The long Easter Bank Holiday here was not without its pleasures, a lovely picnic and some wonderful food, but it was mostly dedicated to decorating. It was rather nice, therefore, to be getting up bright and early last Tuesday to head off for breakfast in the new Chalk Restaurant at Wiston Estate. First up, breakfast with Dermot Sugrue (plus Damon Quinlan of Swig Wines, Agents for Wiston, and Ruth Spivey, of many hats including Star Wine Lists, Wine Car Boot, consultant, and not least an exciting book project which will bring a new angle to the writing about English Wine). We chatted about Dermot’s future plans for Sugrue South Downs (rather exciting, to be sure), but more of that later. Breakfast was followed by a tasting of the Wiston Estate range, and it is that which I shall begin with.
Wiston Estate is just north of Worthing in West Sussex, right on the busy southbound lanes of the A24. Literally a grass verge separates the outdoor, stainless steel, tanks from the traffic. Away from the road and the winery the South Downs rise reasonably steeply south of the village of Washington, where around 7 hectares of vines were planted from 2006. This is all part of the Goring family’s 2,400-hectare farm, but the sites chosen for vines, on Downland chalk, are quite special, with one vineyard in particular in a protected bowl with perfect exposure.
It was probably the exceptional vineyard sites that lured Dermot Sugrue to the new Wiston venture, from his short stint at Nyetimber, just before that estate was purchased by its current owner. Dermot has spent sixteen years at Wiston as Chief Winemaker, and during that time he has established himself as certainly one of the three best known winemakers in the UK, alongside developing his own brand, Sugrue South Downs.
The whole setup at Wiston has benefited from a lot of investment recently. This is not restricted to the winery, but equally into wine tourism. Although the new Chalk Restaurant is set in a very newly landscaped part of the site, some young vines planted but quite a bit of asphalt, from the breakfast I ate in a beautifully restored old Sussex barn, I’d say it’s well worth a visit. Next door is the tasting room and shop (where alongside the wines, and Wiston Gin, you can also buy the excellent coffee served in the restaurant, roasted by a not-for-profit company which works towards helping homeless people through various projects).
Our morning tasting comprised seven cuvées, three being non-vintage and four vintage. Pricing at Wiston has not yet reached the more speculative levels of some of the larger English producers, and you can still buy a very good classic NV and Rosé for under £30 here.
The tasting notes are brief because, let’s face it, TNs are dull, but I hope there’s enough to describe what the wine is like.
WISTON CUVÉE NV
Wiston’s house wine, a blend of all three “Champagne” varieties with judicious use of reserve wines from a perpetual reserve covering all vintages back to (I think) 2008, with just 2013 missing. It has that classic English apple freshness, linear, crisp and definitely chalky. It’s nice to try the entry level wine to the range and to taste something of the terroir from which it comes. £28.99.
WISTON VINTAGE 2017
This sees barrel ageing, but old barrels so there’s not really any direct sign of oak, but the ageing medium does give this cuvée a nice roundness. You can definitely see that. There’s also a textural note. The grape mix in the blend is 45% Pinot Noir, 33% Chardonnay and 22% Meunier, but you definitely get a fresh bready/brioche note which raises it above the non-vintage. It’s a wine with a nice savoury touch, and with further ageing potential. £38.99.
BLANC DE BLANCS NV
This cuvée is absolutely recognisable as a BdeB. Pale, deep, Chardonnay fruit on the nose. The base was the excellent 2018 vintage. The palate is really interesting with herbs and some exotic fruit (mango, peach) and candied citrus peel. This is not the best wine in the range, but it is almost certainly the best value. It over delivers on its £36 retail price.
BLANC DE NOIR 2014
The vintage BdeN has an astonishing bouquet of cherries, in fact cherry bakewell. I’ve never quite smelt anything like it on a sparkling wine and I love it. It has some blackcurrant in there too, and that comes in on the palate as well as the bouquet. It has a massive personality, but don’t think that means it lacks elegance. Nor structure. But it has a nice amount of age on it as well. I brought some BdeB home with me but I truly regret not grabbing a bottle of this as well (£56).
The vintage Rosé is a very pale salmon pink colour. The blend is 68% PN, 22% Meunier and 10% Ch. The fruit is very fine, carried along on an elegant line and length. It’s in the red fruits – pomegranate and cranberry spectrum. Added complexity comes with a touch of spice on the finish. It sets off the sweetly ripe fruit nicely. The gorgeous acids finish it off, a balanced, very impressive pink sparkling wine. £38.99. No photo (oops!).
The non-vintage Rosé is a much deeper pink. This wine is a total contrast to the 2014 vintage wine. Although overall it’s a much simpler wine, it’s very much more suited to pleasing a crowd outdoors in summer, assisted of course by the lower retail price. The fresh fruit explodes on the palate. Horses for courses. Whilst the vintage Rosé will appeal to the serious wine lover, who will pay the premium for what is much more than a very good example of the genre, this version provides great value for money. £28.99.
WISTON BLANC DE BLANCS 2015
This is the just-released vintage Chardonnay cuvée. It has an elegant, fragrant, bouquet with complex spices and an intense perfume. One of the ladies in the tasting room suggested it has a bouquet similar to “cologne”. It really does, but in a subtle way, not the overpowering smell you might be more au-fait with when thinking of that scent. Dosage at Wiston is generally in the range of 6-8g/l, and this wine has 8g dosage, but it does taste drier to me right now. It is a wine in its youth, with a way to go before it reaches full maturity. Perhaps that’s more just me and the way I like to drink my traditional method sparklers, and I can’t help but think that most will be drunk soon after purchase. Fair enough, but a shame. It’s very good right now, don’t get me wrong, but it will get even better. £45.99.
Some cuvées will be available in magnums from time to time.
As I said in my intro, Dermot Sugrue has been at the helm at Wiston for round about sixteen years. During that time, he’s developed a reputation few can match in English winemaking. There are brands which are perhaps better known by the general public, but Wiston undoubtedly makes exceptional wines. Pricing here, whilst having seen rises which reflect inflation, is not as speculative as many, especially true of the top cuvées. I’ve included a few prices in the notes above, for reference, from local Sussex independent retailer Butlers Wine Cellar, which always carries an exceptional range of English Sparkling Wines.
It seems the time has come for Dermot to move on. His own label, Sugrue South Downs, goes from strength to strength (awarded Boutique Producer at the WineGB Awards in both 2020 and 2021). Dermot currently makes four cuvées. The range starts with “The Trouble with Dreams”, the flagship as Dermot calls it (current vintage release 2017), a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (60:40) with 7,700 bottles from the vintage. This was my first introduction to Sugrue, and I still have a single bottle of the 2010 vintage awaiting an appropriate occasion to open it, perhaps alongside some of Peter Hall’s 2010s from Breaky Bottom.
“Cuvée Boz” is a Blanc de Blancs named after Dermot’s brother. The Chardonnay comes from Jenkyn Place Vineyard in Hampshire and the wine won a Trophy at the 2021 WineGB Awards. Next is “#ZODO”, a zero-dosage multi-vintage blend with a 2014 base and reserves from 2009 and 2011. Retail is £59-£62 for both.
Top of the range is the oak-aged “Cuvée Brendan O’Regan”, named in honour of Dermot’s uncle. It has the same proportion of Chardonnay versus Pinot Noir as “Dreams”, but the selection creates a wine “beautiful to enjoy now”, yet one to cellar for a decade if you are going to let go of £95 (though in a gift box with free delivery if purchased from the web site, www.sugruesouthdowns.com ).
I haven’t tasted these current releases, but there are some pretty reliable notes on the web site from Neal Martin.
Dermot is currently securing premises and equipment (tanks and a press, he’s going for a Vaslin Bucher membrane press), which ideally will be close to his Mount Harry vineyard between Lewes and Plumpton. To this he can add the grapes from his original leased site near Storrington, planted in 2006 for a monastic order, from where his Trouble with Dreams has been created.
Finally, there’s a new site of about of five hectares just inside Hampshire, mostly Chardonnay on chalk but also planted with a little block of thirty-year-old Bacchus, which Dermot is quite excited about trying to make something with. The initial production for Sugrue-Pierre, as it was known, was around 5,000 bottles, which rapidly increased to 11,000 bottles. But Dermot feels, justifiably, that he can increase this further without losing the boutique feel to these hand-crafted wines.
Dermot is a man on a mission when it comes to terroir, and creating wines which aim to illustrate their place. He realised very early on that the Storrington vineyard was pretty special, as I can attest from tasting the early vintages of “Dreams”. Mount Harry likewise. He should now have the opportunity to show that site’s character, perhaps through a site-specific Blanc de Blancs.
The wines Dermot has thus far made under his own label have been astonishing, very much in the high-quality artisan frame. That said, the wines have up until now been made in the shared space of Wiston, and with a good dollop of his grapes being sold to Wiston as well. With a 100% focus on Sugrue South Downs (plus a little consultancy work) the future is exciting. I think most people would agree that it is probably the most exciting development in English Wine this year.
Which seems a good note to end on. I had a thoroughly satisfying morning at Wiston Estate, the breakfast in the new Chalk Restaurant being as enjoyable as the tasting (not least for the company). Wiston has a new winemaker in place to take over after the 2022 vintage and carry on Dermot’s good work, and he will be around and on hand, at arms-length, to offer support. But he now has a brave new adventure to pursue. We can only wish him well, but I’m sure that a winemaker of his calibre will advance English wine even further when he is fully focused on his own label.
Continuing swiftly into Part 2 of the wines we most enjoyed at home during March, we begin with a gorgeous Crémant du Jura, then a long-time friend from Burgenland, my first taste of a natural wine producer from Alsace, a long-sought Bugey-Cerdon, Tim Phillips’s immaculate Hampshire Cider and a white from a relatively new German producer I’m beginning to like a lot. I think we should jump straight in.
CRÉMANT DU JURA 2016, DOMAINE BURONFOSSE (Jura, France)
Peggy and Jean-Pascal Buronfosse farm just four hectares at La Combe, near the famous Southern Jura village of Rotalier, and at St-Laurent-de-Grandvaux. They had the opportunity to start their domaine when one of Rotalier’s old-timers took a shine to what Peggy wanted to achieve and allowed them to take over his vines. That was more than twenty years ago. They now have an Ecocert accredited domaine, making a lovely range of wines, but I shamefully have to admit that having sought out many of their bottles in the region, this was the first time I’d drunk their Crémant.
Peggy had a lot of encouragement from near neighbour Jean-François Ganevat, and this has influenced the couple to concentrate on white wines, as is common in Jura’s Sud-Revermont…though I must say that in my opinion their reds are no less good. This particular vintage of the Crémant blends a little Savagnin into what was always a pure Chardonnay cuvée (I am told).
Bottle age has matured it into a delicious wine of depth, but one which also seems to mirror the vivacity of its maker. This really is good. It’s not just “drinking the stars”, it’s drinking the whole damned Milky Way. It’s not cheap (for Crémant du Jura) at £39/bottle retail, but I have to admit I’m very tempted to buy some more. Trouble is, production is small and demand is great. It’s one of those domaines you might find more easily in New York or Tokyo, but Buronfosse comes into the UK through Raeburns. My bottle came from The Solent Cellar, one of the most astute purchasers/retailers of Jura wines in the country.
BLAUFRÄNKISCH RIED KULM 2017, HEIDI SCHRÖCK (Burgenland, Austria)
I visited Heidi Schröck when I spent a few days in Rust, back in 2015 (which is way too long ago…definitely would have been back but for Covid). I had appreciated her wines for a few years, but meeting her I realised just what a wonderful human being she is. This always enhances my love of the wines.
Heidi lives and works on the edge of the town’s chocolate box main square, where she will receive visitors by appointment. She’s been in charge of the family’s vines since 1983. Those vines total around ten hectares on the gentle slopes angled towards the shallow reed beds of the Neusiedlersee’s western shore. The domaine produces a wide range of wines, from single varietals, both red and white, up to complex Ruster-Ausbrüch stickies. Her red wines are most often from soils on limestone, which here produce classic Blaufränkisch.
This single vineyard cuvée was aged in wood. We get deep scented cherries on the bouquet and palate too, a little structure, but the tannins have smoothed out just enough to make this 2017 in a nice place for drinking (but it will keep longer if you insist). There is always something mineral about the variety from this location, both on the nose as well as the palate, where it gives an earthy edge here to the quite concentrated fruit.
This bottle came via Lay & Wheeler, though in the past I have bought it several times direct from Alpine Wines.
L’INDIGÈNE 2020, DOMAINE BOHN (Alsace, France)
Bernard and Arthur Bohn, father and son respectively, have nine hectares of vines on Precambrian schist, slate and shale at Reichsfeld and on sandstone and volcanic soils at Nothalten. We are in the Bas Rhin here, just a little to the south of Andlau and Mittelbergheim, in what has become perhaps the golden triangle of Alsace natural winemaking. This is a three-centuries-old family domaine, but it was Arthur’s arrival on the team in 2010 which saw the move to low-input viticulture, including the rejection of any added sulphur, along with a predilection for skin contact.
Arthur is also (far from alone in Alsace in this respect) interested in pursuing the no-till practices of Masanobu Fukuoka (see my article on Fukuoka’s “One Straw Revolution” on this site, August 2021). Both father and son very much see themselves as conservationists as well as farmers.
L’Indigène is made from 70-y-o Sylvaner coming two-thirds off the Reichsfeld schist and a third from that Nothalten sandstone. The skin contact here is a fairly significant five weeks, after which they remove the dry top of the cap before gentle pressing into foudre. The result is an equally gentle bronze colour with a bouquet of apricot and soft apple. The palate is super-refreshing, with more of the apricot plus a little almost peppery spice. There’s a bit of apple skin too and a little bit of tannic texture.
It doesn’t really help when I say that this was exceptional. I grabbed it off the top shelf at Winemakers Club the second I saw it, sitting all lonely on its own. Now it’s all gone. Domaine Bohn is brought to the UK by Vine Trail, who I sadly have to say is one of the very few importers who really get Alsace (pet beef here), certainly the exciting new wines coming out of the region.
BUGEY-CERDON 2019, RENARDÂT-FACHE (Bugey, France)
Bugey is one of those few remaining parts of France viticole that could still truly be described as a sleepy rural idyll. The vineyards sit south of the Jura region, of which those of the Cerdon cru are an extension, on a vague line between Bourg-en-Bresse and Geneva. They are within France’s first department, Ain. The Bugey vineyards are split, north and south. The southern sector includes the crus of Montagnieu and Manicle and many wines are based on traditional Savoie varieties. Bugey-Cerdon sits in the northern section of the appellation, just south of the rather impressive tunnels and vast concrete supports of the aptly named A40 “Autoroute des Titans”, which I have driven along many times, bound for Geneva.
As Wink Lorch points out (Wines of the French Alps, 2019), Renardat-Fâche is the most internationally known producer (exported to 12 countries, she says) of a wine which many, I guess, might think old-fashioned and even obsolete. Yet it isn’t. Not remotely. It is a wine whose time has come. Cerdon is an Ancestral Method light sparkler which ends its fermentation leaving the wine with some residual sugar and low alcohol.
