What is it with German Wine?

As a wine lover I feel fairly split between the major wine producing nations of Europe. I have an enduring love of Italian wines, with a pendulum swinging every few years between Tuscany and Piemonte. I’ve said emphatically this year that I think Spain is as exciting as anywhere in the world for the wine lover at the moment. Yet like many people, France was the first country to teach me what wine really means. Where does this leave Germany?

Thirty years ago I started to explore German wine. Of course as a student I’d already discovered the delights of Black Tower and Blue Nun, but I mean the prädikat system. I developed quite a taste for the wider Mosel and her tributaries, including the wines of the Saar and Ruwer. I think that would pinpoint my love affair with acidity which may have waned during those later years when we all became enticed by the more voluptuous charms of overt fruit layered with new oak, but which has returned with a vengeance as I have got older and, perhaps, my palate has matured.

If today I am firmly back in love with German wine I find myself still one of a relatively small number of voices in the wilderness. But soon there will be a new online platform for those who love wine from the German-speaking world, called Trink Magazine (www.trinkmag.com). Trink plans to launch in late September, the people behind it being New York wine writer Valerie Kathawala and German-based American drinks writer and translator Paula Redes Sidore.

So far Trink has been online during the pandemic broadcasting six “TRINKTalks”, fascinating discussions with winemakers and wine writers on a diverse array of relevant topics with a theme of “six myths of German Wine”, all available to catch up on via YouTube (they will be back with more talks in The Fall). I recently watched Episode 2, called “What’s the Grudge Against German Wine” with Eric Asimov and Anne Krebiehl MW, and also featuring contributions by Stuart Pigott. Not only was this entertaining and illuminating, it sparked an urge to join the debate. So I would like to expand on some of the ideas raised in the talk, adding some of my own more British-based observations, as I ponder why we just don’t drink enough German wine.

German wine used to be really popular in the UK. We all know that even in the 19th Century the top Rhine wines were as expensive as the top Bordeaux. Even when I began reading about wine in the 1980s our foremost wine writers, like Hugh Johnson, had a passion for German Riesling perhaps above all wines, and his vinous daughter, so to speak, Jancis Robinson, always expressed a similar love of Riesling. It is beyond doubt that German Riesling could famously exhibit that perfect tension between sugar and acidity which, with a rapier-like spine yet a floral sensitivity, can be as close to wine perfection as many of us might get.

However, in the UK there were always two types of German wine drinker (I shall not say “lover”). The first group were those whose preference (and knowledge) erred towards the prädikats and the Riesling grape, whilst the rest guzzled the Black Tower simplicity of Müller-Thurgau. The one grown largely on steep slate slopes, where a man or woman could slip to a nasty injury, the other produced on the plain, where winter feed for the animals was once cultivated. In the UK it was really a class thing, there’s no denying it. Difficult to decipher rules and labels requiring arcane knowledge gained through a certain education versus the marketing efforts of successful large companies.

 

Geisenheim was the premier viticultural college in German. As with other such colleges around the world (Roseworthy in Australia and UC Davis in California spring to mind), the new technology in winemaking was bringing what seemed like much needed modernity to what had been a peasant economy. Synthetic chemical inputs could make yields more profitably sizeable, whilst similar inputs in the winery, including laboratory yeasts, firm filtration and bags of sulphur, could eradicate spoilage, and create a uniform product for the marketing men to work on. Wine as a mere beverage was arriving all over post-war Europe for the masses, and the hard to produce wines off difficult terrain were becoming so much less attractive to winemakers who could earn a lot more in a factory without breaking sweat.

As the Geisenheim gamble began to look as if it was paying off we started to forget those beautifully intricate Riesling wines. Especially when new varieties, like Scheurebe, could produce the sugar levels of a sweet Riesling with far less effort (if with almost zero nuance in some cases). But even within a decade of this 1970s “revolution” many were starting to realise that far from creating a vinous Audi or BMW, the techno wizards had merely created a Trabant. This is all embodied in the infamous 1971 German Wine Law. There isn’t space here to go into the detail, but if any law codified mediocrity, then this is it. I’m sure there are readers who recall lakes of Niersteiner Gutes Domtal and the like on supermarket shelves. Ubiquitous as these wines once were, they are rarely seen in the same locations today, a clear sign of the way one part of the market has declined.

One very clear point made in the Trink Talk was that people tend to have a very narrow view of Germany, one which describes her merely as a great industrial and technological powerhouse. Historically this idea does have a lot of traction. From the moment Chancellor Bismark and Prussia led the unification of Germany towards nationhood in the second half of the 19th Century (1871), her industrial prowess has been phenomenal, built on the back it must be said of great scientists and state investment. But this prowess has always been given a darker reading in the Anglo-Saxon world, through Germany’s involvement in the two great wars of the 20th Century. Advertising slogans such as “vorsprung durch technik” are often spoken with an unnecessary edge here, even as we buy (or jealously aspire to) our German cars, fridges and washing machines.

The sad fact is that Germany very much has another side to her of which we Brits often know nothing, and this is Romanticism. The Romantic movement was dominant in all German-speaking countries in the late 18th and early 19th century. Although it was supplanted by Prussian industrialism it formed a critical contribution to European culture through philosophy, art, music and general aesthetics. Although standing alone as a giant of German culture, it would be remiss not to mention Goethe as well, the German Shakespeare. Perhaps not a romantic in the sense of Beethoven and Wagner, or Heinrich Heine and Caspar David Friedrich, because his genius encompassed almost every discipline, the fact that we Anglo-Saxons don’t study this giant of European culture says a great deal about our understanding of Europe’s most populous nation.

If we look to the romantic side of German culture we are so much better able to place wine within a rural idyll, and within an historical tradition which harks back centuries rather than a hundred and fifty years. We forget that the great estates of Germany were planted with vines by the same monks who planted the great clos’ of the Côte d’Or.

If we are unaware of German culture in the way that we purport to appreciate the cultures of Classical Greece and Rome, Renaissance Italy and Enlightenment France, then we also remained unaware of a wine revolution taking place in that country at the end of the 20th Century. Dry wine! As the market for sweet sugar water manufactured from Müller-Thurgau collapsed, those producers intent on continuing to make world class wines, producers who still believed primarily in German Riesling, began to band together.

In 1984 the Charta group was founded to promote more food-friendly dry wines from the best sites in the Rheingau, which the group began to classify, a kind of Premier Cru/Grand Cru hierarchy. Then along came the Verband Deutscher Prädikatsweingüter (VDP) which, in 1991, enacted the rules from which we have the Grosse Gewächse classification. Today “GG” denotes a kind of Grand Cru dry Riesling to most informed drinkers, but it faced almost total opposition at first from the very conservative English aficionado who was prone to turn up both nose and palate to this new dry norm.

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It seems common sense now, that to create a wine mythology you need truly great wines from genuinely great terroir, both named and site specific. This is how this land of lakes and forests, of folk tales and medieval mythology, can sell the story of the continuity of her wines to those interested in that story more than the moderate price of the beverage.

Another way to sell German wine is so obviously through regionalism. Anne Krebiehl made a brilliant point in the TRINKTalk which hadn’t really struck me before. I assume you are aware, especially if you read my book review back in January, that Anne wrote a very fine contemporary account of German wine. She did point out on this broadcast that whilst her publisher has on its list books on (inter alia) Chablis, Languedoc, Champagne (and even on Faugères, I would add), her task was to write, in the same number of words, a book on the whole of Germany. Yet Germany’s regions differ no less than Chablis and the Côte d’Or, or Piemonte and Tuscany.

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So Germany, and indeed lovers of German wine, need to push the idea that Germany is made up of very different wine regions. Some specialise in grape varieties and wine styles which are very different from our “German stereotype”, but even in the Riesling heartlands, a Mosel could not be more different from a wine made from the same variety hailing from the Rheingau or the Pfalz.

Germany continues to make wines of great diversity. If you were to think that Germany makes just Riesling, and sweet Riesling at that, then you would be overwhelmed by a diversity of varieties, styles and, very important, philosophies. If Germany has relatively recently become an acknowledged producer of fine Spätburgunder (Pinot Noir) across many varied regions, then the Sekt sparkling wine revolution may only have reached your ears and palate fairly recently.

