Lockdown – The Good, The Bad and The Beautiful

Why Beautiful, not Ugly? There is no getting away from the fact that Coronavirus has been terrible. Remember early this year, Christmas holidays over, looking forward to 2020. Within a few months the lives of many were completely shattered whilst for pretty much all of us they changed dramatically. The wine trade saw some very big changes. Whilst tens of thousands succumbed to Covid-19, the people I know, people I count as colleagues, had their own struggles. Thankfully not so much with their health, though I do know three or four who have been very ill, but struggles to keep their wine businesses alive or their careers on track.

What has this year been like in the wine trade? Taking a look at everyone from winemakers, to importers, retailers, restaurants and sommeliers, every single person I have spoken to has been affected significantly, and usually in a negative way. So businesses have needed to innovate to merely survive. I thought I’d take a look at what has changed. I asked a lot of people what it has been like. Some were happy to be quoted, and some were happy to comment so long as I didn’t name them. Before that I gave some thought to my own circumstances.

img_4770

As a writer attempting to publish one, sometimes two, articles a week, things couldn’t have changed more. What did I write about before Lockdown? Wine tastings, mostly in London, loads of them. Visits to producers mostly overseas, meals at restaurants…well none of those were happening. Instead I’ve tried to focus a little on writing broader articles on wine regions. Aveyron, Alsace, Switzerland, these have been very successful and are the kind of things I rarely had time for in the past.

Again I know, I’m lucky you tell me. Some writers have worked extremely hard to keep their profile up, and all have had to do without the globetrotting press trips for which the wine world is famous (some admit they usually spend almost as long in the air, flying, as they do with their feet on terra firma), but one admitted online last week that he had lost 90% of his income over the past three months, something I couldn’t contemplate, and feel lucky for my own mix of diversity and good fortune.

I’ve also been drinking more at home, so my monthly “Recent Wines” articles have become a two-parter. The rate at which I’m getting through my cellar is being matched, bottle for bottle and more, by the amount of wine I have been buying. I know I’m lucky to have disposable income for wine (for now at least, and a lot less than three or four months ago, sadly), but I have received some genuinely heartfelt thanks for my orders. This was actually brought home yesterday by the coffee roaster I use, who expressed gratitude for our monthly order and explained just how difficult it has been to keep going without their wholesale trade.

This is key…that every case of wine we buy from a retailer is a gift to the whole supply chain. A hundred pounds spent here and there several times a month will not keep any business afloat, but as we shall see in due course, when lots of us are spending small amounts they add up into a lifeline. So far I do not know of any wine business which has had to close. I’m less optimistic about restaurants. Whilst we still have an unrivalled choice of wines to buy in the UK we should take advantage. Down the line, with recession, a potential no deal Brexit and so on, we may not be so lucky. For those of us who are still lucky enough to be able to spend, now is probably a good time.

 

Tim Phillips is a winemaker who appears with a degree of regularity on this site. Not that regular, but only because his production is so tiny. I do occasionally get to visit him at his vineyard and winery near Lymington in Hampshire. He’s one of the most thoughtful winemakers I know and his views on how Lockdown changed him is interesting. For a winemaker the vines still grow and the grapes will still need harvesting. So the pandemic has brought other perhaps more metaphysical considerations to the fore. He says:

“COVID19 has certainly had a rapid impact around the world, with all man made operations affected. The rest of nature has to some extent benefited from reduced human activity (improved air quality etc) and working with nature in the vineyards has really emphasised this. Within the walls of the vineyard there has been no effect whatsoever from COVID19 (I have fortunately not become ill which, as a one man band, could have had a serious implication for the vines) and this has brought into sharp relief how removed from nature so many people are. Working with nature is an unpredictable undertaking – close observation reveals that huge diversity is the coping mechanism it uses to foster resilience. Much in the same way that monoculture farmers find themselves exposed to a lack of diversity, so do most humans in their livelyhoods, which has hit many very hard. The robin who follows me at work, hoping for bugs, and the great tits nesting in the old apple tree have no idea about COVID19 and it has not affected them.

So, the good? Life for a vigneron working with nature was completely unaffected by the outbreak. The bad? The affect on others has been devastating and the human cost, especially to those let down by others is incredibly sad. The Beautiful? The realisation of man’s calamity and its making vs nature’s resilience has taken me deeper into the landscape and I am focusing more on diversity – you are as likely to see me working in the woodlands and managing the pond and its environs as you are to find me working in the vines. And playing with my daughter who has had not school for 4 months, but is a dab hand at bottling now!”

Britain is blessed with an incredible number of wine importers, agents, distributors, whatever you want to call them. They range from tiny one person operations which might specialise in one region or country, up to the large generalists, with every shade in between. Very many of these businesses have needed to find new ways to survive. Many rely mostly on sales to restaurants and retail shops, and with a big part of that business taken away the only way open for survival has been to sell directly to the public.

This is not without controversy, of course. Retailers have been expressing worries that the importers will continue this direct relationship after Lockdown is over, and will undercut them. But many of the wholesalers have always sold to the public. I used to buy directly from Liberty Wines in the 1990s, despite the manager from a major wine chain virtually telling me I was lying when I told them where I’d been purchasing a particular producer’s wines. Les Caves, Newcomer, Berry Bros, Dynamic Vines and many more have shops open to the public. The key is that, except at Berry Bros “factory outlet” where the focus is on bin ends, they all sell directly at “retail” prices. You won’t get your Ganevat any cheaper at Pew Corner than your local indie, though it may well be cheaper than the grey market, as I recently explored (15 June, Fifty Shades of Unicorn), in what may be my most read article of the year so far.

I’m not going to lie though, this innovation of direct sales has provided some great opportunities for me personally. Being able to order directly from an importer, such as Indigo Wines who have not previously sold direct to the public, has meant being able to order wines which would be unlikely to all get stocked at the same retailer from source.

Some of the problems resulting from Lockdown have been particularly weighty for the smaller specialist importers who supply wines perhaps at the outer edges of the wine universe. As you may know, I’m a fan of the mainly Czech portfolio of Basket Press Wines and it’s worth me reproducing in full the response they sent.

The lockdown for a company of our size was a major hit, it not only meant loss of business in one big blow but also the uncertainty if restaurants could pay our outstanding invoices and where this would be headed in the long term. The uncertainty still lurks there, but after the initial shock, we started already thinking quickly. What can we do to keep the business afloat, pay bills and, at the same time, move forward, and keep the company growing. We had to make our website live, that became the number one priority for us. We worked on it tirelessly. It also meant we had to do it ourselves to control costs.

We missed seeing our customers and the interaction with floor staff, holding wine training sessions for them. So we thought of starting a series of Live Instagram chats with hospitality folks, and our winemakers – this was a great way to keep that conversation going, and bridging that gap of social distancing and reaching out to each other in the industry. It also brought us closer to the end consumer, the private customer, with whom we held many direct group Zoom wine tastings.

We also started a really fun project with leading sustainable, organic grocery provider, Farmdrop, to launch cookalongs with top chefs in the country. Two dishes provided by the chef, pairing with our wines, chosen by the restaurant’s sommelier. This is receiving such great feedback, and participants love that restaurant level cookery with the chef guiding them through it and cooking along with them, with top produce and wines in the comfort of their own home.”

All the importers have faced real challenges through a lack of hospitality industry custom and they share with the retailers a relief that mail order and online sales have kept their businesses ticking over.

The retailers and importers share one significant worry. Not simply that restaurants will close, but that they will not be able to pay outstanding bills. For a very small importer or an independent retailer if a restaurant goes under owing, say, £2,000 that could end the wine business. Some restaurants have even higher credit with wine vendors, and let’s face it, many (not all) restaurants are very slow at paying the bills. I have come across at least two wholesalers who have announced that they will not, for the time being, offer extended credit to restaurants. It seems harsh but perhaps sensible.

Chatting to people I know around the trade it could be argued that it is the retailers, especially the indie wine shops, who are among those working the hardest. With premises closed but still draining funds into the pockets of their landlords, and no restaurant sales, they have had to fall back on online sales and local deliveries. Another source of income and promotion lost would be the number of events they habitually organise or attend, whether local festivals or wine dinners/tastings “at the shop”. All these income streams are choked, and summer vies with Christmas for securing turnover to keep afloat for another year.

Every retailer I spoke to felt overwhelmed by the local support that in some cases has them preparing orders for half the day and delivering them for the other half. By being creative, putting out offers and mixed cases, most have also increased online sales. This is all survival tactics. But in the retail sector there have been upsides for many whom I’ve spoken to, though equally, everyone is keen to stress they are working physically much harder.

Simon Smith, co-owner of The Solent Cellar in Lymington had a number of positives to draw. This is a fairly typical indie wine shop in that their business was a mix of wholesale and retail plus a few online orders before the pandemic. After Lockdown all of the wholesale business pretty much vanished overnight. Survival, and to an extent thriving, has depended on changing the model and thankfully they have achieved that.

About a third of Simon’s turnover previously came via wholesale and all that was left of that were people like the farm shops which had remained open. What changed was local deliveries and internet orders. The latter has showed an increase of around sevenfold over the same April to July quarter last year, assisted by some well put together offers. The downside has been getting into work for 7am each day to box up orders for afternoon delivery or courier collection, but the upside has been an increase in turnover over the previous year despite the pandemic. People have found their desire to drink during Lockdown undiminished, and it seems that some have looked at how much they have been saving by not going out and have been drinking better. Several retailers I spoke to said how much hard physical work they’d put in, but no one else actually said they’d increased turnover.

The positive about retail sales over wholesale is that the margin is bigger, it’s less “risky” and you don’t need to spend hours at the end of the month chasing payment. With average retail spend increasing quite significantly as well, this has been a real bonus for the business. Simon did say that their systems were severely tested and at one stage they had to close and not answer the phones for two days just to catch up on orders. That might sound great but he did point out that at least with Christmas you work your socks off but you know that come Christmas Eve you can sink into a chair and rest for a few days. With the Lockdown it was so much tougher with no light at the end of the tunnel. I think most people probably don’t realise how much hard work it is in retail generally, not just wine.

It has been really tough for the restaurants, of course. With most reopening this week or last they still can’t get to the kind of capacity which would allow their slender margins to feel secure. But I do know that they are all opening with a feeling of both excitement and relief. A restaurant takes a lot of investment to set up and getting a living return is hard work for most. In fact a few of them agreed to send me some reflections but after their reopening they were just too knackered to contribute anything, perhaps just relieved to be back in the game.

A good restaurant with a brilliant wine list has to face the unpleasant reality, exacerbated by high rents, that they can’t charge the customer what the food is worth (cost price, plus prep time and a share of overheads, plus profit) because the customer (in most cases) won’t pay what the food is really worth. But at the same time the customer invariably gets upset at the margins on the wine, admittedly eye-wateringly high in most cases, but wine doesn’t do much more than save the day for the restaurant’s accountant. So the restaurateur can’t win, and often doesn’t if the number of closures are anything to go by. Only the best survive yet poor quality isn’t always a cause of failure.

The real test for the restaurants will be any forthcoming recession, and the same goes for their staff. Most restaurants don’t pay well, let’s face it, and staff have traditionally relied on tips. Most restaurants have a wine manager or sommelier, unless they are lucky enough to have a wine-savvy owner. The role of the sommelier is quite often misunderstood, but so is their remuneration. I laugh when I read stuff coming out of the USA about superstar wine waiters. The Guild of Sommeliers conducted a poll there in 2014 which listed the average salary for a Master Sommelier as $150,000 pa.

In the UK, by way of contrast, the average annual salary for a qualified sommelier was, according to a poll conducted this year, £25, 189 (another poll from May 2020 on payscale.com suggested the average was £24,779, so close). When you realise the hours they put in, especially after service is over and the punters have gone home, you realise how little that is (sommeliers are like teachers – the perception is that they only work during service, but of course their role encompasses so much more than just pouring the wine).

That might sound okay for some young people, though it does show the perceived differences between qualified wine staff in the USA and their value here in the UK. The salaries are worth noting because most of the sommeliers I know were furloughed, and with them receiving just 80% of a low salary and usually paying high rents, life became suddenly pretty hard for many. One sommelier told me that their money didn’t actually come through until after two months. Their stress levels have been heightened further because many have not known when, or even whether, their workplaces would reopen.

In fact when speaking to sommeliers the theme seems to be one of reassessment of their lives. Living in a big city, high rents, atrociously long hours, poor pay, all for the love of wine? Some have said they would be questioning their future. The role of sommelier is often a stepping stone to a wider career in wine. Some have become really successful consultants, earning more money and with greater autonomy. Others go to work for importers. One or two even go off and make wine. But it seems sad that there’s more despondency in this role than I perceived from many others in the trade.

One person I know who is always amazingly positive is Ania Smelskaya, of Silo Restaurant in East London. She threw herself into other projects during Lockdown – she’s a pro-standard photographer who has already done some wine photography (Pipette Magazine etc). She’s also set up a consultancy with Honey Spencer (Spencer & Smelskaya). But she’s also been in demand for a variety of online activities on Insta Live, Zoom etc. She expressed the view that it was really helpful to have other projects to throw herself into, but she also added how relaxed she felt being able to spend more time in nature, or going for a run by the sea.

The online explosion has been phenomenal. Every importer and wine personality has been battling to occupy cyber-space with broadcasts, and I’ve seen almost everything going. The worst, for the broadcaster that is, was where I joined an Insta Live event as only the second person watching. Then the other person dropped out, leaving me alone in a virtual room with the speaker. I just couldn’t bring myself to do the same. Yet equally some of these online broadcasts have been fabulous, whether on Zoom, Crowdcast, or Instagram…and that’s even accounting for the almost inevitable technical hitches (horrible at the time but most of us have been there). These are perhaps most embarrassing when one of the participants (once, the only participant) can’t log in. Those best at improvisation win the day.

The key to the online broadcasts’ success has been showcasing interesting people with a story to tell (and perhaps not being too camera-shy) and a host who speaks in more than a monotone, and who had actually slept the night before (the yawn is not a good look for “tv”). What I’ve not seen yet, perhaps surprisingly given that few go on without a glass in hand, is anyone seriously drunk, although one or two have been a little tipsy (you probably know who you are).

My only issue has been online overload. Having overdosed in the first month my head can hardly take them any more. I think at one point I did three in one day and it finished me. I should apologise here to all those I have stopped watching, or have turned down invitations from. It’s not you, it’s me, I promise.

Staying online, the company web site has proved so important. We’ve had a couple of mentions for web sites, obliquely, above, whether this being building one (or adding an online shop), or their resilience to increased orders. I must say that the importers and retailers with good web sites which are easy to use and have good functionality have been a joy to purchase from. The other side of the coin is that some people still seem to be existing with something put together by a mate in the 1990s. I’m not asking for feature films and fireworks, but when you can’t find a Beaujolais because it’s under Alsace, or when you click a link to merely find a message “page not found” it takes patience to keep shopping.

Some had to build a web site from scratch, and well done to those who succeeded (several people I’ve bought from had online shops up and running in a few weeks). But well done too to those whose web site may be simple, even a little dull, but nevertheless works, and allowed me to buy a mixed case of wine with minimum effort. One web site which is frankly pretty amazing was released right as the pandemic took off in the UK, Littlewine. Doing so was astonishing and I wish them every success for their brilliant educational content on low intervention wines and winemaking, and a well formed (little) online wine shop. It’s one of the real wine success stories to come out of this crisis.

Christina Rasmussen, one of Littlewine’s founding partners, says:

“Launching LITTLEWINE amidst a global pandemic was unexpected to say the least. The strangest part was not being able to sit next to my business partner, Daniela, to tackle late night upon late night together. WhatsApp and video calls are not the same, but we’re fortunate that technology made it possible for us to launch regardless. We’re ever so grateful for all of our early supporters and are over the moon to have been able to build a fledgling community. To speak to our customers digitally, and to hear about their love for the stories and wines on the site, is heartwarming and keeps pushing us forward on our mission: to introduce wine lovers around the world to the people behind the bottle.”

LW_homescreen

As I write at my keyboard our world is changing. Restaurants reopened last week and it does look as if those who feel they are ready to go out have embraced the thrill of it. With reduced capacity I hope that makes up for the fact that many are still cautious. I did note on Twitter that one famous chef apparently had twenty-seven “no-shows” without cancellation at the weekend. This is often the real nail in the coffin for restaurant owners and I wonder whether we should be made to treat restaurants the same as we treat theatres or football matches…you pay up front and if you don’t go you take the hit yourself?

Hopefully with all the restaurants opening, that adds in another income stream for everyone up the chain. With summer here, it might spell a mini boom for the hospitality industry. The real tests may be yet to come. But in the meantime I know very well that there’s a large sigh of relief all round among everyone connected to the wine trade.

Time was/time is…and who knows what may be…

 

Posted in Wine, Wine Agencies, Wine Merchants, Wine Shops | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Recent Wines June 2020 (Part 2)

No diversions this time, straight into the second part of June’s “at home” selection. The first wine is another old school classic but the rest are all contemporary thrillers…to a varying degree, but they all thrill. Two from Alsace, one Californian, one from the Canaries, a Sherry, a Moravian, one from Burgenland and another English wine.

RIESLING VORBOURG GRAND CRU 2004, RENÉ MURÉ (Alsace, France)

This is one of a number of more, shall we say, old school Alsace wines from the cellar. I bought a lot of 2004 and not only have they made for very enjoyable wines, this shows that the vintage is by no means history at this level.

In the case of this wine one might have approached it with caution. At Muré, based at Rouffach, the estate wines from the Vorbourg Grand Cru are from the Clos St-Landelin and are labelled as such. I don’t know if this still pertains today, but the wines labelled as just “Vorbourg Grand Cru” are from bought-in fruit. Nevertheless, Muré has long been synonymous with this site.

This is a lovely example of an aged Alsace Riesling. It’s dry, and mineral, but there is a degree of gras. The bouquet has something of that mineral edge with added mellowness, which on the palate becomes apparent as peach and pineapple. The acidity has diminished, but its still there to help hold the wine together. I think it’s a wine of stature, and is drinking great now.

This wine was purchased on release at the domaine. Muré is currently imported into the UK by Berkmann Wine Cellars.

7f173be2-5520-43dc-b799-15194003e010

COUNOISE 2018, BENEVOLENT NEGLECT (California, USA)

I’ve developed a bit of a thing for Cali-Counoise, and it wasn’t that long ago (April) that I was writing here about the Keep Wines version. Both come from the same exciting importer’s Californian portfolio. This isn’t all that surprising because half the fruit for this wine comes from a vineyard north of Napa planted jointly by Steve Matthiasson, Jack Roberts (of Keep Wines, who until this year also worked for Steve), and Ben Brenner and Matt Nagy (who are the team behind Benevolent Neglect).

This minor component of wines from the Southern Rhône, famous (if that’s the right word) in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, seems to come up trumps all over California if it has been planted, but there’s not a lot of it. The other half of this cuvée was made from fruit planted in Mendocino in the 1990s, from some think the first official Counoise vines planted in the state.

The importer described the flavour of this wine perfectly…”little strawberries sprinkled with black pepper…”. Like the Australian Montepulciano I drank last night, this is a wine which tastes so light on its feet, despite (in this case) 13.4% abv on the label. Actually, for me the fruit crosses strawberry and raspberry, with wonderful depth. There sure is a very spicy edge (the pepperiness), but more as a nice seasoning rather than dominant.

I suppose it would be unusual, even for me, to go long on Counoise, but having drunk the two bottles I had at the start of Lockdown, I am rather regretting I don’t have any more. Although these wines look like winter fare, they have an affinity with a warm day, because the fruit hits you where you want it.

Nekter Wines imports Benevolent Neglect…and Keep Wines and Matthiasson.

2b73272f-529f-44d4-ad15-400b0576ae4e

BENJÉ BLANCO 2018, YCODEN-DAUTE-ISORA, ENVINATE (Canary Islands, Spain)

The story of Alfonso Torrente, José Ángel Martínez, Laura Ramos and Roberto Santana has been told many times, perhaps best in the first chapter of Luis Gitiérrez’s book on Spain’s innovative new winemakers, The New Vignerons. Of course this quartet, who met whilst studying enology at Alicante, do not only make wine on Tenerife, but the mind-blowing wines they make on the largest of the Canary Islands are certainly what they seem to have become best known for.

These are first and foremost “volcanic” wines. It is perhaps Roberto Santana who has had the greatest influence on Tenerife, having previously worked at the island’s pioneer estate, Suertes del Marquès. He is a genius with the ungrafted pre-phylloxera vines which hug the ground, trained like deformed, gnarled, zombie-like bushes, at least until spring time brings some foliage, stalking the barren landscape in the north of the island.

Ycoden-Daute-Isora is the appellation, but the vines are right up at 1,000 masl in Santiago de Tiede. It’s one of the driest zones on Tenerife but with a decidedly cool Atlantic climate. The white Benjé is 100% Listán Blanco (the red is Listán Prieto), which is the Canaries synonym for Palomino, of Jerez fame. Fermentation takes place in concrete, 25% having extended skin contact. Ageing is 60% concrete and 40% old French barrels, both on lees.

This cuvée shows the excitement of volcanic white wine, and the real viability of the formerly ignored Palomino Fino variety for table wines (a reputation equally being restored by Equipo Navazos and others in Jerez). The first thing you note is its impact. Bang, you really sit up. The wine is fresh, but at the same time it has weight and presence. Herby with an olive bitterness, and a real saltiness, it is so appetising. The winemaking gives it a nice texture, definitely there but with restraint. It’s incredibly well judged, a fantastic wine.

Envinate is part of the perhaps unrivalled modern Spanish portfolio of Indigo Wines.

4cd86575-c0bf-402f-a0f7-c42b99cd457b

LA BOTA DE MANZANILLA 82 “FLORPOWER” [2015], EQUIPO NAVAZOS (Jerez, Spain)

I must have been craving salt or something. Was this drunk (19 June) during the really hot spell? We stick with Palomino Fino for a Mazanilla from a producer which is well represented in my cellar, perhaps to the detriment of other wines from the region, but I am pretty much addicted.

This is effectively an extension of “Florpower 77”. That wine was released as a Palomino table wine, as is the norm with the Florpower series. Some of the butts of that juice were selected separately and aged biologically, under flor, for three years in Sanlúcar after fortification with fine grape spirit to 15% abv. Other butts of “77” were aged biologically at 12% and fortified later on. Are you still with me? You get two Manzanilla-styles, both created under flor, but fortified at different stages of the process.

