Category Archives: Winemaking

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.

RAw NY

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!

 

 

 

 

Luxembourg Surprises

Who would have thought that good wines were being made in the tiny country of Luxembourg? To be sure, I was aware, from my student days, of the presence of some wine industry there – but stuck between the famed wine regions of northern France and west Germany, Luxembourg has received little of the limelight, even though wine production there is as old as in neighbouring Mosel.

Moselle L

The wine industry in Luxembourg is centred around three groups of producers: co-operatives, grower-merchants, who have their own federation, and independent winemakers, of whom there are at present 52. After England, Luxembourg is the smallest wine producer in the EU; but not being sizeist, I went along to a tasting of its wines and was very pleasantly surprised. The tasting focused on the wines of independent grower Abi Duhr (Château Pauqué), and I came away a fan.

Duhr created Château Pauqué exactly 30 years ago, with the aim of producing high-quality wines that would raise the profile of the wines of the Moselle. Quantities are small – with a production of 30,000 bottles we’re talking about a boutique winery. The two main styles are classic Luxembourg whites produced in the traditional manner (e.g. Riesling and Pinot Gris) and Burgundy-style wines fermented and aged in oak.

The grape varieties in Luxembourg are more or less the same as in Germany and Alsace: lots of white – including Riesling, Pinot Gris, Auxerrois, Elbling and Pinot Blanc – and a little red, Pinot Noir. Typically we find single varietal wines, which means wines are produced from a single grape variety and are labelled as such, but there are some blends around, including some of Duhr’s wines I’ve tasted. The wine region (and appellation) is called Moselle Luxembourgeoise, and Grevenmacher, where Duhr’s winery is based, is referred to as the ‘metropolis’ of the region. The townlet lies on the bank of the river Moselle, right on the German border.

The wines listed below all bear the Moselle Luxembourgeoise appellation.

abi-duhr-bromelt-2015Rivaner and Elbling are the most common local varieties, used for mass-produced, mediocre wines. But both in his Jungle 2015 (Rivaner) and in his Bromelt 2015 (Elbling), Duhr has done well above mediocre, producing delightful, fresh, pure, fragrant wines. The Jungle has a sweeter, toffee and caramel character and a flinty finish, while the Bromelt is austere, bone dry, and slightly vegetal, reminding me of a spring shower and wet grass. Both are excellent choices for an apéritif wine.

Pinot Gris is, again, not one of those grapes that get wine connoisseurs really excited – and yet Duhr’s Pinot Gris Paradais 2016 has character and charm: sweet candy and caramel on the nose, lovely and fragrant, and a bit of CO2. His Riesling Paradais Vielles Vignes 2015 is also full of youth and floral perfume, but combined with oily texture, the rubbery character of Riesling, a darker gold hue, and a quite spicy, vegetal palate.

fossiles 2005 abi duhr

We were shown two vintages of Duhr’s blend, Fossiles – one from 2015 and one from 2005. Made from Pinot Blanc, Auxerrois and Chardonnay, Fossiles is an interesting wine to age, though I’m not sure for how long. The 2005 vintage showed a lot of quirky character, which I enjoyed; its pungent nose and cooked cabbage palate mix with lees flavours and a smokey toasty finish. The one shortcoming seemed to be a lack of acidity, which won’t help increase life expectancy.

A fantastic contrast was seen between the young and the aged Chardonnay. We tasted the 2014 Chateau Pauqué against the 2004 vintage, and it was a wow moment. While the young wine is reserved and discreet, despite its youthful fruity charm, the 2004 vintage seduced already with the nose: such depth, as if smells could have dimensions – and it seems they can! I found an intense, honeyed sweetness on the nose, which was totally contradicted by an utterly dry palate full of mature, vegetal flavours, combined in an unusual harmony with lees and oak characteristics.

Duhr’s Clos du Paradis Auxerrois is also one to recommend. We tasted the 2014 against the 2004 vintage, and the wine goes from zesty, citrusy and slightly fizzy refreshment to a toasty, savoury, rich wine, with oily texture and to me very enjoyable flavours from butterscotch to cooked cabbage. The acidity here is still great, and the finish long and flinty.

Chateau Pauqué wines are produced in small quantities so they won’t be that easy to find, and they won’t be that cheap either – around £ 20-25 a bottle – but if you’re keen to try something new and different, they are definitely recommended!

