The Loire Attitude

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Small and special seem to be the key words in the Loire wineries I visited on a recent trip. The winemakers are without exception matter-of-fact, hard-working people, not ideologues – even those romantics who have taken this path as a lifestyle choice at a later stage in their lives. The visitor is given facts, not fancy stories, family legends, and the like. And facts often include those that you wouldn’t expect winemakers to talk about: failures, difficulties, imperfections. They talk about these so casually as if they had no image to build or preserve. I find this modesty, even humility, fascinating. I admire their down-to-earth professionalism, the passion and commitment – not to an ideology but to making good wine while respecting the land and the traditions. The wineries I visited are all organic, and several are biodynamic. The owners believe in low intervention and in allowing the wines to reflect terroir, vintage, and grape variety as best they can. So all the values that are shared by today’s natural wine movement are there, but somehow it’s all done in a so much more palatable way. In a truly natural way. Being organic is a means, not an end. No agenda, no drums to beat. They get on with the work, and produce, on their small plots of land, small quantities of expensive but exquisite wines. From nervy brut sparkling méthode traditionelle to luscious sweet temptresses. The grapes, of course, Chenin.

PeterI was struck by the way the vineyards form an organic part of the living space of the winemakers. In the Loire this seems to be the norm, at least among small producers. When American-born Peter Hahn (Le Clos de la Meslerie) walks us out of his house and across the courtyard, the cellar is just to the right, and in front of us are the vines. So compact, so simple, so organic – in both senses of the word. When we sit down to taste, it’s in his own family kitchen. I love the fact that the winemaker and his story are not products for sale, and I am not treated as a customer. Rather, he lets me step into his world and become part of his life. The interconnectedness of soil, fruit, climate, and people feels very real here. Peter is a delightful person – so relaxed and friendly, as if the fact that we called him barely an hour earlier to arrange a meeting were the most natural thing in the world. He moved to a small estate near Vouvray and took up winemaking in a decision to change career and lifestyle. A genuine man with genuine, pure wines, all of which are Chenin Blanc, Vouvray appellation. IMG_6954

He produces about 10,000 bottles on 4 hectares of land, all surrounding the house. And his young daughter helps with the pruning! He has been exploring non-interventionist winemaking, and a traditional approach, such as horse-work, indigenous yeasts, and no lab analysis. The latter leads to the production of very different wines each year, Peter explains. ‘We don’t analyse; it’s more just looking at what’s happening outside and making decisions on that basis.’ This leads to lots of what he calls inconsistency in his wines – or shall we say diversity?

 

Recommended:

Le Clos de la Meslerie 2017: dry, bitter, and saline, with bouncy acidity, lime and green apple notes

Le Clos de la Meslerie 2016: a drier, sunnier year and a later harvest, which resulted in creamier, more buttery wines, higher sugar content

 

Eric Morgat

Eric Morgat (Domaine Eric Morgat) built his own winery in Savennières, a pleasing mix of modern and traditional. His wines are greatly influenced by the schist soil and the oceanic climate, which still predominates here, whereas further east the climate changes quite rapidly to continental. He talks about the difficulty of finding grape bunches with homogenous maturity. In 2018, he tells us, the grapes matured early, which meant early harvest, but even so he feels they were a bit too ripe, which shows in the wine.

Eric’s wines reflect his accuracy and attention to aesthetic detail. They are certified organic but he doesn’t put this on his labels. ‘I am not interested in making organic wines. I am interested in making the greatest wine possible.’

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Recommended:

Fidès 2014: intense and complex – creamy/buttery and vegetal, great acidity, fairly high alcohol, long floral-fruity finish

 

 

Vincent Carème’s family winery (Tania & Vincent Carème, Vouvray) is literally in the cellar. And the cellar is in the rocks, carved out like many structures around here – this is called Troglodyte.IMG_6978

Organic farming, indigenous yeasts, 400 l barrels form part of the methodology. And so do the children, who come every year to make their own wine under the supervision of Vincent. Never too early to start!