Current winemaker Elie is passionate about Poulsard. These days much Cerdon is made from just Gamay, as in fact is the Renardat-Fâche negociant bottling (they buy in about 20% of grapes used), which also contains fruit from their young vines. This domaine bottling (black label) usually contains around 30% Poulsard. In 2019 I think the Poulsard quota went up to 42%.
Viticulture has always been organic, and Elie is using some elements of biodynamics too. The one thing holding him back from full conversion is the rain they get. Vinification starts with a maceration/soak of some of the grapes, to get the pale colour from the skins. Just a few hours are enough. Local yeasts get the fermentation in bottle started, and unlike in Champagne, the bottles are left standing up, not laid down. A lot of local quality producers swear by this, saying that it starts the fermentation more slowly and leads to finer bubbles. Elie is unusual, however, in that since 2020 (ie the vintage after this) he has begun to blend vintages for consistency.
The wine is light pink in colour, very fresh and fruity, light on the palate and frankly delicious. The red fruit dances on the tongue. It’s hard to think of a better wine to drink at lunch, outdoors in the middle of a hot summer, or with cake for afternoon tea. This is not one of the sweeter versions of Bugey-Cerdon, being more off-dry rather than semi-sweet. The acids set off the sugar remaining from a ferment where just 8% abv is achieved. The received wisdom is to drink these within a year of release, but this is still fresh and rather lovely. I have another bottle, which I’m hoping to add to next week.
Domaine Renardat-Fâche is at Mérignat (115 rue de la Balmette). The village is close to the autoroute, and you will also find there the domaines of Raphaël Bartucci and Balivet (the latter whose wines you may have seen me write about here on a number of occasions). According to Wink Lorch’s book, all three accept visitors by appointment. After trying to track down this particular wine for at least two years Solent Cellar kindly ordered some in for me. Raeburn is, as with Buronfosse above, the UK importer. Perhaps I need to pay them a bit closer attention!
Charlie Herring is the domaine name for Tim Phillips, who makes tiny quantities of highly sought-after wines from a walled vineyard (Clos du Paradis) in Hampshire, just west of Lymington. To supplement his small grape production Tim is fortunate to own an orchard next door. There is generally more cider to satisfy his expectant customers than wine, so it is fortunate that his cider is excellent as well.
Tim made wine in South Africa before he returned to the UK. He still has mature stocks of his red wines made there (some are available from Littlewine and are well worth checking out). A friend of Tim’s, Tom Shobbrook, makes a cider/red wine blend in Australia near Seppeltfield. I don’t know whether this provided any inspiration for Tim, but his “Perfect Strangers” cider (clue in the name) is made with the addition of a small dose of Tim’s South African Shiraz. It gives the cider both colour and a wine-like flavour. Something different but something special.
The addition of red wine also has the effect of making this fine-bubbled drink quite like a petnat in some respects, as much as it also has the apple-freshness that signals it is cider. There’s vibrant ripe apple fruit, which also adds the acids of a good dry cider. This combines with winey red fruits on the nose to at first confuse before satisfying. Makes you think as well as taste. This bottle is a 2017 vintage, disgorged November 2020. It tastes just made yesterday.
I buy this cider regularly, so I’m sure a good few readers will have seen me write about it before. I make no apology for writing about it again. I usually buy my bottles direct from Tim, but they are sometimes available, until they sell out, from Les Caves de Pyrene, and at Tim’s local indie wine shop, Solent Cellar in Lymington (around £18). Tim will be at Tobacco Dock for The Real Wine Fair in late May. His bottles (especially the wines) are so rare that this may afford the best chance of trying his range. He should have a new still pink cider to show alongside some wines. There’s rarely a bottle left of most of the wines within a week of release in most vintages. The recent release of his famous sparkling Riesling was distributed by single bottle lottery. Tim has a very devoted following.
“BLANC” 2019, MAX SEIN WEIN (Franconia, Germany)
Max Baumann is a talented new name working vines at Wertheim-Dertingen, in Württemberg/Franconia, southeast of Stuttgart. It’s not exactly somewhere you will find on most vineyard maps of Germany. Coming from a winemaking family of several generations, Max travelled to make wine in New Zealand, but slightly closer to home he worked with Judith Beck and Gut Oggau, both in Burgenland, Austria. He has several varieties planted on a small 3.5-ha estate. Some are from vines over sixty years of age, almost all on limestone (around 5% on red sandstone).
“Blanc” blends three of Max’s white varieties, Müller-Thurgau, Silvaner and Gewürztraminer. His methods are described as organic, but he uses no additives and this wine is made without any added sulphur. The MT is 50% fermented on skins for ten days and the rest is direct pressed with the Silvaner. The Gewürztraminer is then added in. Fermentation is mostly in old oak, around 10% in stainless steel.
The nose manages to confuse a little initially, but in a complex way. It starts out quite herbal, savoury, and then the Gewürz spice comes through, and with it a richness of tone and a bit more roundness. The palate is deliciously savoury too, but it’s also very zingy with apple freshness. On the finish I am sure I was getting ginger. I’ve become something of a fan of Max’s wines and I am also impressed with what he manages to do with Pinot Meunier in a still red.
This wine is still available (at the time of looking) at Basket Press Wines, £25.
March already seems an age away. I’m late with my “Recent Wines” articles, in part because of the Vineyards of Hampshire piece, but we’ve also got builders in so we’re a bit upside down. There are only a dozen wines to write about but even that is perhaps a bit much for one sitting, so I’ll still publish two articles as usual this month, just six wines in each.
We shall go to Burgundy for Aligoté to start Part 1, then Piemonte, Kakheti, Rheinhessen, Bonnezeaux and North Canterbury. That includes famous names (De Moor, Rinaldi and Keller), an unknown (Nika Winery) plus two stunning wines, one a dry Loire Chenin and the other, a five-variety blend from my favourite producer in NZ.
BOURGOGNE ALIGOTÉ 2019, ALICE & OLIVIER DE MOOR (Burgundy, France)
I don’t buy a great deal of Burgundy these days on account of the prices but I have not yet gone a vintage without buying a few bottles of Alice and Olivier De Moor’s wines, whether that be Chablis or their Aligotés, which I think count among the best in the wider region. Of course, the De Moors make their exceptionally rare “Plantation 1902”, which of necessity must be saved for a special occasion, but this, their “straight” Aligoté, is usually available, at least a bottle or three, for a month or two after release.
Aligoté is not what it was…for which we can be thankful. It was often pretty acidic. This meant that from lesser producers it was consigned to making Kir. From the top producers it generally needed long ageing so that the acid levels, somewhat similar to those found in my home made Frühburgunder on bottling, could soften just a little. Burgundy has seen something of an Aligoté revival, about which I have written in the past, and some growers have proved the variety is capable of so much more than a base for blackcurrant liqueur.
There is 13.5% alcohol in this wine, which helps give it both weight and presence, although we do have perfect balance because Aligoté will always have a degree of acidity. At approaching three years old it is in a nice place. If you believe that terroir trumps variety, then this wine will help prove that point. It tastes like a prehistoric seabed of marine fossils, and it smells almost chalky too, like oyster shell (washed, of course) with a twist of lemon. It also has a touch of viscosity which you don’t often get with Aligoté. But if one descriptor leaps out, you guessed it, salinity! It coats the whole palate. The salinity and fruit come together in something actually quite sensual. A beguiling wine, as always.
Imported by Les Caves de Pyrene.
DOLCETTO D’ALBA “ROUSSOT” 2020, FRANCESCO RINALDI (Piemonte, Italy)
This Alba producer is naturally famed for their Barolo wines, but they have a fairly good distribution for wines made from the so-called lesser varieties of the Langhe. I say “so-called” because as any lover of the region knows, you buy your Barolo to drink in the next life and your Barbera and Dolcetto to drink in this one. Although there is some nice wine labelled as Nebbiolo d’Alba, you can often get more satisfaction from the other traditional varieties, especially with food.
“Roussot” is a traditional wine from a traditional producer, but having the Rinaldi name attached, it is no mere afterthought to fill a gap in the range. It is fermented in stainless steel to retain the fruit freshness that the best Dolcetto has. No pimping-up with wood or anything. It goes through its malolactic whilst there, and then into bottle. The fruit is indeed fresh, and crunchy, balanced with violet and other floral notes on the nose. The finish is that classic mix of bitter-sweet red and dark fruits.
This 2020 might actually improve in bottle but I’d say don’t bother, it’s not the point. Enjoy it now. It’s delicious, and £18 isn’t too much to pay for a versatile wine like this. Fusilli with pesto, chopped tomatoes, garlic, salad onions and some baby spinach and we’re away.
This was purchased at Butlers Wine Cellar, Brighton.
“DATO NOAH” 2020, NIKA WINERY (Kakheti, Georgia)
In February we drank a red wine from Nika Winery, my first from this little-known producer in Georgia’s eastern province of Kakheti. This wine also comes from the same stony Tsaraphi vineyard as that red. It’s in the Alazani Valley and is one of eight smallish plots farmed by artist and sculptor Nika Bakhia and his wife. They have all been farmed organically from the start (2006) and it is doubtful these old vines had ever seen chemical inputs. Winemaking uses the traditional qvevri vessels for fermentation and ageing.
Dato Noah references Nika’s nephews, David and Noah. It’s a single varietal Rkatsiteli. Out of the qvevri it is a glistening bronze colour, certainly darker than many skin contact wines. The bouquet is at first sweet apricot and (yes) rust. It has an earthy nose and texture which immediately reminded me of my first taste of COS Frappato all those years ago.
The palate adds honey but also tannin from the skins. Unfiltered, it’s a wine that is broad-shouldered, carried by its 14.5% alcohol. It’s a complex wine, not at first easy to understand on tasting on its own, I think, but it excels with food. It does evolve, both the bouquet and on the palate, over time in a nice big glass, and not too chilled.
Nika Winery is a recent addition to the Basket Press Wines portfolio. Credit to those guys for being adventurous. There was a time when Georgia was left to Les Caves, so it’s good to see others joining the party.
This is another wine from a famous, classic, producer which deviates from their most expensive and sought-after wines. In this case, Klaus Peter Keller is well known for making wines towards the bottom of his range which are almost every bit as good as the top wines. Well, if that’s a slight exaggeration, it’s not that far off the mark. They certainly represent amazing value. The demand for the top wines of Rheinhessen’s most famous son is such that even those who can afford them can’t always purchase them. But if you want Keller Silvaners, Weisserburgunder, or indeed this blend, you can usually get hold of them and astute drinkers do just that.
Weißer Burgunder is a bit of a speciality at this Florsheim-Dalsheim address anyway, and KP has always been adept at getting the best from it, but I think many people are surprised to find Chardonnay here. They go well together. Felix Keller has coaxed orchard fruits (apple and pear) from grapes vinified swiftly after picking. The terroir is, I’m told, what adds the lick of salinity. At the moment the wine has a very appealing zippy freshness, but if kept a while it will evolve a more creamy texture and will last at least five years. Not that I could ever buy enough to keep any that long.
Purchased from The Solent Cellar (£28), according to their web site they have just half-a-dozen left. You could also try Howard Ripley.
“FRIMAS” 2019, CHÂTEAU DE BONNEZEAUX (Loire, France)
The grape variety we all complain no one drinks enough of is Riesling. Well, it’s probably my favourite variety and I drink plenty. What I don’t drink enough of, a variety equally capable of greatness, is Chenin Blanc. This is a wine which has emphatically reminded me of that fact.
I do remember the old sweet wines of the Château de Bonnezeaux from back when I had just begun to appreciate wine. It appears that the vineyards fell out of production for about three decades until a younger member of the family, Guyonne Saclier de la Bâtie, along with her uncle, revived them. But with one big difference. Bonnezeaux, the appellation, is for sweet wines, and Guyonne is making biodynamic dry Chenin Blanc, so this is labelled Vin de France.
Frimas comes from parcels close to the château itself, but some purchased fruit was used in this 2019 because the frost-affected crop was tiny. It is therefore technically a negociant wine. The vines are on schist slopes and were hand-harvested. Fermentation used natural indigenous yeasts and the grapes were basket-pressed very gently. After spending 12 months in oak the wine was, however, lightly filtered before bottling, with a small addition of sulphur.
The bouquet is classic Chenin, certainly identifiable by those who know the variety. The confit lemon and honey of the bouquet is replicated on the palate along with a touch of pear. The wine is dry, but there’s a definite richness, accentuated by the lovely balanced 13.5% alcohol, and seen in the notable legs on the side of the glass. It’s a lovely honey colour too. This wine has so much. It’s fairly rare but it was only £30, again at The Solent Cellar, and came as a recommendation from Simon Smith. Of all the wines so far drunk in 2022, this one surprised me the most. I’d never heard of it. Now it’s all over social media. I’m very glad I once again trusted his recommendation. A lovely wine. Must…drink…more…Chenin!
FIELD BLEND 2018 “SKIN FERMENTATION”, THE HERMIT RAM (North Canterbury, New Zealand)
Theo Coles makes quite remarkable wines from the Limestone Hills Vineyard in North Canterbury, on New Zealand’s South Island. They are so far removed from what most people experience as New Zealand wines, and yet they are full of excitement, even if that sometimes takes them close to the edge. I’ve only met Theo a couple of times and can’t say I know him, and yet through his wines he seems to come closest to a couple of other producers I revere, Julie Balagny and Alice Bouvot.
Since he began making wine here in 2012, Theo has used zero additives and the wines are all gently matured in old oak. The field blend here contains Riesling, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Sauvignon and Gewurztraminer, all old vines within the North Canterbury context. The (red) juice sees six weeks on skins after which it is pressed into very old barrels where it goes through its malolactic. Then it’s bottled with no fining, no filtration and no additions of sulphur.
The aromatics are lovely, quite exotic (maybe a touch of the Gewurz coming through?) but mostly of bright red fruits. I don’t know the percentages, but on the palate this does have a bit of Pinot Noir character. If the nose is intoxicating then the palate escapes like a jack-in-the-box with fresh red fruits riding on a wave of concentrated fruit acids. Delicious.
Uncharted Wines imports Hermit Ram, but you will also possibly find their wines at Littlewine, where I grabbed this. The 2020 vintage is currently on special offer on their web site, priced at £22 (£3 off). If you want to try an edgy NZ natural wine, it’s a bargain, though approach with caution if you like your NZ reds in a more classical style.
It was a little over two years ago that I was at 67 Pall Mall for the last Vineyards of Hampshire Press and Trade Tasting. It was nice to see some old friends among those exhibiting, and to taste the first wine from their newest member, Louis Pommery England. Below you will find some notes on the wines shown from nine exhibitors. I’ve tried to avoid being expansive on all of the wines, bearing in mind that producers showed up to seven wines in one case. Pommery currently has only one.
The vineyards represented are pretty much situated in the eastern half of the county, all of them (near enough) to the east of a line drawn between Southampton and Andover. The terroirs vary but the common factor is chalk. Raimes has some greensand, I believe, but the rest of the producers are on chalk. However, this is not all it seems, because the larger producers will source fruit from contract growers. Hattingley sources grapes from Sussex and Kent, plus a little from Essex, Buckinghamshire and even Suffolk, to supplement its own ten hectares, plus grapes from contract growers within Hampshire. It is reassuring that their still Pinot Noir red wine comes from sand and clay in Kent, rather than their own very fine but probably unsuitable Hampshire chalk.