Oh Sherry

The word that would best describe my initial relationship with Sherry is probably incomprehension. It was no love at first sight. On the few occasions that I tasted it, it always struck me as a weird drink. Here I’m talking about dry Sherry, as sweet ones held little interest for me. Sherry has hardly any acidity but is nevertheless super-dry; and it baffles you with strange flavours unfamiliar to drinkers of regular light wines – flavours that I might even say would be considered faults in a light wine. But when I had to taste one Sherry after another in preparation for my fortified wines exam, it started to grow on me. I started to enjoy its nuttiness, its quirky characteristics, its oily texture. And what constantly kept astonishing me was how cheap Sherries were compared to other drinks of a similar calibre.

Sherry comes in so many colours

So I was extremely pleased when I heard about the Sherry masterclass that was taking place under the auspices of the Wines from Spain annual tasting in London. It seems I was not the only one who had a soft spot for Sherry: even though I turned up 15 minutes early, the hall was already full, with standing room only. Not exactly what I’d expected, but I stayed anyway, and I’m glad I did.

I don’t want to go into much detail about how Sherry is made, as that was not the focus of this masterclass. But I will mention some aspects because I learnt some interesting facts from Sherry specialist Beltrán Domecq, who presented us with a fascinating overview of the development of Sherry from a young, neutral base wine into a highly complex, mature drink. So, one of the interesting facts I learned was that the tradition of increasing the alcoholic strength of wines by the addition of spirits (the key act in the production of fortified wines such as Sherry, Madeira and Port) goes back as far as a thousand years. The purpose was not to get you drunk more quickly, but to stabilize the drink. The higher the alcohol content, the less likely the wine was to go off. But it was really only in the 16th-17th centuries that fortified wines enjoyed a boom: witsolera illustrh the discovery and colonization of distant lands and the massive increase in long-haul sea voyages, wines started travelling and when they were fortified they travelled much better. Sherry, it turns out, was the first wine to circumnavigate the world, in the famed voyage of Magellan and his crew that started in 1519. It was apparently 300 years ago that the solera system was introduced, to create uniformity in quality and style.

I also learnt how the word Sherry came about. The place name changed from Xera to Ceret under the Romans, then to Sherish under Muslim rule in the 8th century. It then became Xeres de la Frontera under Alfonso X, who reconquered the land from the Muslims. From Xeres it was only a small step to Xerez in the 16th century, which today is written as Jerez. As many wine merchants, including a lot of Brits, established themselves in the region, the name of the wine became known in its anglicized form as Sherry.

The production of dry Sherry consists, very briefly, in the following basic steps:

  1. produce a dry and neutral base wine relatively low in alcohol
  2. leave this wine uncovered so that a film of natural yeast can develop. This is called flor. flor
  3. classify wine, depending on character and the development of flor, in two main categories: fino (well-developed flor, light-bodied wine), oloroso (fuller body, little or no flor)
  4. fortification: finos to 15% alcohol, olorosos to 17%
  5. maturation in the solera system

Yš

What we did in this tasting, though, concerned only the part that came in and after step 5. With ageing, not only did the wines take on darker and darker shades of gold and then amber; they also developed new characteristics and lost old ones. So the fruity-neutral, pale lemon base wine (Barbadillo 2016) gradually turned into a golden, very dry drink -in our tasting, it was an Ynocente Fino – with flavours of toasted nuts and seeds. The American oak (a rather unconventional solution for Sherry, I would have thought) lent the wine a noticeable woody character. The dryness of Sherry, I learnt, is caused by the disappearance of glycerol from the wine (it gets eaten by the yeasts). The next step up: a darker golden wine in which the nuttiness becomes more prominent and the wood less so (Fino Tradicion by Bodegas Tradicion). Our next wine, an amber-coloured 12-year-old Amontillado of Willams & Humbert was a special treat: the acetaldehyde aromas and flavours so typical of fino Sherry begin to go down at such a mature age. Other flavours are becoming more and more evolved and concentrated: candied, toasty notes on the nose and palate, rich, mouth-filling texture.