Like La Bota 77, this Manzanilla comes totally from 2015 fruit and from a single site, Pago Miraflores La Baja (Sanlúcar), so unusually we have here, take careful note, a single vineyard vintage Manzanilla.

It has a saline palate and the whiff of a very pure Manzanilla, chalky texture and concentration. Yet it is also massively fresh as well. If you find the concentrated hit of a lot of EN wines a shock to the system, I’d definitely recommend this one. It has elegance, and it lingers on the palate, like a mouthful of really good salted almonds, for an age.

The EN team understands that this wine sends out a confusing message, especially as it comes in a standard 75cl wine bottle with a screw cap, so indeed it looks just like your usual Florpower. You need to check the label to discover it’s a Manzanilla. But it is nevertheless a complex wine, and I’d suggest amazing. Any Sherry lover should try to seek out a bottle. I wish my three had been six in this case.

Equipo Navazos wines are pretty widely available in the UK, albeit they are not released in large bottlings. They are imported by Alliance Wine.

9f60d6d1-f26e-446a-847b-b92817ae4313

“HERR GEWÜRZ” 2019, KRÁSNÁ HORA (Moravia, Czechia)

This is a fun and simple wine, and that goes for the label too, which I bought after seeing author Simon Woolf sipping it on one of his Insta Live broadcasts. The winery’s name means “beautiful mountain”, and refers to the vine clad slopes near the town of Dolni Poddvorov, close to the Slovakian border, vines originally planted by Cistercian monks in the thirteenth century.

The young family who run this 8 hectare estate don’t farm vines quite that old, them being planted during the communist era by one of their grandfathers in the 1960s, but that still gives them plenty of old vine material to work with. Their vineyards are all organic (they do purchase from around 5ha locally as well as their own vines), and unusually for the region are pretty much all planted to French varieties.

Herr Gewürz is, of course, Gewürztraminer. It’s nicely dry and also a little textured, because this is treated to a degree of skin contact. It also has a very attractive orange colour, code for what you are about to drink. But the texture doesn’t dominate, and in fact overall, the wine has a little of the feel of a petnat. In part, its liveliness comes from picking the grapes of a later ripening clone a little early to preserve acids and vibrant fruit, all contained within 12% abv. It definitely has varietal character.

You certainly can’t mistake the variety, so if you are not at all keen on Gewürztraminer this may not be for you. But as it is both dry and fresh, and with a hint of orange wine, you really should try it anyway. Especially if, like me, you think that this particular grape variety does lend itself incredibly well to skin contact treatment. Definitely an orange wine for summer, too. At just under £19 it’s pretty good value, and not at all priced to turn off the mildly adventurous. But my advice is enjoy it now.

Basket Press Wines is the importer, currently selling direct to the public with free UK delivery on orders over £120 (I can’t remember the shipping for smaller orders but I don’t think it’s as much as some people are charging). This is probably a really good time to check out some of these exciting Czech wines, which are generally pretty reasonably priced right now.

96c766a3-55c4-47d7-b3e2-ba4a52fc41c0

ALSACE PINOT NOIR 2016, JEAN-PIERRE RIETSCH (Alsace, France)

You may well have read my recent article on Mittelbergheim and Andlau’s natural wine producers, and it is far from unusual for an article I’m writing to prompt me to open a wine from one of the producers included. In this case the excitement of drinking this was slightly tempered by knowing that this is the last of Jean-Pierre’s red wines in my cellar.

As you have doubtless read that article (20 May, Maybe It’s Time to (Re)Visit Alsace), I won’t say any more about the producer. I will say specifically that this man does make one of the most vibrant Pinot Noirs in the whole region though. I like that it was once called “Pinot d’Alsace” here. In the past such a label meant a very light red, just inching past Rosé status in a good year, but almost always spoilt by an excess of acids. But, of course, back in the day the idea was just to make some decent volume of red wine, mainly for the German tourist market, from a region seen as irrefutably one for white wine in the eyes of the region’s traditionalists.

Natural wine is probably what really changed things, although there had been very good red wine made in Alsace before. One was in fact made by the producer of the first wine in this article, René Muré, which was labelled “V”, telling those who knew that it came from vines in the same Vorbourg Grand Cru as the Riesling described above.

But back to Rietsch. This bottling comes from the argilo-calcaire soils close to the village of Mittelbergheim itself. It is made via semi-carbonic fermentation over 16 days using indigenous yeast etc. Ageing is six months in foudre. It is bottled without any added sulphur. The result has good colour, from the maceration, with real zip. It’s quite light but full of fruit, like an amazing fresh glass of alcoholic raspberry juice. I would suggest this is a great wine to use to illustrate how, when done really well, a zero sulphur wine has a whole new dimension of life in it. A tiny bit of initial reduction will blow, or shake, off.

Most people will drink this cuvée much younger, but drinking this at close to four years old proved to me that in that time this bottle had lost nothing at all. It tasted remarkably fresh and young. Brilliant!

It was purchased at the domaine again, but Wines Under the Bonnet imports Jean-Pierre Rietsch in the UK. They currently list the 2017 “Vieille Vigne” version (vines over 40-years-old), very highly recommended.

b3c958ef-1db8-415c-9747-66037f99dd09

“WINIFRED” ROSÉ 2017, GUT OGGAU (Burgenland, Austria)

When you say “been there, got the t-shirt” it means you are a fully signed up member of the fan club. In my case I literally have the t-shirt, one of only two I now own with a producer on it. So don’t expect too much objectivity beneath my enthusiasm. I have actually met someone who professed they were not fans of Gut Oggau, but many dozens of people I know find these wines as infectious as I do.

Eduard and Stephanie Tscheppe-Eselböck run a biodynamic estate, and a tavern in the summer months, in the tiny hamlet of Oggau, which you will reach if travelling from Vienna on the bus, just before you hit Rust, set back a little from the western shore of the Neusiedlersee.

The wines of Gut Oggau, as I’m sure you know, are a family, each member having a distinct personality, and place in that family hierarchy. Winifred is the young and perhaps slightly feisty one. I wonder if there is anything of a younger Stephanie in her, because both Stephanie and indeed her mother are two of the liveliest Austrians I know, although there’s definitely something in the air around this shallow, reed-ringed, lake.

There’s a certain reluctance on the part of the winemakers to divulge grape varieties, but it’s the only thing I kind of disagree with them about. There will not really be a single reader who is not interested in the varietal makeup of the wine, and I personally don’t think knowing will prejudice the kind of open-minded individual who drinks Gut Oggau in any way. So in 2017, as far as my research goes, this is around 60% Zweigelt and 40% Blaufränkisch.

The vines are low yielding and the grapes are gently pressed, but there’s good colour here. Some might call it a pale red, in that “clairet” style almost, that I’ve been drinking quite a bit of, rather than your typical rosé pink. I’d call the colour somewhere around magenta or fuchsia. Equally unusual is the fact that Winifred goes into oak for eight months.

The end result gives a bouquet of cherry and cranberry, with a palate showing lots of raspberry too, and a hint of apple. It hits you like a baby’s first cry, loud and very much alive. Along with the zip there’s a little texture, maybe the inert oak adding a touch of depth. Overwhelmingly beautiful, and perfect for a sunny June evening outside, with the temperature topping thirty degrees, as it was when we drank it. I believe it’s Stephanie’s birthday today, and one of some significance. I shall have to toast you with something else tonight, but I shall raise a glass. Your wines are truly wonderful.

Purchased direct from Gut Oggau’s UK importer, Dynamic Vines, whose Bermondsey shop/warehouse is usually open on a Saturday morning (but check during pandemic). They have one of the best large natural wine portfolios in the country.

df8609fd-195a-4d14-ba35-88798bcee051

QVEVRI ARTEGO 2017, TILLINGHAM WINES (East Sussex, UK)

An English wine to finish with, and in this case one of the country’s most innovative wines at the time. It’s one of the first wines to be released that was made in Ben Walgate’s submerged Georgian qvevris, sitting beneath an oast house next to his winery at Peasemarsh, not far from the beautiful town of Rye, on the Sussex coast.

Back in 2018 Ben planted 10,000 vines, to be farmed biodynamically, but whilst waiting for these plants to yield fruit, he began making a range of cuvées (wine, including plenty of “petnat“-style bottlings, and cider) from bought-in fruit, farmed where possible organically. The wines themselves are made as one would a natural wine, with minimum intervention over and above that which was done by the grape farmer.

“Artego” is an anagram of the grape variety, Ortega, which Ben cannot put on the label because the grapes were not farmed within the confines of the English Vineyard accreditation scheme. The grapes went directly into open vats in Ben’s winery, where they were foot-trodden/macerated twice a day for five days. Then they went straight into the buried qvevris and their oak lids were sealed tightly with clay.

I’m not sure Ben expected the wine to develop flor, but it did. At this age the flor influence is not especially strong, but it’s there, adding a bit of salinity and a savoury side to the floral character of the variety. The third element is texture, from the qvevri. It’s an orange wine, and a qvevri wine, though not quite as full on as many Georgians. It’s not, for example, massively tannic. Age has doubtless softened it a bit and I think it’s drinking really nicely right now.

Only 497 bottles of this were made, although Ben continues to release wine and cider from the qvevris, and I think he’s “planted” some more of these vessels. He has shown himself to be, whether by skill or happy accident, something of a master of a type of vessel which you can now find even at England’s “wine university”, Plumpton College. Tillingham has an on-site and online shop, where I think you get a choice of four qvevri-made wines among an increasing output of most styles.

Check out the Tillingham shop at tillingham.com/wines/Les Caves de Pyrene has been a supporter of Tillingham and they may have the odd bottle, or try their network of retailers. Tillingham’s wines often crop up among the independent wine retailers of Sussex.

8a944f95-d2d0-484a-b306-6c57a2f5eba7

 

Posted in Alsace, Artisan Wines, Czech Wine, English Wine, Natural Wine, Spanish Wine, Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Recent Wines June 2020 (Part 1) (and a nod to the Val d’Aosta) #theglouthatbindsus

Before we head into the first part of my monthly article covering the most interesting wines we drank at home over the past weeks, I want to take you on a short diversion.  I published an article on Swiss Wines on 23 June, which seemed to go down very well. In that article I made a brief reference to Italy’s tiniest wine region, which nestles below the Grand Saint-Bernard Pass, or the other side of the Mont Blanc Tunnel if you prefer the swifter but less scenic route.

I had it in mind to write an article about Val d’Aosta. Okay, production is tiny and little is exported. Nevertheless, quite a few Aostan wines are available on the UK market, and for good reason. Some of these are truly hidden gems, whether from grape varieties you’ve never heard of or from the international varieties. Even the wines from this tiny region’s several co-operatives can be unique.

I realised, when thinking about this, that I’d written an article four years ago, back in 2016, and that if I wrote about Val d’Aosta (or Valle d’Aoste as the French-speaking winemakers sometimes prefer in this bi-lingual part of Italy) I would only be more or less repeating what I’d written back then. Especially as, despite visiting the region on a number of occasions, I’ve not been back in the past four or five years.

So rather than write something which merely repeats what I said back then, I’m including a link here to that article from June 2016. If you enjoyed my sweep around Switzerland you might enjoy reading about this Italian Alpine Region, which seems to have connections, viticulturally, with Switzerland, Alpine France and Piemonte to its south. Of course things may have changed a little in the detail in four years, but I think it will whet the appetite. It’s not too long. Living as I do close to beautiful hills, I nevertheless miss real mountains, something I think may be evident from my recent writing.

Right, back to recent wines, from June. The two-part format continues, but there’s a small difference you’ll notice in the wines drunk. I had to move more than two-hundred bottles in order to have some electrical work done, and this gave me access to wines which I’d been neglecting because they were difficult to get to. I suppose you’d say they come from the more “classical” part of my cellar. A few of them crop up here among one distinctly non-classical Jura, a Champagne, one Aussie, one Austrian, two Burgundies, an English still wine and a classic Mosel.

“PIF”, AMÉLIE VUILLET & SÉBASTIEN JACQUES (Jura, France)

This wine is a Vin de France, hence no vintage, but this cuvée was made with 2018 fruit grown at Montigny-les-Arsures, just up the road from Arbois (where Stéphane and Bénédicte Tissot have their winery). Amélie and Sébastien’s base is over at Petit Molamboz, near Vadans (off the road from Arbois to Dôle). It’s a blend of mostly Poulsard with some Gamay, Pinot Noir and Trousseau, grown on limestone and clay, with the vines being around fifty years old and worked by horse.

Vinification involves a one month skin maceration without pumping over, just ensuring the cap is wet. Following fermentation the grapes are gently pressed and the juice spends a year in tank before bottling, no fining nor filtration, and no added SO2. We get a spicy mix of red and dark fruits in a fairly dark coloured wine (for one dominated by Poulsard), and there’s some dissolved CO2 to add further lift. It’s very good indeed. This pair are emerging stars, only hampered by their currently tiny vignoble of (I believe) less than a hectare.

I picked this bottle up from the Arbois’ natural wine shop, Les Jardins de St-Vincent, but Tutto Wines imports it into the UK.

6427c0d0-6865-4b6f-97d2-5d24f18373c7

CHAMPAGNE BÉRÊCHE BRUT RÉSERVE VIEILLES VIGNES CUVÉE NON-FILTRÉ (Champagne, France)

I’ve been gently told off for having declared favourites, and I can see the logic, especially when I’m visiting a range of producers in a region. But perhaps Champagne is the one French wine where I am more than happy to nail my colours to the mast. I don’t get to visit Bérêche as much as I’d like to these days, and when I do I don’t buy nearly as much wine as I wish I could afford. Thankfully, although the range is not small here, including some of what for me are the finest still red bottlings available in the region, the entry level Brut Réserve is a pretty good place to start.

The Bérêche brothers are based at Le Craon de Ludes, with a winery right on the crest of the Montagne de Reims, but they have vines on the Montagne, on the Marne below, and even further south. This cuvée is a blend, in fairly even proportions, of all three major Champagne varieties, from all of the domaine’s 9.5 hectares. It was made in this case from a 2015 base which was disgorged in September 2017. If you want more detail, it’s a blend of wines aged both in barrel and cuve, and using 35% of reserves. It did not undergo malo.

There’s amazing depth here for a “non-vintage” bottle, from a grower. The high level of reserves sees to that, but so does the fruit quality from this lowest of low intervention producers. What leaps out for me are red fruits, salinity and vinosity. By the latter, I mean that it is a wine, not a mere “fizz”, and as such it goes well at the table. This is perhaps unusual with a wine at this level.

It does have bags of freshness, and whilst dosage is deliberately set at 7g/l, high for Bérêche but not for most NV cuvées, it does taste quite dry. The lack of malolactic perhaps retains the acidity to offset any residual dosage element? Note that this cuvée is unfiltered. It adds texture, but it’s not grainy. You will be hard pushed to find a better Grower NV. But be careful not to drink it on release. It needs six months, a year would be better. As you can see, I gave it longer and it’s lovely right now.

This bottle was purchased at the domaine, but Bérêche is thankfully quite widely available in the UK, certainly in London. Retail is usually around £40, but the extremely high quality still makes this remarkably good value.

img_9745

WHITE #3 2017, URBAN WINERY PROJECT, VINTELOPER (South Australia)

Vinteloper’s Urban Winery Project is special. Every harvest they occupy a pop-up space in a city and invite ordinary people to get involved in the winemaking process, foot-treading grapes and everything. In 2017 it was Sydney’s turn, in collaboration with Three Blue Ducks Canteen in Rosebery.

The grapes, of course, come from the Adelaide Hills, over in South Australia. In this case the blend is a little over half Pinot Gris, just less than 40% Gewurztraminer, and a 9% dash of Riesling. It was foot trodden by Tani Wilson. The two main varieties were given skin contact for 14 days during fermentation, and the Riesling was fermented clean, but saw ten months in oak.

In some ways you’d say this wine is relatively simple, but it sneaks up on you. The aromatics are quite beautiful, tropical at first, but then a subtle floral element invades the bouquet, making it more gentle than the initial fruit hit. The palate certainly has structure and texture as you’d expect from the skin contact, but the citrus stoniness is nicely balanced. Everyone loves the label, but that should not detract from a lovely wine. Vinteloper was extremely hard hit by the bush fires last year. I’d plead with everyone to support them. They make very good wines, so it shouldn’t be hard.

This was purchased from Ten Green Bottles in Brighton, which usually stocks two or three Vinteloper wines. The UK importer is Graft Wine (formerly Red Squirrel).

5100eefe-89bb-4372-aed6-b903f6902427

Appropriately the Bottle Brush was in bloom for this one

SPITZER HOCHRAIN RIESLING SMARAGD 2007, FRANZ HIRTZBERGER (Wachau, Austria)

I drink plenty of Austrian wine, but you don’t often see me writing about a Wachau producer. Hirtzberger is one of the classical Wachau names, indeed one of the finest, and this famous vineyard is at Spitz, on the left bank of the Danube, somewhere close to half way between Melk and Krems. The Hirtzberger family have been a winemaking name here for many centuries, although they only moved to Spitz in 1897! Franz Junior now runs the Domaine, but his father, Franz Senior, was the founder of the Vinea Wachau grouping of producers which helped establish Wachau’s modern wines on the international stage.

The Hochrain hill is just down river from Spitz, towards Wösendorf. I wish I could locate one of my photos of this vineyard. Its tightly terraced slope looks quite spectacular as the sunlight shines on it leaving the side valleys in late afternoon shadow. Such a photo would demonstrate its “grand cru” quality. “Smaragd” is the top Wachau designation for a richer, perhaps bigger, style of wine, placed above Federspiel in quality terms, although of course purchasing a wine like this is pointless unless allowed to age properly. Here we have richness, evidenced by 13.5% abv, and thirteen years of bottle age.

This is, for want of repeating, a classic Wachau Riesling. Despite the age, and despite the alcohol, this is still pure minerals with lime cordial. Dry, though rich, it is complex yet it has not lost its freshness. We are really talking length here. So satisfying. A superb bottle, which I only wish I’d been able to share with some fellow lovers of Austrian wine. But you have to drink them some time.

The origins of this bottle are, I’m afraid, lost in the mists of time. Clark Foyster does import this in more recent vintages, for UK readers.

Before leaving Spitz, I can recommend it as a stop on the Wachau Cycle Trail. You can catch a train from Vienna to Krems, and there’s a cycle hire shop about five minutes from the station (it may be best to book bike hire, as is common in Austria, but you can do a little research).

Follow the left (north) bank of the Danube westward, past Unterloiben, where Weingut Emerich Knoll has a very good Heuriger (for those lacking fitness or requiring a post-breakfast bottle), before perhaps breaking the journey at Dürnstein. Richard I of England was imprisoned by Duke Leopold in the castle perched high above the village here in 1192, for ransom on his way home from the Third Crusade. This village is one of the places where you can purchase the wonderful Wachau apricots (and jam) for which the river rivals Switzerland’s Valais. Continue via Weißenkirchen to Spitz and you should arrive in good time for lunch.

You will probably, in fact, have time to visit the excellent wine shop, Föhringer, down by the jetty on the river before you eat. Upstairs you’ll find an astonishing treasure trove of Wachau wines, and bottles from further afield. We recommend a hearty lunch outside the Gasthaus Prankl, just stone’s throw further southwest, below Spitz’s castle and also on the river. A climb up to the castle is just enough to walk off lunch and affords some lovely views, but is not too far to utterly destroy you (depending on consumption) for the ride back to Krems (or onwards to Melk for the adventurous).

As you return to Krems, take a slow turn around the suburb of Stein-an-der-Donnau, which has some very old houses, or head across the river to Mautern to visit Nikolaihof, the region’s first producer (indeed one of the first in the world) to turn to biodynamics. Their winery and tavern, near the Mauterner Brücke, is quite famous for its well aged Rieslings. There’s an alternative route along the right bank of the Danube. What it lacks in pretty villages it makes up for in views of the vines, often spectacular, and the ruins of Dürnstein’s almost a thousand year old Castle and painted church.

There’s an excellent map of the Danube Cycle Trail, covering broadly the route from Krems to Melk and beyond, and the nearby World Heritage Trail, which you might be able to get hold of by contacting the Austrian Tourist Office.

0ee83b4a-522b-4a7d-b6f6-1e718591c6fd

BOURGOGNE ROUGE 2006, DOMAINE ROULOT (Burgundy, France)

Jean-Marc Roulot was heading for a career as an actor, but he chose instead to return to run the family domaine in Meursault. It’s lucky he did. With a singular, perhaps even identifiable, style of winemaking, he has turned this family domaine into one of the very finest on the Côte de Beaune.

When I say “identifiable” I’m really talking of the white wines, which at every level show purity of both fruit and line in abundance. Each wine is imbued with a rapier-like thrust of acidity, by which I mean it’s pointy at the end but elegant. Even the Bourgogne Blanc is astonishing at Roulot, very ageworthy, and could once have vied for the best value white in the region until prices went AWOL.

However, this wine is, you will note, the Bourgogne Rouge. It’s amazing how many people, on seeing a photo of this wine on Instagram, said that they’d never drunk a red Roulot. They tend to say the same thing about Coche-Dury, and even occasionally Lafon (see below). But knowing me as you do, I’m always the one to explore the less well-trodden routes, and surely Jean-Marc Roulot can’t fail to make brilliant reds if his white wine is that good?

In the case of the 2006 vintage, I don’t think many of the big name writers rated it all that highly. It did, after all, follow 2005. They also asserted that in 2006 the reds were better in Nuits than in Beaune, but then again, when do they not say that? This is a generally held belief, but I happen to have drunk a lot of wines like Jadot’s “Ursules”, or a string of fine Volnays. Different wines but with fantastic appeal (the Beaune Premiers have long been prejudicially under rated). There are always exceptions. If Roulot’s Bourgogne Blanc invariably lasts so well, why not the red? I have seen one tasting note from release which said drink this wine by 2012.

To be honest I didn’t have high hopes but I was very pleasantly surprised. Classic Burgundy, cherry-coloured with ripe cherry scents dominating. There’s even a little structure still. It’s elegant, but in so many ways, very Roulot…and extremely enjoyable.

Again, source unknown for this, I’m afraid.

ef3f3a3d-a484-4265-b5ce-3cb256beb96d

VOLNAY 2006, DOMAINE DES COMTES LAFON (Burgundy, France)

Dominique Lafon is, of course, another Meursault-based producer who is far better known for his white wines, but of course many who know Lafon will certainly seek out the reds as well. This cuvée is from the younger vines in Volnay Santenots-du-Millieu. It’s very different to the Roulot, probably on account of vine age more than site. The dominant note here would be savoury, with some earthiness and mushroom. There’s a little structure. It strangely reminded me of an aged Rioja, red fruits and vanilla. Of course it has seen oak, but it’s not quite what I expected.