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Yet perhaps one of the great driving forces for change in Germany is, yes you guessed, “natural wine”. Now for me natural wine and classic wine styles both have a place in my German heart, but it is so often those who work at the fringes who move things forward. The great leveller of natural wine is that it entices in younger drinkers, people who lack the prejudices of some of the older generation. That goes for the winemakers as much as the drinkers. Their iconoclasm has shaken things up, not just through the natural wine philosophy but also through labels and grape varieties.

The wine called “Portugeezer” from Jan Matthias Klein’s Staffelter Hof in the Mosel is perhaps the perfect example. The grape blend is Arinto and Ferñao Pires (two grapes originating in Northern Portugal) and the label is wild…and not remotely like the classic gothic script and schloss of old. Why plant these? It is an experiment on the subject of drought induced by climate change. If such a wine is a little scary you can try his Pinot Noir. Both are bottles for young people in a bar, and which certain more conservative palates have clearly told me they would not contemplate drinking.

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I think that through the new generation of producers, some being siblings from classical estates like Jan Matthias, and others totally new to wine, Germany is picking up once more on international markets. The young have been helped, of course, by superstar classicists like Keller and the two Haag-run estates, Wittmann and others, by geniuses like Hanspeter Ziereisen, or natural wine prophets like Rudolph and Rita Trossen.

 

The obvious mirror to stare into is Austria. Why has Austria seemingly been more successful at establishing an exciting modern wine industry, making wines young people want to drink? I think there are two major reasons, and they are very much inter-connected.

In 1985 Austria suffered a terrible wine scandal, one which every Austrian producer I know hates any mention of. It is after all thirty-five years since it happened, and it did only affect a small number of producers. Yet those few destroyed a country’s wine industry literally over night. It was at this point that many Austrian producers lost heart. Thankfully many of their children saw a new way, and created one of Europe’s most vibrant and exciting wine industries (I do so dislike that word) using their own quality focus.

But this success was not wholly left to their own devices. The Austrian government saw the need to step in and help support the wine sector. I think that although Austria is a small country, it has always valued its agricultural sector. In Germany, whilst agriculture is far more important than many realise, it is still somewhat “other”, removed behind EU subsidy and less “sexy” than industrial innovation. Surely the disfiguring of some of Germany’s most important historic vineyards by a massive bridge over the River Mosel, to link cities like Mainz and Frankfurt to a small regional airport, was proof enough of that.

German wine was also so dominated by the Geisenheim mentality that artisan quality was in some ways more a hindrance than something to be cherished and promoted. Natural wine has faced no less opposition from industrial wine in Germany than in France, but perhaps France is further down the road to acceptance.

I think to summarise what I am saying here, Riesling is the best grape variety in the world and for heaven’s sake give German wines the chance their quality deserves without the kind of prejudices that stretch back to a “two world wars and one world cup” mentality. But of course that is merely a facile comment because I know that true wine lovers don’t think like that. No, but we still need to be persuaded to discover a wine culture as vibrant and varied as that of France, Italy or Spain.

TRINKTalks are one way to engage with the debate, and I can tell you that as someone who has become fairly jaded by the Lockdown Zoom culture, these have woken me up from my encroaching slumber. TRINKMag, when it launches online in late September (hopefully, they tell me), will be the platform where we can explore wine culture, not just from Germany but from the German-speaking parts of Switzerland and Italy’s Südtirol, and from Austria. In particular, a firm aim is to bring local writers, who write in German, to English-speaking eyes via translation, which will be particularly exciting for this moderately competent French speaker.

As we explore German wine, and wines from other German-speaking countries and regions here in the Anglo-Saxon world, more of us are exploring them with new eyes and a new understanding. As we look for lighter wines with greater subtlety and more nuance, and as a younger generation of winzer realise the way to make it work is through quality, passion and wines with soul, can there be a better time to reconnect with these wines?

Unusually for me I plan to append a bibliography. The first three books are those I would most recommend on German wine. Those which follow cover wider subject matter. I would particularly recommend the first of those, written by Peter Watson. If you really want a greater understanding of Germany then for me, this is one of the best places to start.

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I recommend the Goethe simply because I love travel and travel writing, and this is a classic. It also shows a great German genius writing with empathy and intuitively, as well as authoritatively, about that most romantic of counties. For a guy that could do the technik as well, it is beautifully conceived and beautifully written (even in translation).

Books on Wine

  • The Wines of Germany by Anne Krebiehl (Infinite Ideas, 2019)
  • The Finest Wines of Germany by Stephan Reinhardt (Aurum Press, 2012)
  • The Riesling Story: Best White Wine on Earth by Stuart Pigott (Stewart Tabori & Chang, NY 2014)

Other Books 

  • The German Genius by Peter Watson (Simon & Schuster, 2010)
  • Germany: Memories of a Nation by Neil MacGregor (Penguin, 2016)
  • Keeping Up With The Germans by Philip Olterman (Faber and Faber, 2012, a fairly humorous approach).
  • Germania by Simon Winder (Picador, 2010)
  • The Iron Kingdom (The Rise & Downfall of Prussia) by Christopher Clark (Penguin, 2007)
  • An Italian Journey by Goethe (my copy is Penguin Classics, 1962)
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Tourist Jura – A Brief Guide to Arbois and Beyond

I’ve written pretty frequently about what before this pandemic were my annual trips to the Jura region, and my “Recent Wines” articles usually contain one or two Jura wines. I suppose that it might be the wine region most readers identify me with. Throughout the articles resulting from those visits I’ve usually thrown in a few ideas for things to do, but I thought now perhaps I have time to group my ideas together. I know a few people who are planning to head over to this beautiful part of Eastern France fairly soon, and although they are all wine obsessed, they don’t necessarily want to spend every moment in a cellar. Nor do their partners and children. So if you want to explore a region which has enough to offer even without the wine, read on.

Arbois

We always stay in Arbois. There are several reasons for this, but I must say I fell in love with the town pretty much the moment I’d driven up to the central Place de la Liberté for the first time and smelt the wood smoke. Arbois is not flashy, and that must be part of its charm, but nor is it a sleepy backwater (at least these days) with nothing to do but taste wine.

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To begin, let us start with the shops. The town is almost unique in that a good number of the larger wine producers, and the Cave Cooperative, have wine shops in the town. Most of them are close to the central Place de La Liberté so you can wander between them at will, and taste there as well as buy. The coach parties will be heading to the largest of them all, that owned by mega-négoce Henri Maire. On the opposite corner of the Place is the shop of Domaine A&M Tissot, aka Stéphane and Bénédicte Tissot. Actually, this domaine (more of which later, when we go walking) doesn’t always encourage visits to its Montigny-les-Arsures base, though there is a tasting room there. But you can taste at the shop, and if they have any bottles left of the rarer cuvées, they are just as likely to be available here.

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If you head southwest of the Place, towards the River Cuisance and the large Église St-Just, you will find the shop belonging to the town’s first biodynamic producer, Domaine de La Pinte (8 rue Hôtel de la Ville). Too often overlooked by the wine writers, this domaine’s shop can furnish some of their more interesting cuvées. Older Vin Jaune vintages (ask), skin contact wines and Melon à Queue Rouge (a famous red-stemmed Chardonnay mutation beloved of Jura geeks) are my first recommendations.

It’s also worth noting that the old family firm of Rolet, recently the subject of another Burgundian takeover in the region, and which has a shop almost opposite “Pinte”, has traditionally sold Vin Jaune in a “half-Clavelin”. This is as far as I know technically not allowed by the regulations but it sure makes Vin Jaune more affordable if current Clavelin prices are too steep. It is also a useful size if you really want to use it for cooking (a discussion for another time).

The best wine shop not owned by a single domaine in Arbois, for those of us who drink natural wines, is Les Jardins de Saint Vincent (49 Grande Rue, close to the Place but heading north, towards Dôle). It’s owned by Stéphane Planche, who as a sommelier and consultant has become perhaps the most trusted and experienced palate in Jura wine. This brilliant shop does, however, have occasionally unusual opening hours (for a time it was only open Friday and Saturday but appears now to have added 4.30pm to 9pm on Thursdays). They do tasting events as well.

