February yields just fourteen wines. Partly, I guess, as it’s a shorter month and partly because we drank some wines I wrote about in early winter. We will still go for two parts, seven wines in each. In Part One I offer you an exquisite and quite rare Bourgogne, a Priorat with a difference and a tasty white blend from Burgenland, followed by an unusual red Piemontese, a Savoie which might possibly be my wine of the year so far, another equally fantastic Burgenland, red this time, from one of my most adored producers and, to finish, a classic older South Australian Riesling, hailing from a different period in my wine life.
BOURGOGNE CHITRY 2018, ALICE & OLIVIER DE MOOR (Chablis, France)
The De Moors are based at Courgis, southwest of the town of Chablis, beyond the large Premier Cru of Montmains. It is remarkable to think that they have now been making wine here for more than thirty years, because in this time they have gone from being the first example of truly natural winemaking in the Chablis region to being acknowledged superstars whose wines fetch ever higher prices (as a very recent purchase of Premier Cru “Mont de Milieu” showed me). My first ever bottle of De Moor was their Chablis “Humeur du Temps”, picked up on a whim in a discounted bin at Berry Brothers’ “factory outlet” near Basingstoke well over a decade ago. One bottle and I was hooked. I’d never quite drunk Chablis like it.
Chitry is one of the so-called minor Bourgogne appellations in the general Chablis region, or perhaps I should say the Auxerrois. There is a key difference. The grapes for Chitry are still Chardonnay and still planted on clay/marl soils also prevalent in Chablis. However, without the famous name, few estates have made much effort with these wines. You can count on the fingers of one hand those Chablis producers who do, although a few domaines (such as Goissot) have made a name purely from Auxerrois fruit. But the terroir suggests more is possible, and from De Moor, it is.
The De Moors lavish as much effort here as in Chablis, so this wine, never very easy to source, can be something of a hidden gem. It’s fresh, very mineral, saline, but yet it has that rondeur coming from ageing in older oak (the 2018 was aged in a large foudre). It’s apple-fresh but with the touch of weight and gras that suggests a more “serious” appellation.
Such purity and beauty. As the back label states, “I am only the fruit of a respected and beloved soil…I hope to bring you joy”. You sure did, and the De Moors always do.
If you are lucky you will find this at Les Caves de Pyrene. Tiny quantities.
Priorat has something of a reputation in my house for very boozy, dense reds. Ever since I first bought a few bottles of Scala Dei back in the 1990s every bottle I have bought has perhaps seemed more impressive than enjoyable, very subjective I know. But on the tasting scene a few years ago I began to encounter Fredi Torres, who with Mark Lecha makes up Lectores Vini. After a long chat with him at Viñateros, one of the last tastings I went to in London in March 2020, I decided I needed to get a bottle to try at home. This was the first Priorat I’ve bought in many years, despite loving the wines of Spain more generally.
What stands Fredi Torres apart, as a Priorat producer, is the fact that he’s actually Galician. He’s also lived in Switzerland, Argentina, South Africa and Burgundy. His cosmopolitan winemaking activities cover Galicia (with Silice Viticultores) as well as Catalonia. What stands his Priorat apart is a much fresher style where acids play an important role. Although this “Classic” is made from only 70% Garnacha (with 25% Carignan and 5% Syrah), it has something in common with the beautiful new wave Grenache of Gredos et al. In fact, there’s even a splash of white Macabeo somewhere in here, and although it is raised in oak (around 15% new), it’s not oaky, even now at just over two years old.
It has an enticing bright colour with a purple rim. The bouquet is fragrant cherries which are translated to the palate where they sit happily with a twist of liquorice and a touch of tannin, both adding bite to the finish. This is a lovely modern Priorat. If these wines normally tire your palate, give this one a try.
A new name for a new era, as the irrepressible Renner sisters have been joined by their younger brother, Georg, in what will be the next exciting phase at this Gols estate already brimming with exciting wines and ideas. The big change here is really the putting into practice of an idea which Stefanie told me about a few years ago, when she stated the aim first to get to know each individual variety and their terroir…but in the long term to focus on blends. It is blends which really hold the greatest interest for the siblings.
Intergalactic is one of the new wines they have developed, in this case a white blend of Chardonnay (well, a little), Gewurztraminer, Grüner Veltliner, Muscat Ottonel and Welschriesling. The grapes all come from one vineyard planted in 2017, as a part of that project. It’s a true field blend, but not one that is co-fermented. The grapes are macerated on skins for three to eight days, depending on variety, which adds texture and a little colour, but not really a significant amount.
Next, the wine sees nine months ageing on gross lees, some in 225-litre barrels and some in 500-litre larger oak. Bottling is, as always here, with as little sulphur as they feel able to get away with. The result smells of slightly floral mango fruit with orange, lime citrus and herbs. There are nice acids, a little texture and a palate which is bone dry despite the rather exotic fruit on the tongue. It’s another Renner beauty, and the label is next level too.
This can be found at both Newcomer Wines and Littlewine.co.
“68” 2019, CASCINA TAVIJN (Piemonte, Italy)
The area known as Alto Piemonte is becoming increasingly popular as prices for Barolo and Barbaresco become ever more Burgundian, but there’s another side to Piemonte, known as Alt-Piemonte. Here, in the Monferrato hills to the northeast of Asti, Alto- and Alt-Piemonte come together in an estate making truly individual wines.
Nadia Verrua may look very youthful, but her family has a century of farming these hills behind them. The estate measures ten hectares, but only half is planted to grapes. Their other main crop is hazelnuts. Things are done naturally, with zero chemical inputs (including no added sulphur). The grapes, in this cuvée a 50-50 blend of Barbera and the wonderful but rarely seen Ruché, are fermented together for a whole two months on skins (no stems) and are then aged in a whole gamut of different vessels, ranging from oak botti to cement and fibreglass.
The result is an absolute riot of red and dark berry fruits with a hint of violet on the nose, all kept bouncing in the glass by some fresh and zippy fruit acidity. It’s a wine for enjoying, not pondering over, and it really does illustrate how under-valued (if I might say so) Ruché has become in the Piemontese mix.
The cuvée is yet another wine named after a road number, which of course in Italy, whether north or far south, means the SP68.
This, and other wines from Cascina Tavijn, are available from Tutto Wines via their online Tutto La Casa.
CÔTILLON DES DAMES 2015 VIN DE FRANCE, JEAN-YVES PÉRON (Savoie, France)
Jean-Yves Péron has farmed at Conflans, close to Albertville, since 2004, right in the heart of the Haut-Savoie. His vineyards are on slopes of mica schist between 350 to 550 masl, and his parcels are tiny. Thankfully he manages to bring in some fruit from other like-minded (read fully organic) growers, including some cuvées in collaboration with growers in Italy’s Piemonte.
Côtillon des Dames is a name for different cuvées with the same characteristic yellow label. They include sometimes a multi-vintage blend, a Reserve and a vintage, and this is a nicely aged 2015 vintage wine. The grapes are Jacquere and Altesse, two of the region’s autochthonous varieties. They see enough skin contact to make this a genuine amber/orange wine.
This is pretty obvious from the colour, which might scare any more conservative readers, but it’s the bouquet which really grabs your attention. It is no less than explosive with orange citrus. I’ve been enjoying the season’s blood oranges right now, and that is exactly what I got here. That almost overpowering scent. The palate is certainly textured but there’s a heap of exotic fruit which is almost like the sweet and sour of a Chinese dish, but with a nice Seville Orange marmalade bitterness on the finish.
An extraordinary wine for the adventurous, contemplative, challenging, difficult for sure, but perhaps this is why this may be my wine of the year so far. Mind you, the next wine’s pretty damned good too…
A reasonable range of Péron wines are usually available via Gergovie Wines, who like Tutto above, specialises in wines made without added sulphur.
JOSCHUARI ROT 2011, GUT OGGAU (Burgenland, Austria)
So, we probably all know by now that Gut Oggau is a family winery and heuriger based in Oggau, a hamlet just a kilometre or two north of Rust, on the western shore of Burgenland’s Neusiedlersee. As Rust is highly recommended (for a host of reasons which I have written about before), the most effective way to visit Gut Oggau, and to be able to taste and drink, is to hire bicycles in Rust itself. Oggau is close enough that you can wobble home.
Joschuari sits in the middle generation of the Gut Oggau family of wines, a “parent”. He is a rather complex Blaufränkisch grown on the superb limestone terroir above the lake, vines being forty years old. That terroir drives the wine, as it does all of the fine examples of this variety from this location. Its signature is a racy mineral edge which is given more of an accent here with 50% of the fruit being fermented in concrete (the rest in oak). It is then aged 12 months in the same blend of the two vessels.
This is, for me, a wine to lay down, perhaps more so than Josephine, the other parent who I perhaps know more intimately. At ten years old this seems as fresh as the day it was bottled. It still has that characteristic dark tinge to the colour. This is reflected in a dark-fruited bouquet, where you can also almost smell the limestone (or is it a touch of that concrete-induced high note, or both?). The palate is beautifully concentrated and very long. It’s a serious wine, but its freshness makes it joyous to drink. Biodynamic, around 20 mg/l sulphur added, a life affirming bottle. I expected no less from the caring genius of Gut Oggau.
Imported by Dynamic Vines, Bermondsey.
SPRINGVALE WATERVALE RIESLING 2010, JEFFREY GROSSET (Clare Valley, South Australia)
Jeffrey Grosset knew he wanted to be a winemaker in his mid-teens, so on leaving school he went straight off to Roseworthy College, and after graduating wound up by his mid-twenties working as senior winemaker for a large-scale Australian wine group. But his future was obvious…that he’d go it alone. That he was able to do so was in large part down to help from his parents, both in helping to fund the purchase of an old dairy at the southern end of the Clare Valley, and from his dad’s physical labour in helping convert the grapes from a mate’s Riesling vines at Polish Hill into 800 cases of wine for his first vintage.
Jeffrey now farms 20 hectares over the valley, making much more than just Riesling. But if a lover of Australian wine thinks of Riesling, it is surely Grosset of whom they will think first. He’s still most famous for his Polish Hill Riesling, and people often therefore think of the Springvale, from fruit at Watervale, as a kind of second label. This most certainly isn’t the case. Springvale is merely different. The Watervale fruit is different, more generous than the Polish Hill, where the fruit comes off very poor soils on hard shale. Instead Watervale is mostly red limestone and loam with shale mixed in. Three different clones are grown organically, hand harvested from a six-hectare block.
As Jeffrey Grosset repeats so often, the idea initially was to blend the two sources but he soon found that didn’t work. He was one of Australia’s first voices in favour of the expression of “place” through wine, something the Clare terroir taught him. He was also, partly at the behest of his importer, David Gleave (Liberty Wines), an early exponent of screwcaps.
Whereas you really wouldn’t want to broach a Polish Hill too young, the Springvale can be drunk early. But even at more than a decade old, as this bottle was, it showed an attractive green-gold colour and on the nose, an expression of pure lime cordial, the palate revealing a firm backbone of acidity you don’t quite expect unless you know these wines fairly well. That palate is crisp, mineral and bone dry and (goes without saying) incredibly long. For a 13% Riesling it’s still very elegant too. I’d say that despite being a decade old it will surely go another seven-to-ten years minimum.
Grosset is usually available fairly widely in the UK, via importer Liberty Wines, but also through The Wine Society and Berry Brothers (among others). I happen to remember that my bottles all came from The Sampler (Islington branch), though nothing is currently listed there.
This week you get two book reviews in one article and, I think for the first time, one of them isn’t about wine. Tempted as I’ve been in the past to review books on my other passion, music, I have sensibly refrained. But cheese, surely that counts for being so plainly associated with wine for centuries. It happens that I read these two books consecutively over the past two weeks, and they both have a common geographical focus, the British Isles. Of course, I’d not be reviewing a cheese book here unless I thought it was something special, and a little different. What I will say, before we move on, is that both books have a strong narrative, and so as well as informing they also entertain. Perhaps this is why I read them so quickly. Please take the time, if you can, to read both reviews.
First, to Oz. Oz Clarke’s book is called “English Wine”, though he explains in a reader’s note that this is in no way intended to upset the Welsh winemakers, of whom seven get a mention in an albeit short chapter. It is because, as Oz rightly remembers, “British Wine” is made from imported grape concentrate. He might have taken a leaf out of Ned Palmer’s cheese book’s title, but then he might have clashed with Stephen Skelton’s “Wines of Great Britain” (2019).
You kind of know what you might get from the cover, which sports a cartoon of Oz sitting atop the White Cliffs of Dover sipping a sparkling wine in a “flute”. These cartoons appear throughout. Beneath is the strapline “From Still to Sparkling…The Newest New World Wine Country”.
The book, which runs to 176 pages, begins with a little history, but thankfully only a little. Oz does mention the debate as to whether the Romans really did make wine from their English vines, and he does mention the vineyards of medieval England, whilst acknowledging that they were probably fairly insignificant compared to imports from the Gironde and later Portugal, not to mention beer (and small beer). But he doesn’t labour the point.
In fact, by the time we have reached page 40 we have covered more up-to-date matters like the importance of location for a successful vineyard, the planting spree of the 2000s and questions of what grape varieties to plant and what to make from them. It’s a shorter summary than you’ll find elsewhere, less detailed but more succinct.
The short middle part of the book, which ends the more general sections, covers Sparkling Wine, which Oz naturally calls British Bubbles. Even if you’ve done a stage at Taittinger you’ll still find this nine or so pages interesting, but most people reading this Blog will not learn anything new. That said, it does lead us in nicely to the main body of the book, effectively the last hundred pages, which is a “Tour of the Regions”.
As you can see from the Contents photo, England and Wales is broken up geographically, although Oz is not (I think) advocating regional PDOs (in a European sense) for English and Welsh wine (which at least one major producer in Sussex seems to advocate). In fact, Oz is rather good at simply describing the geology of the vineyards, which naturally doesn’t take any notice of County boundaries.
He dismisses the idea that English vines have to be grown on Downland chalk, giving a shout-out for the Thames Valley gravel beds, for “greensands” in particular (another type of detritus-rich marine deposit), and even pointing out where vines have been successfully grown on clay in some places, that supposed “no-no” for serious viticulture in England due to its normally high water retention. In fact, he is also very adept at explaining other aspects of terroir throughout the book, especially slope orientation, rainfall and, very pertinent to where I live, wind, in a way that’s simple enough that you won’t forget the lessons.
I suppose it is this regional coverage in the book which is most relevant for readers who are not novices. The directory should give us an insight into the workings of the wineries and vineyards whose wines we are likely to find in the shops, and indeed if it does its job, this section will make us want to go out and try these wines. I do think it achieves this very well. You just need to read the entry for one of England’s very oldest (and smallest) commercial vineyards, Breaky Bottom (p84ff) and I challenge you not to want to go out and buy some (Give Butlers Wine Cellar in nearby Brighton a call as they are usually well stocked with Peter Hall’s different sparkling cuvées). Perhaps even his bottle-fermented Seyval Blanc for the more adventurous among you? Most should begin with the numerous cuvées made from Champagne’s traditional trio of varieties.
We get all of the big players included here, and the entries are well written. They generally get right to the heart of what drove individuals to want to create wine in England as well as listing the more mundane aspects, such as planting ratios and maturation techniques. We also get a good number of the newer names on the scene, something I personally felt (obviously a subjective opinion) that Stephen Skelton’s 2019 “The Wines of Great Brtitain” (which I reviewed last year) failed to give us.
I guess you want examples? Skelton seems to ignore Ben Walgate’s Tillingham (at Peasmarsh near Rye, East Sussex). Ben is England’s great experimenter, and if like me you believe that those working at the fringes are most likely to push the envelope for everyone else, then Tillingham is an important place in English Wine (not to mention a serious venue for experiencing innovative vineyard hospitality through their smart accommodation and restaurants). Oz ends his one-page entry for Tillingham saying “…there’s no doubt that if biodynamic vineyards and natural winemaking are to play a part [in the future path of English wine], Ben Walgate will be leading the charge”.
So, Oz covers the whole range of British vineyards, large and small. He does it very well. I was disappointed to see some omissions, for example Westwell Wines on the North Downs of Kent, at Charing, where Adrian Pike is hardly less innovative than Ben Walgate. Then, on a more traditional note, there’s Jacob Leadley’s Black Chalk in Hampshire. I know Oz must have tasted Black Chalk as I’ve spotted him at the Wines of Hamphire Tasting at 67 Pall Mall on at least one occasion. It was pretty much on the back of the very first releases by Jacob that I identified Black Chalk as heading swiftly towards the top of the rankings for English Sparkling Wine, and I was not alone in that at least one prominent wine writer shared my enthusiasm. Black Chalk cemented its place at the 2020 Wine GB Awards, where they won “Best Newcomer”.