If you accept that the bouquet of Red Burgundy is at the very least 50% of the experience, then you will find this more promising. That bouquet did take a few minutes to evolve, but when it did, and was able to settle down, it became something ethereal and haunting, which really is exactly what I’m looking for. This may be past its peak but not so much as to fail to give pleasure, though that pleasure was unquestionably enhanced by the bouquet. Perhaps the man or woman who drinks aged Red Burgundy every week would scoff, but I’m sure many would find the experience of this wine fascinating. Indeed, some of my most soulful reds from the region have come from even less exalted producers and from equally not exalted vintages.

I’m as unsure of the provenance of this wine as I am the previous wine, but it might have been The Sampler in Islington? Or potentially the Berry Bros outlet at Basingstoke? I’ve had it a long time so don’t quote me.

img_9768

“A FERMAMENT” SAUVIGNON BLANC 2018, CHARLIE HERRING WINES (Hampshire, UK)

This is an English Sauvignon Blanc perhaps like no other, from Tim Phillips at Pennington, near Lymington in Hampshire. This is, I think, only the second Sauvignon Blanc he’s released since 2013, because Tim is too much of a perfectionist to release anything which is not “perfect”. The Sauvignon Blanc from his walled Clos, actually the walled garden to a large Victorian house (which he doesn’t own) is macerated on skins and is blended, in 2018, with a little Chardonnay to round it out.

There’s definitely some pure varietal Sauvignon Blanc character, pert gooseberry, especially, but it is a very individual expression of the grape. It’s not like any SB you’ve tried before, well maybe with a very small nod to some examples of Sancerre. Its freshness is perhaps very English, but the mineral tension is universal. It’s a long way from most NZSB, though perhaps there are two or three similar examples there too, at least with regard to the minerality.

What I will say is that the 2018 is worth ageing further. I tried a bottle because I managed to prise three out of Tim himself. Some retailers are limiting this to one per customer. The best retail price I’ve seen is £26 (at The Solent Cellar). Their web site today shows six bottles, if it is up-to-date. Les Caves de Pyrene take what they can get so they are another source worth a call.

After a few years when Tim refused to release it, the news from his web site is that the 2019 is looking good, and will hopefully be bottled soon. Three vintages of Sauvignon Blanc in a row, almost unheard of from a man who treats all his vintages as if he were declaring a Port Vintage in Vila Nova de Gaia.

441f115e-eef4-4e61-9015-4f2c989edf16

16d6ad08-e69f-43a1-9c00-4fd2f6b84527

BERNKASTELER BADSTUBE RIESLING SPÄTLESE 2008, JJ PRÜM (Mosel, Germany)

We finish with another classic from a dusty corner, and when we speak of classic Mosel there is perhaps no more apt name on the label than this one. There have been Prüms in Wehlen since the twelfth century. This particular estate was founded by Johann Joseph in 1911. Many readers may have met JJ’s grandson, Dr Manfred Prüm, who along with Dr Carl von Schubert of Maximin Grünhaus (Ruwer), I have always considered the two great gentlemen of German wine. Dr Manfred’s daughter, Katharina, is most likely to be the face of the estate you will meet today.

I am convinced that most JJ Prüm gets opened far too young, and at twelve years old this wine is by no means remotely old. There is a perceived hierarchy of sites for those connoisseurs of the domaine, but for me I’m less worried, nor am I really prepared to pay the prices for the finest “auction” wines from here when the general estate releases are so fine.

We know that 2008 was a vintage of high acidities in general terms, one generally less favoured than the 2007 which preceded it. It has that in common with the 2006 Burgundies (above) which followed the way more lauded (rightly so, of course) 2005s. But if you plan to age a wine acidity is a positive, just so long as you’ve chosen a wine which will indeed age well.

Here, we have one. It opens with tiny prickles of CO2 on the tip and front of the tongue. The bouquet is essence of mellow, ageing, Riesling, but the lime citrus and white flowers are soon joined by the added gentle richness of white peach. The palate is fruity but also restrained. There’s a mineral element, perhaps equally, peach stone. It is, of course, medium dry, but there’s no overwhelming loss of balancing acidity because it had so much to begin with.

What interests me is that on Purple Pages Jancis Robinson does not include JJ Prüm in her list of “successful” producers in this vintage. I have no idea why? Neal Martin was more positive, giving this wine a score of 93 points after release, in 2010. At well over a decade old I reckon this wine has a good four-to-five years left before it begins noticeably to descend the slope. I’m not saying I know more about the Mosel than my betters, but hey, want to try a gorgeous near mature Mosel Riesling…there’s more like this chez-moi.

In this case I do remember where I bought this…The Sampler (well, 95% sure).

a20444d9-248a-41b8-a381-a42434ad3ec2

Part 2 will follow shortly.

 

 

Posted in Aosta, Artisan Wines, Burgundy, English Wine, Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Switzerland – Game On

I was reading an article written and published in April by Valerie Kathawala on the Planet of the Grapes web site (that’s the US online magazine, not the London wine merchant of the same name), called “Have Swiss Wines Finally Arrived?“. It looks to me like the Americans may be stealing a march on the Brits and I want to address that before it’s too late.

img_9817

The UK has always been firmly established as an important market for wine, in fact ever since the Middle Ages. In the modern era our auction houses, traditional fine wine merchants, and our system of reliable and trusted bonded warehouses for both the trade and private customers has given the UK an edge over rivals for the storage and trading of fine wine. As wine spread its lustre around the world London became a major centre for the sale and trading of wine not just by UK residents, but by those around the rest of the world. On this trade has been built increasingly sophisticated and eclectic consumer tastes, so that in Metropolitan Britain you can buy almost any wine you care to.

In a city where you can buy wines from places as diverse as Czechia, Georgia, Vermont and even Wales, there has been one country which for its size of wine production and overall quality has been mainly absent: Switzerland. You can certainly buy Swiss wines in the UK. Two of London’s best importers sell a small number of Swiss wines, both “wholesale” (though that perhaps gives a poor impression of the quantities) and retail. That’s Dynamic Vines and Newcomer Wines. Then there’s Alpine Wines up in Yorkshire (online only), which with a portfolio covering broadly Europe’s Alps and pre-Alpine regions, is based around a Swiss core. Swiss-born Joelle Nebbe-Mornod has assembled the largest (by far) range of Swiss wines available in the UK.

98b76d28-abbf-4b7e-a2f3-e03ecbd41353

 

The problem is that Swiss wines just don’t appear in any numbers throughout The UK’s diverse independent retail scene. Only one of my favourite retail wine shops sell any. It’s as if wine shop owners and wine journalists are wholly unaware of their existence. As the authors of the latest edition of The World Atlas of Wine (8th edn, Mitchell Beazley, 2019) wrote, “Even now, in a more open and curious wine world than ever before, Swiss wine remains little-known beyond its national borders”. This is a shame because especially as tastes have moved towards wines of freshness, and towards wines made from interesting autochthonous grape varieties, Switzerland is an obvious fit.

In the past very little Swiss wine left the country, around 1% by most estimates, though I’ve been contributing to that figure by sticking bottles in the back of my car for very many years as a regular visitor, largely to Geneva, but also driving through on trips to Piemonte and Aosta. Thirty years or so ago that export figure was no bad thing, because with the focus on a home market and an older demographic, the styles of wine most often pandered to a somewhat old fashioned taste and quality perception. Quantity very much trumped quality, a fact compounded by the unusual state of affairs that Swiss vineyards were often tiny and in the hands of thousands of part-time grape growers who either sold their grapes or made wine for home consumption. But as vineyard costs skyrocketed from the 1980s onwards professional producers realised that the only way to make a living from wine was to be able to charge more…for quality.

If foreign markets didn’t really want Swiss wines before this shift, after it they could afford the wines even less. The Swiss have always had this near-mythical strong currency, and Swiss wines have, as a consequence, always looked expensive on foreign markets. This is equally a myth. When comparing like with like, the best Swiss wines are by no means more expensive than their peers. The only Swiss wines that look poor value to me are those last remnants of a previous age, wines made without care and conviction.

As the market for wine has broadened in Europe, Asia and North America, and especially as the sub-market for organic, biodynamic and natural wines has exploded, we have seen an equal explosion in interest in seemingly everywhere but Switzerland. Yet many of her best wines are made without recourse to synthetic agro-chemicals, and so many are made from exciting varieties that we’ve never heard of. Grape varieties like Petite Arvine, Cornalin, Humagne Rouge and Amigne, even Chasselas, sit beside European favourites, especially Pinot Noir and Syrah, making often stunning wines. Even the obscurists have Completer or Plant Robert to seek out, or failing those, Heida/Païen, Rèze or vitis vinifera crossings such as Gamaret or Diolinoir.

Switzerland’s almost 15,000 hectares of vines boasts more than 250 grape varieties. If the world grows somewhere between 1,300 and 1,400 varieties in anything approaching commercial quantity (though there are claimed to be around 10,000 grape varieties, including hybrids), it is equally true that somewhere in the region of 80% of the world’s wine on sale comes from a mere twenty of those varieties. So for Switzerland and her 250 grape varieties, that’s a large slice of the action. You want diversity, you got it. That said, a small caveat, approximately 55% of Swiss wine is made from one of two varieties, Chasselas or Pinot Noir. You’ll find a lot more than those two in any Swiss wine shop, but don’t necessarily expect to find Rèze or Humagne Blanche.

img_9819

Until very recently there was, as will be obvious by that statistic for vineyard area planted above, little Swiss wine to export. Most of that which was exported was there because a few quality-minded producers wanted their world class wines to be seen on the international stage, perhaps as confirmation of their place at the top table. A good example would be Daniel Gantenbein, who makes wine in the Eastern Canton of Graubünden. His Pinot Noir and Chardonnay have always been on a level with the best of Burgundy and the New World and it would have been a tragedy for those wines to be unknown outside of Switzerland, yet to find them you would need to discover them on the list at a top restaurant, or know one of the few lucky outsiders who had a small allocation.

Something changed with the 2018 vintage. I think actually even before this recent vintage some of the more outward looking producers (not always the younger ones) were casting their gaze beyond their home market. What 2018 provided was a particularly large harvest, generally of very good quality. With consumption at home falling rapidly and a lot more wine to sell all of a sudden, an increasing number of producers sensibly decided that overseas markets were appealing.

London saw a little bit of Swiss promotion in the spring of 2019 when four estates from the Valais came for a tasting organised by wine PR group, Westbury Communications. Aside from the promotion of Swiss wines in the Swiss Pavilion on the Thames at the time of the London Olympics, I can’t really recall anything similar. But when it comes to interest from foreign shores, the Americans have got in there quickly. Knowing the market, Japan will follow if my intuition is right.

img_9818

There has always been a little more interest in Swiss wines in the United States, perhaps in part because of small pockets of Swiss immigrants, but equally because North America has a long tradition of really innovative importers serving the major cities (especially New York and San Francisco). The Americans are probably more well versed in what has been written about Swiss wines, especially via American writer Jason Wilson (Godforsaken Grapes), and despite his profile in the UK via “Wine Grapes” and his work with Jancis Robinson, a great appreciation there of the work of the world’s best known grape geneticist, José Vouillamoz, who comes from a village beside the River Rhône in Switzerland’s Valais.

Whatever the reason, there has been much more of an awakening to the possibilities of Swiss wine over there than there has been in the UK. I remember many years ago purchasing a mixed case of Swiss wines from the English merchant, Tanners, but that innovative exploration into the unknown has never been built on. But now, with what looks like a bigger focus on exports from Swiss producers being jumped on by the USA, the UK could miss out.

The point of this article is a call to arms. To UK importers to get some Swiss wine on your books. To UK independent retailers, look, if you have Jura and Savoie on your shelves then add some Swiss wine. And finally to all you wine connoisseurs out there, I don’t mean those who collect Pomerol and Puligny but all you disciples of Ganevat and Overnoy, get out and explore. Before my friend Valerie helps corner the market for her own compatriots.

The big champion of lesser known wines in the UK, Les Caves de Pyrene, does not import any Swiss wine (as far as I’m aware), and that original offering from Tanners of Shrewsbury obviously didn’t go well enough for them to have any Swiss wines listed all these years later. The exception I’ve not yet mentioned is The Sampler, whose branches in London often have two Swiss producers on the shelf.  The mecca for the seeker of luxury, Hedonism Wines, in London’s Mayfair will often have some Swiss wine. It was once my only known UK retail source for Daniel Gantenbein, but there has been none on my last visits before Lockdown. Oddbins branches have, in the past, sold some of the wines from the large but quality-focused Valais producer, Provins. So if you know of any sources for Swiss wines aside from those I have mentioned, please do let me know.

Where to look generally, and outside the UK? Well I’ve written (for which read “banged on”) about Swiss wines often enough, and I will provide some links at the bottom of this article. You can attack the work of three authors to find out more. First of all Valerie Kathawala, who writes insightfully on mainly German, Austrian and Swiss wines from her base in New York. Then there’s a book, which I have reviewed here (20 Sept 2019) by the late Sue Style (“The Landscape of Swiss Wine”). Finally, there’s the entertaining “Godforsaken Grapes” by Jason Wison mentioned above. I’ll provide links to all of those.

My own articles mentioned, and linked to, below give a little more detail about the country’s wines. Perhaps the oldest of them shows that my writing has come on a little over the years. It’s hard to gauge how much interest there might be in Swiss wine in the UK, especially given the perception that it is going to be expensive. But remember that the Swiss wines sold by the two London merchants mentioned, albeit they are natural wines, are of a quality matching everything else they sell. Those sold mostly online by Alpine Wines give a broader opportunity to try the wines of almost every Swiss wine region. I’ve even bought White Merlot from Ticino…for research purposes I should stress.

Before adding in these links I would like to travel around Switzerland highlighting what you might be missing. My articles will include producer names, not that you will find most of them on the shelves here, but they might inspire the adventurous wine buyer.

Genève

My main link with Switzerland is via close friends in Geneva, an Anglo-Swiss couple, one of whom we first met high in Nepal’s Annapurnas some decades ago. This enduring friendship has been built on a passion for walking in mountains and for wine. Geneva has its own vineyards, and quality here has improved dramatically. The best wines are often from “Burgundian” varieties and some of the new vinifera crosses. The vineyards circle the city at the western end of Lac Léman, but the best of the wines probably come from the area between Satigny and Dardagny.

The latter is a pretty village on the French border, with some very good private domaines, which is bustling with visitors when the cellars are all open for the portes ouvertes (usually held in late May). The Cave de Genève is at Satigny, and the quality of wines made by the city’s co-operative has really taken off in recent years. A good place from which to sample some of those new varietals.

Vaud

Vaud is effectively the wine region which stretches across the top of the lake from Geneva, via Lausanne, to Montreux, and then up the Rhône as you approach Martigny. The part before Lausanne is called La Côte, with usually quite simple (but often good) wines from appellation villages like Mont-sur-Rolle and Morges. After Lausanne things get very interesting. Lavaux has several named village appellations and two Grand Crus (Dézaley and Calamin).

The steeply terraced slopes which drop majestically to the lake are a UNESCO Heritage Site, and the source of (mostly) top class Chasselas. Stop at the Lavaux Vinorama tasting centre just outside of Rivaz (accessible by local train from Geneva with usually one change and a short walk if you don’t have a car).

The vineyards away from the lake, further south, can be warm and villages like Aigle make equally seductive wines. The 12th Century castle at Aigle, just off the A9 Autoroute, also houses a wine museum.

If the Valais claims more top wines, and rather stunning scenery, then that part of Canton Vaud, the terraces of Lavaux between Lausanne and Montreux, can probably stake a solid claim for the most astonishingly beautiful. They are also somewhat closer to Geneva, close enough for a visit.

e61b6144-8476-48fa-abc9-f6ae2d351968

Valais

On approaching Martigny the driver is presented with two choices, both equally appealing. You could head into the mountains towards the Grand St Bernard Pass (and tunnel), which at almost 2,500 metres above sea level connects Switzerland with Italy’s Val d’Aosta region. But we are staying in Switzerland, so we will follow the Rhône eastwards, towards its source near the Saint-Gothard Pass. The vineyards of note start almost immediately at Fully, home of one of Switzerland’s very finest winemakers, Marie-Thérèse Chappaz. Villages along the A9 here, including Chamoson, Vétroz, Sion and Sierre, are not only the heart of Valais wine, but provide remarkably scenery, surely some of the most beautiful mountain vineyards anywhere in the world. It’s surprisingly hot here (it’s one of the best sources in Europe for apricots and in summer stalls line the roads, be sure to grab a punnet). Viticulture requires some judicious irrigation from the year-round snow and glaciers surrounding the peaks.

If you want to seek out the local wines the list here is long. Petite Arvine is usually very good, and Heida (Savagnin) too. Fendant, the Valais name (exclusively now) for Chasselas, can be superb from top names as well. Reds from Cornalin and Humagne Rouge can equal the very good Pinot Noir and Syrah you’ll find here. Dôle is a much maligned Pinot/Gamay blend, but from a top producer it can be very tasty. Producer is always key. The great rare speciality of the Valais, which often comes from the glacial side valleys like the Val d’Anniviers and Visperterminen, is Vin de Glacier. Usually made from the autochthonous Rèze, and aged in pine or spruce barrels, it is a real oddity but one you should try.

Remember that most writers will tell you that the best Swiss wines come from this region. Certainly this is an over-exaggeration, but this assertion does have a ring of truth to it.

 

Ticino

Skirt the Simplon Pass and you will arrive in Ticino to its east. Ticino is known for one thing pretty much. What wine student has not heard of Ticino Merlot? But how many have tasted it? Merlot is no longer a variety I generally seek out, but the suggestion that the wines can be “Pomerol-like” in their richness is not really far-fetched. Anyway, how can you not like a wine region which has the audacity to turn this plumpest of red grapes into white wine? It’s not going to set the party alight, but as much as a quarter of the Canton’s production is now made into white Merlot (Merlot Bianco as this Italian-speaking region likes to call it). Worth a try because…like the surrounding Alpine peaks, it’s there.

Graubünden

The Canton also known occasionally by its French language name, Grisons (especially in the famous Tourte aux noix des Grisons), is most highly regarded, viticulturally, for a small wine region north of Chur and close to both the border with Liechtenstein and Austria’s Arlberg Tunnel, called the Bündner Herrschaft. Led by Daniel Gantenbein, there are three or four producers making more than worthwhile Pinot Noir and Chardonnay. Some of it is very fine indeed.

Although usually eye-wateringly expensive, from a grape variety you may well not know, the regional rarity here is Completer. It’s an ancient white variety, occasionally seen as Malanstraube (Malans is one of the BH’s top wine villages). It was originally described as acidic and dry, but is now often made as a sweet wine. You’ll find a little Completer in the Valais, but Graubünden is its home. It’s origins go back to the time of the Cistercian monks who are said to have brought viticulture to the region, as they first did throughout France and Germany.

Basel-Aargau-Schaffhausen-Zurich-Thürgau

I’m grouping all the minor German-speaking Cantonal wine regions together for a reason. Usually you will find this group, along with the more qualitatively important Graubünden, combined under the fairly recent moniker of Deutschschweiz. Seventeen Cantons here grow less than 20% of Swiss wine and until recently it has been of mostly local interest. Much wine has historically been made from from varieties once seen as only fit for jug wine, like Räuschling. Thürgau will of course be familiar from Dr Muller’s eponymous crossing of Riesling and Madeleine Royal, so much maligned for the sugar water it was required to produce in 1970s Germany.

Increasingly it is worth nosing around here. Both of the grape varieties mentioned above now make very palatable wines (the MT is often erroneously labelled Riesling x Silvaner, it was once thought Silvaner was the second grape in the crossing), especially from around Zurich, whose wine bars and natural wine scene have encouraged young producers. In fact the wine producer grouping, Junge Schweiz-Neue Winzer (aka JSNW) was founded in 2010 in this part of the country.

Some of Switzerland’s most exciting winemakers, from all over the country, are now members of JSNW. Their wines are often promoted in Zurich by the glass (exceptional wine BTG is a rarity in Switzerland, where it is more often of a standard those who ever bought wine in an English pub in the 80s/90s will remember well), and they are a significant presence at the big Swiss wine fairs like Mémoire des Vins Suisse (Zurich) and Festivins (Fribourg).

Trois Lacs

Travelling anti-clockwise around the country, this is the last wine region, or really group of small regions, we come to. The vines north of Lausanne and at the southern end of the long Lac de Neuchâtel are technically still “Vaud” wines. The Three Lakes region covers the vineyards which follow the western shores of the Lac de Neuchâtel and the smaller Bielersee, along with those of Vully to the east, which are close to the Murtensee. It’s the only Swiss wine region which both crosses Cantonal boundaries, and covers vines in both French and German-speaking Switzerland.

In the general run of things the wines here are of minor importance, often made from Chasselas (whites) and Pinot Noir (reds). However, there is a regional speciality worth seeking out, as almost everywhere in this country of grape and wine-style diversity. Oeil de Perdrix (partridge eye) denotes a very particular colour and style of pink, or pale rosé, wine. It used to be found in other regions, especially Geneva, but the term is now reserved for use by the growers of Neuchâtel. It can be a lovely summer glass, fragrant and pale, and as everyone says, a perfect accompaniment for Neuchâtel (or any other) lake fish.

More recently the producers in the Three Lakes have upped their Chasselas game and, perhaps realising they can’t match their Vaud rivals in Lavaux, have invented a kind of “Nouveau” with a twist. They have begun releasing unfiltered Chasselas in late January. Perhaps they had tasted the exquisite Chasselas-sur-Lie made by one of their top producers (La Maison Carré), not a Nouveau but a cut above most. Cloudy young Chasselas may not appeal to everyone, but if you have enjoyed a raucous night of Stürm in a Viennese Heuriger you would be more than adequately equipped for this. Actually, the lover of natural wines would genuinely appreciate the style.

 

This swift circuit of Swiss wine regions does not remotely do enough to promote the diversity and excitement you can find in Switzerland. Of course, as with anywhere the blind traveller will find many dull wines. But you just need a little guidance.

There is no better guide in English than the recent book by Sue Style (Bergli Books, 2019). Sadly Sue passed away soon after publication. It’s not a perfect book. It was published with financial support from Swiss Wine Valais and the Swiss Ministry of Culture, and it does miss out one or two producers I’d have expected to see in there, at least for their presence on export markets. The most notable would be Mythopia, from close to Sion in the Valais. Natural wine may not be mainstream in Switzerland, but some of her acknowledged greats make wine using natural methods. The Landscape of Swiss Wine (A Wine Lover’s Tour of Switzerland) was reviewed by me in September last year. Read my Review here.