The winery produces about 80,000 bottles per year, which puts them somewhere in the middle in terms of size in the region.

Recommended:

L’Ancestrale 2016, petillant naturel: this sparkling wine is made from grapes coming from older vines, which results in more concentration, a beautiful, harmonious wine

Première Trie 2015: deep gold sweet wine with 80g residual sugar, from a very hot year. Oxidized, savoury, nutty aromas on nose; palate has an almost cheesy character, mature, oxidative notes, and very intense nutty finish

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Other recommended tasting from the region

Domaine Huet Vouvray

Le Haut Lieu 2016: difficult year with spring frost that left few grapes, but those had higher concentration. The result is a complex, intense, very attractive wine

Clos de Bourg 2009: amazing intensity and concentration, charm, balance, lovely flavours, and extremely long finish

François Chidaine, Brut nature 2017: one of my favourite sparklers on this tour, restrained and balanced

Ocean Beach brews

Kilowatt brewery, Ocean Beach, San Diego

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In the hip neighbourhood of Ocean Beach, where all the streets run down to the sea and are lined with lime and lemon trees, Kilowatt is one of several local breweries. To be precise, the bar in Ocean Beach is their tap room; the actual brewery is in nearby Kearny Mesa.

IMG_7092As I walk in, I am welcomed by loud metal music and a very friendly guy behind the bar, Mikey. Kilowatt may be a small-batch brewery, but their selection of beers is hugely impressive, including their alcohol levels! I’ve recently been a rather big fan of pale ales, India or American style. One thing I’ve noticed on my trip to California is that their pale ales tend to be a lot stronger than those back home in Europe. 7% and up is standard, and you get double and triple IPAs that go up to a whopping 11-12% ABV!

Kilowatt is a family undertaking: it was only five years ago that a brother and sister from Cleveland, Ohio and their spouses decided to make beer. What started out as a tiny garage project quickly grew into a successful business. Today they have two tasting rooms besides the brewery in Kearny Mesa. Mikey, my expert guide as I select from a long list of beers, had started out as the guy by the entrance checking people’s IDs. Now he’s behind the bar, and loves the social aspect of it. He has been converted from vodka-soda mixers to beer, but when I ask him if he’d like to make his own some day, he says he prefers life behind the bar. ‘Brewers tend to be a bit antisocial, whereas I love the interaction with people’, he says.

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I taste a flight of four that I hope will be representative of what this brewery, a Google favourite, does. The beers generally have several hops, up to five varieties. All these are listed on the ‘menu’ above the bar for the discerning drinker.

I start with a Cucumber Sour. Sours I’ve never come across before, and as Mikey explains, they’re essentially spoiled beer. When back in the olden days the monks were rolling all those barrels, and everything took a loooong time, things sometimes went pear-shaped and the beer got spoiled. The new trend is to consider these sour beers as a quirky alternative and not as waste to be poured down the drain. Their alcohol level tends to be low and they are often flavoured, and the Kilowatt sours, Mikey tells me, are much more user-friendly than some really extreme ones produced by other breweries.

My cucumber sour has very low alcohol, just over 3%, a distinctly cucumber nose and flavour, and a bit of salinity. I say cucumber but I’m actually wondering whether it’s more melon – have you ever noticed how similar the two taste? Delightful toasty grainy finish. This sour is definitely sour, as if someone had poured in the juice of a couple of lemons, without the citrusy flavours. But not at all bad, and because of the low alcohol it feels very refreshing!

IMG_7097The Kilowatt Pale is an APA of 5.4% alcohol. It’s got a classic style with tropical fruit and pretty intense hops. Very enjoyable, but not terribly unique, I’d say.

Then on to a hazy gold beer, Mikey’s favourite, the Hazezoose Hazy IPA. Alcohol 6.69%, unfiltered. Tastes bready, malty, is less intense on fruit and has a long, hoppy finish. Does it also have a vague flavour of wet kitchen cloth lurking in the background…?