If I’m really picking nits, as well as omitting Westwell and Black Chalk, I would personally have liked a bit more than mere “directory” information for that other great innovator, Ancre Hill in Monmouthshire. Ancre Hill might well have become known a decade ago for some cracking Welsh sparklers, but having recently drunk their red petnat made from Triomphe and being soon to drink another bottle of their innovatively-labelled “Orange” (made from Albariño), I’d suggest this vineyard has a broad portfolio of exciting wines.
I must say that one thing I am very pleased about is that Oz doesn’t dismiss still wines. It might be pertinent to note here that just as the climate of at least England’s south coast is becoming remarkably similar to that experienced in France’s Champagne Region a decade or so ago, Louis Roederer has announced two new and rather expensive Coteaux Champenois still wines. I have no doubt that these trailblazing cuvées from a forward-looking Grande Marque will be followed in time with other still cuvées, to join those of the Growers (some of which are pretty good already).
As Champagne gets warmer, so does England. If the future may now so obviously look sparkling, we must understand that still wines will have a place in our wine story. Some do already, and as they are easier and cheaper to produce than classic method, bottle-fermented, sparklers, they provide tempting cash flow (as England’s massive investors, the Driver family at Rathfinny, astutely recognised, releasing their Cradle Valley Pinot Blanc/Pinot Gris blend as their first sparkling wines matured on their lees in Alfriston). Whilst Bacchus establishes itself as a genuinely English variety, in terms of the unique white wines it produces here, there is no doubt that many winemakers have already been hooked by the search for the holy grail of exceptional English red Pinot Noir. Some of you will know what I mean if I quote Hobo Johnson: “I woulda bought a Lambo but I’m not quite there yet” (from Subaru Crosstrek XV). But they will get there one day very soon.
How to sum up? I enjoyed Oz’s book immensely. If you want a lot of dry facts, perhaps you might want to look elsewhere. It’s relatively lightweight as far as hardbacks go, literally speaking. I’d not say it’s “lightweight” as regards content, but Oz is not writing a PhD thesis either. In fact, I’m sure this consummate entertainer is attempting nothing of the sort.
I’d say Oz will appeal to two kinds of reader. First would be perhaps my twenty-three-to-thirty-year-old self, getting interested more seriously in wine for the first time. The second type of reader is me now, a wine obsessive who wants to consume as much as possible about this new wine frontier. The book’s narrative drives the text along and frankly I could have read it all in one long, fully catered, duvet day. If I’d not enjoyed it, you’d not be reading a review. And as a subject, English (and Welsh) wine is something we all need to get to know pretty quickly.
English Wine by Oz Clarke is published by Pavilion (hardback, 2020, rrp £16.99 or US $ 24.95). I include the dollar price because for North American readers interested in seeing what all the fuss is about, this book is a great place to start.
Now please don’t stop reading because I would very much like to spend a few paragraphs telling you about a book which could almost be a companion to Oz Clarke, A Cheese-monger’s History of the British Isles by Ned Palmer (Profile Books, hardback 2019, this soft cover edn, 2020, rrp £9.99).
Ned Palmer, like most people involved in the renaissance of the fine cheeses of our islands, had no intention of such a career. This budding jazz pianist ended up taking a “temporary” job at Neal’s Yard Dairy in London’s Covent Garden before eventually, after a great deal of travels, cheesemaking jaunts and getting to know Great Britain and Ireland’s best cheesemakers, founding The Cheese Tasting Company in 2014.
I own a few books on cheese, but this one is a little (a lot) different, and that’s why I’m bringing it to your attention. Over ten long chapters, Ned gives us a highly entertaining overview of British and Irish cheesemaking throughout our history. He begins with our Neolithic past before moving towards our present-day real cheese revival, via the Romans, the Monasteries, Cromwell’s Commonwealth, the Victorians, the 20th century with its wars, right up to the present day. There is feast and famine, and the near destruction of craft cheese as an industry here, before signs of new shoots from the 1970s, and what we can genuinely call a renaissance since 2000.
Each chapter has a signature cheese, in some way relevant to the time period. Ned will usually take us to visit its finest proponents and we get a history lesson somewhere between a visit to the British Library’s darkest corners and one of those “Horrible Histories” books. This is another book with a narrative that keeps you reading until your eyes can no longer stay open (if like me you are reading a chapter a night in bed). It had one other effect too, in some ways not what you want, but certainly an indication of just how good a read this was: even after a good dinner, reading Ned Palmer’s prose made me genuinely hungry for the cheese in question. A real feeling in the stomach and an uncanny ability, on several occasions, to smell that cheese in the depths of my memory.
This is a brilliant book, and not surprisingly it won a Sunday Times Book of the Year Award, as well as being shortlisted for the André Simon Awards and for a Fortnum & Mason Guild of Food Writers Prize. It brought me two additional avenues of research, both of which I shall be pursuing.
At the end of the book Ned details some “favourite cheeses”, listed by type with a brief paragraph about them. Many are classics if you are an habitué of Neal’s Yard Dairy or Paxton & Whitfield. I was also led to Ned’s web site, www.cheesetastingco.uk ,where you can find a list of fine cheesemongers both in the capital and around the country. I was very happy to find one shop listed in the market town closest to where my parents live which I had not previously known existed, and which, by location, ought to sell the finest example known to man of my father’s favourite cheese. Another reason I can’t wait for Lockdown to end.
I put up a review of a cheese book on my wine blog because I thought it was absolutely brilliant. I’m sure it will rank among my books of the year, and if my few paragraphs explaining its format appeal to you, if of course you love cheese, and if of course you are not one of those with a pathological inability to appreciate the fine cheeses of our British Isles alongside the wonders of taste produced by our European cousins, then you might just feel the same way.
For me, there are a couple of very different burning issues to be addressed in the world of wine, and rather quickly. One of those is diversity, but important as that is, I’m not sure an old middle class white bloke like me can add a great deal to the mix, aside from a bit of mansplaining, and others far more qualified are doing pretty well at highlighting these issues. So, I’m not going to talk here about diversity, but I will point you towards one recent article, written by Christina Rasmussen on the Littlewine Blog. It highlights the issues starkly, but it is also full of positive thoughts. Not misplaced positivity, but the kind which echoes the belief that “positivity wins, negativity loses”. You can link to that article “Wine’s Diversity Activists” here: https://littlewine.co/blogs/editorial/wines-diversity-activists . Highlight the issues and then look for solutions, working together to make them work, is the tone of this piece of essential reading.
The other big issue for me is sustainability. In some ways wine makers are looking for solutions to the problems of climate change all the time. They are right at the sharp end, as anyone who tried to make Champagne in 2003, or Burgundy in any number of vintages in the last six or seven years might tell you (climate change, or perhaps more accurately climate chaos as some scientists prefer to call it, can bring high temperatures, but it also brings frost and hail which can have far worse consequences). They can see the likelihood of Syrah widespread in Germany and Merlot in Kent long before the wine drinkers who focus on what’s being made now.
The question is, how to focus on sustainability? One aspect of sustainability is how the whole of modern winemaking has left behind tradition, singling it out as somehow the practice of peasants in a time before agro-chemicals and modern winemaking science enlightened the grape growers of the world. This ties in very much with a strand of my Lockdown reading. I’m thinking in particular of three books. Dark Emu by Bruce Pascoe threw new light on indigenous farming practices which sustained aboriginal populations in Australia before the British took the land in the eighteenth century. Braiding Sweetgrass is a very important book by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which looks at the wealth of knowledge possessed by the native nations of North America, knowledge which so obviously would be of significant use to today’s ecologists and plant biologists. The third book, which I’m sure many of you will know, is Wilding by Isabella Tree.
These books tie in especially with the very different ideas of various writers on different types of cultivation, and initially I was thinking of writing about Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008), the Japanese farmer and philosopher and a proponent of natural farming. He is known for supporting no-till agriculture, which is being trialled on an ever-wider scale here in the UK now. His best-known work is “The One Straw Revolution” (1975, trans 1978) in which he sets out his natural farming philosophy and gives practical advice to those wishing to discover that path. One of his greatest influences has been on modern permaculture. He’s as important as Steiner.
You will find his methods being practised in viticulture from Alsace (Lissner, Beck-Hartweg) to Greece (Ktima Ligas), and echoes of his philosophy in the wild Graupert vines of Meinklang in Burgenland. But I was looking for something a little more practical, something more focused. And then there it was. In an article in Trink Magazine Volume 3 (trinkmag.com) David Schildknecht visits Weingut Abraham in the Alto-Adige, in Northeast Italy.
Martin and Marlies Abraham are a young couple who have thought deeply about what they are doing and, as Schildknecht highlights, have an approach which “is consciously oriented towards traditions that had gone neglected in the late 20th century”. One of those traditions is the pergola training system. Here we have it, a tradition whose purpose has been eroded by modern notions of viticulture, but whose purpose might just be suited to a sustainable approach to viticulture in this region’s high-altitude winemaking.
Viticulture was once wholly sustainable, part of an eco-system capable of sustaining life, not just for humans but for all the flora and fauna. Monoculture for the vine was largely a product of 20th century ideas about production and progress. As chemical treatments for pests and diseases became more readily available after the Second World War and the Vietnam War (some having first been developed for a military application), vineyard treatments went hand in hand with other ideas about modern farming, in particular mechanisation. Of course, mechanisation is not always possible in mountainous wine regions, but never mind. There was a lot of dollar to be made out of persuading farmers that their old peasant viticulture was backward and nice modern, wire-trained, vines would give you much better wines at less cost…once, of course, you’d spent a fortune on installing the new systems and bought all the chemicals.
The pergola is a shining example of all that is supposedly “peasant” about old time viticulture. A system which, I was taught, was made for high yields of dilute grapes. After all, pergola central, Northeast Italy, grew Vernatsch (aka Schiava and known as Trollinger in Germany), a notoriously prolific variety noted for vast amounts of weedy red wine before the vine consultants advised the producers of Trentino-Alto-Adige to rip it out as quickly as possible.
My notions of the pergola were pretty much confirmed when I first saw this system in operation, not in the Südtirol, which I have only visited once, but in Northern Portugal, in vineyards making both red and white Vinho Verde. The vines were grown around the periphery of fields sown with other crops, and the resulting wines, especially the reds (this is late 1980s), were thin and acidic. But then the Minho Region is pretty damp and wet, isn’t it!
The pergola is what we call a horizontal vine training system quite different to the vertical shoot position trellis systems like guyot, used in so-called modern viticulture. Other horizontal systems date back a very long time, for example the famous cordon trenzado of Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Just cast your eyes over any Roman mosaic or medieval manuscript depicting viticulture, however, and you will more often than not see a pergola.
Unlike the ground-hugging vines of Tenerife, or Pico in the Azores, or Santorini’s reclusive Assyrtiko vines, the vines on a pergola are raised above the height of a vineyard worker. They are back-breaking to work on, shoot-tying or pruning, and to harvest from (probably why it was generally a job delegated to the women). There are some scenes in Eric Newby’s book, A Small Place in Italy, which bring to life the sweat and toil of harvest in such a vineyard. So why were they developed?
It turns out that pergolas have a number of advantages, advantages which are amplified when the vines are growing on poor mountain soils on steeply angled slopes with lots of sunshine, but equally at times, lots of precipitation. The raised canopy above the grapes provides ample protection from sunburn. You think it isn’t baking hot in Alto-Adige summers? Try the famous apricots of Switzerland’s Valais to see how hot sunny steep Alpine valleys get in the month or so before harvest.
With all that canopy shade the ground stays several degrees cooler than using a modern, low wire, trellis system, which allows moisture retention, key to helping avoid vine stress. The grapes are also well ventilated on a pergola and whilst botrytis can be an issue with pergola systems, they can also provide the best protection against fungal diseases, especially powdery mildew. This is why you’ll see plenty of pergola-trained vines in Japan, with the grape bunches further protected by the wonderful waxed paper hats painstakingly placed as mini umbrellas covering the grapes, in a country where summer and harvest-time rains make viticulture more difficult.
There are in fact many kinds of pergola, and of course most are not strictly “horizontal” because the arms of the structure more often raise the shoots by around thirty degrees. The pergola type most people with a little wine education will have heard of is the tendone or “big tent”, a canopy made of wires rather than the wooden beams of the older generation pergolas, and which you will find widespread in many regions of Italy. It’s used by the famous producers of the Abruzzo, like Emidio Pepe. You see Tendone a lot in Bardolino, in Southern Italy, but also in South America, where it is known as Parral (Argentina) or Parron (chile).
Then there’s the double-pergola ubiquitous in the Veneto, which can be seen to good effect on the hillsides of Soave’s Classico zone. There are modern training systems which don’t look a whole lot different to these, to be found in the New World, and at one time occasionally in England. One example would be the Geneva Double Curtain, developed at the New York State Experimental Station at Geneva, NY, but with one very significant difference. GDC (as it is known) was developed to reduce shade, not increase it, and in doing so increases yield.
The most interesting pergola system I’ve seen is in a region I am pretty passionate about, Aosta, but despite several visits to that tiny region I can’t find a photograph. Here the pillars supporting the canopy are big fat concrete legs, tapered like some early, simple, classical columns. They are made from concrete, not marble, but painted white they are aesthetically attractive. And practical. Practical? Have you ever come across the Aostan wine called Enfer d’Arvier? Yes, these slopes may be Alpine but they get damned hot.
So why the terrible reputation for pergolas? Walter Speller has written about pergola training more than most, including articles on the subject on jancisrobinson.com: see Debunking the Pergola Myth, 26 May 2020 (where you might find a photo of those Aostan pergolas, as used by Azienda Selve in that case, which makes gorgeous natural wine Nebbiolo, known locally as Picotendro, near Aosta’s southern border at Donnas/Donnaz and which I first tasted and fell for at Raw Wine London in 2017).
I began a thread on Twitter a week ago which seemed to strike a chord and one of the contributions made by Walter a few days ago was a photograph of two pairs of bunches of Schiava/Vernatsch grapes. One pair was pretty large with bloated berries whilst the other pair looked, well, like normal bunches of grapes. The twist was that both bunches came off pergolas, but the large bunches had been irrigated, the smaller hadn’t.
On that one trip I made to Alto-Adige, many years ago, something surprised me. On the hillsides near Bolzano (Bozen) I saw sprays set up in the vineyards, big agricultural versions of those which we might see watering an English lawn, spraying water in a circular arc. In fact, if anyone still has a copy of Burton Anderson’s Wine Atlas of Italy (Mitchell Beazley, 1990) turn to page 99. Above the photo of the beautiful Abbey of Novacella/Neustift is a photo of the steep Santa Madelena Classico zone and if you look carefully you can spot exactly the same irrigation in place among the lush leaf canopy of summer vines, just beneath that famous old cable car climbing from Bolzano. I had once naively thought such practices illegal in a DOC vineyard.
So perhaps the bad rap suffered by the pergola is not the fault of the system itself, but of over-watering the vines to push up the yield? That would figure when we look back at those thin local wines drunk in tiny bars in Northern Portugal. The water in that case fell naturally from the skies, but it’s water all the same.
But we have a problem here. As Walter Speller points out in his article on Jancis’s site (behind the paywall), a large fortune has been spent in getting rid of pergolas in many of the Italian regions where they have always been traditional, and nowhere more so than Alto-Adige. It is also equally true that a smaller fortune, but a fortune nevertheless, has been spent in ripping out traditional Vernatsch vines and replacing them often with international varieties, albeit ones which may have a moderate history in the region.
One of the saddest parts of this scenario is the loss of genetic material, not just old vines per se but genetic diversity from which a healthy vine population could rise again. And once the consultants, nurseries and vineyard construction companies have made their money, it would cost an even larger fortune to re-instigate the pergola, a cost beyond all but the most committed believer in tradition. It would certainly make little medium-term economic sense. Such believers exist, as David Schildknecht found when talking to Marlies Abraham. She says, when asked whether they would consider constructing a new pergola vineyard, “we could imagine doing it, but it would be an expensive investment”. Their pergola experiments have yielded even more benefits than those I’ve mentioned, but you should go and read the article in Trink Magazine to find out more.