Jacob Leadley and Zoë Driver make a powerful team at Black Chalk. Leadley was an experienced winemaker at Hattingley when he started his own production what was only a few years ago. Zoë Driver came on board as assistant winemaker following studies at Plumpton, but I have a suspicion she has a very bright future. The pair are the definition of dynamic, though Jacob comes across as the least extrovert of the two. I remember being pulled over to taste the first vintage at a Red Squirrel (now Graft Wine) tasting and being blown away by how good the wines were. I can honestly say that they have only got better.
Black Chalk’s Test Valley wines are not the only things which have come on since that tasting in September 2018. They have managed to build their own winery, and have just opened a new tasting room to give visitors an experience worthy of the wines.
My first sip of the day was the Classic Brut 2018(II), a blend of 58% Chardonnay, 32% Pinot Meunier and 10% Pinot Noir. The hallmark of Black Chalk sparklers is freshness, poise, and a focussed spine of acidity. This is lovely. Wild Rose 2018 (II) shown here is, as with the Classic, a second bottling from the vintage. It underwent more malolactic than the first bottling (around 90% of the wine). There are frankly few English Sparkling Rosé wines which can compete with this. Stylistically it’s a little softer than the first release from 2018, but it really is packed with red fruits which fill the mouth. It’s a personal pink favourite, though at £40 it isn’t priced for my frequent purchase. Others may be luckier.
I’ve mentioned acidity and I should qualify this by saying that the balance in both of these wines is excellent. It creates a certain tension on the palate. Some English sparkling wines may be more easy-going, and this is undoubtably true where some estates (I’m not necessarily thinking within Hampshire here) make a “classic cuvée” alongside a reserve. The Black Chalk wines might not have wide commercial appeal for the cellar gate coach parties. They are wines for those who seek a thrill, not exclusively for connoisseurs, but wines which will certainly appeal to that kind of clientele. I’m not sure whether Jacob would agree, but the observation is intended very much as a compliment, nevertheless.
We can’t leave without mentioning Dancer in Pink. This is their still Rosé, 2021 being the just-released second vintage. A blend of Pinots Noir and Précose (aka Frühburgunder), with around 16% Pinot Gris. The PG adds a nice touch to the aromatics and although this is perhaps a more easy-going addition to the Black Chalk portfolio, it’s an essential purchase for summer drinking (and I think a permanent fixture). At a RRP of £19 it is also cracking value compared to the more speculative pricing of some English still wines.
Cottonworth is the English estate of the Liddell family. Run by Hugh Liddell and his wife, they are now living in Saint-Aubin in Burgundy, making Chardonnay wines from vines there and in Chassagne, whilst continuing to run their 30-acre English estate. Cottonworth, like Black Chalk, is based in the exceptional Test Valley, between Stockbridge and Andover.
We had three sparkling wines to taste from Cottonworth. The Classic Cuvée is based around just over 50% Chardonnay with 35% Pinot Noir and a touch of ripe Meunier. It’s a softer style than the Black Chalk, but I like variety and Cottonworth is also a producer whose wines I’ve purchased with some regularity. They also generally come in ever so slightly cheaper than Black Chalk. I’d say it has mouth-filling soft brioche developing and ripe fruit on the palate.
The Cottonworth Blanc de Blancs 2014 is, of course, 100% Chardonnay. After four years on lees this is lovely, and quite impressive. Of course, the price leap is £12 (this has a RRP of £45), but you expect that for the extra age and the quality warrants it.
The Sparkling Rosé is very pale and delicate. It shows vibrant, lifted, red fruits, based on a blend of 51% Pinot Noir, a little less Meunier and a dash of PNP (Précose). Cottonworth benefits from warm, south-facing, slopes, but the fruit balances ripeness and freshness to retain elegance, which kind of goes with the wine’s lovely pale colour.
Danebury is the third of our Hampshire vineyards situated near Stockbridge. The vines were planted in the old paddocks of what was a racecourse back in the 19th century, and their single sparkling wine is named after a famous local racehorse which won the 1847 Epsom Derby, and whose painting is hung in the family house. Danebury is a small estate, making wines for the past twenty years, from its own vineyards, but it is open to visitors on set open days and for afternoon teas.
Before tasting the sparkling wine, I got to try the latest vintages of the still wines. Unique among the exhibitors, Danebury has some of what I call England’s “traditional” grape varieties, by which I mean those varieties planted in the earlier days of the industry, before the so-called Champagne varieties became popular and viable.
There is a single varietal Madeleine Angevine 2020, a Schönburger 2021, and a Reserve 2020. Of the three I have a kind of nostalgic preference for the Madeleine. It has a fresh apple acidity but also a softness to it. The Schönburger is more floral, with some pear and grapefruit. The Reserve blends those two varieties (30% each) with 40% Auxerrois to create something with a bit more complexity, if slightly less defined in terms of varietal character.
The Cossack Brut Vintage 2018 is 95% Auxerrois (once considered a clone of Pinot Blanc, with which it is often blended in Alsace), to which they have added just 5% Pinot Gris. It had three years on lees and has a nice freshness to it.
I do like the Danebury sparkler, but I am always intrigued by their Schönburger, and especially the Madeleine Angevine. These still wines have a remarkably low retail price of around £12 (the Reserve is only a pound more). They are not the finest still wines made in England, perhaps, but they are very well-made examples of a product from what seems almost a different age of English viticulture. If you can find them. It’s definitely worth seeking out some of England’s smaller producers.
This has always been an impressive producer, no doubt in large part down to their impressive winemaker, Corinne Seely. Corinne has made wine in Bordeaux, at Lynch-Bages and Domaine de Chevalier, no less, although perhaps her experience in Portugal and Australia helped engender an outlook which led her to become head winemaker here on the edge of the South Downs, at Exton, east of Winchester and Southampton.
The vineyards here, all 24 ha (60 acres), are quite high and exposed, with in places frighteningly little topsoil over the chalk. Corinne retains the intensity of the fruit by ensuring it reaches the press, located in the heart of the vineyard as is often the case in Champagne, within around five minutes of picking.
The truly exciting development at Exton Park since I last tasted their wines is the signature “Reserve Blend” range. Each of the four wines tasted has the letters RB followed by a number indicating the number of reserve wines in the blend. There is now a ten-year library of reserves which Corinne built up in order to be able to create consistent quality over time. This allows the team to draw on perhaps the most sophisticated range of wines in England with which to build each cuvée.
Exton Park RB28 Brut is a Blanc de Noirs, 100% PN, showing glorious red fruits to the fore, both in the aromatics and on the palate. Whilst quite rich, and very mouth-filling, the acids are nicely judged.
Exton Park RB32 Brut (60:40 Ch and PN) has had a majestic five years on lees and 7g/l dosage with no malo. Long, mouth-filling, delicious. A wine of precision but also with a bit of weight.
Exton Park Rosé RB23 (70% PN, 30% Meunier) had three years on lees. The colour is pale, but not extremely so. The colour comes from a very gentle nine-hour press. The red fruits are super ripe and this is a lovely vibrant wine.
Exton Park RB45 is the top of the range so-to-speak, as denoted by the number of different reserves which make up the blend. This is a Blanc de Blancs, 100% Chardonnay. It’s made from only reserves, no current vintage, and lees ageing is for four years. The dosage is 9g/l. The bouquet immediately shows great depth, something you get on the palate too. A combination of the lees ageing of Chardonnay, but also from the fact that 25% of the blend saw wood.
This wine has a RRP of just under £50. I would suggest that at this level of quality and even greater complexity with a little more ageing, that is in fact something of a bargain. Especially as some English producers are getting quite ambitious with their current pricing of top cuvées. Just my opinion.
As a postscript, some readers will, like me, have a bit of a thing for Corinne’s occasional Pinot Meunier Rosé cuvée. I understand that another one may be on the way. Look out for it.
Burge’s Field, a 30-acre vineyard, was planted in 2011 overlooking the River Itchen, six miles east of Winchester. The topsoil is a thin layer of gravelly clay, beneath which is a very deep layer of pure Cretaceous chalk. This is the estate, known as The Grange, was founded by a banker, the late John Ashburton and is now run by his children. They have their own dedicated vineyard team on site, but the wines are made at Hattingley, overseen by Chief Winemaker and Hattingley Director, Emma Rice.
There are two wines in the range here. Classic Cuvée is a non-vintage blend of Chardonnay (50%) with 28% Meunier and the remainder PN, and 13% being reserve wines added to (in this case) the 2017 vintage. The reserve wines come from a solera/perpetual reserve. 18% of the wine sees fourth fill oak and only 40% went through malo. Lees ageing was 37 months and dosage 8g/l. It’s a softer style in some ways (despite only partial malolactic), but a nicely put together wine with wide appeal without appearing at all “commercial”.
The Pink NV is mostly comprised fruit from the 2017 vintage, a fairly even blend of Meunier with just a touch more Pinot Noir. This also saw 37 months on lees and was dosed slightly lower, at 7g/l. It shows nice fresh acidity and it also has a very interesting savoury note adding complexity above and beyond the red fruits. There’s also a little texture. Very nice.
Although this is a producer who does not yet have its own winery, the wines are immaculately made in their own style. They have won lots of awards, both in the UK and internationally, pretty impressive for a very new producer.
Hambledon is one of the great names of English wine. Not only was the village the birthplace of cricket, but of more relevance to us, it was where Sir Guy Salisbury-Jones planted the first English commercial vineyard of what we should call the modern era, in 1975. Today the man behind Hambledon is biochemist Ian Kellett, who has some persuasive views as to why this site, southeast-facing towards the gentle morning sun, on chalk with a high concentration of Belemnite, apparently identical to that at Le Mesnil on Champagne’s Côte des Blancs, is perfect for ripening Champagne varieties.
There are just over 80-ha of vines here, processed in a gravity-fed winery said to be unique in Great Britain, and stored in a cellar dug into the chalk just like Champagne. As at Exton Park, the presses are close enough to the vines to allow minimal time between picking and pressing. The wines produced, three of them, are all different, but when we speak of Le Mesnil, it is true that they all exhibit, to varying degrees, that classic minerality found in wines from the pure chalk of that part of the Côte des Blancs. Rain and, to a large degree wind as well, are mitigated by the presence of the Isle of Wight to the south. All that is required, it seems, is a focus on quality, and we certainly have that, evidenced by the awards garnered in recent years.
Hambledon Classic Cuvée 2016 is based on nearly 60% Chardonnay with around a third Pinot Noir and a sixth Meunier. It spent three years on its lees and is dosed at a more crowd-pleasing 12g/l. The result is a fruit-forward wine with a high degree of accessibility…but it doesn’t lack depth. It’s also a very consistent wine, one which I’ve been happy to order, mostly as an aperitif, in restaurants, knowing it won’t disappoint us.
Classic Cuvée Rosé is made differently from most English pink sparkling wine. The fruit is Chardonnay, to which is blended 10% still wine made from Pinot Noir. In other words, this is what is known in Champagne as a “Rosé d’Assemblage”. The colour comes from the judicial addition of red wine rather than skin contact from red grapes before fermentation. Dosed at 10g/l it is still fresh with a good acid spine, but the red fruit tastes ripe and mouth-filling.
Hambledon Première Cuvée is another of English Sparkling Wine’s bargains (RRP £55). The current version spent 62 months on lees, having been disgorged at the end of May last year (so we have a further ten months post-disgorgement ageing too). Dosage is a low, connoisseur-enticing, 2.5g/l. This is a special wine. I mean, the other two are good, but this…
We have a predominance of Chardonnay (67%) with 11% PN and 22% Meunier. The bouquet is complex, drifting between the aromatics of Chardonnay and the red fruit of the Pinots. There’s a lovely mouthfeel which accentuates the mineral texture with a nice savoury grip on the finish. Something comes through that I thought might be sweet ginger spice.
I have probably recounted the story before of how founder Simon Robinson decided to turn twenty-five acres of his chalky farm over to vines after having seen an item on television about the English wine industry. That was way back in 2000. Today Hattingley is one of English Wine’s major players, down in no small part to their head winemaker Emma Rice. Emma has become one of the three or four big names in the production side of the industry.
Emma may have worked in three New World wine countries (Australia, New Zealand and California in the US) following her studies at Plumpton (graduating in 2006), but apparently, according to Oz Clarke (English Wine, Pavilion, 2020) wine was in her blood from an early age because her mother used to take her grape harvesting as a child. Emma has twice been crowned UK Vineyards Association Winemaker of the Year (2014 and 2016).
Seven Hattingley wines were on taste, and I hope not to do them a disservice in trimming my notes. As well as their current 10.5-ha of vines planted close to the very impressive winery near Arlesford, I have already recounted in my introduction how they also source fruit from far and wide. This has enabled an expansion of the range into still wines. This is surely the next step for the industry here in Britain.
There were three still wines to taste. Still White 2020 is a Chardonnay with a classic varietal bouquet coming in at 12.5% abv. Just less than 15% of the juice has seen oak. It combines crispness and soft fruit and might be described as a clean cool climate Chardonnay. Reserve Chardonnay 2020 is 100% aged in used oak for six months. Interestingly the alcohol is slightly lower, at 12%. It has a richer bouquet and mouthfeel/weight. Nice and smooth on the palate with a little bit of texture. It will probably get even better. Still Red 2020 is made from Pinot Noir sourced off sandy clay in Kent. The grower had, on the request of Hattingley, planted a number of Burgundy clones for this wine. The fruit is ripe, but the wine, at least at this stage, tastes quite primary. It has good Pinot character, though with a RRP of £25 it is worth keeping it a while to see how it ages.
There are four sparklers. The cheapest of them (a good value £32 RRP) is the Hattingley Valley Classic Reserve NV. The blend of this 2015-based cuvée is (I was told) 53% Ch, 31% PN and 15% PM. Not sure what the other 1% is! The lovely bouquet suggests honeysuckle to me. Acids are fresh and it has the depth of some age.
Rosé 2018 (50% PN, 45% PM and 5% PNP, the latter added as a still wine) is pale, elegant, red-fruited, but also very interesting. Because it’s so elegant it has something more to it that it’s difficult to put your finger on. It’s lovely now, but I’d also like to taste it to see what happens after another year of pda. It could become quite ethereal.
Blanc de Blancs 2014 is yet another step up the ladder, but is still well-priced at a little over £40. The longer lees ageing has certainly added complexity but not at the expense of amazing freshness. In some ways this might be the “value” sweet spot in the range, definitely worth the extra tenner, so to speak.
King’s Cuvée 2014 is certainly another step up in quality. In fact, it’s a very impressive wine. It’s also a good step up in price, retailing at around £85. It is made from the best barrels (sic) of the harvest, usually the best five or six. In 2014 the blend of grape varieties was something like 45% PN, 43% Ch and 12% Meunier. The fruit saw 100% wood ageing with disgorgement in June 2020. The PDA shows. There’s so much depth here, and indeed concentration. I’d suggest, however, that good as it may be right now, look at this wine as an investment…which will mature in a number of years. They don’t give an indication of maturity, but knowing how I like to age my Champagnes, I’d be tempted to take a look after four or five years without expecting full maturity. I think it will go longer.