My fourth is the 250 KWH IPA, with fairly high alcohol at 7.4%. Malty nose, palate feels creamier, heavier, richer than the others. More malt too, and less fruit, though tropical notes still come through both on nose and on palate. The warmer the beer gets, the more pronounced the coffee-malt character is. Spicy, hoppy finish.

Then as a bonus I am offered their Mexican Lager – and it’s lovely. Flavoursome blend of malt and corn. The malt brings toasty grainy flavours, the corn sweetness. Delicious!

And then a second bonus, for the road: the OB Bubble Dubbel, with Belgian yeast (OB = Ocean Beach). Well, the name is no coincidence: Bubble Dubbel starts out with a distinct flavour of bubble gum. That’s overtaken, however (and fortunately), by Belgian beer characteristics, that sweet luscious richness. Pretty dark for a Belgian beer, this one has a dark amber colour, coffee on the nose, and a long finish, where again the bubble gum appears, mixed with rich roasted flavours. Alcohol 8.4%.

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Blue Danube

A London tasting of Blaufränkisch wines from central Europe

Blaufränkisch in Austria, Lemberger in Germany, kékfrankos in Hungary, frankovka in Slovakia and Croatia… the grape variety that has so many different names and which can be produced in so many different styles is still little known in the UK. Its many faces include youthful and sometimes brutally acidic wines at one end of the spectrum, and velvety, mature, full-bodied meditative ones at the other. Luckily for the curious, the organizers of this walk-around tasting, Wines of Hungary, had also included two masterclasses in the programme, plus a fascinating open-table tasting of rosés made from the grape variety.

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The fact that Blaufränkisch is well known in Austria, Slovakia, or Hungary will not surprise anyone. But in this tasting I also came across a wine that was produced in southern Spain! The Malaga-based winemaker of German origin, Friedrich Schatz, has produced a biodynamic Lemberger (as Blaufränkisch is typically called in Germany) which, thanks to the Mediterranean influence, displays friendly, tamed acidity and ripe fruit. Some exhibitors came from Romania, Slovenia, Slovakia, and even Australia. Most of them have no representative in the UK as yet, and the main rationale for the tasting was to draw the attention of the market to these wines.

Since Blaufränkisch is the main component of the bikavér wines produced in Eger and Szekszárd in Hungary, what could have been more appropriate than a masterclass comparing different styles of Bikavér? We tasted six wines, of which I particularly liked the Bodri Bikavér Faluhely Selection (2016) from Szekszárd, the Superior Bikavér (2017) of Ferenc Tóth from Eger, and another Eger wine, the Nagy-Eged-Hegy Grand Superior of St Andrea.

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Bikavér, or ‘bull’s blood’, is not unknown in the UK market. Its somewhat dodgy history goes back a few decades, when British off-licences were inundated with the cheap, poorly made plonk following a boom of industrial-scale wine production in communist Hungary. Its bad reputation must be overwritten and a new one established, the representatives of both Bikavér regions stated. An important step in this process is avoiding the use of the name ‘bull’s blood’ on the British market, this term carrying such negative connotations for the more mature generations.

csm_blaufraenkisch_02_3a5a50546aBlaufränkisch is a late-ripening variety, has enormous acidity, and is prone to overproduction. All these explain why great care and attention are needed both in the vineyard and in the winery if one is to produce a high-quality wine. The powerful colour and tannins of the grape are some positive features, which also contribute to the ageing potential of the wines. At the Danube tasting there were several wines where I felt that the acidity has not been harmoniously integrated into the overall personality of the wines; the unruly, sometimes overwhelming acidity can easily oppress all other characteristics. At other times it was the overuse of oak that created an imbalance. All in all, my impression was that it is not easy to produce an outstanding wine from Blaufränkisch grapes. At the same time I was delighted to see the large number of well-made wines. When I asked Elizabeth Gabay MW, an expert of central European wines, about this somewhat uneven playing field, she explained that in past decades Blaufränkisch was commonly used as a workhorse variety, producing lots of rustic, unsophisticated, overly acidic wines. It is this past inheritance that needs to be superseded by contemporary winemakers – and many seem to have succeeded in this.