When traditional ways of doing things are lost there’s also something else that disappears, part of a region’s cultural heritage. This is something that is less tangible than sunburnt grapes or moisture retention. It does include autochthonous grape varieties. After all, it’s a shame to visit a wine region and to be able to sample traditional food, traditional crafts and occasionally, traditional music, yet to find a region’s traditional grape varieties have all been replaced by Merlot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. But cultural heritage is more than this. It’s the sum of things coming together that give a place and its people an identity. Along with climate change we are seeing plenty of that kind of loss in our increasingly globalised world, and bringing us back to the “D” word, the only way globalisation can work on a human level is through diversity, not homogenisation.
As for the poor old pergola, as climate change becomes more evident, even in Europe’s higher vineyards, I think people may start to regret the hasty removal of these traditional vine training systems. We may then begin to understand that this old “peasant dogma” had efficacy after all. We can perhaps begin to comprehend this as part of the burning necessity of viewing our world in a very different way to that espoused by 20th century scientific knowledge. As we move through the 21st century we can see that understanding evolves. After all, what is culture but, in one sense, wisdom passed down from one generation to the next. Who would have thought that the pergola could have taught us that?
Many readers who are deeply interested in natural wine will have the Raisin App on their phones. It is a forum for recommending natural wines to other enthusiasts, but it is perhaps more importantly indispensable, through its interactive maps, for locating producers and vineyards, bars, restaurants and wine shops wherever you are travelling. Although Raisin asks for donations, the App is free and there is no other resource like it.
To bring Raisin to an audience offline, the Guide’s authors Cédric Blatrie, Guillaume Laroche and Harry Annoni, put together a hard copy guide in 2019, called Raisin: 100 Grands Vins Naturels d’Émotion. It’s currently only available in French, but if, like me, your passable French improves dramatically when reading about wine, you will probably be interested.
Before you think this might be some thin tome, and why only 100 wines, I should begin by saying that you do get 350 pages. Unlike most wine guides you get colour photos, both of bottles and of producers, and plenty more besides. So, what does this guide consist of besides the recommendation of individual wines?
After a few introductory pages setting out the book’s raisin d’être (sorry, had to be done), we hit the ground running with regional chapters. We begin in the Jura, running through France via Beaujolais, La Loire, Auvergne, Alsace, Rhône, Bourgogne, “Languedoc Roussillon Bordeaux” and Champagne. Okay, perhaps it’s odd that Savoie and Bugey come under “Alsace”, but we can gloss over that. The focus is clearly on France, with just less than 80% of the featured producers being based there. The last chapter covers the rest of the world, via Italy (7 wines/producers), Spain (4), Austria (4), Germany (1), Switzerland (2), Slovenia (2), Australia (2), South Africa (1), USA (1) and Japan (1).
This is where some people will quibble. You might, for example, cry out that there should be space for Hermit Ram (New Zealand), Marie-Thérèse Chappaz (Swiss Valais), Tillingham (UK), Ktima Ligas (Northern Greece) or any number of other important natural wine stars. But I think the point is that you have to look at the guide for what it is. If we added all our lists of what we feel is missing together we’d have something approaching the weight of Robinson et al’s Wine Grapes. Here we have a selection chosen by three guys who are primarily embedded deeply in the French natural wine scene, and it is mostly here where new insights will be found.
You need not worry that you won’t find the stars of French natural wine. Overnoy-Houillon, Ganevat, Robinot, Sage, Durieux and Selosse etc are there. But you’ll find names which will be fairly new to you as well, or certainly in my case. I’ve never tried Aurélien Lurquin’s Coteaux Champenois, Mito Inoue’s Vespertine, nor Jérôme Saurigny’s Sakurajima. That’s what you want really, the greats, which let’s face it, it would be odd if they were all left out (some are), combined with new horizons which in all truth are probably the producers who really make the guide worthwhile.
For each bottle selected per producer, there’s an alternative choice, often from a different producer, further expanding the selection. There’s also a small summary box for the main selection which as well as making sure we know exactly what we are buying (grape varieties, sulphur, price range) gives information as to where to find it (usually one shop and one restaurant), and a sentence or two on what makes the bottle in question unique.
I was initially surprised that no contact information was provided for the featured producers, and then my brain woke up and I remembered that, of course, I just need to search on the App itself for those details, and more.
The other side to the Guide is the in-depth interviews, and these come in two forms. Some (but not all) chapters feature a longer piece on one or two producers from that region. For example, Jura gives us Emmanuel Houillon, whilst the “rest of the world” chapter provides more in-depth pieces on Fabio Gea and on Hans-Peter Schmidt of Mythopia. When I say “in-depth”, the last of those gives us about eight pages of text with several more pages of photos.
There are also features on fifteen individuals who work in natural wine, but not as producers. We get pieces on the super-sommeliers Pascaline Lepeltier, Emily Campeau and Sév’ Perru, and on Edouard Thorens (perhaps better known as “The Winestache”), who runs “The Bottle Shop” in Zurich and is also described as an influencer, a description I generally hate but in his case it’s accurate. They all get to list their own “wines of emotion”, adding to the overall basket of wines to discover. It’s a nice touch. They all have something to add, widening the ambit of the guide.
All together this makes for, I would argue, the first truly useful guide to selecting natural wines since Isabelle Legeron’s “Natural Wine”. As that was first published in 2014 the Raisin Guide is able to provide a more up-to-date selection of wines at the cutting edge of minimal intervention winemaking, although it should be noted that Isabelle’s book is much more than a purchasing guide.
In concluding this short review, I would like to go back to the title, “100 Grands Vins Naturels d’Émotion”. What are natural wines, if not wines which feed the soul? They cannot be merely analysed, not in the way highly trained Masters of Wine and WSET Diploma students are taught to evaluate a wine sample. They are wines which shine as we enjoy them, preferably with friends. We need to give them time to blossom and develop in the glass (preferably a well-chosen glass to suit their attributes and character). We need to get to know their personalities over an hour or so, not the flicker of a first acquaintance on a tasting bench: sniff, sip, spit, points out of 100.
The authors state quite clearly that this is not some objective classification of the best of the natural wine genre. It is very much an emotional selection. If you want to know what this means, look to this quotation from one of the authors, Cédric Blatrie: “Unlikean oenologist’s wine, who thinks that a wine is perfect because there is nothing more to add, we think that a wine of emotion is a wine from which there is nothing more to take away”.
The wines in this guide are wines to get to know intimately. The guide gives us the kind of background we won’t find in the glass, but it also gives us something more. It’s that excitement when you read about a wine and what you read makes you go out and buy a bottle, a desire no less real than when a friend tells you about someone they know and you realise you just have to meet them. What I’m speaking of is “inspiration”. What do we wish for more than anything else from a wine guide? I think it’s inspiration. Whilst I find so many wine guides don’t give me that, this one certainly does. The entry for Daniel Sage is titled “Bulles Poétiques”. That sort of sums up the whole guide for me. The bubbles stimulate and the desire to drink the wines is like poetry. Even if my reading is stilted by lack of fluency. Dommage, mais c’est pas grave.
The Raisin Guide is available via the Raisin web site, www.raisin.digital and costs 22€ with free postage in France. I ordered my copy in late December and was slightly worried I might be asked to pay a tax supplement on account of Brexit, it not arriving until early January. That didn’t happen. It comes in softback with a nice matt finish. The typeface is easy to read for us non-native speakers and whilst the photography is not coffee table book standard, it is expressive, fun and more than adequate (in fact it’s something of a bonus to get a bottle pic in a wine guide, something surprisingly useful for spotting your target on the shelf of an unfamiliar wine shop).
Guillaume Laroche and Harry Annoni are behind ELV, publishing the Entre Les Vignes books. There are currently two, on Burgundy (available in French and English) and The Auvergne (French only), with a focus on these regions’ natural wines.
If you like natural wine, you’ll want to download the Raisin App if you don’t already have it. If you do, then the guide will certainly be of interest. I’d say that’s the case even if your French isn’t all that good. My French is always a level up when talking about wine simply because I know so much of the terminology and vocabulary, both for winemaking and for tasting. I’m sure many people reading this will have no idea there’s a wine guide like this. I hope that the few photos I’ve included, in my case not of very high quality, will give you enough visual information to help you decide to buy it. And, of course, purchasing the book all helps the team behind Raisin to keep adding to their maps and improving the best digital resource for locating natural wine in the wild.
For Part 2 of the most interesting wines we drank at home during January we head first to Beaujolais before a massively contrasting wine made by an Englishman in South Africa. Next up a wine from Italy’s Cinque Terre, a region I drink all too rarely but a bottle which one of my contributors selected as their light bulb wine of 2020. If you have read my “Mein Burgenland” article you will know I am a fan of the next winemaker, but you will probably be more surprised at wine number five, a Bordeaux Cru Bourgeois. The home straight contains an amber wine from Czech Moravia, a Wiener Gemischter Satz in a more serious style, and to finish, an entry level Riesling from an inspirational couple making wine at a very old family estate in Dambach-la-Ville, Alsace.
MORGON 2016 KÉKÉ DESCOMBES (Beaujolais, France)
Kewin « Kéké » Descombes is the son of Georges Descombes, one of the famous Bojo Gang of Four who more or less kick-started the natural wine movement in Eastern France, and were certainly responsible for the current resurgence in the popularity of Beaujolais, after its status had been trashed by industrial quantities of Beaujolais Nouveau in the 1980s.
Kewin started out at the age of twenty-one, with three hectares his father gave him. That was almost eight years ago and he now farms 6ha around Morgon, producing this wine and two others. Only in his early thirties, he has already established himself as one of the region’s new wave of talent, making wines which are assured, but equally full of fun. Just how Beaujolais and Gamay should be.
The vines used for this cuvée are at reasonable altitude for the appellation, near to Vermont, Kéké’s home village, which is tucked away up in the northwest corner of the Cru, just south of Chiroubles. The wines here are generally a little lighter than those in the Morgon heartland of the volcanic Côte du Py, but not at all lacking intensity when made in this natural style, fruit-forward.
Aged in old foudres, the scent of purest Gamay cherry is mirrored on the palate. It’s a lively wine despite its age, singing with that fruit, yet there’s still just a bit of tannic structure remaining. In a good place. Less than 10 mg/l of sulphur was added which might account for why it shines so brightly.
Kéké Descombes is imported by Graft Wine.
“THE DURIF” 2010, CHARLIE HERRING WINES (Stellenbosch, South Africa)
Many people reading this will know Tim Phillips from his beautiful wines (and ciders) made from fruit grown in a magical walled vineyard on the Hampshire coast, near Lymington. If you wondered how Tim started out in wine, this bottle is part of the answer. Back in 2006 Tim planted a vineyard on the Blaauklippen Road in one of the best parts of Stellenbosch. Around three hectares were planted, most to Syrah but a half-hectare to Durif.
Durif is a 19th century crossing, by French botanist François Durif, of Peloursin and Syrah. It is more commonly called Petite Sirah in California where old vines are not uncommon. It is also found in old vineyards in Australia, and a little in South Africa. It has somewhat gone out of fashion because of the powerful style of wines it tends to produce, but of course Ridge Vineyard keeps the flame burning with their Petite Sirah from their Lytton Springs Estate in Sonoma, California.
Tim’s Stellenbosch vines produced a tiny crop in 2010, which he fermented in open vats and aged in 225-litre French oak for two years. This vintage was bottled, unfined and unfiltered, in 2012. It’s a powerful wine, for sure, possibly an under-statement. It is labelled at 14.75% abv and the colour is suitably inky! The bouquet is of big ripe blueberries and black cherry. That inky colour is transformed to ink on the tongue, both in its velvet texture and concentration, and there’s a pleasant bitter edge so you don’t get any jammyness from the deep, ripe, plum fruit. The palate is more savoury to the nose’s fruitiness. This means that it is a potential food wine rather than merely a sipper. The remaining tannins give it bite as well. It’s a wine built for long ageing and to be honest it will go another decade with ease. Such length. However, as the vineyard and crop were so small, only 800 bottles were made.
Because of the wine’s structure Tim kept back much of his stock, which was shipped to the UK when the vineyard was sold in 2011. It has been occasionally available to visitors to Tim’s Hampshire winery, and a word with Tim may well secure the odd bottle. The slightly more plentiful (3,722 bottles to be exact) Spotswood Syrah 2010, from the same site, is available from Littlewine for £28. I drank this wine last summer and it is very much in the same vein, a powerful, rich, Stellenbosch Syrah of some stature. Although what Tim is doing now is so very different, when you drink these reds you get another window on a man who is just such an accomplished winemaker.
Discovery Dozen was a December article where I asked twelve people in wine to name a bottle which had really made them sit up and take notice during last year’s social slumber. It was a wonderfully eclectic selection by a group of highly discerning professional palates. Nic Rizzi of Modal Wines selected this bottle. Possa is the estate of Heydi and Samuel Bonanini, a producer based at Riomaggiore, west of La Spezia, in the DOC of Cinque Terre.
I’ve only been down there perhaps three times, always just passing through, but it has to be one of the most beautiful of Italy’s very many stunning wine regions. It’s also very small with just 100 hectares of vines in production. The vines grow on narrow terraces supported by dry stone walls constantly in need of rebuilding, and which are remarkably difficult to access. Anyone left making wine here is committed to a labour of love.
The best-known wines from Cinque Terre are made from Vermentino, often called Pigato in Liguria. However, this wine is a blend of two less well-known varieties, being 80% Albarola and 20% Bosco, from vines over forty years old. It sees a long skin maceration of 25 days, which really is the great determining factor in how this wine looks and tastes…a real amber or orange wine.
It starts off with a few reductive notes, but it opens out nicely with a swirl. I’d have used a carafe if forewarned. After breathing, it developed a unique but attractive smoky bouquet, but even more impressive was the palate. A distinctly mineral wine of both precision and beauty. Herbal, savoury, not so much complex, it has that life-affirming simplicity which makes it far more than simple. Does that make sense? Perhaps “purity” is the word I’m looking for. Remarkably good value for around £23, you can drink it now but it will certainly improve over a year, maybe longer.
Selected by Nic Rizzi, importer, of Modal Wines as his star of 2020.
Birgit Braunstein comes from one of the Neusiedlersee shore’s oldest wine families, who have been making wine around Purbach, north of Rust, for four hundred years. Birgit’s estate is quite large, 22 hectares, farmed biodynamically. She makes a wide variety of wines. Some use international varieties, some are made in amphorae buried behind her house. Wildwux is perhaps what you might call her most “natural” wine, though inputs and adulterations are as far as I can tell pretty much absent in all of her cuvées.
It’s a classic Burgenland red blend of Zweigelt, St-Laurent and Blaufränkisch, with a tiny splash of Merlot in some vintages, off soils rich in a mix of schist and limestone. The vines are growing at between 100 and 200 masl in her best sites, both close to Purbach and in the Leithaberg Mountains immediately to the west. There’s a five-week maceration on skins in open-top fermenters, followed by 18 months in used small oak. The cellar-mistress here is Adriana Gonzalez, who has been working with Birgit for many years. They make a wonderful team.
The palate is brimming with fresh red fruits accentuated by a definite mineral edge, most certainly a sign of the quite distinctive terroir of the hills around the lake. It’s a wine which has a serious side, yet is also so easy to drink. This is a wine of balance, finesse and purity, all of which may sound like one big cliché, yet I think Birgit doesn’t get as much recognition as many of her younger colleagues in the region. She’s making lovely wines and in quantities which could easily find a wide distribution.
The UK importer is Indigo Wines.
CHÂTEAU PHÉLAN-SÉGUR 2004, CRU BOURGEOIS, ST-ESTÈPHE (Bordeaux, France)
Currently owned by Belgian shipping magnate, Philippe Van der Vyvere, when this 2004 was made this large St-Estèphe Cru Bourgeois, at one time in the depths of Bordelais history attached to the Cru Classé estate of Calon-Ségur, was in the hands of the owners of Champagne Pommery, the Gardinier family. It was this family who re-established high quality at Phélan, bringing it up to what many believe is Cru Classé quality today.
Phélan-Ségur sits south of St-Estèphe itself, just to the north of Château Meyney, but less than 10 ha of a 70 ha vineyard (though more than 90 ha at the time of this vintage) is close to the château itself. One large block sits close to Montrose, and in fact 22 ha here was sold to Montrose in 2010. The current estate forms part of the once vast vine holdings of the famous Comte de Ségur, who also once owned Lafite, and the vines which eventually became Mouton and Latour.
So, to the wine. It is often touted as a label which deserves to be recognised as a Cru Classé, and in the ill-fated re-classification of Cru Bourgeois it was rated Cru Exceptionelle. In fact, when it was last sold it fetched a record price for a Cru Bourgeois of 90 million Euros. The Grand Vin (Frank Phélan is the second label) is around 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot, but with tiny additions of Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. Vinification is in stainless steel vats of assorted size to allow for the fermentation of individual plots separately. The wine then goes into barrique, 50% new, but with a lighter toast.