7ea2d733-5915-4b3d-9648-d085911d99da

The other book I mentioned near the beginning of this article is not about Swiss wine per se, but the great diversity of grape varieties in Switzerland are touched upon, and the book begins its journey there. I recommend Godforsaken Grapes by Jason Wilson because if you don’t know Swiss wine, yet you are open-minded and adventurous enough to read my blog, then I think that once you begin this book you will be hooked and desperate to taste some of these wines. My review from December 2019 is here.

9c8bd76e-a8d2-4547-8c0e-bb07517ae971

Read the excellent article which prompted me to write this piece, Have Swiss Wines Finally Arrived? by Valerie Kathawala.

There are a few articles on Swiss wine on Wideworldofwine, and I won’t list them all. Not those containing the reviews of individual wines in my monthly “Recent Wines” articles and at importer tastings. However, the following articles may be of interest.

Time for More Swiss Wine is about the Spring 2019 event at Wringer & Mangle, near London Fields. The four Valais producers represented on that evening were Domaine Jean-René Germanier, Domaine des Muses, Domaine Thierry Constantin and Provins.

Rolling Back More Swiss Wines is a recap of the wines I drank on a 2017 visit to Switzerland. It may only be interesting for those wishing to go deep, but it does have notes for a Bianco di Merlot and one of the interesting blends made from new crossings in Geneva (in this case Gamaret and Garanoir).

A Lavaux Affair details a visit, on the same trip, to the Lavaux Vinorama at Rivaz. You can read about the wines I tasted, but perhaps more importantly, learn about a nice day trip opportunity from Geneva. You can get a light lunch at the Vinorama, and the stunning vineyards are intersected with well marked paths along the wine route for a postprandial stroll.

What, More Switzerland was only the eighteenth article I wrote on this blog. I’d been writing for less than six months at this point (1 February 2015, so long ago), so don’t be too harsh on me. Its value, aside from light entertainment, lies in one or two more producer suggestions, and a perspective from five-and-a-half years ago.

If you are in Geneva there are a host of wine shops, but if you are keen to seek out top wines, such as Gantenbein, remember that the city does boast a branch of Lavinia.

Zurich likewise has a number of highly recommended wine stores (recommendations from the more well known wine writers’ web sites – Jancis Robinson lists a number), but it has one small shop which might interest those readers who much prefer to stick to natural wines. The Bottle Shop is at Nietengasse 7, 8004 Zurich. Check its opening hours carefully. The Swiss part of the list is small but well formed.

So come on everybody, let’s pull our collective fingers out and see some Swiss wines on our shelves. We can’t have it all going to the land of the Donald (sorry Valerie, a cheap shot, I know, only joking, but the Brits do need to get back into the game).

img_6388

 

Posted in Artisan Wines, Grape Varieties, Swiss Wine, Wine, Wine Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments

Recent Wines May 2020 (Part 2)

After interrupting my May Wines recap at the start of the week to add to the conversation about the grey market for natural wines (which seemed to go down pretty well) we are back on track for the last nine wines of interest drunk at home last month. But before that I want to mention briefly a fine resource on Alsace natural wine. It may be pertinent because I signed off that last article with a nod towards Alsace as a likely source for a new wave of natural wine icons, unicorns even.

David Neilson is the guy behind the Back in Alsace blog, and although he’s currently in Lockdown in San Francisco he’s very heavily involved in the Alsace region, as an organiser of natural wine events and his wider work with Raisin. He’s also planted a small vineyard up north, the region’s happening, but no longer wild,  frontier. The blog is a good source for keeping updated about what’s happening around Alsace, especially the wine fairs. He has also been adding excellent producer profiles, none better than his most recent, of Jean-Pierre Frick. Along with Valerie Kathawala’s site, I think Back in Alsace is one of the most interesting web resources on basically stuff that you and I would want to read about. Check it out here.

Back to May, nine more wines (I’m sure you don’t need me to help you find Part 1). One Jura, two Czech, one Alsace, one Californian, one from Germany, one Savoie, one Beaujolais and one very interesting wine from Navarra in Spain.

CHARDONNAY ROSE 2016, STÉPHANE TISSOT (DOM A&M TISSOT) (Jura, France)

Stéphane and Bénédicte make so many different wines that it is impossible to keep track, and equally impossible to buy them all. I remember Stéphane’s father used to get frustrated at the number of different cuvées he made way back when he first took over at this Montigny-les-Arsures domaine, and now he’s even more prolific. I think it would be too easy with all the well known wines in the range to miss this particular Chardonnay. Don’t.

This is a tiny cuvée of a massale selection Chardonnay which is not a Rosé, but a pink-tinged variant (a little like the Savagnin Rose I have talked about recently in the context of Heiligenstein in Alsace). Chardonnay Rose, interestingly, is said to originate near the village of Chardonnay in Southern Burgundy (where Chardonnay the grape certainly did not).

These are actually fairly young vines planted on argilo-calcaire soils at three sites: La Mailloche, Curon and Valière. This is truly a lovely wine. The bouquet is floral, but with lemon, and aniseed spice. There is almost a hint of Stéphane’s Traminer (ouillé light Savagnin) here. The palate has peachy stone fruit and a touch of hazelnut, but I’m definitely getting some lychee on the finish. I don’t normally list so many adjectives, but I guess I’m trying to convey that whilst this wine is bright and youthful, it is also complex. Let it warm in the glass. Astonishingly good.

Purchased from the domaine’s shop in Central Arbois, on the Place de la Liberté.

0cef51df-b323-463d-8176-1672abbd8649

MODRY PORTUGAL 2016, JAROSLAV OSICKA (Moravia, Czechia)

Jaroslav is the godfather of Moravian natural wine, and I drink quite a few of his wines, it must be said. I was on an online Insta Live with him recently (with his importer, Basket Press Wines), and I asked him, through his son as translator, how he had squared teaching standard winemaking techniques at the local viticultural college for thirty years with making natural wine himself. He said that he taught the curriculum, and then told his students “but there is another way”. The current success of natural wine in Moravia is a testament to his work, especially as a founder of the Authentiste Group of natural wine proponents.

After thirty years teaching, three hectares at Velké Bílowice is a nice retirement, though he’s been farming them since 1980. Working biodynamically, always with low yields, this is the only red wine (along with three whites and an orange wine) which are imported. It is made from the Blauer Porugieser variety. This grape has nothing to do with Portugal, probably originating in Austria, where Grüner Silvaner is one parent variety. It is probably best known in Germany, and although it reached Moravia in 1880 it is very much on the decline (from almost 17% of the Moravian vineyard in the 1930s to less than 4% by 2010). This is a shame because it’s one of those varieties which I think works well with natural wine methods.

The key to this wine isn’t any great degree of complexity, just masses of drinkability. The fruit for instance is quite intense black berries, giving acidity and bite. It’s what you’d call sappy and zippy, but this doesn’t mean there’s a lack of weight. It has some of that too. Juicy, fruity, then earthy, and a touch of herbs to season the finish. Delicious, and great value at under £20. I’ve drunk this several times over the past three years and I always come back for more.

The UK importer is Basket Press Wines who are operating an online shop during the pandemic. Check out these Czech wines. The prices are pretty reasonable and the quality is surprisingly high, I think you’ll find. If it all looks a bit overwhelmingly new, have a chat with them. A six-pack at the very least is well worth exploring. There are lots of petnats and skin-contact whites are pretty common here. They don’t pay me to say that, and every wine is paid for, but I do want to see these exciting natural wines keep coming to the UK.

d0cd5bdf-531c-41d9-a5e4-313d3a56cb79

“ZEGWUR” 2016 CUVÉE NATURE, DOMAINE DURRMANN (Alsace, France)

I was writing about Anna, André and Yann Durrmann recently in my article on Mittelbergheim and Andlau, the Durrmanns being based in the latter (link here) and I thought at the time I should open something. This particular cuvée had, I admit, been calling out to me from the racks for a while.

The Durrmann family have farmed this land for generations, but André shifted the focus both to wine (from mixed farming), and towards biodynamic winemaking. His one nod to the past, or perhaps to the future, is the herd of sheep he allows into the vines to chomp away at the vegetation. He began to make some cuvées naturally, with no added sulphur, and labelled them “Nature”. Since my original visit in 2017 André’s son, Yann, has taken full charge and will move the domaine even further in this direction.

Zegwur is a natural wine, a Gewurztraminer cuvée made from 900 selected vines. It’s unfiltered, has no added sulphur and certainly has a wild side to it. It comes out of the bottle cloudy for a start, which I guess a few people might find shocking, used as they may be to Alsace wine filtered to within a molecule of flavourless death (on occasion). The colour is towards amber, obviously lees-aged, and thankfully dry. It does have a fairly characteristic Gewurz’ bouquet in its more tropical, rather than floral, dimension (some pineapple, mango, a touch of peach) and the palate has good acidity for the variety, but tempered by structure and texture donated by the lees.

This only comes in at 12.5% abv in the 2016 vintage, so it’s at the lighter end of the spectrum. But that’s good. You don’t necessarily see a lot of Gewurztraminer in this style these days, where it can tend to richness and fat with sweetness and maybe 13.5%-to-14% alcohol. It’s juicy, but for me it’s the overall dryness which appeals.

This bottle was purchased at the domaine (11 rue des Forgerons, Andlau). Wines Under the Bonnet imports Domaine Durrmann, but this is not one of the six cuvées they currently bring to the UK.

1831b3f3-5752-4421-9095-f86d7f9f7f93

ROSÉ 2018, MATTHIASSON FAMILY WINES (Napa, California, USA)

Matthiasson is one of the key names in the sustainability movement in California Wine, and Steve Matthiasson and his wife, Jill, are giants within their world. They make wines in a wide price range, from their easy drinking “Tendu” label up to the famous estate wines. Somewhere in between in terms of price, and often lost when looking at the more serious wines, is this Rosé.

We have a blend of Syrah (44%), Mourvèdre (25%), Grenache (26%), and 5% good old Counoise. Most of the fruit comes off the warm Windmill Hill Vineyard in the Dunnigan Hills, except for the Syrah which is picked off the cooler clay of the Hurley Vineyard along the Napa River. Whole clusters are settled for 24 hours and then fermented on lees in stainless steel barrels, with no stirring nor topping up. The ripe fruit feel comes from Windmill Hill, whilst Steve says that Hurley gives all that fresh acidity (though it’s worth pointing out that blocking the malo helps preserve all that freshness).

This pale salmon pink wine with just a glint of orange seems to combine a clean citrus zip with a ripeness of fruit, but all with just 12% alcohol. It makes for a perfect early summer wine, with a lightness of touch you don’t necessarily expect from Napa. This is in large part down to the low intervention practised in the winery. Steve and Jill, with a background in viticulture consultancy (Steve co-wrote California’s manual on Sustainable Viticulture in 1999), are all about the vineyard, and I think that comes through in this lovely wine. This is, for a change, one Rosé it is well worth paying £30 for.

Since this year (2020) Nekter Wines has become the exclusive UK agent for all the Matthiasson Family wines. Everything neatly in one place.

b8030acf-77fe-4f67-a1ca-e748e97c97fe

CREMAUX PINOT NOIR 2017, PETR KORÁB (Moravia, Czechia)

Petr works around four hectares of vines with his brother at Boleradice, some of which they have been able to purchase and some which are rented from retired growers. Everything is done biodynamically, and they use as little added sulphur as they can get away with, under the rules of the Authentiste natural winemaking group in the region. Their vines are between 30 and 80 years old, which certainly helps a fairly young domaine (established 2006).

The domaine is something of a sparkling wine specialist and this is a petnat style made by the méthode ancestrale (bottle fermented without disgorgement). It is also made via skin contact, maturing in acacia barrels before transfer to bottle for the second fermentation. The result is dry with just 0.6 g/litre residual sugar. It’s very orange in colour (Koráb makes another petnat which has the amazing cloudy pink colour of lychee), but the palate definitely shows clean red fruits. There’s maybe just a tiny hint of apple, and I’d say it does have the crisp dry freshness, and perhaps steeliness, of fine cider.

This is a fascinating wine, undoubtedly pushing boundaries and towards the fringes of winemaking even in a petnat context, yet it is clean and fresh so do not be put off. This is definitely a producer to explore, especially if you find bubbles exhilarating.

Basket Press Wines is once more the importer of this Moravian domaine. The Cremaux is currently all gone at the time of writing, but they do have some of the “Orange On Leaves” I believe (£21).

img_9702

KUPP KABINETT FAß 8 2013, WEINGUT PETER LAUER (Saar, Germany)

Florian Lauer is one of my favourite German producers, certainly top three in the wider Mosel. From the famous VDP Grosslage of Ayler Kupp (at Ayl, on the River Saar), the cold winds which zip up from the east here seem always etched into the wine from this classic site (indeed one of the first single sites I came across when I had my initial instruction in classic German Riesling very many years ago).

The essence of good Kabinett is tension. A tension between fruit and acidity. When young the acids can seem to win out, especially here above the Saar, and in fact so long as you don’t go too young, then the thrill of that acidity is something to adore. But Kabinett, always low in alcohol (a mere 7.5% here), can trick you, through its filigree lightness, into thinking it won’t age. At this level of quality it does, very well indeed.

If you think this bottle will just yield up a nice combination of lemon/lime citrus on the tongue with minerality and taut energy you will be in for an even nicer surprise. There’s more. The energy comes through in a presence which belies the wine’s overall lightness. I think this is done via the flavour of something akin to dessert apple, a variety which has a certain sweetness alongside the crispness. It’s a wonderful wine. These Kabinetts can go twenty years in some vintages. 2013 was a strange year in the region, pretty wet at harvest. But top producers sorted for rot and were, despite the rain, able to make remarkable, wonderful, wines with the acid spine to age well. This is one such wine. Brilliant!

Howard Ripley is Weingut Lauer’s UK importer. This bottle came from Solent Cellar in Lymington, Hampshire.

54858b43-9a52-4c37-8939-3a894df16555

“LA CUVÉE DES GUEUX” 2018, VIN DE SAVOIE, ADRIEN BERLIOZ (Savoie, France)

Adrien is part of a famous family of winemakers in the region. He’s a second cousin to Gilles Berlioz, who began making wine at Chignin in 1990. Adrien has only been operating since 2006, starting out as a young man in his mid-twenties after studying viticulture and oenology at Beaune. He began small, but has grown his domaine to a little over five hectares today, all mostly around Chignin plus a couple of other villages on the Combe de Savoie, and all farmed biodynamically (with both Demeter and Ecocert certification).

Cuvée des Gueux blanc is an entry level wine made mostly from Jacquère but with a little Altesse. There’s a red “Gueux” as well. This Blanc starts out with clean lemon citrus before a deeper mineral flavour comes in, textured, on the palate. I’d call it pebbly. This accompanies a fairly simple bouquet which has a little citrus, a hint of florality and a herbal note which catches the back of the nose.

It’s less light than you might imagine from the bouquet, though it certainly isn’t too heavy either. In some ways a simple wine, of 12% alcohol, yet it has that satisfying quality which lifts all well made simple wines. £22 seems a lot for simplicity, but if you factor in its individuality, that’s about right.

The name is a more or less literal translation of “beggar” in English, but in local dialect is closer to “rogue”, which perhaps the label depicts quite well.

Adrien Berlioz is still young, well, approaching forty, and he’s ready to think about expanding a little further. As his more famous cousin heads towards retirement, Adrien will certainly keep the Berlioz name alive for fine low intervention Chignin for many years to come.

Another wine from The Solent Cellar, which sells several Adrien Berlioz wines. They currently list a mixed six-pack of three different wines from this producer (2xMondeuse, 2xPersan and 2xChignin Bergeron) reduced from £176 to £149.99. The Cuvée des Gueux is in stock as well.

c710ad91-01b3-406f-b487-04b6673f091d

BEAUJOLAIS-VILLAGES 2018, DOMAINE CHAPEL (Beaujolais, France)

David Chapel and his American wife Michele come from a background of gastronomy. Michele ran a wine programme for a number of New York restaurants, whereas David is the son of Alain (yes, that Alain Chapel). David spent some time working at Domaine Lapierre before setting up in the Lapierre cellar for the 2016 vintage, and then moving into their own winery in Régnié-Durette for the 2017 vintage.

The winemaking philosophy is very much as you’d expect from a Lapierre-mentored vigneron, very hands off, low intervention and with a lightness of touch all round. Low extraction, cool carbonic maceration, no pumping or pigeage, just keep the cap wet and aim for fruity elegance. David originally made a Juliénas which was truly wonderful. Sadly this is no more after the 2018, but there are new wines to come from Fleurie and Chiroubles, both from sites of around one hectare.

However, worry not, this “Villages” is stunningly good. The vines are in Lantignié. There’s great cherry fruit of course, and as a villages wine we are not expecting complexity. What we do get is remarkable poise. It’s elegant, classy even, but boy that poise. I’d go as far as to say that you will be hard pushed to find a more exciting Beaujolais-Villages in this vintage. As well as any Cru could, it illustrates just what a star David Chapel is going to become.

The wines of David Chapel have been expertly snaffled up by the erudite team at Uncharted Wines. This can be yours for £18.55, and if they still have a little of that Juliénas left (they did when I last looked), that will cost a bit less than £24. But as a purchaser of one of my Lockdown cases from Uncharted, I would say that their list makes for thrilling reading.

96c1795c-dc35-4183-bfa2-dfda9bef7f55

NATURALEZA SALVAJE TINTO 2018, AZUL Y GARANZA (Navarra, Spain)

Do you buy much from Navarra? I certainly don’t. I suppose I remember it in the past as a cross between a kind of lesser Rioja and a quieter grower of interloper French varieties than Somontano. This would have been an unfair appraisal of the region, but we are talking about a long time ago. I am not sure they even marketed wines like this, if indeed anyone other than a few old guys made them.

The variety here is Garnacha, from a low intervention single vineyard in the Bardeñas Reales Desert, the largest desert in Europe. The team behind Azul y Garanza is based in a restored co-operative winery in Carcastillo, close to the Rio Aragón and near the site of an old Cistercian monastery. All the vines are between forty and a hundred years old, trained as low bushes, and surrounded by scrub land and forest, but all planted on clay/chalk. Night time temperatures get very low, so the aromatics of the Garnacha are retained, and freshness too. The vines were pretty much abandoned and the first task of the team was to sort out the vineyard. This was made easier by the lack of chemical attack that had ever taken place here, pristine material for natural winemaking.

Back in the winery the regime is twelve days on skins, then a year’s ageing, six months in amphora and six more in used 300-litre barrels. 30 mg/l of sulphur is all that is added. Moderate alcohol of 12.5% helps give a wine of purity, pristine red fruit and a nice snap on the finish. It does certainly have that feel of an amphora wine. It’s really lovely, the vibrant fruit hanging off a sturdy frame, like grainy, un-planed, wood, and as a bonus it’s the glowing colour of pure cherry juice. It really is perfectly judged. Serve a little cool, I think.

This is imported by Modal Wines and their online shop currently includes it in one of their selections of “vibrant Spanish reds” described as more easy-drinking and fruit-driven. You get the idea.

3affbcbb-48a4-49b7-ae91-e84a3e1d8b8b

 

 

Posted in Artisan Wines, Czech Wine, Natural Wine, Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fifty Shades of Unicorn

Generally I like to go my own way and write about whatever excites me at any given moment. I find myself in a privileged and lucky position where I don’t ever have to write about wines I don’t like. This enables me to write in a positive way. This is how I distinguish myself from the “wine critic” whose reviews and articles are of necessity (I suppose) peppered with, well, criticism. But occasionally something strikes a chord, something which requires too many characters for a bit of a Twitter rant.

I read the article Jamie Goode wrote on the Little Wine site yesterday, about the grey market in natural wines. It reminded me how, among a group of people who enjoy wine with warmth, hospitality and generosity, there are still those for whom making a buck is the goal.

What is this grey market? Most producers, whether natural or not, have importers for overseas territories, and those importers usually gain an exclusivity in return for the investment they put into promoting those wines. The grey market is where rare wines turn up somewhere else, from an unknown source, at a price way beyond what the producer charged the agent/importer. It means in effect that a middle man takes significantly more profit than the producer, way more than the margin the official importer would charge. The result is that the wines in question, rare to begin with, become well beyond the means of the ordinary consumer.

Let’s go back many years. When I began falling in love with wine it was, as with so many of us, Bordeaux that was my first discovery. It was just before the Parker effect saw prices rocket skywards. But it didn’t take long for me to move on to experience the delights of Burgundy, both red and white. So much so, in fact, that for a period I used to spend a week in Burgundy every year. It wasn’t just the wines, you see, it was the place, the food, the people, the whole ambience adding to the experience of the wine. Over time, however, these wines became ever more expensive as well. There was clearly a point, as in fact had happened with Bordeaux, where I was slipping down the hierarchy in what I could afford to buy (“village” instead of Premier Cru, mostly). This only became a problem when the wines I could afford became equally impossible to source.

Perhaps by coincidence it was around this time that I discovered “natural wines”, but I found that I’d actually been drinking them for years without knowing it. One day in the late 1980s, whilst staying in Burgundy, we made a day trip to Arbois. I’m not the first, and certainly not the last, to fall in love with that town, and over time with her unusual wines as well. A week on the Côte d’Or soon bacame replaced with a week in Arbois, after all only an hour’s drive from Beaune.

With a passion for seeking out the more obscure wines of the world, Jura was a perfect place to bury my heart. I was also lucky enough to get in there before the region became fashionable. These days it is only old Parisian friends who tease us mercilessly for drinking Jura wines. The rest of the world has a voracious appetite for them, and I only marvel that we can still find somewhere to stay (famous last words) in a region still under developed for tourists.

It was around the turn of the century when I first began to notice something was happening with so-called natural wines, and with some Jura wines especially. It was in the natural wine bars of Paris where the secret, under the table, wine list first developed, but it soon moved over to London (and one or two other capital cities, you know who you are). The star wines and their producers, wines freely available at one time, were all of a sudden becoming hidden from view.

Go to any bar, restaurant, or retailer selling natural wines and there would be a wonderful array of bottles to choose from, increasing all the time. Yet there were also a small group of wines which almost overnight disappeared. These became known as the unicorns. It was the result of certain producers being hyped to cult status, seemingly a reflection of the Jayer-Coche Dury syndrome in Burgundy.