LOUIS POMMERY ENGLAND
We have talked, within the industry, of investors snooping around from Champagne, but there has been less concrete interest than that hyped in the press. Of course, Taittinger has begun to develop its interestingly named Domaine Evremond. And then we have Pommery. Strictly speaking, this isn’t a Champagne-led operation because the impetus for establishing an English vineyard at Pinglestone came in fact from Pommery’s Californian outpost.
Nevertheless, Pommery is the first Champagne brand to get up and running in England, with their estate at Pinglestone producing, so far, just one wine. The vineyards are close to the environmentally significant watercress meadow beds at the confluence of the rivers Itchen and Arle, on white chalk. In recognition of the importance of the location here, they have also achieved “Sustainable Wine of Great Britain” status (as of last year). Measures additional to sustainable viticulture include bee hives situated in the centre of the estate.
There are a significant 30-ha already planted, with a further 10-ha being planted currently. The first harvest was in 2020 when selected bunches were taken. Hattingley has made the first wines. The plan is to build a winery/cuverie but English planning law is not always helpful to those investing in the rural economy.
Louis Pommery England Brut NV is a welcome start from a welcome investor in our industry. It’s a blend of 62% Chardonnay with Pinot Noir and Meunier, with a few bunches of Pinot Gris (I’m not sure whether those actually went into the blend). It’s probably a little early to define the style, which is seemingly quite easy-going with a lot of commercial potential (without any loss of quality). It will be more than interesting to see how this operation develops. This first wine retails currently at an attractive £32.
This is a single estate, producing their own fruit which is converted to wine at Hattingley by Emma Rice. Augusta and Robert Raimes are the fifth generation of the Raimes family to farm the historic Tichborne Estate, near Arlesford, which stretches between the water meadows of the Itchen to the edge of the South Downs National Park outside Winchester. The whole estate is pretty large, 740 hectares, but just 4-ha are planted to vines (Pinot Noir, Meunier and Chardonnay).
From these four hectares four wines are produced. There’s a “Classic”, a Blanc de Noirs, a Blanc de Blancs and, most interestingly, a Demi-Sec. The Classic has a 2018 base with only thirty months on lees. Only disgorged in January this year, this three-grape blend is nice and fresh with a savoury touch. The Blanc de Noirs, also 2018, had just 22 months on lees (and consequently longer in bottle after disgorgement) but 5% saw oak and it just had a partial malo. This is super-fresh and zippy.
The Blanc de Blancs 2016 is lovely. It has real character, demonstrably a Chardonnay cuvée, which has really benefitted from its longer (42 month) lees ageing. A slightly larger 17% saw oak and 86% of the wine went through its malolactic. Remarkable value if the £35 RRP is correct.
The final wine of the day was the Raimes Demi-Sec 2017. This is something of a treat in my opinion. The residual sugar registers 34g/l but with 10g/l acidity. The acidity balances the sugar so that the wine actually tastes drier than you might expect, without tasting dry. Again, 42 months on lees and there’s genuine depth here.
I’d rate this more highly than some demi-sec Champagnes I’ve tried, which can occasionally seem to be made to a formula to fit a stylistic hole in the range. It’s also a truly underrated style, and I’d suggest that if you are going to stick your head over the parapet to make one you have to do it well. I think Raimes and Rice have achieved that.
For me, there is just one problem with Raimes and it has nothing to do with quality. It’s availability. There’s not a lot of wine and it is one of the few producers whose wines I absolutely never come across. The wines are reasonably priced in today’s market, although the Demi-Sec at the top end of the price range is £40. But as a regular visitor to the Vineyards of Hampshire Tastings, I think they are getting better every year. I don’t know why, as they use Hattingley’s contract winemaking, which will likely aim for consistency, but it’s just my hunch that they are. Could it be vine age?
This was a very successful tasting. As an excellent innovation this year, Vineyards of Hampshire has put together a mixed six bottle sampler case. There are four sparkling pinks (Exton Park, The Grange, Hattingley and Black Chalk), one white sparkler (Raimes Blanc de Blancs) and Danebury’s aforementioned still white Schönburger. It costs £200 including delivery.
There is also a Vineyards of Hampshire public tasting event, “FizzFest”, this year to be held at Black Chalk on the afternoon of 24 July, where I think seven VoH members (including Pommery) will be presenting their wines. Check out their web site at vineyardsofhampshire.co.uk for information about both. Now if only Sussex (my own county) and Kent could do the same to promote the very many fine producers in those counties. But Well Done Hampshire!
I joined a few friends at Winemakers Club, under the arches at Holborn Viaduct, on Wednesday night. That wouldn’t usually be worthy of comment but for the fact that it was my first evening in London since the beginning of the pandemic. That’s two years. Of course, that in itself isn’t a massive deal, but then there were the wines.
I think the germ of an idea was to have a tasting of wines aged under flor but it didn’t quite work out like that. Probably down to the organiser breaking his foot whilst out running and being unable to come. I was especially gutted as he’d organised the evening in part to allow me to taste his last bottle of the previous release of Brash Higgins Bloom, Brad Hickey’s McLaren Vale “Chardonnay under flor” homage to Vin Jaune. Oh well!
Five of us drank seven bottles, in the end a random selection, but these did include three immaculate Jura wines which can’t go without mention.
First up though, Bourgogne, Chardonnay Rose 2019, Sylvain Pataille. This is a white wine, nothing pink about it, despite the reputation that Marsannay has for Rosé – in fact when I first got into Burgundy, Rosé wine was just about all you saw from that village at the northern end of the Côte de Nuits. That was made from Pinot Noir. Chardonnay Rose (not Rosé) is a mutation of Chardonnay which is, according to several sources** unique to Marsannay.
Apparently, Sylvain noticed these pink grapes around twenty years ago, the vines having been planted just after the Second World War. He’s since propagated them by sélection massale and, like all his vines, farms them biodynamically. Ageing is around 15 months in old oak, with miniscule sulphur additions at bottling.
The result is amazingly fresh and bright. It has none of the weight of a Côte de Beaune Chardonnay (in fact in some ways it’s lighter on its feet than a Saint-Romain or a Monthélie), but boy, what vitality. A rather lovely wine. It has zip and zest but at the same time, varietal character.
**Stéphane Tissot in Montigny-lès-Arsures (Arbois, Jura) releases a wine which he calls “Chardonnay Rose Massale”, likewise made from a pink-berried Chardonnay mutation, and which tastes uncannily similar to Sylvain’s. Perhaps some further detective work is in order. It’s one of his wines I never fail to buy if I see it when in Arbois.
After Pataille we moved on to the Jura wines. The first two came from the domaine many consider, at least historically, the finest in Château-Chalon, the most beautiful of Jura’s wine villages. Jean Macle founded the estate in the 1960s, but it is now under the sound control of Laurent, Jean’s son.
We were presented with two vintages of what has become, over the years, not that much less famous than the estate’s Château-Chalon AOC, and that is the Côtes du Jura. This is a wine which can be something of an enigma. It is usually made principally using Chardonnay (in fact at least one vintage has been 100% Chardonnay) with the addition of Savagnin (on average, perhaps 15% of the blend). Further confusion is added when some of the wine is aged under voile, and to complicate things even more they might release more than one cuvée in a vintage. There are clues to be found on the back label, with the sous-voile versions marked with an easily recognisable diagram. Importer Vine Trail explains each cuvée on their web site.
We took the novel approach of drinking the oldest first.
Domaine Macle Côtes du Jura 2011 was pretty immaculate, it must be said. It had colour, depth and complexity, and certainly both smelt and tasted as if it had seen some flor. It had flavours suggesting a strong Savagnin influence over time, although most sources suggest that grape formed 15% of this cuvée in 2011. It was aged three years in barrel so the remaining seven-to-eight years have been in bottle, though stored in ideal conditions at Winemakers Club. Nuts dominate, with ginger spice and a faint hint of honey on the finish. Gorgeous. Many might, on tasting, assume even a “mini-Vin Jaune”.
Domaine Macle Côtes du Jura 2016 was a lot fresher. I think that by tasting it second, we actually learnt more, in a strange way. Much fresher, yet also allegedly made (from 50-y-o Chardonnay vines) sous-voile. But listen to what Macle importer Vine Trail says about it. “[T]his wine is more subtle and forward than the traditional oxidative Chardonnay/Savagnin blend, displaying notable morel flavour with attractive spices and finishing quite saline”. I certainly couldn’t improve on that as a tasting note. I will say that whilst the 2011 would certainly have fooled me into suggesting it was a Savagnin, or at least a Savagnin-heavy blend, I’d peg this as a Chardonnay. It has a good few more years before it will plateau and may go on for many more.
Jacques Puffeney Arbois “Naturé” 2014 was another Jura treat. As many of you will know, Jacques Puffeney farmed a little over five hectares of vines at Montigny-lès-Arsures, just north of Arbois, until his last vintage in 2014. At the point of his retirement, with no heirs wishing to take over the vines, he leased them to the new Domaine du Pélican. He retained his wine stocks, which continue to appear in small quantity, especially that last 2014 vintage.
Naturé is as confusing as Puffeney’s wines can often be. Most online vendors list this very clearly as a topped-up Savagnin cuvée. Indeed, this is backed up by Wink Lorch in her “Jura Wine” (2014), who adds that it is a cuvée released just in a few vintages. On the nose and palate my immediate sensations were of Chardonnay. But I was so wrong! This is really just a facet of how complex the Savagnin grape can be. It is a masterful wine. It has a depth almost off the scale. It somehow manages to shout old school yet has a modern touch, doubtless because I have drunk mostly oxidatively aged Puffeney over the years. These wines are fast disappearing, but really you should grab anything you find made by this past master of Arbois AOC.
Next, a rare foray into Chambolle for me, and a Premier Cru I don’t ever recall tasting before: Maison Frédéric Magnien Chambolle-Musigny 1er Cru “Baudes” 2014. Baudes is the last of the Chambolle Premiers before the border with Morey-St-Denis. It’s a 3.4-hectare site which Jasper Morris suggests can produce fairly firm wines, but he also remarks that the northern and southern parts of the vineyard produce quite different wines.
This 2014 could be said to have a degree of firmness to it. That can’t be down to youth because a Decanter tasting note gives it a drinking window of only up until 2024 (although personally I’d suggest this could be a bit mean of them). Despite initially suggesting a firmness, it certainly developed a classic Chambolle silkiness as it opened out, though on a scale proportionate to a Premier Cru I’d never heard of from a nevertheless excellent modern negoce. Whilst I would have hesitated to carafe any of the Jura wines, this Pinot might have benefited from a bit of air in the decanter. Nevertheless, a lovely wine.
The penultimate wine of the evening was, although perhaps I shouldn’t be using this analogy in current times, the nuclear option. Equipo Navazos Palo Cortado Bota 72 “Pata de Gallina” is one of the most intense wines I’ve drunk over the past year. Although the taste is very different, you might say that it has a similar intensity to malt whisky.
Bota 72 was drawn off in January 2017 from a small solera at Rey Fernando de Castilla in Jerez. Two thousand-one-hundred 50cl bottles were filled. One of the alternative ways of producing a Palo Cortado is from oxidative wines, the result blending the styles and attributes of amontillado and oloroso. The selection of wines originally came from the finest casks of the old Almacenista Juan Garcia Jarana, with the wine being settled at Fernando de Castilla in a solera dedicated to, and owned by, EN. It is from the same source as the previous Bota 34 of 2012, but with five further years of ageing.
So, I said it’s intense. Can we drill down further than that vague concept? The wine is overall around thirty years old but it is still remarkably fresh. It’s nutty (hazelnut and walnut), definitely redolent of orange peel and ground ginger, and extremely saline. Within that salinity I got a faint hint of iodine, which is probably what lit my whisky lightbulb. This remarkable wine has a never-ending length to it. Some find the intensity of Equipo Navazos troubling. For me it is always “bring it on”, quite surprising considering my avowed preferences for wines of subtlety and lower alcohol (20.5% abv on this bad boy).
How do you follow a wine like that? I don’t mean in terms of quality, but how can any wine which follows not be drowned by it. And what do you pair it with. The sensible answer to the latter question is just a plate of salted almonds, ideally. To the former, the answer might be the palate-refreshing qualities of Champagne, although preferably after new or well-rinsed glasses and a glass of water to cleanse the palate.
Champagne Emmanuel Brochet Extra Brut “Le Mont Benoît” was chosen from the shelf, and a chilled bottle was produced. Emmanuel Brochet took over two-and-a-half hectares of his family’s vines in the late 1990s. They are at Villers-aux-Noeuds, on the western side of the Montagne de Reims (somewhat southeast of Vrigny and Gueux, villages which may be more familiar). Although you will see “Le Mont Benoît” on the label, suggestive of a single site cuvée, which it is, in fact all of Emmanuel’s vines are situated within this one plot.
We are on classic Montagne chalk here. Some have described this as his non-vintage wine, but “multi-vintage” is more accurate. We begin with, in this case, fruit from the frost-affected 2017 vintage. That makes up around 30% of the cuvée. To this he adds wines from a perpetual reserve, formed here from vintages 2016 back to 2011. The varietal mix is approximately 40% each of Pinot Noir and Meunier, plus 20% Chardonnay. The wine rested for eleven months in wooden fûts on lees before bottling for its second fermentation, where it remained for two-and-a-half years. Labelled Extra Brut, the dosage is a nice low 2g/l. This cuvée produced just short of 8,700 bottles.
The wine has that “alive” quality which the very best “natural wine” Champagnes have. It is neither fined nor filtered. This, and the lees ageing during and after both fermentations, help give the wine a chalky, oyster shell, texture. The combination of richness and freshness is beguiling. I love it. It’s available from the wonderful selection of wines at Winemakers Club, and is also another wine from Vine Trail’s enviable portfolio. I was truly gutted that I needed to dash for my train and had to leave half a glass of this truly glorious wine on the table.
It had been too long…Winemakers Club is unique in London, both as a venue and for the rather eclectic and wonderful wines they sell (drink in or take out…one of the bottles I purchased will be consumed tonight at home). The food is pretty much the kind of fare you’ll find at all the original Parisian wine bars (cold meats, cheeses etc, plus some delicious cheese toasties made with the famous bread from St-John). I was pleased to see how busy they were on a Wednesday night and was very pleased to be told that its popularity has been consistent since Covid regs were relaxed. This wonderful, dark, cavern under the arches, at 41a Farringdon Street (London EC4A 4AN), should be on everyone’s hit list. Let’s just hope I make it back again soon.
The tasting round seems to be getting back in full swing now and I think for most people writing about wine there are just too many to write about. On Monday 14th March Basket Press Wines held theirs, at The Mulwray, above the Blue Posts on Soho’s Rupert Street. It afforded an opportunity to explore this exciting portfolio which I have only been able to taste during the past two years through the bottles I’ve been purchasing.
There were a lot of new wines (and other beverages) on show, either new producers or new wines from producers I know and love. In this respect there are notable omissions. Annamária Réka-Koncz was absent on account of her wholly deserved emerging star status leading to selling through quickly. The new estate Basket Press has started to import from Georgia, Nika Winery, wasn’t tasted because I’m working my way through those at home. Equally, some favourites from Max Sein, Petr Koráb and Magula were left out simply because, much as I adore their wines, I usually have a few bottles in the cellar, though Koráb does sneak one in.