It is generally suggested that Phélan Ségur should be drunk between 10 to 20 years old. The 2004 vintage is not portrayed as one of the finest at the estate, but nevertheless, neither was it a particularly poor one. The colour here was darker than I had therefore expected and the bouquet took some time to develop in the glass. Yet with time what developed was a very attractive nose which reminded me of the Christmas Pudding we had eaten not four weeks previously. However, the palate was fairly tight, the wine structured and closed. I found the fruit a little compressed, and we could doubtless debate the reasons for that. But it is fascinating to come back to classic wines like this after my usual fare these days.
This wine’s origins are lost in the mists of time. I can think of two possible sources which are either The Sampler (a decade ago I was still prone to grabbing the odd Bordeaux off their shelves), or very possibly Majestic Wine Warehouse. I’ve not listed Majestic on this blog before, as far as I’m aware.
“RESCH” 2017, VYKOUKAL (Moravia, Czechia)
You’ll have seen one or two wines from this producer in my Recent Wines articles over the past year or so. They are not one of the most glamorous Czech producers, and certainly the labels are dull by comparison to some, but Zdenek Vykoukal is only a small part-time winemaker and his wines have kind of sneaked up on me. This was the most interesting so far but all have been excellent.
Zdenek farms just 1.5 hectares of vines, planted mostly in 1953 at Hostêrádky-Resov in the Velpavlovická sub-region of Moravia. The variety in this cuvée is Welschriesling, planted at 240 masl on pretty unique soils. They are made up of loess deposits over tertiary limestone which once formed undersea cliffs.
Fermentation sees nineteen days on skins in open vats followed by 12 months on lees, ageing in old acacia barrels. The wine is then further rounded out in stainless steel for eleven months before bottling. The colour is certainly orange. It also has a bouquet of orange pith with a bit of rusty metal adding edge, so to speak. The palate is clean and precise on the attack, but the mid-palate brings out softer exotic fruit with which a savoury element mingles. I can’t quite put my finger on what that is. Whatever it might be, the wine is superb. It will undoubtedly age further but right now it has that edge of freshness which gives it real vitality. Pretty accomplished for a part-timer who spends his working week as a station master. But as a warning, it’s definitely in the orange wine camp. There is some texture, though balanced by all the other elements.
Vykoukal’s small production wines are imported by Basket Press Wines. Despite their somewhat less than eye catching labels (maybe it’s fairer to say more traditional) these wines, from the battlefield of Austerlitz, are apparently becoming highly sought-after. Retails for just over £25.
Alex Zahel is the young fourth generation winzer in charge at this traditional family estate in Vienna’s vineyard. He’s assisted in the winery by his American-born wife, Hilary, who is an artist and was once a food editor, perhaps bringing a degree of creativity to the business. She designed the hand printed butterfly and wine vessel labels which adorn the Zahel bottles.
Ried Kaasgraben is a named vineyard, or “cru” on the larger Nussberg, which rises above Grinzing on the western side of the Danube just north of Vienna. Protected both by the woods above it, and the city below, it’s a terroir of complex differences and sub-plots which produce a surprisingly varied array of wines and styles, even given the traditional field blends which by law must make up the contents of the Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC.
Kaasgraben is a small site with its own microclimate in a tiny side valley close to Sievering, in Vienna’s 19th District, overlooking the Kaasgraben Church. The vines are all more than sixty years old and it’s worth listing the nine varieties in this field blend: Chardonnay, Riesling, Grüner Veltliner, Rotgipfler, Zierfandler, Neuberger, Gewurztraminer, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris. It’s an eclectic mix of the traditional and the international. Following a simple fermentation, the wine goes into stainless steel tanks for 12 months before bottling without fining or filtration.
The result is more opulent than you might imagine. It is not a simple spritzig Gemischter Satz for sure, and it weighs in with 13.5% abv, which is more than many show. But it does have something in common with Franz Wieninger’s top single cru wines, a more serious version of the tradition. For cellaring a few years rather than sloshing back in a wonderful Heuriger. The Zahel family would probably counsel one of their lighter wines for that purpose at their own heuriger. This particular single site cuvée should last at least a decade, but there’s a limit to how long I will keep them all.
This bottle was purchased from Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton, and came in the same mixed case as the Alto-Adige Kerner featured in January Part 1.
Florian and Mathilde Beck-Hartweg are very much part of Alsace’s wonderful new generation. In their early thirties, they are the sixteenth generation of a family which has farmed on the unique pink granite soils of Dambach-la-Ville, north of the town of Sélestat, since the 16th century. Florian began working with his father in 2009 in preparation for his retirement a year later, when Florian and Mathilde took over.
What makes them different to their forbears is that, like so many young vignerons in the region, the couple have fully embraced ecology in every sense. In particular, they follow the teachings of Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese farmer-come-philosopher whose “one straw revolution” I have previously written about in relation to terroirs as diverse as Alsace and Northern Greece (Domaine Lissner at Wolxheim follows the same principles, as do Thomas and Jason Ligas in Greek Macedonia). Although there isn’t space here to outline Fukuoka’s approach to cultivation, in his own way he ranks alongside Steiner, and his writing is well worth exploring.
After all that, I’m not going to say a great deal about this wine. I don’t need to. It is the entry level village Riesling at Beck-Hartweg. It’s off pink granite with some sandstone, and is fresh, zesty and saline. It’s fermented in foudre and aged just ten months. Really simple purity of fruit with terroir coming through. Floral bouquet, grapefruit dominating palate, literally pure and simple, as they say. As with all the wines here, no additives, zero sulphur. The 2016 was just as good for the money. My last bottle of Beck-Hartweg was their pétnat, “Tout Naturellement Pétillant” which was a glorious sparkling treat.
Beck-Hartweg’s wines, including their exceptional Grand Cru wines off Frankstein, are imported by Vine Trail.
So, 2021 begins, although little has changed. I was going to say that we are getting used to the new normal, but that would not be true. It’s impossible to get used to our current geographically curtailed existence, not helped when you have family overseas who one can’t see, but who are pretty much able to lead fairly normal lives themselves, at least in contrast to our own. Another thing which hasn’t changed is the format of these monthly Recent Wines articles. We will be continuing with the two-part format because, let’s face it, I can’t limit my monthly highlights to just ten or twelve wines.
We begin this first batch with the two wines we drank on New Year’s Day (which seems so long ago), a Manzanilla and a New Zealand Pinot Noir, then moving on to a couple of Northern Italians (though not Piemontese), rounding off with wines from Catalonia, Alsace, Hungary and the Jura. So exciting are the wines we are drinking at home right now that I’d almost forgotten how good these wines from early January were. Nothing especially famous (well, maybe the NZ), but a selection of really interesting, excellent, wines.
LA BOTA DE MANZANILLA 55, EQUIPO NAVAZOS (Sanlúcar, Spain)
Bota 55 is a saca of 2014, another release from an old Miguel Sánchez Ayala almacenista from the back streets of Sanlúcar. This was my last bottle of 55, but there’s sense in saving some of these Equipo Navazos releases if you are lucky enough to purchase a few bottles. They do truly show that Sherry, or at least some of it, does not have to be drunk as fresh as possible, as the wine books will tell you. But these are fine wines, and of course far removed from that stale (sorry) cliché.
What you get with age is certainly a darker wine, dark straw in this case. What hits you is sheer depth. Perhaps it’s the nature of a fortified wine that it is possible, but there are few wines which can truly match these EN releases for depth. This is because the mineral freshness generated by the white chalk terroir, coupled with the extended biological ageing under flor, gives the tenor line to the baritone of time’s added complexity. You will also likely ask yourself how many wines give you such length? Of course, this all comes at a price for some who want merely delicacy, and perhaps less personality. There are people, I know one or two, who find these wines have just too much personality. For me, they are treasures, and this bottle is outstanding in all the ways described.
Equipo Navazos is imported by Alliance Wine and has a reasonably wide retail distribution among independent retailers.
MARTINBOROUGH PINOT NOIR 2010, ATA RANGI (Martinborough, New Zealand)
Ata Rangi (it means “dawn sky” or “new beginning”) is one of the most famous of New Zealand wineries. Clive and Phyll Paton planted vines on the edge of Martinborough village in 1980. Back then it was certainly not the famous specialist zone for North Island Pinot Noir that it has become. Since that time Ata Rangi’s Pinot has become one of the most sought-after wines in the country and, coinciding with this 2010 vintage, it was awarded with the inaugural Tipuranga Teitei o Aotearoa (Grand Cru of New Zealand).
Helen Masters has been the long-time winemaker here. She now makes three Pinots, being a single vineyard release, this estate wine, and an early drinking bottling. These, and the estate’s other varieties, are all farmed in a sustainable way and Ata Rangi was one of the prime movers of the sustainable movement, which is now ubiquitous among NZ grape farmers.
This 2010 benefits from the maturity of the original vines. The vintage was a cool one at the south of the North Island, but benefited from warm sunshine around harvest which brought on ripeness and sugar (we hit 13.8% abv here, so it can’t have been too cool). There’s certainly a lifted freshness which gives a kind of minty edge to the cherry fruit. The overall impression is a wine of focus and precision, but one which has a smooth and velvet finish despite evident backbone. At a decade old I’d put it around half way through its drinking window, indeed less…I reckon it will continue to give pleasure for another decade. Definitely a wine that was ahead of its time and I was so glad to have a bottle in the cellar.
I am not at all sure where I bought this single bottle. Possibly The Sampler in London, but that’s just a guess, and perhaps irrelevant today. I think London’s Piccadilly department store, Fortnum & Mason, may sell it (and that’s another possibility for my original purchase).
KERNER 2019, CANTINA VAL ISARCO (Alto-Adige, Italy)
If you are driving north from Verona to Innsbruck, when you reach Bolzano you arrive at the confluence between the Adige and Isarco rivers, the former running more or less northwest, and the Isarco running northeast. Not far from Bolzano is the Abbey of Neustift (Novacella), which has made the Kerner variety something of a speciality. Their “Praepositus” Kerner is one of the finest renditions of this grape, a beautiful wine from a beautiful place, a wine I had to seek out having read about it years ago in “1001 Wines You Must Try Before You Die”.
This Kerner comes from the Eisacktaller Kellerei (to use its alternative German-speaking name) at Chiusa. It’s not as fine as the Novacella Kerner, but it’s damned good. Kerner is a 1929 crossing between Schiava (aka Vernatsch or Trollinger), a red variety, and Riesling, to create an aromatic white variety. The result is usually a wine to surprise the uninitiated. In fact, I was fairly surprised myself at how many social media followers said “I love that wine” when I posted a photo in early January.
If I chose two words to describe this wine, they might seem kind of opposites, but nevertheless you do get freshness and power. Power through the 14% abv and the almost exotic fruit, peachy (a bit like Viognier), but balanced with freshness and zip. This is a northerly region with vines between 300 metres and 900 metres above sea level, but as with Switzerland’s Valais, there’s a lot of sunshine. The creamy, smooth, fruit is actually delicious, but its mountain freshness gives the wine another dimension entirely. Hard to believe many could fail to fall in love with this, especially as it can be had for just under £18.
I’ve been trying to seek out a number of sub-£20 wines (because I am apparently spending too much on wine), and this was one of the real successes of early winter purchasing. It’s hard to excite a wine fanatic in the sub-£20 price range, even one like me who jumps at trying the less well-known varieties, but this bottle did it for me. From Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton (mail order available).
ROSSO DI VALTELLINA NEBBIOLO 2017, ARPEPE (Valtellina, Italy)
The Perego family have been winemakers near Sondrio since the mid-nineteenth century. They work with only one variety, the region’s signature “Chiavannasca”, which they prefer to call by its more common name, Nebbiolo, for this entry level cuvée. In this sun-swept valley immediately south of, and parallel to, the Swiss border, the vines can reach 700 masl. They sit on steep south- and southwest-facing granite (sfaldata) slopes which are worked by hand, being way too steep to mechanise. This producer is the key natural wine name in the region, making low intervention wines of spectacular quality.
Despite the entry level nature of this wine, the vines are still fifty years old, sited on the lower to mid-slope. Picked quite late, the grapes go into 50hl tini for an extended maceration before pressing, after which they are transferred to large chestnut casks and cement vats. After six months ageing the wine is bottled and kept back before release (in this case, it was shipped in spring 2019).
The colour is vibrant cherry and the bouquet is strikingly floral with just a hint of rust. Structured on the palate, it opens nicely in the glass, a lovely wine currently showing the vibrancy of youth. It’s that kind of Nebbiolo with a touch of ethereal lightness, grounded on a hard granite minerality. It would keep but I think this kind of Nebbiolo (as with some Aostan versions) is just so tasty like this. Any Nebbiolo lover needs some.
Imported by Tutto Wines.
SUMOLL “100% AMPHORA” 2015, LA METAMORPHIKA (Catalonia, Spain)
Metamorphika is the label Jean Franquet (of Costador Wines) uses for his wines bottled in flagons. Many are amber wines, made with extended skin contact, in amphora (“Brisat”). This is unusually a red wine, although a blanc (or perhaps I should say orange) de Noirs is made from the same variety. Sumoll Negre (there’s also a white Sumoll Bianco variety, not to be confused) is one of Catalonia’s, and Spain’s, great grape varieties in my opinion. It is often used to make magnificent blanc de noirs sparkling wine (cf Clos Lentiscus), and superb reds.
The vines are grown in mountain vineyards in Tarragona Province, near Conca de Barberà. Farming is organic but winemaking is low intervention with only small amounts of sulphur, nothing else, added if necessary, and always at the time of racking. This red is fermented in amphora at low temperature for eight weeks before ageing on lees for nine months in traditional clay tinajas. The tannins are integrated by now, but the terracotta gives the wine a characteristic texture which will be familiar to anyone who knows COS Cerasuolo di Vittoria from southeastern Sicily. Rising above this texture is deep red fruit. Superb.
These wines are imported by Otros Vinos and this one was purchased at Furanxo, the excellent little Spanish deli on Dalston Lane (conveniently five or ten minutes from Newcomer Wines).
“THIS IS MUSKA” VIN DE FRANCE 2019, LAMBERT SPIELMANN (Alsace, France)
Spielmann is a new producer to me, who came to my attention through David Neilson (Back in Alsace web site). You know, I’m sure, that my passion for music would not let me ignore wines with labels like these, but thank goodness the wines are really good as well.
Lambert is based at St-Pierre, close to Epfig, in the Bas-Rhin Department, once seen as the poor cousin to the Haut-Rhin, where all the big names are based. Any lover of Alsace wines will know that it is the Bas-Rhin where the excitement is most evident today, in large part because vineyard land has been slightly less expensive for young growers starting out. But it’s also true that a melting pot of natural wine producers has attracted others.
Lambert is one of these. His family are not winemakers so his two-hectare estate is a totally new venture. However, the vines had been previously farmed organically for more than twenty years, and Lambert is a convert to biodynamics, using Maria Thun’s calendar for vineyard work. If he has a method in the winery, it is to do as little as possible as gently as possible, and the results, on the evidence of this, my first of his wines, show in the bottle.
Three Muscats (Muscat à Petit Grains, Muscat Ottonel and Muscat Rouge) are co-planted on clay. Whole bunches are fermented over two weeks and then are pressed into vats for around nine months ageing. There’s a tiny tinge of pink to the colour of a wine which leaps out of the glass with classic Muscat perfume. The palate has fresh citrus zest, with a nice level of acidity not always found in Alsace Muscats. I’d call it zesty, textured and pointy (for want of a better word…angular would be wrong, I mean “pointy” in a good way).
The label was designed by Fred Bouchet and reflects the wine’s name. Spielmann likes to suggest a musical accompaniment (“à boire écoutant…”), in this case the Ska classic “Pressure Drop”, the cover version performed by The Specials.
Another fine discovery by Tutto Wines. Their online shop for the public doesn’t carry all the wines they import, which can be a nuisance (I was only able to purchase two of the Spielmann cuvées they import). However, the selections in the shop change regularly and of course if you want a case, or perhaps if you ask nicely? I reckon I’m going to try to get to know Lambert Spielmann a lot better.
“THE WIZARD” 2018, RÉKA-KONCZ (Eastern Hungary)
My Recent Wines articles have contained a wine made by Annamária Réka Koncz in most months since the summer of last year. I’ve been slowly working my way through all of her wines, at least those which are imported into the UK, from the 2018 vintage. This is the last of them, although I’ve begun to get in a few 2019s from the lady I described as one of my two discoveries of 2020 in my Review of the Year (posted 17 December).