The idea of the unicorn wine was truly enhanced when in 2004 we saw the first publication (at first only in Japanese, then in French, a partial English translation of the series only coming out in 2011) of the Manga “The Drops of God”, by Tadashi Agi and Shu Okimoto. This is the story of the pursuit of a series of legendary wines which gripped Japan and is undoubtedly another reason why some of our unicorns are so difficult to find. Japan has both an obsessive and a highly developed taste for natural wines, with a highly wine-educated market segment. Not every Western wine lover knows that.

img_9785

Such wines never disappeared completely, they only moved under the counter. Their availability to normal mortals was cut off. Word went out that some places had secret lists never given to tourists or casual customers. To access them required loyalty. “Wines for mates” as the saying went. I’ve been a beneficiary of such practices on occasion, sometimes because they know I will write about it, but equally I’ve been given an emphatic “no” when asking about the connoisseur’s list (or whatever they choose to call it) which I know full well exists. I’ve also heard the firm request “no photos please” on more than one occasion, which in return for an occasional act of generosity is perhaps understandable. Such lists can get stripped by a plague of locust-like natural wine fans in under a week..

It may be perfectly natural when wines are made in tiny quantities that people who have a prized allocation wish to decide who gets to drink them. We all have to find ways to snaffle a single precious bottle here, or a couple there, and count ourselves luckier than most if we do. Yet one can’t help feeling that the openness and warmth one experiences when visiting the greatest natural wine producers, people who have usually chosen a lifestyle and a way of living over the wealth and materialism chosen by some others, is getting somewhat lost as their wonderful creations come onto the market.

I would say that the three producers most associated with this idea of unicorn wines are all from France’s Jura Region: Jean-François Ganevat, Pierre Overnoy/Manu Houillon and Kenjiro Kagami (Domaine des Miroirs). Pierre Overnoy’s work is being continued by Emmanuel Houillon, under Pierre’s retired but watchful eye, but the wines are made exactly the same as ever. Along with Jacques Puffeney (now retired since 2014, but whose wines have never, surprisingly, achieved quite the same unicorn status as Overnoy), these two winemakers, both just outside Arbois at Pupillin and Montigny-les-Arsures respectively, were the first of the great old timers whose natural wine philosophy became acknowledged in the Jura. Their influences, in part deriving from the work of the parents of the French natural wine movement in Beaujolais (The “Gang of Four”, or should it be five?) led them to Pope-like status in the region.

 

Overnoy and Puffeney – These days I probably do drink one Overnoy to three Puffeney

Further south, in the part of the Jura known as the Sud Revermont, when I became interested in Jura wine the domaine of choice was Labet. Alain and Josie were truly the unsung heroes of this southern part of the region. Their wines have a higher profile today, since their children have ably taken over the domaine, but they seem only now to be achieving the cult status they objectively deserve. The unicorns down here go under different names – Ganevat and Miroirs.

 

                                                              Labet, both old and new

Jean-François Ganevat makes an almost uncountable number of wines, many being exciting blends under a negociant label (and the labels themselves can be pretty wild too). The wines which are harder to source are the domaine wines, with their easily recognisable yellow labels depicting a drawn view of the vines sloping steeply down, below Château-Chalon, some distance to the north of the Ganevat domaine near Rotalier.  Ganevat at least makes a reasonable number of domaine wines and they are perhaps not as difficult to source as some suggest, especially in France. In the UK their agent is Les Caves de Pyrene, which takes the same margin as any other wine they sell, although they could doubtless sell their allocation several times over. They seem to spread the love around restaurants/wine bars and independent retailers in fairly equal measure. If they don’t have innumerable bottles open at their tastings it’s hardly surprising.

                                                    Some Ganevat Domaine wines

Domaine des Miroirs is a difficult one to ponder, a different matter entirely. This small (between three and four hectares) domaine at Grusse, very close to Ganevat, was set up by a Japanese winemaker only in 2011. Kenjiro Kagami and his wife had previously been mentored by Thierry Allemand and Bruno Schueller. My first introduction to them was also in 2011 in Étienne Davodeau’s BD “The Initiates”, a fleeting reference to “a young intrepid Japanese couple, enamoured with a magical terroir, who have also come to launch into the adventure of wine”. I was suitably intrigued.

img_9786

A shot from “The Initiates” by Étienne Davodeau (ComicsLit 2011, trans Joe Johnson)

Miroirs, with its now iconic pale blue label, came out of nowhere. I’d like to say that the wines are amazing, and indeed they are, but only on the evidence of about three bottles which have passed my lips. I pride myself in having my finger on the pulse, at least as far as Jura goes, but I was a bit slow here, it must be said. I have never been able to purchase a bottle of any of Kenjiro’s cuvées myself, relying instead on the generosity of others. I can’t think of one other producer I would be forced to say that of.

img_1141

As these wines became rare, then they began to crop up in all sorts of places. Jamie mentions in his article how one of England’s most traditional purveyors of fine wine has sourced some kind of allocation of Domaine des Miroirs, and another has snaffled some of one of Ganevat’s most iconic wines, Les Vignes de Mon Père.  UK Agent Les Caves confirmed that those particular bottles didn’t come from them. It is amazing how many people seem to advertise that they have some Miroirs to sell. It’s not a question of not being able to find any if you look hard enough. The problem is (almost) always price.

In that same article Jamie mentions the similarities with the art market, where an artist’s work sells for vastly more at auction once the artist becomes famous, and it is the first purchaser who benefits. However, there is a nuance here. It’s called the “Artist’s Resale Right”, whereby if a work is sold at auction or resold by a dealer, then the artist is entitled to a royalty (on a sliding scale dependent on value). So whilst the seller makes most profit from their investment, the artists (and indeed their heirs for 70 years after their death) get some benefit at least.

In the grey market for wine there is someone with an allocation selling the wine on at a profit to another seller, so the price gets bumped up massively. You will easily find wines with a usual retail value of £30 going for £80, or a £50 wine advertised at £100-£120. Such “gouging” (as we like to call it) sticks in the throat mostly because the original winemaker in the natural wine world is almost certainly far removed in philosophy to the emotionless capitalist who ends up with the lion’s share. Even worse, when I visit and talk to winemakers about this issue they are without exception very sad indeed. They make wine to be enjoyed by people who love them, not those who buy them to “collect” or hide away, and who can do so on account of their somewhat fatter wallet.

Blast Vintners is often a good secret source for all sorts of tiny parcels of interesting and hard to find wines. They are categorically, I want to stress, not of the gouging type (though I have no knowledge of how they manage to secure their parcels). In a piece I read a while ago by Joe Gilmour on the Blast web site he comments that every bottle of Miroirs drunk has to be accompanied by a photo on social media to prove it. He asks if he’s being too cynical about those who worship at the altar of Miroirs? Well, aside from those perhaps tempted to keep an empty bottle to wheel out every year for Instagram, I will say that when I see someone I follow posting one I rejoice. Here, at least, is someone I know appreciates the wine actually drinking it.

Is there an answer, first to the trait of hiding the wines away for “mates”, and second for the phenomenon of the grey marketeers? In the first case I’d just appeal to those who do this to try to be as generous as those who make the wine, and do as the winemakers would wish – allow the wines to reach a wider audience. I can’t say more than this. As for the grey market, well I won’t go there, as a matter of principle. Others doubtless will. One thing I know for sure, with natural wine where there’s a grey market consumers suffer in the long run. Wink Lorch was only recently reminding everyone on a lockdown live Insta how Jura producers are becoming less keen to export. They can sell all they make locally in many cases and so why would they allow others to profit from their work. The actions of a few without doubt affect the rest of us.

I won’t go there in part because the cliché that there are plenty more fish in the sea rings true. Do I regret the drying-up of the availability of wines from Overnoy, Ganevat and Kagami? Well yes. I used to be able to buy Overnoy off the shelf at Wholefoods Market on Kensington High Street, a glorified supermarket no less. In the past two years I’ve secured just two bottles from this producer. I can still get hold of Ganevat, partly because I know a caviste in France he’s mates with, and who gets enough to put it on the shelf. I also have a great relationship with a UK wine shop which will usually (they sometimes forget) let me know when their allocation from Les Caves de Pyrene is due to arrive.

Being a natural wine obsessive does allow me to find out about the good stuff before many, and exploring Jura does usually keep me one step ahead. When everyone was bowing to Ganevat I was happy to snap up the Labet wines, as well as getting to know those of Peggy Buranfosse, another Southern Jura producer from the same hamlet as Ganevat, whose lovely bottles remain virtually unknown even today. The Jura region has certainly a couple of dozen domaines which make wines worthy of worship (if worship it has to be), and it is strange how just a few catch the ear of the collectors. So I would say that whilst Kagami is good, he’s by no means alone.

There is one producer, unquestionably making several world class wines, who for some strange reason has not become unattainable. This is Stéphane (and Bénédicte) Tissot, at Domaine A&M Tissot. Again, I got to know André and Mireille when we used to stay up the road in the mid-1990s, and we met Stéphane as a young man of whom they were justifiably proud of what he might achieve. Perhaps Stéphane’s top wine is “Le Clos”, a Chardonnay from his terraced vineyard beneath the Tour de Curon, which he has faithfully restored. It is a Chardonnay comparable to any fine white Burgundy (if you will just allow it to age). Great as this wine is, and fairly priced, it does sell out but if you visit the Tissot shop in the centre of Arbois at the right time of year you will certainly be able to purchase a bottle or two.

 

If my sadness at the greed or meanness of some people is somewhat tempered by the availability of other stars, or future stars, making wines to buy now before the collectors cotton on, where does one look? Well if I’m very specific I would only be fuelling the race, and perhaps this isn’t quite the right place to do so.

Jura is still a region brimming with genius and there are producers there, some well established and others almost starting out on their journey, who are making wines as exciting as any. Ironically, because Wink Lorch has written books on both regions, there are a few Savoie producers who are also heading towards so-called unicorn status. If the wines of Prieuré-St-Christophe from the era of now retired Michel Grisard (the “Overnoy” of the Alps) are already unicorns, then Dominique Belluard, Les Vignes de Paradis (Dominique Lucas, especially “Kheops” made in a concrete pyramid) and Jean-Yves Péron are headed that way. Plenty of Loire names are already there, but for some strange reason the Loire hasn’t quite reached the collector market and remains relatively open to genuine enthusiasts. One or two Beaujolais producers fit the bill, yet that region remains remarkably accessible.

 

                                                         Lucas, Péron and Belluard

Switzerland lags way behind France, but there are a small number of producers there whose wines are achieving unicorn status. For a host of reasons we probably all know, Swiss wines (which is on my list for another article soon, I should add) are expensive to begin with, so I hate to imagine what the grey market could do for these. Daniel Gantenbein is already there in this respect, but his prices rocketed above the £50/bottle mark many years ago, leaving me sadly behind. There are certainly at least a couple of Swiss natural wine producers (spot them below) which are headed in the same direction, but whose wines are thankfully available openly in the UK…for now.

Germany still remains pretty unexplored by all but the true believers, much more so than Austria, where Burgenland especially, and to a lesser extent Styria, is transforming some wonderful producers to cult status. Spain has a few who may be going that way, yet so far remain known by just a few. Italy, especially in the Northeast, is a major hotbed for the natural wine cult, especially in the various sub-regions of Friuli.

 

                                        A few more cult wines for your annoyance

As always, the thing is not to get too fixated on labels. If you absolutely have to drink (or collect) a specific label, and if you are willing to pay for the privilege, then you will probably be able to do so. If you are like me, then just move on. I enjoyed trying Selosse decades ago, but the fact that I may never be able to afford another bottle is probably mitigated by the few vignerons, some of whom are so-called disciples of Anselme, whose wines I can buy for around a third of the price of his entry level. If wine is about pleasure for you, you will take satisfaction from the fact that you can almost always get 80-to-90% of the pleasure for 30-to-40% of the price.

As for the fifty shades of the shady grey market, don’t be tempted. There’s more pleasure to be had in trying to keep ahead of the “greedheads” (cf Lord Buckley, Supermarket, 1959), finding the next unicorns before they do. It’s not that hard. I will leave you with one final tip though…Sassy Alsace!

* The original article by Jamie Goode, “The Grey Market Creeps Into Natural Wine”, can be found on the Little Wine web site – follow the link HERE. It makes essential reading.

img_9788

T-shirt by Vindalwine (www.vindal.vin/), see @vindalwine on Instagram

img_4105

Cult in the crypt – downstairs at a certain London wine bar…that is rather a lot of Overnoy!

 

 

Posted in Artisan Wines, Jura, Natural Wine, Wine, Wine Agencies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Recent Wines May 2020 (Part 1) #theglouthatbindsus

Once more, May’s “Recent Wines” will be brought to you in two parts…because let’s face it we are all drinking more bottles at home during these times, and I have again selected eighteen wines from the last month which I think you’d like to read about. That’s nine here, and nine more to follow in Part 2. As our Lockdown goes on into a fourth month I’m not going to deny that motivation for most things is starting to wane a little. Even so, the wines remain an inspiration and seem, perhaps, to get better and better for their restorative possibilities at the end of the day.

Couple that sense of fatigue with the fact that we have builders in right now, work that was originally due to commence on 6 April but which is perhaps at least better completed now than before the second wave hits, and the words may seem slower to flow from my keyboard, which is in itself apparently starting to die, hopefully slowly. But off we go with the first nine wines of May. I hope you enjoy them. The first is something of a marvel.

PROMISED LAND RIESLING BRUT NATURE 2013, CHARLIE HERRING WINES (Hampshire, England)

Charlie Herring is the label which Tim Phillips began when he made wine in South Africa, and indeed he can still sell you some of those South African wines with a good bit of bottle age if you ask him. He now makes what we can safely call artisan wines from what could possibly be the most idyllic vineyard in the UK, a walled “clos” not far from the picturesque Georgian yacht haven of Lymington.

This is, as far as I know, the only bottle-fermented (Sekt style) Riesling in the country. Riesling has pretty much been written off in England. Those earlier pioneers who planted it failed to get it to ripen, and someone recently told me that the considerable number of Riesling vines planted by one of England’s biggest vineyard investments, Rathfinny (near Alfriston on the South Downs), have been uprooted. But Tim benefits from a number of factors, one of which is the warming microclimate his walled vineyard enjoys (adding warmth and protection from wind)…the other is that his vines are planted on gravels, not chalk.

This is unquestionably an astonishing wine. A perfect bead of bubbles draws in the nose to a bouquet of white flowers and apple, with a freshness you’d probably not expect from a wine of this age. The acidity is as crunchy as a new season’s apple and the wine is dry and with considerable depth. A firm spine runs rapier-sharp through the centre. And the label, which continues Tim’s “Tom Phillips-inspired” theme (from A Humument) is rather special too. Tim thinks about everything…constantly.

This is a rare wine, difficult to get hold of in any vintage. If you are one of those who appreciates fine German Sekt then you really must try to.

Les Caves de Pyrene distributes a little of Tim’s wines, or try local indies like The Solent Cellar, but perhaps with regard to Riesling best to contact Tim himself (charlieherring.com).

FREEDOM HILL VINEYARD PINOT BLANC 2017, KELLEY FOX WINES (Oregon, USA)

The Freedom Hill Vineyard was established in 1981 by the Dusschee family, and from 1982 they planted around 92 acres on a 140 acre property. Whilst Kelley might be better known for her wines from the Willamette Valley’s famed Maresh and Momtazi sites, Freedom Hill (in the Eola Hills of the Oregon Coast Range) produces a little gem. It’s a wine which Kelley herself likes to downplay.

Pinot Blanc loves this terroir. The small (1.75-acre) block it comes from is marine sediment called Bellpine, and sits between 375 and 600 feet asl. Kelley actually makes two cuvées from this less-lauded variety. The “Barbie” is fermented in an acacia puncheon, whereas this bottling sees the inside of neutral Burgundy barrels for fermentation, ageing and malo.

The wine is all about stone fruit, a little peach wafting from the bouquet and its textured counterpart grounding the palate. It has a minerality too, and a citrus dryness, especially on the finish. Pinot Blanc when done well can be a revelation, and I’m not sure I’ve ever tasted one this good (I’ve drunk this cuvée on at least three occasions). There is definitely a hint of the more savoury forms of Burgundy Chardonnay to it, but with less gras. Of course it is a wine in its own right and redolent of its terroir and context. It also has a genuine spark of life. Not to mention the fact that it presents an opportunity to drink Kelley Fox whilst those Pinots are quietly ageing.

Imported by Les Caves de Pyrene.

1d54fb48-845f-40d4-b684-6dd8cd940464

“HOMOK” 2018, WEINGUT ALEXANDER KOPPITSCH (Burgenland, Austria)

I drink something by Alex and Maria Koppitsch most months, as regular readers will have noticed. This cuvée is from their “fun” range, simple wines with bright labels, but always with a twist. Their vineyards lie around Neusiedl-am-See around the northern end of the famous reed-wrapped shallow lake. This blend comes from a vineyard very close to the lake’s famous expanse of reed beds, called Seefeld (self-explanatory) off, well, homok, which is Hungarian for sand. The name reflects the Hungarian heritage of the region in what was once a single empire (the modern day border is right at the bottom end of the lake).

The grape blend here is Grüner Veltliner and Weissburgunder (both 40%) with Sauvignon Blanc making up the rest. The juice is gently screw-pressed and goes into a range of vats (stainless steel, acacia, oak and fibreglass) where the varieties co-ferment and then remain on gross lees for six months. Every vat is blended together right before bottling. At this stage Alex adds a low 5mg/l sulphur, which is the only additive or manipulation used. In fact the Koppitsch family are incredibly conscious about their environmental impact, and this goes even as far as thinking about their packaging (recycled cardboard for boxes, no packaging tape, no printing on boxes etc).

The resulting wine has a creamy texture and is high in aromatics, something Alex explains by the vineyard being so close to the lake and the reed beds, making it a warm site. The wine has a fresh yet fruity acidity, redolent of apples…and yuzu fruit. Yes, definitely yuzu! But when sipping a fun wine like this you don’t need a great deal of explanation. Dry, fruity, refreshing, will suffice.

The agents for the UK are Fresh Wines (Kinross, Scotland for mail order retail) and Jascots (usually restaurant suppliers but currently selling to private customers and offering trade prices during the pandemic on orders of 12 bottles or more). Both unfortunately sell only a very limited number of wines from Weingut Koppitsch.

0a93e46c-3f10-4a88-92cc-40ec12a97556

RIESLING KABINETT TROCKEN 2015, SYBILLE KUNTZ (Mosel, Germany)

Sybille farms at Lieser with vineyards next to those of the Schloss. If she has less of a reputaion in the UK than her illustrious neighbour (which also happens to be one of my very favourite German estates, I must stress), then she should truly not be too far behind these days, and if exploring this village close the Bernkastel it would be a shame not to include Sybille along with the wines of Thomas Haag at Schloss Lieser.

Unlike that producer, you will not find a plethora of named sites, but a mere explanation of the wine style in the bottle. All the wines are bottled with an elegant but modern (especially for the Mosel) label, each one a different colour. This Kabinett Trocken has a blue label which is intended to reflect the blue Devonian Slate from which it is sourced. Picking throughout the harvest is selective, so the triage for Kabinett quality takes place in one go across the four sites: Lieser Schlossberg, Rosenlay, Niederberg Helden and Pauls Valley. The latter is a very steep-sided lateral valley on pure Devonian Slate with very old vines and a warm microclimate. The juice is extremely mineral.

In fact lime and minerals predominate this fresh bottling, which with 12% abv is certainly trocken. Yet the acidity melds so well with the concentrated fruit that the overall structure is near-perfect. As is balance. It’s gorgeous stuff, as is everything coming out of Moselstraße 25 in Lieser. Every year the wines seem to get even better.

The importer is Uncharted Wines.

779866fa-bf3c-4aed-9e96-11d2135d7ef2

SCHILCHERSEKT, WEINGUT FRIEDRICH (Styria, Austria)

I include this wine largely to highlight one of my personal guilty pleasures, Schilcher, and especially its sparkling form, Schilchersekt. We are in the domaine of the Blauer Wildbacher grape variety here, a native of Styria, or to be even more precise, Weststeiermark. Schilcher is usually a dry (very dry) rosé, but I have developed a taste for the sparkling version, introduced to me by perhaps the most traditionally Austrian of our Austrian friends and acquaintances.

I’d never drunk a wine from Weingut Friedrich (or Schilcherweingut Friedrich, as they proclaim). Just so that you know where to find them they are at the aptly named Langegg-an-der-Schilcherstrasse at St-Stefan ob Stainz, but this bottle was on the shelf in Vienna’s “Wein & Co” chain just before I left the city last visit. Although I can get Schilcher in various forms (including a wonderful frizzante) made by my favourite producer, Strohmeier, from Newcomer Wines in Dalston (London), I am such an acid hound that I find it difficult to come home from any trip to Austria without one, nor from Dalston for that matter.

This bottle boasts 12% abv, with 12g/l of residual sugar, balanced by 8.5g/l total acidity. This means you are tasting a wine which appears quite high in acidity yet it also has a very fruity freshness, like a blend of tart blackcurrants with ripe strawberries. I think Schilcher is a wine some will love and others will pucker their lips at, but if you feel adventurous enough to try it I definitely suggest one of the sparkling versions, and preferably outdoors on a hot day, whether on a picnic or in the garden. I’ve enjoyed it indoors in winter, so weird as I am and so in need of my Schilcher fix, but it is a wine made for sunshine.

This doesn’t get a UK importer, as far as I know, but the abovementioned Newcomer Wines stocks the unrivalled natural wine versions from the Strohmeier family, who farm ten hectares, also at St Stefan ob Stainz.

e0543e14-b266-459d-9016-06c27c07445c

“PORTUGEEZER” LANDWEIN, STAFFELTER HOF (Mosel, Germany)

If you thought Sybille Kuntz’s wine labels are not very “Mosel” then you will find Jan Matthias Klein’s even more so (and I know someone of a more traditional bent who was indeed actively turned off the mere idea of this wine by its label). JMK is a younger grower at Kröv, and one might wonder what on earth he’s doing planting grapes like those which go into this “Landwein”. We are talking Arinto (45%) and Ferñao Pires (55%), stalwarts of Portugal’s warm climate.

This is very much a climate change experiment, an attempt to see whether grapes used to warmer and drier conditions might thrive in the, er, warmer and drier Mosel of the 21st Century. Of course Jan wasn’t going to stop there. He’s the latest family member at the helm of an estate which not only dates back to 1805, but has apparently been farmed for grapes since the ninth century. But to hell with tradition when you can have ecological progress. In 2014 Jan began to make some wine without recourse to added sulphur, and they have all turned out not only to be successful, but to become cult classics.