We are so lucky to have such an array of principally Moravian, Czech, wines on show in London. The Basket Press stars are not all Czech, of course. They have expanded astutely from their original core. Nevertheless, I’d challenge anyone to taste these and disagree that there are not some very exciting wines being made in this small part of Central Europe.
My dilemma was how many to taste from an array of fifty bottles. Would it be extensive notes on ten or a dozen, or briefer notes on more wines? In the end this was answered by the fact that I somehow managed seventeen samples. Each is worthy of trying so if I appear to single any out it means these were my favourites.
This is an altogether new product which Jiří and Zainab are bringing in, the bottles having arrived in the last fortnight. Birch sap is considered a health-enhancing drink in much of Central Europe and the sap for the three products made by Jan Klimeš is collected in the forests of Bohemia. Fruit is macerated with the sap and a malolactic fermentation takes place which produces no alcohol. These drinks contain zero alcohol.
I tried the Blackcurrant, but there are also Blackthorn and Earl Grey versions. It was dry, with a pebble-like texture and very pure but not dominant blackcurrant fruit. You also get some pieces of fruit in the bottle it seems. Firmly dry, sappy and mineral, very refreshing when chilled down. This one was pleasantly ever so slightly petillant. I hope there’s some left to add a bottle to my next order.
I’ve really enjoyed the Utopia Ciders. Excellent artisanal drinks somewhat less expensive than some noted European ciders. PLAY is an apple cider-based petnat made with the addition of the skins of Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, which macerate with the apple for one week. The skins come from a collaboration with Jaroslav Tesarik (of Dlúhé Grefty, another relatively new Basket Press agency).
The result is winey, similar in concept but not in method to ciders from Charlie Herring or Tom Shobbrook (one uses a red wine top-up and the other adds wine to the blend). What you get is therefore a bit more extracted and petnat lovers would really recognise similarities. That especially goes for the great refreshing acidity and focus. Very nice.
Krásná Hora Blanc de Noir Sekt 2020, South Moravia (Czechia)
This producer is based in Dolni Poddvarov, close to the border with Slovakia. The sites they farm were part of the Cistercian legacy in Central Europe. They use no synthetic chemicals and have recently embraced biodynamics. As well as minimal intervention winemaking, old vine yields here are kept very low, as is the use of sulphur. All the fruit comes from the family’s own vineyards.
This wine is their Méthode Traditionelle, made from 100% Pinot Noir. Moravia has some wonderful Pinot Noir, much used in red wine production. Here we have a very cool Blanc de Noirs sparkler. It has a gentle bouquet, with hints of red fruit. The palate is more forward, full and red-fruited. It’s not a wine which tastes of lees ageing, rather one where the fruit is more prominent. It is very appealing, especially for summer drinking.
Sziegl Pince “Jonás” 2020, Hajos-Baja (Hungary)
This is a new agency and the first time I’ve tried any of their wines (I tried this and a red later on). The couple who run the estate were given an eighty-year-old vineyard in 2012 (chance would be a fine thing, you say). As this very young couple got going, in a village with little commercial winemaking, they impressed so much that they were given a cellar and press from the same source.
By investing all profits in purchasing more vines they have grown their holding to 8.5 hectares. They work organically with minimum intervention in the cellar. “Jonás” is made from 60% Welschriesling, 20% Hárslevelü and 20% Riesling, though there’s purportedly a dollop of Traminer in there too. Mostly whole bunches with some semi-carbonic. It’s a lovely soft white wine with a chalkiness which hints at pears with a touch of quince. A producer I shall explore further.
As far as I can work out, it’s pronounced seagull pinchay! Don’t take my word for it.
Jaroslav Osička, Akácia 2020, South Moravia (Czechia)
Jaroslav is one of my favourite three or four Czech producers, always making exciting and interesting wines. He farms a mere three hectares at Velké Bílovice in the south of Moravia. Jaroslav is one of the pioneers of natural wine in the region, and has taken much inspiration from France’s Jura in this respect. As well as 30 years teaching at the local wine college, he was one of the first Moravians to understand the positive role oxygen can play in winemaking.
Akácia blends 80% (Rhine) Riesling with 20% Pinot Gris, something you might possibly deduce from tasting blind. The bouquet begins as almost classic Riesling (quite floral with citrus), and then some Pinot Gris spice kicks in. The same variety adds richness to a really glorious nose. The palate doesn’t disappoint either. Pear and peach, matching the wine’s lovely yellow-gold colour. The texture on the finish puts a bit of structure there without putting the breaks on. Probably shooting myself in the foot to say I shall buy some.
Jaroslav Osička Pinot Gris 2018, South Moravia (Czechia)
Here’s a chance to try Jaroslav’s 100% Pinot Gris, but with a couple more years in bottle. Slightly more golden in colour than the slightly cheaper Akácia, he also adds in some whole berry clusters after the fermentation is finished. This starts off a kind of second, carbonic, fermentation. He already does this with his more expensive wines, with the aim of adding freshness to wines which he admits can require a few years in bottle. It works well here.
This is definitely a wine with a degree of complexity, but it certainly has a genuine freshness as well, so this master winemaker has succeeded on two levels. Freshness and depth.
Richard Stávek Ryzlink Vlašsky 2019, South Moravia (Czechia)
Richard is another of Moravia’s natural wine pioneers, working from Němčičky since the mid-1990s. He has a mixed farm and is certain a holistic approach to farming has enhanced his wines, even using acacia from his own trees to make his barrels. These wines come from 4.5 ha planted on a 15-hectare farm, most of which are co-planted, making many of his cuvées traditional field blends.
However, this wine is made from pure Welschriesling (to give the variety its more common name). This is definitely an orange/amber wine by its colour. Two weeks on skins (whole bunches with stems) doesn’t seem long but the earthy nose shouts skins at first. The grapes are foot trodden here. That earthy note is replaced by a sweeter perfumed high note, which carries the taster into the deep palate. A nice lick of acidity, not too prominent, underpins the whole. As far as amber wines go, I’d call it gentle and contemplative.
Richard Stávek “Odmery” 2019, South Moravia (Czechia)
Next, we have a single vineyard wine from Richard. Odmery is the vineyard name, which apparently relates to the time when the peasants would be granted a small share of the vineyard by their lord, in order to make their own wine.
We have predominantly Pinot Blanc in this blend (85%), the remaining 15% being Chardonnay, and a rather good combination it can make (seeing as I drank a Keller blend of the same varieties only a few days ago). This time there’s three weeks on skins with a whole bunch maceration. Its colour is pretty full-on orange. We are hitting a greater level of complexity than the previous wine, with dried fruit and nuts on the nose. It already has signs of a bit of maturity (in a good way), a rich and textural wine with a little tannin, but already approachable now, I think.
Dlúhé Grefty Alba Rosales 2019, South Moravia (Czechia)
Last autumn I enjoyed a pink petnat from this new to Basket Press producer, but up until now that was the only wine I’d tried. The Tesarik family farms 2.5 ha at Mutěnice, with several different plots on this small holding.
Here we have a blend of Pinot Gris and Gewurztraminer, half of each, made as a skin contact amber wine. Bronze-coloured, very bronze in fact, you first pick up the Gewurz’ aromatics on the bouquet. Then in comes the Pinot Gris spiciness. The palate has stone fruits with a bit of peach or apricot stone texture. There’s a touch of bitterness but it is balanced well by acid freshness and a touch of round richness. A complex wine but one assisted very much by its restrained 12% abv. This takes it away from the territory occasionally occupied by the same blend in Alsace, and makes for a rather fascinating bottle. Wine shouldn’t always be easy, right?
Jaroslav Osička “Ryšák” 2020, South Moravia (Czechia)
Osička’s last wine here is a 50/50 blend of Pinots Noir and Gris. Coming in at 12.5% abv, this has a pale strawberry colour, enhanced in my view by a tiny touch of cloudiness. The red fruits bouquet is packed with concentration and complements the nicely round, plump, red fruits on the palate. The acids are fruit acids and are concentrated too. You know what, it reminds me of the same blend Lambert Spielmann makes at Epfig, Alsace (Red Z’Epfig). I want to see more PN/PG blends, please.
Sziegl Pince “Bábel” 2020, Hajos-Baja (Hungary)
For the second SP wine tasted we look to a red blend of Blaufränkisch (60%), with Merlot (30%) and Kadarka (10%). The colour is immediately attractive, a vibrant magenta. It almost glows in the relative dark of The Mulwray at midday on a dull March morning. The bouquet is enough to brighten anyone up more than half way through the tasting. Strawberry and raspberry initially, then giving way to cherries. The palate is all cherry, quite rich cherry at that, blended with a clean, textured, finish. It’s a lovely wine, and I’d also say something a little bit different. One to drink at any time.
Petr Kočarik Pinot Noir 2019, South Moravia (Czechia)
Petr is another small grower. He owns just two hectares of vines at Čejkovice which, by total contrast, is one of the region’s biggest wine growing villages. Wine is Petr’s part time occupation, so his production usually peaks at 10,000 bottles and is more often closer to 5,000. It does allow for a meticulous approach to natural wine making, using some of his own natural vine treatments (algae powder, orange oil).
Petr typically allows his wines to rest on their lees for a year before bottling. There’s no fining, nor filtration, and if sulphur is used then it’s as little as possible. He is, nevertheless, something of a Pinot Noir specialist and he was originally recommended to Basket Press by Moravia’s other great maker of Pinot Noir, Jaroslav Springer.
This is a wine where the purity strikes you. The colour is classic Pinot Noir, not too dark. The bouquet is dominated again by classic cherry aromas. No problems so far for the WSET student. The ripe fruit is red cherry with something a bit darker just hinted at. It has the fruit placed forward, but also shows just enough restraint. This is a talented artisan, but his wines are never available in sufficient quantity to really make his name.
Kmetija Štekar Merlot 2020 (Slovenia)
Janko Štekar makes wine at Kojsko, not far from Goriška Brda, midway between the Pre-Julian Alps and the Adriatic. Janko and his wife Tamara have 7-ha of vines on a 14.5-ha farm. This wine has a dark colour and quite plummy fruit, but it doesn’t have the weight of much Merlot planted in France. The wine seems much brighter for it, a long way from Saint-Émilion. Biodynamic, and no added sulphur.
The wine actually has 13% printed on the label, which I probably wouldn’t have guessed. The bottle I tasted did have a slightly hard finish, but Zainab did say it had been open quite some time. My main negative, if I’m honest, is that I’m not all that keen on the label. Without the hard finish it would make a very unusually refreshing version of the variety.
Petr Kočařik “Novosady” Pinot Noir 2019, South Moravia (Czechia)
Kočařik here steps up to give us, this time, a single site Pinot Noir. The bouquet is slightly darker than his Pinot tasted above, and by darker I don’t just mean darker fruit. It has a slightly smoky complexity but is clearly young. It is aged in large old wood of 250-litre capacity. I say “old” wood. This is a wine where I was compelled to ask whether it was aged in wood. It also has noticeably more spice than the straight Pinot. It comes off soils a mix of clay and limestone. The clay does seem to add weight, and perhaps the limestone adds the wine’s nice edge. An elegant wine developing real depth. Impressive.
Dva Duby “Ex Opere Operato” 2017, South Moravia (Czechia)
Dva Duby is run by Jiri Šibela from the small town of Dolni Kounice, close to the border with Austria. The vineyards here have quite a name, and have had such a reputation locally for many centuries. They are based on granodiorite, a stone created by erupted magma from the pre-Cambrian age, seven hundred million years ago. In some places the base rock is only 40cm from the surface.
As you might imagine, the most planted variety here is Austria’s Blaufränkisch (Frankovka), which fares well on these volcanic soils. “Vox Silentium”, a Dva Duby wine I have in my cellar, is made from that variety. “Ex Opere Operato” uses a different, often unsung, variety of Austrian origin, Saint-Laurent. I think I need a bottle of this too.
The nose is lifted, shimmering almost. The palate has real mineral precision and frankly I love how the wine’s acidity and slightly sour fruit blends together, all fruit yet with a savoury rim. And that fruit is so concentrated. That may be typical of volcanic wines, but it is certainly enhanced by the wholly natural winemaking, with the only additive being a pinch of sulphur at bottling if required. Yet the wine is clean and pure. An excellent wine, and a producer I may have neglected a little.
Petr Koráb “Neronet” 2016, South Moravia (Czechia)
I’m sure some of you will have read about plenty of Koráb petnats I drink. Petr is something of a bubbles-specialist, and they tend to be both refreshing and exciting, if sometimes offbeat and challenging in a good way. They are also adorned with increasingly modern labels. However, his still wines should never be forgotten, even if their labels can sometimes seem somewhat less out there.
What is Neronet? It is a rare crossing of the teinturier (ie pink-fleshed) variety, Alicante Bouschet, with Cabernet Sauvignon. Alicante Bouschet is more commonly called Blauer Portugieser in Northern and Central Europe, but perhaps not by Petr.
The wine is a very dark purple-red, befitting a glass-staining teinturier. The bouquet is interesting too, and those who know that particular variety would be more likely to name it than Alicante’s partner in the crossing.
The wine has body and tannic structure, but this is balanced by the fact that the wine is exceptionally juicy, and so alive. It’s not complex at all, yet it is rather satisfying.
We will finish this wonderful tasting with an expensive treat. Ice cider is a speciality of North Eastern Canada, but this version is as sensational, probably more so, than any I’ve tried from there. I say tried because certainly in the case of “Patience” I haven’t drunk a whole bottle, but I was poured some to taste at Silo back in their Brighton incarnation, when Ania Smelskaya was introducing them to the world of natural wine (and cider).
When I say “a bottle”, well a 75cl bottle will cost you over £50, but it does come in halves. Please, if you are reading this, J or Z, could you reserve me one.
Exotic fruit in abundance leaps out of the glass here. Apples, Pineapple, mango and peach, with caramel notes…intense bruised apple or tarte-tatin. Where this may score over some wines is the linear acidity which lifts the palate on (angel’s) wings and which focus’s the fruit on the front and edge of the tongue. Hmm! A marvel. Find it in among the dessert wines on the Basket Press web site.
All wines tasted are now in the UK but the most recently arrived may not yet have made it onto the Basket Press Wines web site (www.basketpresswines.com ). If the wine’s not there I suggest you contact Jiri or Zainab for details.
Sometimes something is right under your nose but it takes a while to see it. Regular readers will know I drink the wines of Breaky Bottom with some frequency, because most (but not all) of the currently extant cuvées have appeared on this site over the past few years. But there is no doubt that visiting a producer is the best way that you can begin to get under the skin of their wines, more so than copious reading, and tasting in some respects.
What I have deduced from visiting Peter Hall and his wife Christina is, I think, something which Peter may take issue with. This is because the owner of Breaky Bottom Vineyard combines a total lack of ego with occasionally strong opinions and the ability to produce an acid tongue if deemed necessary. And what I am about to say might offend his modesty.
We constantly laud the great old-timers of artisan viticulture. For some of you reading this article, men like Pierre Overnoy and the late Stefano Bellotti stand as beacons of enlightenment in a world of corporate wine. Yet in Southern England we have a man no less entitled to elevation to similar heights. A man whose sheer determination to make beautiful wine on the Sussex Downs, over a period a little short of fifty years, has enabled him to overcome nature’s vicissitudes year on year.