I won’t repeat too much about Annamária, except that she’s a supremely talented winemaker farming right on the Ukrainian border in Eastern Hungary, in a region with a climate not too dissimilar to nearby Tokaj. She currently has, I think, three hectares of old vines, at an age of around forty-to-sixty years, on the Tipet Kaszony (Tipet Mountain, but more a hill) near the village of Barabás. She never set out to be a winemaker, but after a BSc degree in Horticultural Engineering at Debrecen University she did her Masters in Copenhagen. Here she discovered natural wine and tied it to her love of nature and ecology.
“The Wizard” is a dry, textural, white made from a four-variety field blend, based on the rare variety Annamária is keen to save and revive, Királyleányka (introduced into the region in around 1920), along with Rhine Riesling, Hárslevelü and Furmint. Simply made, it undergoes a one-day maceration in open cask, the fermentation finished in tank.
The wine has a fresh and bright minerality, salinity, texture and structure, probably reflecting the soils here because all of Annamária’s wines are off volcanic ash and lava which on solidifying forms perlite under a loamy topsoil. As with all of the Réka-Koncz cuvées, it really is lovely. It’s not her most “skin contact” style, so it would be one of the cuvées you could try if you want to dip a toe into the R-K water. But I must say that I’m not alone in my enthusiasm. Everyone I know who has tried these wines has come back with some variation of “wow!”.
Réka-Koncz is imported by Basket Press Wines. They are now selling the 2019 vintage, but I hope there are still some various bottles left unsold (especially as I will need to order at least something from this estate during February).
MELON À QUEUE ROUGE 2014, ARBOIS-PUPILLIN, DOMAINE DE LA PINTE (Jura, France)
Domaine de la Pinte was the pioneer of biodynamics in the Arbois appellation, something which few people are aware of, even if they know that the domaine has in the past been a prime mover and supporter of the region’s natural wine fair, le nez dans le vert, the Salon des Vignerons Bio du Jura held (in normal times) in March.
The Domaine dates back to the 1950s and in some ways it’s an archetype for the glamorous purchase of rich industrialists so common in France in the 1980s and 1990s. Except that although the Martin family were owners of the construction company, based at that time in the region, that built much of the early Autoroute system, the Jura was hardly glamorous back then (any glamour came perhaps not before the 2000s). They were simply committed to making quality wine in a traditional way. Wink Lorch (Jura Wine, 2014) notes that Roger Martin had a passion for Vin Jaune. The style has always been a speciality at La Pinte, and you can often purchase surprisingly old vintages at the Domaine, and occasionally at their shop opposite Maison Jeunet in Arbois.
The domaine also specialises in an unusual grape variety, Melon á Queue Rouge, of which it owns perhaps 1.5 hectares. It’s actually a natural mutation of Chardonnay mostly found in the Jura. It has a bright red stalk which converts to this colour some time after flowering, as the grapes ripen. Although the mutation is relatively rare as a varietal named on the label, it has become fashionable due to its evident quality and points of difference to most Chardonnay.
The only word which really describes this wine, although it would appear as if I’ve stolen it from Wink, is “exotic”. It has a lightness and bright freshness which, coupled with the lifted bouquet might make you suppose I’m describing a lighter wine, but yet it has flesh on the bones. This comes by way of fruit almost reminiscent of a peach and pineapple sundae. Despite that description, it retains its elegance and most tasters will single out the subtlety which is accentuated by some complexity in this six-year-old bottle. I’ve only drunk this a few times, but every time it turns my head.
This was purchased at the Domaine. Visit by appointment, or visit their shop at 8 Rue de L’Hôtel de Ville in the centre of Arbois.
Hobbes versus Rousseau. We find this conflict almost everywhere these days, especially in global politics. Hobbes favoured the rule of law in an almost Old Testament sense, the structures of the state (Leviathan) providing the only way to keep we wicked humans on the straight and narrow (ie, under control). Rousseau was more for freedom (within the context of his time), showing the value of individual thought and action. So, what on earth has all this to do with Champagne’s Grower Revolution? After all, Rousseau gave us The Enlightenment, and the great leaps in Science, Philosophy and Literature which stemmed from that movement are somewhat more important than the economic emancipation of a group of French farmers.
Back at the time of creation we wandered the globe as free beings, but not the Champenois farmers when the regulations were laid down for the AOC. No, when “Champagne” was created, it was run by the Champagne Houses, who over time (bar a few riots thrown in by the paysans) tightened their grip on this largely viticultural region in Northern France. They not only dictated which vineyards were to be part of their region, they also dictated the price paid for grapes. The people who grew those grapes were most certainly the peasants and the negociants were the aristocracy.
When I began drinking Champagne it was all about the Houses. Apart from anything else, the power of these large movers enabled them to write the story of Champagne, and part of that story is that Champagne has to be a blend of different grapes from different villages, in different parts of the region. The whole is superior to the sum of the parts. And we probably won’t tell you what those parts are!
Forget the fact that many of the big Champagne Houses, the Grandes Marques, have pretty much made single vineyard Champagnes for decades: Taittinger, Bollinger, Philiponnat, and the biggie, Krug, to name only four. Pretty good they are too. Now I’m not against the Houses at all, and nor would I try to argue that Grower Champagne is better than that made by a Grande Marque. What I do argue is that by exploring the Growers one can learn so much about the region as a whole, through what are indeed diverse, individual and highly interesting terroirs. Even if you were to decide that the “blend” of sub-regions is better than the single terroir, wouldn’t it be instructive to see how they express themselves tout-seul?
What I would like to do is to introduce you to some Growers. Many of you may not merely have heard of all of them, but will have drunk wines from them. This would come as no surprise. All of these producers are making wines potentially as good as anything bottled in the Champagne Region. I initially wanted to put together a nice neat mixed case of a dozen wines from a dozen different producers, but that’s always too difficult for me. My compromise is a baker’s dozen, thirteen, with a few honourable mentions tacked on to the end. My excuse…one of the wines chosen below to represent our Grower Revolution is not sparkling.
Francis and Delphine Boulard, Massif de Saint-Thierry
We will start in the region’s far northwest, just off the A4 Autoroute from Reims to Paris, and at the village of Neuville-aux-Larris, where at that time Francis Boulard made Champagne under the “Raymond Boulard” label. It was here that I visited on the way home one late summer’s morning having come across his Champagnes in a shop run by the now owner of Tillingham Wines in the UK, Ben Walgate. Francis very soon went his own way, joined by his daughter Delphine. They are now based at Faverolles-et-Coëmy, and still make most of their cuvées from grapes off the Massif de Saint-Thierry, labelling them Francis Boulard et Fille. Although this is possibly one of the least known names in my selection, I would say that these were very possibly the most terroir-specific Champagnes I had ever tasted back in the mid-2000s.
I could have recommended the Boulards’ “Petraea”, made in a cuvée perpetuelle (a little like a solera), but I shall go with the biodynamic Chardonnay beauty that is “Les Rachais”. The Chardonnay vines forming this single site wine are fifty-four years old now, planted on sandy silex/limestone terrain on the Massif, fermentation in fairly old barrels and dosed Extra Brut (circa 2g/l). This is a wine of genuine mineral purity, which Michael Edwards called “ethereal” when speaking of my favourite vintage for this wine, 2002 (it was first produced in 2001). A cuvée one should only think about disturbing from the cellar after ten years.
Jérôme Prévost (La Closerie), Montagne de Reims
Prévost was initially most famous for being one of the first so-called disciples of Anselme Selosse (who we shall come too in a minute or two). His tiny estate (originally two hectares) is at Gueux, where he began making wine in 1998, initially sharing winemaking facilities with his friend, Selosse. He started out making one wine named after the single vineyard from whence it came, “Les Béguines”. The wine, aside from being eye-wateringly good, was unusual at the time in that it was made from 100% Pinot Meunier, the much-maligned member of the Champagne grape trio.
However, this is not the wine to sneak into my baker’s dozen. That is Prévost’s second cuvée, “Fac-Simile”. This is also pure Meunier, but is a Rosé. I say Rosé, but like another wine listed below, it is pale. It has a haunting quality which stems from the small but concentrated dash of red wine added to the straight white “Béguines” to make the wine tinged with a rusty pink colour. It’s a wine which sometimes smells of red fruits and sometimes of tea leaves, sometimes a minute apart. It’s capable of real complexity but in that subtle way that emerges in the (preferably large) glass over time. Coming off very complex soils which include limestone, chalk and sand, all packed with the compressed remains of marine fossils, this is hardly surprising.
Bérêche et Fils, Montagne de Reims
Of all the growers in Champagne the one I’ve enjoyed building a relationship with the most is the very friendly Raphaël Bérêche (and his mum). I’ve been entertained with tastings at their winery on top of the Montagne, at Le Craon de Ludes, on several occasions and have been able to get to know the whole range. Raphaël and his brother, Vincent, farm just less than ten hectares spread over the mountain and the valley of the Marne. Everything is done here gently, but with care and attention to detail, perhaps most exemplified by the fact that they insist on using real corks rather than crown caps for the second fermentation of the top cuvées. I also remember visiting when the new Coquard vertical press had just arrived, and another time an optical sorting table, ahead of its time.
Every wine made here, from the Brut Réserve upwards, is worthy of inclusion. The Rosé here, “Campania Remensis” (from Ormes) is a particular favourite, as is “Le Cran”, a vintage blend of two vineyards at Ludes (Cran = Craon). They also make what is my favourite still wine (Coteaux Champenois) from Champagne with Pinot Noir from Ormes. That’s even before we mention some stunning negociant wines. But I’m going to choose a wine which has long been my favourite here, “Reflet D’Antan”. It’s another wine from a cuvée perpetuelle, which Raphaël insists is not a solera! It was discontinued for some years when, in order to make it even more complex, they decided it should have longer lees contact. It now gets 36 months sur lattes. In some ways it is a kind of marmite wine, in that it has some oxidative notes which its UK importer (Vine Trail) suggests may be reminiscent of Jura wines (being a massive Jura-phile that doesn’t worry me). It’s also very honeyed with age and remarkably complex. Certainly it’s a gourmet wine to be savoured in a wine glass, and perhaps thrown (gently) into a carafe for a while beforehand.
Vilmart et Cie, Montagne de Reims
I strongly recommend a visit to Vilmart if you can arrange one. Their cellars at Rilly-la-Montagne are not just impressive for the wines, nor just for the large wooden barrels and vats which adorn one part of the building, but for the rather beautiful stained glass all around you, created by René Champs, father of current incumbent, Laurent Champs. This is another very focused producer. The old vines may all be mere Premier Cru (no Grand Cru vines here), but they are cared for meticulously (even tilling by hand). The result at the top end is almost miraculous quality.
“Coeur de Cuvée” is the top of the range at Vilmart. It is made, of course, from the heart of the first pressings. Fermentation is in small oak (222-litre barrique). Such wines require perhaps a decade to feel fully integrated. At fifteen to eighteen years, depending on vintage, and with a good swirl in the glass, it comes together. By twenty years of age, you may feel it is close to perfection (others may prefer it younger). The blend is usually around four fifths Chardonnay to one fifth Pinot Noir. Expect a vinous wine with nuttiness predominant. This is a classic, and in my opinion, forgotten by many of today’s “influencers”. It is also a regular bet in so-called off vintages.
Lilbert et Fils, Côte des Blancs
Bertrand Lilbert is the current young head of this historic Grower. The family began growing vines around Cramant, at the northern end of the Côte des Blancs, in the mid-eighteenth century. He farms in Cramant, Chouilly and Oiry. The style here is quite strict, the wines being almost piercing in minerality in their youth. It’s the acidity and mineral spine which gives the vintage wines their longevity. In some ways they are the essence of chalk on a blackboard.
I remember tasting here early one frosty late winter morning. The wines struck the palate like a needle. I was thrilled, not because I’m some kind of masochist, but because these wines reminded me of a complex-structured but filigree snow crystal, and I could foresee how they might develop (it was the 2006 vintage). I could have suggested a rather unique wine genre made here, called “Perle”. The style used to be called “Crémant de Cramant” and is bottled at just 4 atmospheres pressure, rather than the usual six for traditional Champagnes. However, the 100% Cramant Chardonnay vintage wine is finer, an old vine cuvée which expresses the terroir of “Les Buissons”, which comprises 75% of the blend. But it’s another wine to age, so that the crisp acids soften and the chalk comes through.
Anselme Selosse (Champagne Jacques Selosse), Côte des Blancs
I debated whether to include Selosse. Against – everyone knows him, his wines are horrendously expensive and anyone who dislikes the mere idea of Grower Champagne is just so negative. In the “For” camp, well, the guy pretty much single-handedly kicked off the Grower Revolution. If anyone has shown that Champagne is not merely one idea, and that other ideas are valid, this is the man. It was so long ago, 1974, that Anselme took over his father’s vines in Avize. He’d studied winemaking in Burgundy, not uncommon nowadays (almost de rigueur among the most terroir-conscious vignerons today), but rare back in the Seventies. Selosse was an early proponent of biodynamics in the region, but much more than that, he is a philosopher of what “Champagne” might be, and is capable of.
It is debatable as to whether the Champagnes Selosse creates are really terroir wines, as some here undoubtedly are, but that’s far from the point. In choosing a wine to include I had to bear in mind their cost, illustrated by the fact that there are now no Selosse wines I feel I can afford to buy, at least when compared to other producers’ wines. But then I was lucky to be just about early enough in the game to get to know them. I’m going to choose the entry level “Initial” here. It’s made from the youngest vines on the estate, 100% Chardonnay from Avize, Oger and Cramant, off lower elevations with deeper soils.
It’s always a well put together multi-vintage wine, and arguably the most “normal” in terms of flavour profile. Oak aged, the wood always integrates, and it has that creamy palate which shouts Grand Cru Chardonnay. It still gives an intro to the Selosse philosophy, and if you can afford anything from this producer, this is the one you will most likely buy.
Champagne Pierre Péters, Côte des Blancs
François Péters was an early Champagne hero of mine, and he has been ably followed, since 2008, by his son, Rodolphe, farming just less than 20-ha from the family’s winery in the village of Le Mesnil-sur-Oger in the heart of the Côte des Blancs. This is yet another source for some of the finest Grand Cru Chardonnay going. The range is excellent at every level, and this used to be another favoured source for the lower atmosphere “Perle” style which goes so incredibly well with almost any food you care to try it with. However, at the pinnacle of the Péters pyramid is one of the consistently finest wines made in the whole region.
“Les Chetillons” was previously called “Cuvée Spéciale”, but the name now justly reflects the very spéciale vineyard from which it comes. The vineyard itself is situated on pure chalky soils at Le Mesnil-sur-Oger, and it’s a wine with a very chalky texture, almost the purest minerality imaginable. But again, you really need to be patient and age this, or at least in most vintages (the 2000 was really good, for my taste at least, but more forward than most). An example is the 2002 vintage. When this was shared a couple of years ago one Chétillons aficionado declared it still not ready, and I tended to agree. It was my last but one bottle…though I have one left. It would be hard for me to believe that there is, in a fine vintage, any cuvée in the whole of Champagne which is better than “Les Chétillons”, which makes it exceedingly good value even at the price one has to pay today.
Champagne Ulysse Collin, Coteaux de Morin
You’d be excused for not knowing where the Coteaux de Morin is, though you might be more familiar with the Coteaux de Sézanne, with which it is contiguous, forming the northern part of a string of vine clad hills south of the Côte des Blancs. Olivier Collin farms nearly 9 ha at Congy, though when he began, in 2004, he had one parcel and one cuvée. Like Jérôme Prévost, Olivier spent a short time working for Anselme Selosse in the early 2000s. The joke is that you started with Selosse. When he got too expensive you moved to Prévost, and when you could no longer afford him you bought Ulysse Collin. This was back when Selosse Initiale cost maybe £90-£100 and Collin’s then single offering, “Les Perrières”, was maybe £55. Today you will pay somewhat more, around £100 retail at least.
Although that cuvée formed my first several purchases, I am selecting “Les Maillons” today. The reason – we’ve had lots of Chardonnay and this is a Blanc de Noirs bottling. It is again a single site, and the wine reflects the quite different terroir. In part this is down to micro-climate, but even more so it is perhaps a result of the fairly unusual soils, rich in iron, around Barbonne-Fayel, down on the Côte de Sézanne. The resulting wine is quite full-bodied, not always a style I go for. But this wine is fantastic, a real gem of a terroir wine and worthy of your attention…even though I lament the way the prices have risen inexorably at this address. Sadly, I cannot find a photo of “Les Maillons”.