Portugeezer is fizzy, cloudy, dry, quite acid, apple fresh, zippy and alive. It actually tastes quite Portuguese, like a frothy Vinho Verde, certainly not very “Mosel”, yet that’s not the point here because you can buy the estate’s more traditional Rieslings, if you so wish. I know my readers well enough to understand that this experiment will be of great interest…except that this particular bottling sold out very swiftly, but any of the wines with similar labels (Little Bastard white blend, Little Red Riding Wolf Pinot Noir, or maybe Orange Utan from skin contact Riesling and Muscat) will inspire and elate the adventurous among you whilst you await the next shipment.

Seek from Modal Wines.

VINO CLARETE 2018, SORTEVERA (Canary Is, Spain)

Sortevera is a new project, which began with the 2018 vintage, between Jonatan Garcia Lima (of Suertès del Marqués) and viticulturalist Jose Angel Alonso Ramos. The vines are at Taganana on Teneriffe, in the remote northeast of the island. They are extremely old low lying bush vines, more than a hundred years old in fact, all “pie franco” (on their own roots). You may even have seen photos of similar vines in the same location as farmed by the Envinate team in Luis Gutiérrez’s “The New Vignerons” book.

Clarete is traditionally made from a field blend of red and white grapes all co-fermented together, and is undergoing a minor revival as a wine style in Spain, where some producers have spotted the trend towards lighter red wine styles. In this case it is made in old 500-litre French oak and then aged in the same for ten months. Although pale, this isn’t really a rosado, being more of a light red. It certainly has the bouquet of a red wine, very red-fruited,  yet a white wine acidity coats the tongue in a very textured way. It’s a savoury wine yet the exquisite fruit gives almost a hint of sweetness. There is certainly, despite the bright acidity, a certain plumpness or amplitude, and it also finishes with a nice bite. This is definitely a project to follow as they progress, a welcome addition to wonderful Tenerife.

This costs around £26 from The Solent Cellar. You may also find white and red cuvées on the market.

8c0593f9-333a-40e0-ae3f-e60fb2a96cd1

BARBARESCO “OVELLO” RISERVA 2001, PRODUTTORI DEL BARBARESCO (Barbaresco, Italy)

One of the great, and once unsung, Piemontese producers must be the Barbaresco co-operative cellar. Their wines are always exemplary, but their long list of single site bottlings was always known as one of the region’s bargains. More than 100 hectares of vineyard is farmed by fifty co-operative members, many of whom have small, or not so small, parcels in the DOCG’s top crus.

Ovello is a lesser known site on chalky clay capable of producing wines of great aromatic freshness. In 2001 there was a hot summer tempered by a cooler autumn, which allowed ripening to slow down. It was those who didn’t pick too early, allowing the cooler September temperatures to help develop those aromatics, who made the best wines. You know I’m not a points man but this was well endowed with them by the main critics at the time of release.

Even for a Riserva, this 2001 is well aged, yet I’d not say that on the evidence of this bottle, which had been gathering dust chez nous for a very long time, it was one which needed drinking swiftly. It displayed that gorgeous brick red of aged Nebbiolo, of which one could argue that there is no more beautiful colour in all of wine. There is plenty of structure there but you don’t really notice the 14% abv, perhaps down to a degree of elegance, and certainly savouriness. It’s amazing that a wine approaching twenty years of age still shows some tannins, but let’s not forget the grape variety and the era in which it was made. It did slip down rather nicely with a wild mushroom-based couscous dish, on a Zoom chat with the person for whom I had originally saved it to drink with (I wasn’t intending to be mean, and I still have some nice treats left in the cellar).

This was bought from Butler’s Wine Cellar in Brighton back in the days when a bottle of the single cru would cost around the same as their generic Barbaresco costs today, although these wines still remain amazing value.

55e6facf-b678-431d-b111-f91afde8f3ad

GRAUPERT 2013, MEINKLANG (Burgenland, Austria)

I’ve been trying to drink some of the Meinklang wines I’ve had tucked away in my cellar for a while. It’s always tempting to drink wines like this fairly soon after purchase, but inevitably when I do try to forget about them for a few years they yield interesting and worthwhile results.

Meinklang Farm is at Pamhagen, which is to the south of the Neusiedlersee, close to the Hungarian border. Meinklang also farms vines on the Somló Massif in Hungary, but this wine is made in Austria. Graupert (a dialect word meaning “scruffy”) is the name Meinklang gave to a particular way of farming vines, whereby they are allowed to grow more or less free from human intervention, especially from pruning. Unpruned, the vines naturally climb and they prodvide larger numbers of smaller berries, yet produce yields which, perhaps counter-intuitively, are smaller than those considered normal with traditional vine training methods. In other words, each vine is self-regulating.

These smaller berries produce juice which is more aromatic and with greater extract, due to the smaller pulp to skins ratio. The wines also end up with potentially greater complexity. There’s a Pinot Gris made this way, which is perhaps more often seen on the UK market. This is a red, made from Zweigelt, and it gives really intense red fruits on a bed of plum and a tiny dash of savoury soy as well. It marries an earthy quality with truly explosive brightness, which combines with notable length to give a wine of real impact. I’d forgotten how good this Zweigelt is, though I no longer have any more left.

This originally came from The Winemakers Club in Farringdon, London. This is my past source for Meinklang, although they currently only list four cuvées, perhaps due to the pandemic. A slightly larger selection is currently available from Vintage Roots. Neither importer has this wine, but Vintage Roots does list the Graupert White I mentioned above. Meinklang has pretty good distribution in North America. Although they also make a wide range of inexpensive wines often found in bars and restaurants, they are one of Burgenland’s most innovative producers. No Austrian-focused corner of your cellar should be without some Meinklang.

5f809344-b7cd-4cda-8337-3d29c8da8e89

Posted in Artisan Wines, Natural Wine, Neusiedlersee, Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Skelton’s “The Wines of Great Britain” and some thoughts on English Wine

This article began its gestation as a book review. I recently read another edition from the Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library, of which I have reviewed two further books in just this past year (on Sake and Japanese Wines by Anthony Rose, and The Wines of Germany by Ann Krebiehl, both of which I loved). I thought that as I’ve been getting increasingly interested in English Wine over the past few years it was about time that I read a book about it, especially as the publisher of this series had sent out a 40% discount code.

Stephen Skelton MW has unarguably been the biggest name in English Wine, not just as an author but also as a winemaker and a consultant, over the past forty-plus years. He studied at Geisenheim in the 1970s before returning to establish Tenterden Vineyard, in Kent, in 1977 (Tenterden is now the home of the UK’s largest producer, Chapel Down). He became a Master of Wine in 2003 (proclaiming the highest mark in the written paper in his book bio), and has since worked as perhaps the most notable consultant to the English Wine Industry.

This is not Skelton’s first book on the subject by any means. His publications list includes The Vineyards of England (1989), The Wines of Great Britain and Ireland (2001)Viticulture (a student text), Wine Growing in Great Britain (2014, aimed at producers), and a UK Vineyards Guide (originally 1989, fully updated 2016). This Infinite Ideas edition was published in 2019.

img_9726

With such an authority to review you may wonder why I have added the second part to the title of this article. Before I crack on with telling you what the book covers, I think it’s fair to say that there are some parts of English and Welsh viticulture that it leaves out. Stephen Skelton might argue that some of these are peripheral, but in terms of my own readership I am not sure that they are. What he leaves out to a certain extent relates to dynamic new producers, and also to some of what he might judge to be fringe activities, but which have literally burst onto the independent retail scene in the past year or two.

Petnats and skin contact wines are two such areas of experimentation. And if the book lacks anything, it is that Skelton appears not to consider it worth discussing those producers who are at the edges of English Wine. As you will know all too well, my view is that progress is driven by the innovators. So I want to talk about those.

I would also like to share some concerns which the author could not be expected to address, in terms of the future health of English Wine at the time of publication, back in 2019. The view from back then wasn’t all rosy. English Wine, of course, seemed so exciting all of a sudden. Awards were flooding in and because, as Skelton identifies, most of the amateurs and the less professional wineries had left the scene, quality was generally excellent. On the back of the obvious success of English Sparkling Wine (ESW), mostly made from the “Champagne” varieties and by the same méthode traditionelle, we were also beginning to see some very good still wines, and even (honest, folks) some good reds.

Both of those colours in the still wine category had previously been either looked down on or considered poor value for money by many wine professionals, although a certain market for Rosé wine had grown up. In fact the market for English wines was beginning to diversify. The cellar door sales of the bigger names (and indeed some of the smaller ones), as part of a tentative attempt to establish a wine tourism of sorts in England and Wales, were and still are important, and in many cases life saving. There’s also no doubt that the enormous support of the Waitrose supermarket chain, the country’s largest retailer of English Wine, meant and continues to mean a great deal to the industry.

The more recent phenomenon has to be the increased availability of English Wines in the independent retail sector, especially their acceptance as a “hip” category by some. Not only does a cutting edge retailer need to have a few Jura, or Austrian wines, or maybe even something from Czech Moravia, they also need to show some support for home grown talent. That some of the wine importers more known for wholesaling “natural wines” (such as Les Caves de Pyrene) have dipped their toe into English and Welsh wine is encouraging. Why? Because at the big wine fairs like Real Wine and Raw Wine these producers are being tasted by a much younger audience. These are passionate wine lovers who we really need to get behind English Wine.

There is a dedicated section, an English Wine corner, at the annual London Wine Fair, usually dominated by Nyetimber’s attractive double-decker bus, but it is by no means large enough, with too little industry-wide backing. The best promotional work is being done by the Wines of Hampshire group, whose annual tasting is held in the basement tasting room at the 67 Pall Mall members club. It is always very well attended and the wines on show are pretty much exemplary, and it’s a shame more work like this isn’t undertaken by other groupings.

img_6358-1

The elephant in the room which the hype of the national press has tended to ignore is that vast quantities of new vineyards are soon to shed their grapes onto the market as new wines, and just a few of us have wondered whether all of this new wine might find a ready market…or not, especially as Brexit threatens to make exports potentially more difficult (if potentially cheaper with a weaker Pound).

With Coronavirus coming into the picture the situation gets a little worrying. The threat of recession, with high unemployment, lower spending, and possibly even inflation, cause a number of issues to be highlighted. A recession is not what you want when you are about to increase production several-fold (both in terms of new vineyards, and for producers of ESW a large amount of stock currently ageing on lees due for imminent release).

If you were not already feeling hit by my potential pessimism, remember that grape growers are no different to the producers of any other agricultural crop. Unless they are very small they need a team of pickers at harvest time, and most of the teams who regularly turn up on our shores for the grape harvest are Eastern Europeans. They tend to be highly skilled too, so it may not be a case of merely hoovering up swathes of unemployed school and college leavers come the autumn. Being able to use the same team of skilled individuals, often family groups, year on year has assisted in the increase in quality we have seen from our vineyards, of that I am certain. Brexit may have yet another negative consequence for those producing English and Welsh wine.

So let’s move on to the book. The Wines of Great Britain is divided into eight chapters with an appendix, comprehensive bibliography and index. Chapters 1-3 are a history lesson. I’m going to say that the seemingly endless debate, which Skelton does cover, as to whether or not the Romans practised viticulture in the British Isles, is of less interest to me than perhaps to some readers, and to a degree I’m also less interested in Chapter 2 (1939-1951), though certainly not disinterested. But the establishment of commercial viticulture in the United Kingdom from 1952 onwards (Chapter 3) does give a good foundation for what has swiftly moved from an almost dilettante occupation at the beginning, to a fully fledged industry of value to the UK agricultural economy (with now something approaching 3,000 hectares of vines planted, if by no means all of it yet producing a wine crop).

Skelton details the change in grape varieties planted over this latter period, and it is worth noting how the switch to the traditional “Champagne” varieties has been so swift, with the consequent move away from varieties more useful for still wine in an extremely cool climate. Doubtless climate change has been beneficial to the extent that we can now hope to ripen these varieties almost every year.

He gives the reader two facts which I think are essential in one sense in illustrating the rapid changes taking place. The first is that those three sparkling wine varieties, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier, now account for 63% of that 3,000 hectares (and, he says, more like 70% of production). But he also repeats an oft-quoted fact that the area under vine in England and Wales has grown by close to one third in the period since 2016, which if you look at the figures is phenomenal growth. It’s why I think my earlier concerns about a glut, if not an English wine lake, are worth noting.

The figures regarding the Champagne varieties do hide what I can see as something of a resurgence for the older (in UK terms) varieties, though. Wines made from Bacchus, Ortega (and others but especially those two) are gaining a following among that younger audience I mentioned. So when the author says “The future for production in Britain of sparkling wine – which in truth is the only category that really matters now…” (my itals), I am not sure he is completely correct. I really do see a market emerging, albeit small, for other varieties. The reason I think it’s important is because these wines are not being bought by the coach parties but by that younger crowd who are prepared to pay £20-£30 for what they perceive as exciting and quality wine.

There is one other comment I would like to address on grape varieties. On page 68 the author states that “Riesling…resists all attempts to be grown successfully in Britain”. It may be the case that Mr Skelton has never tasted the Charlie Herring Wines Sparkling Riesling (“Promised Land”) made by Tim Phillips from his walled vineyard (undoubtedly the key) between Sway and Lymington, in Hampshire.

I will add in a little suspense by telling you that the 2013 will get a Review in Part One of my “Recent Wines” for May, next week. However, Tim’s wine may well prove the exception. I am told Denbies could never ripen Riesling, and equally that Rathfinny, which planted around 20,000 Riesling vines according to one source, grubbed them all up this year. But that doesn’t mean Tim Phillips’s Riesling isn’t a marvel. If you like a firm, steely, spine to your “Sekt” (many a Lauer fan does), then it certainly is.

I believe in the promised land…photo for Anne Krebiehl MW

The chapter on viticulture and winemaking gives us more than a fine overview of the conditions faced by grape farmers in England and Wales. The emphasis on selecting the right site is repeated over and over again, especially with regarding to planting altitude. One of the great issues British grape growers face is wind, which in terms of my own garden I perceive to have been particularly strong over this current year. I have seen the vineyards at Rathfinny Estate many times over recent years and I would say my first thoughts were along the lines of “boy, you’ve chosen a windy site”, less than two miles from the sea, south of Alfriston (East Sussex).

I found it interesting that Skelton includes a long quotation from Rathfinny owner Mark Driver’s blog where Driver acknowledges wind was a concern when choosing the site. The author suggests that in the search for chalk-rich soils in the Southern Counties perhaps insufficient note has been taken of exposure to wind. Wind can do many things, not all negative in relation to disease, but it can play havoc with yields. Rathfinny is one of the two biggest vineyard investments in the UK, and Stephen Skelton does worry that “time will tell if this multi-million-pound venture will be a financially viable enterprise”. If crops are limited by wind, then profitability will be impaired, unless the Rathfinny name can ensure a hefty premium, which I’m fairly sure is what the vineyard’s owners hope.

Rathfinny’s vineyard team has put in large expanses of plastic wind break, which are fairly ugly (and not at all in keeping with the attractive Downland scenery, nor very ecological). One hopes they are a temporary measure as natural windbreaks grow. As Mr Driver says, “…the trees we planted as windbreaks are taking a lot longer to grow than I expected”. Well, it’s pure chalk exposed Downland…

The books which I have read in the Infinite Ideas wine library series all major on producer profiles. This particular book differs from most others in that there are only twenty-one major profiles of producers. This is considerably fewer than the other books in the series, although it is true that the profiles in this chapter are much longer. Of these twenty-one I would say that seven of them I did not know. Naturally, with a larger entry for those selected I learnt an awful lot about them (each alphabetical entry gets between four and eight pages of text, approximately).

The chosen few were selected as covering “the complete spectrum of those owning vineyards in Britain today”. That may be true but in omitting many top and major wineries from this chapter, I think that it lessens the book’s value as a consumer guide to English and Welsh Wine. The answer, of course, is to buy Skelton’s aforementioned 2016 Vineyard Directory (UK Vineyards Guide), which I understand lists more than six hundred vineyards and producers, though I am not sure in how much detail. But so much has happened so quickly on the English Wine scene in the last five years that I would imagine a new edition would be welcome.

Stephen Skelton, as I noted before, has worked extensively as a consultant to the British wine industry. It is clear from his text that, at the very least, many of the producers selected for an entry in this chapter are ones he has worked with, which has doubtless given him privileged access to, and insights into, these operations. But for myself, I was surprised to see several key names missing here. In terms of size and/or prestige I can’t really fathom why he has not decided to include the likes of Denbies, Gusbourne, Hambledon and perhaps Wiston in such a list, but I am not privy to the reasons for exclusion.

Those omissions are to a certain extent made up for by an Appendix which contains “Other Notable Vineyards”. There are, in fact, seventy (if I have counted correctly) producers listed alphabetically, but the entries are very short, mostly between two and six lines of text. They often sound like pure marketing. There isn’t generally much information about wines produced, but we do learn that if you visit English Oak Vineyard near Poole in Dorset, then “electric vehicle charging [is also] available”; that Gusbourne Vineyard “strives to create wines that stand up alongside the finest offerings across the globe”; or in the case of Lavenham Brook Vineyard, all we are told is that it is “planted on a south-facing chalk slope [and] makes award-winning still and sparkling wines”.

These few lines read almost as if they are paid entries in a directory, and certainly as if they were written by the winery itself. Lavenham Brook is a good example of how this small directory section could have been improved immeasurably, because as with many of these wineries, if you don’t know them you won’t know where they are. Their web site addresses are given, for sure, so we can look them up. But if we had just been given a location (nearest town/village and county) it would have assisted our decision as to whether we wanted to take our research further when perhaps choosing a vineyard to visit on a weekend afternoon.

Some of the English producers I might have hoped to see get a multi-page entry in Chapter 6 do appear in this appendix with a few lines. People like Denbies, Gusbourne, Hambledon, Hattingley Valley, Rathfinny, Ridgeview and Wiston (to name a few). Hattingley and Wiston are notable for their respective award winning winemakers, Emma Rice and Dermot Sugrue, who have had an unquestionable influence on modern English Sparkling Wine.

Plumpton College gets a four line mention in this appendix. It is rightly described as “Britain’s centre of excellence in wine training, education and research”. I would have argued for a lot more information on the one place in the UK where you can get an undergraduate, and graduate, qualification in wine. The college is now rightly at the forefront of wine education and is increasingly turning out home-grown winemaking talent essential in taking English Wine forward. Plumpton doesn’t get it all right (I have some thoughts on their use of synthetic agro-chemicals and possible alternatives), but their level of experimentation stretches to a nice row of new amphorae and qvevris spotted on my last visit there.

Now we come to what I call the complete omissions, and these fall into two categories. The second would be the innovators. I will talk about those in a minute. These might, for various reasons, be ignored by the author. But there is another category, that of very high quality producers of ESW who are for whatever reason ignored. There are several, who for me would include the likes of Cottonworth, and especially Jacob Leadley’s Black Chalk Wines. This producer in Hampshire’s Test Valley admittedly only launched their first wines in 2018, but they exploded onto the scene. Many insiders (not just myself) consider Black Chalk to be potentially the most exciting new producer in Britain at the moment.

ac6e8acd-55c8-4c02-81ea-0b1d1dc0c726

Of course there are also wines which may not have wide appeal but which some of us enjoy nevertheless. I can’t help but give a shout, in this category (though I can’t complain at it not getting a mention in the book), to Bolney‘s red sparkling Dornfelder. Not one for the wine experts, but if you are seeking a bit of old school fun…

Now to the innovators. These are the people who may be working at the fringes, but in fact are the people who are driving subtle changes in the market for English (and Welsh) wines. Their influences may seem tiny looking down from the lofty heights, but here at ground level they are perceptible.

Innovation one – petnat. Skelton rightly mentions and pretty much dismisses cheap sparkling wine made by the Charmat (tank fermented) method, but he fails to comment on wines fermented in bottle by what the French call the méthode ancienne. The resulting wine is bottle-fermented but is not disgorged of its lees sediment, creating a style called pétillant naturel. These wines have achieved massive popularity worldwide among younger drinkers, largely because they are primarily fun wines full of glouglou charm, usually low alcohol, and usually cheaper to make and consequently much cheaper to buy than traditional method ESW. These wines are also not made to fit into the “luxury” category inexorably pursued by most producers of traditional method wines. Producers of notable examples include Ancre Hill, Davenport, Westwell and Tillingham, but there are many more.

56bc5fc2-1637-4355-b74b-03144db84441

Mentioning Tillingham, this most innovative of labels was set up by ex-Gusbourne CEO Ben Walgate, creating a winery and a new vineyard inland from Rye in East Sussex. As well as pushing the petnat envelope he has led the slow but essential march towards experimenting with terracotta winemaking via skin contact methods. Beneath an Oast House a hundred metres from the winery Ben has a number of qvevri buried, all sourced from Georgia, and his experimentation extends beyond wine to qvevri cider as well. As I said above, his experiments have not gone unnoticed, with qvevri now landing, inter alia, at Plumpton College.

The Qvevri shed at Tillingham (Ben Walgate left, Tim Phillips centre) with their contents

These experimental styles of wine are well suited for some of the grape varieties which have previously gone under the umbrella “lesser”, both vinifera and complex hybrids like Seyval Blanc and Solaris. I’ve made my own skin contact orange wine from Seyval Blanc, and although I’m a mere amateur, I would say that it was the best wine I ever made. The grapes are no longer available to me and I’m now making light red from Frühburgunder (more commonly known as Pinot Précose in the UK). Davenport’s petnat is always highly sought after, if you look to that style, and Adrian Pike’s Westwell “Pink” (Pinot Noir/Meunier blend) is wonderful if you fancy an excellent Rosé (and often easier to source, though there are only usually around 1,000 bottles).

Ancre Hill, like Tillingham, is completely biodynamic. They make stunningly good Demeter-certified Welsh Sparkling Wine by the traditional method, aided by a particularly well chosen 12-hectare site with a special microclimate in Monmouth. Among other wines from Ancre Hill I have tried a fun, red, petnat made from Triomphe, and an exciting cuvée called “Orange Wine – whole bunch pressed (mostly) Albariño, one of the most potentially promising varieties introduced to the UK recently, which sees 30-50 days on skins and comes with one of the most quirky labels in England and Wales (traditional Welsh National Dress meets A Clockwork Orange).

img_5401

Interestingly there was one producer which Stephen Skelton had intended to include in his chapter of larger producer profiles, one he describes as “a Welsh biodynamic producer”, which I take to mean Ancre Hill? The reason for exclusion given – “unfortunately he changed his mind and was ultimately unwilling to discuss his business with me”. Considering my perception of the importance of Ancre Hill on a number of levels (ranging from quality to innovation) it is a shame that no mention of this wine producer appears anywhere in the book. It means that the future role of biodynamics, and low intervention winemaking and viticulture generally in the United Kingdom, doesn’t get a real airing.