There are three other shops I’d recommend for certain. For wine vinegar there is Vins et Vinaigres de Philippe Gonet at 16 Grande Rue (opposite side of the Place to Jardins and just past the arcades). I always start off any purchases with the Vinaigre de Vin Jaune and the Poulsard, but the choice is endless and the quality top notch.

Hirsinger is a chocolate and pastry shop which even the Parisians have heard of. Buy their chocolates, take away exquisite patisserie, or sit outside with a cake and a chocolat chaud, preferably all three. 38 Place de la Liberté, closed Wednesdays and Thursdays.

If you need cheese in Arbois, then Essencia en Arbois is a few doors along the same side of the road as Hirsinger. They also sell a few local wines, deli items, and Franche Comté beers (and usually have some of Eric Bordelet’s cider as well). We shall mention their main store when we visit Poligny.

For those who don’t mind straying along the Grande Rue in the other direction after a visit to Gonet, the Fruitière du Plateau Arboisien has its own shop up the hill at 1 rue des Fossés for excellent cheeses and some other produce. If you are staying and dining in, the butcher sited between the Henri Maire and Rolet shops has been very good in the past. Fresh meat, charcuterie and traiteurie and a daily takeaway “plat” are all available.

Before we leave Arbois, first on foot and then by car, I will mention some museums. There is a wine museum at the old castle of Château Pécauld (best access via the alley to the left of the vinegar shop and through the Porte Picardet). I think most people knowledgeable about Jura wines or who have already seen enough old wine equipment would find the following two museums more interesting, but I don’t regret my visit.

La Maison de Pasteur is really interesting and I would recommend a visit to this great scientist’s house (83 rue de Courcelles), even though opening hours seem currently to be confined to weekends (perhaps Covid-related). Pasteur’s house is a typical bourgeois dwelling and combines rooms featuring his science and typically furnished rooms of the period when he lived there.

Somewhat grander, though you’d not necessarily think so from its entrance off the Grande Rue, is the Musée d’Art – Hôtel Sarret de Grozon. Constructed between the 18th and early 19th centuries, this fascinating small aristocratic town house often has some interesting exhibitions alongside its period décor, furniture and art. Definitely worth a visit, occasionally open with free admission at certain times of year.

Dining

I’m not going to say too much here as Arbois has an increasingly varied selection of restaurants. You will certainly have read in my previous articles about the restaurant down towards the Pasteur house called La BalanceIt became a firm favourite because of its possibilities (and warm welcome) for my wife, who is vegan. It changed hands a few years ago yet it seemed just as good, and welcoming, on our last visit in December 2018. I was told it had closed last year. It still appears to be open (or has reopened) according to Google. We shall certainly try to eat there next visit, but I suppose my previous glowing reviews, especially of their rustic take on poulet au vin jaune, should be read with this knowledge in mind.

Jean-Paul Jeunet has been renamed “Maison Jeunet” but still retains its two Michelin stars. It’s a classic old school French restaurant with famous dishes like stuffed hare, lake fish, and of course poulet au vin jaune. The wine list is far more modern, at least in part, than you might imagine and it’s also one of the few places you will be able to get good Vin Jaune by the glass. Expect very attentive service and a big bill. Jeunet has rooms, in which we have never stayed.

Right at the other end of the spectrum you have Les Claquets (Place Faramand) and the Bistrot de la Tournelle (Petit Place, on the river, summer only and closed if wet). Both serve simple plats to go with natural wine (including at the latter the stunning wines of the Domaine de la Tournelle, whose tasting room is at the same location).

If you desire a smart alternative to Jeunet, then Les Caudalies (also a hotel) may be an option. Nadine and Claude Troussard run a good kitchen, and sommelier Philippe Troussard was awarded the prestigious Meilleur Ouvrier de France title in 2015, backed by his 1,000-bottle cellar. The cheese board is often spectacular. It’s a little bit further out than the Pasteur house, on the opposite side of the road.

There are plenty of other places to try. You may wonder why I’ve not mentioned the prominent Aux Docks on the south side of the Place? We’ve never dined there after a rather brusque dismissal of my wife’s desire to eat dinner without meat or dairy in it. We have eaten a very nice meal with local friends at the Castel Damandre out at Les Planches-près-Arbois, a short drive, perhaps fifteen minutes or so, from the centre of town.

Walking

Arbois has lots of lovely walks, many of which begin in the town. The first thing you should do is to head to the Tourist Office, opposite L’Église St-Just, to get a free Arbois town map and to buy the Randonnée map “Arbois- Vignes et Villages, Pays de Louis Pasteur” (the scale is 1/25,000 and it cost me just 5€ back in 2015. The following walks are our favourites.

  • Arbois circuit – Start on the Rue de L’Hôtel de Ville turning left after Maison Jeunet onto Petit Place. From here follow the Rue de Bourgogne past the Cave de la Reine Jeanne and turn right down the Rue de la Tour. Cross the tiny medieval bridge by the tower (almost crumbling, but it houses a gallery which is open to visit) and looking right you will see the Bistrot de la Tournelle by the waterside. Then take a look at the old vigneron houses on Place Faramand (and check out Les Claquets, maybe grab une verre). Heading back to the large Église St-Just, take the small road down to its left (towards the cemetery) and then the path on the right, by the plant nursery (which is signed). This takes you down to the river and affords some of Arbois’s nicest views. You walk along the river a little way with vineyards to the left and very possibly some small trout to your right, eventually coming out by the Pasteur house. The “promenade” route encapsulates a full circuit of the town, but this short stretch is the best bit.
  • Montigny-lès-Arsures – this is marked on the Randonnée map and runs through the vines in large part (below the Les Corvées vineyard and the famous Tour de Curon). A pleasant walk with the added bonus that Montigny houses a large number of winemakers. Stéphane Tissot can be found a short walk down the hill to the left of the church, where if you don’t see him you will certainly see his amphoras lined up. For a longer walk return along the usually quiet road via Vauxelle. Look at the map. Can you see how a track in Vauxelle will link to the D107? From here look for the track before you reach La Colombière which will take you down to Mesnay (and then back to Arbois). These two tracks are marked as black lines on the IGN map mentioned at the end of this article so you could take both maps for security. The walk down to Mesnay is very attractive.

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Tour de Curon and Stéphane Tissot’s terraced “Le Clos” vineyard seen from the walk to Montigny-les-Arsures

  • The Hermitage and Beyond1. Pupillin: If you walk from Place Faramand out of town you soon pass the right hand turn to Pupillin. A little beyond this turn, on the right hand side of the D469, is a small roadside shrine and some steps leading to a path. Climb this path and you will reach the Hermitage chapel you can see high above the town. Climb the narrow road (more a paved track) to its left and the park above Hermitage has a great viewing platform for a photo of Arbois.

Clockwise: Hermitage from Place Faramand, path up to the chapel, view over Arbois from platform above the chapel

From here there are two great, if longer, walks. Where this road turns sharply left there’s a path in front of you, the GR59B, leading to the GR59. Follow it up and into the trees and you can eventually reach the wine village of Pupillin via the junction of pathways at Croix Bagier (see the randonnée map). Pupillin has a great restaurant, Le Grapiot, but you almost always need to book. As well as the famous wine names here (you won’t miss Pierre Overnoy’s house) there are also some good vineyard walks and a picnic site, over to your right, in the opposite direction to Arbois, out of the village. The quickest way to walk home from Pupillin is to avoid the main road and head down the walking path on your right a hundred metres or so after you leave the village. The road itself has a big bend on a hill, not great for pedestrians. This old cart track by a tiny brook is far more attractive, and it cuts off the corner.