Champagne Jacques Lassaigne, Montgueux
Montgueux is another hidden sub-region, just outside the old regional capital, Troyes. If you believed the stories, you’d think Emmanuel Lassaigne spends all his time in Troyes’ famous natural wine bar, Au Crieurs de Vin, rather than in the vines, but that would be far from the truth for this most meticulous and committed Grower. I say grower, but Emmanuel is technically also a negoce, like the Bérêche brothers. He buys in around 30% of his fruit. In part it’s to ensure he has enough wine to make a living, but just as important is access to other Montgueux terroirs. He is the greatest living advocate for this tiny sub-region.
Montgueux is quite special. Its geology is unique (almost) in the whole of Champagne. It has similar chalk to the Côte des Blancs, but far older, and instead of marine fossils there’s lots of flint. The only other place I know which has a very similar geology in the region is another isolated hill, Mont Aimé, which anyone who has stayed at the hotel of the same name, south of Vertus, will probably know.
Montgueux has been called the “Montrachet” of Champagne, and Emmanuel Lassaigne’s “Le Cotet” is the finest explanation for that epithet. We have a single plot of vines between 55 and 60-years old within this individual vineyard, all Chardonnay, making a wine of intense minerality. It sings with citrus acidity in its youth but as it ages it fattens (the grapes are always picked ripe and the reserve wines come from a complex reserve perpetuelle). It’s another Champagne which you have to treat as a white wine with bubbles, serving it preferably not too cold in a good wine glass.
If you can’t find “Le Cotet”, grab a bottle of “Les Vignes de Montgueux”. It contains bought-in fruit and is an expression of Montgueux as a whole. It’s great value (though also note the cuvée mentioned among the recommended retailers, below).
Vouette & Sorbée, Côtes des Bar
Montgueux is technically part of the Aube, Champagne’s once ignored southern region, but when one thinks of the Aube it is in fact the Côte des Bar which springs to mind. The “Bars” in question are the twin towns of Bar-sur-Seine and Bar-sur-Aube. This region tends to be warmer than the rest of Champagne’s AOP, with a semi-continental climate, and the soils differ in that there’s a lot more Kimmeridgian limestone and marl with any chalk. The comparison would be closer to Chablis, which is a stone’s throw across the Burgundian border, rather than the Côte des Blancs, a good long drive to the north. Pinot Noir thrives here, and has long provided fruit for the sometimes-secretive Grandes Marques in Reims and Epernay. Yet perhaps the greatest of them, Krug, has never been sensitive about admitting to using Aube fruit in its flagship wine.
Bertrand Gautherot is a name we see too little when we speak of the great growers. This is because when he began bottling his own wine in 2001 he chose to name his domaine after his two vineyards near the village of Buxières-sur-Arce. Both are quite different, Vouette being on the typical Kimmeridgian soils, Sorbée being on Portlandian strata. All the vines are worked biodynamically and any manipulation in the winery is kept to an absolute minimum (indigenous yeasts, zero dosage and tiny additions of sulphur).
I was talking to an importer last year lamenting the fact that so often now I’m forced, for purely financial reasons, to become most acquainted with the entry level bottlings from the great growers these days. This is certainly the case with Gautherot’s wines. This is why my choice here is “Fidèle”. Instead of selecting an expensive bottle I’ve possibly only drunk once, I’ve gone for a wine which is, after all, one of my genuine favourites.
“Fidèle” is a Blanc de Noirs, 100% Pinot Noir, from vines in the Vouette vineyard. Although it’s an entry level wine be aware that it does need a little post-disgorgement ageing. Given a year or two in your cellar or wine fridge it blossoms. It’s still pretty uncompromising (as I think Peter Liem has called all the Gautherot wines), and another example of the way the Growers are increasingly making the kind of Champagnes we call “Vinous”, wines which complement food.
Cédric Bouchard/Roses de Jeanne, Côtes des Bar
I was very lucky in that Bouchard was imported into the UK by The Sampler, almost from when they opened. In those days the Bouchard cuvées seemed expensive, but affordable. That is hardly the case now. Every wine made by Bouchard is from a small single plot, almost as if they came from tiny Burgundian Grands Crus, not that the Aube was allowed any Grand Cru sites when they were classifying the Champagne vineyards in 1911 (GC ranks 100% on the old échele, PC ranks 90-99%, but most of the Aube manages just 80%, clearly ridiculous).
Bouchard works out of Landreville, which like Bertrand Gautherot’s Buxières, is in the Barséquanais (Seine), on the right bank of the river. There are, if I am still correct, seven small batch Champagnes made, all of exemplary quality and real personality. I know and love most of them but my favourite is called “Le Creux d’Enfer”. Yes, it’s time to introduce another Rosé, but like Prévost’s, it’s quite far removed from most examples of “Pink Champagne”.
Apparently, it comes from just three rows of Pinot Noir and, according to Peter Liem, is foot-trodden. The very pale colour comes from a short skin maceration. The result is actually, for me, one of the most sensually and at the same time, intellectually, stimulating Champagnes I know. My typical note would be “ethereal”. It reminds me most of fresh tea leaves, though whether this is green tea or fine Assam I’m not sure (or perhaps my favourite tea is more appropriate, that exquisite Blue Himalaya Oolong from Marriage Frères in Paris). It’s probably fair to say that the first time I drank it provided my most revelatory moment in all the time I’ve been drinking Champagne. Maybe not quite Dom Pérignon’s “I’m drinking the stars”, but close.
Okay, so the photo’s Val Vilaine, not Creux.
Marie-Courtin, Côtes des Bar
The vineyards of Polisot, where rising star Dominique Moreau grows her vines, stretch over both sides of the River Seine in the south of the Côte. This estate is however merely one very tiny part of those vineyards, less than three hectares, formed on a south-facing slope. There’s a little bit of Chardonnay, but it’s mostly Pinot Noir that Dominique has planted here.
What I like about Moreau’s wines, and probably in truth most of my favourite Aube wines, is that whilst they undoubtedly show in some respects typically ripe Aubois fruit, they are also pristine, even crystalline in their freshness and rapier-like qualities. They do, as I’ve said before but it applies equally here, love a bit of PDA (post-disgorgement ageing, a watchword in the Champagne section of the Crossley cellar – it helps that having so few of these wines I am never in a hurry to drink them).
I only really know two of Dominique’s wines, “Résonance” and “Efflorescence”. Résonance is the entry-level Pinot, vinified in tank, whilst “Efflorescence” differs in that it is a vintage wine, aged in used oak. I’m going to choose “Résonance” because I know it best, but also because the combination of ripeness and precision allows the wine to show the purity of its red fruits. It’s very refreshing. I think Dominique Moreau is making wonderful wines and I hope I can get to know all of her wines in due course.
Olivier Horiot, Côtes des Bar
My first visit to the Aube was when I was in my mid-twenties. I stopped for a night en-route to the South of France, visiting some friends who were honeymooning in a borrowed house near Les Riceys, a group of hamlets about as far south as you can get in “Champagne”. We were almost literally over the border from the town of Chablis. One of the three wine visits we all made the day after our arrival was to a producer called Morel Père et Fils. It was my first taste of Rosé des Riceys, a still pink wine made from Pinot Noir with its own appellation, which at that time was almost unknown in the UK. Over the years I returned to Morel to stock up. If you aged it like a red wine, it was pretty good.
I nearly said “amazing”, but it was more recently that I discovered clearly the best producer of Rosé des Riceys, a real step up in quality, initially via this producer’s Champagnes. Olivier Horiot only started out in 2000, and he began by making the still pink before making bubbles. He uses two sites, after which he names his two single vineyard cuvées. “Valingrain” is marl and white clay, “En Barmont” is red clay, with Portlandian elements alongside the village’s Kimmeridgian soils. I’m not going to choose one or the other of these. “En Barmont” is usually described as the more fruity of the two, perhaps plumper in most vintages, whilst “Valingrain” perhaps has more finesse but is more linear in the mouth. Maybe.
What is clear is that these wines are class acts, and seriously under-appreciated by the fine wine fraternity. Olivier makes some very good, distinctive, Champagnes (with quite distinctive labels), the most easily sourced called Sève, and let us not forget two still Coteaux Champenois bottlings, a Chardonnay and a very good red Pinot Noir. But it is the Rosé des Riceys cuvées which are the stars. If you age them (and you really must), they take on that ethereal quality I mentioned with Cédric Bouchard’s “Creux d’Enfer”, but they never lose their classic red fruit character.
My justification for including this still wine in my Grower’s baker’s dozen is that we have just made a journey through many (certainly not all) of the terroirs of Champagne, and Rosé des Riceys reveals so much about the terroir here in the south. We have already vicariously sipped on a dozen wines which exemplify these terroirs. If we really do follow this, or a similar, route we can build up a picture of what Champagne really is, and what it might be.
Why should we bother? Because Champagne should not be dismissed as a drink for celebrations, almost not really a wine at all. Champagne should be appreciated as a wine like any other, and one which partners most dishes at table. If we can begin to appreciate the subtleties of terroir, we can then better understand the good and the bad (and the downright amazing) that exists in the Grande Marque blends as well. Which means we will truly appreciate all that the Champagne Region has to offer.
I promised (threatened?) I would include a few more names of producers I particularly enjoy. I could easily list thirty or more Growers here, but that would not be helpful. So, with apologies to any I missed out, I could so easily have included in this hypothetical mixed case Agrapart, Val Frison, Ruppert-Leroy, Aurélien Suenen and Jérôme Dehours. That I didn’t was only due to time and space, or lack thereof.
There are several retailers and direct-selling importers who provide good sources for interesting Champagnes like those listed above. The Good Wine Shop (I use the Kew store) always has enough bottles of good Growers to make it difficult to choose, as does The Sampler. Les Caves de Pyrene is light on Champagne but what they do have counts. Vine Trail has one of the best lists of Grower Champagnes in the UK, Dynamic Vines sells Francis and Delphine Boulard (which you might otherwise be pushed to find here). Horiot is usually well represented at Winemakers Club.
I particularly recommend a trip to La Cave des Papilles in Paris’ 14th Arrondisement. They are very friendly with Emmanuel Lassaigne and as well as stocking his full range (when available), he makes their “House Champagne” under the Papilles label (see photo below). Reims and Epernay are there to explore, with many good Cavistes, but Le 520 (1 Avenue Paul Chandon, Epernay) specialises in Champagnes d’Auteurs, and has a fine range.
I currently use three books for reference on the Growers in the region region: Michael Edwards’ “The Finest Wines of Champagne” (Aurum, 2009); Peter Liem’s “Champagne” (Mitchell Beazley, 2017, which includes the wonderful Larmat maps in a pullout tray); and the entertaining “Bursting Bubbles” by Robert Waters (Quiller, 2017, originally Bibendum Wine Co, Australia, 2016). The literature on Champagne is considerable. For more information on the Grandes Marques I am often inclined to turn to Tom Stevenson, who has written more than twenty books and runs the prestigious CSWWC (Champagne and Sparkling Wine World Championships), a wine competition wholly for fizz.
“The Rotters’ Club” (by Jonathan Coe) used to be one of my favourite novels, for the simple reason that its plot line resonated so perfectly with parts of my own early teenage years. It has very little to do with Noble Rot (the magazine etc, rather than botrytis) except that when Noble Rot Magazine opened a restaurant of the same name in London’s Bloomsbury, a group of early fans, of which I was part, tended to call it by that name. It was a place that resonated with us as much as the magazine had done, and in my case the book before it.
Dan Keeling and Mark Andrew were drawn together when a highly successful young record executive (well, he signed Coldplay, but we won’t hold that one against him) met a young, dynamic, employee of Roberson Wine Merchants, via their much-missed retail outlet in West Kensington. Drinking together led to the birth of Noble Rot, the magazine, and then somehow to the wine bar-come-restaurant on Lamb’s Conduit Street, in an obscure part of London close to which I had spent my twenties working.
Noble Rot, the restaurant/wine bar, became a regular place to meet for lunch, or to partake in longer wine dinners behind the screen at the back. A combination of inspired wine choices and immaculate simple dishes made it just perfect. A warm place in every sense, where the warmth of the welcome was worth any number of Michelin Stars.
The kitchen’s influence, via Head Chef Dan Flavell overseen by Stephen Harris, is fairly obvious. Many will know that Stephen runs my favourite restaurant in the world, The Sportsman in Seasalter, Kent. To get him on board in an executive role was the coup of all coups. The wine list(s) show less obvious influence. The wine preferences of Dan and Mark can easily be misconstrued if you look at their favourites “lists” at the end of this book. 1862 Madeira, 1945 Haut-Brion, Krug ’88 and Coche 1990 Meursault appear in a list which suggests the boys have been let loose in a sweet shop at some point. But if you look more carefully, you’ll find Overnoy and Puffeney, Philippe Alliet, Envinate, Les Vignes de Paradis and Cota 45 (and so on). When you dine at Noble Rot the wine lists (and the blackboard) read like a mix of “Terroirs” and “The Ledbury”, with a whole lot in between.
Following the magazine (2013) and the wine bar (2015), Keeling and Andrew set up a small wine import business (under that name), and most recently opened a second wine bar in the historic premises of “The Gay Hussar”, in Soho, a venue famous as a watering hole for plotting politicos which I have yet to visit, but once travel to London becomes possible it is top of my lunch list. To add further to the the Rotters’ vibe, 2020 saw this book appear, Noble Rot – Wine From Another Galaxy.
It’s probably helpful to attempt to describe what the book is and what it perhaps tries to achieve. The very first thing you notice is its design. The cover is simple but striking and the binding, beautiful. Inside, graphics and page layout have clearly been thought about a great deal. It’s not so difficult when you have many issues of a strikingly visual magazine whose graphic images and photos you can call upon. The book is clearly a mirror of the mag in many ways. The photographs, of which there are many, are mostly not just good but stunning, especially those taken by Benjamin McMahon, Juan Trujillo Andrades and Tom Cockram.
The book itself divides into broadly two parts. The first 130 pages introduce Mark and Dan’s adventures into wine journalism and restauration. You get some tales of the setting up of the mag and bar, with some nice pics of early interviews (the musical connection is strong here, not just the music references spattered around, but see the photo (below) of Brian Eno, taken by Tom Cockram, for an example of an early interview with a star, a theme the magazine has regularly pursued).
Next, we get a little wine learning: how wine is made, grape varieties, how to judge wine, how wines age etc. This section is mostly aimed at relative beginners, but the style is jovial and I’m sure even the most expert wine aficionado will enjoy it (though one or two might find the short section on grape varieties slightly simplistic).
We then see a well put together few pages on food and wine, with not surprisingly some nice recipes (and photos thereof). Bottle Art more or less follows, which allows the authors to demonstrate their own passion for design before we move on to the second, perhaps more meaty, part of the book. Pages 130 to 341 form “The Rotters’ Road Trip”.
We get thirty short chapters, or vignettes, covering visits to France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Germany, Greece and back home in England. Some cover an event (La Dive Bouteille or the Paulée de Meursault), some of them cover a wine region (Champagne, Ribeira Sacra, Santorini), whilst others focus entirely on a single producer (Emidio Pepe, Comando G or Frank Cornelissen). This is where the breadth of the authors’ tastes comes into play. They do cover posh end Bordeaux, visit d’Yquem and consume thousands of Euros worth of wine in the drunken fog of Meursault’s Paulée, but in their visits to Gravner, Bea, Pepe, and Overnoy you understand that it’s all about the wine, not the money.
It is, in fact, a deep combination of wine knowledge and experience, and a true passion for the liquid, which makes Noble Rot, in all its forms (whether reading, eating or drinking it), including this book, such a feel-good place to be. I will not lie…via Noble Rot Dan and Mark have an entrée into parts of the wine world which I cannot hope to emulate. My long-term appreciation of Pierre Overnoy’s wines from a region I’ve been visiting since the late 1980s has never gained me a seat at his table, though I did get invited to stay at Pichon-Baron once. Mark and Dan can get to meet (almost) anyone, even Aubert at DRC.
