Eastern France Part 3 – Fritz Becker, Schweigen

The more geographically, or cartographically, inclined reader will immediately spot that Schweigen is not in France. In fact it is in Germany’s Pfalz region. So as I asked the other day in my introduction to this series of articles, what has Fritz Becker got to do with Eastern France? More perhaps than you might think, and it is an interesting story which goes back eight hundred years.

In the eleventh century the Benedictines chose Wissembourg as the location for one of their large monastic communities, and under Abbot Samuel began construction of one of the largest and finest churches in the region. There had been a church on the site since the seventh century, in the reign of the Merovingian King, Le Bon Roi Dagobert (as the song goes). Wissembourg soon grew to become one of the five biggest ecclesiastical landowners in Western Europe, and naturally the monks planted vineyards, lots of them.

In those days there was no Germany, eight centuries away from unification, and France was a small island of territory around Paris, several days ride away. As we know, over time, this particular bit of territory made its way from one overlord to the next until we reach the Second World War, where Wissembourg and her fine old buildings, dominated by this great abbey church, were right on the front line between France and Germany. The story I was told is that an enlightened local commander on the German side refused to fire into Wissembourg, but this act of restraint was not reciprocated by the allies. The fact is that Wissembourg stands, and Schweigen and much of the surrounding vineyard was levelled.

It took us an hour and a half to drive up to Wissembourg from Andlau, and it is just a four minute hop over the border to the Becker winery in Schweigen, but although that winery is firmly located in Germany, 85% of the Becker vineyards are in France, including their best sites which produce their Grand Cru Pinot Noirs.

Fritz junior (Kleine Fritz to his family), with whom we spent the morning, is the seventh generation of Friedrich Beckers to run this estate (there is a baby Fritz to take it to an eighth generation). He told us the story whilst we were out in the vines of how his own father remembered his father’s best wines before the war as coming from the hills over the border in France. The only problem, aside from the shell damage, was that these vines were now on the other side of the border, and whereas crossing the border had once been a day to day occurrence, the postwar Franco-German border was a hard one. Nevertheless, in the 1960s Fritz junior’s father bought back the vineyards confiscated from his father in 1945. Everyone thought he was crazy as by then the vines of a resurgent Schweigen-Rechtenbach were being planted on the flat plain, easy to work for the tractors and with much higher yields.

When you are out in these hillside vineyards, you can easily see why these sites produce such fine wines. There has apparently been Pinot Noir here since those eleventh century vines were planted. The Saint-Paul vineyard, set beside the last remaining of the four watch towers the monks built for defence, is a magnificent south facing slope which was originally planted with Pinot Noir in the 14th century, but was recovered and replanted by the Beckers in 2000. The Kammerberg, which provided wines for the senior monks, slopes dramatically right down towards the abbey itself. The vines here are old, and it was one of the sites Fritz senior repurchased in the Sixties.

The top photo shows the view down the slope of the Kammerberg towards the Abbey of Wissembourg. Bottom left is the Saint-Paul vineyard with the last remaining watchtower from the eleventh century just on the right of the picture. The stone marks the repurchase of the Kammerberg by the Beckers in 1967.

The soils up here are predominantly on poor limestone and the climate is very similar to that in the Côte d’Or. Pinot Noir had fallen out of fashion here, due to its low yields, but high yields were not what Fritz senior had wanted. He knew he could make the best Spätburgunder in Germany on these sites. And I think his son does.

A month ago Anne Krebiehl MW wrote an article in Decanter Magazine on German Spätburgunder. It was a very good article, but I was quite surprised to see no mention of Weingut Friedrich Becker. The Becker wines are indeed not all that well known in the UK, although Wine Barn import them, and they are occasionally seen in London’s exclusive Hedonism Wines. Yet German writer Stephan Reinhardt in his The Finest Wines of Germany (Aurum 2012 in the World of Fine Wine‘s Fine Wine Series) describes this estate as “one of the top producers of Spätburgunder in Germany”. He goes on to remind us that Becker’s top wines “regularly receive the highest scores in the German wine press”, and that each year between 2001 and 2009 a Becker wine was awarded Best Spätburgunder by Germany’s Gault Millau Wine Guide.

Weingut Becker is not all about Pinot Noir though, and before we tasted the reds we went through a series of white wines. Despite the fame the reds have achieved, the whites are also exciting propositions, all displaying freshness and finesse. The domaine has undertaken a reappraisal over the past decade. Oak has been dialed back on the reds, as has extraction, with grapes being picked at slightly lower oechsle levels to allow for greater acidity and freshness (Fritz junior’s father was one of the first to import barriques from France into Germany). This philosophy has filtered through to the white wines.

Silvaner Trocken 2016 – This, and a Riesling, are the bulk wines of the domaine, if any wine can be so described here. The Beckers farm 18.5 hectares and produce around 100,000 bottles each year in around 40 different cuvées (plus large and small formats). Bottled in one litre format, this Silvaner has quite high acidity, but is fresh with a mineral bite and a touch of prickly CO2. It makes a good party or picnic wine.

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Grüner Sylvaner Alte Reben 2016 – Note the French spelling of the grape variety here. At 11.5% this still shows more amplitude than the litre version. From old vines of around 30 years upwards, and naturally low yields, this sees two-to-three days skin contact before pressing. There is building complexity and this will keep.

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Grauer Burgunder “Kalkmergel” 2016 – Pinot Gris has pink tinged berries, and this wine sees five days on skins, from which it derives a pinkish hue. It has a lovely nose and the palate is dry with both light red and stone fruits. It weighs in at 13% but Fritz said his aim is to slow down the sugar production and keep the acidity relatively high. So this is focused and fresh, unlike some of the richer Alsace and Pfalz Pinot Gris.

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Weisser Burgunder “Kalkgestein” 2016 – This blends grapes from the limestone hills with those from sandstone on the plain, and it sees some oak, a mixture of large and small wood, but all old. It has a sort of Sauvignon Blanc gooseberry nose with just an exotic touch on the palate, but otherwise there’s real focus.

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Chardonnay “Mineral” 2013 – This has a few years bottle age and is showing very well. It smells quite like Chablis, with perhaps a touch of Tasmania. Very, well, mineral with a nice dry mouthfeel and, again, that Becker focus on the palate. All new plantings on the estate now are either Chardonnay or Pinot Noir. In this location it is not surprising that Chardonnay does so well. I think this needs more time, but it is impressive for a wine to be had at the cellar door for under €10.

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We now come to the reds, the Spätburgunders for which the domaine is famous. Regular readers will have seen, in my last article on recent wines, that I drank a 2010 vintage of Becker’s entry level Spätburgunder a month ago. If we need to locate it in terms of quality, imagine a beautiful Bourgogne Rouge from a top Burgundian producer. At the domaine it will set you back €11.50 for the 2014, though even cellared at home for several years, my 2010 cost somewhat more from Hedonism. It was amazing, especially considering where it sits in the hierarchy, and it still had, perhaps, a little development in it.

Spätburgunder Trocken 2014 – is somewhat less developed, being four years younger. Less rich too, I think, a product of vintage variation, 2010 being warmer. This is a wine majoring on its fruit, though something just hinting at earth comes through. Even at this level is is worth keeping a while longer. Very nice.

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Next up the ladder is the Spätburgunder “B”, which comes off limestone on both sides of the border, and the vines are older, up to around 35 to 40 years. I didn’t taste this, but it’s one of Fritz’s best value cuvées and I did buy some.

Spätburgunder Rechtenbacher 2013 – This is the sister (or brother) to the Schweigener Spätburgunder, which we can assume to be the village wines, so to speak. This cuvée comes from vines on red sandstone and it sees partial new oak. This is reflected in the tannins, but the wine is both svelte and precise and we are getting even more classy fruit underneath. There is potential to age, though my guess is that much of it doesn’t have that chance at just €20 a pop.

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Spätburgunder Steinwingert 2013 – is described by Fritz as “more Burgundian”. I’m not wholly sure what he means but this has perhaps a greater breadth of (smoky raspberry) fruit without losing a degree of precision. It partners the Herrenwingert cuvée, and Fritz also refers to them as the Premiers Crus. [no photo]

Spätburgunder Kammerberg GG 2013 – This, along with the Saint-Paul are the top of the regular pile (there are occasional special bottlings). They are the Grands Crus, or Grosses Gewachs. Of course the German authorities won’t allow the use of the French cadastral lieu dit names, so they are supposed to be sold with a fantasy name. On the list they appear as “KB” and “SB”, though I’m not sure what is going on with the bottle pictured below.

This has incredibly refined fruit, deep cherries at first on the nose giving way to ripe but focused raspberry. A very concentrated mouthful, with a long way to go. €50 at the domaine, though checking the Wine Barn web site earlier today, it looks like they may still have one magnum of 2006 for £183. I would say it’s very likely worth it for someone in need of a great Christmas gift idea. About 3,000 to 4,000 bottles are produced of each of these wines, so they should be obtainable.

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This was yet another wonderful tasting, and there is no doubt that seeing the vines and having the terroir explained does wonders for one’s work in the tasting room here. There is no doubt that having worked to dial back the power and oak and freshen the acidity, Fritz Becker is at the top of his game.

Most of the wines here are intended to reflect the different terroirs. The 1971 German Wine Law stripped away these old Einzellagen and replaced them with large Grosslagen, often misleadingly named to sound like one of the famous sites. Here, the old 10 hectare Sonnenberg site was the name given to all of these hillside parcels, and Sonnenberg suddenly grew to 240 hectares. The Becker family are adamant that the old names are valid, making clearly differentiated wines. But as Fritz says, “we pay our land taxes to France but Germany tells us how we can and cannot label the wines”.

These are not “natural wines” as such, although Fritz works with nature. The use of herbicides and inorganic fertilizer was stopped thirty years ago, although we saw a nice big pile of horse manure in the vineyard. Winery manipulations are minimal too, although we had a discussion about sulphur. Fritz makes clean and focused wines and he prefers to use sulphur as he doesn’t like any volatility. He’s not convinced he can do without it, but what he does utilise is carefully monitored to use the minimum necessary.

I truly hope that as we are seeing German Pinot Noir become fashionable, and as wine lovers discover just how good it can be, that the wines of Fritz Becker junior take their rightful place near the top of the quality list. All of his wines come highly recommended. This is a top German estate, even if most of their finest wines are effectively French in origin.

Weingut Friedrich Becker is at Hauptstrasse 29, 76889 Schweigen, tel +49 (0)6 34 2 290. Visits by appointment via www.friedrichbecker.de

From top, clockwise: Fritz with Thorwi, mags; winery yard; out of the van atop the Kammerberg; Becker is a member of the prestigious Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter; guarding the fort; the original Fritz, allegedly.

We wanted to eat lunch and Fritz recommended we go to the restaurant at Jülg. Weingut Jülg is the other good producer in Schweigen (some of their wines are imported into the UK by Howard Ripley). We had a very cosy lunch in very traditional surroundings (for me, a Riesling spritzer in a big tumbler, with schnitzel and salad, and a slab of simple but tasty cheesecake. Decent coffee too). From the Becker winery head along Hauptstrasse and turn right at the church, and the Wienstub is on the left just before the main road back to France.

Do take a wander around Wissembourg too. The grand abbey isn’t the only old building in town, and it’s well worth a sniff around the greengrocers. Fifty per cent of the cars in the large car park were German.

 

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Eastern France Part 2 – Jean-Pierre Rietsch, Mittelbergheim

Sometimes a visit to a producer can be quite a revelation, and this usually happens when you don’t know their wines all that well. Of course, like many of my readers, I’ve drunk a few of Jean-Pierre Rietsch‘s gems, but this was my first visit, and first chance to taste through some of the range.

I won’t pretend it was an easy tasting (on my part) at times. With most producers and growers my French is adequate to communicate, conversational French paired with much of the technical language required for the subject. Yet with Jean-Pierre my French sort of fell to pieces slightly. I felt I was in the presence of someone who thinks deeply about his wines. I don’t know whether that impression is correct, but it was clear that my French doesn’t go deep enough to say what I wanted to say much of the time. Because these wines are just so good.

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I think I’d go as far as saying that they are the best Alsace wines I’ve tasted for a long time, and I should add that this is in a region from where, month on month, I’ve been tasting more and more fantastic wines these past couple of years.

The tasting room at Domaine Rietsch has a very nice feel to it, an aura which felt almost Japanese to us. I think it was the lovely table which reminded me of a torii gate.There was something more ordered about it than, for example, the jumble of bottles and boxes chez André Durrmann the previous afternoon. The labels here are magnificent too. There is no obvious theme through the range, except the unity of artist. But it all adds up to a suspicion that absolutely every single detail matters for Jean-Pierre.

The thing to remember here is that these are very much wines of terroir, intended to express variety, of course, but equally or perhaps more so, place. Rietsch possess vines in the Grand Crus of Wiebelsberg and Zotzenberg, but also in sites like Stein (limestone, near the domaine in Mittelbergheim), Brandluft (clay, limestone and sandstone, on the road to Andlau) and Heiligenstein. This village/site north of Mittelbergheim used to have no reputation despite its own AOC for Klevener de Heiligenstein (clay and sandstone on which is planted the rare Savagnin Rose grape variety).

We opened with the Crémant d’Alsace Extra Brut 2014 (disgorged July 2017 with 8mg/l residual…note milligrams, not grams). Coming in with a fairly standard  12.5% abv it has the adition of a little fresh juice from the following (2015) vintage, an ancient method revived here. The wine is fresh, and has a bracing mineral acidity, with a very nice backbone and great mouthfeel. Like almost all Crémant from the region, there is not great autolytic character building at present, yet the nuttiness does nevertheless suggest complexity. Along with the fine nature of the wine, you will think it one of the best Crémant d’Alsace you’ve tasted. It is a blend of Auxerrois, Chardonnay and Pinot Gris, all picked ripe.