Egri_Bikavér_Superior_2015All the wines I tasted on the stand of the Bodri winery of Szekszárd, for example, had a lot of structure and concentration. One reason for this, as I found out, was that they always leave a few bunches to ripen right until the end of the harvest. These then arrive at the winery with very high sugar levels and lend body and density to the wine. Another common feature of these wines is a spicy flavour reminiscent of cloves and Christmas cakes, which, apparently, is due to the spicy character of the Hungarian oak barrels used at the winery.

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I was equally impressed by the Garam wines of Frigyes Bott. These beautiful wines from 2018, as young as they may have been, already showed a lot of harmony and softness, in contrast to the sometimes rough tannins found elsewhere.

As a late-ripening, high-acidity grape, Blaufränkisch is an ideal candidate for the production of rosé wines. Elizabeth Gabay had put together an exciting flight of around twenty rosés, mainly from Hungary. Rosé has had a bit of a bad PR, though this may be changing today – nevertheless I believe that to produce a good rosé wine is one of the loveliest challenges for a winemaker. Creating a balance of ripe but very fresh fruit, lightness, and lively acidity is an art in itself. Blaufränkisch is particularly suited for this because even upon reaching full phenolic ripeness, the grape still contains an abundance of acidity. Fizzi Miska and Soproni Rosé by the Vincellér winery, Just Enjoy by Frigyes Bott, and Tagyon-hegy Rosé by the Martinus winery all have different personalities, but each of them is spot on.

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It is difficult to tell how successful Blaufränkisch wines will be in the UK. While many of the wines at the Blue of the Danube tasting were very competitively priced, these tended to be the less convincing examples. Those that were really interesting and well made may, I fear, prove too expensive for the British market – too expensive, that is, for consumers who will have never heard of either the wine regions or the grape variety in question. As a niche wine for discerning drinkers, though, Blaufränkisch could certainly hold an attraction.

 

Wild Wines

RAW wine fair, New York, October 2019

About two thousand years ago, there was an interesting place called Qumran in the Judaean Desert. In this tiny settlement just off the Dead Sea lived a Jewish sect whose identity remains unknown, but thanks to the writings they had left behind, we have some idea about their beliefs. One of these was that they were the sons of light, at war with the sons of darkness. They represented truth, having recognized the correct path, and everyone else was deluded, if not downright evil.

Walking around this year’s RAW wine fair in New York, I was reminded of the Qumran community. RAW is an independent fair celebrating low-intervention (natural, organic, biodynamic etc.) wines; we may perhaps even call it a movement today. The central message of RAW fairs, to bring ‘authentic’ wine to the consumer, seems to me a strong value judgement: what we offer is wine – everything else is a fake, unnatural, or, even worse, toxic. We know where the truth lies and whoever is not with us is misguided. According to the picture presented by RAW (go to their website for more details), there are two kinds of winemaker: the large, industrial undertakings that fabricate artificial, heavily manipulated drinks which reflect neither the character of the land nor that of the grape variety. Opposed to them are the small, independent, ethically minded winemakers who, unlike the big corporations, care about nature, tradition and origin. While this depiction may not in itself be untrue, it fails to present the full picture. The people left out of this division are precisely those who I think work hardest: all the serious and devoted winemakers who are equally lovers of land and fruit but are at the same time committed to excellence and aesthetics.

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What I have found at RAW fairs is that many of the ‘natural’ winemakers are far more interested in ideology than in making excellent wine. They are there to demonstrate and propagate a world-view: no need for intervention, let mother nature create the wine she fancies, and look how excellent it is! Well, often it isn’t. Far from it, in fact. Many of the natural wines I have tasted are unclean, unintegrated, messy and imprecise. This doesn’t seem to matter much, though, because the faithful seem very happy with the hazy liquid in their glass, the symbol of their conviction. Advocates of natural wine often use the term ‘alive’ to describe these drinks, suggesting that all other wine is dead – has, perhaps, been murdered. This view too is questionable. What makes a wine alive is not the fact that it’s packed with microorganisms, and dynamism is not the same as unfinished fermentation.