But they don’t lord it over we mere mortals, and in fact I’m sure if they saw a familiar face at the side of the road, they’d invite them along for the ride. The whole Noble Rot concept is about sharing a passion. They do it with easy humour and a familiarity which is infectious, and this certainly comes through in these pages. Whether you know Noble Rot Magazine, or their London wine bars, or not, and whether you are a jaded old-timer who has drunk everything under the sun, or a wine newbie sensing a nascent wine flame within, you will surely love this book. It won’t furnish a plethora of encyclopaedic facts, but it will act as inspiration. Especially inspiration to drink as well and as widely as you can. I’m equally sure that you will be inspired to visit some of the vineyards portrayed in the photographs, which I can assure you really are as profoundly beautiful as they look. So that’s a definite and very firm endorsement.
Noble Rot – Wine from Another Galaxy is published by Quadrille (h/b 2020), an imprint of Hardie Grant. It costs £30.
I’m not going to lie to you, this third Lockdown in the UK is pretty hard. First time around we at least had the sunshine, and no idea really that things would go quite the way they did (well, we may have had an inkling but I’m not sure that it was a fully formed prophesy). Now, looking out on a cold, grey, day in Southern England there’s far less to look forward to. Certainly no winter tastings like those I wrote about enthusiastically in my Review of 2020. I’m sure we all hold out hope for wine travel, but there’s a certain defence mechanism now which is constructed to avoid disappointment.
Yet there is still wine, and I’m sure that right now every bottle drunk is chosen with a little more care, and the act of drinking it is perhaps a tiny bit more focused. The ten bottles here take us over Christmas up to New Year. You will note that the selection chosen is not full of boastful bottles, partly because the few of those I own are always saved to enjoy with similarly wine obsessive friends (generosity breeds generosity). There was no partying in the Crossley household over the festive season. However, there are undoubtedly some remarkable choices amongst the bottles of Burgundy, Alsace, Franken, South African, Champagne, Australian, Loire, Jura, Canary Island and Austrian wines. That’s how they wind up here.
You have to bear in mind that this is a selection of the most interesting bottles sampled at home. It’s not that this wine was faulty, merely that it was way too young, so I place it here in some ways as a warning. I have been well tutored in the art of avoiding wasting money by opening bottles of Burgundy too soon, so this rookie error was unforgivable, really.
Denis has now handed over to his daughter, who indeed was manning the tasting room at the domaine in Fixin when I last visited them, and where this bottle was purchased. Back then, Denis was working with his brother, Vincent, farming 14 hectares of vines around the village, and in Gevrey. In the latter there are tiny parcels in 1er Crus of Les Cazetiers and Lavaux-St-Jacques, but also the village wine, Clos des Chézeaux, represented here.
The Berthaut wines under Denis were always fairly structured (perhaps less so under Amélie, who now makes wine under the domaine name “Berthaut-Gerbet”, encompassing all Denis’ vines and those of François Gerbet). Well, this is not an exception. Even with time to breath (though not decanted) it remained firm and structured. What got me fooled was the vintage, or rather my recollection of the vintage at the time of purchase. I bought some 2010s to lay down and some 2011s to try after a decade. I’d say this wine will go a further decade itself.
There is nice dark cherry with a smoky note, and the tannins are not harsh. It’s just a little bit “strict” right now, slightly closed. Lesson learned.
As mentioned above, this wine was purchased from the domaine.
“SINGULIER” 2017, VIGNOBLE DU RÊVEUR (Alsace, France)
Vignoble du Rêveur is, of course, the personal domaine of Matthieu Deiss and his partner, Emmanuelle Milan, based in Bennwihr, north of Colmar. The wines are both biodynamic and “natural” with nothing added except for a little sulphur in some (not all) cuvées. Everything is done here in a very considered way, by hand, a mixture of the skills learnt both at college and from the couple’s respective famous fathers (in Alsace and Provence), and a wonderful degree of intuition.
Singulier is a carbonic maceration of Riesling and Pinot Blanc. The grapes spend ten days fermenting in large oak, giving colour, after which the wine ages for a year on its fine lees, adding texture. With this cuvée minimal sulphur is added. The attack is dry, bright and citrus flavoured, with acids and mineral notes providing tension. Beneath this is a lick of richness wound around that fine mineral core. A balanced 12% abv makes this both refreshing but also a good food pairing (I’m sure you know the kind of dishes…the “lightly-spiced” cliché etc). Definitely a producer to follow throughout the whole of their range.
The Deiss/Milan wines are imported by Swig Wines, this bottle purchased from Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton.
“TRIO SAUVAGE” 2019, MAX SEIN WEIN (Franken, Germany)
Max farms 3.5 ha at Dertingen in Franken (Franconia). His passion is for Silvaner and Pinot Meunier (Schwarzriesling), although he also has some Müller-Thurgau, Chardonnay, Pinot Gris, Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir, all grown on mostly limestone with patches of red sandstone. Although he’s a third generation winzer, he has worked around Europe (including in Austria with Judith Beck and Gut Oggau), and in New Zealand. That’s interesting because I see a certain affinity there. The wines are pretty natural though, and on the evidence of this one, my first, they are very good.
Trio Sauvage blends 50% Silvaner with Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, all the vines being at least 60 years old. The Silvaner is direct pressed fruit, whereas the remainder is fermented on skins together for ten days. Zero manipulation takes place, including no added sulphur. The colour is almost a very pale salmon pink, presumably deriving from the macerated Pinot Gris skins. The flavours are initially fresh and a little fruity but a savoury note kicks in, a little bitterness and texture from the period on skins. With low alcohol (11.5%) and zippy acids, it’s a very easy wine to drink. I will definitely be trying more of Max’s wines and I can see why Jiri and Zainab made their first German addition to their Central European portfolio.
This is imported by Basket Press Wines.
“THE TRIP” 2019, BLANK BOTTLE WINERY (Western Cape, South Africa)
Regular readers will be aware not only that I’m pretty keen on the wines of Pieter Walser’s Blank Bottle Winery, but that he regularly bottles a pair of exclusive cuvées for his mates Henry and Cassie at Butlers Wine Cellar down in Brighton. This year’s pair were released just before Christmas, and I got my order in to receive them on the day of release.
I think I can safely say that “The Trip” is the best white bottling for Butlers so far. It’s mainly Grenache Blanc with a few other bits and pieces (I do like this variety, it has to be said). Ageing is on lees in old oak. Lovely fresh acidity rides like Pieter’s surfboard over oceans (almost, okay, getting carried away with my metaphors here) of tropical fruit, rather like the man himself making his escape from a shark in one of his enthralling stories. This is not a complex wine, but POW! It hits you. I don’t mean the alcohol, which although listed at 13%, doesn’t seem as high as stated. It just slaps you with fruit and freshness. At a tad over £20 this is pretty good value. Nice label too, riffing again on Brighton Pier.
Imported by Swig Wines, one of two new cuvées exclusive to Butlers Wine Cellar, Brighton.
Champagne Vouette & Sorbée is named, perhaps self-effacingly, after the single sites Bertrand Gautherot farms above Buxières-sur-Arce, in the Côte des Bar. Bertrand is often cited in the list of disciples of Anselme Selosse, and it is true that Selosse has been an influence. They know each other well. The wines are nevertheless distinctive, and Gautherot is definitely a star in his own right. He’s certainly always cited as one of the region’s foremost producers of biodynamic wines, and although Bertrand had a career in design before he became a vigneron, he’s no newcomer, having farmed at Buxières since the mid-80s.
Fidèle is the entry level at V&S, and also the largest of the cuvées produced. It follows the house style, which means oak vinification with natural yeasts. The cuvée is 100% Pinot Noir, which we know thrives on the south-facing Kimmeridgian clay of the Vouette site (Sorbée is Portlandian limestone). The vintage here is 2016, the wine being disgorged in November 2018, giving it two years post-disgorgement ageing before I popped the cork.
For me, this is a gourmet Champagne. The juice is handled with care, using a traditional Coquard press. Ageing is in old fûts, there’s very little sulphur added and bottling is with zero dosage. The colour is pale gold, and the palate can best be described as mineral and vinous. This is small scale Grower Champagne (Bertrand farms just 5.5 ha) at the highest level, just as inspirational as any of the top names working in Champagne today.
Bertrand Gautherot’s wines (and I mean “wines”) are imported by Vine Trail.
Beechworth is a fascinating region. It’s well away from most of the well-known vineyard regions in Victoria (west of King Valley and South of Rutherglen), and it isn’t often listed when discussing the top wine regions of Australia, yet there are several very well-known producers here (well, I can think of three) who make wines to match anything in the country. Julian Castagna is one of them, and he’s also one of Australia’s most outspoken winemakers, especially on the topic of judging wines and the show circuit. That said, having met him two or three times, I can also say that he’s one of the very warmest guys in Oz wine I’ve ever had the pleasure to spend a small amount of time with.
Australian Wine visionary Max Allen described Castagna’s physical appearance as “wombat-like” which fits a man who needed to be stubborn to do his own thing when he and his wife started out. His Beechworth vineyard is planted on a north-facing hillside on granite and clay, and it was when faced with the chemical treatments he’d been sold to prepare the land for planting his vines that he realised that there was another way. He’s since become a loud advocate of biodynamics, an approach to farming which now thrives throughout the region, largely on the back of the Beechworth Biodynamic Forum Julian began in 2004. He’s notable for being one of the quartet of members of Nicolas Joly’s “Return to Terroir” group (information in this para from Max Allen’s seminal The Future Makers, Hardie Grant, 2010).
Genesis is a Syrah to age par excellence. It comes from a single site on the estate, off that great granite terroir which we know the Syrah variety loves. Julian, working now with his equally uncompromising son, Adam, follows a minimum intervention route. “Genesis” sees 18 months in French oak, 50% new, to make a wine that will keep as well as any fine Northern Rhône. A touch of Viognier (of course) adds elegant lift, but the fruit is smooth and refined, the length exceptional. Stately, magical, call it what you like but a year after my last trip to Australia it felt like a perfect reward for my longing to be back. This is a wine which confounds expectations of what Australian fine wine can be.
This bottle came from The Solent Cellar in Lymington, where I first met Julian. It may be possible for them to source small quantities of this 2002 from a private cellar (sadly not mine).
MELON JAUNE “VALLET” 2002, PHILIPPE GUÉRIN (Muscadet, Loire, France)
Philippe Guérin is a Muscadet producer based in Vallet, in the east of the Sèvre-et-Maine part of the wider region. The family estate is of a reasonable size, 30 hectares, yet the vines are really old. Those used for this wine are over ninety years of age. Perhaps he’s one of the forgotten names in a largely forgotten region, that is forgotten outside of a few serious aficionados. But this is not Muscadet, or certainly not Muscadet as we know it. The term “unicorn wine” is undoubtedly over used, especially for wines which are not produced in tiny quantities but are rare because those who sell them hide them under the counter for whoever they deem worthy. This has always been the bane of people like me when touring the bars of Paris. Much as I love that beautiful city…
Occasionally a wine comes along that is genuinely special and genuinely rare at the same time. This is such a wine. The variety is the Melon de Bourgogne, the grape of Muscadet. What Guérin did was to age it under a voile of yeast (ie flor), in fact just like a Vin Jaune. Vins de voile are not restricted to Jura, and I’ve drunk such wines from elsewhere, in Franche-Comté, from Gaillac (where they were once very traditional) and Savoie. This is my first Loire “vin jaune” so to speak.
At Vallet, in the far east of the region, limestone predominates. This adds a mineral edge to the wine which is in some ways similar to the mineral edge of the Savagnin variety used in Jura Vin Jaune, but without the degree of nuttiness. Its importer managed to snaffle a single case for the UK. He put six bottles into the favoured retailer below and told me recently that he’d kept the other six for himself. Mean as that might initially sound, I can fully understand why, and absolve him from guilt. It may cost a little more than an average Vin Jaune from the Jura (£65), but its quality and rarity make it surely worth that. But be aware that if the retailer has kept one for himself (I presume he has), then the most which is available in the UK is four bottles, at least of this 2002. It’s still on their web site! Let me know if you get one. I’ll be round…
Imported by Dreyfus Ashby, retailed by The Solent Cellar.
This is one of Jean-François’ estate cuvées made from a single old vine parcel near Rotalier, in Jura’s Sud Revermont. Jean-François farms something over ten hectares now, with an addition of an increasing number of négoce bottlings with his sister, Anne. He has had two pieces of luck in his career. The first is that despite being from a long line of winemakers, he had the good fortune to be one of the first to leave the region and gain a wine education at Beaune. After this followed a period as Cellar Master for Domaine Morey (Jean-Marc Morey) in Chassagne-Montrachet. He returned home in 1999. His second bit of luck were the vineyards his family had planted at the beginning of the 20th century, some dating back to 1902 and some planted either side of the First World War.
The Jura Region is famous for its “marnes” soils. This wine is grown on “marne du lias”, a type of Jurassic Limestone. Whole bunches go into used large tronconic (cone-shaped) vats to ferment, then into used oak foudres to age for twelve months. This cuvée is what is called ouillé (topped-up), not in the traditional oxidised style of the region, like all of Jean-François’ father’s wines were made. No sulphur is added.
This truly is glorious Chardonnay, with such depth already for a young wine. It has body, but is neither fat nor alcoholic (it registers only 12% abv), more a wine with delicious fruit set on a sturdy frame. The great length here is just one long journey of mineral purity, a wine which surely combines the best of fine Burgundy with the deliberate rustic touch on its very edges of great Jura. Sometimes the hype is real. Ganevat’s wines are expensive, but they are not impossible to find, which makes them attainable classics despite the price. Equally, expensive wine can still be good value, and despite the hype, these wines remain decent value.
I can’t say where I bought this. The Solent Cellar generally has a good but ever-changing selection of Ganevat, procured through Les Caves de Pyrene, but equally I always bring back a few Ganevat on my trips to the region.
MALVASIA AROMÁTICA 2017, VICTORIA TORRES PECIS (La Palma, Canary Islands, Spain)
As I said in my review of the past year, the most read article on my site in 2020 was that which I wrote on Vicky Torres Pecis back in August 2019, “The New Star of The Canaries”. Since I first wrote about her, she seems to have grown in fame and it’s not really a surprise that said article was popular. If you want to know my 2020 tips (if you’ve not read the Review), we have two more ladies, Veronica Ortega (just this week described by someone online as “The Queen of Bierzo”) and Annamária Réka-Koncz, from Eastern Hungary.
Victoria inherited extremely old bush vines (many now 130 years old) dotted around La Palma, one of the smallest of Spain’s Canary Isles. Tenerife has, of course, become extremely famous and fashionable, but vines are central to the traditional economy on several of the islands. Victoria’s base is in Fuencaliente, on the southern end of La Palma, and her bodega still retains the old stone lagar where grapes continue to be trodden, although some new stainless steel vats and slightly newer barrels have made an appearance since she was thrown in at the deep end when her father passed away in 2015. These inherited vines, on old volcanic terroir known locally as picón, just like her friends’ vines on Tenerife, have the distinction of being pie franco, or on their own roots. Phylloxera has not reached La Palma so the vines were never replanted on American rootstocks.
This Malvasia is a tiny cuvée of just 1,300 bottles, the old vines giving miniscule yields. When you smell and taste it you know you are in the presence of a wine fashioned by wind and sun. It’s fragrant, saline and mineral. It’s not a wine which suggests its fruit had an easy life, but it has gained genuine character from its hard upbringing…so to speak. Its backbone is sharp and chiselled and the palate is also textured, but there is not remotely any excess of acidity. This creates a gentle side to temper the austerity. A mineral austerity rather than an austerity of acids. This means you have a great deal of length over which to savour the juice as it tails off into a salty distance.
It’s a remarkable wine. It probably needs to be remarkable to tempt you to pay £44 for a bottle. Not that you can get any because the current vintage (2018) is, as expected, sold out (so says the web site). But importer Modal Wines will have some other wines from Vicky, so long as you are quick, and some are less expensive. She is a true star, though.
We all need some dopamine at the moment, and in many ways this wine felt more appropriate to see out 2020 than anything posh or fancy. That’s not to say that it was in any way inferior at all. We drank this for dinner on New Year’s Eve, and we would not have seen in 2021 at all had it not been for the loud explosions and raucous cheering of crowds of happy Lockdown party-goers around midnight.
Claus is the King of Gols in many ways. He’s assured and confident both as a man and as a winemaker, as he surveys his neighbourhood from the surf board table on the lakeview balcony of his standout modern winery on the slope above the village. He explores different styles, some serious and some wonderfully frivolous. This is the latter. From its simple label, where the information is on a neck strip, to the cuvée name, made by printing “Dope” onto a tiny black plastic strip (the brand was Dymo back in my day, when every child owned one), it’s look is very minimalist.