The older the wines the more concentrated they become because thanks to the porous texture of oak barrels, water can evaporate through the walls of the barrel but other, larger molecules remain. The first of our last, seriously grand wines was a Fino Imperial Merito Amontillado, aged for 30 years. VORS on its label stands for Very Old Rare Sherry, and old and rare it was, with lots of depth and a complex, rich, medicinal character. To wrap it all up, we tasted a Harveys 30-year-old VORS Palo Cortado. Medium amber, this wine was the first to exhibit a degree of sweetness. It was creamy and beautifully nutty, had a rich fruitcake palate and pretty high alcohol (19.5%), and a toasty, woody finish.

I also learnt from Mr Domecq that Fino and Manzanilla Sherry should not be kept for more than a year after purchase, and that once opened, they should be consumed within a week. Other, more mature Sherries can be kept for up to 3 years. They like to be stored in a standing, upright position, and they should be served chilled: 5-7 C for Fino and Manzanilla, and 14 C for the more mature wines are optimal temperatures. And please serve your Sherry in a proper wine glass!

 

If you’re as enthusiastic about Sherry as I am, you’ll be pleased to know that International Sherry Week is coming up in November 2017. To find out more click here.

If you’d like to learn more about Sherry, I recommend the official Jerez website, http://www.sherry.wine

 

 

MASI – kings of Amarone

MASI is a large wine producer in the Veneto region of northern Italy, near lovely Verona. They specialize in the region’s top appellations Valpolicella and Amarone della Valpolicella. This is the boring factual info. The interesting part is that to get there you will drive around areas like the northern lakes, for instance Lago di Garda, or you can pop into Milan for a Campari, or maybe go a bit further east to check Veneto’s sparkling Proseccos. L1030022

For years Amarone della Valpolicella was the most impressive red wine I could think of. It had everything I found irresistible: rich, big, intense, heavy-going, quite alcoholic, and displaying that adorable cherry-chocolate flavour combination which … which I now think is actually quite hard to get right without making the wine too obvious, too loud. My teacher at wine school told us that Amarone was ‘meditation wine’, made to accompany long and deep conversations. This has stuck with me and so has the memory of the first, romantic encounter with this most romantic of wines. But if I want to be honest, no Amarone has seemed all that amazing since that tasting class back in school. But to come back to the present. I am standing outside the gates of MASI, one of the biggest producers in the region, and understandably I’m full of anticipation. They apparently produce five different Amarones!

A young woman shows me around the winery. Her name is Micaela and she tells me all about the MASI story. The winery has been going for six generations now as a family-owned business. They started in 1772 and were named after their first vineyard called Vaio dei masi meaning ‘little valley’. Today they collaborate with another family, the Alighieri, who are direct descendants of Dante. I guess that’s kind of normal in Italy.

The part that interests me the most is the drying room. Amarone is a dried-grape wine, which means that after harvest the grape bunches are laid out to dry in single layers on bamboo trays stacked on top of each other.L1030024 They look a bit like very low, multi-tiered bunk beds. The drying rooms are fairly dark and temperature-controlled. The drying goes on for nearly five months, from harvest to 1 February. Amarone, like many other old-world wines, is a blend of different grape varieties: Corvina, Rondinella, Molinara, and today a fourth, recently rediscovered old variety, Oseleta is added by MASI’s winemakers. Each variety contributes something else: colour, tannins, unique flavours or acidity. L1030025The drying at the MASI headquarters is computer-controlled but the company also have drying facilities in the hills, where it’s still the traditional combination of people and nature carrying out the work.

When the drying period is over, the grapes, which are now semi-dry, are pressed. You can imagine how little juice they will produce compared to fresh grapes, which explains why Amarone, which is made from 100% semi-dried grapes, is relatively expensive. But blends of regular and semi-dried grape wines are also made here.

StL1030029ylishly, this cherry-chocolate wine is first aged in locally produced cherry barrels. These barrels are very porous, which makes a quick oxygenation, i.e. quick ageing, possible. In one year, Micaela tells me, these wines age two years. Then they are moved to 600-litre barrels called fusto Veronese for further maturation. Amarone has a long life: 30-40 years easily. It’s a dry but very rich and intense red wine with high alcohol levels.

To my great disappointment, there is no chance to taste on this occasion, so comparing their five different Amarones remains a fantasy for now… but here’s hoping I can return before my tastes change and I become a fan of subtle Burgundies.  L1030052