“Natural Wine” is a philosophy which, for most of those who practise it, trumps production levels, even getting a crop at all. Those who make wine without recourse to the addition of synthetic agro-chemicals do so because they believe such chemicals are harmful, either to fauna or consumers, or both. This topic is pertinent with brexit around the corner because there are a number of treatments either banned, or due to be banned, from use in the EU which might not receive the same treatment in English and Welsh vineyards in a post-brexit situation.

Glyphosate (more commonly known by the trade name created by Monsanto for the weedkiller of which it is an ingredient, “Roundup”) is one example, a ban having been put off for a further five years by the EU in 2017, so due to be taken out of use within the European Union in 2022. It’s one chemical those who eschew the use of the synthetics always mention as in their view potentially harmful. Let’s hope that we don’t end up keeping it when the EU ban finally comes into force, but readers ought to note that the UK was one of those EU Member States in favour of a renewal of the licence. There are statements online which claim studies suggesting that glyphosate can be a cause of non-Hodgkin Lymphoma and other cancers, though I have no personal scientific knowledge here, only the tools proffered by Google for my research. By total coincidence I read yesterday that UK DIY chain B&Q has just announced it will no longer sell glyphosate-based weedkillers.

Our climate can have been said in the past to have been eminently unsuitable for grape farming without the assistance of chemicals described by some producers as napalm death. Yet a small number do succeed with organics, biodynamics and “natural wine”. Have they just been lucky with climate change or are they, like Ben Walgate and Tim Phillips, Ancre Hill (and a few others) careful and clever?

Back to the book…I suppose Stephen Skelton hasn’t perhaps set out here to create a real consumer guide, by which I mean a book which gives the kind of details someone would find useful if setting out to visit English and Welsh vineyards. As we have noted, he’s already written that one, although perhaps a “Vineyard Directory” may not be exactly what I’d like to read either. This work doesn’t, for instance, list the wines made by each producer with some sort of critique. The larger winery entries in Chapter 6 are much more slanted towards the business than the end product. I think this is the key way in which this work differs from the others I’ve read so far in the Infinite Ideas series.

It could not really be said that Skelton is a finger on the pulse man. Clearly he has a great deal of insider knowledge of the industry, in terms of financing and wine technology. He has advised so many English and Welsh vineyards on site selection, grape varieties, vine training methods, rootstocks etc. But I would have loved to know what he thinks about the mass of innovation taking place on the periphery. Does he dismiss it or is he unaware of what those producers I’ve been talking about are up to? I presume it isn’t the latter? So perhaps where we differ is in my perception of the future value of this innovation to the industry, and that such innovation is not merely a gimmick.

The innovation we are seeing is important for one good reason, which ties in once more with the general worries about the market for English and Welsh wines I expressed at the beginning of this article. Stephen Skelton suggests (as I have quoted) that English wine is all about the emulation of Champagne. Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier on chalk (and not forgetting that some pretty fine sparkling wines come off good old English clay, something not all new producers appear to know). These wines cost a lot to produce, a lot to market, and when it comes to the end result, retail prices approaching £40 a bottle or more limit your audience, even more so in a likely recession.

Is there not a lesson to be learnt from the innovators? They signal opportunities to diversify. Ben Walgate has proved that you can make profitable petnat from Pinot and bang it out for £20 a bottle, and he’s also proved there’s a thirst for skin contact, orange wine and all manner of other concoctions if they taste good, and especially if they come with good modern and innovative design. He’s by no means alone. There are small artisan producers doing great things, if on a small scale, in pretty much every county that grows grapes.

Your average drinker of ESW is older and affluent, not to mention perhaps a more conservative palate. Your average drinker of the innovative styles is younger, and if not exactly “poor” they certainly have other calls on their disposable income. The future of English and Welsh wine may not be completely orange, but there’s certainly a place in the market for it, alongside some of the other more offbeat wines and styles I’ve mentioned. If that particular market sector is small now, I am convinced it can grow.

Did I enjoy the book? Yes, actually, I did. It’s a work containing a great deal of knowledge and experience. Am I pleased I was able to use a discount code? Well, perhaps I am. It meant that the book cost £18 instead of £30, and I would not say I felt it was as seminal as some of the other books in this often fabulous series. But remember, I write for an audience which I have come to know over five or so years, and with whom I share a number of truths. We all love to see boundaries pushed, sometimes by the conventional and sometimes by the unconventional. Even the world of English (and Welsh) wine is wider than just “ESW”.

I think that most readers coming regularly to my site want to see English and Welsh wine move forward in directions other than merely a copy of the world’s most famous sparkling wine, however central traditional method sparklers are, and will be, to our country’s wine future. This is why I have taken the opportunity to express some views and discuss some wines beyond the scope of Stephen Skelton’s book. My intention is not to claim great knowledge, merely to add to, and stimulate, the debate.

The Wines of Great Britain by Stephen Skelton MW was published in 2019 by Infinite Ideas Ltd, as part of the Infinite Ideas Classic Wine Library (RRP £30). There are currently, I believe, twenty-one books published in this excellent library, making Infinite Ideas one of the most prolific sources for wine writing, certainly the most prolific in the UK. Their list is worth exploring. I’ve read four and there are at least half a dozen more I’d like to explore.

 

 

Posted in English Wine, Sparkling Wine, Wine, Wine Books, Wine Writing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

Maybe it’s Time to (Re)Visit Alsace?

I was supposed to be going to Alsace in July, part of a visit taking in Arbois as well. I won’t be able to go now, but I can tell you about what I’d planned. I adore Alsace. I mean, I love the wines, but I adore the region. I’m not sure why it strikes such a chord, but I know there’s something about walking on the lower slopes of the Vosges which ignites a feeling of contentment deep inside me. I think it’s the forests I love, early in the morning when the air is fresh, full of bird song and the theraputic aromas of pine.

Most times I have visited Alsace, which now numbers quite a few, I’ve been staying somewhere around, or south of, Colmar. There are lots of exciting producers down there, in the Haut-Rhin. In the beginning my interests lay with the likes of Boxler, Barmès-Buecher, Dirler-Cadé and even, initially, the classics like Domaine Weinbach, Hügel and Trimbach. Latterly I became more interested in Schueller, Frick, Ginglinger and Bannwarth etc, from the villages between Eguisheim and Pfaffenheim. But way back on my first visit to Alsace we had stayed up in the Bas-Rhin Department, in Itterswiller. It was to this part of the region that we returned to on our last visit, in 2017 and it was here that we planned to return to again, this summer.

The Bas-Rhin has always been considered somewhat inferior to the Haut-Rhin by those who have written about Alsace, not that many do and the region desperately needs a contemporary (I mean truly contemporary) account of the exciting “new” winemaking that is taking place there. It’s not surprising that the southern villages were favoured. The great names among the classical producers are there, as are most of the Grands Crus. The story always went along the lines that the Vosges Mountains are higher in the south so the vineyards are more protected in what is (surprisingly) France’s “sunniest” region.

The converse, usually repeated, was that the wines of the north were lighter, a term seen as pejorative. Well hey-ho, now we have climate change, and guess what, we like lighter wines. In Alsace a weightier wine can easily mean a Pinot Gris with 14% alcohol and rather a lot of residual sweetness. And who ever suggested a more delicate rendition of Riesling was such a bad thing?

I want to talk here primarily about the Mittelbergheim School (as “Back in Alsace” wine blogger David Neilson calls it, in part because of the group of artists a selection of local producers use to create their beautiful labels but also for the group of producers who regularly taste together). I will expand that a little north and south, but Mittelbergheim, a beautiful flower-bedecked village just south of the town of Barr, is the centre of a concentration of natural winemaking seen in few other parts of Alsace.

It should be noted, in light of my previous comments, that Mittelbergheim has had a reputation among aficionados for as long as the wine writers had been largely ignoring it, and Andlau too, a short walk to the south. Maybe not completely ignoring it. Domaine Ostertag, based in nearby Epfig, has always found a certain favour with the classicists, and many would consider André Ostertag as one of the fathers of the Alsace New Wave, but there’s a lot more to explore as well.

Before we move on I should say that if you want to discover the true frontier of Alsace winemaking these days you need to go even further north. On clay and limestone slopes to the west of Strasbourg, between Molsheim in the south and Marlenheim in the north, we may well find wines from hitherto unknown winemakers which will begin to get the coverage they deserve in years to come.

There is no doubt in my mind that it is the natural wine brigade which has revitalised Alsace wine. The region was always cited as the darling of the wine trade, but one whose wines were hard to sell. The flute-shaped bottle was often cited as one reason, the surprise that Riesling was dry, another. In truth the fact that Alsace labelled its wines by grape variety was a positive as New World varietal labelling became popular in the UK market. The fact that as climate change affected sugar and alcohol levels in the region, often seeming to push both inexorably higher, Alsace became a region which for many of us didn’t really know what kind of wines it wanted to produce. Doubtless this wasn’t helped by each producer’s propensity to bottle so many different cuvées.

Natural wine from Alsace is usually zesty, fresh and dry, far better suited to either sipping in the sunshine or drinking with food. What these winemakers were producing was almost a completely different concept to what the big names (with a few exceptions) were doing. This includes innovation, always attractive to me: Skin contact, the Cuvée Perpetuelle and last but not least, grape varieties.

In Alsace Riesling was always seen as king. After Riesling we have Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer. The rest were definitely second class citizens in the 1980s and 1990s, with a good few third class citizens as well (and that’s excluding Chasselas!). Today, so-called second division varieties are also having their say. First of these must be Pinot Noir, which has seen a rise from a tiny base to a reasonable coverage of around 4,000 hectares since 1970. “Pinot d’Alsace”, as it used to be known, was a light red at best, rather like English Pinot of the 2000s. Today it can easily ripen into an exemplary lighter red, often with medium body.

A grape variety which has seen even greater increase in plantings is Pinot Blanc (and Pinot Auxerrois, it’s sibling, to a lesser degree). Much of this is used as a base for Crémant d’Alsace, but still Pinot Blanc is getting better and better. If I order wine with lunch in the region it will often be Pinot Blanc.

Two more varieties deserve comment. The first is well known and the second most certainly isn’t. Sylvaner is actually being grubbed up by many producers, but it finds favour for natural wine. Its general decline has been down to the decline of Edelzwicker, the blend of varieties (often a field blend, like Gemischter Satz) once synonymous with a night in the weinstube. Sylvaner’s revival comes mainly from those who value it as a single varietal, its 2006 elevation onto the list of varieties allowed (with limits, on one site only so far) to be labelled Grand Cru, helping right a few wrongs. It’s revival in Germany, especially in Franken which specialises in the variety (spelt Silvaner there) has also helped its acceptance among wine lovers.

The unknown variety is Klevener. Not to be confused with “Klevner” (aka Clevner, a variety originating in Italian speaking Switzerland), Klevener (with a second e) is a speciality of the village of Heiligenstein, just north of Mittelbergheim. Klevener is a synonym for Savagnin Rose. This is a pink skinned member of the Traminer family, not nearly as aromatic as Gewurztraminer. It is only allowed to be planted in a limited area roughly between Heiligenstein and Obernai, a small town to the north. It’s worth mentioning because it adds another string to the bow of the producers I shall mention below.

So who would I be visiting in this part of Alsace? In Mittelbergheim the most important address in my view is Jean-Pierre Rietsch. There are a couple more important local producers who are part of a group who regularly taste with Rietsch, Lucas Rieffel (who is just down the street from J-P) and Catherine Riss (on rue de la Montagne, south of the village centre). In Mittelbergheim that leaves André Kleinknecht as the other important low intervention producer, whose wines I know far less well.

Andlau is about two kilometres from Mittelbergheim. If walking in the hills it’s quite nice to walk from one to the other, bearing in mind that Andlau has more options for eating than Mittelbergheim, but if you walk by the road it will only take about half an hour or less to cover that short distance. Andlau has an interesting museum too, but we are there to see two producers. Both Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss and Domaine Durrmann are fairly central within this large commercial village. Antoine Kreydenweiss runs the domaine now and he is one of the Mittelbergheim tasting group.

All of the following producers would wish you to make a prior appointment. Kreydenweiss does have an office open on the road and they will sell you some wines without tasting if you wander by and there’s someone there.

Domaine Rietsch

Jean-Pierre Rietsch has a small winery at 7 rue Stein in Mittelbergheim. This 12 hectare  farm has been run for seven generations by the Rietsch family, but it was Jean-Pierre’s parents who concentrated on vines in the 1970s. Their son took over in 1987, overseeing organic certification. This is a very low intervention operation and so zero synthetic chemicals are used in wine production. Sulphur additions, where used, are kept very low.

There’s something about this place that helps you understand that you are going to be in the presence of a man who thinks deeply about what he is doing, just by stepping into the tasting room. Everything is neat and ordered and there’s an almost Japanese atmosphere. It’s very tidy, not the jumble of bottles and boxes you see so often. Jean-Pierre’s own bottles sport some of the loveliest and also most design-conscious, artist designed, labels in the region, but there are also other producers’ empties sitting on shelves. One I recall was from Partida Creus, the well known Catalan natural wine producer. This shows a palate far beyond parochial.

img_0871

Jean-Pierre’s range is large and eclectic. I won’t go through them all, one never can when recalling a tasting in Alsace. Let’s begin with his Crémant, a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot Auxerrois and Pinot Gris, which is my personal favourite Crémant in the whole of Alsace. Auxerrois stars on his lieux-dit Stierkopf, Muscat stars in an unusually fresh Murmure, and Riesling is at its most classic from the Andlau Grand Cru, Wiebelsberg.

img_0853

Moving gently off-piste, Jean-Pierre makes a singular Gewurztraminer, Demoiselle. The grapes are picked right at the start of harvest and the wine travels on its lees for six months following a partial whole berry fermentation. It ends up in the orange citrus flavour spectrum, but it also has a quality you rarely, if ever, find with this variety: minerality, a fresh mouthfeel and texture. It doesn’t lack alcohol, though.

img_4103

I have to give a very big and bold shout out for Sylvaner here. It performs remarkably well in these more northerly locations, and with a number of natural wine growers up here. Rietsch makes a couple. One is the Sylvaner Vielle Vigne (sic), unusually an assemblage of two vintages. It’s fresh and fruity but for me its greatest attribute is salinity. One of the most multi-dimensional Sylvaners you will taste.

I mentioned that Sylvaner belatedly achieved the chance of Grand Cru status, thus far on one site in the region, and few Grand Cru sites will ever give you a Sylvaner as stunning as on this one, Zotzenberg. It’s a 36.5 hectare hillside vineyard ranging between 215 and 315 metres, facing southwest, right above Mittelbergheim. Much of the soils around here are clay-limestone but Zotzenberg is iron-rich sandstone with limestone. The wine’s singularity is enhanced by 36 months on lees (the first year in demi-muid, thereafter in stainless steel).

We finish with that Savagnin Rose. Jean-Pierre makes a wine labelled under the appellation Klevener de Heiligenstein, but only in “even” years (the reason will become apparent below). It’s a golden wine with flecks of pink and bronze. It smells strangely like pears and has a bitter finish, but if you allow yourself to concentrate and think hard about what you are tasting it shows itself as something more than mere juice, something more interesting than the varietals you know so well.

img_3932

What happens in the odd vintages? Pas à Pas is what happens. This Cuvée Perpetuelle (similar to but decidedly not a solera) is one of Jean-Pierre’s loveliest wines for the true lover of Alsatian adventuring. My tasting note when I drank a bottle last month was as follows:

The wine is darkish in hue, almost cherry wood. The bouquet is extraordinary. Burnt orange, autumnal orchard fruits and a touch of hazelnut, with just a hint of Sherry-like oxidation, but not much. The wine is dry, fresh and slightly textured…and pretty amazing. This really was a sensational bottle.

60f938e1-bc2a-40c8-a0fb-7822352111ca

I’d almost forgotten Jean-Pierre’s Pinot Noir, but I’ll leave that for your own discovery, if indeed you can find some. I’ve been trying any Pinot Noir from the region I can get hold of for as many decades as I’ve been visiting. Some have been pretty poor and others (Muré’s “V” from the Vorbourg Grand Cru) have been at the other end of the quality scale. Natural wine has somehow created a boost for the variety (Frick, Binner, Schueller and Ginglinger make especially good ones), but as with Jean-Pierre’s Crémant, there’s no Alsace Pinot Noir I’d rather have a few bottles of.

img_4106

 

Domaine Rieffel

Lucas Rieffel feels a bond with Jean-Pierre Rietsch I think, not just because of their proximity to one another. This is another domaine run by the same family for several generations and Lucas has been working here since 1996. Like Jean-Pierre Rietsch, Lucas boasts an experienced palate, and as many of his wine heroes are from outside Alsace as are within the region.

There are several specialities amongst the fourteen or fifteen cuvées Lucas fashions every vintage. Crémant would certainly be considered a speciality. The terroir here, cooler for a start, gives great base wines. Lucas uses the same blend as Jean-Pierre, though in different proportions (around 70 to 75% Auxerrois). Next we must mention the Pinot Noir. Site specific Pinots from named lieux dits illustrate very well how this domaine majors on terroir wines, each one showing a different facet of its site.

I understand that there is a movement afoot to create a second tier of Premier Crus from the many lieux-dits which have gained acceptance over the past decades. It’s a great idea. I have always argued that Alsace should have created its Premier Crus first and then later elevated the best to perhaps a smaller number of Grands Crus than the fifty-one (or is it fifty-two?) it has currently. Pinot Noir is produced on many specific sites well suited to the variety throughout the region.

If I want to mention one more Rieffel grape variety, then it must be Sylvaner. If you visit this part of the Bas-Rhin you must taste what this variety can do here. Like Jean-Pierre Rietsch, Lucas Rieffel has Sylvaner on the Zotzenberg Grand Cru. This is, as I said above, the first site where Grand Cru Sylvaner has been allowed to be so-labelled and it may well be the finest site for this variety in Alsace. If Sylvaner is gaining in popularity whilst at the same time decreasing in area planted (down from more than 2,500 ha in 1970 to around 1,000 ha today) then I think that when David Neilson points out that at least now it is found in the most suitable locations for it, he has a point.

Lucas Rieffel (Domaine Rieffel) is at 11 rue Principale, Mittelbergheim.

img_0817

Catherine Riss

Catherine Riss makes wines which combine a lightness of touch and yet a certain flamboyance too. The wines are precise but full of glouglou, this latter quality perhaps more so than any of the other producers mentioned here. I’d never want to be so crass as to describe any wine made by a young woman winemaker as “feminine” yet the Riss cuvées are a little different.

Her terroir is different for a start. She has a tiny holding amounting to not much more than 3.5 hectares around Reichsfeld, a village up a small river valley in the lee of the mountains, several kilometres southwest of Andlau (and west of Epfig), in slightly wild country, and further small plots mostly scattered between Andlau and Barr. Catherine fits in here not only as a member of the tight knit tasting team of Rieffel, Rietsch, Riss and Kreydenweiss, but because her base is at 43 rue de Montagne in Mittelbergheim.

Why Reichsfeld, you may ask? Catherine doesn’t come from a wine background. Her move into wine took her away from the region, principally to Burgundy where, after college in Beaune, she worked for Trapet. Her return to Alsace was to work for the Chapoutier family, managing vineyards in guess where? (Reichsfeld)

Catherine is another local producer who loves Pinot Noir, and it forms a major part of her output. Empriente comes from Reichsfeld and sees older oak. The T’as Pas du Schiste cuvée comes from rare blue schist, and receives a longer maceration. Finally (for Pinot) a blend with Gewurztraminer of all things, is made by a method where the Pinot Noir is direct pressed, creating something which you might mistake visually for an orange wine.

The small range is completed (at least the wines I know of) with two different Rieslings and another blend, of Auxerrois and Sylvaner called Dessous de Table (below). Stone fruit, melon and rich lemon meringue notes fill the mouth. Frustratingly I couldn’t locate more (and better) pictures of Catherine’s wines among the thousands of wine bottles clogging up my media files.

img_1531

Domaine André Kleinknecht

The Kleinknecht domaine consists nine hectares covering several good lieux-dits as well as parcels on the Grand Crus of Zotzenberg and Kirchberg de Barr. This is a fully biodynamic domaine with, in this case, Demeter certification arriving in 2014. I know André’s wines less well than the others in this article, and I’ve not visited him, although I could not fail to highlight this domaine. What I will say is that naturally André also has Sylvaner on Zotzenberg.

Other wines I’d recommend trying are certainly the firm Riesling off granite, but even more interesting is his range of petnat wines. In a region well known for high quality sparkling wines made by the traditional method, it isn’t always common to find a pétillant naturel made by the méthode ancestrale. André makes two that I know of and one is called Orange is the New White. 

This is promising, no? The blend is 80% Gewurztraminer, which I believe I, and most of my friends, think is the most suitable Alsace variety for skin contact (see the beautiful “Artisan” made by Mathieu Deiss and Emmanuelle Milan under their Vignoble du Rêveur label for one of the best still versions). This variety is blended with Pinot Gris and Muscat, these varieties adding to the bouquet as much as anything. This alone is surely enough reason to visit with some space in the boot.

Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss

We have now moved two kilometres down the D62 to Andlau. There are two producers here which I would recommend visiting, both quite different. Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss is the more famous of the two. Today it is run by Marc’s son, Antoine, who is very much one of the Mittelbergheim School, despite his location.

Antoine farms 13.5 hectares of vines, including sites on each of Andlau’s three Grand Crus: Kastelberg (behind the winery, towering over the village), Wiebelsberg and Moenchberg. This means that Antoine has an enormous palette of soils, from unusual pink sandstone, granite, schist (grey, blue and black), and limestone (by no means a comprehensive list). For this reason the domaine’s wines are divided into those that express fruit and those that express terroir. The Grands Crus and the sweet wines form separate categories.