The wine itself is made from lightly macerated Blaufränkisch, giving the wine a salmon pink hue. The vines are on a mix of limestone and slate, and the grapes macerate in amphora. The pressed juice spends eight months on lees in bottle (the Ancestral Method) and the resulting petnat has zero added sulphur, and of course is not disgorged, leaving a fine sediment to add texture if shaken. Red fruits dominate, but there’s a dark side lurking beneath. Maybe some garrigue herbs and white pepper on the finish. It gives an edge, accentuated by the terroir’s minerality, which takes it beyond simple fruit. So, a simple looking petnat becomes something more interesting in the glass. Then, with more time, you catch sight of the beauty beyond the surface austerity…which is so often the best kind of beauty.
So maybe that’s a metaphor for 2021, with which to end 2020. As I write this, we have already drunk seven bottles this year. Were they, and the bottles included here, really as good as I remember them, or is it merely that there’s more time to focus on what is in the glass? If so, then that’s one positive out of the Lockdown, albeit a very small one. But let us hope that 2021 does bring some joy to all of us, not just wonderful bottles.
The wines of Claus Preisinger are available both from Newcomer Wines and Littlewine (littlewine.com).
There’s a strange feel to writing about the wines we drank at home during December. Looking back on the first ten bottles, which will comprise Part 1, it seems so long ago that I drank them, more so than usual. I think that must be because we hibernated during Christmas Week, and waking up today, almost the whole of last year seems like some surreal dream. Yet wine was a constant, and looking back on the notes I took on these bottles, I was certainly blessed to drink some very good wines. Some unusual ones too, but perhaps that’s no surprise.
We have here two Spanish wines, two Swiss, a Champagne and a Jura, a rather miraculous “natural” Bordeaux, and bottles from Slovenia, Germany and Austria. I would not say each of these wines is on the same level, but six or seven of them would sit well alongside anything I drank in 2020, and every bottle here would, as always, be thoroughly enjoyed by any adventurous drinker.
LA BOTA DE FLORPOWER 84 (MMXVI), EQUIPO NAVAZOS (Sanlúcar, Spain)
“Florpower 84” is a 2016 Palomino table wine aged under flor for 19 months, eight months in Sherry casks and the remaining 11 months in stainless steel vat (therefore bottled in 2018). The grapes were harvested from the chalky albariza soils of the Pago de Miraflores “La Baja” (the best plot in this vineyard) at Sanlúcar. This was, I think, the fifth bottling of Florpower and it has been bottled with a bit shorter period under flor than previously. The idea was to express freshness and the specific terroir rather than emphasise the biological ageing.
The first thing you notice on the nose is the purest, clean, lemon citrus. The palate has a mineral structure and beautiful salinity, and the finish has a gentle chalky texture. There’s an odd resemblance here to a new-born Chablis, at least to my palate. Although I had obviously kept this a couple of years from purchase, I won’t worry about keeping the one remaining bottle of 84 until warmer weather comes along. It’s still fresh, but has perhaps gained a little complexity.
Equipo Navazos is distributed in the UK by Alliance Wine.
AMIGNE DE VÉTROZ GRAND CRU 2017, JEAN-RENÉ GERMANIER (Valais, Switzerland)
This is an old estate, established in 1896 at Vétroz, just past Sion, towards the western end of the Rhône Valley before it turns north, at Martigny. In the 1990s Jean-René Germanier (the founder’s grandson) along with his young nephew, Gilles Besse, took the estate towards the top of the region’s producers, with a shift to quality over quantity.
Vétroz just happens to be the village where you will find in decent quantity one of the rare high-quality grapes of the Valais, Amigne. In some ways it is the lost variety of the region, because there just isn’t enough Amigne to allow it the profile of, say, Petite Arvine, or Cornalin. You don’t see it often, and this is one reason why I’ve not drunk any for years.
The vineyards here are black schist, all crumbled slate, and on the specific steep site where this wine derives, called “Balavaud”, the slate is interspersed with glacial moraine. When the biodynamically grown grapes are harvested they are, perhaps a surprise, vinified in amphora. The result is remarkably good, a clean but textured mountain wine which has both fresh acidity, yet at the same time a beautiful weight (alcohol does strike 14% but don’t let that put you off), with balanced herbal and mineral notes. It’s a reminder to make sure I don’t go anywhere near as long before drinking another.
I should add that Germanier/Besse are equally as good with other autochthonous varieties (especially Cornalin and Heida), and with international varieties like Pinot Noir and Syrah. I’m a fan of the long-lived Cayas Syrah, but I think this Amigne is now my favourite wine from this excellent estate.
The UK importer is, in this case, Alpine Wines.
CHAMPAGNE CHARLES DUFOUR « BULLES DE COMPTOIR #7 » (Côtes des Bar, France)
Charles set up his own estate at Landreville based on the 6 hectares of vines he retained from the Robert Dufour estate when it was split up in 2010. Since then, he has very quickly established a mega-reputation among lovers of Grower Champagne which has thus far luckily outstripped his prices. So Bulles de Comptoir, his main line, remains under £40, occasionally, making it one of the best values you can find in this sector.
This version #7 is a blend of biodynamic Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and unusually, some Pinot Blanc, the latter a parcel of old vines (60 years plus) perhaps rarely found yet not unknown down in the Aube. The vintage is 2016, but these grapes are blended with those from a reserve perpetuelle (a bit like a solera) from vintages 2010 to 2015. Tirage was in November 2017, disgorged March 2019. It is bottled extra-brut (around 3g/l dosage).
The result is lively, vibrant, truly alive…this is the real plus for this particular Champagne. That said, it doesn’t lack for depth, the reserve making all the difference, but perhaps the extra bottle age as well. One expert described Bulles de Comptoir online as “fancy Champagne for people who know”, and you cannot disagree, especially in terms of value for money. I think the current release available will now be #8 (based on 2017), which I haven’t tried but will have no hesitation in doing so.
I admit I’m not sure where I bought this. Checked the usual suspects but no luck. If anyone knows, please add a comment.
POTION MAGIQUE VIN DE FRANCE , DOMAINE L’OCTAVIN (Jura, France)
Some wines live up to their name. For me, a magic potion is not necessarily going to be complex, but it should be transformative. Here, the Queen of Arbois blends 40% Poulsard, 40% Chardonnay and 20% Savagnin, all from the Mailloche vineyard, past the western edge edge of the town. Picked in September, so quite early, the fruit was destemmed and placed in cuve for seven months on skins. The result is totally unique. The colour is, what, pale red, orange, pink, indeed all of these together depending on how you hold the glass. On the palate it tastes like a blend of blood orange and quince.
I won’t lie, the wonderful labels Alice sticks on her newer wines, especially the ever-widening number of negoce cuvées, are an attraction in themselves. But you will be hard pressed to find more enervating juice coming out of the back streets of Arbois. I truly cannot wait to go back for another visit, if she’ll have me. All the wines Alice makes are perhaps unusual, but certainly magical.
This is the second wine I’ve tried from this family bodega in the wilds of Manchuela. The first was back in March 2020, a wine called “Arroba” made from the obscure Pintaillo variety. It was all herbs and raspberries, a skin contact red which made my nose prick up. It was one of just 560 bottles made. Nine moths later I get round to trying their Bobal, perhaps an ever so slightly better known grape, but still well within the mission of the bodega to protect anything local and traditional in their vineyards. These really are very old bush vines, growing low on clay soils with a high lime content. Bobal is the main variety grown at Gratias.
This is a zero-intervention wine, the grapes being placed into small clay tinajas to ferment. We may think of Sicily, or the Slovenian-Italian border, for “amphora” wines, yet Spain and Portugal have just as vibrant a tradition, which is once more being revived, by the natural wine producers in particular. You don’t often get fruit presence like this out of clay, but there’s a packed mouthful of cherry on first swig. Then comes something contrasting, deep and natural liquorice. It adds a dark side, enhanced by the tiny touch of burnt sugar on a dry finish. It’s both deep and delicious, another 14% abv wine which does not lack subtlety.
This is imported by Alliance Wine, my bottles being bought at The Solent Cellar.
“MIRACLE” 2018, OSAMU UCHIDA (Bordeaux, France)
Sometimes you taste a wine but wait a long time to buy a bottle. I met Osamu and his wife at a rather wonderful tasting called “Bordeaux : The Risk-Takers” put on by Vine Trail (at Carousel off Baker Street) in March 2019. I tasted the two Uchida wines on show and was massively impressed (perhaps even an understatement). It took me until autumn 2020 to buy a bottle.
Uchida farms a mere six tenths of a hectare, hidden away, surrounded by trees, in the Haut-Médoc appellation, yet remarkably close to Mouton-Rothschild. All the vines are Cabernet Sauvignon and are at least 30-years old. Farming is naturally biodynamic. Vinification uses hand-destemmed whole berries. Ageing is in a single 500-litre old oak cask where it rests for twelve months before bottling, by hand, no fining/filtration and just a tiny bit of sulphur added.
In some ways there’s a real “new world” side to this Cabernet. It’s very fresh indeed. The fruit is cranberry and blueberry, with a touch of blackcurrant emerging later. It has a touch of smokiness and/or black pepper spice which seasons it. Yet it doesn’t show the weight of most “New World” Cabs (though it does register 13% abv). It’s clean and alive and very much hand-crafted, it’s easy to tell that.
Uchida is perhaps a visionary, a special guy truly in tune with his tiny vineyard. Originally from Hiroshima, he visited around three-hundred domaines to learn about wine. It seems almost perverse that he ended up in Bordeaux, but it has given us the opportunity to taste Bordeaux of a very different kind, one which is slowly emerging from the structured new oak and “gobs of fruit” of the Parker era. I was smitten back in 2019 and I was twice-smitten last month. One thing I’d pondered on though, at that tasting. Osamu reckoned this wine (well, the 2016 vintage) retailed around £26, which made me wonder how he could make any money. Perhaps reassuringly I had to pay £45 for the 2018, but I have no regrets whatsoever. It’s possible you may not love this like I did, but you never know until you try it.
Vine Trail is the importer whose tasting I had attended in 2019, where I got my first taste, but the bottle reviewed here came from littlewine.co.
The name is a play on “Tokay”, the grape we now call Friulano, and Janko Stekar, who along with his wife, Tamara, runs the Stekar 1672 estate, founded, you guessed it… The vineyards are situated mid-way between the Slovenian (or Pre-Julian) Alps and the Adriatic Sea, within the region of Goriska Brda at a town called Kojsko. These are pre-Alpine vineyards, and pretty steep. The Stekar family farm seven hectares of vines, on a mixed cultivation farm about twice that size.
Most readers will probably know that Friulano is very much a favoured variety for skin contact wines, and that’s what this is. What really struck me here, though, was that alongside the textural platform you get from the maceration, amazing amounts of tropical fruit come through. It’s actually easy to drink, aided by the fresh acidity, yet there’s a tension between the texture and the fruit which means you’d be unlikely to mistake it for New World. In fact, it’s quite typical of the fascinating wines coming out of Slovenia now. At just 12.5% abv it has a food-friendly demeanour but nothing too heavy. The skin contact side is there but restrained, at least compared to some Friulano orange wines. It is quite gorgeous.
I used to buy Horst Sauer wines, many years ago, but always Silvaner. This was always considered the classic estate for Silvaner in Franken, especially the wines from Eschendorf’s Lump site. Though Horst (now joined in managing the domain by daughter Sandra) is usually seen in smart attire when on the road, he’s a farmer at heart and the enduring success of this estate is down to the vines. This perhaps pertains especially to the much-maligned Müller-Thurgau variety, demonised through the cheap süssed-up wines of the 1970s.
Actually, Sauer calls Müller-Thurgau a “renaissance grape variety”, and it is indeed undergoing something of a renaissance in Germany, even if the mainstream is yet to rediscover it. The key to the success of this wine is first of all, old vines. Forty years and over here. Next is, of course, site. The vines may not be on the famous Eschendorfer Lump, but Fürstenberg is just next to it, facing east, and as the name suggests, is certainly not a flat site, but in fact a VDP Erste Läge.
There are many exciting natural wine M-T cuvées on the market but if you give this a go I think you’ll see how classical the grape can be with the right care. Both floral and vinous, the palate of what is undoubtedly a young wine is slightly spritzig (lively, tangy, with miniscule bubbles of CO2 yet not sparkling). The acids are reasonably pronounced but there is a slightly evasive touch of richness which might grow with age. It’s certainly a wine with a mineral backbone that may put on some flesh in the cellar. It reminds me, more than any other German wine, of Switzerland, for some reason. No pun or psychological connection to Thurgau intended. It also tastes more like an 11% wine than one showing 13%.
Going back to cellaring (you can cellar it for sure, but if I buy it again I’ll probably guzzle it), the Bocksbeutel flask in which this comes is a real pain to stack – it won’t fit in the rack, though as many now come sealed under screwcap they will happily stand on the floor. Anyway, I’d hate to see this traditional bottle phased out. Despite the propensity of family members to say “what’s that, Mateus Rosé?”. Come to think of it, should’ve saved the bottle for a candle. Fittingly, perhaps, Weingut Horst Sauer is on Bocksbeutel Strasse, in Eschendorf.
Purchased from Butlers Wine Cellar, Brighton.
SYRAH “CHAMOSON” 2009, SIMON MAYE & FILS (Valais, Switzerland)
If Switzerland’s Rhône Valley gives us a plethora of autochthonous grape varieties of real value, it also produces some very fine wines from French grapes. Certainly, there’s world class Pinot Noir from the Mercier family at Sierre, but perhaps we can find rather more fine Syrah, after all, the grape of the Rhône. One of the top producers of Valais Syrah is Simon Maye & Fils, based at St-Pierre-de-Clages. It is Simon’s sons Axel and Jean-François who farm the famous vineyards of Chamoson today, recently joined by their son/nephew, Raphäel.
The estate is relatively large for the region, 12 hectares, and the Maye range is equally extended. I’m a fan of their Humagne Rouge, but the Syrahs are the most highly regarded. What is interesting is that there is a Vieilles Vignes bottling, but this cuvée we are discussing is the “regular” one. Nevertheless, they are both capable of a long life, and this 2009 was on cracking form.
At first, you’d say it is structured (though not so much “tannic” at this stage) but the fruit is slick, smooth and smoky. I find a kind of smokiness in many Valais Syrahs, which don’t always seem to develop that bacon note you get in the French Rhône’s classic Syrah terroirs. You might place this as a good Côte-Rôtie in a younger vintage, but the way it develops is quite different.
This bottle was purchased from Alpine Wines, though it is not currently listed among the several Simon Maye cuvées they do bring in.
After drinking this bottle my cellar is completely empty of wines from this producer based at Neusiedl-am-See, at the top end of the lake. This is the first time I have to say that in two or three years, and I’m quite sad. You see, the wide world of wine is full of fantastic wines, and it’s also pretty well stocked with fantastic people. But the Koppitsch family are among the warmest and most friendly people I’ve met, from what is almost certainly about the friendliest wine region in Europe. That sadness was probably made worse because they were undoubtedly one of maybe a dozen or so producers in Europe which I’d pencilled in to visit during 2020.
Perspektive Rot is all about limestone. The blend is 70% Blaufränkisch, which we know adores the limestone terroir of the Leithaberg Range, 20% Sankt-Laurent and 10% Syrah. The vines are on a prime rocky site called Neuberg, northwest of Neusiedl, part of that Leithaberg Range (which I can never bring myself to call mountains). The limestone soils are scattered with pockets of schist, and this mixture can produce some very lively red wines up here.
Limestone-grown Blaufränkisch always seems to have a mineral backbone, but perhaps the sinews are stiffened by the schist (think St-Laurent in a similar context to slate-grown German Spätburgunder). Freshness is there as well, a common and sometimes giveaway as to what’s in the glass.
The fruit was 90% destemmed and then pressed manually into barriques after thirteen days. The wine saw 22 months maturing on gross lees, post-fermentation. Nothing was added, not even sulphur. The result is gloriously pure-fruited with a hint of wood smoke. It will age further, as its tannins attest, but they are gentle tannins and this 2017 tastes lovely as a reasonably young wine.
This can be sourced from Fresh Wines of Kinross, Scotland, by mail order/online. They usually have a fairly small selection from Koppitsch, but all the wines are good (and I believe new vintages have arrived). Those with the newer colourful labels are full of glouglou goodness, whilst the Perspektive wines and the Reserves will age.
Jascots is also a potential source in England for Koppitsch, but note that their online shop lists just three (somewhat older) 2016 cuvées at the less expensive end of the range now. The wines are fairly easy to find in Austria, but they are one of the poorest represented in the UK (in terms of availability) out of all the exciting producers bordering the Neusiedlersee.