If English wine is to forge a path which includes artisan production alongside a more capital-intensive way of going about wine making, then Peter Hall is that reference point. If only he could inspire a raft of younger growers in the way that Pierre Overnoy does in Arbois.
On Thursday last week I was able to meet Peter and Christina for the first time, and to taste, inter alia, the most wonderful English Sparkling Wine I have ever come across. But more of the wines later.
Peter Hall’s story has been told often enough, including in the recent books of Oz Clarke, Stephen Skelton and Anthony Rose, and indeed sketched previously by myself here on Wideworldofwine. After acquiring a lease on the old 1820s farmhouse and a couple of fields in a dip in the Downs, Peter planted vines in 1974. He made still wine from Seyval Blanc (a 1921 crossing of Seibel 5656 x Seibel 4986, and aka Seyve Villard 5276 – Skelton “The Wines of Great Britain” 2019, Infinite Ideas, p131), along with Müller-Thurgau and a little Reichensteiner.
Then, in the 1990s, production shifted from just still wines to include sparkling wine from Seyval Blanc. In 2004 the remaining Müller-Thurgau was pulled out and replaced with the traditional Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier. The total area under vine is just six acres (around 2.42 hectares for those of us more used to Continental vineyard measurements), so production here is tiny, especially compared to the plethora of new English wine producers, like near-neighbour Rathfinny Estate. Breaky Bottom is certainly no “estate”.
Two cuvées, both sparkling, are produced every year at Breaky Bottom, one being either a single varietal Seyval Blanc, or Seyval in a blend, the other cuvée usually containing the Champagne varieties. Peter has shown no interest in making a Rosé, but a Blanc de Noirs from the two Pinots has been made and will appear in due course, after what here at BB is a considerable time in bottle on lees, which makes all the difference. Current output seems to hover somewhere between 6,000 and 7,000 bottles of each cuvée, but a good year might see 10,000 bottles produced of each.
The vineyard itself is certainly, as with all wines of course, what makes the product here so special. A winemaker’s job is merely to interpret the vintage and to allow the different wines to express themselves. This is down to elements like soils, topography and weather. The idyllic visual location of Breaky Bottom is perhaps best seen in the photo on pp86/87 of Oz Clarke’s recent book “English Wine” (Pavilion, 2020). It shows the flint farmhouse and Sussex barn in a hollow (Bottom) in the South Downs, not far from the sea between Brighton and Newhaven.
Access is via a difficult to find, un-signposted, track and with a drive of over a mile as the track gets more and more eroded and rutted, is not for the faint-hearted, or those with low-slung sports cars. Peter and Christina have been snowed-, or iced-in, for a fortnight at a time on occasion, and no one will deliver there, so hard is it to reach.
The soil is classic Downland chalk strewn with flints. One slope in the hollow faces vaguely north, the other vaguely south. Counter-intuitively, the north-facing slope often ripens first, largely because of a protective virtual cliff opposite, which carries the public footpath from the South Downs Way. The hollow generally protects the site from the winds which have ravaged Rathfinny along the coast, forcing them to erect an impressive array of windbreaks.
Breaky Bottom is by no means immune to disaster though. Pesticides blown on the wind, numerous floods (caused by neighbouring farmland) and destruction of the crop by an adjoining pheasant shoot over several years, have all pushed the Halls into a “backs to the wall” defence of a lifetime’s hard work to make something from this patch of what barely counts, in parts, as soil. Is it any coincidence that these are wines of unsurpassed beauty and definite character? It would be hard to believe that is so.
We tasted five wines before vineyard helper Louisa gave us a tour of the vines, winery and cellar. We began with two wines from the next release, a pair just disgorged from the 2017 vintage, therefore both having had around four years on lees in bottle. They do not yet have official cuvée names and had literally come back from disgorgement within a couple of days. Peter makes all the wines at Breaky Bottom, including both fermentations and ageing, but riddling and disgorgement are carried out off-site, at either Wiston, by Dermot Sugrue, or at Ridgeview, by Simon Roberts.
Seyval Blanc 2017
Wines are notoriously difficult to assess within days of disgorgement. Peter tells a story about a knowledgeable Champenois who stated that he would recommend six months post-disgorgement ageing for friends, three months for the trade and one day for your enemies. Nevertheless, all six of us assembled were surprised at how well this pair showed (served cellar cool but not chilled).
The Seyval had been dosed at 4g/l and Peter has to decide whether the main release should see an extra gram. Good mousse and tiny bubbles despite the serving temperature was followed by a bouquet more open than expected. Early lemon citrus gave way to a creamy touch and hints of apple.
The palate is linear, as usually the case with good young Seyval bubbles, but not piercing. There was a nice lemony softness to the finish after the initial attack. Nevertheless, lovely focus and the beginnings of a very refreshing wine.
Dosed at 6g/l, this cuvée tasted more open. It has a rounder nose and shows a hint of croissant/brioche already, though remember it has seen a long time on lees. It definitely has a savoury side, whereas the Seyval is showing pure fruit. What is important is to remember that these wines will develop in bottle if stored properly. We can see just how they develop by looking at the next three wines, a pair from 2010 and one from 2014.
Cuvée Koizumi Yakumo 2010
Koizumi Yakumo is the naturalised Japanese name for Peter Hall’s great uncle, who we would know better as Patrick Lafcadio Hearn, the great traveller who introduced Japanese literature and culture to the West.
This wine is another pure Seyval Blanc, and here we get to see how more than a decade in bottle, both pre-, and post-disgorgement (it was bottled in 2011 so a shorter time on lees), has changed this often wrongly maligned variety (maligned by the superficial and the cliché-ridden critics, or by those whose tasting experience is somewhat attenuated by a blind focus on the classics).
One taster among us suggested rice pudding, not wrong because I wrote “umami”. My Proustian recollection was a mushroom broth I consumed in an extremely jetlagged state in Nikko, Japan, some years ago now. I remember walking the hundred yards back to our Ryokan whilst falling asleep on my feet still smelling the dish. That is what it conjured up. Definitely more savoury now than the fruit-driven stage the 2017 is at. It has a side which is rounded and sedate, but it hasn’t lost its freshness. Definitely have my name on some of this when my nearest BB retailer gets their next due delivery.
Cuvée Michelle Moreau 2014
This is a wine I know well but it is also one of the BB wines I’ve not drunk for more than twelve months, so I was keen to revisit it. Michelle was not only a close friend of Christina (Michelle lived with Christina’s family on Ibiza for a while before becoming a Brighton resident), but she was also the sister of the famous French actress, Jeanne Moreau, who Orson Welles called “the greatest actress in the world”.
This has always been very much an uplifting wine. It has plenty of fruit but it also somehow has a perfume which the other cuvées don’t. I likened it to sitting in the old roof garden on top of the Samaritaine building and smelling a waft of “No 5” pass on the breeze. It seems to combine all the qualities one can find in Peter Hall’s wines in one glass. The varieties are Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Meunier.
Cuvée Reynolds Stone 2010
Alan Reynolds Stone was a famous engraver and designer. He created the commercial logos for a number of companies, but was certainly more famous for engraving the Royal Arms for Queen Elizabeth’s coronation (which now appears on our passports), alongside a number of postage stamps and bank notes. He also just happened to design Breaky Bottom’s wine labels.
What can I say about this wine? Words are frankly pointless. Hugh Johnson was interviewed for The Buyer Magazine by Peter Dean in September 2020. Hugh chose ten wines from around the world to drink in 2021. The only English wine included was this one. He called it “saline, tense and compelling”.
The contrast between the rather profound bouquet and the sheer depth on the palate is what makes this wine almost certainly the best English sparkler I have ever tasted. The bouquet’s complexity contrasts with the surprising freshness on the tongue of a wine of this age. I cannot promise to keep my bottle but it would certainly go another ten years, and it would be a privilege to taste it at twenty.
Although we really should end on that Everest-like peak, I will instead conclude with a note on a wine which I drank just under a week ago but which I have saved to write a note about on here. It may not be an Everest but it is still an 8,000-metre wine. Perhaps Manaslu, for those who know. Various other Breaky Bottom wines can be mined via the search function on this site, but this was my first bottle of the wine in question.
Cuvée Cornelis Hendriksen 2013
Cornelis Hendriksen was a well-travelled Dutch doctor, and great friend of the Halls. The cuvée is a blend of Chardonnay, Pinot and Seyval Blanc. This is another wine which has the senses whirling, both youthful and mature at the same time. If that is confusing, I think I mean that it is both delicate and yet also complex. As first impressions are always worth recording, I wrote at the time that it was like a brittle ice sculpture which cracks to reveal a hidden core of real depth.
So where to find the wines? Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton is where I get mine delivered from. They are good friends of the Halls and get a good allocation. The down side is that the wines are popular with their customers and sell quite quickly. They currently only show one cuvée on their web site, a sign indeed that a decent replenishment is somewhere between winery and shop. On its arrival, they will have what is a remarkable library of BB cuvées covering all the available years’ production.
In London, Breaky Bottom has been with Corney & Barrow for a few years, and I presume that it is via this route that the wines find their way into a number of top London restaurants. If you dine at the likes of Sketch, do save your wallet and excite your palate by trying one.
Export markets include a very knowledgeable clientele in Japan. Peter used to sell a good part of his harvest direct to consumers, although there’s no tasting room as such at the vineyard. According to the Breaky Bottom web site (well worth a look, www.breakybottom.co.uk) visits can be made, though strictly by appointment (and I do think the Halls are very busy people). The site also has a full list of UK retailers from whom the wines might more easily be purchased (easier on the tyres and exhaust, perhaps).
Currently their major retailer is Waitrose Supermarkets. Waitrose sell the wines locally, certainly in Lewes and Brighton branches, and also via the online Waitrose Wine Cellar (currently two cuvées, Cornelis Hendriksen and David Pearson).
Recent releases retail from £33-£36. The two 2010 cuvées tasted above are £69 at C&B. Not sure how they will be priced by Butlers.
If the likes of Tillingham, Westwell and others are the young guns of the English Wine revolution, the ones seen to be pushing today’s boundaries, I suggest that we remember that Breaky Bottom (est. 1974) is the grandfather of them all when it comes to single estate, single vineyard, production (you can see every single Breaky Bottom vine from the path above the vineyard).
Still going strong today, Breaky Bottom is making possibly the finest bottle-fermented sparkling wine in the UK. We are wont to idolise some producers who make wine in the classic regions, like Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Piemonte, Tuscany or Rioja. There are those of us who find excitement and greater affordability among the smaller artisans. We all have our favourites among this group, but I’m firmly with Hugh Johnson. If you haven’t tried Breaky Bottom before, do, and discover whether your palate finds the joy that mine does. You may also find within these soulful wines a different future for English wine.
The second part of the most interesting wines drunk at home during February really does contain some crackers. It would be impossible to single out a wine of the month from this part alone, hard enough even to choose a Top 3, although I guess I’m going to have to if we all make it through to the end of the year. Starting strong with a cheeky Bierzo, we then go Mosel, Jura, Hungary, Burgenland, Savoie and Sanlúcar. Every single bottle would thrill fellow wine geeks for sure, although I guess a few people will be slightly nonplussed at one or two. That said, a good friend who has been relatively conservative in her wine tastes up until recently was, I think, rather astonished by the EN Manzanilla. Well, you would be!
“VO” MENCIA 2016, VERONICA ORTEGA (Bierzo, Spain)
Veronica Ortega Camacho makes wines as good as I’ve tasted in Bierzo, and I was an early fan, even visiting the region in 1989. The vines grow around Valtuile de Abajo on limestone, quite rare in Bierzo which is known for its slate. Version Original is 100% Mencia, from vines over fifty years old in a vineyard located near San Juan de la Mata.
The juice rests overnight on skins and maturation is in large oak vat for sixteen months. At most, the wine sees a partial malolactic so that the lively acidity of the grapes is retained. This, for me, is significant. The early freshness of Mencia in Bierzo has been lost, in many cases, to higher alcohol. This wine packs 13.5% abv but it retains a lightness and freshness which is largely a result of the acid balance.
Still, you get good legs on this dark cherry red wine, along with cherry fruit and a high note of mountain herbs. Violets appear later. The finish allows a little spice and pepper to kick in. It goes nicely with the wine’s rather attractive ferrous texture. I’d have guessed part of the wine was made in amphora but although Veronica does use those vessels, I am sure I read that she doesn’t for VO. Only 3,500 bottles were made of this cuvée in 2016. I’d say the wine has years left in it, although its youthful side paired well with a Moroccan-style spicy stew. Love it.
Imported by Vine Trail, but I’ve also seen Veronica’s wine at Littlewine.
SCHMETTERLING 2020, MADAME FLÖCK (Mosel, Germany)
A few readers will have seen that I enjoyed another wine from Madame Flöck quite recently, one called Mad Dog Warwick. That was back in December, and if you want to read a little more about Rob Kane and Derek-Paul Labelle’s project out of Winingen, take a peak there so I don’t have to repeat it all here (Recent Wines December 2021 (Part 2), published 12 January 2022).
Schmetterling is another micro-cuvée, made from vines on the steep slopes of the Terrassen Mosel. Sub-titled “Apollo’s Cruvée” (sic, yes, “cruvée” , for reasons I’ve been completely unable to discover), it is a blend of Müller-Thurgau, Kerner and Riesling. After clambering around on the steep terraces the organic hand-picked fruit from very old vines undergoes a spontaneous fermentation, and is then aged in old barrel (20% of the wine, on full solids) and 80% in stainless steel on lees, all for six months.
The bouquet has surprising depth, majoring on an unusual but exciting vinous spice. The palate explodes with the tiniest micro-bubbles of CO2 you could imagine. They prickle around the mouth carrying the brightest of bright acidity across the tongue. Grapefruit, lemon and pear is my take on the flavour. A fun wine, very offbeat and (I know I must be the millionth idiot to say this) flöcking tasty.
£31.50 at Butlers Wine Cellar. If they get any of the next vintage I shall be straight on it. Even the guys have completely sold out of wine. A few more cuvées in the UK would be nice (hint).
“ELLE AIMÉE” VIN DE FRANCE , DOMAINE L’OCTAVIN (Jura, France)
This is one of Alice Bouvot’s domaine wines from the vineyard called “En Arces”, a site where wines have also been bottled by Domaine de la Touraize and Jean-François Ganevat. Alice, however, blends Chardonnay with Pinot Noir here to create a singular cuvée from red and white grapes. Despite two months of “infusion” as she calls it, the wine shows a very pale strawberry colour on pouring. The bouquet and palate are closer to bitter cherry with red fruits, a touch of citrus in the acids, and a little earthiness as well. Plenty going on, especially as the wine evolves in a nice Zalto Universal.
This isn’t a wine you can really sit on the fence over. For one thing the shimmering acidity might startle a few people, and without added sulphur the fruit is naked and fresh. I simply adore it. It’s vibrancy going off the scale, a wine which genuinely makes you feel alive. It might not be a cure for depression but this sure is going to lift anyone who’s been having a tough day.
Alice is one of the hardest working vigneronnes I’ve met, especially going it alone now. I can only admire her strength of purpose and mission. She knows exactly what she wants her wine to be and to become. What an impressive human being.