RAW seems to be popular and has been expanding. It started in London a few years ago; today Berlin and several North American cities have been added to the list of venues. My hunch is that many people are attracted to the community feel these events create. RAW, like other contemporary alternative movements, offers a platform where opponents of industrial production and mass consumption can find themselves a like-minded crowd to hang out with. The vibe of counter-culture surrounding RAW’s events is quite exhilarating actually, and I agree with the way the organizers, producers, and participants make a stand against consumer culture and mass-produced anything. The revolution started by Isabelle Legeron is without doubt drawing attention to important issues. At the same time, I am troubled by the cult-like, sectarian undercurrents of RAW. The fact that natural wine is small-scale, grassroots, and radical doesn’t necessarily make it good. To me, winemaking is about one thing: creating the best possible wine. The excellent Loire winemaker Eric Morgat told me, ‘I have an organic certification but I don’t put it on my label – because I do wine, not “organic”.’ Morgat wants people to buy his wines for their excellence, not for the ideology.

Exhibitors at the New York event came from all over the world, but the vast majority were from the Old World regions, mainly Italy and France. It was among the French winemakers that I found the most consistency and quality. I was impressed by their professionalism and the high level of craftsmanship. The Muscadet Sèvre et Maine wines of Domaine Landron (Loire), for example, showed high precision and individual character. The reds of the Vacqueyras producer Clos de Caveau (Rhône) were intense, complex, and packed with fruit. Another Loire winery whose Chenin Blancs and Cabernet Francs I enjoyed was Clos de Quarterons.

Clos de Caveau

For any serious winemaking, effort is required. From the moment the vines are planted, the winemaker is constantly making decisions that will influence natural processes. Intervention is a must: without it, the grape juice would turn into vinegar not wine. As many examples at the New York RAW fair proved, very good wines can be made using sustainable methods (hooray hooray!), but an intrepid spirit in itself is not enough. What I would like to see is for RAW to move in the direction of culture rather than cult, where tradition and quality, not radical views, take centre place.

Tokaj tourist

Some friends and I got together for a short trip: mini-break, wine-tasting, cultural and historical exploration. The drive to Mád is about three hours from Budapest. Why Mád? Because of a very attractive, brand new boutique hotel by the name of Botrytis – what could be more stylish in the middle of the Tokaj region, whose famed aszú wines live and breathe botrytis? But also the local Jewish history, the lovely Baroque synagogue. The peace and quiet, the undiscoveredness of the place. Even in the middle of summer, no rush of tourists. This may not be great news for the proprietors of businesses, but it was for us visitors. Wherever we went, we got the special treatment, and never had to queue.

Mad landscape

Mád feels small, intimate, very rural and traditional. People are friendly, the grass is green, the wine is white. And mainly Furmint-based of course – we are in the heart of the Tokaj region!

When you visit, you absolutely must walk up to the beautifully refurbished Baroque synagogue, not far from the centre of the village. Right next to it is what used to be rabbi’s house and study hall (yeshiva); the building has been turned into a lovely little museum of local Jewish history. The very reasonably priced ticket includes a film screening and a guided tour of the museum and synagogue. The rabbi’s house also offers accommodation for individuals and larger groups. North-east Hungary was famed for its hasidic Jewish communities and miracle-working rabbis, so there’s a lot of history to discover. Visit Footsteps of the Wonder Rabbis for detailed information.

But to return to the primary purpose of our visit: wine-tasting!

We started with the wines of Szent Tamás Pincészet, named after one of the top vineyards of the region. The winery is in the process of being merged with Mád Wine, and while the wines bearing the latter name are entry-level, easy-drinking fare, the Szent Tamás label represents their top wines made with their own grapes, selected from single vineyards. These vineyards (Kővágó, Úrágya, Szent Tamás, Nyúlászó etc.) have been known since the 16th century, and there is a strong sense of history and tradition throughout the region. Szent Tamás aims to produce a brand that is recognizable and consistent rather than reflecting a winemaker’s individual vision and preferences.

Mád Furmint 2016

A fresh wine fermented and matured in stainless steel tanks. Pretty, fruity, with lively acidity and a long finish.

_Nyulaszo_20153Nyúlászó 2016 Furmint and Hárslevelű

Limited production, under 5,000 bottles made; fermented and aged in Hungarian oak

tropical fruit, apricots and sweet candy blend with an intense oaky character on the nose; after the sweetness of fragrance the dry palate is quite a surprise. Some of the sweet notes linger but the character is mainly dry and driven by firm acidity. With time it shows a pleasant creaminess and smokey character. Apricots and pebbles on long, intense finish.

Mád Late Harvest 2016 Furmint, Hárslevelű, Muskotály

This intense green-gold wine was fermented and matured in stainless steel; amazing, intense nose of honey and fruit and caramel. Orange/tangerine flavours, with lovely acidity complementing the intense fruitiness.

 

szt_tamas_szamorodniSzent Tamás 2014, 100% Furmint

Limited production of about 2,500 bottles

A very refined and beautifully integrated wine. Restrained, elegant, coherent. Character reflects the cool year it was produced in. Intense, linear nose, apricot and creamy vanilla on palate, long mineral finish. Smooth and balanced. Excellent.

Szent Tamás Sweet Szamorodni 2013

Fermented and matured in oak. Colour deep yellow-gold, nose has a very attractive smokey, meaty savoury character beneath the standard fruit and honey notes. Oily, creamy texture, perhaps could do with a bit more acidity.

Tallya vineyard

Another winery we visited was Zsadányi, a relatively new family winery based in Tállya, an equally ancient commune in the Tokaj region whose vineyards have recently been rediscovered for their outstanding potential. Here is a sample of the best wines we tasted.

Zsadanyi szamorodniSzamorodni dry 2014 

Rich gold, intense nose with honey, jasmine and lime flowers, apricots. Vanilla oak and fruit on palate. Shortish though beautifully floral finish. The wine is fermented and aged in locally produced oak barrels.

Dongó Furmint 2015

High acidity, mineral character – typical of the Dongó vineyard. Hint of mint and eucalyptus oil on palate, intense, harmonious, rounded, loveable. Long finish.

Tökösmál Furmint 2018

A new addition to the Zsadányi top range; not bottled yet, tasted from tank. Very interesting savoury character with cabbage and vegetables. Silky texture, smooth vanilla and butterscotch notes. Look forward to tasting again after bottling!

 

 

 

 

How to make beer in 10 easy steps

Making beer is super-easy. Just follow these instructions.

  1. Buy or borrow a brewery of suitable size and pedigree. brewery buildingI’d recommend something like the Hook Norton Brewery, for instance. It has history, it has charm. Their building looks like something out of Harry Potter, and they are very eager to preserve as much of the original equipment, going back about 170 years, as possible. They are located, surprise, in Hook Norton, a village not far from Banbury. The brewery has been in the hands of the same family for six generations now.
  2. Buy malt. You can of course grow your own, but at Hook Norton they believe you’re either a brewer or a barley grower. You can’t be an expert in both. So they say it’s preferable to leave the grains to the grain specialists and buy in your malt. You can blend different types of malt in your beer, depending on the style you want to produce. black maltOne malt Hook Norton uses throughout its range, in all its beers, is pale ale malt, as it gives richness to the beer. That’s not the one seen in the above photo, obviously. But I think you can guess what black malt will be used for.
  3. Crack your malt. grist millFor this process, serious people will use a grist mill – as seen in the photograph. You also want to mill some of your malt down to the fineness of flour. You might like to know that the mill featured in this photo is the only one of its kind in the whole wide world that is still in use. 
  4. Take a mash tun and fill it up with your cracked and milled malt, and pour hot water over it. Use high-quality water, ideally spring water or something similarly pure. They call this water the liqueur. That may strike you as a rather fancy name, but water plays a key role in the quality of the final product, so it’s not to be dismissed.
  5. Inside the mash tun, the magic happens. On the influence of the warm water, the starches in the malt are converted into sugar. This is crucial, because it is the sugar that can then turn into alcohol in the fermentation process. mash tunWhat you get in this process is a brown liquid, sticky with the starches and sugars, which we call wort (pronounce as you would ‘word’). In the traditional tuns at Hook Norton, you wait for the water to drip its way through the grains, which can take about 1.5 hours. Then you have to manually shovel out the grains, oh well, it’s tough to be a hard-core traditionalist. But what you get with all your hard work is 2,500 gallons of wort, now ready for fermenting.
  6. But before we get to the fermentation, something really important needs to be done. Choose your hops. Now hops have become a big thing today. Craft breweries place a lot of emphasis on the hops they use, and market their products with the hop varieties marked on the packaging, as connoisseurs really care. Often multiple hops are blended. Don’t be shy. Use your imagination. Hops are great. They are the life and soul of the beer. They have a light green colour and an unusual floral-fruity smell. Like with your grains, you typically don’t want to grown your own hops. Leave that to the hop specialists. 

    Hook Norton’s master brewer uses hops from all over the UK, as well as from the USA, New Zealand and eastern Europe. The wort in itself is ‘sickly sweet’, to quote our guide, and it will be the hops that give the beer its bitterness, as well as some other interesting flavour components, such as tropical fruit if, like me, you like that in your beer.

  7. Move the wort, together with the selected hops, into a copper for boiling. ‘Copper’ is what we call it, but it doesn’t have to be made of copper, though at Hook Norton one of the two coppers they have is actually copper. They are essentially large kettles with a ‘percolator’ in the middle. You bring the wort-hop mix to a boil and let it do its thing for about 1.5 hours. It’s not as simple as that, however. There is an order in which you add the hops here. You should start with the so-called bittering hops. The more aromatic hops should come in later, because with the boiling the aromas easily leave the beer. Once the boiling is over, the liquid is pumped out and cooled down.
  8. Fermentation! This is when your brown juice becomes beer. On our visit to Hook Norton, we weren’t allowed into the fermentation room as contamination is a huge risk at this stage. Suffice it to say that a beer with 5% alcohol content takes about one week to ferment.
  9. Pump some CO2 into your beer and get rid of unwanted yeasts using a microfilter. As simple as that. But if you’re producing a cask ale, do leave some yeasts in the beer – they are needed for the flavour.
  10. The beer is then conditioned in casks. These tend to be rather small in size, much smaller than, for example, wine barrels. The reason is that once a cask is opened, the beer will only keep 3-4 days. For a publican, therefore, it’s better to be able to turn the casks over quickly.

What’s really special about Hook Norton is that theirs is a tower brewery, very cleverly built in a way so that the whole brewing process is gravity-based. Today cutting-edge wineries do the same, in order to keep the process as uninvasive as possible, but Hook Norton was built in the mid-19th century so that was pretty modern for a Victorian establishment. Here is a map that shows how it all works:

map of brewery

We of course finished with some tasting. The beers available on tap included Hooky Bitter, a classic, nutty session (i.e. rather weak) beer; Old Hooky, their flagship beer; Hooky Gold, a very hoppy ale; and Trial No. 1, an interesting lager with an individual character. But my favourite, needless to say, was the Kingmaker Ale, a pale ale with passion fruit, nettle and gooseberry flavours, and with a moderate 4% alcohol. And I got to pour my own beer!

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Furmint: the new Albariño

You’ll no doubt have heard about Veganuary, Movember, or NOctober. Furmint February is a variation on that theme, in a way, but with an unabashedly hedonistic agenda. It is a month dedicated to the promotion of the Furmint wine in the UK, and it opened with a spectacular trade tasting last week at London’s 67 Pall Mall.

Upon stepping into the room, I was taken aback to see a serious crowd. Serious not only in terms of size but also composition. Clearly, London’s top wine professionals were interested in Furmint. The number of MWs per square foot was, in itself, an indication that something important was happening. Which is kind of counterintuitive when we consider the fact that Furmint hails from Hungary. Small country, iron curtain, is it Bucharest or Budapest… you know the story. So who would except London’s wine elite to come together to see what this hitherto little-known grape has to offer? The unanimous verdict is, Furmint may be the next big thing; it could well become Hungary’s new flagship wine on the international scene.

Let’s get that map out and see where Furmint grows. It is a white grape variety mostly (but not exclusively) associated with the Tokaj region in north-east Hungary.

Hungary-Wine-Map

[map courtesy of winefolly.com]

It is, in fact, the staple grape grown in Tokaj, a region famed, of course, for its sweet nectars – and Furmint plays a big part in those luscious blends. However, for the past ten or fifteen years, growers have been experimenting with making dry varietal Furmint as well. And it works!

Don’t take my word for it. Steven Spurrier, who surely needs no introduction, said so himself, when I rubbed shoulders with him at the tasting. To be precise, what he said was, ‘Furmint will be the new Albariño. Except people got bored with Albariño after a while; they won’t get bored with Furmint.’ Mark his words.

Furmint February has been going for ten years now in Hungary, with the aim of popularizing the wine. There are events and tastings to introduce people to the many faces of this exciting variety. Now, for the first time, Wines of Hungary has brought the initiative to London, in close co-operation with Mádi Kör (the Mád Circle), a professional league of wine producers from the Tokaj region. Twenty-six wineries showcased their dry and sweet wines based on the Furmint grape. Participants could not only taste but also talk shop with the producers, most of whom were pouring the wines themselves.

The atmosphere was one of excitement and optimism. I spoke to several critics and trade people at the event, all of whom agreed that Furmint has a bright future in the UK. Most British wine professionals haven’t tasted much of this versatile wine yet, but there was curiosity and a genuine appreciation of the high quality.

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Peter McCombie MW has been visiting Tokaj for years, working closely with producers and tradespeople in the region. The way he sees it, Hungary’s problem is that many people immediately associate it with eastern Europe, which means communism, which means low quality. The older generation will have heard about sweet Tokaj, and perhaps Bull’s Blood, but that’s about it. Now Hungary’s other treasures are also becoming known, and perhaps, with the younger generation, the whole association with eastern European trash will fade away.

The new generation seems key in all this. Almost everyone at the Furmint February event told me that younger people are asking a new question: ‘What have you got for me that’s different?’ They are eager to try new things, to encounter new names. But by ‘they’ I don’t mean the average consumer. There is general consensus that Furmint is not a mass product. True, with its many facets it can please many people, but that’s among the more discerning drinkers, not those seeking £5-a-bottle deals. So Furmint can be an interesting niche addition to the wine lists of bars and restaurants, and will probably be seen more and more in specialist shops. The word will get out, the market is interested – but because many of the producers make small quantities (some as little as 10,000 bottles per year), this will not be a wine to fill supermarket shelves.

Furmint is a sort of indigenous Hungarian grape variety. I say sort of because, first, it also exists in neighbouring countries, e.g. in Slovenia (where it’s called Šipon); second, because it’s actually got international celebrities among its relatives. It is a direct descendant of Gouais Blanc, and half-sibling to Chardonnay and Riesling, both of which share with it some of their lovelier character traits. Furmint, like Chardonnay, responds well to oak-ageing and apparently makes fine sparkling wines. Like Riesling, it can produce a whole range of styles and flavour profiles, from masculine and bone dry to fruity and charming, and all the way to rich and sweet. When well made, it is expressive of terroir, has great structure, and, as I’ve learnt from Caroline Gilby MW, the main UK advocate of Furmint, it ages beautifully. It may not be the easiest variety to grow, but with sufficient care it produces stunning results. To quote one of the winemakers, Krisztián Farkas of the Bodrog Bormühely winery, the key is ‘minimal winemaking, lots of vineyard work’.

A variety that has so much to offer, and which can shine in so many different roles, is bound to succeed with wine lovers. Without a doubt, the trade in London has been sold on Furmint; here’s hoping the market will respond with equal enthusiasm.