just arrived in the UK and they will sell out very quickly. If you want to get on the Réka-Koncz bus, do not delay. I am yet to try the 2021 vintage, but nothing so far has led me away from telling all and sundry that these are some of the most interesting and exciting wines I have discovered these past three or four years.
Cuvée Oliver Minkley 2011, Breaky Bottom (Sussex, England)
I’ve often extolled Peter Hall’s 2010 pair as the finest wines I’ve bought from this favourite English estate, perhaps in England’s most attractive setting, hidden in a hollow of the South Downs. Whether this 2011 exceeds, or merely matches, those 2010s I cannot say. Every bottle is a new experience, and this one is a bottle I can’t recall being bettered.
Peter decided to blend all of his four varieties into this small batch wine for one of his two cuvées of 2011. We therefore have 60% Chardonnay with 30% Seyval Blanc, the last 10% being an equal split of Pinot Noir and Meunier. It has aged magnificently so that we have a mix of bready brioche (we really do have brioche here, not the brioche cliché) and autumnal fruits like softer-flavoured apple and even a touch of quince.
Oliver Minkley worked part-time at Breaky Bottom but sadly died in 2010 at the young age of 35. This rather special wine is a fitting tribute to the man. Only 2,600 bottles were produced (Peter’s other 2011 is Cuvée Cornelis Hendriksen, of which there were rather more, over 6,700, bottles made). You can still find some Oliver Minkley around. Try Butlers Wine Cellar (Brighton) or Forth & Church (Hove). Peter still has some for sale direct from the vineyard (see his web site), on limited allocation. Corney & Barrow might also have a little.
Vulkan #2 , Meinklang (Somlό, Hungary)
Meinklang will be known to many readers as one of the most interesting natural wine producers in Burgenland, farming wine, cereals and cattle at Pamhagen on the southern shore of Austria’s Neusiedlersee. They also farm vines on the slopes of the Somlό Massif in Hungary, where the family once had vine holdings before Communism removed their ownership.
The terroir here is full-on volcanic, the site being a distinctive volcanic plug. The grape varieties are Háslevelű and Juhfark. This wine was in fact my wine of the day at Cork & Cask’s winter wine fair in Edinburgh last year, and this bottle was the result of popping into their shop on the way home to make sure I got some. It tastes quite similar in style to a Gemischter Satz, although we only have two varieties. It’s both spritzy and savoury, and very refreshing. Definitely 100% satisfaction. The volcanic terroir comes through via a stony mineral dryness on the tongue, but there is also fresh grapefruit and just a hint of something more exotic (papaya?).
£26 from Cork & Cask (Edinburgh).
Pelegrim NV, Westwell Vineyards (Kent, England)
I drank a pre-release bottle of this back in October last year, but another came in a mixed case offer of English wines I purchased before Christmas. Although I wanted to see how this revamped release from Westwell would taste after a few more months settling in bottle, I couldn’t resist opening it. The reason – that original bottle was just so astonishingly fresh and whilst you can get the flavours of development and age on bottle-fermented sparkling wine by sticking it in the rack and forgetting about it, it isn’t always easy to find a wine which tastes quite this good when young.
The blend is the classic Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Meunier, given three years on lees in bottle before disgorgement. Adrian Pike’s masterful winemaking is on display here. Autolytic character will certainly come if you leave it a while, but we are still looking at a wine which shouts vivacity, or perhaps “off-the-scale” freshness. I don’t mean acidity as such because the wine is in balance, but it does have a certain tension which I find thrilling. The lees ageing has certainly softened acidity, but not too much. There are wines, I’m thinking of Péters’s Chetillons, where you’d say it’s just far too young, but I don’t get that impression with Pelegrim. It is already quite harmonious, definitely a triumph from a winery and a winemaker who gains in stature with each vintage.
Westwell’s UK agent is Uncharted Wines. Westwell also sells direct (no cheaper though) and are open for visitors (check their web site for times).