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  • The Hermitage and Beyond2. Les Planches: Instead of taking the GR59 path to Pupillin stay on the small road (also the GR59 but in the opposite direction) and you will pass through the “Allée du Roi de Rome”, an avenue of tall trees with its immensely tall Sapin du Président. From here a long ridge walk (of a little over 4km from the Hermitage) will eventually (if you take the correct path) come down into Les Planches. It is a walk which could be tricky in wet weather or with younger children, and the walk back to Arbois is quite long and by road (via Mesnay, look out for Patrice Beguet’s place next to the church), but I really like the walk for the forest up here. Les Planches is, of course, where you can walk a little further to see the Cascade des Tufs, not to be missed if you walk there, or drive to the Castel Damande restaurant.

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Part of the Cascade des Tufs

  • La Châtelaine – This is a village on top of the rocks of the vast limestone Cirque of the Fer à Cheval. You need to drive here and we usually go up from Mesnay following the small roads through the fields (there’s a right turn off the D107 after Champ Paillard which switches back and is easy to miss…if you cross the railway you’ve gone too far, but the IGN map mentioned later and the Randonnée map both show it) . In the dense woodland accessed via the left of the church there are the ruins of a very old castle begun in the 12th century. The site is not without potential danger if you go close to the edge, but it’s a magical place, made more so because on pretty much every visit we have come across the herd of mouflons which inhabit the rocks. You can also (and should) walk along the path from the village itself which hugs the cirque here, towards Le Fer à Cheval, with many spectacular views over the end of this glacial valley. There’s a very basic but welcome bar here at the far end of the walk (marked by a coffee cup on the Randonnée map, close to the belvedere view point).

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Jeune Mouflon at La Châtelaine

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From the Fer à Cheval 

Taking the Car

There are just so many places to visit from Arbois that I will doubtless be accused of missing your favourite. If I restrict this part of the article in some ways to the more obvious, then over time perhaps you will enjoy discovering some of the smaller and more off the beaten track places for yourself. Whilst there are plenty of places to visit to the north of Arbois, such as Salins-les-Bains overlooked by its twin forts, one of which, the Fort St-Antoine, is used by Marcel Petite to age thousands of rounds of Comté, or maybe the UNESCO Heritage Saline Royale at Arc-et-Senans, the town of Dole or picturesque Ornans on the River Loue, I think most tourists will head south.

It’s not far south to Poligny, though the route via Pupillin is more scenic than the swifter N83. I won’t lie, my main reason for visiting Poligny is for the original Epicurea (5 Place des Déportés right in the centre of town, aka Fromagerie Vagne which is on the sign above the door). The cheese shop has, as we have already noted, its brother in Arbois, but the wine selection here, taking up around 80% of the shop, is exceptional. Trust me.

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Poligny has its own very worthwhile town circuit (map from the tourist office on the opposite side of the Place des Déportés, number 20), and it is also worth going up to the heights of the Culée de Vaux, which towers over the town. So you may need somewhere for lunch in between. Not plush nor flash, but we were recommended La Muse Bouche (60 Grande Rue) for our last visit and can happily pass that on. A simple but tasty meal, and they have one of my favourite small Arbois producers on the list, Domaine de la Touraize.

Poligny also has one of the best book shops in the region, La Fruitière des Livres (3 rue Travot, just turn right off the Place on the Geneva Road). Usually has a decent wine section, including the wine bandes dessinées some of us enjoy.

Close to Arbois on the D469 towards Champagnole, and just after the Fer à Cheval are the caves called the Grotte des Moidons. I’m pretty sure you are aware we are in limestone scenery here, and Moidons is a classic large cave system with typical stalactite and stalagmite formations. Well worth a visit if you are not claustrophobic.

Most visitors with an interest in wine will wish to visit Château-Chalon, about as far further on from Poligny as Arbois. It really is a very attractive ensemble of buildings on a rock, whether seen from the vantage point on the edge of the village or from below, looking up through the steep vineyard to the limestone cliff on which the village sits. There’s a reasonably interesting museum to the right of the church (especially if it’s raining). To the left side of the church, about half way down a steep and narrow path, you will reach a small walled vineyard enclosed by an ironwork gate with vine tendrils. This is a nursery/conservatory of rare Jura grape vines. If you want to see the grape varieties Ganevat uses for some of his more obscure négoce bottles, take a look.

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If you come to Château-Chalon do consider driving a little further for a look at the large Romanesque Abbey of Baume-les-Messieurs, which sits in the valley which leads to the spectacular limestone formation of the Cirque de Baume. Unless early religious architecture really just isn’t your thing.

The Jura region is effectively, to over simplify, three levels of terroir. The vines grow on slopes which lead up to plateau land, rich green pastures which feed the cows that make Comté. Above the plateau we get the mountains. Between the two sit several attractive lakes. The Lac de Chalain southwest of Champagnole, and the longer Lac de Saint-Point near Pontarlier, are both worth considering if you have small children. At either, but perhaps more easily at Chalain, you could spend an afternoon with a bucket and spade. En-route to St-Point, just outside Pontarlier, you will pass the imposing castle, remodelled by Vauban in the late 17th century, the Château de Joux. It once guarded the passes to Switzerland.

Another worthwhile trip with children is to drive even further south, past the largest of the region’s lakes (Lac de Vouglans) to visit the Musée du Jouet (toy museum) at Moirans-en-Montagne. It’s full of toys old and new. Check out the many photos on their web site to see whether the kids fancy it. And hey, you can always sneak back, with a detour east from Orgelet, via Rotalier and Grusse (if you see what I’m thinking).

I’ll finish with a couple of ideas for even longer day trips if you are spending a couple of weeks in the Jura. First, you can travel into Switzerland via Pontarlier, to seek out the wines of the Three Lakes Region, specifically the Lac de Neuchâtel, famous for its pale pink Oeil de Perdrix wines and the increasingly interesting unfiltered Chasselas Primeur made down here. Remember, don’t stray onto the Swiss autoroute without a motorway carnet.

My other idea is to head from Champagnole to one of the ski resorts in the High Jura, either near Les Rousses or perhaps the Col de la Faucille. The skiing here is mostly good ski de fond (cross-country) but there is some limited downhill around for an afternoon’s entertainment. This is the back route to Geneva, and the roads can be slow in winter, when the snow leaves barely enough room for one car. But if you are a winter sports enthusiast it’s worth it. There’s also good value skiing at Buttes-La Robella, towards the Lac de Neuchâtel. If you really fancy it a day trip to Geneva is certainly possible from your Arbois base, and you would drive via the Col de la Faucille. But the Col can be closed in heavy winter snow, so perhaps leave that trip for summer and the long evening light.

That should provide plenty to do if you decide to spend a week or two based in or near Arbois. That’s even without the dozens of producer visits you could make, some very welcoming and easy to get in at and some remarkably difficult. If you can sit in Pierre Overnoy’s kitchen eating his freshly baked bread you have better connections than I do. Remember, Arbois has many shops and restaurants I haven’t mentioned, and there are so many more excursions, to small rural museums or tiny castle ruins on hilltops. There’s even a Dinosaur Park (Dino Zoo) at Charbonnières-les-Sapins, close to Ornans, which may amuse small children.

What I want to convey is that there are so many possibilities in the region that anyone with a passion for Jura wine can easily satiate that whilst giving the rest of the family a holiday they will enjoy. In fact when we had children coincided with our switch from Burgundy (Beaune is also only an hour from Arbois) to Jura for our annual trip to rural France and it proved to be a good move.

If I don’t pass on one warning I might regret it…opening hours. Some of the shops and attractions have pretty strange opening times (remember Hirsinger, and Jardins de St-Vincent?), many opening on limited numbers of days, only in summer, etc. I would recommend checking anywhere and everywhere before making a visit. I would also recommend booking any restaurant in advance. Nowadays the region has been discovered, though to be fair when places are open in winter they may be very quiet.

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In addition to the Randonnée map I recommended you purchase from the Tourist Office if you like walking, there are three other useful things to have to hand, aside from a Michelin Road Atlas of France.

  • IGN Série Bleu 33250 “Salins-Les-Bains-Arbois” is the “local” map at 1cm = 250m, so a decent scale. Available locally in almost any Tabac or book store.
  • Arbois aux Vignobles Lumeux – this is a glossy booklet (in French), usually available in the book shop at the wine museum but probably elsewhere (10€, soft cover, 62pp). If you have a little French it’s a nice general guide to the town and its region, packed with colour photos.
  • You will need Wink Lorch’s Jura Wine which covers far more than merely the wine producers (Wine Travel Media 2014, £25). This is most easily purchased direct from Wink Lorch via her winetravelmedia.com web site, with free UK postage. If you neglect to purchase this before you go you may find it in one of the bookshops in Arbois or Poligny.

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Mein Burgenland

There are always going to be places in the world where you just feel that little bit more at home, content, calm. Of course France is the country I know best, better than anywhere in the world. It’s the place in which I’ve spent most time outside of the UK and I’m so well travelled in France that French people occasionally don’t quite believe I’m telling the truth when I tell them I’ve actually been to that village where their granny grew up, or that castle which absolutely no one knows about.

As someone drawn inexorably towards the edges of mountain ranges I suppose if you asked me where I’d like to live in France I’d choose Arbois, just below the Jura, or somewhere in Alsace, not too far from Strasbourg. Those places are both beautiful, and they are both at least reasonably located for further exciting travel within Europe. But there is another side of my personality which is drawn to the German speaking part of Europe. Of course, I love the Mosel, but I have a particular affection for Vienna. I love the art, the food and café culture, and we know a few people there too.

Whilst I can’t imagine visiting Vienna without getting into the vineyards which surround the city, as often as I can I ideally like to get the train or the bus down to the shores of the Neusiedlersee, to visit an arc of some of my favourite Austrian winemakers who ring the shores of the lake. I love to drink wine from all over Austria and other regions (especially Styria) produce a great many wines I’d hate not to have in my cellar, but there’s something about this shallow expanse of water which has, over the past decade or a little longer, generated many of Austria’s most exciting wines.

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There’s also something in the air here as well. Perhaps it’s the strangely large number of storks which nest on the rooftops in the villages which surround the Neusiedlersee? Perhaps it is the calm induced by such a large expanse of shallow water, surrounded with reed beds twice the size of the lake, reflecting balmy summer sunshine, or blanketed in warm autumn mists. Whatever it is, the lake seems to engender a zest for life and a genuine warmth among the hospitable winemakers here. I have rarely, if ever, found such a bunch of warm-hearted people as we shall visit today, and that feeling definitely translates into the wines.

We will travel clockwise in our journey, from Rust, located towards the bottom of the lake on its western shore, to Pamhagen, almost on the  Hungarian border on its southeastern side. I shall be mentioning a string of winemakers, all of whom I have a personal affection for as people as well as liking their wines. There are others I won’t visit. There are famous names among them, but I’ve never met most them so it’s not quite as personal.

Burgenland is home to other well known producers such as Toni Hartl (from outside the region but his vines are mostly near Purbach), Feiler-Artinger, Michael Wenzel (a star with dry Furmint) and the two Triebaumer estates (Ernst, and Günter & Regina, all in Rust), Altenberger (Jois), Heinrich, Nittnaus, Pittnauer (all Gols) and Willi Opitz at Illmitz, the first Austrian winemaker I ever met – I still have the piece of rusty barbed wire he told me was from the “Iron Curtain”…perhaps like a piece of the “true cross”…sitting within a metre of where I’m typing. All of their wines are usually available on international markets. I’m bound to have forgotten some…many.

What should be noted is that this region, which only became part of Austria in the years following WW1, was one of great poverty. The majority of producers you will meet today do not always go back many generations, but those who do have a genuine pride for their heimat. There is no question that as with Austria in general, the region has benefited immensely from EU structural funding since Austria joined in 1995. The region today seems to be doing very well for itself, especially the wine.

I plan to start in Rust, which Neil Young suggested erroneously never sleeps – this attractive chocolate box large lakeside village may be full of tourists in summer but is otherwise pleasantly sleepy and makes a very good place to use as a base. You can hire small motorboats at the marina and pootle about on the lake for a morning and you can hire bicycles, which can conveniently be taken on the small passenger ferries which cross the lake. If you cycle down to Mörbisch-am-See you can cross to Illmitz, for example, exploring the wonderful wetland bird sanctuary nearby on the eastern shore in the morning before heading into town for lunch.

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Rust

Heidi Schröck

Well before I’d ever been to Austria I had a desire to meet Heidi Schröck. There was something about her wines which I later found out was a certain character which runs through the region, whether white or red. In one word, “life”. At this stage I had yet to be enlightened by her sweet wines, but we’ll come to those. I finally got to Rust in 2015 and spent a couple of hours with a lady who lived up to my expectations in terms of passion for wine, for her land, and true empathy.

Heidi is quite easy to find in Rust, in the top right corner of the main square. In the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire there was a definite Hungarian influence here, despite the lake’s proximity to Vienna. The great dessert wines of Rust were almost worshipped by the Hungarian aristocracy in the seventeenth century, at a time when cane sugar was not yet available and a sweet tooth was often best satisfied with a sweet wine. Rust was made a Free City by the Hungarian Monarchy in 1681 and has sort of kept its independence today by remaining outside the encircling Leithaberg DAC, forming a small 440 hectare lakeside vineyard enclave which leaves the wines labelled as Burgenland only.

Heidi’s been making wine here since 1983 and now farms around ten hectares. There are a number of white wines made from grape varieties which may be less familiar to those who do not know Austrian wines well. Here in Rust you will find plenty of Gelber Muskateller and Welschriesling. She used to make a brilliant dry Furmint but had ceased to do so by my first visit. Moving onto the reds, it is perhaps with Blaufränkisch that she begins to get a little more serious. You can choose from “Rusterwald”, aged in oak but a relatively early drinker, or the top cuvée, “Kulm”, made from vines around 65 years old and worthy of ageing up to a decade.

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Unsurprisingly, dessert wine is her speciality. Ruster Ausbruch is a fine dessert wine style, often made with a blend of varieties, occasionally as a single varietal. It sits, in terms of sweetness, between beerenauslese and trockenbeerenauslese, and can have a strong botrytis character as a result of those autumn mists I mentioned. With most vineyards to the west of the lake sitting up on the Leithaberg Mountains (in truth a series of reasonably low hills which rarely get higher than 350 masl), those of Rust benefit, in terms of sweet wine production, from their near-lakeside proximity. The wines, at their best, age remarkably well like a fine Sauternes, and I have yet to taste better Ruster Ausbruch than Heidi Schröck’s. She makes several.

Heidi is in theory imported by Alpine Wines in the UK, but as I write, no new wines seem to have appeared for one or two vintages.

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Gut Oggau

If you do happen to stay in Rust, and if you have time for even a couple of days there, you can make a very easy cycle ride just a few kilometers north, to the hamlet of Oggau. It sits on the edge of the sandy reed beds with its vineyards lying just inland, to the west. Eduard Tscheppe and Stephanie Tscheppe-Eselböck run Gut Oggau, having restored the 17th century winery in 2007. If you are visiting during the summer season you can combine an appointment at the winery with a visit to their famous Heuriger inn.

I presume most readers will be aware that the wines here are all characters in a fictitious family, with each family member depicted on the label. It is worth explaining some of the logic behind the generations. The youngsters are lively wines grown mostly on gravels. The parents are sourced from sunny slopes on limestone and schist. The grandparents come from similar terroir but older parcels. The grapes from these older vines are gently pressed in the restored 200-year-old wine press.

These are biodynamic, natural, wines which all exhibit a spark of life. I like to glug the youngsters, like the Winifred Rosé I wrote about in Recent Wines June 2020 (Part 2) (8 July). There is a “Brutal” cuvée worth seeking out in this vein. The older generations are worth ageing. I don’t really have a firm favourite, but I have bought and drunk Josephine most often. Josephine is Timotheus’s second wife and therefore Winifred’s stepmother (it can be complicated). But as you would hope when a producer has come up with an idea like this, one that perhaps some traditional drinkers might find confusing, all of the wines have very distinct personalities.

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Stephanie and Eduard like to avoid talking about the exact grape blends used in their wines, but I must mention one red variety they have planted, Roesler (aka Rösler). It’s a crossing of Zweigelt and Seyve-Villard x Blaufränkisch, developed in 1970 and named after Leonard Roesler, a former director of Austria’s oldest viticulture college. It is both mildew and frost resistant, but it is also very high in extract. This makes it reasonably easy to spot once you know it, even when it forms a small part of the blend. Schist and limestone soils might slightly accentuate this quality, but in small measure I think it really adds something to the blends in which it is used.

Also look out for their Weinland Brut Nature, a petnat fermented in bottle without disgorgement. The UK importer for Gut Oggau is Dynamic Vines, who get Eduard and Stephanie over to their Bermondsey warehouse pretty much every year. There aren’t many producers I’d rather spend an afternoon or evening with. For me, these are eyewateringly empathetic wines.

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Birgit Braunstein

Birgit has many things in common with Heidi Schröck, not least that they are good friends. Generations of the Braunstein family have been making wines around Purbach for 400 years (1632 is the first record). Birgit is another producer who has embraced biodynamics. Perhaps I forgot to mention, but Steiner’s philosophy has something of a strong following around the shores of the Neusidlersee. If there’s also a feeling that Burgenland is fertile territory for female vigneronnes it should be noted that Birgit also has a female cellarmaster (sic), Adriana Gonzalez, who is in charge of making wine from the family’s 22 hectares.

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Birgit

Birgit’s range comes off complex soils around her Purbach base. The gravel, schist and limestone found further south are joined by a more chalky limestone, with gneiss and mica, along with some clay and marls. The range begins with a very nice Welschriesling and moves through Pinot Blanc and Chardonnay, and there’s a lovely summery Rosé from a blend of Zweigelt and Blaufränkisch. Some of the best blends around here add Saint Laurent to that pair, perhaps my favourite red being the unfiltered Wildwux.

Birgit also makes a very interesting range, labelled Magna Mater, in amphora buried in her garden of all places. These amphora wines are not yet imported by her UK agent, Indigo Wines, but they do bring in a range nowadays brimming with life and personality,  taken in recent vintages to another level by Adriana and Birgit. Try both the Chardonnay and Blaufränkisch Magna Mater, which see eight months buried 1.5 metres below the surface macerating on skins and pips. Did I mention that the vines are not pruned? We shall see more of this kind of viticulture at the end of our journey, but this experiment with giving nature its freedom, along with the long maceration under the stars in amphora, produces soulful wines which somehow even taste as if they have resolutely gone their own way.

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Joiseph

Joiseph is a partnership between three friends, but the very young face of this operation, based around the village of Jois almost right at the top of the lake, is Luka Zeichmann, and it is Luka you are most likely to meet, especially at the natural wine fairs around the world. This small estate was only founded in 2015, but its reputation already far outstrips its size and age.

There are 5.5 ha of vines managed by the partners, which has grown from just 3 ha two or three years ago. Most of their vines sit on the slopes of the Leithaberg Mountains looking southeast, over the lake. They began with almost nothing, certainly no tractor for the vines, and initially no cellar. Now they make, well, at last count I think eight wines. All of them are truly made with very limited intervention.

It is pretty much impossible to single out favourites here. The wines are generally quite hard to source, and I get mine from UK importer Modal Wines. Look first for Fogosch, a Grüner Veltliner with a tiny bit of skin contact, appley and stony. Mischkultur Gemischter Satz is a field blend from 100-y-o vines. This is more reminiscent of tropical fruits, but with a faint nuttiness too. Piroska is an emphatically summery pale red blended from Blaufränkisch, Pinot Noir and Zweigelt, which is just pure fruit and easy to drink. By way of contrast Tannenberg is 100% Zweigelt from a mix of slate and limestone. The slate adds real mineral tension. In some ways it tastes the most classical of the Joiseph wines, yet still bursts with energy and tension.

A future star for sure!

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Luka

Koppitsch

Just down the road from Jois you will soon reach Neusiedl-am-See, that is unless you are cycling into a strong wind which can blow up from the Pannonian Plain, even on a hot day (good for sailing and windsurfing). Here you will find Alexander and Maria Koppitsch. Well, I hope so. I have met this couple several times over several years, in both London and Vienna, but I’m yet to visit their winery. It was meant to be in April this year, but my trip to Vienna was cancelled so it didn’t happen.

Of all the new natural wine producers around the lake, Alexander’s wines are probably the least known in the UK. They are in theory imported by Jascots in London and by Fresh Wines, based in Kinross (Scotland), but for whatever reason the number of cuvées and bottles imported are limited. Especially frustrating when they make one of summer’s essential petnats.

Although Alex and Maria are the new generation, so to speak, taking over here in 2011, the Koppitsch family has been making wine for 500 years, with knowledge of this terroir at the top of the lake passed down from grandfather to son, to grandson and more. The wines are biodynamic and made without additives except for as little sulphur (if any) as Alex feels is needed.

It’s interesting here because as with so many of the new Austrian producers, the focus has ceased to be so much on grape variety, and much more on the soils and general terroir. What does the land give us? With twenty different plots over around six hectares to get on top of, they do have their work cut out.

Don’t miss the entry level wines here, with their stylised fun labels. Many come from flatter land near the lake and express the textures of sand and gravel. The more serious and ageable Perspective wines reflect the slate and limestone of the slopes of the Leithaberg, whilst other plots are on what is known as the Wagram Ridge to the northeast, where alluvial deposits and large river stones are what is left from a far older Danube.

There are more wines to get to know, but I’ll let the reader seek them out. My “Recent Wines” articles have been peppered with a few of them over our Lockdown period.

Alex and Maria partying in Vienna

Renner und Rennersistas

After learning their trade in Southern France and South Africa Stefanie and Susanne Renner returned, in 2014, to the winery which their parents Helmuth and Birgit founded in 1998. I’ve met Helmuth, and tasted his wines. They are impressive, and he had become a mainstay of the Pannobile wine growers association originally based in Gols, where the winery is located, before his daughters came back and turned everything upside down.

I am full of admiration for Helmuth. When his daughters returned they came back with all sorts of crazy new ideas and a desire to make “natural wines”. To be fair I think no one in the world could have resisted the enthusiasm of the two sisters, but thankfully this is combined with drive, determination, confidence and competence.

The Renner holding is a fairly reasonable 12 ha, giving them a range of terroir and an even wider range of grape varieties to work with. Their vines start westwards, at Neusiedl-am-See, flowing eastwards through the neighbouring villages of Weiden, Gols and Mönchof, with an outlier further east, and further from the lake, at Halbturn.

There are certainly too many wines to mention here. You would really have to begin with all three colours of Waiting for Tom, which were my first intro to Susanne and Stefanie’s wines in their debut vintage. Next I would suggest you seek out two newer cuvées. Superglitzer blends Zweigelt, Sankt Laurent, Rösler (that variety we met back at Gut Oggau) and Blaufränkisch, a red to drink cool, or even chill.

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New from the 2019 vintage is Intergalactic, a lively white with just over a week on skins and nine months on lees. The first three quarters of the blend is made, approximately, from more or less equal parts of Chardonnay, Grüner Veltliner and Welschriesling, the last quarter being 17% Muscat Ottonel and 6% Gewürztraminer.

These wines are all super-easy drinkers and they all have fresh, fruit-driven, acids. Apparently the new 2019 vintage of the petnatIn a Hell Mood” has even greater acidity. In 2018 it was a blend of St Laurent and Pinot Noir, but in ’19 St Laurent goes it alone, and with just 10% abv. I’m told it’s both super tasty and moreish. In a Hell Mood has proved a challenge in the past for some people I know, but the adventurous will reap the rewards.

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All the wines here are Demeter Certified biodynamic. If you can visit their Gols winery and buy wine to take home you should certainly give Helmuth’s Pannobile bottles a taste, but those are more classical wines which truly need bottle age.

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Also new for 2020, Georg Renner. The sistas’ bro, Georg has joined the team. Not totally sure what that does for the Rennersistas name, nor for their wonderful labels which depict the two young women on a tractor. And anyway, Susanne now has a young family of her own, up the hill in Gols, with the next guy in this article. But these are wines I love with a passion, because it’s passion which made them.

Newcomer Wines imports Rennnersistas into the UK. 

Claus Preisinger

Claus began making wine merely as a hobby with his father. Now, twenty vintages later he has a rather splendid architect-designed concrete winery above Gols, with a large tasting balcony looking out over the lake. Claus was the first of the “new wave” of young Burgenland producers I tried when his importer, Newcomer Wines, first opened their innovative Austrian wine shop in a small shipping container at Shoreditch Boxpark (where they remained for several years until their move to a larger London base out at Dalston Junction).

I think the first bottle I bought was his simple but oh so tasty Zweigelt. Claus continues to make several easy drinking cuvées from his 22 hectares (he started out with just 3ha) spread over a challenging yet at the same time rewarding 64 different sites. Do not miss Puszta Libre (Zweigelt and St Laurent), nor the amphora-aged Dope, which is orange in colour but does a really good impression of blueberry pie (Blaufränkisch).

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Claus in London at the RIBA

Head to Claus’s place if you really want to see how a winemaker reacts and changes his whole way of doing things depending on what the vintage throws at him. All the wines are, of course, biodynamic and low intervention, just don’t expect this year’s model to taste the same as last year’s.

Moving up the range, I’ve always been a big fan of Kalk und Kiesel (both in red and white), which are partly aged in amphora. There is nothing here I would not recommend, but his skin contact Pinot Blanc, ErDELuftGRAsundreBEN, is outstanding on any level. I last drank this with glasses perched on a surfboard, standing on Claus’s cantilevered balcony on a very hot summer’s day, before deciding to spend the afternoon cycling around the lake. Actually, contrary to what you might think, we thoroughly enjoyed the ride.

Claus is an instinctive winemaker and he makes a range of rather distinctive wines. I also happen to think that under his sometimes dry exterior he’s one of the most seriously creative talents in all of Austrian wine.

Judith Beck

Judith is also based in Gols, where today she farms around 5 ha of vines biodynamically (as a member of the Respekt Group). Judith worked in France, Italy and Chile before coming home to take over the family winery, founded by her father, in 2001. The whole approach here is deeply wedded to biodynamics, so there are many of the plants associated with the required biodynamic preparations grown here as well as grapes.

The vines are for the most part on lower land on the northeastern side of the lake, towards to gentle slopes of the Wagram Ridge. The soils are too diverse to list, but there are six main varieties at the Beck estate, fewer than many local growers (mostly Chardonnay, Pinot Blanc/Weisserburgunder, Welschriesling and the three local red classics, Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and St Laurent).

I will say that my experience of the whole Beck range is less wide ranging than with most of the other producers in this article, but some of her wines provide such good value drinking that I am unfortunately too often giving them away. They are literally never under-appreciated and in fact we took the first wine mentioned below to friends’ a week ago. They loved it.

Beck Ink is a Zweigelt-St Laurent blend which you would describe as “zesty”, perhaps an adjective more usually associated with white wine? It is light but the fruit is concentrated and intense, like squid ink, yet its lightness just refreshes. With 12% abv it can be drunk with spiced food or stews, but equally is a pretty good choice on its own (or with olives, as we drank it last time).

The Beck label is one chance to try the Neuburger grape variety. Neuburger Bambule is fermented in clay. The variety is a crossing of Silvaner and the fairly obscure (but often lovely) Roter Veltliner. The chance to taste Neuburger is quite rare, though I sense a little rejuvenation of interest in the variety of late. The wines can have quite a bit of body for a white and I think the variety does quite well in this fermentation medium. I believe ageing is in old wood, though.

I’ve read criticism of Beck for changing her range all the while. Generally speaking, I’m quite drawn to producers who like to vary their canvas. New ideas can be way more exciting than making the same wine every year. It kind of makes sense if you have a small plot in a Burgundian lieu-dit or similar, but it’s nice to see someone using their imagination without such constraints occasionally.

Les Caves de Pyrene imports some of Judith Beck’s wines.

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Christian Tschida

Christian Tschida is based in Illmitz, which I have visited only once, using the ferry from Morbisch and considerable peddle power. Whenever the name Christian Tschida is mentioned you often see it followed by some sort of enfant terrible description. This is wholly unfair. If Christian isn’t into the rock n’roll circus of international wine ligging it’s because he’s so passionately focused on his vineyards. They are mostly old vines with deep roots, full of biodiversity, and they undergo minimum pruning…but they are responsible for his outstanding fruit.

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Christian

Christian is the fourth generation to farm the ten hectares or so around the village on sand and gravel or schist and limestone. Winemaking is very simple. The grapes, which have to be perfect in terms of health and optimum ripeness, are mostly fermented outdoors (though in shade) in open-top vats. They move inside for ageing in old wood, usually for extended periods (up to five or six years), during which contact with oxygen is generally allowed, even encouraged. There’s no racking and no sulphur added. Just a little carbon dioxide protects the wine from oxidation.

As with everyone mentioned today, any wine will be worth the effort to try, but I most often enjoy the Himmel auf Erden range (Heaven on Earth) myself. All those wines are superb but I will single out the Rosé made from direct press Cabernet Franc off schist and limestone. Many (not just me) think it’s one of the best pinks in Austria. Crunchy or what? Otherwise look for TNT (Blaufränkisch) and Christian’s Brutal Cuvée (the 2018 was a Pinot Noir and importer Newcomer Wines had this in magnums, just saying!).

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Kracher

I never met the late Alois Kracher, although a visit there many years ago was cancelled at the very last moment when my lift to Illmitz was unable to make it. I have met Gerhard, his son, who having been mentored well by his father is carrying on the Kracher tradition. That tradition began in 1986 when Alois took over from his own father, who already had a reputation for fine Neusiedlersee wines. Alois very much had an international outlook, and his exceptional winemaking skills enabled him to mix with the cream of European sweet winemakers. He put this small Illmitz estate right up there with the very best.

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Gerhard in London

Alois created two ranges. Zwischen den Seen are cuvées aged in neutral wood, usually acacia. Nouvelle Vague (New Wave) is a nod to modernity with wines aged in new oak. Each vintage there is a “Grande Cuvée” based on the criteria of harmony in the wine…the most harmonious if you like. Some think it is the sweetest, but this is far from correct. At the other end of the scale of price if not quality there will usually be a Beerenauslese cuvée. In between are Tba’s made from a range of grape varieties, anything from Welschriesling or Muscat to Chardonnay, all of which have a number based on their level of concentration. So you may well find a Tba from the same grape variety but with a different cuvée number, or you may likewise fail to find some cuvées in some vintages.

Don’t worry too much. Most of the wines seem to age forever but taste marvellous whenever you drink them (except very young with some of them). They rarely lose their intensity and it takes a long while for them to lose their signature acidity. If the phenomenal number of wines produced here were not enough, Alois embarked on many joint ventures. The only one I’ve ever tried is that which he made with the Queen of Rust, Heidi Schröck. I understand there are wines made with Ordonez in Malaga and with Manfred Krankl (of SQN in California). I’d love to taste that one.

Most of the Kracher wines I have bought in the UK came in via Noel Young Wines (now NY Wines) in Cambridge. They usually have at least a dozen to choose from on the list. I think you might need to visit Illmitz to get hold of the large formats in which these wines are sometimes released to collectors.

Meinklang 

Finally, realising we are looking at a fairly long article already, we drop down to our final producer, at Pamhagen. We are almost in Hungary here, and in fact Meinklang also own a couple of Hungarian hectares of vines in a region where their family used to farm before the days of Communism, on the rather unusual flat-topped Somló Massif, further to the south. Meinklang is a large wine producer with more than 70ha in all under vine, though they are still perhaps best known in Austria for their fine beef cattle (and they also make very fine beer, brewed in Salzburg, from ancient grains grown on their farm near Pamhagen, which you should not pass by the opportunity to drink).

The Pamhagen vineyards are partly farmed by a method known as Graupert. Remember I mentioned this before? Around the world quite a few enlightened wine growers are using this method of viticulture, whereby the vines are by and large left to their own devices. Pruning is limited, and the ideal is really just a little repositioning of the canopy. The results are twofold, both unexpected.

First, the vines over time self-regulate, so that the canopy does not grow as wild and vigorously as you would expect (I prune so frequently at this time of year, but I never have the courage to see what would happen if I didn’t…I expect my neighbour would not be amused by the experiment). Secondly, somewhat counter-intuitively, far from this method providing greatly elevated yields, the vineyard self-regulates fruiting as well as vine vigour, and the crop is usually smaller than in a fully pruned vineyard.

Meinklang makes a large range of varietal wines, all excellent value. But the Graupert wines are lovely, as are the red and white Konkret cuvées, made in concrete eggs. These are serious wines, and the Michlits family is serious about their eggs. They claim that the “golden ratio” of the eggs’s dimensions allows a unique dynamic flow of juice and lees, which gives life to the wine.

This is all totally in contrast to the fun pink frizzante called Prosa, made from Pinot Noir with Zweigelt, Blaufränkisch and St Laurent. Thirst quenching and fruity.

I think that’s probably enough recommendations for one day, except that if you don’t spot the Urkorn Beer I mentioned, then try to spot the biodynamic sparkling cider called Foam. With all the hype around natural cider right now I have never seen any of its advocates write about this (unless they stopped making it?). Amazing stuff.

Meinklang is brought into the UK by both Winemakers Club and by Vintage Roots. They tend to list different wines from the extensive Meinklang range.

Stuff do do etc…

It’s probably worth making a few recommendations for visitors to the shores of the Neusiedlersee before we leave the region. Some of these recommendations will have appeared in previous articles but they bear repeating.

I have always visited the lake from Vienna and there are two ways to do this if you don’t want to hire a car. That said, if you wish to make a full tour then a car is probably essential.

You can get down the western side of the lake by bus from Vienna. In particular, this is the best public transport option to Rust, which doesn’t have a train station. There are both direct buses and those where you have to change in Eisenstadt, so be sure you know which bus you are on.

In Rust there are lots of options for accommodation, and dining, in what is a popular tourist destination. If you want something a little different look at the Mooslechners Rusterhof. The courtyard suites are something a little different, though be aware that this is also sometimes a wedding venue. There is no restaurant, but the town is packed full of dining options at all levels.

Rust is a great place to see storks nesting, and the Town Hall has some screens near the tourist office, where you can see them close up as each nest is covered by a camera. When one swoops low over the Square it is quite something.

There is a cycle hire place by the main square in Rust. Definitely cycle to Oggau so you can have a sip of wine, even if you have a car. If you have time, then cycle south to Morbisch for the ferry over to Illmitz (check on the timings to avoid missing the return). You will want to enjoy the wetland bird sanctuary west of the village, by the lake, and there are lots of hides and towers to use. Local tourist offices and the bike hire have cycle maps. There’s a ferry from Rust but it traverses the lake to Podersdorf, not Illmitz, and takes much longer. This could be an option for a circular trip but do check timetables.

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Morbisch to Illmitz Passenger Ferry

From Morbisch you can also ride south into Hungary. There’s an old pre-EU border post, but the border is merely a white line on the track. There’s an Iron Curtain cycle trail down here too. And look out for the Mangalica Pigs en route between Rust and Morbisch. If you have never seen one, look them up. They are gorgeous creatures which look like a cross between a pig and a sheep.

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As I mentioned towards the beginning of this article you can hire small motorboats from Rust’s marina (20-30 min walk). They are fairly slow, deliberately so as the reed beds shelter nests, but you can pass a wonderfully relaxed few hours among the watery pathways between these reed beds. You can head out on the open lake as well, which is after all rarely more than a metre deep, but it can get remarkably choppy (they won’t let you hire a boat if it is very windy).

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If you want to hit the north side of the lake you can catch a train from Vienna to Neusiedl-am-See, where there’s a cycle hire next to the station (worth advance booking cycles at this one). Again, there are some direct trains and some require a change, so check them out. I have also found return trains to Vienna can be infrequent in the evening.

On the northeast end of the lake is the marina just outside Neusiedl. The restaurant here called Mole West is well worth a visit. It gives Neusiedl as its address but I am convinced it’s closer to Weiden – it’s effectively 2km round the lake, eastwards, from Neusiedl and marked on the cycle map as “Bad” because there’s a bathing beach. I’d recommend referring to Google Maps for exact location. You can sit outside by the moored-up boats and enjoy a bottle of Claus Preisinger Rosé maybe, perhaps with some food whilst watching the sunshine reflecting off the lake. I can tell you there is nothing better after a day in the saddle, though I’m sure the last pull up to the railway station isn’t anywhere near as steep as it seems after indulging in some post-exercise alcoholic re-hydration.

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Mole West

As an example of what you could think of doing by cycle here, arrive in Neusiedl as early as you can. You can ride to Gols, via Weiden (maybe a coffee stop) on main roads, mostly with a cycle lane, which are not all that busy. From Gols it’s possible to ride via small lanes down to Podersdorf. You could be adventurous and go on to Illmitz (time permitting), or you could follow the lakeside cycle path back to Neusiedl (the tourist cycle map will show the way to Mole West). Pamhagen either requires a slightly more professional standard of cycling, or four wheels.

Some useful distances on a bike from Neusiedl-am-See:

  • Gols = approx 20 minutes without a strong head wind
  • Podersdorf (via back lanes)= 35-40 mins
  • Illmitz = 1 hour 10 mins
  • Pamhagen = 1 hour 45 mins

Gols to Podersdorf directly is around 30 mins; Mole West to Neusiedl railway station is 15 mins without taking account of wine consumed. Rust to Oggau is only 15 mins and Rust to Morbisch is a little over 20 mins by cycle paths.

Rust to Illmitz by cycle via the ferry from Morbisch takes under an hour, but that doesn’t take account of any waiting for the ferry, which is inevitable unless you time it just right.

The Hungarian border is, I would say, less than 2km from Morbisch-am-See.

I should probably stop now before I hit 6,000 words [oops, I did!], but if I can just briefly head back to Hungary, on the Western side of the lake, here we have the large town of Sopron, which has its own wine region. Winemakers like Franz Weninger and Peter Wetzer make wonderful wines and you can see a degree of viticultural continuity between Burgenland and this Hungarian enclave to the south of the Neusiedlersee. But we are straying from the brief.

Many wine friends have been drawn to Vienna for its great natural wine scene, with so many exciting restaurants, not to mention the art and other culture as well. Few of them make their way down to the Neusiedlersee, yet if you have the time it provides such a perfect place to get away from the city for (preferably) a few days. As you can see, there’s plenty to do if you feel active. For me, although Europe has plenty of other wonderful places for leisure cycling, this is one of my favourites. It’s pretty flat, so scores highly for those of us who enjoy lunch, and being able to put the cycles on the small passenger ferries which cross the lake is a real bonus.

I hope you have been inspired, and that I have whetted your appetites for post-pandemic adventures in Austria.

 

 

 

 

 

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Lockdown – The Good, The Bad and The Beautiful

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Recent Wines June 2020 (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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COUNOISE 2018, BENEVOLENT NEGLECT (California, USA)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Appropriately the Bottle Brush was in bloom for this one

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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BOURGOGNE ROUGE 2006, DOMAINE ROULOT (Burgundy, France)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Part 2 will follow shortly.

 

 

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

Switzerland – Game On

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genève

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

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

Vaud

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

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

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

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

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Valais

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

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

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

 

Ticino

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

Graubünden

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

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

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

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

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

Trois Lacs

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent Wines May 2020 (Part 2)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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MODRY PORTUGAL 2016, JAROSLAV OSICKA (Moravia, Czechia)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Fifty Shades of Unicorn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

                                                              Labet, both old and new

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

                                                    Some Ganevat Domaine wines

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

                                                         Lucas, Péron and Belluard

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

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

 

                                        A few more cult wines for your annoyance

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Recent Wines May 2020 (Part 1) #theglouthatbindsus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Imported by Les Caves de Pyrene.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The importer is Uncharted Wines.

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SCHILCHERSEKT, WEINGUT FRIEDRICH (Styria, Austria)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seek from Modal Wines.

VINO CLARETE 2018, SORTEVERA (Canary Is, Spain)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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GRAUPERT 2013, MEINKLANG (Burgenland, Austria)

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

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

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

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

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