Domaine L’Octavin is imported by Tutto Wines, often available via their Tutto a Casa online shop.
The main issue with Annamária’s wines is eeking out the bottles I buy over more than merely two or three months. I generally have to hope their UK importer manages to get another shipment. Buy more, you say. Well, I would, but my tastes are eclectic and wide. But that said, there is a loyalty building for the wines of this young lady, who lives with her husband in a part of Hungary from which you can see (and freely cross, at least for now) the border with Ukraine.
Freiluftkino translates from the German as open-air cinema. I’m sure Annamária will tell me why they chose that name at some point. It’s a bottle-fermented sparkling wine comprised of Királyleányka (which you’d think I could spell without triple checking by now), Rhine Riesling, Furmint and Hárslevelü. The grapes from the 2019 vintage were fermented in stainless steel. The wine saw one year on the lees before being hand disgorged and the liqueur de tirage was made from the must of the 2020 vintage.
The soils here are highly complex with deposits of rhyolite, andesite, dacite and tufa, which give the wine a steely, mineral character and texture. The impression is of a wine with focus. The colour is bronze-gold, the bead very fine. The bouquet is complex, or at least becomes so as the wine warms. The palate changes over time as well. I wouldn’t say it starts out fruity as such, but there’s definitely an element of spice which arrives to make you take notice.
I would say that what this cuvée gives, rather than great complexity at this stage, is something unique, definitely exciting. The importer suggests this would be a celebratory drink, but if you like pairing sparkling wines with food, this will definitely interest you equally as much. I shall try to keep my second bottle to allow it to develop, though I’m not holding out any hope it will remain unopened for as long as I’d like.
I am not sure whether Basket Press Wines has much left, but for £26 you get a very interesting blend, smart bubbles and something delicious to trick and surprise your friends with.
It always comes back to Gols, that singular wine village on the top end of the Neusiedlersee where a profusion of exciting biodynamic producers seem to turn out wines as exciting as any I know – although my bias comes from my love for the region and people just as much as the wines.
Gerhard and his wife, Brigitte, run the 17-hectare Pittnauer estate here, Gerhard having been somewhat thrown in at the deep end age 18. He farms a range of both local and international varieties, with an outlook that is equally international. The Pittnauer wines do have a reasonably high profile outside of Austria, which is never harmed by some very innovative and cool-looking labels.
Perfect day is, like the previous two wines, made from an interesting blend. Chardonnay makes up the larger part (40%), with Muscat Ottonel (30%), Grüner Veltliner (20%) and Traminer (10%). Each variety is treated separately, some seeing skin contact, some seeing some oak, etc. The varieties are only blended together just before bottling, which is done without filtration.
The bouquet is quite unusual, with the Muscat’s floral aromas riding a wave above Grüner and Traminer spice, rounded out with what I presume to be Chardonnay’s fruit. The palate has a linear citrus spine of acidity and some lees-contact richness underpinning. The whole bottle is refreshing in so many ways. I think it’s an excellent summer wine, but every day is summer here when it comes to wine.
This bottle came from Butlers Wine Cellar (£23.50). Perfect Day has been stocked by The Wine Society in the past.
PERSAN 2017, DOMAINE GIACHINO (Savoie, France)
Although Mondeuse is the red grape variety most people will know when thinking Savoie, Persan is in my experience quite capable of being its equal. It originated in the Maurienne Valley, but declined, as did viticulture in general, as the route along the River Arc became more industrialised, the Fréjus Tunnel becoming one of the major transport routes between France and Italy.
According to Wink Lorch (Wines of the French Alps, 2019) Persan fell to a mere 3-hectares, not assisted by the fact that the Maurienne Valley was left out of the appellation for Savoie wines, probably because the authorities thought viticulture was more or less dead and buried there. They were wrong. The vineyards of the Isère are seeing a real revival and Persan is in the vanguard, at least for quality.
Domaine Giachino is located close to Champareilan. Although this is not all that far south of the well-known vineyards of Aprémont, south of Chambéry, it is in fact just outside the departmental border of Savioe, in the department of Isère. Brothers Frédéric and David Giachino are in charge of the domaine, now joined by Frédéric’s son Clément and his wife, a lovely young couple who I was lucky to meet just before Covid hit back in 2020.
The Domaine has grown to around 15-hectares, mostly farmed biodynamically, with some holdings in the aforesaid Aprémont Cru, but they also have developed a nice side-line in the Alps’s more exotic and obscure varieties alongside Persan.
The Giachino Persan is a fairly full-bodied 13% red, yet there’s no hint of heaviness, nor I think rusticity. For me, it’s a lovely smooth red with a bit of tannin and dark berry concentration lifted by delicious fruit acids. The terroir is special, the vines being grown on the limestone scree from the collapsed Mont Granier, which covered the surrounding land when it broke up in 1248. The wine’s liveliness is doubtless also enhanced by the low sulphur regime the Giachinos use to make vibrant natural wines.
As an aside there was another major landslide on the mountain on 9 January 2016. The scree which slid off the mountain, estimated to be around 70,000 cubic metres, was stopped by a barrier of trees only 300 metres from Entremont-le-Vieux.
Again, I was warned that this was a cuvée capable of ageing, and I probably opened it three years too early. That said, it was unquestionably delicious and I shall definitely be buying it again. Not only for its uniqueness.
It’s probably worth mentioning that it is the Giachino family whom Michel Grisard decided to entrust the vineyards of the iconic Prieuré Saint-Christoph to on his retirement. This bottle was purchased in France, but the domaine’s very astute British importer is Dynamic Vines.
LA BOTA DE MANZANILLA 71, EQUIPO NAVAZOS (Jerez, Spain)
Another article, another EN, which hides the fact that I am slowly running out of these wines, and our exit from the EU and the subsequent rocketing price of direct imports is to blame, although at some point I shall head off to one or two retailers for replenished supplies.
This Manzanilla was a bottling of January 2017, 100% Palomino Fino grapes from Sanlúcar, which Edouardo Ojeda nurtured having retrieved casks from a number of different sources in the town. The different wines have an average age in cask of seven years.
Like many EN biologically aged wines it is darker than you might be used to, and obviously the age of my bottle post-bottling is a factor too. You wouldn’t like this if you like your Manzanilla fresh and light, rather than deep and profound. It certainly has Manzanilla salinity though, not quite off the scale levels any more, but salinity-a-plenty nevertheless. It doesn’t lack vibrancy, but it is contemplative, whether sipped with cashews, drunk with a cauliflower and almond soup, or sipped again with the cheeses, all of which service this bottle performed perfectly (I took it to dinner in Oxford).
I’m sure you know by now, Equipo Sherries are much more serious, and perhaps startling, than the commercial offerings from this sacred triangle. I’m beginning to wonder whether, like other fine wines, it is almost a crime to drink these wines too young? I shall have to ask Edouardo’s partner in EN, Jesús Barquin…who happens to be a Professor of Criminology in his spare time.
Once more, purchased direct but the UK agent, Alliance Wine, will have the current Botas.
I am hoping that March will see me capable of easing myself into wine life with a few well-judged trips to London in March, and perhaps even elsewhere, but until that happens, I can only give you another round of “Recent Wines” to entertain you with.
With seven wines in each part for February, Part 1 will cover Northern Italy (two wines), Sanlúcar in Spain, the Mosel, Southwest France, a very different wine (kind of, but not technically, wine) from South Africa and my first Georgian wine of the year (although I’m hoping to have tripled the number of Georgian wines in my cellar by the time you read this).
“UVAGGIO 2017, COSTE DELLA SESIA DOC, PROPRIETÀ SPERINO (Piemonte, Italy)
When I was considerably younger one of the first wine tastings I went to at Winecellars (the original firm run by David Gleave and Nicolas Belfrage, in Wandsworth, London) was given by Tuscan star Paolo De Marchi. Paolo inherited the 8.5-hectare Sperino estate at Lessona in Northern Piemonte and has now installed his eldest son, Luca, to make the wine there. He’s doing a remarkable job, and perhaps in some ways the wines are even more interesting today than those now made on the family’s Tuscan estate, Isole e Olena, at Castellina in Chianti.
Uvaggio is something of a traditional local blend of Nebbiolo with Vespolina and Croatina (made up as 65%, 25% and 10% respectively). The wine has a lovely pale ruby hue. The bouquet is spicy, and this is mirrored on the palate alongside red fruits and a certain lick of concentrated fruit acidity. There’s a tiny hint of earthy texture that some might call “mineral”, which centres the wine. Despite 13.5% abv it doesn’t taste alcoholic, retaining a lightness. Although not a natural wine it does claim to be vegan.
I’d say that this 2017 is youthful, and could certainly develop, but it came into its own after time in the glass and with food. I’ve not drunk this wine for a number of years but I definitely plan to grab some more soon when back in stock.
I purchased this from Butlers Wine Cellar. The importer is David Gleave’s Liberty Wines.
“A DEMÛA” 2015, CASCINA DEGLI ULIVI (Piemonte, Italy)
Our second wine, also from Piemonte (somewhere I have been trying to retrieve my focus on) was the last wine I had which was made by one of the greatest natural winemakers I’ve had the privilege to meet a few times. Sadly, he died in 2018, but this magnificent wine showed what a genius he was.
Stefano Bellotti ran a mixed farm in the Gavi region, believing that polyculture enhanced a whole ecosystem. As well as vines, he grew the plants used for his biodynamic vine treatments, alongside food crops and animal husbandry on what I’d guess you would call an old-style contadino holding of around 22-hectares.
The key to enjoying Stefano’s unique wines is to realise that they are wines to keep. They develop remarkable nuance over time, and they are wines of subtlety, not power. A Demùa is a blend of Timorasso with Verdea, Bosco, Riesling Italico and Chasselas. It has a very dark orange colour, the result of a long 90-day maceration on skins (and presumably the bottle age here).
The voluminous bouquet is redolent of candied orange peel with a touch of bitterness too, something in the “Italian herb seasoning” ballpark. The palate is very zesty with a degree of richness, which builds over time. This shouldn’t be served too cold, for sure. The gorgeous aromatics would be too clipped.
I would argue that the result here is something profound. Although I can be pretty complimentary about wines I like on a fairly regular basis (they have to be pretty interesting to make the cut in these articles), I’d like to think that I don’t argue profundity too often.
It’s also a unique wine on many levels…including that remarkable colour. It’s enough to sort the wine lovers from the gluggers, for sure.
This wine came from Les Caves de Pyrene (£32 at the time). Stefano’s family are continuing his work, though it may still be possible to find wines he made himself. He was no less a superstar than those well-known names from Jura, Burgundy, Savoie etc.
LA BOTA DE FLORPOWER 84 (MMXVI), EQUIPO NAVAZOS (Jerez, Spain)
In our house we try to hold back the odd bottle of Florpower. It is all too easy to guzzle it on release, though perhaps many would say that’s the way to go. I find the wines age in an interesting way, but then I feel no different about the Finos and Manzanillas made by this exemplary bottler. Whilst the region is now producing a firework display of exemplary Palomino wines, especially in this unfortified category, I think Florpower still manages to demonstrate exactly why the idea of making table wine from the Palomino Fino variety has taken off.
The Palomino grapes were harvested from the “La Baja” sector of the famous Pago Miraflores at Sanlúcar and the wine was aged nineteen months under flor. This comprised eight months in 600-litre casks and then eleven months in vat. The longer period in stainless steel makes for a gentler result.
Bottled in June 2018, the wine was still remarkably fresh three years and eight months later, although the colour has deepened, for sure. The bouquet is redolent of limes and, oddly, reminded me also of Chablis. Perhaps rather than a grape variety comparison, it is the terroir which creates such a similarity? It certainly has what I can’t avoid calling a fantastic mineral texture topped with a slightly creamy citrus note. Any obvious influence of the flor is now quite mild.
It is said that Christoph Schaefer aims for light and elegant wines. This is true, but whatever he aims for, he is now making some of the best wines on this stretch of the Mosel, at Graach and Wehlen, and consistently so. He harvests relatively early to preserve freshness, but this also preserves acids so that the sugar levels of the Prädikat wines, especially at Kabinett level, are never too sweet-tasting. This is an estate where detail is important. These are, in reality, natural wines. Native yeasts, no additives, ageing in old füder and minimal sulphur, is the regime.
Domprobst is a vineyard which sits on the steep slope above the village of Graach on the Mosel’s right bank. The tiny Schaefer holding produces wines which, perhaps first and foremost, are wines of focus. The 2018 is 8% abv, and certainly has a lightness to it, but that’s not to deny the fruit its sweetness. Of course, the wine has acidity too, the kind of acidity which lets you know that this is a young wine and one you should perhaps have aged longer. Domprobst is a rocky, slate site, making wines noted for their ability to age, and Schaefer’s vines here are around 60-years-old and 70% ungrafted. A friend recommended carafing it, wise words. Five years more in bottle would be good, or possibly longer, although in reality this vintage will not be quite as good as the 2019.
However, this is indeed a lovely wine and one which, for me, is what great Kabinett is all about. Precision, focus, an ethereal lightness and a balance between acids and sugar. How can this style be so ignored by the public as a whole, and how can such quality remain such remarkable value?
Domaine D’Audaux is an estate created by Jamie Hutchinson and his wife, Jess. Jamie was co-founder of London’s Sampler wine shops whilst Jess worked for Charles Taylor Wines. Audaux is a small village close to Navarrenx, which in wine terms is in the old region of Béarn/Jurançon, although Jamie has classified his wine as IGT. The couple moved their family out to this part of France because, in Jamie’s words, he wanted to make wine, fish and eat pig and duck.
This cuvée is made from Petit Manseng, a variety which in nearby Jurançon is reserved for the sweet wines, for which that region is famous. This is also Jamie and Jess’s first vintage. I had this time taken the advice given to age it at least a touch after purchase, although having known Jamie a little over many years (and wine lunches) before he left our shores, I had been having difficulty holding back on the cork.
I’m by no means therefore the first to praise this wine, and some far greater wine royalty has beaten me to that honour. Yet I can only repeat that, especially at three-and-a-half years old, this wine is superb. It’s actually hard to believe that it was made as a first vintage, by an Englishman with no formal winemaking qualification.
The fruit is from three sites, all hand harvested and rigorously hand sorted. The wine was made in 3-to-5-year-old barrels which had previously been used for White Bordeaux. Ageing on lees has given the wine remarkable depth, and a little age has given it a serious side. You get freshness but a sort of creamy fruit as well. The Petit Manseng is very fragrant too. An unqualified success.
Alas, you will be very lucky to find any 2018 on the market retail. The Sampler has the 2019 for just under £27, and although I’ve not tasted it yet, it does claim to have 30% less added sulphur than the 2018.
WANDERLUST PIQUETTE , RESTLESS RIVER (Hemel-en-Aarde, South Africa)
Restless River is something of a cult winery launched by Craig Wessels and his wife Anne in 2012, situated in the Hemel-en-Aarde Valley, north of Hermanus on Walker Bay. Despite the proliferation of famous names around Walker Bay, the region still has its feeling of remoteness in places, and most certainly a cool climate. It has become, of course, a by-word for Pinot Noir and Chardonnay.
“Wanderlust” is a label Craig and his wife have created to feed their creative side. It carries principally one-off cuvées, always distinctive. Nothing could perhaps be more distinctive than this one, which is not strictly a wine at all. Piquette was, by tradition, a beverage fed to the vineyard workers, made by running water over the marc of pressed grape skins, producing a second fermented beverage of lower concentration and alcohol.
In this case the skins in question are those of the Restless River Premium Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, and the water is direct from the “pure” mountain springs nearby (so hopefully not sheep country). The result of this second pressing is bottled with its lees sediment, a little like a petnat, and with low (7%) alcohol.
We get a pale red beverage with some nice “frizzante-style” bubbles, the colour being somewhere between strawberry and rhubarb. Imagine a sparkling mineral water infused with concentrated red berry fruits with an added herbal edge. Water into wine, so to speak and totally smashable, as Jamie would say (and it really is). Being me, I opened this absolutely perfect hot summer aperitivo in February. I shall be trying to find some more because I cannot think of a better wine (sic) to drink late morning on an August (or hopefully sooner) weekend.
This bottle, number 326 of 2,450, came from Butlers Wine Cellar in Brighton. £13.95 (shhh!).
“ANNA” 2019, NIKA WINERY (Kakheti, Georgia)
In 2006 Nika Bakhia bought some vines near the abandoned village of Anaga in the wine region of Kakheti in Eastern Georgia, and in fact Anaga is not too far from being the furthest point east where vines are grown commercially in the country. In very general terms, Kakheti is seen as the cradle of Qvevri winemaking in Georgia.
The family now owns eight vineyards in the Alazani Valley and follow a regime which does not use any synthetic chemical treatments. Pruning is minimal, and the grass between rows just gets an occasional trim. This particular cuvée, named after Nika’s wife Anna, is from their Tsaraphi vineyard, which contains deep rooted old vines on rocky soils. The field blend consists of five varieties: Saperavi, Cabernet Sauvignon, Rkatsiteli, Mtsvane and Khikhvi, so I’m sure a few readers will realise that there are white grapes as well as red in this bottle.
The wine starts out with a lovely, soft and gentle bouquet of cherry and red fruits, with a floral element riding over the top as if blown gently on a breeze. The palate is a slight contrast, dry and grippy as you would expect from a red wine made on its skins in qvevri. It is textured and what I tend to call a little ferrous. It will age, for sure, but it is quite lovely now, combining a little earthiness with a feel that is unique to the vessel in which it was made. It seems somehow “sprightly” too, despite 13.5% abv on the label.
This estate is new to the Basket Press Wines portfolio. There are three wines imported and I grabbed a bottle of each to try, although I hope to try the two orange/whites sooner, at their upcoming trade tasting. £25 seems a good price.
If Part 1 got January off to a strong start, Part 2 goes down equally different paths. We begin with a well known Blaufränkisch from Burgenland before veering right across Europe to Alentejo. Then back we go to cooler climes for a more traditional Hungarian wine than those I’ve been drinking of late. A rather beautiful Jura Chardonnay follows, and then that Wiener Gemischter Satz I promised in Part 1. We finish with a very unusual Swiss sparkling wine before ending on a classical note, a 2013 Burgundy from a producer I’ve tried to follow since their inception and who I shall be able to try another wine from the previous vintage at one decade old later this year.
Johanneshöhe is a site made up of iron-rich loams on the western side of the Neusiedlersee, near the family’s base at Schützen. Georg Prieler represents the current generation in charge here. The vines are on the lower slopes of the Leithaberg, which is classic Blaufränkisch terroir. Yet these loams don’t give the wine as much mineral or ferrous bite as the slopes slightly higher up the hillsides, especially when on slate and Musselkalk (the fossil-bearing limestones). What the loams do impart is a bit more weight.
The result here is a wine which is a touch fatter than some…well, not fat as such, just a little flesh on the frame. The fruit is velvet smooth, rich (almost a kind of fruitcake richness) and spicy, although as they use large format older oak you don’t get that “step too far” thing going on which some misguided producers, more often in other regions, end up with. Plums and darker fruits are the order of the day. It isn’t really tannic but as I suggested, it does have structure. The abv, 13%, is well balanced and the wine is big and spicy enough for winter food without any heaviness.
Although this is a single site wine, it is towards entry level for Prieler. For the ultimate expression of the grape at Prieler, try their Goldberg Cru. However, I would say that at £18.99 from The Solent Cellar this is excellent value. Especially when it’s a Christmas present from your brother-in-law. Clark Foyster is the importer.
PROCURA NA ÂNFORA 2018, SUSANA ESTEBAN (Alentejo, Portugal)
In the second half of last month, we spent several days down in Lymington, helping out a family member who had been in hospital. Finding ourselves short on wine I needed to grab an extra bottle and was recommended this Portuguese wine. It’s a Vinho Regional Alentejo, a traditional field blend, with vines around eighty-five years old, planted high up at 700 masl.
Susana Esteban comes from Northern Spain, but she is perhaps best known in her role as winemaker at Quinta do Crasto between 2002 and 2007, as that Douro estate became pretty well known outside of Portugal. She then started work as a consultant, and spent two years searching Alentejo for suitable vineyards of her own before finding two plots near Portalegre in 2011.
The winemaking definitely has a nod to the past, with the wine made in Talhas, the traditional clay vessels of the region. The wider revival of their use is only hampered by the difficulty in finding them, as it has become clear that they give the region’s wines a good deal more soul than some of Southern Portugal’s more “international-style” efforts. They must surely impart the mineral texture and slight earthiness in the wine, which combines nicely with the stone fruit aromas and flesh. Acidity is zippy and the alcohol, only 12.5% (perhaps the altitude of the vines helps here) makes the result rather attractive. There is weight but it’s subtle. The Talhas also give that slightly dusty finish which is not obtrusive but grounds the wine and adds interest. It’s not one of these “international” whites the region seems to enjoy offering up.
Turned out to be an excellent recommendation from Simon Smith at The Solent Cellar.
TOKAJI FURMINT 2017, SZEPSY (Tokaj, Hungary)
I have several Furmints in the cellar, from both Hungary and Austria. I’d happily have more. I’m afraid I don’t agree with the person on Twitter who was putting the grape down a week ago. I think when done well, it manifests exciting flavours and is seriously under rated. Even by members of the wine trade, though I’m pleased I’m not alone in appreciating its virtues.
Istvàn Szepsy is the eighteenth generation of his family making wine in Tokay/Tokaj, but the wine made by all those previous generations was likely to have been the sweet wine for which the region was (at some times justly, but in the later 20th Century perhaps unjustly on occasion) famous. After the fall of communism and the redistribution of land back into private hands, the opportunity to restore the name of Tokaji wine was firmly grasped. Yet did the world, which had moved on, really want another sweet wine? Even fine Sauternes was a hard sell, let alone an expensive to produce sticky from Central Europe.
The answer for families like the Szepsys was to make a dry table wine alongside the sweet wines, from the same grape varieties. This is pretty much the same idea as that which has taken off in Jerez/Sanlúcar, with the Palomino grape, in recent years. This wine is 100% Furmint taken from a range of different terroirs, aged in (mostly) used oak.
The scent is like pure quince with a whiff of something almost flinty. If you were under the impression this wine might be sweet, the bouquet would disabuse you of any such notion. The palate has rounder stone fruit flesh and texture, with added pear and quince lingering on the finish. It is perhaps a more classical rendition of the variety than I’m currently drinking but it’s a lovely wine which will age further, yet is nice (and indeed impressive) now. Despite being over four years old it doesn’t taste aged, no doubt down to the mineral freshness. Extremely well made.
You can find this for £30 at The Solent Cellar, but feel free to pay £55.80 for exactly the same wine at a Central London wine shop if you prefer!
The Pignier family farms around 15 hectares at Montaigu, a little to the south of Lons-Le-Saunier. Lons is a sleepy town, famous for just two things. The first is that it was the birthplace of Claude-Joseph Rouget de Lisle, the man who wrote La Marseillaise (although he wrote it in Strasbourg, of course, he is commemorated by a statue in the town made by Bartholdi, the man who also designed the Statue of Liberty). The second claim to fame is that this is where I purchased my first wine, a Vin Jaune, made by Alain and Josie Labet…another story from a different time.
The domaine has been in the family since the late eighteenth century, but very much as a mixed farm. Viticulture became the main preoccupation in the 1970s. Their heritage is maintained in some of their winemaking and storing facilities, including their ageing cellar, housed in the 13th century Cellier des Chartreux.
François Pignier bought Les Percenettes in 1990, and it is the largest of their single sites. They decided to use the Chardonnay from it to make their first ouillé wine, previously having made their white wines oxidatively (without topping up the barrels). Another change brought about by the current generation of siblings was biodynamics, with Demeter Certification coming in 2006. There are many more fashionable young natural winemakers working in the region, but hidden out here in one of Jura’s less densely planted sectors, the current generation of Pigniers have been quietly making delicious low-intervention wines for close to thirty years.
This cuvée sees twelve months in used oak pièces, and is structured like an old stone tower, yet is equally bright and floral. The fresh acids cling to a saline spine which is extremely refreshing, though which at the same time makes you sit up. On the finish there’s a hint of honey and apple, just enough to add another layer of interest. There’s a reason this wine tastes a little different, and I would say exciting, which I haven’t yet revealed. The Chardonnay clone* in question here (*allegedly but debated) is Jura’s rare Melon à Queue Rouge. These golden berries with occasional pink tints, and red stems when ripe, usually make wines of exceptional finesse in the right hands, wines which emphasise the brighter side of Chardonnay.
Okay, I confess this month has been a month where rather a lot of wines have come from the same retailer. Just the way it has worked out. This wine was also from The Solent Cellar. £35, and good value even at that price.
In Part 1 I made a rare foray into a single varietal wine from Vienna’s vineyards. Here, we are back to the traditional field blend of the region, known as Wiener Gemischter Satz. The Christ family has a four-century history of winemaking at Jedlersdorf, in the capital’s 21st District. Like most of the winemakers here, they operate a heuriger inn, where you can sample the wines with good home cooking, always a treat if you ever get the opportunity.
The operation is run today by Rainer Christ. He looks after a fairly significant 25-hectares of vines. The sources of this cuvée are the two named sites, Kraut and Rüben, which are on the Bisamberg hill, on the right bank of the Danube, on the northeast edge of the city. The soils here are a complex mix including glacial deposits and the vines are old, up to eighty years of age. Production is low intervention and this cuvée could be termed a natural wine (it’s certainly vegan), with no synthetic chemicals used in its biodynamic production.
Christ makes several Gemischter Satz blends but this one, containing Grüner Veltliner, Muscat, Pinot Blanc, Riesling and Sauvignon Blanc, grown and picked together and co-fermented, sees extended skin contact during fermentation before maturing on its gross lees. It is, therefore, effectively an orange wine.
The colour, in truth, is more burnished gold than orange. It is savoury, mineral, and shows a hint of lime on the finish. It’s something a little different to the lighter and slightly spritzig GS wines many will have tried. That said, it is lifted by a little dissolved CO2 on opening, but the miniscule bubbles do dissipate. The tingle on the tongue is refreshing, before the more complex flavours and textures of skin contact take over as it grows in the glass.
This cost just over £35 from Alpine Wines. They only get a small allocation of this particular cuvée from Rainer Christ, but it’s well worth grabbing a bottle, to try a quite different interpretation of the Austrian capital’s traditional field blend.
BLANC DE BLANCS DEMI-SEC 2016, LA MAISON BLANCHE (Vaud, Switzerland)
La Maison Blanche was originally part of a 15th century estate in the appellation of Mont-sur-Rolle, one of the better-known wine villages in that lesser-known part of the Vaud Canton, on the north shore of Lac Léman, between Geneva and Lausanne. The same family has been there since being given the property for military services rendered in 1528. The vineyards here are not terraced, like those in the UNESCO Heritage Site of Lavaux, to the east, but are gently sloping, rising from the lake shore, mostly south facing.
This is an unusual sparkling wine on several levels. The basic fabrication method is not one of them, being a straightforward traditional bottle-fermentation with disgorgement. What makes this wine pretty unique are grape variety and finishing. The variety, as you might possibly guess given the region, is Chasselas. More unique is what they used as the dosage. Chasselas is very dry, but a liqueur made from elderflower (fleur de sureau) helps turn this into a demi-sec (they do make a Brut version as well). The wine was fermented in stainless steel before lees ageing in bottle but I’m not sure of the disgorgement date.
Nevertheless, at over five years old this bottle had kept its freshness whilst attaining a little depth. Perhaps depth isn’t the point here, though. Demi-sec it may be but it has acidity enough to tame the sweetness. Although some may recommend it as an aperitif, it would go very well with fruit desserts. For those who don’t like their sparkling wine too dry, it has enough presence for wider application…adventure calls (we drank it with my elderly parents, with a typical potato and cold cuts meal).
I think the resulting wine is a little less sweet than you might expect. There’s a bit of that Chasselas herbal thing going on, but you can definitely smell and taste the elderflower. It’s not really powerful, but it does add a lifted florality. It is a truly singular wine. This is the second bottle I’ve drunk, the first being served as an aperitif at a barbecue last summer. Everyone I know who has tried it was both impressed and pleasantly surprised, though of course there would be people who can’t abide sweetness in sparkling wine. If you like wines like Bugey-Cerdon, try this.
Available for around £42 from The Solent Cellar and imported by Alpine Wines.
BEAUNE BOUCHEROTTES 1ER CRU 2013, LE GRAPPIN (Burgundy, France)
I can’t remember whether 2013 was the second or third vintage of Le Grappin, but this was the second vintage I bought from Andrew and Emma Nielsen. I bought my first Boucherottes from Le Grappin’s cellars in the subterranean powder store located within the walls of Beaune’s old town. I’d never come across this particular Premier Cru before, though it must be said that there are many to choose from under Beaune’s own AOC. It’s not one of the better-known sites. It sits on the slope just below the larger and better-known Clos des Mouches, and yet it has furnished me with some beautiful wines since I discovered it.
Of course, Le Grappin began as a négociant, although they had significant input into the viticulture of this plot from the beginning. The grapes, after hand harvesting with careful selection in the vineyard, made their way swiftly inside the town walls and went into wooden vat to ferment. Then, after very gentle pressing, maturation took place in seven oak barrels.
Out of the several 2013s from this site I’ve already drunk, this was the best bottle. I should add that I do recall Andrew suggested I should drink the 2013s before the 2012s, and I took him at his word. This bottle was singing beautifully, despite it being a less-well regarded year for the Côte de Beaune. Yields were small, partly as a result of hail damage for many producers here, but the fruit Andrew, Emma and the team were able to bring in was carefully sorted for healthy grapes.
Any tannins the wine held have smoothed out by now. The fruit is characteristically raspberry dominated, but with strawberry and some cherry in the mix as well. That fruit is still remarkably bright without any tertiary notes dominating. The texture is silky smooth, like any good Beaune, and it lingers long on the palate. A well-made, feel good, Red Burgundy with soul.
Purchased direct. Although costs and, to a degree, the market, have put these wines beyond my price range, I don’t begrudge Andrew and Emma from making a living. Outside of Covid times at least I get to taste the range in London, along with the wines of Mark Haisma and Jane Eyre. I would scontinue to argue that all three make glorious wines which are, in the context of fine Burgundy today, still good value.