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The domaine’s Sylvaner Vieille Vigne is an assemblage, in this case 50:50 from 2015 and 2016, from vines grown on argilo-calcaire (clay-limestone) soils. As with all good Sylvaner, you begin with fresh and fruity, with a misleading mirage of simplicity. But then it builds in the glass. Its greatest attribute, for me, is salinity. This (though not salinity alone) makes it multi-dimensional, which is achieved less often than not with Sylvaner. Certainly not a wine to ignore when purchasing (and I did buy some of everything I tasted, and one or two I didn’t).

I won’t list the tech details for every wine, but to illustrate the thoroughness of the labels I can tell you that this wine underwent spontaneous fermentation using indigenous yeast strains, and that it was aged on lees in cuve. It contains 12.5% alcohol by volume, 2.2 g/l of sugars, and 16 mg/l total SO2. Jean-Pierre said he will use a little sulphur to combat volatile acidity if he deems it necessary, but will avoid adding it if possible.

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Stierkopf 2016 is a varietal Auxerrois from both granite and clay-limestone. No sulphur is added. The sensation here is lemon citrus, fine, fresh, fragrant and if I say “uncomplicated” I don’t mean that as anything but a compliment. The most complicated thing about this wine is to decide whether I’d use it as an aperitif, or to partner food. My cop-out would be a summer lunch outdoors. Vibrant and refreshing, and I think it will age too. In fact I think all these wines will benefit from age and I plan to hold off drinking anything I bought for now, hard as that will be.

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Murmure (whisper) is the first of the maceration wines. No sulphur, seven days skin contact, 11% alcohol. The very best Muscat grapes (naturally we are speaking relatively here at a domaine which would reject any sub-standard berry) are direct pressed and the rest of the bunches are added later. There is a fresh acidity rarely found in Muscat, and a bit of texture from the maceration of the skins. It has a little CO2 present at first in the glass, which of course helps protect this zero added sulphur wine.

Along with the more floral notes that we associate with the Muscat varieties, you will also find yellow fruits, and a little tannin from the skin contact, perhaps less than you might expect. It’s very elegant, and mixes a precision, also rarely found in Muscat, with something evolving more broadly as it warms.

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Klevener de Heiligenstein is a wine most Alsace aficionados will have heard of, but if they have tasted one it might not have set their palate alight. This is different, I promise, and is undoubtedly the best Klevener de Heiligenstein I’ve tried. Although I’d not tasted it before, its reputation had preceded it (as in “you have to try…).

The grape variety, as I already mentioned, is Savagnin Rose, not a Jura variety but a Gewurztraminer variation. At 13% abv, it has spent eleven months on lees in demi-muid. It is made only in even years. The colour is a lovely gold with flecks of pink-bronze. The nose is pear with dried fruits emerging, and the palate finishes with a lick of bitterness, which Jean-Pierre describes as a taste of the stalks. I’m reminded of Andrew Jefford in Decanter writing that the best wines sometimes have a certain unloveliness about them. For such an unrecognised terroir (in quality terms), this wine really makes you think long and hard, and also makes you concentrate. You can’t “get” this with one sip on a tasting bench, but it is impressive.

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Pas A Pas is made in odd years only, explained by the fact that it comes from a réserve perpetuelle (which we loose talkers might call a solera, though most French vignerons I know prefer the former terminology). The cuvée name means step by step.

The grape variety is Savagnin Rose again, but here in a darker bronze cloak. The aromatics are rich and complex – quince, tarte-tatin, some oxidative notes…it is a quintessentially autumnal wine which felt just right for the cold but sunny weather of our visit. It also has somewhat more of a hint towards the Savagnin of the Jura with that oxidative, nutty, finish. I would suggest that you just fry up some wild mushrooms and you are away. As with the Klevener above, don’t serve it too chilled.

I said that the Muscat was not particularly representative of the variety in the region as a whole (a good thing!), and the same can be said of Jean-Pierre’s Gewurztraminer, Demoiselle (we tasted the 2016).

The grapes are picked right at the start of the vintage. The intention is to avoid excess maturity and excess alcohol, although this 2016 reached 14%, but you’d never guess from tasting it. Fermentation is partially whole berries, for 16 days, and then it spends six months on lees.

The colour has a gentle orange tinge, and the bouquet has something of orange citrus about it. Again, there is complexity, doubtless from the different individual sites where the fruit comes from, and that includes a certain minerality almost never found with Gewurztraminer. This is the second brilliant wine made from this grape I’ve tried this autumn, the other being Gut Oggau’s Emmeram. As I said when writing about that Austrian wine, such bottles change one’s perception of Gewurztraminer completely. Let’s not forget to mention the fresh acidity and fruit here, almost unheard of for decades in the region.

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You might ask why I only tasted seven wines? Whilst I had taken at least an hour-and-a-half of an obviously busy winemaker’s time, it was evident Jean-Pierre would have let me taste everything if I’d asked, but I like to try to balance selfishness with some thought for a welcoming host. And besides, despite what I said, we did talk a lot. I did take away some Grand Cru Riesling, and J-P especially recommended the Zotzenberg Sylvaner Grand Cru 2014 as well. Sylvaner was not part of the original plan for listed varieties in the Grand Cru regulations, but it is obvious that the variety has undergone a massive revival in quality all over the region. On a top site it can be transformed.

Site is important, but so is cultivation. Zotzenberg is composed of iron rich sandstone with limestone, with a pure southern exposure. The must sees 36 months on lees, in demi-muid for the first year before transfer to stainless steel vat.

These wines are “natural wines”, yet about as far removed from the weak stereotype as it is possible to be. They are also, as I perceive, thoughtful wines, or at least I find them thought provoking. No vin de soif “glouglou” for me. I hesitate to say “profound” as that kind of language is much over used in wine writing, but these are wines which require concentration and focus to fully appreciate.

Jean-Pierre seemed to enjoy talking about his wines, albeit in a measured way, and I felt almost ashamed that, in this instance, my linguistic ability let me down. He probably didn’t appreciate just how bowled over I was about the wines we tasted, and how much I appreciated his time and patience. I’m not into calling wine producers “popes” and such like, but I think we could all learn an awful lot at the feet of this master vigneron.

Jean-Pierre (and Pierre) Rietsch are at: 7 rue Stein, 67140 Mittelbergheim, tel. (0)6.79.05.25.08. Visits strictly by appontment only.

A few photos from the Rietsch tasting room and the vineyards around Mittelbergheim. Did you spot the Partida Creus on the bottom row, untouched by Jean-Pierre since Severine Perru from New York’s Ten Bells placed it there during harvest?

Of course, Mittelbergheim boasts other good natural wine producers, and if you have time, don’t neglect the one below. He’s also very good indeed.

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Eastern France Part 1 – Anna & André Durrmann, Andlau

The explanation for a lack of articles these past couple of weeks will be known to those who follow me on Instagram – I’ve been in France. Over the next week (or more!) I shall be planning to publish five articles from my travels.

This first article, on André and Anne Durrmann of Andlau, is about a grower I’d never come across before, but they are doing interesting things, in the vineyard as much as in the bottle.

I make no apologies for calling the subject of the second article one of the “gods” of Alsace natural wine, though he’ll probably be annoyed by that – the truly talented Jean-Pierre Rietsch in neighbouring Mittelbergheim makes what are now my favourite Alsace wines. For me, they are towers of natural winemaking, not only for their quality and finesse, but for their innovation as well. An extensive tasting is a privilege here.

Then I shall be introducing Fritz Becker, at Schweigen in the Southern Pfalz, my favourite producer of Spätburgunder (yet totally absent from the recent Decanter Magazine article on the grape variety). What has he to do with Eastern France? You’ll have to read it to find out. It’s a fascinating story.

The fourth article will introduce Emilie and Alexis Porteret, of Domaine des Bodines in Arbois. They have entered my favourite half-dozen Jura producers over the past couple of years, and after our visit last week Emilie now also counts as one of the very nicest people making wine in the region as well.

I’ll round off the domain visits with my favourite of all Champagne producers, Bérêche, up on the ridge of the Montagne de Reims, at Craon de Ludes. It was nice to catch up with Raphael’s mum again whilst he and Vincent were presenting their wines in the luxury of London’s Savoy Hotel. I managed to plead for a few bottles and still spent less than the cost of a ticket to that rather wonderful event, and out in the vines I also got a good sight of the problems caused by frost on the mountain in 2017.

Looking further ahead, I’m off to dine at Brunswick House this evening, my first visit there for nearly a year, so I shall be letting you know about how that went. I’ll be reviewing what, at least for me, is the autumn’s major wine book release, and then, in time for Christmas we have the long awaited, inaugural, Wide World of Wine Awards (WWWA’s)! Oh yes, a rival to the DWWA and IWC if ever I saw one. I’ve a few more things up my sleeve to slip in before Christmas, so keep on reading.

DOMAINE ANNA & ANDRÉ DURRMANN (ANDLAU, ALSACE)

For most of the time I have enjoyed Alsace wines the received wisdom has always been that the best wines come from the Haut Rhin, effectively the southern part of the region, from the villages around Colmar and beyond. This is where all the so-called big names are based, like Hugel, Trimbach and so on. It is also where most of the tourists go, to the geranium-bedecked villages of Riquewihr or Ribeauvillé. But as Alsace has changed, so the epicenter of excitement has shifted, and whilst there are many wonderful producers in that heartland, including many new names, the Bas Rhin, the region’s northern sector, has come much more into focus.

My first ever trip to Alsace was not far short of thirty years ago. I knew little about the region save for photos of attractive half-timbered, gaily painted, houses in wine books of the time (I well remember a few years later consuming Tom Stevenson’s excellent tome published by Faber, before he became known solely as a Champagne guru, which increased that knowledge substantially).

By total coincidence on that trip I stayed in Itterswiller, just south of Andlau and Mittelbergheim, two villages where some of the best natural winemakers in Alsace are now based. Four Alsace trips later and I was finally back in Andlau for six nights, and it was during a stroll on arrival there that I spotted some Durrmann bottles in a window near the Mairie, and the next day took a short walk to see him. He’s not well known in the UK, so this was new ground.

André Durrmann inherited the family vines from his father in 1979, but after conversion to organic viticulture, he only began experimenting with some zero sulphur cuvées in 2008, alongside his interest in permaculture and l’agroforesterie. They have Agriculture Biologique certification now.

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André Durrmann with “Zegwur” (right)

Before the tasting notes I want to tell you about our trip out into the vineyards. You soon discover that the Durrmanns walk the walk when you are introduced to their two electric cars. One is a small family car which André says can make Paris in eight hours with charging stops, the other is the vineyard car, a rather quirky “Mia” with the driver’s seat forward and room for three (at a pinch) on the back seat.

We headed off to a south facing vineyard in a valley close to the winery, where there is some Pinot Blanc, but mainly Pinot Noir, planted on limestone. André explained that he’d found this vineyard to be one where the vines both budded and fruited early, making them prone to frosts, so he’s undertaken quite a lot of vineyard modifications in order (he says successfully) to slow down growth.

First of all, he’s used a lyre training system, unusual in Alsace, which raises the vines from the ground. This means they access more sunlight, there is more old wood to protect the vine, and of course they are that little bit higher from the ground frost. Innovation number two is to leave the ground unploughed, with weeds between the vines (spaced wide at a little over three metres to reduce soil compaction) until after harvest, at which time he brings in his herd of sheep. They eat the vine leaves and mow between the rows, preparing the vineyard for the next season.

When Claude Bourguignon came to look at the vineyards they discovered the vine roots had reached a depth of more than 1.5 metres, and André said he believes this vindicates his decision not to plough. The roots get competition from the weeds and so are forced to burrow deeper, and hence, on the limestone, they find moisture and nutrients, whilst up top the untilled weeds harbour a wide variety of insect life.

Even more radical, but not unique, is the planting of trees in the vineyard. The twofold intention is both to offer some shade to the vines, and to make it less of a monoculture. A wide variety of trees are planted, including almond, cherry and oak, which will be allowed to grow to around eight to ten metres tall. There are already birds nesting in some.

Here you can see the raised Lyre training and some of the trees, newly planted and maturing

I asked André whether there had been any problems with neighbours, because I’m aware of a couple of vineyards in Southern France and Northern Italy where similar ideas have met with a frosty reception and vandalism. He said not. This valley is not in the centre of Andlau viticulture, the trees are not near the boundary, and he said that as a former president of the Andlau vignerons, he’d sorted a few things out so he felt he was generally liked in the village (a son is the current head of the Andlau winegrowers).

I also asked André about predators on the sheep. There are lynx in the forest, but the vineyard is fenced and he says they are not really a problem (the fencing also keeps the sangliers out when the grapes are ripe). Occasionally a local dog bothers them, but that is rare too. The Durrmanns are vegetarians, so the sheep don’t have humans to fear either.

André makes a  large range of wines from his seven hectares, approaching thirty wines plus eaux de vie, which is not remotely unusual in the region. To some he adds sulphur, but we concentrated on the sulphur free bottlings.

Sylvaner 2016 – the Sylvaner variety shows increasing promise in the region as a whole, the result of it being taken more seriously in the vineyard, no longer a cash cow and best suited for the Edelzwicker blends which used to occupy the lowest rung on the Alsace ladder. Indeed, all of the good natural wine producers in the region do something interesting with Sylvaner. André keeps his fresh and lively, simple, and with a good lick of acidity.

Pinot Blanc Cuvée Nature 2016 keeps that freshness with somewhat less acidity, more suppleness, and indeed more subtlety, but it’s still a lively wine which I would see as a thirst quenching vin de soif . Antoine Kreydenweiss, of Domaine Marc Kreydenweiss, my top winemaker in the village, does something more serious with the variety, but the Durrmann wine has the advantage of being inexpensive. A little over €6. The advantage of visiting a relative unknown on the international stage is price!

You have to pay double that for the Gewurztraminer “Zegwur” 2016, another unsulphured wine which is floral and spicy. It only weighs in at 12.5% abv, which tells you that this is “new old school” Gewurz, not one of the blockbusters which have somewhat taken the edge off the variety for me in past decades. André describes it as demi-sec, but in Alsace terms it’s more dry than sweet, for sure. It’s also unfiltered, and the bottle I brought home is very cloudy. Standing it up for 48 hours will sort that, as will a handy carafe, but the ever so slightly cloudy glass I sampled at the domaine had a nice lees texture to it. Well worth €12.30.

Visitors to French domaines will have found meagre pickings at most again this year, short harvests from hail and frost leaving the poor  vignerons with little to sell. In Alsace it seems the problem is worst with the red grapes, and few producers have Pinot Noir left from 2016 to sell. The Pinot Noir Cuvée Nature 2016 here has nice lively fruit with a little spice, hailing from the limestone vineyard we visited. At €11 you can’t really go wrong. Its moderate 11.5% alcohol suggests its lightness. Serve lightly chilled, as indeed one should with most (but not all) Alsace reds.

There are several single site wines here, mainly Gewurztraminer and Riesling, and André and Anna also have Riesling in the Grand Crus of Kastelberg, Wiebelsberg and Moenchberg, and as well as current vintages they offer bottles back even as far as 2006. Grand Cru pricing is more in the range of €23 to €25 (magnums around double when available), but that’s still cheap compared to the producers who make their way to London and New York etc. The Vendanges Tardives are no more expensive, but remember, if you want no sulphur you need to choose from the Cuvées Natures. One should also not forget the Crémant d’Alsace, bottle fermented sparkling wine for less than €10!

This is another producer working, at least for the most part, naturally (the only vineyard treatments used are copper and sulphur, but at levels much much lower than organic certification allows). The wines are nice (and inexpensive), the labels are nice, and André is a really nice, sympathetic, guy. The foil capsules covering the cork are “old school” and might benefit from an upgrade, but this address is well worth a visit when passing. You’ll find the attractively cramped premises, dating from the 1700s, at 11 rue des Forgerons, Andlau (tel (0)3.88.08.26.42). For €3 general visitors can arrange a two hour vineyard walk followed by a tasting. I can’t promise you’ll get a ride in the “Mia”.

The Durrmann premises and André’s quirky Mia electric car, not entirely designed for the rough tracks in the vines, but it made it

As an aside, Andlau is perhaps a perfect place to stay if you are up in the Bas Rhin. It is, if anything, less touristy even than Mittelbergheim, which boasts fewer facilities. Andlau has a great boulangerie, a butcher, post office, pharmacy and small supermarket, along with a handful of restaurants, not to mention a very interesting museum. You also have some wonderful walking literally on your doorstep. Climb up above the Kastelberg Grand Cru and into the forest (beautiful on a sunny autumnal day) and if you are happy to walk you can reach at least two ruined hilltop castles on well signed trails. The bird life was amazing. One morning, on a misty start, we disturbed a couple of deer in the vines, and we saw woodpeckers, jays and a plethora of raptors as we climbed.

Andlau views, with the towering Kastelberg Grand Cru which rises above the village, facing south (top), and the ruined castle of Spesbourg (constructed between 1246-1250) in the hazy distance (third row, right) which is, along with the even more impressive Château d’Andlau, walkable in around an hour-and-a-half one way (with about a thirty minute walk between them) through glorious forest. Allow around four hours for a round trip to both with a picnic. A longer route back can be taken via Mittelbergheim, also a very nice round trip in itself.

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Recent Wines (Autumn 2017) #theglouthatbindsus

This latest case of “wines drunk at home” is titled “Autumn”, but to be honest the weather has been so unseasonably warm recently that you would almost think it was summer here. In fact someone was laughing at me on social media for drinking the Partida Creus included here the other day. I’m not sure where they were at the time, but it was pushing past twenty degrees in Southern England, and for mid-October that’s remarkable. There’s a slight caveat on the “drunk at home” theme this time because three of these, at the end, were taken to dinner with some friends and family. I’m sure you’ll let me off.

Pét-Nat Vol 1 2015, Fuchs und Hase (Kamptal, Austria) – This is a collaborative effort between Martin and Anna Arndorfer (whose delicious Vorgeschmack blend didn’t quite make this case) and their friends and fellow Kamptal producers, Alwin and Stefanie Jurtschitsch. It’s a blend of Müller-Thurgau, Grüner Veltliner and Gelber Muskateller. It’s fermented on its skins and bottled whilst still fermenting. It’s certainly a simple wine, but that doesn’t mean it lacks a lovely bead and a good frothy mousse. Nor does it detract from a linear purity with mineral acidity and a little chalkiness on the palate. Glug it!

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Pink Bulles XVI, Jean Maupertuis, St-Georges-sur-Allier – Another pét-nat, this time French. It’s an unfiltered pink made from Gamay. The nose is red fruits, and it starts out frothy at first. It’s another wine with a rapier-like spine of acidity, refreshing of course, but it’s the bags of fruit that balances it. Almost fruit juice (though it does have 11.5% abv). It gains in texture as you drink it, and that’s even before the yeast sediment arrives in the glass. Both this and the above wine came from Solent Cellar, although the Austrian is relatively widely available, and Noble Fine Liquor should still have some of this pink bubbles left. With the weather we’ve been having, I’d grab some, but to be honest it will taste just as good in the middle of winter.

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Monopole Clásico Blanco Seco 2014, CVNE, Rioja – So, CVNE Monopole, has he gone mad? This certainly looks like the cheap white Rioja in the tall bottle, but the very observant would notice a small neck label proudly proclaiming “clásico”. This is a return to the methods used to make white Rioja at the company forty years ago. Blending Viura (90%) and Palomino, it is aged in old oak, and then the trick (for which special permission had to be obtained), there is an addition of a small amount of Manzanilla (sourced from Hidalgo) which adds bite, body and structure.

Whereas modern Monopole is pretty light and fruity, this is dry and saline (albeit with orchard fruits). More body and more complexity round this out, a wine with a genuine heritage. Production is quite small, I think, and this goes with a RRP of around £25. I managed to find some for £21, and so might you if you are canny. But even at £25 it would be money well spent.

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Cortezado 2015, Fedellos do Couto, Ribeira Sacra – This wine, imported by Indigo, is described by one retailer as “one of the best values in Spain”, and whilst right now there would be an awful lot of challengers for that accolade, there is no doubt that for about £20 you get a cracking wine. It’s made, of course, from Mencia, coming from a single site on the steep slopes up to 500 metres above the Sill River in this beautiful part of Galicia.

It’s made in simple fashion with fermentation in steel and plastic, and ageing in large, old, wood. Its character comes from those slopes of sandy schist and the wet and windy Atlantic climate which makes the region just about marginal at times, but certainly one where vintage variation can be expected.

The fruit is dark and red, with cherries and plums, but equally you get spicy pepper and almost a whiff of hickory smoke. Although 13%, it never seems more than medium bodied, so the terroir comes through without hindrance. It makes for a versatile wine. You can use it instead of a Pinot Noir, or you could break it out for the barbie. Fedellos do Couto has been so ubiquitous this year that it would be easy to overlook it. Don’t.

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Haywire Secrest Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015, Okanagan Crush Pad, Okanagan Valley – I’ve written about the Crush Pad wines quite a bit recently. I also keep saying that I like their Gamay best out of the reds, but it’s all about memory, and when I drank this Canadian Pinot I had to think again.

The Secrest Vineyard is a 35 hectare site above Oliver. Both fermentation and ageing is in concrete, but the fruit is ripe and concentrated when it goes in. So in the glass you first get berry fruits and a touch of spice, and then some texture underpinning it. This is not Burgundy, far from it, but Matt Dumayne has made a cracking wine for drinking on its fruit. With 13.5% abv it’s no little weed either, but the fruit-packed mouthful says “enjoy” rather than “pontificate”. Again, Christine and Steve have shown the potential of the Valley in different ways to those trying to make classical Cabernets, etc. Red Squirrel bring over a whole raft of the Crushpad’s wines.

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Chardonnay “Les Brûlées” 2015, Domaine de Saint-Pierre, Mathenay (Jura) – This estate has been owned for about five years by its former vineyard manager, Fabrice Dodane, who originally came on board in 1989. I have seen the vineyards, which mostly lie just outside Arbois, between St-Pierre-sous-Vadans and Vadans itself (where we know people), but until this year I’d not tried this estate’s wines. Wink Lorch, in Jura Wine (2014) describes this Chardonnay as “reminiscent of slightly old-fashioned village Burgundy”, yet whilst I see exactly what she means, I think the wine may have come on a bit since Wink was tasting for her book, and now that Fabrice has his feet more firmly under the table.

What makes this particular wine, I think, is the terroir. Around Arbois and beyond you will find a constant discussion about the affects of the different marly clays (known as Marnes in the region). But as you head from Arbois towards Dôle you find some interesting outcrops of limestone, which really suits Chardonnay (although Stéphane Tissot’s “Les Amants” comes from plots on both clay and limestone, I’m convinced the limestone fruit makes this wine).

Biodynamic fruit is aged in 500 litre old oak barrels, topped up constantly. The terroir really comes through in a wine of great purity. It actually surprised me to see 14% on the label as it tastes fresh and even relatively light for the alcohol level. I think this is down to the minerality.

Domaine de Saint-Pierre was, without doubt, well under the radar in the UK until 2017, but now I keep seeing odd bottles in all the best wine shops. Expect to pay £25 to £27. I actually bought some more of this, so fascinated was I. I also have some “Les Corvées”, a co-planted blend of Pinot Noir and Ploussard (sic), but Wink mentions in her book that Fabrice makes a Melon à Queue Rouge, and I’m going to look out for that on my upcoming trip.

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Le Zaune à Dédée, Anne & Jean-François Ganevat (Jura) – Rather provocatively subtitled “Grand Cul Classé”, this wine’s wonderful irreverence belies its unexpected class (the fact that it costs around £40 should give you a clue). The varietal blend here is a highly unusual one of two different wine regions entirely (Savoie and Jura), Gewurztraminer and Savagnin, bottled as Vin de France under the Ganevat negoce label. Both varieties are aged sous voile with no additives (not even SO2), and with skin contact.

On first sip I won’t deny that it tastes a little unusual, but in a few seconds you see what it’s all about. Darkish colour, highly perfumed (the Traminer comes across a little more than the Savagnin here), it’s fresh, alive and quite extraordinary. One of those wines that you find hard to describe in mere words, but it is quite astonishingly good. At just 12.5% it is versatile too.

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Spätburgunder 2010, Friedrich Becker, Pfalz (Germany) – When I’m in Alsace next week I’ll be driving up to Schweigen to see Fritz Becker, and I had this entry level Pinot knocking around and thought I’d try it. Fritz is acclaimed, in Germany at least, even if his fame has not travelled to the UK quite as much, as one of the country’s best red wine makers (I’d love to ask Anne Krebiehl why he didn’t make her “Top 20” in her Decanter Spotlight on Spätburgunder this month?). Although he’s based in the Pfalz border village of Schweigen, and although his wines are all under German wine law, most of his vines occupy some wonderful sites in Alsace, France. They are the old monastic vineyards on the border, once cultivated by the Abbey of Wissembourg.

This Spätburgunder is smooth and quite rich. It bears some of the hallmarks of the vintage and it is drinking well now, though with more in the tank. There’s lots of silky fruit, and richness, plus a little of Pinot Noir’s typical earth and leaf development. Delicious and, if I’m honest, even better than I’d hoped after a few years in a cool dark place. It has put me right in the mood.

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Rotwein 2011, Sepp & Maria Muster, Südsteiermark (Austria) – Sepp and his wife Maria make what I would describe as highly charged wines in Styria, near the Slovenian border. By “highly charged”, I suppose I mean with energy. I know, it sounds awfully new age but when you taste them, you can’t help but feel there is something vital there. Of course, they work biodynamically, and adhere to a non-intervention approach, attempting to let the terroir shine through. I suppose their ten hectare farm must have special terroir.

This entry level red is quite dark and dense to look at. The bouquet is full of concentrated scents of blueberry, bilberry and blackberry, yet the wine is lighter than you expect on the palate, quite sappy too. The blend is Blaufränkisch, Zweigelt and Blauer Wildbacher. This latter variety is a local speciality which is the signature of Schilcher Sekt. That rare  sparkler from Western Styria is highly acidic (I love it, but I know others find it hard going), and the Blauer Wildbacher adds a touch of acidic bite to this  still wine red cuvée. “Rotwein” has few pretensions to complexity (not least in its name), but there’s a nice touch of spice and pepper too. If you like really sappy wines from Northern Italy, you’ll love this.

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Vinel.lo VN Blanco 2016, Partida Creus, Penedès – Partida Creus was founded by two Italians, Massimo Marchiori and Antonella Gerona, who left careers as architects to make some of the region’s most singular wines, wines which could not have received more praise among natural wine enthusiasts since they burst on the scene. This is a blend of typical Catalonian varieties, Garnatxa (Grenache Blanc), Macabeu, Moscatel, Parellada, Xarel-lo and Vinyater (a rare autochthonous grape similar to, and often mistakenly equated with, Xarel-lo). Partida Creus also make an Ancestral Method fizz from the same varieties, but this is the still version.

It’s very fruity, the fruit coming to the fore as it warms up a little, but it’s oh so zippy as well, with fairly high acidity which bounces around the palate. It will pretty much cut through anything, but the fruit and freshness takes the edge off the acids. It’s as if this were the very wine for which the word “drinkable” was invented, or so it seemed on an unseasonably hot evening in October after a long and frustrating drive. Just 10.5% abv as well.

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Savagnin “Pourquoi Pas?” 2015, Domaine de la Pinte, Arbois – This biodynamic Savagnin is cultivated on the marnes bleues soils around Arbois. After picking, the grapes are macerated on skins for three weeks in concrete vats before pressing. No CO2 is added, neither is there filtration. The wine is therefore a beautiful autumnal orange colour and slightly cloudy for me (I had to lie it down in the fridge). The gentle bouquet has nuts and spices, citrus peel and generous fruit.

This is an experiment. I first tasted it with Laura Seibel at the domaine’s Arbois shop last year and she told me how it was her idea, after having helped make wine in Georgia. Only around 100 cases were made but this is a real success in every way possible. I love it. It’s a shame that there will be no 2016 when I’m in Arbois soon, as I would be adding several bottles to my order, but I understand there is a 2017 in the making with longer skin contact.

Domaine de la Pinte is the oldest biodynamic estate in Jura. In the past few years I think they have moved to another level, and this experiment exemplifies that. Kudos to Laura.

 

I usually try to keep it to twelve “recent” wines. But we are compromising this time, with a very quick mention of three more wines. The first couple are the pair I took to dinner with friends a few weeks ago. Montevertine, Rosso Toscana 2007 was the wine of the night in good vinous company. Classic Tuscan all the way through,  Sangiovese with Canaiolo and Colorino playing a minor role. Dark cherries with hints of tobacco and violets, relatively rich and smooth, drinking extremely well, yet I know this will get better and go on for many years.

Gut Oggau Emmeram Weiss 2015 is unusual among this producer’s wines in that it is a 100% varietal, a Gewurztraminer. It’s the Gewurztraminer to open for people who say they don’t like Gewurztraminer. Off limestone soils, it has a lemony note and fresh acidity, but this is balanced by an inconspicuous 13.5% alcohol. No chubbiness, just refreshing wine with a heavenly scent from one of my favourite producers anywhere.

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The last wine here is a bit of an oddity. Some of you may have seen it around. After a holiday trip to Santorini by Peter Barry in 2006, he was determined to bring Assyrtiko to Australia. It has taken ten years of quarantine, grafting and experimenting to produce the first commercial vintage of Jim Barry Clare Valley Assyrtiko 2016. It’s not exactly like a Santorini version. It lacks that true windswept, volcanic, minerality and a little of the acidity that marks Santorini Assyrtiko in youth and sets it up for ageing. But there’s more fruit. It’s a nice counterpoint to Clare Riesling. Only 500 cases were released of the 2016, so we have been lucky to see obtainable quantities in the UK (there are still a few bottles around).

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

‘Tis Fine, ‘Tis Noble and ‘Tis Sweet to See

There are two London wine stores right now in the Noble Fine Liquor stable (not quite yet a chain, perhaps), and another that doubles as a bar and kitchen, and they have quickly created an enviable reputation for themselves, based on their focus on what they agree is a loose term, natural and authentic wines.

Having taken the opportunity to pop in to the store on Farringdon Road, near Clerkenwell, a couple of weeks ago after the Out of the Box Tasting, I can see what the fuss is about. Their web site claims they started out “because the local bottle shop we wanted did not exist”. That would be a tad corny, were there not some substance behind the comment.

There are, of course, places in London which do major in similar wines, not least Winemakers Club which is just down the road, but another shop of this quality, reminiscent of perhaps Les Papilles or Le Verre Volé in Paris, is very welcome, even on London’s relatively crowded wine scene.

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The Farringdon/Clerkenwell store takes up the corner of the site occupied by Quality Chop House at 88-94 Farringdon Road. In fact the wine store is open to the QCH deli via an archway, so the two are physically connected, and the friendship stretches to a nice plug for NFL on the QCH web site.

What can you expect in store? Well, first of all Noble Fine Liquor does, justifiably, claim to have the best Jura range in the UK. There’s a big selection, from new names like Domaine Saint-Pierre to rarities such as Domaine L’Octavin (I spotted a few bottles of ULM, or “Ultra Long Maceration”, which is pretty hard to source here). You’ll find a few Ganevats, and the amazing Domaine de la Tournelle, alongside relative newcomers to London like Marnes Blanche, Les Dolomies and La Touraize, among many.

The ULM comes via the excellent ultra-natural wine importer, Tutto Wines, and it looks like a good few more wines on the shelves might come from the same source. Like Gergovie  Wines in Maltby Street, Tutto specialises in zero sulphur bottles.

Another hot area on the shelves has to be Austria. Newcomer wines (in Dalston) and Dynamic Vines in Bermondsey have done so much to bring Austria to our attention these past few years, but it is nice to see the country has another champion in London. Arndorfer, Tschida, Muster, Werlitsch, Preisinger, Gut Oggau and  Andreas Tscheppe give  just a flavour of what’s on offer here.

Other stars, some rarely seen on London shelves, include Mythopia (the Swiss estate between Sion and Brig in the Valais), Ar Pe Pe (Valtellina), Agrapart, Bérêche and Cédric Bouchard (Champagne), Zeireissen, Peter Lauer, Maximin Grünhaus, JJ Prum and Keller (Germany), De Moor, Alexandre Bain, Bruno Schueller, Pierre Frick, Vignes du Maynes, and the ubiquitous Foillard (France), but this list does not do justice to what they have sourced.

Also take a look at some under the radar producers such as Gilles Berlioz (Savoie), Franck Peillot (Bugey), No Control (Auvergne) and Eric Bordelet’s delicious “sidres”. The Partida Creus Vinel.lo VN Blanco I drank last night came from here too, but the Partida Creus wines don’t hang about these days. All in all, the range is pretty impressive, and shows a deep knowledge of the natural wine scene.

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I got an incredibly warm and friendly welcome at Noble Fine Liquor Clerkenwell, and as far as I can tell the only thing it has against it is that it’s not the easiest place for most of us to get to. But it is worth the effort. It’s about half way between Chancery Lane and Angel Tube Stations (probably about fifteen minutes walk from each), and a little closer to Farringdon (Tube and Overground). But once there you have the choice of lunch or dinner at Quality Chop House (and I believe QCH are still offering a “no corkage” deal on Monday nights), or you can head down Farringdon Road to the aforementioned Winemakers Club (under the arches of Holborn Viaduct). They offer a selection of cold plates (charcuterie, cheeses etc). Check out their “drink in at shop prices” occasional offers.

The other Noble Fine Liquor store is on Broadway Market, London E8 (just north of the Regent’s Canal and south of London Fields), and they are also behind the shop, bar and kitchen (as it is styled), P Franco, on Lower Clapton Road, E5, which has a reputation of being one of the five or six best “natural wine” diners in the capital.

Posted in Artisan Wines, Austrian Wine, biodynamic wine, Jura, Natural Wine, Wine, Wine Agencies, Wine Merchants, Wine Shops | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ribera Del Duero

This is the Tasting I alluded to in my last article. Ribera Del Duero may be one of Spain’s top winemaking regions, but the wines do have a reputation for tannin, and a lack of approachability when young. Not too long ago, when I mentioned to a wine trade friend that I was coming to this Tasting, he plied me with a story about a trip he went on, organised by the Consejo a few years ago, which involved, he said, lining up at nine in the morning to taste wines so tannic that after five or six out of a hundred his palate was shot to bits.

Although these wines don’t fit into my normal drinking pattern, it’s more than educational to attend Tastings like this. Let’s not forget that there was going to be a focus on organic/biodynamic wines, and on less oaked wines. Could this region dispel the myth that with one eye on Bordeaux and the other on Napa, they have no eyes left for Spain?

For me, there were faults aplenty. Not oxidisation, brett, volatility and the like, but lack of fruit and consequent poor tannin management. It was a bit like a high jump competition, where the bar is set by a pretty consistent level of tannin and you are trying to find wines with enough fruit to jump the bar. I tasted a lot which just fell back, or maybe the pole vault is a better metaphor as the oak in my mouth was like the bar snapping on the contestant. One winemaker there told me he thought there was just too much fruit on the vine which was not ripe enough for the oak regime it faced in the cellars.

But, getting out of the way three paragraphs of apparent negativity, I can say that there were wines which cleared the bar, and even one producer who managed to achieve it with all of their four wines on show. After swilling and spitting through maybe a dozen wines without hope of finding one to my taste, one invariably came along, and so what joy it brought. I know most of these wines were young, but I do have experience tasting tannic youths, and good young Bordeaux tastes very different to some of these over ambitious wines. This all makes the successful wines stand out even more. It is interesting to see who the importers of these wines are, because their buyers must have palates far more in tune with mine than some others.

Why do my views matter more than those of the largely older trade professionals at this Glazier’s Hall Tasting? Because my question to the Consejo and the Ribera Del Duero producers is “who is going to buy these wines”? Of course the likes of Vega Sicilia will have collectors after them, but the run of the mill wines, which need a decade to become approachable? Younger drinkers are looking elsewhere, to lighter wines, natural wines, vins de soif and glou-glou. I would suggest that commercial success is more likely to come from emulating the sort of wines I’ve picked out here. They don’t lack tannin and structure, but they offer more than just that.

Ribera Del Duero is in northern central Spain, north of Madrid and roughly between the towns of Peñafiel in the west and San Esteban de Gormaz in the east, following the valley of the River Duero as it heads towards Portugal (where, of course, it becomes the Douro). Most vines are at between 750 and 850 metres altitude on complex soils (clay, gravel, sandy silt), and the main grape variety is Tempranillo, known locally as Tinto Fino (or as one attendee rather disparagingly said, “Tinta del País by the peasants”). But there are other varieties allowed, with a fair bit of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, among others, in the blend.

The very top producers, wishing to emulate the great Vega Sicilia, sought to do so by very reduced yields from the region’s old bush vines, yielding intense wines of relatively high alcohol levels, which then go into small oak, often new, for an extended period. But the best growers are beginning to understand that long oak ageing may not produce wines for drinking in the medium term, and a refreshing return to older oak has been accompanied by another look at viticultural practices.

If so many wines seemed to disappoint, I may as well begin with the wine (actually two wines) which I would champion as my wine(s) of the day. In fact this pair were nothing short of brilliant, and I commend Raeburn Fine Wines (who import a number of good Ribera Del Dueros) for finding them.

The producer is Goyo Garcia Viadero, both wines come from the 2012 vintage, and both are from different sites. Finca Valdeolmos (13.5% abv) is 90% Tempranillo with 10% Albillo, and sees 42 months in oak. Finca Viñas de Arcilla differs only in that it is 100% Tempranillo and has a tad more alcohol (14%). Admittedly these are wines with bottle age, but the long period in oak has not killed the fruit (from very old vines), which still has a lovely strawberry edge to it. Smoothness, certainly concentration, is present, but there’s elegance too. The family owns some of the old caves in the region traditionally used for winemaking, and their naturally cool temperature is perfect for the stability of these wines.

This is a tiny producer, based near the town of Roa in the central western part of the region. The wines are very much “natural”, though I doubt that this fact would come to mind when tasting them, nor the fact that they have no added sulphur. I’m not sure that the many tasters who were raving about these wines all registered that fact. Pierre Overnoy of Pupillin is supposed to have particularly inspired Goyo.

They were positioned before Peter Sisseck’s Pingus 2012, and I know many who headed directly toward Wine 123 were dissapointed by its no show. They needn’t have been if they nudged left, to Wines 121 and 122.

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I actually began tasting at the table representing Tim Atkins MW’s Top 45 Wines. These are intended to be Tim’s interpretation of the best from the region. Tim’s experience in tasting tannins is considerably greater than mine, and he should be commended for his efforts. Seven of his 45 grabbed me more than the others, as I said, sticking their head above the tannin parapet, clearing that bar of oak.

Bodegas Pagos de Morgar Morgar Vendimia Seleccionada 2013 was my favourite of the wines which saw less time in wood (12 months in a mix of French and American oak), but this 100% Tempranillo is made from vines over 60 years old. Surprisingly, it was one of the few wines seeking distribution which I rated. No current importer.

Pago De Los Capellanes Reserva 2014 (Tasting Sample) is from very old vines at Pedrosa de Duero on clay and limestone. The oak here is unusually 300 litre French oak barrels. Plenty of brightness and good rounded fruit. The oak here is a bit heavy at the moment, but having liked it, another taster confirmed my opinion, and we both would love to see how this sample appears when bottled, and after a bit of age. I felt it has a lot of potential. Importer – Enotria.

Bodegas Félix Callejo produced an unclassified wine called just Felix Callejo 2014. This saw 15 months in oak after malo in new French oak. It showed a nice nose and no lack of fruit. Its only fault, one widespread in Ribera Del Duero, was the big heavy bottle. Okay, you want to tell the world this is serious wine, and it is indeed good, but a ten ton bottle is indicative of old thinking. Imported by Anthony Byrne Fine Wines.

Bodegas Pingon Carramimbre Altamimbre 2014 managed 20 months in oak without drowning the fruit. This Reserva is made from the oldest vines and they seem able to manage the new oak regime, all down to that vibrant fruit. Distributed by Amathus Drinks.

Dominio de Es Viñas Viejas de Soria 2014 is mostly Tinto Fino with just 5% Albillo, its organic fruit fermented slowly with 50% stems left in, then seeing 20 months in two barrels from DRC. The vines here are pre-phylloxera, planted on clay and sand. There was genuine elegance in this wine, and I liked it, but I couldn’t help wondering whether the tannins drown that elegance a bit, at the moment. I’d cellar it and wait. Imported by H2Vin.

Bodegas Hermanos Pérez Pascuas Viña Pedrosa Reserva 2012 had a lovely nose, and the wine was not as impenetrably dark as some. Bright, lively and fresh, the tannins are silky, and not too obtrusive. Nothing harsh here. Distributed by Bancroft Wines.

Bodegas Vega Sicilia Valbuena 5-year 2012 gives its 100% Tempranillo thirty-six months in wood (a blend of new and old, French and American), then two years in bottle. This is ostensibly made from “young vines” (but on average 35 years old). It’s suave and sophisticated, of course, and worth its reputation. If these guys can manage their tannins, why can’t some others? You probably don’t need me to tell you this is good…if you can afford it. Speak to FMV.

 

The remainder of the Tasting, the “open pour” section, was organised in order of oak usage, with a few rosados at the beginning. A word should be said in favour of the pinks. All those I mention here were very nice, wines I’d be happy to drink. In fact I did wonder why there were so few. The first two were 100% Tempranillo from 2016 – from Cillar de Silos (importer FMV) and Bodegas Arzuaga Navarro (OW Loeb) see no oak. Dominio Del Águila Picaro del Águila Clarete 2015 is a blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Bobal and Albillo, with 12 months in oak (and an extra year in bottle over the other two). It shows more complexity for a rosado. Indigo Wines bring this in.

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I mentioned a producer whose four wines entered were all worthy of a mention. The producer in question is Bodegas FuentenarroCuatro Meses 2015 has a mere four months in oak and retails for between £10 to £15. Slightly lean in the Ribera Del Duero context, but this wine still has fruit, and that’s its purpose. A great restaurant wine. Fuentenarro Crianza 2014 is less gluggable, with 12 months in oak, but there’s more fruit here and a touch more concentration. Fuentenarro Reserva 2011 shows that even with two years in oak the fruit (from old vines) can shine through. We are beginning to see class in a wine that retails for less than £25. Finally, Fuentenarro Gran Reserva 2010 begins to show some maturity on the nose, with the development you expect from a Gran Reserva with a price tag of £35. Congratulations Les Caves de Pyrene for sourcing this producer.

 

In a nice overall selection from Indigo Wines I stumbled upon Quinta Milú Reserva 2016. Now don’t ask me how a Reserva (12 months in oak then 36 months in bottle if I am correct) can be a 2016? I tried to double-check all the vintages and did find at least one error in the catalogue. Anyway, this was a nice wine, but it needs a bit more time, I think.

Bodegas Tionio Austum ECO 2015 was one such wine where the catalogue gave the vintage incorrectly (as 2014). 100% Tempranillo, six months in oak, and biodynamic viticulture and winemaking, which I only just noticed, but may account for my note that this had more fruit than most of the wines tasted, and was vibrant and alive. So no cliché there, then. Oops, and this is imported by Red Squirrel who I can’t seem to stop praising at the moment. How embarrassing.

 

Dominio Basconcillos Ecologico 6 Meses 2016 is another nice, fruity, wine and the fruit here is smooth. This “cosecha” sees just six months in oak, and is 100% Tempranillo.  I was a little shocked to see that it has 15% alcohol, but the fruit and freshness balances the alcohol nicely, at least on one sip. But it pays to check before you down the bottle. Vintage Roots is the distributor.

The above wine benefits from not having too much tannin (6 months in wood) to manage, and the alcohol gives it some extra gloss. Bodegas El Lagar De Isilla Crianza 2012 probably has a different reason for its smoothness and lack of harsh tannins. It may have spent 14 months in oak, but this is a 2012, so there’s bottle age too. It hasn’t dried out and still tastes of fruit. The 94% Tempranillo is rounded out with 3% each of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Good length too. Distributed by Stone, Vine & Sun.

Dominio Del Águila made the last of the rosados I mentioned above. Their Pícaro del Águila 2015 blends Tempranillo, Garnacha, Bobal and Albillo, with 20 months in oak, and it certainly has structure and tannins. But there’s also plenty underneath that, and I thought it had much more potential to age (and, it has to be said, it has one of the day’s more adventurous and attractive labels). Distributed (again) by Indigo Wines. The same estate (and importer) showed a Reserva 2013, which saw “35” months in oak, made from organic old vines. It was a little bit more grown up, tannic but with a sweet fruited nose, and also with potential to age.

 

At the end of the day, despite all my caveats and criticisms at the beginning, there were plenty of very nice wines. Spain at the moment is so exciting, indeed it has a claim to be the most exciting wine producer in Europe right now. But Ribera Del Duero is one of the country’s “classic” wine regions, and perhaps it isn’t top of the list when we think of excitement and innovation.

All that said, we are beginning to see some real innovation over in Rioja, on many levels and from both a younger generation of wine growers and also from some of the more traditional names. The era of the winery is giving way now to the era of the vineyard, both in how the vines are managed, and how the winemaker wishes to express his or her terroir. In order to get ahead of the game, the producers of Ribera Del Duero could look to their neighbour and do the same.

In speaking to those with far greater knowledge of this region than me, I get the impression that this is what needs to happen. Those who are already thinking in this direction are perhaps the ones whose wines register with a modern palate. If some wines seem stuck in a “nineties” frame of reference, others seem to look forwards. Or backwards, perhaps. Just go out and taste those fantastic wines from Goyo Garcia Viadero!

This Ribera Del Duero Tasting took place at Glazier’s Hall in London on Tuesday 10 October 2017, and was organised by Westbury Communications.

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Otros Vinos – The Full Monty

I went to a Tasting yesterday, which I hope to write up next week. What stood out about it was that so many wines were almost identical. Of course, that helped the best wines, the really good ones, to stand out above the rest. On Monday this week Otros Vinos held its Portfolio Tasting of small estate Spanish wines at Furanxo Delicatessen, in Dalston. What made this tasting very different to the other one is that here pretty much every wine was unique.

It makes it so much harder to choose your favourites when you are faced with such diversity, and you can’t just do what I did at that other tasting,  “sip-spit-sip-spit” my way through a batch of tannic reds until I found the good ones. You have to give every wine a fair chance. But when you do, in the case of Otros Vinos, what glories you get to taste. In fact such were the many gems on the counter that I can’t leave my conclusions until the end.

For the adventurous wine lover (and bear in mind that caveat – I know most of you are, but there might be a few lovers of more traditional wines reading this), this has to be one of the most exciting small importers in the country at the moment. Many wines are quite extreme in some respects, with plenty made with skin contact, or in amphora. Several are blended from lots of varieties, some grown at very high altitude, and most are natural wines which are not shy of being edgy (I mean in terms of flavour profile, not quality). But that’s where you find fulfillment, out on the edge of our wine galaxy. Most of the producers below work “naturally”, with no, or little, intervention.

Vinos Ambiz (Sierra de Gredos, Madrid/Ávila)

Have you ever been to Ávila. I recommend it, an intact medieval walled city with 80 towers and nine gates in the hills northwest of the Spanish capital. I spent less than a day there once, and I’d love to go back (and it’s not too far from one of my favourite places in Spain, Salamanca).

The wines from the Gredos are getting a reputation. What drew me to Otros Vinos initially was spotting that they imported three fantastic producers I’d only encountered in Spain. I met Fabio Bartolomei in person first at Raw Wine two years ago in London, and then again last year. Since my first encounter with his wines (and again, in Granada in summer 2016), I’ve become even more of a fan. Fabio makes wine in the old co-operative cellars at El Tiemblo in the Sierra de Gredos.

This all makes it really difficult to say which of his wines I like best, because I like them all. But on Monday I tried a wine I’d not had before, Tempranillo Carbonic Maceration 2016. Cloudy cherry in colour, a nose of bright cherry fruit, and then a palate that hits you like a slap in the face. The purest of cherry juice. Total glou-glou, a brilliant wine for when you need to down some refreshment after a long day’s work.

Two of Fabio’s orange wines vie for my affection. Alba 2016 is Albillo, and Doris 2016 is Doré. These are very tiny production wines (I’m not sure about Alba but just 700 bottles of Doris were made in 2016). The latter is savoury, a lovely wine with bitter mandarin orange on the finish. The former (Alba) has less texture and seemingly more fruit. It comes across as more refreshing, but perhaps Doris may be better with food. I call it a tie between them.

If you want to explore further, Fernando at Otros Vinos has some of Fabio’s Airén Carabaña (only 250 bottles made), Garnacha, conventionally fermented Tempranillo, a wild Sauvignon Blanc (which has a taste like peppers), and a very unusual wine called Malvar Tinaja 2016. This is another microvinification, in eight small, unglazed, amphora (as is the Sauvignon). It’s made from 100-year-old vines and sees four months on skins, and it takes savoury to another level. I would not call this wine “entry level” in that respect. I would call it quite inspired, though that caveat above applies especially for this wine.

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Ambíz Carbonic Tempranillo

Bodega Cauzón (Graena, Granada)

Cauzón lies east of Granada, just south of the A-92, on the north side of the Sierra Nevada. The winemaker here is the very talented Ramon Saavedra, who tends vines at roughly between 1,100 and 1,200 metres altitude. Days here are still hot in summer, but night time temperatures plummet, helping to lengthen the growing season as well as providing the benefits of a large diurnal variation in temperature. This is another of the producers I’d enjoyed before I knew about Otros Vinos. Their wines are not too hard to find in Granada.

Up until Monday I had drunk two wines on more occasions than the others – Cauzón Blanco, currently in the 2016 vintage, which starts off very refreshing before a bit of texture comes in on the back palate, on the finish, and Cabrónicus (2016), a delicious pale red. This bottle showed very slight reduction, but I was one of the early birds at the Tasting, and I can vouch for the deliciousness of this wine, which would benefit from a carafe, and serving ever so slightly cool.

My star of the day from Cauzón turned out to be Degraciano 2016. Think cranberry juice but nicer, and a bit more concentrated. A rush of pure fruit makes this a zippy pale red. There was six hours of skin contact, effectively, in that half of the juice was direct pressed and half saw 12 hours on skins. Again, definitely serve cool.

Any of Ramon’s other wines are worth trying, and Fernando has another five. For my own tastes, I’d choose Pinoir 2016 and Cauzón Tinto 2016, which I think is pure Tempranillo.

 

Clot de les Soleres (Piera, Barcelona)

This estate can be found just southwest of the Muntanya de Montserrat, in Catalunya. Carles Mora Ferrer is now one of my favourite Otros Vinos producers, and Fernando had eight of his wines on show.

One of the stars of the range is the Xarel-lo 2015 “pét-nat”, which is a very fruity sparkler sealed under crown cap. The fruit really seeps through the rapier-like acidity, making for a genuine glugger. If you want a still white, perhaps try the Chardonnay 2015. It’s a very different take on Chardonnay, more like a cross between Jura and Chablis, but in fact that doesn’t do it justice at all. There’s also varietal Xarel-lo and Macabeu from 2014.

My wine of the tasting from Soleres was the new to me Cent 2, 2016. It’s a very pale red (it looks a little like a Rosé des Riceys if you know what I mean), with a bouquet of juicy strawberries and other red fruits. The palate is quite concentrated, and it ends up with both a haunting quality, and a real “zing” as well. It’s another very refreshing wine, but I’d not call it merely simple, not at all. Fantastic!

If you try one other wine from Soleres, perhaps it should be the Cabernet Rosat 2013. This is perhaps more orange than pink, but it dials up the fruit even more. Carles is a bit of a Cabernet specialist, and there was a very nicely evolved Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, and a Cabernet Sauvignon Anfora 2014.

 

 

Los Comuns (Priorat, Tarragona)

Los Comuns is a new addition to the Otros Vinos range. Jordi Escoda and Augustí Perelló were childhood friends who got together much later to make pure wines near El Molar, close to the border between Priorat and Montsant, but labelled without either DO. Most of their vineyards contain Cariñena, with some Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon, and production is currently between 3,000 and 4,000 bottles per vintage.

Four wines are imported: EstremBatetaTorts and Carinyos (all 2015). Perhaps begin with Carynos. It has a meaty 13% alcohol, but it’s very fruity to match. The rather stunning Torts comes in at 15% abv, but it doesn’t taste that alcoholic, being in good balance. It’s darker than the previous wine, with plump rounded fruit complemented by a nicely bitter finish.

These wines have little in common with the blockbuster vinos we have come to associate with Priorat, ever since Scala Dei released its 15-16% monsters into the world in the 1990s.

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Costador Terroirs (Conca de Barbera, Tarragona)

These are the wines more often called “Metamorphika”. They are almost without exception must try wines, not least for the unusual packaging, but also for the sheer “brilliance” of definition between them. Most of the wines see some time in Amphora (and “Brisat” is an old Catalan word meaning skin contact), and then go into old wood, some of it oak, some of it acacia.

Xarel-lo “1954” 2015 is pale and dry, and a nice take on the autochthonous Catalan variety. Metamorphika Sumoll Blanc Brisat 2015 is a rare example of an extremely rare grape variety. You may find the lovely red Sumoll grape variety vinified as a white wine sometimes, but this is the true Sumoll Blanc, a variety of which there are just a few hectares left in Spain.

There are several more “Metamorphika” wines in their characteristic pots. Neither Metamorphika Chenin Blanc 2015 nor Metamorphika Viognier 2016 taste as you’d expect them to, although the Chenin (from a tiny parcel) has lovely balance, and the Viognier is nicely perfumed, over a chalky texture which grounds it. My own favourite white (ish) wine is the Moscat Brisat 2016, which has changed from a greyish to a black pot for this new vintage. It has a great Muscat nose, is dry, with plenty of that “Brisat” texture, and just 11% alcohol.

Don’t discount Macabeu Brisat 2016, nor Metamorphika Pinot Noir which is a rare 100% amphora fermented and aged Pinot, very different. But my favourite red is Metamorphika  Sumoll Negro 2015. Please don’t buy all of this as I don’t have any myself. Sumoll is a minor Catalan grape variety, which also seems to crop up in the Canary Islands. It’s a palish, bright, cherry coloured red with a rich cherry nose and texture. You might be totally nonplussed as to why I like this variety, which I’ve tried from several producers, but I do think it’s one of those strange grape varieties which has real potential. It’s very versatile as well.

I finished with Metamorphika Carinyena Ámfora 2016 which is a bit of a beast (14.9% abv), but it has a degree of freshness which stops it being heavy.

 

Viña Enebro (Bullas, Murcia)

Just one wine tasted from this producer in Murcia, near the coast, directly southeast of Madrid. Vino Meditacion 2009 is a late harvest wine made from grapes which are hung in a loft to dry for nine weeks. It comes in at 18.5% alcohol, with so much sugar fermented out that it is almost dry. The nose is very concentrated toffee and coffee with a mild cigar note – very complex. Then a very interesting note of almond essence grows (highly attractive to a Bakewell Tart lover like me). Very long! A wine for sipping.

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Marenas (Montilla)

This Andalucian producer may be based in the region for Montilla, famous for Sherry-like wines from predominantly Pedro-Ximenez, but José Miguel Márquez Herrador likes to play with other varieties too. He has some Tempranillo and Monastrel, but Harys 2014 is something very different – try reading it backwards. It’s 100% Syrah fermented in stainless steel, and although it doesn’t taste exactly like the Syrah we know, it’s very nice.

Madiacapa 2015 is Pedro-Ximenez. The destemmed fruit was fermented with no temperature control. It reached 12% abv but still had a little residual sugar, which led to it being bottled under crown cap, in case it refermented. It didn’t become a pét-nat as it happened, but it’s an unusually zippy, dry-ish PX.

Vides Bravas 2006 (that’s not a vintage typo) shows age in its colour, has sweet fruit on the nose and 14% alcohol. It’s a blend of Syrah and Tempranillo from a single site called “Pago Cerro Encinas”, and just under 5,000 bottles were made. A nicely mature red from Southern Spain which somehow tastes more elegant than you’d expect.

I have to mention Asoleo 2015. It’s a dessert wine which I’ve enjoyed before, made from Moscatel, and available in half-bottle. Palish brown, it has a stunning Muscat nose and it tastes so smooth, like sweet liquid caramel. It has just 8% alcohol, so it’s not fortified. Its sweetness means it won’t be to everyone’s taste, but it’s very moreish. I could, on this dull October afternoon, sip some right now with a slice of Madeira Cake or a crème caramel.

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Purulio (Marchal, Granada)

Purulio is the third of the wines Otros Vinos imports which I already knew from my forays in Spain, and a very enjoyable night at a pre-Raw Wine appetizer a couple of years ago. Torcuato Huertas was a farmer, but also happened to be the nephew of Manuel Valenzuela, of the famous Andalucian producer, Barranco Oscuro. It was helping with the pruning there in the 1980s where he decided to return to his grandfather’s old vineyard.

He now farms just three hectares in the Valle de Alhama, on the north side of the Sierra Nevada. So the diurnal temperature variation and the acidity-building cool nights in this high altitude location has just the same effect as at Cauzón (see above).

All three wines on show are equally worth seeking out. Purulio Blanco 2016 is sour but fruity. It comes from mainly clay soils at 950 metres altitude. Ten varieties make up the blend (including non-natives like Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier along with locals like Palomino, Macabeo and two different Muscats/Moscatels). Everything apart from the Moscatels sees a week on skins, then some juice goes into stainless steel and some into 225 litre barrique.

Purulio Tinto 2014 is, for me, the “drink now” red with a cherry colour, fruity but with some ripe tannins, texture and length. It’s a blend of Cabernets Franc and Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Garnacha and Tempranillo, which see a week’s maceration before pressing and turning into barrique for a year.

Jaral 2013 is a lovely brick red colour which reminded me slightly of Nebbiolo. It’s ageing well, with fruit to the fore but building complexity. It’s from vineyards higher up on the plateau, at around 1,200 metres. Snow is normal up here in winter, and I wonder whether this, just as much as those diurnal variations, gives this lovely red its special character. When I bought some earlier this year, Fernando lamented that it rarely gets given the time to mature. After tasting it again this week, I’m not sure I’ll be able to hold off with mine.

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Verdevique (Alpujarras, Granada)

Verdevique is another high altitude estate, this time in the unbelievably beautiful Alpujarras, to the south of the city of Granada. They possess 22 hectares, around half of which is mixed agriculture and the rest is vines. There are nice still wines, Tinto Cosecha 2015 and Jaen Blanco 2015, but for me the star here is the sparkler.

Brut Nature 2012  is, as it says on the tin, a zero-dosage sparkler, bottle fermented, and made from a very interesting local variety, Vigiriego. The vines here are at extremely high altitude, around 1,380 metres. There are several claims to Europe’s highest commercial vineyard (from both Spain and Switzerland), and this is one of them. The vines see very cool evenings and nights, but also good solar radiation in the thinner air. The soils are nutrient rich but mineral (there’s a fair bit of shallow slate here), and whilst rainfall is very low, the vines feast on the winter snow when the thaw comes in spring.

All of this impacts the finished wine. There’s a freshness, purity and bright acidity which, combined with the lack of dosage, makes for a very well defined, dry fizz. The bead is fine as well. There are just 3,000 bottles made of this “natural sparkling wine”, which, with 30 months on lees before disgorgement, has just a hint of complexity to go with the almost bracing freshness in the glass. It’s one of a handful of my favourite Spanish sparklers, for several reasons, not the least being that it’s ridiculously cheap.

If you are thinking of getting a mixed case from Otros Vinos, you’d be happy (assuming that required sense of adventure) if you grabbed a couple of Ambíz (say Alba or Doris, and the carbonic Tempranillo), Cauzón’s Blanco and Degraciano, Clot de les Soleres’ Xarel-lo pét-nat and Cent 2, …then Metamorphika Sumoll Negro and Moscat Brisat, Purulio Blanco and Jaral, Verdevique’s Brut Nature sparkler and whichever takes your fancy from Marenas (I’d probably go for the crown-capped PX). That’s a mixed case to stun your wine friends with, especially those for whom Spain means Ribera del Duero, and those meaty, oaky, Pago wines. Enjoy!

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Posted in biodynamic wine, Natural Wine, Spanish Wine, Wine, Wine Agencies, Wine Merchants, Wine Tastings | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Out of the Box 2017 (Part 2)

In this second part of my write-up of the Out the Box Tasting at The Crypt on the Green, Clerkenwell (Tuesday 3 October), I’m covering wines from Basket Press WinesNekter Wines and Swig. For a bit more of an introduction to the Tasting, and to read about the wines shown by The Knotted Vine, Modal Wines and Red Squirrel, follow the link to Part 1 here.

For anyone who didn’t read Part 1, the Tasting was characterised by a lot of new producer names, and this certainly carries through, perhaps even more so, to the wines shown by the three small importers featured here. As I said in Part 1, the room was not especially crowded, although such a large space can be misleading as to numbers. If you didn’t make it, or were waylaid at the higher profile events around town, do read on. These guys deserve a shout as well. Their wines should be better known.

BASKET PRESS WINES

Basket Press was set up by Jiri Majerik and Zainab Barrodawalla, Jiri being Czech. Both have extensive but very different wine trade experience, and they set out to introduce more Moravian wines to the UK. Moravia is a region in the south of the Czech Republic, close to the Austrian border and the Austrian Weinviertel Region (and also right up on the border with Slovakia). It’s where most Czech vineyards are situated, south of Brno, on mainly rolling limestone hills with a broadly benign climate.

Many readers of my blog will already know one Moravian producer, Milan Nestarec, whose wines are often available via Newcomer Wines in Dalston. Here I’m featuring five out of eight producers on show, only one of whose wines I’ve tried before. I think they give a good enough reason to explore Czech wines further.

Stapleton-Springer don’t sound Czech. Craig Stapleton is a former US Ambassador to the Czech Republic, and Jaroslav Springer came on board as winemaker. The speciality here is Pinot Noir, which makes up 75% of their fairly extensive 22 hectare plantings. Three wines were on show, all worth trying, but the one I’ll mention is the most unusual. Orange de Pinot Noir 2016 is a wine I first tried at one of our Oddities lunches and was immediately taken with. This 2016 is a pinky orange colour, and a bit of a fruit bomb – you almost taste wine gum. But underneath that is skin contact texture. I’d say, of the three, it certainly has the least “varietal character”, but it does have plenty of character of its own. A very nice wine.

Ota Ševcík makes natural wine in Southern Moravia and was a founding member of the Autentisté wine growing association. He’s also a Pinot specialist (the Čtvrtě vineyard here is renowned as one of the best Pinot Noir vineyards in Moravia), but only one of the  wines tasted included Pinot Noir.

Pinoty 2015 blends Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc and Pinot Gris into a juicy white that has 24 hours skin contact. This contact is in barrique, after which the juice goes into larger oak for eleven months, before resting for a further six months. There’s a touch of almost “car sweet” pineapple fruit which makes it refreshing. Blanc de Noir 2015 blends Pinot Noir and Pinot Gris into a wine which has a smoky nose and a mouthtingling zip.

Richard Stávek runs a mixed agriculture farm in Southern Moravia, and alongside his biodynamic wines, his family breed goats, grow fruit and keep bees. On show were a white and a red, Spigle-Bocky (2015) is the white and Zwan (2015) is the red. Zwan blends Zweigelt and Andre (a local crossing of Blaufränkisch and St Laurent, which gives soft tannins and good acidity).

I also got to try a wine not on the list, Bakon 2015, a skin contact red from the rarely seen Baco Noir variety. I’ve come across this hybrid variety mentioned in France before, the brandy grape Folle Blanche being the vinifera parent: it’s a vinifera x rupestris (ie American vine) cross. Some of you may have come across Baco Noir in Canada, where it seems to crop up in most of that country’s wine regions. Here, in Bakon, it ages in a variety of sizes of old wood of different types. Darkish-hued and peppery/spicy, it was very attractive.

Tomáš Čačík  makes a varietal Frankovka (the Moravian name for Blaufränkisch) from a tiny estate of just a few hectares. He seems to be very focused on quality, but his wines don’t reflect this in the price. His Frankovka 2015 is quite a light and peppery version, very attractive. He was also represented by a Cabernet and a Pinot Blanc, a name to watch if prices remain reasonable.

Jaroslav Osička is another member of the Autentisté group of Czech natural winemakers. All the wines shown were white, a Gewurztraminer, Pinot Gris and a Chardonnay. The latter was my favourite. It comes out of a tiny plot of around three quarters of a hectare near the town of Velké Bílowice. The vines average over 20 years in age and the gentle slopes of the vineyard are at around 250 metres. It was described to me as “Jura-style”, and I suppose it did have a slightly nutty, and ever so slightly oxidative, note which we Jura lovers never really know whether it is the winemaking or the terroir (Chardonnay often tastes ever so slightly like Savagnin around Arbois if you go with the “terroir” theory).

It sees three days on skins in old oak, 10-15% whole clusters, then three months on gross lees, followed by two whole years on fine lees. This makes for a fairly complex wine of, I would say, real class. It had genuine presence. It was done the honour of being served from a decanter, which I’m sure would be sound advice for anyone lucky enough to grab a bottle or two. It was a very difficult choice as I was quite thrilled to discover these Moravian wines, but I think this Chardonnay was my wine of the table from Basket Press.

 

NEKTER

Nekter is very new, only being set up last year by former management consultant Jonothan Davey (sic), with the aim of bringing over new producers from California, a task so far pretty much left to Roberson for the UK market, along with South Africa and Australia. Nekter have fifteen producers on their books, all making minimal intervention wines, and I will concentrate on four of them, to give you a flavour of the Portfolio.

Keep Wines is an interesting producer. To whet your appetite, it is run by Jack Roberts (Assistant Winemaker at Matthiasson) and Johanna Jensen (formerly with Scholium Project and Broc Cellars). Pedigree established, let’s move on to the five wines tasted.

Blanc Blend 2016 comes out of Napa’s Yolo County and comprises 85% Picpoul which, being slightly less ripe (in brix) than hoped, had 15% late harvested Grenache Blanc added. There’s a touch of the orchard fruit about it, lively, appley, with crunch but without excessive acidity. Just 11% abv.

El Rino 2016 is a varietal Albarino from the Sacramento Delta. It was bottled when just 80% through malo, with the fermentation finished in bottle. So you get a touch of CO2 and a lot of freshness, with an ever so slightly sour note on the finish, which serves to add something interesting to what is a fresh, summery, wine.

Rose 2016 is a pale salmon blend of 85% Syrah and 15% Mourvèdre. The nose was very muted, yet in the mouth it was very refreshing indeed, all fruit and zip.

Two varietal reds rounded off their wines. Counoise 2016 is made by carbonic maceration in stainless steel, with just 12% alcohol to its name. It is light and refreshing with that “country wine” quality, approachable but still rather exciting. Carignane 2016 is fuller in body with a bit more grip and a touch of spice. Take your pick.

The labels, in case you are wondering (photos below) are of what remains of the Norman era Beverstone Castle in Gloucestershire, where Jack Roberts’ father grew up.

Benevolent Neglect is the label of a couple of East Coast emigres who began making wine in 2013, seeking fruit from old vineyards in Carneros/Sonoma and Mendocino. Eaglepoint Ranch is at 1,800 metres above the Ukiah Valley in Mendocino County, whilst Las Madres is one of the most highly regarded Syrah vineyards in Sonoma.

BN Syrah 2015 is elegant, with violets on the nose and classic blueberry fruit. Grenache 2015 comes from the aforementioned high altitude vineyard at Eaglepoint Ranch. It has elegance but a juiciness as well. This is also another source for a varietal  Counoise (2015). They describe it as a fun wine for everyday drinking, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. A year ago they were far from happy with how this was turning out, but took the decision to give it another twelve months. It worked. Very bright, the nose is high-toned and all cherries and berries. There is a little tannin there, but there’s enough fruit to balance it. Another country wine, one for really simple dishes, but that is in no way putting it down, rather the opposite.

Illimis is Latin for clarity. Lucinda Heyns has worked at Jordan and Mulderbosch, as well as in California, but has now established her own label in South Africa, making wine with fruit sourced from Elgin and Darling. Elgin Chenin Blanc 2015 gets eight months in old oak. You get peach, pear and apricot plus a touch of salinity and a real whip of zingy acidity, which makes this very attractive. Darling Cinsault 2015 is made from fairly old (40 years +) vines, but by carbonic maceration. This gives off a multitude of red berries, but with a nice savoury finish. Light and fun, and, like the Chenin, very refreshing.

Captains of Trade has proved the hardest to research of all the wines tasted at Out the Box this week. I couldn’t even find any background info on the Nekter Wines web site. I was told that the wines are made at Oak Vale, a well known winery on Broke Road, Pokolbin, in the Hunter Valley, and that’s about as far as I got. But I found some lovely wines on taste from this Australian label.

There were three wines from Orange in New South Wales, all labelled From Sundays (2016). They are all suffixed with an explanation: “Juiced”, “Carbonic” and “Skins”, and it was the last of these which I liked the best. It’s made from 100% Pinot Gris (all three are), with a pinkish hue, more of a “ramato” style than an orange wine, exactly. There’s a little texture, but plenty of fruit too.

A red Pinot Noir, Milla 2016, comes from the Adelaide Hills. Then there were two more wines from NSW’s Hunter Valley. Lucky’s 2015 is 85% Syrah (it says, not “Shiraz”) with 15% Pinot Noir. It’s a blend which was quite popular in Australia in the 1980s, though not seen so much today (but I think it’s starting to make a comeback). Maurice O’Shea’s famous Hunter Valley Burgundy often blended the two together, and Pinot Noir does tend to take on a very different character in this warmer and more humid region. This version, from Captains of Trade, is relatively cheap and excellent value.

The Beast 2016 is an example of a variety, Verdelho, which also had a bit of a reputation at one time in these parts, in fact all over Australia’s wine regions. It fell out of favour, but this egg-fermented skin contact wine is exciting, and shows what could signal a comeback for the grape variety. It combines the tropical fruit of Aussie Verdelho with a touch of texture to provide a bit more interest. Lovely wine.

Finally, Paserine, who had three wines from South Africa on taste, two reds from Tulbagh (Union 2015, a blend of 50% Syrah with Carignane and a bit of Mourvèdre, and Marathon 2015, a Bordeaux blend of, unusually, 42% Cabernet Sauvignon, 51% Petit Verdot and a 7% dash of Carmenère), plus an Elgin Chardonnay 2015. 

My slight favourite was the white. The cool climate fruit is quite intense. It has various elements. Creaminess probably comes from the 16 months spent in barrel, with weekly lees stirring. Then you get purity of fruit, with even some ginger spice adding a savoury character. This probably comes from the cool climate, mediated by the sea breeze which rolls up the vineyard slopes. Elgin is a great terroir for cool climate Chardonnay and the minimal intervention the Paserene version sees makes this previously unknown to me producer well worth seeking out.

 

SWIG

I tasted a few wines from the Swig (or should it be SWIG, or even, as I’ve seen it spelt, SWiG?) stand at the Dirty Dozen Tasting at The Vinyl Factory in Soho a few weeks ago, but not many. As on that occasion, this was one of the busiest tables. I got to taste a few more wines but I had to give up on taking photos, and I didn’t manage as many as I’d have liked. I did manage to add seven more producers to those Swig wines I tasted at The Dirty Dozen (a mere three, but you can follow the link to that Tasting in Part 1). Swig do the rounds with some gusto – as they say in their introduction in the catalogue, they do indeed have “a few more trade shows under the belt than some of our fellows [sic] here”. As a result, they are one of the better known importers at this Tasting.

Swig were showing a really broad selection of producers from a wide spread of countries, and their portfolio shows the kind of wonderful mix put together by true enthusiasts, rather than people who just sit here in the UK waiting for the missing Saint-Joseph or Gavi to turn up as a sample. I don’t know the people involved, but you get the impression that they’ve all got dirt under their finger nails on occasion, and grape juice stains on their feet.

BK Wines are probably best known in the UK for the interestingly named One Ball Chardonnay, which I did taste at The Dirty Dozen. Three more BK offerings were poured on Tuesday: Skin n Bones Red 2016 (an Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir) and Waning Crescent 2016 (Syrah from the same source), plus my favourite, Skin n Bones White 2016. This is a varietal Savagnin out of Lenswood. It’s much lighter, and indeed fruitier, than many Jura examples, but it’s really tasty in that gluggable sense you always get with the BK label, and it comes in at just 11.8% abv too, as if to underline its purpose.

Domaine Gournier makes wines which, on this showing, are not going to set the senior critics on fire. Yet the rest of us are really going to get interested when we see a blend of Rolle (aka Vermentino), Riesling and Pinot Gris from the Cévennes. The Gournier estate is quite large, and its various wines are available from a number of different importers, but their Mas Bres Stella Blanc 2015, which is the name of the above blend, is fruity and fresh, and would make a good talking point over lunch. It has the advantage of costing a little over £8 to the trade, making it inexpensive for a wine which might prompt some discussion among wine lovers.

There has been quite a bit of a Sylvaner revival in Germany recently. Of course, there was always a focus on the grape in Franken, both dry and sweet, but Weingut Stefan Winter is based in Rheinhessen. Dettelsheim-Hessloch is not one of Germany’s best known wine villages, but Stefan Winter has been putting it on the map. His achievements are recognised through the estate’s membership of the prestigious VDP organisation. Sylvaner 2016 is herby more than fruity, and mouth cleansing without the overt acidity of some examples. Although at the lower end of the Winter portfolio, it’s a very good example of this (in my opinion, though I know I’m in a minority) under rated variety.

Fratelli Collavo is a Prosecco producer in the Valdobbiadene sub-region, producing biodynamic wines. Two wines were tasted. Prosecco Collfondo is bottled on the lees without disgorging. It means the sediment remains in bottle. The consumer has a choice, either to stand it up and pour carefully for a clear wine, or to be adventurous by just pouring it into a carafe and giving it a bit of a shake (or a rest) for oxygen to work its stuff. Sealed under crown cap (like a pét-nat), this blend of Glera, Bianchetta Treviso and Perera is fun. Just a very different kind of fun to a £5 supermarket Prosecco.

Prosecco Brut 6.0 “Rive di Refrontolo” is 100% Glera and bottled under cork, like Champagne. It’s perhaps a more serious wine, from one of the new single site DOCG designations. Apple and peach flavours and a nice, elegant, bead. Both wines are good, both very different. Again, take your pick.

Vinedos Ruiz Jimenez is a Rioja producer near Aldeanueva de Ebro, southeast of Calahorra. Swig had both a red and a white on their table. The red is pure Garnacha, but the white is, unusually, Tempranillo Blanco. It has rounded, plumpish, fruit and, oddly, given the unusual grape variety, tastes just like a really good white Rioja should. I know people who have fallen in love with its pretty label, and then with the wine in the bottle.

I finished Swig with two South African producers. AA Badenhorst Family Wines are clearly not one of the new unknowns to be discovered at this Tasting. Their wines are rightly renowned. Swig were showing the two Secateurs wines from Swartland (the white Chenin and the red blend, from the 2017 and 2015 vintages respectively), and the Papegaai 2016 red, which is a Cinsault. I have a particular soft spot for the final wine from Badenhorst, Brak-Kuil Barbarossa, which is another wine I discovered via our Oddities lunches.

Brak-Kuil Barbarossa 2015 is made from the Barbarossa grape variety. What, you ask? It’s a variety (or possibly “varieties”) once found in France and Italy, perhaps very old and some say named after the Holy Roman Emperor of the same name (or perhaps it just refers to its beard-staining possibilities if one tends to dribble?). How it turned up in South Africa, and how it became “legal”, I don’t know, but Adi Badenhorst has fashioned something quite unusual out of it.

It’s tannic and meaty at its core, so you think “country wine”. But it’s surprisingly pale considering the initial palate, and the fruit is more red than black. It suggests that something will emerge a few years down the line that is not yet present, only hinted at. I may be wrong – I think 2014 was the first vintage so we don’t know what it has to offer. But there’s a very strange vibrancy and “life” in this wine. I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Pieter H Walser founded Blank Bottle Winery after (you probably know the story by now) a woman came to him asking for a red wine, “anything but Shiraz, I don’t drink Shiraz”. He poured her a glass, naturally she loved it and bought three cases. It was naturally a Shiraz he’d served her. The philosophy behind Blank Bottle (and the name) is take no notice of what’s on the label, only what’s in the bottle. Would that we all did that!

Orbitofrontal Cortex 2016 is a blend of around half-a-dozen white varieties from the Western Cape. It’s a famous wine now, at least in wine geek circles. For me, it’s one of those wines which illustrate the perfection of a blend where each part comes together perfectly, revealing different facets within a coherent whole.

Kortpad Kaaptoe 2016 is more linear, more savoury too. Maybe not quite as appealing to me as the previous wine, but then that would be a tough ask. It’s still very good, and made from 100% Fernao Pires (aka Maria Gomez in Bairrada, where it’s an important variety).

Both of the above whites are sourced from Swartland. The red comes from Breedekloof, in the Breede River Valley between Wellington and Worcester. My Koffer 2016 is Cinsault with smokey fruit, a pale colour and bags of juice in the mouth. These wines have a worldwide following now, and deserve much more recognition in the UK, where certain names tend to dominate from South Africa.

 

 

 

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Out of the Box 2017 (Part 1)

Out the Box groups together seven small, independent, wine importers to give them a group platform in the ever competitive and crowded British market. This market may be both of these things, but it has also grown enormously over the past decade. With the uncertainties over the future, especially with the massive devaluation of our currency over the past year, and rising inflation, small importers need a platform to promote their wares.

The 2017 Tasting took place in the spacious Crypt on the Green in Clerkenwell, one of London’s hidden “villages”, between Farringdon and Islington. During the three-and-a-half hours I was there I could not say that the room was crowded. It’s true that there was at least one very big Tasting across town which clashed – at this time of year there are so many Tastings, almost every day. Whereas in some previous cases you will have been able to read about a tasting like this one from numerous sources, I have a suspicion that write-ups of “Out of the Box” might be slightly more limited. I hope to give you a good flavour of the very exciting stuff on show.

If you persevere with my articles, you’ll find more than fifty wines selected for inclusion from those I tasted. And indeed, these form the majority of those I tasted. I may well have missed out some gems, but very few sips were unworthy of comment. As you read on, you’ll also notice that many of the names here may be unfamiliar, and some of the wines will seem downright unusual. Out the Box certainly pushed at a few boundaries.

In order to make this Tasting a little more digestible, I’ve split it into two parts. Part 1 (here) covers three importers: The Knotted VineModal Wines, and Red SquirrelPart 2 will follow with Basket Press WinesNekter and Swig. Maltby and Greek were also at the Tasting, but I did them justice at the recent “Dirty Dozen” tasting in Soho (see my article here), although I did spot that they had some of the elusive Sigalas oak aged Assyrtiko from Santorini, which was so annoyingly glugged dry at the Vinyl Factory event.

THE KNOTTED VINE

This is a new importer to me. It is based in London and is headed up by David Knott. His passion is for wines of purity, “clean wines that allow varietal grape characteristics to shine in the glass”. He appears to know what he’s doing.

Architects of Wine is the label of Dave Caporaletti. Knotted Vine import two wines, a Chardonnay (Adelaide Hills) and a Riesling (Clare Valley), both made with minimal intervention. Only 900 bottles were made of Skin Contact Riesling 2016. But this 12%er is so well defined, light on its feet yet concentrated too. Very “natural”.

Damon and Jonathan Koerner are a Clare Valley team, with most fruit coming from their own Gully View vineyard. The Clare Red 2016 is a nice blend, but I preferred La Corse Red 2016, Sangiovese, Malbec, Grenache and (hence the name) Sciaccarello. Very juicy, quite light and zippy for a red, not unlike some of the wines out of Corsica.

David Franz is actually the son of Peter Lehmann (not that his surname gives it away), and he tills the earth in that same Barossa Valley where his father made his name. These wines are quite exciting. They have great fruit without it being drowned in either alcohol or oak. Possibly my favourite of the four was Long Gully Semillon 2015. The vines are 130 years old, I’m told. Picked early for freshness (which shows in spades), the juice spends a year on lees for texture and complexity. But it’s so refreshing (all lime and greengage).

Plane Turning Right 2013 refers to Bordeaux’s Right Bank (Merlot with Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot), is fruit packed, and not like any Saint-Emilion jam I know. Grenache 2015 comes from Adelaide Hills this time. Quite pale with reddish fruit, plus bitter cherries on the finish. Despite 14% abv, this is actually pretty elegant. You’d never guess it packs a punch. Back to wider Barossa, Georgie’s Walk 2012 is pure Cabernet Sauvignon with a deep, dark fruited, bouquet and nice concentrated fruit.

I drink a lot from Austria, as you know, but I’ve never come across Barbara Öhlzelt from Kamptal. Not surprising because although she’s been making wine since 2014, Knotted Vine is her first importer outside of the German speaking world. Try her Kellerweingarten Grüner Veltliner 2016 which is mineral, but quite fruity too for this variety. A nice softness as well.

Armas de Guerra (Weapons of War) refers to the tools used to maintain a healthy vineyard when not using synthetic chemical treatments. Based in Bierzo, in Northwestern Spain, I tasted a red and a white. Godello 2016 is quite exotic, from 45 to 55-year-old vines grown between 450 and 600 metres, delicious. Bierzo Tinto 2016 is pure Mencia, not as immediately appealing as the white in some ways, yet a nice savoury, chewy, and bright red.

El Mozo is a small family enterprise in Rioja Alavesa, nine hectares of old vines in 18 small plots at Lanciego. Rioja Alavesa “El Cosmonauta y el Viaje En El Tiempo” 2016 boasts a fetching red “cosmonaut” label. Pale, with some tannin, which hides (at this stage) a wine which I think has a lot of potential to age into something very elegant. The other reds I tasted from El Mozo were good, but this blend of Tempranillo, Garnacha, Viura, Malvasia and Torrontes had something extra.

Vinos Mar 7 is based in the centre of Sanlucar, but I’ve never heard of them. They don’t appear in Peter Liem and Jesús Barquin’s Sherry book. But the three wines on show were very nice. My favourite was the Manzanilla Pasada which was salty and savoury, with a bit of extra body.

 

MODAL WINES

Modal Wines’ manifesto is to “source unique wines with the right mix of edge, character, balance and drinkability”. The Modal offering at this Tasting was smaller than most, but none of the wines I tasted here disappointed. The most interesting producer I found was Slobodne from Slovakia. I’d be doing a disservice not to mention all four of their wines on taste.

Oranžista 2015 is 100% Pinot Gris with 10% skin contact. Pale orange colour with a distinctive bitter orange flavour (a bit like dry Lucozade). Cutis Pinoter 2015 is also Pinot Gris, but with 100% skin contact. Broader on the nose, this is pinkish-orange. It really retains its freshness, there’s a little texture on the tongue, and it finished with the bite of marmalade peel. Deviner 2013 blends the local variety, Devin (a Gewurztraminer/Roter Veltliner cross), with Traminer and Grüner Veltliner. This has no skin contact, and is aromatic, clean and fresh. A lovely white. Cutis Deviner 2014 is the same blend, but far more extreme. One for orange wine aficionados – I loved it. All four wines come from Hlohovec, in the Trnava Region of Southwest Slovakia.

Modal also imports wines from Joiseph who are based at Jois at the northern end of the Neusiedlersee, not far from Neusiedl-am-See. The most interesting of their low intervention offerings was a wine often more associated in our minds with Vienna. Ruhe in Frieden 2015 is a Gemischter Satz. It comes from an old co-planted vineyard and had three weeks on skins, so there’s a bit of texture. Only 240 bottles were made, aged in four 50 litre demijohns. The name translates as “Rest in Peace”. The vineyard was in poor condition when the family took it over, and it is no longer in production. But the wine is extraordinary for its type if you ever get to taste a not inexpensive bottle.

 

RED SQUIRREL

Red Squirrel is one of my favourite small importers, so I know their wines well. This is why I’m not going to write about wines I’ve covered before, but sticking to new producers was impossible when faced with new wines from old favourites. Still, my two stars here were both wines I’d never tasted, but had been aching to try.

I began with Vinterloper as I have to mention the Park Wine pair. These are bottled in 50cl beer bottles with a crown cap, and intended for picnics etc. A brilliant idea from David Bowley in the Adelaide Hills – top marks for really thinking “out(side) of the box”. The white is Gewurztraminer, but a version that is fresh and zingy with a touch of texture. The red is Dolcetto. Serve it chilled, and quaff it out of the bottle if you dare.

Bioweingut Diwald is well known in my house, especially for Martin’s Sekt this summer, and for all his Grüner that we saw in Japan in August. Maischegärung Zündstoff 2016 is an orange Riesling to rival his mate Arnold Holzer’s orange (Roter Veltliner) wine. Despite the skin contact, which some argue takes away varietal character, I’d argue that you know this is Riesling. Lots of minerality and character come through.

Okanagan Crush Pad seems to be appearing on my blog a fair bit at the moment (we had a Gamay and Pinot Noir a week ago, see my last post), so I will only mention one of their wines today. Haywire Free Form White 2015 is a slightly cloudy Sauvignon Blanc of genuine individuality, partly because it has all of nine months on skins (that’s up from five months for the 2014). It comes from the limestone and granite of the Waters & Banks Vineyard in Okanagan’s Trout Creek Canyon. Unique, I’d say, and delicious, so long as you like a lovely sour touch on the finish. For me, really exciting stuff. All of the Crush Pad’s wines are well worth buying.

If Château de Bel is unfamiliar, you don’t follow me on Instagram. I’ve drunk both of Olivier Cazenave’s entry red and white wines, Echappée Bel, recently, and for £15 they are excellent value. Here, we are leaping up in quality and perhaps doubling the price. But these are well worth it! Bel en Blanc is, like the red which follows, and like all Olivier’s wines, a “multi-vintage”. It’s 100% Muscadelle, gorgeously fresh with beeswax and melon among the many flavours coming through (a bottle would, I’m sure, yield a lot more). Franc de Bel is pure Cabernet Franc. Pure in both senses, smooth and rich, and mouthfillingly bright. Made in a solera, I believe. Can’t wait to buy some.

Château Combel-la-Serre is Julien Ilbert’s rapidly praise-garnering Cahors estate, with 26 hectares up on the causses at Saint-Vincent-Rive-D’Olt. The purest of 100% Malbec, no oak, Burgundy bottles, these all signal an attempt to make something different. Try, for example, La Vigne Juste Derrière Chez Carbo 2016, carbonic maceration Malbec with vibrant colour, smooth fruit and a lightness of touch which you only get in Argentina from the new wave, and almost never in Cahors. It doesn’t lack body, but the amazing fruit lifts it.

How many of you have been to Liguria? It really is a lovely region, not only the vineyards on the steep coastal fringe, but also the densely wooded mountains which act as a barrier with Southern Piemonte. When I tasted a Ligurian wine the other week at “The Dirty Dozen”, I wrote that Red Squirrel is my usual port of call for Ligurian wine. Just try these.

Bruna may just produce the best Pigato in the region. Red Squirrel import three Bruna Pigatos from single sites, plus a “Vermentino” just to prove that although they are genetically identical, so we are told, the two “varieties” act differently in the Arroscia Valley. Pigato “Le Russeghine” (2014) is said to be the most varietally expressive of the three. Compared to most Pigato you come across in the region, it’s in a different class. I really love this wine.

Altavia make wines in the area around Dolceacqua, which is located on the western edge of Liguria, near the French border, and have done so since the 1970s. This Rossese di Dolceacqua Superiore Riserva 2012 is palish cherry-coloured, a medium to light wine with a rounded mouthfeel. It’s not complex as such, but quite unique. Altavia used to make a remarkable Touriga Nacional until the authorities cottoned on. Red Squirrel still have a little, I believe (2007 was the final vintage). One to stump the wine buffs, perhaps?

Ahrens Family are by now pretty well known. Albert Ahrens was winemaker at Lammershoek before helping to found Blank Bottle. He now makes wine at Wildepaardejacht beneath the De Toitskloof Mountains, near Paarl. Try the intense fruit of his Black 2015 for an insight into the Ahrens philosophy, which is one firmly rooted in place. This 2015 is 70% Syrah with Carignan, Grenache, and tiny additions of Marsanne and Roussanne. Okay, it’s 14% abv, but it just unfolds more and more different flavours from all the components. Some wines are spat out swiftly but I was forced to linger over this. Not one for the 100-wine tasting bench team to assess, though it certainly has that “sit up and take notice” presence.

So many great wines on show at this table, but I must end on the high of the Azores Wine Company. Some will have read the article in Decanter recently, or read the “Volcanic Wines” book by Canadian, John Szabo MS, and already know about the revival of winemaking on the Azores. On the island of Pico there are currently just 12 hectares, and they have been granted UNESCO World Heritage status for their unique low curved walls which protect the vines from searing Atlantic winds, and the equally uncommon way in which the vines are trained so that the grapes grow, protected, within a “basket” of wood and foliage (similar to training found on Santorini).

The white on show was Arinto 2016, a light wine with a mineral flavour, plus a herby citrus finish. The red Isabella a Proibida 2015 is so named because the Isabella grape variety (there are a few other co-planted varieties in this cuvée) is Vitis Labrusca, not Vinifera. These “American” varieties are technically banned for wine production within the EU, although I know of such vines in France, in old co-planted sites. Perhaps the UNESCO status, and the importance of Isabella to the history of wine in the Azores, has led to a certain acquiescence on the part of the authorities. I do hope so.

It’s a Marmite wine. I know one RS employee who doesn’t like it one bit. I do, not least for its historical importance. It’s basically fruity, juicy, a little acidic (but not sharp), and hardly complex. It’s also expensive. But what price cultural history. Bravo for importing half-a-dozen wines from this remote place. Do check out Red Squirrel’s Azores wines. They really deserve exploration if you are a serious wine lover.

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J’ai Soif et J’ai Faim

Around ten minutes walk south of Clapham Junction runs Battersea Rise, a busy main road in what just about counts as Outer London down here. Much like hundreds of others of its kind it possesses a string of cafés and small restaurants along its length, but one of them is a real gem. There are, of course, increasing numbers of really exciting neighbourhood bars and restaurants popping up all over London, but what Soif has going for it from the off is being part of the same group of restaurants originally run by Oli Barker (who went on to found Six Portland Road) and Ed Wilson, and which also includes TerroirsToast and Brawn (and used to include The Green Man and French Horn on St Martin’s Lane before it sadly closed a couple of years ago).

I’m sure a lot of readers have visited Soif, probably many times, since it opened back in 2011 (hard to believe it was six years ago). But if you haven’t, you might guess from the Terroirs association that the emphasis here is on wine, small plates and a buzzing atmosphere. The wine comes, of course, from Les Caves de Pyrene, and is unashamedly natural. It’s just the thing for such a lively place, which was thankfully empty enough to take walk-ins at six o’clock on a Tuesday evening, but packed an hour or two later.

Soif, Like Terroirs, always offers a good selection of wine by the glass, and having endured a few transport issues in getting down there I really needed a cold glass of something fizzy. The Roc’ Ambule pét-nat pink from Domaine Le Roc in Fronton, Southwest France did the job. You don’t see a lot of pét-nats made from the Negrette grape, but this is simple, fruity and dryish, but most importantly, refreshing. It was also the only by-the-glass sparkler on the list which I had never tried, and going for something new is always a good move in somewhere like Soif.

Jean-Luc and Frédérik Ribes have been making wine in Fronton since 1988, and their wines have a surprisingly wide UK distribution for this relatively little known region close to Toulouse (Berry Bros, Lea & Sandeman and even Harvey Nichols usually have some, especially the red “classique”), but this pét-nat came from Les Caves, who also sell it in magnums. For such an established producer in a fairly conservative region it’s good to see them succeeding with the low intervention and no additives route.

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Roc’ Ambule rosé pét-nat from Domaine Le Roc, Fronton

We had a heated debate about which bottle to order, and I managed to persuade my very discerning friends to order something unusual (then, having done so, I worried they wouldn’t like it). Vini Estremi is a cuvée of Vin Blanc de Morgex et de la Salle from the Mont Blanc Co-operative.

Morgex is sited a little to the west of  the town of Aosta, in the valley of the same name (although the river which runs hrough the valley is the Dora Baltea). The vineyards are all on the slopes of the surrounding mountains, rising up to 1300 metres in places, in the direction of the ski resort of Cormayeur, and Mont Blanc. These are some of Europe’s highest vines. Even in Autumn these slopes can be snow covered, and the Blanc de Morgex variety (also known as Prié Blanc) is trained on pergolas, both for the regulation of sun exposure, and for frost protection.

The wine is quite unique. It’s simple, with mainly lemon citrus and grassy, herby, notes. There’s an uncanny similarity to mineral water, albeit alcoholic mineral water. There is the faintest hint of texture, which I once described as like licking a pebble from a mountain stream (trust me). But it’s both gentle and invigorating. Thankfully, it seemed to be appreciated.

Aosta’s wines were almost never seen in the UK at one time, but they have been starting to appear in the past few years. There is a bewildering array of varieties, both autochthonous and international, ranging from Switzerland’s Petite Arvine, late harvest Chardonnay, passito Muscat, lovely Fumin, Pinot Noir, and even surprisingly high quality Nebbiolo from the eastern end of the valley. The Aosta region is Italy’s tiniest, and what the locals don’t guzzle goes down well with the winter sports enthusiasts. But unlike in Savoie, where much wine was (and occasionally still is) produced with undiscerning tourists in mind, Aosta’s small production has long been, for the most part, well worth seeking out (preferably in situe if you like mountain scenery, marmots, and small artisan wine producers who still rarely see many foreign visitors).

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A side benefit of meeting up with friends at Soif on this occasion was that I could grab a copy of the new “Media Highlights” brochure from Okanagan Crush Pad, which, alongside other venerable publications, contains some of my observations on the wines produced by this exciting crush facility in Canada’s most versatile wine region.

This was because one of the people I was meeting works for Crush Pad’s UK importer, Red Squirrel, and he thoughtfully brought along a couple of bottles of OCP’s own Haywire wines. My favourite red on this label is the Okanagan Valley Gamay Noir (2016). I recently read a really interesting article by Jon Bonné on Gamay from outside of Beaujolais, which was the catalyst for some praise of Canadian Gamay on social media. There’s no doubt that Okanagan Crush Pad make a delicious version. To quote myself here, it doesn’t attempt complexity but wins hands down on purity of fruit.

I managed to snaffle an open bottle of Haywire Secrest Mountain Vineyard Pinot Noir 2015 as well, also from the Okanagan Valley AQA. This is quite big for Pinot Noir (13.5% abv), with dense, quite dark, fruit. Not the subtlest of Pinots, but really lively and good with the charcuterie we were eating by that stage of the evening. I often read reviews which seem to focus praise on the crush pad’s white wines, and indeed their fantastic fizz, but don’t neglect to try the reds.

We finished the evening with a Negroni for dessert. That may give a further clue to the happy couple I spent the evening with (many congratulations due). Soif is a great place to go for natural wine, a very wide selection of small (and some not so small) plates, and a surfeit of bonhomie when the place starts moving, although I would like to think a lot of that was generated by my fellow drinkers. Soif is, as they say, (well) worth a detour.

 

 

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