Interestingly, the wines described as “expression of fruit” are often site specific, but they are all easy to drink, perhaps best exemplified by the very aptly named Pinot Boir. The terroir wines include three individual Clos. First, Clos Rebgarten is a high density plot of Gewurztraminer near the centre of Andlau, Clos du Val d’Eleon is planted with Gewurztraminer and Pinot Gris on schist, and Clos Rebberg is also schist, some of the region’s oldest rocks, where Riesling planted on southeast facing terraces is steely and mineral with gunflint aromas.

img_0917

Often my favourite Kreydenweiss wine is the rather classic, dry, Wiebelsberg Riesling, coming off a steep southeasterly facing slope of pink sandstone at the point of exit of the Andlau Valley. It’s the vineyard slope you see on the left as you leave Andlau and drive up the D62 towards Mittelbergheim. It begins as a floral wine but given the age it deserves, it becomes spicy and complex.

Moenchberg’s sandstone and marl gives a Pinot Gris of some power. It is recorded that the vineyard was first planted by the monks of the Abbey of Altdorf in 1097, hence the name. Kastelberg is a vineyard I have special affection for. I probably know its topography better than any other Alsace Grand Cru. It’s a steep slope of black schist, famous for Riesling, although it is said that the top of the slope, where it slopes gently to the plateau before the forest (not Grand Cru), is one of the best sites locally for Pinot Blanc.

To complete Antoine’s four GC sites, he has a plot on top of the Kirchberg de Barr, to the north. This site, at altitude on marl and limestone, was replanted in 2012 and I’ve not tasted a wine made from it. I believe it is a site which has always been farmed without chemicals, and is being worked with a horse. I had rather been hoping to get myself some of this in July. It’s a Pinot Noir, did I mention that…

Domaine Kreydenweiss has Ecocert certification and can be visited at 12 rue Deharbe, Andlau, just a couple of minutes from the centre of the village, following the tiny river (or is it a stream) known as L’Andlau, as it flows down from its source in the mountains, near the walking resort at Le Hohwald.

img_0935

Domaine Durrmann

This second Andlau domaine is now run by Yann Durrmann, but his parents André and Anna are still very much in evidence. The impression here is that although the new generation should take this domaine to another level, it is very much a case of building on the innovations and philosophy of the previous one. When I visited in 2017 it was the first time I had actually seen a flock of sheep in the vineyard, and it was the first time I had been driven to a vineyard in an electric farm vehicle (André owning a very slightly more conformist electric vehicle for his sales trips to Paris).

When I say least well known, I would like to think that I may have been in some degree responsible for the Durrmann wines becoming available in the UK. After that visit, and the articles I subsequently wrote, both the wines of Jean-Pierre Rietsch and Domaine Durrmann were imported by Wines Under the Bonnet. They currently list six Durrmann wines, along with four from Rietsch, and I have had the pleasure of ordering them in a number of the usual suspect natural wine bars in London and the south of England.

This is a traditional Andlau family. André’s grandfather was a part-time shoemaker to supplement his income from a mixed farm. Vineyards that had lain abandoned by his father’s generation were renewed by André in the 1970s. He was one of the first in Alsace to convert to organics in the 1980s. Yann took full charge very shortly after my visit, and he is going even further, building on the increasingly natural approach his father had begun with part of the range.

The everyday cuvées here were cheap but less interesting than anything that was labelled “Cuvée Nature”. As with all producers, there’s a big range and so it pays to taste as much as you can. Pinot Noir is juicy, also quite herbal, and very good as a “Nature”, as also is the rosé from the same variety. One for a sunny lunch, though still 13% abv despite its fruity qualities.

There are good wines from the Kastelberg Grand Cru, both labelled “Nature” and straight Kastelberg. My guess is that the merely organic wines will be phased out. The Riesling Nature from this site is all quince and spice off schist and has no added sulphur.

One wine which really impressed me back in 2017 is called Zegwur. This is a natural wine made from Gewurztraminer. Gewurz is not always my favourite Alsace variety, yet when people do something a little different with it (skin contact, cuvée perpetuelle etc) my opinions usually change. This isn’t manipulated in any way but it seems to combine a fairly tropical fruit profile (pineapple definitely, maybe a little mango) with a real zip and zest. On the 2016 the acidity stops (when I tasted it) any cloying sweetness and it shows just 12.5% abv (13% for the 2018, I note). I’ve been meaning to open my remaining bottle of that 2016 vintage (well, of two) and I will try to do so tonight for a Zoom chat with friends. Watch for a future “Recent Wines” appearance.

Domaine Durrmann is at 11 rue des Forgerons, Andlau. If you can blag a trip to see the sheep, whichever vineyard they are grazing, it is well worthwhile. Back in 2017 I got the impression that the Durrmanns didn’t get vast numbers of visitors, always the bane of the better known and better publicised producer. Maybe that has changed a little over the past three years, but I received a very warm welcome here, although don’t expect a smart tasting room as at Rietsch. Just a different sort of experience.

I have to return, before departing Mittelbergheim and Andlau, to something I was talking about at the beginning of this article, when I told you about my love of the region, and especially walking in the hills. Above Andlau there are a number of castle ruins, the kind you see on almost every hilltop in the region. From within them local lords looked down towards the Rhine, feeling protected above the dense forests. Walking up here, between the Château de Spesbourg and the Château du Haut Andlau, its easy to become lost in another world and perhaps even another time. If you do visit the region, do try to leave plenty of time for walking up here. If you like to use a map to enhance your experience, the IGN Carte Randonnée 3717ET will do the job (1cm = 250m).

Scenes from Andlau, top from the Kastelberg, bottom right chez Durrmann

I’d like to acknowledge David Neilson and his blog and web site, Back in Alsace. If you love Alsace from a natural wine perspective, then this is an essential place to look. I hope David doesn’t mind that a good half dozen facts in this article, particularly in relation to Riss, Rieffel and Kleinknecht, are the result of his writing. David, who I talk to frequently online, was also instrumental in reminding me to big up Sylvaner. He didn’t need to twist my arm on that one. David has put his money where his mouth is and planted his own vineyard, which he hopes one day to be able to tend full time (he has help on the ground). He’s currently stuck in LA for the duration. Back in Alsace is one of a handful of blogs I read regularly, and David does more than most to shout about the new wines from this neglected part of France.

For a look at Back in Alsace, see here.

 

 

Posted in Alsace, Artisan Wines, Natural Wine, Wine, Wine Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Recent Wines April 2020 (Part 2) #theglouthatbindsus

We’ll slip straight into Part 2 with the final nine wines we drank at home last month. Part 1 immediately precedes this article. We will travel to Jura (twice), Alsace, Burgenland, Vienna, Eastern Hungary, Slovakia, Stellenbosch, and the Langhe.

PINOT NOIR 2015, DOMAINE DES BODINES (Jura, France)

Emilie and Alexis Porteret are a young couple who set up in 2010, and who have joined my very favourite Arbois producers in the past few years. When the wine is beautiful, the philosophy is right, and equally important, when the vibe is good, the soul of the wine seems to come through. In a wine world where hundreds of producers are crying for our attention I would assert that people do matter.

Whatever those who live by points and the so-called objective analysis of wine might say, when you like the people involved, it adds an edge. This can actually apply not merely to producers we are lucky enough to visit and form relationships with, but to importers and retailers too, where trust in a recommendation from them builds bonds.

The Porteret family farm on the edge of Arbois, on the road heading to Dôle (naturally named the Route de Dôle), and you will zip past their house on the left before you know it and have left the town. The regime is very low intervention and biodynamic in both vineyard and winery, and the bulk of their vineyard is right up the hill from their front door.

Pinot Noir does well around Arbois, and don’t overlook it as you stock up with your Trousseau and Poulsard. Alexis follows a kind of whole bunch method here, whereby he layers the whole berries in alternate layers, with then without stems. Ageing is in older oak. This unfiltered bottling from a warm vintage walks that fine line between glou (retaining great freshness and zip) and seriousness (at four-and-a-half years old it has depth and development). It does all this with restraint when it comes to alcohol (abv registers 13.5% but I reckon you’d guess 13%). It’s simply quite delicious.

Les Caves de Pyrene imports some wines from Domaine des Bodines. They currently list the 2018 Pinot. This wine was purchased in the region, but this bottle didn’t come from the domaine. I have since been lucky enough to find the odd bottle there, but they are usually sold out by Christmas (visits strictly by appointment).

4c5fddf3-4fcd-4b44-aad9-ecdad11dab21

PAS A PAS, JEAN-PIERRE RIETSCH (Alsace, France)

Talking of favourites…but I’m planning an article on the Mittelbergheim School, as Alsace blogger Back in Alsace (David Neilson) rightly calls it, so more on J-P to come, next week I hope.

Pas à Pas is an updated, and perhaps unusual, rendition of something that the older reader might remember when touring Alsace – Klevener de Heiligenstein. Klevener has nothing to do with the “Klevner” grape variety, but is a synonym for Savagnin Rose. It comes off Heiligenstein’s clay and limestone soils just to the north of J-P’s Mittelbergheim base, all organically farmed, of course.

When I said “unusual” I was referring to this being made in a cuvée perpetuelle, a little like a solera, but not similar enough to call it one as most French producers who use it are always keen to stress. This bottling is a blend of three vintages, 2011, 2013 and 2015, it being refreshed every two vintages and “re-fermented en cuve“. It was bottled in August 2016 after coarse filtration and light sulphuring (total sulphites 20 mg/l).

The wine is darkish in hue, almost cherry wood. The bouquet is extraordinary. Burnt orange, autumnal orchard fruits and a touch of hazelnut, with just a hint of Sherry-like oxidation, but not much. The wine is dry, fresh and slightly textured…and pretty amazing. This really was a sensational bottle.

This was purchased on my last visit to Domaine Rietsch in 2018, and I imagine that there is a new cuvée with 2017 fruit currently available. The wines are imported into the UK by Wines Under the Bonnet. They don’t currently list Pas à Pas but they do list four Rietsch wines, including his usually hard to source Pinot Noir.

60f938e1-bc2a-40c8-a0fb-7822352111ca

ZWEIGELT RESERVE 2015, ALEXANDER KOPPITSCH (Burgenland, Austria)

I am sure I’ve mentioned before how I see a kind of connection between Alexander and Maria Koppitsch and Alexis and Emilie Porteret at Domaine des Bodines (see above). They are both young couples with young families, committed to low intervention and chemical free farming and winemaking, their beliefs focused by the legacy they would like us all to leave to the next generation.

Alex and Maria started out a year after the Porterets, in 2011, although Alex’s family had been farming the land at Neusiedl-am-See for 500 years before they took over 6.5 hectares of vines and set out to make natural wine using boidynamic methods. You may be used to seeing the new Koppitsch labels now, brightly coloured for fun wines. This Zweigelt is from the Reserve range, wines which are slightly more serious and which have the ability to age a bit longer should you wish.

This Zweigelt is vinified in 500-litre barrels, a mix of oak and acacia, for 23 months, the grapes harvested from sandy but also rocky sites, directly to the north of the Neusiedlersee, in the lee of the hills. The colour is a little darker than a lot of the Zweigelt we are used to seeing these days. The bouquet is bright and brambly, and there’s a kind of smokey depth that’s intriguing. The palate still has that lively zip you get in all of the Koppitsch wines, but whereas the lighter cuvées are made for glugging, this has a chewiness and a bit more intensity. It also has a touch of white pepper on the finish, Blaufränkisch-like (probably the terroir). It’s one to select for the table.

Koppitsch is imported by Fresh Wines, a small online-only agent based in Kinross (Scotland). They sell a limited number of Koppitsch cuvées, and I think coincidentally this is the only one they currently hold in stock.

bc46c5ad-d697-47f9-b15d-e2f996c13a7b

EASTERN ACCENTS 2018, RÉKA-KONCZ (Eastern Hungary)

Annamária Réka farms three hectares of vines in Eastern Hungary, around the village of Barabas. When I say east, we are talking about right on the border with Ukraine, and in fact some of Annamária’s vines are technically inside Ukraine. This isn’t too far from Tokaj, and the climate is quite similar. The soils, however are very different, and quite unique. Effectively volcanic, where lava ash cooled down to form perlite, overlaid with loess. The loess gives a bit of weight and gras whilst the volcanic soils push an intense minerality which runs through all of the wines I’ve thus far tried.

Annamária has a range of varieties on her 3ha. We begin with a range of grapes you might expect: Furmint and Hárslevelú along with Yellow Muscat and Riesling. She also has Királyleánka, a rare autochthonous variety which many growers have pulled out. The different varieties are all mixed together in the vineyard, an insurance policy of old for poor ripening, uneven flowering or disease. This means that most of Annamária’s wines are field blends to varying degrees, and most also happen to use skin contact techniques.

Eastern Accents has the colour of peach juice, which immediately suggests that it has seen some skins. Indeed, the Háslevelú saw a gentle five days skin maceration, hand destemmed, and the Királyleánka saw two weeks semi-carbonic maceration. No wood was used, and neither was the wine fined nor filtered. The result is a juicy mix of stone fruit flavours and textures with a degree of complexity beside the freshness, from vines between 50-60 years old.

Annamária may be relatively new to the game but she really knows what she’s doing, something she confirmed over an Instagram session hosted by her UK importer a week ago, where she was confident and impressive (for a young woman who professed that she used to be impossibly shy). The wines have both a traditional and a modern natural wine feel. A bottle of this cuvée  was the first of her wines I tasted just before our lockdown and I was completely smitten. They all have such energy. I immediately marked her as my find of the year, but any sense of smugness soon evaporated when I began to see that everyone who tasted the wines was coming to pretty much the same conclusion.

Réka-Koncz is imported by Basket Press Wines.

6c5b3668-c636-468d-8d0a-3c1f703145f9

GLOCKENTURM “MUKENTHAL” GRINZINGER GEMISCHTER SATZ 2016, JUTTA AMBROSITSCH (Vienna, Austria)

Jutta Ambrositsch began life as a graphic artist, and retains a trained eye for design. She had no real background in wine, although her parents, foresters, did own a tiny vineyard. It was tending a vineyard in Eisenberg in 2004 that made her realise what she really wanted to do was to work outside, in nature. Jutta, who I’ve only met once, appears quite shy, but she loves her vineyards and I’ve read that she hates the harvest, the act of having to take the grapes off the vine that has produced them making her a little sad.

Nowadays we all read about the vineyards on the hills surrounding much of Vienna (not least from me), and indeed about their famous gemischter satz field blends. Back in the first decade of this century Vienna’s wines were far less well known outside the city, and vineyards were not too expensive to purchase. Thankfully Jutta was able to snap up around four hectares, some with old vines planted in the early 1950s, in the districts of Bisamberg, Sievering, Döbling, Riesenberg and Rosengartl. This wine comes from sites above Grinzing, an often tourist-infested major wine village. Grinzing itself, in the Döbling (19th) district of Vienna, is full of wine taverns (Heurigen), but the vine-clad slopes and tree-topped hills of the Wienerwald beyond the houses and taverns makes for surely one of the most beautiful landscapes on the edge of any capital city I know.

Every summer Jutta opens her pop-up Buschenschank in a different temporary, rented, location, serving her wines with simple food. She works in a similar way with her winemaking. Jutta was able to buy her vineyards with her partner Marco, but she couldn’t afford a winery, nor all the equipment required. She’s been blessed with help from another highly regarded Viennese winemaker, Rainer Christ, who looks after her wines, I am told with Peter Bernreiter.

Although Wiener Gemischter Satz is “DAC” now (AOC equivalent), this wine is a Landwein, like a table wine. Jutta prefers it that way. It’s still a traditional field blend, from ten different varieties, but in this particular case based around a high proportion of Sylvaner. It smells springlike (no, it wasn’t the blossom in the photo), with a palate dominated by vibrant grapefruit citrus. It also had a hint of Riesling about it, with apple-freshness (amazing that it’s still this fresh tasting considering the vintage). I think this is in good part down to the very well drained gravel soils on a cool site planted (not by Jutta, of course) in 1972.

If you want Parker points for this, I’m giving it “sensational”. I’ve been following Jutta for a number of years and I have never had a bottle, neither here nor in Vienna, that I haven’t truly enjoyed to bits. Jutta Ambrositsch is imported into the UK by Newcomer Wines.

9f453454-714c-4c20-9d12-dec76d35b785

REBELA ROSA 2018, SLOBODNÉ (Hlohovek, Slovakia)

We are certainly getting used to wines from Czech Moravia by now, but just to the southeast (northeast of Bratislava) we see an emerging post-communist era wine industry in Slovakia too. Slobodné is a fifth generation winery, but they had to take a bit of a break due to WW2 and the intervention of communism’s state control. Since the fall of the Iron Curtain two sisters from the original family owners, along with their partners, have rebuilt the neglected vineyards. This has included reinstating traditional winemaking methods, which have of course always been what we call “natural winemaking” in this part of Central Europe.

They make a wide range of delicious wines, but Rebela Rosa is perhaps the most unusual and the most left-field. The grape varieties blended here in equal proportion are Frankovka Modrá (Blaufränkisch) and Cabernet Sauvignon, which are fermented in Spanish tinajas (well, maybe that bit isn’t quite traditional). The wine is frothy/spritzy (sealed with a crown cap), but not fully sparkling.

The colour is strawberry (strawberry blond perhaps?) and the fruit is all bursting red berries on nose and palate, creamy strawberries dominating. I’m not talking bland poly-tunnel fruit but quite intense strawberry (if you saw Paul Hollywood tasting very expensive strawberries in Japan on TV recently, you will know what I mean). The overall texture is soft and gentle, which the frothiness helps to emphasise. The finish has a twist to it, not exactly “bite” but just something to stop it trailing off without you noticing. It’s a lovely wine, great fun, but pretty edgy too. The kind of bottle that might scare a few less hardy wine adventurers. It is recommended to drink this in one sitting, but it’s only 12% abv, so it’s no hardship to do so. Zero sulphur, I think.

Imported by Modal Wines.

55b2dcd8-d2df-48c8-8c0f-c1e153aa05d8

“BREAK A LEG” 2019, LUKAS VAN LOGGERENBERG (Stellenbosch, South Africa)

Lukas is considered well established, four vintages in, as one of the exciting new wave of South African producers, making wines from parcels across the Cape. Up until now I only knew his “Breton” cuvée, remarkably like a Loire Cabernet Franc from a good vintage. This rosé is described as a Blanc de Noir, yet it looks indeed perfectly pink to me. The variety is Cinsaut (sic for SA), from dry farmed old bush vines, fermented and aged in old oak.

Red fruits dominate what I think is a wine made in a very interesting style. It does have fruit, for sure, and a lovely floral note accompanying it on the bouquet. These are matched by nice acids, but then we come to the texture. This comes through the spine of the wine, quite firm but not sharp. It adds quite a lot of depth. That spine also holds the wine together tightly. It’s refreshing, with only 12.5% alcohol.

I’ve read that “Break a Leg” was possibly less impressive than some of Lukas’ other wines in the previous vintages, though I also understand it achieved commercial success, and perhaps the critic in question meant more commercial? I wouldn’t know. This is my first bottle of this cuvée and I think it’s fair to say that it is pretty impressive, with much more to it than your average summer pink.

This bottle came from Solent Cellar. Lukas van Loggerenberg is reasonably widely imported, though I suspect that this came via Dreyfus Ashby.

307a789d-52db-475e-8bac-3ba384f53cd5

“LE VIN DE PLOUSSARD OEUVRE L’ESPRIT” [2016], TONY BORNARD (Jura, France)

Tony is Philippe Bornard’s son, who you probably know by now has gone back and taken over the family vines at the estate his somewhat famous father, Philippe, created at Pupillin, just outside Arbois. This is a Vin de France, made from the 2016 vintage (though therefore not labelled as such) from different parcels (Philippe’s Ploussard is usually from Point-Barre).

We have a vivacious and easy going but clearly “natural” rendition of the Ploussard (Poulsard) variety here. It’s firmly philosophically in the zero:zero school (nothing added, nothing removed) and the ripe and glowing light “tomato”-red juice is bottled on its fermentation gasses, which helps preserve the wine in lieu of added sulphur.

On opening there’s a clear hint of reductive winemaking which the usual generous swirling motion alleviates, allowing any off odours to blow off and the wine to open up. I’d serve this ever so slightly chilled, so that it warms in the glass as it becomes less reductive. In this way you get to taste the fresh explosion of fruit in a purer form. There is a slight spritz, but this is pleasurable, enlivening the wine. There’s also, as a result of the “nowt taken out” part of the equation, a fair bit of sediment. Altogether very nice, introducing a more youthful facet of the Bornard oeuvre. 

This was purchased from Les Jardins Saint-Vincent, Arbois’ natural wine shop. Domaine Philippe Bornard is imported into the UK by Les Caves de Pyrene. As far as I know, Tony’s own label doesn’t have a UK importer.

2b866c0b-459c-4aa8-bc18-9cdeebf45d88

DOLCETTO D’ALBA “ROUSSOT” 2018, FRANCESCO RINALDI (Piemonte, Italy)

I seem to be still drinking the Langhe occasionally, despite it being May now (we drank a Barbaresco two nights ago), no doubt because it went back to being bl**** freezing here in Southern England a couple of weeks ago. April was a bit warmer than the first half of May, but then Dolcetto is a bit lighter than Nebbiolo.

Francesco Rinaldi e Figli is one of the great Barolo producers, founded in the village of Barolo itself, in 1870. It is now run by two Rinaldi sisters, Paola and Piera. The family farms vineyards in some of the great crus of that DOCG, but here we have their version of one of the varieties too often overlooked among the wines of these famous houses. The Roussot vineyard is within the Barolo DOCG, at around 800 metres asl, on chalky clay, with traditional Guyot vine training.

The wine itself really is rather old school Dolcetto. It has medium weight (which means more weight than a lot of Dolcetto), and has a depth of colour. If that colour is dark cherry, then the bouquet is of red cherries, as is the predominant fruit on the palate. The nose also has some tobacco leaf notes typical of classy Dolcetto. It’s classic, slightly dusty, but vibrant and a lot more wholesome than you usually find with the variety. It has a slightly savoury, food-friendly, quality. Winemaking is in stainless steel followed with a ten month stay in similar tanks. It sees no wood. 13% abv is perfectly judged.

It’s probably one of the best Dolcettos from the Langhe you will find, with the added advantage that it is reasonably easy to find at the moment. It does seem like several people I know have been popping this Rinaldi during our lockdown. This bottle came in a mixed case from Solent Cellar, but checking their web site for the price, I can’t see it. I wonder whether the last of it went in a care package I got them to send out this week? I think it is imported by Astrum and by AG Wines.

e2e5071b-6149-42c3-8628-fb43bbe1c93f

Posted in biodynamic wine, Natural Wine, Wine | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment