Monthly Archives: January 2020

Balassa: Terroirist of Tokaj

The invitation comes as a surprise. One of the top winemakers from the famed Hungarian wine region of Tokaj is hosting a tasting-slash-dinner in a Hungarian restaurant in south London. I have a lot of catching up to do when it comes to Hungarian wines, so I go.

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The event is organized by Best of Hungary, a company specializing in the promotion of Hungarian gourmet products in the UK. As we sit down to dinner (traditional Hungarian fare, but, amazingly, vegan option for me), the owner, Monika Gyenes, explains their mission: ‘Instead of pushing what we have and wanting to force it down people’s throats, our aim is to try and understand what Europe actually wants, its way of thinking.’ They focus on high quality, and target a small, exclusive market – people who are seriously interested in what they eat and drink. ‘The goal is to introduce them to delicacies, to something exquisite. We have been very successful with fine food, and now we’d like to build up the fine wine side of our business’, says Monika.

On the fine wine front, Best of Hungary works in close co-operation with the Budapest-based Happy Hungarian Wine, a company run by Gábor Herczeg. ‘We want to break into the Western market with the strongest Hungarian indigenous grape varieties. Once people have come to know and like these, we can try our hand at exporting wines made from the international varieties. First, however, we must tackle the challenge of being unknown’, Gábor tells me.

The host of the evening, István Balassa, is owner and winemaker at Balassa Bor in Tokaj. He strikes me as a man of few words – but when we start talking wine, he suddenly has a lot to say, and a lot of passion to say it with. ‘In 2018 I planted Riesling [something unheard of in Tokaj], and next year we’ll have wine! Today, with good technology, the grape-growing process can be sped up and within a year or two the vines can produce good grapes.’ When I ask him how other winemakers have responded to the idea of growing a totally new grape variety in the region, he shrugs: ‘I haven’t asked them what they think. I’ll be the first in Tokaj to experiment with Riesling and this makes me proud. I’m constantly pushing boundaries. That’s how one can evolve.’

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István is someone who believes in singularity: single variety, single vineyard, and single-minded dedication to making the best wine possible. The quality of wines, he tells me, is hugely determined by what happens in the vineyard. With Furmint, the main indigenous grape variety of the Tokaj region, the key is catching the right moment for picking. ‘Furmint makes full-bodied wines and so we don’t have to worry about high alcohol; the grape can take it. But if one harvests too early or too late, things can easily go wrong’, he explains.

We start the tasting with two of István’s dry Furmints, fermented and matured in barrels. When I take the first sips of his entry-level Tokaji Furmint 2018, I find it hard to believe that we are at entry level. But that’s only until I taste his single-vineyard Szent Tamás 2018 Furmint. True, the former is intense and very attractive, youthful and lively, but with the Szent Tamás I find myself in an altogether different dimension. There’s serious complexity here, and even though the wine initially seems more restrained, it radiates from a much deeper place.

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Szent Tamás is the top site among István’s vineyards. ‘There is a whole hierarchy of plots, starting with Bomboly, then on to Nyúlászó, Betsek, Thurzó, Kakas, Mézes Mály, and finally Szent Tamás. But you can’t introduce people straight to the top vineyard. Those who are new to wine should first be shown my entry-level Furmint, which is much easier to understand and through which they’ll grow to like the region and the style.’

In the fourteen years of its existence, Balassa winery has achieved quite a lot to be proud of. In the 2019 edition of the Top 100 Wines of Hungary, two of István’s Szamorodni wines are listed: his Nyulászó 2013 got third place, and Bomboly 2017 came seventh. In the category of ‘5 best late harvest wines’, Nyulászó was awarded first place. And just a month ago Bomboly 2017 also pocketed a gold medal at the Women’s Wine and Spirits Awards in London. We taste it halfway through the dinner, and it is very fresh despite all the sweetness, no heaviness here, just lots of delightful floral and honeyed notes. ‘Bomboly is a lively, fresh, playful wine, which is partly due to the complexity of the soil. Nyulászó, on the other hand, produces more rustic, lazier, richer wines with lots of minerality.’

Szamorodni is a botrytised sweet wine, not that different from the famed king of wines, Tokaji Aszú. But I recall from my younger years dry examples that I had liked, and I’ve remained quite intrigued by that style. István, however, is not at all keen on dry Szamorodni. ‘It has always been a by-product really. Botrytis kills the fruit in the wine and creates lots of creaminess. This is great in a sweet wine, but it just doesn’t work in a dry one.’ In short, Szamorodni’s got to be sweet. By law, it must contain a minimum of 60g residual sugar. But István’s Szamorodnis often have as much as 160-200g per litre.

man and grapes

When harvesting for Szamorodni, whole bunches are taken – these will contain some aszú berries, which have been affected by botrytis and have shrivelled as a result, as well as healthy ones that have not. There is no selection process, hence the name Szamorodni, which comes from Polish and means ‘the way it grows’. This is one of the main differences with Aszú wines, where the harvest is carried out by carefully checking the bunches for botrytised berries and picking these individually, over the course of several weeks. As we’re sipping István’s Bomboly, Monika lets me in on a secret: historically the sweet nectars of Tokaj were known and loved not only for their taste but also for their medicinal qualities. ‘I originally trained as a dentist. Even as recently as the 1960s, Tokaj wine was listed in the official handbook of medicines, and was suggested for the treatment of anaemia, anorexia, and depression – even for diabetes!’

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István, who by the way is also a brilliant photographer, has been called the King of Szamorodni as he has done some unique experiments with interesting selections of small plots, trying to see how the influence of different soils plays out in the wines. Remarkably, in 2017 he produced seven different single-vineyard Szamorodnis. ‘It was an incredible vintage’, he says. ‘As part of the experiment, I decided to make three different Szamorodnis from three sections of the same plot, Betsek. The geology of Tokaj is immensely complex, so that smaller segments of the same plot will often have their own unique soil.’ In the case of Betsek, the individual sections are dominated by rhyolite, quartz, and andesite respectively. ‘I found that these differing geological characteristics have a noticeable influence on the aromatic and flavour profile of the wines. I have no scientific evidence to back this up yet, but watch this space!’

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To buy Balassa wines in the UK, visit https://www.bestofhungary.co.uk/.

 

Ladies of Chenin

French is the only language I know of where the word for ‘winemaker’ has a feminine form: vigneronne. On a recent visit to the Loire valley, I was so thrilled to see the prominence of female winemakers in several wineries – especially in the Savennières appellation. These women don’t just work in the cellar – they run the show, which is wonderful to see in a profession that is conventionally so strongly associated with men. Closel2

There was, first of all, Domaine du Closel, in the charming village of Savennières. If you fancy visiting a winery not just for the juice but also for the setting, this one is a must. The domaine is located within the walls of the Chateau des Vaults, with incredibly beautiful grounds. Upon arrival, visitors are handed a map of the premises and before going anywhere near the wines, you are given the opportunity to wander about in the gardens (park, more like), and up a little footpath to the top of the hill, where the vineyards are. To breathe in the ambience, the history, the terroir. Very romantic, and done in very good taste. Not only is the chateau magnificent in its looks, it also produces lovely wines. To our disappointment, the lady of the house and head winemaker, Evelyne de Pontbriand, was away at a wine fair, but her very knowledgeable daughter Isaure talked us through the wines and the story of how the winemaking has been passed down from one generation of women to the next. As it turned out, Evelyne’s right-hand person in the cellar is also a woman, Pauline Lair, who has recently started working for Closel, having been converted to environmentally caring viticulture at a winery in New Zealand.

Isaure herself doesn’t get involved today, even though she has a WSET diploma, but she is very much at home in the wine world and was happy to pour for us one delightful Chenin Blanc after another. Chenin is the predominant grape variety of this region, and the Savennières appellation is for Chenin only, though some people do make other wines, including some reds from Cabernet Franc. Closel was the first stop on our visit and I was yet to discover how multifaceted and versatile Chenin Blanc is.

Recommended wines (certified organic and biodynamic):

La Jalousie 2016 – light and youthful, full of fresh fruit; made from grapes harvested fairly early and aged for nine months.

Les Caillardières 2016 – a denser, creamier Chenin; harvested later, matured for longer

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Tessa la Roche is the owner and boss at Domaine aux Moines, on the outskirts of Savennières. She took the business over from her mother, Monique. With her open face and nonchalant pony tail, Tessa is a feisty woman and quite a character – someone who knows what she’s doing, and she does it more or less alone.

TessaLike Closel, Domaine aux Moines is also organic, and they are converting now to biodynamic production. The grapes are predominantly Chenin, and the wines are all dry, fermented in stainless steel, although there’s some that’s made in old barrels. Botrytis (noble rot, a fungal infection that makes the grapes shrivel and can produce fantastic wines; think Tokaj or Sauternes) is avoided but a little bit of oxidation is encouraged at the time of pressing. Sulphites are not added, and the fermentation is carried out by indigenous yeasts. Here we tasted straight out of the tanks and barrels – the wines were still work in progress (2018 and 2019) and have not been bottled yet. They did taste very young and on the move, so to speak, but the apple flavours and slight bitterness of Chenin, together with that fantastic bite of acidity, created very enjoyable wines. Tessa also showed us a red she had made, which she described as ‘animal’. It did show animal, leathery, earthy characteristics – these made it chewy and intriguing.

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La Coulée de Serrant is Nicolas Joly’s famed winery, which put the concept of biodynamic viticulture on the map for many wine drinkers. We are welcomed by his lovely daughter Virginie, whose little girl, the next winemaking generation, is also kicking about as we talk and taste. Considering what a legend (should I say superstar?) Joly is, the winery looks very ordinary, though again the estate is stunning, and if you decide to visit you must spend some time walking around in the gardens, which in this part of the world are not separate from the vineyards. The estate is all in one: it is where they live, grow the grapes, and make the wines. This seems to be the standard model for the typically very small Loire wineries, and one that makes them very attractive to me. The house of the Joly family is huge and majestic but has a rustic, aged feel, nothing pompous or overwhelming but lots of history. A house for living in, not for showing off. The reception area is more like someone’s grandfather’s kitchen than a renowned winemaker’s tasting room.

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It was Virginie’s grandmother who first decided to make wine; then her son Nicolas took over, and now his daughter is playing a leading role. As we taste, Virginie shares with us her concern about the electromagnetic waves created by all the modern devices we use today. She believes these may well have a negative impact on the land and grape growth – as well as ourselves. Though admittedly there’s no scientific evidence for this, it’s an interesting idea, and a reflection of how much Virginie, and all the others I meet, care about the land. As if it were a beloved family member. With the physical proximity of the vineyards to the winery and the family home, this is not at all surprising.

IMG_6929Virginie’s father Nicolas decided to turn to biodynamic farming when he noticed that the pesticides and chemicals he was using in the vineyard were eliminating the flora and fauna of the area. His natural methods include using a horse for working the soil, and other unusual ideas. He started a revolution in winemaking, especially in France, and has written a number of books on biodynamic grape-growing.

The wines are fermented and matured in large-ish, old oak barrels (400-500 l), and the fermentation takes a long time – often several months. Unlike Tessa, Virginie likes to harvest with a bit of botrytis, which she says contributes to the typicity of their wines. The wines of La Coulée de Serrant all have some quirky, vegetal, spicy characteristics on top of the familiar apple compote notes of Chenin. Some have a touch of oxidation and can be deep gold in colour. All are dry.

It was quite exceptional to have seen three women-run wineries within the first few days of my visit. Strong and knowledgeable, with both feet on the ground, these women are putting their heart in the work they do. Matter-of-factly, without pretence, without fanfare. Care for the land and the environment is a given – it is how they do things, not a marketing strategy. Likeable, approachable personalities and good, honest winemaking. Chapeau!

 

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